Coworker Crush

by Nicole Cifani Lehmann-Haupt

I’ve figured out how to solve for the coworker crush. Since we work remotely, all I have to do is find a way to see her in person. By doing so, I will prove to myself that the entire notion of fantasy-based infatuation is a myth, predicated on old sailor songs and ancient mythologies. I will discover that what I’ve had swirling around in my head for the last two months is nothing more than hormones, chemicals, and lies propagated by mainstream media. I’ve already asked Brad from the band for his input—since he’s a songwriter and has good intuition— and he made the point that since I haven’t gotten any action since the time Jessica Kirvus got drunk at a work party and let me feel her fake boobs to prove they felt real, it was only logical that I was all worked-up sexually.

I usually need to masturbate once a week. Twice a week, if I’m feeling extra. Lately, it’s been fourteen times, even once right after my lunch break. I keep track of this in my UltraWorky™ tracker along with my sleep schedule, stretch routine, nutrition, hydration, did I read data science books or not, shit like that. The masturbation metric has deviated so far from normal that I wonder if I should talk to a doctor. It’s that insane.

But maybe the crush isn’t all in my head. We get along great. Eloise always includes me in our virtual product management meetings. She even complimented me on my haircut once.

Your head looks aerodynamic, like you’re very fast, were her exact words. My face flushed, and I was mortified at the thought that she would notice. She never interrupts anyone and speaks softly, unlike the other women at our company, who shout into their microphones and slurp, burp, and swallow loudly. She’s also pretty, but in a sweet and quirky way. She has these weird hobbies, like beekeeping and Parcheesi. I always prioritize the engineering tickets she writes, jumping them ahead in the queue so our development team fixes them first. Most tickets we receive are idiotic anyway—written by total nitwits. Engineers can’t solve all of the world’s problems, but this is the belief at our company, so I try.

But here’s the thing: My solution, to just meet her in person, is not elegant because it creates yet another problem. That is, I don’t have a reason to meet her. She would be suspicious if I asked her out for coffee—San Francisco is just coming out of lockdown. I’ll have to make something up. An incredible machine-learning discovery, for example. Despite solving everyone’s problems, at the end of the day I am a lowly software engineer—invisible, solitary, and ghost-like; therefore, I’ll need an important enough reason to meet her in person, because I’m not special enough to be privy to any actual company business.

Meanwhile, the problem is getting worse. I had another dream about her last night in which we were on a group camping trip. It was unreasonably hot. The sky had turned from tangerine to mulberry to indigo. I proposed a walk down to the water, where it was presumably cooler, and she said okay. As we broke onto the trail, she looked right at me, which prompted me to say—There is this thing between us, right? She nodded and brushed a silken lock of fuchsia hair behind a round ear. Her nose twitched and eyes twinkled, and I bit back my words, but then she put her hands on my face and kissed me. Her lips were plump, soft as marshmallows. I put my hands on her hip bones, just like the way I’ve seen them do it in movies.

Right before we had sex, I woke myself up in a flush of embarrassment and shortly thereafter reached for a tissue.

In the morning, I rise early for the first time since Jack, my dachshund, died. I step around his bed and decide to keep his things around the apartment—his bed, bowls, toys—because I’m not ready to give them up yet. Although he died naturally at the age of seventeen, I feel responsible. I am also conscious of the fact that there is nothing I can do about this. I roll back the blackout curtains, the ones from the Chinese version of an online superstore that everyone hates. My coffee machine has completed the brewing process, thanks to a shortcut automation app I wrote. I add a thick slab of butter and call breakfast complete.

Today is Monday. We are in stand-up, where we go around the virtual room taking turns stating our workload for the day. This ritual is performative at best. Our boss, Kenyan, is a dick.

He came to our company after working for a decade at the aforementioned big-box retailer, bringing a questionable ethos and several mediocre middle managers with overinflated egos along with him. He is never paying attention in stand-up—nine times out of ten, he is preening into his camera. Today, he is positioned farther back, performing pull-ups on a makeshift bar in his bedroom closet. He is shirtless, and the dark patch of hair on his chest reminds me of an angry chili pepper. Everyone pretends this is normal. I stare at the bar and wish it would collapse.

Eloise is always a minute early. Not like some of the other girls, who show up when the clock ticks 9:01, declaiming some excuse like tech issues. No, not Eloise. She wears nice hoodies and flattering glasses, cozy-looking sweaters and cool, vintage rock T-shirts. Most importantly, she is taking notes, she chimes in, she challenges bad ideas, and she knows when (or when not) to interrupt. She is a glory to behold.

The marketing team is hosting a company booth at the soccer match finals, Kenyan is saying in-between pull-ups. They need volunteers to hand out tchotchkes. He exhales, a big whoosh of sound into our eardrums so loud I can smell it. His sausage-like muscles ripple with sweat. He’s disgusting. The match is Saturday night, he says. I’m sure none of you have plans.

He chuckles at his lame joke, even if it is true.

