Toxic workplace

6. Monday, part 2

A frothy conclusion to your typical, uneventful Monday!

            When did we replace the pew with the standing desk? Before it, we sit, stand, and kneel, not knowing to whom we pray. Once, it was the sun, then it was God. Now, all that is left are our jobs. It’s only work from here on out, folks! You do that until you’re too slow, and I guess you log out then.   

            Today is a nice break from all that. In the supply closet, colors float and expand like jellyfish around my coworker and me. Previous concerns swell and croak like bullfrogs that leap from my insides. Melanie and Allison’s rebellion and today’s very important appointment had been weighing on me, and it is nice to let them go and watch them hop about freely.

            “I can’t tell if we’re experiencing something beautiful or frightening,” I say.

            “Maybe it’s both,” Melanie says. She stops rocking herself and looks up. Her glasses slide down to hit the floor with a clang.

            “What do you mean?” I say and lean against the La Croix packages stacked behind us. The cans press into my back, but the sensation that pokes through feels detached, as if coming from miles away. My palms are cold; I rub them on my breasts. Now, they are warm but dry.

            Melanie says, “A year ago, I found a wart on my ass. Remember how I used that donut pillow? I modified a regular one that didn’t fit after my doctor removed the mass. When I returned for my check-up, he warned me to watch out for another one.

            He prescribed mindfulness classes when I told him I couldn’t sleep. There, a nice, blonde lady told me to find fulfillment in presence: HAH. I told her that I am the most present of them all. Fulfillment is for women with BMIs under 30, and in a few years, I could be confined by tubes to a hospital bed while my own behind consumes me from the inside out. In the time that I have left, I will accomplish nothing and come home to nothing, except to wonder if it is better to die or live painfully. And then, I meet the answer in its eyes.”

            I feel the answer staring at me then as well. I think about the appointment I am going to miss, the one that I had been fantasizing about all weekend. I leapfrog from commitment to commitment, control c and control v, until we hit that final appointment that really, really cannot be missed. “I need a coffee,” I say. I need a coffee I need a hug I need a Xanax. 

            Melanie continues, “This morning, I was so stressed about All-Hands, and you were a bi-… a boss, and now instead I’m here, finally happy.” She leans on my shoulder. Her head weighs as much as my cat.

            “What happened to us?” I say. In the gap between the storage closet and the outside office, rays of light descend like beads on a string.

            “I don’t know, but I am getting sleepy,” she says. “And thirsty.” She picks at the plastic on the packages behind us before pulling out two cans of La Croix. Lime. Lime. Li-muh.

            She presses her thumb in the pop tab to make the tsk noise, and I laugh when a small spritz of bubble water hits me on my face. Seeing me struggle to breathe, she too chuckles before handing me a can.  

            “There are ants on my tongue!” I say after sipping, and she slurps and giggles.

            “It’s so lemony,” she says. “Like the drinks at the engagement party.”

            “I wouldn’t know,” I say and turn away.

            She grips my knee. “I get why she did it, but I’m sorry she didn’t invite you.”

            The sincerity of our connection mists up my eyes. “This means a lot, coming from someone like you.” Tears rise and spill over like the sea on the sands.

            She sniffles as well. “I thought you were a power-hungry witch, but now I see you’re only an insecure and lonely witch.”

            “That is just so kind!” I lean back again and almost blackout. Purpose shakes me from my sleepiness. “Melanie, just know that I was born to protect you. And I mean that. I take my role as a manager very seriously.”

            “We know,” she says and tries to nap again. I put my head down too, listening to the chiming of my mental triangle. And then, a howl.

            “What was that?” I awaken.  

            “Probably the bum from outside,” Melanie says. I stand up. “Where are you going?”

            “I have to protect Allison,” I say. “There is evil afoot.”

            “Can you grab me a latte?” Melanie calls before dozing off again. I shake my head no. She has had enough lattes in her lifetime.

            Christmas ornaments hang from the ceiling and replace the fear I held previously for the outside world. I try to pluck the hanging fruit, but as I approach, they disappear into the sparkling cotton candy that has somehow worked its way through the office.

            Another howl reminds me that Allison could be in mortal danger, but first, I need a La Croix. The refrigerator groans when I search its bowels for that crowd-pleasing Pamplemousse. And then, I hit a bag of ice.

            I tug at the plastic until it rips and releases its contents over the floor. What falls out is beautiful and cold and shatters my world. A ray like a candle’s flame beams through a cube, revealing a kaleidoscope, and within that kaleidoscope is a bridge that grows as I clear a way to it with my finger. My eyes walk me down the bridge’s path: to my left is a flowering wall; to my right is a river that gurgles. I am at home; I am in my place. Froth collects at the banks in red and blue and green, and the birds bob up and down around.

