Workspouse: A relatable story about the curious, complex nature of relationships we can’t necessarily categorize yet sometimes encounter in our work lives.
Jake was a sleaze.
Many colleagues liked to remind Flora of this fact.
Like Claire from Stakeholder Relations, who kept trying to get Flora to agree that while Jake’s brand of scuzziness came off as unconventional, he was basically and distinctly unsavoury.
“Hon, your colleague there wants in your pants and then off to another,” Claire warned one morning over the bathroom sinks.
“It’s not like that.” Flora was firm, trying to dry her hands, fix a mascara flake and get out of there.
Claire scrutinized her own eyelashes and persisted, “It’s the thrill of the chase for him, right? ‘Cause you’re so way out of his league. He can’t work his geek angle with you, like, in a romantic way. But he’s trying. Lord, he’s trying.”
“Claire, honestly, it’s not even a thing,” Flora said, shrugging and leaving, weary of fending these kinds of conversations off.
Because seriously: it had nothing to do with her.
Why couldn’t people get it? Flora and Jake were merely old-buddies-old-pals, travelling the miniscule distance to and from each other’s cubes to laugh till they cried at the Internet. They were practically the same age, and their pop culture memories were bonding. When they worked on projects together, they elevated the status quo with their superior output. And when things got slow, they went to the lunchroom to play overloud, vaguely hysterical games of Pay Day and Sorry! from Jake’s vintage collection.
In team meetings, they stayed fervently united against the maneuvers of Terri, their baffling, combative boss.
“You guys are going to get married,” Hannah the overly familiar intern told Flora after one such coup. “You’re so strong together. He’s the eccentric funny one, and you’re all tall and blonde and beautiful. You’d be a power couple.”
Flora found this inane, but she laughed and said, “Um, no. And, thanks: I’m not funny?”
“But he’ll probably cheat on you,” Hannah continued to prophesize. “Ha! No…just kidding!” But she wasn’t, about any of it.
Flora and Jake worked in Marketing at one of the major nonprofits. Contrary to the unbridled creativity Flora was promised when she took the job, it was an especially watchful, dour office – part of the reason she found Jake so much fun! Thanks to him, her first disappointing three months had galloped by.
If she dwelled on it, sure, Jake was lacking in mature hormones for someone who just turned thirty (she got him a piñata, and they bashed it in the little derelict park right off Yonge Street). But for some reason, she found herself comparing his arrested development about sex and women to a learning disability – unfortunate, but work-aroundable.
“Why are you guys so tight? You gotta watch him,” bossed April from Payroll, trying to have an urgent dialogue with Flora in the hall.
“We’re just work friends.” Flora started walking away.
April wasn’t deterred. “He’s a dog,” she said, following. “He’s weird-looking and weird, but for some reason he can mess with women’s heads. Has Erica ever told you what happened with them?”
“It doesn’t – ”
April interrupted, “The way he stares at me…ugh, he’s a Creepy McCreeperson. Does he know what century this is?”
Flora was impassive.
April said, “And then it’s like…there’s something charming about him…well, you know what I mean.”
Flora said, “Not really.”
“He’s a freak,” April summarized, stopping at the printer. “And he’s too short!” she hissed after Flora.
After another team meeting where Flora and Jake rose up impressively against Terri and couldn’t quite contain their glee afterwards, Leon the veteran strategist commandeered Flora into her workspace, folded his arms and accused in a whisper, “You act like you’re dating. It’s unprofessional.”
“Well we aren’t!” Flora whispered back. She didn’t want Jake to hear in the cubicle beside her, although she was pretty sure he already had his earphones in and was about to watch something hilarious. Eventually he’d call for her and they’d look at it together, and Flora would crumple over, tears rolling down her face.
“He really – works you up,” Leon said, like a disappointed father.
“He really doesn’t.”
“Don’t spend so much of the day with him. I’m telling you this as a friend.”
“We just joke around!” Flora was flustered now, mostly because she was using a voice reserved for secrets. But she had no secrets about her and Jake! It was above board! She didn’t give a shit what Jake did in his personal life! Everyone here needed to get some hobbies!
“Whatever you say…” Leon backed solemnly out of her cubicle. “If you want to hear about some of the crap he’s pulled …”
Refusing to grab the dangling carrot, she shook her head at Leon in a way she hoped made him feel like a petty prig. But after he left, she suddenly realized with a bit of shame that she and Jake acted somewhat ridiculously – like in-cahoots idiots – a lot.
Flora concluded Jake was worth the flak she took.
The marketing copy they collaborated on was fresh and unique, and it was getting Flora noticed. She was already being headhunted by a recruiter, a thrill.
