Livy Oliver’s charm bracelet: The first time, I was a camper at Jack Dickerson Jesus Camp for Girls. I was eight and Miriam was twelve, and until then, we’d never been away from home for more than a weekend. I spent the summer faking injuries to get out of team sports, accidentally branding my fingers in leatherworking class, and obsessing over Livy Oliver. From the moment she did a backflip across the green field after morning chapel, Livy Oliver became that summer’s popular girl. Livy was tiny and cute with Shirley Temple curls. She had a two-piece bathing suit and a charm bracelet that dangled from her suntanned wrist. Everyone loved Livy, even the counselors, and I became fixated on her in the way of a crush before ever really having a crush. I raced to get a seat near her in the mess hall so I could whistle The Flintstones theme song and show off my double-jointed thumb. Livy took no interest in me, not even when I did my best “G-g-g-grease lightning!” A few weeks into summer, while faking a sprained elbow on the sidelines of Capture the Flag for Jesus, I saw Livy’s backpack just sitting there. I pawed inside and found the charm bracelet. Holding it up to the sunlight, I watched the elephant and candy cane and ballerina tremble. Then I looked around and stuffed it into my pocket. At night, in the top bunk, I held Livy’s bracelet up with two fingers, watching the figures sway and clink together. With the cool silver wrapped around my wrist, Livy was part of me, and I felt a warm rush knowing I had something she wanted. For a short time, that bracelet let me have access to Livy whenever I felt like it, giving me a relief I never knew I needed.
Rice cakes, Thai takeout, post-it notes: The note appeared this morning, on the breakroom refrigerator door. I always make coffee at work because selecting a flavored Keurig pod is a highlight of the day. Whenever I think about quitting my job, I wonder how I’d live without that Keurig machine. I would have to buy coffee and filters, and the thought of waiting on the slow drip while attempting morning chit-chat with my roommates makes me want to gag. Today, before I can decide between the pods of Autumn Cinnamon or Wintry Blend, I see the note. It’s written in block letters, the way kidnappers write ransom notes in the Law & Order episodes I watch until the early hours of the morning. There have been other notes. The first, posted on the fridge last Tuesday, was softer, more of a suggestion. It was written on a flimsy, pee-colored sticky note that could have easily fluttered to the ground if I hadn’t crumpled it up and stuffed it into my skirt pocket. But today’s note is taped on all four sides and makes me want to crawl out of the lumpy, sherbet-orange cardigan my sister Miriam hates. The note says, “Stop stealing food that isn’t yours.”
Thumbtacks, staplers, paperclips: Approximately $11 million in office supplies goes missing every year in America, and my office is no exception. I steal office supplies like it’s my job, though my official title is Junior Sales Assistant. I work for TeleNet, a company that sells conference call equipment to other companies. The office is on the sixth floor of a cement building in Jersey City with sand-colored carpeting and dentist office artwork, photographs of icebergs, oil paintings of swans, stuff like that. A fountain in the lobby once sputtered water but broke in May, shortly after I started at TeleNet. Some people have their own offices with doors that lock. The rest of us are stuffed into gray cubicles with chairs that creak if you breathe. About once a day I get the urge to call my friend Avery to tell her I’ve discovered her personal Ninth Circle of Hell and happen to work here now. But then I remember that I can’t call my friend Avery. That Avery was never really my friend anyways.
Dawson’s fountain pen: When I get to work on Monday, Dawson Crawford is pacing by my cubicle. Sometimes Dawson acts like my boss, even though he is also 25-years-old and has worked at TeleNet for two months less than me. Dawson has a presentation next week. He says they expect him to be prepared so could he please just have last month’s figures. Dawson is good at figuring out what people expect. He’s good at repeating what I just said in meetings and forgetting to CC me on emails. But no one would hold that against him. Dawson’s got a steady girlfriend and a Hoboken condo with a flatscreen TV. He’s never late for work and always brings a ham & cheese on white bread. He’s agreeable to the untrained eye. Which is exactly what makes him dangerous. If Avery were here, she’d see right through him. She’d note the constipated expression Dawson makes whenever someone disagrees with him and the fact that he doesn’t drink coffee. Can you really trust someone who doesn’t drink coffee? she’d say, and we’d shake our heads. When I hand Dawson a manila folder, he stomps back to his cubicle. The fountain pen stays. It’s monogrammed with the letters DCR and feels heavy in my pocket. From my seat, I hear Dawson thumbing through the files while loudly chewing a muffin.