            I clear more ice around the floor, and the reflections reveal a desk—my desk! I sit down at it and open my email. What can I say? Crack a smile; smell the roses; break a limb.

            Ah, Outlook, how the hours slog along with thee. Each year, Silicon Valley announces its new communication platform with fireworks, catered lunches, and erotic dancers, but we always slide downhill into that pile of mulch. One day, I will die and dissolve like Emergen-C in water. Melanie will take over my emails, and I will float on to What Comes Next. The email chimes, my heart squiggles. The company releases me, and I melt.

Released at last!

            But Allison and Melanie could take over more than my emails… what about my legacy? Tears escape me—I don’t want to leave my girls! I want to see them thrive! It’s a scary world out there, filled with lattes, howls, and insurrections, and someone needs to protect Allison and Melanie, and I doubt Melanie can help either of them. It has to be me. 

            I twist around to a seething Allison. She must not know what I have discovered. “I found the answer.” I say and show the puddle of water. “The answer is ice.”

            “It was you,” she says. “You poisoned us!”

“I never poison, only protect!” It is not enough, and she leaps on me. I shake her off.

            “I am your boss, Allison. Remember me? We care for each other!” This only makes her roar and launch herself at me again. I throw some ice in her face and she slinks off.

            I relax for a second but leap to my feet again when she returns with a knife. A scream erupts from my mouth as I slide from the kitchenette to the conference room and try to lock the door I slam behind myself. This doe of a woman must be tearing meat off carcasses in her free time because she manages to knock me off in one push.

            She takes the cup of coffee from my desk as she steps in. “Have some of this!” She pours it on me: soy milk, espresso, everything. The contents are warm like tears. She then resumes with slashing her knife and trying to murder me.

            “I’m sorry!” I wail and jump on a desk. “I’m sorry for embarrassing you with my all-hands presentation! For nitpicking you all the time! Please don’t murder me. You’ll have your benefits: 401k, PTO, you name it! I’ll even throw in dental. Please–mercy.”

            She pauses. “Mercy? For you?!” 

            “Yes!” I say.

            She laughs. I join in: HA HA HA. Please don’t kill me. And as she convulses, a curious thing happens: her growl droops, her knife falls, and she lays down. As I marvel over the most auspicious nap of my life, darkness webs over my eyes, and I too sit down and rest.  

            Somewhere, my alarm goes off.

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.

Toxic workplace

4. Master Sun, part 2

Who will I take on for the role? WILL IT BE YOU?!

           Every manager knows the best way to test a candidate is to drag out the interviewing process: Only someone who smiles like an idiot while dodging wrenches can handle a fast-paced environment like my office. Save for the mysterious man, I have no friends in this group, and while my plan is working brilliantly so far, I still need more time to see if he or anyone else has it in them to meet our company’s standards.

           “I will be testing you now on cultural aptitude,” I tell the final four. I stack a box of props on the front table. “But before I can test your fit for this company, I am going to need you all to fit into these costumes.”

           The Asian man stands up. “We came in on a Friday to wear costumes and put on a play?” he says. “This is a part-time position with no benefits. I paid $30 for my Uber here!”

           “$30!” I say, pointing to the door. “Now you know how much you’ll make when you drive for them.” An applicant eliminated; a disaster prevented.

           The woman with the braid whimpers after he leaves. “Since he eliminated himself, can we move onto the next round of interviews?”

           “Absolutely not,” I respond, handing out new papers. “Here are the scenarios. I suggest you put on your costumes quickly.”

           Applicants assembled, I read the first scenario aloud. “I ask you to come to work on a day you have requested off.” I lay the sheet down. “How do you respond? Demonstrate!”

           The contestants don their big hats and aprons to begin the next round with the energy of stale bread. One applicant turns to her partner. “Don’t worry about overtime: I should be paying you for this opportunity!” she says.

           Outside the office, the alleyway homeless man moans with more passion. I scurry to the window. “Scram!” I yell out of it, throwing a dollar bill at him. “Go grind on a Starbucks.” I turn back to the room and sigh.  

           “Applicants! The situation has changed,” I say. They all look so handsome in their costumes. “Today is your engagement party. Pretend that I am the fiancé—convince me to let you go to work instead.”

           The one with the afro goes to her feet. “Oh, exalted one!” she says.

           “Exalted one?” I say. “Remember, I’m your partner, not your boss! Next!”

           “I can do this,” says the giant redhead. He bends down in front of me. “Fiancé, you know how I will always choose work over us?”

