Taking the Lead
Alma and Angelica unpacked all the boxed first to see what materials had been shipped ahead of their arrival. Alma began sorting the contents into table displays, standing rack items, and giveaways while Angelica wrestled with the aging joins of the standing rack.
“Is this your first conference?” she asked Alma.
Alma nodded, smiling. “I hope we don’t have to be on duty in the exhibit hall the whole time,” she said. “There are some great workshops and interesting speakers.”
Angelica was glad she was stretching the rack canvas into place at that moment so Alma couldn’t see the sour look she felt twisting across her face. “Don’t worry,” she said. “That’s why there’s four of us. Between us, Bobbi, and Mr. Hernandez, you’ll have time to enjoy some of the conference.”
“Being in here will be nice, too,” Alma said hurriedly. “Getting to meet the other vendors, and all.” She smiled as Angelica stood the rack beside the table. “I know I’d like to talk to that guy in the red shorts for one. Did you see him?”
She’d seen him. Derek was always hard to miss, always came in on set-up days with brightly colored shorts and a t-shirt with some outrageous or inappropriate image or phrase. She’d been too far away to read his shirt as she’d entered the hall earlier, but she’d seen the frowning owl on his chest.
“You should be careful, Alma,” she said, smiling. “Plenty of guys come to these things with some definite ideas about after-hours fun.”
Alma blushed and started handing Angelica pamphlets and info sheets for the display. She knew what Angelica was talking bout — conference sex — exactly the thing her girlfriend Roxanne had teased her about. Roxanne said it was the only reason for lowly worker bees like her to go to conferences.
“You’ll be in that boring exhibit room all day every day,” she’d said. “Use it as an opportunity to check out your options.”
Alma wouldn’t be checking out any kinds of options. Roxanne described conferences as self-service candy shops, but Alma wasn’t interested.
She shook her head at Angelica. “None of that for me,” she said firmly. She looked toward the front of the hall, scanning for the guy who’d caught her attention. “Are you saying Red Shorts Man is one of those men?”
Was she saying that, Angelica asked herself. Was that fair? Yes, Derek had talked himself into her room and into her bed with a speed that still astounded her, but she’d been more than willing. And she’d been the one pushing away when he’d tried to maintain contact. She wondered what would have happened if she’d said yes to one of his invitations.
“Red Shorts Man is named Derek,” she said. “He’s a nice guy, I guess.”
Alma looked at her closely but said nothing. She arranged the table items in a loose square around a bowl that she’d fill with candies once the hall opened. She studied the table, considered arranging everything in alphabetical order, but dismissed the idea and looked back at Angelica.
“You and Derek … ?”
“There was no me and Derek, Alma,” Angelica said quickly. “Don’t let your imagination get crazy. He’s always at this conference, so I’ve seen him here for a few years. Not very exciting stuff.”
Alma smiled. She could feel there was more to that story, but if Angelica wanted to pretend she had no interest in Derek, that was fine.
Alma admitted that she hadn’t had more than a passing interest in him herself. Not until Angelica made him seem more interesting with all of her “I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying” talk.
What she was interested in, however, was the conference itself. She’d taken the job at the Women’s Center because the center’s work was important, not just because she needed a job. When Mr. Hernandez had said she’d be attending the conference, she’d seen it as a chance to learn and to network. She’d been surprised by her good fortune and determined to take full advantage.
“I think we’re done,” Angelica said. “We can stow the boxes under the table. Just slide the banner forward so it hangs low enough to hide them a bit.” She bent down and began nesting boxes together.
Of course, she thought. Because of course Derek would come over to say hello.
“Derek,” she said, trying an easy smile. She remained crouched behind the table. “Alma, this is Derek Lukas. Derek, my co-worker, Alma Flores.”
As Derek and Alma walked through the standard pleasantries, Angelica finished with the boxes and stood. She dusted her hands on her jeans, half wishing she’d worn a dress … and scolding herself for the wish.
“A few of us are going for drinks and dinner,” he said. “You ladies should join us.”
Both women smiled. Alma, feeling obligated to a show of loyalty with Angelica, thought it only right to decline the invitation. She started to shake her head, but when she did, Angelica smiled. The smile angered Alma, made her feel Angelica was playing some game that ended with her looking a fool. She grabbed her purse from her chair and let her head-shake punctuate her acceptance: “No need to ask me twice,” she said. “I’m starving!”
She didn’t feel entirely comfortable inserting herself into whatever was going on with Angelica, but she wouldn’t be manipulated, either. She smiled at Derek, waiting for him to lead the way.