In the middle of a silent moment during today’s team meeting, Jeremy started hiccupping sobs and banging his fist against his forehead, his mascara leaving streaks down his cheeks. No one asked what was wrong, because we never talked about personal lives in the office.
But in our heads, we all rushed to Jeremy’s side, calmly touching his shoulders, while he told us about how his girlfriend just broke up with him or how he felt like he was failing at his job. We whispered words of encouragement, like “you deserve better,” and “you’ve been trying really hard.” We ended the meeting early and whisked him away to Paddy’s on Third pub down the street from the office.
In our heads, there was beer. Green beer, we asked for. Lots. Our tongues turned green, and we took selfies with our mouths open and posted blurry Snapchats to our stories. We bought Jeremy shots of Jameson and pulled him up on the karaoke stage, slurring “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” to a crowd of college students. They hooted and hollered until they realized we were on the stage for three songs and the karaoke guy came and kicked us off. We all walked out of the pub with green spots on our blouses and button-downs smelling like cigarette smoke. There was more crying. Jeremy’s hands were marbled with watery black from rubbing his eyes so much. We said how much we loved him. How much we wanted to see him succeed. Valued him as a coworker. A friend.
In our minds, we then dragged him into a late-night diner where we ordered strawberry milkshakes, double cheeseburgers, and steak fries. Jeremy vomited under the table. We dashed out of there before the waitress could check on us, leaving whatever fistfuls of sweaty crumpled cash we had in our pockets. Jeremy reeked of whiskey and milk, and we went into a gas station and bought him a packet of white undershirts, helping him change out of his soiled clothes. We piled into an Uber and directed the driver to Jeremy’s apartment—we had been so many times before—where we tucked him into bed, positioning him on his side. As we walked out of his place, he grunted “thank you, guys, you’re the best,” then drifted off. We walked to another bar, and all worried about Jeremy, saying how great he is, toasting shots on his behalf.
But outside of our heads, we didn’t do any of that, of course.
In real life, we sat there awkwardly at the team meeting as Jeremy’s sobs echoed off the high-ceiling conference room, some of us shooting looks of disgust back and forth, picking skin from our nail beds because we didn’t know where to look. None of us knew of each other’s lives, our relationships or family troubles, recent engagements or pregnancies. Personal lives never slipped into office life because everyone had their own burdens and to carry coworkers’ issues—well, that was a line no one crossed. Except Jeremy.
One of us broke the silence by ending the meeting early. We left, but Jeremy stayed, slumping his head onto the table, his back heaving up and down. Up and down.
Courtney Clute has an MFA from the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Fractured Literary, Emerge Literary Journal, Lumiere Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, and Z Publishing’s Florida’s Emerging Florida Writers: An Anthology. You can find her on Twitter at @courtney_clute.