The cubicles were still, the hum of the computers absent and the office nearly empty except for one woman. She was typing intently, turning only to check what she was writing against various charts strewn around her desk. Once she looked at her watch and then began to type with renewed energy. At 6:15 she finished with a flourish of fingers across the keys and then saved her document. She sighed and then gathered up the sheets of paper, sliding them neatly into a folder and then into her desk.
Still sitting, she unpinned and readjusted her headscarf without removing it from her head and then pinned it back into place. She stood, shrugged into her coat, slid her hands into her gloves and then left. As she threaded her way through the maze of cubicles, she heard a sound, a small cough perhaps, and stopped. It came again, this time louder, and unmistakably the sound of illness. Someone else was still working, invisible behind the chest-high carpeted walls dividing the workspaces, and they had a cold. Safiya pulled the collar of her coat more tightly around her neck and bent her head in the direction of the elevator, eager to be home.
Outside of the office building, Safiya turned left and began walking to where her car was parked two blocks away, two blocks through biting wind on a dangerously frozen sidewalk. She buried her gloved hands in her pockets and passed by the Salvation Army Santa who had temporarily abandoned his bell and bucket for a cigarette and a doorway sheltered from the wind. Walking to the end of the block, she came to a cross-walk and waited for the signal to change. She stamped her feet as she waited and turned so that the sharp wind was at her back. In doing so, she found herself facing the glass window of a brightly-lit and busy restaurant – Roscoe's, where several of her coworkers could be seen drinking coffee. Though she knew none of them personally, there were two she knew by name. Janice, from accounting, who sometimes stared, and Alexander, who worked silently in the cubicle next to hers and radiated apathy like a disinterested sun. They were sitting with a broadly-built man that Safiya had seen around the office only once or twice.
In the brief second that she recognized them, they had recognized her as well. Janice rolled her eyes, turned away, and said something to the man seated on her left. He looked at Safiya, then laughed and elbowed Alexander. Alexander looked to him and then looked at Safiya, who felt her face turning color. Safiya turned away quickly and crossed the street, the light having changed.
“I can't stand that rag-head,” Janice said, watching Safiya grow smaller in the distance through the restaurant window. Janice was in her late thirties, a small, fit woman in a short navy skirt and white blouse.
“What, has she ever said anything to you?” the broadly-built man asked, his eyebrows raised. His name was Martin.
“She'd better not,” Janice said coolly, “Or I'd knock her self-righteous head off.”
Martin slid his muscular arm around Janice's shoulders and said, “Don't worry about it, Janice,” he said, shifting closer, “She hasn't got a thing on you.”
Janice disentangled herself from Martin's arm and leaned across the small round table to appeal to Alexander. “You know what I'm saying, don't you, Alex?”
Alexander looked down from the ceiling that he had been studying and smiled indulgently. “I know she offends your modern sensibilities and that you feel her backwards ways are setting womankind back a thousand years.”
Janice glowered and Alexander continued. “And I happen to know that you find her intimidating, and you hate her for it.” Janice glared.
“What I want to know is what's hiding under all those clothes. I mean, she's a woman right? And I'm sure she comes with all the same parts that other women have.”
“Exactly,” Janice said, “Who does she think she is anyway, Mother Teresa? Or the Virgin Mary?”
At the word virgin, Martin smiled. Janice caught it and exclaimed. “You don't think!” Then she shook her head. “Oh, what I wouldn't give to see her knocked off her holy pedestal…”
“Well?” Martin said smiling and stretching his arms out over his head, “What wouldn't you?”
The next day in the office, Safiya looked up from her work when she realized that she was being watched. She turned to the man standing at the entrance of her cubicle and said, “Yes?”
The man was dressed in a dark shirt and tie, and he stood with his arms on the ledges that formed the cubicle entrance, effectively blocking the way. He was tremendous across the shoulders, and one of his thick hands held a manila file. “Hi,” he said. “These files were headed your way, so I thought I'd bring them myself.”
“Thank you,” Safiya said, and then waited. The man stood smiling at her without making any move to actually deliver the file. “The file?” she ventured.
“Oh, right, sorry,” he said, grinning. “You haven't been here very long, have you. My name is Martin.”
Safiya nodded politely and accepted the file from Martin's hand. He had taken a step closer to hand it to her and he stood there still.
“Is there anything else?” Safiya asked.
Martin shook his head as if waking up suddenly, “I'm sorry. I lost myself for a minute there, you have such beautiful eyes. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“You'd be surprised,” Safiya said blandly, turning back to her computer screen. “Thanks for the file. Have a nice day.”
Martin nodded and backed out the cubicle. “Nice meeting you,” he said cheerfully as he started off again. As his footsteps faded, someone spoke.
“Charming isn't he?”
Safiya turned suddenly in the direction from where that comment had come. “Excuse me?” she asked the pair of sleepy gray eyes peering over the cubicle wall. They turned out to be her neighbor's, Alexander.
“Martin thinks he's a stud,” Alexander said matter-of-factly, standing up and crossing his arms over the cubicle ledge.
Safiya tried not to smile.
Alexander continued, “He's after you.”
Safiya's eyes widened in surprise. “What? Why?”
Alexander shrugged. “Beats me.” He sat down and disappeared behind the cubicle wall again.
