When I thought about cheating, I always saw the lewd, despicable acts - the husband tearing his family apart, the wife falling for a good line and destroying her family's unity just for a romp in the hay; the 'other woman' not caring about what she was doing to a 'nice' home. I, definitely, never thought it would happen to me or imagined what it could do to my life. It all started pretty innocently, that Monday morning at work, when I overheard two of my colleagues, Brian and Lisa, talking about what they had done over the weekend.
It wasn't even an important conversation, not something enlightening for anyone who might overhear, but it hit me like a ton of bricks - there I was, forty years old, married to a wonderful man with two great kids and suddenly I felt empty and alone.
I know that people at work called me the 'Ice Queen' behind my back as I'd never attended any social functions and gatherings that the company implemented for its employees. I learned quickly enough not to fraternize with the employees when I started working at Replicator Media Network. Not even half a day in the place and I was hearing all sorts of rumours about the director of HR choosing the secretaries based on their 'performance' instead of their qualifications. I vowed it wouldn't be something anyone could say about me and, anyway, I was happily married and didn't have any interest in destroying my marriage just for a quick 'fix'. My needs were well taken care of at home.
I always said it was a waste of time and money to have all those social meetings between colleagues. Wasn't it enough that we had to take clients out and entertain them when they came to town? I knew for me it was - I certainly did not need to party with my colleagues when the working day was over - or at least I thought so until that fateful Monday morning.
Brian and Lisa were telling Suzie, my secretary, she had missed a great evening the previous Saturday when she had cancelled on their plans to all go to that new club that had just opened in town. Apparently, anyone who was 'somebody' was there and they had made some pretty interesting new contacts. It was nothing to make the world shake, but nonetheless, it made me realize that, for the past year, I hadn't been invited once to go with them — not that I would have gone, mind you — but not being invited was akin to being invisible and it's unthinkable for the VP of Public Relations for RMN.
I invited Suzie for lunch instead of eating alone. It wasn't a big thing. Once or twice a year we went to lunch together — that's how I learned of all the rumours going around. Those lunches always left me with a sour taste in the mouth as I'm not one for gossiping but it was my only way of knowing what others were saying behind my back.
Suzie is a sweet girl but she's not the brightest person on earth; if I wanted to I could have influenced her not to fraternize with the others, but then I'd lose my 'foot in the door'. I didn't like manipulating her that way, but you don't get to be where I am in life by being squeamish about that sort of thing.
We went to that bistro around the block from the office and, once again, Suzie was surprised at how efficient the waiting staff was when I was there. She told me it always took some time for them to seat her when she came with her friends, whereas as soon as we arrived, we got a table without delay.
I wanted to plant in her mind the thought that it would be a good idea to invite me next time the office had a get-together; I had to tread lightly here as I knew it would be a tough sale. With me always refusing the previous invitations, it was easy to see they had given up on inviting me. So, what would be the reason for them to try inviting me again now?
While we ate, the conversation stayed focused on work; Suzie knew enough not to ask questions about my private life. That made it even harder, as I had to be the one to bring up the fact that I was being left alone more and more while my husband, Jeremy, was working — nothing new there as, since we'd been married, twenty years ago, he'd always been gone weeks at a time to settle his accounts all over the world while I was raising the kids and earning my degrees. Of course, we both knew it would be hard at time, that we would miss each other but our commitment was stronger and healthier than being separated a few weeks each time he had to go.
When we were together the world ceased to exist. We were living in our world and nothing could disturb us, but I really thought that now that the children were all grown, we could enjoy each other's presence more. Jeremy didn't seem to think so, though, as he had signed another contract, putting him in charge of negotiations all over the world for another 5 years.
Now, I had to tell Suzie that it was bothering me and that I was lonely so she would talk about it at work and start the ball rolling about getting me invited to go with them next time they went out to town.
Why couldn't I just go with them when I heard they were going out? Well, it's unfortunate, but in management one can't always be one of the guys. Who knows, one day there may have been a need to fire someone. The occasional after work drink was okay but alas, I seemed to have given the impression I was above such things and the invitations stopped coming.
