Portrait of the Artist's Father- Paul Cezanne
by Heidi Moore
I was talking to Margot the first time I realized my fears and odd concerns had begun to multiply and enlarge themselves. They almost took me over. Margot and I were working overtime, stuffing envelopes at five o'clock in a tiny basement in the bowels of a law firm. Water spots made rusty circles on the ceiling tiles above our heads, and every few minutes the walls shook from the vibrations of people walking up the stairs to leave. I had worked there for about six months and I hated it, hated everyone, hated myself, for being so average.
I was feeling naked, as usual. Margot was just this girl who worked upstairs, and we were only in the room together because of the envelopes. I had noticed her eyes before, categorized her as an exotic beauty, and never really spoken to her, which is usually how I behaved with people. But on this day I had no choice except to stare at her hair, which was pulled straight back from her face always, like it was afraid of detracting from her face. At times it felt like I could see into her.
Almost above my eye level, about five feet above the floor, was a window, which, since this room was in the basement, looked out onto the pavement of an alley off Massachusetts Avenue. Feet passed by every few minutes, and I could see the sun going further and further away. Normally, I would have left by six, but Margot and I started having this conversation.
See, talking to someone I don't know has always made me feel exposed, but for seconds at a time that afternoon, I forgot to notice that any moment I might sense I was on exhibition. Usually, I took a sort of secret offense at revealing chatterespecially office chatter.
But Margot started off slow. She made Statements. "Challenging work," she said. This was something I could relate to in a broad way: feeling overqualified for this insipid envelope stuffing.
"Yes," I blurted, trying to throw a great deal of emotion into the word, so I didn't have to do the usual complaining to get my point across.
Margot sucked her breath in. "You know, they always make movies about lowly office workers, but they never really capture what corporate existence does to them. Have you ever noticed the blank looks you get from 15- or 20-year veterans? I think working in an office steals your soul." Her words were clipped, and they landed exactly where she wanted them to fall. She was a little too intentional every time she spoke, as though she had to grab the words from alphabetized niches somewhere in her head, but I liked that because it made her seem so organized.
I didn't answer for a moment because I wasn't sure whether she was talking or whether it was me projecting my thoughts on her out loud. I could hear her, and I could connect the voice with the face, but I had come to expect a certain void in conversation at work. I had learned that I should expect small talk, or the kind of improperly intimate office talk that makes me feel like I've come to work inadequately dressed, or that, unbeknownst to me, there's a giant hole in the back of my skirt.
Take, for example, the day my printer broke. I walked over to use the lead secretary's printer. "How are you, Debbie?" I muttered as I walked around her office cubicle. Of course, I was after the customary neutral reply.
"I just don't know Becky," she practically moaned, hints of a tearful quiver on her words. "I guess everything is okay, but my sex life is lousy. My husband doesn't chase me around the house anymore. He used to chase me around the kitchen until I ran to the bedroom. We used to do it on the kitchen table, in the garage under the car .You're so lucky you're single!" She really said this.
"How come you're working here?" I asked Margot. I wasn't used to having to think of something real to say. "I mean, you're not going to do this all your life." I was stammering. "Forgive me, but, you see, you don't look like the secretary type." My words left terrible trails of unintended nuances in the air. I waited for her to answer, hoping she wasn't some sort of militant career secretary, the type who would proudly wear a t-shirt that said SUPER SECRETARY.
In my panic, I didn't notice her eyes clouding up. Mercifully, she interrupted. "Do you believe in destiny?" I told her yes, I did.
I do. I think every person has a mission, some greater than others. I told her I think sometimes we even know what our purpose is, but not always. Right about then, I stopped folding envelopes. I almost had to. I couldn't believe Margot. She was talking about real stuff, her voice was even watery as though she might start crying any moment, and I thought I had better pay attention in case she really was on her way out. Some people only open up when they know they're moving on soon.
It felt like the temperature in the room had gone up a few degrees, but my hands were chilled and the air had that light feeling it gets when it's very cold outside, like you can see a tiny bit clearer and farther. I felt bold and I only remember thinking for one or two seconds that she might be setting me up, that she could be taping my private philosophies to play them later for the other, real secretaries to laugh at. To them, people's dreams and feelings were no different than the other inter-office discussions. Without thinking at all, their average little minds could take the most intimate detail of anyone's life and enlarge it, billboard style, around the office.
But I didn't stop talking. I said, "You know, you shouldn't be working at a law firm. You should do whatever you want. I mean, you're young, and life is too short to waste time being somebody's secretary." Every few sentences I spit out, I would reach up inside my sweater, grab the hem, and pull. Oftentimes I semi-consciously catch my knees in the bottom of whatever garment I'm wearing and stretch downwards. It covers me up.
Margot interrupted me, saying something like "How did you know this is exactly the kind of thing I've been thinking lately?" or "How can you tell all this stuff about me?"
It was obvious. I had given myself practically the same lecture that very morning. "I don't know, I guess I can just tell."
She stopped stuffing envelopes, too, and motioned for me to come a tiny bit closer. "I know I'm going to be great," she whispered, almost like she suspected me of taping her.
"I think you will." There was no argument.
That was really all that happened. I think we both felt terribly elated about our little talk, and, smiling, we went back to stuffing envelopes in a happy daze. Soon after, I began feeling uncomfortable again, though, because I could sense the approaching turn of conversation when I would have to admit to what I thought my destiny was. If pressed, I would say I was hoping for greatness of some kind, but I didn't want her to be able to look back years later and call me wrong. Probably, if I absolutely had to, I would say my destiny is all tied up with telling other people what to do somehow. But I didn't want to think about it too much, especially out loud. So I picked up my purse and said I was late for a dinner engagement.
