For the last three weeks, women have been running into me in the halls at work. Not “running into me” as in, “I ran into Martin in the hall yesterday; he’s doing well, seems like he survived the divorce—can you believe his kids are in middle school now?” I mean running into me like colliding into me, usually with their kneecaps into my now tender shinbones.
These aren’t accidental collisions. Our hallways aren’t narrow. We are a very large company. As the lawyer charged with preventing sexual harassment suits, I have over five thousand people to train and scold. But with five thousand people, you will always have a few scoundrels. So it’s my job to be able to look the CEO in the eye and say, “Yes, sir, before Mr. Ed Rutherford grabbed Miss Caitlin Anderson’s ass in the elevator, he attended his once-a-year, industry-approved training.” I’m here to mitigate the damage, not do the impossible.
Our size makes bad behavior inevitable, but it also means our company’s headquarters were built with very large hallways. There should be no reason to run into one another.
The reason women are crashing into me has to do with this year’s guest speaker at annual training. I brought her in myself. Some women had complained that sexual harassment training ought to have at least one woman teaching it. The company forked over big bucks for Jenna Rodriguez, who has 50 million views on YouTube and has published a book on assertiveness for women called Sound off Like You’ve Got a Pair. She wore dark pants with a crease so sharp I could see it from the sound control room. She wore red heels with long, pointed ends. She wore a frilly white blouse with a charcoal blazer. She said the reason we have sexual harassment is because sexual harassment is about power, and not enough women have power. She said women should dress and talk and act like men to get power.
She left the women in our company with a challenge to try something. When a man approaches a woman in the hallways, she said, he assumes a woman will move out of her way. She wanted the women in our company to refuse to yield. See what happens, she said. I promise you’ll see a lot of confused men around here.
I assumed Jenna meant not to yield if a man was walking the wrong way by not sticking to unwritten rules about keeping to the right. There is no need for ordinary passing in the halls to become a source of conflict; again, I cannot emphasize enough how wide the corridors in our company are. They are OSHA-approved to withstand emergency evacuations of our entire workforce. But women have been going out of their way to play chicken with me, even when I have shoved all six-foot-four of myself as far up against the wall as I can. I don’t think this is what Jenna had in mind, but then again, I don’t understand women that well, especially strong women, hence the divorce.
The situation in the company has become intolerable. Last year, our company paid out $528,000 in sexual harassment claims. In the last month, we have lost over a million dollars in productivity and worker’s compensation to mishaps stemming from hallway crashes.
I sent an email to Jenna, asking her what she thought I should do and hoping she would appreciate being asked. After her presentation here, I drove her to the airport, and we spoke briefly. She remembered me, but said she charged ten thousand dollars an hour for consulting fees. I said if she could just tell the women in our company to stop running into people, I’d pay her a hundred thousand. Or at least tell them to only run into people headed the wrong way.
She laughed. I remember she also laughed in the car with me on the way to the airport. I think I had just said this: “That’s interesting what you said about men not getting out of the way when a woman is walking toward them. I don’t think I’ve ever done that. But I’m not sure. I tend to be kind of shy and not really look up at other people when I’m walking. Do you think that might be why it seems like men are always running into you? Because they’re too shy to look?”
After laughing, she never got around to answering the question, because she got a phone call. It wasn’t a fake phone call just to get out of talking to me. I know, because I could hear the voice on the other end, that’s how loud it was. I couldn’t make out the words, but I sensed the tone was angry. Jenna was trying not to cry when she got off the phone.
As I helped her with her bags at the curb, she finally spoke to me.
“Let me guess, you had an affair in your thirties, lost the kids in the divorce, and now here you are in your forties, sans hair, plus a little weight, not the player you were a decade ago, and you don’t know where to go from here?”
One tear seemed to have gotten through, and it had smudged her mascara in one eye. She’d been right about me, and I’d wanted to know how. I’d wanted to buy all her books and watch all her videos and shave what was left of my hair and don a robe and commit myself to her teachings. But I resented her for crying. I needed a guide who had it all figured out. She was supposed to be invulnerable, but instead, she told women to dress like men and play rugby in the halls while she herself dressed like a model and had a vulnerable side she would let a stranger in a car see.
She answered my email and said she’d come back for a hundred thousand and that she could get herself to the company from the airport. She wrote, “I’ll squeeze you in two weeks from now,” and I thought of typing her a dirty reply, something like, “Are you sure you can squeeze me in?” I wanted to say that I knew her game, that she wasn’t tough and didn’t have all the answers. I didn’t send the reply, though, and the first thing I wanted to do when I restrained myself was text my ex-wife to tell her how much I thought I was growing.