It was my own fault; I should have made more effort to fit in at the beginning. They probably thought I believed that we weren't in the same league; that they could not simply come waltzing through my office; sit on the corner of the desk and gossip.
Did I really come off as so superior?
The gossip that circulated indicated that the 'Ice Queen' thought that everyone was beneath her, and she made sure people knew their place as soon as they started working for her. It was hard for me to reconcile their image of me with who I really was.
Old habits die hard, and it seemed too late to start making friends with some of them even if I wanted to.
The maid knocking at the door interrupted my thoughts for a minute. She quickly did the room and I went back to commiserating with myself; remembering the conversation I had with Suzie on the day that started my downfall.
While nibbling on a salad I looked the lonely wife who's missing her husband and needed a friend to talk to. I was pleased to see that Suzie understood when she put her fork on the table and said in a meek voice, "J.C., something seems to be troubling you. I don't mean to pry, but maybe you need to talk to someone. I know we're not really friends or anything but... I mean... I can listen, you know"
"Thanks Suzie, it's sweet of you but I don't want to bother you. We came here to have lunch together, not for you to hear about my marital difficulties." Yes I needed to talk to someone, but it was still hard to admit to myself I wasn't as self sufficient as I had always prided myself to be.
"You're not bothering me. I've been working with you for how long now, 7-8 years? Did you know that this is the first time you've called me Suzie, like everybody else, and not Suzanne? You're the only person who's never called me Suzie. And now that you did, I know that something is wrong, so please, let me help you if I can."
I remember she looked sheepish to have spoken up that way to me and I could tell she wasn't sure of the reaction I would have.
"Looks like you know me well," I sighed. "Better than I thought. I'm sorry; I never noticed that I wasn't calling you Suzie. For me, when I think of you; you're Suzie, not Suzanne. But you're right, I need to talk, but I cannot; not to you! I don't want my private life to make the rounds of the building and I know you are friends with some of the most notorious gossipers." I could see the wheels turning in her mind with that last part. Mentioning gossips and my private life in the same sentence was sure to raise the interest level a notch.
"What If I promised not to say anything to anyone J.C., would it... ?"
"It's not just that, Suzie. Look at us. You don't even use my name to talk to me and you want me to tell you about my life? You want me to tell you how unhappy I am and how miserable I feel? It doesn't make sense! You don't even know what my name is, do you?" That was another consequence of my lack of effort at the beginning - everybody called me J.C., nobody used my name. I never thought that some people could perceive not using my name as standoffish.
She looked at me defensively, "How could I use your name, nobody does! Maybe the people in payroll know it but they've never said it to anyone. Everybody calls you J.C., I just think myself lucky that you allow me to call you that too. Being only your secretary you could have told me to call you Mrs Collinsworth but you didn't. From the first day I started working for you you've been nice and friendly to me, I just want to repay that kindness now."
Had I really been nice to Suzie or was she just seeing the good in anyone she came across? I don't remember doing anything particular for her and having her call me J.C. like everyone else just put her on the same level as everybody else.
"My name is Joanna, Suzie. Joanna Claudine Collinsworth. My friends call me Joanna. J.C. comes from the time I started working at RMN. I was fresh out of school and I didn't have any business cards. When I sent my resume I affixed one of my husband's to the resume since we have the same initials. His name is Jeremy Christian Collinsworth and his cards read J.C. Collinsworth."
"But, why aren't people calling you Joanna? Why does everyone think you don't want them to use your name? Why is everyone so afraid of you? Forgive me for saying that you're not the friendliest boss I ever had, but you're not an ogre either."
"I don't know, Suzie, I honestly don't know. I was hired to do a job and I did and still do it to the best of my abilities. I'm married, I don't see the point in partying every weekend with the crew and maybe I shouldn't have voiced my opinions so loudly, but I don't think I deserved to be shunned either..."
That talk with Suzie brought about a lot of things I could have done better or differently. It put into perspective and explained some people's reactions to me and how my matter-of-factness had been perceived as aloofness or even snobbishness on my part. Suzie came up with an idea on how I could try to remedy some of the tension I had inadvertently created. She would start calling me Joanna in front of everyone and would try to smooth out the edges between me and the people at the office. Isn't it ironic, there I was, VP of public relations and I needed someone to do my own P.R.
