Three (or four) conversations

I suppose I could delay this post until the first Friday of November, but it seems fitting to continue last Friday’s untitled selection.

Esther May was seated at her desk when Carl arrived at work one Saturday morning. Carl didn’t usually work on Saturdays, but he had taken some time off in the middle of the week to see the doctor and to have the oil changed in his car. He was fortunate to have a flexible schedule in his job so he did not have to waste vacation time for mundane chores.

Esther was counting the weeks until her seventieth birthday, when she planned to retire. The number had recently dropped below one hundred. She also used her flexible schedule to come to work late on days when she started slowly and then catch up her hours on Saturdays.

Carl got himself a cup of coffee and settled into his work station. He was still reading emails from overnight when he heard Esther’s footsteps approaching. “Hi, Esther,” he said cheerfully.

“Hey, Carl,” she returned, smiling. She pulled a chair from a neighboring desk and settled heavily into it. “Could I talk privately with you for a few minutes this morning?”

“Sure, what’s up?” Carl swung his back to his computer and leaned back in his chair. One never knew what words were going to come out of Esther’s mouth. She was a wonderful storyteller with years of anecdotes to share. She was also remarkably perceptive about things that happened in the office. Their boss sometimes joked that Esther came with the building; she knew the details of the business in great detail, and her co-workers often consulted her for the benefit of her memory and her wisdom.

“This is about you and Number Seven,” Esther said. Of course she did not refer to their coworker as “Number Seven.” She used the young woman’s real name. Carl, however, preferred to think of her as “Number Seven.”

“What about us?” Carl asked casually, but he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He didn’t mind people talking about him, but he had no desire to make trouble for Number Seven.

“Oh, people are talking…” Esther’s voice trailed off.

Trying to be humorous, Carl leaned forward and whispered, “What are they saying?”

“They’re saying that you laugh just a little too loud; you stand just a little too close; you stare…”

Carl held up his hand. “You’d better stop right there,” he said. “You can only quote so many words from a song before you need to pay someone some money.”

“Even so, you get the idea. I remember how badly hurt you were when Rosa left. It took you ages to get over her.” Carl nodded. He had never mentioned anything at work about the counseling he had received or the medicines he was still taking. Yes, he had become overly fond of Rosa, and her departure had indeed been painful. Now, with Number Seven, he was starting to sense the same subtle and hidden euphoria that Rosa used to inspire. “Carl, I don’t want to see you hurt again.”

Nodding, Carl said, “Thank you for your concern. I don’t want to be hurt again.”

Esther patted his shoulder. “Well, just be careful then. You’re a big boy; you know how to take care of yourself.” Slowly she stood, returned the chair to its place, and started back toward her own desk.

Carl spent the rest of the weekend pondering what to say to Number Seven. Esther was right–he had been going out of his way to start conversations with her. He thrilled to hear her voice and to see her smile. More than that, she was knowledgeable and thoughtful about the same things that interested Carl. Even though she mentioned her husband, Ken, at least once a day, Carl did not sense that she was warning him to stay away from her. She never crossed the building to talk with him at his desk, but she also never seemed to mind when he stopped to share a few words with her. She didn’t avoid eye contact if he happened to look in her direction.

Carl wanted to ask her if he was making her uncomfortable. He wanted to ask if he was spending too much time with her. He wanted to ask her if she wanted him to change his habits. He could not think of any way of asking these questions that would not be awkward and possibly intimidating.

Number Seven spared him the trouble. When she arrived at work Monday morning, she walked straight to his desk and said, “Carl, we need to talk.”

“OK,” he responded.

“It’s kind of private,” she warned him.

“Let’s go for a walk, then,” he suggested. “As you know, there are no places to talk in this building where we won’t be overheard.”

Carl and Number Seven left the building, went around the corner, and strolled for about a block. Then, suddenly, Number Seven stopped, looked up at Carl, and said, “How did you get into my mind this weekend?”

Carl smiled. “Was I in your mind this weekend?”

“Most of it, yes. It started Saturday morning when I was driving to my parents’ house. Ken had to work all weekend, and I haven’t seen my folks since Mothers’ Day, so I thought I’d spend some time with them. All three hours of the trip, you were on my mind. It’s like you were there in the car with me.”