While I waited for Jenna to show again, the situation in the halls got worse. Men started banding together in gangs for protection, and then the women responded in kind. Each side started to add more and more members, until our halls actually did become too small to get by easily. Because the whole game of chicken was meant to be done in silence, we’d get the strangest pileups taking place where fourteen people hit the floor but nobody ever said a word.
To defend myself, I got a pair of tinted sunglasses and a folding cane for the visually impaired. Walking through the halls by myself, I’d swing the cane violently, whipping it left to right, right to left in front of me. The mobs melted away before me. I was Moses, miraculously parting seas. They were like pepper in a bowl of water after dropping a dab of soap into it. My daughter and I did that experiment together a few years ago. It fascinated her. She kept doing it over and over until I ran out of pepper. We went to the store to get more, but by the time we got back, their mother had arrived to take them home. She had a way of showing up just when things were about to get interesting for me. One time when she showed up just before things were about to get interesting was the reason we got divorced. At least, it was the obvious reason. When I thought about my wife, I swung my cane extra wide, trying to take out a woman I saw looking at me from the other side of the hall. I don’t know if I was mad at what happened or mad at myself for letting it happen.
The day before Jenna was due to arrive, I’d started to get so used to acting blind I no longer even looked up in the halls. It occurred to me that if I’d actually been like this, actually been as shy to look as I’d told Jenna I was, the kids would still be in my life more than every other weekend. It was nice to have my own bubble around me. It was so nice that I didn’t even notice when a woman didn’t move out of my way. My cane cracked into her ankle with a sound like spaghetti when you break it down the middle. The cane vibrated in my hand.
Forgetting I was supposed to be blind, I bent down to help the woman, who was holding her ankle. Beneath the ankle was a blue pump that looked expensive, and above it was a calf and thigh that belonged to someone who took spinning classes. She wore a skirt I thought might be Neiman Marcus. My oldest asked for something from there for Christmas last year.
“Jenna?” I asked.
She winced. “Yes, it’s me.”
“You aren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow.”
“I had something open up in my schedule, and I came here early.”
For the second time, I thought of a disgusting reply, something about her opening up and then coming, but I resisted. I’d been around her twice and seen her hurt twice. I hadn’t meant to, but twice I’d landed inside the bubble of this powerful woman who wanted to show the world there was no way to get inside. It felt like I’d been gifted something. I wanted to take care of it.
“Would you like to get coffee?” she asked. “It’s on me. Some idiot’s about to pay me a hundred thousand dollars.” She rubbed her ankle, but she wasn’t talking about suing. So far, so good.
“Before I say yes,” I said, “I want to know. Can you fix this?”
She took hold of my arm and pulled herself up to standing.
“I can fix your problem, but only on one condition.”
“You’ve got to quit swinging that thing around.”
“I think I can refrain,” I told her, wondering if she was intentionally testing me with phrases the teenager in me could turn into something sexual. I took her at the arm by the bicep and turned her slowly in the direction of the cafeteria. Her blouse was so nice. It might have been the most expensive and precious thing I’ve ever touched. She leaned on me as we walked.
On our way to the cafeteria, a crowd stampeding in the opposite direction nearly swept us off our feet. “Is there a fire?” I asked one of them.
“Red Rover,” he cried over his shoulder. “In the company courtyard.”
Jenna and I reversed direction, keeping carefully to the right side of the hallway so we wouldn’t get knocked down by the crowd travelling faster than us.
“Did he say, ‘Red Rover’?” Jenna asked me.
“That’s what I heard.”
“Like the game from school?”
We were among the last to make it out into the company courtyard. We had two acres of choice, green grass the company paid a handful to keep neatly manicured. It was more than enough room for morale picnics for the whole company. Currently, though, nobody was lining up for hot dogs. Instead, two lines were stretching as far as I could see. The two lines were facing one another across a space of maybe thirty yards or so. One line was all women, the other all men. Both lines were holding hands and shouting curses at the others.
“You assholes have messed with us for the last time!”
“You bitches don’t know what you’re in for!”
Frantically, I looked around for someone with the authority to demand a stop to this. A game of Red Rover could lead to enough law suits to wipe out our quarterly profits altogether. I got bonuses based on keeping us out of law suits. I found CEO Guy Gagnon in the middle of the men’s line, holding hands on one side with a man in a suit that suggested accounting and a man in jeans who must have been from the maintenance side of the house on the other. He was beaming.
