When I pulled open the door to the tavern, the sound that came pouring out was like a crowd at a sporting event. "And I bet I know the name of the game that's being played," I thought wryly.
As I walked in, the noise level dropped noticeably, but I ignored the attention I'd drawn and scanned the room until I spotted Marge waving at me from the table she'd commandeered. As I walked over to sit with her, the noise gradually resumed its previous level.
She stood up as I approached. Uncertain how to greet her, I awkwardly reached out to shake her hand, but she ignored it to give me a welcoming hug the way women do. That simple gesture gave me a warm feeling; the other secretaries in the executive suite had pretty much given me the cold shoulder. As secretary to the president of Magnetadyne, Marge was pretty much the queen bee among the other ladies, so to have her ask me out for a drink was a big deal.
"I'm glad you could come, Jessica," she said as we both sat down. "I wanted to get to know you a little better."
"I really appreciate the invitation, Marge," I said, "and my friends call me Jess."
Just then a perky waitress appeared to take our orders. Marge asked for a beer, then raised her eyebrows slightly when I asked for a wine spritzer, but she didn't make a comment.
"I really appreciate your invitation, Marge," I told her sincerely. "It hasn't been easy getting settled at Magnetadyne, so it means a lot that you'd reach out to me. Some of the other ladies don't seem to like me all that much."
She reached over and patted my hand. "It's not that they don't like you, Jess, it's just that you're the newcomer and Mary, the woman you replaced, had been with us for years before she retired."
"I guess I can understand that," I said.
"And to be honest," Marge went on, "there's also your appearance. I guess some of the others are a little intimidated because you're so beau..."
"Please don't use that word, Marge!" I interrupted. "I'm not trying to be falsely modest," I said hastily as she raised her eyebrows again, "but I'm not truly beautiful. I could never land a job as a top model."
She looked at me skeptically. "I'm not so sure about that," she said. "But no matter what, most of us would kill to have your looks, and that inevitably generates a little envy."
I shook my head. "They wouldn't be so envious if they knew how my looks have affected my life. In many ways, beauty is a curse, not an advantage."
Now she clearly didn't believe me. "Every one of those gals spends a small fortune on clothes, hair dressers and make-up trying to look the way you do naturally. We're the ones who're cursed!"
I shook my head again. "You might think so, but you'd be wrong. For example, I go through life with my eyes focused on the ground, like one of the untouchables in India. I don't dare look up for fear of making eye contact with a man, because if I do the odds are he's going to hit on me."
"Is that such a bad thing?" Marge asked in amusement.
"Yes," I said emphatically, "when it happens almost constantly and when the men who approach me are so creepy or obnoxious."
"Oh come on," Marge said, "surely some of them are nice guys."
"You'd be surprised," I told her. "In my experience, the nice guys are either too polite or tend to think I'm out of their league and don't even try. It's mostly the horn dogs and creeps who make the moves."
"I can't believe a woman who looks like you doesn't get approached by handsome guys. What about them?"
"In some ways, Marge, they're as bad or worse. The ones I've met think they're God's gift to women - that I should be grateful just to be seen with them. What's worse, they'll toss you aside in a heartbeat for the next pretty face that comes along."
At that moment, our waitress reappeared and set another wine spritzer in front of me. "I didn't order that," I said in confusion.
"I know," the waitress said. "That guy asked me to bring it over," she said, gesturing back over my shoulder.
I should have known better but I glanced in that direction only to see a heavy-set businessman bearing down on me. He grabbed an empty chair from a nearby table and, after giving Marge a cursory nod, sat down facing me. "Hey, my name is Al," he said, "you look like you could use some company."
I heaved a sigh. "I'm sorry, Al," I said politely, "but I already have company. My girlfriend and I just want to relax and talk in private."
He didn't even turn his florid face in Marge's direction. "Aw, that doesn't sound like much fun. Listen, let's have a couple of drinks together and then we'll go some place where we can find a little more action."
"No," I said firmly, "I'm not interested."
"Come on, baby," he said, grabbing my hand in his sweaty palm, "you could have a lot more fun with me than with her."
I glanced over at Marge with an "I told you so" expression, then turned back to the creep. "How long ago did you move to this country?" I asked him blandly.
