Secrets and Laws
On a Monday morning in April, at five after nine (making him five minutes late), when Aaron Lipp had gotten up to the 20th floor of the building in midtown Manhattan where he worked, through the front doors of the suite that was the offices of Underberg & Lamm, LLP, and into the room in the back that he shared with the firm’s other paralegal, Jenn (who was, as always, already there and already busy), she said, without taking her eyes off her computer screen, “Neal’s looking for you.”
“Why?” Aaron dropped his bag and jacket on his chair.
“I don’t know,” Jenn confessed. “Maybe he’ll tell you.”
Bitch, Aaron thought, walking back out of the paralegal bullpen, taking something to write with and something to write on from Jenn’s desk as he passed it. Though I wouldn’t kick her out of bed....
Aaron was still trying to decide what he would not have kicked Jenn out of bed for doing or having when he realized that he had arrived at the office of Neal Krasnick, one of the three partners of the firm (but the most junior partner, Aaron knew. Neal was only, what, thirty-seven? Forty... maybe? Aaron really didn’t know very much about the man, having just started with the firm in January).
“You wanted to see me?” Aaron asked.
Neal Krasnick looked up from the New York Law Journal. “Come in, Aaron,” he said. “Close the door.”
Really? What the hell? Aaron thought as he closed the door to Neal’s office and then sat in one of the client chairs facing the junior partner’s desk. I’m getting reamed first thing Monday morning? I probably didn’t need this pad, then.
“There’s a problem,” Neal said. “About three weeks ago, you signed an affidavit of service in the Gillis case. You filed an affidavit swearing that you had mailed a copy of our motion papers to the other side.”
“Okay,” Aaron said.
“It’s not okay: You hadn’t mailed those motion papers.”
Oh, Aaron thought, relaxing some inwardly, this. Neal’s pet peeve. When Aaron had first started at the firm—maybe even on his very first day—Neal had lectured him, as he said he had lectured every paralegal and legal secretary he had ever worked with (except that Neal hadn’t used the word lectured, probably; he might have said instructed, or educated), on never, ever signing an affidavit of service before actually serving (which nine times out of ten simply meant mailing) the papers you were swearing you had mailed. Because, Neal had said, you might have every intention of taking the papers to the mailbox at the end of the day, or even just as soon as you’ve gotten your signature on the affidavit notarized, but then something might distract you, and you might forget that you haven’t mailed the papers... and then you’ll file the affidavit, still not having mailed the papers in question, which means you’ve now made a false statement to the court. But, worse, if the other side claims not to have gotten the papers, and then we say, But we served them, Your Honor. Here’s our filed affidavit of service... if the issue is important enough, for instance if a statute of limitations is implicated, and the judge decides to hold a traverse hearing to determine who’s telling the truth, and I have to call you as a witness, then you’ll have to choose between committing perjury or admitting that you didn’t serve the papers. Either way, something very bad will happen next.
Pure hyperbole. It really wasn’t a big deal, Aaron knew, because you’d always remember to mail the papers, even if you didn’t do it until the next day, and at the very worst the date on the affidavit would be off....
“And you never mailed the papers,” Neal said.
No shit? Aaron thought. Shit.
“The papers were in the file,” Neal said, adding, “and not even in the right folder in the file.”
“I’m really sorry,” Aaron said.
“We’re all really sorry,” Neal said, making Aaron sorry that he’d not said, I apologize (but the truth was that Aaron wasn’t sure he was sorry that he’d made a mistake or sorry that it had been discovered). “Because Judge Myers might toss our motion and order us to an immediate trial. Which is not what we wanted. We wanted to save the client a lot of time and money by getting at least partial summary judgment and not having to spend the next two months preparing to try the case, and then another two weeks trying it.”
Aaron didn’t know what to say. He thought it would be best if he didn’t say anything just then. Neal said a little more:
“Aaron, I thought we were clear on this. I thought I had been clear, and I thought you’d understood me.”
Aaron just pursed his lips and waited to be fired. It hadn’t taken him especially long to land this job, once he’d started looking for a new job after leaving his former place of employment. He didn’t think that he’d have that much trouble finding a new position, even if he wouldn’t be able to list Neal as a reference. Aaron had learned the trick of saying, “We didn’t see eye to eye,” as a way of explaining why a previous employer couldn’t be called for a recommendation. He didn’t know how many consecutive employers he could say that about without raising suspicion, though. But, come to think of it, he’d only been at this firm for three months and a little. He could just leave this gig off his resume altogether and say he’d been looking the whole time since December. That was certainly credible, the economy being what it was just then....
“Go,” Neal said, after a moment.
“Go to work,” Neal said.
