“When I Was There” by Erika Solberg
“Beverly. So pleased you’re here.” My new employer ran her palm down my bare arm. My skin tingled at the human warmth after so many days alone in an unfamiliar city.
Dianne – she pronounced it Di-awhn – was tall and had burnt-brown hair with one slash of white falling through it, like a sign of trauma or a mark of luck. She rode horses and had lived in Spain. She was a kind of woman I had never known before, but back then, in June of 1992, I did not know that she was a particular kind at all.
“I’m glad too,” I said. No one else had arrived yet. As she walked me around the open space of the main office, a half-floor in a SoHo loft, I wondered what objects would become so familiar that they would enter my dreams – the wing chair in the waiting area, the wide planks of the floor? I also looked for the details to give my parents to prove that I had gotten a good job and that they would not be picking me up from the airport to become the manager of the hardware store where I had worked since junior high. I concentrated on all Dianne said until the phone rang and she left me standing by a window. I turned away from the sun, smoothed down my new brown sheath dress, and admired the rounded, pearly tips my fingernails, which I had finally stopped biting.
I looked up, and Jaycee, whom I remembered from my interview, was coming toward me. She was petite, with ivory skin and hair in wispy red ringlets; she wore a spaghetti-strap top, a style I had stopped wearing when my body thickened into adulthood. I shook her slight hand with fingers that felt doughy.
“I need the quarterly drafts this morning,” Dianne said, walking back over to us. Jaycee lowered her eyelids and assured Dianne they would be finished.
The remaining employees – Lia, Kelsey, and Min – arrived a few minutes after, and we held a staff meeting. Dianne had told me she was thirty-five; the others looked to be in their twenties. Each was outfitted in iridescent wafts or black curves, so that my dress seemed as rough and prim as a home ec project. Their varying shades of skin glistened, but mine was streaked and splotched where the sweat from my commute had dried in the office air conditioning.
Dianne put on dark-rimmed glasses and held her pen over a pad of paper without writing on it. “The Café Katze opening has been pushed back. Again.” The women smiled at each other. “We’ll move the timetable back ten days. Oh – brownies!” She turned and picked up a platter sitting on a mini-fridge. “I had a dinner party and made too many.” She passed them to me first; I picked one up and began to eat, trying not to get crumbs on the steel table. When I realized no one else had taken one, I wanted to put mine down but did not want Dianne to think it tasted bad, so I ate in quick nibbles. The others discussed current projects with terms and names whose strangeness prickled me with excitement. At the end, Dianne told my co-workers to get me settled and withdrew into her office, a smaller room enclosed in glass, where her laugh clanged out as she talked on the phone.
Since her desk was next to mine, Min showed me my computer and introduced me to the filing cabinets, the photocopier, and Lotus 1-2-3. She had a Southern roll in her words and her short hair bobbed whenever she nodded her head to stress a point. “Dianne wants you to start with the Hayes documents,” she told me. “Just proofread them and fact-check against the spreadsheet info. Once you get a feel for our style, you can move on to editing.” She bent the edge of the folder she held. “Dianne stresses a uniform style for all our materials.”
Throughout that first day, Dianne stayed in her office or cantered off to meetings, but the other women stopped by my desk to instruct me and ask me questions. They seemed interested that I was from a small Illinois town, had graduated from a state university among corn and soybean fields, and had taken off for New York when encouraged by my cousin, a headhunter. All day they sent faxes and made their own laughing phone calls and went in and out of Dianne’s office without knocking. They came back from lunch with sushi, new shoes, or the scent of tobacco. Kelsey wore a cluster of silver bracelets. Lia had the greenest eyes I had ever seen. Min could curse in Korean and Russian. Jaycee did a backbend in the middle of the room. At the end of the day, when Dianne was off at an event, all four lilted good-bye and made sure I knew the quickest way to get to my subway entrance. I decided they would be what I told my parents about: these women, of whom I was now one.
The next day, I fastened back my bristly hair with a jagged barrette I had bought on the street and put on the one black blouse I had, even though the darts poked out awkwardly from my chest. My sublet was far up Claremont Avenue on the West Side, among a mix of working-class Latinos, Seminary students, and stragglers from Columbia. During the subway ride downtown blasted my CD walkman, a graduation gift from my younger brothers, until the noise pumped through my body like a blood transfusion. I emerged in SoHo were there no crops or cows, no flat vistas and wind-worn barns. There was no sky, either: just soot and brick, steel and shine, and thick bright words telling me where I was and what to buy and how to feel. I let them tell me.
