The truth was reflected in his shiny, polished shoes. He had become a just kind of guy.
To say it wasn't the direction he had wanted things to go would be an understatement. He knew he would've been perfectly happy—no, he would've loved things to stay exactly the way they were. Call him whatever you like—sell out, poser, spineless—Theo Williams wasn't an idiot. There was a reason his graying colleagues barely chuckled (if that at all) at his jokes.
There was a reason why everyone else wore ties—and certainly not the joke ties he liked, the ones with goofy pictures of Spongebob Squarepants or party hats—and constantly wore, "oh, woe is I, my life is but a dark abyss," types of expressions. A reason why everyone rolled their eyes at his attempt at livening up the cubicle.
A reason why everyone drank hard liquor at office gatherings.
So Theo told himself to shape up.
It had started out slow; he was sure that ending up like his father, a twice-divorced briefcase-swinging, Armani-suit-wearing, serious lawyer, was not in the cards. And it never would be; he, at least, made sure of that.
But as it does in all just cases, it began with ties.
And not the one covered in cartoons or hideous patterns straight from a 70's wallpaper—this was a real tie. It was blue and, being unfamiliar with wearing one, it hung heavy around his neck like a noose.
Before long, he had mastered the art of knotting the tie. Then, bed head became unacceptable in his eyes. He began combing his hair to the side. Then, as if the just-ness itself was engulfing his spirit, he cut all jokes, period. His colleagues liked him better that way.
It would be a lie to say he never saw it coming; the minute that shoe polish became a regular on the grocery list, he knew something was happening to him. But by then, when the ironers at the dry-cleaning knew his name, it was too late to turn back. Far, far too late.
There was even a stint involving a peer repeatedly calling him Theodore (which he hated, as it was also his father's name) that resulted in Theo exasperatedly yelling, "No! Not Theodore; Theo! Theo! Just Theo!" Using their last sliver of humor, his coworkers began calling him Just Theo, but he realized that, like most things, he didn't care.
It was the moment that he clicked send on the order for his business cards—a neutral gray with his cubicle number and office address on it—that everything became just another thing to him.
It was just another night alone. Just another tie. Just another day. Just another week, month, year. Just this, just that. It was just life, after all.
So when he met her, of course his first inclination was to believe she was just another girl.
He saw plenty of women all the time, hurrying up and down the hectic bustle of Wall Street. They were all the same to Theo, rushing to work in their pencil skirts, pointy heels and blazers, Starbucks coffees in hand. No time for breakfast, but plenty of time to fix their hair.
After all, they were just women; available for sex, available for eye-candy, or simply not available at all.
She had been a little different.
Not by much, because she still wore nice skirts and still carried a mug (full of what he assumed to be coffee) every morning. But she didn't have the neatest hair, often a sloppy ponytail. Usually, she was carrying leftover dinner in her free hand. Her skirts hadn't been pressed in far too long, knit tights protecting her legs from the brisk New York snow, tucked into comfortable-looking shoes.
Never once did he see a pair of heels on her, which he liked. He personally couldn't understand why women insisted on shoving their feet into clearly painful shoes with what looked like dull nails driven into the sole.
He had noticed her before around the building cafeteria, but Theo usually spent his lunch break going over his clients' stock portfolios, taking up all his time. Relaxation was reserved for the few hours before bed, curling up with the latest John Grisham (a part of him still cringed, yes) novel.
The first day they met, he had been running late, and so had she. He would later learn that she was always late, but at the time, he took that as an excuse for her messy mahogany ponytail and lack of makeup.
"Hold the elevator!" She called. Even though it would make him even tardier, he did the polite thing and stuck his hand between the closing doors. She flashed him a smile, pressing the button to floor seven. "Thanks."
He nodded, watching as she caught her breath. Now, Theo knew elevator etiquette. He knew it was stupid to strike up a conversation with a stranger; especially when they were getting off before you, just like it was rude to stare at a loosely buttoned blouse. But today he couldn't seem to help himself—in both ways.
"Running late?" He mumbled, not really expecting a reply.
She let out a heavy sigh, full of the sleep she looked as though she missed. "I don't think anyone should be calling it 'running late' anymore. This unfortunately seems to be a daily routine for me."
