They met at work. They were hired at the same time to assist two senior members of staff. They were nicknamed ‘The Youths’ because they were in their mid-twenties. She had a boyfriend at the time, and he had just come out of a long relationship that had involved a short period of cohabitation.
Initially, neither liked being lumped together as ‘The Youths’. He thought it made him sound inexperienced. She didn’t like the association with him. She thought his friendly demeanour was a façade; that he was secretly arrogant, not as clever as her yet more convinced of his cleverness. She felt he avoided tasks like photocopying and mail-franking; that he considered these things to be beneath him.
For the record: he did frequently make tea for anyone who wanted one, and even though sometimes she suspected this was a clever mode of work-avoidance, and a subtle play for popularity (thus, ultimately, power), it also contradicted her theory that he believed himself to be above mundane chores, so she gave him the benefit of the doubt; also, he washed up his own mug carefully, whereas most of the other employees, including those she otherwise considered decent, thoughtful people (including herself, initially, until she followed his lead) left their dirty mugs in stacks in the sink for the cleaner to do after-hours.
The Youths did not do anything so obvious as get together at the office party, but they did get drunk and advance the party beyond the office to a pub first, and then a bar, with ever dwindling numbers, until finally they were the only two left—and that night was when she first sensed he liked to be near her; that he would position himself close to her where possible, and gravitate back towards her when she moved away (in order to test the hypothesis that he liked being near her).
He remembered this slightly differently. He claimed he did warm to her that evening but purely on a ‘friendship level’. Until that evening, he had perceived her to be more efficient and diligent than he was and—wary his more relaxed working methods would be compared unfavourably to hers—kept his distance. That evening, though, he realised he could make her laugh, and vice versa, but he knew she had a boyfriend and therefore the possibility of romance seemed remote. Anyway, he was enjoying being single and dating various girls after having spent his student days and beyond in what he referred to as a ‘prematurely domestic’ relationship (partly to underplay its importance in front of potential prospects, while also making clear that he was not after another cosy, traditional coupling, at least not yet).
She had a slight problem with the way he said ‘girls’, even though it was how she referred to herself and to her female contemporaries, because ‘woman’ felt too serious and matronly; or else too worldly—too whole-person-who-has-it-all-figured-out—whereas she considered herself to be more of a work-in-progress. But him saying ‘girls’ was borderline disrespectful. In his mouth, it made women her age sound silly and unserious, primarily objects of desire without substance or durability. She mentioned this the night of the office party, because she’d had a few drinks and felt powerfully certain of her position on this point, and of the point’s towering importance. He countered that it was more complicated: there wasn’t an equivalent of ‘guys’, which could cover any male up to ‘at least forty-nine’, and also had the advantage of grouping people together in a friendly, genderless bunch. He asked if she preferred ‘women’ and she claimed she did, but it didn’t really sound right coming from him either, it sounded faux-respectful, therefore somehow worse than ‘girls’, so she wondered if he should just stick with ‘someone’: e.g., ‘There’s someone I like at work,’ and he said, ‘Who?’ and she frowned, and said, ‘No I meant—’ and he said, ‘I know, I’m joking,’ and she resumed, ‘At work—or wherever, until you were more serious, and then ‘girlfriend’ would be acceptable, or ‘partner’.’
It was just after the office party that the Ginny Spiro emails started. Of course they had emailed each other many times before then, but this started out with a message from her, with the subject Ginny Spiro and the question, What’s her email? He replied: why don’t you check the database like everyone else, and his lack of punctuation or capital letters told her this was a joke, and not him being the brusque person she initially took him for pre-office party. So she said it’s easier to ask you and then he gave her the email address, saying, I got that from the database by the way it’s not hard and she said cool, could you send me Carl Miller’s number too then, and he sent her only a number in reply. She thought that was a bit cold, and read back through the correspondence a few times, feeling defensive, but also stupid, wondering whether he was just being rude after all; but when she called the number he had given her, and after she asked the confused person on the end for Carl Miller a couple of times, she realised he had sent her the number for the Greek deli where they and their colleagues sometimes went for lunch, and then she blushed: out of embarrassment for calling the number in the first place, and also because when she looked up at him, watching her, she found in his grin the stirrings of some energy there. In fact, it was so intense she had to look away.