From that day on, Suzie became the driving force behind my attempts to change my colleagues' perception of me. She would take every opportunity to use my name in front of other people. Many times I heard her tell off people when they were saying derogatory things about me; she would tell them they were wrong in their assumptions of who I was.
Those first few times having lunch with them all and feeling their eyes on me; not knowing how to react, was excruciatingly painful. Then came the day I was hoping for and dreading at the same time. They were going out and they invited me to go with them. I'm sure they were expecting me to say 'no' again and I probably would have if Suzie hadn't entered my office just as I was about to call Lisa and tell her I couldn't attend this time.
"Hey, Jo, I heard that you were invited to come to 'Celebs' with us this weekend. I told you we could make them change their mind about you, didn't I?" She was so happy, smiling to her heart's content, knowing she had done a good deed and I just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.
"Yeah, they invited me. How many arms did you have to twist though huh? I'm sure they only did it to appease you so I'll call Lisa and tell her I can't. I'm sure everybody will be happy."
The smile on her lips disappeared when I said that. "But, why? What's wrong now? Were all our efforts, to show them you weren't cold, for nothing?"
"It's not that, I don't feel good partying with you, I'm married..."
"What good does it do you, huh? When was the last time you saw him, anyway, seven weeks ago?"
"Don't say that, Suzie. He's working hard and it's not his fault if he can't be at home more often. I'm sure he would if he could."
"I'm not telling you to jump anybody's bone here. Having a drink with colleagues is not partying, Joanna. You can even tell yourself you're networking for new clients if it makes you feel better. Just don't go back into your shell."
Suzie had a point. I could just go and have a drink with them, then go back home. Jeremy was always telling me to not stay cooped up when he wasn't there; that he wanted me to enjoy myself and have fun. Maybe I could go this time and show them all I wasn't as haughty as they thought I was.
Yes, Jeremy. I'd give anything to change what happened last night. Maybe if I had been stronger, maybe if I hadn't gone to that first outing with my colleagues, maybe if I hadn't stopped in that bar that night nothing would have happened. It's all my fault and I have no one to blame but me.
When we arrived at 'Celebs' that night, the place was already packed with people and I couldn't see how we'd get past the line of people waiting to get in when Brian pushed me in the direction of a side door. Apparently, one of the contacts he had made the last time he was there was one of the managers of the place and Brian had agreed to take a 50% reduction on his PR fee if the guy let him, and his guests, in free every time he showed up. It didn't sound like a good deal to me, but I knew nothing about clubs and how to put them in a good light, so maybe I was wrong.
The atmosphere was smoky and I thought the noise level was much too loud to be able to entertain a conversation. How someone could speak to anyone in here was beyond my comprehension!
While everyone was saying 'hi' to people they knew, I looked around and wondered what the attraction was. Yes, I could see plenty of known names, yes I could understand rubbing elbows with them; but, that's pretty much all that could happen wasn't it? It's not like one could have a meaningful conversation here. I ordered a GinBerryNic — one part gin, two parts cranberry-raspberry juice, one part tonic water - and bided my time until I could graciously leave without feeling guilty.
After a while, they seemed to all go their separate ways and I saw it as my opportunity to make a disappearing act. I wrote a note to Suzie on a napkin, saying I had a migraine and was going home but was happy to have come as it showed me my coworkers in a different light, and put it in her purse so she would find it next time she opened it.
Getting out of there was a godsend and I decided to walk a bit before hailing a taxi to take me home. I wasn't worried as the streets were well-lit and there were still plenty of people up and about. Unfortunately, I didn't count on the sudden downpour and in just a couple of minutes my clothes were drenched. I had to get out of the rain and there wasn't a taxi in sight. The only thing that looked half decent was a piano bar located between two clothing stores.
