First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part four

Tony was still doing his best to give Susanna a hard time at work. He had updated his song selection to “Wake Up, Little Suzie” and “Susie-Q.” Every day he criticized her wardrobe selections, saying, “Mighty colorful today—are you trying to catch someone’s attention?” and, “How can you keep your balance on heels that high? And why would you even bother to try?” Conrad actually agreed with Tony about the heels, but he would never confront a woman about her clothing, especially not in front of other people. Susanna did not show any irritation at Tony’s ribbing. Sometimes she forced a small giggle at one of his comments. Usually she waved her hand at him or simply ignored him.

Conrad was also not bold enough to rise to Susanna’s defense. He wanted to tell Tony to leave her alone, to stop being such a bully, but instead he suffered in silence.

He tried to find ways to start little conversations with Susanna, but most days “Good morning” was as far as they got. On Mondays he would try, “How was your weekend?” but Susanna replied with one-word answers such as “fine” or “OK.” She wasn’t unfriendly toward him; it was clear that she just didn’t want to talk.

She opened up to Tina, though. The two of them conversed about Netflix and recipes and their cats. With his back to the conversation, Conrad was able to listen while he appeared to be working. He loved the timbre of Susanna’s alto voice and the jingle of her laugh when it was sincere, not forced. He resented the Saturdays and Sundays when he didn’t see her or hear her voice. Constantly he waited for the clue that she was ready to accept the offer of a date.

Then, one Friday morning as the women were visiting, Tina said, “Oh, by the way, how was dinner last night?”

“The food was just OK,” Susanna answered. “The company was not as bad as I feared. He can be decent and polite and gentlemanly when he tries; he just doesn’t seem to want to try too often.”

Conrad tried not to jump to conclusions. Susanna might have gone out to eat with her father or brother or some other family member. But in his heart he was convinced that she had had her first date in a long time, and obviously that date had not included him.

About a week later, Tina asked a similar question—“How was the movie?”

“It seemed long,” Susanna admitted. “I guess I’m just not into car chases and explosions and ten minute fights that devastate an entire city.” Conrad knew which movie she was describing. It was new to the theaters that month.

Tony happened to be walked toward the door when Susanna spoke. He stopped and looked at her. “I’m sure that when you choose the movie,” he said, “it’s going to be some girly romance with mushy music and long gazes into each other’s eyes, and I’ll be bored stiff.”

She looked up at him, a twinkle in her eye. “I hadn’t planned on such a movie,” she said, “but if that’s how you feel, then that’s what I’m going to choose.”

Tony imitated Susanna’s way of waving away an insult and went on his way. Conrad sat stiff in his chair, staring at the monitor. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Susanna dart a guilty glance in his direction, but he might have imagined it. He tried to focus on his work, but his mouth was dry and his heart was dancing in the middle of his chest. “Why Tony?” he asked himself again and again. “What could she possibly see in him?”

A few minutes later, Susanna grabbed her coffee mug and headed to the break room. A few seconds later, Conrad followed. He was relieved to see that no one else was in the room when he got there.

“I know it’s none of my business,” Conrad began, and a truer statement had never left his mouth. “But I have to know… did I just overhear that you and Tony went to a movie together?”

“Well, yes,” she said, and she looked down at the floor. Her cheeks were beginning to turn rosy.

“Didn’t you tell me a couple weeks ago that you aren’t ready yet for that sort of thing?”

“I didn’t want you to know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry you overheard. Honestly, I would never want to hurt your feelings.”

“I just don’t understand. How can you be ready to see a movie with Tony but not ready to see one with me?”

“I don’t want to have to answer that—please,” she begged. Her rosy cheeks were now glowing bright red, and a tear welled out of her right eye.

Conrad knew that he was probably making a big mistake, but he persisted. “I think I have a right to know.”

Susanna set her mug on the counter next to the coffeemaker. “Look,” she said, “It’s this way. I accepted a date with Tony because I knew what to expect—a night out on the town, nothing more. For that, yes, I’m ready. And if he wanted anything more, it would be easy to tell him no.

“But with you…” she shook her head. “With you it’s different. I’m not ready to get involved quite yet, not ready for a serious relationship.” She looked up at him, “When I’m ready for a man in my life, a real man, I promise to let you know.” She turned, filled her mug, and went back to her desk.

Conrad stood in the middle of the break room for several minutes, staring out the window.

 

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First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part three

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.