Stephanie Mataya holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English, with an emphasis in Creative Writing, from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Stephanie has had fiction work previously published in Your Impossible Voice. She currently lives, works, teaches herself to play piano, and writes in Brooklyn, New York.
And the Days Go On
I take care to pack the notebook that will reflect the type of office person I plan to be. Navy blue, very professional. The satchel that was given to me as a congratulations looks like a mouth that needs feeding, the way it gapes open like it has a locked jaw. I trace the smooth outline of my own face with a light fingertip, testing the movement of my joints, chewing air. Two chomps—all seems to be in working order. I look into the leathery gums of the bag, trying to think of what else to fill it with. A pen, a highlighter, an eraser, like I am preparing for the first day of kindergarten. I pack my resume, because it’s the only paper I can think to bring.
I chug four cups of coffee in rapid succession and have immediate regrets. I don’t even know where the bathroom in the office is.
“Western Airlines is built on loyalty and thrives on dedication,” says Marcia, the head honcho. I’ve already heard this thrice thus far—once in my initial interview, once in my final interview, and once yesterday. These words are spelled out on the main wall of the office with six-inch tall metal letters, flanked by water coolers. I wring the phrase out in my mind, trying to capture at least some meaning. Loyalty, dedication. Marcia breezes away from my desk as soon as the words are out of her mouth, leaving a packet for me to review. Company policies, etc...
In addition to receiving a company ethos tutorial, today was also my “Email Orientation” with my direct manager Terry, and I was given the rundown on digital communication best practices. Eye roll.
-How to sort email
-How to best use the “priority” designation
-How terrible it would be to CC someone who isn’t supposed to be CC’d
-How to best utilize BCC
I hate this fourth item. It makes me itchy to think of the secret recipients of secret messages, of digital eavesdropping.
I scratch behind my ear, making my own skin crawl as the wisps of my hair breathe across the nape of my neck.
I’m the Junior Administrative Assistant of Customer Comments and Complaints for the small but economically robust company, Western Airlines. To avoid puzzling out the odd office-speak, I find myself reflecting on days past, which feels like something I shouldn’t be doing in earnest until I’m much older.
I don’t usually let myself think about my last job, and things that happened there. The things that forced me to leave in a hurry. But now that I am here, at this new place, this place that needs to be the thing that sticks, I get pulled into thoughts of the past. Some of the mistakes were mine, but not all. Anyway, my problems are my problems. This time, I will see clearer, keep my nose clean. As if it knows I’m thinking of it, I feel a twinge at the tip of my nose, and scratch it away.
The office is full of women that wear black dresses, and men who dress very casually—all plaid and denim. A group of us find ourselves in the coffee nook at the same time, and I comment on the coincidence of all of the women matching, then they all laugh together as if I’ve made a really wonderful joke. I feel something shift inside of me, or outside of me, I can’t tell which.
It turns out that the difficult parts of work have nothing to do with the work itself.
Where to have lunch? How long to take to eat? Do I need to bring my own utensils? Will I be judged for eating a ham sandwich on white bread instead of a kale grain bowl?
How bad is it to be five minutes late in the morning? What if I have a coffee in my hand when I inevitably am five minutes late in the morning?
What is everyone else listening to on their headphones? Am I allowed to listen to a podcast, or only music? Should I put in both earbuds, or just one?
When is the right time to interject myself into someone else’s conversation? If I deal with a particularly annoying client, can I complain afterwards? It is frowned upon to make fun of callers?
These questions run on a loop in my mind long after the workday ends. In the seeming comfort of my apartment, I strip and stare at myself. The weird wrinkles that I found out of place on my shoulders yesterday have, today, released themselves. By released, I mean to say that the skin itself has become unstable, dislodged from the bones and flesh and veins and muscles underneath. Whatever held the skin in place before is no longer, and I’m positively sloshing about within myself, willing my body to bring itself back together, to feel comfortable again. What is happening to my body?
Terry sits in the cubical next to mine, drafting emails out loud as usual, murmuring and murmuring—this part is maddening but easy to ignore. About twice an hour though, Terry will laugh, or make some sort of exclamation, as though he’s begging for a response.
“Oh, god! That’s good, that’s real good…” he says to the air. So finally I lean around to be chatty, jovial.
“What’s that?” I say.
“Huh?” he says.
“Oh, I was just wondering what it was.”
“What what was?”
“The thing…that was good? Did you read something funny, or something?”
“Yeah, yeah, I guess.”
“Oh cool, yeah me too,” I say for no reason.
“You too what?”
“Me too…something funny,” not recovering the elusive thread of logical conversation, feeling my cheeks heating.
