It's not that I don't like George. What's not to like? He's such a nice guy. The kind of guy who puts you in front of him at the copier if you look hurried, or even if you don't. The kind of guy who buys you a Coke when he goes to the vending machine, even if you weren't wanting a Coke at all and actually are trying not to drink so much soda in general. Because he's that kind of guy, if you offer him money for the Coke, it will seem petty in the face of his benevolence. I try anyway, even though I know he will get that hurt and offended, "how could you offer me money" look, which pisses me off. Which I have to hide, because how could I be pissed off at someone so nice?
I live with what I'm sure could be called a paranoid delusion that all of George's selfless thoughtfulness serves to build up some kind of humongous karmic debt of nicety on my part. In my delusion he is controlling the patterns of our behavior so that we become people who do things for each other. Not that I'm opposed to doing something for someone, but to have a pattern of it has overtones of being... I don't know... It's hard to explain, but it's like this: When George gets me a Coke, before I even think about it, the can appears on my desk. It's no big deal, but the people around my cubicle know that he brought me that Coke. He's edging his way into the collective subconscious as the guy who brings me Cokes!
Now if Emma or Bob goes down to the vending machine, they can't bring me a Coke, because I already have one. Already having my Coke, I have no reason to go to the vending machine, and thus no opportunity to make any cola-bringing gesture to Emma or Bob. Not to mention that the only really appropriate behavior, considering I've accumulated about three week's of Coke debt, would be to get a Coke for George, which he doesn't need because he bought one for himself when he got mine.
I could try to pre-empt his daily Coke run by racing to the vending machine first, but I don't do this for two reasons: The first is that he already gets the Cokes at about 10:15 A.M., the earliest Coke-getting time anyone could possibly rationalize. The coffee mugs and Starbucks' lattes on everyone's desks are barely drained by then. To buy a Coke any earlier would be a ludicrous and transparent effort to "beat the Coke". Secondly, to buy him a Coke would signal my acceptance of some kind of reciprocal Coke relationship. Since he already has a three-week coke buying lead, and would immediately respond by getting me more Cokes, this would be like entering an indentured servitude that I would never be able to buy myself out of.
Am I wrong for wanting this to end?
But this is how he's crafty. He never actually asks me out. So how can I reject him? I'm sure it would seem a bit over-wrought to pull him aside and say, "George, I'm sorry, but I don't think we should see each other's Cokes anymore." I've always had trouble with the seeming egotism it takes to say to someone, "I know you like me, but I don't like you that way. I just thought you should know so you wouldn't waste your time."
It's been an active moral dilemma for me ever since high school when Danny Harkins was repeatedly late to fourth period even though he was standing right next to his class. He was always late because he was waiting for me to come to my class, which was across the hall. My locker's remote location from Chemistry class insured that I came careening down the hall, through the doorway, and into my seat each day, just as the bell rang. Danny would watch me and sigh, then slump into his own classroom, where I could hear Mrs. Forbes, the economics teacher, giving him yet another detention. It went on for almost a year. We didn't have any classes together or mutual friends. I never talked to him. I sometimes wonder if I should have tried to get to know him, started a conversation one day. What if he was the love of my life and I let him slip away because I was too shallow to see past a small harelip and overwhelming shyness? On the other hand, you have to trust your instincts in this world. And why should it be my responsibility to enable interaction with someone I never even would have noticed if it weren't for his potential as a stalker?
So it's established that I don't have it in me to brush someone off without cause. It would feel mean. It wouldn't be nice. And it is exactly this characteristic that allows certain men who avoid stating their true position to paint you into a corner with your own niceness. Or more accurately, your own desire to be nice. In George's case, I feel I have no recourse because he's not doing anything. I would have to open up new avenues of social interaction with him just to escalate the "friendship" or whatever it is, to the point where I don't feel insane for wanting it to cease. And if he's as skilled as I suspect he is, were I to attempt this, I would end up giving him full permission to call me for movies and dinners, completely sheltered behind his "friend" shield, which I wouldn't be able to poke a hole through until it was too late. The very thought gives me the shivers.
Today George asked me if I was going to the movie next week.
This question was a trap.
At the end of each financial quarter our department submits a closeout document. If we get the closeout finished and approved on time, we take that Friday afternoon and go to the movies. It's a nice thing our manager does for us. It's only a couple of hours, but it feels like a short school day, getting out of cubicle-land while it's still light, and going to the movies. A week from Friday is the end of the quarter, so it's been something to look forward to.