Aaron stood up soberly and left the office and presence of Neal Krasnick, (junior) partner at Underberg & Lamm, LLP, one of Aaron’s bosses even if his name wasn’t in the firm name—the one who had just called Aaron onto the carpet and dressed him down... but had not fired him, even though he, Aaron, had broken the other man’s one sacred professional rule. No, Neal Krasnick had merely admonished Aaron, rebuked him, chastised him... albeit not at great length, and of course in private, so as to spare him at least some embarrassment.
Dick, Aaron thought. Like you’ve never done anything wrong.
But Aaron could not deny that he’d screwed up. Nor could he deny that he probably should have been handed his walking papers. Returning to the paralegal...arium, or whatever, Aaron was glad to find it empty; Jenn was, no doubt, kissing the ass of one of the name partners. Aaron knew that he might want to buckle down himself, put from his mind everything but the battles of the day, dive into his list of assignments and, if possible, show Neal (and the senior partners, whom Neal had implied were also aware of and displeased by Aaron’s mistake) that he wasn’t a complete jackoff and could be trusted—to let them know that they’d not made a mistake by giving him a second chance. Moving his bag to the floor, Aaron sat at his desk and started up his computer.
In the time it took for the PC to display Aaron’s chosen wallpaper, a photo of himself and some college buddies all hoisting brews (and not their first beers of that evening or afternoon)—less than a minute—Aaron had decided that what he would do is scour the firm’s computer files for something that would embarrass Neal if it were to be, say, left in the copy machine that everyone at the firm used.
Neal couldn’t really have expected that Aaron would be able to jump right into being productive after getting yelled at, Aaron figured. He’d need some time to think over what the partner had said to him, and to let his nerves settle. Aaron really wanted a cup of coffee, but now he was too excited about his new project to get up again before beginning. He was also once again glad that he’d had the foresight to claim the back desk in the room. When he’d started at the firm, the paralegal that Jenn would replace a week later had had the back desk, so for the first week Aaron had been especially careful about what was on his computer screen, because the other guy could see it from his desk. (He hadn’t even changed the desktop wallpaper, leaving it to display the firm name in white text on a plain blue background). Now, though, Aaron was in the clear as far as that went. He, on the other hand, could see what was on Jenn’s screen at any given moment, and at any given moment it was nothing interesting. It was always work. Aaron was glad he wasn’t trying to find anything to make Jenn look less-than-perfect. That might not have been possible.
As it turned out, there was no dirt to dig up on Neal Krasnick, either—not on the firm’s network drive, anyway. Neal didn’t save personal documents where anyone could access them, evidently, except one, which Aaron had to presume Neal had merely saved in the wrong place by accident, and even that document, a letter to the credit department of a department store, was nothing like what Aaron had been looking for. All Aaron learned from the letter was that Neal didn’t put “Esq.” after his name on extraprofessional correspondence—dude didn’t even thrown around his law license! Aaron was surrounded by goody-goodies. Suddenly he wanted coffee and a cigarette. But it would still be another half hour until by law he was allowed a paid fifteen-minute break. He considered trying to sneak a smoke in the bathroom on the floor, but decided that it wasn’t worth the risk of getting caught, in which case he would definitely get fired. And he didn’t have cigarettes, he realized. He’d meant to buy a pack on the way in that morning, but he’d forgotten. And he didn’t think there was anyone he hadn’t already bummed from who would be willing to give him another on credit. Smokers could be notoriously stingy with the instruments of their own eventual demise, Aaron had found. The trick was to find someone who talked about wanting to quit, but even that had a lower chance of success that you’d have expected. The thought of quitting makes a smoker anxious, and anxiety makes a smoker want a cigarette. Fortunately, Aaron wasn’t a regular smoker. He really only smoked for fun, and usually when he was drinking. He would for sure be doing some drinking that night. He’d have to remember to pick up cigarettes and booze on his way home.
When one o’clock had finally come and Aaron, having done not a minute’s worth of work could finally leave the office for an hour, he did, taking his jacket but leaving his bag. There wasn’t anything in his bag he’d need during his lunch hour, and he was only taking his jacket because he planned to spend at least part of the hour sitting in the park just across the street from the office building clearing his head. He wasn’t really even hungry yet, but he would have to eat before the hour was up if he was going to eat at all. The firm had a rule about that: the support staffers weren’t allowed to eat at their desks. The attorneys did it all the time, of course, but of course they were the ones who made the rules.