Eloise, who has remained impassive throughout this farce of a meeting, shoots her hand in the air. Kenyan nods. Eloise—great. I’ll share the link to sign up.

Then, this odd thing happens. For the first time in my life, I want to be involved. This is drastic, and the reversal in my mind is so fast, I can’t even clock it. I calculate the possible outcomes:

  1. I meet Eloise and realize she is not special at all.
  2. I fall in love, and the problem becomes an order of magnitude worse.
  3. I sign up, but my bear-like anxiety claws into action, and I stay home instead. Or I go, but I pace the parking lot and purchase falafel from a food truck, then return home without meeting her. This is most likely.

After standup, I chat this opportunity to Brad, who takes this even more seriously than I do. Brad has achieved financial independence early in life thanks to the crypto boom. His current project is to sleep with one woman from every country. I never understood this, due to the fact that he’s not particularly vain, self-centered, or even good-looking—although he does have the charm thing down. This is also why he’s good at human logic puzzles. As usual, he sums things up neatly. Andy, I will pay for your ride-share so you don’t even have to drive. Let the driver take you door to door. Please, go and solve your problem.

Whether I am attracted to her or not, if I attend the stupid event, I will need to stay the entire time. I explain to Brad—again—how Eloise exhibits exceptional levels of integrity. Ninetieth percentile at least. Therefore if I go, I must commit. Which also means that there is a 100 percent chance of handing out company promotional swag to germ-toting losers. I wish I could bail, because that would then free up 161 minutes of time, after traffic. Ten minutes to see her; twenty to perform a polite entrance and exit. Thirty minutes of sexual attraction evaluation time, I’d say. This is my preference, and it is more than enough.

In the back of my mind, I’m still considering building a program to impress her.

Something that matters. This is how it’s always been—man builds to attract a woman, like a Mesozoic moth to an ancient flame.

My approach might be wonderful, flawless. But when we meet, it will be revealed just how average she is, how raw. She will have body odor and milk breath, gigantic feet and scaly skin. This crush will immediately vanish from my personal operating system like a virus.

My other friend, John from the Metaverse, said that if I really wanted to find out how great she is, I could give her a math equation to solve. Any idiot should be able to solve a ninth-grade algebra problem. Then again, John lives on a different planet. Not everyone is in Mensa or wrote an award-winning video game in the sixth grade. I often wonder if John might actually be A.I. but never ask him this, since he’d never tell the truth. This was the moment when I realized that attracting Eloise with my intellect may be a fantasy in itself.

You’re the one who wants to disprove this, right, dawg? Brad is saying. You need to leave the house.

I say okay. I am unconvinced. Brad knows about my agoraphobia. He knows how much I’ve thrived in lockdown and how I can’t stand other people looking at me, even in a virtual video room. In band practice, I stick to my drum booth and communicate with everyone over a hot mic. (If we’re recording an album, I’ve got rules: No strangers in the studio.) Walks are fine, but they must be under thirty minutes. Absolutely no handshakes or high fives. No groups over five. The very thought of going to a sports game sends me into a downward spiral. My palms sweat and I frown, imagining the raucous noise, brain-freezing neon lights, stale peanut air, and too-distant exit signs. I stare out my bedroom window at the Monday-morning garbage trucks backing up to the curb.

Brad sees my expression change. Look, dawg, he says. If you feel unsafe, stay home. But if you’re afraid of being vulnerable, maybe take it as a sign that you should do something. I blink at him while he cracks his tattooed knuckles. You hear me? His voice is coarse, like sandpaper.

Yeah, I say. Brad can be abrasively direct, but he has my best interests in mind. I feel decision paralysis setting in, so I take action before it overwhelms my system and I shut down completely. I use my phone to locate the volunteer sheet and type my name into the same shift as Eloise. The garbage trucks are now so loud that I have to hang up with Brad, then clamp my hands over my ears to hear myself think.

The rest of the days in the week speed by, much faster than I would have liked them to.

Unusually, the days do not feel like a vortex. I check them off individually—as I usually do in my tracker—but for once, they have meaning. The passing of each day means that I am one step closer to meeting Eloise.

When Saturday arrives, I take Brad’s advice and book a rideshare. I’d like to chat with the driver, but all I can manage is a series of grunts. So I pop in my earbuds and stare out the window, breathing deeply while listening to ambient sounds of ancient gongs I found on a CD-ROM at the library.

I get out of the car, gently close the door, and shuffle to the entrance. I look for an escape route and a hiding place, in case of a shooting. It feels unreasonably hot. I remove my generic fleece jacket and blink back white spots. I need water, language, keywords, a silent desert for walking, a cozy cave, an ocean to fall in.

I see our company logo and use it as a beacon to navigate through the maze of humans— dads gulping beers, maximally sugared kid gangs, pouty teenagers roaming on official teenage business.

Then I see something. A baseball cap with pink hair poking from beneath. A black T-shirt tucked into vintage black jeans. Golden arm hair and a shapely shoulder. It’s Eloise, and time does that weird warp-y thing and slows as she turns to greet me. Her face is more oval in person, like a leaf. She has gray-blue eyes and long eyelashes that remind me of knit mittens on an icy day.

