“Excuse me, Joshua.”
He doesn’t acknowledge me for a full minute. His keystrokes intensify. Beethoven on a piano has nothing on him right now.
“What is it, Lucinda?”
Not even my parents call me Lucinda. I clench my jaw but then guiltily release the muscles. My dentist has begged me to make a conscious effort.
“Are you working on the forecasting figures for next quarter?”
He lifts both hands from his keyboard and stares at me. “No.”
I let out half a lungful of air and turn back to my desk.
“I finished those two hours ago.” He resumes typing. I look at my open spreadsheet and count to ten.
We both work fast and have reputations for being Finishers—you know, the type of worker who completes the nasty, too-hard tasks everyone else avoids.
I prefer to sit down with people and discuss things face-to-face. Joshua is strictly email. At the foot of his emails is always: Rgds, J. Would it kill him to type Regards, Joshua? It’s too many keystrokes, apparently. He probably knows offhand how many minutes a year he’s saving B&G.
We’re evenly matched, but we are completely at odds. I try my hardest to look corporate but everything I own is slightly wrong for B&G. I’m a Gamin to the bone. My lipstick is too red, my hair too unruly. My shoes click too loudly on the tile floors. I can’t seem to hand over my credit card to purchase a black suit. I never had to wear one at Gamin, and I’m stubbornly refusing to assimilate with the Bexleys. My wardrobe is knits and retro. A sort of cool librarian chic, I hope.
It takes me forty-five minutes to complete the task. I race the clock, even though numbers are not my forte, because I imagine it would have taken Joshua an hour. Even in my head I compete with him.
“Thanks, Lucy!” I hear Helene call faintly from behind her shiny office door when I send the document through.
I recheck my inbox. Everything’s up to date. I check the clock. Three fifteen P.M. I check my lipstick in the reflection of the shiny wall tile near my computer monitor. I check Joshua, who is glowering at me with contempt. I stare back. Now we are playing the Staring Game.
I should mention that the ultimate aim of all our games is to make the other smile, or cry. It’s something like that. I’ll know when I win.
I made a mistake when I first met Joshua: I smiled at him. My best sunny smile with all my teeth, my eyes sparkling with stupid optimism that the business merger wasn’t the worst thing to ever happen to me. His eyes scanned me from the top of my head to the soles of my shoes. I’m only five feet tall so it didn’t take long. Then he looked away out the window. He did not smile back, and somehow I feel like he’s been carrying my smile around in his breast pocket ever since. He’s one up. After our initial poor start, it only took a few weeks for us to succumb to our mutual hostility. Like water dripping into a bathtub, eventually it began to overflow.
I yawn behind my hand and look at Joshua’s breast pocket, resting against his left pectoral. He wears an identical business shirt every day, in a different color. White, off-white stripe, cream, pale yellow, mustard, baby blue, robin’s-egg blue, dove-gray, navy, and black. They are worn in their unchanging sequence.
Incidentally, my favorite of his shirts is robin’s-egg blue, and my least favorite is mustard, which he is wearing now. All the shirts look fine on him. All colors suit him. If I wore mustard, I’d look like a cadaver. But there he sits, looking as golden-skinned and healthy as ever.
“Mustard today,” I observe aloud. Why do I poke the hornet’s nest? “Just can’t wait for baby blue on Monday.”
The look he gives me is both smug and irritated. “You notice so much about me, Shortcake. But can I remind you that comments about appearance are against the B&G human resources policy.”
Ah, the HR Game. We haven’t played this one in ages. “Stop calling me Shortcake or I’ll report you to HR.”
We each keep a log on the other. I can only assume he does; he seems to remember all of my transgressions. Mine is a password-protected document hidden on my personal drive and it journals all the shit that has ever gone down between Joshua Templeman and me. We have each complained to HR four times over this past year.
He’s received a verbal and written warning about the nickname he has for me. I’ve received two warnings; one for verbal abuse and for a juvenile prank that got out of hand. I’m not proud.
He cannot seem to formulate a reply and we resume staring at each other.
I LOOK FORWARD to Joshua’s shirts getting darker. It’s navy today, which leads to black. Gorgeous Payday Black.
My finances are something like this. I’m about to walk twenty-five minutes from B&G to pick up my car from Jerry (“the Mechanic”) and melt my credit card to within one inch of its maximum limit. Payday comes tomorrow and I will pay the credit card balance. My car will ooze more oily dark stuff all weekend, which I will notice by the time Joshua’s shirts are the white of a unicorn’s flank. I call Jerry. I return the car and subsist on a shoestring budget. The shirts get darker. I’ve got to do something about that car.
