The cafeteria, a guy named Marc, and then there’s me.
“Where’s the water?” I ask.
“Over here,” says Marc.
He walks over to a corner, takes a glass from a plastic tray, turns on the faucet, and fills his glass to the brim. It’s a relatively straightforward procedure, and Marc is quite modest about his own abilities. His gaze drifts into the distance, even though the cafeteria isn’t particularly large, as he sips his water. And he begins to walk, mind you. A graceful balance, a completely confident move on his part, ensuring that not a single drop goes anywhere other than down his eager throat.
He must have worked here for many years.
But I’ve just started, and by the time I look for Marc, I’ve already forgotten exactly how he did it. I walk over to the faucet, but a white-haired man beats me to it. He rushes in from my left side and has already grabbed a glass from my right side. He must have overtaken me while I was looking for Marc, and now he’s too thirsty to wait.
Behind me, a younger woman steps up, followed by a man I think I’ve seen before. Maybe his name is Brad. He gives me a brief but scrutinizing glance and probably thinks the same as me. Did you come from a previous job? Were you the annoying one who always talked about his Toyota? And why are you staring a half-second too long like that? Do you think I seem sneaky? I’m not. It’s YOU who’s sneaky.
I’m still caught between the white-haired man and the two others, and after the showdown with Brad, it’s now impossible to leave. Both physically and mentally. I mustn’t appear weak. Not to such a sneaky man I probably wouldn’t even like.
But where were the water glasses? Why can’t they just be right under the faucet? For heaven’s sake, they’re six feet behind, right next to Brad. I take a step past the younger woman who doesn’t move and grab a glass from the tray.
And now Brad can really see that he doesn’t like me. As if he can perfectly recognize people who can’t figure out how to deal with water. He smiles a little, in that crooked way where he knows exactly where he has me.
I step back to the faucet, where the older man has disappeared. There’s only me and the shiny round mini-pole. Some modern thing where the faucet points straight into the air over a very low sink that can’t handle too much splashing. And with a tap that sticks inconspicuously out from the top and seemingly can swivel in all directions like the joystick in a fighter jet.
Can I handle this strange faucet? The answer is no. I turn it the wrong way a few times, and Brad and the younger woman sigh in unison, undoubtedly wondering who this fool is who’s disrupting their usual routines and can’t even handle a faucet.
Finally, I succeed – but not without splashing a bit off the glass and sink. With a wet hand and a trembling, half-filled glass, I hurry over to the table where a small group of new colleagues is sitting. Hopefully, Brad doesn’t work in their department. And no, he doesn’t. He goes far away, disappearing toward a glass enclosure.
I survived this time.
The next day is a bit calmer. I’m prepared now. I know where the faucet is. I know where the glasses are. I think I remember how the faucet works.
But I don’t. When it’s my turn, I turn right on the tap – mind you, while I’m also holding my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the same hand, tightly wrapped in their aluminum foil world and turning into modeling clay – and nothing happens. I fumble a bit up and down with that darn tap, and in my nervousness, I overcompensate when I finally manage to turn it to the left.
The stream splashes all over the place, and I haven’t held the glass at the right angle with my left hand. In fact, I’ve completely forgotten about my left hand.
With this type of faucet, you almost have to hold the opening of the glass directly in front of the tap and preferably with the entire glass lying down in your hand so the bottom acts a bit like a shield to catch most of the pressure. Then you have to quickly tip the glass down until you find the right strength for the stream. When you’re seasoned, it’s second nature, but I’ve only been here two days, and as I stagger over to my new colleagues, I already know it’ll be a tough battle to down the peanut butter with only one inch of water in the glass.
I’m starting to get to know the place a bit. I’ve begun to sense the immense interest in the faucet and the immediate lack of astonishment that there’s only one of its kind for three hundred people.
Today, however, I plan to wait until there’s less competition to demonstrate my knowledge of water culture. I stand about fifty feet away with my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil in my right hand and a left hand ready to grab a glass. And at some point, I finally see my chance. There’s no line. I stride over to the tray of glasses, pick one up, and turn toward the faucet.
