I shut my journal. Mother had called early that morning. Dad had been downstairs boiling an egg for a whole half-hour. When she went to see what the problem was, she saw him staring at the burner into a saucepan of cold water. He’d never turned on the stove. He would’ve stood there for another hour had she not intervened.
I rinsed my glass container after I finished my leftover eggplant.
A new guy said hello and introduced himself. He asked if this was the only break room.
“Yeah,” I said. He turned toward the cracked, mossy-looking windowsill flowerpot. It faced brick. “It’s a little depressing, huh?”
I’m glad the room didn’t look how it usually did: a makeshift bedroom for employees to nod off in; when I’d started at Absa, that slow droop they did gave me shivers. The heads going down, then bobbing up, like there was some puppeteer in the wings. Those were the ones you’d forget you’d ever seen.
I waited until the other supervisors and what’s-her-name from HR had left Celine’s office. “Celine, can I talk to you about something?” I asked.
“What now?” she said.
“When I came back from break, Mark asked if I’d just taken my break. I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ And he goes, ‘Because that was quick.’”
I explained how my new supervisor had told me how our breaks – which I thought had been fifteen minutes – had always been a half-hour. He’d offered to go dig out the Handbook to show where it said that. But I was embarrassed. “I went and checked it myself,” I told Celine.
Celine’s face crumbled like she didn’t know what to say beyond a rote apology. “You’re…upset because you’ve been shorting yourself break time?”
“Yes!” I dropped into one of her chairs and stared at the sun outlining the skyscrapers. On the filing cabinet there stood an orangy picture of Celine’s husky I’d never noticed.
“Well, how long did you think they were?”
“Fifteen minutes,” I said.
“Why’d you think they were shorter?”
“You know! They don’t tell you anything here.”
Celine bit her lower lip. “Sometimes I don’t even use my full break. I’ll start to read my book, but then my mind wanders and I’ll think, ‘I should be back at work.’”
“Well, that’s you.”
Celine pouted again. I knew she was gearing up to push me out so I said, “This is my time. I did the math: twenty days. Twenty days of my time. And, you know, I’ve got two years and nine months left. This is time they owe me before I leave.”
“That’s…if that’s what you want to pursue. I mean, Bren, I’m sorry, but…what do you want me to do?”
“What was it you were saying – I know this might be ancient history, but – about the reparative time? That was a long time ago, huh? But isn’t there an option?” Remember what’s-his-name, Phil Godfrey? Phillip?”
Celine spread her skirt over her thighs and inhaled. She closed her eyes. “Well…what would you even do for twenty days? Anything…planned?”
“Of course I have plans! How dare you,” I mocked. “I want to go to Fiji.”
Celine laughed. “Sorry. I mean, anything’s better than staying in Philly. Waiting in the cold for the bus. Barnes and Noble to fend off the Sunday Scaries, huh?”
Then her desk phone beeped and Celine perked her voice to talk to Ross in Payroll. My face flushed and my pulse throbbed. I deep-inhaled and smelled wet dog. I opened my eyes, smiled and whispered, “Re-parative time.”
She smirked, then made an I’m-on-the-phone face and a shooing motion.
“Reparative time!” I wanted to tear open one of her filing drawers and stick my head inside. Then I’d have her shut it enough to feel its cool pinch on my forehead. I’d probably stare at whatever papers I could see to glean her secrets while she was doing it. And Celine smiled, squinted, put her hand over her mouth and nodded.
I’d gotten her.
She said, “Ross, do you know anything about the, the reparative time? That reparative time.” She nodded then I nodded. “Oh, one of our chemists in Water Testing. Brenda Allen. Yes…oh…ok. But I’d need to touch base with you about that. Or I’d like to. Could we chat? It’s kind of a funny story. Great. Thanks.” She hung up. “Brenda, they don’t do that reparative time anymore. Union thing, right? But Ross says he and I could meet to talk about your…geography. Maybe work it out in a way that would still make sense.” She nodded but looked grave, like she’d swallowed something. “You understand, the company’s been…tightening. I don’t want to alarm you.”
“Oh, I’m not scared. I know this is my time. I’m confident.” I said. Actually I was terrified.
“I’m not sure it was a good idea,” said Sophie in a slow, measured voice. We’d finished her eggplant parm. “I mean, let’s talk about this. If your time doesn’t get approved or whatnot, Management’s going to see that. They’ll go, ‘The wife of that union gimp wants extra time. And, you know what? Let’s give her extra time. Axe her.’” There was a breadcrumb near Sophie’s fork tongs. She squashed it with her finger. “Then what?”
“Soph, I need a break. I had twenty days.”
“You did the math, huh?” Then, “of course you did the math.”
I nodded. “And…and I start envisioning all the things I could’ve – we could’ve been doing. I get upset.” She touched my arm. I exhaled, “I’m trying to redirect my anger, you know? I’m responsible for the change in my life. And if this time’s completely mine, and I’ll fight for it to be, then not even a joke like the Waterworks is going to tell me it’s not.”
