Strangers and Friends
by John Cooper Hamilton
Since Adele left, my breakfast had become routine. I microwaved the bacon, put a muffin on the plate, and made a cup of instant coffee. Then came the most important part: I found the obituary page in the paper and, taking care not to catch a glimpse of my own name, Martin Duchamp, I threw it away.
I really didn’t want to know.
Adele used to just black out my obit. It was what I missed most about her.
Given that, I guess she was right to move out.
• • •
With no breakfast table conversation to delay me, I left the house ahead of schedule. I decided to take the scenic route. I’d walk, swing by Crenshaw, stop a moment and see the boy.
I’ve lived in my parents’ house, my childhood home, since they moved to Florida. It was nice, being in the old neighborhood. Familiar. And, of course, I’m close to my old school.
I stopped by the big “Crenshaw Elementary” sign. On the other side of the fence, kids chased leaves and each other across the playground. Most were yelling, many were laughing. Me, I didn’t exactly have fond memories of the place. I was a loner, had been all my life. That hadn’t made school any easier.
As I watched, the morning bell rang. A group of boys broke up. Now I could see they’d been gathered around another boy, giving him a hard time. Ah, of course: There he was. As a teacher urged the bullies inside the boy they’d singled out hung back.
Too bad, kid. I knew for a fact it wasn’t going to be better inside. It hadn’t been for me, and he was me.
He looked in my direction.
I knew what he saw: a stranger. A man he’d never been introduced to, never spoken to. A man who stood with a coat slung over one arm, thirty-something, and with hair dark, like his, and light blue eyes, like his.
He recognized me anyway, of course. He’d recognized me the very first time we laid eyes on each other. I don’t know how. That first time, I’d recognized him, too. For me it was no great feat — my parents had taken a lot of photos of me, growing up.
The boy hesitantly raised his hand, as if to wave.
I was so shy, at that age.
Then the teacher grabbed his shoulder and urged him inside. The boy looked back once, over his shoulder.
I walked away. I had a train to catch.
• • •
I returned building security’s “Good morning” and nodded to the receptionist on the company’s floor. Nobody greeted me when I got into the main room, which saved me some trouble. I just hung my coat and went right to my desk, at the back. Everybody was around the kitchenette, talking. The buzz was all about the new boss.
Idly eavesdropping, I gathered the guy had been promoted from inside, which was good. But, apparently, he wasn’t well liked. That was bad. There’s nothing like a despised peer becoming a senior manager to get the office printer spewing resumes. I wondered who it was. In a decade or two I intended to be in that corner office.
Eventually everybody got their coffee, donuts, breakfast burritos, etc. and headed for their chairs.
Amanda and Jacques, at the desks closest to mine, both gave me weird looks when they saw me.
I said, “What?”
Amanda looked like she was about to say something when gray-haired Betty Mallard, the department secretary, gave one of her patented, room-quelling coughs. “Everyone? In the conference room, please.”
The new boss was already seated when we got in. I came in at the back and sat near the door, clear at the other end of the room.
Jacques was beside me, and Amanda across the table. Neither would meet my eyes.
Looking toward the head of the table, I saw why. The new boss wore a tailored suit too expensive for me, but in the same shade of charcoal I favored. He was even heavier than me, and his dark hair was graying at the temples. But he had the same light blue eyes. He was me.
He formally, unnecessarily, introduced himself. Then he had a few words for each person at the table. Everyone but me. He wouldn’t meet my eyes either.
Well, at least I assumed so. I was staring at the middle of the table.
It wasn’t shock. No, I’d been half-afraid it’d happen someday. I was embarrassed it was happening at all. Then I got mad.
• • •
Me in the corner office was, I was sure, a career killer. For me. The real me. The firm frowned on in-office relationships, and had been hit with a nepotism suit just last year. What the hell was I going to do with fucking me managing my department?
The first week was as bad as I’d thought it’d be. I’d never been popular, but at least I’d felt grudgingly accepted. I do good work. Even if I didn’t get invited to lunch or parties, I was respected. Now, though, it was nothing but whispers when I was out of sight and grudging stares when I came around the corner.
That Friday I had dinner at Neumann’s. For two reasons. One, it was an old favorite, where my parents used to take me for birthdays when I was a kid, and where I’d worked in high school. It was where I still felt comfortable. Despite him.
He hated it when I’d come in. For a while, just to avoid trouble, I’d avoided Neumann’s. But now I felt like some comfort food. Hell, maybe even a celebration! I’d made it into management, after all. Which brings me to the main reason: If an older me was going to screw my life up, why shouldn’t I come to my favorite place and screw up somebody else’s?
