On Disbelieving

Written in January 1983, published in Some Luck/It Figures #1

 

My mother's from Missouri, the "show me" state. I have a streak of that stubborn skepticism, but somehow it's all twisted 'round so that sometimes when I'm given evidence that convinces others, it makes me a firm unbeliever.

In late October 1979 I took the job I still have today, working as a night teletype operator for John F Sullivan Co., a reinsurance broker. During the three years before they found me, they had something like 11 different people in the job, and despite the fairly high wages, they hadn't been able to hold onto one operator. There are several reasons for this, I imagine, involving office politics, and inter-departmental power struggles and personality conflicts, I'm sure. Also, there's the pressure.

At year-end the insurance business goes berserk, and at JFSco it's crazier than most other places. The volume of work more than trebles, and the pressure to get those messages out in less time than we were given on normal days is incredible.

I, however, love it. Probably because I was raised on the East Coast, where trying to juggle six aspects of your job, one telephone call, and two inept repairmen is just considered a normal day in the rat race. I shine under pressure. Indeed, I don't feel like I'm working at all unless I'm working, by West Coast standards, too hard.

At Sullivan I found a home. I am generally immune to the snobbery of people who think they're better than me because their position is higher on the company ladder. And the hard work I did, and my skills at trouble-shooting and organizing got put to good use -- and occasionally recognized, and I was happy.

But . . .  I was alone.

I worked the night shift alone, but that's not what I mean. Actually there was a night crew of Word Processors on the other side of our office space, and they're nice folks. And in the frequent periods where there was more work than a day's to do, the day operators, Mona and Nancy would stay later. (I actually prefer to work alone.) What I mean is that I felt alone because there was no one I worked with in the least bit like me.

Mona, Nancy and the first receptionist, Meleesa, and later, Sally, were all very nice young women, each an interesting, complex individual with all the ups and downs and quirks that people have. We worked together well; better than most groups of people do, I would say. Yet whenever I was among them I felt alone . . . different . . . about three years out of style, rather like a clunky old truck next to a station wagon, a sports car and a Rolls.

It wasn't merely appearances, though it was that too (I'm not much for spending money on high fashion clothes, when I could buy something practical like  a computer, a telescope, a video recorder . . . or an Atari arcade!).  It was more a matter of interests -- the makings of daily conversation and jokes. I have such a dry sense of humor, I often offend people and then have to explain I was kidding. And all my enthusiasm is in actual near-space exploration, and imagining the wonders of the universe, and digging the inner depths of human experience and . . . I got so frustrated listening to them discussing who slept with whom in today's soap (even though they couldn't see it: their stay-at-home friends and relatives would call and keep them posted).

I wanted to talk books and people and life and living and these beautiful, intelligent and competent women were not 'into' that.

To be fair, they made every attempt to understand me, and sometimes even did, but most of the time I just felt alien, and not a little lonely.

 

But, you've got to earn a living, and this job had its rewards, mostly monetary. I was building a reputation as a hard worker, responsible, able to cope with whatever came up, and I enjoyed the problems because they were a challenge and a break from the daily routine. And the women I worked with were intelligent, often funny. I could understand and enjoy them even if they didn't quite comprehend me.

During my second year-end renewal we hired a temporary, one aspiring actress fresh from NYC, full of a refreshing East Coast vigor. She worked hard, and we had fun.  I missed her when she left in January.

It must have been sometime around April or May, when Seattle's winter blanket of cloud parted here and there, giving us a preview of summer blue skies, we began to realize we had been working overtime almost every week for the last year and a half (longer for the others), and that it wasn't likely to let up to let us out early so we could play when the weather turned fair.

We  began to campaign to get another operator. Management's reaction was unfriendly, to say the least, but that's another story. Once they hired another operator and realized it was cheaper to pay her straight wages than all of us perpetual overtime, they saw the light and have been more than willing to hire more ever since.

