San Francisco’s foggy mornings fortify my bones. The salt in the mist carries my body from the bedroom to downtown, from sleepiness to the present: I am here, I am now, this is not a dream. While my girls from the office might disagree, shutting off your 6 AM alarm is an act of humility, a prayer almost. With that simple gesture, you symbolize your contribution to a world where rivers flow and bees pollinate—it’s not about you and your momentary comfort.
Yes, I think on the escalator ride up from Muni’s dark belly. My two and a half employees might be upset that I ended remote working prematurely, but like most adults, they will realize that their place is in the cubicle and not at home with their beloved partners, families, and hobbies. The decision was a hard one to make, but growth is a painful, dirty affair, and only after a wasp larva eats its way through the abdomen of a spider can the baby insect fly to freedom, soaring to great heights.
Speaking of great heights, I crick my neck as I look up to the top of the building in front of me. The cloudy canopy above absorbs its very tip as if extending the elevator track through the heavens.
Inside, I flip on a switch to ignite the office and illuminate its open layout. To match the panopticon theme, the walls of my cubicle were replaced with glass, per my request. The sleek doors come closer as I approach them—old friend, is that really you? A sigh escapes me like the steam from a cup of tea, and I step in; the trophy is back in its display.
From the inside of my crystal, I watch my underlings return.
First stumbles in Melanie, the office manager. She circles around my cubicle on her Target flats. I gesture to her without lifting my elbow off the desk. An unfortunate mustard-yellow top reveals that work from home has added a few inches to her waistline. As a mid-level manager, it is my responsibility to share my concerns with her. Like how the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved Mumtaz, the universe built me for this role: My employees’ success is my success, and Melanie’s health is my own. There is no freedom without rules, and indulgence is the greatest of shackles.
Next to arrive is Allison, the intern. As always, her entire outfit and personality was purchased from the “new this season” counter at Francesca’s. I too, gesture to her, and she responds with a little wave before sitting at her desk in front of me.
Her computer lights up to a photo of her and her sorority sisters, a reminder of how my work is cut out for me here. College photos? What’s next—pentagrams?
Finally, the part-time admin arrives. She glides in, last of course, on the long sleeves of her silk blouse. The fabric flows behind her as insults do from her keyboard. Is that a dress code violation? She waves to me; I look for something in my purse.
Naturally, she disrupts us all as soon as she is seated. “You guys!” she squeals. Allison, Melanie, and I rush over, hoping she hasn’t completely lost it.
Instead, her desk is covered in white and gold glitter and presents: Congratulations here, Congratulations there, Congratulations every-freaking where. Balloons are even taped to this idiot’s walls, as well as photos of her with the now-fiancé, an unbelievable hoopla for such a predictable event. The room breaks into applause. What will we celebrate next, mold growing on bread? Fish swimming? But one must give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and thus I bestow upon the tax collector a socially dictated number of claps.
“Congratulations!” Melanie says, hugging her.
“We set this up yesterday to surprise you!” Allison says. She almost knocks me over to hug the admin herself.
“Yesterday?” I say, straightening myself. “I wasn’t informed.”
Allison gives Melanie an awkward look. The part-time admin wraps her arms around the presents and holds them to her chest, as a dung beetle would with its own ball of waste.
Melanie’s phone pings. “Donuts are here,” she says and rushes out to grab the delivery.
We step out of the cubicle as well. I change the conversation to our new filing system, but Allison beats down the admin instead: “Where did it happen?” “When is the wedding?” “Show me the ring? (Gasp) So pretty!” Each squeal from her is a ping pong ball bouncing off my head. Even the kitchenette with its matching plates and mugs can’t cheer me up.
“Are you excited about marriage?” Allison asks, pouring water from the purifier into one of the coffee mugs. I wince.
I turn to her, saying, “I salute you–only the most well-mannered of us can satisfy society’s noble plan for women. I remember evading a man’s commitment, just knowing my back would rather break than contort to the quaint fringes of marriage. I’m sure that white dress will suit you, though!”
The admin smiles. “How forward-thinking, for both you and your ex! I bet he is grateful that you stuck to your values. With just a glance, anyone can see how well that worked out.”
I smile back. “Thank you for that. I like to wear my values on my sleeves to inspire those around me. I have always respected how you too stand up for what you believe. Tell me, did you and your fiancé agree to the same flexibility that you demanded in our initial interview?”
