You and I are at a party somewhere, and first we have to talk about the weather, because we live in Denver, Colorado, where the skyline is unsettled and the temperature swings in wide dramatic swaths—residents take some pride in it, even. I was wearing shorts and sandals yesterday, and today this! they say. (A scarf is tossed dramatically across a fuzzy cap, boots are stomped, snow shaken from a puffy vest, there is laughter.)
You, like nearly everyone who lives here, are an amateur weather person. At the party, when we hear the wind picking up outside, you have a gentle look, a don’t worry look.
“It’s coming from east,” you say. “I don’t think it will snow. And conditions aren’t right for hail, so that’s good news.”
I tell you that I am not concerned about snow; it’s May, so snow is possible, of course, historically there has been snow in May, but mostly I don’t worry about what I cannot control, mostly I do not give these things time.
At this party, we’re both a few steps removed from the host, and whomever we have respectively come with has gone off to hide in the bathroom, or simply never arrived, or is outside smoking cigarettes in rapid succession because it is quiet back by the garbage cans and the recycling, where the only interruptions are the flick of the lighter and an occasional barking dog.
“I don’t smell Greeley, either,” you say. Greeley, sixty miles north, is where the beef slaughterhouses are. Conventional wisdom says that if there is cow dung on the wind from Greeley, snow is coming to Denver. The smell of Commerce City, where the dog food factory is, visible from downtown, means rain.
We move on a bit, and we talk about work—that other, constantly unavoidable thing that surrounds us—and I tell you I work in an office with creaky plumbing and questionable ventilation, and you think this is quaint, and you say, Oh, startups, like you know something about it. You say gig economy. You say maker culture.
I am not participating in any of these tech trends.
At my office job, I am a risk analyst, and I do beautiful things with numbers.
I tell you that we, the staff, try not to mind the accommodations—it is a growing company. I want to help it grow. You nod your head when I tell you this, and you probably think I am a little naive, maybe money-hungry, but you don’t say anything.
I tell you that my work life is very calm. I apply a lot of order there.
You are an accountant, so I think you could get into my numbers talk, that we could find some consensus.
“I just think it’s so much more of a true meritocracy in tech,” you say.
“Maybe,” I say. “I mean, people like to think that. I’m not sure it’s true.”
Now there are other people, whom neither you nor I are either with nor not with—just people, in a loose circle—one originally from the Eastern Plains who says how easy we have all had it in Denver, because the tornadoes never touch the ground. One from the mountains who had lived in a draw of trees savaged by pine beetle, the ground so dry and the forest so brittle her family did not dare to light the barbecue, and her father started smoking inside in case a breeze took even a small ember from his cigarette to the forest floor.
Urbanites now, gardens have been tarped and tomatoes have been bagged.
The people whom you don’t know and I don’t know now work in the credit or energy markets in Denver. They are far from their outhouses and gardens.
And you. You do not understand these country people who have become market people. You do back-office work, so you are not acquainted with the way they talk, uncomfortable with how they do not cease to remind you how they are benefiting your life, by keeping your lights on, by ensuring your mortgage goes through. Yes, you have graduated and maintain your CPA, but you are young enough to still think that these onlookers will be interested in your stories from college. They are not.
These people are making money, and this is why they can afford a second round of red mulch when the first is destroyed in a spate of freezing rain.
You are trying to be polite—I see you trying to be polite—but you are wondering why they care about mulch so much, so much to do it twice. You live in a town house.
“I mean, if I had a yard,” you say, “people would think they could bring their dogs over.”
I can see you at work, your only slightly rumpled suit, your naturally stylish hair—it is tall and full in a way that is unanticipated but also not contrived—I can see you arguing about rev rec, making references to GAAP that no one else understands.
While the market people gab, I am admiring the fizz of my drink. I’m not a scientist, but I know that effervescence is the escape of gas from an aqueous solution, and the foaming or spray that results is from release.
In my numbers work, I am given sheep by these market people and am expected to deliver a sweater—shear the beast, comb the thread, dye the fibers, spin the wool, knit it neatly and quickly and in the right size.
I told you, beautiful things.
* * *
We don’t find the people whom we were supposed to have come with, but we’ve stayed on as the party dwindles. We are on a sofa, now that the bodies have thinned out and there are some places to sit, and I am starting to like something about you, but I don’t know exactly what it is, and this is rocky terrain for me. I want to be enamored of the precise color of your shirt or the exact timbre of your voice or the specific way you hold your glass, but it’s cloudier, more nebulous.
“Wait, so what do you really do, like in the everyday,” you say.
You’re a little drunk, but I don’t mind.
“I work with data,” I say. I’ve moved on to wine, and I take a sip.
“What kind of data?”
I try to give you the sheep analogy, but it’s not making sense because I’m a little drunk as well.
“What kind of data,” I repeat back to you. “Depends,” I say. “What do you want to know?”
* * *
All across the Colorado foothills, clouds boiling or sliced with sun are either obscured by dust or pierced by spires and crags of rock, whether covered with perpetual snow or blazed with light. It’s spring still, so there is a white/orange light in the northwest, a rainbow in the direct east, and a dull eggplant blue to the south. Hail will come or it will not. Like you, I live in a town house without a yard, and I pull my potted plants off the balcony to be prepared. A friend says I should stop doing this, that I should get my begonias and peppers and sunflowers to toughen up.