 

The first operator we hired in, yet another beautiful and apparently competent female, proved to be incapable of handling the work. The story of how I came to discover that she was a paranoid schizophrenic is involved and somewhat embarrassing. We hobbled through the year end rush with her filling the new second night operator's position and in mid-January she transferred out of our department and down to Word Processing (where she is keeping the place thoroughly snafu'd).

 

Working alone again was an incredible relief. With the usual lack of forethought, JFSco didn't begin looking for a new night operator till the former had finished her two weeks notice with us. It was alright. The rush was over and we all worked so much more smoothly without her, we were in no hurry.

My co-workers are very fussy about whom they hire. Not so much from the standpoint of ability to do the job; more accent is put on personality. Which, after Patti, was all right with me. This time management let us interview, hoping we would be able to screen for compatibility better than they could. We interviewed . . . one person, two, three . . . another two . . . another three, and we waffle-waffle-waffled on all of them.

We usually team-interviewed, myself and Mona, or myself and Nancy. One day Nancy alone did an interview and she called me at home and said, "We've got one, I'm sure. But I wanted to check with you first."

I trust Nancy's judgment, but she wanted to fill me in on the details anyway. "He's male." (Two points for that, I thought!) "He's a writer." (Two more!)  "I told him you write, too, and he asked me if you wrote seriously." "I'll take him!" I said. When she asked him how he'd feel working with four women, he just smiled. "Is he good looking?" I asked.

"Okay," she said, "not great."

Well, alright. What about experience? He's worked with word processors, and that was enough experience for me.

 

The first time I saw Steve O'Brien, I liked him. He may not have been a 10, but he had something . . . He reminded me a bit of my first true love -- about 5'10", brown hair, broad shoulders, right down to his Irishness. There was a relaxedness that was such a nice change. He seemed almost shy, though he wasn't really. Just quiet.

We talked about work and I told him about the pressure, and how night work killed the night life.

"That's all right," he said. "I'm not exactly known for being a live wire anyway."

He said that with such a straight tone, I looked over to check for a smile. It was barely there.

We talked about cars. I have this ancient old van, mine since she was new, that I love. Steve was a tinkerer. He bought old cars, tried to fix them up, and drove them till they died. Another similarity to my first love, I thought; Michael Flanagan was a regular graveyard for old cars. I used to tease him and tell him they were drawn to him in their old age. They wanted to die with their heads in the lap of an old friend. Poor Michael, he had such luck!

It's funny how we're drawn to people, the same type again and again. For some people it's a terrible thing, because they're drawn for some reason to real losers. It's a nurturing instinct, I think. But it can set up terrible cycles passed from generation to generation, like child or wife beating.

I'm drawn to strength, though. To generosity, and dry humor. To literacy, sensitivity, idealism. I like people who set high goals and really work toward them, keeping on even when it's tough.  And damned if Steve was not all of those things.

For the first time in my years of working at JFSco, I looked forward with real delight to going to work. Often I would have been to a movie Steve had already seen, and would anticipate discussing it with him. Or I'd get him to tell me how the difficult student he was tutoring in his spare time was doing. I prodded him for updates on his screenplay, but on this he was reticent.

At about this time we had an enthusiastic janitor, Michael, who wanted to be a preacher. Sometimes he'd practice on Steve and me, missing the mark and finally wandering so far off the track he'd get completely lost and not be able to find his way back. The three of us would end up laughing. It was great fun.

Finally I had someone I could talk to about books, about people. I could bounce my understanding off Steve and some new angle always came back. He constantly surprised me. I loved to follow his reactions to Mona and Nancy and Sally, and then the new operator we added, Kristi. It was such a kick.

After about only two months of unrelenting enjoyment of work, it occurred to me that I was quite, quite in love with Steve. Not merely in love, but I loved him.  It became important to me that he be happy.

Of course it helped that he did a good job. He understood the machines, even made improvements in the system. He sat down and worked. Sometimes he even went and pulled the really nasty messages out of the stack and did them first. Amazing!

Much as I loved him -- and that got to be quite a bit as time passed -- I never considered doing anything about it. First of all, ours was a good working relationship and I didn't want to threaten it in any way. I was happy, really oh-so-rosily happy for the first time in years, and I didn't want to do anything that might change that. Second, I didn't consider myself quite in Steve's class. I never expected him to return my feelings.

