Piece of Heaven Publishing Company, read in big blue block letters at the entrance of the four story building. I read this phrase every time I entered this godforsaken place. Piece of Heaven for who?? Not for “Tom the Temp”, (that’s me). A couple of my now co-workers nicknamed me that. I’ve been here for 2 months, on the dot, and there is no foreseeable end to this sentence. The person I’m filling for went on maternity leave but is now facing some unexpected health issues. I’ve never met them but everyone I talk to raves about how welcoming, funny, and cool they are. Maybe hinting that I lack these qualities...or I could just be overthinking it. I try not dwell too much on it though.
Everyday I come into work with an iced americano from the locally owned coffee shop on the corner, my signature drink I like to start my mornings with. But this morning felt different; I woke up chipper, ordered my coffee like I was happy to be awake at 7am, and entered Piece of Shit Publishing Company with a pip in my step. That’s until I ran straight into a man an entire foot taller than me. It’s a wonder how I didn’t see him. I was busy looking at my untied shoe, sipping my americano, when-- BAM he was right in front of me, and my coffee was on the front of me too. “Argh, oh no.”
“Oh! I’m sorry, here I am making a mess of things on my first day” Said the tall man.
“Hey, uh it erm happens” I say this as I’m wiping my red vest. I start to fall into my words as I see who I’m talking to. A man, as I said a foot taller than me, with deep brown eyes. They seem to twinkle even if there’s no sun to help on this overcast morning. He has a beard and mustache combo, and it seems he has just gotten a fresh haircut too. His hands are decorated with rings (but not on his left ring finger) and he has reached out helplessly to see if he can do anything.
“I’m sorry again.”
“It’s not your fault, I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going. You said you were new?”
After our initial encounter things got a lot smoother. He ended up being another temp, taking the place of someone who had to go on personal leave for a sick family member. We talked all the way up to the third floor (our elevator had been broken since before I started).
“Yeah, so that’s how I ended up here.” He finished telling me how he graduated from his home town college, applied to random temp agencies, and got this job a couple hours from where he grew up.
“What compelled you to stay in your hometown for college?” I ask, intrigued to know his answer. I launched myself into leaving my hometown, Otter Bay, the first chance I got. Mostly exhausted by seeing the same rotation of people I’ve known since kindergarten. If not for the name alone.
Tall man leaned against the wall, we were just outside the entrance to the third floor. We were almost eye level when he did this, one arm across his chest, one leg over the other. “Well, I had a long term girlfriend. Our plans were to stay together forever” he smirked as he said this. “But it stopped working when I found out she was cheating on me during our last couple months of undergrad.” His smirk was smaller, but not all the way gone.
“Oh shit, that sucks! I’m sorry to hear about that.” I tried to act sad for him. The problem was that he didn’t seem to be sad about it. There was almost a sense of relievement. And I was happy he was here, having a conversation with me. He was the first person I connected with after months of being here.
“I’m actually on the next floor up.” He told me as he took a couple of steps toward the stairs.
“Good luck on your first day!” I offered this as I took a couple steps backwards towards the door.
“Thanks.” He smiled and left me, coffee stained and a bit hopeful.
As the morning started out different so did the rest of the day. I replied to people quickly and more upbeat than usual. I shuffled my papers on my desk with a new found motive to get things done. One of my co-workers noticed this new behavior. “You seemed to wake up on the right side of the bed today” Jenny said and squinted at me. She had 20/20 vision, so her squinting could be accounted for by trying to see what was different about me. “You came in without your iced americano, a stain from said iced espresso, and smiling...quit strange Tom the temp.” Jenny squinted harder, determined to find the source of this new attitude.
“There’s nothing different about me I swear.” I said, kind of laughing. Which I didn’t do a whole lot of here. “I do not accept this.” She said, and turned away, now furrowing her brows and looking out the window. I went back to thinking about Tall Man. Something about his charm mingled in my mind. I kept thinking of his jawline and rings and…. “Fuck”. I said out loud. Jenny swiveled in my direction. “I didn’t get his name.”