“Isn’t it wonderful, Martin? We’re finally getting it out in the open!”
“Is what wonderful, Guy? That we’re about to end up with a hundred broken ribs and a thousand sprained wrists and torn rotator cuffs? What the hell is happening?”
“It was an email someone sent. I think it started out with a complaint about all the crashes in the halls lately, but eventually, someone had the idea to settle it with a game of Red Rover. Winning team gets to keep their jobs, losing team quits.”
“Guy, you can’t be serious. You can’t fire someone for losing at Red Rover. You can’t even be playing this game.”
“It’s wonderful! We should get this on our Twitter feed. We’re being proactive about gender issues.”
“Guy, I don’t think that’s how…”
But Jenna cut me off. “It’s the best idea I’ve ever heard of,” she said.
“Jenna, I wanted to stop this kind of thing, and here you’re…”
“Guy’s right,” she said. “Sometimes, things need to get worse before they can get better.”
She patted me on the cheek, not unkindly, then went running off toward the women’s line with a war whoop. The women all recognized her from the training and a shout went up from their line. They taunted the men’s line, saying they would be sure to donate some extra boxes of dog food to the local pantry so we’d have something to eat when we lost our jobs. Guy told me to stand next to him, and the line shifted down. I guessed this was happening.
I couldn’t understand how the women hoped to win. Jenna’s advice to act like a man made sense to an extent, but there was no way to make up for their size and weight difference. The women must have been thinking the same thing, because all at once, they started removing their shirts and bras. A line of tits from perfect and perky to ancient and shapeless confronted us. They shook them at us, jeering the whole time. I believe the idea was that we would be too shy to run them over or stop them from crashing through our lines if their breasts were in our faces.
“That won’t stop us!” went out a cry from our line. “Bring those tits over here, we’ll treat ‘em right!” The men began removing their shirts.
The women, not to be outdone, removed their pants and skirts. The move was matched by the men. Two naked lines faced off against one another, shouting death to their enemies. Some of the women started taking lipstick out of their purses and putting it on their faces like war paint. The men responded by tying ties around their heads like commando bandanas. I was naked, too. With my child support and alimony, I couldn’t afford to have Guy fire me.
Jenna was gathering a group around her in a huddle discussing strategy. When the huddle broke, I saw to my horror who Jenna was holding hands with. My ex-wife, who still worked at the same company, was beside her. In the whole extended erotic wall, they were the two most beautiful joists. They were swinging their arms and calling something out.
“Red Rover, Red Rover, let Martin come over!”
I looked across the divide, first at my ex-wife, then at Jenna. I tried to make my eyes ask one last time for mercy or sanity or just a delay so we could talk. My ex gave me only a cold stare, but Jenna caught my look and laughed. The cry from the women’s side came again. Red Rover, Red Rover, let Martin come over.
My entire life as a lawyer was built on the idea that restitution was possible. If you’d done something was wrong, the injured party could seek a remedy, which the negligent party could then give to the victim to set things right. But what if there were things you did for which there was no remedy? What if no amount of money, no apology, no matter how heart-felt, could ever make things right again? That just left two sides tearing at one another’s flesh until only one was left standing.
I dropped Guy’s hand and that of the man on my other side. The last time I’d been naked around my ex-wife, it was in our bed with the woman we’d hired to clean our house, which I guess is less of a cliché than my secretary, but still a pretty big cliché. And a greater cliché—I don’t even remember her name. Was there some way to steamroll over all the things I’d done in the past I’d like to take back, instead of smashing into the people I cared about?
There were two sides arrayed against each other for battle, but just because those two sides were both ready to fight didn’t mean the two were equal. All the weight and strength was on our side. And even though the other team was now as willing to fight as we were, did that mean we were both equally at fault for us getting here? It felt like somewhere in some class I’d taken, I should have learned something that would have stopped us from getting to this point. In Sunday School if not in law school.
There was no way to stop this now but to run into the open space between us and find out what happened on the other side. I took off as fast as I could run, hoping not to pull a hamstring from the effort. My balls slapped wildly against my thighs. I could see my ex-wife’s face, her lips set firmly, her eyes narrowing with the effort of gripping the hands next to her as tightly as she could. I only wanted to hold her and say I was sorry. I only wanted to tell Jenna I’d be different from how I’d always been if she’d be willing to give me a chance. Instead, I put my head down, closed my eyes, and dove into the wall with all my might. I didn’t know if I hoped I’d be stopped or if I wanted to break through.