“You’re shy, aren’t ya?” Michelle asked, her chair squeaking as she leaned it forward on two spindly legs. I thought I heard her tongue falter on “aren’t,” like she was translating from the twang of her native “ain’t.” She asked the question in earnest though, and it wrinkled her brow.
I could only grin, but it felt more like a wince. The break room was nothing more than a converted closet, appointed with a perpetually-hissing coffee maker and a couple of derelict chairs. There didn’t seem room for an answer in such a confined space.
My job’s primary attraction had been that there simply weren’t many people around on midnight security. Yet now Michelle’s pale eyes were steady on me, like she was trying to see straight through me to the back wall. It was all I could do to avoid turning away. My arms felt exposed and leaden, and I couldn’t find a natural resting position for them, so I folded them across my chest. What an unfortunate confrontation.
She took my silence as confirmation. “Shy!” she said, this time with conviction. Michelle was a woman not given to subtlety, so I could find some comfort in her obliviousness to my discomfort. I’d often found myself studying her schoolyard caliber flirtations from across the employee office, where fewer than a dozen of my crew mates spent the last half hour of shift before turnover. The conduct there tended toward the aggressive, and bawdy jokes or sports bickering set the tenor of the mornings. I’d ascribed it to the forced intimacy, but I’d always felt a distance from it, like a transient at a family gathering. I could relate to my shift mates as far as the job went, and my work was something for which I was well-regarded. But the friendship of colleagues had never been a part of that. They were here, after all, more as a factor of necessity than choice. And now, face to face with the company’s most volatile personality, I felt positively awkward. Calcified. It was an indelicate reminder that I had succeeded only too well in distancing myself–the stolid observer had become more a fossil than anthropologist.