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Chapter One: Doris Mindfuck
The ladies' room door squeaks open and I stop breathing, jerking my feet up on the toilet seat lid in an effort to work through my lunch hour in solitude. Rubber soles scuff along the honeycomb tiles as I bend to inch the remains of my lunch out of view, but my pen betrays me, rolling brazenly out of my lap and onto the warped floor.
"Who's in here?" my boss, Doris, shouts over the din of sweatshop sewing machines whirring up the air shaft. I consider not responding -- maybe she'll think the pipes are now leaking not only asbestos but pens. "Hello-o?" She knocks once on the last stall door before rattling it forcefully. Her tightly permed gray curls appear below me. "Oh, Girl, it's you."
I will a cheery smile.
"You have your period again, don't you?" She stares up disdainfully as she turns a deep red from her inverted stance. "You know, Girl" -- she takes in my research materials on the floor -- "I've provided you with a perfectly good desk."
"Yes, thank you..." I try to dislodge my crossed legs without stepping on her face. "I was just taking advantage of the quiet to finish my presentation for the conference." I unlatch the door, and she abruptly shoves it in toward me, spraying the cup of coffee I'd balanced on the toilet-paper dispenser onto my coat. My new coat.
She arches her eyebrows over her multicolored Fimo clay bifocals. "You're a mess," she pronounces. "You really should make your lunch at home and bring it with you. You're not managing your finances very well if you buy those expensive sandwiches every day. But I guess that'd mean you'd actually have to get out of bed on time." She remains squarely in the stall doorway, indicating that I owe her an explanation.
"I should," I say with a nod, collecting the offending sandwich wrappers, along with my files, from the floor. She folds her arms across her ample chest and continues to stare me down. Before I can determine how to atone, the bathroom door squeaks open again, and Pam, deputy director of the Center for Equity in Community, waddles in.
"Oh, Doris, there you are." She approaches, hulking from side to side like a bloated John Wayne. "I'm heading uptown for that meeting on the Youth Center rally, and if it's anything like last week's, I'm going to be there till dinner -- "
"Those. Are. Fantastic." Doris thrusts her pointer finger at Pam's purple clogs, which match her bright purple hemp jumper and the dark purple African lariat she has ambitiously combined with lilac Mardi Gras beads. Had an eggplant been available in her kitchen, she'd have donned it as a hat.
"Well, I saw Odetta's green ones, so I asked for a pair from Santa, but you know I'm still hunting for those." Pam gestures to Doris's black Nubuck booties.
"I'll never tell," Doris says coyly, turning her ankle. Doris's hemp and Nubuck ensembles are famously all-black, giving her a cosmopolitan air amidst the Center's menopausal sea of the waistband-and-ironing-board adverse.
"I'm just going to -- " I point to the sink by the door and shimmy past them, dabbing at the pending stain on my coat with a sheet of toilet tissue.
"Look at this one." Doris grudgingly steps aside and jerks her thumb at me, letting Pam in on the latest Girl Headache. "Can't keep her coffee in its cup." She purses her lips, narrowing her eyes before continuing, "Girl, meet me in my office after you pull yourself together. I want to make an addition to the conference packet."
"Definitely. And I want to go over my presentation -- "
But their pear-shaped figures are already disappearing as the door stutters closed. I slap my files down on the cracked Formica counter, yank the last paper towel from the cracked dispenser, and shrug off my assaulted coat. I do make it out of bed on time, thank you very much. And actually, since you ask, I'm working through my unpaid lunch hour. For you. And the fact that the only square inch of peace and quiet I can find in this swirling tornado of psychodrama is on a toilet seat should tell you something about the kind of outfit you're running here. I'm not the jackass. You. You are the jackass.
"Jackass," I level at the curling thirty-year-old poster for Having Our Say: Teaching Young Women to Step Up and Speak Out!, Doris Weintruck's iconic tome and the misleading cornerstone of my Wesleyan curriculum. She manages a dimpled grin, tilted with insouciance, to her raised smocked shoulder, her auburn curls teased into an empowering Linda Carter do. Gripping the lapel where the coffee stain is now indelibly entwined with the pink wool, I whisper my pronouncement to the Doris of the disco era, "I quit."