To get out of the office suite from his and Jenn’s room, Aaron needed only to walk straight to the front doors, potentially passing no one at all on the way, until he got to the reception desk, where he had to let whomever was manning the station know that he was going out. At one, it was usually Debra, the firm’s thirty-year-old full-time receptionist, who was by then already back from her lunch break, which she took at noon, since she started her workday at 8 a.m. Debra was an idiot, Aaron thought. She was constantly complaining about her job, even though, as far as Aaron could tell, it involved exactly two things: answering the phones and transferring calls, and greeting visitors and inviting them to have a seat while she informed the lawyer they had come to see that they were waiting. Aaron imagined that Debra didn’t make more than twelve dollars an hour, but he couldn’t see any reason why she would think she should make any more, or think that she was capable of doing more complicated work. In the short time that Aaron had been with the firm, he had overheard Debra more than once forget the name of a caller in the time between putting him on hold and buzzing an attorney, or asking a waiting visitor how her case was going, not noticing that the person was obviously a court reporter there for a deposition. She’d even once called him, Aaron, “Allan.”
“I’ll be back,” he said as he left, even though he thought it was a stupid thing to say. Of course he’d be back. If he didn’t plan to return, like if he’d had enough and was quitting the firm for good in the middle of a day, he probably wouldn’t say “I won’t be back.” But he thought it was rude not to acknowledge Debra as he walked past her, so he said what he figured was least likely to prompt a response from her, in case her response would be the kind that would call for anything further in the way of conversation from him. So he didn’t ask Debra, for instance, how it was outside, even though she’d likely just been outside, because then she might suggest that he take a hat, or an umbrella, and then he might have to explain why he wasn’t going to do that (he didn’t have a hat; he thought carrying an umbrella when it wasn’t actually raining made him look like a tool). Aaron usually looked up the current weather on his phone before going out. That day it was supposed to be sunny with a breeze.
And it was. It was the kind of day that made the thousands—or, really, tens of thousands—of people who worked in midtown Manhattan, and specifically near Bryant Park, glad that they did—or at least glad that Bryant Park was there, behind the Public Library, and that they were allowed on the grass. In the Summer months, Time Warner Cable or somebody sponsored a film series on Mondays. To prevent people from staking out spots on the lawn unfairly early, the lawn (which opened daily at 7 a.m.) was closed at noon. And then the lawn was closed all day Tuesday for maintenance. But that wouldn’t be until June.
In February and September, the beautiful outdoor open-to-the-public space was converted into a giant indoor venue for New York Fashion Week, an event not open to the public. Aaron might have been more pissed at the sheer congestion in the area caused by the completely pointless (in his opinion) and shallow event, had it not attracted to the neighborhood so many really good-looking women wearing really sexy outfits. It had been especially cold in New York that week that February, but Aaron had been out on Sixth Avenue for his whole lunch hour every day, eating street meat and pretzels and drinking cup after cup of hot chocolate, just taking in the beautiful sights, occasionally snapping a photo or two with his phone. He thought he had seen Lindsay Lohan, too. He’d heard that she’d been there, anyway.
Aaron crossed two streets and was at the park. He found a single unoccupied chair—metal, painted green, not comfortable, really—and dragged it from near the large fountain, which was not on, to closer to the cement chess tables, out of the direct sunlight. He wanted to be alone, and he knew the chess players would not bother him. He certainly did not want to see anyone from the office, least of all Neal Krasnick.
Of course he spotted Neal in the park, too. He came in from an entrance on 40th Street, where the carousel was.
But Aaron’s revulsion quickly turned to curiosity—and curiosity tinged with... something else—when he saw that Neal had come to the park with a woman.
Aaron knew that Neal Krasnick was married. Aaron did not know what Neal Krasnick’s wife looked like. Who would? Well, probably lots of people at the firm would know, but Aaron couldn’t ask them. Except Jenn. He could ask Jenn. So Aaron called the office, and when Debra answered he asked to speak with Jenn.
“What does Neal’s wife look like?”
“What? I don’t know.”
“What do you know about her?”
“Why are you asking me this?”
“That’s not important. Just tell me anything you know about Neal’s wife, Jenn.”
“I know she’s in Edmonton——”
“I gotta go.”
“Wait! What’s this——”
But Aaron couldn’t stay on the phone. Neal and the woman were crossing the lawn as close to where Aaron was sitting as their path would take them. Aaron flipped up the collar of his jacket and slouched in his chair. (He was already wearing his sunglasses.)
If Neal’s wife was out of town—out of the country, if Jenn knew what she was talking about—then the woman Aaron now saw Neal Krasnick with in Bryant Park—and Neal was without a doubt holding this woman’s hand—was another woman.
Oh my fucking God, Aaron thought. This is too good to be true. The man whose worst sin had, just an hour ago, seemed to be having missed a single payment on a single credit card was having an affair. Neal Krasnick was cheating on his wife. The dog!
