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Synergy by Linda McMullen

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 Graphic art by Halima Voyles

Graphic art by Halima Voyles

In Synergy, a working mother bored with the unmerciful monotony of carting kids to daycare, wiping runny noses, and cooking endless dinners seeks passion in the arms of a dashing executive at the office.

About the Author

Linda McMullen.png

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, and American diplomat, most often found in Africa or Asia, but currently on a domestic rotation in Washington, D.C.   

 

Linda’s pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in Burningword, Typishly, Dragon Poet Review, and other publications. You can read her short story Elaine’s Idyll at ojalart.com


Synergy by Linda McMullen

It has been four months since I last sat in his office—shoes off but hair up—and met his eyes across his gleaming desk. Neither of us said anything for a full minute, but I felt a swooping joy, a tiny Bellagio fountain within. “Lara,” he whispered; the two syllables of my name contained a full year of growing partiality cultivated between eight and five (or six, or seven, or eleven, as the work dictated . . .); they bespoke an alliance forged in a crucible of white-collar drudgery and snark. And, now, finally

Mike came in, beaming. “Hey, Jack, I wanted to make sure I caught you before you left.” He extended a meaty hand, and Jack took it. Mike said, “Hey, do you know Gina? Gina Thompson? She’s going out right behind you, she’s just finishing up her training . . .”

Jack’s gaze darted toward me. His eyes performed a discreet midair aside, a performance solely for my benefit: There he goes again. I flashed an equally unobtrusive smile, slipped my shoes on, and left his office. For the last time.

He was going half a world away, and there was nothing that I could do, or say. 

An hour later, past six, Jack picked up a repurposed ten-ream box containing a few mementos and the day’s coffee thermos clinking against one another. “Wanna take a walk?” he said.

I didn’t trust my voice, but my steps matched his. We went into the hall and turned a corner. We kept walking. I told myself it was easier.

“I’ll miss you,” I said, and at the same moment, he said, “We’ll have email.”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Not the same, though.”

“Not remotely.”

He smiled.

* * *

Now there is a taste of snow in the air, a faint spicy nip in the wind; my inbox is full of ads from every middle-market professional clothes outlet in America; and I am ten years into a fifty-year marriage to Brian, with two children under five. My phone buzzes; Brian reminds me that we’re out of bread and bananas and asks if I can stop at Safeway on my way home.

Sure thing, love.

There’s nothing wrong with it, any of it. Why am I such an ingrate?

I heard Jack’s voice on this morning’s early conference call. I had nothing work-related to offer; didn’t want to keep people on the phone unnecessarily, but my heart hurtled against my ribs at the mere sound . . .

And then it was over.

My phone buzzes; it’s now five a.m. in Singapore, but maybe . . .

It’s an email from Banana Republic.

The kids cling to my ankles while the daycare minders remind me to bring in two sets of extra clothes for Emma.

* * *

When I get home, I drop a slab of salmon on an aluminum-foil-covered baking sheet, slather on some store-bought honey mustard, sprinkle on salt, pepper, and thyme, and stick this weekday gourmet meal in the oven. Nate has been immersed in his stamps and ink and now looks like an extra from Oliver! Emma is lumbering toward the hot oven. I scoop her up and put her in her playpen alongside a second-hand busy cube. Which is also how I refer to my desk.

Brian texts: Traffic terrible, I’ll be home as soon as I can.

Right.

I put some water on to boil. I’ll make some noodles to go with the salmon. Then I run Nate under the tap until his hands resurface and briefly assault his face with a wet washcloth. “Hey, let’s get your marble works out since sissy’s in the playpen.”

He brightens and is soon sending a never-ending series of spheres hurtling toward transparent-plastic oblivion. The ambient noise is downpour-on-a-tin-roof, but Nate’s face is alight. I take a moment to glance at my email.

J. Crew is having a sale.

The ad image shows a picnic continuing after the sun goes behind a cloud; children squawk at the top of the jungle gym, the adults scrape the rest of the macaroni salad into their mouths, and someone eats the last charred hot dog. Such is life.

“Mmm-eee,” says Nate. He has lined up five marbles between his lips and is smiling at me.

It can’t possibly be like this at his house. He’s probably hired a gentle but firm Filipina nanny, and his wife is a Teutonic beauty who would not have birthed children capable of nonsense.

He had two little girls: blond, ringletted, capable.

He can’t possibly miss me. Not like this.

* * *

Brian comes home, and a pile of books and papers vomits from his arms onto the one vacant seat on the couch. “Rough day,” he sighs. He stirs the noodles and pours frozen mixed vegetables into a bowl, puts them in the microwave. “You, too, I’m sure—you had to get up early for that call.”

I hug him then check on the salmon.

* * *

You can lose your whole life to waiting. Dr. Seuss says so, in Oh, the Places You’ll Go! He announces it to Nate every night at bedtime. And to me.

It’s pointless. He’s not coming back. At least not anytime soon.

Oh, the places he’s gone.

* * *

The next morning, I sift through the avalanche-warning paper stacks next to my computer. I grind through two cups of coffee, four meetings, three people dropping by my cube, and one uncomfortable encounter with my new boss, Owen, who reminds me that he appreciates my being proactive, but he’ll assign tasks, thank you. I’m ready for lunch and a Diet Coke and remember that I need to email Brian the gift idea I had for his mother. And then—

Something from him. A Gmail address that means Christmas has come early.

It’s not much, a link to an article in The Onion (“Area Man Finds Lost Deed to House, Dignity, Amid Piles on Desk”).

Hi Lara—For no reason at all, this made me think of you. Best, Jack.

I want to let those words curl around my soul before I respond.   

I remember . . .

