Read an Excerpt
Blinking is underrated. At least I think so. Not only does it keep your eyes from drying out, it serves as a momentary break from unpleasant sights and sensations. Harsh sunlight, a gory scene in a horror movie, a sudden gust of dust-ridden air. Close your eyes, and for a second, you’re safe and shielded.
I blink to protect my eyes from the blinding white figure invading my peripheral vision. Behind the black of my lids, I feel relief. As soon as my eyes open again, the nagging brightness is back, whiter than ever.
That whiteness is a pale coworker I don’t particularly care for. I pretend like I can’t see him. It’s no big deal. I fake almost everything else when I’m here.
I have to as a twenty-six-year-old woman working at a power tool distributor called Nuts & Bolts. The company is staffed mostly by middle-aged gruff men who prefer to plaster their cubicle walls with photos of bikini models rather than pictures of their wives or girlfriends. On any given workday, I shift between a limited range of fake emotions: confidence, assertiveness, boldness. I am none of these outside of work. If I were my real self, I’d be roadkill.
When I took this job two years ago, I ingrained fakeness into my work DNA. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, I force myself to be steely and unflappable. There’s no room for softness here. Everything is literally nuts and bolts, hard metals, gears, blades. The parking lot is gravel. The halls are covered in a film of dust and dirt.
I have to be hard because working here is no walk in the park. Like when the managers nearing retirement age mansplain information I already know but never do the same to the male employees. Or whenever new hires in the warehouse ask me if I have a boyfriend seconds after they meet me. My pretend toughness—boss-bitch mode, I call it—keeps it mostly at bay. That, along with a strict anti–sexual harassment policy.
Why would I work in such a place? Because things like money, food, and shelter are important to me. Also because a journalism degree only goes so far when you don’t actually want to be a journalist.
And to be honest, I like the work. I’m a copywriter who somehow managed to secure my own tiny office in a building full of shared work spaces. I write descriptions about power tools. I manipulate words all day, every day. I make the most industrial, harsh objects sound enticing. I falsify how interesting they are, which is easy for a faker like me.
We all do it. Feigned interest in conversations. Phony hair color. Dishonest proclamations about penis length. Fake orgasms. I’m guilty of that one too.
Fake can be empowering. It’s human nature. It’s necessary.
And then there’s Tate Rasmussen, the pale figure bleeding into my line of sight. The one person at Nuts & Bolts whose presence doesn’t require me to pretend. I feel genuine emotions for him, all of which are rooted in frustration, anger, and irritation.
Thankfully, we reside in separate offices. The downside? His office is diagonally across the hall from mine, which means I have an unobscured view of half his face—just as he does of mine—forty hours a week. Only a narrow hallway and two flimsy doors—the equivalent of four paces—separate us.
Shutting the doors would offer more privacy, but neither of our shoebox offices contains vents. Unless we want to roast in the summer or freeze in the winter, we have to keep our doors open.
Tate’s in charge of social media for the company. It’s an amusing example of irony, as he is one of the most antisocial and eerily quiet people I’ve ever met. Luckily, we don’t interact much. Most of our communication is done via email. Face-to-face words are not often exchanged unless it is to bicker or criticize.
Most days I can ignore him, but this afternoon is proving to be a challenge because I’m enduring Tate’s loud pen tapping. When he’s not typing or on the phone, it’s tap, tap, tap, all day, every day.
“Be quiet, please,” I say.
He scribbles something on a sheet of paper before crumpling it and tossing it on my desk, zero trace of emotion on his face. I open it to find a “NO” scrawled in black ink, taunting me. Already I can feel the heat making its way to my face.
That’s Tate. Cold, calculating, and hostile. His rude, dismissive behavior is his currency, and I’m the store he chooses to shop at. I’m paid in frowns, grimaces, scowls, and blank stares.
He’s never once stepped foot in my office. I’m convinced it’s yet another one of his passive-aggressive digs at me, since he waltzes with confidence through every other space in this building. The closest he’s ever gotten is hovering around my doorway. I wonder what it would take for him to cross that invisible boundary. Would I need to be choking with bloodshot eyes, begging for him to administer the Heimlich?
I toss the paper into the trash can. It wasn’t always this way. Before he started, I was asked by the hiring manager to email him a product catalog so he could familiarize himself with the inventory. His reply was nothing short of impressive.
Thank you for the helpful information. I’m told working quarters will be tight, but I’ve also heard many wonderful things about you. Looking forward to sharing space with one of Nuts & Bolts’ finest.
On his first day, I skipped into his office, mesmerized. I couldn’t help it. I was a moth drawn in by the glow of his white skin, his curly blond locks, broad shoulders, that sharp jaw. This handsome stranger looked so different from me, with my olive complexion and dark hair.