“Thank you?” Safiya said, unsure of whether to be grateful or offended.
“You're welcome.” His reply was muffled by the cubicle wall.
“Come on Martin, you don't actually think you could get anything out of that saint,” Janice laughed. “You are so not her type.”
“What type would that be?” Martin demanded, seemingly hurt. “Come on,” he said, flexing his arms, “What woman could resist this?”
Janice rolled her eyes.
A week later, Safiya found herself assigned to a last-minute project with three other team members. The first, strangely, was Martin. The second was a man with a Muslim name, Jamal Elbayoumy. She had never met him. The third was Alexander Kayahan, her neighbor from the next cubicle.
Safiya walked to her cubicle with the project outline in her hand, and paused before the entrance. Then, instead of entering, she walked a few more feet and knocked on Alexander's.
“Yes?” he answered without looking up from his work.
“You're on the Dadeson account, too?”
“Yeah,” Alexander said without moving his eyes from the computer screen.
Safiya nodded and looked down at her shoes. Alexander went back to typing.
At five o'clock, when most of the people in the office were turning off their computers and getting into their coats and gloves, Safiya was sitting in her cubicle waiting for the rest of her team. The first to arrive was Alexander, his trip being only a few feet from his workspace to hers. He stood facing a wall of graphs and notes that Safiya had posted to illustrate how far the project had gone and how far it had to go. Safiya, who had been watching him, wondered where he was from. His ancestry would be interesting to know. Black Irish maybe? He had straight black hair and gray eyes with thick eyebrows. He was handsome but also harsh to look at. When he spoke, his tone was unapologetic and brusque. When he made eye contact, it was direct and piercing. He turned and did so now.
Safiya looked away quickly and Alexander said, “There's a lot more to do here, are you sure you've been working?”
“Overtime for the last five working days,” she answered in what she hoped was a conversational tone, “And I'm not the only one with more work than they can handle. Someone else has been here too, I hear them coughing when the office is empty.”
“Coughing?” Alexander echoed.
“They've got a bad chest-cold, whoever they are, they should be at home and not-”
Safiya's sentence was interrupted by a cough, one she recognized instantly to belong to the person who had been working overtime. He was a tall African man, very dark with pink palms and teeth made startlingly white by the contrast of his skin. As he walked into the cubicle he finished coughing and nodded to Alexander. Then he turned to Safiya and said, “You needed help?” His accent was thick, but his words were clear and they carried a certain amount of force to them. “I am Jamal.”
Safiya returned the greeting with a nod and pointed to the project notes tacked to the wall. “Thank you, Jamal, there's some information on the wall which you might want to look over. There's one more person we're waiting for, and once he gets here we'll begin.”
When Martin arrived five minutes later, he greeted Safiya with a warm but unreciprocated smile and then read over the project notes. Chairs were then commandeered from other cubicles and the four of them sat down to discuss and delegate work.
The small group met this way the next day as well, comparing notes and progress and pushing to finish as soon as possible. Time was running out, the office's end-of year Christmas party was in six days and the deadline a day after.
Time passed, reports were written, and as the project drew nearer to completion, an interesting thing happened in the dynamics of the small group. Martin began to stand closer, to put his hands on the back of Safiya's chair when he was talking to her. Safiya became rather wary of him and took to standing up with her arms crossed whenever he entered. Jamal became sicker, but always stayed as long as the others did, even when sometimes his part of the work seemed complete. Alexander became less reticent and began spending time in Safiya's cubicle. Three days before the office Christmas party, Alexander asked Safiya a question, the first time he had ever initiated a conversation.
“Going to the Christmas party?”
The question caught her off guard. There would be dancing at the party, and drinking, and mistletoe, and all of these things clashed rather violently against her beliefs of what was ethical and civilized. It took her a moment to gather her thoughts, a moment in which Alexander interrupted them and said, “I didn't think you would. And you shouldn't either.”
“Oh?” Safiya asked with her eyebrows raised.
“No,” Alexander said, or ordered, rather. “The project isn't finished.”
Safiya nodded and felt some small relief at not having to explain the real reason behind avoiding the Christmas party. Somehow it never failed to offend people when she told them that their 'harmless holiday fun,' fit into a category of irresponsible sin that seemed totally unfitting for a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ. (Peace be upon him, she added mentally.)
“Are you going?” Safiya asked. “I mean, I'll stay to work, and I don't mind because this project is my mess and plus this isn't a religious holiday for me, and-“
“I'm not going.” Alexander said.
“Not Christian?” Safiya asked before she could think better of it.
“An office party isn't Christmas mass,” he said with an edge in his voice. “And I'm not Christian.”
“Jewish? Buddhist? Atheist?” Safiya trailed these words as she sat flipping through a stack of papers, trying to seem casually disinterested.
“D.,” Alexander said, equally blasé, “None of the above.”
“Now you,” Janice said, turning away from Martin and giving Alexander a flirtatious look, “You're much more appealing…”
“Him?” Martin laughed, “Oh come on, I bet no one would fall for him, he's boring as hell!”
The rest of the workday passed in a productive blur, and when things were finally finished, Safiya found herself alone in her cubicle with Alexander. Everyone else had gone home. She stretched and rolled her chair away from her computer then stood up and looked around the empty office.
“Five minutes ago this place sounded like the floor of a stock exchange,” she said quietly.
