Lean Against It | Robert Long Foreman 

48 mins read

I was walking into the building where I work. It’s on Illinois, off West Market. When I was halfway in, I heard a man shout, “He’s leaning against it!” 

I don’t know how to do justice to the way he said it. 

It’s a problem. The way he said it was important. 

He said it the way only a Black man in America can say things.

Or, no. That’s not true. People all over the world can say what they want, whatever way they want.

But the way he said it was really specific. 

“He’s leaning against it!” 

You have to write it that way, with bold letters and italics.

He emphasized “leaning” and “against,” but it wasn’t an equal emphasis. It was like he descended a foot deeper into the sentence when he said “against.” Like he was entering another dimension of speech, one that white guys like me never go to. The way he talked took him someplace I can’t venture. Or don’t venture.

I glanced around, to see what was going on.

I thought, for a second, that he must have been referring to me. I was the only other person in sight. 

But I wasn’t leaning. I was in motion. 

I wore my puffy, black coat, brown satchel on my shoulder.

When I looked the man’s way he glanced back at me. He was smiling big, mid-laugh. I thought for sure, then, that he had made a joke at my expense, one I didn’t understand. But wait. No.

I glanced again. Another man stood on his other side. A white guy. He’d come out from behind a wall. 

The Black man must not have said “He’s leaning against it!” about me after all. He’d only looked at me with a smile on his face because he was already smiling. I’d turned my head to look at him, and so he’d looked back.

Sometimes you can feel it, when a person looks at you out of nowhere, the way I had looked at him then.

I’m certain that feeling is universal, that it transcends boundaries between nations and ethnicities. You can feel a gaze when it’s on you, especially when it’s applied there by a stranger. 

And then I was inside the building, looking at things in the building. I was moving on, into my day. 

When I got to my desk, my boss, Jim, was waiting for me. He gave me a hard time about getting to work on time.

I showed him the time on my phone. It said I was three minutes early. 

He wouldn’t listen. He pointed to the office clock, which said I was two minutes late. I didn’t say it to his face, but phone clocks trump all other clocks. The time on your phone is the world’s time. The right time. Always. 

But instead I said, “I don’t know. Yeah. I’ll be on time tomorrow.” 

“That’s right you will,” Jim growled as he stormed off, his face bright red.

Things have been weird, since COVID.

They haven’t been weird for me physically. I didn’t get COVID. 

I was one of the lucky ones, who could work from home. My company let me do it for two years solid, and I never went out unless I absolutely had to. For two years I stayed safe in my apartment, going out for walks and almost nothing else. 

I wore masks, washed my hands like it was my favorite thing in the world, and stayed alone. It was glorious.

I loved working from home. 

I could nap when I felt like it. I could eat literally all the time—and I did, the first year, before I realized how much weight I had gained and curbed my consumption.

But I had such freedom. I could masturbate at eleven in the morning on a Wednesday. I could do anything I wanted, as long as I got my work done.

Sometimes I worked in sweatpants. Sometimes I wore nothing at all.

It wasn’t a sexual thing, wearing nothing. Sometimes it just feels good to work naked.

I put on clothes when I had meetings. I never slipped up and exposed myself to people. When I masturbated, my camera was off. I made sure.

I don’t know why I’ve mentioned masturbation twice so far. I don’t have a compulsion. But I wanted those two years to last longer. I wanted to extend the clothing-optional work-from-home experience. I wanted to work from home forever. 

Alas, the bosses wanted me back. They recalled their employees to the office, and I had to go. The bosses, I guess, missed seeing my wonderful face.

Or, no.

Their decision to recall us was about control, about making sure my glorious eyes, mouth, and nose are where the people in charge have decided they must be. It’s about showing me it’s up to them not only what I do all day but where I do it.

Most of the people I used to work with are gone. They got other jobs, where they could keep working from home, and they probably get paid more, there, too.

Jim the supervisor is new. He joined the company mid-pandemic.

He’s not as nice in person as he was on Zoom. I don’t know why. 