He looked at me in confusion. "Hunh? What? I never moved here - I was born in America."
"And yet you never learned the meaning of the word "no," I said in mock disbelief.
Marge laughed out loud, and the guy's face turned even redder. He stood up so quickly that he knocked the chair over. Picking it up hastily, he turned and stalked away. As he left, we could hear him mutter, "Damned dyke!"
I turned back to Marge. "Now do you believe me?"
"Wow, that was pretty ugly," she said, still snickering at the guy's hasty retreat.
"And that was with zero encouragement on my part," I went on. "You can just imagine what would happen if I'd given out any positive signals. And it's not just making eye contact, I have to be careful about what I wear too. If I don't want that kind of attention I have to pick what I wear carefully so I don't inadvertently expose too much skin."
Marge started to respond, but I was on a roll and pressed on. "Here's another thing: I saw you react when I ordered the wine spritzer, but I always have to be careful about how much I drink. I can't afford to relax in social situations, I have to be constantly on my guard to make sure I don't attract unwanted attention. It's like I told you, looking like I do is like being on probation - one little mistake and I'm in trouble again."
Suddenly a thought came to Marge and her eyes widened. "Wait a minute, do you get hit on at the office too."
I gave her a wry smile. "Frequently," I said.
She looked aghast, "Not Tom Moffatt?" she asked anxiously.
"Oh, no," I said hastily. "My boss is a real sweetheart. He treats me more like a granddaughter than an employee. I've never had any problems with him."
She looked relieved for a moment; then her eyes narrowed. "What about the silver-bearded wonder?"
I laughed. As the VP of Sales and Marketing, my boss had two direct reports. Scott Benson, the Director of Sales, was a divorced man in his late thirties with a goatee and mustache that were prematurely grey. People in the office said he was a genius; they also said he was a real ladies' man.
I laughed. "He hit on me my first day."
"And every day after that," I went on, and she burst into laughter.
"What about Peter?" she asked curiously.
Peter Hammil, the Director of Marketing, was Mr. Moffatt's other direct report.
"He hasn't come on to me directly," I admitted, "but he looks me over when he thinks I'm not aware of it."
She nodded. "Well he'd better not - he's married." Then she asked, "Any others?"
I nodded my head. "Except for my boss, pretty much all of them."
That drew another snicker from her. Then she went on. "So is there a man in your life right now?"
"No, I'm pretty much out of the dating game," I told her.
"That's pretty hard to believe," Marge asked incredulously. Then her eyes narrowed slightly. "Has there ever been a serious man in your life?"
The pain in my palms made me realize how tightly my fists were clenched. "There was one, but it's a pretty painful story. Let's just save that for another time, shall we?"
Marge nodded sympathetically and we switched to other, less sensitive issues. By the time we left the tavern and I headed for home, I felt like I had made a friend. I hoped so - I didn't have very many.
As I drove I was glad Marge hadn't asked me about the women in the office. I'd been hit on by a couple of them too. The thing is, men can be hard to handle, but at least they're predictable. The women are worse: they pretend to like you and then cut you to ribbons behind your back out of jealousy or envy. They can be incredibly catty, and I've been scratched, emotionally speaking, more than once.
The next week I was working on some correspondence Mr. Moffatt had left me when Peter Hammill came up to my desk. He waited till I had finished typing a sentence and then asked if he could interrupt me for a few minutes. "I have a really big favor to ask," he said.
I was on my guard instantly, wondering if this was when Peter would make his move. But when he pulled up a chair beside my desk and began to talk, he surprised me.
"Do you know Karen, Scott's secretary?" he asked.
"I've met her," I told him, "but I can't say I know her well." She was young and pretty in a girl-next-door way, and she seemed reasonably intelligent, as best I could tell. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, Scott's really down on her because she was a little late with a report he wanted, and I'm afraid he's going to let her go."
That certainly wouldn't surprise me. In the short time I'd been at Magnetadyne, there was probably more turnover in Scott's department than any other in the company. He was a perfectionist, and when any of his people failed to meet his impossible standards, he seemed to take delight in pointing out their flaws, usually doing so in front of others. He'd fired more than a few people, and several others had either transferred or quit. Yet senior management seemed to turn a blind eye to his lack of people-management skills, probably because of his sales results, I guessed.