She’d probably stay around a tad longer, though, to build her portfolio. She and Jake were on a roll, brainstorming intently, energetically debating concepts, and showing people up when they beat their deadlines.
Also, Jake was simply interesting to be around: he was unexpected, and snide and earnest all at once. Flora found something about this pleasingly disorienting.
Walking down Yonge Street, he could abruptly switch from a rant about someone or something – like his parents (“the most depressing couple in the world”), or the brutal state of comedy in Hollywood, or people who went to Prince Edward County on the weekends – to chatting up the homeless and parting with a significant amount of his pocket change. Out of earshot, he referred to them as “those in transition” without sarcasm (or very little of it).
In the food court, he gently ribbed the big lady who always ate her two burgers while studying her Vegan Superfoods cookbook.
“Dare to dream, dare to dream,” his routine went, and the lady would twinkle and laugh, “Soon! Soon!”
On Bloor, when they saw miniscule dogs wearing rhinestones or hoodies, Jake would yodel out, “Oooooo!” and prance alongside them, like he was calling the dogs out on being too high-and-mighty. But then he’d stoop down and pet their bony wee heads and say, “Who’s a big sweetheart!” and their glitzy owners would grin.
And when the rain drummed against their sealed-in office windows, he could always produce an old board game from his cubicle shelf, and they’d go to the lunch room and ignore peoples’ exasperation, and Jake would get just insanely competitive, sweaty and glassy-eyed over something as dumb as multiple rounds of Superfection, and it would make Flora laugh and laugh and laugh.
In a banal, stifling work environment, Jake was neither.
He was mostly a clown.
An odd, mean, but strangely tender clown.
Yes, he ogled. How could Flora not have noticed him staring too long and too longingly at lips and breasts, bums and calves?
But he never did it to her.
“It’s taking one hundred per cent of his self control not to give you constant once-overs,” April informed her.
Well fine, then! Flora was proud of his restraint!
Frankly, she was sick of people trying to yank her away from him, like she was a baby and he was a hazardous object.
She wasn’t totally out of it: clearly, there was something cozy about them.
They were close.
But it was just silly.
Or, it was genuine, deep, and totally superficial, if that made any sense.
Flora’s boyfriend Alan grumbled whenever she mentioned Jake during her recounting of her nine-to-five.
Alan said, “I hate that guy, why do you hang out with him?”
“He’s just short and quirky and manic,” Flora reported. “Like, in no way a threat.” And even though she was placating Alan, she remembered Jake laughing at her tampon that surfaced as she rummaged inside her purse, and it needled at her that he could be so infantile.
“How short is he?” Alan pressed.
“He’s just some tool I work with.”
“Yet you choose to spend all day everyday with him,” Alan pointed out.
“How can I help it? He sits three feet away from me.”
“He’s your work husband and you like it.”
“He’s just always there.”
“I bet. He’s straight, right?”
Alan worked for himself and was above this scenario. Flora had nothing to hide, but she didn’t tell him absolutely everything, like how in the food court she and Jake traded each other three fries for an onion ring, and switched their soups halfway through (but not the spoons). The daily grind was so long and full of moments and events that were, essentially, meaningless.
When the days turned warm, Flora and Jake walked to Freddie’s Pizza for lunch once a week, all the way down by St. Lawrence Market.
Freddie’s was both rough around the edges and reassuring. Flora would get comfy at their spot on the patio while Jake went in to flirt with the cadre of lady locals who sat at the bar, day-drinking seniors from the nearby co-op who liked their wine and to argue with the TV news about current events.
“You’re commies, all of you!” Flora could hear Jake telling them every time. The women swatted his skinny arms, enjoying the attention.
Flora also watched Jake slide his gaze up and down their young waitress, who seemed unaware or unbothered, but extremely annoyed to be there in general.
While they shared their pizza and had one beer each, they often played a ludicrous kind of game where, rapid-fire, Jake invented tabloid pasts and lurid futures for their officemates.
For instance, Flora supplied to Jake, “Hannah the intern.”
“Born on a commune that was rife with abuse. It got busted up and all twenty of her parents are in jail.”
“She’s destined to have eight children and a ferret. This downtown Toronto life she thinks she’s living is a sham.”
Flora said, “Um…Leanne the graphic designer.”
“Her dad was killed in a factory explosion in Oshawa when she was a preemie in the hospital. That’s why she’s so small and furious.”
“Ha-ha.” Flora finished one of their pepperoni and jalapeno slices and took a sip of pint. “…Danielle, that temp.”
