The last time I talked to Persis, I didn’t actually know it would be the last time. We met the same way as when we had first met – I brought over a set of changes I needed to her drawings.
I rarely did that any more: we had both moved up in the company. Persis was no longer a junior in Drafting, and I had a runner who handled change requests for me. But I needed the fixes quickly, and her name was on the drawings.
It had been so long, I had trouble finding her desk. She had moved to a corner cubicle, one with a view of the ravine behind our building. Warm summer light splayed across a large drafting table and lit up the polished chrome of her toolset. Her desk, beside the drafting table, was not as crammed as I remembered it. Still, I didn’t see any sign of personal memento. No family picture. No keepsake of a trip. No bauble from an earnest young suitor.
Persis was in: a purse, in solid brown leather, sat beside her chair. But she wasn’t there at the moment. I didn’t mind: as I said, we had both moved up in the company. And I had moved on in my life. I pulled out my pad of sticky notes.
“Were you looking for something?” Persis stood at the entrance to her space, holding a mug in her hands. A Pittsburg Penguins mug. A yellow tea tag dangled over its lip.
I noticed she had permed her hair. Its once gently curved and decidedly Middle-Eastern features had been made over in the fuller but less natural curls of our North American culture. She had started to wear makeup–not a lot, just enough that I noticed it. The changes made her look older, more the kind of woman you might find on the cover of Cosmopolitan than a girl freshly arrived from Teheran.
“Yes. Persis. The client wanted some changes. I was going-” and I showed her the sticky notes. “But since you’re here I’ll go through them with you. The client is rather particular.”
Persis smiled once, and nodded. The action brought back a scent of those old days, when it was part of her girlish willingness to please. But the image vanished as soon as it had appeared. She placed her mug on her desk, and held out her hand for the drawings. She unrolled them on the large, green drafting table, clamping one side down with a professional flip of her hand. Then she slid her triangular ruler across the blueprint to pin down the far corners.
That action brought back poignant memories. It had been a personal peculiarity of hers, to use the ruler that way. I noticed how confident it was now– she had always before seemed fearful of creasing the paper.
“What changes?” She did not sit down, but stood with her fingers making a tripod on the drawing. Perhaps she had always been sitting down before: I had never remembered her being taller than me.
I went through the changes one by one. I’d point to the appropriate place in the diagram, and explain what the client now wanted. She’d make a small annotation with her blue pencil. Our fingers would come close to each other’s, but they didn’t actually touch.
She now sported a set of artificial nails, in deep process blue. The color complemented that of the annotations.
As I said, I had moved on. I focused on the notes and the drawing, the transfer of instruction. She kept her long black eyelashes lowered. Her lips were a straight line. I made no effort to coax a smile from for, nor any to get her to glance up at me.
Yet, in spite of that, I’m proud to say we generated a kind of quiet camaraderie that made the transaction comfortable. I felt relaxed; I sensed she did too. We had reached a milestone in our relationship: the accomplished professionalism of working together, made by people who share common goals but not their personal lives.
Judith had wrought a big change in me–she was my savior, really. I no longer tried to wring emotional sustenance from my work relationships. I hoped that Persis understood why I now kept that boundary between us. In the early days, before I met Judith, I had pressed her about her personal life and she had balked at telling me. But I had not pressed her for years. I don’t even know if she knew about Judith.
“That’s all they asked for,” I said, when Persis had ticked the last note. I returned the pad in my breast pocket, even though I hadn’t used it. “They’re happy with everything else.” I wanted to say “good work”, but I thought that might be crossing the boundary.
“Thank you,” Persis said. She did not lift her eyes from the drawing, but I detected a faint smile. It wasn’t that girlish smile I had seen at the start. It was something more like that of an adult woman, lambent in quiet self-assurance.
“Whenever you’ve got the changes done,” I said, “pass them to Farrell. He’ll send them directly to the client. You don’t need to get my sign-off. Farrell’s initials will be fine.”
“Okay,” Persis said. She began to roll up the drawings. “Next Tuesday.”
“Actually… Friday’s when I need them. That’s why I came over myself. We have a bill cycle on their sign-off.”
Persis pouted her lips slightly, a sign that I suddenly realized was how she expressed obstinacy. I would have to go through my old memories again, to recalibrate them.
She pointed, with that process blue nail, to a roll of papers sitting in a wooden umbrella stand by her desk. “Ravinder asked me to do the Baedeker Road changes. I promised him Friday.”
I said nothing. I realized how much of my relationship with Persis had been sustained by the tremendous difference in power between us. I could not remember her ever saying no to a work request.
Persis snapped the rubber band on the roll of drawings and slid them into a cardboard tube. ” Friday,” she said. A trace of Iranian accent had crept into her voice.
“No, no need. I can manage the client. Tuesday will be fine.”
“You decide. Pass them to Farrell when you’re done.”
I left the drafting section and returned to my desk. In a way I was glad I had kept the interaction entirely professional. I felt pleased that I had done so at such a deep level I had only been barely conscious of it myself. I felt that, if I were able to run time backwards, I might have a chance to tackle those other failures from before Judith.
Yet, in another way, I felt cut off from life. We were now just two people who worked for the same company. We had no real relationship. I remembered how some of Persis’s early, shy smiles had drawn me out of myself. I remembered the ardor I had felt as I longed for a personal sign from her.
Farrell left me a note Friday afternoon saying he had couriered the updated drawings to the client. The next project, a month later, had a different signature in the box.
“So Persis is not doing these?” I asked.
“Persis? Oh, she’s left,” Farrell said. “Valarie does them now.”
I stared at the drawing for a second, wondering if I should ask to where, or for what reason. But that would be giving up the professional distance I had struggled so hard to gain.
The original thought, the one I had had walking back from Persis’ desk, returned to me that evening. Work was complete. I was driving back to Wexford. Judith had prepared a wonderful dinner. NPR was broadcasting some discussion about native rights in Omaha. Traffic was steady, but slow.
I wondered, once again, if, in striving for this milestone, I had cut myself off from life. Perhaps from Judith I had learned only to move on. I hadn’t actually learned to be healed.
D. M. Kerr is the writing name of a Canadian writer currently living and working in Singapore, where he teaches game design and business. His work has been published recently in Ideate Journal and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library’s So It Goes journal. He finds the process of acculturation fascinating.
© 2020, D. M. Kerr