Manifestations

by Veronica Reilly

Our firm’s new paralegal, Amber, was sitting at her desk when I first saw her, right where my coworker Will had said she would be, with the posture of a dancer, spine erect but not rigid. Her dark hair was a shining cascade down her back. She turned without noticing me, absorbed in her work, and her porcelain face was translucent. I hadn’t seen a woman I wanted to get in bed so badly in over a year. A jolt of electricity shot through my body.

I steeled myself to ask her out, not for myself, but for Will. I had already promised to invite her to have drinks with us so he could hit on her. I paused by the copier, thinking, Why am I about to help Will get the woman I want? On the other hand, how can I possibly tell him that I want a woman? Just by being a female in the most notoriously conservative law firm in San Francisco I already had at least one strike against me: I didn’t want to come out to my coworkers as well.

Then a voice came loud and gravelly in my ear, “You’re such a chickenshit.”

I whirled around. No one was behind me.

“Right here, babe,” the same voice said.

I turned my head slowly. There was a dark, wrinkled mass on my shoulder, about the size of a football. I screamed and tried to bat at it, but my hands connected with open air where I could see it.

From behind me, Amber said, “Is something wrong? Can I help?”

“Don’t you see something on my shoulder?”

She came over and stared right at the thing. “No. Like a fly or something?”

“I’m an imp,” the thing said. Amber registered no reaction. I looked at it out of the corners of my eyes. It reminded me of one of the gargoyles at Notre Dame Cathedral, except that it was a deep red, with shadowy black creases around each bent joint.

“Sorry,” I said loudly, feeling terrified.

“Why don’t you sit down for a minute?” Amber put her arm around me and led me toward her cubicle.

“Tell her you want to go on a date with her,” the imp said.

We sat down on opposite sides of her desk.

“A few of us would like to invite you out for a welcome drink this evening, if you’re free. Or at another time, of course, if you’re busy. Also, I’m Morgan.”

“Way to act like a nervous freak,” the imp said.

“What?” I said.

“I didn’t say anything, but I’d love to!” Amber smiled.

“All right. Seven in the lobby. I’m sure you’ve noticed that no one at Overworked, Underpaid, and Sleep-Deprived leaves work before then.”

She smiled.

“I’d better toddle off,” I added.

“Did you really just use the word ‘toddle’?” the imp asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Yes! See you then,” Amber said as I walked away.

I rushed through the maze of waist-high, gray cubicles to the restroom and looked in the mirror. The dark, gnarled creature was clearly visible on my shoulder, sitting with its chin cupped in its hands, elbows on knees. It stared unblinkingly at me.

What did I do to deserve this? I thought and felt repulsed.

“I can hear your thoughts,” it said in a high, quavering voice. It crossed its arms and said, “You can call me Al.”

“Okay, Al. I’m going to ignore you from now on,” I said, hoping that would cause him to go away quickly.

“Good luck with that,” he replied.

I splashed some cold water on my face and dried it off slowly with a paper towel, keeping my eyes closed, focusing on the rough texture. I decided to find Will.

He was studying the snack machine when I came into the bleak, white expanse of the break room. The air was heavy with the awful odor of burnt coffee.

“Fritos?” he said, hitting the number-letter combination before I even had a chance to respond. He got his usual: the sour cream and onion potato chips.

“How’d the invite go?” Will asked.

“Okay,” I heard myself say.

“You are super,” Will said. “When a hot guy comes to work here, I will totally hook you up.”

“Great,” I said.

“You’re a pathetic kiss-ass,” Al said.

“I’m not,” I said, forgetting once again to ignore its taunts.

“You’re not what?” Will asked.

“Not, um, feeling very well today.” Damned imp! It laughed, sensing my discomfort. Did anyone else have one of these things? Might I be surrounded by people with secret imps, invisible to everyone but themselves?

“Well, don’t crap out on me! You want some Dayquil or something?” Will said.

“Have you ever heard voices?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m hearing yours right now!”

“No, I mean, never mind. See you at seven.”

* * *

I met Will in the austere marble lobby at 6:55 p.m. We stood next to the golden urn of fake lilies. The imp was still there.

“How you doin’?” Will asked.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You are sick with love,” the imp said.

“Sick with love?” I asked.

“That is an extreme way to describe my position here,” Will said.

