My breakfast the next morning consisted of a bowl of lumpy, watery oatmeal from a generic cardboard tub and a mug of cheaply-brewed coffee. I’d managed to scrape together enough money to purchase an equally cheap container of coffee creamer, but even the faux vanilla flavouring couldn’t mask the horrid bitter taste of the black liquid in my cup. I was forcing the last few bites of the bland oatmeal down when my roommate Elyse emerged from her bedroom, the heavy stench of cigarette smoke floating behind her. She approached the kitchen in light, easy steps, reaching for her expensive box of granola from the cupboard and then walking to the fridge for a jug of organic milk. She poured her cereal and milk quietly, almost oblivious to my presence a few feet away at the weathered table. The silence between us was uncomfortable, and after taking another cringe-inducing gulp of the rancid coffee in my mug, I glanced up.
“Good morning,” I offered politely.
After placing her milk back in the fridge, she neared the table with the same expressionless visage she’d worn since I met her weeks ago. Elyse was beautiful, in an unconventional way. A pre-med student, her intellect was undeniable in her mannerisms and diction, and I often felt inferior and somewhat stupid in my attempts of holding conversation with her. She sat across from me at the table, pulling a newspaper that had been resting in the middle of it closer to her with a delicate hand. Elyse had a short pixie cut, her hair a gorgeous silky dark shade. Her skin resembled something like porcelain with its pale coloring and flawless texture and her overall dainty appearance was pulled together with thin, slender limbs.
“Morning,” she said finally, taking a small bite of cereal with her spoon.
“The weather’s nice today,” I observed with a quick glance out the patio doors. And it was, really. I knew from the instant I woke up that it’d be a warm, sunny day with the sweet breeze I’d quickly grown fond of. Regardless of how valid my statement was, I was mortified with myself that I’d gone as low as discussing the weather conditions in an effort to blanket the awkwardness between us.
“Mm,” she nodded, flipping slowly through the newspaper with long fingers. When she looked up at me, her large brown eyes quickly swept over my form, lingering on my chosen outfit of the day. I knew she was judging me, she always did. Elyse wore beautiful, simple clothing; today it was a long beige skirt and a fitted tan sweater with shimmery gold bracelets and tiny flats. My wardrobe, on the other hand, was simple, yes - but nothing remotely close to anything beautiful. I was wearing a deep brown skirt of an awkward length with chunky wedges and a pale blue button-down blouse. I didn’t own any jewelry except for the gorgeous bracelet Zayn had given me last fall. I refused to wear it, though, so it sat on my dusty desk as a sick reminder of the feelings I once harbored.
I chewed my lower lip with uneasiness, playing with my spoon in the empty bowl before me. “I’m just ready for this week to be over.”
She looked up at me again, a very faint smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Yes, because working in a journalism department of a mediocre university is certainly stress-inducing, isn’t it?”
Although her voice was soft and easy on the ears, the words stung. I swallowed hard, clinking the spoon around the bowl more rapidly. “It’s not so easy.”
“This week I have to finish a thesis, write up three reports, and make time for my internship in the critical ward of USC’s medical center,” she replied, the dryness in her voice unmistakable. “I think it’s more appropriate to say that my week isn’t so easy.”
I was speechless then, opting not to respond but to stand and wash my dish. I downed the remaining cool coffee from the botttom of my mug and set it in the sink, reaching for the dish soap and washing with trembling fingers. I knew that Elyse hadn’t liked me since I moved in; I was a random person from New York with hopes of doing something so mundane and obsolete - as she put it - and she was a sophisticated, almost artsy-looking student hoping to thrive in the world of medicine. We were polar opposites.
After washing my dishes and setting them aside to dry, I reached for my bag and keys on the counter. I wasn’t even going to say goodbye; why should I after I’d been insulted and it wasn’t even eight in the morning? I was on my way to leave when her monotonous voice echoed through the room.
“I’m going out tonight,” she said. “My boyfriend’s band is playing at the Coffee Bean.”
I turned to look her, surprise swelling through me as I anticipated her asking me to accompany her. When my eyes locked on hers, though, the lifelessness that reflected from them said otherwise.
