Grandma used to liken my personality to a pot of simmering broth. ‘Comfortable and settles well in the belly, it does,’ she’d often tell me. ‘But sometimes, people leave such things on the stove for too long, forgetting that a lid can only ever contain so much. And just like that, something comfortable and nurturing becomes dangerous.’
I’m reminded of her words now as I read an email from my boss’s boss instructing me to put together a detailed report on the new project. I don’t mind hard work, but I mind doing work that isn’t mine. More than anything in the world, I hate the feeling of being used – like some fork to pass a meal to the mouth. A fucking tool.
My fingers start flying over the keyboard.
It is my understanding that a project of this scope and magnitude should be assigned to the Project Engineer. Furthermore, I myself am still working on the three projects handed over to me in last week’s monthly meeting. I will be travelling often to liaise with the subcontractors on their progress so there’ll be no time to start this project too – which might I add, is already running late.
Do not ask me to work overtime. I’m already understating my weekly hours in order to conform to HR’s limitations and cannot possibly push beyond this.
Most important of all, YOU’RE NOT MY FUCKING BOSS!! Please handover the responsibility of this project to the appropriate manager and allow HIM to delegate it as he sees fit. Lord knows he’s good at that – DELEGATING!! He’ll probably give it to me anyway so I suppose you’re just being efficient by eliminating the middleman! So fuck you very very much!
I force myself to take a sip of water and hope it cools the broiling sensation in my gut.
The broth will only simmer now, grandma.
‘Hey Jackie. Wanna do that supper tonight?’
I look up from my work computer and can feel the heat of a blush chasing across my face.
‘Sure Albert. I’ll just finish sending this email and be with you in a moment. You’re leaving now?’
Of course he’s leaving now. I’m the only moron who works extra time on a daily basis.
‘And you should too,’ he says. He shakes his head as though I’m hopelessly dedicated. ‘You’ll find me outside!’ he shouts over his shoulder.
I carefully backspace over the response I’d drafted and type out a new one.
I will begin working on the project at the earliest opportunity.
I shut down my computer and grab my purse. I find Albert waiting in front of the building, but he’s not alone. It looks like he’s trying to extricate himself from the company of Marsha from Accounting but she’s not making it easy.
‘Another time, babe,’ Albert says. ‘I told you I already have an important commitment tonight.’
I inwardly preen. He considers me an important commitment.
‘My car is this way,’ I say, ignoring Marsha’s glare.
‘She’s the one you made plans with? Little Miss Doormat?’
I ignore her outburst and start walking towards my car.
‘Don’t be ugly, Marsh,’ Albert says, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’
He catches up to me just as I’m buckling into the driver’s seat. I wait for him to close his door before starting the car.
‘I’m sorry about that. Marsha’s not normally that rude.’
She is but I shrug it off. ‘It’s fine. I understand her point of view.’
Grandma would’ve liked her.
‘By accepting all the work people throw at me, I make those who stand up for themselves look bad.’
Albert shakes his head in apparent disagreement. ‘I think it says a lot about you that you’re always willing to go the extra mile,’ he says, ‘the fact that management is willing to assign all those important projects to you – despite being an intern – shows that they really trust you.’
‘I like problem solving so being an engineer is something I’ve always wanted to be,’ I say, but I don’t want to discuss work now, the intern who internalizes everything.
So I settle for a smile. ‘So where to?’ I ask.
‘I was actually thinking we could go to your place? The lunch you pack always leaves the kitchen smelling insanely good. What was that that you brought today?’
I’m flattered that he wants to try my cooking, and wonder if I have enough of the casserole left over from last night. Maybe I should cook again...
‘I don’t have any wine,’ I say, ‘we could pass by the store first and get some?’
‘Nah babe, I’ll drink whatever you have.’ His smile creates attractive creases across his cheeks and makes me smile back. I force myself to look ahead and pull out from the parking spot.
‘How is an intern able to afford a car already?’ he asks.
‘It was a gift. My grandma gave her to me for my twenty first birthday.’
‘You’re a lucky girl.’
It certainly feels that way right now. I watch Albert from the corner of my eye and wonder what grandma would think of him. I like how he looks at me and that he doesn’t think me lame for not keeping alcohol on hand. I know the guys at work often go out drinking together – although no one ever invites me along – so I’m especially flattered that he chose to come home with me over spending time with Popular Marsha.