She is standing with a girl from marketing. I wave and mutter a greeting. I catch only the words important enough to grasp the basics of the conversation. They smile pleasantly enough and I nod, examining my shoes. While I don’t have the ability to trace the atomic space around me, I can acknowledge the cold, prismatic sense of overwhelm. She looks at me, and I resist the urge to glance behind me to confirm that it’s me she’s looking at and not some other guy. I run multiplication tables through my head to relax and visualize a blue ocean, my toes in the sand. It takes twenty seconds longer than usual to A) remember these techniques, and B) put them into practice.

The company booth sits on the concourse level, facing the soccer field. Eloise surveys the crowd, clusters of fans wavering across the bleachers like tiny, painted killer ants. I hate this, she says with a sigh, after a pause long enough for me to mentally re-live my entire life story.

Do you want to walk around? I ask. Fucking idiot, I think—could I be more lame? This is why I never leave the house. I am shocked when she nods.

We are interrupted by the marketing girl. The halftime show is in twenty minutes, she says, tapping her watch. Eloise, will you kick the halftime goal? Our company is supposed to make a halftime goal with the other sponsoring brands, a health insurance behemoth and a budget mobile carrier. If each company’s representative made the goal, $300,000 would be

donated to a local charity. The game is live on ESPN, she adds, beaming. I shiver.

Sure. Television? Cool. I, uh… Eloise stammers and her whole body flushes. Her face is grim and the lines around her mouth are drawn.

Are you okay? I ask. I gulp, place a hand on her shoulder and hope this isn’t creepy.

I don’t think I can do it, she says. I didn’t want to come here, she adds in a wispy voice.

I think I’m going to be ill. Quick—where’s the nearest trash can?

The marketing girl points, and Eloise runs. I follow the flash of denim through the throngs of people to where her body is now tipped halfway into a green compost bin. I feel terrible for laughing at her selection.

Are you all right? I ask. It was a weak riff on an obviously rhetorical question. Here, have some water. I grab the small water bottle I always carry in my jacket pocket.

Yes, much better, thanks, she says. Stage fright.

Look, you don’t have to explain it to me, I say. What else can I do? To help, I mean, I ask.

She nods, thinks, steadies herself.

Listen…there’s no way I can go out there. But I have an idea. It might be a shitty one, but hear me out. Will you do it for me? Kick the goal, that is, she says.

I nod. The nod was intended to demonstrate that I was paying attention, but it must have drifted off course, because now Eloise is smiling. I make a note to myself for the future—stop nodding when the stakes are raised.

Thanks, she says, taking a sip from my water bottle, the one I’ll later feature on my bookshelf alongside my other most prized possessions: my 1892 Barber Quarter, my sealed Super Mario Bros. cartridge, and every copy of Sailor Moon. I knew I could count on you.

Everything begins to fade at this point. Here is what I know: I step onto the field, and the stadium lights crush my vision. The crowd presses in like a hot fist of energy that electrifies my body from the top of my head through my pinky toes.

Oddly, though, I can see, move, and breathe like a so-called regular person. I spot myself on the Jumbotron and am equally surprised to see a human being there and not a melty blob of goo. I feel people, glorious people: warm bodies waving their arms and flags at me from every direction. It occurs to me that this is a feeling I have been waiting for my whole life—perhaps even longed for. It is a bubbly tonic that heals the isolation of the last two-plus years, that funky elastic stretch of non-time immeasurable in length and too slippery to catch. I feel the sun on my face, and something inside of me crumbles. I am no longer numb.

I walk toward the center of the field feeling alive, part of the continuum, no longer a ghost. Eloise is back there watching, and this matters—but there is also something greater now at play, a piece of humanity I might touch.

I might not solve for the coworker crush, but at least I can solve for that.

A brightly colored collage featuring various men and women at office desks with old computers.

How to be a Computer

by Jeff Hersch

N. Cifani Lehmann-Haupt has been published in Active Muse Literary Journal, Mulberry Literary, and has received a Pushcart Prize nomination. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in media arts from Emerson College. She teaches creative writing at The Writers Studio.

Jeff Hersch provides analog collages for the modern being. Like his thoughts, these pieces are often constructed in short, frantic spurts of energy, with bursts of self-doubt, though calm and subtle. Also like his thoughts, these pieces represent everyday observations and conclusions about the vast world that erratically suffocates us, with little time for a quick escape or chance to relax, as we are currently inhabiting an advanced state of infinite stimulus.

His works lend themselves to your own interpretation of meaning – if any – but should also serve as inspiration and demonstrate the simple notion that you too can and should create something/anything on a regular basis.

When he’s not hunched over his desk cutting and gluing clippings, Hersch finds the time to play in bands (Glazer, Civic Mimic, Postman Agitator) and volunteer as the executive director of Flemington DIY, a non-profit community arts space in the town he grew up in.

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