The Look - A Short Story Based On A Picture
I could feel her stare burning into my back. I could feel her disdain for me from across the employee cafeteria. And the funny thing is, I had no idea why.
I had come to work at Brown & Brown some 12 years before, not long after college, with the intention of just temping there for a few weeks until I found a job as an advertising copywriter. Brown & Brown was an ad agency, of course, but I wasn’t good enough to work for them. Well, I was good enough to be a secretary, which they called an administrative assistant. When all the other advertising firms I applied to shared Brown & Brown’s assessment of my ad copywriting skills, I stayed on as an “administrative assistant” for just a few more weeks, then a few more months, then a few more years until I found myself a secretary pushing forty with nothing to show for the last decade but a company pen.
There was no point trying for any more ad copywriting jobs after months of being turned down. I got the message loud and clear. I was secretary material, nothing more. Eventually I stopped writing for my own enjoyment, knowing my stuff would suck to anyone except me and my boyfriend Ed.
Ed had been good enough throughout my job heartache, but had recently developed the annoying habit of trying to get me “out there” again. Yeah, right. I may have been untalented, but I wasn’t slow. I knew where I wasn’t wanted. And I didn’t need a whole new, younger set of Creative Directors telling me what their predecessors had.
Instead I coasted at Brown & Brown, filing papers for the ads I’d never be asked to work on, answering phones for the Copywriters I’d never be. I smiled every day at my bosses, pretending to be happy when they gave me a plaque for being “Best Admin” in my department. It was only when I was alone in the ladies’ room that I would let the tears flow. And then clean myself off and put my happy mask back on.
It wasn’t so bad after a while - I found that once I accepted things, a comfy kind of numbness came along and took root where hope used to. It was easy enough to have it easy. Most of the time.
The only real thing that bothered me, for some reason, was this damned woman from Accounting. I barely knew her name - Lisa or something like that - but I knew she hated me. Right from the first day I laid eyes on her, I felt her icy cold stare and it was off-putting to say the least. But people don’t generally walk up to other people in offices and ask why they hate them. It’s just sort of not done. So I was left wondering.
I drove Ed crazy. “Maybe she can’t stand that I talk too much? But I don’t talk to her. Could it be my clothes? But I dress pretty conservatively at work...Do you think it could be my hair? My voice? Ed, what do you think?”
And he would always say the same thing. “What do you care about this stranger for?”
But I did care. It ate me up. I enjoyed being liked, and not being liked without an explanation was too much for me to bear.
I sat in the cafeteria with my friend Megan, stealing glances at Lisa-or-whatever-her-name-was. I started in on her, too.
“Megan, it’s just that I can’t figure out why...”
“Randi, why don’t you just ask her?”
“Are you crazy? I can’t just walk up and ask somebody something like that.”
“Why not? At least then you’ll know. And you’ll stop driving me nuts,” she added.
I bit into a roasted potato.
“What are you afraid of, anyway?”
I had to admit, that was a good question. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to walk over to where she was sitting, by herself, with that intense expression on her face. What if I actually got an answer? What would I do with that information? I had had enough rejection, didn’t need any more, thank you very much.
The following week my boss told me to walk over a purchase order directly to Accounting. I had to go to the section where my nemesis sat, and I saw her head move in my direction with her fixed, impenetrable stare. I felt something flutter inside me. As I waited for her boss to sign the P.O., I started to stare at her myself. I heard myself speak.
“C-can I ask you something?” My heart pounded in my ears.
And then I realized something. I looked at her again. She had the same expression on her face, only it wasn’t an expression, it was - she was looking up at me, expectantly.
“W-what’s your name?”
And that’s when I saw it. Knowing what I was seeing, she spoke.
“Don’t mind my face - you know I had a stroke, right?”
“I always have to explain myself to people who don’t know me - they think I’m being rude,” she laughed.
“You mean you don’t...”
“Hate you?” Her laughter sounded bizarre coming from behind her painted-on sneer. “Is that what you thought? Why you always walk away from me? I thought everybody knew about my face, so I figured you had your own issues. But I...”
“I kind of always wanted to talk to you, cause you always seem to be laughing and having fun.”
“You mean you...liked me?”
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”
“No - uh - I mean, I, um, I’m...sorry.”
For being so into myself that I didn’t even notice someone who has it much worse than me but still shows up every day. “For not talking to you sooner,” I finally said.
“Don’t be silly,” she replied - and I swear I saw a smile curl around the corner of her stiffened lips.
The following day I applied to 10 new advertising firms.