“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.
Michelle had probably caught me watching her now and again. She was an utter curiosity: rail thin body, bleached platinum hair parted down the middle and feathered around a dart-like face. Her joints were as unfettered as her mouth, and her gesticulations seemed tailored to draw the attentions of men. Truth was I often felt so dissociated from the shift proceedings that I would simply forget to look away from her displays, as if I were watching a praying mantis just outside the window sill. When I passed her in the corridors I avoided making eye contact for fear of just this kind of engagement.
She went on in her singsong, flirty tone, “Shy people are deep, you know that? But I’ve always liked them though. Most men? They act all macho; all, you know…” She puffed out her chest and moved her shoulders to and fro like a lumberjack. “But really there just isn’t much there, you want the truth.” The context of her soliloquy was clear then, if it had been merely implied before. It was an old story that I’d seen to its end before: The shy man, the novelty. A novelty which, if history was a lesson, would lose its charm in due time. “I dated this one guy, name of Hunter? He was a quiet guy too–before he met me, that is. I brought him out of his shell.”
I grabbed desperately for an out. “Out of his shell, in with Michelle,” I said, and regretted it before uttering the last syllable. My cheeks burned.
Michelle laughed. “You better believe that! You’re so bad!”
I felt tired and somehow humiliated, as if I’d compromised my… What? My self-image, perhaps. The stolid observer, all too easily flustered when confronted.
Giggling dramatically, Michelle returned to her refrain as my blush tapered off into a mild headache, “What’s Scamper up to?” she sighed. Underneath her breezy veneer was a perceptive lass, I thought. I was suddenly afraid that she could read my mind. Maybe this was my punishment. She gave me a friendly shove, and I took it as I stole a glance at my watch.
“Well I best get,” she said, and swung a reedy leg over her chair and tugged it around as she turned.
I couldn’t summon more than a half smile, and my cheeks flushed again. “Yep.”
Michelle sighed at me, arms akimbo. “Always the silent type,” she said, looking down at me from the doorway. “I’ll see you around, Scamper… ‘kay?”
Now that we’ve broken bread, I thought. “That’s where I’ll be,” I said noncommittally, unable to meet her eyes. As she left the break room she hit her shoulder on the doorframe and let out a giggle without stopping.