So the Ginny Spiro emails continued in that vein: one or two liners, a conversation really, hundreds and hundreds of emails back and forward, so many that if they ever scrolled down the chain (as they both did, occasionally) the very first emails had been marginalised to such a degree that you had to read them vertically, one letter at a time.
They reverted to the Ginny Spiro chain when they were emailing about anything not explicitly professional. Often it was commentary on their colleagues, or tortuous metaphors re: how long the day felt, or the status of their hangovers, and when the first Ginny Spiro email of the day popped up, he would feel a jolt or twist that made him need to stretch (usually with his arms) to exorcise the surplus tension. He especially liked the Ginny Spiro emails that referred to something going on in another email thread where they were both copied; one of them would take issue with the way something had been phrased, pasting only the offending words, for example, reach out or take the lead and they would go from there, each trying to outdo the other with increasingly absurd jargon.
Once, she asked what he thought Ginny Spiro would make of her involvement in their emails. He suggested that one day, someone would discover and publish the Ginny Spiro Emails, which would then be adapted into a movie. And she replied that Ginny Spiro would be played by Meryl Streep; that it would be the first Oscar ever to be awarded to an actor who never physically appeared onscreen, and he replied actually laughing.
They decided Carl Miller, who sometimes came into the office with his dog, would be a joint cameo by JK Simmons and the dog from Marley & Me.
For many months while the Ginny Spiro emails evolved, she was still in a relationship, but had begun to feel an itch of impatience with her boyfriend: that he did not seem interested in how her day was, that he took off his socks on the sofa and left them there like two grubby skins; that she could not suggest they do something different, like go to see an exhibition, without him teasing her for being pretentious. What she could not admit even to herself was that the boyfriend was not the issue at all, not really. The problem was that she wanted to change, but she did not want him to come with her. She was pouring herself, slowly, like thick syrup, into another mould: sharper, funnier, more serious. Happier. Or at least, on the way to being happier, some part of her suspected, but this was not something she could interrogate because to do so would be to admit that maybe there was someone else at the root of the impatience she felt; an impatience that graduated into annoyance, then fury and ultimately the end of the relationship.
It was a mutual decision. It was important to her that she maintained her dignity and moral standing in the break-up, because she considered herself honest, and she had always taken a dim view of people who cheated, and anyway she did not cheat on the boyfriend, not even slightly: if the boyfriend had read through Ginny Spiro, for example, he would not be able to find a single thing that he could reproach her for (except perhaps the sheer volume of emails, but that is natural, she planned to say, if this conversation ever took place, between two people who work together every day and sit near each other and have the same, she would insist, semi-terrible job).
The break-up was never referred to by The Youths in person or via Ginny Spiro, but instead he learned about it some weeks afterwards, through one of their colleagues, who joked, with hand motions, that she was ‘finally up for grabs’. He responded, ‘You can’t say things like that,’ but he laughed so the colleague wouldn’t take offence. Since the office party night, when she had taken him to task over how he said ‘girls’, he had been making a concerted effort to be more careful in the way he spoke about women, and this frequently caused him tiny moral quandaries when in exclusively male company, because it would be far easier to just let things go, to laugh, even agree; and sometimes, honestly, he did let it go, when he sensed that saying something would change the atmosphere. That was how deep it went, that stuff: preserving the fragile ego in front of him was, when it came down to it, worth more than making things a bit awkward in the name of enlightenment—and who was to say which is the kinder thing in any case: the taking of the moral high ground, or the going easy on the guy who didn’t know any better? Anyway, this time, he did make the effort to say something, and not solely, but mainly because it was about her, and he wanted his credentials where she was concerned to be impeccable, because on hearing the news that she was no longer in a relationship, his heart rate had shot up, and he’d felt the blood pulsing in his ears, which he knew had turned red.
The fact she hadn’t told him about the break-up was not at all hurtful or strange—conversely, it made him more confident that there was something between them, because if there wasn’t, she would definitely have told him about the break-up, and if she had done so on Ginny Spiro, it would have breached the unspoken, intricate but utterly clear-to-both-parties terms of Ginny Spiro, and ended whatever it was that might have been going on between them right there and then.