“Who is sick with love?” Amber asked, walking up behind us.

Will and I looked at each other.

“No one,” I said.

“Morgan is,” Will said.

“Oh, this sounds interesting!” Amber said, “You’ll have to tell us all about it.”

“Yes, you will!” Al added.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We went outside and walked up Hyde Street to a dark, crowded Spanish bar. Some art that looked like an unsuccessful fusion of the painting styles of Basquiat and Haring was hanging on the walls. A candle burned on each low table. The furniture was simple, dark wood. We took over an unoccupied table in a corner and squeezed onto the curved bench built into the wall.

“How’s the Feldman case going?” Will asked.

“A big, confidential headache,” I said.

Amber sat serenely; her skin glittered in the lamplight.

“What are you having?” Will asked, focusing on Amber.

“You know, I feel like having a Cosmo today,” she said.

“I’ll take a gin and tonic; get Bombay Sapphire if they have it,” I said to Will. He gazed at Amber for another moment and then sailed off to the bar.

As soon as he left, I turned to Amber. “So, what do you do for fun?”

“That was trite as all hell,” the imp piped up.

Amber smiled. I tried to maintain a neutral expression and ignore the idea that she was smiling at the imp’s quip.

“I like to salsa dance,” she said. “How about you?”

“In my increasingly rare free moments, I like to watch artsy foreign films and browse used bookstores, like most sell-out art school grads,” I said.

“An artistic lawyer! So, what kind of artsy foreign films?”

“Did you ever see that Indian film called Fire?” I asked.

“Wait, is that the one where the two women who are married to brothers fall in love with each other and begin a passionate lesbian love affair?”

“Yeah!” I said, pleased that she knew it.

At that moment Will returned. “Who’s having a passionate lesbian love affair?” he asked, as he set the drinks down on the small, round table in front of us.

“The sisters-in-law in this Indian film called Fire,” Amber said.

“Sounds pretty hot to me,” Will said.

“It is,” I said, smiling.

“Atta girl! You tell ’em,” Al said.

Will looked at me strangely. I wondered for a moment if he could see Al.

“You know what’s a great movie?” Will said, peeling his eyes off of me and turning toward Amber.

Not getting a response, Will plunged on. “The Wedding Crashers. That is one hilarious film.”

“You’re losin’ her. Get rid of this drip!” the imp shouted in my ear. I jumped involuntarily.

“Are you OK?” Amber asked me.

“I’m fine. How did you get from Fire to The Wedding Crashers so fast?” I said.

“I think hot women was the connection for me—that redheaded girl—va-voom!” Will said.

“You have a good point. We’re lucky to have a charming redhead with us this evening,” Amber said, looking at me. She shifted in her seat, and her knee leaned against mine. I wondered if she was doing it on purpose or by accident. Either way, I just wanted to press my skin into hers, hard.

“Do it, baby,” the imp said.

Emboldened by the imp, I let my knee rest against hers, feeling an electric warmth spread through my body. Suddenly her knee moved away. I had lost track of the conversation.

“Come on! Tell us about your love affair,” Amber said, leaning in.

“Another drink anyone?” I asked. Maybe alcohol would fuel my courage.

“I just got drinks,” Will said.

I drained my gin and tonic, rose a little unsteadily, and wove over to the bar.

“What are you doing?” an angelic voice said in my ear. A very pale white creature, similar in size to Al, was now sitting on my other shoulder.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Who are you?” a man standing near me said.

“I’m a friend,” the pale thing said.

“Not you,” I said to the man.

“Well, then who?”

I shook my head and started walking toward the other end of the bar.

“Hey, I asked you a question, little lady,” the man called after me. I walked faster.

“Why are you living on my shoulders?” I asked.

“We are most effective this way,” the pale one said.

“What are you?”

“I already told you I’m Al,” the original imp said.

“You can call me Betty,” the other said.

“Why can’t other people see you?” I continued.

“Would that really improve the situation?” the pale one asked. She definitely had a point. I glanced back to see if the man from the other end of the bar had followed me, but he had apparently given up.

“Am I going crazy?” I asked.

No answer. Should I go straight to the emergency room and commit myself? I didn’t want to kill anyone, and I wasn’t sure how long it would be before these creatures would take over my mind.

“Are you done talking to yourself, miss? You want to order a drink?” the bartender said. I hadn’t even noticed him come up.

