Thinking about the “old guard” and May: Old guards and newbies overseas [https://howtobehave.net/2022/05/27/old-guards-and-newbies-overseas/] made me think of a story that happened at my first job overseas.
“Like someone in a fairy tale” seems like a positive thing to say about a person. But it’s not. There are a few positive fairies and good witches, but most fairy tale people are miserable, and their misery is pronounced, painful, long-lasting and often ends with death. If they do manage to pull off a happy ending, you don’t read about it. There’s a one or two sentence description of their life after the wretchedness and that’s it. Do you think Cinderella swanned about her castle with calm joy or do you think she flinched every time she saw a broom?
The good part is that you don’t often meet people who are like someone in a fairy tale; if you do I hope you are wise enough to give aid if you can, then stay as far away as possible. Years ago as a newbie, I met one, the bewitched and malevolent kind, but I have also had slight dealings with the positive kind, the fairy changeling, and I can tell you – they are also frightening, but that is a story for another time.
This story is about fear, confusion, lack of understanding, the importance of taking advice and how you usually only figure out what really happened years after the event happened.
This was during my first overseas job. As usual all the staff were put up in one apartment building, with the apartments getting larger and more glamorous the higher up you went. There was a counter on the ground floor, just inside the door, with two expat men who sat on stools, two men who sat at small desks behind them and then, at the back of the space, one expat man who sat at a wide desk. The three groups of men never spoke directly to each other, there was a sixth expat man who huddled on a low stool next to the wide desk. Any paper that had to be moved or any message that had to be given was handed to the runner, who would walk three or four steps to deliver it.
The building was set up with the same hierarchy. The bank of elevators was just past the front desk, so the men kept a close eye on the comings and goings of all the employees. Of course unmarried expat men with low positions had to use a side door and the stairs. No elevators for them. And the elevators closest to the door were the express ones, going only to the penthouse floor. I was allowed to use the third elevator on the left. There were swipe cards for each one so if I had wanted to go to another floor, I would have to go to the lobby and ask one of the housing desk men to come and swipe his card to allow me access to that floor.
My floor has only single women and so was mostly empty, only me and a few women who worked at HR. So I was amazed to answer the doorbell a few days after I moved in to find a man on my doorstep. How had he gotten onto my floor?
And such a man: average height, average looks, except his eyes. Fairy tale eyes. Not like an animal, I have met a few people who were supposed to be an animal but something went haywire in the ether so they ended up as a person; it’s a very distinctive look. Not like a person from another time (Viking chief or Roman soldier), that also happens. He was something that once was human but had all their humanity taken away somehow and it was trying to play at/ pretend to be human. Terrifying.
“Do you have any booze?” he asked.
He said his apartment number, “if you get any, give some to me,” and he turned around and left.
I closed the door and thought, “I hope I never see that again.”
But after May arranged for me to get the “special juice” (see note at the bottom of this story), I remembered him and decided to hand over the two gin and two vodka.
After saying a prayer of protection and putting on my favorite, lucky perfume, I put the alcohol in a plastic bag and went down to the lobby. I told a clerk that I needed to go to his floor. When asked “why,” I said his apartment number and the clerk jumped up and practically ran to the elevator to swipe his special key card. So I knew my reaction to him was not misjudged. The clerk stood and watched the elevator doors close on me as if he was watching my execution.
I knocked on the door and when he answered, I handed over the bag.
He opened the bag and looked, “You have special juice. How many?”
“So you have another gin?”
“Yes, do you want it?”
He nodded, pulled out one of the cans, opened it and drank the triple shot like it was water, then tossed the bag onto a small table next to the door, stepped out of the doorway and ,not bothering to close the door, started walking down the hallway.
When we got to the elevators, he pulled out a black key card and swiped it, then punched the key for my floor.
When we got to my apartment, he swiped the key card again and my door opened. That’s frightening, I thought. He paused in the living room as I walked to the bedroom, opened my clothes cupboard to pull out the bag which I had hidden unimaginatively under some sweaters and when I turned around, he was standing by the bedroom window.
I handed the whole bag over. He took the last gin and downed it as he stood there then took the last vodka. I stood immobile. He looked around the bedroom, said “close your windows” and left the room. I waited until I heard the front door shut and then walked over to close the windows.
I had opened them for fresh air in the early evening sometimes as my apartment was more than 10 stories off the ground, what harm could come? But him standing there, looking at the open window – I knew, knew in the same way I know how to make a spread-sheet balance perfectly, that he had climbed in windows many stories off the ground and what happened next was mayhem and death.
