It was my first day and Beth, who worked in the cubicle across from mine, was talking on her cell phone about sex.
I was doing the kind of mindless work that provides a perfect cover for eavesdropping. I kept my eyes on the insurance forms I was stapling and got to know her a little.
It seems she’s been singing Sunday nights at the Village Underground. Her specialty is mid-century jazz standards like “Summertime,” and “Love Doesn’t Here Anymore.” She told her listener, Stacy, that she had really knocked them dead – “applause like crazy, and then a standing ovation.” She went on to describe some grade-school boy who’d also sung that night. The boy sang with an alarmingly precocious display of erotic self-confidence. He wiggled his hips, he gyrated, he lowered his eyelids. I was trying to picture Morris Day at age nine when she segued into a description of the Underground’s bouncer.
“Stacy,” she said, and then again “Stacy,” as though she were waiting for Stacy to sit down and concentrate. Her voice got a little lower.
“He was fine. He was so fine. Not too small, not too thick. Not too tall, but not a shorty. And the way he was talking to me… Girl. I had to go home and get my toy out.”
There was a short pause, likely some bit of prudery on Stacy’s part.
“You don’t understand,” said Beth. “I use the damn thing three times a week! Stacy. Stacy. Get one. How else you gonna scratch your itch?”
Here I looked over. I half expected her to pull the toy out and gesture with it, but she was doing the same thing with her hands that I was – stapling.
Stacy was still protesting. Beth was adamant.
“It’s necessary!” she cried, slamming the stapler hard with one hand. “And you gotta get one like mine.” Another pause. “The thing takes three batteries.”
I pictured many things. Stacy, for one – the perfect wallflower complement to Beth’s self-gratifying extrovert. The agonizing process by which Stacy would approach the store that sold such a toy. I supposed it would be the female equivalent of a guy entering a peep show. Then Stacy emerging, hurrying home with the brown paper bag.
I pictured the nine-year-old thrusting his hairless crotch towards an abashed woman in the front row as he sang with the mike close to his mouth.
And of course I pictured the toy, which had now evolved in my imagination from a straightforward dildo to some life-sized ambidextrous pleasure robot. Three batteries! Three batteries to my one lousy member, which I now pictured as only powerful in its adverse effect on my ability to reason. I was mulling over the fate of man (if not human) kind when our supervisor appeared and snapped at Beth to get off the phone.
The cubicle, the object itself, has been much complained about. It is a soul-crushing staple of the modern workplace ridiculed (and made to seem insurmountable) by something like the “Dilbert” cartoons. It is an exposed, soft cage, a negative counterpart to the wood-lined offices where company executives wallow in privacy. The cubicle pretends to offer privacy while providing managers with the optimal geography for surveillance. It is very useful in this regard; it is easy to sneak up on someone in my office.
A lot of men sneak up on Beth. Some just pop in to say hello and then move on. Others linger and chat her up. One guy, who I’ve never officially met, creeps up behind her at least once a day and suddenly rubs her shoulders or puts his hands on her forearms and jiggles her upper body. It feels like the what-not-to-do part of a sexual harassment video, but Beth shakes him off with playful impatience. There might be a history there; he talks low into her ear as she tries to wave him away. I once heard her say, laughingly, that she’d tell her man if he kept it up.
Her man is named Brandon, and is the source of daily consternation. They are planning a wedding, which isn’t supposed to take place for another two years and about which the couple’s families have some keen differences. She’s never talked to me about Brandon, but she talks to the rest of my cubicle quadrant about him. Constantly. Beth is one of those self-dramatizing people for whom no crisis is private. Her indignation is always righteous. She can be annoying.
Our one real conversation, though, charmed me. It happened after she belched. It was really loud. She smiled at me when I looked over.
“Sorry,” she said. “My stomach is fucked up. Not too ladylike.”
Now was a good time to repay her with some personal info of my own. “I live with a woman,” I told her. “The whole idea of ‘ladylike’ went out the window a long time ago.”
She liked this. “Tell my fiancee. I burp and he can’t believe it. He looks around to blame it on someone else.” A wider smile. “There’s no such thing as ladylike.”
The guy in the cubicle next to me, who spends his free time playing in a rock band, says that everyone in the joint is a former temp. Most of them came from my agency. There is an information-sharing policy between the insurance company and the temp place that puts our government intelligence to shame. I got a message on my cell phone one afternoon from Olga the temp supervisor. “They love the work you’re doing,” she said, “but I had a call from someone in HR today who saw you wearing sneakers. I know it’s Friday, casual dress and all that, but sneakers aren’t good. 86 the sneakers.” I reacted to this like anyone would who’s been tattled on. I vowed to wear sneakers for the rest of my borrowed time at this place. Fuck it, I’ll wear sneakers on my hands.
