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Pictures of Cindy
by Chikako Atsuta  (3/25/01)

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 the wall.

"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 building.

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."

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