by Clara Cristofaro
The office ladies have opinions. They’ve been here longer than you. They’ve worked in this office since you were in university, twenty years ago.
They remember teletype machines and Christmas parties with booze, held right here in the office, with the director’s blessing. One year, the office held a slave auction to raise money for charity. It was all in good fun. The slaves had to do things like take their new masters shopping for cute clothes, or make them coffee in the morning.
They judge celebrity diets, political policy, the barista's new hairstyle. They judge strangers and friends. Only their own children are off limits. One sometimes talks about the other’s children but whispered, behind a hand. The office ladies observe their own rules.
You share stories about your young sons. The older one dreamy and clumsy, the younger one stubborn and pedantic. The office ladies laugh. They run their fingers lightly over the photos of your children you fasten with magnets to your overhead cabinets. They love the funny one, where your youngest scowls at an off-camera Santa Claus.
They remember the mornings after no sleep, viruses and teething. They sympathize with your puffy eyes. When you're late, cradling your travel mug of coffee, they don’t mention it.
You are here to make money, not a career. The office ladies appreciate that you have no stake in their territory.
Though weary of their work, they are proud of lasting this long. Some Fridays they lean against the walls, paper cups of coffee in hand, and pass stories like special beads unstrung from an old necklace. The high-level man who slept with a client. The woman who stole a co-worker’s diamond ring -- a ring that should never have been worn to work in the first place.
The office lady who is your supervisor tells you a story on your first day.
You can take your lunch break whenever you want, she says. Just tell me when you go.
And you should definitely come back.
Of course, you say.
No, there was this woman, she says.
The brand new employee left for lunch on her first day and never came back. Everyone was worried. Maybe she'd been attacked, or hit by a car. But she called later that afternoon and quit on the spot.
You and your supervisor shake your heads. It is ludicrous to leave a job halfway through your first day. Laughable. If there is a crumb of doubt in your brain, you push it to the back.
She sat right here, your supervisor says, pointing to an empty desk that is now yours.
You wipe off the dust with damp paper towels and spend the rest of the morning filling out forms.
You imagine the woman gathering her lunch bag and her purse. Perhaps she intended never to return or maybe she just wanted some fresh air. She walked across the dirty carpet and through the forced air. She passed the security guard and rode the elevator to the ground floor. When the doors opened, she stepped outside.
She walked to the edge of downtown. She arrived at a path by the ocean and after short consideration, followed it west. Joggers passed her. She breathed in seaweed, fish, salt. She negotiated a path around chatting mothers pushing strollers. She started swinging her arms. The path branched into the woods and she followed it.
The next time you hear the story about the woman who quit, you learn that her name is that of an author, someone you’ve read. You wonder now if the author took a day job, just to pay some bills, but got spooked by the fluorescent lights and the half-smiles. Maybe she knew this place would turn her into an office lady, the way fruit softens after it’s been picked, the farther it is from its vine.
An Internet search reveals that the famous writer is on a book tour. Her social media says nothing of the writer trying out an office job and leaving at lunchtime. You are relieved. You don’t want another writer to have sat in this stained, black chair, staring at the computer monitor you use every day. If she knew that she would compromise too much by staying, how could you suspend your own dreams this way? How could you not get up and walk away?
You come back day after day. You find a shape that fits. You keep your opinions to yourself, complete boring tasks without complaint, and eat lunch with your co-workers, at the lunchroom tables covered in crumbs.
The office ladies confide in you. You learn about their grown children and aging parents, about their friends with cancer. They are keeping it together but sometimes their eyes well with tears when they talk. They never thought this would be them, achy, soft women squeezed into jeans on casual Friday, shopping at Costco on their lunch breaks, taking their mothers to eye appointments. They talk about retirement with reverence and fear. Being at home with their retired husbands is not appealing. They’re not sure this job was the right thing to do. They never have been sure. They just kept coming back after lunch every day.
One day your desk phone rings. The call display shows the name of the woman who quit. You hold the receiver to your ear, but no one speaks. You hang up.
Weeks later you move to a new desk by a window. You watch the cars on the busy street below. Over time any longing to be in those cars, driving away, shrinks to something tiny and disappears. You’re content to watch them pass, while you sit, lit by the bright lights overhead.
At a goodbye lunch for a co-worker, you tell the story of the phone call. Everyone laughs, and so do you, a laugh that starts small but builds to something uncontrolled and desperate. It’s the first story you tell as an office lady.
Clara is a cheerful bureaucrat who does a lot of her writing on public transit. She completed The Writers Studio at SFU in 2016. Her work is published in emerge16 and the Cheese Issue of SAD Magazine. Clara lives in New Westminster, BC and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram @torturedpotato.