As she had promised, Susanna met Conrad at his home the next morning to drive him to work. Conrad had pondered how to open a conversation with Susanna, now that he had learned part of her history at the hospital. After exchanging greetings, while she drove, Conrad ventured a question. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get back into school after your time away?”
“I don’t mind,” she replied cheerfully, and on the way to work she gave him a thorough account of how her life got back on track after the sudden death of the man she had expected to marry. Conrad followed up with questions about her experience getting a job out of school and how she felt about the IT department at the company. Susanna did not seem shy about sharing her feelings about the job, even making it clear that she saw it as a stepping stone toward a specialized position at a larger firm.
She parked next to Conrad’s car, and Conrad was relieved to see that the car had been unmolested during the night. Fear for the safety of his car was a frequent part of Conrad’s life–since he was renting his home, his car was his largest investment. Ever since high school, Conrad had been in the habit of approaching his car with the eyes of an inspector, checking for dents, scratches, flat tires, or any other problem. Although this was a healthy habit, Conrad didn’t like the racing heart and churning stomach that often accompanied the inspection. In much the same way, he always made sure to leave home with his work badge, laying it on the passenger seat next to him and checking two or three times on the way to work that it was in car. And he never got out of his car without squeezing his set of keys in his hand to assure himself that he was not locking them in the car.
Such diligence in small matters made Conrad a good employee in the IT department, but it also made him socially awkward. Small talk was a chore for him, and teasing or flirting were out of the question. He could plan conversations in his head, but somehow they never happened the way he imagined. Now, as they walked together from the parking lot, Conrad marveled that Susanna was still maintaining the conversation, which had now shifted to the topic of weather, of where in the country she would live if she had her choice of jobs in any climate.
Once they reached the IT department, the flow of words stopped. Susanna settled herself quietly into place at her desk. Several coworkers, including the manager, stopped to check on Conrad’s health. The workday began, and Conrad and Susanna quickly focused on their tasks. Conrad thought about trying to join Susanna for lunch, but she slipped away before he could make the offer. Likewise, at the end of the workday, she escaped out the door and made it to her car before Conrad could join her, thank her again for the ride, or even wish her a pleasant evening.
The next week, IT staff had to travel around the building, checking on computers, updating programs, and removing illicit links and files. Conrad was amused by the kind of material company workers uploaded–anything from puzzles and games to pornography, as well as shopping sites and personal documents. IT staff generally deleted such material without comment and without reporting the offenses. If a file was innocent and did not use a lot of computer storage, Conrad was generous about leaving it alone–a file of family photographs, for example, or a draft of a short story. Items that suggested a waste of company time or a strain on the company’s bandwidth or storage capacities had to go. Conrad frequently emptied workers’ recycle bins and their “deleted email message” folders. Shortcuts to Facebook and other social media were also taboo. Many of these tasks could be done through remote access to a computer by way of the company’s network, but occasional personal visits sometimes caught hidden material on the work computers, and they also subtly reminded employees that the computers were company property and not for personal use.
The manager sent IT workers on these clean-up missions in teams of two. Confrontations over company policy were greatly reduced when the IT staff did not arrive solo. Conrad’s partner was a congenial young man named Keith; he had a beard and a pony tail. Susanna was paired with Tony.
Because of these excursions, Conrad scarcely saw Susanna for three days, apart from a brief “good morning” at the start of the day. Wednesday afternoon, though, as Keith and Conrad entered the IT office, Conrad saw Susanna at her desk with no one nearby. He waited until Keith had gone further into the room, and then he stood next to her desk and spoke her name.
Susanna looked up and smiled at him. “How is your week going?” she asked. He knew that she was mainly asking about the clean-up tasks, but he dared to answer in a different vein.
“Lonely,” he said, “but I’m used to that. Listen,” he continued bravely, “I was wondering if you might be free tonight. We could do something together, maybe dinner or a movie….”
She smiled again but shook her head. “I’m afraid tonight will not be convenient,” she told him.
“Well, tomorrow night, then? Or maybe some time over the weekend.”
“Conrad,” she answered, “you’re sweet to ask, but I’m going to have to say no. I’m sorry, but I’m just not ready for that. Not yet.”
“I understand,” Conrad assured her. His heart had sunk when she said no, but it soared with the promise of her words, “not yet.” With that crumb of hope, Conrad could be patient for a long time.