When I got to the office, only Min was there. She was standing at her desk peeling off a scattering of Post-It notes and mumbling to herself, talking back to the slips of paper as if they were a person: “I know it’s missing – I’m waiting on a fax.” “You told me I had until today.” “Kelsey said to wait til she had the artwork.” “It’s on your desk under the red folder.” Not looking at me, she pulled notes off of half-written forms, draft print-outs, her phone, her computer screen, items inside in her desk drawer, her pencil holder. She pressed them down into a neat stack to the right of her keyboard. Eventually she walked to the coffeemaker and called out, “Want some?” When she turned around holding two mugs, her face was florid, but her voice was calm.
“Thanks.” I tried to keep my eyes off her desk, but Min saw me glance over. She handed me the notes. “You may as well know, Beverly. Everyone else does.”
Why isn’t this finished? I needed this yesterday!! You missed important info here. Send the Cohen release ASAP. Dianne had gouged her pen into the paper so under each message you could see the shadows of the preceding ones. They had arrows and underlinings and capital letters and different colored inks. I looked around my desk to see if I had any notes.
“No, I’m the only one who gets them,” Min said. The redness in her face had faded. Plum lipstick smudged her coffee mug.
“She has to be upbeat with the clients, right? I’m the least interesting one here, and she needs some kind of outlet for all the pressure. Really, she’s teaching me to be better at my job.”
I should have reassured her; instead I drank some coffee and wondered why Min thought she was not interesting. When Dianne clipped in, her black and buckled handbag bouncing off her black and buckled hip, I slid open the Hayes folder and proofread again all the documents I had read carefully yesterday.
At the morning staff meeting, Kelsey offered muffins she had picked up at the farmers’ market. Lia took one and ate two bites; I abstained. I watched the way Lia and Jaycee leaned toward each other, the way Kelsey sat back from us, the way Min scooted her chair as close to the table as possible. Dianne kept her pen hovering over her notepad and sliced a line through each item as she went down her list. She praised Jaycee for the updated Café Katze fact sheet and instructed Kelsey to work on the logo redesign. She announced she wanted the Hayes wine research by the afternoon but shrugged when Lia said she would need until tomorrow. She asked me if I had my copy ready or had any questions, and I chirped that it was ready, I was fine, I could take on anything else she needed.
“You can do the faxes to Germany,” she said. “Min explained the fax machine, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“The paper’s jammed again,” Jaycee said.
The tang of metal entered Dianne’s voice. “Again? Min, did you overfill the tray?”
I ran the edges of my nails across the seat of my chair; the urge to gnaw one buzzed through me.
“And why can’t I find any red pens?” Dianne dumped out the pen holder sitting on the table. She sent a crackle through the air.
“I’ll look into it,” Min said. I had seen an old European Madonna at the Art Institute in Chicago during a college field trip; when I looked at Min now I thought of the calm sorrow sliding down that face. Since then, I have seen the painting many more times, seen the glowing soul in the Madonna’s eyes through the cracks in the oil – and I laugh at myself for thinking a young woman berated by her boss could compare. But at the time, Min was beautiful to me in her suffering.
On most days I got to the office first, and then Min would come in and sidle up to her desk as if this time Dianne would not have stayed late and festooned her desk with notes – but every day, there they were. If Min rearranged her tasks after Dianne reprioritized them, Dianne would get mad that the projects were not finished in their original order. If I didn’t know how to collate a report, it was because Min should have shown me how to do it. If it was raining and Dianne got wet, she would get mad at Min for moving her umbrella. Min nodded, cleaned her computer screen twice a day, and never complained.
When Dianne was around, we scurried through assignments and clattered on our keyboards. She commanded and beckoned and dictated, especially when clients visited. Sometimes when they left, Dianne would lean against one of our desks and either lecture us about what needed to be done or mock the clients’ demands. Other times, she would call one of us into her office, fragments of words jittering through the glass into the main room as she instructed or admonished.
When Dianne was not there, Lia took the lead. Broad and brown skinned, she looked nothing like Dianne but excelled at imitations of her; lowering her voice and swinging her arms, Lia would bark out, “Min, the sky is still blue – fix that. And who let all those people walk their dogs on my street? Min, didn’t you call the mayor?” Jaycee would giggle, Min would give Lia a soft shove, and I would fake a smile. Only Kelsey ignored us, continuing to add Pantone shades and mark text boxes in silence.