Boxers and Daisies: I met Avery Marshall at a documentary company in SOHO. I was a coffee-fetching intern. She was a semi-famous filmmaker with a history of throwing coffee on the person or thing that disagreed with her. Avery didn’t have an intern. She worked alone, hunched over a desk scattered with old books and photographs. She was petite with curly hair that was more salt-and-peppered than the photo on her Wikipedia page, which said her current age was 38. Avery didn’t really speak to anyone except my boss, Carmen, a stoic woman who wore thick glasses and shift dresses. Carmen managed the company and also managed Avery. “She’s very particular,” Carmen once said, after getting off the phone with Avery, “but very gifted.” I knew this already. I’d seen all of Avery’s films in college. There was one about a women’s fight club in Mississippi. Another about a family that named all 10 of their children Daisy. Avery made movies about people who were trapped in some way or another and that spoke to me. I checked the films out from my college library but got tired of pushy emails saying they were overdue. So instead of checking them out, I started taking them off the shelves. Avery was my discovery. I would give the films back eventually. I just didn’t want anyone else to have her to themselves.
A turkey sandwich: Swiped from the catered sales meeting. The sandwiches are for the executives only. They have questions about why sales numbers are so low. Why don’t more people want to buy massive screens so they can see their coworkers in Philadelphia and Richmond? The executives rock back in chairs and tuck pencils behind their ears. They stroke long ties and talk with big wedding-ringed hands. Dawson makes these gestures, too. His suits and pale blue shirts fit in with the others, but his socks are decorated with cartoons of footballs or Spiderman. Still, he gets a turkey sandwich. Eventually my boss, Neil Briggs, quiets the room. “Let’s revisit this next week,” he says, knocking on the table with a fist of hairy knuckles.
A Daytona Beach postcard: I used to think of my life in two phases. There was the phase before I met Avery. I was waiting tables, avoiding my Craigslist roommates, and sleeping with 20-something-year-old males who were doughier versions of the ones I dated in college. Then there was phase two. That happened after Avery realized I existed. At the documentary company, I did everything to prove myself. Double the work Carmen gave me. Staying late every night. Avery was always the last person to leave. For weeks, we eyed each other across the room, saying nothing. Then one day, she knocked on my desk. “You work here,” she said, and for the first time I felt like it was true. “I need your help.” That was the beginning of phase two. Now I know there’s a third phase, After Avery. After Avery is when I have to work late fixing Dawson’s mistake on his presentation. Today, he popped over my cubicle and said he would present the vision and I should share the figures. “That’s what we agreed on, Annika, remember?” He told me this about five minutes before his presentation, thrusting the manila envelope into my hands. I stood before the room, sweating. The pages were out of order. There was grumbling and my boss, Neil Briggs, made a crack about adequate preparation. I reddened, struggling with the files with the breathless scramble of a college boyfriend fumbling to unhook a bra strap. I think about this as I sit in Dawson’s chair and rip the Daytona Beach postcard from his cubicle wall.
