I could tell at first glance that was the word to describe the new employee. The way she strode into the office that first day in her red power suit said it all. I peered over to watch her set up her desk. A framed photo of a friendly looking young man went front and center.
I hope I won’t have too much to do with her, I thought, turning back to my own work. And that was all that decorated my desk—work.
I was in my 30s. Two years before I’d lost the love of my life after 16 years together. My life was over, as far as I was concerned. I went to my job and came home to an empty apartment. The only contact I had with other people besides my family was at the office, where I kept the conversation professional and minimal.
I didn’t need or want anything else. And nobody needed or wanted me. God had once given me happiness, but now it was gone and I had gotten used to it.
I kept my distance from Jen, but over the next few weeks I couldn’t escape the office buzz.
Jen and I couldn’t have been more different. She was twenty-something, her life just beginning. She was confident and ambitious and dressed to take on the world.
The young man in the picture on her desk was her husband, Ben. Jen and Ben, I thought with envy as I photocopied some contracts. Could I even remember being that in love?
Jen came into the copy room. She had no papers that I could see, but stood watching me at the machine. Why doesn’t she go away? I thought, keeping my eyes on the pages flipping through.
“Do you have children?” she asked.
I looked around, hoping she was talking to someone else. But only the two of us were in the room. “No,” I said. “I live alone.” As if it’s any of your business, I thought, wishing I could disappear.
“I’m concerned about you,” she said. “You look frail. To be honest, you look terrible!”
I was too shocked to answer. I grabbed up my papers before I’d finished my copying and hurried back to my desk, my face burning. Who says something like that to a stranger?
Maybe another woman would have been put off by my reaction, but Jen was no ordinary woman. Once she had me in her sights she targeted me for attention. Every day she greeted me with a smile and a hello, and took every opportunity to seek me out.
“You’re a young woman,” she said one morning at the coffee machine. “But you dress like an old lady! Let’s go shopping at lunch. It will be fun.”
“I’ve got to work through lunch,” I mumbled, escaping with my mug.
The next day she came by my desk again. “Come with me, Julie,” she said, taking my arm. “I absolutely have to get some new lipstick.”
She had me out the door before I could protest. Next thing I knew I was at the cosmetics counter.
“A little lipstick would brighten up your whole face,” she said. She’ll probably expect me to wear red like her! She doesn’t know me at all.
“Try this pink,” she said. “It’s subtle.”
I tried the lipstick on and looked in the mirror. It was a nice shade for me. Maybe Jen did know me a little bit.
After that I gave up trying to escape Jen’s goodwill. Or her fashion tips.
“That hairstyle does nothing for you,” she said over lunch one day. “You’ve got to stop hiding from the world, Julie. You’re young. You’ve got so much life left. You have to live it.”
My old bitterness flared up again. How could this young newlywed presume to tell me how I should live my life? “There’s nothing and nobody out there for me to live for,” I said. “You don’t know how I feel. You can’t understand.”
“Maybe I can’t know how you feel,” she said. “But I can’t stand to see you shut everyone out.”
I didn’t want to go into it with her. I had accepted life had nothing more in store for me. Why couldn’t she?
Still, part of me appreciated Jen’s cheerful morning greetings and her relentless attempts to get me to enjoy life. So much so that when I found her chair empty one morning I was disappointed.
When had I started to look forward to seeing Jen at work every day, even if she was badgering me into trying some new lipstick that was more my color?
Maybe I can’t ever love life that way again, I thought as I turned on my computer, but I’m glad someone else can.
Midmorning a group of people huddled around Jen’s desk. “What’s the matter?” I said when I saw sadness in their faces.
“It’s Jen’s husband. Ben was killed in a car accident.”
I stared at the smiling young man in the frame on Jen’s desk. My own words to Jen came back to haunt me: You don’t know how it feels.
Jen hadn’t known what it felt like to lose the person you loved—and I didn’t want her to know what it felt like! The idea of Jen—bright, lively Jen who loved life so much—suffering a blow like this was unthinkable.
She is so young, I thought. She has her whole life ahead of her.
How many times had Jen said those very words to me? I thought it proved Jen didn’t understand, that she thought it was easy to pick up and start a new life when your old life was torn away. But maybe it was me who didn’t understand.
I couldn’t bear to think that grief would keep Jen from loving life the way she always had. Just as Jen couldn’t bear to see me shut myself out from the world. She cared about me when I had stopped caring about myself or anyone else.
My phone rang. It was Jen’s mother-in-law. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Jen would like to see you,” she said hesitantly. “She needs you.”
I couldn’t imagine what help I could be, but I left the office right away. I found Jen at home, looking like I’d never seen her. Sad, alone, defeated. Feelings I knew all too well. How can I possibly help her? I thought. I sat down beside her on the couch.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Jen said. “It helps to be with someone who understands.”
I did understand—maybe for the first time. That day I vowed to be a friend to Jen whenever she needed me. Anytime, anywhere. She didn’t come back to work, so I arranged to see her outside the office whenever we could get together.
We went to the movies. Sometimes I stayed with her at her place so she wouldn’t be alone. If Jen’s care for me had made my life brighter, caring for her made my life seem worthwhile.
I had a friend who needed me. And how many other people might I have in my life if I gave them half a chance?
Jen moved away a few months later, but we’ve kept in touch. She was put in my life for a reason. And me, I believe, in hers.
I’ve since met and married a wonderful man. A few months ago I received an announcement in the mail: Jen was getting married. Not bad for two women who had nothing in common.