           “I’m listening,” I say.

           “Our engagement party is tonight, but so is work, and I am sorry, but- “

           “But what?!” I jump in. “This is your career that you’re talking about. What on earth are you apologizing for?” He steps back; my employees come up to the door again.

           “What is it now?” I say.

           “We’ve waited another hour. Now, it’s well into our weekend,” Allison says.

           “Can we leave?” Melanie asks.

            “How about this?” I say. “Since you both love cake so much, I can order another one when this round is done.” I pat Allison’s arm. “It’ll be fun.”

           “I’m sorry, but—”

           “Don’t say that word,” I say.

           “We have plans. We both have to go now,” Allison finishes.

           “Go where?” I ask. The handsome man approaches us. “You know what? Never mind. Just clean up before you leave.”

           I turn around. The handsome man says, “May I hold your hands for the sake of acting?”

           “For the sake of acting,” I say, laying my palms on his. His skin is soft and smooth and cool. “Fiancé, I will not mince words. I am going to work and I am missing our party. Before I do, allow me to explain why with a parable.” He traces a finger up my wrist and pulls me closer. “Success relies less on the enemy not coming but of our readiness to receive them.”

           The remaining verse rises like a balloon within me. “Success relies not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather that we have made our position unassailable,” I continue.

           He smiles. “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

 “I see we have a disciple of Master Sun,” I say.

           “I see that, too,” he responds.

A disciple of Master Sun!

            As the applicants put their costumes back in their boxes, I make a special effort not to look at one of them in particular. My heart throbs like the tea bag that I bob with my hand. I do my breathing exercise. It is better to be feared than loved. It is better to be feared than loved.

            “What’s going on?” the woman with the afro asks.

            “I don’t know,” I say, spilling tea on my blouse with my stupid, shaking hands.

            “No, I mean what’s going on with the interview?” she asks. “Aren’t we on round three?”

            “Oh yes,” I say and pick up the schedule. Creativity test. “If you really want this position, I’m going to need you to show it.” I hand everyone a fresh sheet of paper and a pen. “Write me a poem about how much you want to work here.” And I sit back down and breathe with my eyes closed, hoping that Melanie and Allison don’t take the fresh air for granted when they go out. But where are they going without me? How could it be that they have their own lives?

            “I finished!” says one of the candidates, not the handsome one unfortunately. I take her poem:

My alarm rings; it’s time to fly

Without my job, I think I’d die

Administration, it’s the dream

Planning meetings and filling forms by the ream

Purpose is freedom, and it’s good to know

That my work helps the company grow—

            “One second,” I say, slamming the paper down and bolting into Melanie’s office, where Allison is also sitting.

            They jump at my arrival. “Where are you going?” I ask.

Melanie says “the engagement party” before slapping her hands over her big mouth.

            “Melanie!” Allison says. “You weren’t supposed to—”

            “It’s okay,” I say, thinking quickly through the shock. “I have plans, too. You can both go now; you’ve waited long enough. Wait—” I say as they stand. “Make sure to mention that I have plans. Fun parties. You know. Friday.”

            “We know,” Allison says, and they continue to clear up.

            I return to the candidates. “Wow. Time really has flown today, hasn’t it?” I say. “But I think we’ve been here long enough, and you can come back on Monday to finish.”

            “We’ve been here for hours,” one says. “What more can we test?”

            “Your readiness for the position,” I snap, loading up my purse. “See you!”

            Chairs creak behind me as I empty the teacup out the window. I tap my fingers on the windowsill—everyone needs to hurry up, I must be out before Allison and Melanie. They and the ex-admin must see how busy I am and how awesome my plans are.   

            I feel eyes on the back of my neck: dark, handsome eyes. “Can I help you?” I say, turning around.

            “I think you can,” he says, handing me his poem.

            “I hope you see that I am a very important woman with many plans,” I blurt.

            “To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear,” he responds.

             I hold his poem to my chest long after I return home. It is better to be feared than loved, but a little love would go a long way in the empty apartment tonight.

Toxic workplace

3. Master Sun, part 1

I test out the new candidates… are any of them worthy of a part-time position with no benefits?

            “You come from far and wide and passed our rigorous screening process,” I say to the six candidates in the kitchenette. “Now, I will evaluate you on the qualities of a successful hire.”

            My fingernail runs through the stack of paper and separates out a chunk. “We will start with these problem-solving tests. Then, I will look at cultural aptitude, creativity, and long-term potential. One of you will be eliminated each round.”