Jenny’s eyes were no longer squinting, in fact they enlarged twice their size and her mouth upturned into a huge grin. “Your kidding, a guy?? I should’ve guessed, oh my gosh tell me about him I’m begging for a bit of romance.” Now she was sitting right by me, hands holding the sides of her face, waiting.
“Oh noo, now you know.” I grimaced, also placing my face in my hands, but in more of a defeated way. My goal of working here was to make enough money until I made my next move to New York, not make new friends to miss when I left.
“You,” she pointed to me, “Me”, she pointed to herself, “my place after work. No excuses Tommy. And I know you don’t have your second job today because it’s Wednesday.”
“-uh, how do you know I work a second job??” I said taken aback. I didn’t recall telling anyone I delivered pizza on the side.
“You delivered a large pepperoni/pepperoncini pizza the other day to my girlfriends house.” She winks at me and swivels back to her cubicle. I guess my time of solitude at P.O.S publishing company was over.
After we clocked out Jenny cornered me and looped arms with me. “If you think for a SECOND your getting out of this, think again.” I wanted to break away and run for the hills at this point, but a part of me thought it’d be good to make one friend in this town. Talking to Tall Man about myself this morning felt good.
I came into this town with one goal and dismissed anything that could deter me away from it, that included making any relationships, platonic or romantic. In Otter Bay I didn’t have a best friend, friends, or partners. I really only had me for 19 years. My parents were constantly busy with work, leaving me to entertain myself. They had once told me they tried to have more kids, but found I was enough for them.
I wish they tried harder. And yes, I know I’m loved and cared for but I always yearned for siblings. Siblings to be around and be with no matter how much we fought. Siblings to help guide me through adolescence, and I could do the same. Since I didn’t have them, I tried for a period to make friends. That didn’t work. The other kids in my class never wanted to come to my birthday parties, never invited me to theirs. I found some comfort in long distance running. This was something I could do by myself, and maybe where I felt the most comfortable with myself. I also read a lot. If I couldn’t make friends at school, I made them when I read. I loved stubborn and persistent Jo, from Little Women. I dreamt of Hermione and Ron as my own friends.
Jenny waved her hand in front of my face, “Earth to Tom!! I asked if you wanted tea two times now.” She looked at me laughing, “I guess it was love at first sight huh?”
Now I laughed. “Oh quit it, I don’t even know the man's name. I don’t even know if he likes men.”
“And that just makes it that much more romantic. There’s mystery now, there’s inquiry on who this tall, bearded, ringed, man is. If he’s not gay, send him my way.” She winked at me and placed a mug of peppermint tea in front of me.
“He just got out of a long term relationship with a woman, maybe he wants to switch things up” I wink back. I actually found myself excited to be in Jenny’s tiny two bedroom apartment gossiping over a new (very low possibility) love interest. Her place was colorful. The walls splashed with vibrant greens and the south end had a gallery wall of thrifted cat pictures. As it was winter there was no natural light but I could imagine the place being comfortable in the day time.
“I feel like it's a good sign you found out so much about him within three staircases…” Jenny said.
I dismissed this premise, “Anyways, who knows if I’ll see him again.” I sipped my tea. Jenny put hers down, appalled and went on a rant that lasted five minutes. How I have to try and talk to him again. How he’s only one floor up, it’d be easy to pop in and find his desk.
“Maybe easy for you” I said, “You're friends with everyone.”
“OHH I have an amazing plan!!” Jenny looked thrilled. She quickly got up and went to her room and came back with a notebook and a pen. When I asked what it was for she just grinned and said “for the cookie exchange.”