"Maybe you should leave the house earlier?" He suggested as the elevator began to move. He regretted the words the moment they left his lips; were some stranger to give him advice in an elevator, he probably would accept it with a polite nod and say nothing else, feeling awkward.
He would, however, find she was nothing like him in that sense.
She made a face of disgust, pushing dark purple glasses back up the bridge of her nose. "Any earlier and I'd be up at the crack of dawn. My roommate is an overly talkative insomniac who doubles as a sadist so I don't get to sleep at any decent hour, and I need at least six hours in order to function. Plus, I keep stopping for breakfast, which makes me even later." After a moment, she added, "I never even see the women in my department eating. It's like they're fueling their bodies on caffeine alone. I try to tell them breakfast is the most important meal of the day—because it is—but no one ever listens."
"Oh," Theo said finally, unable to think of anything else. The elevator slowed to a stop, making a ringing noise as the doors swept open.
She looked out at her floor. The publishing company's receptionist had bags under her eyes, and there were people running around carrying thick folders labeled Editors, followed by various draft numbers. The place was a mad house, and for a moment, he thought he heard her sigh. But when he looked down at her, she was smiling.
"This is my stop," she said, stepping out. She adjusted her glasses one last time, tightened her ponytail and squared her shoulders, looking considerably more put together. "It was nice talking to you, Mr. Mystery."
He wracked his brain for something to respond with, but when he opened his mouth the doors were already closing and she was walking away. By the time Theo reached his department floor, she was out of his head.
After all, she was just another woman, late like him.
The next day didn't start out well. The power went out in the middle of the night, and his electronic clock had reset all its settings, which meant his alarm hadn't gone off. After waking up to find he was over twenty minutes off schedule, he realized he didn't even have time to put on a tie.
So for the first time in two years, Theo went a workday without a tie. He felt almost naked, as if this notion was entirely immoral. He didn't have time to brush his hair or shave, so when he caught his reflection in a shop window, he thought he looked incredibly disheveled.
On top of all that, by the time he entered his building the elevator doors were beginning to shut. He mumbled a curse a little louder than he had intended, realizing this was obviously foreshadowing, telling him it was going to be an awful day. Then, Theo saw a red shoe step between the closing doors.
"Thanks," he said breathlessly, reaching past the woman to press the yellow button for floor nine.
"Just returning the favor," the woman replied, grinning. He recognized her immediately, his lips curling upwards absently at the cold pizza slackly wrapped in foil that was in her hand. The elevator lurched into motion.
"You really are late everyday," he thought aloud. She laughed, brushing a loose lock of dark hair behind her ear.
"I don't know," she said slowly. "This is your second day in a row. I'm not sure if you should be one to talk." When she saw he didn't understand she was joking, she rolled her eyes playfully and smiled. "I'm kidding." She gave him a quick once-over. "Bad morning?"
He rubbed his cheek, embarrassed. "It would seem so. I forgot my tie and then didn't have time to shave…I look like a mess," he blurted.
She shrugged. "You look like a mess because you feel like a mess. If you acted like you purposefully didn't wear a tie, then nobody would think you looked untidy, would they? They would probably think you were going for messy-chic."
He blinked, realizing his jaw was hanging slightly a second too late. The doors dinged open and she exited the elevator with a smile. "Think about it," she said as the doors shut.
Later that day, when Theo came out of the toilet stall to wash his hands, he looked at his reflection in the mirror. His dark hair may have been bedridden, his light blue shirt hadn't been pressed, worn without a tie, and yeah, there was a subtle line of stubble dancing along his jaw line—but when he smiled at himself, he didn't dislike what he saw.
Truth be told, he felt somewhat like his old, boyish self. For the first time in a long while, he didn't feel like just another nameless face in the office.
He didn't see her that next morning in the elevator, but that was probably because he was on time.
Actually, he had extra time that morning because he had decided to go without a tie. He also purposefully didn't brush his hair, and the stubble on his face darkened somewhat. He wasn't intending on growing a beard, but Theo didn't mind not shaving for a while.