In the months after the break-up, Ginny Spiro continued, but their in-person interactions became fraught. If they ever happened to be, for example, in the kitchenette at the same time, they would have bright, inane, palindromic interactions: ‘You alright?’ ‘Yeah, alright thanks. You?’ ‘Alright, thanks, yeah’—as though they knew each other as well as two colleagues who did not email each other non-professionally all day long. On the one hand, he was moved by how instinctive this behaviour was; how complicit and committed they both were in maintaining their two realities, how compatible they must surely be to shift gear between the ease and camaraderie he found on the screen and this show of polite awkwardness. But he was frustrated too because as time went on, he wondered whether the emails were the ‘real’ thing at all, or merely a proxy for intimacy—if she was using him to satisfy some perverse need with no concern for what he might have needed. So whenever she asked him to join a group of them for lunch, casually, in front of everyone, as though he were exactly as unimportant, or important, to her as the others, sometimes, to maintain this illusion, he would join the lunch party and spend most of it talking to someone else; but other times, when he was feeling especially frustrated, he would claim he had to work through lunch, knowing she would be annoyed at the rejection of her own insincere invite. How was lunch he would ask, and she would take a long time to reply, but she always would eventually, with something terse like fine but quickly followed up with, hope you got your extremely urgent work done and he would respond, yep you can sleep easy tonight, and she’d say that’s a load off and they would be back on track.
He was still going on dates all this time, and occasionally going home with the dates afterwards, but the experiences felt very external to him. He had started to view himself as ‘internal’ and ‘external’: ‘external’ did things—went to work and on dates and to the gym—while ‘internal’ was a buzzy state of low-level excitement, at once mildly stressful and extremely enjoyable—when he was emailing her at work, for example, or simply aware of her proximity. He could hold entire conversations with people that he later would be unable to recall, as he had been studiously not watching her, while knowing exactly where she was in the office at all times. Photocopier, meeting room; he felt almost omniscient. Some days, it was a genuine relief to go home and decompress in his own space, away from her.
She did not know whether he was dating anyone, because of course he would never mention it to her, but sometimes she imagined that he was, to see if she minded, and found she was mainly amused at the idea, because he couldn’t possibly correspond to someone else the way he corresponded to her, and she ended up feeling sorry for the theoretical person, even responsible for their emotional welfare.
Then, one afternoon, she was pulled into a meeting—she had ‘dropped the ball’ on a minor issue that had, owing to her ignorance, escalated into something bigger—and after, had returned to her desk close to tears. He emailed (too rapidly to pull up Ginny Spiro), everything ok and she replied, because she did not want to fully break down at her desk, tell you later and he wrote, before he could think about it too much, beer after work? and she said haha ‘beer’ ok ‘buddy’ and he said sorry out of my depth here and she paused, not breathing, before she typed sorry and then, quickly, a beer would be good.
For the rest of the day he couldn’t do anything. He would start a task but kept clicking back to their exchange to check whether he had imagined everything, whether in fact he had misread her right from the get go and all that was happening was a friendly drink between two colleagues.
When it was six o’clock, he went over in his coat and said, ‘Shall we?’ and instantly regretted it, fearing she might not see that by saying ‘Shall we?’ he was really communicating that he was in fact, not the sort of person who would say ‘Shall we?’ sincerely. But she, who had been trying to look as though she was still working, with a sufficient degree of absorption to belie the fact she’d been thinking about this moment all afternoon (she had been to the toilets already to sort out her hair) smiled while she clicked ‘send’ on the email she had already finished—but deliberately left unsent for this purpose—and said, ‘Let’s!’ She switched off her monitor and followed him out of the office with her coat folded over her arm.
In the pub, she couldn’t stop chewing the inside of her mouth, and one of his calves was so tense he worried he had pulled a muscle. It was the first time they had been properly alone since the office party, a fact that went unspoken, yet seemed incredible to both of them.
Their conversation was less fluid than their emails because they had the physical fact of themselves and each other to confront—there were eyes to look at, or not look at, hands to put somewhere. Things to talk about. The deadpan, affectless tone of their correspondence was not viable in person.
