Getting Away With It
by VICTORIA HETHERINGTON
The following is an excerpt from the novel I Have To Tell You, available for a limited time in pre-release from 0s&1s Novels.
I work as a secretary for LunchKase Games, a mobile gaming company based in a loft on King West. They’ve got more venture capital than they know what to do with, so it’s a pretty sweet gig: we have a patio, a home theatre-sized screen on one side of the office, and a lavish kitchen on the other. The other secretary, Sherene, kind of hates it here though: she talks a lot about her trysts with professors and poets, and punctuates her hourly smokes and our daily tasks with heavy sighs (we order office chairs at Grand and Toy, we purchase ever-more envelopes, we refill drawers with granola bars for the BWs – which stands for Boy-Wonders, our secret name for the LunchKase developers, designers, and programmers.) It’s Monday, so this morning I hear all about her weekend: she was too hung over from cigars and Cristal to do anything but stay in bed all Sunday, reading some theory she’d forgotten she’d hated in school, and eating canned soup. “So much psychic tiredness I couldn’t even shower,” she says, dropping her tired glamour and condescending academic-speak for a moment, and I am touched.
Irving, our boss, peers out from his office and points at the overfull sink, and I stand. I collect Tupperware containers from the BWs and peel limp crusts and lasagne from them, then scrub each with green apple detergent. Restocking the office fridge with dozens of soft drinks I’m painfully aware that I’m being watched: the BWs watch me in mini-shifts, popping their heads up like groundhogs, staring as I strain, lift and stack; strain, lift and stack. I’m never so aware of my body as I am when I restock the drinks. I feel squeezed into whatever I’m wearing, my belt always too tight, as sidewalk slush dries inside my slow-rotting shoes, as I clop back and forth with armfuls of cans, hating them all. Sherene doesn’t look up at me once, though I wish she would.
It’s hard to explain how Sherene gets away with everything, though I understand it perfectly because I’ve known a dozen girls like her. She hardly does anything and complains about everything, and everyone falls over themselves to cushion her experience of the office – of carrying boxes, of answering the phone, of purchasing new software, of the spectral men in her stories. Of course I don’t know her specifically; I don’t know her at all – she wouldn’t bother with me. Once I spotted her lingering by Irving’s desk with the mail cradled in her arms, and overheard her describe me as ‘cute,’ and I understood she meant ‘boring.’ I don’t resent her, and I don’t envy her either – I really don’t. Her magic is exhausting and unsustainable, and I think – I know – it’s running out.
So even if it’s Sherene’s fault, Irving only addresses me when something’s wrong, and it’s always immediately accusatory: “You didn’t…’ ‘You didn’t…’ ‘You didn’t…” I guess I’ve had it coming: for the past few weeks I’ve been drinking too much at night with my heartbroken roommate Mark and spending the daytime all glazed, ignoring the slow drift of paper from one side of my desk to the other. I’ve been getting thin pink invoice slips from the Pepsi supply company, from office-chair delivery people, but allow them to sit in my plastic in-box undisturbed. Last week I started getting yellow slips, playing dumb for the grim-faced delivery-people who smell like King Street traffic, then stuffing those in my in-box as well.
Later in the morning Irving calls me into his office. He closes the door, picks up a letter, and returns to his desk without once leaving his wheelie-chair, steepling his small fingers and giving me a long look. He tells me I’ve been careless. I cry. He shifts around in his seat as I cry, hands me a tissue box, then rolls over to a stack of receipts, gossamer-thin and four inches high, secured with a dirty rubber band. He curls my fingers around it, telling me to tally the expenses, and I spend the rest of the day tallying four-hundred dollar dinners and two-minute cabs, ignoring Sherene’s hissed whispers about the sexist Pepsi delivery man and his busy hands, and ignoring the BWs too, as they put the newest game Smash Princess through final tests and throw paperclips at each other. In the washroom Sherene and I stand side-by-side in front of the marble sinks, and her eyes seek mine in the mirror. “It’s not worth it,” she says, so matter-of-factly I don’t ask what ‘it’ is supposed to mean until she’s almost out the door.
“What do you mean, what do I mean?” she asks, her eyes focusing on me, then flicking to her own reflection in the mirror behind me, and then back to me again.