When I introduced myself, disgust and horror filled his face. Lines jutted into his forehead and his eyebrows pinched together, aging his late-twenties face in an instant. Had we passed each other on the street, he would have shrieked at the sight of me and run the other way.
He weakly shook my hand, then directed his attention back to his paperwork. His instant rebuff hurt, but I chalked it up to first-day-of-work nerves. It wasn’t. Every attempt at polite small talk, every invite to lunch was met with rejection.
And then I overheard him on the phone. Through his cracked-open door, I heard, “I don’t even know what to say about her. It’s only been a week.”
I froze. I should have plugged my ears or shoved in my headphones, but I couldn’t.
“Just looking at her . . .” Disdain dripped from his voice. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to deal.”
So that was it. We would never, ever like each other.
I had no idea what I did to turn him sour so quickly. I should have confronted him, but I didn’t have the strength. I was humiliated, going out of my way to welcome someone who hated me instantly for some unknown reason. From that afternoon, I quit engaging him unless it was a work-related issue and he was the only one who could help. We fell into a pattern of ignoring and arguing with each other.
I shove away the bitter memory and staple copies of a shopping guide I wrote. A soft squeak distracts me, and I look up to see Tate leaning back against his chair, stretching. His sleeve slides up his arm, and I catch a glimpse of skin. His paleness never ceases to wow me. Living in Nebraska, I was surrounded by countless white children in school, but Tate puts them to shame. His skin practically glows. I want to ask what SPF he uses, how long it takes him to burn when he’s outside, but that’s small talk, and he refuses to make it with me.
I could say his complexion makes him haggard, but it would be a lie. The lack of color actually suits him. Raphaelian-hued skin, blond hair, eyes so light blue they’re almost gray. His photo belongs in a travel brochure for Nordic countries. He’s a living, breathing advertisement for that region. It’s another reason I can’t stand him. A person as unpleasant as Tate shouldn’t look that good.
He catches me before I can turn away. Busted.
“Like what you see?”
“Just wondering if you burst into flame the moment you step into sunlight.” I can feel myself blushing, but thankfully, my own tan skin conceals it.
His ever-present neutral expression remains. I’d wager his genes have never been infiltrated by a person of color. His ancestors must have been stationed for generations near the Arctic Circle, surrounded by the Baltic and North Seas, no tan people like me allowed entry for generations.
“Not all of us are lucky enough to tan at the drop of a hat like you do, Emmie. What’s your secret?”
I ignore his sarcastic question. He’s trying to get a rise out of me. I will not give it to him.
This is how most of our interactions go. A mix of snide comments and dismissive quips, with a sprinkle of work-related topics every once in a while. Nothing personal.
Despite this mutual disinterest in each other’s lives, I feel like I know him well after eleven months. He reminds me of an android in a sci-fi movie. Cool and polite, but with a machinelike quality. Almost like he’s feigning human reactions for courtesy’s sake, and you can’t tell what’s really behind the wall of artificial feelings.
A robot would be a more pleasant coworker.
I once taped a photo of an android on his computer with the words I’m flattered you work so hard to model your personality after mine scrawled on the bottom after a particularly infuriating day of snapping at each other. I would have loved to watch him rip it apart in anger, but I was giggling so hard I had to leave the room.
The soft tick of the minute hand on my desk clock pulls me back to the present. Only one more hour until I can go home and shed my work armor. I glance at the lone framed photo on my desk of my younger sister, my mom, and me. Addy is a toddler; I’m just out of kindergarten. We’re soaked from running back and forth into the waves at Hapuna Beach in Hawaii. Our mom kneels behind us, hugging us in her arms. All three of us display impossibly wide grins.
My mouth waters for Spam musubi, my favorite childhood snack. I curl my toes inside my sneakers, wishing they were sand. Nostalgia is hitting hard today. I send Mom and Addy quick “I love you” texts, then punch in a reminder on my phone to email Mom this weekend.
Next to the frame is a hollowed-out coconut half, my favorite keepsake from the Big Island that doubles as a quirky paperweight. I run my fingers over the fuzzy fibers on the shell. Inside rests a message scrawled in my mother’s trademark cursive handwriting.
For my beautiful anak, who’s as sweet and strong as this coconut.
My eyes prick, but I blink away the split second of emotion. Remembering how and why she gave this to me will forever leave me choking back tears.
“Missing Hawaii again?” Tate asks.
Curse this heat. I want to shut my door so bad. “You could say that,” I concede.
“Wanna talk about it?”
“Nope.” I gaze at my computer screen and click indiscriminately on random links.
“Come on. I’m a good listener.” He looks at me expectantly, like he thinks I’m actually going to chat with him about my childhood. Fat chance.