“Okay then,” Terry says, leaning on the “o”.
And I roll my chair back to my desk, dragging my kneecaps into place. I look over at Terry, who is murmuring again and reading his screen while squeezing and squeezing a wrinkled stress ball, or stress lump, perhaps—some strange goo that can be ripped into a million sticky pieces and then put right back together into a flawless sphere.
I type away at my keyboard, filling out my daily status report, staring at the letters while trying not to let my eyes drift down to my arms. Under the sleeves, I know that there are wrinkles upon wrinkles of skin, acting as though it’s attempting to completely slough off of my body. I’m a reluctant snake, resisting the change that I’m going through, scared of what it means, worried about what’s wrong with me. It’s not only my arms, but my legs, belly, down to even my feet, where the thin webs between each toe no longer are taut, but rather slide about, sometimes stretching, reaching to the end of the nail. I keep the ends of my sleeves pulled far down over my wrists, leaving no visible skin.
Carmen is taking me out to lunch.
“Come on Beth, you ready? There’s this place that makes really great wraps,” she says to me.
“God, I love wraps. Avocado, I hope?” I say, choosing my words carefully, contorting my face into a grin.
“You know it! I fucking luh-huv avocado,” she says with fake gravel in her throat—that trendy vocal fry that I refuse to replicate consciously, but sometimes find myself doing against my own will.
We leave the building, simultaneously donning our jackets, and as she sidles into her leather sleeves, I can’t help but wonder what her skin underneath is like. Maybe it has a satin quality, like the sheets I imagine powerful women keep on their beds. Or maybe it has the same wrinkled quality as mine, the look of a piece of paper scrunched in anger, and the feel of a molded date—soft, but full of divots. I don’t ask.
Marcia says that tomorrow she is going to put me on phones. Officially, by myself, on phones. On phones, she says, over and over, on phones!
“You know enough now to go on phones now Beth, you’ll do great,” she says, as motivation.
“I’m super ready,” I tell her, when she first brings up the phones. I twist my lips upwards, hoping that everything else stays in place.
“Totally,” I add. After a pause, she does an abrupt “hmm!’ and that is that.
When she’s gone, I find myself taskless, so I sit at my computer taking random notes on business practices I’ve learned throughout the week, trying to look productive, trying not to think about my skin, about my failing body, the foreignness of my day to day.
-Respond to all email queries within 4 hours
-Process at least one flight-comp request per day (but not two—never two, by god!)
-Follow the phone script as closely as possible. Read the words that are written and vomit them.
I squirm in my seat, feeling awkward and useless when a rush of elasticity surges through my arm, and I feel my skin pool on the keyboard. My cheeks become hot and saggy, like butter just beginning to melt, and I shove my forearm flesh back into place, as I would a thick sweater before washing my hands. Keeping my head down, I dart my eyes over the tops of the cubicles and around the office, seeing if anyone is seeing. I run to the bathroom—the location of which I am now privy to—and have a very quick sob for reasons I don’t want to confront.
I worry about every task, every moment of every day in this new, foreign place. Every social interaction, and every professional encounter that harbors secret rules. I can only wonder about, obsess over, whether anyone else is noticing my exterior, the way that it’s become a being separate from myself. And yet, I must stay, I must stay, I must stay.
“Can you please fax this to LA?” is the extent of my instruction, and Marcia’s off as instantly as always. The paper in my hand is stamped in red: Very Important. It seems a cruel joke at most, an absurd office cliché at least. I feel my feet sloshing around inside of my shoes—what’s in LA? A second office, a personal contact? Who exactly is supposed to be receiving this very important message? I haven’t been trained on the fax machine yet, and I simply want to die. Nine days in and feeling melodramatic.
The fax machine is all buttons, some faded to blank due to insistent grubby fingertips jabbing and jabbing, and I’m overcome with spontaneous dyslexia. Which numbers, which order? My eyes skim the page and skim the keypad, combining the numbers and letters into a terrible, incomprehensible concoction. As I stand in front of the fax machine, I try not to pay attention to the way that the exterior of my shins have piled upon my ankles into one thick, undulating mass of flesh.
I can feel them watching me, scanning me and ticking boxes in their minds of things I seem capable of. An analysis of my competence. I stare back when I can muster the strength, wondering what they know. Today, my thighs are bunched together, the skin slopping into nauseating bunches—layers and layers of human material behaving in unnatural ways. I sit in my rolling desk chair, feeling the folds adjust, stacking painfully. I lift a few inches off the seat, using my hands to smooth everything from my lower back to the underside of my knees, trying to iron out the wrinkles and flatten the lumps. As I finish patting myself down, I hear the ping! of an instant message. It’s from Marcia, and judging from the series of fainter pings! throughout the office, she’s sent it around to everyone. In all caps, she’s written “PIERRE IN OFFICE NEXT M-DAY.” A moment passes, then another round of pings! “BEST BEHAVIOR ; )”.