They drank wine. They sat on the same side of the table, leaning away from each other to begin with, but now and then each would shift position, ostensibly for comfort reasons, until their shoulders and knees were touching. A couple of times, she laughed energetically, moving forward and away with the effort of laughing, and when she came back to the original position he did not flinch, and had not moved: he was there waiting for her.
They spoke about their families mainly, trying to sound mostly ordinary, yet also slightly extraordinary, making reference to character-shaping circumstances or minor hardships, while omitting the darker traumas they nursed, saving them for when they were on surer footing. They got hungry and ordered chips, politely deferring to each other regarding salt and/or vinegar before agreeing to liberally douse them in both; then they ordered another portion, to soak up the wine, which they kept buying by the glass. A bottle would have been more economical, but it seemed too bold and certain a statement, as though the delicate premise of the evening might buckle under the weight of such a commitment.
They stayed past last orders, until the bar staff turned up the stools all around them and started wiping their table. By that stage they were holding hands, a development that had gone unacknowledged, had happened by such minute degrees that letting go felt crude and hurtful, but she did, standing up to put her coat on, and he decided he would not let it happen again unless she actively sought it out.
Outside, they stood by the road, and she rocked back on her heels, raising her eyebrows and pulling her face into a deliberately awkward grin, and he said, ‘What?’ and she said, ‘“What” what?’ and he said, ‘“What what” what?’ and she said, ‘Stop it.’ She felt so nervous she might be sick, while he was surprised by how calm he was, and he brought his face close to hers but waited to see if she would initiate the kiss.
Later, much later, she wondered if this was the very best moment of all, when their desire and hesitancy about destroying the desire were absolutely equal, when neither had yet put a foot wrong in the context of their whatever-it-was-at-that-point. Where their intellectual attraction and physical attraction peaked all at once, when nothing else in the world—their future children, their existing parents’ eventual declining health—mattered more than their being together, at that moment. When they were simply two people who wanted to be with each other and no one else.
His impression was that he had tuned into a crystal-clear frequency while twiddling through static: sudden, surprising and surprisingly easy, so easy it almost spooked him when he (in years to come) thought about how it just as easily might never have been.
They tried to keep the relationship a secret, not because they thought it would be a problem at work particularly, but because they both loved the secrecy, the intimacy it afforded them. But soon, they had friends and family to answer to, flatmates and yes, colleagues, who sensed (and didn’t like the sense) that they were being excluded from something. So The Youths let it be known, slowly, gradually—though, once the facts had been established in the office, the news took one single morning to spread.
They spent every night together the first six months, and then the next six months, and when the lease on her flat was up, they moved in together to a one-bedroomed place above a hairdresser. He stayed at the company, and was promoted; she took a new job (and pay cut) at a start-up, because she was ready for a change, and together they decided it would be good for them to be apart at least some of the time, to ‘fill their cups’ so to speak, in the world beyond their world.
They had sex every night for eight months: she believed she always initiated it. He believed that too, but with the caveat that it was the way they had always worked, that he was there and ready for her the second she made the move. Then, one night she didn’t make the move, and he didn’t either. She was privately hurt, and he was privately relieved that he could go straight to sleep because he had had a long day, and was tired, nothing more than that. When she brought it up a few days later, he said that he had intuited she was tired and didn’t want to put her in the position of having sex unwillingly when it was clear she hadn’t wanted to make the move. And she said, ‘Why do I always have to make the move?’, and he said, ‘You don’t have to,’ and she said, ‘Oh, OK then.’ And just like that, they were in a fight, their first real fight, and they didn’t have sex even though he then tried to make the move, because she said he was only doing so to prove a point, he had had his chance several nights ago and it was quite clear he didn’t want to, and he said, ‘I give up,’ and they turned away, silently reviewing and honing their arguments, and with each pass, each grew more certain of their own position, before they fell asleep.
They moved on, they had less sex, they became more comfortable and less intense, though she always held on to that first rejection as proof that he didn’t desire her unreservedly, that he was holding some part of himself back, for himself or for someone else, she would have to wait and see. He forgot all about it, except for the belief—reinforced through arguments to come over the years—that she leapt to incorrect assumptions, and that even when he did explain himself, and she accepted his version of events, the stain of her initial assumption remained, faded but indelible.