“Lost a big account,” Alexander said absently. “More screaming into phones than usual today.”
Safiya smiled. Alexander stood up and walked back into his cubicle. He came back with his coat. “Done?” he asked unceremoniously.
Safiya nodded and picked her coat up as well. Alexander walked her to her car.
Janice smiled and raised her eyebrows, “Oh you do, do you?
“Do I what?”
“Do you bet?” Janice smiled slyly.
The next morning at work Martin entered Safiya's cubicle whistling. He was holding two coffee cups and he held one out towards her. “Christmas cheer anyone?” he was grinning broadly.
“I'll take one,” Alexander said, relieving Martin of one of the mugs. Martin gave Alexander an irritated look and then handed the other mug to Safiya. He then left, presumably to get a cup for himself. Alexander sipped his and then set it down on the desk. Safiya turned to her computer and got back to work. A few moments later, she heard the sound of heavy foot-falls coming quickly in her direction. She looked up, startled, to see Jamal in the entryway of the cubicle clutching his chest and wheezing. He looked breathlessly to her and then to the coffee cup. He then coughed, “La tashribi!”
“What?” Safiya asked, startled. It had been years since she had studied Arabic and it took her a moment to even realize that was what Jamal was speaking. He looked angry. Even as he stood coughing and gasping for breath, his eyebrows were pushed together in look of ferocious displeasure. “La tashribi!” he said this time in a steadier, angrier whisper.
Alexander, who did not understand the words but could not have been mistaken about the tone they were delivered in, stood and walked past Jamal, out of the cubicle and down the hall. Jamal moved over shakily and took the chair Alexander had just left. As he sat recovering his breath, Safiya reached for her cup of coffee.
“Do you not speak any Arabic?” he whispered with renewed fury. “I said don't drink that!”
“Excuse me!” Safiya said, frightened and angered by Jamal's rudeness, “What are you talking about? Who are you to barge into my cube and tell me not to drink my own cup of coffee?” She was beginning to wonder if Jamal had not been working too many hours.
“Who am I?” Jamal asked ruefully, “I am someone who cares to tell you when there is alcohol in your cup.”
“What?” Safiya looked down at the cup she had raised halfway to her mouth. She felt her stomach give an unpleasant lurch. “Wait, how do you know?”
“I saw Martin pouring whiskey into two cups of coffee and walking this way. I was afraid he would give one to you, and he did.”
“Yes, I mean that man.”
“Why would he do a thing like that?” Saifya asked, her voice shaky with disbelief.
“Why wouldn't he?” Jamal coughed again. “Half of the people in this office do it every morning. There's a bottle near the coffee pot, it is labeled 'Holiday Cheer.' Have you never seen it?”
“I wasn't looking for it,” Safiya snapped defensively. She felt embarrassed and irritable. “And how can you be sure this is one of those cups? Alexander took one of them and he's been drinking it. If there was alcohol in it he would've told me.”
“Why should he have told you? You think he doesn't drink? He doesn't care if you do or don't. He's not a Muslim.”
Safiya set the cup down on the desk and stared at it. Jamal stood up to leave. As he stepped towards the hall, he turned and said to Safiya, “You should be more careful in choosing your friends. People in the office are talking about you. You should not be spending so much time with that man.”
“Who, Martin?” Safiya asked incredulously.
“No,” Jamal said pointedly, “Alexander.”
Safiya felt shame and anger burn up into her face simultaneously. “I thank you for your advice, Mr. Elbayoumy,” she said icily, “But I'm not a child, and I can take care of myself.”
Jamal's nostrils flared and he opened his mouth as if to say something and then decided against it. He turned away and left. A few minutes later Alexander returned. He sat down with his arms crossed over his chest. Safiya was sitting with her back turned to him, typing away at a lightening-fast but inaccurate speed. After a few minutes Alexander said, “What was that about?”
“Nothing,” Safiya said sharply, still typing. She did not want to believe what Jamal had told her, but unless she was to call him a liar, she had to accept that the coffee had alcohol in it. And that meant that Alexander had tasted it and not told her. She wanted desperately to ask Alexander about his coffee, to find out that Jamal had been mistaken and that Martin had delivered the coffee with alcohol in it to some other cubicle. But she couldn't; she was too angry, and too embarrassed, and too afraid of offending Alexander.
Martin entered the cubicle with another cup of coffee in his hand and stood behind Safiya with one hand on her chair. Safiya's carefully cultivated patience reached its limit. She backed her chair up against his legs and turned to face him just as coffee sloshed onto his shirt.
“Whoa! What gives?” he said, pulling the hot, wet stain off of his skin with two fingers.
“I didn't see you there,” Safiya said without sounding altogether convincing. “Are you almost done with the accounts?”
“Almost,” Martin said evasively. “Hey, you didn't drink your coffee.”
“No,” Safiya said, looking directly at him. “I don't drink alcohol.”
Martin smiled sheepishly.
“Oh I am sorry, I didn't know. Does this mean you can't join me for a drink after work? How about just dinner then?”
Safiya turned back to the computer. Martin set his coffee on the desk next to Safiya's abandoned cup and placed both hands on the back of her chair. Safiya pushed against him again, but found that this time he held her chair in place.