            The redhead takes the stack. An Asian man in a collared shirt frowns at his test. His neighbor, a stretched-out Melanie, scratches her head. Behind her sit two others: one with an afro and another with a braid. Their neighbor is a dark-haired man: handsome, maybe Middle-Eastern or South American. Or Indian. One of those.

            “Let the second round of interviews begin!” I say.

            When the ex-admin left, she brought a storm to my tight ship of an operation. Thanks to my managerial expertise, I grabbed the situation by the mast and steered us through muddled waters to the rain clouds’ silver lining. Over those fateful welcome-back donuts, I promised gentle Allison and meditative Melanie that I would not only rectify her departure but improve the company’s processes. I would start by identifying gaps in our recruitment strategy.

            “Five more minutes!” I announce. “And I would like to remind any slackers that PEUC benefits end in September.”

            My tea tastes like frustrated water; its bitterness is a reminder of the ex-admin. I knew upon her application that she was a chance to hire that I would have to invest my time and resources in training her. All of it was wasted: She made her low culture apparent by refusing to come in on days off, and when she negotiated benefits, I knew attitude would be a problem. While no one could have foreseen her final tantrum, I can only blame my easy-going nature for welcoming her on board in the first place.

            But what really hurt was her quitting last week. Until then, I thought that she liked me!

            It is better to be feared than loved, but a true leader is a fox as well as a lion. Much as the lioness’s roars are felt throughout the Sahara Desert, I make my influence known throughout the company. But today, I will embody the clever fox when selecting the next admin. Ostensibly, the candidates are demonstrating their abilities, but secretly I am eliminating them on their predecessor’s characteristics: fickleness, hypocrisy, and greediness of gain.

            “Time!” I say to the motley crew, who slam their pencils onto the table.

            “No.” I thumb through the packets. “Absolutely not.” I slash a page with red ink. “I will be with you in a second,” I say to Allison and Melanie when they show up at the door. I turn to the candidate with the big hair. “Young woman, what is your name?”

            She mumbles. “What?” I say.

            “My name is Maddy,” she says.

            “Well, Maddy, I’m going to need you to be more calm-y.” I flip to a random page. “You are in a cabin. Every direction around you is south. A bear shows up. What color is its fur?”

            “I don’t know,” she says.

            “White! The bear is white! You are at the North Pole—where else would your compass point south everywhere?” My head shakes. Unbelievable.

            She flinches and is saved by the idiot in front of her. Stretched-out Melanie says, “What do bears have to do with the job description?”

            I point to the door as the mysterious man stands up.

            “Do you want to grow stagnant at your role?” he says. “We lateral thinkers welcome the challenge.”

            The poets describe love as a softness you fall into: blankets, fresh from the dryer; a scented bath; the ball pit at McDonald’s. In truth, it’s a more violent experience, like stubbing your toe in the dark. And right now, watching this candidate recite facts like song, I am hit HARD. But I am a boss babe, a company woman, and once the tingling retreats from my appendages and is replaced by warmth, I return to reason—company first. Always put the company first. I have business to take care of, and I tell stretched-out Melanie and Maddy.

            Allison and Melanie step up as the two women step out. “Could we go home now?” Allison says.

            “What she meant to say,” Melanie began. “Is that we know that you must be embarrassed about what was said to you last week-“

            “Ah yes, the quitting,” I say. “As you can see, I am taking care of that now. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. I loved her little exhibit on my leadership.”

            Allison’s mouth dropped open. “She told you to suck it.”

            I am confused. “Of course she did. We were experiencing a Jolly Rancher together. It was an allegory, sweet like me.”

            Allison and Melanie glance at each other before Melanie continues, “It’s after 5 on a Friday. We need to leave to make it to an… appointment.”

            “Absolutely not,” I say, watching the two failed candidates leave the office from the conference room window. “I might need backup.” My two employees mope their way back to their desks.

            I face the rest of the group, now thinned out. “Based on these results, I shouldn’t be keeping any of you. However, there are three more tests, and I am ready to be impressed.” I lean back in my chair. “So dazzle me.”

Render unto Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar!
Toxic workplace

2. Bridezilla

           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.

           “Unbelievably so,” the admin glows.

           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.  

Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar!

           “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.”

Toxic workplace

1. The Reckoning

          I am a mid-level manager: Hear my roar! I travel extensively despite the quarantine—from my home office I plant my authority in my underlings’ living rooms, floating from apartment to apartment to peek through their windows and evaluate their performance. I am a company woman, a boss babe, and I set the pace, floating above them all in my corporate-sponsored cloud. Of my importance I was certain, until a fateful message pushed me from my pedestal into a sea of doubt. Now I am drowning, splashing in the froth of no longer knowing who I am or what I do, and it is all thanks to remote working.

