A couple weeks later it was Halloween and there was an office costume party and contest. I knew no one in the finance team was dressing up, but I couldn’t help myself. I had to do a little something. I bought a pair of cat ears, exaggerated my black eyeliner and drew a black cat nose and whiskers on my face.
Steve greeted me with “meoooooooow” when he saw me. “Where’s your tail?”
“I don’t have one. Where’s your costume?” I asked pointedly.
I already knew where his costume was. He had said he would be bringing it because his girlfriend was meeting him later for a party. But right then it was probably stuffed in his bag. It was some kind of zombie thing.
I noticed a few other people in the finance team were wearing similar costume accessories like bat headbands or fake amulet necklaces that flashed red or neon green. There was that at least.
When Adrian saw me, I noticed just the flicker of a pause on his face before he spoke. I waited for some sarcastic comment, but then he just said hey and passed me by.
What did I expect? Hey, nice whiskers. Meow?
His nonchalance stung and suddenly, I didn’t want to be there. I wished I could turn around and leave for the day. This quarter of a cat wasn’t in the mood for Halloween anymore.
At 3pm the HR manager started calling us down the hall for the party. I had spent the day at my desk, ignoring the chit-chat and burying my head in work. When Mira invited me to step out for lunch, I declined. I might not have come back.
Now she was ordering me to stop working and go with her, and though I didn’t want to go to the party either, I wanted to avoid the fuss I would get if I didn’t go.
The Halloween decorations and food were set up in the largest conference room in the front of the building. The room extended into the lobby once the wraparound walls were opened up. On the conference room table they had a catered spread with wraps, sandwiches, chips and cheeses spilling out of a zombie’s mouth and lots of other creepy crawly things adorning it.
I still wasn’t in the mood to eat, so I sat on the arm of a couch in the lobby as Mira, Steve and others came and went getting food and drinks. They kept offering me bites of food or a sip of some concoction of liquor, but I declined. Adrian was with another group, yards away from us and Steve didn’t seem to mind. But it bothered me.
I looked around as others stood or sat with drinks in hand, some with costumes, some without. There were some girls in little waitress and French maid costumes, another person was a roulette table, another a jester, and there were your typical witch, werewolf and vampire costumes. I watched Marvin as he seemed to float from group to group, chatting easily with everyone. When he came to where we sat on the sofa, Mira began talking to him right away. I was so thankful for that girl right then. My mind was blank. Her and Steve had a whole conversation with him about their past Halloweens and they shared what they were doing later that night to celebrate. I did my best to smile when I glanced at them and then quickly averted my eyes to others as if my interest was elsewhere.
At some point, I stood up, mentioned that I had to go to the bathroom, and left the party. I walked down the hall, looking out at the broad space of empty cubicles with their orange and black garland, swinging rubber bats and a big plastic owl that turned as its eyes flashed on and off with a yellow glow.
I headed further down the hall to the individual bathrooms at the back. I noticed the door to the company gym was open. I hadn’t used it yet and didn’t know if I would. The door was almost always closed, or if it was open there were people inside.
I peeked in, found the light switch and turned it on. It wasn’t a huge room, but there was a treadmill, a home gym set, a mirrored wall and a TV secured above it all. I noticed another doorway at the back of the room to the right and walked over to find a shower stall, a sink and a bench. I wondered if people actually showered here. I could never do that. I’d panic that someone would find me naked.
I walked up to the sink and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked how I felt, though it didn’t seem warranted. This should have been a fun day. A party at work cuts down on the actual work. And then I had planned on meeting Natalia and her boyfriend later to head to the parade. I wasn’t in the mood anymore. All because some guy I hardly knew didn’t slip me a sarcastic remark about my cat face. Sometime I hated how easily things could get to me. It was such a stupid thing it shouldn’t have mattered.
But obviously, I was starting to like him, somehow. That moment in the park was still holding part of me hostage, the way those things do. It was just like when I received my first “Will you go out with me?” note in 6th grade. It was like that time I shared a cab with a stranger who convinced the driver to drop me off first to make sure I was safe and then gave me the sweetest look as I left. It was like every first moment with every guy I had ever liked or dated. It was the inkling of something and everything it alluded to. It was the wonder, the curiosity and the flutter in my chest. But he was basically married and on top of that he was my co-worker. I had to stop this fantasy before it began.
I looked at myself in the mirror again. I wanted to wash this black kitty crap off my face. I felt the heat that rises up when a good cry is about to come. I pushed it back down and turned on the hot water, waiting for it to get warm.
I looked around the little room again, stupidly hoping there was some kind of secret door I could escape through.
If only he hadn’t looked at me the way he did at the park that day. He didn’t know it, but that look, that moment, was the kind of thing that anchored and buried itself within the depths of my soul. It was the kind of thing that grew and spread through me like a vine. And there was no taking it out.
I hadn’t noticed the footsteps at first, but then I realized someone had just come in to the gym. I panicked, kicking myself for wandering into this place and wishing I had left. Why hadn’t I just gone to the bathroom? At least there I could lock the door until I was done. I couldn’t do that here. I may have been, but almost everyone was on the other side of the building with music and noise and if anything crazy happened with whoever was walking in here, no one would know.
And then Adrian appeared. He looked concerned. No smirk, no sarcasm, no trace of meanness whatsoever.
“Hey, are you ok?”
I looked at him, wanting to seem irritated. But I couldn’t.
I waited for him to say something else, or turn and leave. I waited for my own feet to turn back toward the sink to turn off the hot water that was now starting to steam up the mirror. But neither of those things happened.
Instead, we both stood there, breathing in that warm mist, for a moment that went on and on until he leaned toward me, stretched out his arm and turned the water off himself. His chest touched my shoulder for just a moment and I closed my eyes, feeling the vine grow and curl through me in response. As his arm returned to his side, I almost felt like I couldn’t breathe.
“Seriously, are you ok?” he asked again.
Instead of answering, I asked, “What are you doing here?” I really wanted to know. I really wanted to know everything. I wanted to know what he was hiding, what he wasn’t saying.
He stepped back, away from me, and looked back at the door to the gym. “I was just checking on you. You were gone a while.”
“But…why do you care?” My voice was even softer than it had been just a moment ago. I was holding my breath.
Adrian stepped back again and crossed his arms. “I just do.”
I had no more words. All I had was that hot feeling in the pit of my stomach and the vines curling their way through me.
And then I heard someone else walking down the hall toward the bathrooms. They would undoubtedly look into the open gym with its light on and see Adrian first. I could see him think this through in a split second. Then, he turned away and went toward the door, turning off the light and stepping out into the hallway as he shut the door halfway behind him.
“Getting a workout in?” It was Marvin.
“No, I just noticed the light on so I went to see if anyone was there.”
“Oh, well party’s almost over. In case you didn’t hear, you can go home for the day if you don’t have anything pending.”
Marvin laughed. “Yeah, yeah.”
And then it sounded like Marvin headed back to the bathrooms. The gym door opened wider and Adrian whispered into the dark.
“I would leave before he comes out. Just in case he comes back to check.”
Part of me wanted to ask Adrian to come back into the dark space where I still stood. But I couldn’t do that. Instead, I tried to regain my composure and nervously walked past him at the door.
He followed me until I split off to my desk and he continued down the hall. I felt both lighter and heavier. Enlightened and bewildered. He came to find me. But I almost wish he hadn’t. The vines were spreading.