“But you’re so close to the finish. I wouldn’t even…even if you win this, do you have any inkling of what you’d want to do?”
“Fiji. Three weeks in Savusavu.”
“Fiji.” She shook her head. “Fiji, fiji, fiji,” she mocked. “Havana. San Francisco. Now Fiji? Have you considered they’re just gonna say, ‘She should’ve known about all this.”? And then you’ll be back where you started.”
“I need to have hope. I asked about the reparative time.”
“Who’ve you talked to about that?”
I stood. I walked our plates to the sink. Not for any proactive reason, but because I knew facing the sink was a means to talk this out without having to stay in ready position.
“Who’d you ask, Bren?”
Sophie’s chair scraped the floor as she wobbled to stand.
“Can you please tell me why that seemed like a smart thing to do?”
My throat stiffened.
I stared at our neighbor’s cherry Chapstick-colored brick wall through the window. Then I reached inside my nightstand drawer for my notebook I usually only use for dreams. On the first empty page, I wrote:
S doesn’t understand what work does to me. Now I find out they’re stealing my time. More than usual. Need to GO.
I wrote until I was aware of the smell of tomato sauce and melting cheese creeping up the stairs.
Eventually Sophie tapped the door. I thought, ‘And Sophie always knows when I’m cooled down.’ I’d told Celine about this affectation of Sophie’s too. But that was well before Celine had stepped on all our faces to make it into Management.
Something happened when I drove Sophie to Barnes and Noble for coffee that Sunday night. Sophie hobbled toward the magazines. I advanced to the travel section.
I admired a picture of the street festival, and then, in another one, an overhead shot of the crystal-blue water. It had that vanilla new book smell. I was kneeling over a Frommer’s guide when Sophie’s medical boot toed my knee. I looked up.
She simply shook her head.
“I want to travel as far out of my work as possible.”
“Can’t they just pay you for this time?”
“I want you to come with me!”
She clamped her mouth shut and reddened. She was about to cry.
“I swear! I do!” I gripped the book and stood fast enough to make Sophie cower.
I stormed away with the book. Fiji was neither unreasonable nor spur of the moment. I kept a packing list and two itineraries ready to go in the Guest Room. I wandered up one level, then back down. When I got to the front of the store I had to look twice. The light from the pastry fridge lit them from the front. A slim, dark figure had her hand on my wife’s shoulder. It was Celine.
I snuck between the magazine aisle and slipped into a booth.
Celine was saying, “I mean, you guys are…out within the next three years, right? Can you come up with any other way she could take this time?”
Sophie said, “Brenda believes she has a strong moral compass. If Absa were still organized this would be a non-issue, you know that, right?”
“I understand,” Celine said. “But there is another route. One that will let you both keep what she accrued.”
“It’s not that…reparative time, is it?”
Celine said, “You mean that is what we used to call it.” Celine’s mask had dropped.
“Then it’s the…”
Sophie’s head hung.
“I’m sorry. Word travels – you remember.”
I slipped out of the booth and hurried toward them.
When she saw me, Celine smiled but it wasn’t a smile. “Oh, what are you reading?”
I slapped the small book against my palm. “Um, a guide to Fiji. I’m thinking of things to do. Places to go once I have that time.” Sweat coursed in my palm. “Speaking of that, how’s it going? I appreciate you trying to get leeway.”
The store’s closing announcement boomed.
Celine said, “I’m trying to do everything I can, for both of you. Let’s talk it over Monday.” She’d fastened back on the mask.
Sophie had us say our goodbyes. “Say goodbye, Bren.”
“Goodbye, Bren.” I left my travel guide in a greeting card rack.
On the car ride home we listened to an NPR piece about indigenous instruments in Australia and then a story on American prisons. I’d hoped that would keep us absorbed for some time afterwards. But Sophie began over in the living room.
“You need a plan,” she said.
I faced the bookcase.
“What do I have to say to break your trance?” she said.
“Absa owns me. Do you hear me? They take my time, and what do I get?”
“They take your time. They do. But you get to feel important.” Now Sophie was half-agreeing with me to lay groundwork for winning. “It lets you indulge ridiculous fantasies.”
“You’ve stayed there because you feel like Absa gives you value and values you. They’re just a company, Bren. An institution. You fell for it a long time ago. You get that, right?”
I stared at her.
She said, “I’m going to have to make sacrifices now.”
A cruel tone came from my mouth, “You’re still going to be dependent on me. Like always. Wash your hair. Put balm on your fucking knee. You know what? The smell of that stuff makes me gag.”
Sophie crossed her arms. She lowered her head and her neck furrowed. “Well good luck getting that time back.”
And then I heard myself exhaling. I watched myself watching the view of the Guest Room door bobbing from the stairs.
And then I was in the Guest Room. I hunkered down by the trunk we’d put crap in when we were cleaning out the Back Bedroom windowseat last August.
