Jeanie stared into the drawer beside her bathroom sink at all the foil disks ringed by plastic teardrops, each teardrop containing a tiny pill. She pulled a disk from the drawer and placed it in the flesh-coloured compact on the edge of the sink. She pressed one pill through the back of the foil and through the back of the compact, then looked into the mirror as she swallowed. Pivoting on one brown suede pump, she opened a second drawer. She was alarmed by the number of contact lenses she had accumulated, and by their variety. There were clear ones, and tinted ones, and ones that would make her eyes (naturally brown) seem icy blue, or evergreen, or eerie, steely grey. One pair, unopened like the rest, she was certain would make her look like a cat.
Jeanie returned to the first drawer and counted the disks. Fourteen. Enough birth control for one year, two months. That’s when Jeanie realized she was planning to quit her job.
“I’m planning to quit my job,” she announced to a friend over lunch, as both women maneuvered around the oily baby corns in their Pan-Pacific fajita salads.
She presented the evidence:
• the fourteen disks
• the icy blue, and evergreen, and steely grey contact lenses
• the lenses she was certain would make her look like a cat
The friend had to admit she was right.
“You’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” she said.
“I guess so,” Jeanie said, staring into her bowl.
In fact she hadn’t thought about it at all. Her stockpile had taken her completely by surprise, or nearly so — because obviously she had given it some thought. Or at least there had been thinking. Thinking had somehow taken place. This was how it happened. This was how it had happened with her friend Erin, and her friend Emily, and now everything made sense.
Standing in her doctor’s office, a clock (somewhere) ticking.
“I’m going to need more pills. Can you do that?”
“What, are you opening a clinic?”
“I like to be prepared.”
Thinking happening even then. Plans being made. 401Ks being mentally spent. Levels of contentment — both current and projected — being silently gauged. Jeanie felt betrayed.
She drummed her fingers next to her bowl of corns and counted one, two, three pelvic exams in the last six months. Yes. Her mind was made up.
Jeanie did not dislike her job as assistant director of point of purchase displays at Pangaea, provider of low-priced consumer cosmetics. She did not dislike it at all, and as she pulled into the parking lot the following morning, she couldn’t quite summon the distaste that her newly excavated decision seemed to require. She didn’t have an office, but her cubicle was quite the thing. Wedged into one corner of the fourth floor, it consisted of two authentic walls and two portable walls sturdy enough to support framed renderings of displays of which she was particularly proud. She had not one but two extra chairs facing her desk, which allowed her to convene small meetings. Beyond these, a low counter supported by one genuine wall held works-in-progress: three-dimensional dioramas involving clear plastic lipstick silos, eye pencils tethered to delicate silver chains, and mirrors embedded in Plexiglas adjacent to the slickened faces of various semi-supermodels.
She would miss this. She would miss the faces, and the lipstick silos, and the clever theft-proofing solutions. She would miss lurking behind one-way glass, picking at bagels and watching women play together like girls.
It’s not like she didn’t like her job. She did not dislike it. Yet often she found herself in a certain position. Things needed to be done, and she did them, although she often didn’t want to, or felt like she didn’t, or something. And sometimes things lingered, needing to be done but not getting done, and she waited, not doing them, secretly hoping that they would all of a sudden get done. She sat at her desk and did things other than the things that needed doing. She flipped through magazines, and visited websites, and read emails. Then, when she had finally settled down to work, she would remember a magazine she had been wanting to read or a website she had been meaning to visit, and then enough time had passed that maybe she had gotten new email, from whom she could not guess, but she would check anyway, and if there was something there she would read it, and, hey — what was this? — a voice mail, and after a long phone conversation with Erin or Emily, she would remember yet another magazine she wanted to read, or another website she wanted to visit, and she would want very much to lie down.
Still, Jeanie knew that the work would eventually get done. Not miraculously, as she hoped, but by her. She would do it. A deadline would loom and terror at the prospect of not having done the work would consume her, materializing in her mind as a giant boulder or a fiery asteroid, hurtling swiftly and steadily toward her. This terror would become excruciating in the way that only insubstantial pain can be.
