The first time I said more than a couple words to Richard, he was hobbling into the kitchen at work, his knee in a brace and crutches wedged into his armpits. “Good morning!” I said brightly. He mumbled a response and, while I waited for the kettle to boil, I watched him awkwardly assemble a bowl of cereal and milk. I laughed as he looked at his precarious breakfast, realizing it would be nearly impossible to get it back to his desk. “Need a hand?” I offered, scooping up his bowl for him.
I’d met him a couple of weeks earlier, after his team moved onto our floor of a magazine publisher in Sydney. “Hi, my name is Josie, I’m the sub editor at Australian Geographic,” I’d said cheerily. “Richard,” he said back, a pen clenched between his teeth, returning to his computer screen, sullen but handsome.
My colleagues and I had talked about him—this pale, thin guy at Money magazine. I’d found out that he was English, that he had hurt his knee playing football, and that he had an American girlfriend he was regularly at war with.
Over time, the initially sour Richard began to sweeten. My colleagues and I were able to wear him down enough to join us on trips to get coffee or a pub lunch after deadlines, even a few beers on a Friday at a nearby bar. So far, so collegial.
That summer, I went away for a month with my brother and a friend to southeast Asia. On my first day back in the office, a chat popped up in my inbox:
“What can you tell me about rhinos?” Richard asked.
“Not much,” I replied.
“Don’t you write for National Geographic?”
“I write for Australian Geographic, but we tend not to write about rhinos because we have no rhinos in Australia.”
“Oh,” came the reply. “Never mind.”
And so began a flurry of messages, funny and strange. Across the field of partitions and computer screens, I could see his dark hair, but not his face. It felt odd to be in the same room, chatting without talking, but it made my work days so much more enjoyable.
I found out that Richard had broken up with his girlfriend while I’d been away. We would regale each other with ill-fated attempts at dating. I thought I might play matchmaker with my friend and colleague Natsumi, who tends to be attracted to strange men.
I invited them both along on a weekend hike, to which Richard turned up in an old pair of Vans and with nothing to eat but a banana and a packet of mini cupcakes. I was confused by his odd collection of jailhouse tattoos—a skull here, a love heart there—and his seeming reluctance to leave me alone long enough to woo Natsumi.
After the hike, we found ourselves hot and sticky and tempted by the cool sea. There’s a game we play in Australia as kids called “Under or Over”: As a big, rolling wave approaches, one kid barks out an instruction—under or over—commanding the others to dive to the bottom or attempt to leap it.
“Over!” I yelled, jumping up onto the crest. But Richard didn’t move and the wave dumped me unceremoniously on top of his head. I thought I heard a crack, but after a moment of panic, Richard came up, spluttering for air. I was worried and told him that if he had tingling in his extremities to go straight to the hospital.
A few hours later, at home and with dinner on the way, I received a text: “In hospital.” I asked “Which one?” and was on my way.
There he was at St. Vincent’s, in a neck brace this time, waiting on the results of an MRI. I passed the time telling him about my latest fling—“What kind of guy sends care packages and spends more than two hours on the phone?”—and eventually, Richard was given the all clear. “You almost broke my neck,” he said. “The least you can do now is buy me a burrito.” I laughed and led the way.
As we ate and talked, I realized it was the first time we’d really hung out one on one for more than half an hour. I felt like I was slowly waking up from an anaesthetic myself; a bit confused, but seeing Richard in a new light. I was already dreading the evening coming to an end.
As he walked me back to my motorbike, I found myself wanting him to kiss me. But he made no move to and, shocked at the thought, I hastily pulled on my helmet. He was totally against type for me. Usually I’d gone for guys who played rugby, or had to wear business shirts to work, or enjoyed golf. Later, I’d find out he thought I was gay.
For the next few weeks, I tried to keep my distance and threw myself into work and hanging out with my roommates. I had a trip away for the magazine, and when I returned on a Sunday, tired, I ordered a pizza and sat down in my pajamas. Then, I got a text:
“Can you die from paint fumes?” Richard asked.
“Are you inhaling them?” I responded.
“I’m thinking about it.”
“Want to watch a film?”
“I’m in my pajamas and have ordered a pizza.”
“Okay, I’ll come to you. I’m on my way.”
Before I knew it, Richard was on my sofa and we were watching Beetlejuice. Then his friend pulled out of watching football with him. Then he missed the last bus. And then I offered for him to share my bed “as friends.” But we weren’t friends, not any more.
It was one of those nights where time no longer applied to us and the world turned without me and him. We were in a cocoon, talking and laughing, and then, finally, he kissed me.
It was in the pale, grey light of dawn and as the sun rose, so too did my realization. You can’t take a kiss back. Were we still friends? Did he want something more? Where do we go from here?
As Richard and I sat over coffee and greasy eggs in a dodgy cafe that morning, I got a text from another work friend, who I’d told the night before that Richard was on his way over:
“Is Richard okay?”
“Seems to be. I’ll call you later.”
“OMG YOU KISSED HIM DIDN’T YOU?”
My silence was all the confirmation she needed. Now someone else from work knew. A bunch of four-letter words ran through my head. Suddenly, I was resolute to stop this train before it got out of control. Everything was going well for me professionally and I didn’t want to risk being tainted or judged due to a romance.
But it was nearly impossible for me to ignore Richard. He made me laugh and I found his persistence to see me disarming. It was overwhelming that someone wanted to be with me so badly and I couldn’t help falling for him. We would sneak off to look for literary gold in secondhand book stores and have cheap dumplings in Chinatown. Once, we both called in sick and spent the day riding around the city on my motorbike, eating tacos and drinking cheap beer by the beach.
We hid it from our colleagues, acting vague and distant, even if we’d just spent the night together. I’d drop him off a few blocks from work so we didn’t arrive together. He would hide pastries for me in the photocopying room, emailing me instructions on how to find them, like a sweet treasure hunt.
As it got more serious, I told him that I didn’t want a relationship at work. (But if I’m being honest, it wasn’t just that. I was protecting myself, too, from being hurt.) When I told Richard I could no longer date a coworker, he seemed to understand. He nodded, but didn’t say much.
However, the next day, he had some news via text:
“So, I quit my job.”
“Well, you told me you didn’t want to date someone at work so…”
“So, you quit?”
The gesture was incredibly romantic. Suddenly, we no longer had a reason not to commit to one another and I realized someone willing to do that for me was worth letting my guard down for.
Within a year, we’d moved to London. Within three, he proposed while ice skating outside the Tower of London. And now, we are married with two kids. I’m so glad I helped him with that bowl of cereal, that I almost broke his neck in the ocean, and that he was brave enough to quit his job, all those years ago.