Steve folded in on himself and cried. There were a whole lot of rules getting broken just by doing that sitting at his desk, but regular Steve wasn’t in charge of this event, not this time.
None of his coworkers really knew what to do. Steve was always the guy with the rigid issues about personal space, physical and otherwise. He never cracked jokes or offered stories about his weekends. Most of the office had no idea if Steve was married or single or straight or gay or what. He just showed up and did what he did pretty well and went home. Some of the more social beings tried a few times to get him to go out after work, but consistent, polite rejections made sure it didn’t take long before they quit asking. Right now, seeing Mr. Don’t-Rock-My-Boat have a moment was a moment in itself.
Denial would have worked pretty well as a collective remedy to this office convulsion had Steve’s sobs not reached a new depth that got harder to ignore. Somebody finally went to the boss to tell. In a few carefully calculated moments, the boss came out. “Anything wrong…uh..Steve?”
Regular Steve might have said “Yes, but its personal” and that would have absolved everybody from everything. In truth, this situation could never have happened because regular Steve would never have cried at his desk, at the water cooler or even alone in his car at the lowest, darkest spot of the parking garage. This other guy, who looked like a deflated twin brother, had nothing to say that fell outside body language. No words at all, just tears.
The boss broke briefly through Steve’s fourth wall to pat his shoulder. “Well, I hope whatever it is, that everything turns out okay,” and knowing that Steve wouldn’t ask, he added, “ If you need anything, just ask.” Couldn’t get more PC than that! It covered every base—disease, death, stress, heartbreak-- the works. Just the right generic sincerity, too. Having moved the employee relations needle, the boss went away to wherever bosses go to make more money than Steve.
Steve had enough control over his own commotion now to reduce some of the volume but not the leaks. Mortification set in when he realized he had started to sound like a small child pulling his cries inside to appease an exasperated adult—huffing air into his chest in short, backward and far too noisy leaps.
Around the same cubicle wall that Steve used as fortification until the last 15 minutes of his life, came a hand and a glass. “Here’s some water.” Steve took it because he needed it and because it worked. He felt the sobs smooth out until it seemed like he could think again. When he turned to deliver a thank you, the hand had already disappeared. No empathetic face. No inquisition. Just hand, water, gone.
Grief or no grief, this was a loose end that had not been tied up and the whole secret to regular Steve’s long standing record of reticence was making sure those ends had big, tight knots. Unused “thank you’s” had to be spoken or else Steve would owe somebody. Even this Steve, who could have probably used a human touch now more than anyone in the entire city, couldn’t let a take go without a give. He rubbernecked around the cubicle wall. Nobody home. Nobody in evidence of being home, either. No kids’ pictures, cute calendars or doodles. Empty.
Steve tried to back track. Was it a man’s voice? A woman’s hand? Perfume? A sleeve? He 3-60-ed the office. Nobody’s eyes dared meet his for fear of accidentally setting off some uneasy spout of male tears. Steve’s water giver was out there. It could have been any one of them. Steve didn’t know, wouldn’t guess and couldn’t ask. He had become an un-reciprocating taker, which didn’t completely eliminate the ten foot pole Steve carried around. It just sort of snapped it in half.