The heavy sigh he releases sounds a lot like disappointment, but I have no idea why. Like I’m going to divulge personal details to the guy who spends every workday staring daggers at me in between bicker sessions. He’ll just make fun of me. Like how he smirks when I call flip-flops “slippers,” or how he frowns when I say “auntie” instead of “aunt.”
Five o’clock hits, and Tate’s gone before I even log off my computer. I glance at his empty chair, my chest tight with the desire to have a normal work relationship with the coworker sitting closest to me. But I remind myself why it’s not possible. He’s weirdly hostile, and I’m a big fat phony. As much as I want to be normal with Tate, I don’t need it. What I do need is to be hard, focused. Even if I have to fake it.
No tapping today. Instead Tate is loudly guzzling coffee from his thermos. I want to yell after every earsplitting slurp. Every time he brings that silver thermos to his lips, I imagine ripping it out of his grip and chucking it against the wall. But I can’t. Because this is a place of business, not a street fight.
Why is he even drinking hot coffee? It’s ninety-nine degrees out for the twelfth straight day, one of the hottest Augusts that Omaha has seen on record.
Another slurp. My eyes bulge. There’s no way he doesn’t know how grating this is. He should think about outsourcing his slurping skills to Guantanamo Bay as a new form of enhanced interrogation. He could get anyone to submit in record time.
Shoving in my earbuds, I crank the volume on the episode of Eat Bulaga! I’m streaming, my favorite variety show from the Philippines. The hosts’ off-key karaoke rendition of Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold” is soothing compared to Tate’s animal noises.
Our boss, Will, glides into my doorway. He occupies a cracker box office on my side of the hallway.
“Emmie! Good morning!” He leans his arm against the doorframe. The weight of his pudgy dad bod pushes the flimsy door back an inch. “I can’t seem to find the folder with the photos for that new line of utility knives. I think that software upgrade messed up something on my computer.”
I swallow a laugh. Classic Will. He’s a bright guy and a great boss who doesn’t hover. However, his tendency to lose objects, even digital files, is legendary.
“Can you grab the knives from the warehouse and take some photos of them to go along with the descriptions you wrote?”
The thought of going to the warehouse churns my stomach. “No problem,” I say through gritted teeth.
Full disclosure: I’m not some jaw-dropping hottie by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. But the fifty-employee workforce here is mostly male with only five female employees. The remaining four are middle aged and married. I’m not ugly and I’m relatively young, so by default I get a fair amount of attention and stares. The warehouse is especially obvious about it.
“Going down to the warehouse?” Tate asks. It’s the first time he’s spoken to me today.
“How long is that going to take you?”
“Not sure. Why?”
“I have to set up a bunch of promo tweets for those utility knives, and the longer your warehouse fan club keeps you down there, the longer I have to wait for you to add them to the site. I can’t tweet the links unless they’re on the website, and I have a million other things to do.”
I say nothing in response. I loathe how he’s trying to make my job about him.
“Do I have to spell it out?” He yanks out his earbuds impatiently and closes his eyes. “I think I should go with you to make sure things get done in a timely manner.”
“So this is purely selfish motivation?”
I cringe. Whenever he speaks to me, he routinely pulls out archaic words only a 1950s rural doctor would use.
“Fine. Let’s go.”
We trot side by side in silence down the hall to the stairs. Positioned next to each other, our appearances are a stark contrast. My olive skin is ten shades darker than his, thanks to my Filipino mother. My dad is a pale white guy, but the Asian gene is strong. His hazel eyes and light skin did little to dilute such dominant traits. My hair is technically dark brown, but it could pass for black at a distance. My eyes are such a deep shade of brown, I have to endure extra eye drops at the optometrist to fully dilate them.
The only thing not strikingly different between us is our heights. I’m five feet eight inches, which is nothing short of a miracle considering my mom is a tiny five feet one inch. I have my dad’s European genetics and his burly six-feet-two-inch frame to thank for that.
I estimate Tate at six feet, maybe six feet one inch if he’s standing straight. In the right pair of four-inch heels, I could stand nearly eye to eye with him. However, the fact that our office is casual dress gives me zero reason to wear anything other than sneakers and flats. As often as I fantasize about the opportunity to throw on my favorite killer stilettos and tell him off, it will likely never happen.
Once in the warehouse, I track down the manager, Gus. He’s a no-nonsense baby boomer who aspires to run the warehouse with the strictness of a gulag. Raising his fuzzy gray eyebrows is his preferred way to say hello.
Sliding into boss-bitch mode, I do my best Gus impression: I square my shoulders, frown, and keep things short and direct when I talk.
“I need one of your guys to grab these utility knives. Will’s orders.” I hand him a printed list.