I could see him, high-school me, busing a table on the other side of the room. They hadn’t put me in his section. Purposefully, I’m sure. We never had anything to say to each other, anyway. He resented what I’d become — that was easy enough for me to figure out — and I knew exactly what he was. It was enough to make me almost too embarrassed to go into Neumann’s. The little shit.
Once I’d tried commiserating with him over his breakup with our sophomore sweetheart, Cassy. Never again: I’d had a foul mouth back then. But I guess I couldn’t blame him too much. I certainly wasn’t eager to have a smug older me sit down and talk understandingly about Adele.
After ordering, I wondered how I might get at corner office me. Could I somehow oust him? I had all the dirt on him, after all. But of course that cut both ways. And he probably even thought I was supposed to be grateful to him for paving the way, or whatever.
I shook my head. I didn’t owe him anything. He was there on my hard work, after all. The big shit.
I ate my steak, drank my wine, had both the cheesecake and a brownie, and left an extra-large tip. High-school me would see what he was missing. Then I went home, drank, and surfed job-sites all weekend.
• • •
Monday, the office wasn’t what I’d expected.
I returned building security’s “Good morning,” nodded to the company secretary, and was hit with “Hiya!” and “Have a nice weekend?” and other assorted greetings when I got to the main room.
I was on my guard at first. Hell, I thought that was it. They knew I was on the way out and were either taking pity on me, or were just happy to see me go.
About an hour into the morning he walked through the office. I happened to look up. Our eyes met. The whole room went still.
Then he — me — walked on without saying anything, without even a nod. Everybody sort of looked at me for a second, then went back to work.
Except for Amanda.
She leaned over and said, “Hey, Martin, I think it’s terrible, the way he treats you. You were going to get the Heywood account, you know? He gave it to Blake. He won’t even talk to you. You, of all people!”
“Yeah … I guess.”
“You are still getting assignments, aren’t you?”
I glanced down at my desk. Betty had dropped off a USB drive and a folder just a few minutes earlier.
“That’s good.” She looked at me earnestly. “Hang in there, Martin.”
“Uh, thanks, I will.”
She smiled and went back to work. So did I.
• • •
I got invited to lunch that day, by John and Adam.
The next day, Amanda invited me to dinner so I could meet her husband.
I realized later that, over the weekend, either everybody at the office had talked to each other and come to a decision, or everybody had thought about it and reached the same conclusion.
I’ve never been sure what that conclusion was. I don’t know if they were taking pity on me, for the way I — corner office me — was treating me, or if they were trying to get in good with the guy they knew would be their boss.
I guess it could have been different for different people. Or it could have been both.
I enjoyed it for a week, then hated it when the novelty wore off. I was always a loner.
Around then I saw another me in the park. Older even than corner office me, he was sitting alone at one of the chess boards, moving both white and black. He didn’t see me. I watched him while he exchanged pawns, futilely playing the game against himself.
That was when I came to my own decision: “Screw me. Screw them.”
If my office-mates were going to force themselves on me, take advantage of me, I’d take advantage of them.
• • •
After about a month, the obvious gold-diggers had fallen by the wayside — or maybe they were just working on corner office me.
I was having lunch with Blake and John at the ABC Kitchen, discussing an account. They used to be my biggest rivals, back before we knew who was going to get up that next rung of the corporate ladder first. Now they were just jousting for second. I smiled when Blake made a joke. But I was smiling at them, not with them.
Omar, Travis, May, Jennifer and Amanda — all from the office — came into the dining room. Looking around, Amanda spotted me and pointed. They all gave a little shout when they saw me. I’d been hanging around with them quite a bit lately. I waved.
When I turned my attention back to my table, Blake was shaking his head.
“Omar’s screwing up. He’s going to lose Vongerich.”
John smiled and nodded. “More for us.”
We all laughed.
• • •
The next day at work I had occasion to go by my corner office. My future corner office. It was quiet down that hallway — nobody went there who didn’t have to. I passed Jacques. Things had grown comfortable enough between us that he flicked his eyes toward the corner room, then grimaced and rolled his eyes. I — future I — still wasn’t popular.
I glanced inside the office as I passed.
He — I — had re-done the room. Before him, Huxley had filled it with crap. Now it was sparse. A plant by the window, a pair of chairs for visitors against the wall, a clean desk. I liked it. However, over those chairs, hung a Marlow Moss I’d always wanted. Hell.
I was trying to keep from getting ahead of myself — I guess that’s more or less literal — but when I got back to my desk I couldn’t help comparing. Far from “sparse,” the main office was full of people. Overfull, really, and everybody’s desks were cluttered. Not just papers or laptops, but little keepsakes and knickknacks and photos covered every surface.
