Pictures of Cindy
by Chikako Atsuta
Due to a bout of severe layoffs at my workplace,
Greg and I are the only ones who have desks in the northeast corner of the 3rd
floor. The business consulting firm I work for moved to this brand new building
last summer. At that time, there were many other workers besides Greg in my
neighborhood. I used to chat, have lunch, and sip California wine after 5 p.m.
with them. Now everybody is gone but Greg and me.
Our corner is made of four separate Open Spaces. Each space has enough room for
four people, and is furnished with all the four desks, chairs, telephones,
cabinets, bookcases, and computers we need for our job. Each Open Space has a
set of sofas and a round table, which are meant for communal use. Greg's place
is located in Open Space A and mine is in Open Space B. An off-white partition
divides Open Spaces A and B, so we don't see each other, but we can hear
everything that the other one says.
Greg has dark-blonde hair, and is a well-built and clean-cut man. He always
wears a polo shirt that has the company's logo mark on the left chest. On his
finger is an unusually wide wedding band. He is 44 years old and comes from the
Boston area. He went to college in the Midwest, lived on the West Coast for a
short period, came back, and five years ago got married to somebody who he had
dated for ten years but during that time had a history of repetitive breakups.
He had his first child, Cindy, about six months ago. He has traveled to Hawaii,
the Virgin Islands, Italy and France. He goes to Martha's Vineyard for
vacations. Greg is a member of the Museum of Fine Arts, and often goes to the
symphony to listen to Seiji Ozawa. I gathered all these pieces of information
not by talking to him, but by overhearing his telephone conversations.
I don't know what Greg does at work even though we belong to the same
department. One thing I do know is that he is on the phone all day long talking
passionately. I am involved in web development, and hardly ever use the
telephone. In the quiet corner where just Greg and I work, I hear his
conversations even if I don't want to. I catch words such as
"e-business", "B2B", and "net results". Between these
phrases he talks about himself so much that I've been able to have a whole
picture about his life. His chuckle reminds me of sea gulls crying for joy
after finding leftover food on the beach. His voice echoes around our corner,
passing by brand new sofas, plastic-looking plants, and some slick etchings on
"Sayonara, pal!" Greg shouts. Surprised, I look around to see if Greg is trying
to talk to me in my language. Then I realize that this is one of his telephone
conversational styles, in which he scatters some basic non-English phrases like
"Ciao", "Amigo", "Hasta la vista, muchacho",
"Arigato, baby" throughout his patter.
"You know I'm a vegetarian." I hear his voice from Open Space A. This is another
phrase of Greg's that I hear over and over. I rub my eyes, which have began to
ache from too much computer work. Does he know that I'm here? I feel as
though I have disappeared into the stale, air-conditioned atmosphere of the
Greg and I don't talk at all now. We used to, though, when there were more
coworkers around us. The last time I talked to him was late last year. Greg was
in the kitchen, making a cup of coffee using his own beans and dripper. Greg
saw me filling a cup with ready-made coffee from a bottle.
"Do you drink coffee?" he asked me, " I thought the Japanese only drink green
tea. I love green tea."
I replied that I liked coffee much more than green tea. I added that I had come
to love flavored coffee since I came to this country. He did not respond and
ignored my response.
Whenever I used to meet Greg in the hallway or around the entrance of the
building, he would bow at me with his hands pressed together in front of his
chest. Every time I saw that, I felt very embarrassed and did not know what to
do. I usually just smiled awkwardly. Now he does not do it any more, which is a
relief for me.
Since Cindy was born, Greg has developed a habit of taking pictures of her with
a digital camera and then printing them out on white office papers. He covers
the walls and partitions of his Open Space with Cindy's portraits, starting
from her first day in this world. Greg used to put these printouts only on the
walls around his desk. But now that almost everyone is gone, he has started to
use other desk spaces in Open Space A.
One night after Greg went home, I aimlessly wandered through his Open Space. The
whole wall was covered by pictures of Cindy's face. There were about 50 of
them. I could trace Cindy's growth through this series of images. Following the
progression of her development, I noticed that the latest image reached the
border of Open Space A. Greg does not have any place left for photographs of
Cindy unless he invades some other Open Spaces.
Looking at the photos, I became awfully tired. When I joined the company early
last year, the first thing I noticed was that all the employees tended to wear
the same facial expression. After the recent layoffs, it seems like that
expression has become even more uniform. I feel exhausted any time I see this
bunch of identical faces, and I have come to know that when I am tired I have
the exact same face that they do.
A janitor woman walked around the corner holding a huge vacuum cleaner. I know
that she comes from the Dominican Republic from a chat that I had with her last
month. She was with her daughter, who was about 5 years old. While her mother
was busy vacuuming the vacant Open Space C, the little girl sneaked into Open
Space A where I was standing. She was stunned to see all the printouts on the
walls. She could not even close her mouth, she was so surprised. Her mother
shouted something in Spanish, and the girl ran around the corner and back to
her mother without paying any attention to me.
A few days later, I find a little card on my desk. On the front is a picture of
Cindy. The caption says: "Six months today! From a Proud Dad." I look at the
photograph. Cindy is amazingly cute. The reason we stopped communicating is
that he could not fit me into his concept of what the Japanese should be, and I
became uncomfortable whenever I sensed that he was holding up that stereotype.
Looking at the card, though, I realize that I have categorized Greg as a
self-absorbed American who can't stop talking about "me, me, me." Perhaps I
have been unfair. He is, after all, a proud father.
"Didn't you know that I am a vegetarian? " I can hear Greg talking on the other
side of the partition. Maybe I should visit him to break the long silence
between us. And I offer that he could use my Open Space so he can continue his
gallery of pictures of Cindy.
Chikako Atsuta was a Japanese freelance writer
living in Massachusetts and a regular contributor to Gate 39. For more information see: her memorial page. More selections from
"Ako's East Coast Blues."
The text is the property of the estate of Chikako Atsuta and is not to be reproduced without written permission.