A Green Light Story
“The light,” repeats Rob. “It’s green.”
I snap out of my daze and look. It is, indeed, green.
“Sorry.” I shift my foot from brake to accelerator and press down.
“You okay?” asks Rob.
“Rough day at work,” I reply.
“Oh,” I say. “The boss was on me about a report that took longer than expected.”
Rob shakes his head. “Office work. If I had to do it again, I’d go insane.”
“I’m taking that bullet for you,” I say.
Sometimes literally, I don’t say.
Rob laughs, then asks, “Are you feeling okay about the appointment?”
“Yeah,” I lie.
I’m not looking forward to it. Just another person I have to lie to.
We get there. Check in. Wait. Get ushered to a room where we sit on a couch together across from a counselor. Joan, she says to call her.
Most of the appointment is preliminary. What were our childhoods like. What do we hope to get out of counseling. Stuff I can answer without having to concoct a story.
Near the end, to the question, “What relationship troubles are you having now?” Rob says, “Well, we haven’t been intimate in a few months. I know she’s stressed and I’m probably reading too much into it, but I can’t help but worry that she’s losing interest in me.”
“So Marie. Can you repeat back what Rob said?”
“He feels like I’m not as interested in him anymore because we’re not being intimate.”
“Is that correct, Rob?” asks Joan.
“Yes,” he says. “I’m not trying to pressure her. I don’t need sex all the time. I can take care of myself. I just…worry that it might be a sign of a relationship problem.”
He has been seeing less of me physically.
“Do you know of anything that might be contributing to this lack of intimacy?” she asks me.
“It’s not Rob,” I say. “Or our relationship. It’s just me. I’m just…not in the mood.”
It’s been tough to hide the wounds lately.
But is that really it? I could work around that with strategic clothing. Makeup. Dim lighting. Another lie about an accident with a kitchen knife or a tumble in the office parking lot. I’ve always managed before.
“What has your mood been like in general?” asks Joan.
“I guess I haven’t felt like doing much of anything. Haven’t been feeling a hundred percent…present…at work or at home.”
I have been sloppy lately. In my line of work that can get you killed. And obviously it hasn’t been good for life at home, either.
“Sounds like you might be a little depressed,” says Joan. “Have you been prone to depression in the past?”
“Is there something in particular bothering you?”
“Not that I know of.”
It’s work. I just can’t talk about it. Not directly.
“She’s been pretty stressed at her job,” says Rob.
“Is that true, Marie?” asks the counselor.
“Yeah,” I admit. “It’s always been…demanding. But it’s been a little worse than usual lately.”
“What do you do?” asks Joan.
“Market research,” I lie.
“What about the job is most demanding?”
“My boss is a hard ass,” I say, truthfully. “We have to meet crazy deadlines. And he expects perfection.”
With good reason.
“She works long hours. Weekends. Sometimes overnight,” says Rob. “And she’s always stressing about reports.”
Reports are what we call our targets. We have lots of other office themed code words, too. The boss’s clever idea. We can tell the truth and be vague at the same time. Easier on the home lives. For those of us who have them.
“Your boss expects these reports to be perfect?”
“More like they have to be done right the first time, and by an exact deadline,” I say. “Thus the crazy hours.”
“Could you ask your boss to lighten the load for your mental health?” asked Joan. “Or for some time off?”
“Not really,” I say.
“Why is that?” asks the counselor.
“Others have tried,” I reply.
“And your boss didn’t react well?”
Last one was Jordan Jacobs.
“What might happen if you ask?”
“I could get fired.”
Or end up a report. Like Jacobs.
“I tell her she can quit,” says Rob. “Look for something else. I make just enough to pay the bills. We wouldn’t get ahead, but we’d be fine.”
I probably make five times both their salaries combined. But I have to hide most of it in an offshore account under a fake name. One day I’ll “inherit” it all from “Great Aunt Agnes.” Just in time for retirement.
“How do you feel about that, Marie? Do you want to quit?”
I think for a moment. “No. It’s my career. I’ve worked hard to get where I am. And I’m really good at it.”
“Do you hear her, Rob?” asks Joan.
“Yes,” he says. “I hear her. Even if I don’t understand. She just seems to hate it so much. I think maybe another job would help.”