“Don't you ever get hungry, Safiya?” Martin asked, his mouth close to the folds on her scarf that hid her hair and ears. “Won't you let me buy you dinner?”
Safiya stood up and turned to face Martin. Standing at a distance, it had been easy to forget that he was a head taller and twice as broad as she. She felt her anger shrink into something like fear as she stood in such close proximity to him. “I'm not hungry, Martin,” she said, regaining her composure. “And more so, I never am, nor ever will be in your presence. Frankly, you make me sick.”
Martin was leaning closer and opening his mouth to speak when suddenly a hand appeared on his shoulder and he was turned about-face.
“I think,” Alexander said, pressing his fingers into Martin's shoulder, “That you are violating the lady's personal space.”
Martin tensed, then visibly relaxed and brushed Alexander's hand from his shoulder. “No harm intended M'Lady,” he said, turning back to Safiya with affected gallantry. “Begging your lady's pardon, most un-chivalrous of me,” he bowed out of the cubicle sneering.
Safiya sat down at her desk and put her forehead into her hands. She heard Alexander sit back down in his chair. After a few moments of silence she heard Alexander say, “Don't throw up on the computer. Unless you've saved your document first.”
Safiya smiled. She looked up at Alexander, her cheeks flushed with humiliation and gratitude and the awkwardness of what had just passed. “Thank you, for-”
“Don't mention it,” Alexander said briskly, scooting his chair back to his own corner. “Just get back to work.”
Safiya nodded and picked up where she left off on the computer screen.
“How much would you bet?” Janice teased. “Come on, or are you afraid you'd lose?”
Alexander had looked down indifferently from the ceiling, and was now looking at Martin, who bounced his knee excitedly under the table.
Martin looked at Janice, and then to Alexander, who seemed to be steeped in apathy as usual.
“Fifty bucks.” Martin grinned.
At 8:00, the group's third hour of overtime, Jamal stopped by Safiya's desk with a CD in his hand. He looked at Alexander, who was sitting in the corner of Safiya's cubicle proofreading, and then looked to Safiya with narrowed eyes. Safiya ignored the look and accepted the CD.
“It is finished,” he said flatly. “I have taken care of my accounts and the feasibility report. I am going home now.” He turned to leave, seemed to reconsider, and then said, “May I walk you to your car Miss Safiya?”
Safiya was about to accept his offer but then remembered what had happened not more than a few hours ago. How could she have forgotten, even momentarily, the rude and superior ground that Jamal had taken in all this, even going so far as to tell her who she could and could not associate with? And now, she thought, he was trying to see her to her car. Who did he think he was, her chaperone?
A taste of lingering anger found it's way onto her tongue again. It was bitter. She felt her lip curling and did not try to stop it. “No,” she said frostily, “I can take care of myself. Thank you.”
“Miss Safiya,” Jamal said softly, “I respect you very much, and I respect your decision to wear a hijab, but I must tell you something. The scarf on your head is not the only part of hijab. It will not protect you if your behavior puts you at risk. That is my advice,” he said, “And I know that the best advice is sometimes the worst to hear.”
Safiya felt her cheeks burn with anger. Jamal turned and left.
Safiya turned away stiffly and glared at her computer screen as Jamal's footsteps faded away. She was still staring at it blankly when she heard Alexander's chair squeak. He was standing up and walking out of the cubicle. He returned with his coat on. “Done?”
Safiya fingered her keyboard. Actually she wasn't done, but she couldn't bring herself to work right now.
“Yes,” she said, saving her work and then shutting down her computer. She stood up and began to put her coat on. Alexander waited until she had buttoned it up and then began walking towards the elevator. Safiya followed. They entered the elevator together and then stood in silence as it descended. When the doors opened in the lobby, Alexander stepped out first and began walking towards the exit. Safiya walked behind him. He held the door open for her and then stood beside her on the sidewalk outside of the building.
Alexander turned and made eye contact. Safiya maintained it, looking directly into his gray, half-lidded eyes.
“Coffee?” he said.
Jamal was right, Alexander wasn't a Muslim. He probably didn't even know that Safiya wouldn't drink, so it's not like he would even know to warn her about the coffee. It wasn't Alexander's fault.
Alexander turned and began walking. Safiya followed. When they had walked up the block and stopped in front of Roscoe's, Safiya looked up at the great glass window again. The tables inside were mostly full, but there didn't seem to be anyone from the office there. Safiya's coworkers were the five o'clock coffee crowd, and this seemed to be a group of people drinking or eating dinner. There was a bar towards the back of the restaurant, which Safiya had not noticed before.
Alexander stepped inside and held the door open behind him. Safiya hesitated. But why hesitate? she thought, We're just having coffee. I can take care of myself.
Safiya put one foot before the other and followed Alexander inside to a small table in a corner. Alexander sat down, made eye-contact with a waitress, and raising two fingers, said “Coffee.” A slow smile spread across the waitress's face and she gave Alexander an appraising look before nodding and disappearing towards the kitchen.
Alexander reclined in his chair with one arm over the back and one of his legs extended beneath the table. “What happened?” he asked bluntly.
Safiya, who had been debating whether or not to sit with her elbows on the table because that might appear as if she were leaning towards Alexander, was caught off guard. “What happened with what?”
“With that jerk.”