Thank you! Aaron thought. He wasn’t sure whom he was thanking for the good fortune, but he had enough thanks to give to whomever would take some. Neal himself, the other woman, Neal’s wife for being out of town, Jenn for knowing that Neal’s wife was out of town, Debra at reception for not keeping Aaron in the office a moment longer with inane chatter... which might have gotten Aaron to the park too late to notice his boss walk by with a woman with whom the man was obviously carrying on... something.
Something the man’s wife surely didn’t know about.
Something the man himself surely wouldn’t have wanted his wife to find out about.
Something he alone, Aaron imagined, was aware of.
Something Aaron had to be sure, he realized, was in fact what he thought it was. As far as he knew, Neal had not seen him. Certainly, Neal had not acknowledged Aaron, and Neal was still holding the woman’s hand as they walked across the lawn, from 40th Street to 42nd, stepping around other people eating their lunches or reading books or just enjoying the first really nice day of the year. Spring fever, Aaron thought. His boss sure seemed to have it. And the woman did, too. Aaron saw her more than once, in the time it took the pair to cross the lawn, kiss Neal on the cheek. And they were laughing almost the entire time they were in Aaron’s eyeshot.
They were almost out of the park and out of his view. Aaron got up out of his chair. He had to follow them. He wanted to see where they would go. And if at all possible, he wanted to know who the woman was. Knowing that she was an other woman wasn’t quite enough for Aaron now. He wanted a name, if possible. A name would make her even more real. Knowing her name would make Aaron more... dangerous? Formidable? Something. It would give him the upper hand, is what he meant. Was there a word that meant having the upper hand? Is upperhanded a word...?
Damn it! Where did they go?
Aaron had lost sight of the couple... but only for a moment. He scanned 42nd Street from left to right, from Sixth to Fifth, and saw that Neal and his lady friend had already crossed the street, by way of the crosswalk in the middle of the block. The traffic light for cars on the two-way street was yellow, but Aaron started crossing himself anyway, raising the ire of several drivers, who expressed their anger by leaning on their horns. Aaron hoped the noise wouldn’t draw the attention of his boss, but the other man didn’t turn back to look. He was evidently sufficiently preoccupied.
Aaron got across the street just in time to see his quarry stop at the Chipotle on 42nd, where the line spilled onto the sidewalk. Neal and friend got onto the line; Aaron had to stay back. Even though Neal seemed to have eyes only for his companion—and the woman would not have known who Aaron was even if she’d looked right at him—Aaron thought it would be foolish to get any closer. On the other hand, there was little point to staying where he was, about a thousand feet away. The line would move fairly quickly, Aaron knew, having been on that line himself several times, and then the people he was watching would be inside the restaurant, where he’d no longer be able to see them.
In any event, though, there wasn’t much more, if anything, to be learned from watching them further just then, Aaron realized. It wasn’t as if they were going to give their names to the maître d’ and if Aaron were only close enough he’d be able to overhear hers. They were at a Chipotle. They were going to either eat their burrito bowls there or, more likely, take them back to the park. Aaron couldn’t wait and see which it was to be, though. Unlike Neal, he had to be back in the office at a specific time, and that time would arrive soon enough. And Aaron still had to eat something, himself, before then. So Aaron turned around and walked away.
After lunch, Aaron would have to do some actual work, if he didn’t want to be taken to task twice in the same day—although, really, an empty timesheet wouldn’t have gotten him in trouble for at least a week, when the part-time girl who did the bills—Inez?—reported the circumstance to the office manager. He’d done nothing billable the entire morning, so he’d work for four solid hours in the afternoon and then just write down that he’d spent exactly twice as much time on each task. This was easier to do when the task was something like legal research or drafting a memo, and much harder when the task was something that simply could not take more than six minutes—the firm, like most, billed in increments of tenths of an hour—like calling a court clerk for a piece of information or filing a notice of appearance online.
When he saw Jenn again next (which wasn’t until maybe three, possibly because she’d been holed up in the library), she asked him what that phone call had been about. Why had he wanted to know what she knew about Neal Krasnick’s wife? And why would he have thought that she, Jenn, would have known anything about Neal’s wife?
“It’s not important,” Aaron told her again. “Forget about it.”
“It’s just kind of strange, is all.”
“Yeah,” Aaron said, “I guess so. But it’s nothing. Really. I was just curious.”
Maybe it had been a mistake to call Jenn, Aaron thought, but he was sure that she wouldn’t mention it to Neal for fear of looking petty—or, worse, of raising a question that she couldn’t answer.
