Spending time avoiding life

"The Ex-Executive Assistant" is a comedic story about a young man who loses both his job and his girlfriend on the same day.

Recap: Lyle always wanted to be a writer when he was younger, but he gave up on his dream as the years went by. Now that he’s recently unemployed and broken up with his girlfriend of two years, he’s struggling to find a renewed sense of purpose. His cousin, Shep, suggests that he write about Annabelle, to help Lyle get over her and also to get him writing again. In the previous chapter, the narrative switches to first-person as Lyle begins to write about how he met Annabelle and what she meant to him. He discusses the difference he sees between real love and the way it’s often portrayed in movies. Real love, he says, “isn’t summed up in a climatic ending or in a pivotal plot twist. No, I think love, true love, is more of an everyday thing: an unexpected kiss in a restaurant; a touch of the hand during a stroll; a meeting of the eyes from across a room. Annabelle taught me that. Before I met her, I was always focused on the Big Picture, the Grand Ideal.”

If I’m in the right frame of mind, I can put myself in the moment when I Annabelle and I met. It was at a party thrown by an old college friend, Irene, and Irene’s live-in boyfriend, Tom.

I’d known Irene and Tom for years. They lived in a gorgeous house on a high hill that overlooked Reno, and they often threw lavish parties that featured gobs of alcohol and scores of hot women. Naturally, I’d never turned down an invitation.

When I first saw Annabelle, she was sitting at Irene’s dining-room table, sipping a vodka. A handful of people surrounded her, gabbing. I was standing against a far wall, Heineken in hand, surveying the scene like a cat.

Actually, before we go there, I should tell you I’m not a social animal — I’m a wallflower. Unless my buddy Brent’s around to bolster my confidence, I usually slink to the darkest, farthest corner, clutching my beer and veiling my face with indifference. I feel safer in the shadows, where I can watch the world and take in the chatter. And please don’t misunderstand me: I enjoy being around others. I’m shy, not standoffish. It just that — for me, at least — interaction is difficult. It always has been. Some people thrive on talking, but I blossom through observation.

And, yeah, when I’m partying, I’m never without a beer. Not so much because I’m a drunk — which maybe I am — but also because the beer serves as a twofold defense mechanism: it works as an antidote to my timid personality, and it gives my hands something to do. Without a bottle, my hands would be rubbing my nose, fumbling with my glasses and stuffing themselves into my pockets. I’d look like I was conducting the Philharmonic.

Anyway, back to Annabelle: The first thing I noticed about her was her eyes. They were focused, sharp, penetrating, and dazzlingly green. They were looking to her left (at what, I couldn’t tell, exactly — either at the floor or someone’s shoes), and they were tinged with thought.

Actually, thinking of Annabelle’s eyes reminds me of a story: I once wrote a piece for an English class in which I described a woman’s eyes as “deep, entranced, hypnotic, enigmatic … stories unspooled behind them; I gazed into their depths, seeing her soul … they were a mystery to be solved, a secret to be shared, a significant piece of wisdom to be learned and treasured.”

The teacher returned the paper with the entire description crossed out in red ink.

Way too much detail,” he’d written. “For Pete’s sake, their just eyes.” (And yes, he’d misspelled “they’re.”)

I knew he was right: they were just eyes. My description had been contrived and careless. I promised to repair my prose.

But when I saw Annabelle and her emerald-green eyes, I knew I’d been right all along. Some eyes are just eyes — I’ll give my teacher credit — but some eyes are more. Hers were more. In fact, the only way I can describe Annabelle’s eyes with any degree of accuracy is to call them “deep, entranced, hypnotic, enigmatic … stories unspooled behind them; I gazed into their depths, seeing her soul … they were a mystery to be solved, a secret to be shared, a significant piece of wisdom to be learned and treasured.”

