The Blue Room
by Lisa Taddeo
My coffee this morning was sublime. It was sweet and milky and when I pushed the spoon down to the bottom, it struck a sugar well. I made it perfect because I was alone, and I wasn’t ashamed in front of myself to pour in eight packets of sugar, two shots of half and half and a lot of milk. Black coffee is sexy. I do black coffee when the guy from Operations is looking at my breasts. But alone, I’m a little girl and my cleavage is just an unfortunate bulge and I make my coffee like a milkshake and then scurry back to my desk to drink it behind thin polyform walls.
Two hours after my first sip, I’m waiting for the woman with parrot earrings to send me a new assignment. This older round man who sits diagonal from my cube wanders over and says he saw me take that first sip. He says I must have enjoyed it so much because the look on my face was almost sensual. He lowers his voice when he says sensual, looking left and right, red-faced and distorted. I think about what my father would say if he’d heard the round man say that I looked sensual drinking my coffee. Then he asks did I ever tell you about my daughter, and offers to send me a picture via e-mail as if that would be special. I can only imagine she’s round like him, and has one of those plain freckled faces that belong to the tribe of daughters who live in wallets and jpegs. When they’re shown, the beholder has to say hmm, that’s nice or she’s a looker. I’ve never seen a pretty wallet daughter.
I go to the bathroom after this happens to look in the mirror. The word sensual has always bothered me because of the incident with the Sensual Boutique in the indoor flea market I used to go to when I was a child. Once, from behind a rack of half-price imitation Jem dolls, I saw my dad slip in and come out five minutes later with a brown paper bag tucked obscenely under his arm.
In the mirror, I’m not sensual, and that pleases me. All the same, I puke in one of the toilets, my face hot with the fear of some interloper thinking I’m bulimic, pregnant, or recovering from last night; because that triumvirate would only churn through a rusty rumor mill, leaving me a crackpot, a tramp, or a drunk, respectively.
I rinse my mouth out with plain water and swallow some of the bile that remains. I have my interview today with the cockney guy from Content Operations, so it’s important I don’t have any regurgitated lettuce in my teeth. I barely understand the man because his words end up getting chewed and then viciously swallowed by his whorled reptilian mouth. Still, I’m not nervous because he looks at my chest while he talks to me and that levies me a small power about which I am both thrilled and repelled.
The interview’s implications are what make me nervous. I would have my own cubicle with a large computer and a chair for guests and lots of steel drawers, some with keys. I would have a salary, which is very different from stipends and per hours. Words like benefits and 401Ks affirm permanence. Scarier, though, is that I’d be one of them, those sturdy members of the quiet workplace who flash their sunless fingers against silent keyboards and pleat their eyebrows at important blue screens. I would be very boring.
“Kate,” says the mousy girl from Editorial, who has slipped soundlessly into the bathroom, “are you okay?” She talks to my face’s reflection in the mirror which is ripe red and sunken-eyed.
I turn to face her and instantly she shrinks back a little, because she is the sort more comfortable with reflections, or with phone calls, or e-mails. “Yeah, the coffee just kind of went to my head, gave me a buzz, you know?” I say that because it relaxes prudish people to think that coffee, Nyquil, or too much sugar are enough to yield euphoric feeling.
Mousy Mindy’s eyes get big and her train-wreck teeth configure a smile. “Wow, yeah,” she says, “that’s why I drink tea.”
She goes to a stall and I leave before we get into the embarrassment of talking through her hiss of streaming urine.
Back at my desk, I’ve got two e-mails. I open the first and it’s the sensual man’s daughter, staring back at me from a little square cutout on my screen. She has puckered red skin and thin snarling lips. A little note accompanies her face: Karla at twenty-three. Now she has reddish hair and wears contacts. Right, and I’m sure she’s absolutely drop-dead without the glasses.
The second e-mail comes with a strange precursor: Are you certain you want to open this? I open it. The print is large blue.
It has come to the company’s attention that you will be interviewing for such and such position on such and such day. Please accept our invitation to your initiation ceremony tomorrow at nine o’ clock am in the blue room.
I lift my butt off the seat a little and peer over my separation wall. The drones are all fixated on their screens. I decide it must be a joke. That the letter actually says such and such makes me smile. Also, I note the oxymoronic proximity of the word candidate with the more definitive notion of an initiation ceremony. And what blue room? Finally, letters signed the Mgmt are often found at public swimming pools hanging from rusted fences in smarmy script: Please Wear a Swimming Cap If Your Hair Is Longer Than Chin-length. Thank You, The Mgmt, and not at Fortune 500 companies.
So I guess it’s kind of amusing, but I don’t get the point. The return address is, quite fittingly, THEMGMT@corpusa.com. I hit reply and start writing:
Since I have not even secured such and such position, I must beg off the premature invitation to my initiation ceremony. All the same, I think this is pretty funny, and I’d like to know who you are and where the blue room is.
