♫ Orchids

[This track is from my old band’s record, Another November.]

Years ago I worked in a call center doing tech support for a cable company. My days were mostly spent telling people how to unplug their modems and then plug them back in. It wasn’t exactly fulfilling work. If you’ve never had the experience of working in a call center, they’re all just giant cubicle farms full of underachievers, working moms, college students entering the workforce, and process-friendly middle managers. It’s okay as jobs go, but the very smart and very dumb don’t last long.

At this particular cubicle farm, seating was assigned by supervisor group—you would sit in a cubicle row with people on your team, within earshot of someone whose job it was to keep track of how often you went to the bathroom. Teams were based on schedules, so a given supervisor would always be present for most of their team’s shift. As people changed schedules, they changed teams. This happened a lot. It wasn’t uncommon to change desks or integrate with a new group of people.

Thanks to one of these schedule changes, I wound up sitting next to a girl named Heather. Heather was one of those pretty popular girls, and this was during the period of my life where I still had long hair and a hard time talking to anyone in person. Her overt confidence came off as bitchy, and I’m sure my shyness coupled with misplaced intellectual arrogance made me seem like a real tool. We immediately disliked each other. She would come in to work and make comments about how I should dress, or how I should cut my hair. In return, I would roll my eyes and make shitty passive-aggressive comments.

I hated going to work. It was bad enough that I had the sort of job which could be replaced at any moment by an automated system, dealing with a constant barrage of calls from people who defaulted to thinking it was okay to take all of their problems out on me. But this? It was the social anxiety of high school all over again. Cool kids who didn’t want to talk to me and mean girls who just made me feel awful about myself.

One day, I signed myself out of the phone system for lunch but got caught up in something. Our lunch breaks were only thirty minutes, so a ten minute delay was enough to mean that I couldn’t go get food. I decided to just stay and chat online or something. A while later, Heather had come back from picking up her meal. I don’t remember what was said or how it came up, but when she realized I wasn’t going to eat, she offered to share her lunch with me. Insisted, even.

That one act of kindness changed the tide in subtle ways, and as we became friends I discovered that what I thought was a an attitude problem was really just her being a strong, independent woman. And as it happens, I’m a really big fan of strong, independent women. Thanks mom.

It started with us chatting while we worked. Complaining about customers or talking about weekend plans. That sort of thing. Sometimes we would go get lunch together or take a walk when our breaks lined up. Occasionally we’d hang out on weekends or go bowling. I think I helped her build a computer once. A lot of the time, we would talk about relationships. We would give each other advice or just listen while the other bitched. It was cathartic. But mostly we’d chat online while we worked. It made the day go by so much faster, and it was what I looked forward to when I went to work.

So of course I fell in love with her, and of course I had no idea what to do about it.

It happened slowly, and the truth is that I knew it shouldn’t have happened at all. I wasn’t the sort of dude who could get himself out of the friend zone, and I definitely wasn’t the sort of dude she would go for. I heard all about the sorts of dudes she would go for; handsome, confident, successful guys. Hell, I even met a couple of them. But she had no interest in commitment. No time, she said. She was focused on work and going to law school, and no guy was going to get in the way of her plans. I have to admit, that singular focus and dedication was incredibly sexy.

I’m not the first guy in the world to fall for a female friend who has no interest in him. In fact, it seemed to happen to her with some degree of regularity. I had no illusions about what would happen if I spoke up, so I didn’t say anything and did my best to not let it interfere with what was otherwise a pretty great friendship.

I wound up getting fired from that god-foresaken call center. For hanging up on customers. Look, I’m not proud of it but it was pretty funny. On my way out, I remember thinking that there was exactly one thing I would miss about that place.

Shortly after, a friend helped me get a much better job making a lot more money. I wasn’t rich or anything, but I now had more disposable income than I knew what to do with. I hated that job too, but told myself I would use the money to fund music. And I did; those paychecks covered a bunch of gear upgrades and eventually studio time. I also invested in my wardrobe.

Fashion wasn’t my thing, but I picked up some magazines and started buying the nicer stuff from department stores. I’d look for clothes that I thought successful people would wear. I bought a suit. My decisions were hilarious and often misguided in retrospect, but the improvement was still dramatic. To go with the clothes, I worked to shift my attitude about people and become… I don’t know, more charismatic. And I went a little crazy with the dieting, dropping from about 230lbs to 170.