I turn to the door, heart rate escalating, mouth sandy. Just do it. Just march right in. Just march in and take a seat -- no, stand. Yes, march right in there and stand and...and tell her that she's unprofessional...and a hypocrite and, and...and mean.
Or wait till five when she's tuckered. Or Monday when she's rested. Maybe don't do it in person at all: Hello, you. This is me. I'm not coming back. Hang up and that'd be it. Over. Done. No bloodshed.
No bloodshed but no closure.
I spin to the poster and search her flat eyes. Don't I owe Doris Weintruck, founding mother of the Female Voice Movement, the opportunity to throw her arms around me and wish me the best, so that we can move on, not just as colleagues but as friends? So, ten years from now, when we're co-chairing the same board, and she can't get over how I look like a rocket scientist, sound like a rocket scientist, and am, in fact, a rocket scientist, we can have a nice long giggle about how she used to treat me like an asshole? I avert my gaze to the counter, where, inside my purse, my checkbook is barely covering the essential trinity of food, shelter, and student loans.
I sigh, once again tabling the fantasy. Folding my coat over my arm, I pick up my paper, "Beyond Renouncing: Modeling Practical Strategies for Young Feminists," that I've been researching, on my own time, since Doris finally consented to let me deliver my first talk at her annual Having Our Say Conference. An event charged with activists at the forefront of the field, whose siren song brought me to the Center in the first place: If women could just unite on ____, we could change ____. And it's this opportunity to join the conversation that's the last anemic carrot toward which I'm running.
The next morning finds me literally up to my eyeballs in stacks of pastel photocopies. Mindlessly collating packets while the radiator cackles and clanks, I circle the table, lost deep within a vision in which I'm stepping down from the conference podium amidst warm waves of applause as Doris turns to me, her head bowed low in respect. "NOW wants you on their think tank, and Hillary would like to take a meeting," she announces, reaching to shake my hand. "I'm hiring an assistant for both of us."
"Girl! GIRRRRRLLLLLLL!" Doris screams me back to reality from her office down the hall. "GIRRRRLLLL!" She fills the door frame of the overheated janitorial closet, retitled the Speak-Out Room. "What did you do with that number?!"
"Sorry, which number?" I bookmark the pile I'm collating from with my hand.
"That number...for the woman...with that program -- you know!" Doris takes it upon herself to shift my piles to search for the number. Which I logically would have hidden beneath three thousand sheets of paper. I dive to save the lilac from toppling into the powder blue, but it's too late. "Come on, come look by your desk. I know you kept it." I swipe my coat before she jerks me down the long row of cubicles and back to the hot-flash-provoked arctic sector of the office.
"I'm sure we'll find it," I say, my breath hovering in little frosted cloud bursts as Doris stretches out my sleeve. "If you could just tell me which program she was -- "
"Well, if I remembered that, then I wouldn't have to disturb you from your origami. I gave it to you this morning. Here, look around your area." She points at the child-sized school desk that's been allotted for my full and luxurious use. The very same desk on which I've had to store six hundred copies of fifty-three handouts because Odetta, the office manager, "just plain can't stomach people leaving all their junk" in the Speak-Out Room overnight. Reaching for the binder in which I've learned to keep a detailed log of every single phone message, I flip to today's date and run my finger down the list.
"Um, are you sure it was this morning?" I gingerly detach Doris's clam-grip from my now distended, coffee-stained coat. "Because I don't -- "
"That's what I said, isn't it?" She drops to her knees and shoves herself between my legs to root through the garbage can. "If you would just keep things a little more orderly out here, Girl."
"Right. It's just that with all these conference materials -- maybe it might be more efficient if, maybe, we could store them in the clos -- Speak-Out Room. And I'm glad you grabbed me because I'm really eager to get your feedback on my presentation." I flip through yesterday's phone log. "Do you mean Shelly from the Oregon YWCA?"
