This is a piece from our online issue, FALL OF MEN, inspired by the New York Review of Books.
CONTENT WARNING FOR FALL OF MEN : Despite the conclusions of the bad men falling in the end, some of these pieces may have sensitive or explicit content. (That said, it might be real cathartic to read a thing where the bad men get thrown into volcanoes or eaten by alligators. Either way, your mental health is really important to us. Take care of yourself!)
BY Susan Muaddi Darraj
It was already a bad day, Jeremy felt, because of the construction outside, the sidewalk that was being endlessly drilled, his wife’s latest credit card bill -- all of it terrible, before he even got off the elevator on the fourth floor and entered the HR suite.
Annoyed and anxious, Jeremy relaxed by mentally reviewing his list:
Served for a year on the company’s LGBTQ Ally committee
Hosted the Black Books Chat at his house (twice)
Took his department to the Diwali fest as a team-building exercise, where they made him wear a gold headscarf and pose for a picture, for Christ’s sakes.
But he’d made sure that pic ended up in the company newsletter. You never knew when you needed that kind of backup, when you needed to demonstrate that you were one of the good guys.
It might even be today, because of Suraya’s big mouth.
Michael had told him that he had an option to bring a lawyer. Suraya was bringing one. But Jeremy’s wife had talked him out of it: “She’s just a bitch pawing for a promotion,” she’d said, “and if you bring a lawyer, it signals that you’re nervous.”
Jeremy was glad she viewed it in that way -- a good wife, she really was, cold as ice in bed, but hosting his parties and dinners, and making sure her yoga and painting nights didn’t interfere. And when he needed someone to confirm his views, she did that savagely. She’d stopped offering her own opinions long ago, thank god.
He walked down the hall, past the large window, where he could see the cranes and two bulldozers, guys yelling in Spanish at each other. One of the secretaries who sat near that window looked frustrated and Jeremy rolled his eyes in sympathy, making her smile. “Go right in, Mr. Haddon,” she told Jeremy, gesturing towards the HR office door.
The last time he’d been in Michael’s office was when some of the women complained that they needed a breast pumping room. “For fuck’s sake,” Jeremy had argued with Michael, “can’t they do that at home?” Michael had calmly explained that it was in the best interests of the company to make sure the young mothers who worked there were comfortable. “Nobody told them to come back to work after they had a kid,” Jeremy had grumbled, but Michael didn’t like that either, so Jeremy had found $5,000 in the budget to remake an office, plus $800 for a special fridge and $1500 on comfortable furniture that supported their backs while they milked themselves. And then they had the nerve to ask for $600 more for a special keypad to enter for security – and he did it, because he was a good person. He went along with the trends, although he fully expected them to request a nursery in the building’s basement next.
It was just so different these days, with everyone having to be sensitive, bending backwards to make sure nobody was offended, nobody was triggered, nobody was …. When, Jeremy wondered, did everyone become so fucking fragile?
Michael stood when he entered, a tall, slim woman of a man, and said, “Jeremy, thanks for being here.”
“I’m sure we can clear this up quickly,” Jeremy said, keeping his voice casual, authoritative, the way he handled his wife when she had a request. Never let them forget who signs the checks.
“Well, we’ll see,” Michael said. “It’s a troubling complaint.”
“You know my reputation, Michael. I’d never –”
A knock sounded, and the door opened just then. She entered, and Jeremy almost cursed under his breath. She was still a goddamn stunner, he thought honestly, as she hesitated in the doorframe. His second thought was that he was going to make her pay for this.
“My lawyer’s right behind me,” she said softly. She was wearing black today, no makeup, not a bit of jewelry, trying to look demure, different. Smart strategy, he thought because usually, she wore bright colors that contrasted with her black hair and tighter tops that showed off her amazing tits. Always, always, she wore red lipstick, and he loved the way it looked against her dark skin. That night, in her office, she’d been wearing a heavy beaded necklace, with a large red stone pendant that kept slipping down into her cleavage.
Her lawyer entered, a short, square Indian guy who had eyes like a falcon. “I’m representing Ms. Hamid,” he said.
Michael invited them all to sit and then he started to review the company’s sexual harassment policy and the procedures. “Mr. Haddon has declined to bring a lawyer today, but he may do so at any time,” he stated, “and Ms. Hamid, be assured that bringing this complaint forward, no matter the outcome, will not affect your work and your career here.”
