The circumstances surrounding Donna’s death make me feel uncharacteristically mellow.
Waterlogged garlic peels wreathe the sink. I notice how much they look like miniature tea bags. Our dinner guests left so late last night that we didn’t clean up the kitchen adequately, but I don’t feel nudged by the mess this morning. I walk over to the coffeemaker to pour myself a second cup of coffee, and then join Meg on the floor. She’s making grand swirls with pink chalk-circles so big that they’re going past the construction paper and onto the hardwood floor. Why not? Brian and I can clean up the kitchen tonight.
The first time I encounter Donna, she’s just another stranger on the street. My toddler Meg and I are passing by Mood Ring Paints, a company I worked for a few years ago. Meg is in her stroller, wielding a pinwheel, while I’m on my cell phone to confirm a play date. After I’ve finished my call, an older woman touches my arm. The colorful beads around her neck are the size of Christmas ornaments. I hope she’s just stopping me to ask for directions, but I anticipate an annoying comment about maternal duty. When I’m out with my daughter, my collegiate appearance often elicits unsolicited advice from passersby who deem themselves wiser. They’re encouraged by my default facial expression: it’s deceptively cheerful, frozen from years of trying to ingratiate myself to questionable folks in hopes they won’t rub me the wrong way. So as I stand beside this stranger, I feel irritated that she has interrupted me, but I think she thinks I’m smiling at her. When she speaks, I realize I have accurately predicted her didactic intention.
“Please don’t ever talk on a cell phone while you’re crossing the street with your child,” she reprimands. “It’s so dangerous. You need to pay attention to what’s around you.”
I’m instantly furious, though I’d primed myself for that type of remark. The woman is wrong. I know for certain that I haven’t endangered Meg, because I’d crossed at a well-marked crosswalk, during the “walk” signal. Nothing matters more to me than my daughter’s welfare; how dare this busybody suggest otherwise? Despite my rage, I’m able to consider several response options. I don’t want to lash out, or thank her tersely for her concern, or apologize. I decide not to interact with her at all, and continue walking back to my car. This feels graceful, and I congratulate myself for maintaining self-control within a hot moment. I even remember to breath deeply.
But the busybody won’t let me go that easily. She wants a reaction, and calls out, “Good luck, little baby, you’re going to need it with a mother like that.”
The klaxons that line my brain rev up and scream. I whirl around to snap at her. “Actually, as my daughter grows up she will need luck, and she will miss me very much. I just found out I have breast cancer, and I might die. So in fact, my daughter will be very lucky if she grows up with me in her life.”
I want to blindside this bitch for blindsiding me. Her eyes grow wide. “Oh God, I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s just that I lost someone very close to me and I don’t want to see it happen again.” I wonder if that’s true. Maybe she’s countering me with her own spur-of-moment fib, lobbed in a similar effort to redirect shame.
By this time, I’m so near my car that I barely respond. After buckling Meg into her car seat, I check her face for signs she absorbed the confrontation. “Where’s Cliffer, mama?” she asks. She tilts her head and raises her palms-in mock confusion, I think. She’s such a ham already. So smart, my girl. I find her stuffed dog in the stroller, and hand it to her. Then I kiss her sparse curls. Her head tastes a little salty. Before turning on the ignition, I fish around in the mess below the passenger seat and unearth a silver disc with Day-Glo lettering. I pop her Sesame Street songs into the CD player, and check her expression during most of the red lights on our way home. She’s got an attentive look on her face, more attentive than when I’m playing Steely Dan, so I figure she’s enjoying the cacophonous music, and it makes me feel a little better.
I can’t fall asleep that night. I get out of bed and go downstairs to the kitchen, where I nuke up some warm milk. I sit down at our butcher-block table to drink it, though I’m aware my racing thoughts will nullify its effectiveness. I’m all wrapped up in a replay of that afternoon’s unpleasant encounter. Did the stranger think about the incident afterward, and figure out that I made up the cancer story? Before she stopped me, I’d been lightheartedly making arrangements on my cell phone. I suspect she would be delighted to know how much she has upset me, and this thought bothers me as much as the incident did.
