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Romance

Another email, another introduction, another project. Going back to the office post-apocalypse, a.k.a post-lockdown is really something, isn’t it? Suddenly the number of unfamiliar faces explodes in her face. She counts the months she’s been away, holed up at home, alone, lonely; her sleek laptop and other tech gizmos accompanied her through every Zoom meeting and ultra-efficient communication in her product team, almost Spartan-like. Right now, she hauls her backpack to her shoulder and struts across the crowd clustered on the platform. Seriously, what’s the point of wearing a mask if the physical distancing jumps out the window? She runs a quick estimation in her head of whether the mask actually acts as an effective barrier like a shield between two mouths in the crowd like this. She shakes her head, nope, useless. Before her mind takes an interesting turn to a spicier alternative of close proximity between two mouths, her smartphone buzzes, she glances at the email title, and sighs. It’s only a matter of time before her boss assigns her to become a buddy for a new joiner. By all means, she’s not opposed to it, she’s just not enthralled by the prospect of being attached to someone else this week. The mental week, as her other colleagues call.

It’s almost the end of the year and they have tons planned in the pipeline for 2021. Explicitly, it means her design team has to work around the clock to deliver the mockup to the senior management by the end of November, she realises in excruciating enlightenment. It entails that her product team must conclude all the mental gymnastics and endless discussions prior to locking the feature specifications in a structured document. Consequently, it demands her to supervise all her juniors to wrap up and double confirm everything before submitting it to the designers. The collection of mockup then has to be submitted to the lead designer to fuel their own mental week.

Since today is the start of the week, the glorious Monday where everyone is supposed to be walking with a caffeine IV, becoming someone’s buddy is the last thing she wants to see in her bottomless to-do list. Unfortunately, the universe has always punched its way in amid the massive swarm of tasks she puts before her, acting as a huge advertisement billboard with gigantic letters of I’m Busy. 

New design team lead introduction at 9.30. I’ve put your name as his work buddy, her email read.

As if Joel, her boss, hasn’t seen what a total wreck her project pipeline has made. On top of giving a green light for her juniors’ documents, she has to accomplish her feature requests that specifically list her name as the person in charge. She went to bed last night with the full awareness that she has to get up and bulldoze all obstacles in the third week of coming back to office work which coincides with the busiest period of their annual schedule. This is totally unacceptable and her gears slotted in her mind to rotate in clanking noises, she imagines, to produce any other name that could substitute her as the buddy. As it collates all the pictures of her colleagues and picks a name, she quickly discards it before moving to another. After all the exercise, no name is given out simply because every other senior member of the team but her has fulfilled their job as a buddy for a new face. It’s natural for her boss to appoint her, probably with a heavy heart as he will joke later. Yeah, okay, consider this as a volunteering service, then. 

She is just turning at the corner next to the water cooler when her team start coalescing around their desks in their open office area. Great, what’s the point of huddling again? Why aren’t they six feet apart?

She scrunches her nose and ambles to the group. Please, no handshake, she hopes. She’s ready to get stern with anyone new trying to do so with her.

Perhaps everyone is getting that vibe of regency novels when this pandemic is over as if it will be really over. Part of her secretly enjoys the nonexistent gathering after-hour and the loss of unnecessary office girls’ Friday nights sipping beer and gobbling nachos. Call it selfish, but there’s nothing to beat the feeling of wrapping up work on time and not getting stuck in traffic to finally call it a day in a pyjama.

But the business keeps running, thankfully, to keep everyone employed and the economy not stalled, and that means the growth is maintained, and with the growth comes new faces. Such faces that she tries so hard to thumbtack a name card on each as new people keep flowing in. Their boss does his recruiting job steadily during the work-from-home period, interviewing via Hangout calls, so now they have an extra of five members of the team.

And now the sixth. The sixth person that is somehow assigned to her. When the usual pleasantry and friendly chitchats dwindle, the bodies part, providing a space for her to slot in the circle, facing directly to the new member. And she sees who the new person is as clear as a day.

Of course.

Obviously.

Like the universe is ever so lazy.

