In cubicle C56.6, a tall, thick, fifty year-old woman with fuzzy hair the colour of morning urine sits clipping her fingernails. Click-snap, click-snap, preceded by the undeniable sound of nail fragments ricocheting off the desktop. Donna observes her fingernails: brittle with a yellowish hue and deep, vertically running ridges, especially her thumbnails. Her eyes drift to the veins protruding along the back of her hand. You can yank the skin back on your face all you want, but the hands, they never lie, she thinks. Closing in on twenty-five years since she started at Cornerstone Insurance; she had been so excited, so proud to have an office job. Many friends and family worked at the meat-packing plant on the outskirts of town. Still do. But not her.
She knows the others can hear what she’s doing. It’s not considered good manners to cut your nails at work. She knows this, but she doesn’t care. Maybe she should, but they needed cutting. Cutting before she started biting. A habit she gave up years ago, but the temptation to rip a nail off with her teeth simmers just below the surface. And when she starts, she can’t stop. Before long, the nails are bitten down to the quick and thin lines of blood circle the cuticles. She recalls how people used to look at her ragged, damaged nails. Disgusted. Like they might be contagious. She looks away from her nails, opens her desk drawer, pulls out a bottle of nail polish remover, and inhales deeply several times.
Two cubicles down in C56.4, a young woman, half Donna’s age, slips the last bite of a double cheeseburger into her mouth. The meaty, salty juices mingle with her saliva in perfect harmony, releasing happy brain chemicals. In this moment, the guilt and shame she lives with fades into a watermark as a powerful contentment washes over her. As the macerated lump slides down Linda’s throat, the guilt pushes its way back to the surface.
She’s broken the deal with her husband to lose weight before they start a family. Since the wedding last year, she’s put on weight. A lot. Too many nights in chain restaurants and ordering in has settled on her frame like bubble wrap. Fat. She wants a baby, like yesterday. But her husband says she’s already too big and will only get bigger when pregnant. It hurts to hear, but she knows it’s true. She’s fallen behind her friends. Competition. And she feels it at every baby shower she has to endure. Pressure. The silent judgment from young mothers dotting over babies and toddlers pushes her feet closer to the flames. Her thoughts drift to the doughnuts in the coffee-room. A small salad for dinner will balance it all out, she thinks.
Kitty corner in cubicle C57.3, unaware of the Linda’s distress, thirty-five year old Dale inhabits his space as though it was a basement rumpus room on a Sunday afternoon. He’s dressed in jeans and a sloppy Led Zeppelin t-shirt, which he knows he’ll hear about from Tom at some point today. Tom, who just last year, was sitting in the cube next to Dale bitching about the lameness of management. Tom. Who now resides in a corner office when he isn’t attending important meetings. Tom. Who now wears ties and talks in business jargon. Tom. Who now thinks his shit doesn’t stink. Tom. Who can now go fuck himself, he thinks.
Dale can’t hear Donna’s nail clipping for the earbuds jammed into his ears. But he wouldn’t give a shit anyway. That’s the kind of petty shit petty women worry about. A whiff of Linda’s lunch made its way to his nose. His stomach flip-flopped with a sickening lurch. A hangover. A hell of a hangover, he thinks. It’s still hanging on at noon. Just couldn’t get out of the bar last night. It was on the wrong side of midnight when he finally left. Hair of the dog, he thinks.
In his corner office, Tom prepares for a critical meeting with the Senior Regional Management Team. With budget cuts looming and potential lay-offs, he knows this branch may see the worst of it. Wouldn’t hurt to get rid of some of the driftwood around here, he thinks. He looks at his email. There’s a new one from Donna Ingman. Speaking of driftwood, he thinks and chuckles to himself. The email says: “Good morning Mr. Jansen, “I just wanted to let you know that Dale is not dressed according to our new dress code policy. Thanks, Donna.” Tom sighs and rubs his eyes. His friendship with Dale is not exactly in tiptop shape these days, but policy is policy. He pushed the speakerphone button, dials Dale’s extension, and asks him to come see him.