“Oh, Martin's been getting on my nerves, I guess I-“
“I meant Jamal.”
Safiya looked up from the lap she'd been twisting her gloves in.
“And why'd he come rushing in,” Alexander said.
Safiya was momentarily seized with the desire to ask Alexander why he had rushed right out, but checked herself. She had no claim on Alexander. There was no reason why he should get in the way when Jamal came rushing in angrily. It was none of his business. But then, neither was Martin, and Alexander had definitely intervened there. Alexander waited in the noisy silence of the restaurant as Safiya sat lost in thought.
“Where's he from anyway?”
“Jamal?” Safiya said, stirring, “I think he's from Senegal.”
“What language do they speak there?”
“Senegalese, and French too I think.”
“That wasn't French.”
“What wasn't French?”
Alexander looked at Safiya sharply. She had failed to follow the obvious direction in which the conversation was going. “What he said when he rushed into your office wheezing like an asthmatic and clutching his chest like a heart patient, that wasn't French.”
“Oh.” Safiya looked down at the table.
“Well?” Alexander inquired in the same flat, disinterested way that he always spoke.
“It was Arabic.”
“And what did he say?” Alexander pressed.
“He said 'don't drink that'.”
“Thought so.” Alexander tilted his head towards the ceiling and stared for a considerable amount of time. Safiya sat in pensive silence while the restaurant around her murmured and clinked.
The waitress arrived and bent close to Alexander as she put the coffee cups on the table. Alexander paid her no attention. As she set down the napkins, she gave Safiya an amused glance, then sashayed away. Safiya picked up her coffee and took a napkin from the pile to place beneath her cup. There was something written on it, a phone number and a woman's name, Anna.
Safiya stared at it and then at Alexander, whose head was still tipped towards the ceiling. He had unbuttoned his coat and his shirt collar was open. She held the napkin in her hand.
“Fifty dollars?” Alexander asked, obviously bored. “For a bet I'm not even interested in taking? Some of us have better things to do.”
Safiya cleared her throat. “Alexander?”
“Call me Alex.” He said, still looking at the ceiling.
“Alex, you did, I mean, did you know there was alcohol in the coffee?”
“Of course. I never use that kind of stuff myself.”
“Oh?” Safiya brightened.
“No. It's cheap crap. A good wine is better.”
“Oh.” Safiya sunk slightly into her chair.
Alexander looked at her. “You don't drink.”
Safiya sipped her coffee. She heard the tinkle of wine glasses being toasted. The explanation could be long. Or it could be very short.
“It rots your body and brain,” she said eventually.
“And compromises your integrity,” she said secondly.
“And damages society,” she said thirdly.
Alexander looked down from the ceiling and directly into Safiya's eyes. “That's not the case with just having a glass of wine with dinner.”
Safiya shifted uncomfortably in her chair. She found herself mentally struggling for an answer. “If you believe that a destination is bad, then all the steps taken towards the destination are just as bad, right? I mean, that's why people are prosecuted for attempted murder even if they were unsuccessful.”
“You're telling me that drinking is as bad as murder?” Alexander asked with one eyebrow raised.
“No no,” Safiya said shaking her head. She found herself getting frustrated. “Say you know of a bad road; it's full of holes and it's dangerous. But people have fun driving it, so they zoom down it and get themselves hurt or killed. You tell them it's dangerous, and they tell you it's fun. Not everyone who drives down it dies, but still, the fact that that specific stretch of road kills people means that either it should be fixed or closed.”
“Why can't it be fixed?” Alexander challenged.
“You can't fix alcohol; if you take away the fact that it intoxicates you then no one will drink it. How popular is non-alcoholic beer?”
“I don't see why the rest of us should have our fun road privileges taken away just because a few idiots speed and get themselves killed,” Alexander said, reaching into his jacket and pulling out a pack of cigarettes.
Safiya leaned forward earnestly. “And I don't see why a road that kills people should remain open just because a few people have fun with it. How can you justify the fact that drunk driving kills so many innocent people just because it's fun?”
“Allowing alcohol is not the same thing as allowing drunk driving.” Alexander said with a cigarette dangling from his lips. The smoke from his cigarette rose and joined the cloud that was slowly gathering over the tabletops.
“But allowing alcohol is allowing for drunk driving,” Safiya pleaded, holding the coffee cup in one hand. “If there wasn't alcohol, then there wouldn't be drunk driving, or any of the other evils that are directly caused by alcohol. It doesn't matter whether people are having fun because their fun doesn't justify them hurting other people.”
“You have a point,” Alexander said, putting his elbows on the table, “But you forget one thing. As long as the road is fun, people will always drive it.”
“It doesn't mean they should.” Safiya said sulkily into her coffee cup. “And it doesn't mean that I will either. Martin was an idiot for giving me coffee with alcohol in it.”
“Is that where this all started…” Alexander trailed off and his eyes found the waitress. He studied her as she bent over a table to serve drinks. When she turned and smiled at him, he raised one finger and motioned for the check.
The waitress threaded her way between the tables and pushed-out chairs and delivered a bill to Alexander. Alexander reached into his wallet and pulled out a bill. Placing it inside the billfold, he handed it back to the waitress who gave him one last suggestive smile and then headed back to work, swishing her hips as she walked.