How hard would it have been to type “Monday”?
“Do you have a manager I can speak with? You are being quite unhelpful,” the woman on the other line says, concluding our five-minute conversation, during which she detailed her complaints, and I drooled out responses. I put her on hold and the phone almost slips from my hand as the flesh suddenly glides downward, gathering in bunches around the fingernails. Terry’s hand is already waiting to intercept the call, and I pass it over, clutching my stomach muscles together, knowing he’s seen my secret. Again I feel my skin slide, gathering above my pant’s waistline, ripples upon ripples upon ripples. I gather the excess within one arm, protecting my guts, protecting my heart. Deep breaths. I play the conversation over and over, considering things I should have said.
-You have my full sympathy ma’am, what can I do to help?
-I, as a representative of the wonderful Western Airlines, sincerely apologize for any discomfort you may have experienced on a recent flight of ours, and wonder how I can remedy this horrid situation.
The alarm is shouting, but I must first address my fingertips. Another day at the new job, I remind myself. With the saggy left hand, I pinch the loose skin of the right index finger, slowly drawing it into place. Nice and snug. With this one finger prepared, I roll over to my bedside table and turn the alarm off, then thankfully, the twangy racket stops.
In the new quiet, I tend to the other fingers on the right hand, sliding the flapping skin from where it hangs off the ends of my bones like a glove that has been halfway removed. It looks alarmingly like a glove, really—but grotesque and fleshy. One two three four five fingers. I then use the completed right hand to adjust the skin on the left, which goes much more quickly, as I am working with taut skin now, and my dominant hand. Soon, both hands are back to semi normal. I try not to think about it too much, try to go about my business. I roll from the bed, pushing myself up. I can feel my face wobble, which is initially only annoying, until the forehead skin flops straight down and obscures my vision. I gather my eyebrows and pull straight up as I make my way to the bathroom; the rest of my body can be dealt with in the shower.
While waiting for the shower water to warm, I consider my nakedness in the mirror, all slouches and folds on top of wrinkles and pools of skin in places where it does not belong. With my exterior so loose, I worry about the stability of my bones, my guts, everything inside of me. How do my mysterious inner workings know how to keep functioning? Consider the heart: the most massively important organ in the body, pumping away, doing many more essential functions that I’m even aware of. If I saw my own heart, really saw it, ripped from my chest and lying on a table, perhaps, I would find it disgusting, gruesome. Yet, it modestly continues, without my conscious input or instruction. How do I know it won’t also betray me?
The shower is up to temperature, and I drag myself into the stream, initially resenting the droplets for beating me in such an insistent way. But soon, my body adjusts, and it’s pleasant, almost delightful. I bend forward and gather the long folds of flesh that hang from my legs. I pull the folds back into place, using one hand to yank and the other to smooth the swath of skin over until it rests tentatively where it belongs. I eventually proceed to my midsection, continuing the same action. Gathering my skin and dispersing it, coaxing the flesh and flattening it. It takes a certain amount of pressure and effort, and I get worn out as I tend to my back. To get the skin around my shoulder blades adjusted, I contort my arms, fearing the loyalty of my shoulder socket. But I give my skin a fierce pinch, then a quick tug, and it seems sorted. The arms are easy, but the ears are awkward with all of their grooves and ridges—getting them right takes some time and concentration. Finally I feel whole, and shampoo my hair and soap my body rapidly, as I know the water is about to run cold. Another day of trying to keep it together.
I’m nodding my farewell and mumbling “Night” to everyone within earshot, when Marcia interrupts and says to me, in the same tone one uses to tell a child their shoe is untied, “Oh Beth, just so you know, you should be at your desk and ready to work at 9, not walking through the door at 9…okay? So see you tomorrow! At 8:55…” and then she winks. As I nod and give her a small conciliatory laugh, I feel my belly loosen and fall several inches. Folds of thigh flesh rub against one another as I move towards the door and I begin to worry about chafing. And the days go on; more of the same discomfort, manifesting itself in every nook and cranny of my life.
It’s Monday, and Pierre has arrived. As per the cliché, he’s a beautiful French man. His accent has a gentle lilt, and his gaze somehow suggests he’s seeing everything in the whole room at one time. His face is round and boyish in a way, but his meticulously parted hair proves his maturity. He leans forward to shake Marcia’s hand and I could count the lines in his hair to determine the number of teeth in his comb.
