IN THE MARGINS • by Alex McNicoll

During the day, Paul gave his opinions on things. Pencils, backpacks, decorative yard rocks, things like that. No one read his opinions except for the people who commissioned the people that he worked for. His desk was on the 12th floor of a big gray midtown skyscraper that looked like a middle finger to the glass buildings around it, but he only had to go in on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

At night, Paul would dream about a 13” x 10” bristol board painted sky blue with bunny shaped clouds here and there. He floated above the board and held a big paint brush that was nearly as tall as he was. In one stroke, he made a deep green hillside with a creek running through. Paul blew gently on the bristol board, and each blade danced in the cool breeze. A perfect landscape, if he did say so himself.

Paul didn’t always used to write opinions. When he was thirteen he found his ring-bound storyboard notebook in the kitchen trash can. Paul drew a comic about a superhero named Mystery Man, who had invisibility powers but was gullible and prone to getting crushes on his nemeses. The pulpy paper was too thick to bend, so someone gave up ripping it and drowned it in beer instead.

When Paul asked his dad about it, he said, “If you have free time, play football.”

Paul picked up coffees for the rest of his team on Mondays. He used to buy his boss a decaf caramel iced latte as a little act of rebellion. He stopped because Maggie also ordered a caramel iced latte and he didn’t want her to take the decaf one by mistake.

Maggie wrote opinions too, but on things above his pay grade like public school lunches and toxic masculinity. When she joined Paul’s team, she started to print out her opinions and ask him to proofread them. He would leave notes in the margins like “move the noun here” or “delete an adjective there.” Sometimes he’d draw little doodles if liked the opinion but he didn’t have anything to add. A panda bear on an Op-Ed about frequent forest fires or a trolley on a column about America’s “crumbling” infrastructure.

Every Wednesday they’d do the trade-off — an exchange of whatever articles they were working on that week. Co-authors and writing credits were a serious business around the office, so the trade-off had to be top secret. Maggie would give Paul “The Pros and Cons of a Wealth Tax” and he would give her “Benefits of a Yard Rock Collection in 2023.”

One day, Paul wrote a note in the margins of her article asking if she’d like to get dinner together after work. That afternoon, he got an email saying that while she unfortunately had plans with a friend that evening, Maggie would love to check out the new Indian place that opened up near the office together that Friday. He replied that that sounded great, and he couldn’t wait.

On Friday, Maggie wore a red dress with white polka dots. It was low cut, so she wore a gray sweater on top. It made Paul excited to know that she had gotten dressed up for him, like there was another side of her that only he would get to meet. The polka dots reminded him of a shading technique used in his favorite comic books from when he was a kid.

During lunch Paul grabbed a card from the corner store — quickly, so no one could see. He hunched over his desk and drew a four panel comic in the card about a character he’d been working on. The lines were sketchy and his hands were trembling. A cactus, a cobra, a hero, a kiss. When he was done, he folded the card and crammed it into his jacket pocket.

Paul didn’t know that it would be the kind of intimate restaurant that put candles on the tables, and Maggie said she didn’t know either. They laughed about what their interviews were like, how Jeff in accounts was always out of breath from holding boxes, and if it was too presumptuous to tell HR about their rendezvous yet. HR only needed to get involved if there was a kiss, they agreed. And a big one, not just a little peck.

They were splitting an order of gulab jamun when the waiter left the bill on the table. That was when Maggie said that she didn’t want to be at the paper forever and how she had mixed feelings about their parent company. She told him about her scripts and what she went to school for and how one of her pieces got shortlisted for an award. She asked if he’d want to read them sometime.

Paul thought about his bristol boards and if there was another side of him that was left for her to see. The card with the four panel comic on it ached in his coat pocket and he wondered if she would like a guy who wrote little notes that probably didn’t matter in the margins of someone else’s story. Paul reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.

“Only when you’re ready,” he said, and he put his credit card on the check.

Alex McNicoll is a born-and-raised New Yorker who drinks iced-coffee year round. He is a copywriter by trade and a fiction writer by hobby. Alex currently lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with his girlfriend.

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