I was sitting by myself at the company picnic, trying to think of something clever to say to Madeline Garber. She’s worked in the cubicle next to mine for more than a year and I wanted to ask her out the day I met her. But whenever I tried talking to her my mind went blank and the stutter I’ve had since childhood grew worse.
You’d think an electrical engineer with an M.I.T. degree would have achieved some degree of confidence. The trouble is, in my mind I’m still the high school nerd who hid behind his books to avoid embarrassing himself when talking to people.
As usual, I was inside my head ignoring everything around me, when this vision — the exact opposite of Madeline and everyone in my world — caught my attention. Her blonde hair was streaked with green and orange, and she wore yellow shorts with a matching midriff-top, displaying a tanned belly with a butterfly tattoo perched atop a glistening navel ring.
I heard Pat Bayliss telling her it was a closed party for employees at Bayliss Technology and their guests. She pointed in my direction, smiled, and said, “I’m with him.”
For the first time in my life, I acted like a normal male. Without over-thinking the situation, I held out my arms and welcomed her. It might have been my first impulsive act since childhood.
“I was afraid y-you weren’t going to make it,” I said.
“No way,” she shouted over the chatter of the picnickers. “I’ve been looking forward to this all week.” She threw her arms around me and kissed me on the lips, adding a “mmm” and a smacking sound that made the crowd go quiet as the collective jaws of my male colleagues dropped. I looked for Madeline but couldn’t see her.
She whispered in my ear, “I’m Sky.”
“My n-name is E-Eliot.” Damn that stutter.
I became the center of attention. Men I had barely spoken to now invited us to sit with them. Sky enjoyed the attention as much as the free food. She laughed and flirted, but grabbed my arm whenever the joking got too personal.
After we ate, she asked if I’d take a walk with her. Hand in hand, we strolled a path around the lake. I showed off my one athletic skill — skipping stones.
She thanked me for letting her stay at the party and told me her boyfriend had kicked her out of his apartment that morning and she needed a place to crash.
I committed my second impulsive act of the day. I invited her to stay at my place.
“I h-have an extra bedroom.”
“Oh, I hate sleeping alone,” she replied, as if commenting on the weather.
I felt my knees buckle, but somehow managed not to fall on my face.
We excused ourselves and left the picnic early. Men snickered. Madeline furrowed her brow, as if she didn’t believe what she was seeing, but managed to smile and shake Sky’s hand.
“You and the dark-haired chick must have something going,” Sky said as we walked away. “At least she’d like to.”
“R-really?” was my clever response.
I thought Sky would stay for a day or two. But a month later, we still shared a bed. I wasn’t complaining.
I told her about my awkward childhood and how my stuttering kept me from most social activities, so I put my energies in my studies. She shared stories about sex orgies and drug trips, including a short stay in a Peruvian prison that had me wondering how much she was making up for my amusement. She liked me calling her Butterfly and she called me Stud. Only we knew it referred more to my speech problem than my bedroom performance.
I used her as much as she used me. We were as compatible as sardines and turkey gravy — and we both knew it — but I’d arrange for her to bring a file to a job site or meet me for lunch at my cubicle, just to see the faces of my coworkers. She said it was the least she could do for free room and board.
She designed sets for a local theater group and when we weren’t wrapped in each other’s arms, or I wasn’t showing her how to use software programs to help with her designs, we hung out with her artist friends. She’d flit from person to person while I leaned against a wall, clinging to a drink as if I’d fall through a hole in the floor if I didn’t hold on tight.
Soon she was staying out late with her friends and not inviting me. Occasionally, she’d be gone all night.
Butterflies, I know, aren’t known for long life spans. Still, I tried holding on to her. I even let her pick out a wardrobe to replace my jeans and black t-shirts. But I felt foolish in white pants and a mint green shirt.
Without ever really talking about it, she said she found another place, kissed me and fluttered off. To be honest, part of me felt relieved.
I missed her, especially at night. But I had grown more confident. I still stuttered, but I didn’t care. My coworkers now included me at lunchtime and I’d manage to retell jokes I heard from Sky and her friends with a minimum of strain.
I even asked Madeline out to dinner.
“I thought you were with the person I met at the picnic?”
“No,” I told her. “She was just passing by.”
Wayne Scheer has been locked in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including, Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.