One Friday during a July heat wave I was heading towards another solitary weekend surviving my un-air conditioned apartment; on Saturdays and Sundays I left early and wandered from museum to store, diner, library, church, movie, tourist attraction, or hotel lobby, doling out my money as miserly as possible, until it was late enough for me to breathe inside my apartment again. I had two roommates, both strangers to me, who were rarely there; one was an exchange student taking bus trips around the country, and the other used the apartment to store clothes and conceal from her parents that she was living with her boyfriend. I spent my evenings eating Popsicles, watching TV, reading, and playing my bootlegged copy of Crystal Quest. I had made lists of ways to meet people, but I was too hot and tired to try any of them. My cousin invited me out to New Jersey a few times, but I did not want to impose too often. Sometimes I splurged and called a friend, or my parents called me, and sometimes I turned off the TV and pretended the voices rolling in the streets below were part of my conversation.
But this Friday Kelsey was at my subway station. When we saw each other on the platform, my smile flickered from eager to nonchalant; I had never interacted with any of the women away from the job, and Kelsey was the most aloof of all. Even in the blubbery heat of the station, she was cool – a shard of glass in her tank dress and sandals, finger and toenails painted lavender, her blonde hair in a twist, dangly silver earrings turning languorously.
“I usually take the A or the C,” she said. “But I have an appointment uptown.”
“I take the 1 up to 125th.” I rubbed two tokens between my fingers.
When the train arrived, she sat next to me. “How’s your neighborhood?”
“Sometimes my downstairs neighbor plays salsa at six in the morning,” I said. “But there’s a good bakery around the corner.”
She smiled. “Do you like our office?”
I paused too long.
“It’ll look good on your résumé when you move on,” she said. “Dianne has an excellent reputation.”
“I wasn’t planning to—“
“It wasn’t what I pictured when I was hired by an all-women firm. I thought there’d be more flexibility – I could go on my sons’ field trips or stay home when they were sick. But that was silly of me to expect.”
“How old are your sons?” This new image of her as a mother, a real adult, was jarring.
“They’re seven and eight. I had them young.” She laughed. “I’m not just saying that so you won’t think I’m old. I really was young. I’m married, too.”
The joggle and shrieks of the subway enclosed us in an intimacy that a quiet restaurant could not have. “I like working for Dianne,” I said, pronouncing her name carefully, still unsure if I would say it wrong. “She scares me a little.”
“You’re fine. You’re her latest flavor, the innocent farm girl.” Kelsey shrugged. “I don’t mean that to be cruel. Dianne needs people around her that she thinks are exotic –Lia’s her multicultural lesbian, I’m her former pregnant prom queen, Min’s her Asian southern debutante, and Jaycee’s her recovering Jehovah’s Witness part-time stripper. It doesn’t mean we’re not good at our jobs too.”
I felt like I had been in a room where someone had opened four doors I had not seen were there; I did not know whom to ask about first, did not know if I could ask anything. “So Jaycee –” I said, since she was the last person Kelsey had mentioned.
“It’s at a very posh club. She supported herself through school.”
“I couldn’t do it.”
Kelsey shifted in her seat so one of her knees pressed against mine. Some of her coolness melted away. “I could do it, if I had to. I could do anything to take care of my sons – I’d be a prostitute. A thief.”
I nodded as if I understood, but I did not. I had no idea what it meant to love like that.
“You just graduated, right? You’re twenty-two?” she asked.
I nodded again.
“When I was twenty-two, I had two kids and a husband and was crawling through college at night. I didn’t know where I was going. Wait a while – it will amaze you, where you end up.”
Once more I nodded, once more not really understanding. The coolness descended back over her, and she stood up. “My stop,” she said. She gave me a half wave as she got off.
After our encounter, Kelsey was neither more nor less friendly to me at work. Dianne continued to nip at Min for getting the date wrong on a press release or leaving a filing cabinet open. Lia teased me about my old-fashioned name, Jaycee said “Bev” would be worse, and Min suggested the nickname “Idaho,” but I said that wasn’t where I was from; meanwhile, Kelsey’s mouse glided around in cryptic patterns. I looked for her every day on the subway, but it was two weeks before I saw her again, though she didn’t see me. The platform was crowded, and we squeezed into the same car through separate doors. I stood at a pole at the far end and watched her. She sat with her head leaning against the vibrating window and a blankness weighing on her face.
On a drizzly August afternoon I came back from lunch early to find Min alone, packing her things into a photocopier paper box, tears leaking from her eyes. “Just watch out,” she muttered. “She used to like me. She was so chummy with me when she hired me.”
“You got …” I couldn’t finish.