I clear my throat. “What isn’t worth it?”
She pauses, and then takes a couple of steps towards me, then a few more. She lowers her chin and fixes me with a long stare. She touches one of my hands.
“You strike me as very young, Ashley. Don’t tell me how old you are specifically – I’ll get jealous.”
She laughs, so I laugh too.
“The thing is, you’re not only young young, you’re…I get the feeling you’re from a smaller place, a smaller town. Am I correct?”
“Yeah, I’m from St. Thomas.” I’d already told her this maybe four times. “What do you mean, you get the feeling?”
“Well,” she begins, and to my amazement she blushes a little. She looks down at my hand and then, after a pause, grabs the other one. I stiffen up.
“Listen to me, Ashley. You call this the big city, and maybe that’s true – for Canada anyway, this is it. And maybe it’s great here in Toronto – I think it is. I certainly couldn’t leave. But there are such fucked up people here, such twisted sickos, and the city produces and attracts and encourages them. It gives them ample and luxurious venues to do fucked up things together and to others and just… and Irving is one of them. You hear me? And so if he makes it easier for you when you let him…on days like today when he, when you, you know –”
She lets go of my hands. “I mean just what I said: it’s not worth it. It might feel like an exchange, but it’s robbery.”
She turns. She leaves.
The sun that afternoon slants through the blinds, slowly lighting up my desk. I bring Irving the final sum and he wheels over to take the still-warm printout and banded receipts from me, then rubs my palm.
“I make you nervous,” he tells me. I allow him to rub my hand, terrified that I’ll lose my seventeen-dollars-an-hour job, accustomed as I’ve become to overpriced King Street lunches (fifteen-dollar salads; nicoise with artichokes and truffle oil one day, peppery green with seaweed and avocado the next.)
“How many boyfriends have you had, Ashley?” Irving asks, wheeling over to close the door, then rotating to face me. I look down at him, and he looks up. “Hundreds,” I say, and we understand each other at last.
“I think you misunderstood,” he says. “You see, Sherene and I…we’re basically dating.” I think in a flash about how she’d tower over him, then wonder what they could possibly talk about, then wonder what ‘basically’ means.
I trail Sherene to the bathroom, scrub my hands, watching her in the mirror. “He said you’re dating. Irving.” I say, but maybe she can’t hear me over the water, because she doesn’t respond. She smells foul with cigarette smoke and rub-on perfume, and squeezes her hair in her hands as she leaves.
Irving is standing in front of the BWs when I get back, buttoning up his coat and knotting up his nice scarf and saying something that elicits a scattered cheer. “We’re having a release party for Smash Princess tomorrow,” the lead illustrator, Seth, explains to me, and Irving glances over. “I’ve compiled a shopping list of party snacks and alcohol for you, Ashley,” he says, then turns back to the BWs. “Booze!” he says, eliciting one more cheer as they get up and drift out separately.
I watch them leave, stacking some folders, then walk over to the giant screen. I’ve Windexed the whole thing dozens of times – tight little circles, standing on a chair to reach the top – but I’ve never turned it on before. I flick the switch now. The screen glows brighter in some patches than in others, then a massive jungle shimmers to life.
I pick a controller off the coffee table, and Smash Princess herself jerks awake, blinking huge eyes and flexing her biceps. I make her leap into a tree, then leap down, her skirt fluttering; I guide her through a river where she fights with an alligator, and I grind the controls and shout my exhilaration as she grips its pebbled back and rips it in half. She stands in the river as the alligator bleeds and melts into the molten water, straightening her back – she’s almost life-sized on this screen – and another alligator brushes her leg, and she roars. I drop the controller on the floor with a yelp and she dives dutifully into the water, and no matter what I press, I can’t bring her back again.
“You messed up, dude,” Mark whispers. “Companies like yours are legally required to provide food at boozy, you know, gatherings.”
“No way,” I say, slurping my wine.
“Yes way! Hey, do you think the BWs will play the new game with me?”
“Shh, don’t call them that here! You should hope they don’t play it with you, they invented it,” I say, and he looks around the room, then asks, “Which guy’s the one who leaves mouldy lasagne every week?” I look through the small clumps of BWs, sipping their Gatorades and beers. “The ginger one,” I say, nodding toward Seth, then poke Mark – “Jesus! Don’t stare.”
