One for the New Year: Memento Mori

It is not my usual thing, to write about death on New Year’s Day, but a series of unfortunate events has made it almost necessary.

Yesterday afternoon a coworker called me with a worried note in her voice. I was driving my grandfather and cousin home from lunch and tensed at the sound of my work phone’s ring – it is not unlike the theme song to “Jaws” and while I wonder why I have not changed it, I think subconsciously I prefer not to. If the work phone rings on the weekend, it is 99% of the time my boss or my boss’s wife, neither of whom would call unless something were wrong. I risked both a ticket and my grandfather’s peace of mind regarding my driving and reached for it. On the screen shone the pretty Greek name of a pretty coworker.

“Have you heard anything about D?” she asked.

D was our company’s IT guy -at least that is how I knew him in the beginning. We had an IT team, but D was the the go-to guy if your computer, phone or anything electronic broke down or malfunctioned. We called him first and if he sent someone else in his place, you couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed. I knew vaguely that he handled more serious issues like our connectivity and server security, but in my first few days I work I learned D was, to me at least, indispensable.

“No,” I said, “Why?”

“I heard he was in a bad accident and that he didn’t make it.”

I was driving. I had stayed up late the night before, and had just consumed an enormous lunch. It was information I could not readily process.

I stopped at a red light and my grandfather looked at me, not understanding but sensing that something was wrong. Was it my boss? Had I messed up again? Grandpa was always chiding me to take my job more seriously. At that moment, I had a very serious expression on my face.

“Is it true?”

“I don’t know,” my coworker said, “That’s why I’m calling you. I got some cryptic text messages from the receptionist and was wondering if you heard anything.”

“I haven’t,” I said. I wanted to add that I liked D a lot, but we weren’t close. He had asked, indirectly, to hang out after work a few times, but I always declined. I said instead, “I don’t know anything about anything.”

We exchanged a few more pointless affirmations then hung up, though I was certain of two things: that if D was dead, I wouldn’t be surprised and that I was feeling quite tired.

————–

I met D on my first day of work and while normally not attracted to men of his ethnic origin, found him quite handsome. He was lean then and had a strong, regal profile with thick brows, bright, wide eyes and jet black hair which he styled into a subtle rising tide atop his forehead, giving him the appearance of always leaning forward. I was standing in front of the receptionist’s desk, waiting for the head of HR to come and receive me when he walked in the door, holding a motorcycle helmet and wearing a fitted rider’s jacket. He didn’t smile at me and instead nodded hello to the receptionist and started toward his desk.

“D!” the receptionist said, “Meet Betty! She’s new.” Almost reluctantly, he paused to acknowledge me. We shook hands and I smiled his solemn face, thinking (assuming) that he was just a shy Pakistani man with a wife and kids. I painted. He comes to do his job, socializes little, if at all, then quietly goes home. I didn’t put the clues together, that normally men with young families did not ride motorbikes.

The Spirit of Adventure, 1962. Renee Magritte Oil on Canvas

 It was strange in the beginning, our relationship, which mirrored the way I interacted with the rest of the company. As a newcomer, my policy was to be open and friendly to all. Friends and enemies alike would show themselves in time. But D was, for the first month, an enigma. I sensed that he was avoiding me for mysterious reasons, among them my work mobile, for which D was responsible and which I made do without for the first two weeks because he would not give it to me. Each morning I called his desk and asked, as sweetly as I could, “D, is my phone ready?” And he would say, “Oh soon, soon. There is just one more issue,” then promptly hang up.

I grew impatient (so keen was I to become the best assistant ever), but wasn’t ready to joke with him in my usual manner. If he saw me walking towards him, he would go the other way. If he had no other way to go, he would turn and talk to someone else. I wondered if he had been close with the previous assistant and if he resented that I replaced her. Or perhaps he thought I was fake? I worried about this at first: I had unwittingly taken on a “ray-of-sunshine” role at the office and perhaps the solemn Pakistani with a dark past could see right through it. Let him think what he wants, I thought. I just want my damn work phone.

Thus I sat patiently at my desk and hoped that one day, my phone would be ready. And finally it was. He came by my desk one day and dropped it off, explaining to me how it worked and why it had taken him so long (it was some IT issue I don’t remember). I was overjoyed to finally have a work phone (now the bane of my existence) and told him so.

“You’re very welcome,” he said, his slight Pakistani accent coming out, “Let me know if you have any trouble.”

That was perhaps the kindest thing he had said to me in the beginning.

A few weeks later Jane from marketing called to invite me to an informal interview. I thanked her for the invitation, but was it okay that I wasn’t on their team?