They married. They had a child, and then two more.
It was hard. She had known, rationally, that it would be, looking back on her own childhood, which was secure and full of love, certainly; but also boredom, tears, fighting, chaos. The dreary, messy, thick of it—the toileting, washing, feeding, whining—was, for her, nothing like the hopeful, precious days of earliest new-parenthood, where they would reverently gaze at the baby and at each other, a trio cast in almost divine relief. He was an only child, and had an orderly, relatively peaceful bank of memories, infused with a longing for rambunctious rough-housing with siblings. He did not find the children tiring in the same way she did—an exhaustion approaching bone-marrow-draining. He could make them laugh and shriek, even at their most cranky, and come up with endless games that would have everyone upside down or piled on top of each other while she stood with her back against the kitchen units watching, arms folded, wanting—but too tired—to smile.
He would have had more children, if she were up for it. He would have had five! But she was not.
On weekend nights, after the children were in bed, they would sit in the kitchen and drink wine. He looked at his phone so much she joked that he had a secret girlfriend. She knew he didn’t—as far it was possible to know—and she felt almost sad for him that he didn’t, that he just wanted, or needed, to look at his phone when he was with her, and then she felt almost sad for herself too.
He didn’t have a secret girlfriend, but he was involved with several work-related women over the course of several years: nothing that ever came close to being technically inappropriate, by any tribunal standards, or to being detected by her, beyond the occasional intuitive frisson that she always decided to leave unexamined, or by anyone other than the women themselves, who even, when it came down to it, might feel a bit delusional if they ever confided in their friends about him. He was not an idiot: he never communicated with the women by any means other than in person; there was never any physical contact that could be construed as romantic—just longer-than-typical unbroken eye-contact, and intense, rangy conversations when he was working late, and a sick-hungry feeling in the pit of his stomach while he was contriving the having of the conversations. While they spoke, he would feel like he was glowing softly: as though a lamp had been switched on inside him. He did not want to sleep with these women, or kiss or even touch them: what he found himself craving was their clear and unfettered investment in him, their attention to him as a… soul?… a mind? just as she had invested in, and attended to him, in the beginning. Sometimes, after these conversations, he would return home to his wife—to her—and reach for her with a keen desire, and she, sensing some shift within him, would meet him in kind.
She had one long, tortuous situation with a local father, a married man with four children—two in school, plus twin toddlers—who she met at the playground, and was on nodding and eyebrow raising terms with before graduating to smiling and eventually droll comments about the challenges of young kids. They spoke freely and warmly about their partners—what brilliant parents they were, how supportive, how hardworking. This made the persistence of their interactions completely above board, she felt, because there was no question either would ever act beyond the bounds of their respective families. She spoke to him exactly as she would another mother—the content of their conversations was no different—but why then did she feel she had to look at the ground so often, why did she feel not just pleased, but excited, when she saw his shape in the distance—and why indeed was she so good at making his particular distant form out, distinct from all the other forms? Why did she sometimes, having spotted him, turn and go in the opposite direction, muttering half-baked excuses to her outraged children? Why did she blush when he said, jovially, ‘We missed you guys!’ after she’d been on a family holiday? She was not interested in any of the things he seemed to like. He was earnest and practical and wore things like hiking boots, and a technical-looking jacket that struck her as ridiculous in the suburban context of the playground. She held certain assumptions about him that she never verified, but entertained to herself like an in-joke: for example, that he had been a Scout, and a keen one at that. So he was not a credible threat to anyone’s safety, nothing ever happened, nothing close to anything, but that didn’t stop her, wide-awake, in the deep night, from imagining scenarios where their respective spouses had benevolently vanished and she and this other person, this… ur-dad unified with all their children to form a wholesome super-family.
She realised some time later, when the man had moved away (they had said goodbye with a self-consciously clumsy hug, the kind where both jostled a bit to make it less intimate, and the tough thread from the reflective patches on his technical jacket scratched her cheek, and her son asked loudly several times after, why she had ‘cuddled Ted and Rudy’s dad’) and she experienced a wretched pining for him that made her feel foolish and embarrassed, that perhaps the reason she had let her heart to him for however long, however innocently, was that he was the first man she had encountered as a mother, who knew nothing about who she might have been before, who simply saw who she was right there in that moment—tired, fraying, trying, falling short—and yet still found her company tolerable.
