Medium Smile

Emma Ljung

You are sitting at the table, tie askew, mug in hand. The pile of paper has spilled onto the black chair pulled up next to yours: imagination rampant, I put on my medium smile.

“Good morning” I say. It is the professional voice today. You don’t move but your eyes find mine, and meeting your gaze threatens our hollow pleasantry.

“Thank you for coming in on such short notice” you say and scoop up the messy pile, your hands caressing chaos into order. The medium smile stays on as the black chair moves to safety. The chair could have moved out the door, into the busy street, and the smile would have left without much ado: danger lies in the opposite direction and nowhere else. I sit down, back straight, knees hidden by the table. My feet find the metal base and stop before they find something else – fabric, and muscle, and that uncrossable line. One day, they might not stop. You slide a folder across the table and I take in your handwriting instead of the print, your hands instead of the paper. Lately, it is your hands.

“Ready to work?” you ask and I nod. Your professional voice never cracks: in fact, it is the only voice I have ever heard you use. Before, it would annoy me that you never switch, that your veneer never fractures. Now, it reinforces the fence around me. I have learned to think of it as protection.


You leave to get the first candidate. Alone in your office, I look for clues. Your desk holds stacks of paper, neither neat nor messy. The door conceals a trench coat, the color so nondescript, my vocabulary lacks words to describe it. Its scent is hidden from me, as is the soul that inhabits it. The mug is cracked and so old that it is trendy – West German, I think. It looks a bit like a mug in my own cupboard and I suddenly know that I will let no one else use it from now on. I lean over to touch it, to blend my fingerprints with yours on the surface of that single clue, but your voice fills the hallway and I snap back into my seat, the medium smile collapsing because for the first time, I hear your voice wrapped around my name. It is just two syllables but your mouth connects them like body to body, the pause thereafter an overture of meaning. Quickly, before the door swings open, I whisper your name, draping the single syllable over one of those bodies. Temptation floods my mouth, washing away my self-restraint, and I must swallow and swallow to hide the evidence.


When you enter the room, seconds later, candidate in tow, the medium smile reveals nothing. I, too, am a professional.


You interview the candidate like once you interviewed me: every question is the same, every inspired glint in your eye holds the same persuasive power. The candidate responds to you like I did and I recognize your genius in how you lift the best out of a stranger, in how you make an unfamiliar person feel like a friend. I remind myself that this person will not replace me, that I am not in this room to witness my own exchange, yet jealousy sharpens my tongue and targets the candidate. An arm’s length away you watch me break the stranger apart, question by question, remark by remark. It is as though you are barely there, as though you are as inconspicuous as your office. Your impassiveness provides protection yet it infuriates me that after all this time, I still cannot provoke a reaction out of you.


You close the door behind the candidate. Four walls seem like four too many yet not nearly many enough. For a moment, you pause behind my chair and phantom fingers push the sheet of hair from one shoulder to the other, exposing that nuchal scar you have never seen. In this artificial light it is almost invisible but lips can find it, lips will feel the silky cavity of newer skin in that faint incision. Lips and hands touch that scar every night but they are not yours.

“I don’t think we should hire him. He doesn’t fit the profile” you say and tap the application on the table before us. The band on your finger is broad and the color of sunlight, another rule in this game that must never be played. I reach for the papers, for a moment placing the new diamond and the old gold in the same field of vision. They are separated by an immeasurable distance of morality but I can suddenly think of nothing else. The proximity of flesh erases the link between metal and vow.

“I remember when you interviewed me” I say, my finger twitching to catch the light. “I didn’t think I fit the profile.”

“Perhaps not” you say and your voice cracks. “But only a crazy man would not have hired you.” I look up but your eyes are unseeing, focused on the light that travels across the application. Your face holds something that has not been there before and your hand slowly folds over, palm facing up. Your heart line is broken in two. We sit there, hands immobile, space shrinking, clocks ticking, time standing still, until it is impossible not to act. I feel your eyes searching for mine and I know that when I raise my head to meet your gaze, no smile in the world will brace that fence.


A sudden knock rattles the door like a hurricane, breaths catching, metal clanging, papers fluttering to the floor. When I get up to welcome the next candidate, your voice has already restored normality, professional again. I know that it will not crack another time.


“Great job today” you say when the last candidate has closed the door and your eyes fold mine into their green embrace. I hold your gaze for as long as I dare. Sonnets could travel that bridge from iris to iris.

“Any time” I say and I know and do not know what I mean. As I leave the room I pause to reinforce my smile, that medium smile that says nothing and hides everything. It is the smile of a liar who loves.



About the author:

Born in Sweden, raised on Cyprus, and now a resident of Rocky Hill, NJ, Emma Ljung teaches academic writing at Princeton University and runs the Santa Susana Archaeological Project in Redondo, Portugal. Previously published fiction has appeared in the Kelsey Review, US 1 Magazine, and Quantum Fairy Tales.




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