“D is coming,” she said, “He’s one of the cool kids,  and we like you, so just come.”

My niceness had paid off, it seemed, but I warned Jane, “I don’t think D likes me. He’s always avoiding me.”

Jane was surprised, “What! D is The. Nicest. Guy. You just have to get to know him.”

I said okay and that evening went out to dinner. Marketing was interviewing a young woman from up north – the formal interviews with the managers and VPs would take place the next morning. The evening out with the younger folks was a way of loosening her up.

The point of the evening then, was for them to get to know the candidate, but I went in with the selfish mindset. I would finally get a chance to know some of my new coworkers and they, me. We drowned her out, certainly, and who knows, might even have scared her away. We exchanged stories about certain VPs and executives, and they corrected or affirmed my many assumptions. We warned the girl, who grew increasingly silent and nervous, not sure if such a rowdy “interview” was a joke, that if she came to work, there were certain people she’d need to avoid. I was learning too, slowly absorbing information about my new colleagues, especially D.

I learned that he had lost both his parents some years ago in an accident, and a week after they passed, his brother died too. This had come up during dinner in a joking manner and I had brushed it off as a joke, until D kindly corrected me, “Yes, it’s true,” with a soft smile on his face as though he too, couldn’t believe his misfortune. What understatement. I marveled at him then, that he was able to come out and socialize and live a relatively productive life. I thought of my parents and brother and the support they provided me, whenever I needed it. I complained often about living at home, at my father’s annoying habit of having the television on too early in the morning and my brother’s definition of “clean,” but they were alive and well. I could reach out and talk to them whenever I pleased.

I learned that D was ten years older, and that we had gone to the same high school. We had taken P.E. a decade apart under the tutelage of the same teacher, one Mrs. Smith whom ten years after D graduated, would still astound my class with effortless pushups. 

I learned from Jane, when he left for the restroom, that he had an ill-defined romance with the girl in legal whom I found annoying. She was a drama queen disguised as a legal counsel who had also gone to Berkeley and had, perhaps for this reason alone, pegged me as someone worthy of being her new bosom buddy. I begged to differ in various ways, begging out of offers to carpool (we live, unfortunately, in the same town) and invitations to dinner. This did not stop her from dropping hints about her love life. She wanted to lure me with “girl talk” as she called it and, when she had a moment’s free time at the office, would stand by my desk and update me on her romantic liaisons. Apparently she was torn between two men, one who was local and treated her like a queen, and the other, an asshole in another state who had treated her like shit until local man started to pay her more attention.

It didn’t take a detective to figure out that local man was a colleague, considering legal girl worked long hours, leaving little time for outside-the-company romances. When I asked her, she grew huffy and said, “I’m not going to answer that question.” This essentially, answered my question, though I still didn’t know exactly who. Thanks to Jane, I now knew. I questioned D’s taste in women, but thought, whatever floats your boat

And then I caught a glimpse of what Jane meant when she said that D was The. Nicest. Guy. Somethings actions/words you will never forget because they come so out of the blue, yet when they do, you realize you had misread someone, or really, it is a culmination of all the subtleties you had sensed but were too busy worrying about things like work phones to evaluate correctly.

At one point over the din, D noticed I had not yet ordered a drink (I was not planning to drink), and with a concerned look, waved for the server.

“Please sir, could we get the lady a drink?”

It was a line from another era and it melted the ice I had frozen around him.

We drank, ate, laughed. The evening ended and we stood in the parking lot saying goodbye.

“This was fun,” I said to D, and he nodded, a cigarette in his hands.

“We used to do this all the time,” he told me, “back then when some other people were here… but the company went through some changes and those people aren’t here anymore. But yeah, we should do this more often.”

I never saw the interviewee again, but was confident then that I would see D et al. the very next morning.

And I did. The next day my boss had an issue with his cellphone, and I brought it down to D. His desk was as a busy IT person’s should be: stacked with old laptops and cellphones and bundles of wires. His many monitors blinked with interfaces I would never understand  – I did not bother to look too closely. On the walls of his cubicle were pinned a small company banner and a photo of a motorcyclist on a race track, leaning dangerously close to the road.

“And how can I help you?”

I turned and there he was, the kind sir who had made sure I got my drink the night before. I handed him my boss’s phone.

“I’ll take care of it,” he said.

Later that afternoon it was ready and to save him a trip upstairs, I said, “I’ll come down and get it.”

“Okay,” he said, “You could use the exercise.”

Ah. The solemn Pakistani jokes. I wrote back, “Great. I’ll start by punching you in the face.”  

