I was in a most unlikely position: surrounded by a girl and two of her friends, in a candy-scented cloud of sweet perfume and vodka martinis. I didn't know the girl's name or where she worked, but earlier I'd watched in shock as she peeled a Clementine orange with her tongue, then smiled at me and said, "Just call me Clementine." So I did.
"C'mon," Clementine said, "I know you've got a passcard. It'll be cool!"
"I don't know," I said. "There are cameras up there. And then Mr. Steele's office, too."
"I know!" Clementine said. Her friends twittered and I became momentarily entranced by the interplay of light along the lengths of blonde hair, brunette hair, and blonde hair arranged around me. This was closer than I'd been to any female since Jane left—and the closest I'd ever been to girls like these.
I was struck with a savage, fleeting wish that Jane could see me now. She would have to eat her words.
"Please," Clementine said. "You'll have a good time. I promise."
Her friends nodded enthusiastically. I couldn't remember either of their names, if I ever knew them, because they seemed to have simply materialized by the bar earlier, when Clementine had dragged them over by their spaghetti straps.
"But I still don't understand—"
Clementine put one of her fingers to my lips, and I saw she had a ring on her pinky that matched the three earrings in her right ear. She said, "Because I have a little surprise." She rooted around in her purse and produced a thin, crooked cigarette.
"Is that marijuana?" I said.
The girls laughed again, and I felt like a fool. "Duh," said Clementine. "Wouldn't it be cool to smoke up in the board room? I wanna get high in the board room. You'll never think of board meetings the same again!"
I hadn't smoked marijuana in twenty years, and the last time I did, I had vomited all over my pants. So it wasn't the marijuana that made me nod and pull out my passkey. It was the fact that my brain had just caught up with the lingering, rounded suggestion in Clementine's words: "You'll have a good time. I promise."
I led them away from the Christmas party, through the marble lobby, and we called the executive elevator. I swiped my card to open it, and the girls went silent as they entered the clubby car.
"Wow," said the brunette. "These walls are, like, real leather."
"Hey," said Clementine's blonde friend, "how come we don't get leather walls in the PR cubes? I want leather walls."
"Uh, I guess it's too expensive," I said. "Cuts into the bottom line."
The girls burst into laugher, and I smiled along. Clementine put a hand on my chest, and it burned a small, palm-shaped hole in my shirt. I hoped she didn't feel the sudden pounding of my heart—beautiful women usually terrified me into silence, but maybe it was the alcohol tonight because it seemed like this whole thing was happening to someone else and everything I said was funny or smart. Then again, I knew how intimidating management could be, and I was management now.
The elevator dinged open and we exited into the hushed foyer of the executive floor. It was dim, except for pinprick lights highlighting art on the walls and potted palms. The secretary's desk was empty, and I had a sudden memory of all the times I waited in this lobby, nervously gripping some report and hoping that Mr. Steele and the others would be happy with my work. The girls had fanned out into in the foyer and were draping themselves over the furniture in the casual, thoughtlessly erotic way that beautiful girls did everything.
"You shouldn't open that," I said, alarmed, as I saw Clementine plop into Marianne's chair behind the big secretary's desk and start opening drawers. "This is the executive floor!"
"Oh, don't worry," Clementine said. "I'm not going to take anything. Besides, it's all boring old-lady stuff anyway."
"I have an idea," the blonde said to me. "Clementine can play secretary for you. You know, you'll be the big boss and she'll be your little sexretary."
"I'm sorry?" I said, my cheeks flushing red as I struggled to untangle her words. Did she say what I thought?
The girls erupted in laughter again, and Clementine got up and came toward me. "C'mon, you guys," she said over her shoulder. "Be nice. Now," she turned to me. "Can we get in?"
I nodded, hoping they didn't see how embarrassed I was. Jane and I had always made love in dark rooms, silently, like we were embarrassed of our own sounds.
I pushed the memory away and got out my passkey again, then went to the big glass door that opened into the main floor. I could picture it exactly: a hallway with doors leading to offices for senior management, ending in grand double-doors that led into the paneled boardroom. There was a map in the hall with all the countries in gold leaf and crystals showing where we did business.
I swiped my card, and reached for the door handle, but then I froze. The light, which should have turned green, stayed stubbornly red. I swiped the card again. Still red. Then again, and still red. Clementine was watching, a delighted, incredulous smile growing on her face, and her friends drifted over to watch the light stay red.
"Uh," I said. "They must have changed the passcards. I guess, um, I can't get in."
"Nice, Clementine," the blonde one said. "He can't even get in."
Now Clementine looked annoyed. "Are you for real?" she said. "You can't get in?"
"They change these every so often," I said, feeling the mood change as the girls watched me. "We could go to my office ... it's just down a few floors ... and—"
"C'mon," the brunette said to her friends, as if I suddenly didn't even exist. "I'm bored with this. I want to get out of here anyway."
"Right," Clementine said. "Bye, dude."
And as they turned, leaving me at the door, I had a final glimpse of myself reflected in Clementine's eyes, as if in a mirror: balding, fat, middle-management, divorced, and old. They didn't even look back as they rode their cloud of sweet perfume back into the elevator.