“Could you find a similar job?” asks Joan. “With a less demanding boss?”
I shrug. “With the non-compete clause in my contract, finding something else would be tricky. We’d have to move.”
To another country, possibly.
“Maybe we could try some stress relief techniques,” says Joan.
“Sure,” I say. “But I’m probably making it sound worse than it is. I just need to vent sometimes.”
“Venting is a sort of stress relief,” says Joan. “But we can go over others in our next session.” She turns to Rob and says, “I know it’s tempting to offer solutions when Marie talks about her work stress, but I’d like you to try just listening. Letting her vent without trying to fix things.”
“Sure,” says Rob. He turns to me, extends a hand, and says, “I just want you to be happy.”
“I know, sweetie,” I say, taking his hand and looking over at him.
At this angle, he reminds me of Jacobs. I’ve never consciously acknowledge that before.
“That will be your homework,” says Joan, snapping me out of my reverie. She hands Rob and me two identical printouts. “It’s an active listening exercise. Try to do it at least once before our next session. Each of you pick something to vent about. The other will listen and repeat it back. We can talk about how it goes next time. Two weeks? Same day, same time work for you?”
“Fine with me,” says Rob. “Honey?”
I nod. “Yes, I can make it.”
Rob and I thank Joan and head out of the facility. It’s raining.
“I’ll go get the car,” says Rob, jogging off.
I wait under the awning and think a bit about what’s been most stressful about the job lately. What’s making it affect me more than usual. I realize it’s another thing I’ve been avoiding acknowledging.
Up to a few months ago, my reports had all been bad guys. Truly and verifiably terrible people. I felt little remorse. The world was better off without them.
But this time it was one of our own. Jacobs. Some assignment messed him up. He wanted out, and he handled it badly. Stormed into the boss’s office. Threatened to spill our activities to the press.
His name ended up on my desk. I tried to talk him down, with the boss’s permission. Didn’t go well. I got a knife to the ribs. He got a close-range bullet. Or a staple, as we call them at the office. From my work issued stapler.
He wasn’t a bad guy. At least not any worse than I am. It’s too bad we weren’t both psychopaths. Like Ellis. Don’t want to turn your back on that guy. Or end up as one of his reports. Jacobs and I weren’t born for the job like Ellis. We were trained by the so-called “good guys,” our skills forged in active combat. Jacobs was just like me, save the apparent mental breakdown.
And I’ve been avoiding thinking about him. Trying to act like everything’s normal around Rob. Obviously not very well, or I wouldn’t be standing outside a counselor’s office.
Rob knows I was a soldier. Doesn’t know how elite my unit was, how secret most of our missions, or how good I am at killing from afar with a sniper rifle or up close with whatever I have on me. My bare hands, if necessary.
Jacobs knew, though. He also knew how our boss was likely to react to his threats. Jacobs was as skilled as I am, yet my stab wound wasn’t fatal. Not even close.
I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before. He was trying to commit “suicide by cop,” so to speak. He couldn’t live with the job anymore. And he goaded us into doing what he couldn’t bring himself to do. He wanted out, all right. The final out.
With that revelation, I feel lighter. Calmer.
Rob pulls up and stops in front of me. I get in.
“So,” he says as we pull away from the curb. “What do you think?”
“It was more helpful than I expected.”
“I don’t think it’ll make it all better right away, of course,” says Rob.
“I’m sure doctor Joan will have us all patched up in no time,” I say, patting him on the leg.
“You’re teasing. You hated it.”
“No, seriously. It made me think about things…my stressors…in a different light. I already feel better.”
“That’s great,” says Rob, stopping at the red light at the medical park exit. “And I’ll try to let you complain without pressuring you to quit. Although it’ll take all my will power.”
“We can just follow this handy worksheet step by step,” I say, waving the printout. “It’ll be a cinch.”
Rob laughs and says, “Want to go see a movie or something?”
“I think I’d rather go home.” I caress his thigh and smile.
“Oh,” says Rob, raising his eyebrows and smiling back. “What the lady wants, the lady gets.”
The light turns green.
About the Creator
Bernadette “Berni” Johnson is the author of The Big Book of Spy Trivia, many tech articles, movie reviews, short stories, and two novels in perpetual editing.
You can find her blog, other work, and mailing list at bernijohnson.com.
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