Safiya looked at the napkin that was still in her hand with the waitress's name and number crumpled up inside of it and then looked at Alexander, who was buttoning up his coat again. She balled it tightly and dropped it into her empty cup. Alexander stood up and Safiya followed him out of the restaurant. He walked her back to her car.
“What's the matter, Alex,” Martin challenged, “Or aren't you interested in girls?”
“Much more interested in them than they are in you.” Alexander said calmly.
“Ooooh,” Janice winced, “Martin are you going to let him get away with that?”
Within two working days the project was finished. There were to be no more five o'clock meetings in Safiya's cube and she no longer saw Jamal. Martin she saw often, but he no longer acknowledged her, passing her by without even making eye contact. Alexander she saw daily, but only as he passed by the entrance of her cubicle on his way to other places in the office. She found herself feeling dismayed.
Safiya mentally kicked herself after taking the third peek in the direction of Alexander's cubicle to see if he had been standing there. You're an idiot, she told herself. You spent less than ten minutes in a restaurant drinking coffee, what are you expecting?
Safiya wasn't sure what she was expecting, but at 4:30 someone did raise their head over the wall of her cubicle. It was Martin.
“Safiya,” he said in low voice, “Can I speak with you for a moment?” His voice was curiously subdued, almost humble. Safiya blinked slowly. Martin gave a small hopeful smile.
“Alright,” she said warily.
Martin's head disappeared and in a few seconds the rest of him reappeared in the entrance of Safiya's workspace. He walked in somberly with his hands behind his back and his head lowered.
“I want to apologize,” Martin said, speaking deliberately. “For the way I'd been behaving. I know that it was disrespectful, and I would like to make it up to you somehow.”
Safiya shook her head slightly. The apology took her aback slightly. This was too out of character. There had to be a catch.
A few seconds of confused silence followed. Martin took a step closer, but held himself upright, not leaning towards her at all. “I owe you,” he said. “And I mean this in the nicest possible way, so can I please take you out to dinner?”
Aha, thought Safiya. All is right with the world again. Safiya fought the urge to laugh out loud and instead composed her face into seriousness.
“I appreciate your apology Martin,” Safiya said, choosing her words carefully, “And I accept it. But you don't need to take me out to dinner.”
“But I need to!” Martin said energetically, breaking out of character for a moment. “I mean,” he said clearing his throat and becoming earnest again, “I ought to. I should.”
Safiya's polite amusement began to wear off. “Martin,” she said directly, “I apologize if I haven't told you this before, but I don't date.”
“Don't date?” Martin said incredulously, both eyebrows raised. “Why is that?”
“Several reasons,” Safiya said immediately. “There are better and more logical ways of getting to know a person than taking them for a sexual test drive that leaves both people used and possibly abused.”
Martin did his best to suppress a smile and didn't seem to be succeeding. Safiya ignored this and continued.
“It undermines the sanctity of marriage by making love as cheap as dinner and a date. It takes all the commitment out of relationships, and society – mostly children and family, suffers for it.”
Martin was no longer smiling and seemed to actually be thinking. “So,” he said gradually, “How do you guys find love then? A life-long partner? A husband?”
“A bit more logically I hope.” Safiya said, “You can get to know a person in a setting that isn't a date and doesn't involve romance before a commitment. Besides,” she said, choosing not to mince words. “You can probably learn a lot more about a person and whether or not you're compatible by sitting down and talking than you can with your tongue down their throat in a movie theater.”
Martin smiled. “So you don't do movies then?”
“Not on a date, no.”
“And no dinner either?”
“No dinner.” Safiya echoed.
“Not even coffee with me after work?” The smallest trace of a smile appeared and then disappeared at the corner of Martin's mouth. Was he teasing her? Could he possibly know?
Safiya felt suddenly shaken, but she answered resolutely. “No coffee. Now if it's alright with you, I have to get back to work.”
Martin leaned back in his chair and relaxed. “It's not me you need to provoke Janice because I'm already willing to bet. I'm not one to turn down fifty easy dollars.”
“Alright then,” Janice said, turning towards Alexander again. She smiled at him wickedly. “Come on Alex, fifty isn't that much, but it could buy a tolerably good bottle of wine and someone to share it with.”
“It couldn't be just that easy though,” Martin butted in. “I'm not giving this guy fifty dollars just on his word. I would need to see some proof first.”
“That's fair enough,” Janice said. “Come on Alexander, it's fifty dollars for whoever brings proof of victory first. Are you game?”
Safiya turned back to her computer and stared at the screen. She tapped the keyboard impatiently with her fingers and then put her hand on her forehead. She was frustrated by her own reluctance to just pop her head over the wall and ask how Alexander was doing. But she couldn't, she wouldn't.
I am not a clingy person, Safiya told herself. Besides, now that the project is over I have no reason to see him.
After a few more moments of staring blankly at her work, Safiya thought, I wonder if he'll be at the Christmas party tomorrow?
The morning of the Christmas party very little real work was done in the office. People may have been physically on duty, but mentally they were already on vacation and had shown up at the office dressed for the fun. It wasn't anything formal, just refreshments and drinks and a fat man from HR dressed up as Santa. Of course there was mistletoe being hung already, and the conference room had been set up as a dance hall and decorated with tinsel.
