He is younger than she expected, but many people are these days.
He is also softer than she wants him to be, and she wonders as he approaches if shaking his hand will be required; she does not want to feel the yielding of his flesh as her fingers sink into his grasp. She stands as he nears and busies her hands texting herself a reminder to stop at the grocery store on the way home. She needs milk. When she looks up again, he has closed the distance between them so completely that shaking hands would require a backward step. His breath smells of mint and good intentions, and his eyes are the blue of untroubled water beneath an unclouded sky.
Her own breath, she knows, is soured by tension and hope, and her eyes are the color of a leaden sky through a thick lens of turbulent water. She ducks her head sideways and against her chest as she slips her phone into her purse, hoping to avoid sharing her breath and the twin-portaled glimpse into her everyday drowning. He looks down into some foldered paperwork and then up at her, saying her name with an upward inflection that makes it an inquiry. She hears at least four questions in the single three-syllables of her name . . .
Dabria . . . Are you she?
Dabria . . . Is that how you pronounce it?
Dabria . . . Would you like to step this way?
Dabria . . . Are you alright?
She fights the impulse to respond with a simple, “No.”
He ushers her with a sweeping arm, and when she does not move, he smiles, “Do people call you Debby?”
She walks in the direction his ushering arm has indicated, and he follows, so close that if she were to stumble, he might catch her by the elbow and prevent her fall. So close that if she were to stumble, he might fall as well, tripped and tangled in her descent. She wants badly to stop short and swing her arms in a wide circle around her body, to announce, “I require this much personal space.”
She says nothing, and they approach the door together.
He pantomimes holding the already open door for her, reaching his arm in exaggerated defense, as though the door’s inclination is to slam closed unexpectedly as people step across its threshold. His false and impotent display of chivalry annoys her, and she walks forward into the room without acknowledging the gesture. He closes the door, and then the two of them stand together in a small room in which, if she were to swing her arms to claim her space, he would be confined to a corner.
She looks around, registering the details as defense against the larger truths.
A low-slung armless L-shaped couch is settled into the corner on her left. It is obviously of flat-boxed origin, and she wonders if it has perhaps been assembled incorrectly; it appears to be much lower than it should be. Two bookcases line the wall beyond the couch, a few books and unruly piles of paper the only residents of their shelves, shelves whose swayed curves hint at previous weightier ownership. A generic desk of laminate wood with a computer resting atop faces the doorway, a shiny black vinyl office chair swiveled behind. Just in front of her, another chair sits across from the desk, its seat faded rose upholstery, its arms thick outdated blond wood. A green-glassed accountant’s lamp sits on a tiny iron table tucked next to the chair and beside the wall, but the room is lit in glaring fashion from above by a ceiling aglow with fluorescence.
The floor is covered in beige carpet squares that play at being part of a larger unified whole, but which are in fact individually adhered segments of bland. Each small square of beige can be easily removed and replaced should there be an unpleasant spillage of something whose messiness lingers. The plain cream walls are unadorned except for a few framed bits of officialdom (he is even younger than she imagined) and a large whiteboard, which hangs on the wall to her right, directly across from the larger length of the couch’s right angle. On the whiteboard, she can read the ghosts of messages to and from invisible others, and she looks away, panicked at the thought of her own ghosted messages left behind for others to decipher.
The first-floor window behind the desk looks out on the parking lot through tiny parallel slits in almost closed venetian blinds. She is struck by the white plastic strips of not-quite privacy, imagining them as inadequate band-aids aligned over a large wound, the room’s intimacies of pain and suffering seeping out from between the adhesive strips of intended concealment. A minivan pulls up as she watches, its headlights blind eyes that nevertheless look right through her. She feels as though she is melting waxlike into the floor, and she wonders how many carpet squares will have to be peeled up and replaced.
“Have a seat.”
She sits, immediately unhappy with her choice, too low and certain now that the couch has indeed been mis-assembled.
He sits across from her and above her, his softness an uneasy fit within the unforgiving blond wood of the faded rose chair. She watches as he crosses one leg over another, watches as the flesh of his crossed-over thigh is bitten and held by the open rectangle below the chair’s arm. He shifts position and places a protective hand between his flesh and the chair, resting that way for a moment before appearing to realize that two hands will be required to consult the pages within the folder he still holds in the other hand. He shifts position again, uncrosses his legs, and pulls them together and slightly up so they fit between the wooden arms. She stares down at his now tiptoed feet and then up at his face, thinking that whatever psychological advantage he might have hoped to attain by making this couch so low has been undone by the chair in which he barely fits.
What is she doing here?
He leans forward slightly, “I am Justin.”
For a second, she thinks he means to speak of how he has managed to position himself in the chair, but then she realizes he is offering his name. Offering it on upward inflection, as though it is an inquiry.
Justin . . . time?
Justin . . . case?
Justin . . . so many words?
Justin . . . a dream?
He leans forward to offer his hand, and she reaches upward to grasp it.
His flesh is as soft as she imagined it would be, and a small part of her sinks into his fingered embrace.
There is a moment when she fantasizes that he will pull her from the depths of her everyday drowning.
Could it really be as simple as this man’s hand over hers?
There is a moment in which she allows herself to breathe.
But the moment passes, and he settles back into his chair, consulting a paper he has pulled from the folder, “Dabria, huh? That’s an unusual name . . . no one ever calls you Debby?”
She slips once again beneath the water, staring at him through a lens of swelling turbulence.
He does not notice, strangely determined to investigate the secrets of her name, tapping at his folder with a single finger, “I bet it got shortened in high school, though . . . am I right?”
She is sinking, listing this way and that as she descends, “Debris.”
“They called me Debris.”