He had decided to work a little late that evening, like he did every Friday to compensate for his lack of a social network. He had a few drinking buddies every now and then, and when they went out he might pick up a one-night stand, but his sex life wasn't exactly raging.
There was one other man who worked later than he did on Fridays. He was an unmarried, aging, portly man who had a bit of a sweat problem. And every time Theo looked at him, he had a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach that he was Theo in ten years.
Trying to push those thoughts out of his head, he entered the elevator with heavy steps, rubbing underneath his eyes. His body wasn't tired, but his mind sure felt as though it was.
He got only two floors before the elevator began to slow. Great, Theo thought glumly, wanting nothing more to just be at home.
When they recognized the other, they simultaneously said, surprised, "You." She laughed softly and he cracked a grin.
She pressed her back against the elevator wall. "Seems this is starting to be a bit of a pattern, our elevator meetings," she said. He noticed her ponytail was gone; he liked the way her dark hair fell around her shoulders.
"Yeah," he agreed.
They were silent as the elevator began to drop. "Got any plans for the night?" She asked finally, pulling her arms through the sleeves of her red coat.
Do I ever? He thought with a sigh. Aloud he said, "Um, no. I don't. I'll probably just go get the mail, sort my bills, and get into bed." A moment later, he realized he probably could have just ended it with 'I don't.'
She had to smile at his blush, though she didn't let him know she had noticed the rosy color in his cheeks. He was cute, she could admit, in a quiet sort of way; especially without that annoying tie. Plus, she liked that he hadn't shaved in a while—though he should soon.
"I was thinking of getting some dinner," she said. "There's this nice little restaurant tucked away in The Village. I go there sometimes, and they have a mean cherry pie. My friend is a waitress there."
He nodded, subconsciously rubbing the back of his neck out of embarrassment. It caught up to him that this was the first conversation he had had with a woman he wasn't related to or working with in…well, far too long for his liking.
"I never got your name," she offered up when he didn't say anything. "I'm Avery."
"I'm Theo," he returned. Out of habit, he stuck his hand out for her to shake. It embarrassed him, but she returned the handshake.
"You're not wearing a tie today."
He looked down at his shirt, even though he already knew he wasn't. "Oh. Yeah, I didn't really feel like putting one on this morning," Theo admitted, digging his hands into his pockets. The elevator halted and they stepped out. In silence they walked past the receptionist, just getting ready to close up. She barely looked up, even as Avery murmured a good night to her.
"That's good," she said as they exited the building, watching her breath against the cold, late-autumn night. They walked to the edge of the curb, snow crunching under their feet. "Ties are overrated. And you look better without one, anyway."
His arm froze in midair, just as he was about to reach out and hail his cab. He looked at her, surprised. "Really?" He immediately mentally slapped himself at the question; of course she meant it, or else she wouldn't have said it.
Instead of rolling her eyes like he expected, she just smiled, raising her hand out. A few seconds later, a cab pulled up to the curb. "Yes, really. You look a little more like an individual." Ever polite, Theo reached out and opened the car door for her. She slid all the way in and just as he was about to close the door and hail his own cab, she shot him a confused glance. "Well? Aren't you coming?"
He blinked. "Coming where?"
"To the restaurant," she said slowly. "I mentioned it in the elevator?"
"Oh," he said, eyebrows drawn together. "I didn't know that…was an invitation." Hesitantly, he climbed into the car and closed the door behind him. Avery fed the cabbie directions before turning to Theo, one eyebrow raised.
"Why else would I have mentioned it?" She wanted to know. When he thought about it, Theo didn't have a proper reply. Instead he just grinned.
"Good point," he said, resting his head against the seat. "Good point."
"Okay," Avery whispered, leaning over the table. "You see that woman over there, at the counter?"
He began to turn and see who she was talking about when Avery grabbed his jaw, turning it back in her direction. "Jeez, don't look!" She hissed.
He sent her an exasperated glance. "How else am I supposed to know what lady you're talking about?" Theo pointed out. She considered this for a moment then released his jaw.
"Fine," she admitted huffily. "But don't be so obvious about it." He grinned, reaching up as if to scratch his ear. He turned his neck slightly, glancing at the woman at the counter out of the corner of his eye.