May, looking up from her work, smiled at me. May’s desk was the worst of the lot. Mostly photos, framed pictures of her parents and siblings and nieces and nephews. May raised one eyebrow and made a quick, exaggerated pout. I realized I’d been frowning. I chuckled, smiled in return, then shrugged an apology and went back to work.
I opened my laptop. At least my desk was clean. The laptop, my coffee, a few papers. No photos.
Just like corner office me.
I sat, not really looking at the laptop’s screen. The office bustled around me, chatter and rustling papers and the occasional laugh.
After a while I got up and asked Omar if I could see what he was doing with Vongerich. He didn’t look happy about it, but emailed me what he was working on. I found what Blake had been talking about. I wrote it up and sent it to Omar.
“Hey, Martin. Martin!”
I’d been staring across the room, distracted. I hadn’t been able to get anything done all afternoon. When I turned and focused, there was Omar. I glanced at my watch. Almost time to go home.
“Hi, Omar. You look at my email?”
“Yeah, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You saved my butt! Let me buy you a drink after work?”
Omar frowned, then turned and looked in the same direction I’d been staring. At May. He grinned.
“Hey, man,” he said, “You should go for it.” He punched my arm. “Maybe she even said something to Amanda, who said something to me. I’ll get you that drink some other time.”
“Ah … really?”
“For pity’s sake, Martin. Do it!”
• • •
May and I dated for a month before I took her to Neumann’s. Not for the food, but because I wanted to show her off.
I watched high-school me out of the corner of my eye. He was glaring at us — good. I know it was petty. Sue me.
A few months after that, when May and I got engaged, things became weird in the office. I kept wondering if a picture would show up on the boss’s desk to match the one on my own. May said she didn’t know how to act around corner office me. I think everybody wondered the same thing.
When nothing happened, when it was obvious corner office me was going to pretend nothing had happened, everybody sort of shrugged and got on with things.
I certainly did.
• • •
Almost bedtime. I popped open the automatic rice cooker and put in the steel cut oats, water, a pat of butter, raisins, and some cinnamon. The world’s best oatmeal would be ready for breakfast in the morning.
I smiled — I’d need my strength.
In the year since I asked May out, things had gone back to normal at work. Well, the new normal. I’d even spoken to corner office me a few times. But the big development, from my point of view, was May.
May had taught me the rice cooker oatmeal trick. I missed my bacon and muffin, but it made her happy, and — not that the oatmeal itself was exactly low-cal — with that and the other things I’d already lost a little weight.
May liked that. So I wasn’t just losing it for me. I wasn’t just losing it for her, either.
“Young Mr. Duchamp. How you doin’?”
It was Nina, the live-in nurse.
“Hello, Nina. Fine. Just heading for bed. How’s he doing?”
“Holdin’ up fine. Went to the park today, played some chess. Asleep an hour ago.”
“But a big day for you tomorrow! And a bigger night!”
I laughed and said goodnight.
The TV was on in the living room as I walked by. Nina’s patient was asleep, so it wasn’t him.
I don’t know who it was, but these days the house was full of strangers and friends. All me. Who I’d be, or who I’d been. They came and went daily now. Sometimes. The healthy breakfast was for one of the strangers, the next one in line, the me who’d wake up tomorrow. He wouldn’t like it as much as the bacon, either. But he’d eat it. Not just for himself, not just for May, though that was the biggest reason. He’d do it for his own strangers. I hoped he’d think of me, the friend who made it for him.
I’d gone by the grade school that afternoon. I’d been tempted to take May, but I didn’t think he, school me, was old enough to appreciate her. But I’d gone, and waved back at my little friend when he’d raised his hand. I didn’t think I had to be a stranger. Not completely.
Up in my room I turned back the sheets and crawled into bed. I set the alarm early. As Nina had said, it would be big day. I wondered what May was doing tonight. I smiled. She could tell me all about it tomorrow.
I lay back and closed my eyes. I’d read my obituary this morning. I knew she had, long ago. I figured I owed it to her.
It hadn’t hit me like I thought it would. It hadn’t hit me at all, really. The Martin Duchamp in the obit wasn’t me. There was a connection — the strongest one — but, in the end, he was a stranger. He didn’t threaten me anymore. He wasn’t me.
Still, I had nothing but good will toward him. Thus, the breakfast, and some other changes. I smiled — I couldn’t help it — thinking of May.
Then I did my best to put her out of my head. I had to get some rest!
I closed my eyes, smiling again despite myself. Big day tomorrow indeed. It was the first day of the rest of my life. Someone’s life, anyway.
I whispered “Good luck,” to him and drifted off to sleep.
Copyright © 2017 by John Cooper Hamilton