He really enjoyed that. We became friends in the tentative way you become friends with someone at work. He was not whom I thought he was and I was certainly not the “sweet and lady-like” whatever he thought I was. His comment opened the doors for me to joke in return and for a few weeks after he would, whenever I appeared, pretend to duck or say, “Oh no, do I need to grab my helmet?”

Around this time legal girl began to pester me more and more about her love life. She was torn. The asshole was coming back and wasn’t so much of an asshole anymore. He wanted her back. Wanted to move in. Did this imply marriage? He told her he loved her, and even though he had treated her like shit, she wanted to be with him. This left local man out of the equation.

“I feel terrible,” legal girl said, “I’m going to tell local man soon that I’m going back to the asshole. He’s going to be so pissed. He’s going to say I led him on.”

I’ll never know what series of events or what train of thought led D from storming around legal girl’s desk, embittered by her rejection of him to his sudden attention to me, but it would not be far-fetched to say the two were related. Legal Girl had said that D was looking to settle down and get married – that he had not proposed to her, but had proposed, in one conversation or other, a future together. He could envision it…could she?

She had shaken her head vehemently. She was Christian! Her parents were missionaries, for Christ’s sake, literally. He was a Pakistani man with a foggy yet intact Muslim background. She had laughed at the thought of them being together and needless to say, he was enraged, then despondent. All this from legal girl’s lips and never from D’s. I’ll never know the whole story – but regardless of whom pursued who, D was pissed at Legal Girl because according to him, she had pursued him. I surmise he had grown to like her, and then she had turned around and chosen an asshole when from the very beginning, even when D wasn’t interested, he had been The. Nicest. Guy. Ever.

Shortly after legal girl chose, D and I bitched about her on a long drive from our office to LA, where there was a company event. We rode with the receptionist and an IT contractor from Australia who had instantly become one of D’s best friends, and they laughed at our vindictive comments. That evening in LA however, I learned that D could drink far too much and still, frighteningly, feel confident enough to drive us all home.

“You aren’t driving,” I said, “Give me the keys.” And holding a drink, his millionth one that night, he put his hands up and smiled in what he thought must have been a charming manner, but to me, looked purely foolish.

“I can drive, Betty,” he said, “No problem. You seem so fun but now you’re just uptight! Just dance!”

It was nearing two in the morning and I had to work the next day. We all did, but I need more sleep than the average employee and wanted to get home. Alive.

“You’re not driving, D.”

“I can drive.”

“You can’t. You won’t.”

“I can drive.”

It went on like this for several more minutes until it became clear to him that for me and the receptionist, who had already taken off her painfully high heels, the evening was over. I drove them back to the office, a shadow having crossed my overall impression of D. I am judgmental. Undeniable and unapologetic. It irritated me to see a thirty-four year man drink so recklessly. Offer to drive four people home so recklessly.

As the weeks went on, I gathered that that reckless might as well have been D’s middle name. From other coworkers I learned that he liked to drink. A lot. What happened in LA had happened many times in the past: at the company Christmas party, on dozens of happy hours with “the old crowd,” and most likely every night in his apartment. He lived alone with his dog, an aging chihuahua with a bevy of joint and organ problems. He loved the dog dearly and would often go home to walk and feed it in the afternoons. Often he would respond to my emails with a house phone. “What are you doing at home,” I’d ask. “I’m feeding my dog,” he said. “I don’t like to leave him alone for too long.”

From D himself I learned his passion for fast cars, motorbikes and racing.

“Isn’t that dangerous,” I said.

“Nah.” he said, then thought for a moment, “Well, yeah, but I’m not scared or anything.” Later he forwarded me photographs of a car he had totaled – I had driven the same car in high school and knew it was something of a tank, more likely to crush other cars than be crushed. But the photographs showed a vehicle so mangled it seemed impossible that the driver was alive and sending me the photos.

“That’s awful,” I said without humor.

“But I’m fine. It happened. It’s done,” he said lightly. He shrugged as though it were no big deal and I thought about his dead parents and brother. Would I shrug too, if I had lost so many loved ones in a week?

It had not been my intention to create some sort of alliance with D regarding legal girl, nor did I intend to send him an invitation to woo me. Though slowly, uncomfortably, I sensed a redirection of his attention from legal girl to me. I was neither flattered nor mortified, just bemused – what a quick turn of interest! 

Little treats began to appear on my desk. The Australian, an eager wing man, began to make more and more trips upstairs to ask me about my weekend plans on D’s behalf.

“D and I are going to do this or that,” he would say, offering me a chocolate covered cherry or some other sweet treat, “It’s going to be wicked.”

“Sounds fun,” I’d say, chewing.

“Are you interested? D’s gonna drive and he says he can pick you up.”