But somehow, as if the terror had really been the pulling back of a pendulum (rather than either a hurtling boulder or an asteroid), she would surge forward, fighting tears — until after work, when they flowed — and the result, a Plexiglas representation of health and beauty, would take its place on the wall reserved for displays of which she was particularly proud.
Sometimes she did lie down.
She drove home in the late morning, or at lunch, or sometimes in the mid-afternoon. She checked into a motel near the office if the urge to lie down was too much (which it often was), and she would lie there and look at the ceiling and the smoke detector, and be glad she wasn’t at work, and feel grateful that terror was levitating — slowly and evenly — off of her.
“How long have you been here?”
Jeanie looked up from a magazine to see Frank standing by her desk.
Frank, the head of sales, was rarely in the office and never for long. He usually didn’t bother to take off his coat. When he was around, he could be seen through the door of his office: talking on the phone, his briefcase standing on end by his knees. He never smiled in the office and was possessed by a bitterness he seemed determined to spread.
“Do you like it here?” he asked, standing in the doorway of Jeanie’s cube — coat on, back straight, briefcase hanging from one stiff arm.
“Sure,” she said, poking at some papers on her desk.
“Really?” This was a game she had played with Frank before. That she had responded meant she had already lost. Jeanie imagined that Frank had a schedule — that he rotated around the floor on a weekly basis, reenacting this grim conversation.
Frank was probably fifty, although Jeanie suspected that his grey hair was misleading. He was on his second marriage and had been with the company a long time. Jeanie had caught him in an unguarded moment once, outside the ballroom at a company party. The double doors swung open and Frank and his wife — a sophisticated-looking redhead of an appropriate age — came sweeping through, hand in hand, leaving early. Smiling. He had seemed like a different person.
“And how do you like it, Frank?” Jeanie asked.
“Motherfuckers,” Frank said.
“Sorry to hear that,” she said.
And then he was gone. Jeanie grabbed her things and walked to the parking lot.
Jeanie’s mind raced as she pawed through her closet. What to wear to a resignation? She had fallen asleep at her motel and slept until morning, waking in sweat and confusion to drive home in the morning sun, itchy from sleeping in her clothes. It had happened before.
Her closet was full of billowing silk shirts, and sheathlike two-piece numbers, and heels with straps waiting to brace her feet — crimped by years of ballet lessons — at stylish angles. There were other outfits as well: getups involving vinyl pants, and wool skirts, and skinny silk ties. Not costumes, exactly, but not exactly not costumes either. True, she felt like another person — really felt it, believed it herself — like a rocker, or an au pair, or George Sands when she wore the pants and skirts and the ties, but not so that anyone would notice. They would not notice that she, Jeanie, was looking at them from inside and far away.
It would have to be soon, though. The resignation. The terror was intensifying, the lying down becoming more frequent. Maybe today, she thought as she rubbed a vinyl seam between two fingers.
The rocker. Definitely.
“How long have you been here?”
Jeanie was interrupted as she checked her voice mail. She looked up to see Rachelle, who was not from a foreign country but had cultivated the idea that she might be. Her speech was so precise it sounded like a second language.
“How long have you been here?” Rachelle repeated, hovering in the gap between one of Jeanie’s fake walls and one real, actual wall.
Jeanie stuffed the phone into its cradle.
“Today? How long have I been here today?”
“Yes. I came by earlier, and you weren’t here.”
Jeanie couldn’t decide if Rachelle’s question was really a question.
“I just got here. I had an appointment.”
“There’s a meeting.”
Jeanie nodded until Rachelle vanished.
As Jeanie approached the conference room, she could tell something was wrong. All the desks on the fourth floor were empty and the conference room was full. Everyone was there. Jeanie asked an intern by the door what was going on.
“Excitement,” the girl said, beaming.
Jeanie edged her way inside and found a spot next to Frank against the wall. She nudged him and whispered in his ear.
“What’s going on?”
“Motherfuckers,” he mumbled.
Rachelle’s assistant, an efficient woman the same age as Rachelle, came in and announced to the room and to the triangular box in the middle of the conference table — “New York, are you there? Chicago, are you there?” — that Rachelle would arrive in a moment.
