It’s Wednesday afternoon, and I’m busy pretending to look at office supplies online as a cover for the conversation I’m having with my husband via text message. My Smartphone sits in my lap, and I sit in my cube, which isn’t even a real cube - it’s a computer monitor on a shelf underneath a row of cabinets with a divider along the right side to keep me from socializing too much with my coworkers. I’ve threatened to bore a hole into the divider with power tools and fashion a window out of clear sheet protectors and double sided tape, or failing that, paste a photo of my face on the other side of the wall so that it looks like I’m hanging out with my coworkers even when I’m on my side of what sometimes feels like a rodeo bucking chute.
On the left of my computer monitor is a color printer, which jerks to life when someone sends a job to it, and hiccups its way through the four colors of the printing rainbow: yellow, cyan, magenta, and black. If I’m feeling gracious, I pick up the printed sheets from the output tray and hand them to whoever sent the job over, if not, it’s owner walks behind me and reaches into the narrow space between my body and the printer, their arm appearing in my peripheral vision like a sun spot. I steal a glance at my phone to catch up on the latest communiqué from my husband. “My hand feels weird,” I write to him. “too much mousing or something different” he replies. “I mouse with the left, and this is my right. Must be all the handjobs I give you in my sleep,” I write back, and then quake with silent laughter at my own joke. A couple minutes pass with no response. “Is this thing on?” I type. “laughter, applause.” comes the answer, with a laughing, yellow-faced emoticon at the end.
I leave my desk to take advantage of the birthday cake in the break room, a sheet cake that makes an appearance on the last Wednesday of the month, with an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper taped onto the cake box that reads “Happy Birthday September Staff!”, which is almost as personal as: “It Is Your Birthday.” I cut off a piece with the plastic spatula that’s been brought into service, and plop the heaping pile of sugar onto a snack sized Styrofoam plate. The frosting is so sweet it makes me cough as if I’d accidentally walked through a dust cloud.
If you’d told me a year ago, or even six months ago, that this is how I would spend my time at work, I’d have been incredulous. I’ve been looking for a job for almost two and a half years now. I know, I have a job doing administrative work in a gym, but I mean a real job, one that I go to on purpose in the morning, and not just because I need the insurance and it makes me look like a better candidate if I have a current place of employment listed on my resume. I’ve had some promising leads, some near brushes with success, but like Charlie Brown winding up to kick the football out from under Lucy’s fingertips, I land on my cartoon ass every single time.
One of the directors thanks me profusely for entering codes into the database, which is pretty much like thanking me for having descended from apes. He tries to be gracious, but it comes off condescending. “Hey thanks so much for getting all those codes in so quickly, you’re a rock star,” he says, breezing past me. He uses the term “rock star” to fabricate a sense of camaraderie into our exchange, a sense of “we’re all in this together”, but what it sounds like is “thanks for using about as much brain power as Koko the gorilla.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been telling stories. It gives me something to be proud of, something to be good at, something to hone. I’ve told stories in front of audiences as small as twenty, and as large as seven hundred. I’ve told funny stories, and really sad ones. It keeps my brain alive. To make myself feel better at work, I post fliers and postcards for the readings that I appear at, and when the ape-loving director sees one, he says “Well I just have to say, I am impressed.” Impressed in the way that it’s impressive to watch Koko sign for a banana? Impressed in the way that it’s impressive that Koko knows how to use a keyboard? He is eight years younger than me and takes an aw shucks, you young ‘uns approach to our interactions, talking about the old days before he was married, when he used to be a performer himself, just like me.
My colleague C is getting married soon, and someone asks where she’s going on her honeymoon. “We’re going to Mexico, and we’re going to swim with dolphins,” she says. I mishear the word “dolphins” for “Daschunds”, and I tell her so. Together we fabricate a scenario where she swims with a pod of the tiny dogs, and has a very spiritual experience. “You don’t have to fly to Mexico to do that,” I tell her, “just get a whole herd of them into Lake Michigan with you, people will come from miles around to be part of it, you could start your own small business.” Taking on the persona of a Daschund swimming participant, I say “It was amazing, they’re so beautiful. They’re so smart; they knew I was pregnant before I did!”
C speaks in a secret code that’s not very hard to crack when she thinks she’s saying something dirty. While relating the plotline of a Sex & The City episode, she tells me that the characters were “doozin’ it”, and refers to the female genitalia as “cucini”. I look the word up to confirm a suspicion – it’s a conjugation of the Italian word “cucinare”, which means “to cook,” specifically: the present tense, second person singular. I inform her of this, and add that if she ever goes to Italy, and the need to describe her genitals arises, she might have to use a different word.
Initially I wrote C off as too young and way too perky to be anything but a pain in my ageing, bitter ass, but as we spent time together in the confines of the workplace I grew to understand that beneath that Noxzema-fresh exterior and can-do spirit is a girl just as dark and funny as any I’ve met. When I bought a new hairdryer she said “that’s better than using the ones in the locker room, there are ladies who dry their pubic hair with those.” I registered surprise. “You’ve never noticed that?” she asked. “I try to notice as little as possible in the locker room,” I explained, my mind reeling with countless images of sagging naked breasts and bent over asses, women of all ages and shapes in various states of undress. I have noticed that sometimes they sit naked on the benches, and I haven’t sat on one since, but I’ve never noticed anybody blow-drying their pubes. “Do you see them sometimes styling it?” I ask, “do people use product? Is anybody feathering their pubic hair into a Farrah Fawcett ‘do?”
I can’t see into the future; I have no idea how many of my Wednesday afternoons will be spent this way. When I do move on, I imagine that it will be a little bit like leaving prison. I haven’t had to wear civilian clothes or deal with rush hour crowds for over two years now. I go downtown so rarely that I get spooked by the wide streets and tall buildings, overwhelmed by the crowds of people surging past me. The blue line sounds so loud to me now that I plug my eardrums like a tourist when it rolls into the station, and I am genuinely shocked when confronted with the dichotomy of shoppers on Michigan Avenue and the homeless people who wander the same street in the hopes of a handout. Sometimes I think that in the time since I lost my job I’ve become feral, other times I feel like I’ve become the person I was meant to be.