It was obvious she couldn’t care less about the people at the table. They were all stuffed-shirt college creeps, anyway: arrogant academics who congregated in coffee shops to discuss Donald Barthleme stories and MFA programs. As they laughed, she smiled — more from politeness than from amusement. She kept looking at her vodka, sipping it casually, her eyes dancing around the room. I hoped they would land on me, but they didn’t: I was standing in the dark, and she couldn’t see me. She was drenched in light, and I was only a shadow, invisible and silent.

Someone nudged my arm. I turned to see Irene, who was wearing stretch pants and a hoop earring in her left ear. She had envisioned an ’80s theme for the party, and she’d dressed for the decade. No one else had, though — unless you counted her boyfriend, Tom, whose “costume” consisted of a pastel-colored Miami Vice dress shirt and shoes without socks.

“Hey, Lyle!” Irene said, shouting to be heard above the music, which blasted from built-in wall speakers. “How you doing? You having fun?”

“I’m having a blast!” I said, raising my beer. “Thanks so much for the invite.”

“You need another drink?”

“Not yet,” I said. I leaned forward. “Tell me this, though: Who’s that girl sitting at the table? The one with the strawberry hair and the gorgeous green eyes?”

Irene laughed. “I love that description. That’s Annabelle.”

“Is she a friend of yours?”

“Kind of. I know her through Tom — Annabelle’s his sister’s ex-roommate.”

“Ah.”

Irene grinned. “I think she’s single. She’d probably appreciate meeting a suave, sophisticated young man.”

“I’m sure she would,” I said. “But in the meantime, would you introduce her to me?”

Irene laughed. “You got it. Follow me.”

So I emerged from the shadows and into the soiree. And my first encounter with Annabelle was as exciting and awkward as you might expect. There was the typical nervous laughter, the occasional uncomfortable pause. But I had a feeling as we talked that something special was taking place, like two jigsaw pieces fitting together, to coin a lame metaphor.

We ended up on the balcony outside, away from the music and the noise. The Reno skyline glimmered, the casinos lit in brilliant, pulsating colors.

“So, what do you do?” Annabelle asked, leaning against the porch railing.

I sipped my beer. “Nothing fancy, unfortunately. I just got a new job not too long ago. I’m an assistant to the communications officer for a mid-sized company.”

“That sounds impressive.”

“That was my intention,” I said. “It’s actually an unimportant, mediocre job, but it sounds good if you phrase it the right way. I wanted you to think I did something awe-inspiring.”

A smile. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

“No, it isn’t, really. It’s just … unfulfilling.

“Actually,” I continued, “I used to be an editor for the newspaper.”

“No kidding?”

“Yeah. Got laid off, though. The economy, you know.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“No — it’s OK. I enjoyed it, but … maybe it wasn’t meant to be.” I shrugged. “Anyway, how about you? Your job’s got to be more interesting than mine. I don’t care if you count carpet fibers all day — nothing beats the boringness of my job.”

“Actually, I’m only working part-time,” Annabelle said. “My main priority is finishing my master’s.”

“No kidding,” I said. “A master’s?”

She smiled. “Yep. I’m going for a degree in business.”

“Wow. Good for you — that’s cool.”

She shrugged. “It’s a lot of work. Exhausting, actually.”

“I bet. How much longer do you have?”

“I’m taking three courses right now,” she said. “It’s my first semester. I’m hoping to get it done in a couple of years. I still have to juggle my schedule a bit to fit everything in.”

I nodded. “I know what you mean: there’s never time for anything.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that,” Annabelle said. “Life is composed of time, but we spend all our time avoiding life.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s always this frantic scamper, scurrying through the rat maze to get ahead. I’d like to slow it down sometimes, to enjoy the good things.”

“Like what?”

“Like now. It’s a gorgeous evening, and I’m enjoying simmering down from the workweek.”

“Plus, you’re having a  fascinating conversation with an amazingly handsome young man.”

“Is that a fact?” Annabelle looked around. “Where is he, then?”

Her eyes met mine, and she smiled.

I smiled back.