“Bombay Sapphire, on the rocks. Make it a double,” I said.

* * *

Over the next few days, I gradually adjusted to having the imps around. Each morning I considered going to the hospital to voluntarily commit myself instead of going to work. Mostly I tried to ignore them, although that was really impossible. More and more often I found myself screaming in public.

“Let it all out,” Al would say in a mocking tone and laugh.

“Ignore him,” Betty would advise.

Then I ran into Amber in a quiet moment outside the door to the women’s restroom at work, and she invited me to her birthday party.

“I’m not inviting that many people from the office, so don’t, you know, spread it around,” she said.

“Did you invite Will?” I asked.

“Yeah, you and Will. That’s it. And feel free to bring a date.”

“Oh, I don’t have a, um, I mean,” I began.

“You don’t have a boyfriend?” she said.

“Tell her, tell her!” the imps chanted.

“I don’t have any sort of partner, yeah.”

“And you never will if you stay in the closet,” Al said.

“Well, come by yourself then!”

I watched Amber’s lovely figure as she walked away down the hallway. She wore a form-fitting black, knit tunic, gray slacks, and Camper boots. Her bracelet looked like a subsection of slinky that had been microwaved or a piece of a Frank Gehry building. I was sure she had gotten it at the SFMOMA gift shop and I loved it. As foolish as it felt, I needed her. I could tell how perfect we would be together. It was an energetic thing.

“Here comes your big chance,” Al said.

“Shut up for once,” I said.

“Who are you talking to?” Will asked from behind me.

“Um, just myself.”

“You talk to yourself now?”

“Always have. Best way to guarantee an interesting conversation,” I said. “Are you going to the party?”

“Of course! Mmm-mmm-mmm. I think she’s into me,” Will said. He smiled and winked at me.

“Good luck, Romeo,” I said.

“Didn’t he get married and then die? That’s, like, two bummers in a row,” Will grimaced.

“Yeah, but he got the girl.”

Will smiled. “In that outcome, I have great confidence.” We simultaneously pushed open our respective restroom doors and took our leave of each other.

I locked myself in a stall and sat on the toilet. How could Will be so sure about Amber? Was he onto something? Or was he just overly confident? I got no sense from her at all about her level of interest in me.

“I think she likes you,” Betty said.

“But, as a friend, or more?”

“You’re dreaming, kid. She couldn’t even possibly guess you’re interested in women from the interactions you’ve had,” Al said.

“You know, Al, you’re not helpful.”

“But you know I’m probably right.” I was upset to realize that I agreed with him.

Over the next few days, Al continued to play upon my every doubt. By Friday, the day before the party, I was in a deep funk. I considered not even attending.

“You’ve got to at least go,” Betty said.

“No point,” Al said in a bored voice.

“Betty’s right. I’ve got to go,” I said. “I’ll try to put a move on her, and then I’ll know for sure.”

“Well, go ahead and give it a try,” Al said. “Then you’ll get over this foolishness in a jiffy.”

“Maybe you’re right. Not about getting over it, but I’m going to give it a try. I’m going to really be me, even if it’s just for one night.”

“Now you’re talking,” Al said.

* * *

The party was at Amber’s place in Bernal Heights. Upon ringing the bell the door immediately opened, but no one was there. Dimly lit stairs led upward. Was a bucket of water also waiting to fall on my head? I heard laughter from above. Will was standing at the top of the staircase next to a lever, grinning.

“I love these old-fashioned automatic doors. It’s so haunted house,” he said.

“Seen our hostess?” I asked, trying hard to modulate my voice so I wouldn’t sound eager or strange.

“Out on the back deck, last time I checked.”

“This is quite a place, huh?”

“Oh, there is a great view off of the deck. I’ll take you back there,” Will said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“No problem. Just want you to feel at home!” I knew that what he actually wanted to do was make his way back out to Amber. Then he put his arm around my shoulders.

“Here comes your moment of truth!” Al said.

I just wish you would all go away and leave me alone, I thought as loudly as I could at the imps. I wasn’t sure I could control the volume of my thoughts.

“Oh, yeah, you can,” Al said, “That was loud and clear, but no luck.”

“Why not?” I said. I could not remember to think to the imps.

“Good attitude,” Will said.

“Because we are you,” Al said.

