Secretary

To get her through the morning, Sophia hyperventilates
in the supply cupboard. In the dark, amongst the rows of neatly
labeled boxes, she squats down, gulps air greedily, much more than
she needs—air in, air out. Quick, sharp breaths that sound
like a machine. The tiny room spins about her like a box gyroscope.

She holds her breath and stands. It's that moment when she twitches
awake in the middle of the night for no good reason, terrified that
she's still at work, only it's in reverse. Uplifted, wavering on
the edge of consciousness, Sophia stands and Sophia falls.

Sprawled on tumbled shelves and crushed boxes and broken stationary,
she dreams vivid, noisy dreams. Her heart thuds dully a million
miles away. Reality clouds back slowly like the patterns in spilled
oil.

It's as good as any hallucinogen. If nothing else it helps her
ignore what's happening in the office annexing hers. Boss's office.

His office. Him.

Later, after clearing up the cupboard as best she can, Sophia will
be getting herself off in the toilets, or snorting binder glue until
her vision goes all green and gaussy. She'll melt throat lozenges
from the medicine box with a pocket lighter to make a glutinous
kind of whiskey that leaves her reeling. She'll lick the charged
terminals on her PC's adapter until her tongue goes dead as cardboard
in her mouth.

On the twenty-first floor of this building, Sophia is like one
of those caged tigers that can't stop pacing. She is Boss's secretary.

And nothing can ever fix that.

***

Boss wants the file cabinets sorted. Like browsers in a bookstore,
everyone's just been taking stuff out, putting it back in the wrong
place.

These little things, Boss told her, make a difference. These little
things are what allow an office to function. Or not. As he said
those words to her this morning, his hand was white knuckle tight
on his coffee cup, his eyes narrow paper cuts in the lined geography
of his face. Boss is a small man, watery eyed behind round glasses.
Balding. The little hair he has is gelled over his shining scalp.
Sophia stands a foot taller than him. To any outsider she would
seem infinitely his superior, in stance or demeanor. Her skin is
made tanned and confident by over-applied makeup.

Under that makeup, under the mask of dignity and courage that she
wears every day, Sophia is falling apart. If Boss wants the filing
cabinets sorted, then she will sort the filing cabinets.

Anything he wants.

***

Around lunchtime, Sophia sticks two fingers down her throat, just
enough to make her dry retch over and over. She likes that moment
when something seems to crawl in her throat—a hairy, slimy
cockroach scrabbling and pulling up from her stomach. She balances
on the edge right then, between losing it and taking control.

The best entertainments come from one's own body.

She breaks and gets something to eat at a Chinese restaurant across
the street. It's a tiny place, squashed between the bigger,
more important buildings on each side. Inside smells of oyster water
and nut oil, and waiting at the counter Sophia can touch the walls
on either side if she stretches out her hands.

The wizened, crumpled Chinese man in the kitchen sees her doing
this, smiles.

When she gets back, Boss is talking to someone in his office. She
hears him from the elevator and it's too late to turn around, and
it's too late for this not to be happening.

Two voices. One of them is loud, diamond-cut. The other belongs
to unidentifiable John or Steve. The same familiar pattern of conversation
Sophia has heard so many times before. Anger and benevolence countered
with fear. That snide twist, sarcasm, questioning: do you want this
job? Are you proud of yourself? Trick question. Undermining everything.
Whatever John or Steve says it will be wrong.

And, oh, but she'll never be able to live with this.

Like a dream walker she takes her place at her desk. Everything's
gone cold and insubstantial with Boss in the background. Here, she
can make out words.

Boss: "You think this is funny? You think we can afford mistakes
like this?"

"Sir, I've said … "

"Excuses aren't good enough, Vincent."

Vincent. Spitting it out like a seed.

On her teeth is still the juicy tang of red pepper and roasted
bamboo. She runs her tongue around her mouth, picking up the mottled
aftertaste of a meal. Soy sauce and fried roots. Brown sugar. Grains
of rice.

"Time and again, Vincent, it's always you who can't keep
up."

