They were back in the generously air-conditioned boardroom. It was a warm, sunny day outside, but all of the curtains were shut tight. She thought about the layer of air between the curtains and the windows. When there was a break she would go to the crack in the curtains, open it up and bask in the accumulated warmth.
She had been hired by the American company to sit in on the negotiations, to listen for any remarks the Russians let slip in their native tongue that would betray a lack of good faith. It was an atypical assignment and seemed to be completely unnecessary. Throughout the morning the language the Russians spoke, openly and enthusiastically, was that of greed, but a greed big enough for all to share. She did not see a lack of good faith at all, but only an annoyance that the Americans seemed reluctant to grab the opportunity afforded them.
After lunch the Americans looked well-fed and more relaxed. The Russians sensed this and acted less annoyed and more confident.
At the ends of the long table their CEOs sat, slightly removed and mostly silent. Both were small, gaunt and morose. Both wore impeccable dark suits. The American spoke just twice during the morning meeting, and both times Jerzy, his slick, dark-haired deputy, held up a hand, shushed the room, and leaned towards his boss with eager reverence. The Russian CEO, who had a slight tick in his left eye, was shown similar slavish deference by his underlings.
She relaxed into her role, which had taken on a ceremonial aspect. She smiled from speaker to speaker as before, but paid less attention to what was being said. She studied, instead, a fleck of spit in the corner of a mouth, the paisley pattern on a tie, the ghost of a diagram erased from a white board behind the speaker’s head. Often the speaker stopped talking before she had finished exploring the contours of his ear and she got out of sync.
The American CEO shifted in his seat and Jerzy placed his hand on Steven’s forearm. Steven stopped talking mid-sentence and all looked to the oracle at the end of the table. The oracle shifted again, and after a pregnant pause, a small belch escaped his lips. He raised his hand, palm down, and flicked his fingers forward twice, a gesture that clearly meant “Go on, you numbskulls.” Jerzy looked abruptly to Steven and Steven continued his sentence. She marvelled at the unspoken agreement to pretend that nothing had happened. She had been on the verge of bursting into laughter, but managed to avoid doing so.
She shivered again and actually blew into her hands and rubbed them together. A young Russian named Sergei smiled at her sympathetically. His eyes stayed on her momentarily, until this became awkward and he returned his attention to the speaker.
Just for fun she imagined the men around the table as penguins in an icy wasteland. The glossy white table and their uniformly dark suits made this easy. They waddled about, taking turns squawking at each other. How funny it would be for them to slide across the table on their bellies. She giggled involuntarily and then cleared her throat to cover it up. Nobody seemed to notice. They continued to squawk and chirp and preen.
After a while she noticed that she was having trouble switching the fantasy off. The men’s noses elongated; their arms flattened into paddle-like wings; their eyes became impenetrable animal eyes, stupid and stubborn and wise. Words emerged from their mouths, but though they sounded familiar they were disconnected and devoid of meaning. As she nodded from side to side she hoped that the birds would not notice her panic.
And then they were all looking at her, their smooth beaked faces on blubbery necks looking with obstinate animal instinct at the tropical interloper. Several long seconds of terror passed. She tried to think what appropriate word in their language would appease them.
But before she could let out a squawk, they shook their gaze, and she exhaled, and the meeting ended, finally. The men became men again as they shook hands and exchanged human pleasantries. Jerzy paid her in cash.
She emerged from the revolving doors into the late afternoon heat and sighed deeply as her skin defrosted. She turned to the sun, closed her eyes and let the warmth seep in.