Peter went on, "I'm hoping you can do something to help her keep her job."
Suddenly a light bulb lit up in my head and I thought I understood what was happening. "Are you sleeping with her?" I demanded.
He recoiled in shock. "What? No, of course not! She's married - and so am I!"
I looked at him coldly. "Being married doesn't stop a lot of guys from messing around. But if you're not sleeping with her, why would you want to help Scott's secretary?"
Peter was wary, but he went on with his quest regardless. "I guess I feel responsible for her." When he saw my expression, he hastened to say, "No, not in that way. I was the one who hired her. She was bright and eager, and I thought she had a lot of potential - I still do. Anyway, when Scott got promoted to Sales Director, I recommended her for his secretary. It was a nice promotion for her and I thought she'd do well. I guess I didn't consider the way Scott is with people. The bottom line is I feel guilty for putting her into the line of fire and I'd like to save her if I can."
I watched him carefully as he told his story. He didn't seem to be hiding another motive, but some men can be very devious, especially when it comes to sex.
"So what exactly do you want me to do?" I asked.
He looked at me earnestly. "I was hoping there might be some work she could help you with while Scott is out of town this week. Then, if you could write him a memo saying complimentary things about her with a copy to Mr. Moffatt, it would be hard for Scott to fire her for incompetence."
From what I knew of Scott, Peter's plan would probably work. Scott was the type who never missed an opportunity to suck up to his superiors.
I focused on Peter again. I was still uncertain about his true motives so I decided on a temporizing move. "I'll tell you what, Peter, you suggest to Karen that she have lunch with me today. After I talk with her, I'll see if I think I can help her."
He stood up. "Okay, Jess, thanks" he said, "I'll go talk to her right away." He turned to go, then turned back. "I really hope you can help her; she's a good kid and deserves better."
Fifteen minutes later I got a call from Karen, and we agreed to go out for lunch. I knew that wouldn't be a problem since neither Scott nor Mr. Moffatt were in the office, and I hoped she'd feel more free to talk away from work.
When we got to the restaurant, I thought at first I might have made a mistake. The waiter hovered over us for what seemed like forever trying to chat me up, but finally he brought our order and left, giving Karen and me a chance to talk.
I looked at her sternly. "I want you to be honest with me, Karen. Are you and Peter having an affair?"
She gasped in surprise. "Oh, no! Whatever made you think that?"
I ignored her question. "Well, has he come on to you? Do you think he's trying to start something with you?"
Now she was indignant. "Certainly not! I don't think he's that kind of person, and even if he were, I'm happily married and Peter knows it. He's even met my husband."
Watching and listening to her, I really didn't think Karen was trying to hide anything. Still . . .
"Okay," I told her, "but I still can't understand why he'd go to so much trouble to try to protect you."
She shrugged her shoulders. "I'm not really sure either - most bosses wouldn't. I guess Peter is just a nice guy. In any case, I'm really grateful."
Her answer didn't sound rehearsed to me. Maybe Peter's request was nothing more than it appeared. In any case, I didn't want the woman sitting across from me to suffer at the hands of a bully like Scott Benson.
"Okay, Karen, here's what we're going to do," I said, and her eyes shone with gratitude as I outlined the plan.
A week later I had just gotten off the phone when I spotted Peter standing there. I could tell he'd been staring at me because he hastily shifted his glance away when I looked up. "What can I do for you, Peter?" I asked.
"I just wanted to stop by and thank you for helping Karen," he said. "I was in Scott's office talking about Expo and noticed your memo sitting on his desk. I really appreciate your giving her a little executive cover."
I smiled at him. "I'm glad I could help. Karen does seem to have a lot of potential, and it would be a shame for the company to lose her."
He nodded and started to leave, but I felt a little guilty about doubting him before so I spoke up quickly. "For what it's worth, I'm impressed that you went to so much trouble for someone who doesn't even work for you."
He actually blushed! "Well, it was no more than anyone else would have done."
I nodded, but in my experience people don't go out of their way to help others unless they want something in return. It was nice to learn there were exceptions. "I'm still impressed," I told him.