She jumps up, knocking over the full can. "Yes! Yes, that's her. See, I-told-you," she singsongs.
"Um, she actually called yesterday and I left the message right..." I walk into her office. "Here." I pull the Post-it off her computer screen and hand it to her as she shuffles in after me.
"Humph." Doris takes it with a slight blush.
"Super! So, have you had a chance to review my presentation?"
"Girl," she says sternly, "that's a premature conversation. I feel there's another issue you need to address first." She points with her nose to the sagging chair across from her, and my stomach sinks. "Go ahead, have a seat," she instructs firmly.
I detest this office; it has no windows and is covered with crumbling collages made by Doris's Step Up and Speak Out! adolescents of yore. I always end up eye level with the cutout of a woman carrying a big floppy hat from a Summer's Eve douche box circa 1979 pasted beside yellowed advertising copy that proclaims, Sisters are doing it for themselves! But even that is less cringe-inducing than the framed Ms. cover of Doris bleating into a megaphone.
"Girl," she says, "I want to share with you that I'm really quite troubled by something that I think would be a disservice not to bring to your attention."
"You seem to be abnormally preoccupied with space."
"Space. Having it. Needing it. Wanting it. You talk about it all the time. I've told you on several occasions that we're operating with a commune perception here at the Center. I believe we've discussed, ad nauseam, that you need to make peace with your allotted area."
"Right. I'm, um, fine with my desk. It's just that these conference packets had only ten handouts for two hundred participants a week and a half ago. And I'm working with a lot more paper now, so -- "
"See, Girl, I think it's pretty unhealthy that you choose to deflect responsibility for your own inadequacies right back onto me."
Doris leans in and places her hands on my knees. The Summer's Eve woman does a slow hula behind her as I lose air. "I want you to work on this. Maybe work on it in your own life. This is a sign of further -- deeper -- issues, I feel, for you. It's really why I don't like working with you young twenty-somethings -- you're all just so..." She tilts her face to stare intensely at me over her bifocals. Instinctively I mirror her, leaning forward. We slowly continue to move in toward each other while I await my sentence. "Needy," she finally pronounces before nearly planting her face in my lap. She reaches around me to retrieve a stack of crumbling leaflets, momentarily suffocating me with her cleavage. "These should be added to the packets. I'm thinking fuchsia, lime green, and orange."
I stand up.
"Wait, Girl -- not the light orange. I want the bright one."
"No, no, maybe the pale orange is better. Make copies of both and bring them in for me to decide."
I glance down at the first thirty-year-old leaflet. "This one might be too old to Xerox. It's almost illegible -- "
"Yes? And?" Doris smiles at my idiocy. "So, you'll need to retype it. Come on, Girl."
I check the rusted school clock above her shoulder. "I think I mentioned this yesterday, but all these materials have to be in the mail by Monday. It's just that the copy machine has been kind of temperamental. So if, maybe, we could, you know, not add too many more -- because so far I've only been able to make fifty out of the six hundred and twenty-two -- "
"Six hundred and thirty-four! I just got a group from Des Moines!" Doris claps her hands like an excited child.
I dig my fingernails into my palms and don't roll my eyes. "So the six hundred and thirty-four packets -- "
"Well, Girl, the point is the content. We aren't going to tailor a national conference around your social life now, are we? I'm not going to call the funders in Washington and tell them we can't do it just because you can't put a few more papers into a folder or two." OR SIX HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FOUR! Doris smiles coyly. "I think you had best plan to be here over the weekend if you're managing your time that poorly." The phone rings and I wait to remind her again about my presentation. Smiling out into space, she lifts the receiver to her ear. "This is Doris!" she chimes. "Hello, Jean. Before I answer your questions, are we getting Sunday coverage or not? Uh-huh, uh-huh. Well, I appreciate your challenge, Jean, I do, but if you set this as a goal for yourself -- engaging with your editor is a growth opportunity for you. Reframe for him that this year's conference is going to be an unprecedented gathering...Oh, now, don't take me the wrong way, I'm only saying that when we silence ourselves, Jean, we suffer. And I know you know this. As I was saying, an unprecedented gathering of the preeminent thinkers in the field of teenage-oriented public policy and community outreach...I may have said that last year, I can't recall...No, I don't think my 'brand' of feminism is outdated....Well, of course I'm participating. Why would you even ask that?...A different angle? What kind of angle?...Where are they now?! I'm right here!...You're questioning my relevance? That's an idiotic paradigm and a right-wing distraction tactic and I won't participate in it." Doris drops the phone and turns to me, her dimpled hands splaying across her hemp-swaddled belly. "Silenced, Girl. We're being silenced." She glazes over as she fingers her trade beads. "All my hard work getting this summit funded for the back page."