“Danielle the temp,” Jake said dreamily, sighing and looking up into the sky like he was completely in love with Danielle.
“Hey: obviously I don’t need to remind you that discussing physical items is out of scope.”
“Physical items? You’re such a gem. Are you drunk off the first two hauls on your Amsterdam?”
“Does her long shiny hair count as a physical item?”
“So we’ll move on to someone else?” Flora felt testy. “You’re not evolved enough to handle Danielle?”
“Oh I handled her alright – okay-okay! She’s very winning. But a tragic story: her psychic gifts were negatively affected by her parents’ acrimonious divorce. She’s got no powers now, which is a real bummer.”
“What do you mean?” Flora said, laughing now.
“Like, she could fire-start, and then she couldn’t.”
“I don’t think that counts as psychic. I think that’s paranormal.”
“She could fire-start while telling people their death date.”
“But aren’t negative childhood experiences good for someone’s psychic gifts? Like if you saw a murder or something, your power would grow, I feel.”
“Not in Danielle’s case. And actually she did see a murder, but it didn’t help. It was just a basic strangulation.”
Jake said, “Nah, she’s just sweet, and needy.”
Maybe the beer had hit Flora after all because she said, unusual for her, “What’s with your tone? You know from experience?”
“Jealous?” Jake’s eyebrow jumped up, making him look like an actor. Apparently he did something called Improv Olympics in Parkdale the last Tuesday of every month. Flora had never gone, but she pictured him being really good at it.
“Claire,” she resumed the game sensibly. The sun was warming her left side, and they had no meetings to go back to immediately, and she was happy.
Jake grabbed the last piece of pizza off the pan. “Old as the hills but she hides it well…sort of – what?”
“More about her inner workings, please.”
A theatrical shudder – “I don’t wanna know her inner workings.”
“Stop! Georgia in Fundraising.”
“She’s kind of sardonic, huh? I like that about her. She was a badass foster kid. She’ll get divorced three times.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Have you noticed she’s a racist? She talks about rap but it’s such a smokescreen.”
“You’re on the ball right now. …Connie, in HR.”
“Product of a one-night stand. But raised by the father. Uncommon, right?”
“Jake, you’re so weird.”
“Hush! She has a tattoo that says Pack Light. Like, give me a break.”
“Is this the game or real life?”
“I don’t kiss and tell…No, please! Connie? I would never, she’s such a hippie! The tat’s real, it’s on her ankle. Hideous. On her physical item. You didn’t see it last summer?”
“I wasn’t there last summer. I don’t look at girls’ legs.”
“Sure you don’t.”
“Settle down. Okay…Erica.”
Jake drank. “Emotional landmine.”
“Because of her what? Orphanage upbringing? Plane crash birth?”
“She’s a whole bunch of red flags stitched together.”
“Hee! Because why?”
Jake didn’t smile. “She’s ill-advised.”
This was not how they played. Flora thought about whatever sordid thing April had intimated about Jake and Erica.
Not that Flora cared.
Flora said, “Because why?”
“Because…Erica:” – Jake’s index fingers and thumbs mimed a rectangular box as though Erica was a brand name inside it – “Ill-advised.”
Jake winked at Flora.
Not a lascivious wink.
Just fun times.
After work Jake and Flora diverged, with no exceptions.
Jake walked home to his apartment nearby, his incredible pad, as he perhaps facetiously called it. Often, he cut out early.
Flora stayed late, because she was new and trying to achieve a career. Then she took the subway west.
Jake always stopped by her cube before he left and said, “I gotta go,” in varying funny pained voices, as though if he spent one moment longer with these people, he’d spiral into mental collapse.
And Flora always laughed and said, slightly maternally even though she was a year younger, “Have fun.”
They never texted each other, and no plans were ever made. Flora never asked, and Jake never asked.
But Cody, also from Marketing, had a workaholic husband, and he pled boredom and loneliness and regularly pressured Flora to have a drink.
On a Friday night in June, when the daylight was stretching and stretching, Flora and Cody went to the crowded and tiresome pub a block from the office. Alan was being passive-aggressive about her not coming right to him, and Flora didn’t even really know why she said yes. Cody was okay, but she was always deflecting his questions about her and Jake.
Jesus! There was nothing to say!
Even before they got there, Cody teased, “I’m so happy to steal you away from you-know-who.”
Flora sighed and said, “We don’t…forget it.”
They fought their way inside and drank and talked easily about Terri and how most bosses had personality disorders, but time was passing slowly.
And then Cody leaned suddenly over his third double gin-and-tonic and said, “Seriously, Flo’, what’s with you and Jake? Everybody’s always talking.”
