There is virtually no sex in this story. Your comments, good or bad, are always welcome.
Chapter 1: A Convenient Ghost
I returned to my desk on shaky legs. It took several minutes in the relative solitude of my cubicle to slow my heart rate. I had held up well during the meeting, and I'm sure I never gave any indication of having been rattled. I was, but she never suspected. I first mastered how to hide my emotions as a pre-teen and I was very good at it; so good that it probably guaranteed my escape in this instance.
Clearing my vision, I glanced at the reports on my desk, noting with interest the newspaper folded on top. It was opened to the horoscopes and mine was circled. This was an inside joke between Cheryl, the receptionist, and myself. I smiled at the forecast: "Wednesday will see momentous change in your family life. Embrace your new situation and it will usher in much happiness." Their prognostication had missed again.
Minutes ago I had had my first full 'dressing down' by a superior. The talk had been both loud and heated. Yet in reflection, I was not upset or angry with my boss, I was mostly confused. While my anxiety level had fallen I still didn't know why I was a target or where to focus my annoyance.
It was so unlike her, so out of character. We had been working together for five years, the last two with her as my manager. Never had she expressed any displeasure with the way in which I conducted my job, quite the opposite. I had been promoted twice, been the recipient of several awards and in all of this Noelle had been my number one supporter.
Earlier in our relationship I would have retraced my actions, seeking to find ways where I could still garner her approval. But I had grown since the days of being a trainee and Noelle was no longer my mentor, but a good friend. Sometimes, like this morning, that fact clouded my thinking; it certainly complicated my response.
Not only had she been displeased, she was almost beside herself in voicing that displeasure. I had been prepping for an important briefing and she berated me for not double checking the availability of a minor device; but it was a component we did not require, so the admonishment was uncalled for. The fault in her argument was apparent even before I calmly pointed it out. I couldn't imagine that she believed the things she had said.
Then after she abandoned discussing my supposed incompetence, she questioned my temperament for the job itself. This whole episode made less sense the longer it continued. Fortunately, I extricated myself after the first long lull in the discussion. It's hard to argue alone and my silence made escape easy.
It was unthinkable to me that Noelle and I would be on opposing sides of any argument. We held very similar views on most subjects and I knew we also had a genuine affection for one another. She had been my mentor when I joined the business and we had been friends almost since the day we met. I looked at her more like a sister, and I had no doubt she saw me with similar fondness. It was the idea of straining our personal relationship that actually distressed me. Something was obviously bothering her and it most likely had nothing to do with the briefing or with me.
As soon as I digested that assessment it took me but a minute to stride back to her office. It was lunchtime and her door was closed, another uncharacteristic sign. It didn't matter; I knocked forcefully then entered when I heard a sound on the other side.
She was sitting across from me, elbows on the desk, and head in hands as I took a seat. She barely acknowledged my presence when I saw the pain in her eyes. Before I could speak she started reversing herself.
"Peter, please accept my apology. I didn't mean to say what I did. It wasn't fair to you..." Then the levy broke. With fat tears streaming down her face, she cast her eyes downward avoiding my gaze.
Without remembering leaving my seat, I was suddenly kneeling by her side. I thought about rubbing her back to comfort her but hesitated. Instead I began to speak softly near her ear.
"Hey I'm OK. I knew something was wrong, I heard it in your voice. Do you want to talk about it?"
"No. I know you want to help. But it's not something I feel comfortable talking about with you. Oh, I don't mean it that way either..." She at least attempted to look me in the eye when she said that. I noticed she was fidgeting with her wedding ring as she spoke. "I'll be fine in a moment. There's no need for you to stay."
"Sam?" I said. Her eyes closed in response, and I understood. Perhaps it was a birthday or their anniversary, or maybe just their song playing on the radio; whatever it was, something had triggered the memory of her late husband and with it came the ensuing outburst. I had been the designated 'safe' target. Perhaps that assignment was a price of our friendship.