I peeked inside and saw a stack of my spiral bound journals. I smelled dust. The one on top had a Sharpie’d on date from six years ago.
I turned the rough pages. There were old poems, memories of the oily church from Sophie’s Mother’s funeral. There were daydreams back from when I tried to write every morning. Back when I discovered how constructive Self-Help was. Before I realized I was responsible for my life. And then a list. It was from my third month at Absa. It was a list of reminders, back when I modeled my life on her habits.
- Be productive.
- Favor above-and-beyond stuff like C. People should call you a workhorse, too!
- Deal with envy by emulating C. Don’t let preg pauses happen in conversation. People like extroverts.
- Emulate LEADERS in your life
- Strive to advance as the Waterworks is your life’s best thing
- Be depended on.
- Always be busy. At least 3 programs at once. Advance over the do-nothings – S included – by being more active STEP over those do-nothings. It’s nothing personal!
- ADVANCE with C. My hands shook as I read the last one:
- If you don’t have enough to do for 30 minutes – get back to work.
I hugged my knees to my chest. Smelled the metallic subway tokens in my pocket.
I tasted dust and cat hair. Opened my eyes. Wispy was sleeping against my shoulder. Sun streaked the window.
I teetered downstairs.
I was unsure if Sophie would be there. But then I heard the faucet.
She spat toothpaste into the sink.
“Mmph,” she said. She cut off the faucet. “What’s going on with you, Bren?”
“I’ve tried to be my authentic self. And doing that means fighting. But now there’s roadblocks. Roadblocks…I can’t…”
“I’ll have to accept them, you know?”
She draped her hand on my shoulder. Kissed my cheek. I said, “I thought it could resuscitate us. We could…drink together like we used to.” I ached to tell her what I found in my notebook.
“Brenda, I haven’t worked. We’ve…let’s keep our eyes on the prize. And maybe once…” She trailed off. “Growing new roots is hard. Keep up with it.” She gave me a deep hug and nuzzled my neck. The wet of her toothpaste lips made me shudder.
The morning at work blurred by. When it was time for Celine’s meeting, it was almost a relief. I’d been staring at my desktop wallpaper. I changed it from the street festival to a black square.
With her hands folded behind her waist, Celine squeezed the veins on her wrist. The tired skyline framed her. “Is something wrong?”
“I feel like I’m going to the Principal’s. For something I didn’t do.”
I looked at the picture of her dog again. Sophie would’ve said the best thing to do in this situation would be to ask for a union rep on your side. But there was no more union. Sophie had been on permanent disability for five years.
“Hey,” said Celine, “it’s ok.”
“Well, we want to tell you we’ve got a plan. Absa’s agreed to cover the whole twenty days. Would that be something that interests you?”
“Yes! That’s fine! How?”
“Do you think you could start today?”
“Whenever you’d like!”
“Thank God,” she exhaled. I followed her out of her office. My legs shook. The carpet mashed under my shoes.
“I’ve…learned to emulate the leaders in my life,” I said.
Celine twisted her had to glare at me and kept walking. “It’d pain me if you hadn’t been asking for it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you could’ve Googled it, Bren. You know this company. As much as you claim nobody tells you shit. There are other people you could’ve reached out to. It shouldn’t be so hard for you to find things for yourself.”
“But I can only trust you. Especially after what happened to Sophie.” Then I stopped and stuck my finger in a wall notch. “…I guess that’s my fault.”
“That’s your mistake.”
On a normal day I’d stop her right there. But today of all days I trudged forward. One of the men from HR I’d seen in her office waited in the corridor’s shadow.
We turned down three separate hallways I’d never been in. All the doors had mail slots and business card-sized tags next to the door. I passed one marked Philip Godfrey.
Celine motioned to a doorknob.
Then she opened the door.
Peering in from the hallway I could see a desk with a laptop, and an IKEA lamp next to a window. To the right I saw a small mattress, a black sink, and a steel toilet with no lid. The room was L-shaped. The window faced another brick wall.
“Make sure you have everything you need. I cleared this with Mark.”
I eyed a stack of royal blue folders on the desk and opened the top one. Inside was a copy of the filament report I’d been trying to finish.
“I’ll get to this now.”
“Good. Get some work done. You’ve got 20 days to consider what you’ve been doing all those past fifteen minutes.” She cackled.
I dropped into the swivel chair and it lowered with a crunch. The door closed and clicked shut.
I peered behind the desk to see only the one outlet, with the lamp and the laptop already using it. I heard a squeal behind me. A black Styrofoam tray with a small paper box and an apple over a napkin slid through the door slot.
Perry Genovesi (he/him) works as a librarian in Philadelphia. He serves his fellow workers in AFSCME District Council 47 and plays in the empty arena rock band, Canid. You can read his published fiction in Home Planet News, Conceit, The Summerset Review, and collected on tinyurl.com/PerryGenovesi. He’s a chronic overthinker but somehow there’s still things he manages to underthink.