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I wake up ill. I feel trapped in a loop. I stare at the big pile of clothing on the floor. I eat some dry cereal. I wash my armpits. I go to work. I think things on the train. I ride the elevator. I walk to Karen’s desk. I am either calm or hollow, hard to say. I ask, “Is there anything extra I can do today? The phones have been pretty quiet, and I finished those packets.”
Karen seems caught off guard. “Well, you can make more packets. We really need you by the phones. I’ll try to think of something for you if you’re bored, but I’m just trying to finish up all of this work I have here.” She gestures to a slim notebook.
“Oh, okay, great!” My voice is weak. “I’m not bored, I just want to be helpful.”
As I walk through the showroom, I recognize my gamble. I make $12/hour, the best paying job I’ve had in over a year. If I’m making $12, they’re paying the agency at least $15, up to $20, so in the middle let’s say $18, times 35 is $630 a week, times two weeks is $1,260, times two is over $2,500 a month to have me, the idiot, sit in a chair, doing about four hours of work a week, 16 hours of work a month, which puts the rate for my actual services at around $80/hour.
I see a big brown vase shaped like a jug, rudimentary, meant to evoke some kind of tribal thing, filled with dried stems, sitting on a metal sideboard. If I could compress and stretch time at will, at $80/hour, I could buy that jug just to make fun of it. At $80/hour I could probably even dress seductively enough to make new friends.
No donuts in the break room today, just stale bread, which I eat with gusto.
I say, “Good morning,” to one of the designers. She must think I’m talking to someone else, and that’s fine.
I liberate some bread from behind my right upper molar, and I realize I might still be a little drunk. I walk to my desk.
I turn on my computer and the phone rings, another angry person in the middle of a project that gives them the illusion of progress. I transfer her to the textiles department. She calls back and tells me there was no one in the textiles department. She seems very angry, and asks if I could please connect her to an actual person. I apologize, a scream trapped in my chest, and say I’ll try someone else. She calls back and when she hears it’s me she sighs, mutters, and hangs up.
I wonder what it would be like if I handled things differently. I wonder what would have happened, when the woman called back, if I had said, “Jesus fucking Christ, are you fucking kidding me? I’m sorry, there’s supposed to be someone in the textiles department at all times. This keeps happening, I’m so sorry. We’re trying to run a business here, and it’s impossible to run a business when you have all of these girls running around play-acting like they own the place. Hold one second, I’m going to get someone on the phone for you. This is unacceptable.”
Would she have liked that? Would that have affirmed her set of life principles? If I had done that, would I have had the courage to use the PA system? Maybe you can change the way you feel by trying out new personalities. I meditate on this.
The designers in the office mill around, not chained to their desks like I am. I look at them, wondering who I should approach first. Today, I will find some work to do. I will be assertive.
Fear keeps me in my seat.
I check my email for any life-changing news. I’ve been sent another newsletter from the women’s shelter.
I volunteered there for two weeks last year as part of a misguided emotional remodeling. The job was frightening and difficult, but also very boring, and I must have known I hated it because I overslept one day and woke around noon to five missed calls from the shelter, which I did not return, and they emailed me daily for a week or so, desperate, but I never checked the emails, and I never went back, and I tried to forget I’d ever done it, and I never mentioned it, except for one time at a bar with Sarah, trying to impress a stranger with my worldliness and sophistication, I said, “Well, I actually volunteer at a women’s shelter, so…”
I’m too humiliated to open the shelter’s newsletters to unsubscribe. They go out twice a month. A weird reminder of my failures.
The other email is from Credit Karma letting me know there have been some developments with my credit score, which, oh, who cares, what a plebeian trifle.
I get up and think about my body as a tentative, vulnerable thing, clasping my hands in front of my crotch, and I try to act out “peeking” around the cubicle wall behind my desk. I knock on the corner of the wall and say, “Hey, I’m the new reception temp. The phones have been quiet, and I have extra time if there’s any busy work I can help you with.”
This woman has never registered before. She’s an actual adult, mid-40s with gray-less shiny red-brown hair and thick baubles around her neck.
She says, “Oh no, sweetie, we’re all good here.”
Sweetie feels incongruent, as I’m pushing 30, hard, and I’m consumed with constant subtle anger. I smile and say, “Okay, let me know!”
Back at my desk I sit and slowly collect money that I can use to pay the rent on my apartment and on food so that I can continue to live and continue to come to this room and sit at this desk and slowly collect money.
More time passes, and I watch a subtitled video about an AI robot named Sonja who wants to help out in hospitals and in customer service and hopes to have a house and family someday, and I think, Yeah right, Sonja.
The phone rings, I transfer the call. I sit. I make a gesture toward assembling a few packets. Karen comes to my desk, and I fear the worst. I turn to her in my swivel chair, my armpits wet with sweat, and I can feel how dry my lips and face are, how ridiculous I must look, how hungry I am from only having stale bread and dry cereal all day. I think she’s going to fire me. I’m not so much bracing for it, as I am having a kind of paroxysm, adrenaline filling me up, and a loud, deep voice shouting, “Yeah well fuck you too,” in my ears.
“So, I have some extra work for you,” she says.
“Oh, fantastic!” I say, really believing it to be fantastic in the moment. My expectations so fucked up that my relief at having more clerical work is real and strong.
Karen doesn’t smile, doesn’t react, maybe there’s a micro-flinch there like she thinks I’m a loser for being excited to do whatever it is she’s about to make me do.
“Come with me,” she says.
I stand to follow her, nervously eyeing the phone I’m about to leave. If it rings in front of her, I’ll pounce on it, and maybe impress her with my agility and dedication, my ability to multi-task.
In the copy room, she bends down and brings out a small document shredder and pushes it toward me with her foot. She looks at me like I know what this means, like she’s just shown me the lord’s chamber pot and I’m supposed to understand.
I push the thing back to my desk like it’s a tiny shopping cart, hands on both sides, and wait for her. She comes back with a ridiculously small stack of papers. I try not to interpret it too much.
“I went around and collected these papers from everyone in the office. Do you know how to work a shredder?” she asks.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve done a ton of shredding. I shredded a whole file room’s worth of documents at my last job,” I say, dying to impress. “This’ll be really quick.”
“Well, there’s no pressure to get it finished by the end of the day. Prioritize the phones, and let me know if you have any questions.”
“Sure, thanks,” I say. “And let me know if there’s anything I can do from my computer, if you need any filing done, or if there’s any other busy work that people need help with. I’m happy to multi-task.”
She doesn’t react, she barely nods, and she tells me again to let her know if I have any questions.
I plug the shredder in and feed it a stack of about 12 papers. I pause, then put a few sheets in singly.
I get a few more calls. I text Sarah to let her know that the scheme worked, that I have been given an extra task. On impulse, I include the small image of the lightning bolt, the rainbow, and the most pathetic looking face I can find. The worried one. It makes me feel old and uncomfortable. Sarah responds “nice” and includes the lightning bolt and a baby chick. We text a moment longer.
I put another piece of paper into the shredder and watch it jerk around before it disappears.
Most of the documents are copies of checks, invoices, credit card numbers. None of this interests me. I pause when I see the word “shit” on one of the documents. It’s a printed-out email, containing rich “I feel” language, exclamation points, heated opinions. For some reason, I don’t feel comfortable shredding it. There’s something dear about it. I put it in my notebook when no one is looking (no one is ever looking).
The hours pass.
I leave the majority of the shredding for tomorrow, even though I could have easily finished it in about 15 minutes.
At the end of the day, I put my notebook in my bag, shut off my computer, and leave.
Halle Butler is the author of the novels Jillian and The New Me.
From THE NEW ME by Halle Butler, to be published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (C) 2019 by Halle Butler.