Heather and I still talked online all the time. I have no idea how or why, but one evening I finally worked up the stones to suggest we go out to dinner sometime. Someplace nice. We could dress up. She said yes.

Maybe, I thought, just maybe I had reached a point where I stood a chance.

We went to a fondue restaurant that she picked out. The reservation was for a private table, which was effectively a velvet-lined cupboard with one and a half seats. We prepared and shared our food, drank wine, and had an intensely flirty conversation made more intense and flirty by sheer proximity. I don’t know that I had ever felt as confident as I did at that table. There was still wine left when we were done; she asked the waitress to cork it so we could take it home.

Home, as it happens, was her place. We walked in and I took a seat on the couch, while she went to change into something more comfortable. And then…

…I freaked out a little bit. I suppose I hadn’t really thought things through, and now I was nervous. Was she giving me signals, or was this all in my head? Should I make a move? Would that be a huge mistake? Oh shit, what if I’ve been misreading things all along and then like I go to kiss her or something and I look like a giant fucking moron and ruin everything and hate myself.

That went well.

My nerves got the better of me, and as hard as I tried to hide it, it showed. She knew me too well. We talked awkwardly for a few minutes and then I went home. Because I was stupid. Convinced I had completely blown it, I decided to regroup and come up with a plan.

I wanted to write a song for her. Something poppy and upbeat and optimistic and all of the things I’d never been able to write. I wrote about how she made me feel, and I tried to be as nakedly honest about it as I could. I named the song Orchids for her favorite flower. As an early Christmas gift, I gave her a demo of the song along with a live orchid—not the easiest thing to find in Colorado in December. She loved it.

For New Year’s, I took her to Vegas.

This was it. I had been redeemed. The power of music! At long last, the promise of being a singer/songwriter as a way to attract ladies was bearing fruit. Rotten, bitter fruit.

Wait, what?

When she picked me up to go to the airport, she had a cold. Apparently a very miserable cold. And this was not a woman who was shy about being cranky.

“It’ll be fine,” she said. “I’ll load up on DayQuil and power through.”

That should have been my first clue that things were about to nosedive, but it wasn’t. Neither was her attitude through check-in or security. No, my first clue came on the plane. She took the window seat and tried to sleep, leaving me in the middle to talk to our new friend what’s-his-name. We chatted about Vegas, and at one point he asked, “how long have you two been together?”

“We are not together.”

And I thought she was asleep.

The real turning point, however, came later. Heather had taken some kind of cold medication cocktail and napped for a good portion of the evening, but insisted that she wasn’t going to miss New Year’s Eve on the Las Vegas Strip. On the way there, I was doing my best to set the tone and cheer her up. Abruptly, she said, “you know we’re only ever going to be friends, right?”

That would have been a nice thing to know a little earlier.

So close. So very, very close.

The next few days were painful. At best. She had a shitty attitude and I was passive-aggressive. It was like we had started all over, except this time with the added bonus of having to share a bed. It was weapons-grade awkward.

We saw “O” at the Bellagio though. It was spectacular. I highly recommend it.

After the flight home, she silently dropped me off and left. The next morning I woke up with her miserable fucking cold.

It would be so easy to end it there. To be bitter about how things went down and leave it at that. But the truth is that it was as much my fault as hers. Not that I left a whole lot of room for ambiguity, but if I hadn’t been such a chicken-shit I could have just been honest from the beginning about what I thought was going on. She deserved that much. We both did.

The time we spent as friends—the time I spent being stupidly, silently in love with her—changed me. She taught me the value of confidence. Not just my own, but in other people. And she taught me the importance of focusing on what you really wanted to accomplish. Whoever I am now, it never would have happened without her there to guide me.

Years later, we finally had a real talk about everything that happened, and she revealed that she’d gotten engaged. The girl who would never commit and didn’t believe in falling in love was getting married. It seems I’d made a dent after all.

We weren’t meant to be together, but through everything we made an impact on each other that would change us forever. And I think that’s beautiful.

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