A chocolate box, green ribbons: I’ve worked at TeleNet for four months, which is the same amount of time I have not called Avery and the same amount of time my cubicle mate Daniela has been engaged. Daniela never stops talking about her fiancé, Walter from Online. Walter from Online sent Daniela a box of chocolates. He sent them just because, Daniela repeats, closing her eyes and dragging the words out extra long. Daniela and I are the only women under 40 in our department and the only people who share a cubicle. This is probably what motivated Daniela to make friendship gestures early on, bombarding me with small talk about eye shadow and friending me on Facebook. But I don’t want to be her friend. I listen to her talk about the chocolate box because it’s my only distraction from the PowerPoint I should be making for Neil Briggs. The chocolate box ribbon is green like the ones my babysitter wore braided in her hair. I remember those braids but cannot remember the babysitter’s name. She was a girl from our church, maybe 11 or 12-years-old, though she seemed so much older when she looked after us. Miriam was the beautiful sister and the babysitter took a liking to her immediately. Miriam always got along better with authority figures. When grown-ups visited our house, she climbed on their laps and gave them kisses when they asked for one. I knew the babysitter would never like me. When she and Miriam fell asleep on the couch watching Godspell, I climbed onto a stool and took a pair of scissors from the cabinet. What happened next I regretted almost immediately and hid myself in the closet. I fell asleep there, somehow, with one braid in my fist and woke up to the screaming babysitter standing over me with her other braid intact. “You sick little bitch!” the babysitter screamed. Not long after, my mom got home and sent me upstairs where I practiced saying the word “bitch” in the mirror. “Bitch. Bitch. Sick little bitch.” Daniela doesn’t know that story about the babysitter. Daniela knows how to do a mindless job and call herself competent. Daniela is in a phase where she saves useless objects for sentimental reasons, and I’m in a phase where when Daniela leaves for the day, I slip the ribboned box into my bag, feeling it crush against the weight of my laptop.
Candy and straight jackets: Avery wasn’t married, but she had admirers in far away places. She talked to dogs before addressing their owners. She took an interest in my interest in photography, helping me develop a roll of film in the documentary company’s darkroom. Pictures of people and their garbage. My college roommate standing over a trash can filled with empty laxative bottles and tubes of Rogaine. My neighbor holding a wire basket with debt collection letters and cut-up credit cards. “You make me scared to throw things away,” Avery said, holding the photograph at its edges. Avery liked talking about her work even more. “What do you think of this transition?” she’d say, playing a film she was editing for the hundredth time. When I asked what Carmen thought, Avery would wave a hand in annoyance. “I need your approval,” she told me, and I felt a warmth pulse through me like bourbon swimming in an empty stomach. I spent a lot of time watching Avery work. We spent a lot of time not working and busting up over outtakes of Orson Welles getting drunk in Paul Masson Wine commercials. When Avery wasn’t in the office, I wore the jacket she left slung over her seat and ate the foil-wrapped candies from fans in Mexico and Sweden. But it wasn’t stealing when Avery didn’t mind. I was in a phase when my “habit,” as a high school guidance counselor once defined it, had dwindled to nothing more than taking an extra mint at a restaurant. I didn’t feel tempted with Avery. She bought me biscotti from the corner coffee shop and gave me her hand-me-downs, velvet tank tops that flattened my chest and sparkly blazers that made me look like I was wearing a straight jacket. I loved those jackets.
Whiteboard markers: Some people say whiteboard and others say wipe board. The important thing is to say it fast enough so nobody will notice or give you a hard time for saying it wrong. The wipe board presents a problem when I have to take notes during the Tuesday meeting. “It looks like she’s writing in font!” someone says. That’s because females have better handwriting, Dawson explains. He read an article. The problem with the whiteboard comes when I have to turn my back to the room to write on it. When I do that, they are no longer looking at the wipe board. I realized this when I wore the black slimming pants Miriam bought for me at Macy’s. The week before I started at TeleNet, Miriam took me shopping. “Things are going to be different for you this time around,” she said in the dressing room, flipping her hair with sorority girl confidence. “That starts with wearing the right clothes.” Miriam didn’t inherit the pilgrim hips and awkward height that make people ask if I played basketball. She also hasn’t worked in an office since she had her baby. But she was confident about the pants, and I wanted to be confident, too. I wanted to believe they were powerful enough to connect me to some new future. One where I would stop attaching myself to things that hurt me. Now I only wear those pants on Fridays when there’s absolutely no chance of standing in front of wipe boards because most of the executives work from home. The whiteboard makes life harder, but without the wipe board, I would not be able to display my handwriting, which I’m pretty sure is half the reason I’ve kept my job. So I should be thankful to the whiteboard. But on Tuesdays, I wear a skirt that is long and loose and the color of a potato sack.