Brandon stands there in all his glory, clad in a navy blue fitted shirt and a pair of grey slacks that if she recalls correctly, he wore during one of their wedding frenzy weekends when everyone they know seemed to be getting married. Good thing, because this year’s wedding season might trim down a lot due to the pandemic, meaning she wouldn’t need to be stressful over copious invitations, showers, and dresses. But the good part of a wedding is to be able to doll up together with your boyfriend. A boyfriend that has become an ex. Yes, that’s Brandon to her. 

“Cae,” her boss called. “This is Brandon Young. He’s going to lead the design team, but Anna will be shadowing him for a while.” Anna is in Brandon’s current position but resigning in a month.

“Welcome,” her throat suddenly feels parched seeing the corner of Brandon’s lips twitching. Such a pair of beautiful lips to kiss and even more beguiling lies that have bombarded out of them.

“Nice to meet you,” she adds with her palms pressed together before her chest and a short nod of her head.

“Nice to meet you, too.” If she squints, she probably can see a hidden amusement in his chocolate eyes.

“Hope I can expedite the design process here, as I learn that we need to streamline the workflow a bit,” he says neutrally.

“So, uh, we have Leslie, Mark, and Cae in the core product team, and Jennifer and Layla in the product research team?” he calls his memory of name and face. Everyone around him nods with various sounds of approval.

“And there are five other more but they’re in the meeting room there,” Joel gestures at the room with the glass wall across them, pointing at the new joiners sitting around a large desk on every other chair, with the part of the desk in front of the chair supposed not to be sat on is decorated with an X made of two pieces of black tape.

“You’ll get the onboarding training in two weeks, too, I guess,” he continues.

“Alright, then,” Brandon clasps his hands a tad too eagerly. His enthusiasm basically pervades through the rest of the team. It’s the good thing to have an exuberant person to boost the overall spirit. Or probably they’re just exhausted so any level of giddiness is welcomed. 

Remember why you started, she keeps reminding herself when her job feels excessively demanding. And watching the sparks of liveliness in her new teammates does help to lift up her mood.

“So, now that everyone’s introduced, perhaps we can start the day and Cae will help you work the room. Ah, about that,” their boss puts one finger up, “we’re still not allowed to go to another floor, yeah, except for the ground floor. So, better get to know people from the chat group. Cae will assist you with it. And the rest of the internal tools and docs. Best of luck.”

The group disperse and soon Cae finds herself standing within an arm’s length from Brandon.

“Hey,” she offers. “Let’s get you set up with a laptop and I’ll introduce you to the business development and marketing team. They’re practically in touch with product team every day, but it’s good to know what their job is since their voice matters a lot to our design.”

She eyes at the coming IT guy carrying a mouse and an LCD screen. The design people have to use such a large screen to help them better observe the details. Working with a 13-inch screen is painful for long hours.

“Yep, thank you,” Brandon says to the guy while aiding him to arrange his stuff so nothing stands in the way of the cables and monitor.

“Yeah, if you could move it to the left, please?” Cae supplies before even realising what she uttered.

Brandon quirks an eyebrow towards her who now gazes somewhere else, obviously with the tips of her ears reddening.

“Why, thanks. How do you know I’m left-handed?”

Cae swears she can hear a playful tone and feel that lopsided smirk. “Just an observation.” But there is nothing to be observed, actually. Well, hey, the placement of his mailman bag on his left is probably a clue? 

She retreats to her seat which is just behind to him, of this she buzzes with relief because knowing they will not be facing each other as their backs will. Stay professional, she reinforces that to her mind. Despite having every means to not to, considering how well she can map that sculpted body behind his shirt. . . Ok, stop it, Cae. You’re gonna have to share a deck by 11 am for Joel’s approval and he’s not an easy person to convince. Stay on the top of your game, she sings that mantra internally.

“We’re done, so you’re taking me for an introduction round?” 

She leaves the unfinished paragraph on the third slide with a comment to get back to it later and grabs her water bottle.

“I don’t know if you’re still keeping that bottle,” he points to the sheer blue 1-litre plastic bottle she carries. Oh yeah, something she bought out of a whim last year from his e-commerce account just to spite him when they argued.

“Oh, I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” she quips back, smiling victoriously. Two can play at the game.

They make the rounds and Brandon gets introduced to the leads of different teams, fellow designers on their floor, and they end it by video-calling the HR representative to let her know they have done one part of the onboarding process.

“Now if only you’d be so kind as to help me get through this,” his pointer hovers on the list of software and portals to install and log in. 

