Belinda

(early 2002)
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She presses her body against mine, forcing me down into the office's entry-level chair. The bumpy plastic is torturing my spine, but I don't care - it can paralyze me if it wants, but I'm still not moving. Her lips brush against my ear as she whispers, 'Now sit back and let your imagination work....' It is the single most erotic moment of my life thus far, and the best part? We're at work. I glance at the door, wondering if Mr. Roberts knows - but he has to, doesn't he?

After all, he said himself that this is what she's here for!

Maybe I should back up a bit. It's my first day here, working as a lowly new writer at the Harbinger, and I've been here maybe five hours. The Harbinger is one of the largest daily papers in New England, known for its editorials and features, and I'm a twenty-two-year-old known for my ability to drink beer. Was I scared, walking in through its front doors this morning? Hell, yes - I don't even know how I got this job, for christssakes. I graduated with an Honours in English from the University of Guelph, known for its stoners and easy women, just over three months ago. Apparently my "off-beat, soulful pennings" (so dubbed by a typical Guelph professor) caught someone's eye, because my resume wasn't rejected out of hand as I had expected. A few shirt-soaking interviews later and here I was, about to start my new career as a reporter and coffee-fetcher.

The Harbinger's offices are on the eighth and ninth floors of one of the larger buildings in the downtown area, which is known for its homeless drunks (all being monitored by caring journalists, who cover public-interest stories wearing their "concerned faces" and hoping for large cash prizes). It's the sort of tall, unwavering building that dominates you, making sure you know just how important its contents are, and I was trying to get myself revved up enough to go in when the first weird event of the day occurred. You know those stupid moments that always seem to happen when you're trying to focus on something important? I had one of those while pausing in front of the revolving door. There I was, staring up at the faux-Gothic gargoyles that glared back down at me from their positions flanking the awning above my head and wondering if I had the nerve to go pretend to be a qualified employee, when along comes this frail-looking man.

He had those milky eyes that the blind tend to, and was merrily swinging his cane, occasionally connecting with parking meters, parked cars' tires, and small children. I took a step closer to the building as he neared me, but he did the same, so that we were still aligned. Not wanting to be blamed for tripping up an old blind guy, I stepped closer again, but so did he, so I dodged away, only to have him mirror me as he continued to walk closer. We continued this dance for several more steps, as a few of the people milling around stopped to stare, until finally I just stopped moving - and what did he do? He stopped the instant I did, perhaps eight inches from me, laughed as if I had told an amazing joke - a belly laugh that made his eyes gleam - and swatted me with the cane, then neatly swirved around me and continued on his way. I stared blankly after him, as the spectators snickered behind their hands. I think I heard one of those roving journalists dash up to him after I turned away, visions of Pulitzers dancing in her head.

And so it was with a feeling of unnerved confusion that I finally made my way into the building, checking my watch and hoping that the deceptively-sighted jerk hadn't made me late. 8:55; okay, good. I got into one of the four elevators, gazing into its mirrors and straightening my tie about four dozen times, and faced my new place of employment, willing the butterflies in my stomach to turn into something useful, like coffee.

Pandemonium. Pan-de-monium. I can't speak for the ninth floor, but number eight was insanity in a paper-based form - as I left the relative safety of the elevator, the sheer mass of paper nearly sent me scurrying back in. Desks seemed scattered about at random, looseleaf slithering from them to the floor in waves, occasionally managing to hit one of the overflowing garbage cans. I think there might have been a few wads stuck to the ceiling, but I couldn't tell you for sure; I was too busy staring in near-terror straight ahead. The sounds of laughter, shouting, and printers beeping melted into a single noise (feeling creative, I dubbed it 'shlaughbeeping'), and I was so transfixed by it that I missed the clearly-brilliant career of the imaginary paper pilot who neatly steered his plane into my forehead. 'Thwink,' it went; 'Gwah!,' I replied.

Rubbing the sore spot whose sudden appearance had broken me from my reverie, I glanced around, wondering where that marvel of tree-based engineering had come from. Innocent eyes from the people buried beneath the rubble returned my stare, until finally, a quirky grin issued forth from the back of the room. This grin belonged to a man best described as a bear that has somehow become sentient and bought a very expensive suit, one who walked up the aisle, kicking folders and various other airplanes out of his way, and began to shake my hand vigorously between hearty words.