Thanks but no thanks, I said, and, “The chocolates are great! Thanks for bringing them up.”

“Don’t thank me,” the Australian would say, “Thank D. He told me to bring them up here.”

I was not being coy, but straightforward. Or at least I hoped. And I always did thank D for whatever he did for me, but I invited nothing further. What was the point? I had painted him once, been wrong, and he had repainted himself – the nicest guy, true true, but not my guy. Not in a million years.

——–
In the middle of this, D discovered my blog. In truth, I don’t remember if I shared the link with him or if he found out via his mysterious IT ways. But he began to read. 
I warned him to keep his mouth shut, because I was writing about people we both knew – legal girl included – and he said in that light, no-big-deal way of his, “Of course. Your secret is safe with me.” 
Except it wasn’t. He had seen a post about my boss playing golf in Australia and mentioned it to his boss, an avid golf player, who then wrote me and said, “Your blog is beautiful.” I was angry and warned D again. Don’t tell ANYONE, I said. And he said again, “Of course, of course.” 
A few days later my boss called me into his office. 
“Don’t tell anyone what’s on my calendar. I told you this before,” he said. 
“I don’t tell anyone anything.” 
He stared at me, “You told D that I went golfing in Australia and he told Greg, and Greg, he gets jealous whenever I golf with a celebrity and I have to hear about it.” 
I apologized and made a mental note to really punch D in the face. 
Though I never got the chance. 
Last week. 
His last week. 
On Tuesday after Christmas, I walked in the office and found on my desk a small shopping bag. Atop it lay a small red square of cardstock, cut, it seemed, from a poster. I knew it was from D – I recognized the handwriting. But it was going to be a busy week – my boss had been away on vacation and due back the next day. I had to clean house. I read it swiftly: 
“To a talented writer…” 
I don’t remember the rest because someone called me away and it was many hours later that I finally found the time to open the gift. There were two: the first an angry birds beanie that he perhaps bought on a whim because he thought it was cute, though it almost embarrassed me to hold it up. I quickly stuffed it back to the bottom of the bag, along with the red card. I thought, “Does he know me at all?” The other was carefully selected, which showed me that on some level, he did.
It was a Cross pen, masculine and sleek, not unlike the motorbike D was riding when he lost control at a bend in the road and was hurled into a tree stump.
———–
He “lived” for less than twelve more hours before the game of telephone began, which is how my pretty coworker came to call me on New Year’s Eve with a worried note in her voice. A few hours later my boss called to see if I had heard. 
“I’m not sure of anything,” I said, which was half true, “What have you heard?”
“I heard that D is dead.” 
It was strange to hear the word, “dead” for which “He didn’t make it” is a euphemism. My boss is not one for euphemisms. 
“Let me call HR,” I said. Both our voices were without emotion. I called HR, who sounded as though she’d been crying. 
“I heard that D died,” I said, “Is that true?” 
“Yeah,” she said, “He was in an accident.” 
We exchanged a few more pointless affirmations and I called my boss back. 
“Oh,” he said, his voice then sounded younger, almost childish, and I pictured a seven year old boy watching as his tower of legos came crumbling down, “Ask if there’s anything we can do.” 
“Okay,” I said, though I knew of course there was nothing.
———

On Tuesday, as per my rule of not leading him on, I said nothing until he messaged me.

“Did an angry bird drop by your desk or something?”

I feigned ignorance until then, “So it was you!” I wrote, “Thanks D! That’s so thoughtful of you!”

The rest of the week passed in a blur. The Cross pen sat unopened and unused on my desk at home. I cried in front of my boss on Wednesday. Wondered how long I could stay at my job on Thursday and spoke briefly to D on the phone Friday afternoon because he wanted to know if one of the VPs was upstairs. I answered him absentmindedly, annoyed that he was calling me about this when I was already so busy, and when ten minutes later he appeared he seemed irritated as well.

“Betty, the whole point of my calling you to ask was so you could save me a trip upstairs.”

I wanted to murder him. I was dying, couldn’t he see that? But I remembered the pen and the card – where did I put that small red card? – and apologized. “I’m sorry D. I’m just…not paying attention today.”

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine. I’m just tired. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, no big deal.” He shrugged in that easy way of his and walked towards the door that led to the back stairs.

I turned away from my computer and watched him go, thinking about the note he had written on the small red card.Where was it? Had I thrown it away? He opened the door, and before it closed, turned to smile. I waved then turned back to my monitor. Emails. So many emails. All urgent.

Or were they? I started to type again, then heard one of the accountants say to another, “See you next year!”

I winced. To D, I had forgotten to say, “Happy New Year.”

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