True Stories

Keys to the Circus: Giving Up the Magic of Office Romances

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Jennifer and Craig exited the bathroom at the same time, and I nodded to Michael. He would be buying me a burrito today. I don’t know why he took the bet – all the late nights ‘working’ together, the way they minimized their IM windows when we walked by – who did they think they were kidding?

It had been about three weeks since our office had become an all-out brothel. We hadn’t launched a website in months, the clients were getting angry, our favorite coworkers were jumping ship, and the rest of us were boning each other on every piece of furniture that didn’t skid on the hardwood floors.

Maybe it was the uncertainty and nearness of failure that made us all so horny, so willing to turn a motivational happy hour into a sleepover. Knowing that at any moment we could be taken down by a shop overseas or that our paychecks may bounce – everything felt temporary and surreal. Maybe it was the long hours and tight deadlines that kept us indoors on Friday and Saturday nights – the nights that everyone else our age was getting drunk with people they didn’t work with – the easy access to alcohol, the fact that most of my male coworkers hadn’t seen a naked women in months that didn’t have a porn site watermark over her stomach. Perhaps it was for all of those reasons that our company had imploded into a lair of employee-incest. We lived like pirates, scooping pails of water out of our ship while drinking rum and fornicating.

We had a lot of fun features in the office to distract from the deadlines — Nerf guns, a beer fridge. On the front entryway someone had used black-board paint to create a quote wall. It was mainly hip-hop lyrics, plus a few stand-by motivational quotes about loving life and drinking wine or some shit. There was one quote that stuck out to me, written by someone who had quit long before I had started:

“Well there’s a piece of Maria in every song that I sing
And the price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings
And there is always one last light to turn out and one last bell to ring
And the last one out of the circus has to lock up everything”

Someone had drawn it on right above the light switch. It was more than a little out of place on what was essentially a physical manifestation of my little sister’s Pinterest board, but I appreciated the imagery. When I was young I had always wanted to work in a circus. Lots of fun animals to play with, the availability of trampolines, the seemingly loose rules on handling fire. And of course the girls — twirling on the tightrope in their brilliantly glittering leotards, always winking, floating down from the sky on their lacy umbrellas. Even as I grew older, I wanted a fun job, at least a job where I could get away with some shit and not wear slacks every day. Some people in my field of study had gravitated to more stable, larger companies after graduation. To me, the thought of wearing an ID badge and working in a cubicle sickened me. It wasn’t worth the stability. I wanted the startup life we had heard rumors of, and I had found it here — there was chaos and panic and stress, but it was rewarded with clout and alcohol and toys. I had found my own, private circus.

In the Spring of that year, we hired a new developer and I started dating her almost immediately. Dating might be a strong word – we were doing what everyone else was, the nervous trading of spit near the fire escape. It all started with a company happy hour, of course — after a few hours of strong whiskey we were sharing a cab, and then a bed. We exchanged stories of our past jobs and current gripes and then those pure unspoken fears – would we have a job in six months; if not, who would hire us next. I tilted her head back and we exchanged throat demons, finding a mutual catharsis in the shared, forbidden moment of respite from reality.

She was special to me, the way every girl I’ve dated has been. After our first night together I felt an undeniable glow seeing her at work – the knowing smile she gave me, the talk that followed us. When we stepped away from our desks to catch our breath, we would walk outside and let our hands graze, and as we walked further away from the office, my fingers would lace hers completely. It was a secret magic, dating someone you worked with.

After about a month, I was certain everyone knew what was going on. We had been spotted in public, frequently left the office at the same time — but still we operated in secret. Still sneaking kisses near the fire escape — always near an exit. That was the problem, really — we were all ready to scatter like cockroaches the minute the lights came on. Everyone except for me, I was enjoying it. For me the hookups weren’t a temporary escape from reality, they were the beginning of something better than the reality we were currently inhabiting. I told her that we should just tell everyone we were dating, and if it’s a problem, one of us would find a new job. Me, I’ll find a new job, I’ll make it easy.

“We’re not dating though,” She told me.

The moment wouldn’t have been so gut-wrenching if the same thing hadn’t happened, say, exactly a year prior. Another startup, another girl I worked with, the same talk — we’re not dating. We work together. That was it. How did I not understand that? Yes, we also had sex occasionally, but it had been the same manic highs and lows that had brought us together – lots of stress, lots of drinking. I was too naive to realize that it wasn’t the beginning of a relationship, it was the delay of one — a snack you eat drunk at 1 a.m. because breakfast is too far away.  I was the Cheetos of the office.

Looking back, I still feel that painful sting of a blind-spot in my self-awareness. I like to think of myself as a romantic, but I see wide swatches of my past where I was really just horny and persistent. If I had understood love then the way I do now — just barely — I would have seen that what I was chasing was not romance, it was sex. I found it at the circus because the rules were different there — consequences weren’t tallied, and the forbidden nature of it all made every kiss more alluring. But it didn’t make a single one of them real.

I quit a few months later, and signed on with a larger company that, while having a more stable environment, still did not require me to wear slacks. It wasn’t the girl’s fault, the reason I left was completely internal. I was reminded of it last week when I saw my recently-divorced supervisor giving the new girl the eye. They had a sort of gravitational chemistry that made me wonder if I shouldn’t already be Lysol-ing my desk each morning. I could tell by the way he smiled at me after he talked to her that he was looking for some form of approval, or at least some kind of recognition, but I’m not sure what I would say to him.

Maybe he’s not like me — maybe he’s just looking for fun. Maybe they’re both looking for something serious. Maybe he doesn’t still sometimes mistake the desire for sexual gratification for romantic interest; maybe he does all those things but doesn’t care. He’s divorced after all, maybe he needs to make some mistakes, the ones he missed while being married all through his twenties. His life has been so different from mine that I can’t really speak for him, just myself. Our personal demands of love, even of casual sex, is something we must come to understand on our own.

I finally understood mine the last night I spent in my old office, as I paused my finger over the light switch, and read the quote above it one more time. I don’t know, but maybe the guy before me wrote it on his last day. Either way, it felt good to lock up and shut the door for good. The job I would start on Monday knew nothing of the place I was leaving, or the part of me I was leaving there.