"Maybe this isn't really suited to The Times. Why don't we reach out to Mother Jones, The Atlantic? Or if you want local coverage, I can call The Voice -- "
"Light orange. Definitely." She waves me brusquely from the room.
"I've brought you re-in-force-ments!" Doris singsongs the next morning from the hallway outside the Speak-Out Room, where I'm surrounded by piles of copies and boxes.
She sashays in wearing her black corduroy culotte and vest, looking every bit the Peace Corps elf.
"Great!" I reach for enthusiasm, praying she's pulled in a few of the other beleaguered, yet able-bodied assistants.
"Yes, our very own office manager has graciously volunteered to come to your rescue."
Wheezing, Odetta squeezes in around the far side of the table to join me, her polyester pants still stuffed into the tops of her snow boots. "She's not leaving her stuff in here overnight, is she?" she inquires suspiciously, as she heaves her girth up onto a stool. "I can't stomach that."
"Oh, no," I quickly reassure her. "I have a desk, my own desk, and it's all the space I need. I put all of this back in my area every evening. Because it's mine, my space, and I love it."
Doris rolls her eyes at Odetta.
"So what am I doing here?" Odetta asks her as she hasn't addressed me directly since I dared speak of the fax machine's penchant for not faxing.
"Start here," Doris instructs her with complete authority, while rearranging everything I've already arranged.
"Actually, Odetta," I finally interrupt after Doris has made a collating order that requires nine circuits of the table to fill a single folder, "maybe you could put the name stickers on. That would be super-helpful!"
"All right, boss!" Doris salutes me, and my fingernails find their way back into my palms.
Odetta then proceeds to laboriously center each sticker before applying it.
"Why is this orange?" Doris thrusts a paper at me as I squeeze past her.
"That's the color you wanted."
"Well, it's all wrong for this topic. Orange for menstruation? How about magenta? Odetta, what do you think?"
"You're the one who knows colors, Doris," Odetta coos.
"We'll have to decide later," Doris sighs, checking her Swatch. "Now, I have to run to a meeting in Brooklyn. I'll be back after lunch. Be nice to Odetta, and don't work her too hard -- she's doing you a favor." She hustles out of the closet, and Odetta sends me a look that lets me know she's not putting up with any of my funny business.
"Thank you so much for helping out with this!" I beam, eager to boost her sticker per hour ratio. "The fax machine has been working like a dream lately. You really have a way with it. And I hear your plans for the Self-Esteem bake sale are going really well!" I collate around her immobile frame. "I'm so sorry I'm going to miss it -- I'm presenting at the conference that day -- "
"Nope. You're working the table from nine to noon." Before I can correct her, Odetta's cell rings and she pulls it from her stretched elastic waistband. "Thought you hung up on me...Well, you should carry more change. I was saying that I just don't feel like you've been there for me lately. You didn't call me on Christmas. Or New Year's. Hold on," she says, acknowledging my waving hands.
"Sorry, but I'm going to be in Toledo," I tell her. "I'm presenting this year."
Odetta shakes me off. "When my sister had that Pap smear, I spent a lot of time thinking about what's important in my life, and I have my husband, my cats, and us. You and me. I felt like I couldn't count on you at all this week -- " I tap her hulking shoulder. "Don't touch me!" She puts her hand over the mouthpiece. "Yes, you are working the table. Doris signed you up yesterday."