But I wanted him to be happy, and I knew he was lonely. When he expressed casual interest in a talented, artist friend, I went out of my way to see if I could get the two together. Jaki is the only person I told how I loved Steve, because I wanted her to see him. She was, however, otherwise involved.

On a certain Friday, I cut out early to go watch Blade Runner, and on the way I thought about Steve, about loving him. I kept wishing the situation were different so I might feel I could do something about it, but I was enjoying the gentle torture of just loving and trying not to show it enough so he'd notice. Just doing what little things I could. It reminded me of one night, on watch in Iceland, when a newly-married young sailor who worked in my watch-section came by on his last night before he and his wife left for their next duty-station. He told me he loved me (though we hadn't talked more than ten times, briefly in the six months we'd been stationed together), that when he first saw me come in to the barracks, he knew I was the one he'd waited for, but he had already proposed to Meggen. (Several odd bits clicked into place, like the weird vibes I'd always picked up when talking to Meg.) He just wanted me to know. It was touching, sweet, and strange, to hear it. And then he just left . . . I thought about someday, when I quit my job, or Steve did, telling him, and the fantasy was my secret delight.

 

We argued heatedly about Blade Runner. He thought it was a horrible, depressing, senselessly violent movie. I agreed it was violent, called it moody, and tried to explain why it meant so much to me. I told him I thought Blade Runner was about the 80's, about the 'me' generation, and in particular, about who we are. "Like that scene at the piano," I said. "You remember? Where Deckard wakes up and goes to sit by Rachel, and says, 'I dreamt music.' Her hands rest on the keyboard and she says, 'I remember taking lessons, but I wasn't sure I could play.' (because she has implanted memories). Can't you see that she's saying she doesn't know what's her and what's not? Am I what I'm born with or am I the things I've been taught?"

"Well you saw that in the movie, I didn't," Steve said.

"And Deckard says, 'You play beautifully,' remember? He's saying it doesn't matter what she knows and what she was taught, he loves what she is, see? No matter whether it's her or some tape someone fed into her." I argued on. "And Deckard's having to ask himself what is human? He's in love with a machine that's more human than most people he knows. So the question the film asks is what makes us human?" Steve typed on. "You didn't get that from the film? You who always dig for messages and deeper meanings didn't see that?"

"It was a senselessly violent, depressing film," Steve repeated. And a little while later added, "And besides, my ten-year-old sci-fi-loving neighbor didn't like it. That's a good enough reason to dislike it right there."

Usually Steve argued his points with closer reasoning. On Blade Runner he had nothing more to say.

 

It wasn't all roses, of course. It was hard for me to keep from showing what I felt. Especially, I was very sensitive to Steve's moods, which were usually variations on quietness. We knocked heads a bit because we're both very stubborn, and I am very bossy, and he wouldn't tolerate being bossed. He taught me quite a bit about myself. (I asked him in an argument once, "So you think I'm pushy, huh?" and after a tiny pause he looked up and said, "Yes, I do." My heart almost burst right then. Gods, he was neat.)

In August, just shortly before my yearly vacation, he suddenly got very moody, and we tiffed more frequently. The worlkoad had lessened, and I passed on a project of mine. He wanted to do it his way, I wanted him to do it the way it always had been done because we had worked it out amongst ourselves, and while it would be mostly his project, all the operators would have to work on it at times. He resented my interference. I told him we had always worked as a team.

Finally, other things got my annoyance level high enough that when a day came that Steve and I were both in bad moods, we had it out. Quietly. In fits and starts (but inside, of course, I trembled with my old fear of confrontations).

What set me off was when Nancy, in her typically matter-of-fact way, pointed out a small error Steve had been making (which I knew to be not so much an error, as his revision of an existing system) he snapped at her. I nerved myself up half the night and eventually I told him his maverick ways were driving me crazy, which wasn't so bad, but getting angry at the day crew for pointing out the problem was too much.

