They always warn you. They volunteer it, safe in the knowledge that no one ever takes such sentiments at face value.
‘Oh, I’m just crazy.’
Regional and national variations might alter the phrasing but not the sentiment. They cloak it in focused doses of energy, exciting to be around at first but in most people it ebbs away. They adapt to the environment and become part of the smooth order of things.
Terri was not most people.
Work had been my refuge. David and I had divorced, not long after the kids had left for college. The house loomed over me, in its oppressive silences and voluminous shadows. I was not management, but by virtue of experience, I had knowledge to offer which I did without caveat or resentment. All I asked was mutual respect.
John brought her in whilst I was working my way through a pile of unpaid invoices. She had rounded, soft cheeks, a waddle of loose skin around her jawline, a long sharp nose and hazel eyes. Her voice went up and down like a whistling kettle. She smiled like she was fascinated with everything. The beam of her attention, however brief, was heartening, but I knew that the nature of the business meant that we would not spend a lot of time together.
In hindsight, this was tempting fate.
After a week, I walked into my office to find a second desk had been set up and Mel from IT had set up a desktop computer. It was like discovering a lump in the shower.
Terri skipped in, holding an oversized take out cup of coffee, grinning like a cartoon.
‘We’re going to be roomies.’ she said
I managed a morning of internal debate, acknowledging her incessant line of conversation whilst desperately trying not to engage her any more than necessary. By lunchtime, I could describe her boyfriend’s cock to a police sketch artist, I knew more about her friend’s stomach complaint than her doctor did and I could tell you, with a smooth, eidetic recall what Kardashian sister she liked most.
Kaitlin. She was super brave, according to Terri.
I went to see John, who had finished a fractious call with our office in Boston, judging by the sheen of lanolin where he had ran his fingers through his thinning hair whenever he had to deal with fractious issues. My arrival would not be taking away from his woes.
‘What’s the plan for Terri?’ I said.
He gave an apologetic grin and my heart sank at the prospect.
‘She’s too loud for the main office.’
I raised an eyebrow. He sighed and reached to play with the chipped Game of Thrones mug filled with HB pencils he kept on his desk.
‘You know she’s Mick’s niece, right?’
Mick was our seldom seen but omniscient owner. I had been personally refuted by the myth of meritocracy and I slouched back to the office. I heard her before I saw her, the tinkling out of tune piano of her laugher shattering my melancholy to reveal the despair that throbbed like infected flesh underneath.
We seek happiness on our own terms and schedules, remaining open to the random possibility of its arrival. Terri brought the opposite to me, without considering my sensibilities. After a week, every molecule in my body vibrated with irritation at the sound of her voice. I started to take a medicinal glass of wine before bed, so that my nights were not spent with gritted teeth and restless limbs, dreading the day ahead.
Her cracked, high laughter followed me into sleep.
Her lack of internal monologue made me privy to the smallest details of her life. I learned about her diabetes, her recovery and her string of failed relationships. All of these were conducted under ambient duress. She confessed without seeking absolution or attrition.
She simply would not shut up.
I updated my resume, and by that, I meant created one. After fifteen years helping build the company, one shrill, dim little bulb was driving me out. I received sympathy without effort or action, cursed to be a sounding board for Terri’s one woman show. I would look at my reflection in the black mirror of the computer monitor, the hollows beneath my eyes, the wiry grey hairs at my temples and the sallow skin that never recovered from the indiscriminate blows life threw at me.
Her relentless joy was stealing my light by degrees.
The worst things we do are not concocted in the seething midnight of insomnia but whilst a kettle boils, whilst you choke down one more fucking anecdote about their vacation plans.
Women of my age stand out in certain neighbourhoods. Good customer service and cash asserted themselves despite the cultural and racial divide. Apparently I was not the first middle aged white woman to seek their services.
They looked like chips of white soap. I was not sure how much I had if it was good value for money. I was too paranoid to search for the federal statutes on possession and whether what I had was enough. It resonated with my personal credo:
It’s the little things that matter.
Terri’s blithe openness was the vector of incrimination. She would take ten minute breaks in the restroom at frequent intervals but leave her purse behind on her desk. These visits were open and accepted by everyone except me until I saw them as an opportunity.
I slipped the baggie into her purse, saw the lipstick blotted tissues and foil packets of medication. A pang of empathy lurched through me until I heard her laughter and I decided to go back and sit at my desk.
She left work early. I took out the disposable cell phone I had brought, reported her erratic driving, gave the first half of her license plate and a vague description of her car. With those who wore the burden of duty, you were better to be less specific. They were used to that from innocent bystanders.
Model citizens like myself.
What intentions I had, were commensurate to the pain she had caused me.
The road to hell is paved with such things.
They pulled her over. Patrolman Walter Kincaid was a dutiful and professional peace officer. He noted her erratic behaviour with care and proceeded to act with caution.
He noted it, but underestimated it.
The body camera footage was nauseating. Her voice reached up, distorting the volume into a high, thin shriek as she went from amused disbelief to histrionics. I watched until she tried to grab his side arm and switched the computer off.
It became grand and fearful in my imagination.
In death, she was elevated and recreated from a series of anecdotes and facts. Her struggles with mental illness, her estranged but loving husband who was caring for their child whilst she made the upward climb to reintegration. She had a smile and a joke for everyone, apparently.
I work alone now. People were not as eager to offer sympathy, but I guessed that was projection on my part. The afternoons have collapsed into low stretches of time so thick I can barely breathe, punctuated by the occasional phone call.
I still hear her voice. She follows me everywhere, and without her, my viciousness has turned on me. It reminds me of what I have done.