It’s hard to live in peace if you think people are out to undermine or deceive you. Why would they do that? What have you done? It wouldn’t make sense so how can you accept it?
The first thing in the morning after our annual staff development day (SDD, we call it) my friend Stan came to my cubicle, coffee cup in hand, a newsy look on his face, and told me what B. had said to him about me. At SDD, speakers are brought in for staff to listen to and learn from and all of us participate in group activities, except those who, for their own reasons, choose to remain silent. It’s also a social day that gives staff a chance to catch up with one another, though some don’t want to catch up, and I respect their right to privacy and to make their own decisions.
I knew going in that B. and I would not be among those speaking with each other. B. hasn’t spoken to me in eight years, for reasons he’s never explained to me but which I nevertheless respect. I’ve continued to acknowledge B. whenever our paths cross in the building. I say hello or nod, and he looks at me but makes no acknowledgment beyond this brief moment of eye contact. B. has conversations with the other people in the building on occasion, though as far as I know he isn’t considered a voluminous talker, and some of those people have noticed he doesn’t speak to me. Stan is one who’s noticed, and he’s asked me several times what’s behind B.’s silence. I’ve had no way to answer him, except to say that B.’s silence is his business and I choose not to imagine or develop story lines uncharitable to him out of frustration or anger. Despite knowing that, Stan decided to fill me in on what he’d heard.
I had an interesting chat with B. yesterday, he began, though he said B.’s name, which I prefer not to use since in context it could adversely affect his reputation. He saw you walking across the room, Stan said, and he gave me an earful. I didn’t ask him anything, he just came out with it.
Stan waited for me to ask him a question, hoping to tease some curiosity out of me, I suppose, though I don’t want to make assumptions about Stan’s intentions. Whatever his intent, I chose not to ask anything about it, not wanting to start my thinking down that road. It wouldn’t have been fair to B. to talk about him and what he said or meant since he wasn’t there to defend himself or to amend the tone or the full context. I preferred to turn my attention to my e-mail, but I didn’t want to ignore Stan or imply that I disapproved of his interest in sharing his news with me. He had a right to say whatever he wanted and it was up to me to choose how I’d deal with it.
This will sound strong, Stan said after a sip of coffee, but he thinks you’re out of touch with the world around you, that you understand nothing, and that you live in a permanent state of denial. He thinks you toady up to people and grin at everybody to get them to like you. He says another reason you do that is to propagandize the way you think about yourself. The hostility coming out of him made me uncomfortable, and I told him to take it easy and not spread an unprovoked contagion. People close to us could hear him, if they cared to listen. I mean, where does he get off? Propagandize yourself? I’d be willing to bet you’ve never said a bad word about him.
Stan had left me with more than I could take in, but after thinking it over for a moment I decided not to react to his report or offer any interpretation that could make sense of B.’s views on my identity or lack of it. He again waited for me to say something, but all I did was nod, feeling obliged to let him know I’d heard him.
Maybe I shouldn’t have told you, he went on, but I don’t think you’ve had any idea why he doesn’t speak to you. I thought hearing what he said could help you understand, that there could be a way to get past this if you knew what he was thinking. I don’t know and I suppose it’s none of my business, but at some level his silence could be wearing on him and he may want a resolution. He’s the one who brought it up.
I appreciate your trying to help, I said, but I don’t want you to worry yourself about B.’s attitude toward me. His choices are separate from mine and from yours. We don’t run together like the yolks of undercooked eggs, or we don’t if that’s not what we choose. I don’t mean to imply that I disapprove of B.’s choices but only that I don’t make the same choices he does. If I knew everything about him I might see the rationale for his decisions, though I realize it’s impossible for me to know that much about him.
B. would probably say that your eggs are completely undercooked, Stan said, and left me alone in my cubicle with that remark.
I resisted the urge to analyze his egg comment, which stung a bit. I sensed an edge in the word undercooked but reminded myself that I could no more read Stan’s mind than B.’s. I couldn’t verify my thought projections without a further discussion of the topic, but I preferred not to trouble him.
A bright spot was that B.’s silence didn’t appear to be rooted in a personal grievance. According to Stan, he objected to some of my choices and not to some perceived wrong I’d done to him. I found it easy to understand, based on what he’d said, why B. would rather not speak with me, and it comforted me to confirm that I had no objection to his decision.