“So please make sure to lock up if you decide to go out.” A heavy pause, another faint smile, a slight cock of the head. “But since you seem to be a homebody, I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that now will I?”
I inhaled sharply, pulling my bag over my shoulder and shaking my head. “Probably not.”
She smiled again, looking down at the newspaper and taking other bird-like bites from her disgustingly overpriced cereal, and I made my way for the door. As always, I’d found myself the target of verbal abuse - though with Elyse, it was much more passive aggressive. As I descended down the stairwell, I felt myself yet again missing Leoni’s overwhelming personality back in New York. While she was fake in her intentions, at least she exhibited some form of niceness towards me. She made me breakfast and asked about my day. She also had sex with the person I fell in love with. I sighed to myself. I didn’t know which was worse.
The worst part of walking into the journalism department each morning wasn’t the dread of actually working, it was walking in looking as if I’d come from under a bridge in my pathetic clothing and un-styled hair. It was walking into the room and feeling eyes on me; it was putting my things down and seeing Blair situated across the way, smirking meanly at me.
When I set my things down today, there she was - as expected - wearing a tight skirt above the knee and a pretty red blouse that dipped dangerously low on her chest. Her hair was perfect, as always, and I consciously reached up to tug at the stands of my long, uncut strands. I felt like some sort of hideous creature walking into that office, with the people surrounding me dressed in their best and so polished, and it didn’t help that I’d gotten practically ridiculed by my judgmental roommate just before arriving. I forced myself not to look at Blair for very long, and instead sat down uneasily and began unpacking the contents from my bag. It hadn’t been more than five minutes or so when my eyes caught something being tossed onto my desk - a fruit bar. I looked up to see Oliver leaning on the edge of my desk, smiling warmly at me.
I frowned slightly, looking down at the snack. “What’s this?”
His smile never faltered, the bright whites of his teeth looking beautiful against his olive skin tone. “What’s it look like, Sherlock? It’s a cereal bar. I thought you could use it.”
I sighed. “Why, because I’m so poor?”
“No,” he said. “Because you’re so damn skinny.”
“Blair’s skinny,” I pointed out. Oliver rolled his eyes, crossing his arms loosely across his chest. Today he was adorned in a dark blue and green flannel shirt, a black tee peeking out from beneath it. A pair of dark, fitted jeans accented his long, thin legs and as always, his dark-rimmed glasses sat perched on his sculpted nose.
“Yeah, but she’s the type of idiot that purposely starves herself for that,” he replied. “I know you aren’t a moron like that, so take it.”
“That’s nice of you,” I smiled. “But I already had breakfast.”
“Oh yeah? What’d you eat?”
I shrugged. “Some oatmeal and coffee.”
“Oatmeal?” He repeated with a wince, reaching down to pick up the cereal bar. He shook it gently at me, “Oatmeal isn’t food, and this isn’t much either, but it’ll tide you over until lunch.”
“Oliver…” I sighed, reaching up to rub at my face.
“Don’t ‘Oliver’ me,” he teased, grabbing for my hand gently and turning it palm-up. Setting the fruit bar down into the palm of my hand, he closed his fingers over it affectionately. “Just take it, Sam. It’s no big deal.”
I looked up at him, a smile tugging at the corner of my mouth, and suddenly all the insecurities I’d felt suffocated with from my encounter with Elyse and seeing Blair’s perfect appearance disappeared. Because in that moment, Oliver was holding a fruit bar between our hands, smiling with compassion at me and actually looking into my eyes. It was gentle and humane and spread a wonderful feeling of security throughout me, and I never felt happier to have someone as a friend in the office. Our trance-like gaze was broken as another male voice called out to us.
We both looked up to see James walking in quick strides through the front door, clothed in a handsome dark suit and a silky crimson tie. He was looking at the two of us, his mouth tight and his eyes reflecting annoyance.
“It’d be nice if you’d stop holding hands and meet me in my office - “ he paused, his gaze locking in on me and lingering for a moment. “ - Separately.”
Our fingers immediately extracted from one another’s and I felt my heart lurch into my throat. Oliver stood quickly, staring with the same uneasiness I was feeling at our boss. “Should I - should I come first, or - “
James nodded. “That’s fine. It’ll only be a few minutes.”