I decided to go there and ask someone to call a taxi for me. When I entered, the place was empty, save for a couple sitting at a table in the back and a bartender washing and drying glasses. I stepped to the bar and asked him to call a taxi for me. The bartender looked at me, pointed to the phone next to the bathroom, and told me what number to call to get a taxi. The taxi company told me it would take an hour to get one to me as they were really busy and they didn't have any in that part of town right away.
So, I decided to sit at the bar and ask for a glass of wine while waiting for the taxi. The bartender was an unassuming man who looked to be in his mid-forties. He brought me my wine and kept washing his glasses. I wasn't in the mood for a conversation but I thought him rude that he wasn't even trying to engage me in conversation. What kind of barman was he?
I took a sip of wine, put my glass back on the bar and said, "Is it always this quiet here?"
"It didn't use to be, Lady, but now, yeah. With this big new nightclub opening a few weeks ago, people are less likely to come in here now. The only people coming in these days are regulars, lost or wanting to shelter themselves from the rain, like you," the barman said with a kind of fatalistic attitude.
"Well, you seem to have one couple who really like your establishment. They didn't even blink an eye when I came in the door looking like a drowned rat." The amusement in my voice was evident and I didn't even know why I was so amused.
"Oh well, those two. They come in every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights without fault. They sit at the same table every time, order a pitcher of beer and leave only when it's empty. They don't bother anyone and they mind where they are. Sometimes I wonder if they even know other people exist around them." It was easy to hear the longing in his voice and I realized he hadn't smiled once since we started talking.
I was about to ask him why he seemed so sullen when the taxi driver came in and asked for me, so I paid for my wine, thanked the barman for the conversation and said goodnight. I wasn't expecting to ever come back here but I took notice of the address just in case.
Monday morning, back at work nothing seemed the same. It was as if my going out with my colleagues had shown them a side of me they didn't know. Every time someone was close to my office they would put their head in the door, step in for a minute and say 'hi'. I don't think I had ever received as many 'good mornings' and 'how's it going' since I started working at RMN. Everybody seemed more cheerful and much nicer, the air smelled fresher, the temperature warmer and I didn't feel so restricted anymore.
The weeks went by and the air no longer exhibited any of the coolness I had grown accustomed to. I was a little surprised but pleased when they invited me to come along a second time sinceI hadn't stayed long the first time. Apparently, they hadn't noticed my disappearing act as they only regrouped briefly at the end of the evening and by that time some of them had left, too. I was happy to see they hadn't thought me rude for leaving without saying 'goodbye' to anyone.
Once again we played the same 'dance' of going through the side door and once again it reminded me that I was too old for that kind of place. It was much too noisy and smoky for my taste but I resolved myself to stay a little longer this time. I was on to my second drink when fate intervened; one of my clients saw me and waved me over. We exchanged banalities while he introduced me to the people with him. I took being separated from my colleagues again as a sign that maybe I wasn't meant to stay longer. When I turned to go back to them, they had all dispersed to various points in the club and I couldn't see myself running around looking for them so I decided to leave and go home.
Getting outside, I realized I didn't want to get back to my empty home just yet — my husband had been gone for three weeks, on another one of his 'round the world' negotiation deal - and I really didn't relish the thought of spending the night alone at home when I was supposed to be out. I decided to make a stop at the piano bar I had discovered that first night I went out with my coworkers.
When I got there, the place was as empty as it had been that first night. The same couple occupied the same table and the bartender was still behind his bar, washing and drying glasses. For a minute I thought I had stepped through a time portal and was back to that rainy night. I checked my clothes to make sure I wasn't drenched and had to suppress a laugh when I realized what I was doing.
I walked to the bar and the barman, upon seeing me, said, "Is it raining outside?"
I chuckled when I heard him and replied, "Nope, no rain in sight but I think I'm lost this time."
The bartender was quick to reply, "If you come back one more time you'll be a regular now." I smiled when I heard that witty repartee.
I sat at the bar, in the same seat I had sat before, and asked for a GinBerryNic. The bartender looked at me with a puzzled expression and I knew he didn't know what I was asking about so I told him the breakdown of what it contained. He mixed the ingredients as I was saying them and put the glass in front of me. I took a sip and told him it was perfect.
