The company Christmas party
[ fiction - september 11 ]
The thought of Ryan in love with Connie danced in Deborah’s head even though she tried to convince herself nothing was going on behind her back. Five nights later, she was officially told what was going on behind her back, and it was precisely what was dancing in her head.
From that moment on, she preferred being unconscious.
Deborah Newland’s favorite time of day was now nine o’clock at night when she would swallow the sleeping pill Dr. Sappington had prescribed. She knew she’d be unconscious within thirty minutes, and those minutes were absolute bliss. She felt as if she were in a luxurious limo heading to the airport, a velvet carpet ride of comfort and anticipation. At the twenty-eight minute mark she’d be on the aircraft, seat buckled, ready for take-off into the dark, expansive sky.
Deborah. Never Debbie. Her parents called her Deborah as did her friends, co-workers and husband of four months before he left her for Connie Gaul. Connie. Never Constance. The marriage wasn’t perfect; something seemed to be missing, like the final piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle. Still, Ryan found his way back to Deborah’s bed every night like a homing pigeon. And that was enough for her.
She didn’t blame herself for any of it. Why shouldn’t she have taken her husband to the company Christmas party? That was what employees did. Dozens of them brought their spouses without a single negative repercussion; this was not considered a marriage-threatening action.
The employees who worked together eight to ten hours a day were a family of sorts; some spent more time with their colleagues than they did with their husbands and wives. They knew one another’s likes, dislikes, interests, habits, sense of style or lack of, sense of humor or lack of. But they were ignorant when it came to the subject of intimate activities. Only during the company Christmas party, when spouses were expected to show up, did private lives become public, as if the information were being disseminated in a company-wide e-mail.
It was the women who did the serious gossiping. The men were too busy downing one drink after the next to ward off severe discomfort. The big surprises of the night - before Deborah lost her husband to Connie - were that Maureen’s husband was a man of color and Rich’s partner was a man. Some people had suspected Rich’s sexual orientation, but no one was entirely sure until he brought his swarthy same sex partner to the Christmas bash. “Gay men are so well dressed,” Deborah remarked to Ryan.
“Isn’t that the truth?” Connie interjected. Standing a foot away from Deborah, Connie Gaul couldn’t help overhearing. “Well-dressed and polite,” she added with a wide smile.
Introductions were made to the respective spouses of Deborah and Connie. Mitch Gaul was a man of average height with a mass of jet-black hair touching his velvety eyebrows. Bordering on emaciated, he couldn’t stand to lose even a half pound. If Deborah had been gossiping about him, she would have said that the earthy, alluring Connie could have done much better. Several minutes later, Deborah excused herself to go to the ladies room. Examining herself in the large mirror, she thought she looked at least five years younger than thirty-three. Though no great beauty, her chestnut-colored hair was lustrous and her body was in excellent shape thanks to her modest eating habits and early morning walks. She re-applied her rose red lipstick - this gave her plain features a little pizzazz - and walked out of the powder room with a bit more confidence than she had going in. Little did she know that Mitch had excused himself to go to the men’s room exactly twenty seconds after Deborah had excused herself, leaving Connie and Ryan alone. When Deborah returned to the spot where the foursome had been standing, none of the original four was there, and she felt a rush of anxiety. Immediately she reached into her purse for a tranquilizer, her second of the night. She swallowed it with the last bit of cheap champagne in her flute.
Glancing around the room, everyone looked familiar, though their attire didn’t. Even the young assistants had donned neckties and party dresses. Some of the reticent employees became loose and loud after a few cocktails, and some of the loose and loud employees became obnoxious. Most were clustered in groups of two of four or more, telling tiresome stories, making bad jokes, gabbing about business.
Mitch returned from the men’s room. “Hello,” he said to Deborah. “Where are Connie and Ryan?”
“I have no idea,” she replied.
“Maybe they’re getting another drink.” Mitch led Deborah to the bar, but the spouses were nowhere in sight. “You think they went out for some fresh air?” Mitch asked.
“Ryan’s not the fresh air type,” Deborah said.
“Neither is Connie,” Mitch reported. He didn’t seem bothered by his wife’s absence, but Deborah was experiencing sheer panic, the kind she felt when discovering a summons for jury duty in her mailbox. It was odd for Ryan to vanish like that, knowing Deborah would be looking for him. She tried to convince herself he had a solid excuse, but she couldn’t keep the queasiness away.
Adjacent to the main party area with its noise, smoke, and standard Christmas decorations was a more intimate room with tables, chairs, dim lighting, and votive candles. “I’ll bet they’re in there.”
“Shall we check?” Mitch asked. The more time she spent with Mitch, the less Deborah liked him. There was something sleazy about the guy, as if he were capable of committing a felony and forgetting about it the next day. He followed Deborah who was running to the beat of her racing heart.
Sure enough, the moment they stepped into the next room, Deborah spotted the spouses. Sitting at a round table with three chairs, Ryan and Connie appeared engrossed in conversation.
“Seems our better halves are enjoying each other’s company,” Mitch stated.