As I read and deleted e-mails, I was preoccupied by thoughts about Stan’s report. He’d shared a constructive hypothesis when he said that B., maybe subconsciously, could be looking for a resolution or relief from his silence. Would it be remiss of me not to act on this opportunity if a good intention was hidden in his words? I decided to put my discomfort aside and speak with him, though I felt some anxiety about how I’d be greeted and how he’d address me. Or taking a further step back, would he greet me or address me? Or would I be confronted with a determined silence? If so, I had to be prepared not to react, to maintain a charitable and compassionate outlook and demeanor. I didn’t know B.’s depths and I shouldn’t presume to judge them.
After lunch I took the elevator down and found B. at his desk, grumbling to himself as I approached. I stopped a few steps away and stayed put until the grumbling ceased, not wanting to interrupt him. B. soon settled into silence and he had no awareness that I was nearby before I spoke.
Good afternoon, B., I said, but I used his full name. He spun halfway around in his task chair and leaned back as if staring at an intruder. I admit that I interpreted his body language in this way, though I didn’t want to make assumptions. Stan told me you spoke with him yesterday.
He wrinkled his forehead but didn’t speak, his eyes fixed on me. I hesitated to characterize the nature of his stare.
I thought I should pay you a visit and discuss what Stan said. Are you open to the idea? I’m not here to force you to speak with me.
I’m relieved to know that, he said with apparent exasperation. Exactly what did Stan say?
It seems to me it’s more a question of what you said, and specifically what you said about me.
I regretted the impression I must have given that I was correcting him or holding him to account. He owed me nothing, not a word. I didn’t mean to sound that way, but at the same time I didn’t want to allow him to twist the conversation in a way that would shift the focus to Stan. Contrary to what I feared, B. seemed to relax slightly after thinking about my response, though he didn’t seem pleased to be looking at me.
That’s a surprisingly real thing to come from your mouth, he answered. Or you may think so. The problem is I never said anything about you to Stan at what we laughably call staff development day. He’s come to me before, asking what my beef is with you, and every time he asks I say it has not one iota to do with him. He did it again yesterday and I got mad and told him to leave me alone. What does he care anyway? Is he looking to start something? Maybe you should go upstairs and poke a stick in his ribs.
Since I hadn’t witnessed what was said I couldn’t disagree with him in any way or deny the possibility that he’d said nothing about me. A void opened in my train of thought. In any case, I didn’t see a path to a resolution in his words or on his face. His facial skin was extremely dry and wrinkled, partially concealed by a thin gray and brown beard, and his stained teeth were on edge. He looked prickly and bitter and not inclined to say more. I couldn’t guess how hard his life had been.
At least you’ve broken your silence, I said, but he huffed with disdain and turned back to his work.
You call this talking?
Did he mean that he didn’t think of what he’d said as true speech? But what good could come from parsing the remark? I left his question unanswered, with no intent of payback in my silence.
I returned to my cubicle, thinking I’d put in some extra time at the end of the day to make up for the time I’d spent with B., which was not work related. As I continued reading e-mail, I asked myself if I’d unintentionally instigated conflict between Stan and B. Would B. call Stan or go to him and reproach him for speaking with me? Was it intrusive of me to wonder what the conversation would consist of? Would B. be angry that Stan had shared words he’d intended as private or would he be angry that Stan had made up a story about him? But hold the phone. How could I fairly speculate on these questions? What good could be served by it? I shut my mind down on the topic as best I could, though I confess that something in me remained alert to various possibilities connected with Stan and B. and the words that may or may not have been exchanged by them.
I don’t mean to imply any distrust of Stan. I had no solid reason for doubting him, but I also didn’t want to dismiss B.’s side of the story out of bias against him for not speaking to me for eight years. B. had broken his silence when I addressed him, whether he admitted it to himself or not. But if he denied having spoken to me when he obviously did speak to me, would it be consistent to assume that he could deny speaking to Stan when he had, indeed, spoken to him? Though I do question whether the emphatic word indeed carries a connotation of presumption.
