Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only guy smitten with Cassiopeia.
“You two met Cassi Benson yet?” Richard Nelson inquired one morning in the breakroom. Other than Richard and me, Danny Gator also stood by the counter, waiting for his coffee to finish brewing in the machine.
I drank my coffee and remained silent. I wanted to hear what they had to say, for one thing, and my instant fury at hearing her name exit Richard’s mouth was best left unexpressed, at least in the office.
“I met her after the all-hands meeting last week. Smart as a whip. And,” Danny said, grinning, “utterly gorgeous.”
“Gorgeous isn’t even the word,” Richard replied, shaking his head. “I wanted to take her to dinner in Rome or something. She messed with my mind the moment I met her.”
Well, he was right about that.
“What are your thoughts, El?” Richard then asked me.
I shrugged. “I don’t have any thoughts.”
“Come on. Haven’t you met her?”
“Yeah, he’s met her. I saw them talking at the all-hands meeting,” Danny said.
“So, what do you think about her?” Richard pressed.
“She’s great.” My own words burned my tongue. Great was such a meaningless word. Cassiopeia didn’t deserve that word, even if using it was my attempt to get out this inane conversation.
“I wonder if she’s married,” Danny then said.
“Married like you are to your wife, Rick? And you, too, Danny?” I asked them.
They laughed nervously and in unison, gazing at me with wide, exposed eyes.
“We were Just…just thinking out loud, man,” Richard stammered.
I took my leave, leaving Richard and Danny with their coffee and their excuses.
Of course, none of it mattered. There would never be a declaration to Cassiopeia about how I felt or an admission that my work day now consisted of the moments we saw each other versus everything else. There would be no declarations at all, not from me or from Richard and Danny’s respective imaginations. The Jupiter Alliance had a strict non-fraternization policy; workplace romances were completely prohibited. Four years ago, after our founder and CEO, Zachary Jupiter, had been caught in yet another dalliance with one of his subordinates, his wife—who had discovered this dalliance during an impromptu visit to the office—had threatened a very public shaming and brutal divorce if his behavior didn’t change. This resulted in Jupiter establishing a no dating/fraternizing policy top to bottom, from the executive staff to the cleaning crew. Soon, rumors began to crop up that Jupiter was utilizing ruthless tactics to ensure that his employees upheld the policy; some of these tactics included the employment of faceless enforcers who stopped at nothing on his behalf. Of course, no one had any proof.
Then came Ballard Keene and Marnie Anderson.
Two years ago, it became quickly evident that something was going on between Ballard and Marnie. The way Ballard looked at Marnie when she passed by his desk. The way she invented reasons to stop by his desk. (Ballard was a junior accountant and Marnie was a paralegal; crossing business paths would be rare, at best.) Almost immediately, we started warning them. If we could see what was happening between them, so could everyone else, including the boss and his rumored enforcers. Our warnings went unheeded. One day at lunch, Ballard announced that he would seek approval from Zachary Jupiter himself to marry Marnie. “I’ll volunteer to quit,” he told us. “That way, it won’t make a difference.”
A few weeks later, Ballard and Marnie’s workspaces were empty. Calls and text messages to their phones went unanswered. Some of us visited their respective apartments and were informed that neither of those names were on the list of residents. It was as if the two had never existed.
That was the part of the story none of us could still digest: the cold dread of knowing, deep down, that Ballard and Marnie no longer existed.
That mid-morning, an Instant Message appeared on my monitor.
CB: Japanese or Thai today?
EP: Your choice.
CB: Let’s go with Thai.
EP: I concur. There’s a new place downtown we can try.
CB: Sounds good. Just us this time?
I read her message repeatedly on my monitor, each word burning into my brain.
She wanted it to be just us?
Was something happening?
Had she noticed that I always surrounded us with people when we were together for fear of being noticed and subsequently accused of fraternization and receiving some sort of insidious, Ballard/Marnie-type of reprisal?
EP: Sure, just us this time.
Being alone with Cassiopeia Benson wasn’t advisable if you were in love with her and/or feared being seen by potentially murderous agents. Ten minutes into our lunch at Thai Garden, I found myself doing whatever I could to distract myself and pretend as if everything was fine; constantly drinking my water, fidgeting, looking elsewhere. It was ridiculous, and she knew it.
“What’s going on with you?” she asked, frowning at me.
I drank my water yet again, draining the glass and wishing it was whiskey. “What do you mean?”
“Elliott, come on. Be straight with me.”
I wasn’t ready to tell her the part that involved my feelings. Rather, I told her the other part, about Zachary Jupiter and Ballard and Marnie. She listened intently.
“I don’t even know what to say,” she said when I was finished. “I was aware of the policy; they stressed it repeatedly when I onboarded. To be honest, I thought it was preposterous. However, that story…” Her voice trailed off.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know.”
“So, you’re nervous because you think if you’re seen with me—”
“We’re colleagues and we have a right to enjoy lunch together,” I said firmly, sounding more determined than how I felt. This was the reason I had given myself before accepting her earlier lunch offer. “But who knows how these guys—if they’re real—interpret these things?”
“I see. That’s why we’re always in a group.” She repeatedly twirled her Singapore noodles around on her fork, not eating, just twirling.
For a moment, I was reminded of my recurring dream and the stars that twirled around on her skin. Quickly, I cleared away the image. “Are you all right?” I asked. “It’s a pretty heavy subject for lunch on a Tuesday, I know—”
“I thought you preferred groups when we’re together because of how you feel about me.”
I swallowed thickly. “How I feel about you?”
The intense expression on her face slightly softened as she nodded. “Yes, Elliott. I’m not blind, you know.”
I wanted to reach for her. I wanted to pull her towards me. I wanted to tell her.
“You’re a bit less transparent than you think,” she said, chuckling softly.
There was no more water to drink and I was suddenly too weak to signal a server.
“Nothing to say?” she asked me lightly.
“It’s okay. We’ll talk about it later. Let’s discuss that collaboration project they mentioned at the morning meeting.”
I did more listening than talking, although I wasn’t sure I could speak even if I tried.