Shirley was attending a satellite reception for the annual Health Insurance Institute of America convention. She skittered through the crowd like a pebble on a sheet of water. People acted like it was a big privilege to be there. Her perspective? Not so much. She had been sick for days with something, maybe the onset of flu. Fever scrambled her mind. A silver platter of drinks came tilting above her shoulder, and she barely dodged it passing by like a flying saucer. She traced the white sleeve hoisting the tray to a set of broad shoulders and form-fitting black satin vest. The server turned acrobatically. She noted his face, the hard jaw and pen-line beard. Not bad.
She tried to take a deep breath. Around her, company people hobnobbed with people from other companies. The chatter clanged about her ear drums. Men kept approaching her in sometimes subtle, mostly unsubtle ways. In their midst, she struggled to comprehend the sudden longing for the server. Something suave and panther-like about him. She wished she could get a steadier look. He was always moving.
She felt too sick for finger food. The empty plastic glass dangled in her right hand. No clock in this room, and she couldn’t be seen checking the time on her phone. The gathering had just got going. Why did it feel so endless?
Snippets of conversation gargled around her. Something about work. Something about health care mandates. Something about something she didn’t care about, comments swatted at like badminton shuttlecocks dropping dead to the floor.
Shirley found a small clear space to stand against the wall, before a portrait of a distinguished white man in a gray suit, regally ensconced in a chair with burnished arms, the face bemused, entitled. She couldn’t shake off the sense of him staring at her. She read the name off the brass plate screwed into the gilt frame: Winston F. Marsh, CEO, 1950 to 1985.
She clutched the lanyard and read her name and title. It was misspelled. Everyone wore badges, like price tags without “use by” dates. That’s what conversation means to them, she thought. Price discovery. What’s your bid? Will you take my last offer?