This sort of thinking seemed hard to erase from my mind. An urge persisted to go to Stan and tell him of B.’s denial and wait for him to respond, and the only way to release myself from this urge seemed to be to yield to its demands, or so I reasoned at the time. I pushed my chair back and headed toward Stan, whose cubicle was around a couple of corners but on the same floor as mine.
I’d just walked through the doorway into the room where Stan worked when I saw them. Stan was seated in his cubicle, his back to me, and B. was standing beside him laughing, his hand on Stan’s shoulder. I backed up and stood on the other side of the doorway before either of them caught sight of me. I didn’t want to create an awkward situation, to make them feel obligated to explain a moment of mirth between them. As far as I knew it had nothing to do with me, and to come upon them by surprise, as if I’d been conducting an investigation so that I could catch them out, red-handed, in some conspiracy would have taken the situation to a level I couldn’t let myself be responsible for without justification. And if I went to Stan’s cubicle and stood there waiting like an aggrieved party who deserved to be apologized to, then I’d be setting myself up for the humiliating possibility of placing myself firmly in the wrong, all the more humiliating because my intent would have been to place them firmly in the wrong. I shifted in my tracks, worrying that at any moment a colleague would walk up behind me and ask why I was standing near the doorway. Was I waiting for someone? Would the word lurking occur to them to describe my posture? Yet, I wanted to hear B. and Stan, or attempt to hear or overhear them. Why? I asked myself. Was I conducting an investigation without the honesty to admit it to myself? I took a breath and decided to retreat from the doorway, and if I couldn’t succeed in controlling my thinking I could tell my supervisor that a headache had come crashing down and I must leave for the day. But as I took the first step away I heard B. saying in a tone that made my skin crawl: I think in some way he wanted to believe me. And Stan might have answered, though I didn’t quite hear him: He may have. B. laughed again, but I couldn’t tell if I heard Stan joining in.
What could they be talking about apart from the obvious explanation that came to mind? I hadn’t heard my name mentioned. Was it self-centered to assume they were talking about me? Was I prepared to consider the idea that Stan was in cahoots with B.? Had they planned for Stan to report to me a so-called conversation between him and B., during which he’d hint at a possible resolution, leading me to go to B., who’d deny the conversation ever took place, thus leaving me in knots of conjecture? I couldn’t go there. I left the doorway before I could conjure more ambiguities and possibilities I’d be tempted to evaluate.
Back at my cubicle I considered ways to apologize to Stan for doubting him. I could apologize to B. too, but possibly not without exposing myself to a scornful silence. I didn’t like assuming how B. would react to an apology, but I wanted to be realistic in my expectations. On the other hand, I couldn’t apologize to Stan without telling him the context, and what was the context? Dark caverns in my skull inhabited by, what should I call them, imagined ghosts? Was my subconscious intent in thinking of apologizing to Stan to provide him with an opportunity to come clean with me, answer my questions, and confess the true nature of his conversations with B.? There seemed a contradiction in apologizing to him for my thoughts about him while assuming there was something for him to come clean about. I wondered why I should contemplate apologizing to Stan when he could have no idea of the sequence of thoughts that led to the apology.
In spite of my efforts I couldn’t succeed in extracting myself from my own wilderness, and only one thing kept my mind from charging further ahead, and that one thing was my decision to talk with Stan, not to apologize but to tell him what B. had said to me. Perhaps it was self-centered of me not to examine more carefully my intent in speaking with him, but I admit I was too worn out from thinking to guide myself toward inaction.
I picked up the phone and told Stan I’d like to drop by for a moment. He hesitated, and it hit me that B. could still be there, and I struggled to banish images of Stan pointing at the phone and mouthing my name while B. twisted his hair-encircled mouth and gritted his brown teeth. Stan asked me to give him ten minutes to wrap up something, and I agreed.
I put down the phone, fighting an impulse to go straight to him and see what he could be wrapping up. I rebuked myself for being suspicious, and focused on goodwill toward Stan, which was no more than I would have expected from him.
Eight minutes later I was at his cubicle, quietly walking up from behind, no one else in the workroom showing any awareness of me, no sense of awkwardness over anything they might have overheard about me from B. and Stan and now here I was immediately afterward, what a coincidence.