"Welcome (shake), Jake! I'm (shake, shake) Ian Roberts, and I'm (shake) glad to meet you! I'll be your boss and (shake, shake) temporary tour guide!" With a few more shakes for good measure, he let go, and I managed to stammer a polite, if bemused, reply. He put a hairy hand on my shoulder, nodding his head as he pushed me forward into the chaos. "Here, I'll show you around! This is May" - gesturing with his free hand at a woman whose blonde hair levitated above her head as if frightened by her eye makeup - "and that's Carl. Ron, Leo, Jane and Mike are over there, and there's John." We made a quick circuit around the main room, him enthusiastically propelling me before him, as he pointed at various people, ending at a wild-eyed man cowering atop a massive pile of envelopes. The man glanced up, winked at me, then went back to tearing things open. I glanced back at my guide, who just shook his head. "That's the other Mike. He sits in the mail room most of the time, and so long as we don't interfere with his 'work,' he's remarkably docile." I tried to smile, and I think I managed it, but I was really more preoccupied with convincing myself that all writers (and, as a result, offices filled with them) are a little eccentric as a matter of course. And, I repeated to myself, the pay is good. Very good. Better than I deserve. Ignore the wildman in the mail room and all will be well.

While I was reassuring myself, Mr. Roberts was talking. He's one of those people who you don't think really exist until you meet them - incredibly tall, built like a fortress, and prone to mischievous laughs. I suspected that he was known for his practical jokes, and the rapidly-swelling mark adorning me only strengthened this hypothesis. Anyhow, he was going on about weekly meetings - "Donuts for all!" - and a variety of other things, and I was doing my best to listen, but... well, I'll just admit it. My attention span is the kind that makes little dollar signs appear in the eyes of the Ritalin manufacturers, and I was already feeling distracted and a bit hungry. Of course, the appearance of the world's most sensual woman didn't help anything.

The 'off-beat, soulful' part of me immediately set to work defining her in poetic terms: eyes like the sun reflecting in a spring leaf's dew; cheekbones that curve upward in a perpetual smile; lips whose grin silently whispers secrets; really great breasts. She was dressed in a silvery silk gown that hugged her like it loved her passionately, endless sleeves trailing behind her along with the flowing train. She swept between the rows of busybodies and cursing bosses, and I swear, her passing presence brought calm. Every set of male eyes followed her, and with reason - she was the loveliest thing I had ever seen, and probably will ever see. Mr. Roberts followed my awe-struck gaze, and chuckled.

"That's Belinda. She's our muse."

"...pardon?" I didn't quite understand at first. A muse? What's a muse?

"She's a professional, Jake. She... inspires us. With her special work." He turned to look at me seriously, not a trace of his joking humour left, and I swallowed hard.

"Ah." I nodded as smoothly as was possible while simultaneously trying to get my heart to start beating again, trying to act as if this were perfectly normal, something I'd seen every day.

A prostitute? In here? Is that even legal?! Well, no, of course it wasn't - but there she was. As she passed us on the way into an office, she graced me with a look, one whose warmth broke through the cold sweat gathering on my bruised brow. I couldn't help but stare after her, even as Mr. Roberts, regaining his usual mirth, began to steer me again.

"Relax, Jake. She's around if you need her, but she won't get in your way unasked, and she's a lovely, lovely woman. I really think you'll like her!" The reactions of my body agreed with that, to be sure. I tried my best not to think about them, wrenching my poor, battered mind back to the subject of my new employment, which was, after all, why I was here. We came to a desk that seemed less likely to collapse from strain than the others I'd seen, one which my boss designated as my own. He handed me my first assignment - "Find out if the hobos on twenty-second are unhappy, and if so, why. Try to look concerned. Yes, I know it's bad, but...welcome to the world of entry-level reporting!" - and showed me how to log onto the network,then bounded away. So there I was, staring at my monitor and biting my fingernails, pondering the mysteries of the journalistic universe and trying to think up a decent thesis for my article.