I send my response back in blue. My excellent coffee, by this time, has gone bad. I mean that it’s lukewarm and smells a little like urine. My supervisor walks by, propping her black-haired arms over the edge of my partition wall.
“Good morning,” I say, chucking my coffee cup into the garbage. Some liquid shoots up, gets on my pants. “Jesus.”
She’s staring at my pant legs, at the brown spots that have just mottled the fabric. I hate people who stare at things they know they should avoid looking at. She’s not wearing parrot earrings today. Instead, she has two long pastel toucans stuck in each ear.
“Be careful of the keyboard,” she says.
“Have you finished the count comparisons for ’99? Oh, and might you by any chance have QC’d the ’94 spreadsheet?”
“I’ve done both,” I lie. By the time she gets around to checking them, I’ll have fudged the comparisons and pretended to quality check the spreadsheet. And then I’ll pack it all in a neat little e-mail and send it to her with the subject heading:RECAP, as though I’ve already sent her prior details.
“Great, then could you please recheck the operational tool’s stats, and get those to me by three, that’d be great, thanks.”
She darts off to her tae kwon do lunch hour. I have a bizarre image of her doing a high kick with her white chicken legs, falling on her flat ass, and one of her toucans stabbing the skin behind her ear.
I think about doing some work, and then I realize it’s time for my interview. I take out my compact and fix my hair a little and check my teeth one more time for wayward bits of digested food.
I get to Simon’s desk and rest my breasts on his cube wall. “Hi, Simon, I hope I’m not early.”
“No, no, step into my office,” he tells my chest.
I circle round and sit in the steel chair with the multicolor synthetic cushion. I cover the coffee stains on my pants by clasping my hands and lavishly spreading my arms across my lap.
He has my resume in his hands but he refers to it as a curriculum vitae, which is fine with me because it makes me feel more important. Forty percent of it is bullshit, but I guess that’s pretty standard. I guess he knows, too, because he doesn’t ask about my position as senior utilities correspondent at Palermo Computers and Technical. There’s also no contact info for that one, because it’s my brother-in-law’s computer repair shop and he would probably answer the phone, “Yo, Lou’s Repair, what can I do you for?”
“Kate, it says here you interned at the Westchester Review. What did you learn from that experience?” he says after the initial trivialities are over.
It’s okay that he asks that, because that one’s legit. “Well,” I start, “I really got to know the inner workings of the publishing business; I culled an amazing understanding of writing from the perpetual edits I had to make on the headlines I wrote. It was also my first exposure to teamwork outside a classroom or off a playing field, so in that vein, it kind of acted as my initiation ceremony into the real world.” I wonder briefly if culled was overdone, and I note how his eyebrows raise at the phrase initiation ceremony.
“Well, Kate, you know here that teamwork isn’t so much stressed as a strong individual performance and an ability to get assignments completed without too much hand-holding.”
“Right,” I say, thinking of the employees walking around like automatons, never making eye contact, conducting world business with their tapping fingers and keeping up interoffice friendships the very same way.
He mumbles something, his teeth and tongue get all around the words and I lose them, like usual.
“Excuse me?” I say.
“Right,” he says. Most of his teeth are half-black and crooked and they spiral into a silly looking concentric circle; it makes me wonder who would french kiss him. “Well, Kate, I see no need to extend this much further. We all know you quite well.”
“And you’ve been quite a capable intern…” He pauses as I heave my chest forward slightly, “and your internship terminates in two weeks, correct?”
“Yes. So I could start then.”
“There’s just one more interview for the post today, so I’ll have an answer for you by the end of the day today or tomorrow morning at the very latest.” He shakes my hand vigorously.
“Thanks, Simon.” I wonder what else to say. He’s resorted to looking at my breasts again. I assume my nipples must be poking against my knit sweater because I’m nervous and cold, so I get a little red in the face. I think to tell him about the mystery e-mail, now that I have almost secured the job, but instead I just walk away.
I sit down at my swivel chair and swivel a couple of times. My work e-mail box lights up on my screen and I open it, thinking that parrot lady’s back from her workout and has something else for me. But it’s not Vy. It’s from that pesky Mgmt. Entity and I get a little nervous as I start to read.
Please excuse us for the earlier message you considered premature. But now that you are indeed a member of our community, we hope you won’t be so reticent to attend your initiation ceremony tomorrow at nine o’clock am in the blue room.
I rise in my seat again to see if anybody’s giggling anywhere around me. I catch the sensual man’s eye by accident. He stalks over.
“Didya get the e-mail?” he asks.
“What?” I say loudly.
“Karla, you know, my daughter, the picture I sent you,” he says.
“Right. Yeah, I got it. She’s a real looker.”
“She gets it from her mother,” he says.
I say nothing. I look down at my breasts purposefully and then back at him, to let him know I can figure out his eyeline’s target. “Well, if you ever have any questions about finding a job when your internship’s over, I mean, Karla’s been through it all, so I could give you her number. Or, actually, she should be coming in…”
“Hmm, that’s nice, but I might already have a job.”
“Really?” he says.