“He’s not my better half,” Deborah said with disgust, as if she’d just tasted a rancid piece of cheese. “We’re equal partners.”
“I didn’t mean it literally,” he responded. “What do you suppose they’re talking about?” Mitch asked.
“Could be anything,” Deborah said. “Politics. Late-night TV. Travel. Ryan’s been wanting to go to Brazil.”
“Why don’t you go?”
“Because I have no interest. Let’s join the group, shall we?” Deborah asked. She didn’t wait for a response; she made a B-line to the table. When Ryan saw his wife, his face lit up, but Deborah didn’t buy it. Insincerity oozed from his eyes as if he resented the interruption. “Deborah,” he said, “did you know Connie speaks four languages?”
“English and Spanish,” Deborah said. “What else?”
“French and German.” Connie too seemed bothered by the interruption, but
Deborah wondered if this was all in her imagination. Paranoia had afflicted her in the past.
“You don’t speak French and German,” Deborah stated with authority, almost reprimanding her colleague as she sat down.
“She speaks enough French to get by,” Mitch chimed in as he fetched a chair from the next table. “But German?”
“I took that night course, remember?”
“You don’t speak fluent German, babe.”
“I know enough to get by.”
“To get by the Gestapo?” Mitch asked. The only one laughing at this remark was Mitch. “Your wife tells me you want to visit Brazil.”
“I do,” Ryan replied. “I’ve never been to South Africa.”
“South Africa?” Deborah asked.
“South America! Sorry,” Ryan said. “I’m a little flustered.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Brazil too,” Connie said. “The one in South America.”
“Well Mitch, why don’t you take your wife on a South American adventure?” Deborah suggested. “Sooner rather than later.”
“Why is that?” Connie asked.
“Because you never know what might happen,” Deborah explained. “On the drive home from tonight’s party, you might be barreling down the freeway, heading toward an overpass, and just as you reach it, a heavy metal shopping cart might be hurled over the edge, slamming into your windshield. Not only will you die a horrible, bloody death, but whichever one of you is behind the wheel, I’ll assume it’s Mitch, might lose control of the car and plunge into a ravine or a concrete barrier. The impact would kill you, if you weren’t already dead.”
Deborah’s gruesome account of what could occur brought a solemn, awkward silence. No one knew how to respond. “Well,” Connie finally said, “thank you for sharing.” It was then that Deborah wondered if Ryan and Connie had made some quick, quiet plan for a future rendezvous. She couldn’t help imagining her husband washing Connie’s hair in the shower, tending to her gently and sensually. She couldn’t help imagining Connie massaging Ryan’s shoulders the way she did with male colleagues in the late afternoon (though their shirts remained on).
“Don’t look now,” Connie whispered to the gang. “But Ruby Abrams just jumped on top of the piano. Dear God, please don’t let her sing.”
The robust, red-haired Ruby Abrams was Vice President of Marketing and a frustrated performer. It seemed natural for her to be above the rest of the crowd because she felt superior to everyone, smiling condescendingly at all the faces that weren’t looking at her. She had a decent, throaty singing voice, but it wasn’t as good as she thought it was. The pianist began to play a few notes, and Ruby started singing, “You’re the top, You’re the Coliseum, You’re the top, You’re the Louvre museum.” Halfway through the Cole Porter song, she forgot the lyrics and tried to wing it, but the performance quickly became an embarrassment. “One teeny martini too many,” she joked into the microphone. “It’ll get you every time.”
Connie leaned over to Deborah and whispered in her ear. “How can she face anyone Monday morning after such a debacle?”
“Takes guts,” Deborah replied, “which she has plenty of.”
A loud thump caused a roar of concern. Ruby had fallen off the piano. Several people came rushing to her. “Are you all right?” they asked.
Ruby let out a mirthless chuckle to signal that she was fine. “Oh yes.”
“Should we call an ambulance?” someone in Human Resources asked.
“No. Just a few broken ribs, that’s all,” the would-be songbird joked. Two guys from the graphics department helped her up. “See? Still in one piece.”
Connie leaned over and whispered into Deborah’s ear. “Her fat must’ve eased the impact, like falling onto a mattress. Did you hear the rumor that she was once a lady of the evening? She told me she married a John. I don’t know if that was his name or description.”
“She’s had at least four husbands. One was probably named John.”
“She probably married out of boredom, but who doesn’t?”
“I didn’t marry out of boredom,” Deborah stated with authority as she clutched Ryan’s hand. He didn’t clutch back.
By the end of the night, which was less than one awkward hour later, Deborah felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her. She and Ryan barely spoke on the drive home except to say how personable Connie was. “She seems like a great gal,” Ryan said.
He had never used that term before; it sounded foreign coming from his lips. “Great gal?” Deborah asked.
“Congenial, I mean,” he said.
“Not everyone likes her at the office, you know. She can be a bit phlegmatic.”
“Phlegmatic?” Ryan asked. “You’ve never used that word before.”
“We’ve never spoken about Connie before.”
The thought of Ryan madly in love with Connie danced in her head even though she tried to convince herself nothing was going on behind her back. Five long, uncomfortable, virtually silent nights later, she was officially told what was going on behind her back, and it was precisely what was dancing in her head.
