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12. Servant Leaders, Part 4 (Allison)

            Shaking, Allison set the banana peel down on her desk. She racked her memory as to what could be the cause of her trembling: The new job? The banana she just ate? Not having her political beliefs pandered to for the first time in her life?

            Mackenzie, her new boss, sat down at the neighboring desk. Allison turned away, not wanting to talk about the tiff she and one of her new coworkers just shared over the office’s lack of compost bins. Mackenzie ignored her mental pleas. “I saw you and Raj had a disagreement. Is everything okay?”

            “Everything is not okay!” Allison snapped, a bit more sharply than she intended. “He wanted me to throw my banana peel in… the trash.” She whispered the last word before lecturing on methane production (a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide!) and how waste diversion mitigates its release into the atmosphere. “Did you know about this?” she asked her new boss.

            “Of course,” Mackenzie said, far less guiltily than Allison expected. “We tried composting a few months ago. A bunch of us thought it was gross, and it just didn’t take off from there.”

            Her casual attitude shocked the former sorority sister. “We don’t have a Planet B!” Allison said, heat rising to ears so enflamed they could lift her up to the ceiling fan, where she would pop like a bubble and scatter in a million billion pieces across the room.

            “The company is committed to minimizing its ecological impact-“

            “So why don’t you compost?” Allison demanded. “Because it’s a tiny bit uncomfortable to see the garbage that you yourself produce?” When Mackenzie didn’t respond, Allison launched into her tirade. She briefly touched upon the California mega-drought to general political disillusionment to her sorority’s slogan: It’s not the thing, but the symbolism behind the thing. Mackenzie’s eyes, while at first glittering with compassion, dulled as her patience drained. When Allison’s turned to her senior thesis concerning the intersectionality of contraception access and waste diversion, Mackenzie interrupted her: “Isn’t it time for your sorority brunch?”

            This caught Allison by surprise. “Not for another half hour,” she said.

            “You better head out then,” she said drily. “Ignominy won’t hold back greatness on my watch!” And with a flick of hair, Mackenzie turned back to her computer and down the pedestal that Allison had raised for her just an hour before.

            Allison made sure to grab the banana peel as she stepped out. Its sticky juicy warmed in her hands as she navigated around espresso machines, houseplants, and the conflict between sorority values and material realities. It’s not the thing, but the symbolism behind the thing. With that in mind, did she really want to make waves where she was a nobody, especially over a compost bin? She was exposed and vulnerable in the office’s open plan where the eyes and masks of her future coworkers, copy and paste, lined her path to the elevator. They were the last thing she saw before the elevator’s doors sliced away her line of vision.

            The doors opened again, not to the exit, but to an empty cafeteria. She decided to step off there to clear her mind.

            Just an hour ago, she had thought that the difference between her old company and this one was as stark as the walk from the parking lot to the zoo. While the parent company was bright and alive, the old wing where she interned at was stark, concrete, and dead.

            She sat down at the table and listened to the kitchen workers prepare what was sure to be a delicious lunch. Before, the difference put this company in a positive light, but now she was not so sure: The parking lot was bleak, but it was that way because you were there to leave. The zoo, on the other hand… well, sometimes you might find yourself there for the rest of your furry life, and if that happened, the powers would entertain and feed you somehow. Was that adulthood, to accept when it was your time to be one of the exhibits? Did she really want to go back to the proverbial parking lot, into her hypothetical car and go… go where?

            If she was meant to grow up in Procyon Lotor’s lap, forgetting about the compost bin would be the first step in that process. She gagged at the thought of degrading herself for the sake of a company named after a raccoon–a self-absorbed creature, one that didn’t care about the damage it inflicted on others as it rummaged through garbage. It struck her then that she had not seen Melanie since the snack room. Though Allison had no idea where she was, she  dismissed her from her mind: that woman was always slinking off somewhere, and Allison had more important things to think about right now, like the office’s waste diversion.

            Allison’s eyes followed a cleaner around the cafeteria as she thought of her past volunteer work with her sisters. She had come full circle, from compost bins to have-beens: her life had morphed into a landscape of empty chairs and empty tables with none of her friends seated behind them. In between home-cooked manicures, their soft hands had once unclogged and decluttered what felt like the entire West Coast, but eventually, the beaches and parks they so fastidiously cleaned got covered again in needles and fast-food wrappings. Wouldn’t her compost efforts here meet the same fate? Surely a few pounds of garbage weren’t worth the sacrifice of a job opportunity.

            Allison thought of where she had come from and what she could return to if she pushed too hard with Mackenzie: a year of abuse under another boss like Lev. Their only happy moment together was when Allison had tried to murder her under the influence of a gas leak. The simple truth was that she no longer wanted to be at anyone’s mercy. She had been an intern for over a year, and she was sick of begging for benefits and basic dignity. For that reason, she needed to be completely autonomous, financially and emotionally, and she could have that—already had that, if she just kept her nose down and minded her own business.

            But, on the other hand, could she really say she was autonomous if her independence came from someone else’s checkbook? It didn’t matter, she realized, watching the cleaner come back from around the hall—she and her future coworkers and sisters were all interconnected: someone had to make the money to give the money. It was all one ecosystem: Even if she quit her job to pick trash alone on the beach until the sun set behind the waves, her donors would be financiers and politicians, and their income would be her income, their sins hers by extension. Since she couldn’t be truly autonomous, she had to let some things slide. She had to fit in–today, it would start with the compost.

            All the sorority’s past activism had proved to be as ephemeral as the California poppies in the cafeteria’s windowsill. She got up to feel their stalks and petals, a perfect dialectic of sturdiness and fragility. They were so beautiful now, but come winter, they would curl up, dry and tangled like the legs of a spider dead in the windowsill.

            Allison’s phone alarm went off, and with a jolt, she realized she needed to leave. She tossed her banana peel on the way out.

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