"Yesterday?!" No! Nonono! With rising panic, I accelerate my collating, squeezing quickly past her mammoth butt with each orbit of the table. Odetta shrinks from the contact as she rails on to someone presumably in prison.
"When the cat's feet are acting up, it makes my rash come back. I've been awake every night itching and taking oatmeal baths. Well, I should be able to call you when I get to work and if you aren't there -- I'm not saying you don't have things to do...no, I'm not saying that. I said I'm not saying that. If you'll listen...I'm saying that I had to take the cat..."
The radiator clanks aggressively, Odetta's motionless hand leaving a sweaty smear of ink on the forgotten folder, rendering it, and her, useless.
Trudging back from lunch, I unbutton my coat, prepared to do battle. My heart stops as I round the corner to find that my desk has been pillaged. "Shitshitshit." Every single thing has been moved; files are gone, piles have been rifled, my carefully constructed packing lists for the conference materials are nowhere to be found, and the binder with my notes on who's available to sub for me at the bake sale is MIA. I start to see spots.
"Um," I call out in greeting as I stumble to Doris's office, "I think my desk has been -- "
"Cleaned. Yes, it was a disaster. I don't know how you were getting a single thing done out there. You've been whining about help, so I took it upon myself to make some order. You're welcome." Doris has my binder open on her desk, which is in its usual state of disarray. "I really don't know why you keep all these messages, Girl. It's a little neurotic. 'Not a baking enabler.' " She snorts and tosses the binder back to me. "What does that even mean?"
I consciously close my open jaw. "Right, I wanted to ask you. There seems to be some confusion with Odetta. She's under the impression that I'm working the bake sale while we're at the conference."
Doris just looks at me.
"So am I?"
"Not at the moment."
"Right, no. I meant the bake sale."
"But that's the day I'm supposed to be presenting -- "
"Your behavior hasn't really indicated you're ready to present. If you can't manage the assembly of a few packets..." She shrugs, helpless against my incompetence. "Besides, you never gave me a draft of your presentation, and we leave in two days. Did you see my note?" She reaches for the phone.
"What? Wait. I'm sorry, I gave you a draft on Monday. I can print you up another copy now -- "
"I'm in meetings all afternoon. The note's on your desk. It came to me at three a.m., while I was peeing -- you can forget about sleeping after you turn fifty -- and I realized just what this conference is missing." The speaker at the other end of the phone picks up and I'm forgotten. "He-llo! Doris Weintruck at your service!"
I walk back to my desk, which looks up at me, sadly violated, trying modestly to cover itself with an article ripped from Ms. Magazine about teenage apathy. I sit down to stare at the flimsy toilet-tissue note paper-clipped to it, in which only an A, S, and T are distinctly legible in the two-word message scribbled in bleeding felt tip. "Arrogant thrust? Apologetic trust?" Wait...is that an m? Carrie, another program assistant, squeezes by my desk, and I grab her arm. "Doris-speak." I hand her the tissue.
Carrie fixes me a quick look of desperation and jerks her head toward Odetta's cave. "Staple machine's busted again."
"Open with how much you love her and that you in no way consider what you're about to say to be her fault."
"Thanks." We exchange a nod, and she disappears around the corner.
"GIRRRRRLLLLLL. DID YOU FIND THE NOTE?" Doris's scream precedes her.
I leap up to catch her elbow. "Please, please, wait right here. I'm making a copy of my presentation right now -- you could read it on the way home. Let's schedule a meeting tomorrow to go over your feedback." I grab her calendar. "I'll pencil it in on the way to the copier, you stand here -- "
"Of course I can stand here," Doris mugs for a passing director. "You don't have to be so dramatic."
First thing the next morning, having collated into the wee hours, I lure Doris to her desk with the aid of multiple cheese Danishes so she can review my presentation. She waves me back to work with the promise of a 'little helper.' And when he arrives, he is just that. The home-schooled offspring of Doris's friend, this germ-riddled assistant comes to just below my thigh. It takes his five-year-old hands eleven excruciating minutes to slide a single flyer into a single folder. Which is still faster than Odetta. Progress.
