DOWN THE HALL
(R-18, so keep out, kids)
He was new to the office, and she worked down the hall from him. She was pretty: a young-looking thing who acted like a child, sometimes spoke like a woman, laughed a lot. He did not see her much; he did not even hear her; but he liked to imagine that she smiled while she worked. Smiled at her computer while she typed. Smiled at him if they would pass each other in the hallway.
He could not say a word to her when they did. Nothing sensible at least. And she didn’t seem friendly, or sociable, either. She didn’t extend a hand or say, “Hello,” or introduce herself. She just walked past him, without a word or nod. Walked past him as though he did not exist.
Maybe he didn’t. He was tall, imposing, strong. No one would have missed him, except for someone who did so deliberately.
Or maybe she was blind? Definitely not. Such lovely eyes. Dark, long eyelashes, pupils that reflected no light, like some black hole that drew everything in and left nothing in its wake. She was like that. Powerful. She didn’t know it, obviously.
Or she did, and she wielded the power like an ice queen. A beautiful ice queen who was lovely as she was wise.
Perhaps she knew all about him. Perhaps she saw his home: the solitary house on a crag, thrust out against the raging English Channel. A home in a world neither rock nor water, neither here nor there.
She was wise, that she was. He imagined her smiling in front of her computer because she knew exactly what she was doing, knew how to speak like a woman, judge like a woman. She was a woman, he knew. He could smell the rosy glow of hidden youth when she passed, sense that she knew how strong, how powerful she was, how she made him happy and angry at the same time, how she wielded so much and yet seemed so shameful, so blissfully (foolishly) unaware of it.
He scratched his head. Again. And again.
She was bewildering.
She was friendly with his officemates, friendly with the girl near his office who liked the same TV shows that she did, friendly with the other girl who loved reading the same books. With other people, she was bright, bubbly. With him —
Well, there was no telling what she would be like with him, because he didn’t exist when she was there.
He smiled at her once, but she bowed her head. When Halloween came along, she knocked at their door, played Trick or Treat. He obliged by offering to get an officemate into her basket, but by then, her back was already turned.
He was about to give up, until one morning, when they passed each other in the hallway. He murmured a greeting to her. It was a “Good morning” so hesitant, so filled with swallows and reluctance, that he may as well have said, “See you tonight. Shag me senseless,” and appear no less stupid.
She said, “Good morning,” but did not look at him.
She knew he existed!
God, how she confused him, maimed his senses, made him feel like he didn’t exist. But God, how he loved it. How he loved the anonymity when he was in her presence; how he loved the way she did not offer her eyes, did not offer her hand, did not offer anything but silence. It was as though she was not offering herself, but fighting the temptation to do so.
He liked thinking of her that way. Loud and happy, but virginal. He noted the silver ring on her left ring finger: the purity ring, the vow taken by a woman to keep herself untouched until her wedding night.
He brought it up with an officemate once, the fact that a silver ring on a woman’s left ring finger was a sign of some sort of strength, and decency.
The officemate shrugged. No one knew the fact, apparently. But he was sure she did. He was sure the girl, the lady, the woman down the hall with her long, dark curls and black-hole-deep eyes — the girl who did not look at him — God, she knew.
And only they knew about it.
It was a secret they could both keep, each secret-keeper not knowing of the other’s thoughts. Not caring for the other’s existence. It was like a game he could play, to while away the frustration, the anger.
He heard them teasing her once about it. Her officemates. They said she was a virgin. He heard her shoot back with a reply so deft, so fast, her opponents simply laughed.
How proud she made him! She stood up for herself, for her beliefs, her principles — defended the ring, whose meaning only he and she knew anything about.
He liked to think of her that way, because she confused him.
One greeting, and that was all there was. The next day, she was minding her own business again. No “Good morning,” no “Hello.” Nothing.
He wanted to test her. He looked directly in her face as they met on the stairs. She was talking to a friend, enunciating words in perfect English, gesturing to the air as though every syllable was fact.
She paid him no mind.
He was frustrated, to say the least. He decided not to drown himself in booze or cigarettes (even if he liked smoking them anyway). So he got himself a woman: small, lithe, darker than the girl down the hall. She didn’t have a single ring on her finger. She obliged his every whim, was short of jumping into bed, short of living under the sheets, to tell the truth.
He thought that even if she had a wedding ring, she wouldn’t care. It would come off her finger — slide off, like her clothes had a way of sliding easily off her skin. He called her his “princess.” In his head, she was named Evasia.
Deep within, he cringed, vomited, wanted to say something, do something else, besides escape.
He didn’t hide the fact that he sometimes called Evasia by another name when they were making love. He knew her name, the girl down the hall. He said it over and over to himself: alone, in bed with Evasia, when the girl down the hall passed him in that damned, cursed hallway and did not see him again.
Blind? Maybe, if only to the world. She worked late hours. Too late for her own good. She stayed in the office, typed away, kept her door open, never averted her eyes from her computer. Sometimes he passed by, on the pretense of making for the men’s room. He passed just to see her.
He didn’t know what drew her to him. Beauty? Maybe. Brains? Maybe. The fact that she intrigued him, made him think? God, what this woman could do.
Sometimes, he had to fight to stay at his desk, on those long nights when she had to work, and he had to (or tried to). He would hear her footsteps in the hallway, hear her humming softly, some song like Nessum Dorma or All I Ask of You.