Aaron had planned to go home, eat some dinner, then just chill out in front of the TV with some beers. He needed to... decompress? He didn’t feel especially compressed, though. And why didn’t someone who felt depressed need to repress? Aaron thought he would give these and other questions further consideration on the couch.
But Aaron’s roommate had a different plan for them, one he’d been refining in his mind all day.
“Dude,” Josh said when Aaron walked in the door, “let’s go out.”
“It’s Monday night, man,” Aaron protested. And I’ve got important things to think about.
“Exactly. The bars’ll be empty.”
“Why do we want to go to an empty bar? Our apartment’s empty, and we drink here for free.” Neither of these things was strictly true, but the sentiment was from the heart.
“Because we can’t meet anybody here.” By anybody, of course, Josh meant chicks, Aaron knew.
“We’re not gonna meet anybody in an empty bar.”
“Not totally empty,” Josh clarified. “Literally empty.”
“Yeah, all right.”
The bar the young men decided on— Shillelagh (a name that more worldly patrons might have thought more appropriate for a club than a pub)—wasn’t empty, but neither was it packed. And there were even some women drinking at the bar—a good thing. It was much easier to talk to women at the bar than at a table. You couldn’t just sit down with women at their table, but you certainly could sit next to them at the bar, if there were stools... which there were. So the boys took them. They didn’t talk to the girls right away. They ordered beers and hot wings, and at first just talked to each other.
“I’m pretty sure I’m gonna get fired,” Josh confessed. “I’m basically useless. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing at work anymore. So I don’t really do anything. It’s kinda boring, actually.”
“I thought I was getting fired this morning,” Aaron admitted. “Now I’m not sure I’ll ever get fired.”
“Why not? Did you learn what paralegals are supposed to do?”
Aaron took a drink from his bottle, swallowed, then lowered his voice some.
“I think my boss is having an affair,” he said. Aaron told Josh about the day’s events.
Josh listened intently, nodding much of the time. Then he turned to his left, to the girl sitting net to him at the bar, and said, “Hey, my friend here thinks his boss is having an affair! Crazy, right?”
“Really?” the girl asked. “Totally crazy! How does he know?”
“He saw his boss and the other woman!”
“No, not doing it, but making out. In the park! Where everyone could see them!”
“Oh my god! Get a room!”
“Right? I’m Josh.”
“I’m Betsy. And this is Jenn.”
“Hey, Jenn. This is Aaron.” Josh nudged Aaron.
Aaron’s heart had stopped beating. But now, perhaps thanks to Josh’s elbow in his ribs, it was beating very loudly. Was Aaron about to turn his head to see Jenn, his officemate, sitting on the other side of the girl sitting on the other side of his roommate? Please, please, please, let that not happen.
But it wasn’t Jenn from the office. It was Jen, actually, only one -n.
I’m just hearing things, Aaron thought, much relieved.
“Hey,” Josh suggested to Betsy, “trade seats with me.”
“Um, okay.” Josh and Betsy traded seats, so that they would still be next to each other, but now Aaron and Jen...
“Wait,” Josh observed. “That didn’t work.” He got up again and walked to Aaron’s stool. “Trade seats with me.”
“Yeah, fine.” So then Aaron took Josh’s stool, previously Betsy’s, so that Josh was sitting next to Betsy, and Aaron was sitting next to Jen. And also Betsy. Probably.
Josh and Betsy started talking about something, so Aaron introduced himself to Jen. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Aaron.”
“I was just going to watch TV tonight, at home, but Josh dragged me out.”
“I’m sorry you don’t want to be here,” Jen said. She was drinking a glass of white wine. Like every fucking boring girl does.
“Oh, no, I’m happy I came. I just meant that I didn’t plan to come out. Nobody really goes out on a Monday night, right?”
“We did,” Jen said, meaning Betsy and herself.
“Well, sure. Right.”
“So, what do you do during the day?” Jen asked, trying to steer the conversation, such as it was, away from what Aaron would or would not have rather been doing that sitting at a bar on a Monday night, talking to her.
“I’m a paralegal.”
“Yeah. Why? Are you a paralegal, too?”
“No,” Jen said. “I’m a lawyer.”
“For how long? So far, I mean. Not how long do you plan to be one.”
“Yeah, I knew what you were asking. A year.”
“And you got out before midnight? Are you on maternity leave?”
Jen didn’t answer right away. She considered the fact that she was drinking wine in a bar with her girlfriend on a weeknight... and then she decided that it was not entirely inconceivable that she were pregnant, even though she in fact was not... and then, after laughing inwardly about the keen propriety of inconceivable just there, she said, “No.”
In the time it took for Jen to answer Aaron, he had decided to ask her something different.
“Let me ask you something,” he began. “Do you work with paralegals?”