“Dianne made me stand in front of her while she sat on that ugly loveseat – it looks like piss – and told me she couldn’t stand how she treated me. She said she knew she was horrible to me, and she felt too guilty to ask me to work for her anymore. She said to go home. Then she went to lunch.”
I imagined the conversation in my head: a truck rumbling outside, the controlled pitch of Dianne, the tensed muscles of Min. I looked at the wet footprints I had left on the floor. “Do you need any help?”
Min jammed in her last framed photo. “I’m not the first person she’s turned on. Didn’t you ever wonder what happened to the woman you replaced?”
As she left, I wondered how she’d protect her things from the rain.
Somehow, when they came back from lunch, the others already knew. Dianne returned soon after and stayed in her office all afternoon, so there were no jokes or whispers. Jaycee filched the good stapler off Min’s desk.
Several days of calm and industry passed. Café Katze finally opened, so Dianne brought linzer torte and we all ate a few bites. When she went out, we kept acting as though she were watching us.
One morning I found a single Post-It note on my desk. Attached to the fourth and final version of a press release that I had written the previous afternoon, it said, You shouldn’t have to write so many drafts! I sat in my chair and let my cheeks burn, my fingertips tingle. The last draft had been to correct one typo, but I knew if I explained to Dianne, she would stroke the top of her glasses and let one shoulder dip down to indicate disdain.
At the staff meeting, she asked Jaycee about an expense receipt, Kelsey about the shade of a graphic, and Lia about the layout of a building. Then, eyes focused on her notepad, she said, “Beverly, what happened to the woman who handled our orders at Speedy Print?”
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“You took that last order in. You should’ve asked.”
“I can call today.” My voice threaded through the silence.
“Why are we going through so many paperclips?” Dianne looked up at me.
I tried to maintain eye contact but looked away. Jaycee turned toward the window, and Kelsey doodled on a file folder. Lia said, “We could do a weekly supply room inventory.”
“Beverly, starting today, that’s your area.”
At lunch time, I sat on the stoop of an empty building and clenched my teeth on the nail of my left ring finger. I tore away the living cells until the tender nail bed burned pink in the carbon heat.
I still had no real friends, though sometimes I watched sitcoms with the exchange student roommate, who had returned from her travels. I also chatted with the young clerk at the bodega near my building. Thick and cheery, he studied chemistry part-time at CUNY. I had not been much of a drinker in college, and I had promised my parents I would not drink alone when I moved to New York; I kept my promise until the day Dianne began criticizing me. That evening as I put the forty on the counter along with some carrots and a box of mac and cheese, the clerk grinned. “Big night planned?”
“I want to quit my job.” I realized he was the only person I could say those words to.
“Then what would you do?”
“My parents would tell me to come home.” I looked at the Virgin Mary and Statue of Liberty knickknacks, the softening zucchinis, the cans of Goya beans and bars of Ivory soap crammed together on the shelves. “I don’t want to go home.”
“So I guess you don’t quit your job,” he said, saluting me with the beer before putting it in a paper bag.
I began drinking as I walked up the hill to my apartment. I breathed in the used-up city air and thought about restocking drill bits back at the hardware store, about my dandruffy marketing professor who said I should go to grad school, about my already-married college roommate who taught first graders. I put each foot down consciously on the cement and felt the bend of my knees, the swing of my arms. Even now I can feel myself in that moment, and I wish I could walk alongside myself, sharing the can of cheap beer, listening to the exhalations of the millions of cars and people, and feel the moment when I chose, somehow, to stay.
Though in later years I have lived through far worse events, I allow myself to count the next weeks at Dianne’s as among the hardest of my life because up until then, nothing had been all that hard. Hyper-aware of every gesture I made, I devoted more time and care to my job; Dianne’s criticisms and Post-It notes increased in precise proportion. Lia and Jaycee did not tease me, maybe because we had extra work without Min there – or maybe they decided it was not worth it: we could all see what was going to happen. My fingernails became familiarly, soothingly ragged, but I only bit them when I was alone.
In late September, I worked over the weekend on a publicity plan I needed to send to California. On Monday I finished early enough to proofread it two extra times, and after I handed it to the delivery service, I let myself slouch in my chair and stare out the window. A few minutes later Dianne called me into her office.
She waved some papers at me. “These are the revised images for the California plan.”
My feet felt like they were filled with wet sand. “I didn’t know they were being revised.”
“Well, take them.” She held them out while looking at her computer screen.
“I already sent the plan. The delivery guy’s gone.”
She put down the pages. She spread her palms over her blotter, looked at me, and shook her head. “You sent the plan without these.”