          Click click click. Unless we’re outside work hours, the nightmarish sound you hear is not spiders hatching in your ear but my Slack message shaking up your peace. Check your email, I send, sounding out each syllable before I do. I then lean back on my swirly chair, holding the warm weight of responsibility and fresh coffee against my chest. After a breathing exercise, I check Facebook to see if the ex has responded to my poke from 2017. He’s just busy.  

          I glance at the clock. Three already! Time flies when you are busy. I prioritize tasks for the rest of the evening: I could look for formatting inconsistencies in the intern’s emails, but wouldn’t it be a better use of my time to berate the office manager for her overpriced highlighter orders?[1]

          Instead, I google memes for our all-hands presentation. Right as I land on NO PRESSURE NO DIAMONDS, a Slack message rips me from my reverie and sends me spiraling.  

          The Slacker is none other than the part-time admin, pretty and sweet and as pleasant as a hair in my margarita. Have a minute?  She writes.

          Have a minute? The words reverberate like the shaman’s drum. This is what remains of decorum and of law and order: managers are not even worthy of a do you anymore.

          It is time to reconsider remote working.

Check your email!

          Work was never meant to take place from home, of that I am certain. Time saved from not commuting can’t convince me otherwise. Healthy breakfasts and fresh lunches I only now prepare haven’t either. My yoga breaks and extra sleep haven’t argued their point, and palm trees swaying in the breeze and birds tweeting from my yard won’t change my mind—the people need an office.         

          I didn’t attend the nation’s most prestigious and overpriced schools just to lord my authority over two and a half employees. I am here to show these girls what success looks like, and sometimes leaders must demonstrate bravery and humility when making scary decisions before they’re asked to do so.

          First, I must temper the brat. Do I have time for what? I write, unfortunately forgetting to italicize the first two words.  

          To talk, she says. We are talking right now; I want to respond but hold off. She begins to type again; the three dots by her icon dance.         

          Some say that remote working improves employees’ mental health. I put little faith in the elites who forget about the clarity gained from our commutes. We are above all a civilized species, and the physical distance that separates a person from work and their beloved partners, families, and hobbies constructs the veneer that they don for colleagues and clients. What to say and how to act is only learned in the physical realm. As I forego all interests not directly in the company’s benefit, a corporate personality comes easily to me. Others are not so blessed.

          What is this about? I type before she responds, cutting her off. Chop chop, underling—I need to pick a color theme for the return-to-office announcement. Should I start off by saying that I am delighted or thrilled for us all to be back?

          Finally, she responds: Never mind. Melanie answered my question. Sorry to bother you.

          Sorry to bother you.

          My LinkedIn bio describes me as a super-star thought-leader, which means something different to all award-winning, growth-minded individuals, and a possible interpretation is that I let apologies stand and bygones be bygones.

          It’s okay, I respond. You haven’t bothered me.

          I send the Slack and stand up over my desktop computer to face the window. The sun washes over me, its radiance reminiscent of my own grace. I sip from my coffee, the sincerity of reconciliation supercharging my spirit. If only the admin could understand her impact on me today!

          They say that the solution to restitution is dilution, and I can’t overwhelm my coworkers with change if I want to return to how things were. After all, all is not lost: my colleague still somehow remembers how to apologize.

          We can still do two days from home, three if the team models the company’s mission according to my high standards. My boss will be so impressed to see the ducklings back in their pond first![2]

          Still aglow, I again check the ex on Facebook. Something is up–how could he not respond in four years? And it dawns on me to click on his profile.


          This can’t be. Four years? That’s not enough time to get over me, start a new life, and meet someone new. Good things should only happen to those who work hard and network. Schadenfreude, my sweet relief, convinces me to search up another lazy bum—the admin. Surely her failure of life can be the salve to my own discomfort!

          Also engaged. I sit back down and stare at the wall.

          We come back Monday; I email everyone—no template, no color theme.

            Two engaged and one enraged, but my breathing slowly returns to normal. I lean back on my chair and tune into it all: the sound and the fury, the ocean waves pounding against the rocks. An eagle soars over a canyon; somewhere, a hiker’s boot crushes a ladybug. And here we are, unique instruments in the world’s ecosystem, about to assemble ourselves in our rightful nests as of Monday.

            I’ll ping the office manager to order donuts for everyone, but all three and a half of us know those pastries are for me and my authority. After all, we should celebrate the leaders who make hard decisions in our best interests, and today that person is me.

[1] $2 more on Office Depot than Amazon, a difference of almost $9 this year!

[2] When he decides he and his team should go back, of course.