I can almost imagine grandma’s voice now. ‘Hold fast to this one, girl. The ones that know your worth are the ones worth keeping.’
And I’ve never known grandma to be wrong.
We only drive for fifteen minutes before I’m parking in front of my house. It’s the same distance as this morning but the return trip feels a lot more satisfying. Even with the quiet – I enjoy the company of people who do not find silence offensive – I thoroughly enjoy just being next to Albert.
‘Your house suits you,’ he says.
The old fashioned brick structure was passed down from my grandma to my mother and from her to me. The front garden is nicely trimmed and the flowerbed is in full bloom. The windows are dark but the house looks welcoming. I like that he thinks it suits me.
‘Let’s go in.’ I say.
I’m wondering whether he’ll want to take my hand and if I want him to but all thoughts are quickly quietened when he draws me under his arm. We tread slowly to my door, and I’m thinking it’s charming how he sticks to the cobblestones as though wary of crushing the delicate flowers. My hands start trembling when I start to unlock my door.
‘Do you need some help?’
‘I’ve got it,’ I answer, suddenly giddy, ‘guess I’m just a bit cold.’
I push the door open and switch on the lights as I lead the way inside. Albert immediately takes off his work jacket. ‘It’s a bit warm in here.’
I nod. ‘I have a kiln room. I get cold easily so I sometimes leave the embers burning so that the house feels warm when I get back.’
Albert smiles. ‘Your place is lovely.’
‘You’re welcome to look around. I’m just going to prepare the food. Hot chocolate?’
‘Please. No sugar.’
I go to the fridge to check on yesterday’s casserole and there’s just over half left, thank goodness.
I’m not very hungry so there’s enough for both of us. I pop the dish in the oven and start heating milk for hot chocolate.
‘These look unique,’ Albert says. I follow his voice to the formal dining room where he’s busy studying the crockery displayed over the open shelves. A variation of plates, bowls, pots and kettles are artfully arranged on the wooden surfaces. I smile at his appreciative expression as he handles the pieces this way and that, running his finger over their grey textures.
Grandma would definitely like him.
‘Are these a set?’ he asks.
‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘Every single one of them is an individual piece. My grandma was a professional potter. My own work is very amateur I’m afraid.’
‘You made these? They’re amazing.’
The feel of his hand around my neck is an unexpected but welcome sensation. I look up and find his gaze studying my face intently, his hand moving to caress my cheek. It seems like he’s about to…
‘You’re very talented,’ he murmurs against my lips. ‘I think that food is ready now because something smells insanely good.’
What? Right. The food.
He came here to eat my food. I pull back, and glance away in embarrassment.
‘We can have the hot chocolate for dessert,’ I quickly say. ‘Let’s eat first.’
He grins and takes a seat on the dining table.
‘Feed me, pretty lady.’
I giggle and hurry back to the kitchen to dish our meal. When I appear from the kitchen he politely puts his blinking phone aside to help me set up the table. We tuck into our food and his hums of pleasure are like music to my ears.
‘What are you doing this weekend, Jackie?’
He wants to ask me out!
Everything feels fast and thrilling but...I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know I should probably use the weekend to start looking over the new project but damn it, weekends are for personal pursuits and I can do whatever I want.
‘I haven’t really made any plans yet,’ I admit, ducking my head to hide my flaming cheeks.
‘Oh really? I hope you won’t mind if I intrude on your time then...’
Not at all.
‘...a bit behind with some projects and I thought maybe you might take a look at some of them?’
Wait, what? ‘Projects?’
‘Yeah, I’ve seen your work and the projects you manage have the best performance records. And obviously, it would also look good on your portfolio as an intern to have so many achievements under your expert belt.’
I’ve proved myself more than enough times.
But I don’t say this. I’m internalizing again.
His phone starts blinking and he looks at me apologetically. ‘I think I’d love that hot chocolate now. Do you mind if I take this?’
I indicate the corridor and he hurries away to take the call. I mechanically finish the rest of my meal, wondering if I’d been misreading things the whole night. I mean, couples have work dates right? Maybe this is that...