I wanted to open one of rum or tequila cans, but didn’t. It was rather like having a lion charge you, only to break off at the last moment. You needed a few hours of quiet to coax your soul back into your body.
A few days later, I answered a knock at the door and there was a woman holding out a big of sticks towards me. I had seen her a few times in the lobby, but never in the same elevator. A little younger than me, always in chinos and a long tunic, good perfume and good jewelry. Female employees were told to wear skirts or dresses, so I knew she must be ‘wife of.’
I smiled and started to say something, but she motioned for me to take the bag and said, “Don’t go to Frothies,” then walked away. Frothies, was a famous/ infamous café I had gone to a few times on weekend with the HR women who lived on my floor. It had so-so coffee and atmosphere but it was separated by a flimsy, lattice-work wall from another café where supposedly wealthy local men hung out. Sections of the wall had a habit of falling down and then the men would look into the women’s section to apologize and women would say that it was quite all right. This I had seen, but what I had only heard about was that phone numbers, (scandalous!) license plate numbers and prices would be passed back and forth, so that (rumor had it) women would walk downstairs and when the car with the right license plate pulled up, they would get in.
I closed the door and looked at my bag of sticks – wondering what on earth I was supposed to do with them and who that woman was and why she was giving me advice. A while later, my three apartment mysteries (the mystery of the fairy-tale man and the mystery of the women and the mystery of the sticks) somehow coalesced. I decided that the sticks were from the fairy-tale man and must be connected to the windows. It took a while but I finally figured out there were two for each window. When I put the shorter one in the window track, the window could be opened a few inches, but not further. The longer one was the exact length of the window track, so the window could not be opened at all.
Why this was so important so many floors off the ground, I still don’t know, but I used the sticks religiously. And the next time I shared a taxi with the HR girls and ended up at Frothies, I said I was going to another café. One of the girls, said, “Yes, yes, let’s go there.” But the others insisted on Frothies. I don’t remember the name of the girl who wanted to go to a different place, but I remember the pleading look in her eyes. She wanted me to insist on us all going to a different place.
I could have argued more or told her to come with me but I didn’t. So many events, weeks and months I have forgotten, but not the moment I walked away. They never invited me again to share a taxi and I never knew what happened or why that woman was afraid of going to that café.
I could not understand everything then, but I can see clearly now having watched many groups of expat women. She was in a herd and even if she didn’t like it, she had to live within that herd. To make her come with me would cause an unforgivable breach. It was like finding a baby deer in the woods, you have to leave it – maybe it will get eaten, maybe it’s mom will come back, but you can’t interfere or you will be responsible for it for the rest of its life. And that moment is part of the reason I write these essays. Advising on cuticle creams is all well and good, but how to live amidst utter confusion is something most people need a little help with.
In any case, a week or so later there was another doorbell chime and I answered the door to the same woman.
“Here,” she said, “all the floors” and held out a dark blue swipe card.
I started to say, “thank you” but she had already turned and started walking away.
Again, I didn’t know the signs at the time but now I can recognize them. That woman was putting all her efforts into keeping that fairy tale man alive, keeping him whole, keeping him from tearing the heads off small children and eating their entrails – she had no time for social niceties. And somehow it was known that I had stopped going to Frothies, so I was given the card as a reward.
Having the card was a kind of happy magic. Seeing it in my wallet gave me a peaceful, wondrous feeling – I had the power to go to any floor of my building. And like most magic, I never used it. I was waiting for the elevator on the day I was leaving when I remembered it and, for the first time, swiped it to go up to their floor. I knocked on his door and when she answered, I realized that I had always assumed they were together, but didn’t actually know until I saw her.
I held out the card, “Thank you very much. It was kind of you to give me this. I am leaving today, now.” Then I remembered the sticks. “I left the window sticks in the apartment for the next person. But… should I bring them back? I’m sorry I…”
“Leave them,” she said. And closed the door.
What happened next is a story for another time – continued here: Living Overseas and Surviving Confusion
“Special juice” – people over a certain age who live in certain countries remember how certain cafés sold special juices in sealed to-go containers with the name of a fruit misspelled printed on the small, opaque containers: straVberry, oRange, waTermelon, manGo, Wwtermelon, Rwspberry, The cans held a triple-shot of vodka, rum, tequila and gin, and a not bad white wine and not hideous red wine. Very expensive and very worth it.