And this is where the seasoned pros really demonstrate their vast knowledge. Two of them are already in front of me, and I have no idea where they came from. What’s more impressive: they already have glasses. It turns out they picked up a glass from the tray before going to select the overly expensive food from the cafeteria. They are, so to speak, prepared for the battle of the water queue. And they exploit my sloppy inexperience as easily as crocodiles snapping at a sight and hearing-impaired antelope that lost its legs in a landslide.
And as I watch in amazement as they fill their glasses with an enthusiasm that has already carried their feet away before the last drop hits the glass, I just have to admit that it will be a long time before I achieve their competence. I’m the small player here. The cautious man who will probably have a dry mouth from his peanut butter for many days to come.
Okay. I know about the sneaky tactics of the others. I know that people can come rushing in from all sides, and there’s not much order around the waterhole. But despite all that, I’m better off than the guest someone has brought along, who has lost contact with the other course participants. She looks at me very cautiously as I enter the cafeteria to get my daily fix of free water and then exposes her absolute lowest position in the hierarchy by asking me where to get water.
I find it quite amusing because it’s a shame she can’t figure it out for herself. It’s right there in the corner. I tell her with an understanding – perhaps overly understanding – grimace. Like when talking to a three-year-old with learning difficulties. And I feel really sweet. Of course, I want to help a three-year-old with learning difficulties. It’s not like an 80-year-old with learning difficulties, whom you lose patience with quite quickly for some reason. No, there’s still hope for her here. Probably not much hope, because she can’t even figure out how to get water, but her immediate naivety at least gives me a glimmer of hope that others will also want to help her in the future. Because she’ll need it.
I lead her with very confident steps toward the faucet. I show her the tray where the water glasses are supposed to be, and then my smile freezes.
She can see it immediately, and she is definitely not amused by my failure. On the contrary, she looks even more frightened. She knows that we’re now in the same boat and must fight our way out of this. And my bewildered grimace reveals exactly how inexperienced I am in the intricacies of water culture. That I’m actually the worst person she could be in the same boat with on this fateful day.
There are no more glasses.
There are no damn glasses on that damn tray, and it initiates a completely new scenario that I have never been through before. Where do you get new glasses? Whom should you ask?
There’s a crisis. The three-year-old with learning difficulties and me, the Toyota idiot, stand shoulder to shoulder and stare into space like two lost baby gnus separated from their mommy, but we know we shouldn’t bellow too loudly, or the lion will come. We just stare, first at the cash register, where people pay for their food, and where the cafeteria lady is so busy that she’ll never notice us. And even though the door to the kitchen is open, we can’t see anyone through it.
“Well, I’m not really that thirsty,” we lie to each other and go our separate ways.
Later in the day, I still have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich left. And even though I managed to fill my face with water from the restroom sink after lunch, I’m still so parched that I’m afraid I’ll never produce saliva again.
Some time has passed now. I’ve picked up even more of the water culture. I’ve understood that I don’t need to hold my sandwich in the same hand I’m turning the tap with. There’s a nice little metal shelf in front of the faucet where you can place your tray or whatever while focusing on getting water.
And I . . . I’ve become REALLY cool!
I strut right over to the faucet, grab a glass, and thump my peanut butter and jelly sandwich down on the shelf. Hell yeah! It goes thunk, and I’m already turning the faucet at the right angle – not too hard and not too soft, and after a few seconds, I’m out of there.
I pass by Brad, whom I now figured out is named James, and he looks quite impressed by me. He looks almost a bit disappointed because I’ve learned the waterhole so well. The idiot probably still remembers his early days in the queue, fumbling around to quench his thirst.
I don’t know exactly where I know him from, but we also work in entirely different parts of the company. And for the same reason, I’m fine with still finding him sneaky. I don’t know precisely what it is about him, but it’s just there. And I certainly won’t start running around calling him James. He’s Brad, and he’s a giant jerk.