"Please go home. I can handle things here. You need to see about you. Do you want me to drive you?"
"Who said I was going home?" She stated that almost defiantly and with a stare designed to make me back down. I was not in the mood to negotiate so I gave her the same voice back.
"I did, or would you rather hear it from Sandersohn?" This last statement was made in a half-joking manner but I knew it would have impact. Sandersohn was our branch manager, my second line, and Noelle's boss. She was too private a person to want him in her affairs. I knew having mentioned his name that her resolve would waiver. It did. She didn't have to say it, I could read her expression.
"Is there anyone I can call for you? You shouldn't be alone now. Hell, I can take off too if you'd like."
Noelle looked at me as if I had two heads. Obviously my company was not demanded or required at her home. "I can call my mother. She's there now...and you don't have to drive me home. I can make it myself." That last part was said as she stood up, a cue for me to stand also.
Our offices were in downtown Philadelphia and her home, like my own, was in walking distance. Hers was perhaps ten minutes away. I would have readily walked her there if she had been more agreeable. However, I knew not to challenge her on her proclivity for privacy.
I was concerned for my friend. She was a person of considerable strength and character. I had learned much from her over the years and the time I spent with her was very precious to me. She was a damn good manager, a great salesperson, and a good friend. Though how she accomplished the former while being so standoffish with upper management continued to puzzle me.
In the field she was widely admired by all of her customers for her honesty and integrity. She never cut corners to make a sale, never oversold a product's capabilities and always, always met every commitment. When she was literally pushed into management several of our largest customers refused reassignment to other Reps. They would do business with us only if she were their salesperson. As a result, she was the only manager I knew of who still held direct accounts.
As a manager she was fearless. I had seen her go toe-to-toe with Sandersohn on issues related to customer concerns on several occasions. That was no small fete. Sandersohn was a formidable leader who had little tolerance for mistakes and for those who hedged their speech when they approached him. With a dozen mangers reporting to him; all but one literally feared him. Noelle was the exception, and as a consequence she commanded the man's respect.
My friend had but one serious weakness: a dead husband whom she carried around her neck like an albatross. He had been gone all of five years, yet it wasn't until the last year that she finally seemed to be coming out of her shell and discarding her grief. I took pride in the fact that I had subtly prodded her in that direction during our many talks after hours. It took years of appealing to her vanity to get her to dress more fashionably and be friendlier around her coworkers. Those who worked for her loved her, but others weren't always sure how to take her.
While she continued to wear pants suits predominately, occasionally she would slip on more overtly feminine outfits. She was also wearing a touch more makeup, smiling more often, and actually engaging people in light hearted conversation. She would still break out her reading glasses on a moments notice and her hair was always styled in a severe French braid but I was working on those issues.
I often thought it would have been better for her if our desks were on the floor above with the rest of our sales and administrative staffs. As it were, our offices were located on the floor with classrooms, conference rooms and executive briefing rooms. This relative isolation in 'the Center' on the floor below fed on her heightened desire for privacy. Ironically our jobs entailed a good deal of public speaking and she excelled at that.
Even with her standoffish manner there were several men upstairs who actually attempted flirting with her now and again. It likely happened when she deemed to wear a dress. Me, I always thought she was pretty, so seeing her fending off suitors was mildly amusing. Actually when she let her hair down she favored an olive skinned double of the actress Sela Ward, though I never told her to her face. It would have caused her too much embarrassment.
Now there had been a setback, just as people in the office were beginning to change their attitudes about her and see her as the truly nice person that I knew her to be. I only hoped that she had limited her outburst to me and not anyone else.
Somehow I felt I should have seen this coming. Yesterday she had been more guarded when we talked. I asked her repeatedly if everything was OK and she shut me down. We still talked at the close of the workday, but the conversation was solely focused on the job, another clue that something was amiss. Now there was this incident to analyze. Whatever had ushered in her mood swing eluded me. She had never been that emotional in the five years I'd known her.