The next day me and Jenny were still in the office after we were supposed to be off, both pouring over her computer. “I think it looks great,” She said, glancing at me. I was reading and rereading a flyer Jenny made this morning. It was striped with Christmas colors, bordered with gingerbread men, and in the center was a white circle with the words “Come one, come all, to the 1st Annual Cookie Exchange!” Underneath that was the time and place of said exchange. I may have been overthinking things, but the flyer just didn’t look right. I had Jenny redo it three times. I could tell she was getting a bit annoyed. I came to the final truth; you really couldn’t mess up a simple flyer.
“You know what, send it.”
She gasped, excited and relieved as she hit send. We managed to get a mailing list of most of the employees that worked at P.O.H. We crossed our fingers that Tall Man was on it.
Jenny patted me on the back, “Next weekend is going to be so much fun. Even if the mystery man doesn’t show up, or isn’t gay. I’m glad I bugged you yesterday.” She smirked as she got up, wrapping her scarf around her neck.
“Yeah, I guess it was about time I gave into your efforts to be friends” I laughed. We got up and she hooked her arm with mine again.
“I was afraid I was just annoying you at this point,” she said as she nudged me for a rebuttal.
“Well you were annoying, but look how well it worked” we were both laughing when I heard a familiar voice in the lobby. It was Tall Man. He was standing with a group of guys. I guessed they were from the fourth floor, since I didn’t recognize them. They were all talking loudly about something and looked like they were headed out together.
Jenny whispered, “Is that him?? Oh how cute!”
“Shh I don’t want him to notice me” I made her walk a bit faster and made it out the door. I couldn’t decide if it was the right move or not. I wasn’t prepared to talk to him in person again. Would I try and flirt with him? Was that weird since we were technically still at work? Should I avoid him all week and build up my expectations of Tall Man until the cookie exchange?? That sounds perfect actually.
For the next couple of days Jenny teased me about, who she simply liked to call, “mystery man.” Telling me I should try and engage with him before the mixer happened. I told her I was too nervous. I tried to arrive and leave work right at 9am and 5pm, since I observed Tall Man lingering before and after work.
I hungout with my newfound work best friend all week, during lunch and after, when I didn’t have to deliver pizza. I guess you could say Jenny was my first best friend ever. I didn’t tell her that information though. I knew she wouldn’t think it was weird. She would be thrilled if she knew. Maybe I kept it to myself because it felt special and I was being sentimental.
Finally, the day of the cookie exchange arrived. We planned for the exchange to happen at Jenny’s apartment, despite its size. Her roommate was gone this weekend and we spent Friday after work cleaning and decorating it. For some reason we didn’t think very many people would show up, we were wrong.
It was 8:00 that same Friday and Jenny’s place was packed to the brim. Fellow co-workers I recognized, and many I didn’t, all chatting in their holiday wear, complimenting each other's cookies. Jenny put on an indie Christmas list from Spotify and her various warm toned lamps light the living room and kitchen, the open floor plan helped make the place feel less small.
Jenny and I managed to find a moment to ourselves in her bedroom to talk about the night.
“He’s not here,” I say as I sigh, eating a chocolate peppermint cookie.
“Well all his fourth floor guy friends are, maybe he’s just running late?” Jenny said peeking out of her room and quickly let out a gasp. She let out a squeal and managed to say he arrived. She pushed me out the door. “Give him a cookie! Say hello! Be nice!” She instructed me.
And there Tall man was. He looked out over everyone and waved to his friends but didn’t make a move to get to the other side of the apartment to join them. We made eye contact and he waved at me.
“Hey you.” He said warmly, “You know if I was a superstitious being I would’ve guessed you were avoiding me all week.”
My eye widened slightly, “-uh me?? Couldn’t be...well if I’m being honest…” I couldn’t finish my sentence I was too nervous.
“It’s ok, you can make it up to me somehow.” He reached for my hand, “Let me introduce you to my friends.”
“I’m Brooks by the way.”
“I’m Tom.” I let him hold my hand and we talked the rest of the night together.