A letter opener, bubblegum chapstick: “Let me be transparent with you,” Neil Briggs says, “I have concerns about your work.” I’m sitting across from Neil in his office with a door that locks. Neil is middle-aged with fluffy hair like that white cat from the Disney movie Miriam and I watched as kids. The Aristocats. It was one of the few movies our mom condoned because there were no people and therefore no risk of any characters getting it on. My mom confiscated the princess movies, putting them in the same place she put the bubblegum chapstick I found in someone’s jacket on the playground and the sparkly choker necklace Miriam got from a birthday party. The kind of things little girls didn’t need. “So, Anna,” Neil said, “we’re putting you on an improvement plan.” He knows I worked at a fancy TV station in New York. “A documentary company,” I correct him, and he chuckles nervously. “Well,” he says, “what TeleNet does is equally important as the big screen.” I look around his desk while he talks about the improvement plan and see a silver letter opener engraved with Japanese characters. It’s nestled in a Mets mug among cheap pens and highlighters. Something like that means something to someone like Neil. As he shuffles around in a file cabinet, sweaty-backed, looking for paperwork for my improvement plan, I lift the letter opener from the mug and drop it into my bag.
Cheese cubes: Here’s something out of the blue. Not long after Neil put me on that improvement plan, I came into work early to show my commitment. I made coffee then went to the women’s bathroom. When I opened the door, Neil was sitting on the toilet with a pair of lacy red underwear at his ankles. They were not the kind of underwear you find at some place like The Gap, where ugly colors are on trend: barf brown, tasteless-cracker beige, accidental-dog-shit-on-your-shoe green. Neil’s underwear were Lover’s Lane red. I locked eyes with him and he smiled a wormy smile. At some point, I closed the door. Stumbled away. Down the hall. Into the elevator. Out of the building. A November gust seized me with the horror of how long I stood in the doorway. I wrapped my arms across my body, feeling the pillowy flesh of someone who people feel comfortable using to test-run their pain. In Safeway, the zizzing fluorescent lights pushed down on me. People leaned on rickety carts and talked too loudly on cell phones. Tina Turner bopped through crunchy loudspeakers. My mind throbbed with the thought that Neil was certain I wouldn’t say anything and the realization that he wasn’t wrong. I stayed in Safeway until 10am, aggressively eating cheese samples until more than one deli person asked if I needed help finding something. “I don’t need help,” I said. When I returned to work, I was very late. By lunch, there was a sign on the bathroom door: “The lock is broken.” There was no suggestion to please knock or use another bathroom. Just the fact that some things are broken with no indication of what might be done to fix them.
Birthday balloons: Miriam calls to update me on the surprise birthday party she’s planning for her husband. “The balloons will spell out J-A-R-E-D-!” Miriam recites each character. The party will be at Miriam’s house in the suburbs with cake and balloons and her bend-and-snap friends. To be discreet, Miriam is sending the decorations to my apartment. “It’s more efficient,” she says. I imagine Miriam checking off a list in a pastel-colored notebook. I can’t help think Miriam learned something at Jesus Camp that I missed out on. A couple days after I stole Livy Oliver’s charm bracelet, a counselor found me sprawled out on the grass trying to hypnotize myself with it. “Thou shalt not steal,” the camp director said as she signed my discharge papers. My mom had to retrieve me. “Annika,” she glared at me in the rearview mirror with her penciled eyebrows, “why can’t you be good.” We drove six hours home, not speaking, while a fiery John MacArthur preached on the radio about blood and salvation. Miriam stayed at camp and went back every summer. Now Miriam lives in the suburbs with her husband and her baby and her lists. She doesn’t understand my feelings about Avery. “If we talk about her again,” Miriam says, “it will only legitimize her. I have no interest in that.” She talks more about the party, what she’ll wear. “By the way,” Miriam says, “did those balloons get delivered to your apartment?” No, I tell her, feeling the heft of the package from balloons.com. I can’t say they did.
