by Margaret LaFleur
She straightens the stapler so it lines up with the Post-It notes. She unwinds the cord of the phone so it lays neatly between the receiver and the base. She pushes the computer screen to the close edge of the desk so it is mostly tilted inward. It can be seen by those passing on their way back towards their desks, but not on their way to the bathrooms. That’s lucky. She works in short bursts, however long it takes a co-worker to do their business.
When they pass by her again she is looking at an email, clicking through a spreadsheet, checking something off her to-do list (“How do you stay organized?” the temp agency had asked her).
On their way in she offers a grin, quickly and reflexively minimizing the windows where her real work takes place: the work of Facebook and Twitter and hate reading the successful blog of that girl from her undergrad Comp Lit class—the one who married rich, even though she has never admitted as much, the one who quit her job the moment her stomach got round.
She takes a pad of paper to the late morning meeting so she can perform the act of writing down notes. Really, all she needs to do is nod.
“Ok, can we email that to you?” Nod.
“When we get confirmation from the vendor you’ll add that to the budget?” Nod.
It will be a five minute job to find the line, insert the value, and add it to her list in order to check it off.
He’s standing at her desk when she returns. Leaning, actually. Smirking. She would have to squeeze past him to get to her chair, so she stops instead.
“I didn’t want to miss that shining face of yours,” he says.
“Oh, you know me,” she tries, “I’m never gone for long.”
“Can you come by my office later?”
She wants to know how much later, he’s never specific, he’ll just IM her, but she is supposed to be done at 5pm and she won’t be if he pings her at 4:46pm like yesterday.
“I’ll let you know when I’m free.”
While he is in the bathroom she fixes the stapler, the Post-Its, the cup of pens he nudged out of place. She is replying to an email from his boss (“Ok! I’ll get to that right away.”) when he passes back but it doesn’t stop him from reaching out to squeeze her shoulder, doesn’t stop him from whispering, “Keep up the good work!” doesn’t stop him from hesitating there while her hands are poised over the keyboard so his fat thumb can flick her bra strap just enough to claim plausible deniability.
At lunch she sits in the break room and eats leftovers, scrolling, scrolling, letting herself sink into the pleasure of her own tiny private screen until she returns to her desk.
Of course she doesn’t reach the end of all human knowledge or even the end of a comment section, but by 3pm it seems like she is scraping the bottom of the barrel. She’s done it again. There is nothing left. The internet is empty.
She pulls her phone from her purse. (Fuck it, so what if someone sees her for a moment?) But there’s nothing on that internet, either.
Finally, the whistle: come on by! xx
She waits five minutes, but only five. It is 4:34pm. She reaches for a notepad, then thinks better of it and reaches for a legal pad. It’s an unwieldy but larger shield. She is hugging it when she walks in and his eyes settle there automatically as he gestures for her to close the door and sit down. All day the air conditioning has been raising goosebumps along her skin and she’s aware, now, of how he can see that, realizes her mistake, the forgotten cardigan in her cubicle.
He says he has a couple things he is working on, he could use her eye. She is a designer, after all? There’s that tick of hope, a lift that surprises her. Ok. There are proofs on his desk and that is his department, after all. Take a look, he says, wanting her to come around to look at his computer screen and so she does (does she have a choice?) and he lets her stand there as he toggles back and forth between the options, he asks about contrast and pushes his chair closer to her, but that could be her imagination, come on, and he beams at her when she says she likes his favorite, too, and he says she does have a good eye, which is just a nice thing to say, she reminds herself, even as she can tell in his tone that’s not what he means, it’s just nice, it’s just nice, she thinks right up until she feels his hand there, sliding just up her skirt, his fat thumb pressing again at a new inch of flesh, at which point she stops thinking at all.
She composes texts to her best friends in her head as she leaves the building. (Angry emoji, barf emoji, is there a paralyzed emoji?)
Outside the heat of the day presses down against her skin. Immediately she begins to sweat, as if in relief. She stops on the sidewalk, careful to stand off to the edge. There’s a moment, but only one, where she thinks she will be able to breath, to stand anonymously on the street, one moment when she thinks it’s ok, maybe, to just exist and nothing more. A bus wheezes to a stop next to her. A man swings down, casts his gaze in her direction.
“Hey honey, it’s a beautiful day!” he says. “Smile!”
* * *
Margaret LaFleur lives, teaches, and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota. You can find her at margaretlafleur.com or at 280 characters @margosita.