He shoves the paper into the chest of the closest worker and barks directions. The college-aged kid shakes his head in fright before running off. The longer I stand with ramrod straight posture, the more tired I feel. Channeling Gus is exhausting. Shifting my weight between my feet, I almost bump into Tate. He backs up a few inches. It’s ridiculous that he felt the need to follow me all the way down here.
“Watch it,” he says.
“Then don’t stand so close.”
He shoots every single warehouse worker around us a menacing glare. Everyone who walks past us leaves a two-foot buffer of space.
“You’re a friendly one,” I say.
“What are you talking about?”
“Everyone’s avoiding us. You look like you’ll slit the throat of anyone who comes near. It’s quite the vibe.”
His raises an eyebrow. So smug. “Who says it’s a vibe?” It’s like I’ve complimented him, he seems so pleased with himself.
When he turns away, he fist-bumps Cal, the sixty-something delivery driver, as he walks by. Pleasantries and chuckles are exchanged. I have to blink twice at the scene. Cal is a sweetheart who I count as a friendly work acquaintance, pretty much the opposite of Tate. And I’ve never seen Tate chitchat with anyone at work. I didn’t know they were pals.
A second later Brett from Service and Repairs walks up to us, infiltrating the forbidden force field.
“Fancy seeing you here.” He shoots me a sleazy smirk and doesn’t even acknowledge Tate.
I know little about Brett other than he’s in his late thirties, uses too much gel on his thinning dark hair, and seems to love flirting with any woman in his vicinity. I find him exceptionally slimy. Even though he’s never said anything inappropriate to me, I still get an uneasy feeling whenever he’s near.
I scowl, recalling the advice I’ve read in countless blogs and articles on how to be a girl boss when you’re working with mostly dudes.
Quickest way to get rid of an unwanted smiler? Scowl. It embarrasses the offender into dropping it.
Brett doesn’t seem to know that he should feel embarrassment, because his grin doesn’t fade. “Sick of being cooped up upstairs?” He takes a step toward me.
“Nope. Just getting some knives.” Stick to short, terse answers.
“Knives, huh? Those are pretty dangerous. Don’t cut yourself.” He winks, but I hold my ground and cross my arms. I may be crawling out of my skin, but I sure as hell won’t show it.
“Don’t wink at me, Brett. That’s creepy.” Call out inappropriate behavior.
He simply laughs. Nothing short of “fuck off” would make him go away, but I can’t do that at work.
“Hey.” Tate barks while glowering at him. “Are you done skeeving us out?”
“Huh?” Brett glances at Tate like he’s just now noticing him.
“Are you done skeeving us out?” Tate’s slow tone implies Brett can’t understand basic English.
It seems to throw Brett off kilter. He stumbles back a step. “Jeez, what’s your problem?”
Tate hovers over him. “Do you think it’s a good use of company time to bother us?”
“Whatever, man. I’ll go. Chill out.”
I let out a breath, relieved he’s gone, but annoyed that Tate felt the need to butt in.
Gus’s minion hands me a small box of knives, and we walk back up to the office.
“You’re welcome,” Tate mumbles as we reach the top of the stairs.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Here, let me carry that.” He tries to grab the box from me, but I yank it away. We walk down the hall back to our offices.
“I’ve got it. What are you talking about?”
“I got rid of Brett, didn’t I?”
I roll my eyes and march to my office. The slap-rattle sound the knives make when I drop the box on the floor causes me to flinch.
He sits at his desk, shaking his mouse with impatience.
“You think I should thank you for being a jerk to Brett? You’re hilarious.” I stay standing and turn to face him.
“It seemed like you could use some help getting rid of him.”
I squeeze my hands into fists at his patronizing tone, then march to his doorway. “News flash: I don’t need your help. I can take care of myself.”
“Really? Is that what you were doing down there? Sack up and report Brett to management. He’d get the message real quick then.”
“There’s more than one way to send a message.”
Tate has a point, but how ridiculous would I sound making a complaint about Brett’s hard-to-define creepiness? He doesn’t say anything that’s outright inappropriate and keeps his hands to himself. His off-putting vibe exists in subtleties: standing too close, the way he says certain words. It would be easy for him to say I was taking it the wrong way. Then I would look like the overly sensitive female who can’t handle working with men.
“Whatever message you think you’re sending? It’s failing.” Tate frowns at me, and it’s pure condescension.
“I’m not a damsel in distress. Back off.” I stomp to my desk.
When I glance up, he’s staring at me. There are a few seconds where I think he’s going to say something, but the hard look in his eyes fades. He turns to his computer instead, the sound of his fingers banging on his keyboard filling the room.
Pulling the camera from my desk drawer, I snap photos while I listen to another episode of Eat Bulaga! But even a wasabi-flavored-bun-eating contest set to dance music doesn’t ease the frustration coursing through me. I’m strong, I’m capable, and I don’t need Tate’s help to fend off anyone, not even creepy Brett.