“Do they sign affidavits of service?”
“Are they allowed to sign an affidavit of service before actually serving?”
“Well,” Jen said, “I guess it depends on the manner of service. Not if they’re swearing to hand delivery, obviously.”
“Okay,” Aaron said, “but what about service by mail. Just... dropping something in the mailbox. Can your big firm’s paralegals sign an affidavit of service by mail before putting the thing in the mail?”
“They shouldn’t, but I’m sure they do.”
“Yeah. And who notarizes their affidavits?”
“Well, anyone can. Usually one of the secretaries or the attorney on the case.”
“In your firm, does the notary ask the paralegal if he actually mailed the document before notarizing the paralegal’s signature?”
“No,” Jen said. “I mean... if it’s the lawyer on the case, she might, but only to make sure that nothing goes wrong in her case. But a secretary wouldn’t ask.”
“Isn’t that a little dangerous, though? Because the notary is swearing that what the paralegal says is true.”
“But that’s not what the notary is swearing to,” Jen explained, because it was apparent that Aaron needed this explained to him, which Jen thought was surprising... on one hand... but on the other hand not really. “A notary swears only that she knows that the signature she’s notarizing is actually the signature of the person who she saw sign the document. That’s all. Notarization says nothing about the truth of the content of the document.”
Aaron fell silent. Suddenly, inexplicably, Jen found herself feeling sorry for him. A little.
“You fucked up an affidavit of service?” she asked.
“Yeah. I never mailed the document.”
“That’s not good.” Jen suspected that Aaron already knew this, and it was probably why his roommate hadn’t had to twist his arm to go out drinking on a Monday night, when he’d had other plans. “What was it? The document you didn’t mail....”
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t remember. When my boss ripped me a new one this morning, he only said that he’d found the document in the file. He didn’t mention what it was. I guess it doesn’t really matter, though, right?”
“Well, there are bigger documents and smaller documents, important ones and less important... but, really, no. It doesn’t matter. So your boss was pissed...?”
“Yup. And he yelled at me in that way that you hated when your parents yelled at you. When they didn’t actually yell, but instead spoke calmly and quietly, and that made it worse, you know?”
“Sure. But you didn’t lose your job.”
“So you won’t make that mistake again. And you’ll show your boss that you can be trusted.”
At this, Aaron snorted.
“You can’t be trusted?” Jen asked.
“I can,” Aaron said. “He can’t. He’s cheating on his wife!”
If Jen was scandalized, she didn’t show it.
“He’s a hypocrite,” Aaron declared. “He yells at me for saying that I did something I didn’t do, and meanwhile he’s keeping a secret something he is doing. And he’s being dishonest on purpose!”
“Maybe he’s polyamorous,” Jen suggested.
“Isn’t that illegal, except in Utah?”
“Polygamy is illegal,” Jen clarified. “Having more than one wife. Polyamory means having more than one lover. Even some married couples are polyamorous.”
“They’re married but they can sleep around?”
“Essentially, yes. And sometimes they sleep with the same other person, or people.”
“That’s fucked up,” Aaron commented. Then something occurred to him. “Wait, is your boss polyamorous?” For some reason, he didn’t want to risk offending Jen by insulting her boss, whom she probably admired and wanted to be just like.
“No,” Jen assured him. “No, he’s just cheating on his wife too.”
Aaron shook his head. “I guess it’s more common——” Aaron trailed off. “You’re sleeping with your boss, aren’t you?”
But Jen just smiled and ordered them another round.
It was just as well, Aaron thought on Tuesday, that it was pouring out and Neal Krasnick didn’t leave the office for lunch, instead picking up an overpriced salad from the restaurant in the lobby of the building and eating it as his desk, because Aaron’s interest in obtaining proof that his boss was cheating on his wife with another woman had all but completely disappeared. In just the past 24 hours, Aaron had learned that four specific persons were involved in extramarital affairs, though only two of them were themselves married. Maybe three. He thought he might have seen a diamond on the hand of the woman he’d seen Neal with, in which case she was possibly at least engaged. In any event, cheating seemed to be the thing to do, and Aaron couldn’t say for sure that he would never cheat on is own wife if he ever got married. And since no one had reprimanded him for anything new that morning, Aaron found himself thinking less and less about the earful he’d gotten the previous morning.
“You must be happy,” Jenn suggested to Aaron on Wednesday afternoon.
“The Gillis case settled.”
“Yesterday.” How did Jenn know and he didn’t? “I know you hate that case,” she added.