In the beginning, he had to fight the urge to stand up and walk out and say, “Hello,” ask for her name, ask her out, maybe. The urge graduated to the wish to stare at her, stalk her, follow her home, he was not quite sure. The urges just kept on coming, growing.
He had to fight the urge to stand up and storm out, fight the wish to silence her, stop her with a kiss.
Fight the wish to push her against the wall, lock her humming in, her words in, her snobbishness in, her ice queen-ness in…lock her in, push himself into her mouth, perhaps caress her skin beneath her blouse, perhaps undo the first button of her jeans, tantalize her and tempt her…
…her office would be near. He once saw her desk, when she left the door open. He dreamed about clearing it with one hand, then laying her down. Holding her down. Keeping her down. One hour. Maybe two. Maybe all night. She didn’t have to go home. He didn’t have to go home. A few hours. Maybe until the morning. He could make it last longer if he wanted. If she wanted.
She would scream, maybe. Weep, of course. The virgins always wept, like the angels would, if she gave herself to him. He would let her weep on his chest, let her tears dry on his skin.
It was no sin — would be no sin, if he was gentle, if she would yield.
Damn the silver ring. It glittered on her finger, shone in his mind. He wanted, but couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Or he would fight.
He had to fight. He would chain himself to his desk if he had to, fix his eyes on his computer screen, glue his fingers to his keyboard — God, what she made him think!
She did not even know him!
Oh, but she could, you see. They could know each other on that all-night rendezvous on her desk. On his. On the floor. He really didn’t care. Anywhere, at that point, was good enough.
He fought. For months, he fought.
He was going to leave in a few days, and he made one last pretense of using the last shots on his camera to take pictures of the office.
Building where I spent four months waiting for a girl to remember that I exist. Click. Room where I was short of knocking my head against the computer just to keep myself from giving in. Click. Hallway where she walked like a queen. Click.
She had left the door of her room open. She was in it, absorbed with her work. She barely glanced at him as he passed, never saw him, did not notice that he had aimed his camera at her.
He saw her at the mall, on one of his last few days in the country. She was with her family, as happy as ever, as beautiful. He was with Evasia, trying to think of how to break up with the ring-less woman. They were eating lunch, Evasia and he, so quietly, as though it were mere duty to be out eating on a Sunday.
When The Girl entered the restaurant, he fought even more, stared at Evasia to keep from straying, paid the bill as soon as he had swallowed down his last morsel of food, and walked right out.
He peeped back at her, the Girl, just as he walked away. She was whispering to her sister, pointing to where he had last eaten.
His heart did a thousand beats in that single moment.
Maybe she did see him. Maybe she did know him.
He looked back at the table he and Evasia had used. Empty table, except for the whole bowl of soup Miss Ring-less had ordered and not eaten.
Maybe that was why The Girl was pointing.
Look at that woman. How could she not finish her food?
He hated Evasia for a moment. Hated how she could not remember how millions were starving in Africa. Hated how she was not like the girl. The Girl.
He slept with Evasia for another time, maybe four times, ten times, he didn’t bother to count. The hate melted away. The name was still there, of that other girl with the silver ring on her finger.
But the hate melted away.
He returned a few months later. For a vacation, for somewhere warm, away from the cold home on the crag that was neither here nor there. He saw Evasia again, slept with her again before visiting the old office. He was thinking in terms of dead stars: the kind that flickered and died, but lived like old in his imaginings.
No, no dead stars.
She was the same, the girl down the hall. The Girl: young, beautiful, not minding him. Well, except for one moment, when she had to stay late, and was talking to the friend who shared her love for TV. He said something about winning. She asked what game.
He nearly dropped dead, but answered anyway.
She seemed bored. Or maybe sleepy. She was always tired now. God, she was beautifully tired. He was fighting even harder to concentrate on work, now that he had seen her again. Fighting hard not to talk to her, to make sure she got home safe, maybe hop into bed with her, cradle her, tell her she shouldn’t work herself to death, ask her why she was working herself to death, talk, listen, talk all night…
But never mind. He was on vacation for only a week. Then, it would be the crag, alone on that cliff facing the ocean. Peace, maybe. Memories. A picture. Whatever. His mind was too muddled. His palm was bloody with the half-moon marks of fingernails dug into the skin. God, he was stupid.
Or maybe not.
He wanted one last test, to see what she was like. Pass Me in the Hallway Test, he called it. He would pass by her in the hallway on this night, his last night. He would say, “Good evening.”
If she didn’t reply, it would be all over between them. He laughed at the thought. Like they had ever been together?
If she did reply, he would push her against the wall, kiss her, clear out her desk with one hand, hold her down with the other. All night, he would. Never mind if he didn’t lock the door and the roving guards watched them. He would just —
No — oh God, how his palms hurt with the fist he made — no. He would ask her out. It would begin from there. He couldn’t possibly be the vow-breaker, the ring-taker.
Only a test.
This was it, then.
He walked out, saw her. Saw her for what he knew would be the last time.
“Good evening,” he managed, in the straightest, deepest voice he could muster. It was softer than soft, but he did not know it. He knew only one thing.
She went straight to her office.
She did not even look.
He went on walking.
He did not see her bow her head, for the thousandth time since they had passed each other. For another moment, for the thousandth moment, the snow melted from her young, rosy cheeks.
For that last moment, she tried to forget the news that he was leaving, never to return.
She had waited.
For so long.
She dried her tears.
She went back to work. Work herself to death, she would, the girl down the hallway.
Work herself to death.