Hey, Stan, I said. His head turned, his fingers lingering briefly on his keyboard as I pulled up a side chair to give us some degree of privacy. I didn’t intend to get confrontational in any way, but it would be simpler if no staff could hear pieces of what we said, possibly someone who’d construct a narrative that could reflect badly on the parties involved. Not that I presumed ill will in any of my colleagues, but I recognized the need for discretion. This is the thing, I said. I talked to B. and he told me he didn’t speak with you at SDD. I’m confused.
Are you saying you believe him? Stan asked.
Inwardly I clenched and squirmed. Though it had occurred to me that he’d ask himself this question, I hadn’t imagined he’d ask it out loud, being in self-control mode with my thoughts.
I don’t mean that, I answered. As I said, I’m confused. Is what he said to you much worse than you’ve told me, bad enough that he’s now embarrassed to admit to my face what he said, on the assumption that you told me everything?
The question seems a little tortured, Stan said. I can’t explain why B. would lie to you.
His face seemed to register compassion for my concerns. I didn’t want to ask myself if it was real compassion.
I should have kept what he said to myself, he added. I should have guessed how it would affect you. I’m sorry. And I shouldn’t have made that crack about undercooked eggs, but your generous view of people can get me frustrated. It seems incomplete at times.
That sounds something like what you said B. said.
I wished I’d phrased it differently, he replied, lowering his eyes for the first time since I sat down.
I was down here a little earlier to see you, I told him, and B. was standing in more or less the same spot where I’m sitting now. I decided to wait before talking with you. I didn’t want to butt in, and I imagined it might be uncomfortable with the three of us all in one place, the tension of this topic hanging in the air between us. Maybe that’s my imagination working too hard. I can’t be sure.
We were talking about business, nothing more, Stan said. But I agree it could have been uncomfortable for you to walk up while we were talking. We’d have probably wondered if you suspected the subject was you. I could understand if you were thinking that way and I think it was a good idea for you to let us conclude our business. If B. and I build rapport I may be able to get him to soften his stance with you.
I believe you. I don’t doubt you.
I’m glad to hear that. I appreciate it. He looked at me, and my guess was that he was asking himself why I was there if I didn’t doubt him. Was I being honest with him? Why was I asking for his version of events? I felt like a fool sitting there opposite my friend, but I saw no good purpose to be served by apologizing and leaving him with an acknowledgment that my faith in him had wavered based on B.’s denial, though B., unlike Stan, had never taken any interest in my well being and could even be considered as a possible enemy, though I don’t want to overestimate his antipathy toward me. I made the decision not to say another word. Besides, I was afraid my voice would crack if I spoke. I stood and offered him a handshake before I left, which he seemed happy to accept.
I still had a slew of e-mails waiting for me, several of which required substantial reading. I was making my way through a lengthy document when the colleague who sat in the cubicle next to Stan’s stopped by. He leaned in, didn’t say hello and didn’t smile. He had a message to deliver, that was all.
I heard you and Stan, and I heard them, he said. They were talking about you.
He winked at me and walked away.
Was it true that Stan had lied to me? If so, maybe he had a good reason. Maybe in his mind it seemed best not to stir me up further by giving me a second report. Maybe when B. bragged that he thought I believed him, Stan, with no ill intent, admitted that it could be true, while B. for his part may have seen his deception as adding to my pathetically deluded outlook. Still, B. had consistently chosen to avoid me rather than seek out conflict, and he would never have told me anything if I hadn’t gone to him.
I must take Stan at his word, or at least accept that his goal was to help me, though I couldn’t feel secure in making assumptions about the intentions of B. or the colleague in the cubicle next to Stan’s. What was his intent in putting his eavesdropped news into my ear? Did he think that his wink would make him more credible? Was he trying to help me? I don’t want to assume he took delight in spreading gossip or in defaming his colleague. Despite failing not to ask myself why he’d made the effort to overhear Stan’s conversations in the first place, I chose not to believe the worst about him.
With so many versions swirling in the air, what was left for me to believe in? I kept coming back to one question. Why would Stan lie to me, unless he had what seemed to him a good reason? I can’t believe he would. It wouldn’t make sense. Whatever qualifications may be buried within the statement, I believe Stan.
Glen Pourciau’s collection of stories, Invite, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have been published in The Antioch Review, Epoch, New England Review, New Orleans Review, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. (5/2012)