Walking down the street away from the building, I berated myself for missing out on Margot. I knew I had fairly purposely left just when the conversation was getting good. It's just that I could foresee the conversation becoming even more revealing, and then maybe our going out to dinner afterwards. Then we would be obligated to live up to the intimacy of that first talk over and over again. We would have to call each other all the time, stop at each other's desks in the morning, coffee in hand. We would say inane things to follow up on other inane things we had said before, like, "So, did you have your carburetor looked at or are you waiting for payday?" I just wanted to save both of us this agony. It's not that I mind having friends, it's just that it takes me so long to think up small talk, especially the kind that is appropriately intimate. I'm talking about the stopping-at-desk kind, that reveals something personallike the fact that you're living paycheck-to-paycheckbut doesn't let on what you really think about all day.
Ever since childhood I have had a recurring nightmare about being naked. Even later, after talking to Margot that day, I dreamed it again. I am the youngest student, five years old again, in Mrs. Danehower's class, combined first and second grade. Groups of four or five of us rotate through stations all day studying subtraction, reading, geography, art. I stand in the back of the room, near the art group and the bathroom. By this time, nearly half the day has passed, and when I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, I notice I have no pants on. Horrified, I call Mrs. Danehower through a crack in the door. In response to my whispered dread, she announces to the whole jeering class that Becky has come to school again without anything to cover her bottom.
On the subway after that first talk with Margot, I put on my sunglasses even though it was dark. If anyone ever asked, I would say I wore them all the time because of the bright public transportation safety lighting, yet in all truth they were part of a disguise: complete sensory cover. I wore a hat and a walkman too. But I never did find a way to cover smells. Ever since I had quit smoking, that sense had become even more acute. I could tell which passengers had been drinking, and even distinguish between those who drank at lunch and those who had stopped for a few on the way home.
Thankfully, if I focused my shaded eyes out the window and blanked my mind as much as possible, I could even isolate and ignore that part of my brain that was bothered by the smells. By the time I got home, I was walking in my sleep, ready for prime time.
I wasn't prepared for Margot to call. I caught it on the first ring. "Hello," I breathed, like I was afraid the sound of my own voice would wake someone.
"Oh good, you're there," Margot said, authoritatively.
"Yeah, I just got home," I lied.
Margot jumped right out of the small talk. "Listen, do you always get these insights into people, because if you do, I mean, I think you should really tell me what you think of this plan." I was a little bit put off. I certainly didn't want to become anyone's personal intuitive counselor, particularly when all I was offering was shreds of common sense.
"I don't know, Margot. I just say what I think sometimes."
"Okay," she said, only without hesitation, assuming I would intuit all she wanted from now on. "See, there's this place called Talent Search that's a sort of acting and modeling agency. They're advertising for people and I wanted to know if you will go with me for an interview, and, you know, if you think it's a good idea."
"Oh God, Margot, you'd be perfect." She would. "It's just that I'm not that into it. I mean, I'll go and sit in the waiting room with you, but I'm not into, you know, exploiting myself."
"Aw, come on," she whined. "Do you really think I'd be perfect? Well, I think you'd be good too. You'd be great in commercials, you know, funny ones. You ought to be a comedienne."
"Well, when do you want to go?" I was influenced as easily as she was. Besides, I figured it would be something different, out of the routine. I might meet someone. It would be a change. Right around that time I was making a lot of decisions that way. I hated to turn down any spontaneous offer because I was afraid I would miss out on some portion of my destinylike for example the guy I'm supposed to marry could be sitting in a chair in the waiting room of the modeling agency or the one person who would convince me to finish my degree and become certified to teach would get my attention on the street and offer to sign me up for those last two courses I needed, even pay for them. You never know.
"Let's go this Friday during lunch," Margot said. This was Tuesday night.
"Okay." Two days to lose twenty pounds. "What do I bring? Do I have to wear anything special?"
"I'll call and find out. Talk to you tomorrow." She hung up, just like that. No small talk at all, practically.
On Friday I still had three chins. I woke up and looked across my room to the mirror on the back of my bedroom door. The part of me that was reflected looked mammoth, mountainous under the comforter. I knew if I so much as walked past the scale, it would jeer at me.
Just as I did every day while the radio played out its ten minutes of snooze time, I talked myself out of calling in sick, visualizing all the things I had to do before I left for work: go to closet, get navy dress, stockings and underwear, go to bathroom, shower, etc.
I buttoned the navy dress trying not to compare it with Margot's severe style. I convinced myself that maybe the agency was after someone with average brown hair, average length, a few split ends, not too many. If they weren't, it didn't matter anyway because, after all, I hated the way the media exploits women. I would probably refuse any offer they made just on principle.
I began to think of the virtuoso pianist my parents had hired to teach me when I was four. They would never admit it, but they secretly had hoped I would be some sort of prodigy, that my true talent would show itself early. It would have been so much simpler for everyone if it had. But after a few lessons, the pianist threw his hands up in the air and shouted melodramatically "She is talentless!" I never wanted to be a pianist anyway. If I couldn't sit down and sound like the virtuoso right away, I didn't want to play at all.
Read the rest of "Talent"
At six years old, Heidi R. Moore began composing her (now long-lost) first novel, in which her main character was the only superhuman actress/stewardess/author known to literature thus far. After allowing her "talent" to rest for some years, she took up writing again at Goddard College, where she earned an MFA in Writing in 1990. Currently, Heidi directs the Writing Center at Northern Virginia Community College and awaits being discovered.