Of course I showed up the next Monday in my casual dress shoes, which stain my socks brown and hurt the balls of my feet. Soon, I think. Soon I will wear whatever shoes I want. This stupid sneaker indignity isn’t even worth a footnote in the story of my brilliant forthcoming career. And I will glare hard at that pathetic HR stoolie the next time I see her. Human resources, my ass. Why couldn’t she have just come over and said, “you know, sneakers aren’t really appropriate here.” A little respect, huh?
What a way to treat a guest.
“Casual workplace.” This phrase never describes an actual place of work. It is a dress code, pure and simple, seemingly conceived by multi-national conglomerates and internet startups who have some sort of backdoor deal with The Gap. “You’re at work… but it’s casual!” Making people feel at home at work by making work feel more like home.
But the code is less stringent than the dressier alternatives. For every unimaginative guy who daily trots out a blue shirt tucked into black slacks, every woman who seems to have stepped into the office out of an H&M catalogue, there are the employees who have interpreted “casual dress” as something that affords self-expression. There are the male dandies, there are middle-aged woman in unforgiving neon-green heels. And then there are those who express contempt for the workplace itself by pushing the code envelope to the point of slovenliness. You can do this without wearing sneakers, especially if you’re a woman. The workplace is still a place where women are seen as inherently more elegant than men, and so their “casual dress” can be pretty damn casual.
Beth has spoken to this. A co-worker who was trying to rearrange the rumpled collar of her quasi-dress jacket got a reprimand. “What are you doing?” said Beth. “Who am I trying to impress? I’m at work.”
There is a guy in the cubicle adjacent to Beth’s who has interpreted the “casual workplace” mandate in conservative terms, but he makes up for it. His name is Elvis, and the following description comes with a disclaimer: I’ve never spoken to him, and I have the same limiting assumptions that the reader does when he or she hears about someone named Elvis who’s not, you know, Elvis.
That said, Elvis is a wolf. I say this with confidence because his body language is embarrassingly recognizable as my own when I’ve tried to snow some girl into premature intimacy. He’s always leaning against something, with a hand in one pocket. He goes around in his pink polo shirt with a quarterback’s swagger. I have only ever seen him loitering – leaning, flirting, listening to one of the office’s few younger women with the kind of glassy-eyed look that passes for undivided attention.
But he doesn’t do this with Beth, as far as I can tell. He poked his head over the cubicle once and made some crack about getting her work done. Beth put showed him the palm of her hand and, without looking up, said “I’m not in the mood.”
He fired out of sight like a punched-down jack-in-the-box.
Two days ago Beth became a mentor. Her student is named Eve – she’s another temp – and they’ve already developed a rapport. Eve is quite young, and Beth is enjoying the role of seasoned elder. She’s much taller than Eve. She tends to put her arm around Eve’s shoulder. Beth talks to Eve about Brandon. I only hear this in snatches now, because I’ve started listening to music for most of my workday. I’ve chosen the most aggressive CDs I own – a Mission of Burma compilation, the two-disc soundtrack (in French, which I don’t speak) to Godard’s “Nouvelle Vague.” I will drown out the workplace chatter with the sounds of loud aging radicals who wear sneakers all day if they feel like it.
I take off the headphones to carry some files to the mailroom. Beth and Eve are consulting a calender.
“See,” says Beth. “The week after your cycle is OK. Then, you’re safe. If you have sex after that, it’s trouble. You’ve got to be careful.”
Eve nods solemnly, like she’s talking to a priest. They look at one another. Beth smiles and rubs Eve’s shoulder, and then the supervisor creeps around the corner with some fresh bit of instruction.
I want to end with a poem. I found it the same day I heard Beth’s toy story, in the drawer at my cubicle. It was underneath a pile of staple boxes, miscellaneous unfinished work, and timesheets from the same temp agency that set me up with this gig. It’s written on the back of a spreadsheet where clerks document the daily number of insurance bills sent out to clients.
It was composed by whoever had the desk before me. I transcribe it below, without the author’s permission:
Don’t get mad at me cause my
[unreadable] got admission fees.
Don’t hate me cause my shit is
Priceless, timeless, and forever fresh
Never knew nothing free
Especially one of the best.
Only given to a chosen few
No need to waste good —
I ain’t got to show and prove
Only open to those that
acquire the finest
Those who appreciate the finer
things in life.
Fuck the baddest bitch.
I’ll leave that title for Irina
‘Cause I’m positive that mine is meaner
You get in and feel the humidity.
So moist and hot I’ll sweat out your
Once visited you’ll be
talking bout living there.