I was at lunch, the next time I heard that man say the thing he had said about leaning. I’d brought my lunch to work. I was in the eating area.

It’s like a cafeteria, only the bosses were careful to make it look unlike a cafeteria. It smells like a cafeteria, but it looks more like a lounge. A food lounge. A place where you can eat, but you can do other stuff, too, theoretically. 

All anyone does there is eat. 

I was there to chow down on the chicken curry I’d made the night before. 

And there it was, out of nowhere.

“He’s leaning against it.”

I didn’t whip my head around this time. I turned my head slowly, trying to act casual. It was the same Black man, standing by the door to the men’s room with another man. I hadn’t gotten a good look at his clothes, before. I did this time. 

He wasn’t dressed business-casual, like me and my colleagues. He had on a blue work uniform, like he was a maintenance worker. He was talking to a white man, a bald guy with a goatee, who was dressed in the same kind of work uniform. They were laughing. It was a different white man from before. 

And then he said it again. 

“He’s leaning against it!” 

They laughed. Louder this time than before. 

They weren’t laughing at me. That was for damn sure. 

Not only was I not leaning against anything. The two men were all the way across the room, and it’s a large room. They weren’t looking at me, and there were people between me and them. If they were talking about anyone, it would have been one of them. 


Some part of me assumes, when he hears laughter, that it’s directed at him. 

I hear a laugh. A man’s laugh. 

I think, Oh, no. Not again. 

I was bullied as a kid. It was on and off throughout my youth, but when it was on it was relentless. 

Even my best friends bullied me. They made fun of my big glasses—I wear contacts, now—and they laughed at my teeth, which I can’t change. They’re too small for my face and always will be. They said the cruelest things. 

And they were funny. That was the real problem. 

Their jokes were gold. One of the guys who razzed me every day is a famous comedian, now. You know his name, but I won’t say it here. 

It was the worst. I can’t watch standup specials without feeling, deep down, like the jokes are at my expense. 

So I’ve always been alert among people. And it’s been worse since the pandemic than ever. Ever since my grand isolation, I put every interaction under great scrutiny. Grand scrutiny. When I pass someone on my way to the copier, or my way back from the copier, even if we don’t say a word to one another, or so much as trade a glance, I spend the next five minutes at my desk analyzing the way that person was walking, the way I was walking, asking myself why they didn’t say hi or look at me, trying to determine if it meant something—if I was being weird, or if they were, or if no one was and we were both just busy. It’s not like you need to have a reason to not speak to someone you hardly know, when you pass them on the way to or from a copier. I think about this stuff all the time, now.

It’s exhausting. And when I’m at work I can’t go to the next room and masturbate, to mitigate the stress it causes. 

I mean, I could. I have access to many restrooms. 

But I’m telling the truth, when I insist I’m not that wild about masturbation. I don’t know why I keep bringing it up. 

There’s nothing I can do at the office to reduce stress. That’s all. I can’t smoke half a joint, can’t lie down and stare at the ceiling. I can’t take a break for Pilates, which was another thing I did in the nude when I was at home, not because I’m a freak but because I could. 

I called my mother. 

I had to tell someone about the “He’s leaning against it” thing, and it had been a while since I’d called my mother anyway. 

She listened as I told her about it. 

“Who is it that said that again?” she asked. 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I know who he is.” 

“Well, who is he?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“But you just said you know who he is.” 

“I’ve just seen him. I think he’s, like, a janitor or something. He’s this Black guy.”

“Well, there you go,” said my mother. 

I paused. 

“What does that mean?” I said. 

“What do you think it means?” she said. 

“I think it means something I don’t agree with.” 

“Oh, come on, Blake,” my mother sighed. 

“What do you mean, ‘come on?’” 

My mom’s not a racist. 

Or. She is, actually. But she’s not, like, an n-word racist. She doesn’t say the n-word. She’s always just lived in the same small town in southern Indiana that’s full of white people. She’s never left her comfort zone, and her comfort zone is monochrome. Or it’s non-o-chrome, since white’s not a real color, and that’s what everyone is where she lives. 