Don’t be a moron. See this for what it is. He could’ve kissed you earlier but he didn’t.
I stand up and pick up my empty plate. His is still half full but I have a feeling he’s had his fill.
I could be wrong. I should give him the benefit of the doubt.
When have any of your doubts ever proven wrong?
Fuck fuck fuck.
I start walking towards the faint sound of his voice before I can stop myself. A sliver in the door of the guest bedroom allows me to observe him as he hisses into his phone.
‘You know I don’t see her that way, babe,’ he says. ‘There’s no need to be upset, I just need to nail these accounts and she’s the one to do it...yeah yeah exactly... You have nothing to worry about. Frankly, I think she’s a little sad with her little mud plates – they’re creepy as shit too – but who am I to judge? Yeah I’ll be there soon just give me thirty more minutes to close this...’
Albert finds me still sitting in the dining room when he returns, our plates now replaced with two cups of hot chocolate. He shakes his head in exasperation. ‘Work never stops for the ambitious I’m afraid,’ he sighs, and starts drinking from his cup.
‘I know exactly what you mean,’ I say inanely. The hot chocolate might as well be cold my gut is churning so furiously with heat. Rage is a living, bubbling thing inside of me. I wonder if I can internalize it this time. I gulp down more of the sweet drink to cool down my insides. The broth is boiling grandma, and I don’t think any lid will be enough this time.
‘...wonderful time tonight, Jackie. I hope we can do it again?’
I realize then that his lips are moving, so mine reciprocate. ‘Sure.’
‘Great! Maybe I can send you those project briefs tomorrow?’
He starts to stand up but stumbles. ‘Whoa did you spike the drink?’ he asks laughingly.
‘You should sit down.’ I stand and push him back into his seat. He goes down easily.
‘Are you cold? Because I get cold very easily,’ I say. ‘I was hot just a moment ago but now I feel cold again.’
His response is unintelligible mumbles I don’t care enough to interpret. There’s awareness reflected in his eyes but the rest of him is paralyzed now. I look into those charming, brown eyes and see fear start to steal into them.
‘I don’t know if it’s my scent or I’m just a magnet for it but I seem to attract the kind of people that want to take advantage of me. It’s sickening.’
His mouth moves to say something but I’m already preoccupied returning the now cooled cups to the kitchen. When I return to the dining room, the rims of Albert’s eyes have turned red and his face looks like it wants to pop off from too much pressure.
‘I keep hoping if I keep enough of you around, you’ll neutralize whatever asshole-magnet is attached to me.’ I swipe the phone from his limp hands and type a quick text to Marsha.
Almost there babe. See you soon.
‘I really liked you, you know!’ I yell, shoving the phone into his breast pocket. ‘You smiled at me! We almost kissed! I GAVE YOU MY FUCKING FOOD!’
But I must have internalized for too long because he can’t witness my anger any longer. His expression is shocked, his gaze empty of life. I’m curiously dissatisfied.
Piece of shit son of a bitch can’t even stick around long enough to be sorry.
I drag the heavy bastard to the kiln room. It’s already packed with fuel and ready to receive him. I open the warm furnace and I heave and push until the stupid, manipulative lug is inside. Finally, I step out and switch on the ancient machine. Flames immediately lick across the thick walls and door, chasing away the cold. The boiling sensation in the pit of my stomach starts to settle and simmer, turning into the comfortable broth I’m used to.
‘Only fire and time truly destroy anything girl,’ grandma’s voice hums breezily in my head, ‘and most of us don’t have time.’
So fire it is.
The furnace consumes Albert’s lying flesh and sharp bones until only smooth, malleable dust is left. I can work with dust. I don’t mind the hours it takes to produce the fine ash. The process keeps me warm. Once the furnace is ambient again, I pull out the catch-tray beneath the fire box.
‘There you are,’ I murmur, extracting a bit of the fine dust to rub between my fingers.
I immediately like the slightly grainy, always unique composition. I study the soft powder for a long time, remembering the cheeky smile and those beautiful dimples I’d fallen for.
A cup, I decide.
My resentment ebbs as I mix dust and water and the clay transforms into something finite and reliable. Once he’s molded, baked and polished into his final form, he too will take his place on shelf with the rest of his kind.