Unhappy bums. Unhappy homeless bums living on next to no food. They're unhappy? What a shocking revelation! For the life of me, I couldn't think of a way to make the topic interesting, but that probably shouldn't be surprising, given that while at UoG, my only real report was for the campus paper, and was about beer (thesis: "Beer should be cheaper."). I was fast running out of fingernails, and the ticking of the clock above my head was as loud as the wildman's mutterings, when Belinda reappeared. I don't think she walks so much as she floats, or perhaps simply ceases to be in one location and reforms in another, because she was just there. How much time had passed, I wasn't sure, but I suspect that I had been trying without success to type my first word for at least half an hour.

"Mr. Van Kel, oui?'" Good lord, she has an accent, my brain screamed, a French accent! I put on my best coed-pickup smile, and nodded. "Y...yes, yes! And you're Belinda? Mr. Roberts told me a bit about you."

"Oui, bon. You look perturbed, so I came by to see if I could help. Can I.... help?"

If you think my moral character is strong enough to resist such an entreaty, then obviously, you're not imagining this woman well enough. Just fill her out in a few places, and give her freckles, or something. I nodded, and allowed myself to be led into an office three doors down from the one she had visited earlier. You know those stupid observations you make to yourself when something absolutely bizarre is happening? I had one of those as I passed through the doorway. There I was, being seduced by this stunning lady, and the first thing I notice is not her expression, nor the candles placed in each corner of the room, but instead the stick of incense sitting atop the desk. It was placed in a red clay holder shaped like an open hand, fingers curving to catch the ash. I gazed at the tendrils of smoke that rose from it, scented like something sweet - jasmine, maybe? - for a good ten seconds at least, before returning my attention to her, simply because its existence was so out of place. Incense? Sure, appropriate for a night in the dorms to cover other scents, but in an office building?

This is pretty much where I began to backtrack. As I glanced at her, she moved toward me, pushing me into the chair, and all other thoughts fled from my mind.

But now, as I stare at her curves, she's doing something odd. Leaving me sitting - no, I'm not going to follow her; I'm not going to stand up for a while, thanks - and flowing her way over to the candles, which she lights in turn. This isn't so strange, just sensual, but then she moves to the incense and begins to waft the smoke about with an oriental-looking fan she draws from the folds of her dress, and begins to sing. Now, the last time I was in a position like this, the chosen song was an off-key Barry White hummed drunkenly, but her tune is flawless and light; something Celtic, maybe. She begins to twirl before me, the fluorescent lights catching the metallic shimmer in her dress and setting it aflame, thousands of silver-toned pinpricks dazzling my eyes. Her voice lifts, the wordless melody like a monk's cheerful chant, and for lack of anything better to do, I watch without making a sound.

But it's going on too long. Sure, she's foreign, so maybe her culture works differently, but we should really be getting to the good stuff by now. I don't want Mr. Roberts to poke his head in, whether he condones and expects this or not! Her eyes fix on me again, something strange and magical lurking within, and she leaps atop the desk, sending two paperweights and the obligatory mass of paperwork to the floor with a crash. Holding her arms out to either side, she dances before me, her song still filling the air as she moves faster, then slows. Finally, she drops down, trilling a final few notes and falling silent. Her pale cheeks glow as she asks, "Do you feel inspired yet, Monsieur?"

Managing to summon the cool exterior that made me such a hit with the nearly-unconscious ladies back in Guelph, I mutter something inarticulate as my patience and self-control fail and I reach for the body part hovering closest to me - and fall back as the world begins to spin. Confusion reigns for a moment, before the sharp pain in my cheek registers, and my vision clears to show an expression of perfect rage before me.

"H...uh? But I thought..."

"You thought what? That I was... whore?" Her tone is too high, losing its breathy quality along with her peaceful exterior. "I am a muse! I inspire men to write great works, not...satisfy their foolish loins!" With this, she slaps me again, hard, across the other cheek, then storms from the room.

It would seem that I have more to learn about the world of journalism than I had previously expected. I hope that Mr. Roberts doesn't decide to go after me for harassment - I mean, how can I explain this? I think I'll just sit here a moment, amid the wisps of incense and flickering light of the candles, and wait for a bit of inspiration. I am known for my good excuses.