He glanced at the two of us one last time before disappearing into his office, and I stared at Oliver in bewilderment. “Do you think we did something wrong?” I asked in short near-gasps. “I mean - do you think we’re in trouble or something?”
Oliver shrugged, swallowing hard, still staring at James’ office door. “I have no idea. I guess I’ll find out.”
“Good luck,” I whispered, my fingers trembling uncontrollably against the snack in my hand. As he disappeared into James’ office, I didn’t miss the sight of Blair smirking cruelly across the way, her chin resting against a tan hand as her leg swayed gently under her desk. I couldn’t control the hammering of my heart in my chest, and part of me was terrified I’d go into cardiac arrest before I even reached my twenty-second birthday. It seemed to be hours before Oliver re-emerged from the office, glancing at me with clenched fists and nodding towards the door as an indication it was my turn. I stood slowly, brushing off the front of my slightly wrinkled skirt, and inhaled in a careful manner as a means to compose myself. I couldn’t get fired - it was only my second week! What the hell could I have done wrong that they’d dispose of me so fucking quickly? As I approached the door and opened it with a slow creak, I caught site of James sitting in his large chair, writing with rapid movements on a blank sheet of paper. He looked up at me then, and I expected a smile but received a much harder expression.
“Take a seat, Sam,” he spoke easily, looking down at his paper as the pen between his fingers began moving quickly once again. I lowered myself into the chair shakily, my heart racing even quicker now, and licked at my dried lower lip. James set the pen down then, pushing the paper aside and leaning back in his chair, eyeing me carefully.
“Office time isn’t for romance, Sam,” he said. “If you want to pursue something of that sort, do it on your own time. It’s inappropriate in a professional work setting.”
Oh God. I’m going to be fired. Oh fuck me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice trembling as I stared into my lap. “I didn’t - I mean, I - It’s … it’s not like that with Oliver, I - “
“It’s really none of my business,” he cut in. The expression on his face was unreadable, but I knew for certain that he was harboring anger of some form. “I’m just informing you of typical work regulations. Just keep it outside of this building, okay?”
“I’m sorry, James,” I murmured, my eyes still locked on my interlocked fingers resting on my legs. “I understand if you want to let me go or if you - “
“Let you go?” he repeated with a short laugh. I looked up to see him smiling slightly, his straight teeth crafted into a beautiful grin and his gray eyes twinkling playfully. “I’m not going to fire you, don’t be ridiculous.”
My mouth slackened a bit. “I’m not in trouble?”
“Not at all,” he said. “You’re an excellent worker, which is why I’ve called you in here.”
I couldn’t remember a time when relief was so welcomed than in that moment. And as James smiled at me warmly, I felt my body relax into the stiff chair I was seated in. I also became very aware of just how nice my boss looked; he was a few years older than me, twenty-four perhaps, but still appeared youthful with his neatly-combed hair and perfectly pressed suit. I looked a wreck, and I was ashamed to even be in his presence, let alone having a one-on-one discussion with him.
“Anyway, I know you were assigned to edit grammatical errors for the paper - “ he paused. “Is that right?”
I nodded. “That’s right.”
“I’ve been looking through your resume portfolio, and to be honest - you’re incredibly overqualified to be working as something so simplistic as an editor.” He sighed, clasping his hands together in front of him. “So, I’m thinking of giving you a promotion of some sort.”
I stared in awe at him, my heart rate increasing - but in excitement this time around. “You’re - really?”
He smiled softly. “Yeah. And that’s why I called Oliver in here before you.” His eyes darkened very slightly, returning to their prior softness. “As you know, Oliver works in the music section of the paper - reviewing and whatnot.”
“He also conducts interviews with various bands. He’s excellent with that sort of thing but his writing skills are… they’re not so great.” Leaning forward, he extended a finger towards me. “That’s where you come in. I’m thinking it’d be a great collaboration if you and him would work as a team.”
I blinked rapidly. “A team?”
“You know, he’d conduct interviews and you’d attend to write notes and write the article afterwards.”
I felt the emotions of surprise and happiness and excitement all balled up coiling through me, and I nodded more enthusiastically than I’d hoped. “This is - this is incredible, James. I don’t even know what to say.”