“That’s what I’m here to ensure,” said her uppity lawyer in his tech support helpline accent.
Suraya went first, telling her version, often pausing dramatically as if she were deeply upset. Jeremy was pissed to see her lawyer nod sympathetically, and to hear Michael, who’d probably never gotten head in his life, repeat, “It’s ok. You just take your time.”
“Can we close the windows, Mike? That racket outside…” Jeremy interrupted one of her emotional moments.
“They are closed,” her lawyer said. “The noise is not bothering me. You?” he asked Suraya.
“No,” she whispered, her lower lip trembling.
God, he was really going to make her pay.
Jeremy finally had his turn. “This is my office, Michael, and I run this whole side of the building. That’s why I was there. Donna and Mark were away at a conference -- hardly my fault -- and Suraya was responsible for the website delivery by midnight.”
“A deadline that you set,” her lawyer said.
“It’s a standard deadline,” Jeremy snapped. “You don’t update a site in the middle of the work day. Last year, when we attended the Diwali festival, which was my idea and my treat” -- the falcon didn’t seem impressed -- “we still got back in time to deliver an update by 1am.”
“My point,” he continued, “is that I was here working, and so was she. I went to her office because I had a question about the content.”
“You pushed me up against the wall,” she burst out.
Jeremy sighed. “I didn’t want to do this but, look, Mike, she wanted the promotion, and she asked me if there was anything she could do to stand out. You know I’ve been married, happily-- fourteen years.”
Michael remained silent and still. Careful bastard.
“She initiated it,” Jeremy continued, “and I had a weak moment.” He ignored her protests. “I kissed her back-- that was it. It was mutual.”
“My client struggled to get away from you. That hardly seems mutual,” said the falcon.
“That’s a lie.”
“We have a picture of a bruise on her shoulder where you grabbed her.”
“Could have been caused by anyone. And by the way, I texted my wife that night about Suraya’s threat to claim this very thing, because I denied her a quick way to get promoted. I have those texts.”
“Time stamped, detailed texts. Convenient.”
“You know something,” Jeremy said calmly, “I’m really offended that I’m being portrayed in this way. I have a mind to bring a lawyer after all.”
That made her afraid, even though the falcon seemed unmoved. Her eyes widened, and she made a little gasp, and he kept wondering, god help him, how she’d sound under him. She would be a loud one, that was for sure. They all were, the dark-haired ones, so unrestrained.
“Yes, I think I don’t want to continue until I’ve spoken with my own lawyer.” Jeremy stood up. “I have a reputation to defend. I believe I might have a defamation claim.”
He walked out feeling ahead of it, once again.
She’d drop it. He had no doubt. She was only a Level II, and if she wanted to stay, she needed to build a bigger portfolio first.
“Have a good day,” said the sunny secretary, sitting by the window.
Later, after his calls, he made another list. He was going to celebrate tonight:
Text Linda that he was going to be late
Go to the gym, burn off his nerves with a good racquetball game.
Meet Mark for drinks.
Mark had hired Suraya primarily on the basis of her cleavage. “If you don’t get on that, I will,” he’d said, and he was waiting to hear what had happened. Jeremy grabbed his gym bag from where it hung behind his door and pushed his sunglasses on top of his head. He swept through the lobby, where he saw Michael getting on an elevator. Michael paused, like he wanted to say something, but Jeremy continued past. He wasn’t going to give that piss poor excuse of a man another minute.
He strode confidently out of the building. The thought of finally putting Michael where he belonged, and putting Suraya where she belonged, was so thrilling that, as he texted Mark, he ignored the shouts above him. His arm bumped into a board and he elbowed it out of his way as the yelling intensified. He didn’t understand Spanish, and the one English word he heard, “Stop!”, was probably not aimed at him anyway. He stopped for nobody – didn’t everyone know that yet? As he started to smile, his foot lurched down, landing not on a sidewalk but in the air, his hips launched forward by the sudden imbalance. He was too surprised to scream. His phone flew to the side, and his gym bag dropped before him, preceding him down, down into the dark cavern of an open city sidewalk, where rats scuttled and dank earth lay at the bottom.
Susan Muaddi Darraj won the American Book Award for her short story collection, A Curious Land: Stories from Home. She is also the author of The Inheritance of Exile. In 2017, she was awarded a Ford Fellowship for creative writing by United States Artists.