“Unread Messages” by Sally Rooney
At twenty past twelve on a Wednesday afternoon, a woman was sitting behind a desk in a shared office in downtown Dublin, scrolling through a text document. Her hair was very dark, pulled back in a tortoise shell clasp, and she was wearing a dark gray sweater tucked into black cigarette pants. Using the soft, fat roller of her computer mouse, she hovered over the document, her eyes scanning narrow columns of text, and sometimes she would stop, click, and insert or delete characters. More often than not, she inserted a colon in the name “WH Auden”, in order to standardize her appearance as “WH Auden.” When she reached the end of the document, she opened a find command, selected the case sensitive option, and typed “WH”. No match appeared. She scrolled to the top of the document, the words and paragraphs scrolling unreadably, then, seemingly satisfied, saved her work and closed the file.
At one o’clock, she told her coworkers that she was going to lunch, and they smiled and waved at her from behind their monitors. Pulling on a jacket, she walked over to a cafe near the office and sat down at a table by the window, holding a sandwich in one hand and a copy of “Brothers Karamazov” in the other. At twenty to two, she looked up to watch a tall blond man walk into the cafe. He wore a suit and tie, with a plastic cord around his neck, and was talking into his phone. Yes, he said, I was told on Tuesday, but I’ll call back and check for you. When he saw the woman sitting by the window, his face changed and he quickly raised his free hand, uttering the word Hey. Over the phone, he continued, I don’t think you were copied on that, no. Looking at the woman, he pointed to the phone impatiently and made a talking gesture with his hand. She smiles, playing with the corner of a page in her book. Alright, alright, said the man. Look, I’m actually out of the office now, but I’ll be when I get home. Yeah. Good, good, good to talk to you.
The man ended his call and approached his table. Looking him up and down, she said: Oh, Simon, you look so important, I’m afraid you will be murdered. He picked up his cord and studied it critically. It’s that thing, he said. It makes me feel like I deserve to be. Can I buy you some coffee? She said she was going back to work. Well, he said, can I buy you some coffee to go and take you home? I want your opinion on something. She closed her book and said yes. As he walked over to the counter, she stood up and wiped off the sandwich crumbs that had fallen on her lap. He ordered two coffees, one white and one black, and tossed a few coins into the tip pot. How did Lola go in the end? the man asked. The woman looked up, met his gaze, and let out a strange, muffled sound. Oh, very good, she said. You know my mom is in town. We all meet tomorrow to look for our wedding outfits.
He was smiling benevolently, watching the progress of their coffees behind the counter. Funny, he said, I had a bad dream the other night about your marriage.
What was wrong?
You married someone other than me.
The woman laughed. Do you talk to women like that about your job? she said.
He turned to her, amused, and replied, “My God, no, I would be in big trouble.” And rightly so. No, I never flirt with anyone at work. If anything, they’re flirting with me.
I guess they’re all middle aged and want you to marry their daughters.
I cannot agree with this negative cultural image around middle aged women. Of all the demographics, I actually think I like them the best.
What’s wrong with young women?
There is only this little. . .
He waved his hand side to side in the air to indicate friction, uncertainty, sexual chemistry, indecision, or maybe mediocrity.
Your girlfriends are never middle aged, the woman pointed out.
And neither do I. Thank you.
Coming out of the cafe, the man held the door open for the woman to pass through, which she did without thanking him. What did you want to ask me about? she said. He told her he wanted her opinion on a situation that had arisen between two of his friends, whom the woman seemed to know by name. The friends lived together as roommates, then got involved in some sort of ambiguous sexual relationship. After a while, one of them started seeing someone else, and now the other friend, the one who was still single, wanted to leave the apartment but had no money. and nowhere to go. Really more of an emotional situation than an apartment situation, the woman said. The man agreed, but added, “Still, I think it’s probably best that she get out of the apartment. I mean, she can apparently hear them having sex at night, so it’s not great. They had then reached the steps of the office building. You could lend him some money, said the woman. The man replied that he had already offered but she had refused. Which was a relief, actually, he added, as my instinct is not to get too involved. The woman asked what the first friend had to say for himself, and the man replied that the first friend felt he was doing nothing wrong, that the previous relationship had ended naturally, and that was. he supposed to do, stay single forever? The woman made a face and said, God, yes, she really needs to get out of this apartment. I will keep an eye. They lingered a little longer on the steps. My wedding invitation has arrived, by the way, the man noticed.
Ah yes, she said. It was this week.
Did you know they gave me a plus-one?
She looked at him as if to know if he was joking, then raised her eyebrows. It’s nice, she said. They didn’t give me to me, but given the circumstances, I guess it might have been reckless.
Would you like me to go there alone as a gesture of solidarity?
After a pause, she asked, why? Is there someone you are thinking of bringing?
Well the girl I see I guess. If it’s the same for you.
She said, um. Then she added: You mean woman, I hope.
He smiled. Ah, let’s be a little friendly, he said.
Are you going behind my back calling me a girl?
Certainly not. I’m not calling you anything. Every time your name appears, I get angry and leave the room.
Disregarding this, the woman asked: When did you meet her?
Ah, I don’t know. About six weeks ago.
She’s not another one of those twenty-two-year-old Scandinavian women, is she?
No, she’s not Scandinavian, he said.
With an exaggeratedly weary expression, the woman tossed her cup of coffee into the trash can outside the office door. Looking at her, the man added, I can go alone if you prefer. We can look at each other from across the room.
Oh, you make me look very desperate, she said.
God, I didn’t want to.
For a few seconds, she said nothing, just staring into traffic. Presently, she said out loud, She looked gorgeous on the fitting. Lola, I mean. You were asking.
Still looking at her, he replied, I can imagine.
Thanks for the coffee.
Thanks for the advice.
For the rest of the afternoon at the office, the woman worked on the same text editing interface, moving the apostrophes and removing the commas. After closing one file and before opening another, she would regularly check her social media feeds. Her expression, her posture did not vary depending on the information she encountered there: a report on a horrific natural disaster, a photograph of someone’s beloved pet, a reporter speaking about threats. death, a secret joke requiring familiarization with several other previous internet jokes to be even vaguely understandable, a passionate condemnation of white supremacist, or a promoted tweet promoting a health supplement for pregnant women. Nothing changed in her external relationship to the world that would allow an observer to determine how she felt about what she was seeing. Then, after a while, with no apparent trigger, she closed the browser window and reopened the text editor. Sometimes one of her coworkers would step in with a work related question and she would respond, or someone would share a funny anecdote with the office and they would all laugh, but most of the time the work would go on quietly.
At 5:34 afternoon, the woman unhooked her jacket again and bid farewell to her remaining colleagues. She unwound her headphones around her phone, plugged them in and walked down Kildare Street towards Nassau Street, then took a left, meandering west. After twenty-eight minutes of walking, she stopped at a new apartment complex on the North Quays and entered, climbing two flights of stairs and unlocking a chipped white door. No one else was home, but the layout and interior suggested that she was not the only occupant. A small, dark living room, with a curtained window facing the river, opened onto a kitchenette with an oven, half-size refrigerator, and sink. From the refrigerator, the woman took out a bowl covered with cling film, which she discarded, and put the bowl in the microwave.