March 29, 2009

The Belly Rubber

The team met every morning at Grand Central to catch a 7:45 train to Stamford. The client, a big, ponderous office machine company mired in the “old ways” of doing business, had hired us to fix their website. In Stamford, a company shuttle bus came to deliver us and the other reverse commuters to the overly grand HQ that happened to live in a bad part of town. There, we met our counterparts from a business consultancy’s Global Services division, who were also on the job. Two were named Janet and both were blond. One flew in every week from Texas and the other from North Carolina. Their supervisor was a serious man named Paresh. His wife called him all day long. Later, he told us it was to complain.

The company parked us in a set of dingy cubicles in the account payables area. The company’s employees — thousands of them — were nine-to-fivers, clock punchers, many of whom liked to wear big sweaters with snowflakes on them. But we broke for lunch at noon like the rest of them and headed down to the subsidized cafeteria, where we would eat meatloaf one day, chicken Parmesan on another, and spaghetti the next. Every week the cafeteria would bring out a steam table with food from a different cuisine. Like the employees of the company, we would take the full hour, which was unheard of in our business; I usually eat at my desk. Every day at lunch we would chat about everything but the job we were working on. I learned from Paresh, who by the third week had begun to relax, that in northern India the descendants of long-ago German migrants had blue eyes. Janet One talked about how she supported her husband in business school and how Lasik had changed her life. Janet Two talked about the wearying weekly commute from Texas and the crappy hotel that Global Services put her in. She would stick it out because the frequent flier miles she collected would eventually be enough for a trip around the world.

This went on for three months because the client wanted the team on site, as though to better keep an eye on us. I got a lot of reading done on the morning commute and there was drinking on the raucous, crowded bar car on the 5:45 back to New York. The bar car was just a shell of regular train car. There were no seats. You had to hold onto a pole with one hand while drinking your can of Budweiser from the other. The usually dour conductors became jovial once they entered the bar car to collect tickets from the swinging, drunken commuters. It was here that we bonded with the Janets. They liked drinking and talking. Janet One and I got along particularly well. We shared a sarcastic sense of humor. She was cute. She wore tight sweaters every day. I was sorry she was married.

One becomes quickly attached to the people you work with closely, even while knowing that you’ll probably never see them again once the job ended. I’m a freelancer; this happens all the time. I’m always losing people.

After three months, the job began to wind down. There were still a few more weeks to go, but my contract with the agency hired by the office machines company was ending. Janet One couldn’t bring herself to believe it, since there was still lots of work to do. On my last day in Stamford, I walked into her cubicle to say goodbye. She was sitting in front of her laptop typing out technical specifications.

“Well, Janet, it was great working with you.”

“What do you mean, you’re really going?”

“This is my last day.”

“No, it’s not.”

“It is. This is it.”

“It can’t be. Who’s going to do all the work?”

“Geoff can handle the rest. It’s not that much.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“We’ll get a slice of cake at lunch to celebrate. I’ll be happy not to have to get up at six every morning, that’s for sure.”

Janet One looked pensive. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“Well, come closer.”

“Ok.”

I took a few steps closer. She was still sitting at her desk but had swiveled toward me.

“Can I rub your belly?”

“Excuse me?”

“I just want to rub your belly.”

“Ok.”

Janet One reached out and cupped my belly through the thin gray sweater I wore. She rubbed cautiously as though wiping away mist from a window.

“I love your belly,” she said, staring at it. I towered above her. The rubbing felt nice, but it didn’t take long before I felt strange and self-conscious about what was happening, so I stepped back.

“Ok,” I said.

Janet One laughed, a little embarrassed. I laughed, a little embarrassed. I forget what I said, but I left Janet One’s cubicle, only to find myself wandering in again after half an hour of sitting at my desk drawing isosceles triangles.

Janet One looked at me and smiled. Her hands reached out. Nothing tentative about it this time. I stayed longer, too.

“I just love your belly. I’ve always wanted to rub it.” She wore a slightly maniacal look when she said this.

It was an indiscretion; she was married. Yet it seemed perfectly normal what we were doing.

I touched her head. By rights I should have been allowed to touch her perky sweatered breasts. But even I knew — despite my willingness to step into any psychosexual encounter proffered — that this would be going too far.

Later, I took a cigarette break with Geoff and told him what was going on.

“You’re not serious,” he said.

“It’s happening. I’ve gone into her cubicle a couple of times already. It didn’t seem so crazy, but now I’m wondering.”

“It’s crazy.”

“Right.”

“She is married.”

“I know, I know.”

“You know it’s bad when it’s something she can’t tell her husband about.”

Geoff was married, too. But I could see that he was a bit jealous.

“Wow,” he said, and took a drag from his cigarette with a febrile intensity.

Over the course of the day, I visited Janet One’s cubicle repeatedly. By then, she was kneading my belly like dough.

“I just can’t stop,” she said, almost alarmed. “I love your belly, I love your Buddha belly.”

Buddha belly. This was perhaps the one phrase during these encounters I could have done without hearing. But my belly does protrude just a little. Luckily for me, it looks as though women find this sexy.

“I just love rubbing your Buddha belly.”

I don’t remember how the day ended. I took the train back a little early with Geoff. We marveled some about my encounter. He kept shaking his head. I kept on saying with some pride that I was simply a vessel for Jane One’s perversions.

A few weeks later she checked in with an email.

“How’s your belly?” she asked.

A few months after that, another email. Janet One was pregnant.

Attached was a picture. A sonogram of her belly and the baby inside.