"Fucker,” Mark growl-whispers, sort of flexing his skinny chest, and I laugh. “You went on a date with him, didn’t you,” he retorts, and I blush: I did, it was awful. I ate too much and too quickly; he scrolled through his iPhone and took his blazer on and off.
“Did you cut his steak for him? Did you throw in a massage?”
“What are you saying?”
“What I’m saying is I should’ve gone into engineering like these guys – look at them, fresh out of school, a hundred-ten pounds each, ordering beautiful women around all day.” He puts his empty beer bottle on the floor, then walks to the conference room to replace it.
“Irving – that’s Irving, short guy in the kitchen – he said yesterday I’d be an exotic dancer in another life,” Sherene is saying very quickly to Seth and his brother, laughing a little into her wineglass, rubbing a sequined shoulder with her free hand. “And while that’s enormously problematic and maybe a year ago I’d slap him silly, I understand he gets such a thrill from old-fashioned, painfully gendered behavior, and hell, so do I. I mean, what you like in bed doesn’t always align with your politics, right? He’s not saying it’s because I’m slutty, you understand, but because he knows how I am with people. You know: lots of people, that sort of connection, all easy. You know?”
“That’s fucked up,” Seth says, and his brother snorts. Sherene laughs again – her earrings jangling – then turns to me and Mark. We’re still lurking by the conference room, and I’m feeling swollen-headed and oafishly drunk, suddenly terrified I’ll start giggling and not stop for hours. “What a shit. I don't care. I could have him fired if I wanted. My name’s Sherene, how are you, you’re Ashley’s boyfriend? How you both doing for wine and beer?” Sherene says as she grips the fleshy part of my arm and leads me into the office kitchen. Mark follows, and drains his new beer in three long gulps. “She’s friendly,” he whispers when she steps away.
Sunlight streams through the kitchen windows, reminding me that it’s daytime and that I’m drunk. It’s so bright that I squint a little, and Sherene – her dress fiercely aglitter – hands my glass to Irving, who is drinking by himself. He leans back in his chair and, with his free hand, yanks the blinds down. Seth comes into the kitchen again. “Hey, uh, I didn’t mean to come off as rude before,” he says.
“That is so OK, Seth,” Sherene says, rubbing his arm, and Irving watches her do it. “Me and the other illustrators are wondering if you’d pose for us sometime, Sherene,” Seth continues. “We’re starting Smash Princess 2, and we’ve got this new, like, bikinied revenge character. We need a tall, sort of Amazonian woman for reference.”
“Sure,” she says, “When?”
“I’ll have to talk to the guys and get back to you,” he says, taking out his iPhone.
Sherene stares at him for a moment, then grips the hem of her sequined dress, and yanks it up over her head. Her hands are veined and beautiful and her breasts look heavy, striped with the light coming through the blinds. I gawk at the freckles, the mottled nipples, the paleness and pinkness and brownness and blood vessels. I could stare for an hour. I’m red down to my neck. I understand the five dollars men forked over for Penthouse before the internet made porn cheap and grainy and free. I start prickling with sweat.
“No. Do it now,” she commands.
“Whoa,” Seth says, then recovers: “can you stand with one foot up on this chair, like a warrior? Perfect. I’ll be right back, I gotta get my pencils.”
“Irving and I were talking – are you really just twenty, Ashley?” Sherene asks me, scratching her elevated thigh. “You seem so mature.” I look at her, understanding her envy and her fear, and Mark glances at me quickly, then says: “You bet she is! She’s been keeping me out of trouble since she was sixteen.”
“My first wife was pregnant at your age,” Irving murmurs in my ear, and then Seth returns, trailing three other BWs laden with pencils and massive sketch pads. I watch the stream of dark wine as Irving refills my glass himself. I watch Sherene pose, shivering in the chill of the too-bright office, feeling too sad to speak: she will never be on my side, and they will never be on hers.
You can purchase I Have To Tell You here.
Victoria Hetherington is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Toronto. Getting Away With It is an excerpt from her novel I Have To Tell You, for which she gratefully acknowledges the support of the Ontario Arts Council. You can find her website here. You can find an an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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