“Oh come on! Nothing!”
“He’s weaselly, but also smoldering? Whatever it is, I get it on some level.”
“Ha, how can someone be both weaselly and smouldering? Impossible,” Flora said, finishing her beer and preferring to go. The air was jammed with worktalk from all the tables, and she saw the sky outside was still bright and beautiful.
Cody was looking at her quizzically.
“You’re a funny one,” he said.
“You’re a funny one.”
“No, seriously, you are. Just be careful. He’s toxic. You’re in the honeymoon phase. It won’t last.”
“You’re bugging me,” Flora said stiffly.
“You’ve got the rose-coloured glasses on. I’ve seen it before.”
“Cody, do you really think that’s what’s going on? Jake and me? It’s…come on.”
“Okay but listen: he doesn’t respect you, behind your back. You know what I mean?”
Flora felt hot in the face and upset. “No, I don’t. And don’t tell me.” She needed to wave this conversation away, to go to Alan’s and plan the future, to talk about how wonderful it was going to be when their condo was finally ready.
Cody was on a tear due to his double drinks. “Jake is a creepy narcissist.”
“What do you even mean?”
“It’s bizarre you don’t see it. And he…he says gross stuff about you to some of the men in the office.”
“Like to you?”
“Not really, but – ”
“Then how do you know?”
“I just do, Flora.”
“What does he say?”
“It’s just stupidness, but like: he wants to slam you, you totally have the hots for him, you’re always all over him, you’re totally falling for him, he’s gonna get some,” Cody tabulated, and then, “Shit, I’m shocking you, I’m sorry. But he’s dragging you down!”
“We do good work together,” Flora said, her mind full of incoherent montages.
“Well duh, he’s trying to impress you! He’s lazy as fuck, usually. He thinks he’s going to be some famous comedian or something…um, good luck there guy.”
“Have you seen him perform?” Flora asked idiotically.
“No! He’s beneath you, ’kay? You gotta stop being his constant companion. Trust me, this is what he does.”
“So, what, he’s some kind of lothario, or something?” Why was she pursuing this? It didn’t matter!
“He’s just so cheesy! He gets fixated on certain women and then things always go south. Talk to Katherine – no, she’s gone. Talk to, what’s her name…” Cody snapped his fingers, thinking. “Julia. Yeah, talk to Julia.”
She didn’t know who Julia was. And she wouldn’t talk to anyone, obviously.
Including Jake. Flora couldn’t believe how lame, and commonplace, and absolutely subpar he was, after all.
Oh, she was quick and heartless about cutting him loose.
Bounding into her cubicle that next Monday morning, Jake was met with a distracted stare, and a polite decline regarding watching something priceless he’d found.
“I can’t,” Flora said, digging into her emails.
Jake raised that eyebrow. “Okay,” he said.
Over the next few days, he tried and tried to get her to joke around, to play Operation, to go to Freddie’s for pizza and a pint, but Flora claimed busyness, a headache, and then she started saying she was about to leave for meetings or appointments, although she sat at her desk and it was clear she was lying.
What a schmuck!
They had no shared projects at the moment, so that made it easier.
It was hard.
She missed him.
She was steely, and betrayed.
“What the hell’s wrong lately?” Jake said indignantly on the second Tuesday of the freeze-out.
“Nothing,” Flora said, looking at his eyes darting back and forth at her hair, and mouth, and hands.
And then a couple of days later he was back, asking, “Are you mad at me, chum?” seeming legitimately worried.
Flora said, “No,” and went on working.
And then Jake’s pride or something darker kicked in, and he left her alone.
Flora called the headhunter back, and said yes to an interview for a really strategic promotion, and within two weeks she’d landed it, and another two weeks after that, she was gone.
Jake had started hanging out with Hannah the intern. From Flora’s close proximity, she could hear them cackling at his computer.
She ignored the sage nods she got from people like Cody.
Jake and Hannah skipped her goodbye lunch.
“Goin’ to the think-tank down the road, huh pardner?” was the last thing he said to her, leaning against their partition as she packed up her cube.
“Yep.” Her smile was small and fake, and she focused it in other directions.
In December of the next year, after she’d married Alan and they were set to have their baby, a girl, Mae, she got a card from Jake, sent to her office. By now she had real walls, and a door, and a team to lead.
It was a basic holiday card, with a painting of a grove of snowy evergreens and Wishing You Holiday Joy garlanded across the top.
As far as Flora could tell, there was an absence of irony about the image, the sentiment, or the note inside that read,
I should have gone for you. You were the best. We would have been so great together.