My friend Julia is so slight, so unassuming, that meeting her is like having a premonition that you’ll meet her. It’s not so much that she doesn’t leave an impression, but rather that it’s difficult to interpret it. “Let me show you something,” she was saying to me.
Her office isn’t far from mine, so, weather allowing, we meet in the park for lunch once or twice a week to mull over anthropological observations, or to make conspiratorial plans. The latter has become a rather long-standing tradition between us. Before we part ways we exchange details regarding corporate espionage, ranging from the cleverest way to take out a stairwell, to the smaller matters of psychological warfare, such as using up 98% of the ink in every pen on her manager’s desk. Of course we never go through with any of it, but it’s not in the accomplishment, but in the planning.
Julia rummaged through her backpack, and I tossed a cookie crumb at a pigeon. Looking at Julia, you’d never know these thoughts were going on in her head. That was the beauty of it. In fact you’d only remember seeing her a few moments after she’d gone. She would make a great spy–a fact underlined by the object she held out to me.
I read the nameplate: “Chris Berkovsky.”
“My boss,” she said.
“You have his desk plaque thing.”
She hugged it to her chest, “I do, and for an hour it’s mine to do with as I please.”
This was new. “You stole his name,” I said, laughing.
“Borrowed it,” Julia corrected. “I have to return it after lunch without being caught. That’s the challenge.”
“Of course,” I said. “This is the guy who pissed you off about a month ago, right? About… something about micromanaging a project you were working on?”
She returned the nameplate to her bag with some satisfaction, and brought out a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. “Oh, he’s always doing that. He’s on me constantly for the tiniest of details, but his criticism is baseless. I know he’s making it all up because after he’s barfed all over a project, I’ll take it back to my desk for a half hour, make a new printout, and take it to him. Then he’s fine with it. As long as he’s had his moment to press his thumb to my spine he’s okay.”
I pointed my cookie at her. “That’s disgusting. Now I can’t finish my cookie. Look, I’m throwing it.”
“I’m glad you did that,” she said. “Thank you.”
“He really makes you march into his office like that? Like you’re submitting the products of your toil before the altar?”
“Oh, mm,” she said around her sandwich, and batted a finger. “Everyone has to, yes, that’s his thing. The carpet to his office is worn all the way down to the ancient burial stones it’s built on. The dead influence him.”
I shrugged. “They are restless.”
“When I’m standing there in front of him all I can think of is, ‘Fuck you.'”
I considered it a moment. “That’s sad, really.”
She nodded. “Not, ‘What can I learn from this man? How can I improve my work.’ Just, ‘Fuck you.'” She rubbed the wax paper between her thumb and forefinger, thinking on something. “Actually, you’ll like this.” Some of our best conversations had begun that way. I just cocked my head and listened. “On Monday I thought, what if I say ‘fuck you’ while he’s talking, right to him as he’s looking at me? Not out loud, but the words would be there just the same if I said them in slow motion. Here’s Berkovsky power tripping, and the whole time I’m mouthing one long slow ‘Ffffffuuuuuuuuck…’ Can you feature it?”
“You’ve really been doing this?” I asked. “It’s compelling stuff. So every time he looks up at you, every five or ten seconds, you’re…”
She continued, “‘Yyyyyyyoooooooouuuuu.’ So in the end, at the conclusion of our meeting, he’s said his piece, and all I’ve said is hello, and fuck you.”
I raised a finger, “In slow motion though.”
“Mm hm, in bullet time. Which is still legal.”
“It’s poetry is what it is.” I sighed. “You can get away with that. It’s your way. And I wish I had my cookie back now, because that story totally makes up for everything. And actually-”
“Now your turn,” she prompted.
I held up a hand, “Yes, that’s- I can tell you about this experiment I’ve been conducting with certain parties within my own organization.” Julia leaned forward. “Recently I read someone’s account of a man who would consider his responses for upward of one minute before actually saying anything,” I said. “And my first thought was, is that feasible? On the one hand it sounds, you know, Zen. But on the other hand-”
“Annoying,” Julia finished, just as she finished her sandwich.
“Perfect,” she said.
“Right. So, feasible or not, something about this struck me as being worthy of further exploration. So that became my own test. I’ve been taking more and more time to respond to people, starting very subtly at first.”
“You’d have to.”
“And it’s interesting, the way people respond to it. The way they react. Like, the sales guy, he can’t stand silence or, you know, contemplation. He fills any silence with words, like mortar between every brick. Whereas the marketing woman, Jeanette, waits me out. She waits and she leans forward, like you’re doing, like that’s going to help. She’ll coax the words out of me by concentrating on my mouth. So I play it up; I purse my lips, nod my head, or do that crinkly thing with my eyebrows. And then: ‘…'”
“Well played,” Julia said.
“I can feel it working.”
“See? Now double it. Treble it,” I said. “My supervisor’s the best. He just gets… it’s like a kind of paranoia takes over. The longer I take to consider my response, the more he’ll recite bits of the initial question, as if I had forgotten it. He’ll recombine fragments until it’s just a word here, a word there. Keywords, really. Conversational particulate. Like, ‘Johnson agreement.’ Like that’s the kindling that’ll finally get the fire started.”
Julia shook her head. “Spooky. I think you’re dredging up some dark stuff there. How long do you think you can keep him hanging?”
I sat up straight and stretched. It was getting late. “My supervisor? I think I can work up to a few hours. Eventually I think he’ll reach a state of utter trance, muttering words under his breath. At that point I’ll be able to leave the office with him in suspended animation. My future is one of casual inter-office junkets and extended lunch breaks.”
“Like this one,” Julia said.
I nodded. “Even now he’s drooling onto the bib I thoughtfully tied around his neck before I left. I should probably return to snap him out of it.”
Julia shook her backpack, “I have a little something to see to myself.”
When we left the park, each toward our own office, the phrase kept going through my head, “enemies in their midst.”