After she left the office, the rest of my day went quickly downhill. In fact, Noelle stayed out for the following two days that marked the remainder of that week and I got to play manager in her absence. It was a learning experience I knew I would not seek to repeat. Those two and half days felt like months. By weeks end I knew I didn't like managing people.
You see, I'm in sales. I got here through a route few others had taken. I graduated from business school with an undergrad degree in accounting. I loved accounting but hated being an accountant. So a year after my first career misstep I applied for and was accepted as a Systems Tech for Big Blue. My employment tests determined that I had an aptitude for the technical side of the business. They spent a year training me in technology and how to think like a tech. I loved it.
Two years later they moved me into sales, and dedicated me to larger, more complex opportunities. It turns out I also have a knack for motivating people. I'm not a cheerleader per se, but I do have an ability to quickly ascertain a person's personality strengths so I can exploit them. In the process I get them to enthusiastically become inside salespeople for our cause. Conversely, I can oftentimes almost smell fear in someone during a sales call.
I never thought that those abilities would make me a good salesperson but I was wrong. So when I took over for Noelle as manager that week I was presented with a number of situations where simply motivating and encouraging my teammates proved the ideal course of action.
The majority of the time, my colleagues knew the solutions to their own problems. I merely facilitated what they should have done on their own. That aspect of the job was a lot of fun, maybe because I was prepared for the role and I was quite good at it.
What I was not prepared for was the number of meetings and requests for meetings over trivial issues. I found the schedule exhausting. I also loathed the administrative tasks and was amazed that so much administrative crap could come up in only two and half days. Too many decisions were made at the management levels that should have been made by the employees themselves.
When you looked closely these issues often revolved around matters of trust. Management simply didn't trust their employees, so the system was purposely designed to thwart our interests by burying us in paperwork. Huge bureaucracies always confuse the paper with the process.
By late Friday I was ready for Noelle to return. I had called her half a dozen times over those days to see how she was doing, careful not to mention any detailed happenings at work. She seemed to respond in her old voice which relieved me immensely. We even had a few good laughs over little disagreements between her and her mom.
Thinking back to that week, had I not been paying such close attention at work I might not have been blindsided to my own problems at home.
Chapter 2: Another Course of Study
Tuesday of the following week found me in the process of preparing for a C level briefing, that's one where the guests are CIOs, CFOs, or CEOs, otherwise known as the 'poobahs' to quote my father. We had an economist as our guest speaker and he was quite picky about how he wanted the room arranged for his talk.
I had just finished moving tables into the classroom and changing the seating configuration. The new arrangement would leave room for only twenty, but each attendee would have more than enough real estate to spread out their materials.
I smiled to myself as I thought how I happened to be here moving furniture. I guess this part of my job fell into that section of the job description that said 'and other duties as required' (a small addendum they failed to mention during my original interview).
As I turned my attention to a test of the projector, my cell rang.
"Hello, Peter speaking."
I recognized the voice of Tim Sullivan, our last summer intern. Tim was recently returned to school and I was surprised to hear from him.
"Tim. How are you? And you know its Peter; only small children call me Mister. What 's up?"
"Peter, are you in the Center? I need to see you about something very important."
"Sure I'm here. I'm setting up for a briefing tomorrow so I should be in the rest of the afternoon. I have a few minutes now if you want to talk?"
"No, we can't do it over the phone. It's something I need to show you."
"Well you could send it to me."
"It's not that kind of thing. Hmmm, say would you have time around four? I can bring it to you." I heard the urgency in his voice. Tim was not necessarily an excitable kid. Quite the opposite, he was cool under fire which was one of the reasons we asked him back for a second summer. If he needed my help I could certainly make the time.
"Four works for me. I'll see you then."
"Thanks Peter. I hate to sound so mysterious but it really is important."