“Joy,” she sighed before supervising all the steps.

By the time the lunch is almost due, Cae is called to pop in at Joel’s desk. Since everyone sits somewhere in the open office area, she just needs to turn at a corner and–after Joel gestures her to sit down–sits. Oh boy, this is gonna be serious, isn’t it? What sort of talk requires her to sit down if it only involves the usual update?

Joel prefers face-to-face delivery anyway since he looks like he’s missing a normal conversation that is not hindered by a monitor screen and dim lighting. Well, it is now still, by a mask.

At least she doesn’t find herself hunkering down before her laptop in her dingy flat, hiding the shoddy bed that just occupies the majority of her screen if left unattended.

“I want you to expedite his picking up pace because of the heck of the pipeline.”

She frowns, “But it’s only his first day.”

“Yeah,” Joel fumbles around his email list to show her shortly, “ You think he’ll be up to speed for this task?”

The sanity check before submitting to the big bosses. The review process will be tedious this year because Anna basically has to do a double job, supervising Brandon and perusing herself. Cae is disturbingly aware of this due to her experience of changing jobs in the past five years; the final months or weeks of her tenure was always the worst and troublesome because handover is never as easy as it sounds. Working at the fast-growing tech companies, the amount of documents and virtual drive sharing links flying around is nerve-racking. It’s utterly difficult to find old documents without searching by name or asking someone else to reshare. Anna will surely look like death warmed up by her last day. Well, she picks the wrong time to resign.

Thinking about that, she sympathises with her boss’ concern. “Should be fine. I’ll ensure he can find the tools and assistance he needs.”

“I hope so. You guys apparently graduated from the same uni and faculty. I thought you referred him.”

Surely and definitely, not. Who in the right mind would recommend an ex to work together, boss? 

“Did he? I’ve just met him today.” She says that with her blandest tone, hopefully, it still sounds neutral to Joel.

“That’s right,” he waved his hand. “We should invite him to lunch. Gosh, you don’t know that months of eating alone is depressing. Like, how did I even survive?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

So the group of five–because some others have other plans–goes to their usual diner pre-pandemic. Maybe it’s now an unofficial milestone that hits everyone like a brick so they start categorising events according to their timeline relative to the plague.

“You should try the salad here,” she says when everyone seems fascinated by a menu book. Perhaps it looks like an ancient relic that they unearth and touch for the first time. 

“Is it any different?”

“No olives,” she continues. And realising her mistake real quick. When will she start installing a filter between her brain and mouth?

The little smirk doesn’t escape her gaze before she lowers down her eyes to trace the letters of fish and chips; suddenly the font looks interesting. No one else notices the weird aura between them. Good news. God knows how long they can stay like this before someone with loose lips splutters that they somehow scroll one of them online and see the picture of Cae and Brandon.

Oops, no worries. Her thumbs slipped ages ago and deleted the internet trace of them if it’s ever possible.

By the time everyone wraps up work, not at a normal hour, of course, the digital clock at the top of her screen shows 7.30 pm. 

The lift dings and the doors part. Before they close again, someone slips in. Joel.

They have more than twenty floors to go, so here comes Cae’s idea to fill in the silence with the non-awkward conversation.

“So, how’s your first day?”

“Great, I’ve caught up with tools and people. Anna has forwarded me a ton of mockup files to check.”

“That’s cool. You’re in when we’re facing the most hectic period of the year, so, yeah, your first week might not be all fun and games,” Joel chuckles.

“No problem for me. Had been eyeing to work here forever so I’ll always remember why I started.”

A catchphrase that he threw around when their relationship started to crumble under pressure, she remembers.

Something uneasy builds in her stomach. Not the panic attack again, please.

He gives her a sidelong glance that she avoids, but he adds gently, “Where do you guys live?”

To which both of them state their areas because Cae still plays along and Joel–as everyone else in this situation will respond–sees nothing special with this question.

“Actually we can go home together. We ride on the same line,” his softest tone speaks.

Brandon, please, don’t lower your voice when speaking to me. Everyone who fancies researching relationship nonsense will know that you’re attracted to me, her mind supplies mercilessly.

“I, yeah, let’s go. Good to have a commuting buddy.”

When they’re heading off to the platform, she can only wonder how long the lid will stay on it.

August 29, 2020 02:20

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