There was nothing particularly striking about her. He could tell she was thin—possibly a little too thin—and her lips were curved downward as she stared into her dark beverage. She was wearing a long trench coat and a pair of black boots, dark lipstick and heavy makeup. Her hair was piled up, blonde curls intentionally spilling out in certain places. All in all, he wasn't sure why Avery was intent on pointing her out.
He turned back to Avery, "What about her?"
"What do you see?"
"A woman," he responded automatically.
Theo blinked, hesitant now. Am I missing something? He wondered. "Should I be seeing something else? She's just a woman; other than the fact she's drinking black coffee at 9 PM, I don't really see something out of the ordinary."
Avery leaned back in their booth, pointing a finger in his direction. "I thought so."
Confused, he ventured, "Thought what? What are you talking about?"
"You're one of them," she said grimly.
His brow furrowed. "Them? Who exactly is…'them'?"
"You've narrowed yourself down to the point where nothing matters anymore. A just kind of guy."
"A just guy? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
She sighed sadly. "You see everything for what it is, in its literal sense. You don't stop to consider that something could be more than what it appears; that life is more than just another night alone, just another late shift at the office. That perhaps, she's not just another woman..." She trailed off, waving her hand around. "Sometimes you just need to open your eyes. Take another look at her."
And so he did, but there was still nothing that stood out to him. "I'm sorry. I'm not getting it." He shook his head.
"Well, don't give up so quickly," she snapped. "Don't be a quitter, too. Those are even worse than just people. Here, I'll teach you." As if ready to tell a big secret, she leaned in close. "Let's start with her expression. Why do you think she's frowning?"
Theo wasn't sure why, but he didn't want to disappoint Avery. So he said, "Um, because she's…uh, lonely?"
Avery nodded slowly. "Good, good start. Why do you think she's lonely?"
He cringed. "Because she's…alone?"
She rolled her eyes at him, sweeping her hair into a loose ponytail. "But why is she alone. Look at what she's wearing. Big trench coat, heavy makeup, made-up hair, pointy boots; do you see something shifty about that?"
"She's a hooker?" Theo blurted before he could think otherwise. Immediately, he felt his face flushing.
"Now you're getting there," Avery said, surprising him. "Maybe she's a hooker, maybe she isn't. But I wouldn't say you're far off. My best guess is that she looks so alone because she goes to bed satisfying everyone but herself. And then there's her drink of choice this late at night; black coffee. She probably has a busy night ahead of her."
Theo's mouth turned up as he pressed his cheek into his palm. "Wow," he said. "You really saw all that on the first glance?"
"Not necessarily the first glance, per se, but more or less," Avery replied, shrugging. "Now, try again. What can you tell me about that waitress?"
Theo glanced over at the woman behind the counter who was placing some coins into the cash register. She fumbled with a few, bending over to pick the fallen ones off the floor. "She's clumsy," Theo began, watching as she bumped her head on the open cash register. "Really clumsy," he added with a sympathy wince.
Avery smiled, but didn't say anything. That was enough encouragement for him. "She's got bags under her eyes, so she probably works late, or two jobs. She's letting her roots grow, which means she probably wanted to try something new with her hair but decided she didn't like it. And she's coming this way."
Just as she was a few feet away, Avery whispered behind a menu, "She's very clumsy, wanted to try something rebellious with her hair but found she hated it, but she doesn't work late or two jobs; she's just an insomniac." Then she leaned back, leaving Theo staring at her with a shocked expression.
How had she done that?
"Hey, Nina," Avery greeted cheerily, smiling up at the waitress. "Nina, this is Theo. He works in my building. He recently converted from being a just guy. Theo, this is Nina, my best friend and roommate."
Nina, the waitress, gave him a once over. Deciding she liked what she saw, she smiled and nodded. "He's cute. I approve," she praised.
"Oh," Avery mumbled. For the first time since he had met her, she was the one doing the blushing. "I'm not dating him. He looked like he had a lonely night ahead of him so I lured him here with the promise of cherry pie."
Nina raised her eyebrows, sneaking one more glance at Theo, who was doing his best to suppress a grin. "I believe you," Nina said, though her tone suggested otherwise. "Either way; you came for cherry pie, and cherry pie you shall have. Want a drink to go along with that?"