Aaron hated every case he worked on... but was Jenn hinting that she knew he hated that particular case especially, because of the trouble he’d gotten in... which, now that the case had settled, was entirely, completely moot? And if Neal hadn’t discovered Aaron’s mistake for three days longer, Aaron would never have gotten raked over the coals. Had Neal known the case was so close to settling? He must have.
It’s back on, Aaron thought.
On Thursday, during his lunch hour, Aaron bought from a store on Sixth Avenue an expensive digital camera and a good zoom lens—which he planned to return as soon as he was done with it—because the camera on his phone wasn’t up to the task, which was to get clean, clear shots of Neal Krasnick holding hands, kissing, and generally being with a woman who was not his lawfully wedded wife as soon as possible, and he spent much of Thursday afternoon at his desk reading the thick booklets that came with his purchases.
On Friday morning, Aaron called out sick, then showered, dressed, and ate something before heading to Bryant Park, just across the street from the office building where he would otherwise have been, to wait, and to practice taking photographs, of anything and everything in sight, so that he’d be ready when the time came to take the shots he was there to get.
The zero hour—4:30 p.m. on Friday—arrived before Aaron had decided how, exactly, he wanted—or should—use what he had to gain leverage over his boss. What were Aaron’s demands? Money? In a lump sum or as a raise in his hourly wage? Job security? A weekly pass to screw up once in a big way (and an unlimited number of smaller ways) and not get fired? Were these things even within a junior partner’s control? Maybe Aaron should just ask for money. Maybe he should see what Neal would offer first.
Aaron decided that he’d play the presentation somewhat cool. He’d show his cards and let them speak for themselves. Maybe Neal would suggest an arrangement. Maybe Neal would simply offer to buy the photos (and Aaron’s silence). If the price was right, Aaron would leave the employ of the firm voluntarily, as a gesture of goodwill, to minimize the awkwardness, not unlike Neal had done by yelling at Aaron on Monday quietly, in private.
And so the work week ended as it had begun, with Aaron stepping into Neal Krasnick’s office, closing the door behind him, and taking a seat in one of the client chairs at Neal’s desk.
“Aaron?” Neal inquired. “I thought you were sick....”
“I know,” Aaron said... and wondered if he sounded as absolutely terrified as he felt. What the hell was he doing?
He was blackmailing his boss.
He could stop. Right then, he could stop what he was doing. He hadn’t yet said too much to stop. He hadn’t handed Neal Krasnick the folder he was still holding, the folder containing the photos of Neal and another woman, not his wife, kissing just the day before, just blocks away from where they were now sitting, on opposite sides of Neal’s desk, in Neal’s office...
...where I’m about to begin blackmailing my boss.
So do it already.
“I know about you.”
“I know what you’re up to.”
Some progress. Not much, but some. At this rate, you might be here only three hours....
“Aaron, I’m not sure what you’re getting at, but I’d be grateful if you’d get at it a little faster.”
Really, Neal? Let me prove you wrong.
“I know that you’re having an affair.”
There, I said it. Oh, God. I said it.
“Excuse me? I’m having an affair?”
“I have proof.”
“Is that what’s in the folder? The folder you’re crushing?”
Aaron was holding the folder pretty tightly. But shut up, Neal. This isn’t easy. And why are you so at ease?
“May I?” Neal was asking for the folder? He was asking to see the proof?
Aaron tossed the folder with the photos onto Neal’s desk. Or, that’s what he meant to do. He meant to toss the folder onto Neal’s desk and he meant the folder to land with a meaningful, incriminating, intimidating slap. But instead the folder missed Neal’s desk—somehow, even though Aaron was sitting right in front of the desk... and it was a desk, for fuck’s sake—and fell to the floor, the photos falling out of the folder.
“Sorry,” Aaron said.
“Sorry”? Really?! Come on! Get it together, man!
Neal collected the photos and the folder from the floor, not waiting to right the ones that had flipped before beginning to peruse them.
He didn’t turn white.
He didn’t make any sort of weak croaking sound.
He didn’t offer Aaron obscene amounts of money to destroy the photos, the negatives or digital files, and never, ever speak of what he had seen to anyone else.
Neal Krasnick asked, “This is your proof that I’m cheating on my wife?” But Aaron recognized it as a rhetorical question, so he didn’t answer, and then Neal said, “I’m pretty sure my wife knows that I’ve been meeting this beautiful woman for lunch. The beautiful woman in these photos is my wife, Aaron.”
“Wait. What...? How can that be your wife? That woman’s name is Dana Wells.”
“Dana Wells is my wife, Aaron.” Neal pointed to the woman in the photos. “This woman is my wife. She kept her last name when we got married. You thought she was... not my wife, I take it.”
“But Jenn told me on Monday that your wife was in... Edinburgh.” Was it Edinburgh? “Or... Edmonton! Fucking Jenn...!”