“Yes.” That’s all I say to him, but I’m content in my own head to know I’ll be making more money than this fat man who has been here for twenty years, who has borderline sexually harassed me and who has a very ugly daughter who has been through it all. And, unlike him, I won’t be whittled into a worker bee; this work that validates his life will only be a stepping stone in mine.
He walks away, back to his desk, and then I end up feeling sorry for him, because he’s round and sad and eats hard-boiled eggs all day long. I always end up feeling sorry for people I don’t like.
I turn back to my screen. Now that you are indeed a member of our community. It’s so eerie that I shiver a little.
“So, what job?”
I turn; it’s the round company man. “Excuse me?”
“What job might you already have?”
“Did you write those e-mails?” I say.
“Excuse me?” he says. “What e-mails? The one with Karla’s downloadable…”
“Do you know about a blue room?”
His grayish round face becomes knowing at once. “The job is internal?”
“Yes. You know about a blue room?”
He breathes heavy and chuckles chafingly deep in his throat. He walks away.
There is a blue room. The round man’s been there, and now he feels he has something over me, and can dangle it in my face.
“Allen,” I say so he can hear me ten feet away. It is the first time I’ve ever said his name.
“Yes?” It’s a slippery yes, a smug yes through low mazelike walls.
He’s not getting up to see what I want. Amazed, I walk over to his cubicle. “Allen,” I say to his back.
“Yes?” he responds, swiveling around to face me.
“Can you tell me about the blue room?”
“I don’t know of any blue room,” he says, his eyes wide and twinkling.
For all the times I brushed him off, he chooses this glorious moment for himself, to revel in it from deep within his belly, with his hundred hard-boiled eggs.
“Okay,” I say, slitting my eyes at him, hating him so much for being so greasy, for wearing plaid short-sleeve shirts and grey polyester pants, for having an ugly daughter, for calling me sensual, for thinking he has anything at all over me. I return to my desk and plop myself down on the seat.
All around my work space, there are things. Office things, but they’re mine as long as I’m here. Especially the butterfly clips, which I used to steal from my kindergarten teacher mercilessly, but which are now mine lawfully. This is not the life I want, the draining routine, the neatly-packed lunches, the endless tapping, pointing, and clicking. But it’s a job, and it comes with things, and I decide to settle for this. I decide to put my fears of boredom aside, and to enter into their blue room with a swagger. After all, maybe I can be president of the company.
Vy comes by again and I beam up at her. “Kate,” she says, “how’d your interview with Simon go?”
“Good. It went well.”
“He’s with the last girl right now. So I guess you should find out pretty soon the terms of your future with us.”
Stony bitch. “Right.” So it’s a girl he’s interviewing now. I hope her chest isn’t bigger than mine.
“By the way, Kate, I got an e-mail from you saying you QC’d the 94 spreadsheet?”
“Yes, yes you did.”
“Well, Barry just did some trial run-throughs, and he found about seven bugs in the three out of five articles he tested.”
I am more silent now than I have ever been. But I have to say something. “I must have missed some. I’m sorry.”
“But there are OK’s in the test column, next to every entry. Why would you input an OK if you didn’t test the article?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you test all the articles, Kate?” Her voice is office loud and I pull my body lower into the chair.
“Yes.” I say yes because once you begin a lie it’s far better to get deeper and deeper into its muck and insist tooth and nail rather than cave at any point, because then you will be considered untrustworthy.
“Okay,” she says, with a long breath. “I guess you’ll just have to rerun them then, to make sure you got all the rest.” She looks at me with her skin gathered into many furrows. I know she’s as nervous as I am because she’s spineless. “By the way,” she says, leaning closer to me over my partition, “Mindy said you might have been sick this morning in the bathroom. Is everything okay?”
“Yes, I just drank my coffee too fast, plus I’m lactose intolerant, and I put a lot of creamer in it.”
“Oh.” Somebody calls her name and she flits off. This relieves me. I am starting to sweat along my hairline and the back of my neck. Then I see whom it was that called to her: Simon. He is introducing Vy to some girl. Oh God, it must be the last interviewee.
Back on my screen, the grey box pops up and says I have one new e-mail. It is in blue again. I shudder as I open it.
Dear Sir or Madam,
There is no need to attend the ceremony tomorrow morning in the blue room.
I feel the back of my throat clotting up. The girl with Simon and Vy shakes their hands goodbye and walks down the hallway to my aisle. She looks hauntingly familiar. I want to smack her thin little lips. She passes my desk and I hear her say, “Daddy.”
“Sugar,” the round man says. “How’d it go?”
Whispering, but so I can still hear her, “It sounds like it’s mine!”
The round man laughs. “I’m so proud of you. Father and daughter, working for the same company. You’ve wanted this job for too long not to have gotten it.” He laughs again, loudly.
“Daddy,” she says, and this time quieter still, “what’s the blue room?”
Low, conspiratory, “it’s why we sit here all day, bored to tears. Oh, baby, you’re gonna love it.”
©2002 by Lisa Taddeo