It’s where I grew up. I live in Indianapolis, now, but that little town will always be the place that shaped me. I spent my youth adrift in a sea of straight hair and pale flesh. 

I’ve never held my mother to account for her racism. I’ve never done that to anyone. I should say I’ll never speak to her again if she won’t respect all races, colors, and creeds. Or I should come up with a more effective way to confront her about the stuff she says when she says it. 

But as it is, every time it comes up—which isn’t often—I point out to her in my clumsy fashion that she’s got some bad ideas she should get looked at. 

She always responds the same way. 

She says, “Blake, I’m old. I’ve seen things. And I probably won’t be around much longer. You won’t need to keep putting up with me.” 

What am I supposed to say to that? 

She’s my mother. 

I went on a date, a few days after I talked to her, with someone I had messaged with on Tinder while in isolation. 

I hadn’t been on a date in more than two years. 

Before the pandemic, I didn’t date often. I have nearly always been single. 

And I don’t mean I’ve been single like I’ve been actively single. The way singles are single. A “single in your area” kind of single. 

I don’t sleep around much, is what I’m saying, like a lot of guys do. Girls, too. Or women, I mean. I’m not a pedophile. 

“I’m not a pedophile” is the kind of thing you can’t say when you’re on a date, even when it’s true, which in my case it undoubtedly is. 

I didn’t say it on my date with Sue. 

She had brown hair. She was thirty-three—five years older than me. She was divorced, and the divorce had been recent. 

A pandemic divorce! 

But she seemed like she had a good head on her shoulders. She ordered pasta. I ordered lasagna, and drank twice as much wine as she did. 

I was taking long, frequent drinks of wine because I was in a state of extreme sensory overload. The restaurant was crowded with people. Everywhere I looked, I saw the face of someone I hadn’t seen before. They were out for the night and looking good. It wasn’t a fancy restaurant, but it was the kind of place where you make sure you’re clean before you go inside. You brush your hair and don’t wear sweatpants. I had on slacks and a shirt with buttons. 

It was overwhelming, being in the presence of so many faces, so many bodies and their exhaled germs, which were maybe the worst germs around, the ones that will kill you. Across the table was a gorgeous woman with brown hair, straight teeth, and a pert nose—my favorite kind of nose—who was talking about her job, her family, and all the other things you hear when you’re getting to know someone. 

It was a lot, after having spent two years in the presence of so little. 

I don’t know how the wait staffs did it, the ones who weren’t laid off when COVID first hit, and whose places of work weren’t put out of business in the months that followed. I mean. A bunch of waiters died. And waitresses. 

But I don’t know how the survivors did it. All that time, for those two years, they had to gaze upon an endless parade of faces and sweep through rooms full of air those faces exhaled. Even the wait staff that never got sick must have lived in fear of getting sick, like I do now when I leave the house. 

Amid that madness, Sue and I discussed friendship. 

I said, “There really is nothing like a good friend. I mean. It’s friendship.” 

She nodded, sipped her wine, and said, “Yes. It is.” 

I said, “Could you humor me for a second?” 

She said, “Sure,” in this flirtatious way, drawing out the vowel and a bit of the R that came after.

We were having a good time.

I said, “This guy at work said something I overheard. And it’s, like, gotten into my head.”


“Can I tell you what it is?” I asked. 

She nodded. 

I said, “He’s leaning against it.” 

I said it the way I say things, not the way the man who’d said it said it. 

“Okay,” she said. “Who was leaning?” 

“No one. That’s just it. There wasn’t anyone around but me and him and this other guy. No one was leaning against anything.” 


“But there’s, like,” I said, “I don’t know. Something about the way he said it seemed weird. The emphasis he put on the words.” 

“What was the emphasis?” 

“It’s hard to explain. One word was emphasized, but the next one was emphasized even more. Like he was sinking lower as he said it.” 

“Can you say it like he said it?” 

I took a deep breath. She blinked. 