“Edmonton? What would my wife be doing in Edmonton?”
“How the hell do I know? Maybe she’s an Oilers fan!”
“Jenn must have said that my wife’s in editing. She’s a film editor. She works three blocks from here... and when we can, we meet for lunch. Let’s see if I can piece this together: You went out for lunch on Monday... pissed at me for laying into you. You saw me in the park with a woman you don’t know, since you haven’t been with the firm long enough to have been to a holiday party. You do know that I’m married, though. You wondered if I was cheating on my wife. You probably hoped that I was cheating on my wife, if only so that you might have something on me. You called Jenn to ask what she knew about my wife. You completely misheard what Jenn said... and then, thinking you’d just learned that my wife was in another country, you snapped some pictures of me and a woman canoodling, thinking you were getting just what you needed to do... whatever you figured you’d do... and you’ve had these photos in your hot little hands all week, just waiting until Friday afternoon at four-thirty, just before the weekend... after calling in sick, of course, because you didn’t think you’d be able to be here all day just waiting for right now... to tell me that “you know.” Oh, and somewhere along the way you figured out the name of the woman, and I’m not sure I want to know how you accomplished that, but in any event that information only convinced you further that I was seeing another woman behind my wife’s back, maybe because your mom took your dad’s name when they got married. Women used to do that more... regularly.”
“Actually,” Aaron said, ignoring most of Neal’s synopsis and commentary, “even though I saw you with her on Monday, I didn’t have a camera, and Tuesday it was crappy out, and then I wasn’t even going to do it anymore until after lunchtime on Wednesday....” Aaron trailed off.
“Ah. But then everything fell into place yesterday and you were finally able to get... the proof!” Neal splayed the five photos like the terrific poker hand Aaron had thought they were. Neal was smiling a little, evidently much more amused by Aaron’s complete failure than upset by what Aaron had tried to do.
“Not even yesterday,” Aaron mumbled, though he didn’t think Neal would care about the timeline specifics. The big picture was no doubt sufficient to reveal just how much time Aaron had spent—wasted—on this project.
And Aaron knew it... but if Neal said anything like, If you only put as much effort into your work as you did into trying to expose me as a unfaithful husband... Aaron thought he’d lunge across Neal’s desk and just strangle the man.
But Neal asked, “What?”
“I took the pr— ...the photos today,” Aaron said, “and I nearly wasn’t able to get quality prints in time. The first few batches didn’t...” Aaron trailed off again when it dawned on him mid-sentence that Neal would not give even one tiny shit what difficulties he’d had bringing his grand master plan to completely pointless fruition. Aaron stopped talking and looked at Neal, only to notice that Neal’s demeanor had finally changed. He had stopped smiling. He was looking down, peering at the photos again, carefully.
“You say you took these today. Not yesterday.” Neal was speaking softly now.
“Right,” Aaron confirmed.
Then Neal went pale. Aaron felt an abrupt surge of... compassion? No: concern. But still, why?
“What’s the matter?” Was Neal going to admit that the woman in the photo was not his wife after all? That didn’t seem likely. Aaron had to concede that Neal would certainly recognize his own wife, whatever her last name, whatever her job, whyever she’d ever go to fucking Edinburgh or Edmonton or not.
“That’s not me,” Neal whispered. “That... isn’t me.” He meant the man in the photos.
Aaron took one from in front of Neal and looked at it carefully. He looked specifically at the man, the man kissing the woman Aaron had just hours earlier seen enter Bryant Park first and kept his eye on, the man to whom Aaron had, he realized, paid almost no attention in person. Aaron had simply not looked twice at the man who was——
“I didn’t meet my wife for lunch today,” Neal said. “I worked through lunch. I’ve been here all day.” Aaron, of course, would have known this if he’d not called out sick. “I haven’t seen my wife since I left home this morning....” Now Neal trailed off. He looked like he was going to be sick.
Aaron looked at his watch, but discretely. It was five o’clock. Quitting time. Aaron thought it would be best if he went.
What had he done?
I’ve ruined my boss’s life.
If Neal Krasnick saw—in his periphery as he scrutinized the photos, perhaps now trying to discern the identity of the man who was not him—Aaron Lipp rising to leave, he didn’t look up, and if he heard Aaron Lipp open the door of his office, it didn’t interrupt Neal Krasnick’s concentration.
And Aaron Lipp could not help but feel bad for Neal Krasnick, and he couldn’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be better if he didn’t return to work at Underberg & Lamm, LLP on Monday.
About the Author
When author Matthew David Brozik doesn't like what he's reading, he writes something of his own. Read more of his work at www.imdb.name.