Out of Water

My boss likes to say, “You should know __(insert habit/predilection/taste/leaning/whim)_about me by now!”

And I should. As an assistant, I should know many things about my boss – and I do. I know that he likes decaffeinated coffee in the mornings. I know that he likes to snack on nuts. I know that he is not a morning person. I know that he likes his assistant to pay attention to details and to know things an assistant should know: schedules, names, faces, addresses, phone numbers, important dates and promises made so that they can be kept.

It’s an odd job. Of course so are many other jobs (professional magician, production assistant for adult movies, mortician…) – but it is such an odd job. To think I know so much about one man, his family, his habits and tastes – someone I am neither related to nor in love with – is one whole facet of strange. Stranger still is the fact that I do know so much and yet for the most part feel myself uneasy and in the dark because, the question is: can you ever really know what someone else wants? Or more unsettling: know what they want but doubt your ability to deliver it? I feel uneasy everyday. I walk into work with a bright smile, but underneath it I am hollow, as though removed from my own skin. That’s a decoy walking in. I am standing outside the water. I haven’t jumped in.

Edward Hopper New York Office

 But my boss is not a shark. He never gnashes his teeth. Never barks or bites; just wears me out with his heavy sighs and questions because I wear him out with mine. 

Lately, I have been spinning a downward spiral at work; an airplane with a clipped wing and a pilot who stunned, goes in and out of consciousness. The plane nose dives and the pilot wakes just in time to pull it back up. Then blacks out. The plane dives again. I can feel my boss’s frustration, even though I know he is too kind to say it full force. He sends me reserved emails instead, with exclamation points (!) to emphasize his exasperation.

“Why did you do this?” He cannot wail in person. It is unbecoming. Unprofessional. So he wails in a muted, manly, electronic way and I hear not the wail but the “ping!” of my phone’s email alert. It is a sound I have come to dread above all others.

In the beginning, I never wrote that I was sorry, because I wasn’t. I often made mistakes, but it was the first month. Then the second month. Then the third. Sometimes, it was a lack of guidance. No one held my hand and that’s fine – I could put two and two together. Boss hands me keys: his car needs gas. No? Then his car needs service. No again? Get something from the trunk. His wife calls. Something to do with: insurance. The company van. Picking up an ice cream birthday cake. Inquiries about my boss’s schedule so she can plan their vacation. But was I sorry to mess up? Sometimes. And if we were in the same room I would apologize profusely and earnestly, but there was something hollow about doing it via text or email. I simply didn’t bother.

But tonight I did, via text. Like a bad boyfriend. He said that he found himself reminding me to do things – simple things that should be rote by now – every three or four weeks. And I knew he didn’t mean it as a jab, but he added, “I hope you don’t need reminding to brush your teeth!”

I had just come in from a swim and stood dripping wet at my desk, feeling the carpet growing soggy beneath my feet. I typed my immediate reaction:

“I don’t. And you remind me more often than that.”

I stopped and wondered about the last two words still unwritten. How much would I mean them? I recalled an early conversation I had with my boss about being willing. “If you’re not smart, then you’ve got to be willing,” he had said. This heartened me at first, then bothered me. It exhausts me now. I am willing, just not willing enough for certain things. And the thing is, the main thing is: I am smart.

Slowly, deliberately, I tapped out the letters, smearing a few droplets of water that distorted the words, but did not make them any less true: “I’m sorry.”

I hit ‘send’, not sure if he would sense that I was serious, but I was.

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