I said, “He’s leaning against it.” 

And, of course—of course!—at the precise moment I said that the restaurant got quiet. And because you can’t say “He’s leaning against it” like the Black man did without raising your voice, at least a little, everyone heard me. 

People looked. 

I wanted to die. I wanted to stab my eyes out with the lasagna fork, so people would focus on that and not on the thing I’d said.

But I got it. I understood what was going on. 

Now that I’d said “He’s leaning against it” in a public place, I was the guy who had been overheard saying “He’s leaning against it.” It was like those letters people used to get, when they got letters, that said you had to send a similar letter to five people or else you’d be cursed. 

Someone in the restaurant would be bothered by the thing I’d said, which I was only saying because it bothered me when I heard it. They would repeat it, and it would trouble someone new. “Are you okay?” asked Sue. 

I said, “I’m fine.” 

“You look worried.” 

“I’m always worried, Sue. Do you see what I mean, though?” 

“Yes. Are you sure he wasn’t telling a story?” 

“What do you mean?” 

Sue shrugged. “If there was no context for what he said, maybe he provided the context. By telling a story. About somebody leaning.” 

“That makes sense,” I said. 

It really did. I should have thought of it on my own. 

Anyway. Sue and I talked about other things and had sex. Not at the restaurant. We were at my apartment. The place where I did all that masturbating. 

She didn’t stay over, which was good. To go from not even going out for two years to going out and bringing someone home and boning the hell out of her was a lot. I didn’t need to add waking up with her to that equation. 

On the Monday that followed, I didn’t see the guy who’d said “He’s leaning against it.” I didn’t see him until that Thursday. 

He was in the hallway. We passed one another. 

I looked at him. He looked at me, and nodded. 

I nodded back. 

It was really good. 

I didn’t feel like I’d made some kind of breakthrough, when the guy nodded at me that way. But it felt good to be acknowledged, and to acknowledge in return. 

I’m not kidding, when I say I didn’t go out for the two-year pandemic. 

I didn’t socialize. I barely even shopped for groceries. 

I have a strong family history of agoraphobia. So you could say that a man like me is ideal for surviving a pandemic. I’m the guy who thrives when he can’t go anywhere or do anything. I lived it up in my apartment with such abandon, I forgot the joys of simple interactions like that one with the Black man. 

And I won’t lie. I’ll admit it. I felt like something special had happened, there in that hallway, because the man was Black. 

I don’t think this makes me a racist, in that weird way in which people are racist when they think they’re heroes because they’ve made Black friends. The way they prize those connections is conspicuous. It indicates a kind of inverted way in which they don’t consider Black people to be on the same level as them. They think they’re like Pokémon. They want to catch them all, but with friendship. 

I don’t know anyone who’s done that, I admit. But I’ve known the sort of white people who go out of their way to say they saw The Blind Side in theaters, and that they loved it. Or they brag that they’ve watched every season of The Wire more than once. 

It’s okay to do that stuff. Watch what you want. But some people seem to wear it as a badge of their racial enlightenment. 

This wasn’t like that. I swear. I’m not enlightened at all, about anything.

And while it pains me to admit this, I’ve never really had a Black friend. 

I’ve had Black acquaintances, and coworkers. I’ve known Black people. 

But could I have ever confided in one? 


And it’s not that I never wanted that. It’s that for most of my life I’ve been surrounded by white people. 

And even though they’re more like me than anyone, I have a hard time talking to white people, too. I’m awful with all people. Except Sue, I guess. She was easy to talk to because we both wanted sex from each other. I know how to manage that circumstance. 

But now I was out of isolation. I was out of the apartment. I was like a caterpillar emerging from the bag thing it creates so it can be a butterfly. And now that I was out, now that America had declared its long crisis was finally over, I wanted my life to be different.

I thought maybe the new me, the post-COVID me, who never got COVID, could be a better, stronger person than he once was. 

I thought maybe I should have Black friends. 

Jim asked how things were going. He came to my desk to check in. 

I said things were good. We talked about the Colts. 