“Him and I were just made for each other,” she says. “What chance do any of us stand against kismet?”
Melanie returns. “I got donuts and a little something else,” she says, placing both deliveries on the table. She lifts the lid off one box and then the second: a cake with Congratulations spelled out in gold.
“I can’t believe you, Melanie,” the admin says, wrapping her silk arms around her. Melanie blushes and puts her card back into her wallet.
“I can’t either,” I say. “Did you use company money for both the donuts and the cake?’
Melanie’s blush intensifies. “I, well-“
“Is this cake congratulating all of us? Because, unless it is, this looks like a personal purchase,” I say. The mustard pufferfish opens her mouth and closes it. “We’ve been through this. Even the Jolly Ranchers on Allison’s desk were a struggle to approve. Have I been speaking to a wall this entire time?”
After some silence, Allison says, “It’s okay, Melanie. I’ll cover it. My treat. We’re just so happy for you!” She turns around and grips the admin’s hand.
“That’s so sweet, Allison. How about this—you take care of the cake, and I’ll reimburse the office for the donuts. After all, we can’t have my engagement overshadow our return to the office,” the admin says.
I say, “When it comes to success in the professional world, consistency is everything. I have tried to inculcate these values in you three but have been limited by the digital constraints of virtual work. Hopefully, the effects of my negligence are not irreparable—I can only blame myself for not bringing you all back in earlier.”
“Atlas shrugged,” she says and puts a twenty down on the table.
I eventually retire my attempts of steering the conversation towards something related to me. I return to my desk, from where I can hear the beehive of women hum. A battle wages in my head—how do I smoke this colony out of the breakroom? There must be a reasonable way to terminate an event that only I am not enjoying.
I strain my ears, discerning for any evidence of Unapproved Conversation: sex, drugs, Fully Automated Robot Communism. I am out of luck—even the wedding has been laid to rest. My underlings are happy together, celebrating even! —just not the way I had envisioned. I check my timer, watching the secondhand slowly take us to when this farce will end.
I am losing hope when the answer swishes by me as the admin passes by to grab something from her desk. She passes by again with a giant tote bag that only women who are accustomed to receiving gifts possess.
I stick my head out of my glass doors. “I am going to need you to change,” I tell her.
She does a double-take. “Change what?” she asks. Your entire personality, I think.
“That blouse,” I say, gesturing at the flowy sleeves. “It’s not work appropriate.”
Melanie and Allison peek their heads from the break room as the admin starts to get worked up. “Why?” she blusters.
“It might get caught in the machinery,” I say.
“What machinery?” oblivious Melanie asks obliviously.
“The Zoom Room. The milk frother. I mean, my goodness,” I say.
“I don’t have another shirt,” the admin says after a moment. “I would have to go home.”
“That won’t be a problem,” I respond. She meets me in the eye as she digs through her tote.
“We’ll wait for you to come back,” Allison says.
“That won’t be necessary,” the admin says. Hand still gullet-deep in her tote, she turns to me. “I have been thinking about how this role has impacted me: professionally, mentally, and physically. I wanted to communicate this experience with you, but words alone could never suffice–ah, here it is.” She pulls out a tiny parcel from her bag and hands it to me. “So I got you a gift that will let us savor this day together.”
I unwrap the parcel—a Jolly Rancher. “I don’t get it.”
“I don’t expect you to, just as how I don’t expect you to understand what it was like to be under your dynamic leadership. Every day was as exciting–tropical variety, if you will, as these candies are, and I wanted to give that experience back to you. This here is not just a gift. It’s an allegory.”
“A thought exercise?” I say. How is it to experience my creativity from the backseat? So far, I am intrigued.
“Yes! Let’s do it while I explain. You ask me to change? Well, I hope for exactly the opposite—never change. I got this Jolly Rancher because it reminds me of you, you know. Hard on the outside… equally hard on the inside. I have often thought about how to reply to your sweet words, the flavors of things unsaid sits on my tongue. I would say it is concentrated, like you when you triple-check my work for things to correct me on in front of all of my peers. It would be hard for me to convey the level of value I give to these interactions of ours.”
“It’s hard for me too,” I say. Ha! If only she knew I didn’t value them at all!
“Comfort is a cannibal to ingenuity, and you can say that I have been very creative these past few years. But why am I hogging the air like this? You know the drill. First, take the foil. Then, you unravel, open your mouth, and, from the bottom of my heart, suck it, because I quit.”