Business Casual

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Business Casual by Lauren Sanders


“There is time for work, and there is time for love. That leaves no other time.”

— Coco Chanel

She was mine in the conference room on the thirty-sixth floor. Two leather chairs jammed the door, the lights turned down low. Easing her onto the mahogany table, I ran my hands along the length of her clothed body before turning her head toward the windows, unveiling a theatre of buildings by night, charcoal glass checkerboards with brightly lit squares. Between the cracks, was the river, a sliver of bridge. I wanted her to know how high up we were, seemingly miles above the sidewalk. She smelled like rosemary-mint conditioner from the corporate gym.

On good days, she escaped to the gym at twilight, just as I was beginning my day. Other times, when I casually passed her cubicle, she was buried in the corner, headphones crushing her wavy brown hair and eyes strained on her computer screen. I knew not to approach her then. She was irascible when anyone broke her spell, and there were still too many people around. She was an investment banker. I was a painter with a night job in the word processing department. In a manner of speaking, I worked for her.

She was only twenty-three years old, but she controlled a million documents. Numbers, bar graphs, pie charts: she had strong opinions about how each one should appear. Sometimes she lingered after dropping off a job, joining a conversation about a movie or the political drama of the week. Nobody talks out there, she said, meaning the other bankers. It was important for her to prove she was not one of them.

She’d resigned herself to investment banking to please her parents, immigrants who’d shoveled their hard-earned salaries into her Ivy League education. She knew how they gloated whenever they told anyone where she worked. I understood. My parents lived in the same rural town I’d escaped almost two decades earlier, and had always hated telling people there I was an artist. Even the class I taught seemed intangible to them. But when I started working at the bank, they had a name people recognized. They never mentioned I was a glorified typist.

She laughed at this — she always laughed at my jokes. She liked to talk about art, but not in the aggressive manner of my students, the little dykes with big baggy pants who followed me to the subway demanding to know about the art world. When I offered to give her a tour of our building, which had the most expensive collection of twentieth century paintings and prints I’d seen outside of a museum, she said, cool. Then she asked me if I always knew I was an artist, and although I hadn’t picked up a brush in months and was considering dumping my studio, I said yes.

I liked her enthusiasm. The flicker in her eyes when she said, “cool,” electric green chewing gum jutting in and out of her mouth like a serpent’s tongue. As the months passed, I’d developed a bit of a crush. At first it was nothing serious, really — the kind of affection that I’d learned to keep at bay with my students.

Then one night her presentation made the “hot jobs” board, and I spent half my shift creating a graphic of a hunter with his bow and arrow pointed at a reindeer to “imagize” — company term — a hostile raid she and a few other bankers were shoveling through the pipeline. I tried telling her there probably weren’t too many hunters who still used a bow and arrow, even in the sub-arctic climates where reindeer roam. Besides, it was a cruel image. She smiled, and I stared at her curvaceous purple lips and commanding white teeth.

She confessed a similar conversation she’d had with her boss; she’d told him the image was a mixed metaphor. She shifted her weight onto her left leg so her hip jutted sideways. Her boss had told her that a hunter never questions his weapons.

“I was too embarrassed to bring in this job earlier,” she said. “I wanted you to do it.”

“But you could have been home already.”

“I’m like you, a night owl,” she said, resting her hand on her hip, which was snugly encased in tight gray trousers. Ever since the company went business casual, her clothing had been shrinking. While the men relaxed into comfortable khakis and polo shirts, and the women into flat loafers, she’d gone more contemporary — synthetic skins, form-fitting blouses, patent leather platform shoes. I told her not to worry. We would give her boss what he wanted.

When she came back a few hours later, I handed her the page and she burst out laughing. I’d dug up an image of a U.S. army tank; the cannon was pointed directly at the reindeer.

“Poor bastard,” she said.

“A hunter never questions his weapons,” I responded.

“I meant the reindeer.”

“It’s a she.”

“But it’s got antlers. Only males have antlers.”

“Reindeer aren’t like other deer, they both have them.”

“Cool,” she smiled. “I wonder if it makes them any less sexist than we are.”

I laughed, bemused by her flirtation. My students were usually timid, stammering bunnies afraid to stand too close or look me in the eye, but this one was unflinching. She smiled as if she had me where she wanted me. She was a showoff. I wanted to pin her down right there on my desk under the awful fluorescent lighting. But my two colleagues were tapping away at their computers and there were other jobs waiting in the rack. I handed her the real document with the bow and arrow, and when she took it her hand brushed mine. After she left, it started stinging. I looked down and saw my forefinger was bleeding. The little raider had given me a paper cut.