Still smiling, Carl joked, “Well, I’m sorry I ruined your weekend.”

“You didn’t ruin anything. In fact, I kind of enjoyed the company, not having to drive alone. But then Sunday morning in church I was thinking about you, and driving home Sunday night I was thinking about you.”

Carl gestured toward a bench. “Let’s sit,” he offered. When they were sitting, he asked, slowly and carefully, “Do you think I’ve spent too much time talking with you at work the last week or two?”

Number Seven shook her head. “No, I don’t. If anything, I wondered why you waited three years to start saying more than ‘hello’ to me. But I don’t think you’ve gone too far. Esther and Judy and Ruth all visit with me at least as much as you do. Judy and Ruth spend up to an hour talking to each other in the break room every morning, and Bob and Bob have long conversations that aren’t work related. So I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong.”

Carl swallowed. “But it bothers you that you were thinking about me over the weekend.”

“I didn’t say that it bothered me. It was kind of strange, but kind of sweet, in a way.”

“Look,” Carl exclaimed. “I want you to know this: I do not want to cause any problems in your marriage. I don’t want to come between Ken and you, and I don’t intend to wish him away. Even if you wanted me to, I wouldn’t start anything with you.”

Number Seven laughed. “Oh, Carl, you are no threat to my marriage. Ken and I are getting along great, and I’m not looking for any side adventures. Is that why you’re always so polite and proper and stiff? Are you afraid that I’d think you’re coming on to me?”

“I’m always careful,” Carl said, feeling a blush rise in his cheeks and ears. “I’ve got no social skills. I never know how I look or sound to other people. And I don’t want to make the wrong impression.”

“Carl, you can relax with me. I’m sorry—I wouldn’t have teased you just now about being on my mind this weekend if I thought you would take it like that.” She laid her hand on his arm. “If you say or do anything that’s inappropriate, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, you can stop being scared of me—and keep on dropping by to visit me. I like that.”

“Listen,” Carl added, “I want you to know this: I will never allow anyone to hurt you in any way—and that ‘anyone’ includes me.”

“Alright already,” Number Seven laughed. “You have not hurt me in any way. Now just drop it and stop worrying, OK?”

Carl sighed and smiled. “OK” was all he could think of to say.

Number Seven stood and stretched out her hand to him. “Friends?” she asked.

“Friends,” he said, shaking her hand before standing to walk back to work with her.

Of course neither of these conversations actually happened, outside of Carl’s imagination. The following conversation, though, is very real, even though Carl did all of the actual talking.

“Holy God, your nature is love, and you created a beautiful world and filled it with people to bear your image, loving you and loving one another. But, like so many good things, love can become twisted and broken, which is why you gave us commandments such as ‘honor your father and mother,’ and ‘do not murder or commit adultery or steal,’ and ‘do not covet your neighbor’s wife.’

“The love I have for Number Seven feels like a beautiful thing, and it is making everything else in my life seem brighter and happier. Yet I dread the thought that I might already love her too much, or in the wrong way. I do not want to harm her marriage. I do not want to claim her for myself. I simply enjoy being with her, talking with her, hearing her voice, seeing her face, and learning more about her. And I enjoy her interest in me and the way she sets aside time to talk with me.

“Father, please guide me in this confusing situation. Help me to be a friend to Number Seven without coveting her or wanting her to myself. Steer me away from temptation and from unholy living. If it is your will, please let this friendship continue to grow, since it has already cleared away so much darkness and distress from my life.

“And, if I have done wrong, please forgive me for my sin. Thank you for the comfort of knowing that, if I have strayed from your path, your Son will pursue me and restore me to where I belong. I pray this in his name, the name of Jesus Christ my Savior. Amen.”

Carl listened for an answer. Whether or not he received it is hard to say. The next time he drove his car, the radio played three songs in a row. First it played Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something,” which seemed ironic in light of Carl’s prayer. Next came Queen’s “You’re my Best Friend,” which Carl had already heard once as a message that Number Seven wanted to be his friend, nothing more. The next song was Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.” Carl thought, “Yes, I’m crazy in a lot of different ways. I wonder what the next song will be.” But he arrived home during a string of commercials and heard no answering song. J.

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