Ken and I were cleaning out his new cubicle. He handed me a box, a large one. It felt mostly empty.
“Just drop it in the corner,” he said.
I turned in place, and, smiling, dropped it from waist height.
I turned back to him, smiling. Ken looked shocked.
“There… there was a computer in there.” He said it slowly, unbelieving.
My smile froze on my face. I thought it was papers and stuff, not electronics.
As that thought was sinking in, I felt a hand on my shoulder. One of the Emergency Management folk, with whom we were sharing our new space in the basement of the Multnomah Building, was standing behind me, leaning over slightly. She was a woman in her 50s (I’m guessing), tall, thin, wiry. She had just returned to county employ after serving several tours of duty in Iraq, and, I believe, as a training instructor in the concentration camps at Abu Graib and Gitmo.
She spoke in a friendly whisper. “It’s OK, you’re all right. No problem.” She sounded controlled, but winded. “Now that I know you’re just moving boxes around, it’s OK. I’m still getting used to it. The other day Pascal dropped a box, and I jumped out of my chair.” She shook her head at the memory. “If I’d had a gun… well… But I didn’t.” She chuckled. She was trying, and failing, to come across as collegial and warm.
“Oh… right.” I was frozen into place. I was still processing the fact that I may have damaged a perfectly good computer just for being a smart-ass, and now I realized that I had startled this woman into some kind of post-traumatic stress reaction. I was already more than a bit empathetic for her serving multiple terms of duty for an illegal and immoral war. And knowing the black arts of torture that have been perpetrated on the humans in those prisons, many of whom were tossed in there just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are even now being denied the most basic of human rights… and knowing that this woman was part of the bureaucracy that enabled and sustained it… and hearing her try to shrug off the extreme reaction she had just had to the sound of a box being dropped…
I felt my empathy clouded through fear. “Right” I said “Iraq.”
She laughed again, a release of stress that I could only imagine. “Yeah!” She straightened up, her hand still on my shoulder. She towered over me. I wondered if she needed the contact as much as I was now repulsed by it. “That box just sounded like small-arms fire!” Her hand dropped. “I’m OK, I’m OK. I just fell out of my chair. No problem.” She got up, and instead of crossing the aisle back to her desk, she left the room.
I turned to Ken. “That’s great.” I pantomimed typing while I faux-dictated a memo to my boss: “Dear Stan, Ken and I are mostly moved in to our new area. And by the way, I may need to requisition a bullet-proof vest for the next few weeks. The end.”