Behind her back was an enormous, black-tie gala event. An RSVP wasn’t necessary because the only two invited guests were already present. “I can’t keep it to myself any longer,” Ryan admitted. “I’ve been seeing Connie Gaul the past few nights.”
Deborah felt nauseated and dizzy, but she couldn’t run to the bathroom; she needed facts. “Are you in love with her?” The second after she asked the question she knew the answer. It was the momentary pause that gave it away.
“Uh, well,” he said, “yes, we’re in love. She’s telling her husband tonight. Right now, in fact.”
“So all this was planned, like a Gestapo attack. Inform the spouses at precisely the same time. I’ve never seen you plan something so meticulously, Ryan. Is she telling him in French or German?”
“There’s no need to become bitter,” Ryan quietly said.
“Do I seem bitter?” she asked.
“You’re definitely leaning in that direction. And bitterness doesn’t become you.”
Deborah said nothing for a few moments. She needed time to think, to breathe, to recover from the seismic jolt. “Well,” Deborah finally said, “as your wife, all I ever wanted was for you to be happy. So I guess Connie helped make me the perfect wife. I practically delivered her to your doorstep.”
At the office the following morning, Connie avoided Deborah like an opportunistic infection until it became impossible, until they found themselves literally facing one another in the south hallway. “I’m sorry for the way things turned out,” Connie said. “But once in a while, something gigantic happens and you have no control. Neither of us had control.”
“I believe you have control over everything you do,” Deborah stated. “You can feel something, but choose something else. It would hurt for a while, but you’d get over it, especially because it was the right thing to do. In any case, let’s not talk about it.”
“Agreed,” Connie replied. “We’ll deal with each other as if nothing out of the ordinary happened.”
“Exactly. We’ll go about our daily routine, and if we happen to encounter one another in the break room or at a staff meeting, we’ll smile politely and pretend we don’t notice everyone staring at us and whispering to one another behind our backs. We’ll continue with the business at hand, making believe you didn’t steal the only man I ever loved, and pretending you speak fluent German.”
“There’s no reason to be bitter,” Connie said.
“If ever there was a reason to be bitter, this is it, don’t you think?” Deborah asked.
“I understand you consider me phlegmatic.”
Deborah was flabbergasted, feeling that Ryan had betrayed a trust. She said nothing.
“And just think,” Connie remarked, “I came this close to staying home from the party,” she said, illustrating a length of one inch with two fingers.
“That close?” Deborah inquired with stupefaction.
“This close.” Connie confirmed.
Deborah’s marriage was now history because of one measly inch. But one inch of what, she wondered? By this time, Connie had disappeared down the hallway. Deborah remained, leaning against the beige wall, contemplating that one small inch of vegetable, animal, mineral or something more oblique: indecision? Illness? Fear? Overall discomfort concerning the stuffy annual event? A social event, it was called, but it was a business meeting really. Nobody wanted to socialize with these boring, insipid people dressed up in what they thought were stylish outfits. Everyone would’ve preferred to stay home, drink beer and watch television in their bathrobes. But it was almost a requirement to attend the holiday bash. If one didn’t show up, one would have to supply a convincing excuse the following Monday morning.
“Damn that Christmas party,” Deborah quietly said between clenched teeth. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.”
Just then, Ruby Abrams appeared in the hallway. “I heard about your hubby,” she said in her harsh voice. “Just remember: When a man is stolen, his wife is new meat on the market.” She winked, then marched away like a diva approaching her fans.
“I don’t need him,” Deborah firmly told Dr Sappington the following afternoon. “I was convinced I was still in one piece, but now I realize he ripped me open and took a piece of me with him. And nothing can fill that void except sleep.”
“You need to find other things to fill the void,” the doctor warned.
“But at least I have something!” she shared with a kind of proud passion. “Isn’t having something better than having nothing?”
“Well, but in this particular case I think it’s much better to have something that eases the burden, brings me a little peace to replace the piece of me that’s gone.”
“You can’t retreat into sleep for the rest of your life.”
“But I can for now,” Deborah argued.
The little oval tablet that glided down her throat wasn’t exactly royal blue. It was closer to cerulean. It was her friend, her company, her savior, the one thing in her life she could count on, the only thing that worked every single time. She fell so in love with the pill that she decided to take it more than once every night. The habit expanded to twice a day, then three times a day, one tablet every eight hours. Then two every eight hours. She became a sleep junkie. Realizing this wasn’t particularly healthy, she considered attending a twelve-step meeting, but she was never awake long enough to walk to her car.
As she lay in her bed, she luxuriated in the softness of her sheets, the warmth of her blanket. She adored the ability to stretch her body as far as it would go. She looked forward to the second when everything would become a blur and her dark, magical journey would begin. Deborah was always ready for the colorful, intriguing stories her unconscious mind would perform for her. Now, even when the sun was shining brightly, it was nighttime in her head and in her bedroom, shades drawn, darkness palpable. When rain slammed the roof or the wind howled outside, Deborah was safe and protected, cozy in her infinite repose.