Theo fiddled with his fork. "Can I see your tea options?" He saw Avery shoot him a surprised look, but he ignored it, smiling up at Nina. Her gaze lingered on him for a moment, as if looking at something that wasn't there before, but eventually she nodded, promising to be back with their assorted teas.
"Me too," Avery called after her friend's retreating figure. Nina waved a hand in their direction to show her acknowledgement.
"You're a tea guy," Avery said once Nina had left.
Theo laughed embarrassedly, nodding. "I gave it up for a little while, but I grew up on it. My mother is English, which means, well—let me put it like this: I was the only kid on my block that had 'tea time.'"
"Lucky! I wish. My mom was one of those heavy coffee drinkers. It was hell in the mornings if she didn't have her daily half pint," she smirked. "And, I swear, I'm only slightly exaggerating. You should have seen her face when I started boiling the tea kettle in the mornings."
"I thought you drank coffee," Theo said, though now that he thought about it, he had actually never seen what was in her mugs. He had just assumed she drank the same thing everyone else did—and then it hit him. Avery was right. He was a just guy.
"My mother wishes," Avery returned as Nina was approaching them, balancing a tray full of tea choices, two mugs, and a small kettle. Theo said nothing, staring down at his hands. When had he become so bland? He used to be the cool guy; the kind of guy kids in high school constantly wanted to hang out with, because he was always good for a laugh.
Theo Williams was voted Best Smile in his senior superlatives, for God's sake. And he'd be damned if he was going to spend the rest of his life hiding it. "Well, one day I'll have my mom sit you down at her special table and gossip over the fine china. I'd gladly trade places any day," Theo said finally, smiling brightly.
"Deal." She paused, waiting until Nina was out of her line of vision, although she was sure her roommate was listening in anyway. "You know, you should smile more often."
"Yeah, I know," Theo replied, grin dimming.
"I mean, smiling isn't really something you can just give up. What happened?"
It was a good question. A very good question, to one Theo would love to know the answer to. "Honestly? I have no idea. I started out okay. I graduated from NYU not top of my class, but up there, found work right away; I thought it was going well," he said, dashing a spoonful of sugar into his tea.
"Here comes the 'and then'," Avery slipped in.
"Yeah, exactly. And then…I don't know what happened. Everyone around me was just so boring and nobody liked my jokes. I got a few smiles in the beginning, but after a while, I guess I was too immature for them. So I told myself: 'Self, shape up. If you want to make your mark on this company, you need to adjust. Think social Darwinism.' Along came the tie, with it my just attitude, as you put it, and up until about yesterday, I've been wishing my life had a remote so I could just fast forward through all this shit."
She was silent for a few moments, stirring her drink. "What do you do?"
Theo sounded a noise of contempt. "I'm a consultant. I help people work out the bugs in their advertisements. Not exactly a market researcher, but I don't work for an advertising firm either. It's some sort of lame middle ground."
"And do you…enjoy your job?" She wanted to know. Surprisingly, his answer came right away.
"No," he said quickly. "I hate it. I hate the guy in the cubicle next to me; I really don't think he showers regularly. I hate my boss, my coworkers, the vending machine that only stocks health bars, ties… God, I can't believe I never realized this. I hate it so much."
"Then why do you still work there?"
He was silent for a few moments, considering this question. Finally, he brought the steaming mug to his lips and sipped it as he put together his answer. "I figured it was just a job. People do things they don't want to, right?"
"Nothing is just anything, Theo; you know this now. And besides, you should know that you never have to settle, especially if it's your life. When life hands you lemons…"
Theo had to smile—his real smile, the very one that won him Best Smile—and a second later, she was beaming back at him. "Bust out the tequila and salt."
Still smiling, Avery took a sip of her own tea. "Exactly."
"Is this everything?" Avery asked, shifting the box to her other arm.
Theo gave one last look around his old cubicle, checking to see if he missed anything—though there hadn't been much there in the first place. "Yeah, I think so," he said finally, once he was sure. "Thanks for helping me move all these boxes, by the way."
"No problem," she said, returning his smile. "I'm just glad you got up the guts to quit."