The schedule of the day is a mess of meetings, team building activities, and break out sessions. I plan to fly under the radar. Pierre pops here and there around the office in the half hour prior to our first meeting (Thinking Forward: Anticipating Client Needs), chatting for a moment with each of my coworkers. As instructed, they all seems on their best behavior; Terry is all half smiles and nods of approval; Carmen has a visibly strong handshake. I flatten my ripples as I count down the number of people left between Pierre and myself. I will my body to behave, but I feel my stress level rising and know what’s coming.
Pierre makes it to my side of the office, rounds the half-wall to my cubical. I reach a hand out to shake, aware of its moisture, and greet this man as politely as I can, knowing his approval of me could mean stability, comfort. He introduces himself unnecessarily, crossing his arms and leaning casually against the edge of my desk, so close that I can smell his aftershave or maybe just deodorant—something that would be called Fresh Breeze or Cool Mist. We chat for a minute about how things are going, and my body feels okay for the most part, but I continue to pet my arm, smoothing any wrinkles that threaten to surface. Pierre finishes the conversations as quickly as with everyone else, turning to me a last time before walking away to say, “Hopefully you are getting adjusted here. Things can be a bit difficult at first, but tend to smooth out sooner or later,” then gives me a wink.
It’s my one-month review. I twist and twist my fingers together, entwining the digits, shuddering at their nauseating elasticity.
“So, Beth, let’s hear from you. How do you feel about your time with us so far?” Marcia starts.
“Well, yeah, feeling great. Slowly learning, but putting the pieces together,” I say.
“To really thrive here, I would say the most important thing is taking initiative. Watching and learning is great, but asking questions is excellent,” Marcia says.
Terry nods along, looking distracted. I try to make eye contact with him.
We banter back and forth, Marcia, as always, speaking in mottos rather than real words. The meeting ends abruptly and she shakes my hand with a cold formality, promising to check back in soon.
“You’re getting it,” says Terry, when it’s just the two of us. “Marcia’s not a real person, anyway.” He gives my shoulder a playful punch then turns away to his desk. I rub the spot of impact, noticing a tingling under the surface that feels okay.
Poppy, the new intern, started today. As she paces the rows between the cubicles, hunting for tasks, I watch her closely. Enthusiasm level—high. Competence—moderate. Social skills—decent. It seems this newcomer has all of the makings of a successful employee, but that’s not what I’m watching for. What’s the texture of her exterior, how is her body holding together? Was it always just me? Poppy is wearing an oversized sweater, hiding the contours of her arms. I break my observation, distracted by a sudden light rattling sound.
“I grabbed you a coffee. Iced Macchiato?” Carmen glides past my desk, leaving a sweating plastic cup in her wake, ice cubes knocking against each other.
“Thanks, lady!” I holler across the room. “Do you have those papers for me to file?”
“Shit, I forgot, again. Give me half an hour.”
I laugh. Typical Carmen, a beat behind. As soon as the thought passes through my brain, I marvel at it. I walk to the bathroom to consider myself.
I don’t remember ever transitioning back to normal, can’t recall a day that I noticed the flattening of the wrinkles, the tightening of my pores. But look, there I am, smooth. I run my fingers through my hair and turn to leave, nearly mowing over Poppy, who is running towards the sink. She says what, what, what, over and over. I decide not to tell her.
The phones, with their redundancy, have become a comfort. Because every conversation starts the same way, (“Hi this is Beth, you have reached Western Airlines, how can I help you?”), I can ease my way in, getting used to the timbre of each new voice, bracing myself for an odd complaint or question. Very old men have become my favorite to take calls from. They speak slowly and usually shout, giving me time to prepare my answer, decide on my tone.
The phone rings. I push my sleeve up over my elbow.
“Hi this is Beth, you have reached Western Airlines, how can I help you?”
“Beth? Well hi there Beth, this is Bruno, how can I help you?” the voice says.
“Can I help you…?” I ask again, receiving a laugh on the other end, the kind that could be called a guffaw.
“Oh sure sure sure Beth, that’s just a little joke of mine.”
“It’s a very good one. Absolutely.”
“Absolutely. Anyhow, I do happen to have a question…”
And it goes on from there. I stroke the smooth nape of my neck as I listen to Bruno, and glance around the edge of the cubical wall to give Terry an amused eye roll. He shrugs and laughs as if to say, “what can you do?” I stick a tongue out at Terry and give him a thumbs down. He crosses his eyes, pokes his tongue out, and does a thumbs up back at me. I struggle to keep my voice professional; old Bruno demands my attention.
“No problem, I can work that out for you,” I say, feeling taut and whole.