“We’ll have email.”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Not the same, though.”

“Not remotely.”

He smiled.

He set down his box and straightened. The building, the corridor, common restraint fell away—

“You look chipper,” said Owen. “Have you finished the—”

I hand him the report.

* * *

Brian sends a text. I’ll cook tonight. How about lamb chops on the Foreman Grill?

Sounds delicious, I write back. Brian evokes every hint of allure from a protein, but I’ll have to sort out some kind of vegetable and a starch.

It’s all stupid. It’s not as though I’m going to leave.

I write to Jack. Nice. Owen started to mention my desk . . . and then decided relationship maintenance was more important. Hope you’re enjoying Singapore. Best, Lara.

* * *

Christmas is a flurry of things unsaid to the in-laws and much spoiling of the children.

Brian kisses me sweetly at midnight on New Year’s, and I am ashamed of my persistently overactive imagination.

I decide that this year, I’m finally going to get back to painting.

A few weeks after, a message flashes on my screen. Subject line: Coming back.

Just for a conference. Not permanently. But in a month’s time . . .

* * *

Nate and Emma both want to hear Dr. Seuss. Over, and over, and over.

Daycare-work-dinner or breakfast-work-daycare. Bagged salads, runny noses, making love on Saturday nights after the kids are asleep. Brian’s got a big project at work, but he still does the dishes.

I paint. I close my eyes.

He set down his box and straightened. The building, the corridor, common restraint fell away; he wrapped his arms around me as mine stole about his waist—

“Hey,” says Brian, “maybe we can take the kids to my sister’s over President’s Day weekend.”

“Sounds great,” I reply.

He glances at me, unsure if I’m sarcastic or distracted, but he chooses to believe I am neither.

I paint: sea, sky, skyscrapers.

* * *

He’s here.

He catches my eye and grins.

Same exuberance; exemplary caution. There are two dozen people around, no hug, but a pulsing energy emanates from him. I can feel my cheeks warming.

“You look . . . well,” he says. There is a whiff of a more adult adjective.

“You too.”

“How’s the family?”

“Everyone’s fine. Brian’s busy, Nate’s enjoying 4K, and Emma’s mastering her alphabet. How’s everyone in Singapore?”

“Great. Nancy’s teleworking, and the girls love the American school. Iris is taking singing lessons, and Lily is taking karate.”

It’s Valentine’s Day, I remember suddenly.

“So how about you?” he adds. There is no verbal emphasis on the pronoun, but I look up at him and catch sight of those marvelous eyes.

Just like then.

He set down his box and straightened. The building, the corridor, common restraint fell away; he wrapped his arms around me as mine stole about his waist, and he pressed his lips to mine. It was the antithesis of surprise; it was every inevitability in our two lines of fate collapsing toward one another, and we were home.

I could only think, at last, at last, at last.

“Jack!” exclaims Mike, arriving out of nowhere. “How the heck have you been?”

That parenthetical look again.

“We’ll catch up,” Jack half-mouths; and Mike steers him toward some of the senior managers for introductions, referrals, career-building.

Owen pulls me aside. “Are all the folders ready?”

“You bet,” I say.

* * *

I can see the back of his neck, twelve rows ahead of me; it’s achingly familiar. For now, it’s enough. My phone buzzes. Jack’s old number.

How many bullshit buzzwords and phrases can Mike fit into one five-minute presentation?

I text back, Minimum 12 to attempt the record. Steve’s speech two years ago still the one to beat.

I’ve already counted seven, and ‘doing more with less’ twice.

I’m hanging on for synergy.

We continue in this vein . . . then my brow wrinkles when a text pops up from Brian.

Emma’s got a fever. Can you pick her up?

NO, shrieks my id, NO, I can’t; I am, amidst our life of unmerciful monotony, snatching one selfish, reckless, joyful moment . . . and then I remember that I am a responsible middle-class mother and that Brian is dealing with the auditors today.

Yes, of course.

I start a text to Jack, Sick child, gotta go—

The message hangs there.

sorry we didn’t have more of a chance.

I tell Owen I’m leaving. He says, “Of course, of course . . . You’ll report your leave, right?”

I get in the car.

* * *

Just for a moment, I let my forehead rest on the steering wheel, and close my eyes.

 . . . we were home.

I could only think, at last, at last, at last.

An eternity later—or an hour—or perhaps at the tap of a phantom stiletto around the corner—we broke apart.

We contemplated one another. Breathing hard.

Unashamed.

Realistic.

* * *

Jack sends another text.

Sorry to hear that.

And then:

It was great to see you.

And one final, freighted message:

Some other time.

* * *

Twelve hours later I am cooling my burning forehead on the pale bathroom tile, lingering near the toilet in the event of another billowing wave of nausea—and spooning an equally miserable Emma. I hear padding footsteps moving away, creaking stairs, the familiar muffled slam of the refrigerator door, the tiny ting of glasses touching—and then, there’s Brian, a makeshift field hospital in his arms. Tylenol in a plastic syringe and a sippy cup for Emma; chewable Pepto Bismol—he remembers I hate the liquid pink bile—and a glass of ice water for me. I can hear him changing Emma out of the nightie she’s sweated through, and quickly swapping out the damp sheet. Then he comes back to me.

“Hon?” he asks.

His mild baritone is thick with sleep and . . . something else . . . a cadence that thrilled me to the marrow in the early days. I can barely turn my head, but when his hand reaches mine, I clasp it—grateful as a child, feeling his pulse keeping time with mine.

 THE END

About the Story

Synergy was written by Linda McMullen, and is a story about finding a real connection in a workaday world and hanging onto it.

The original--and awesome--artwork that accompanies Synergy on our website and social media was created by Halima Voyles.

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