The silence grew after that and I remembered how sullen the barman had looked before. I didn't know how to ask him if he needed to talk, after all, he didn't know me from Adam and he, being a bartender, was more used to hearing people talk about their problems than the other way around. I didn't want to appear nosy but I felt a certain kinship with him.
I took the indirect route and decided to use him as a sounding board. If he wanted to step in and tell me what was bothering him, fine, but if he didn't, I would get a sympathetic ear to listen to me ramble about my loneliness and no one would be hurt. He didn't know me, didn't know where I lived, didn't know my friends, he didn't even know my name and, if after I talked with him I felt embarrassed, I simply didn't have to come back here.
So, I took the bull by the horns and started telling him about my life. I poured out my heart to him about how much I was missing my husband, how much I loved him and wanted him to be back home, how much his absences were taking their toll on me. I didn't leave a single thing out and by the time I was done I realized that I was crying. I was so ashamed of having made a spectacle of myself that I didn't even wait to see or hear if he had something to say and ran off.
I was mortified. What was wrong with me? How could I have dropped my dirty laundry on his carpet this way? I knew that I'm lonely but, jeez, what next? Getting drunk and telling everyone that I loved them? Now the worst part was that I'd have to go to that bar and apologize to that bartender. I'm pretty sure he was used to people confiding in him but I was NOT! It so wasn't me to open up like that to a perfect stranger. I didn't know what got into me but I knew I had to quickly put an end to it.
Going back to work on Monday was a drag. I simply didn't have the heart to pretend I was all cheery and happy when I was watching my sanity crash around me. Having broken down that way over the weekend. I was sure something was wrong with me and I wasn't sure there was any remedy for it. People at work noticed I wasn't doing so well — I suppose an obvious clue was that, for the first time in god knows how long, my hair was in a ponytail — and they sent Suzie to get the score on what was happening.
Dear Suzie, I don't know what I would have done if she hadn't been there! She's the one who held me together all those months. I wish I had remembered to thank her for the support and friendship she's shown me. Who would have thought, almost a year ago, she could have given me such support huh?
"Hey Joanna, you don't look so hot. Is something wrong?" Hearing Suzie's question reminded me I never told her how unhappy I was the last time we had lunch together.
She looked so genuinely concerned; I didn't have the choice but to open up to her. "Suzie, I made a fool of myself last Saturday and I don't know how to take back what I did."
"What? What have you done? It must not be so bad; you didn't stay long enough at 'Celebs' to do any damage to your reputation and when you left you were still the picture of respectability."
"It didn't happen there! Remember the first time I went with you all and I left early? Well, there was a sudden downpour and I had to take shelter in a little piano bar a few streets away from 'Celebs'. Last night, after leaving, I wasn't ready to go back to my empty house so I went back to that place. I ended up pouring my heart out to the bartender there and now I'm ashamed."
"Slow down, slow down a minute. What do you mean pouring your heart out?"
I sighed, "I told that barman how lonely and miserable I am; how much I miss Jeremy; how much I wish he could just give everything up and stay at home with me." My voice was cracking and I knew the tears were near.
"Oh poor Joanna. How long have you been living with that hurt? Why didn't you talk to me? I told you when we went to lunch together that I could listen. Didn't I prove to you that I wouldn't gossip to anyone?" The concern was even more evident in Suzie's face now. She was seeing the extent of my pain and I was sure it wasn't a pretty sight.
"You don't understand. How can I complain about my husband working when I'm doing the same thing? He's not chasing skirts; he's working! He's not cheating on me, when we're at home together he's most attentive. I have nothing to complain about, nothing but my want to fall asleep in his arms every night; nothing but my selfishness." How could I admit that all I wanted was to spend the rest of my life wrapped in his arms? Even the kids didn't, and never did, see anything wrong with their father being there only a few days every seven to eight weeks.
"You're not complaining, Joanna. There's nothing wrong with your wanting your husband close to you more often. You're talking about being selfish. What's so selfish about loving someone so much you want them close? Now calm down and tell me what you said to that bartender again."