Months after that interaction, Brian gets laid off. He finds consulting work, but the income is sporadic. My retired parents kindly offer to look after Meg so that I can accept a full-time marketing position at my old company. On my first day back at Mood Ring Paints, I briefly meet my new boss’s boss, Donna Trackett, who looks vaguely familiar. She’s not an auto-smiler the way I am, and when she speaks to me, her questions sound condescending. I come back to my cubicle with a queasy stomach and what must be a long face. Avery, my cubicle neighbor, asks me “What’s up?” as I sit down. He’s one of only a handful of people whom I worked with before, and I feel like I can relax with him.
“Oh nothing.” I say, and grin reassuringly. “I think I’m just surprised by how much things have changed around here. I just met Donna Trackett, actually.”
“Oh God,” he says. “No wonder you looked a little down.”
“What do you mean?” I ask quietly, smiling in the spirit of what I hope looks like amused inquiry. Then I imagine I’m lodging a pretty vapid expression, so I close my mouth.
“Well, I can’t speak from personal experience,” Avery begins. He scans our environs. “I’ve never had a bad encounter with Donna, but I know she makes a lot of people uncomfortable. She sees everyone as an underling, so don’t take it personally if she’s abrupt with you or something.”
“Cool,” I say, nodding. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Two days later, Donna and I exchange brief greetings on the elevator. She’s wearing a camel-colored smock dress, with the same necklace the mean stranger had worn. I recognize it instantly because the beads are so large. My heart sinks when I realize Donna and the mean stranger are the same person.
I spend the rest of the day hunched over in my cubicle, and when I make the rest of the day’s phone calls, I speak in such a low voice that two of the people I speak to say they think they might have a bad connection. I can’t hear them that well either: my mind’s swollen stuck with anxiety. I worry that I am never going to be able to enjoy another neutral day in this office. At some point, without warning, Donna may approach me and frostily say something like “You know, I just remembered we’ve met before. Please inform us if your medical prognosis will affect your ability to work.”
Donna’s presence is a karmic trap. I don’t want to remain in her presence, but my family needs this paycheck, and if she doesn’t recognize me, I don’t want to needlessly damage my reputation by quitting a job I just started. It is disheartening to find myself in a situation that seems to validate the harshest, most neurotic fairy tale warning: treat unappealing strangers with solicitude, or risk punishment. I hate that maxim. I want to be able to trust my gut and avoid people who give me the creeps or bother me. That’s why I tried to ignore Donna’s reprimand that day on the street. I wince inwardly as I remember how I countered her “good luck, little baby” retort by claiming to have breast cancer. How could I lie about such a serious matter? It will serve me right if I do wind up with cancer.
Time passes slowly. I feel jumpy whenever I’m in Donna’s presence, because I’m never sure whether she has recognized me as the young mother she scuffled with on the street. Each time she makes a request of me, I get an adrenaline rush, as though I’d flubbed a task. In fact, I’ve successfully executed every assignment she’s given me. I sometimes daydream that she fires me for dishonesty (but only after lecturing me about the Boy Who Cried Wolf). In wrenching detail, I imagine coworkers warning me that she’s informed other managers about the time I made up a wild story to deflect criticism. It takes a long time for me to put up a picture of Meg in my cubicle. When I do bring one in, I inconspicuously position it behind my computer monitor.
While my overdeveloped daydream muscle and I await calamity, not much happens. All the emails Donna sends me are work-related, until one day, when she forwards me a solicitation from a breast cancer charity that she’s received from someone else. This isn’t an office-wide email, so I’m nauseous. She remembers the time I told her I had breast cancer!