For my part, I’m tired of toughness—I want some blooms. Pollen and volunteers. I spill a whole packet of New Mexico pepper seeds into dirt thinking only a few will come up, and suddenly I’ve got more seedlings than is reasonable.
I think about texting you to ask if you ever grow vegetables or herbs on your balcony, and I think how this would be an interesting little data point, us eating the same fruit from the same origin, even if we are in two different places.
The flowers self-pollinate, so they’re not hard to take care of, I almost type.
Instead, I send a message to my work group, denveroffice@, and ask who wants some starts. I thin and replant the seedlings into nursery containers. The work doesn’t take long, and it is as tidy as any professional, the little shoots sitting in freshly soaked soil.
My husband, Brent, asks me why I didn’t just put them in the compost, not that he approves of the compost.
“I grew them from seed,” I say, sweeping up a bit of spilled dirt.
“You can’t compost if it came from a seed?”
“That’s not the point,” I say.
He thinks this seems like a lot of work, just to give something away, and I think it’s a lot of work just to let something die.
* * *
I’m a pretty lucky person, for as much as I believe in luck, which is not all that much, but you are probably luckier than I am. I mean luck like I never worked in those places, the slaughterhouse or the dog food factory. I mean luck like I have never broken a bone.
When you went home, after we were out of party conversations, when the drinking and eating had run out of shine, and after I grabbed a taxi and you hitched a ride with a soberish person, you must have fallen back onto your pillow and thought, God, that woman was weird.
You sleep me off. By the time your coffee perks to done in the morning, you barely remember me.
It’s when you’re doing something small, like drying your hair, that you’ll flash a little.
What do you want to know?
You work the gel in. Or a plumping spray (you are contemporary, after all). In the rest of your grooming, you use a whitening toothpaste, an acne serum you have splurged on.
There’s so much to know in the pattern of ritual, so much shape in these little fact points—your cinnamon shampoo and your wheat bagels.
At the party, you gave me your number, even though I could see you trying to decide if you wanted me to call or not. You gave it to me because I asked, but you didn’t ask for mine back. It didn’t bother me.
And I call you. I call you three weeks later and I identify myself, and it will take you a moment to remember who I am, and then I will hear a sound like an office door clicking and you will say,
Sure, yes, of course. And I will invite you for coffee and you will agree, but when we meet after work in the coffee shop, we will see that they also have cocktails, and so instead of java we split a bottle of wine, and it’s not until close to the end that you notice my ring (I never take it off, just a slim silver band) and you say, Wait, are you married?
“I am,” I say.
“Heather,” you say, “okay, that’s fine, I just thought this was something different.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “You weren’t wrong.”
What you don’t know because you don’t know me is that I have already calculated what’s at stake for me here. You are worried but I am not worried.
What do you want to know?
* * *
Once, my boss and I got along, but by the time I meet you, we are not getting along. Once, Kelly and I had been very close, but Kelly was going through a divorce. Kelly was not doing very well.
At home, Brent and I, we are also not doing well. I lack empathy for Kelly at work, but it is because I see how close I am to her. I put my life next to hers on a scatter chart, and I do not like the outcome. Too much correlation.
Kelly asks me one day if she should cut her hair. Bangs, maybe, she says.
“No,” I say. “Bangs can be risky, you know, you don’t like your hair in your face, you’ll be whipping your head around all the time, you’ll hurt your neck.” I’ve made this up entirely, but she seems to believe me. She gets a haircut and some awkward highlights, but no bangs.
In the house where I live with my husband, there is no diagram that can help me make sense.
You haven’t heard any of this yet. I haven’t told you because I don’t want you, or anyone, to know so much about me.
If you asked me what I wanted to know, at the party, or at the coffee shop date, I would have said, Courage. I need to know how to find courage.
My husband is fine, actually, but he was a hedge. He was young, I was very young, and despite knowing the statistics, I donned an ecru dress—you might not know this color, but it is the light beige color of unbleached silk or linen—and stumbled down the aisle, gardenias and lilies and hydrangeas blazing white on the sides. My mother, dressed in café au lait; his mother, draped in eggshell and putty. Our fathers, matching in navy.
A decade and a half later, we have no children, a flagging commitment, and a lot of ice in the freezer. Brent does not like to run out of ice.
There are many things Brent does not like.
Brent does not like seafood.
Brent does not like wrinkled sheets.
Brent does not like coffee, nor the smell of coffee.
Brent does not like me, and Brent would certainly not like you.
There are some things that Brent does like—like me, he likes his job. He slogs long hours, and there was a time I thought it was just to be away from me, but it is simply him, and I don’t fault him.
It is a first marriage for both of us.
You call me at work because I have given you my desk line.
“Are you free today?” you want to know. It has been six days, Thursday to Wednesday.
“I can make something up,” I say.
We meet at the coffee shop that has cocktails, and we get a bottle of wine again, though this time it turns into two, and the barista is mopping up, and I think that we should go. We’re not drunk so much as glowing.