"Bor-ing. I want to play with the toys."
"Great! Fine! Go play." I wave him away to drip snot over the tower of training tools lining the walls of the Speak-Out Room.
"Hey, get that down for me." He points at the Tupperware tub of colored chalk.
"What?" I look up from where I'm stuffing double-time. "Yeah, okay." I pull the tub from the shelf and toss it on the floor.
"Hey! I want to play with the markers!" Followed by, "I can't reach the red things." And then, "See that yellow box? Get it -- "
"LOOK. You're going to have to pick one thing here, mister. And just one thing. I only have one more reach in me, because, while it may not be apparent to anyone else in a twelve-mile radius, I'm actually working here!" His lower lip starts to quiver and, remorseful, I crouch down to his level. "So which would be your very, very favorite one to play with?"
He sneezes into my face before pointing to something high on the shelf that I have to balance on the conference boxes to get down. I toss him the container and try to make up for lost time.
"Aaahhhhh!" His orgasmic cries of passion startle me. "I...LUUUVV...STYROFOAM!!! I LOVE IT!" I pivot to discover a billowing cloud of sherbet-colored peanuts rising and falling in little bursts above the collating piles. "Ooooh! STY-RO-FOAM!" I inch around the table to find my helper supine beneath a pile of peanuts. Bits of mucus-covered foam cling to his ears, nose, and mouth. His eyes in a drugged-out half-mast, he rolls back and forth, smearing peanuts across his chest.
"Okay, you're done." In one move, I jerk him up and into Doris's office.
"He" -- I deposit him in the doorway -- "is not helping. Thanks, though."
"Well, you should have told me that right away, Girl. How can I help you if you don't communicate with me?" Doris rolls her eyes at Little Helper's mother before turning back to address him as if he's deaf. "I bet you're very helpful at home, aren't you?"
"I clean up the paintbrushes!" He sneezes, spitting pastel peanuts out of his mouth like a spastic Pez dispenser while my eyes fall on his mother's batik-covered lap. On which sits a very highlighted and underlined presentation.
"Justice, come here. We've been over this: Styrofoam is a killer of the universe and that means a killer of you." She pulls him to her, swinging her gray braid behind her. "Now play here while Momma finishes up her speech."
"Doris, can I speak to you for a sec in the hallway?" It's out before I know what's coming next.
"Excuse me, Justice, while I go in the hallway to be spoken to." Doris curves the ends of her mouth down and raises her eyebrows. "Here, why don't you show Justice the pictures from our Guatemala retreat." She hands a water-stained envelope to Momma Batik and follows me outside. "Yes?"
"That's my presentation. That I gave to you to review. Why does she have it?"
"We're a team and you're sounding very accusatory." Doris rests her shoulder against the wall. "You should take a moment to listen to your tone."
"I respect that we're a team. But I don't understand. The research has taken me over a year and a half. I've spent weeks of my own time to get it written. When I interviewed with you -- "
"When I took a chance on you, I made it extremely clear that you were committing to flexibility -- "
"Right -- "
"So, listen to yourself." She stares at me evenly, daring me to go on.
"I have done everything that you asked me to do, and I thought we agreed -- look, don't you remember our conversation in August? When the air conditioner was broken and I had to ice your forehead? How you said my research would be invaluable to the conference participants, helping them mobilize young women for the next election -- when choice and health care will be on the table. That my proposal was written with fresh eyes. Fresh. Eyes. Mine. That's verbatim what you said. We agreed that I was ready to -- "
"You only hear what you want to hear. I never said -- "
"But you did!"
"Remember, you said that it was a great starting point for me, and if I wrote my findings up, I could do it."
"PRESENT!" I feel as if I'm speaking Martian. Is she deaf?! Am I crazy?! Shaking, I point my paper-cut-riddled index finger in her pruny face. "Look, you! I know what I said. I said it and you said it and I'm doing it 'cause that's what we said I'm going to do. So just say that I said just now what I just said and you heard. Say it, I'm -- "
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