I walk quickly toward the bathroom. What if she’s trying to provoke me? How am I going to respond? I push the bathroom door open with a little too much force, and then survey the stalls for other people’s feet. Thank God, the room is empty. I walk over to the mirror, and stare at my face for a while. I wash my hands thoroughly, and rip off a big square of paper towel. The comfortingly smoky smell of brown, institutional paper towels soothes me. I wipe my face with the wet towel, and force my brain to squeeze out a comforting thought: Donna wasn’t trying to intimidate me with that email message. She’s harsh enough that I’m sure she’d shame me more directly if she thought I was a liar. I devise another hypothesis: maybe Donna’s subtly letting me know she cares. Perhaps she even thinks I’m heroic. Could she attribute my healthy glow and lack of sick days to effective cancer treatment? I don’t know too much about breast cancer. I don’t know what I’m supposed to look or act like, or what the stages of the disease are.
Toby, a color chemist, comes into the bathroom. She’s in and out of there all day long because she drinks so much water. I turn back to the sink basin and wash my hands again. When she’s ready to leave, I walk out with her so she won’t think I’m oddly hooked on bathroom time. In the corridor, we see Donna leaving the office. As soon as the glass doors solidly close behind her, Toby turns to me and says, “Did you see that email from Donna?”
“Which one?” I ask.
“The one she forwarded to everybody, about the breast cancer charity,” she answers. Toby is a ministering angel, I think, delivering good news to my troubled soul.
She tucks a sheaf of hair behind her ear, and smirks. “I think it’s inappropriate for managers to ask us to make donations, especially through individualized messages. And I’m particularly bitter in this case, because Donna ignored an email request I sent out last year, when I did a walkathon for another breast cancer charity.”
I get to work earlier than usual the next morning, because I’ve got a report to hand in to Donna. Coming back from the printer, I notice she’s not in her office. I scramble to complete the document so I can drop it off without interacting with her. After I’ve placed the folder on her desk blotter, I glance around her spacious, bright yellow office. Four bookshelves hold dozens of navy blue binders, a few books about color theory, and several ornate crafts pieces. In an attempt to immunize myself against my fear of her, I try to view her crafts collection appreciatively. She is helping hardscrabble artisans by purchasing these baskets and decorative boxes and statuettes. Or perhaps these items were gifts, and somebody is fond of her. My reverie ends when Stephanie, another manager, sees me from the doorway, and waves hello. I’m uncomfortable being seen in Donna’s sanctum when she’s not around. I hope Stephanie doesn’t wonder if I’m rifling through Donna’s papers or something.
A few weeks later, just before Easter weekend, Stephanie comes over to my cubicle neighborhood. She’s wearing a lot of makeup, and her heavily black-lined eyes are red. “Could you guys come to the conference room?” she asks us. “I need to talk to everyone about something.”
As we head toward the meeting, I gravitate toward Louis, one of my most clued-in colleagues.
“Do you know what this is about?” I ask.
“Oh, you didn’t hear yet?” He looks mildly pleased he’ll get to break the news to yet another coworker. “Donna died last night.”
Louis waits for me, because I’ve stop walking. My hypervigilant imagination pitches forward. I recall my whereabouts since yesterday, in case anyone should interrogate me about Donna’s death. Then I realize she might not have been murdered. I remember her breast cancer solicitation, and it dawns on me that Donna has been absent a lot lately.
“Was she sick?” I ask.
“No,” Louis says. “She got hit by a car when she was crossing the street. She was jaywalking.”
Ruth, Donna’s replacement, is the mother of twins. She brings them into work one morning, and her little boy has a ring of dried cereal milk around his mouth. I notice because I so often don’t remember to wipe the corners of Meg’s mouth until we’re out the door and in the car without a napkin. Before the Kindred-Spirit Mom up there in the sky whisked Donna out of my life, I used to lunge for Meg’s dirty face armed with a spit-licked thumb, to rub breakfast remainders away before anyone said anything. But now, let the strangers comment. I’m no longer cowed by annoying passersby, and the fear of karmic retribution that lay beneath that annoyance.