When you're in front of your boss, at the office, you want to put your best foot forward, want to show that you're an expert in your field and on the ball, that nothing gets past you.
Not. One. Single. Thing.
But what do you do when your boss, the CEO of the company, is having an affair with one of your co-workers? When they believe that they're being secretive, that no one in the office knows.
Only, everyone in the office knows, everyone in the office knows that everyone knows about the affair, except for the two adulterers.
I saw them, almost daily, taking their lunch break together. In of itself, that's wasn't suspicious. Lots of colleagues become friends and take their lunches together. But for the CEO to have lunch with the receptionist raised eyebrows, especially when their lunch break exceeded an hour.
Nearly every day.
My suspicions were confirmed when the CEO and receptionist (who also took notes at meetings) arrived late for a meeting in which I was the only other attendee. They rushed into the office, out of breath, aware that they were about 30 minutes late. They had clearly skipped taking the elevator and had run up the stairs from the underground garage.
Her hair was tousled and could have used a brushing. His balding forehead glistened from a bit from perspiration.
We sat in the boardroom, the three of us sitting at the same end of the long table: the CEO at the head; we subordinates flanked each side.
While we talked, the receptionist busily scribbled notes, I, maintaining eye contact with my boss, couldn't help but notice something on his lips. Some food, perhaps, from the lunch? Did he always pay for her lunch, I wondered. It seemed unfair, ignoring the other people who worked very hard for him. Did they dine at expensive restaurants or fast-food joints?
Was it a rosé sauce on his lips?
I looked at the receptionist, eyed her lips to see if she had also been a messy eater, to see whether she had also eaten something with a rosé sauce.
Her lips were pretty. She did have a beautiful smile. An attractive woman: her husband was a lucky man. And she was a neat eater. There was no leftover food on her perfectly applied lipstick.
Her rosé lipstick.
I looked at her lips. I looked at the CEO's lips. I went back and forth, casually, so as not to arouse suspicion. The colour was identical.
As I thought about the adultery, of how these people were betraying their vows to their sponses, people I had met and admired, I realized that I wasn't listening to the meeting.
"Did you get that, Ross?" my CEO asked.
"Sorry," I said, thinking of a way to hide my discovery, "I was calculating how much documentation would be needed."
"I'm not sure yet." Way to sound stupid in front of your employer.
As the affair became evident to all of the employees, we would whisper in secret about how despicable these two were behaving. "If they truly loved each other," we once discussed, "they should leave their respective partners and make their relationship official."
That didn't happen.
But one night, when a bunch of staff members were socializing, after hours, one of our proposal writers, who had consumed a couple of drinks too many, told the receptionist that she knew about what was going on with the CEO (who wasn't there). I heard about the exchange, a few days later, from the writer, as a bunch of us, minus the receptionist and CEO, met at a pub to say farewell to the woman, who had been laid off the very day after she confronted the receptionist.
The proposal writer tipped her hat to the receptionist, and the very next day, she was out of a job.
The rest of us were on edge, knew that we had to keep our mouths shut or face the same fate as the proposal writer.
But the adulterers didn't stop; in fact, they didn't seem to behave with more caution or restraint.
The CEO's office looked out toward the kitchen and lounge, where we had a fridge, sink, cupboards, coffee maker, and a few chairs around a foosball table. As I turned a corner to enter this common area from my desk, I had a second-long view into the CEO's office, where I could see him at his desk.
On one trip to the kitchen, on a Friday afternoon, all I had on my mind was a can of beer. We had a shelf in the fridge that was always stocked with beer, and we could help ourselves as long as we were responsible and got our work done. Every Friday, I helped myself to a can of Boddington's—sometimes, two.
I rounded the corner and saw the receptionist, her body bent over the desk, toward the CEO, her face leaning in to him as if to offer a kiss as he sat in front of his monitor.
They both heard my footsteps and spun to see me, our eyes locking on each other. My face went blank as I worked hard to show ignorance. I wanted to look as clueless as possible. To my CEO.
I nodded, moved to the fridge, retrieved the can of Boddington's, and walked back to my desk, a vacant look on my face.
Once a week, I had a meeting with a colleague who worked from an office in Gatineau. One warm autumn day, I jumped in my car and headed to this meeting, but I first wanted to swing by a local shawarma shop for lunch. The route took me through neighbourhood side streets but it was the fastest way to the restaurant.
As I drove down one street, I saw two people standing near a bush, standing close together, their faces almost one. It was the CEO and receptionist. As my car approached, they both turned to face me. They would have recognized my Camry, would have seen me behind the wheel.
My sunglasses were dark. I kept my head straight, made no motion to indicate that my eyes were anywhere but on the road in front of me. But my eyes had seen them, had seen that they had noticed me, had seen them watch me as I drove by.
As I ate my shawarma, I called my colleague to let her know when she could expect me. "And by the way," I added, "if I get laid off later today or tomorrow, this is why... ." I proceeded to tell her what I had witnessed.
Later, that afternoon, back at my desk in the office, I could hear whispering nearby.
"Go talk to him. See if he knows anything."
"What should I say?"
"I don't know. Think of something. See if he looks suspicious."
I heard the footsteps and looked up. It was the CEO.
"Hey, Ross, how's it going?" The words sounded embarrassed, contrived.
"Good," I said, "I had a good meeting with... ."
"Any plans this evening?"
"No, why? Did you need me to do something?"
"No, just wondering."
"So." I looked him in the eyes but they shifted from side to side. He looked like he needed something to lean on. I kept my face expressionless, clueless. I thought about the evening: what was I going to do tonight?
"Well, keep up the good work." With that, he walked away.
The receptionist was still standing where the CEO had left her. She, no doubt, had been listening to our conversation. "So?" she whispered.
"I don't think he knows anything," came the muted reply.
Not the words you want to hear from your boss. You don't want to know nothing. You want to be on the ball, want to let your boss believe that you're bright, you're sharp, you're aware of everything.
In this situation, it paid to act stupid.