Safiya buried herself in her work and time flew. She drifted back into awareness at 5:05 when she heard the sound of a bell ringing and people laughing. The workday was over, the party had started, and Safiya had stayed five minutes more than she had intended to. She shut down her computer and picked up her coat. She walked briskly out of her cubicle towards the elevator and bumped directly into Alexander.
“Oh!” she said looking up, “I'm sorry!”
“There you are,” Alexander said coolly. “I was waiting for you. Let's go.”
“Go?” Safiya echoed, “Go where?” Alexander was wearing a long black coat, and from between the unbuttoned lapels a deep red scarf showed. The color suited him.
“Out.” Alexander said. “I'm not staying for the party. Are you?”
“Well then, let's go.”
Alexander turned and headed for the elevator. Safiya followed, trying not to smile.
Out of the office building, Alexander turned left and headed up the busy downtown street. Safiya kept pace, brushing the occasional snowflake off of her eyelashes and doing her best to not bump into any of the hundreds of people on the sidewalk out for Christmas shopping. She had to sidestep at times to avoid a collision, but Alexander, she noticed, walked perfectly straight ahead, turning for no one. People stepped aside for him and turned their heads as he passed. Safiya stole a glance at him. Between the black of his hair and the black of his coat, Alexander's face was flushed from the cold and his eyes were lit from the lights in display windows. Safiya looked away.
A few blocks farther and Alexander turned suddenly, stopping in front of an ice-skating rink nestled between the skyscrapers.
“You skate?” he asked.
“No,” Safiya said nervously.
“Me neither.” Alexander began walking towards the rink.
Skates were rented and laced up, and Safiya followed Alexander and ventured out onto the ice. Taking a few hesitant steps, Safiya looked up at Alexander, who was standing on the ice with his hands in his pockets. At that moment Safiya's skates turned in at the ankles, causing her to lurch forward. Alexander started forward to lend her a hand but lost his balance as well and sat heavily down on the ice. Safiya gasped and looked at Alexander uncertainly, who was sitting with his long legs splayed and his head bowed, both hands on the ice beside him. A few children skated expertly by. Alexander looked up and a smile broke. Safiya laughed out loud and offered him her gloved hand.
They fell a lot at first, and Safiya giggled herself into a blush while Alexander only smiled. The hours flew by but Safiya didn't notice. She was busy trying not to fall, and having fallen and then been helped up by Alexander, she was wondering why Alexander smelled so good even though he wore no cologne. There was something about his scent, something that made her want to breathe deeply when he was close, something that made her stomach feel tight and her cheeks feel warm.
Alexander blinked slowly and actually yawned. “You know what I bet? I bet that I could do in a week what Martin couldn't do in his entire lifetime, but am I interested in fifty dollars to knock the holy saint off of her pedestal? No.”
“Boy,” Janice said, “You are a conceited bastard aren't you…”
Martin wore a smug look that showed that he thought as much.
At ten-thirty Safiya finally looked at her watch, and noticing the time remarked, “Oh no! It's late!”
Alexander turned gracelessly on the ice to face her and said, “You have a curfew or something?”
“No,” Safiya said hastily, “But it's ten-thirty and I have to be going.”
“Fine,” Alexander said sharply, turning and skating away.
Safiya was taken aback. Had she somehow offended him? She leaned in Alexander's direction and did her best to skate behind him without slipping again. They made it to the edge of the rink where they returned their skates and put their shoes back on in silence, Alexander's face as unreadable as ever and Safiya's anxious.
As Alexander led the way back through the busy downtown streets Safiya struggled to keep up with his long strides. He was walking quickly back in the direction of the office, and since he seemed to be keeping a step ahead of Safiya she could not see his face.
As she walked, she tried to put her scarf back in order, it had slipped backwards and sideways during the ice skating and a few of her dark curls had made their way out and on to her face. One of her pins seemed to be missing too, the one that usually held the scarf closed at her chin.
From the path she walked behind Alexander, Safiya heard the trilling of a mobile phone. Alexander reached into his coat and answered it.
“Ten thirty-five,” he said into the receiver without a greeting. “I know how to tell time.”
“Last day of the week,” he added after another pause, “And it isn't over yet.”
Alexander walked on, listening to a voice in the phone that Safiya could not hear. “I don't need an hour and a half,” he answered businesslike. “You be ready in fifteen minutes. When I call, you come to my desk.” Alexander hung up and slipped the phone into the pocket of his jacket. Safiya shivered a little and walked faster.
Within five minutes Safiya found herself standing in front of the office building again. She was nervous. It was late, and she had a gut feeling that told her she should be heading home.
“Not fifty,” Alexander continued. “Make it a hundred.”
Alexander turned to Safiya and said, “I have something for you at my desk, come on up.”
“Oh no, it's alright,” Safiya said hesitantly. “It can wait until tomorrow. I have to be going.”
“It's got to be now,” Alexander said simply, “Because tomorrow will be too late. Today is the Christmas party.”
“But I thought you weren't Christian?”
“I'm not,” Alexander said, “But I still have something for you.”
Safiya looked up and into Alexander's gray eyes. “Alright,” she conceded after a few seconds of hesitation. Alexander slipped his arm into hers and began leading her through the lobby. Safiya's first impulse had been to pull away and say the same thing that she had said hundreds of times while carefully navigating her way through university- that she did not touch unrelated men, but now it was too late. When she had taken both of Alexander's hands to be lifted off of the ice, when she had held the lapels of his coat and laughed while trying to steady herself, how could she tell him that?