I hate the Colts, and all of football, but as we were talking Carl came over and asked about the guy who’d said that thing. 

I had told him about the Black man. Now he was asking about him. 

And of course Jim wanted to know what Carl was talking about. 

I didn’t want to tell him, but I did. I repeated what the Black man had said. 

“Tell me what this guy looks like again?” said Jim. 

I hadn’t told him what he looked like. But I did. 

I said, “He’s a big guy. Six feet.” 

“Wide?” he asked. 

“No,” I said. “Six feet tall.” 

“Yeah, but is he a wide guy?” 

“Oh. Not as wide as some. Sure, though.” 



Jim nodded. “I know Wallace.” 

“That’s his name?” 

“Oh yeah.” 

“Cool,” I said. 

Jim changed the subject, to the subject of work. 

He said I needed to get certain files on his desk. I said I’d get them there soon. He said, “Blake. Enough.” 

His face was red again. 

“What?” I said, not meaning to challenge him. I was just asking what. 

“I’ve had enough of this pussyfooting around,” he said. “That’s what. We’re not here to shoot the shit, we’re here to get it done.” 

He stormed off, leaving me feeling embarrassed. 

Carl walked away. 

I saw Sue again that Friday. She came over again and stayed this time. 

It was good to have someone in the apartment with me. It was good to not be alone. And I like sex.

We stayed up late and watched Netflix. Sue showed me a show she’d been watching. It was about people in their twenties who go to parties and take lots of showers. At one of the parties, there was this really funny part where someone shouted, “He’s leaning against it!”

“Holy shit,” I said, sitting up. 

“What?” said Sue. 

“That’s the thing. The thing the guy said.” 

“What guy?” 

“I told you about this. The guy at work. Wallace.” 

“I don’t remember this,” said Sue. 

“You don’t?” I asked. 

She shrugged. 

I guess, I thought, nothing I say ever matters or is worth remembering, by anyone. Or maybe it just didn’t seem that important to Sue. 

I sat back and said, “Huh.” 

She leaned against me again with her whole body. 

I liked Sue. A lot. 

I saw Wallace again the next morning, on my way into the building. He was standing, like before, with a different guy from before. 

As soon as I saw him, in my head I told myself, Leave that man alone, Blakey Boy!

Seriously, I thought, he probably doesn’t want to talk to you

I believe in leaving people alone. I really do. 

But the pandemic was long, and like the caterpillar and its bag house thing, I didn’t come out of it the way I went in. 

Or I didn’t think I had to be the same guy I was before. I thought I could make myself new. Like a butterfly. 

I approached Wallace. 

I said, “Hey.” 

He looked at me. 

“I heard your name’s Wallace,” I said. “I’m Blake.” 

“Hello,” he said, leaning on the O at hello’s end. 

“I hate to interrupt,” I said, sweeping my hair back with one hand—a nervous habit—“but I heard what you said the other day. The leaning against it thing?” 

“Yeah?” he said, his friend watching me, smirks pulling at their mouths. 

“And then,” I said, “I watched that show. And I heard it on there, too. It was really weird. Anyway.” 

“All right,” Wallace said. 

“I just thought I’d say that.” 

“It’s cool. You like that show?” 

“Sure,” I said. “It’s pretty good.” 

He nodded in agreement—maybe because he agreed, or maybe because he sought the path of least resistance and wanted me to leave. 

I may have been up to my excessive social analysis again. 

Is that my problem? 

Is that one of the big problems with white people, or the ones that are like me? We look for signs and significance in all interactions, and we turn the dial up on our meaning-meters whenever we talk to nonwhite people? It makes us act like the dumbest shitheads in the world? I don’t know.

A lot of people are nuts. Others are just loaded with hate. Like my mom, I guess. But at least I knew better than to artificially extend my conversation with Wallace. I didn’t try to get more out of him, and pin him to the wall of that building with my tenacious desire to bridge the divide between races. 

I smiled and said, “All right.” 

He held out his fist. 

