Connecting at work, in the shared space of a bubble

Real Life

February 12, 2006|By NORINE SCHILLER | NORINE SCHILLER,SUN REPORTER

Rick was one of the few straight men in America who had no problem admitting he liked show tunes.

In fact, he loved them. He would sit there in the office all day and sing. He had a good voice, and a rotating repertoire, so he didn't repeat himself.

I didn't mind. I like show tunes. It was like sitting next to a radio.

Occasionally, though, he would burst forth with lyrics that were completely inappropriate for his gender, and for tender ears. That funny, blue line from A Chorus Line would shock us all into laughter.

We sat next to each other for five years.

There is a strange sort of intimacy that forms when you sit next to someone for such a long time. Your two bubbles of personal space press up against one another until, at some point, the dividing wall pops, and two bubbles become one. You hear and smell and sense the same things at the same moment. When papers drift across one facing desk onto the other, you don't always push them back over again the way you might have a few months before.

Before I worked with him, he used to sit alone at the other end of a large newsroom. At some point in the evening, he would often jump up and bound over to where the rest of us sat, announcing, "OK, people, it's time for human contact." He would run a circuit around us, slapping hands that raised to meet his, then go back to his desk and sit down.

Rick was thin and restless -- he'd snap his fingers when he walked, and bounce one leg or tap-tap-tap a pencil when he was thinking. He was into gambling, on pretty much anything: horse races, sports, whatever gamblers gamble on. I had no interest in it, except for worrying that he might get into money trouble -- or worse -- because of it.

Strangers in bars used to tell him he looked like Billy Crystal. He had a quick wit, and made me laugh all day. He told me about people and things he cared about -- including, incredibly, the Connecticut newspaper we both worked for -- and got tears in his eyes and didn't care that I saw them. He asked my advice about women, and then never took any of it.

There was no voicemail, so we answered each other's phones. I spoke with icy cordiality when his sometimes-girlfriend called; I didn't think she treated him right.

It felt as if I spent more time on the phone with his mother than he did. He would talk to her for two minutes, make a face at me, then transfer her over so she could get the real story on what was going on with her son. She was funny, and we felt conspiratorial.

For a while, he knew more about me than my own brother did. He knew my stories about embarrassing things that had happened to me in childhood, and brought them up occasionally to tease me. He mocked visitors to my desk with, "She's busy -- take a number," when more than one person at a time stopped by to use me as a therapist. He called my husband once at work to make sure he was planning to send me flowers, as I screamed and lunged across the desk, trying to stop him.

An odd relationship, to be sure.

When I left, I knew it would be over. Not the end of the friendship, certainly, but the bubble would be gone: the sharing of space, right here, right now -- the banter, the instant understanding, the ability to speak a silent sentence by lifting an eyebrow.

I knew he missed me. Someone in the department had accidentally recorded my laugh on the beginning of an interview tape, and kept it in a drawer. I was told he'd sometimes ask to hear it.

But he didn't like keeping in touch with people who had left. It made him uneasy. He called them ghosts. And abruptly, I had become one of them.

Almost 16 years have passed, and he is still there. He never intended to leave that place, no matter how horrible it got. He is loyal to a fault, so he doesn't understand what it's like to walk away from someone who feels like family.

But maybe he knows what it's like to watch a bubble float away.

.....................

norine.schiller@baltsun.com

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