“I can’t stand not knowing anymore. I’m going to do it.”
“No!” Jim bolted from his office chair. “Oh, God, no! For God’s sake, don’t do this, you’ll be throwing your life away!”
“I know, I know,” I waved him off, “It’s an awful chance to take, but I can’t help thinking that she might understand. Jill’s beautiful — she’s more than beautiful, she’s nice. She’s friendly, she’s charming, she’s . . . she’s . . . she’s got that, you know, that little spark in her eyes that makes me feel wanted when I talk to her.”
“Do you want to end up on the registry?!” Jim retorted.
“If I don’t ask her out,” I recited with deliberation, “I’ll never forgive myself for passing up the opportunity.”
Jim grabbed my arm as I turned to leave the room. “Don’t do it, please, I’m begging you! I’ve seen too many old friends and good workmates brought down!”
My final reply was slow and hushed. “I’ve thought about this over, and over, and over again. I can’t go on living in fear. It can’t be as bad to act on your emotions as everyone seems to think it is.” And with that, I marched out of Jim’s-and-my office.
Jim would have called back after me, except he knew that a public display of disapproval would only hurt my chances even more. It must have hurt him terribly to watch me walk down that hall.
Down the main hall, turn left at the fourth door. Jill’s office block. My hands were already shaking. Two more doors down, there was Jill’s office. And . . . and she was inside. My heart felt like it could shake right out of my chest. I moved full on into her doorsill . . . and knocked.
“Oh, hi, Chuck!” she turned from the console she’d been working on. Her smile could have lit up Manhattan at midnight. “What’s up?”
“Hi,” I nearly choked, “I . . . um . . . was wondering —” Her look changed to curiosity. Spit it out, man! “Would you like to go out with me this weekend?”
There. The heat, the rush — and the relief — of finally having taken the chance washed over and through me. Her eyebrows slowly raised. I held my breath for the agonizing milliseconds between the time of my asking and the time of her inevitable response.
And she smiled. “I was hoping you’d ask me that,” she said.
Yes. It had paid off, after all the waiting and hoping and despairing, it had finally paid —
She whipped her right hand into and out of her pocket, brandished at arm’s length the black cylinder she retrieved from it, and pushed the red button atop it with her thumb. That was the first time I’d ever seen an Alerter in real life; it was also my last. A buzzer in the wall, practically above my head, exploded into a repeating alarm wail. As shockingly loud as it was, I didn’t flinch, because I knew what was coming would be much, much worse. Every inch of my body wanted to run away at full sprint, and every ounce of my sense told me that it wouldn’t make any difference.
Three middle management men and one male executive rounded opposite corners and closed in on me from both sides. Oh God — one of those middle managers was my own boss. As if this whole mess wasn’t shameful enough without him seeing it. For the first few seconds, there didn’t even need to be any words exchanged; my boss and another manager grabbed me from both upper arms and held on tight. My boss looked me squarely in the eye; he probably wanted to say something but held it back out of legal necessity.
The executive glanced at the name plate next to the door and asked, “What seems to be the problem, Jill?”
She pointed the long, painted nail of her right index finger at me. I could swear I caught a smirk on her mouth. “Chuck here,” she began, “Harassed me. He barged into my office and asked me for a date.”
“Did he make you feel uncomfortable?” the executive asked, as though reading from a script.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“He created a hostile environment for you, then?”
The executive turned to me. I couldn’t tell whether his expression was resigned or infuriated. Not that it mattered. “Do you wish to deny these charges? I must remind you that if you do, you must be able to provide witnesses to substantiate your denial or face charges of perjury.”
There was nothing else to do. These would be my last words as a professional. “No,” I replied. “I did ask her out.”
“As of this moment, your employment here is terminated,” the executive began. I mouthed along with his words, having heard them so often in those shock-inducing training videos. “Your name and social security number will be placed on the National Harassment Alert Registry. Those articles in your office not belonging to this company will be deposited outside the premises in two hours so that you may pick them up. Any attempt to re-enter these premises will be regarded as an act of trespassing.” He started to walk away, instructing the two men holding me: “I’ll have security get him out of here. Hold him ’til then.”
The oppressive wait for my “escort” out of the building was the longest, worst part. For a long time, I could neither say anything nor look at anyone — not the man to my left, not Jill, not even the man on my right, who until a moment ago had been my manager. When I did look at my boss, he was looking off down the hall, pretending not to notice me. “Can . . . can you talk?”
Finally, urgent footsteps rounded the corner. It must be the security people, coming to take — no. Wait. Oh no. It was Jim. He stumbled to a halt when he was close enough for us to make out each others’ features. His face and tendons held all the panic, despair, and disappointment that was missing from my captors’ vacant stares. The men holding me, the expressions, the alarm that had sounded moments ago; words weren’t necessary. All he could do was shake his head and shed a few bitter tears of remorse.
Which reminded me . . . I wondered why I wasn’t shivering or crying or anything. Why hadn’t the depth of this whole mess hit me yet? My professional life was over, for crying out loud; my old friendships would probably all dissolve . . . all this I’d built . . . oh God oh God ohgodohgodohgod!
My face was red and my eyes wet with misery by the time the escort came.
SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI.
Rent, I thought on the drive home. I didn’t realize how much of my own stuff I’d been keeping in that office. Next month’s rent. Unemployment compensation. See if I can find work somewhere else. How many employers will look to see if you’re in the Registry? Gotta call that employment agency again. Might not be able to find a job; well, then, I’ve been looking for a good excuse to go the entrepeneurial route and I’ll need ads and I might need a loan. But look for work first. Can’t be that bad.
By the time I got home, I’d figured my bank balance could sustain my rent for the next two months if I kept all my other expenses, food included, to an absolute minimum. I’d have to call the Unemployment office to see if they could help out; I’d heard they could get your old employer to pay you up to 60 percent of your old salary until you found work. I looked up their number in the state government pages and dialed.
“Job Services — Unemployment Insurance,” a male voice droned.
“Yes,” I replied in my usual phone manner, “I’ve just lost my job today, and —”
“You’ll have to come down to the main office and file a compensation request form. I can tell you right now, though, that if you were fired with Cause you won’t get a penny.”
“What does Cause mean?”
“Well, it means that they got rid of you for some valid reason and they can prove it, such as if you were incompetent, or if you embezzled from them, or something like that. As opposed to if you were, say, laid off.”
“Would being accused of sexual harassment count as Cause?”
His silence seemed to chide ‘what an obvious question.’ “Yes, that would sure qualify.”
Uh oh. “Even if I were only accused? And if it wasn’t something major?”
“If they reported you to the NHA Registry, that’d be all the proof they’d need.”
“Damn,” I whispered.
“You can still come in and fill out the form, if you’d like to try. Just keep away from the ladies,” he joked. His humor wasn’t appreciated.
“Well, thanks anyway,” I groaned, and hung up.
No unemployment checks. I’d have to find a new job tute-suite. I fished the morning’s paper off the top of the recycling pile and flung open the classified section. There: software quality assurance and testing. Ads for positions and headhunters wallpapered half the page.