“The ax?” Jeanie whispered to Frank.
“Sure,” he said.
Jeanie, like the intern, was excited. It was exciting. It might be bad news, but it wasn’t nothing. It was action. Interns gathered with younger employees, basking in the toughness of adulthood. The couple from accounting whose affair was an open secret talked intensely, like their plane was going down and who cared who knew now. Jeanie closed her eyes. She felt terrible about it — hoping for the worst while everyone around her prayed for the best — but all Rachelle had to do was say her name.
Rachelle’s assistant returned and spoke into the box at the centre of the table.
“New York, are you there? Chicago, are you there?”
Voices answered and Rachelle’s assistant left, returning in a moment with Rachelle and two men. Rachelle read from a sheet of paper, then one of the men stepped forward with the details. It had already happened. The people he named were not in the room. They were somewhere else, receiving bad news. She hadn’t been in the running, Jeanie thought, as the man, whom she had never met but who was probably her superior, finished his statement. Everyone filed out of the conference room and collected in small pockets around the floor. Jeanie saw the couple from accounting with their coats on, leaving early and laughing.
Jeanie returned to her desk and opened a magazine. Again Rachelle appeared.
“How’s that eyelash thing going?”
“Good.” Jeanie nodded. “Good.”
“Let me see something tomorrow.”
“Are you alright?”
Jeanie nodded again.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Rachelle said, cocking her head, indicating something. Jeanie kept nodding until Rachelle vanished, then grabbed her things and headed to the parking lot.
As she pulled into the motel, Jeanie worried that she would not be able to resolve the eyelash thing by tomorrow, particularly not now that she was pulling into the parking lot of a motel, where — if experience were any guide — she would sleep until morning. In the front office, the clerk did not ask about her luggage.
As Jeanie stepped back into the afternoon sun and started toward her car — she always pulled it around back, just in case — she was shocked to see Frank, coming toward her from the far end of the parking lot. He walked perfectly erect, one tensed arm swinging his briefcase. He was looking away but soon would not be and Jeanie had only a second to decide what to do. She did nothing. She stood there, smiling slightly — like she’d been expecting him.
“Hey, Frank,” she said, managing a wave.
“Hello,” Frank said.
“Big project due tomorrow,” Jeanie began. “The office is crazy and ...”
“I’ve seen you here before,” he said.
“Well,” Jeanie stammered. “Sometimes it’s easier to think when, you know ...”
“What do you do?”
“Like I said ...”
“I lie down,” Frank said.
“Sometimes I lie down. Sure. The big beds. They can be hard to resist.”
“That’s all I do,” Frank said. “I just lie down.”
“Well, I better get to it,” she said, checking her watch and waving her key card between them.
“Before somebody sees us?” Frank said.
Jeanie kept nodding.
“What will people think, right?”
Jeanie nodded until she realized what Frank meant. Is that what people thought? What Rachelle, and Erin, and Emily thought? Suddenly Jeanie did not feel well hidden in her vinyl pants.
“Because we’re both always out,” Frank said. “Because we’re both always here.”
“But Frank,” Jeanie said. “I didn’t even know.”
“I know,” he said, stepping past her into the front office.
On top of the bedspread, lights off, air-conditioning on full blast, Jeanie stared at the ceiling and the smoke detector, and waited for the terror to levitate off her, but it did not. It weighed, still and heavy. She pulled the chain that turned on the light and rummaged in the bedside table for stationery. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, the Yellow Pages on one knee for support, she began a letter.
Did you know that Cuba used to be part of Florida? That Japan used to be a part of China? That the rivers, here in the middle of the country, didn’t used to be here but were caused by complicated vectors of liquid, pressure, and temperature that could have scarcely emerged less than 10 million years ago? And that all of these will be compressed and/or expanded by the same forces from now until, I guess, forever. Ten million years from now, the world will be unrecognizable.
I have been stockpiling birth control and contact lenses. I am terrified. I want to lie down.
Jeanie tore the letter from the pad, threw it on the carpet, and went into the bathroom to wash her face. Looking past her hands as she scooped water from the faucet, she caught herself in the mirror. And she did. She did look just like a cat.