Jan is going over the production schedule, his words spilling out at maximum velocity. He’s well-versed in the intricacies of project management. It’s his passion, so there’s no need for him to search for words, no witty asides to pad the monologue. Further, he knows how to speak like an adult, with an even staccato cadence and an impressive vocabulary by any measure. He makes preemptive oblique references to counterpoints I might raise without breaking the flow, and raises a single eyebrow as he riffs on a matrix of potential implications. The man is a maestro of the salient point, a rhetorical surgeon.
But Jan still eats like a starved rat–so I judge by the daily saliva symphony that winds its way down the hall into my cubicle–and all I can focus on at this moment is the glistening post-lunch rivulet clinging to his beard. When I first experienced it I thought the volume and clarity of Jan’s gustatory prowess might have something to do with the acoustic peculiarities of our office, which was converted originally from an industrial loading station. Perhaps the concrete walls of the past century worked in concert with the 21st century floor-to-ceiling frosted glass partitions to act like a massive inner ear, with myself at the focal point.
No matter how articulate Jan is, it’s impossible for me to take him seriously when I can still hear the juicy click of his last gulp ringing in my ears–it’s all I can do to block the thought of the sloshing of his gastric contents. I know that I tend to focus to the point of obsession, but it wouldn’t be an issue if he didn’t lick his apple after each bite to keep it from dripping. I witnessed as much as I passed by his office in search of a fire hatchet with which to behead him. So horrified was I that I lost my way and ended up wandering around somewhere in Human Resources, I don’t even know where. The image haunts me to this day–there are some things you cannot unlearn.
We’ve gathered in the cafeteria area.
Despite the fact that no one is enthusiastic about holding the meeting, the meeting happens anyway, as if of its own will. What sort of world is it where events can take place that satisfy neither need nor desire? Only diseases are more insistent, in my estimation. But such is not a good way to begin a meeting if I have any intention of outlasting it. I must keep up appearances, feigning engagement so as not to draw attention to myself. For my colleagues a meeting is the measure of work rather than a distraction from it. Their currency is a blue square on the schedule grid.
As time passes I’ve managed to contribute a few salient points, and quietly disengage to seek the sustenance of thought. At the other end of the cafeteria an employee unfamiliar to me has sauntered into view, an older man. Cup in hand, he’s heading toward the water cooler, really taking his time. In fact I think it’s safe to say that he’s shuffling. Too many meetings, I suspect. Having finally reached his destination, he holds the cup under the spout and depresses the lever… and promptly drops the cup on the floor.
Immediately I refocus on the meeting, posing as guy-at-a-meeting guy so as not to be caught witnessing the show. But the shuffler is fully engaged in retrieving the cup. He holds it back under the spout and presses the lever again. I listen to the meeting, but secretly I’m thinking about multiple sclerosis. People with MS drop things at the beginning. Maybe I’ve just witnessed the onset of what will eventually be a debilitating malady. In a few years this guy will be helpless with MS–or Parkinson’s disease, maybe.
In spite of my diagnosis, he’s managed to fill the cup this time. So far so good–until the cup slips to the floor again, spilling water all over the yellow linoleum. “Damn,” says cup-dropper under his breath. I sneak glances at my coworkers, but no one else has noticed. This meeting is particularly resistant to interruption, not so different from the new drug-resistant virus strains. Perhaps meetings are becoming stronger over time, and eventually we’ll come face to face with the meeting that never ends. If so, then we only have ourselves to blame. The thought of it makes me uncomfortable, and I shift on my chair, sitting on my left leg.
“How about… mustard? Mayo? And… lettuce?” As if I’m not sure the woman behind the counter has even heard of them. But of course she has. I’ve been ordering exactly the same sandwich here for just shy of four years. Some people study the menu each time they visit a familiar restaurant, but I order only one selection from any given restaurant. The first time I visit an eatery I figure out which item best suits me, and then lock it in. Because of this, ordering no longer requires thought, which would seem to be of great advantage to the introvert grown wary of human interaction. However, once again there are subtle yet vexing expectations relating to social conduct that foil simplicity. The wait staff isn’t aware that my dialogue is pre-scripted, so for them I must pretend to study the menu every time.
In truth I know what I want for lunch before I tear myself from the restraints each morning. If it weren’t for my deep-seated fear of being brusque, I could deliver my order as I rolled through the front door, and pay the bill accurately before my ass hit the naugehyde booth seat. Instead, out of politeness, I feign thoughtful consideration, punctuated by bouts of almost troubled soul-searching. “Is there sourdough bread here?” Who can know, really?
My self-imposed hesitation stems from my guilt over taking advantage of the service class. That, along with the knowledge that someone’s fingers will soon be touching items that I intend to slide across the back of my tongue. For this I make the extra effort to look the deli lady in the eyes, and to bow after each garnish is acknowledged. See how humble? But it’s all I can do to keep from weeping under the pressure.