A heartfelt reunion… and tearful departure.
San Francisco’s foggy mornings fortify my bones. The salt in the mist carries my body from the bedroom to downtown, from sleepiness to the present: I am here, I am now, this is not a dream. While my girls from the office might disagree, shutting off your 6AM alarm is an act of humility, a prayer almost. With that simple gesture, you symbolize your contribution to a world where rivers flow and bees pollinate—it’s not about you and your momentary comfort.
Yes, I think on the escalator ride up from Muni’s dark belly. My two and a half employees might be upset that I ended remote working prematurely, but like most adults, they will realize that their place is in the cubicle and not at home with their beloved partners, families, and hobbies. The decision was a hard one to make, but growth is a painful, dirty affair, and only after a wasp larva eats its way through the abdomen of a spider can the baby insect fly to freedom, soaring to great heights.
Speaking of great heights, I crick my neck as I look up to the top of the building in front of me. The cloudy canopy above absorbs its very tip as if extending the elevator track through the heavens.
Eyes glued to that purity, I pull the keys from my purse and step next door to my building, a concrete hut, a fungus at the root of a redwood. But all creatures have their place in the ecosystem, and humble spores often blossom into great toadstools.
“Scram!” I tell the homeless man in front. He moans before disappearing into a closed alleyway. When will the city do something about that?
Inside, I flip on a switch to ignite the office and illuminate its open layout. To match the panopticon theme, the walls of my cubicle were replaced with glass, per my request. The sleek doors come closer as I approach them—old friend, is that really you? A sigh escapes me like the steam from a cup of tea, and I step in; the trophy is back in its display.
From the inside of my crystal, I watch my underlings return.
First stumbles in Melanie, the office manager. She circles around my cubicle on her Target flats. I gesture to her without lifting my elbow off the desk. An unfortunate mustard-yellow top reveals that work from home has added a few inches to her waistline. As a mid-level manager, it is my responsibility to share my concerns with her. Like how the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved Mumtaz, the universe built me for this role: My employees’ success is my success, and Melanie’s health is my own. There is no freedom without rules, and indulgence is the greatest of shackles.
Next to arrive is Allison, the intern. As always, her entire outfit and personality was purchased from the “new this season” counter at Francesca’s. I too gesture to her, and she responds with a little wave before sitting at her desk in front of me.
Her computer lights up to a photo of her and her sorority sisters, a reminder of how my work is cut out for me here. College photos? What’s next—pentagrams? I never shame myself with silly relics, not even with pictures of my cat. No one here knows it exists. I wouldn’t sometimes if not for its meowing.
Finally, the part-time admin arrives. She glides in, last of course, on the long sleeves of her silk blouse. The fabric flows behind her as insults do from her keyboard. Is that a dress code violation? She waves to me; I look for something in my purse.
Naturally, she disrupts us all as soon as she is seated. “You guys!” she squeals. Allison, Melanie, and I rush over, hoping she hasn’t completely lost it.
Instead, her desk is covered in white and gold glitter and presents: Congratulations here, Congratulations there, Congratulations every-freaking where. Balloons are even taped to this idiot’s walls, as well as photos of her with the now-fiancé, an unbelievable hoopla for such a predictable event. The room breaks into applause. What will we celebrate next, mold growing on bread? Fish swimming? But one must give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and thus I bestow upon the tax collector a socially dictated number of claps.
“Congratulations!” Melanie says, hugging her.
“We set this up yesterday to surprise you!” Allison says. She almost knocks me over to hug the admin herself.
“Yesterday?” I say, straightening myself. “I wasn’t informed.”
Allison gives Melanie an awkward look. The part-time admin wraps her arms around the presents and holds them to her chest, as a dung beetle would with its own ball of waste.
Melanie’s phone pings. “Donuts are here,” she says and rushes out to grab the delivery.
We step out of the cubicle as well. I change the conversation to our new filing system, but Allison beats down the admin instead: “Where did it happen?” “When is the wedding?” “Show me the ring? (Gasp) So pretty!” Each squeal from her is a ping pong ball bouncing off my head. Even the kitchenette with its matching plates and mugs can’t cheer me up.
“Are you excited about marriage?” Allison asks, pouring water from the purifier into one of the coffee mugs. I wince.
“Unbelievably so,” the admin glows.
I gag. “That’s sweet and all, but some of us are too progressive to be kept woman. Hee hee hee,” I giggle.
“Kept? More like kept away from you,” the admin says. Even without a smile, I recognize her zany humor. Not many bosses boast of my intuition.
Melanie returns. “I got donuts and a little something else,” she says, placing both deliveries on the table. She lifts the lid off one box and then the second: a cake with Congratulations spelled out in gold.
“I can’t believe you, Melanie,” the admin says, wrapping her silk arms around her. Melanie blushes and puts her card back into her wallet.
“I can’t either,” I say. “Did you use company money for both the donuts and the cake?’
Melanie’s blush intensifies. “I, well-“
“Is this cake congratulating all of us? Because, unless it is, this looks like a personal purchase,” I say. The mustard pufferfish opens her mouth and closes it. “We’ve been through this. Even the Jolly Ranchers on Allison’s desk were a struggle to approve. Have I been speaking to a wall this entire time?”
After some silence, Allison says, “It’s okay, Melanie. I’ll cover it. My treat. We’re just so happy for you!” She turns around and grips the admin’s hand.
“Don’t worry, Allison; she’ll have an audience fawning over her soon enough,” I say. No one laughs. Apparently, the vaccine immunized us against humor as well. “A joke,” I say.
“No, it wasn’t,” says the admin.
Clearly, she is overwhelmed: marriage, no more freedom, no accomplishments or aspirations. Even I would crack under the weight of it all—these kinds of stressors stack up!
“Atlas shrugged, I guess,” I say and pat her on the shoulder. I pay for my portion of the cake with a $20 bill and step out.
I try to focus on my work, but unapproved movement in the admin’s cubicle pulls me out of my flow state—it’s time to confront her on unprofessional clothing.
From the doorway of her cubicle, I giggle, “Knock knock.” She’s packing, another mark against her.
I start off with an apology sandwich as she loads up a large paper bag with her possessions. “I hope you understand my concerns about the cake. The company is consistent about budgeting, and it’s only fair that rules are applied equally. I want to help you grow.”
“Oh, no worries,” she says and hitches the bag on her shoulder. “I’m leaving now, but before I go, I have something for you.” She hands me a tiny parcel wrapped with a baby bow on top.
“A present?” I ask, unwrapping a single green Jolly Rancher. “I don’t understand.”
“Choke on it, witch,” she says. “I quit.”
Long after she leaves, the homeless man moans up at the clouds outside the building, the only noise in the office.
Next: Candidates fall over themselves for the opportunity to work a part-time job with no benefits!
 Everything white.
 After all, no one is above company rules, not even me.