But he, she had to remind herself—her husband—had known her before, and known her after, and still he was there, by her side, and that had to count for something too.
They argued more than they had ever argued, and the arguments grew more knotted, arose more quickly and were harder to resolve, because each was part of a history, each a palimpsest of arguments past. She, who had, at one time in her life, considered herself to be a controlled person, found herself exploding at him in public: in cafés, on the street, in restaurants, and what surprised her most was not that she could not contain herself, but that there was no longer anywhere to contain her fury when it arose, because she had no private life anymore: for her, the domestic was now everywhere.
He, who considered himself easy-going and anti-confrontation, retreated into himself, absorbing her rage into a bedrock of resentment and guilt. He knew he could not make her happy as he had once made her happy. They could not enjoy each other in the slow, selfish way they had at first, and he did not know how to square the disparity between them-now and them-then. He wondered: shouldn’t she try too? Couldn’t she see he was vulnerable also, lonely, exhausted, that he might be capable of such clichés as weeping in the shower, or punching a wall, or pressing his palms and forehead to a rain-streaked window?
Lately, she had started to feel like ‘a woman in a film’. Sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s, or at the kitchen table, sipping tea while the children caterwauled around her, she could vividly see how the frame would be composed, her form statuesque, her face ‘saying it all’. She wondered if this was the kind of thought that, if she mentioned it during a check-up, would cause her doctor to look at her—though she knew she would never say it out loud, and anyway, what was ‘a woman in a film’, if not simply, a woman? An attempt at saying: ‘This is how it is, don’t you think?’
Things became easier, in some ways, as the children grew independent by infinitesimal degrees. The Youths started accepting, finally, that this was it; this was their life, the one life they would have, the one life they had chosen—unless either of them would be bold enough, reckless enough to break it down and start again. They argued still, but as the children grew more sensitive to conflict, they learned to swallow the lesser things, to distil the anger into a look, or the sudden departure from a room, a firmly closed (but never slammed) door. Instead, they saved up their grievances, nurtured them, cherished them, until they’d got dressed up, spent a fortune on a babysitter and dinner—made an effort, in other words—to really get into it. ‘We can’t be trusted’, they would say after each disastrous date, after the inevitable tears and then the inevitable sex, when they would vow never to go out again, ‘We can’t be trusted to behave like real people.’
Soon, he would be forty. Forty! She had a harder time coming to terms with his turning forty than he did. She had cried when her own mother had turned forty. She had thought then that forty was the beginning of the end, and now here it was, about to take him too, and she wasn’t far behind.
There were things they knew for certain: there would be illness, there would be loss. Their own parents would die, one by one. The children would cause them despair and concern that would make them long for innocence; their innocence, their children’s, the sleepless, squalling infants that were really quite straightforward after all, despite the heavy weather they had made of things. There would be a gradual loss of faculties, if they were lucky. One of them would end up alone, if they stuck together. Sometimes this knowledge overwhelmed him; made him wonder whether—knowing what he knew now—he should have kept his distance all those years ago, sent her Ginny Spiro’s email address straightforwardly, without comment, let her stay with the boyfriend or some subsequent person, while he drifted on, maybe or maybe not finding someone else, someone he did not like quite so much, and with whom the stakes would not be so high.
The Youths were at a dinner party (another fortieth, weren’t they all?) hosted by the parents of one of their children’s friends from school. The talk turned to how each couple had met, and when their turn came, they smiled at each other and into their drinks. She, chin propped on fist, said, ‘At work,’ but he, expansive from the wine, said, ‘Well—yes but,’ and the others clamoured to hear more. They tried their best to describe it: the preamble, the silent drama—the magic, really, that had compelled them together. They spoke over each other, amending and rephrasing, but they soon gave up, sensing that it did not translate, and anyway no one else really cared: ‘at work’ would have sufficed after all. It didn’t matter. It had happened, and there, better and worse, they were—shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee, hand in hand at the table.
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