Trevor’s cafe punch card: Trevor loves to sit on my desk. He’ll be walking to the conference room or the elevator – the desk is not the destination – but he’ll stop and sit on it, usually with one cheek on, one cheek off. Okay, he doesn’t sit on the desk. He stand-sits. Trevor works in the media department, which is a fancy way of saying he runs the TeleNet website. He’s a work friend. Someone I trade gossip and tips about ketogenic diets. He slides onto my desk with catlike confidence. “O-M-G,” his whispers, “did you see the email?” He is referring to the HR email reminding everyone to label their food in the refrigerator and please do not touch what’s not yours. “We have a thief!” Trevor says gleefully, sipping one of the sugar-free macchiatos he buys on his way to work. More than once, Trevor has warned that the chemicals used in Keurig pods lead to irreversible cellulite. I scan his face to see if this is some kind of trap. Does he know I’m the thief? I feel that old pang in my stomach. The one I swore I’d never let myself feel again. I’d never steal at work, no matter the circumstances. Too late.Trevor smiles and perches an elbow under his chin. “I blame the weather,” he says. “People always get a little bitchy when there’s a change in the wind.”
Lemon asparagus, tunafish: The asparagus gives me weird dreams. I’m in front of the office refrigerator with a can of tuna fish in my hand. When I turn around, Neil is there. He says he knows about the letter opener and the asparagus and the office supplies. “There’s no sense keeping secrets around here,” he says. His skin is yellow, and he’s phantom-walking toward me chanting, “Asa nisi masa, asa nisi masa.” But when he gets close enough to touch me, I wake up and it’s only a dream. Of course, Neil wouldn’t catch me. After the bathroom incident, I couldn’t look him in the eye, but avoiding Neil made me notice him even more. The way his suit jackets had begun to sag. How he gradually tightened his watch until it cinched at the smallest hole and still hung limply on his wrist. Eventually, after Neil was absent for several weeks, a hasty email was sent around saying that Neil had passed away. But that’s what happens when you start wearing lacy red underwear to the office. Eventually you get cancer and die.
“He doesn’t know how to love”: When Dawson gets Neil’s office, I want to scream. More than that, I want to call Avery. Only she could understand the injustice. We used to call each other all the time, staying up on opposite sides of the city watching La Notte, Model Shop, all the Fellinis. Once we fought about 8 1/2. “Guido doesn’t know how to love,” I said, stealing Claudia’s line. “That’s ridiculous,” Avery said, and I could hear her shaking her head at me. “He’s a genius who’s lost inspiration. You’d be heartbroken, too.” She hung up, tired and bored. I bit my lip so I wouldn’t cry and waited like a dog for her to call back. It’d be worth it to hear her pretend nothing happened. To listen as she gushed about the films we’d make about matchmaker taxi drivers and Dracula impersonators. But she didn’t call back, and when I dialed her number the phone rang and rang and rang.
A marmy, whiskey: When I arrive at Miriam’s party, she glides toward me in a coral dress with her baby on her hip. With her free hand, she pinches my arm and pulls me into her husband’s study. She waits until the door closes to drop her smile. Miriam wants to know why UPS has my signature for six balloons from balloons.com. “Marmy, marmy, marmy,” the baby babbles but Miriam doesn’t stop staring at me. “Explain yourself, Annika.” Miriam isn’t like my coworkers. She knows me. I tug my arm away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” We stare at each other for a few long seconds, but the baby’s crying for its marmy and the doorbell is ringing and Miriam’s friends are squealing hellos. “We’re not done,” she says, leaving the room. I stay and find a whisky bottle on the bookshelf. I sip it until I fall asleep on the carpet. When I wake up, the party is still going, but I don’t leave the room. Not when everyone starts singing “Happy Birthday” or when I really have to pee. But eventually my bladder feels like it’s going to barf, so I piss in a ficus plant. Midsquat, I realize it wouldn’t be so hard to crawl out the window and take the Metro-North back to the city. As I’m straightening my dress, I see the marmy – what normal people call a pacifier. I pick it up, stick it in my mouth, and climb out the window.