But now I can't go.
Because I take the train in from the suburbs, I don't have a car at work. If I had answered yes to George's question, he would then have offered me a ride to the theatre. Why hadn't I prevented this by asking Emma for a ride? Oh I know! Because it's over a week away! These kinds of arrangements should be made as we put on our coats and walk to the elevator, as we step into the parking structure even, not eight days in advance! Does he think I'm not on to his casual little subterfuge? That I don't know that if we end up driving together in his car he will make sure we arrive either before or after the others, and that we'll end up sitting next to each other in the theatre? He'll probably go buy popcorn during the trailers, coming back just as the move starts with a container big enough to share...
I hate popcorn at the movies. It's way too much multi-tasking. I just want to sit and stare blankly at the screen, immersed in the movie; not worry about making polite dips into a bucket of popcorn because someone has bought enough to feed an army and I don't want them to feel bad. Worse yet, I hate playing that game where someone offers you popcorn, and you shake your head "no" to the popcorn and smile. Then they motion to the Coke, and you shake your head "no" to the Coke, and smile. After a few minutes the person points to the still three-quarters full popcorn container and then to the person on the other side of you, so you have to take the popcorn, tap the next person on the arm, and offer the bucket. If they take a handful you have to repeat the process with the Coke. I hate George! How dare he take my moderately fun afternoon with casual acquaintances that I never see outside of work and turn it into this!
I said I couldn't go. I said I'd made a doctor's appointment for next Friday. He immediately acted concerned and asked if "everything was all right". I said yes, it was just a check up, everything was fine. And he squinted at me and said, "You're sure?" In that weird now-are-you-sure-you don't-have-anything-you-need-to-tell-good-old-Uncle-George tone that guys use when they're trying to play the you-can-confide-in-me-wouldn't-I-be-a-good-friend card. Oh yes, I replied; absolutely sure.
Now I have to really make a doctor's appointment because I'm such a terrible liar! Who can live like this? I need to find a solution soon. There must be some way of rejecting him that cannot be defined as a rejection, in the same way the Coke is an overture that cannot be defined as an overture. I have to put some distance between us in a subtle way.
The classic method would be to fabricate (or unimaginably, find) a boyfriend, and then talk about him incessantly and pointedly-but as I said, I'm a terrible liar, and it's also just humiliating. I could try to set him up with a friend. That could backfire in any number of ways. I could try to set him up with a stranger-but I would still feel obliged to feign interest and ask him how the date went, and by the time they had gone out on three dates and then split up, I would be his confidant. No. No. No.
My options are clear. I must either quit my job...or stop drinking Coke. In fact, I have to stop eating or drinking anything that can be bought from those vending machines. I have to bring one of those huge water bottles to work and plop it down possessively on my desk each morning. No more caffeine. This burns me up.
Today was DAY ONE of my new lifestyle. In addition to my very large bottle of water, I visited Whole Foods and purchased a sandwich of grainy brown bread with hummus and alfalfa sprouts spilling over the edges, then capped it off with a bag of dried fruit and nut mix from the bulk bin. At 10:25 AM, when George approached, Coke in hand, I showed him the healthy still-life arranged artistically on my desk, and explained I would no longer be drinking soda.
"Maybe Emma or Bob would like it," I suggested, helpfully.
Now it's possible that I imagined it, but for just a second I could swear there was a moment of understanding between us. Just for a second I would say he looked pissed off. And then the moment was gone.
We chatted briefly about the new exercise program I was implementing during my lunch hour, and then he left.
Could it have been so easy? Why was it so easy?
In retreating, George didn't offer the Coke to Emma or Bob. Instead he moved toward accounting. Strange, I thought, George doesn't normally hang out in accounting. Then I remembered. The accounting department just hired a new assistant named Dora last week. In fact, I recalled, I had seen George showing her how to reload the copier. How nice of him.
I decided to check on an unpaid invoice. As I passed through the accounting department I couldn't help but notice.
Formerly a small-town girl from the Midwest, Barrington spent a decade in the big cities of Chicago and L.A. exploring the entertainment industry, ballroom dancing, and the dating scene. She currently lives with her husband in the red desert of central Australia. This is her first publication