“Come over to my place,” you say. “It’s not far.”
“Not yet,” I say, because there is this swirl that is not working for me, the part of you that I cannot quite parse, where I can’t tell if it’s something real or only something new.
* * *
The office I work in has become very crowded, and the close proximity and the dull whine of so many laptops running, the ticking of keyboards being typed on—a sound like an inconsistent rain—is stressing the staff.
I read that when chickens are crammed too many to one pen, they’ll begin to peck one another’s eyeballs out, and this is happening in the office. There are fights over stolen lunches, there are endless complaints about the temperature, there is general malaise. We decide to expand into an adjoining space, and construction begins, or deconstruction: a wall is being removed. The sound of sawing does not improve the general mood, but I try to remind the people whom I talk to that it will be better.
Kelly, in particular, is unraveling. She says that removing the wall is a very bad idea. It’s not so much that she believes there is something horrible on the other side of it, but more that there is a very delicate balance in the office and that by removing the wall we are upsetting something.
She asks me again if she should cut her hair. I think it is never a good idea to get haircuts in a poor mental state and tell her No again. Your hair is fine, I say, and we already discussed your bangs.
As soon as the construction dust has been cleaned up and we’ve rearranged the desks and gotten people settled into the new space, the markets begin to crash. A free fall.
Management says nothing. Management purchases a new microwave to relieve the bottleneck in the kitchen. Kelly, who has always been an eclectic dresser, begins to show up in outfits that are truly strange. A miniskirt and mud boots. A suit jacket paired with a swimsuit cover-up meant to pass as a dress.
I check my own clothes. I’m feeling like Kelly a little bit, but I think I am hiding it better, so far. Black pants and a white collared blouse. I could work at a grocery store, or a travel agency, or at a broker’s office, or here.
* * *
I am given a project, the kind that is my specialty.
I map the productivity of every worker, their specific impact to revenue, and I start building it into a chart.
There are many factors. Michael in sales brings in revenue, but he also creates discord. He is the source of many lunch thefts, because he likes to jab people. Upset them. There is cost in these actions.
Sabine seems not specifically revenue-facing, but she also interacts with customers. Flirts with them on the phone or over e-mail. She’s likeable, she’s sticky.
I am also building another chart, more like a graph. This one is for survivors, and it was not assigned, so I do it on my own time. This one helps them feel better after the layoffs come. It shows their productivity. It emphasizes efficient use of time. When the layoffs are finalized, I will bring out this chart as a kind of salve. The workers will say, But we could have done better, and my chart will illuminate how they are wrong, even in this.
Mostly, as I am working, I think of you. Our three meetings. Your comments about hail begin to feel like an allegiance. I think of the way you invited me over, and I think of the nitrogen smell of rain.
I think of my husband, my office. I wonder what you want, and I do not know what I want.
In all of my projects, there is a lot of data missing.
* * *
You call me on my desk line again. You have my home number, but you say you can’t call me at home. It’s the middle of the day, and you’re taking lunch, and I try to remember the last time I left the building for lunch.
“I’m right by your office,” you say. “Come down and have a coffee at least.”
I am nervous to see you, maybe because it’s daylight, but I say Yes, and I meet you outside of my building, and then we walk to our coffee shop, where we finally do have coffee, and we split a sandwich.
“But what about your husband,” you whisper.
“You don’t have to whisper,” I whisper.
I try to tell you about the charts, and again about making sweaters for the market people.
“Can I see one of them?” you ask, but I say no, it’s too proprietary. You say that no one knows you in my office, and I say it doesn’t matter.
I do want to show you one of the charts, but they are not ready yet. Right now, there are only numbers in columns and pivot tables. I’m still in the discovery phase. I dig, I organize. It’s like gardening with unmarked seeds, but there are a few little blooms in the numbers here and there. About half of my pepper starts have disappeared from the kitchen—off to good homes, I hope—and the others are wilting hopelessly, unable to feed on the fluorescent light.
“So how come you see me if you are married,” you say.
I think you must know how much I love these kinds of specific questions, and I think I must know how much you love specific answers.
We’ve not touched yet, besides an awkward brush here or there, and so I reach for your hand across the table, and our fingers grip.
You ask me if I remember at the party the energy people, and I say that of course I do, but that I call them market people, Not that the nomenclature matters, I say. You ask me if I remember how proud they were of their success stories.
Outside the weather has shifted from a bright June day to the beginnings of an afternoon thunderstorm. The air has gone gray, and there are bits of trash swirling in the wind.
In two weeks, I will hand in my productivity chart to management, and most of the office will be let go. That afternoon, I will stand where the wall was removed for expansion, and I will present my other chart to the remaining employees.
I will go home that evening, and Brent will make dinner.
I will sit on my patio with a glass of wine and admire the blooms on my peony, the fire of the celosia. I will watch the skyline for some change in the clouds.
For now, our fingers touch. You eye the skyline.
There’s a lot that I want to say to you, about Brent, about work, about trying to answer my question, about answering your question.
“It doesn’t seem that it will hail,” you say, though it is not weather I am worried about.