He started to leave again but then turned back. "Listen, I was just about to go down to the cafeteria to grab some lunch. Would you care to join me?"
Ordinarily I would have turned down an invitation like that, but Peter did seem to be a genuinely nice guy and I thought it couldn't hurt to have another friend. "Sure, that would be great."
Over lunch I learned a number of things about Peter Hammill. The first was that he was devoted to his wife Callie. "She's an interior designer, and a damned good one," he told me. He pulled out his cellphone and started showing me pictures of her (she was lovely) and of some rooms she had designed (they were impressive). "She's even done work for some of our executives," he told me proudly.
But before he could go on, we were interrupted by one of his people who needed a decision from Peter about some collateral material for Expo. While Peter was dealing with that issue, another member of his team came up with another work question. Before long, a team meeting had convened at our table.
Peter turned and pantomimed his apologies, but I waved them off and beckoned for him to go on. Then I sat quietly watching him in action with his people. When they would ask his opinion, he would take the time to listen and then ask his own questions, often eliciting the answers from them. I also found it revealing to see how comfortable his people were dealing with him. They deferred to his judgment but clearly weren't intimidated or obsequious.
When I finally slipped away, I had a much clearer picture of Peter. "Very interesting," I thought. "It's nice to see someone in authority who doesn't act like a jerk."
That afternoon Marge stopped by my desk to ask me to join her at the tavern again. I was gratified to get a second invitation and gladly accepted.
Once her beer and my wine spritzer had been delivered, she leaned on the table and looked at me carefully. "I saw you eating lunch with Peter today. Anything going on between you two that I should know about?"
"Not at all," I said hastily. "He came by about some business just before lunch, so it was only natural that we'd wander down to the cafeteria together. I was glad because it gave me a chance to get to know him a little better."
Marge looked at me slyly. "So what did you learn?"
"Well, I learned that he seems like a genuinely nice guy. He also seems to be a good leader who's respected by the people who work for him."
When I saw Marge looking expectantly, I went on. "And I learned that he's a happily married man who loves and admires his wife," I said firmly.
Marge cocked her head and asked, "And that's all?"
I sighed. "Look, Marge, I told you I'm not in the market for male companionship right now. Even if I were, I'm not a homewrecker," I said forcefully.
She looked at me carefully, and her expression became more sympathetic. "Somebody really hurt you badly, didn't they? Want to talk about it?"
I was about to deny it, but suddenly something inside seemed to give way and, to my surprise, I heard the whole ugly story start to pour out of me.
"I found Mr. Right my senior year in college. Actually, I guess, he found me, but whatever the case, I knew he was the one right away. We got married soon after graduation and started our lives together, just like it's supposed to happen in the American Dream.
"He took a lot of pride in my appearance and loved for us to go out to places where he could show me off. At first I felt a little uncomfortable with that, but it made him so ,uh, 'enthusiastic' when we went home that I was happy to do it. Even when he began to ask me to wear more revealing clothes, I was willing to go along to please him."
My throat had gotten dry, so I paused to take a sip of my drink.
"Before I met him, I hadn't been very active sexually. I guess I didn't want to get a reputation. Anyway, once we were married, our sex life was really good, at least for me. But my dear husband wasn't satisfied. After a couple of years he introduced the idea of role playing. At first I was hurt because I thought that meant he was dissatisfied with me. But I soon learned that what he really wanted was for me to fantasize about other men when we were in bed together. I tried to explain that I couldn't separate love and sex, but he kept urging me, so finally I began to pretend he was Brad Pitt."
"Oooh, good choice!" Marge interjected. "He's a real hunk."
I looked at her in exasperation and she quieted down.
"That satisfied him for a little while, but soon movie stars weren't enough. Next he wanted me to talk about my old boyfriends and then other men we knew. I was really uncomfortable fantasizing about 'real people,' but he was persistent, so I went along for his sake. Then he started a new phase where he'd take me to nightclubs and bars and encourage me to interact with other men. He'd want me to let them buy drinks for me and dance with me. Afterwards he'd quiz me on which ones I thought were attractive and he'd want to know if I would have gone out with them if I were still single.