When I pulled open the door to the tavern, the sound that came pouring out was like a crowd at a sporting event. “And I bet I know the name of the game that’s being played,” I thought wryly.
As I walked in, the noise level dropped noticeably, but I ignored the attention I’d drawn and scanned the room until I spotted Marge waving at me from the table she’d commandeered. As I walked over to sit with her, the noise gradually resumed its previous level.
She stood up as I approached. Uncertain how to greet her, I awkwardly reached out to shake her hand, but she ignored it to give me a welcoming hug the way women do. That simple gesture gave me a warm feeling; the other secretaries in the executive suite had pretty much given me the cold shoulder. As secretary to the president of Magnetadyne, Marge was pretty much the queen bee among the other ladies, so to have her ask me out for a drink was a big deal.
“I’m glad you could come, Jessica,” she said as we both sat down. “I wanted to get to know you a little better.”
“I really appreciate the invitation, Marge,” I said, “and my friends call me Jess.”
Just then a perky waitress appeared to take our orders. Marge asked for a beer, then raised her eyebrows slightly when I asked for a wine spritzer, but she didn’t make a comment.
“I really appreciate your invitation, Marge,” I told her sincerely. “It hasn’t been easy getting settled at Magnetadyne, so it means a lot that you’d reach out to me. Some of the other ladies don’t seem to like me all that much.”
She reached over and patted my hand. “It’s not that they don’t like you, Jess, it’s just that you’re the newcomer and Mary, the woman you replaced, had been with us for years before she retired.”
“I guess I can understand that,” I said.
“And to be honest,” Marge went on, “there’s also your appearance. I guess some of the others are a little intimidated because you’re so beau…”
“Please don’t use that word, Marge!” I interrupted. “I’m not trying to be falsely modest,” I said hastily as she raised her eyebrows again, “but I’m not truly beautiful. I could never land a job as a top model.”
She looked at me skeptically. “I’m not so sure about that,” she said. “But no matter what, most of us would kill to have your looks, and that inevitably generates a little envy.”
I shook my head. “They wouldn’t be so envious if they knew how my looks have affected my life. In many ways, beauty is a curse, not an advantage.”
Now she clearly didn’t believe me. “Every one of those gals spends a small fortune on clothes, hair dressers and make-up trying to look the way you do naturally. We’re the ones who’re cursed!”
I shook my head again. “You might think so, but you’d be wrong. For example, I go through life with my eyes focused on the ground, like one of the untouchables in India. I don’t dare look up for fear of making eye contact with a man, because if I do the odds are he’s going to hit on me.”
“Is that such a bad thing?” Marge asked in amusement.
“Yes,” I said emphatically, “when it happens almost constantly and when the men who approach me are so creepy or obnoxious.”
“Oh come on,” Marge said, “surely some of them are nice guys.”
“You’d be surprised,” I told her. “In my experience, the nice guys are either too polite or tend to think I’m out of their league and don’t even try. It’s mostly the horn dogs and creeps who make the moves.”
“I can’t believe a woman who looks like you doesn’t get approached by handsome guys. What about them?”
“In some ways, Marge, they’re as bad or worse. The ones I’ve met think they’re God’s gift to women – that I should be grateful just to be seen with them. What’s worse, they’ll toss you aside in a heartbeat for the next pretty face that comes along.”
At that moment, our waitress reappeared and set another wine spritzer in front of me. “I didn’t order that,” I said in confusion.
“I know,” the waitress said. “That guy asked me to bring it over,” she said, gesturing back over my shoulder.
I should have known better but I glanced in that direction only to see a heavy-set businessman bearing down on me. He grabbed an empty chair from a nearby table and, after giving Marge a cursory nod, sat down facing me. “Hey, my name is Al,” he said, “you look like you could use some company.”
I heaved a sigh. “I’m sorry, Al,” I said politely, “but I already have company. My girlfriend and I just want to relax and talk in private.”
He didn’t even turn his florid face in Marge’s direction. “Aw, that doesn’t sound like much fun. Listen, let’s have a couple of drinks together and then we’ll go some place where we can find a little more action.”
“No,” I said firmly, “I’m not interested.”
“Come on, baby,” he said, grabbing my hand in his sweaty palm, “you could have a lot more fun with me than with her.”
I glanced over at Marge with an “I told you so” expression, then turned back to the creep. “How long ago did you move to this country?” I asked him blandly.
He looked at me in confusion. “Hunh? What? I never moved here – I was born in America.”
“And yet you never learned the meaning of the word “no,” I said in mock disbelief.
Marge laughed out loud, and the guy’s face turned even redder. He stood up so quickly that he knocked the chair over. Picking it up hastily, he turned and stalked away. As he left, we could hear him mutter, “Damned dyke!”
I turned back to Marge. “Now do you believe me?”
“Wow, that was pretty ugly,” she said, still snickering at the guy’s hasty retreat.
“And that was with zero encouragement on my part,” I went on. “You can just imagine what would happen if I’d given out any positive signals. And it’s not just making eye contact, I have to be careful about what I wear too. If I don’t want that kind of attention I have to pick what I wear carefully so I don’t inadvertently expose too much skin.”
Marge started to respond, but I was on a roll and pressed on. “Here’s another thing: I saw you react when I ordered the wine spritzer, but I always have to be careful about how much I drink. I can’t afford to relax in social situations, I have to be constantly on my guard to make sure I don’t attract unwanted attention. It’s like I told you, looking like I do is like being on probation – one little mistake and I’m in trouble again.”
Suddenly a thought came to Marge and her eyes widened. “Wait a minute, do you get hit on at the office too.”
I gave her a wry smile. “Frequently,” I said.
She looked aghast, “Not Tom Moffatt?” she asked anxiously.
“Oh, no,” I said hastily. “My boss is a real sweetheart. He treats me more like a granddaughter than an employee. I’ve never had any problems with him.”
She looked relieved for a moment; then her eyes narrowed. “What about the silver-bearded wonder?”
I laughed. As the VP of Sales and Marketing, my boss had two direct reports. Scott Benson, the Director of Sales, was a divorced man in his late thirties with a goatee and mustache that were prematurely grey. People in the office said he was a genius; they also said he was a real ladies’ man.
I laughed. “He hit on me my first day.”
“And every day after that,” I went on, and she burst into laughter.
“What about Peter?” she asked curiously.
Peter Hammil, the Director of Marketing, was Mr. Moffatt’s other direct report.