After some further argument, and some thought he said, "Well alright. But it's just, I don't really think I'm so terribly hard to work with. Am I?"

"You're not," I said. The plaintive tone in his voice got to me, but I couldn't find a way to tell him how much of a pleasure he was to work with most of the time, without revealing my feelings too much. So I said nothing more.

My heart hurt. For a while I couldn't talk. Then I said, "It's just that sometimes it seems as though you think you're an island. That you can just go your own way, do your own thing, and it won't affect anyone. But it does, Steve."

"From now on, let me know," he said, "when I'm messing up the system."

He really, genuinely didn't want to bother anyone. And if what he was doing did bother, he'd actually make the attempt to change. Phenomenal.

 

When I got back, exhausted in every way, from my vacation in Chicago, there was a note from my house-sitting friend that said, "Call work most urgently."

Hmm, I thought, what did I do? They wouldn't want me to call most urgently to fire me. Perhaps it's trouble with the machines.

Then I listened to my phone recorder. My new supervisor had left a message asking that I call work asap. Her voice quavered. I began to worry.

I called work (this was a Thursday evening) and got a friend in WP and asked him if everything was okay with my crew. He said "Yeah, fine, why?" He's a terrible liar, and I knew something had happened to someone.

I fretted lightly. Who's in the hospital? Could someone be dead? Do they want me to give up my one more day of vacation and return to work?

First thing in the morning I called and asked the person who answered the phone, "WHAT'S WRONG!?!?" and she said, "Nothing," and I said, "Who died?" and she told me Sally would come by on her way to work to talk to me.

I thought of everyone in my crew sick or dead, but not Steve. Why didn't I think of Steve? If I had, I might've been prepared when Sally told me. But, no, it wouldn't have helped. I've never been one to hide my emotions well (except this once, too well, my love for Steve). From the moment what Sally calmly said sunk in, I couldn't keep it in anymore.

She told me how the day after I left, Steve came to work on time, as usual, sat down and started working. A half hour later he got up, holding his blazer to his chest, calmly told her he had to leave, he couldn't explain now, but if he came back tomorrow, he would then. And left. Said goodnight to Kristi as he met her at the elevator.

That was the last time she saw him. Now she knows he went to the hospital. He had a congenital heart defect. Since he was very young they told him he'd be lucky to live to thirty, though a few years back another doctor told him he might live to nearly fifty. After a day in the hospital, he made them let him out, went home. Sunday he went to dinner with his family and once again, had to leave early. He took a cab to the hospital. And died there.

He just didn't want to be a bother to anyone, you see.

I remembered he had said that. I remembered in a flash, me saying, "You think you can go your own way, but you can't. You affect people . . . "

 

Did Sally wonder why I was so badly shaken? She didn't seem surprised.

 

They left me to grieve in peace. All I could do was cry. Think of Steve, and cry. I cried, and cried. And just when I'd get it under control, I'd recall a moment, like when I caught him about to make a mistake while I was on the other side of the room, and I pointed it out. He said thank you and I told him I was glad that didn't bother him: "It makes some people think I'm psychic," I said. "No," he said, straight-faced, "I know it's just that you have a mind like a sponge."

He understood me!

So I'd start in with the tears all over again.

All that dammed up emotion let loose at last, with no one there to catch it. No one on the receiving end. I just couldn't stop. I cried all Friday until I was totally and completely exhausted.

I thought back over all the things we talked about, and so many pieces changed with understanding. In a way it was sad, because I knew Steve didn't want anyone to treat him differently because he had to die young, yet how could I not see his attitudes more clearly?

Remembering his disgust with Blade Runner, I thought of the androids whose life-span was only a few years, and their desperate, destructive drive to find some way to extend their time. Their fury at their maker for limiting them caused one to kill the man brutally (Steve could never reach his maker, but I expect he would not have reacted the same way the android did). With blatant disrespect for life around them, they obsessively sought to extend their own time. And I was touting to Steve the humanness of these creatures? To someone so human, and in the same situation as they, but someone who valued life all the more for his lack of time? No wonder he disliked the movie; no wonder he could never explain his reasoning.