Joshua is currently leaning on Mr. Bexley’s doorframe. His body fills most of the doorway. I can see this because I’m spying via the reflection on the wall near my monitor. I hear a husky, soft laugh, nothing like Mr. Bexley’s donkey bray. I rub my palms down my forearms to flatten the tiny hairs. I will not turn my head to try to see properly. He’ll catch me. He always does. Then I’ll get a frown.
The clock is grinding slowly toward five P.M. and I can see thunderclouds through the dusty windows. Helene left an hour ago—one of the perks of being co-CEO is working the hours of a schoolchild and delegating everything to me. Mr. Bexley spends longer hours here because his chair is way too comfortable and when the afternoon sun slants in, he tends to doze.
I don’t mean to sound like Joshua and I are running the top floor, but frankly it feels like it sometimes. The finance and sales teams report directly to Joshua and he filters the huge amounts of data into a bite-size report that he spoon-feeds to a struggling, red-faced Mr. Bexley.
I have the editorial, corporate, and marketing teams reporting to me, and each month I condense their monthly reports into one for Helene . . . and I suppose I spoon-feed it to her too. I spiral-bind it so she can read it when she’s on the stepper. I use her favorite font. Every day here is a challenge, a privilege, a sacrifice, and a frustration. But when I think about every little step I’ve taken to be here in this place, starting from when I was eleven years old, I refocus. I remember. And I endure Joshua for a little longer.
I bring homemade cakes to my meetings with the division heads and they all adore me. I’m described as “worth my weight in gold.” Joshua brings bad news to his divisional meetings and his weight is measured in other substances.
Mr. Bexley stumps past my desk now, briefcase in hand. He must shop at Humpty Dumpty’s Big & Small Menswear. How else could he find such short, broad suits? He’s balding, liver-spotted, and rich as sin. His grandfather started Bexley Books. He loves to remind Helene that she was merely hired. He is an old degenerate, according to both Helene and my own private observations. I make myself smile up at him. His first name is Richard. Fat Little Dick.
“Good night, Mr. Bexley.”
“Good night, Lucy.” He pauses by my desk to look down the front of my red silk blouse.
“I hope Joshua passed on the copy of The Glass Darkly I picked up for you? The first of the first.”
Fat Little Dick has a huge bookshelf filled with every B&G release. Each book is the first off the press; a tradition started by his grandfather. He loves to brag about them to visitors, but I once looked at the shelves and the spines weren’t even cracked.
“You picked it up, eh?” Mr. Bexley orbits around to look at Joshua. “You didn’t mention that, Doctor Josh.”
Fat Little Dick probably calls him Doctor Josh because he’s so clinical. I heard someone say when things got particularly bad at Bexley Books, Joshua masterminded the surgical removal of one-third of their workforce. I don’t know how he sleeps at night.
“As long as you get it, it doesn’t matter,” Joshua replies smoothly and his boss remembers that he is The Boss.
“Yes, yes,” he chuffs and looks down my top again. “Good work, you pair.”
He gets into the elevator and I look down at my shirt. All the buttons are done up. What could he even see? I glance up at the mirrored tiles on the ceiling and can faintly see a tiny triangle of shadowed cleavage.
“If you buttoned it any higher, we wouldn’t see your face,” Joshua says to his computer screen as he logs off.
“Perhaps you could tell your boss to look at my face occasionally.” I also log off.
“He’s probably trying to see your circuit board. Or wondering what kind of fuel you run on.”
I shrug on my coat. “Just fueled by my hate for you.”
Josh’s mouth twitches once, and I nearly had him there. I watch him roll down a neutral expression. “If it bothers you, you should speak to him. Stand up for yourself. So, painting your nails tonight, desperately alone?”
Lucky guess on his part? “Yes. Masturbating and crying into your pillow tonight, Doctor Josh?”
He looks at the top button of my shirt. “Yes. And don’t call me that.”
I swallow down a bubble of laughter. We jostle each other in an unfriendly way as we get into the elevator. He hits B, but I hit G.
“Car’s at the shop.” I step into my ballet flats and tuck my heels into my bag. Now I’m even shorter. In the dull polish of the elevator doors I can see that I barely come halfway up his bicep. I look like a Chihuahua next to a Great Dane.
The elevator doors open to the building foyer. The world outside B&G is a blue haze; refrigerator cold, filled with rapists and murderers and lightly sprinkling rain. A sheet of newspaper blows past, right on cue.
He holds the elevator door open with one enormous hand and leans out to look at the weather. Then he swings those dark blue eyes to mine, his brow beginning to crease. The familiar bubble forms in my head. I wish he was my friend. I burst it with a pin.