In the women’s room, I held my finger under the tap. Blood ran into the water in a pink stream. I never heard the door click open, had no idea I wasn’t alone until I saw her face materialize in the mirror. She asked what happened; I told her she’d wounded me as I took my finger from the water and held it front of her. A few drops of blood seeped through the scratch.

“You’re hurt,” she said.

I nodded.

She took my hand in hers, and I felt as if I was being submerged in the gushing warm tap. She lifted my finger and kissed it lightly before opening her lips around the cut and sucking as if I’d been bitten by a snake. I slipped back against the sink. She kept her eyes open, staring at me.

“Do they know about you out there?” I asked.

For a second, she stopped sucking and shook her head no, then took my entire finger in her mouth. “Oh fuck,” I said. “Fuck.”

I grabbed her by the cheeks and pulled up her head. My wounded finger throbbed against her skin. Her eyes were engorged, pitch-black. I pressed her against the tiles and kissed her in the bright light. She grabbed my neck. I slid my hands down to her breasts, felt her squirm beneath me.

Suddenly, she pulled away. “Not here,” she said.

“Then where?”

“I know a place.”





Ours was a sick building. With its windows sealed shut, the same fetid air circulated through every crevice. She got colds all winter long. I brought her echinacea tea and zinc drops, held her head in my lap in the secret room she found off the foyer on the eighteenth floor. It was like something out of an old movie: you pushed the wall and it revolved backwards. Inside was a metal desk with a small painting by one of my favorite artists. A few colored boxes — red, yellow, blue — with frayed edges bouncing off of each other, as if energized by the magnetic fields between them. She said someone had left it for us.

Freed by the privacy, she cried about not sleeping, about missing the gym, traveling too much and not seeing me for days. She was being pressured to take on more clients, and with every deal grew sicker of her own deferential conformity.

I told her she was my baby, promising everything would be okay, and although the banalities slipping from my lips alarmed me, I knew it was what she wanted to hear. We rocked gently, her face lolling against my breasts, until longing usurped comfort. She’d learned to read my rhythm, and she was a quick study. She loved burying her face in between my breasts, which made me feel maternal and at the same time brought me to my knees. After enough of this, I wanted to fuck her as much as I needed to protect her. We returned unsuspected, though a bit rumpled, to our desks.

My supervisor never questioned me. Those of us who worked grave had a tacit understanding that anyone might disappear for a while. Some people paced the halls or hiked up and down the carpeted stairwells; others, swamped by their circadian clocks, napped on the plush couches in the deserted lobbies. Whatever it took to make it to sunrise.

She left before the sun came up, often skipping out just after we parted as if our assignation had been her reward for another sixteen-hour day. She called me Rembrandt, said I was the only person she could talk to. She never used the word love.

Afterward, I was bombarded by the adrenaline of our interlocked bodies, her teeth on my nipples as she shoved her entire hand inside me. You take so much so fast, she said, as amazed by the dexterity of my cunt as I was by her ability to get me there so quickly. With her hand inside me we were both acutely aware of her cutthroat ambition. “Did you come?” she asked. “Did you really?”

“You were here.”

“We can do better.”

“I have to get back.”

“Please, one more time. I really want to see you.”

She would arrive even earlier the next morning to finish the work she’d forsaken. I would claim another migraine had kept me from my desk. Never in my life had I been such a bottom, and without an ounce of guilt.

My body remembered every twist of her hand as if it were still there, like a severed limb that leaves its ghosted particles behind. The energy could remain for hours, days, even weeks. Occasionally, I went to the bathroom, turned on all the taps and masturbated in one of the stalls, but mostly after she left I became so morose I put on my headphones and listened to country music until I cried.

At dawn, I stumbled out into the cold quiet mornings and by rote to the subway station. Staring at the commuters’ freshly scrubbed faces, I wanted to embrace them. Up so early pursuing their dreams. Was anyone here from her country? How might she look in daylight? I imagined her at home in bed, buried beneath the pale orange comforter she talked about. I saw her in a hotel room, lights dimmed, misty blue streams of television; she said she always ordered a porn film and charged it to the company because she knew it was what guys did on the road. I saw her in the boardroom, the only woman at a table full of suits. I saw her next to me on the walk from the subway to my apartment, promising to make scrambled eggs with avocado slices for breakfast.

Alone in my apartment, I poured a bowl of cold cereal and realized I didn’t even know her phone number.

When I met her, I’d had a girlfriend — kind, beautiful, intelligent. We’d been dating almost a year. My girlfriend fell in love with people the way she fell in love with authors, deeply and chauvinistically, devouring every sentence she could find by and about the beloved. But unlike career scholars, my girlfriend got bored. She carried fewer titles to work, kept a bookmark on the same page for weeks, stopped visiting the library and eventually found some nugget of betrayal she could not overlook.