My stomach dropped.

“Am I crazy?” I asked.

“It is hard for us to evaluate that,” Betty said.

“Definitely, but in a good way,” Will said.

The kitchen was large, dark, crowded, and dirty. There were big café-style drink mixer machines with frozen drinks in them.

“Amber’s roommate, Eva, is about to start a café, so she brought these machines over. The drinks available are piña colada and strawberry daiquiri. Try one!” Will began pushing his way through the crowd to the machines.

“Nothing like a stiff drink to get the old courage up,” Al said.

Will grabbed two large, red plastic cups from a stack on the counter.

“What’cha what’cha what’cha want?” Will said.

“The yellow one.”

“Alright. I’ll try this red one. Then we’ll go find Amber.” Will winked and shook the empty cup in his left hand slightly as he kept the drink dispensing button depressed.

I should just run away from here right now, I thought.

“Why not just go ahead and see how much Little Miss Slinky Bracelet loves you?” Al taunted.

“Ignore him. You don’t have to go through with this,” Betty said.

I willed myself to remain quiet, but the imps could hear the whirl of thoughts in my mind. Was I crazy? How could I get rid of these nasty things colonizing my body? Why were they advising me in contradictory ways about my love life, of all things?

“Hello!” Will said loudly, holding out a cup to me.

“What?”

“Earth to Morgan. Can you hold your drink now? I’m not actually a butler.”

“Sorry. Spaced out.”

Will looked at me in what I felt was a critical way. Were people beginning to suspect something? I would do anything to escape from these imps!

“Anything?” Al asked darkly.

“Try it!” Will said before I could answer Al.

I took a long sip of the drink and thought, Is this where you start telling me to kill people?

“I just wondered if you really meant anything,” Al said.

“Just about,” I said.

“Just about what?” Will asked.

“Just about the best damn piña colada I ever had! Let’s go check out the view.”

“Let’s roll.”

And then we were walking through a little coatroom with laundry machines and down a couple of steps, and there was Amber with her back to us. She was kissing a short girl with spiked black hair, leaning into her like a wind was at her back. Will and I both stopped dead. The world went into surreal slow motion. A guy coming down the stairs walked right into us and stumbled.

“Hey,” he said, his words slurring a little.

“Sorry, man,” Will said. Suddenly, I really admired Will. He was so composed, even while experiencing what must be such a shocking disappointment.

“Is that Amber’s girlfriend?” I asked.

“Looks that way.”

We moved out of the direct line of the steps and just stared. Only a few other people were out on the patio, since a very chilly wind was whipping around us. I tried to button my jacket, but couldn’t quite do it with the drink.

“I’ll hold it,” Will said.

“Thanks.”

The girls stopped kissing and Amber put her arm around the small girl. They talked in low voices we couldn’t hear over the wind.

“Well, damn,” Will said.

“I had a crush on her too,” I said, feeling warm but also relieved as I said it.

“What?”

“I had a crush on Amber.”

“She is pretty hot. I can see how she could convince you to switch teams.”

“It’s not a team switch for me,” I said, wondering if I had made a mistake in saying anything to Will.

“Oh. No wonder you never talk about who you’re dating. Does anybody else at the office know?”

“Nope.”

“So, should I keep it on the DL?” Will asked.

“Well, I don’t really like to be the subject of spurious gossip.”

“You can count on me, Morgster. We’re pals.”

And even though he said it lightly, I felt that he meant it.

I looked at my shoulders. Nothing was there.

Hey, guys, I thought.

Nothing.

“Maybe she’s just drunk; we both might have a chance,” Will said. Then he added, “But it looks like you might have the advantage.”

“Well, I heard she used to date some guy I went to law school with.” I felt suddenly generous. I wanted to give Will back a shred of hope.

“So you think she’s bi?”

“Probably.”

“Maybe we should team up! Get her to date both of us!”

“Will.”

“Sorry.”

 

BIO: In addition to writing, Veronica Reilly enjoys hiking in the many beautiful parks in the Bay Area. She practices Zen Buddhism and currently volunteers as an assistant cook at Berkeley Zen Center. Her two delightful and energetic cats are brothers who were rescued through the East Bay SPCA. She works as a Teacher on Special Assignment for the San Francisco Unified School District, where her passion for educational equity is a daily labor of love.