Toxic workplace

5. Monday, part 1

An uneventful Monday: all-hands, employee reviews, second-round interviews… what could possibly go wrong?

            I like my lessons and coffee the same way: full-bodied. Toasty but not scalding. Once again, I let my easy-going nature get the best of me when Allison and Melanie asked to leave on time on a Friday. A wiser boss would have declined their request, and that’s the froth of the situation.

          This weekend, I slurped deeply from a steaming cup of professional growth. Instead of sending them to the ex-admin’s engagement party, I should have kept them to review applicants with me. We would conclude together that the handsome man is the best fit for the ex-admin’s position before his return today. My underlings would own our company’s culture, praise my intuition, and have much more fun than at some party I wasn’t even invited to.

          Of course, I don’t care that I wasn’t invited—I’m a no-frills kind of gal with a lot of busy plans. In fact, that Friday, I returned to the office within an hour of coming home to make the all-hands presentation of our times. This presentation would chastise sweetly like Halloween candy on an orphan’s tongue. It would electrify more than a fork in an outlet. Today, icon oclastic as Buddha meditating under the sacred fig, I am cutting through the malarkey to explain to Allison and Melanie what is at stake if they don’t take their careers seriously.

          But first, let there be music.

          “Who is excited for an in-person all-hands?” I say from the front of the conference room. Party lights bathe us in blue and red and green. Melanie and Allison dole out a fragile little shake, and I turn the music up for them. “Come on, stand up and dance!” I shake to my 2000’s playlist as my underlings bounce twice. Finally, I sigh and turn on the slides.

            The first screen lights up: NO PRESSURE, NO DIAMONDS. “Where should we begin? Our successful return to the office? Our hiring processes, and how I am tackling gaps head-on?” I flick to a picture of the ex-admin. “Let’s pick the employee of the month by process of elimination, starting with Allison.” I go to her picture and make eye contact before continuing.

            “Allison, your time management leaves a lot to be desired.” I skip to a pie graph that I worked on this weekend as I fantasized about today’s very important appointment: the second final round of interviews. I set three alarms and reminders for today; the excitement of it all makes me lightheaded.

            “Unbeknownst to you, I moved the office camera to monitor your desktop behavior. 15% of the time, you are in the bathroom or on Facebook. Or getting coffee. And what is this?” I move to a blurry image of a white and green screen. “A job board? Are you not telling us something?” I pause to stare her down. “Let’s first review Melanie before taking your crown.”

            I change to pictures of the fiddle-leaf figs behind us. “These plants are on death’s door. What is going on?”

            “We haven’t been in the office much,” Melanie says breathlessly. “It’s dark. And they’ve had very little carbon dioxide to eat-“

            “Carbon Dioxide? Seriously?” I say. “You’re an intelligent person, Melanie. I’m sure you remember what Benjamin Franklin said about people with excuses.”

            “No,” she says. “I don’t know what he said.”

            “He said… he said…” Words skip over me; froth fills my brain. What did he say?

            I continue flicking through the slides, wondering where I left off. “Can we end this early? I feel light-headed,” Melanie says.

            “Melanie, there is no reason why you should not be watered,” I say.

            “Huh?” Allison asks. I close my laptop, not interested in two insurrections in as many weeks. I try my breathing exercise, but the girls get up and leave before I can return to myself. Where was I, and what was I doing? I follow Allison to her desk. “I think we need to have a conversation.”

            “I think so, too,” she says. “I’ve been interning at this company for over a year. No benefits, no PTO—which I’m not complaining about,” she adds. “I am beginning to wonder… at what point will I be, you know, hired?”

            “How cute, Allison, especially after today’s all-hands,” I say, pulling out a chair. “I have a feeling we need a better grasp on your limeline, I mean, timeline.”

            Behind us, Melanie pushes a giant potted plant. It scrapes against the floor. The noise is loud enough to awaken a Kraken, who may as well be hiding in the walls right now for how much my head is pounding.

            Allison moves her mouth to speak, and I interrupt her. “I’m here to support you, so let’s go through my points one by one. I know—this will be just as painful for me as it is for you.”

            We talk about coffee breaks, her thinking at the computer, how she loads up the refrigerator. Twice, Allison leans down, as if to fall asleep, but I wake her. From outside the office, the homeless man howls.

            “Melanie,” I call out. “Why does the office smell? Allison should take your role, and she’s the type of girl to join a sorority if you catch my drift. Hee hee hee.” I try to laugh off an evil feeling, but my paranoia grows. The feeling reflects in my underlings’ faces—there is darkness afoot. “She doesn’t execute many office functions!”

            The world darkens. I slow my breathing—what if I am heard? Allison doodles, Melanie pushes a pot to the floor. “I’m sorry!” she squeals as she knocks over another. She laughs, and I want to shake the woman. Does she not know what is at stake?

            On her notepad, Allison scribbles: To execute…OR EXECUTE. She sketches a grim reaper with harsh, deep strokes. Time to go!

            Darkness crawls over us like the fog on the Marin headlands. Melanie knocks another plant down. The soil scatters, and I jump on a chair so that the stuff doesn’t crawl up my ankles like a thousand caterpillars.

            Lights call me to the center of the hallway. What was once a smoke detector floats down, blinks, and swells. I descend from my chair to meet it.

            When faced with the unknown, the true unknown, our minds shields us from insanity with the armor of things that we know. The shape before me morphs into forms I understand a chariot, UFO, tornado, and octopus. And on the very edges of these shapes glisten eyes like raindrops on a spiderweb. Each is filled with memories of gardens I have never stepped through and arms I have never been held by. As I met these eyes, they sent a silent message that cuts through the whirling of wheels and wings: Be not afraid. And just like that, I am not.

            Next to her, Melanie empties out the watering can on the soil before watering herself.

            “I think we are dry,” she drips and pouts.

            “No,” I tell her and walk up to grab her by the hand. “We’re never out. There’s an infinite amount in the kitchen.”

            “You’re telling me we have a supply of this stuff?” she says and gestures to the can in her hand.

            “I’m saying it is… on tap.”

            She beams and bounces away. I turn back to the lights.

            “Sh!” I hiss to Allison, who rips pages from her scribbled notebook. I turn back to the lights. “What do you want?” I whisper. Red, red, red, BLUE. Evil, evil, evil, GOOD.

            After some time, I realize that I should check on Melanie, who has probably lost herself.

            “I will return,” I tell my glowing friends and make my way down the hallway. I hop over the dirt and porcelain smashed all over the floor. Someone slashed through the whiteboard with a Dry Erase. Was that me? I can’t tell anymore.

            I find her shaking in the storage closet. She laughs, cries, and whispers to herself. When she sees me, she reaches out. I take her hand.

            Tears swim in her eyes. “This is getting really weird,” she says.


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