"I had a little help," he admitted, knowing full well she was practically wholly responsible. "Are we still on for dinner tonight?"
She nodded, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. "I was thinking, afterwards, we could go ice skating." She pressed the elevator call button, setting her box on the ground.
"Ice skating?" Theo repeated, stifling a grin. She caught the amusement in his eyes and shot him a glare, jabbing a finger in his direction.
"Hey, now; I didn't protest when you wanted to go to that stupid stand-up night with the sleazy comedians. Now, be a good boyfriend and suck it up. I don't care how manly you pretend you are, you're putting on a pair of skates tonight. And if you don't behave yourself, you'll be renting a sparkly dress to go along with your pretty white skates."
Theo threw his head back to hide his grin, pretending to sigh dramatically.
"I'm serious," she added, though she sounded dangerously close to pouting.
He nodded, leaning down to brush his lips against hers in a quick kiss. "I know." Right as the elevator came and they were about to enter, Theo glanced over his shoulder at his old department. A few people were watching him go, but for the most part, they were lost in their phone calls and notes. Then, Theo saw him.
He still didn't know his name, and he probably never would, but even if he didn't, there was one last thing Theo had to say to him. To Avery, he said, "Hold the elevator." She shot him a confused glance, but didn't argue. He handed her his box and stepped out, heading beeline for the cubicle across the room.
"Hey," Theo said, staring down at the man. He blinked, glancing up. His shirt was already slightly moist around the pits of his arms, Theo noticed.
The man blinked, dabbing his forehead with an old handkerchief. "Uh, hello," he replied nervously.
"Today is Friday," Theo said, picking up a paperweight and juggling it from hand to hand. "You working late tonight?"
The man looked around, as if by some chance Theo wasn't speaking to him. But the bright-eyed, messy-haired young man was looking directly at him. The man cleared his throat. "I suppose so…"
"Maybe you should go out, instead. Ask Kim out, maybe. She looks a little lonely, and I think she's single," Theo suggested, subtlety jabbing his thumb backwards at the middle-aged woman on the other side of the hall, shuffling papers.
"I'm just saying," Theo continued when he got no reply, shrugging his shoulders. "Working late may get more done, but honestly pal, it's not going to get you anywhere. You're still getting the same paycheck." The man swallowed and patted the handkerchief to his head again.
"Who's that?" He gestured towards a lanky man with a messenger bag slid over his shoulder, who was handing a package to the person a few cubicles down.
"Oh…him? He's just a messenger biker. Delivers packages," he replied, thankful for a normal—albeit obvious—question.
"Are you sure?"
"I said, are you sure? He's just a messenger biker? There's nothing else to him, about the way he dresses? See the way he's shifting his weight all the time? He looks a bit nervous. I wonder why." When it became obvious the man wasn't going to answer, Theo placed the paperweight back on the desk. His eyes were wide, but not confused. "Think about it."
"What was that all about?" Avery exclaimed as soon as he stepped into the elevator. The man was still watching after him, eyes wide. "I've had my finger on the door open button for about three minutes!"
But Theo just smiled and placed a kiss on his girlfriend's head. "Just had to remind somebody of something."
Hey, everybody! Been a while, eh? My art program was awesome, although it was abnormally rainy in Boston. D:
So I wrote this in maybe...January, February? I found it on my computer and realized since I won't have much time to write in the next few months (job hunting, AP classes, practicing for my license test, starting SAT prep classes...) I would post this. I think it's pretty decent, yeah?
Hopefully you'll walk away with a moral in your step. If you haven't noticed the quote at the bottom of my profile, please do; it inspired this story in many ways. Hopefully it isn't too similar to that, but I love this 'just nothing' ideology. Always have. :)
PLEASE take the time to review, I'd love to know what you thought of this one, especially since it's a lot more serious than my usual corny and/or whacked humor. My guilt trip seemed to work on you all on the last oneshot I posted, but then I felt guilty about guilt tripping you so I'm not gonna do it again. ...This time. :P
A special thanks to my beta, Sally Can Wait, for the finishing touches.
I start school tomorrow (wtf, I know) so wish me luck on my junior year! Hopefully it won't be as hard as everyone says.
The Cat Died Nobly/Sarah