Safiya figured that five more minutes in contact with Alexander's arm would be the last. On Monday she would break everything off. On Monday she would tell Alexander that there was nothing and no point to anything, that as bad a Muslim as she was, she would never marry a non-Muslim and therefore had no reason to pursue a relationship with one. Not that he couldn't ever be one, she added mentally with guilty hope. What was his religion anyway? But a non-Muslim was out of the question, absolutely. That's exactly what she would tell him, and she consoled herself with these thoughts as the elevator glided up to the proper floor and the doors opened.
Upon stepping out of the elevator she saw a few small groups of people standing around the cubicles with drinks in their hands. The Christmas revelers had lingered on and spilled into the cubicles, and more than a few of them were obviously drunk. One or two people turned as the elevator opened. Safiya tried delicately to withdraw her arm from Alexander's but he had started forward, drawing her along past the people who were now openly staring.
Arriving at his desk, Alexander slid his arm out of Safiya's as he stepped into his cubicle. Safiya sat down in the nearest chair and began trying to readjust her scarf, but without the lost pin it was impossible. She could pull it over her forehead but it would just start slipping backwards again. Alexander opened his desk and drew out a red velvet box, which he dropped in his pocket. He then turned and looked at the various staff members who were trying to gawk and linger from an inconspicuous distance. He pulled out his phone and Safiya watched as he punched out a quick text message. That's right, she thought. He's supposed to meet someone here soon. It's not like I'm here with him alone.
Alexander slid the phone back into his pocket when he was finished. “Too many people here,” he said flatly. “To the lounge.” Safiya stood up quickly and led the way, this time keeping a step in front of Alexander so that he would not take her arm again. Heads turned as they passed, and whispering followed.
Once inside the employee lounge Safiya turned and stood to face Alexander. It was dark in there, the only light coming from the open doorway they had just entered from.
“Well?” she shrugged with anticipation, “Now what?”
“I have something for you,” Alexander said pulling the red velvet box from his pocket, “But you have to close your eyes first.”
Safiya looked at the box. It was square and fairly large, too deep to be a jewelry box. Alexander stepped close to Safiya and smiled. Safiya paused and then smiled uncertainly, closing her eyes.
“Are you ready?” Alexander asked.
Safiya nodded, and at that moment two things happened. The first was that her scarf slipped entirely off of her head. The second was that Alexander kissed her.
Safiya was stunned, and as she opened her eyes to see Alexander's face, a tear slipped out. Alexander withdrew his lips and with one hand touched Safiya's exposed hair, tucking a tendril of it behind her ear. Then he traced the path of her tear with one of his fingers.
He spoke quietly in the darkness. “Why are you crying?”
She had many reasons. One for the foot that was planted between hers, two for the arms that held her. Ten for each of Alexander's fingers. But one came to mind as more tragic than the others.
“My first kiss,” Safiya trembled, “I was saving that…”
A few moments passed in silence. Alexander looked at his watch, still holding Safiya.
“What do you want,” Safiya moaned, trying to pull her scarf back up. “Let go already.”
“Any second now,” he said, peering at his watch in the darkness and drawing Safiya closer.
Safiya heard footsteps and gasped. Alexander turned to her quickly and stopped her mouth with his. Safiya tried unsuccessfully to cry out. Just then the lights in the lounge flickered on and Alexander turned nonchalantly towards the door, his arm now hanging loosely around Safiya's waist. Martin was standing in the doorway along with at least six of the Christmas party revelers.
“Hey,” Alexander said sharply, “Can we get some privacy here?”
It resumed again when the people in the doorway, every last one of them, burst into laughter, harsh and unmistakably cruel. Alexander looked around the room disinterestedly with his arm still around Safiya's waist. Safiya stood with her scarf tangled around her shoulders and several other tears joining the first. When the laughter finally ended and most of the people had wandered away, Martin walked reluctantly up to Alexander. He stared at Safiya first, studying her hair and the lines of her neck as if he was looking one of the strangest things he'd seen in a while. Safiya turned away and tried in vain to cover herself, but the scarf had become too tangled. It couldn't cover her unless it was straightened out.
Eventually, Martin dug into his pocket and took out his wallet. He counted out one hundred dollars. Alexander took the money from him and counted it again.
“I can't believe it,” Martin said, shaking his head and putting his wallet back into his pocket. “I can't believe you did it. How it is that you attract women by pretending to not give damn, that is just too amazing.” Martin shrugged and headed back towards the door. “Janice is not going to believe this…”
Alexander slipped the money into his pocket and headed for the door himself.
“Wait!” Safiya called after him, a realization dawning on her. “What just happened?”
“No big deal, “Alexander said, turning to face her with both his hands in his coat pockets. “Just a little bet.”
Safiya placed her hand on her forehead. “You bet him that, that-” Everything in her body ached, screamed and cried out in shame and fury, but she couldn't find the words. “You sold me,” she whispered, “You sold me for a hundred dollars…”
Alexander shook his head and held out the red box. Its lid was up. It had been empty. “You sold yourself for nothing.”
He spoke again just as he walked out the door. “I just made a hundred dollar commission.”