An expense report: Trevor stand-sits on my desk. “Tomorrow’s picture day,” he says, tapping me on the head with a rolled-up expense report. The executives have decided to take new pictures for the Telenet website to replace the old ones with Neil Briggs. “Bad juju and all.” Trevor snaps gum. He says the execs want me in the shot to make the firm look inviting. “Why wouldn’t they ask me themselves?” I say. Trevor shrugs, tossing the expense report onto my desk. “They didn’t want to be creepy, okay?” He’s getting prickly. “Don’t you want to be a model?” He puts the word model in air quotes. I think about the cocktail reception where Avery confronted a reporter who’d written a story about the best female documentary filmmakers. “I’m not the best female,” she airquoted, “I’m the best.” It was the first time I saw Avery throw an object at someone. The plastic cup was nearly empty, but Carmen fired Avery the next day. “Why are you giving me that look?” Trevor says, and I realize he’s waiting for my answer about the photoshoot. He rolls his eyes, and by the way, he doesn’t have time for my attitude. I ask if I even have a choice about the whole picture thing, and Trevor smirks. “Yes,” he says, touching the color of my cardigan with one finger, “you can wear something besides that sweater.”
325 illegally downloaded .mov files: I sometimes think about my relationship with Avery as a series of pictures. Avery teaching me how to use one of the big cameras. Avery telling me I had a mastery of dark colors. The shoot we worked on at Rockaway Beach near the home of a man who built boats and set them on fire. The end-of-day mosquitoes buzzed outside the hotel as our elbows slumped on cool railings and we passed a flat beer back and forth. But the end of Avery is a horror film in slow-motion. I’m sitting alone at a diner when my cell phone vibrates in my lap. Carmen’s calm voice sounding distorted as she tells me she knows about the files. Regret pouring over my body like hot coffee. Waiting in the freezing rain for Carmen’s new intern to hand me my things – Avery’s postcard from Cannes, a rock from the beach shoot, the sweater I left slung over my seat. And then, the clearest moment. Working late in the darkroom. Blushing walls. Avery squeezing my jacketed shoulder. She wants me to download the files she couldn’t take when she was fired. “I know you’re capable.” She hands me a disk. There were no words but a nodding of a head. I would get the files for her. Of course I would.
A webcam lens: Dawson brought a cake to the office. An awful store-bought thing. Vanilla inside and out with lumpy red number five and yellow number six flowers. “There’s cake!!!” someone says over the interoffice messaging system and then aloud, “Dawson brought a cake!” People stampede into the breakroom, where another note in bold red ink has been posted on the refrigerator: THE BREAKROOM IS BEING VIDEO RECORDED. An email from HR explained a webcam had been set up to discourage thieves. Dawson had volunteered to review the footage. Dawson, of course. I should have known he was the one writing the notes. When he leaves work, I slip into the breakroom. With the light off, I snap the lens off the webcam.
The Keurig machine, cake: The office is empty, but I’m still at my desk with the webcam lens in my pocket, re-reading an email from the documentary company. (I’m still on the listserv). They have an announcement: Avery and Carmen are making a new film! In a photo, their pressed-together heads smile. They’re filming in Transylvania and that’s all they can share right now. But I know what they’re working on. Our film. The Dracula one. I fumble for my phone. With shaky fingers, I dial Avery’s number by heart. This time the phone doesn’t even ring. Instead, an automated voice chirps that the number has been disconnected. Thank you, goodbye. I plummet back into my life, and this time it feels real. Something has been taken from me. Something I won’t get back. I think about how bad that feels. About how sorry I should be for all the things I’ve taken. About do unto others and all that. But, no. Being good doesn’t make anybody love you. And this time I wouldn’t wait around for someone to rat me out and show me the door. I could do that myself. I’m capable. I look around the office one last time. Tomorrow, there will be a frantic photographer, a broken webcam, and a missing Keurig machine. And on my desk, the remains of a pink cake box, licked clean.
Kaitlin Roberts is a writer and journalist living in Berlin. Her work has been published by The New York Times, NPR, and Gimlet Media.