He grinned, cocking his head slightly. “Is that a yes, then?”
“Absolutely!” I exclaimed, unable to contain the surge of emotions sweeping through me. “Thank you! This - this is so wonderful, thank you so much.”
James put a hand up, waving at me nonchalantly. “It’s no problem, I’m only doing what I think would be best for the paper. And I really think this opportunity will showcase your talents - “ he paused, reaching for a folder beside him, which I recognized to be my resume and portfolio. “I mean, you are so, so talented, Sam. I have no clue why Blair chose to place you in editing.”
Because she hates me, I wanted to say. But instead, “I don’t know either, but this is wonderful. I’m so happy you’re giving me this chance.”
He smiled then, waving towards the door as a signal I could leave. As I stood up, I heard him clear his throat from behind me. “Oliver has the paperwork regarding the first interview you two are to be doing, you should discuss this with him.”
“I will,” I nodded with a smile. “And thank you again, James.”
“And Sam?” he called out at me. I turned to see the same expressionless face staring back at me, his eyes much harsher as they gazed at me. “Remember what I said about no romancing in this office, yes?”
I swallowed hard. “I understand.”
His eyes softened as they trailed over my blouse. His gaze met mine in a lingering fashion and the gentlest of smiles played at his mouth. “That color is pretty on you.”
My face immediately burned red-hot and I mumbled a quick “thank you” before practically stumbling out of his office. I knew my cheeks were probably still flushed pink when I emerged from the small office, and I didn’t even look at Blair - as I knew she’d probably be staring at me with that same vicious gaze I’d grown accustomed to. Instead I went straight for Oliver’s desk, where he was slouched in his chair and appearing solemn.
“I’m so relieved I’m not in trouble,” I exhaled as I leaned against the front edge of his desk. His jaw was still clenched as he stared at a paper between his fingers and I could tell right away that something had irked him. “What’s wrong? Didn’t you hear - we’re partners now or something.”
“Yeah, that’s real great,” he muttered, his eyes still tracing the words on the paper.
I frowned. “Are you not happy to be working with me? I’m sorry, I could go back and tell James no -”
“No, it’s not that, Sam. It’s awesome I get to work with you, I’m just - “ he paused with a sigh. “I’m just pissed off about our first interview.”
“When is it?”
“In three days,” he replied. “Friday afternoon at four.”
I chewed my lower lip carefully, narrowing my eyes at him. “That’s kind of short notice, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” he replied. “I’ve gotten notices as short as a few hours. The date and time aren’t the issues here.”
“Then what is?”
He was silent for a moment, reading over the paper one last time before setting it down gently on his desk. He looked at me then, his dark eyebrows furrowed in irritation, and reached up to rub at his eyes from under his glasses. “It’s the fucking band we were given. They could have at least let us interview The Bravery or The Mars Volta or fucking John Mayer, even.”
“Are we stuck with a no-name group or something?” I teased, smiling playfully at him as I leaned down closer towards him. “A weird foreign group specializing in techno?”
Oliver groaned aloud, rubbing harder at his eyes as he slowly shook his head. “Oh, they’re foreign, alright. But not exactly no-namers.”
“Do you know them?”
“Kind of. My dumbass little cousin does. She is obsessed with one of the five total singers, he looks like a puppy and such.”
A lump quickly formed in my throat, my eyes widening and my teeth clenching together as Oliver’s description hit me. There could be other foreign bands out there in the Los Angeles area, right? Ones with five members and one of them looks like a puppy? I mean, that was the whole point of the eighties, wasn’t it? I took a slow, steady breath, looking down at my new friend and partner.
“What’s the band?”
He glanced down at his sheet in silence for a moment before letting out a quick, dry laugh, completely void of any humor.
“What a fucking joke,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head. “I mean, really, no one is going to give a shit about these guys - why the fuck are we writing about them?”
“Oliver,” I spoke up quietly, my voice feeling dry against the tightening confines of my throat. “What band is it?”
He was quick to reply this time, the bitterness laced in his tone of voice as he crinkled the edges of the paper with aggravated fingers.
And then in that moment, my life came crashing down around me in furious waves, suffocating me as the reality of the situation set in.