It all made me so sad. I wished that somehow we could've really talked. Or even that he could have talked to anyone at all about what he felt, without feeling he would be coddled for his handicap.

That's why he made the choice he did: to live alone. I know it was because he wanted to lead a normal life if he could, and at the same time didn't want to hurt anyone with his passing, so he wouldn't let anyone get close. (Ah, but it was not his choice to make, you see. He couldn't keep people from loving him.) I cursed him soundly and repeatedly for cheating himself of the full range of emotions, of experiencing life and love, and for cheating those who would've loved him, known him well, and gladly suffered the loss. I was so mad at him, and wanted to tell him. But he wasn't around to argue with anymore. And all I could do was cry, anyway.

 

Friday night, Saturday morning, actually, I tried to sleep, still crying. I thought about death, and dying, and remembered asking Steve if he believed in heaven and all that, or reincarnation, or a life after death. I guess I'll see when I get there, he said.

I recalled a book I had read on Out of the Body experiences, where they said at night, sometimes, your soul wanders out on a cord attached to the small of your back, and sometimes it goes 'home' to the place of white light and peace that often times near-death experiences bring people to. I thought perhaps if I tried, I could send my soul out to find Steve, so I could tell him a thing or two.  Well just one thing, really.  I wanted to fulfill that fantasy and tell him I loved him.

I've always sort of believed in reincarnation and all the occult stuff, like esp and astral projection, auras and past life regression. Reincarnation seems logical to me, a recycling, a striving for perfection with endless challenges that appeals to me. So it didn't seem too strange to try to imagine my soul like a helium balloon, tied on a string. I imagined it soaring up, up, in search of Steve's soul . . . and I fell asleep.

Saturday was no better than Friday. Worse. I carried on my life in an almost constant drizzle of tears. Fortunately I was not obligated to do much, because I was finding it hard to even get out of the house and drive. I continued crying all day Saturday and when I went to bed early Sunday a.m. I was really exhausted.  I decided to give it another try.

Sniffle, sniffle, imagine my soul as a balloon.  Sniffle, sniffle. I was still crying. I began to think I might never stop, and found the strength to laugh at the view of myself weeping for the rest of my life. Soul floating off, floating away in search of Steve . . . and I fell asleep again.

 

The first thing I realized when I awoke Sunday morning was that in those last few moments of consciousness as I fell asleep, in that state where I float, knowing that I am almost asleep, something inside me changed. What I was left with was the awareness that Steve had found me rather than I him, that he had been drawn by my unending grief, and had requested that I end it. It was not his voice that asked, I didn't hear him, or see him, or even feel; but I knew, the instant I woke up, that Steve, yes very definitely his self, had come to me just as I was passing down into sleep, and I was left with these words, though I know he didn't 'say' them: "Please don't grieve for me anymore." And from that instant I slid down into restful sleep. And awoke, knowing wherever he was, he was alright, still and ever the same old friend who didn't want anyone to hurt on his behalf.

 

Following rapidly on the instant of knowledge that he had been there, inside me, had come some long way to touch my soul and ease my sorrow (for I was no longer uncontrollably crying now), was doubt that it really happened. It's hard to explain how sure my gut is that it happened, while telling you that my mind doubts it. It's as difficult as explaining how Steve said what he did without saying it, how souls touch. But that's it.

Every time I would begin to rationalize the experience ("Your subconscious knew the experience was what you needed to soothe your emotions.") I would look inside myself, prod that aching spot that yesterday caused a flood of tears, and find the wound beginning to form a tougher shell. My mind would say it was all a trick, but my heart keeps telling me "Steve cared enough about you to come and try to help."

 

Now I doubt life after death, gods and religion more than I have ever in my life. All I know for sure is I wish to hell somehow such a good and gentle man had been given a fairer shake. Maybe he gets another chance. Maybe I'll see him in the afterlife. I don't know. I guess I'll find out when I get there.

 

 

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2007 Linda Blanchard. All rights reserved worldwide. Date Added: October 9, 2007. Last Update: May 05, 2008.