Leave him alone. In her mind Sophia stands up and storms into Boss's
office. There he'll stand, shock and awe frozen on his face
as Sophia shouts and raves at him over all the injustices he's
ever committed in this place.

But that will never happen.

Instead she grits her teeth. Sorts her papers. Tries to relive
the pure, biological joy of food through saliva-diluted aftertastes.
Anything to distract herself.

"And I know what you're thinking, Vincent. I know."

Here it comes. Sophia has been witness to this a hundred times
before. In her stomach the Chinese food—the fried rice and
the sweet and sour vegetables—churn together. A migraine erupts
at the base of her skull.

"You think because you have the qualifications we need it
means you don't have to work as hard. You think you're special."

He doesn't think he's special. He works just as hard
as everyone else.

"Do you even want this job? Do you even care?"

Boss is speaking loud enough to be heard through half a dozen walls,
but he's not shouting. This conversation could be personal,
could be just between him and Vincent. Could be, but it's
not.

To stop herself from listening to the words as they blister through
the too-thin wall, Sophia holds her breath until she sees purple
spots and hears the rushing of a tidal wave. Still she holds it
until her eyes see more dark than light, and she feels the soft
whoosh of noise as the world bounces away.

***

She wakes to someone stroking her cheek. It's Boss; she knows
without opening her eyes. He's always taking any opportunity
he has to touch her—not wrongly, not sexually, but it's
unwelcome. Sometimes he'll crouch down behind her under the
pretense of checking her computer screen, one hand resting loosely
on her shoulder, the other on her back and his breath breaking hotly
against her neck. Too close. On this occasion Sophia feigns sleep,
until his hand slips down to the back of her neck. She twitches
involuntarily and tries to make it look like she's just waking
up. At once, Boss's hand is gone.

"I'm not paying you to sleep," he snaps, his voice
acid.

Sophia's vision is muzzy from recent unconsciousness, and
there's an intense, dry burning at the back of her throat.
Before she can focus or think to reply, Boss is gone, slamming the
door. She slumps in her chair again, all at once more exhausted
than she's been in ages. Her cheek and neck feel smeared where
Boss has touched.

It's a few minutes before she realizes that there's someone
else in the room. A man she should recognize but doesn't, standing
by the photocopier. It's the only copier in the building,
so there's nothing odd about someone being in there to use
it, but the man is just standing there—hands braced against
the machine, head lowered.

"Can I … " She has to clear her throat and start
again. "Can I help you?"

The man jerks around, as though surprised. He's young and
pale, and he's clearly just been crying. Sophia knows at once
that this must be Vincent—and now that she has a face to connect
with the name, she recalls him as one of the many cubicle-bound
workers from the office floor. He's always drinking coffee,
and he brings his lunch squashed up in a Tupperware box.

Vincent wipes his face hurriedly, not quite meeting Sophia's
eyes. He nods quickly to show he's all right, then leans back
against the photocopier. Holding onto it like it's the only
real thing in the world.

"What happened?" asks Sophia, tipping her head towards
the office door. At once she regrets her question, because she knows
what happened only too well.

Vincent shrugs, color rising in his pale face.

"I lost some files," he says quietly. That's
explanation enough.

For a while they stand, with the few meters of beige carpet as
a gulf between them. Vincent stares down at his feet and Sophia
shuffles some papers absently. After a minute Vincent says:

"I hate him." He pauses, still looking down. "I
really do."

There's another few seconds of awkward silence before Vincent
moves quickly for the door. Sophia watches him go, headache intensifying
and nausea swirling in her stomach. Somehow, right at this moment
is the least OK things have ever felt to her.

She sits down again, buries her head against her arms against the
desk. Hides in the dark behind her eyes.

Later she will burn the dust up in her computer and inhale the
toxic smoke. She'll crack open her watch battery and swallow
the juice inside. Sweating in a toilet cubicle, she'll masturbate
until she no longer feels or cares. She'll sniff liquid paper
and chew the inside of a marker pen until she pukes up all that
Chinese food.

And it won't be enough. It never, ever will be.

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