The e-mail was on my night table. It wasn’t incriminating, but would have been enough to alarm any lover. It seemed pointless to lie. She called me a cheater. She questioned my sanity in having an affair with someone at work — someone so young and wrongfully employed. I stopped listening, remembering how things had began with us: hours on her couch making out like teenagers before ever touching a button. Her tongue on the back of my neck where all the nerves met, and kissing me there as if I’d grown another set of lips. But after my confession, she saw me as she saw her once favorite writer, the one who left his wife and children for a woman half his age, moved countries and had cosmetic surgery.

When she left, I stopped seeing my friends, and started picking up extra shifts at work to increase the odds of bumping into my little banker. Insomnia set in. Even the eye masks and sandalwood I burned no longer worked. I drank red wine, and watched morning talk shows, whatever it took to disappear inside the screen.

Then one day at the onset of spring, I went to my studio instead of going home. The last time I’d been there I was so frustrated I hadn’t cleaned; my brushes had hardened, paint was splattered on the walls and floor. The sink was clogged. I dug up an old canvas and whitewashed it. I mopped, wiped down the walls, opened all of the windows, then sat silently while the canvas dried thinking about suspended color boxes, the electrified fields sustaining us.

Once I picked up a brush, I kept going. I painted canvas after canvas. Soon enough, I was sleeping as little as she did. It took me weeks to see it wasn’t only her cycle I was emulating. I had begun to worship productivity. The brush to the canvas, the dailiness of it, the hardening layers building up like resentment.

They sent her on whirlwind road shows that kept her out of town for weeks, and spoke about transferring her to one of the firm’s European satellites. When she returned, she was so worn out she could barely wheel her suitcase down the hall. She set the alarm on her watch to remind her what time it was, and swallowed antihistamines by the handful, craving the speediness as much as the relief.

Once she begged me to meet her three times in one day in the anemic yellow stairwell, where she clung to me as if we might never see each other again. The next night she simply nodded hello, as if I were just another company perk.

When she was away, I sulked through my shift until I fled in the mornings, pumped-up and aggressive, ready to attack my canvases. I was monopolized by huge territories of color. It had been years since I’d felt so unburdened.

But at night I was still chained. Did she really stop the elevator midstream and drop to her knees in front of me with the security guard intoning through speakers, Hello, is there anybody in there? Did she come up behind me at the printer bay, sink her body into mine, hands on my tits and cunt grinding to the beat of the lasers?

The night she flew in from Tokyo, her voice cracked as she carted an armful of documents to my desk and pleaded that each be done immediately. She had to catch the shuttle to DC. She kept her head down as she spoke and her voice made me cringe. I wondered if this was what a heart attack felt like — a sinking, speeding feeling. I brushed past her and smelled her unkempt scent, less perfumed, more doughy. She stepped a leg back as if trying to trip me. I wanted to smack her.

She found me in the bathroom and told me she missed me. I didn’t respond. Through a series of yawns, she said she was spent. She’d fallen asleep on the toilet, and her allergies were raging. She hadn’t even been home to shower, although she’d substituted her silk blouse with an oversized company T-shirt that tucked clumsily into her skirt in the front and made her look like a Minotaur, half bull, half sorority girl.

Though I knew she craved the warmth of our secret room, I took her to the thirty-sixth floor, and without a word shoved her face against the windowpane. I ran my hand along the back of her thighs, finding the rim of her hose beneath her skirt and pulling it down, my mouth next to her ear, hers open against the window. Steam flooded the pane, obscuring the buildings with their white lights. I whispered, “Tell me you missed me, tell me,” and she moaned, thrusting her head sideways. I pushed it back to the window so she could see the dark alleyways and slick buildings, the toxic black river beneath us. I wanted her to imagine what it might be like to fall.

She tried to break free and turn around. I pinned all of my weight against her, spreading her legs from behind with one hand and rimming her with my thumb. I talked into her ear, called her a horny little fuck, a capitalist tool, a spy. She leaned back against me, and sighed.

I fucked her harder than she’d ever fucked me, so forcefully she fell into a trance. She wailed, cursing as she writhed beneath me, and with every word I felt larger, more powerful. Her screams echoed in the steely canyons beneath us. I quickly covered her mouth as we fell to the floor, and more determined than ever, as if my taking her demanded she come back with full force, she climbed on top of me and kissed down my stomach, undoing my zipper with her teeth.

My body disintegrated into our rhythm, her tongue in my cunt, and I saw myself suspended above the city with its millions of colored boxes, the iron claw of her mouth beneath me. I leaned my head back into the carpet and came quietly, pushing her head away. She slithered up my body and was about to speak when I covered her mouth again. I wanted to remember her without words.



Lauren Sanders and