“I didn’t know the images were being revised,” I said.
I paused. I knew she wanted me to stay quiet. “You didn’t tell me,” I said. “I worked from the memo you gave me Friday, right before you left, and you didn’t say anything about changes today.”
She leaned back in her chair. “So you to blame me for your mistake.” The streak of white in her hair no longer seemed a mark of good or bad fortune; it was intentional, her signal flag that she would never give up any ground. “We won’t get this account.” She pulled out a file and began reading it as I stood there.
I went back to my desk and typed away at something until it was time to leave.
I didn’t see Kelsey until she was next to me. As soon as I had entered the subway station I had let myself cry; now I dried my face with my sleeve, not worrying if my silk blouse would stain since I was not going to need it anyway. I focused on the poster across the tracks of a toothy woman in a graduation cap.
“You shouldn’t worry about it,” she said.
“I don’t want to go back home.”
“You can find another job.”
I sniffed hard and forced myself to slow down my breathing. I did not want Kelsey to tell the others I had broken down.
“I’d ask you to get a drink, but I have an appointment,” she said.
“I don’t have enough money to last until I get another job. And getting fired from my first one won’t look so good.”
“You’re not fired yet. And if you are, work with the options you have.” Her voice sounded far away, so I looked at her. The tightness in her eyes and the way she kept tugging her blazer sleeve suggested she wanted a cigarette. I pictured her in the office earlier when she was talking to a client: she stood near the giant ficus, the glint of bracelets passing through the air as she gesticulated. But now there was a jerk in her movements, a sag in the way she stood.
“Why do you stay?” I asked.
A train pulled in. She took my wrist in her hand and did not move, and we let the train leave without getting on.
“Listen. My husband’s got a drug problem. Always has, but it’s gotten worse. He’s spent a lot of our money and not told me, but I know. I’ve been saving my own money, and he has no idea. I have a friend who lives out west, in the middle of nowhere. I have another friend who’s giving me her car.”
I tried again to see a new Kelsey. “You’ve stayed with Dianne to make the money you need to go,” I said, attempting to work things out.
She smiled. “You never know what you’re capable of.” She dropped my wrist. ” I made a chance for myself. Now I’ve given you one too.”
Confused, I watched her walk away and then scanned the other platform until I saw her appear. Her train came, and she disappeared into the bundle of people.
After a night of Oreos and stupefying TV, I got to work fifteen minutes late because I knew it would not matter when I arrived. My hair was woolly from the fall humidity, and my side-buttoned pants pinched my stomach. Lia and Jaycee were on the phones. I saw Dianne moving around in her office, but on my desk was only one note: SEE ME ASAP!!!! I let my heart tumble but yanked it back up again.
I sat on Dianne’s mohair loveseat; it was, as Min had said, the color of piss. I crossed my legs and kept my chin in the air as Dianne stood in front of her desk and looked down at me.
“Beverly.” For the first time in weeks, she did not say my name like it was a bug in her mouth. “Kelsey called.”
“Yes,” I answered, though I did not know why she was telling me.
“She’s not coming back. She’s moving away. She said if her husband called, not to tell him anything.” She leaned toward me.
I rubbed my index fingers over the tips of my thumbs and said nothing.
The eyes watching me were wide, waiting. “She said you’d explain to me.”
As I stood up, there was no dramatic roar like a subway train. I had no shimmery image of the wind stirring up the dust of a harvested corn field thousands of miles away. But in that moment, as I understood the chance Kelsey had given me, a piece of me clicked into place, and I grew older. “It’s her husband. He’s a drug addict, and he was going through all their money. She’s taken her kids and left him – she’s safe, she’s far away, and he’s not going to be able to find her. She’ll be okay.”
Dianne shook her head. “She never told me anything. I’d never have guessed. I met him at a Christmas party.”
“She didn’t tell people,” I said. “It was something she needed to take care of herself.” I paused and counted the beats. “Do you want me to look over Kelsey’s assignments today?”
“Yes.” Dianne spread herself across the loveseat. “We’ll skip the staff meeting. I need time to process this. It’s such a loss for us – but Kelsey will make it –” She did not stir, no longer primed for her next movement.
“Do the others know?” I asked.
“I wanted to talk to you first.” She looked up at me, and I could feel her churning need to know why Kelsey had chosen me to hold her secret, to know why I was special. “Will you let them know?”
“Thanks,” she said.
We stared at each other. At lunch I will buy a silver bracelet, I thought. And who knows what I will do after that, who knows where I will be later.
But first I went out to my desk where the other women were waiting for me.