"No problem. Bye"
Replacing the cell in my pocket I caught movement by the doorway. Noelle came in looking over the changes I had made to the room. My expression must have signaled something because she was asked, "Anything wrong?"
"No", I said regaining my smile. "I just got a call from Tim Sullivan that's all."
"Tim? How's he doing?" she remarked, a grin now escaping her lips. Noelle rarely smiled at work, except when she was in either my company or Tim's.
"Good as far as I know. He plans to drop by this afternoon."
"Oh, tell him I asked for him if I don't see him later."
Noelle made her exit as quietly as her entrance. She DID have a reputation for being anal. Her standing in the doorway was no coincidence. She was checking up on me, making sure that the facility was made ready for our guests tomorrow. This wasn't an indictment of my abilities, it was just her way. Most of my colleagues were intimidated by such managerial intrusions; not me, I mainly diverted her attention and enjoyed her company.
The rest of the day was routine. A few minutes after four I received a page from the receptionist that Tim was in the lobby so I went out to meet him.
Tim came toward me wearing what I saw to be a forced smile. There was some apprehension in his eyes but I had no context in which to place the emotion. Whatever the purpose of this visit, it was serious.
"Hi Tim, how can I help you?" I said that, trying to be as reassuring as possible.
"Peter, can we use one of the mini-conference rooms? There is something I need to show you...and it's for your eyes only."
I lead him towards the first open room. I went in first, he followed and closed and locked the door before removing his backpack and taking a seat at the table. He then removed a large brown envelop and handed it to me.
This time it was his voice that alerted me. "I'm sorry for the drama but I think you will understand when you see this."
I opened the envelope and withdrew 4 large photographs, all 8 by 10s. After looking at the first couple I placed them in a line in front of me. I studied each carefully. My eyes started to become unfocused and I started to blink reflexively. I heard myself exhale as air escaped my lungs.
All the photos were of my wife with another man. The two were seated at a bar, obviously some distance from the photographer. I could tell because of the blurriness of the foreground objects. We were mainly treated to profiles. In the first two shots the man had his hand placed inside the top of her slacks, essentially cupping a part of her ass. They were leaning into to one another and Paige's arm encircled his back as if they were sharing some intimate conversation.
The other photos were more explicit. In both they were lip locked in a passionate kiss. From the positions of their bodies no one would conclude that this was a friendly peck.
When I could focus again I looked up into Tim's eyes. He was nervously observing my reaction.
"How did you get these and when were they taken?" I said, surprised at the sound of my own voice.
"I have a part-time job at night at a restaurant on Penn's campus. Monday a week ago I was waiting on a table of six: a couple with friends celebrating their engagement. The group was seated in the main dining room off the bar area. "
"There was a girl in that party that was taking a number of pictures from the aisle and blocking access in the process. When I approached her to ask her to clear the lane, I noticed your wife and her 'friend' in the background. I recognized her immediately. I let the girl continue but explained the situation to her. I then offered her twenty bucks to zoom in on the couple in the bar seated directly in line with her friends. I moved out of their line of sight while she snapped these. She emailed them to me the next day. I was hoping it wasn't her Peter. I'm sorry."
"How long were they there?"
"I'd say at least a couple of hours. They were very touch-feely the entire time."
I could see the worry in Tim's eyes. He had met my wife Paige on several occasions, the first time being when she had picked me up at work in the early summer. More recently they talked at his going away dinner held at Noelle's house only a month before. Paige had even done most of the talking, so he knew that she was going back to school for her MBA.
I returned to a further review of these pictures. Who was this man that was so familiar with my wife? I didn't recognize him. I looked him over trying to deduce what I could. He was dressed casually in jeans and a sports jacket. I couldn't make out his shoes.
His blondish hair was spiked in a fashion that indicated he frequented a stylist. Sitting next to Paige I could see he was significantly broader and probably much taller. Paige was five nine so I guessed him to be around six four or so.