I didn’t grab his fist and shake it. 

That’s the most embarrassing thing in the world, when someone offers a fist to bump but instead you grab it like it’s a handle that will dispense a special prize if you pull it. But the prize is that you feel more completely stupid than you have in weeks. 

I left and walked into the building. 

I got to my desk and saw Jim. 

“Hey,” Jim said. 

“Hey,” I said. “Hi Jim.” 

He held up a hand, as if to stop me, and said, “I wanted to talk to you about that guy. Wallace.”


“I saw you talking to him. Outside?” 

“Yeah,” I said. “I think we’re friends, now.” 


“Ah. Not really. I just talked to him.” 

“You’re sure everything’s all right?” he asked. 

“What do you mean?” I said. 

He shrugged. 

I said, “I think everything’s fine.”

“It’s just—Blake.” He got quiet, moved a little closer. “I know how things are,” he said. I thought, What is my boss even talking about

“Everything’s fine,” I said. 

“Come here,” he said. 

I went with him. To his office. 

He shut the door behind us. His office has a window, and the blinds weren’t drawn, so if something weird happened people would see. 

I said, “Is everything all right?” 

He said, “Yeah.” And he looked at the floor, in a way that contradicted the word “Yeah.” It made his “Yeah” sound more like “Nah.” 

I said, “What’s up, Jim?” 

He said, “It’s just. This pandemic.” 

I thought, This is getting interesting

“I’m not sure about anything anymore,” he said. “You know? I’ve been working for this company for eight months, and it’s only now I’m meeting real people. In person. It’s like sensory overload, being here. Just because I’m not used to it. 

“I’m around people,” he said. “I haven’t been around people at all. Like, I took the pandemic seriously. I never went out.” 

“Me neither,” I said. 

“I thought so,” he said. 

Jim looked really worried. Like he was on the edge of something and might fall off. Which he was, I guess. Like I was, too, and Wallace, probably. Maybe Wallace’s edge was different, but not by much, I bet. 

COVID was a storm that smashed all boats and left us clinging to driftwood, no matter who we were. 

Some people got nicer driftwood than others. The people who had yachts when it hit remained in their yachts. 

But since the pandemic came and went—and I’m really not sure it went, though everyone says it did, and I work in an office again—not many people I know are standing tall, like we once were. We’re all leaning—against what, I don’t know. It, I guess. 

Jim said, “I’ve been on your ass ever since we came back here. I don’t mean to be. It’s just—I don’t know.” 

He whimpered. His face scrunched. 

I put my hand on his shoulder. 

He put his arms around me. He gave me a really big hug and held me there. 

Now I wished he had drawn the blinds in his window, because I didn’t want anyone to see us. I didn’t want anyone to be jealous because our asshole boss was hugging me and not them. And so. 

In one morning, I’d fist-bumped a Black man and hugged my crying boss. Two things had taken place that I didn’t see coming when I woke up. 

A week later, Sue would get COVID. 

I wouldn’t catch it from her, somehow. But she wouldn’t be the same. Her COVID would become Long COVID, and we would stop seeing one another because she would have to quit her job and move in with her parents in Bloomington. Her memory was shot, as were her lungs and stamina. Getting out of bed in the morning made her feel exhausted. 

I’d be alone again. No more Sue. 

And I’d learn, later on, that despite how I was back at the office, and the news was saying the pandemic was over, the hospitals had refilled. A line on a graph had resumed its morbid climb. The authorities ordered refrigerated trucks, to store fresh corpses inside. 

But I’ll never forget that morning when I thought things really might be different. When I thought I might change and this would all get better. I was starting to fall in love and might even make a Black friend. 

It was a time when I thought this might really be it. 

But it wasn’t it

And? Honestly? 

I don’t know that it was anything at all.

Robert Long Foreman’s most recent books are WEIRD PIG and I AM HERE TO MAKE FRIENDS. He has won awards that include a Pushcart prize, and his short fiction and essays have appeared in Crazyhorse, Agni, Wigleaf, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere.