Morning at a Midtown Manhattan publishing company office. Cubicles house individual workers. Cube walls are six feet high.
My coworker, Lilly, is standing in the corner of my cubicle when it happens.
In a fit of pique over the latest uncorrected typo, she’s suddenly throwing Kung Fu kicks, whirling, twirling, balletic, her long raven hair whipping around her face. I have no defense but to return them. Pretty soon, we’re circling each other. I’m smaller than she is, but I can kick higher.
I manage to ward her off and back away to the warm, humming safety of the Xerox machine. Inspired, on the way back I pause beside her desk to perform an arabesque. I stand in the aisle, unfolding myself into that perfect “T” shape, extending my arms in the classic ballerina way. I have perfect balance, I can hold this pose for an amazingly long time. Lilly claps, impressed. “Wow,” she says, “Ernie look at this,” she calls over the other cubicle wall. Ernie, a few years younger than we are at twenty-two, peers over the wall. “Nice,” he says, nodding with genuine appreciation, “Niiice.”
It’s all coming back to me. Mrs. Leticia Olney’s dance school, above the old Healthmart on Greenwich Avenue. She was a retired London chorus girl, widowed by her alcoholic husband. At age ten, I’m singled out by her, made to perform my glorious trick for the older students, my perfect balance showcased, exploited in arabesque after arabesque—en pointe no less—like some kind of tiny circus animal or dancing bear, or, I now realize, freak.
It’s all dawning on me now as I stand slightly teetering so many years later. My hopes, my dreams, the yellow tutu with the silver sequins still stashed in the back of the closet. . .
“Kate? Kate?” Lilly interrupts my reverie, “It’s very impressive you know. And you’re welcome to ‘stand’ there as long as you want, but I just have some work to do. Just so you know.”
I didn’t know work could be like this, actually. Maybe my boss didn’t know either, until he hired the two of us. Until recently, I never had “work friends” like other people. In any case, I drop my pose and Lilly bows her head in thanks.
We are poor, but we are happy, at least for now.
I make a stop at the gumball machine in the ad and promo department. As I turn the handle, it empties an unexpected avalanche into my waiting palm. It’s Vegas and I’ve hit the jackpot, I’m the infamous Jimmy the Greek, and I’m outta here. “Woo hoo! I’m rich!” I blurt.
Mrs. Cates from accounts receivable walks by. “You’re gonna put those back, right?” she says.
“Sure,” I reply, “After I lick them.”
By noon it’s time for a chat, which consists of Lilly perching on a cardboard box of old catalogues on the floor of my cube. Our boss walks by, stops, and just stands there, expectantly. We give him “the stare.” In an instant we’ve totally degenerated into a couple of tough chicks like the ones who smoke in the bathroom at school. We’re wearing leather mini skirts, tall boots, and black eyeliner applied in hard strokes. Well, not really, but it feels like it. He has a questioning look on his face, like he’s wondering what we’re up to and if maybe he can be invited. It takes all my will to stop from asking, “May we help you?” He is my boss, after all. The thing is, he’s so pathetically malleable and easy to please. He’s completely, irrevocably lost any authority he may have once exuded to us. For this reason, he’s also admittedly the best boss we’ve ever had, ever, ever.
After a moment of wrestling between the good and evil forces within, I say, “We’re just taking a cigarette break.”
“Ah, okay,” he says agreeably. I’m a genius.
“I know we don’t smoke, but you know how Hakem and Tom and Vinny and Reeves and Don and Brian and Debbie and Joyce and Betsy all spend at least a half hour a day in front of the building puffing away? I figure this is our equivalent, right? Like a smoke-free break.”
“Makes sense to me,” he says smiling, still standing at attention. “Well, carry on.” And he strides away. He’s definitely the best boss.
Just as we’re breaking up our little party, Angela walks by. Sometimes we call her AngeLO, because of her resemblance to Jennifer Lopez. “Hey chula, wassup,” she says, settling into my guest chair. Then she breaks the news to me.
“So I was kind of bored sitting on the train this morning, and to entertain myself I started making a list in my head, you know?”
“Yes?” I say, intuiting that this is something sexual. Angela and her girlfriend of five years recently broke up so the topic has been at the conversational forefront lately, especially because our department has been noted for its abundance of “eye candy.”
“I was just sort of fantasizing, making a list of my top three make out picks from people here at work.”
“Mm hmm, yeah.” By now I’m all glowing, waiting for her revelation, this thrilling ego boosting confession. Who cares if I’m irrevocably straight? I want everyone to want me. Doesn’t everyone?
Then she names them: Betsy. Lilly. Dee Dee. A redhead, a brunette, and a blonde. I suppose she must’ve noticed the look on my face.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing’s wrong.” Then it dawns on her.
“Oh, come on, Kate! What do you care?”
Just then Lilly wanders back in. I narrow my eyes at her. “What’s your damage?” she says, hostiley. She says things like that sometimes, and also things like “Bite me,” and “Eat my shorts.” I decide it’s the influence of her husband, Ken.
“Nothing, Ken,” I say, taunting her.
“Ha ha, what is the problem?”
“I think you know,” I say accusingly. “The list.”
“The list? I made the list?! I mean, I was hoping, but I didn’t want to ask.” She’s beaming, practically bouncing on her heels.
“You know about the list?” Angela says, incredulous. “I only told one other person until now!”
“Oh everyone knows about the list. I’m sooooooo flattered,” Lilly gushes. Then she looks over at me, and it dawns on her. “Oh,” she says, her face crumpling up into that “poor baby” pitying look. Her maroon-lacquered bottom lip even pooches out. “It’s not personal. You know Angela doesn’t really go for blondes after all.”
“Dee Dee is blonde! Dee Dee is really blonde! I’m not even really blonde!”
“Yeah, but Dee Dee is, you know, Dee Dee,” Angela says. “She’s Venus De Milo, Mona Lisa, and Bo Derek all rolled into one. In a way you’re more blonde than she is.”
“In some circles that would be a huuuuuuuuuge compliment!” Lisa tries to soothe.
“Anyway, you know, chula, Dee Dee is last on the list.”
Just then, Dee Dee pokes her mythologically beautiful head into my cube. “I heard the news,” she says apologetically. “I’m sorry. I mean, at first I was upset that I was last. But then I heard that you weren’t on the list at all, and I thought, god, how rude is Angela to sit in your cube and then just tell you this. I mean it was really—“
“Thanks,” I say, cutting her off, “I appreciate your sympathy.” Then I throw everyone out of the cube, lesbians, straight women, bosses, rubberneckers, everyone.
“You’d be on my list,” Lilly says quietly as she trails behind, softly tugging on my hair.
“Out,” I say.
“My list doesn’t count? That’s not good enough for you? Why don’t I count?!”
“Because you’re not a lesbian.”
“But if I was.”
“But you’re not.”
“But you’re not either.”
“But that’s not the point.”
Then she leans in. “If it’s any consolation, according to modern Freudianism, lesbians are merely immature women who can’t transfer their affection for their mothers to an adult man.”
Angela, who has been milling just outside the cube overhears, and stomps off in an offended huff. “Wait, Angie!” Lilly pules, running after her, “I’m totally not into Freud! I mean, the poet Adrienne Rich celebrates the intense primitive bond between women lovers, and Helene Cixous, the french feminist feels that…,” her voice fades into the distance as she clatters after Angie down the hall.
By 3:00, after the furious collision of sexual and office politics has somewhat died down (though the scars will never fully fade), we are literally climbing the walls with restlessness, claustrophobia, the need to escape. The flight instinct has me standing on the arm of a chair, peering over the cube divider like it’s a picket fence in the suburbs and we’re exchanging recipes. By this point in the day there is no snack, web site, phone call, threatening chain email, or any other distraction too small, too trivial, too meaningless to divert us from the tasks at hand.
I’m so restless and jittery that my light-up pen unnerves me when I use it to proofread some mechanicals. I realize it’s like that thing the doctor looks in your ears with. Come to think of it, the tissue paper over the mechanicals rustles just like the stuff on a doctor’s examining table. No wonder I feel a slight, rising tension each time I proofread. The memory is clear as day. . . I’m six years old . . . perched on the table at Dr. Heclau’s office . . . he’s grabbed my protruding abdomen and proclaimed it merely fat to my mother who is convinced that on my skinny frame it can only be a sign of malnutrition. “Fat,” he says, “it’s just fat.” Fat, fat, fat, fat. . .
At 4:00 I go to the weekly staff meeting, an interminable affair at which the virtues of green over blue for the cover of this year’s tax book is a subject of heated debate, and at which my presence is completely unnecessary. The ritual has become so unbearable I near a panic attack if it threatens to run a minute over. But this time my fidgeting leads me to a stunning realization. I must learn to knit. I’m overcome with relief. A new thing, a new thing, how I need a new thing and here it is, finally. Occupy the hands so the mind can be free! It’s all I can do to keep myself from blurting it to Lilly in that whisper that’s always louder-than-a-scream. But I don’t, I wait until later. Then I tell.
“Oh yeah,” she says, “That’s the new thing. I was reading about it in O magazine. My mother used to own a yarn store with a friend, didn’t I ever tell you that?”
Wha? “No, really? Wow.” Wait. It’s the “new” thing? Is my psyche finally in tune with the masses, I wonder. I’m both elated and horrified. Now that I’m undeniably part of the mainstream work force have I somehow picked up on the “what’s hot and what’s not” radar signals of the troops, aligned my brain waves with those who read Time Out, drink flavored vodka, apple martinis, and shop online? Has riding the elevator each day caused some kind of synchronicity, similar to the way women roommates’ menstrual cycles become regulated with one another’s? Suddenly the demographic in my original knitting fantasy has changed. I’m no longer surrounded by the comforting presence of the older and wiser, granny-like women I crave. Instead I’m encircled by others just as searching and clueless as myself, grasping at needles to weave some sense of well-being, to access creativity yet practicality. Not too shabby I guess. I wonder if any men will participate?
At the end of the day, Lilly and I exit the building together, jostling each other through the revolving doors. It’s turning nippy out, the beginning of fall. A troop of Catholic school girls in mini-kilts and knee socks passes us on 3rd Avenue, giggling en masse. I feel that familiar fluttering in my stomach. September still feels like it’s the real beginning of the year to me, even after all this time. “I’m still not used to not having summer vacation anymore,” I comment.
“Yep, me too,” she replies wistfully. Then, as we cross the street I feel her hand lightly skim mine as she represses a giggle.
“Let it go already!” I screech.
Settling in for a before-home coffee at Scottie’s Diner, I look across at Lilly who is scribbling something in a notebook, her pretty eyes shadowed with dark circles, little papercuts on her fingers. We’re such pale, worn shadows of the selves I’m sure we should be. I can’t help but feel abandoned by the Women’s Movement, left to scale the rickety bridge between conventional female life and independence. Surely this is not what they meant? Where are you Gloria, Simone, Alice, Tillie, Grace, Helene. Speak up so we can hear you over Oprah, Dr. Laura, Camille, and Kelly Ripa. . .
One last sip and we go our separate ways. I scurry underground to head east, while Lilly hurries west toward home to pour her husband his cereal for their dinner. Tonight it’s No-Sugar-Added Banana Nut Crunch Granola with Real Bananas.
They’ll be using the special china.