A small, framed sign is mounted to the office lunchroom wall. Decades ago, it was stamped from tin and painted red, and gold letters were spelled across its face:
“Small personal items have from time to time mysteriously disappeared from the coatrooms, and it is suggested that all staff members take their gloves, purses, and like items with them to their desks for safekeeping.”
The vocabulary, the outmoded serial comma, the implication that “all staff” carried purses and gloves, these features suggest an era of ladies-only office space, typing pools, hourglass figures poured into woolen skirts. I ache to lunch with those working girls, to hang with them and their severe hair, their wrist-length gloves; to politely make our way through the work week then attend Friday’s cinq a sept and, sometimes, follow it up with snacks at someone’s modest two-room bachelorette. I long to meet ladies who needed reminding that not all ladies are ladylike, that some are even thieves, and that clothing and coins should therefore be kept under guard.
Instead, I’m surrounded by dour women who bolt for the train at 4:37, and traveling executives who skip lunch to attend three-hour budget meetings then fill the nearby lounges, frisky and determined to get scotch down their necks as fast as it will go before happy hour, and discount drinks pricing, is up.
Best to lunch alone.
I shrug into my coat then walk to a café where lunch is a simple beauty. The place is small and crowded, with a din that swells while coffee machines crank and steam. Cooks in white shirts and soiled aprons load sandwiches onto plates and shove them across the steel counter. Today, it’ll be chicken salad with lettuce and diced apples, two tiny pickles tucked between the bread and waxed paper. The waitress wipes her hands on her thighs and calls, “Next! Pay attention! We have no more quiche!” I always take mine to go.
I come here each Tuesday, not for the counter staff, their uniforms, or the perfectly crusted bread, but for the brown bag folded twice at the top, creased just right for carrying. Also, for the moment at my desk when I arrange my lunch and dig in. It reminds me of my favourite picture book from when I was small: Bread and Jam for Frances, the story of a badger who ate only one thing until she was changed forever by a schoolmate who laid out his meal then ate it in rotation. A bite of sandwich, a bite of pickle, a bite of hardboiled egg, a sip of milk, and made it all come out even.
I have two résumés: the one I wrote down and send to prospective employers; and, the one that tumbles around in my head, and which I wish I could submit instead. The former is full of action language, false-sounding adjectives, and boastful statistics about project management, mergers, and proficient grammar-wrangling. It sounds nothing like me. The latter begins more honestly:
“I am quiet. I’m pretty, but in a sensible way, and like equally pretty but sensible shoes. I am a thinker – I have a great idea that just needs the right person to get it off the ground. That person may or may not be me.”
This week, I will begin looking for more challenging work, after six years behind the same desk. Sunday night, I set my alarm for fifteen minutes early, the perfect balance between ridiculous and enough time for a new start. I lay out my clothes and climb into bed.
Monday dawns roughly. I slip out of bed without waking my kitten and head to the bathroom without turning on the lights. I make it through the shower, the cosmetics, the brushing of teeth just fine, but the ambush happens as I reach the kitchen, toweling my hair and debating between granola in a bowl (at home) or granola in a bar (on the go). This morning has some fight in it. It’s laid my crocodile belt as a booby trap and dispatched slacks and a blouse to land the first blows. As the scaly leather cinches around my right ankle, I step on the buckle and go down clutching my heel. The pants kick at my face while sleeves muss my hair. I’m going to look like hell at the audit meeting.
I put up a fair struggle and the battle has no clear victor. At one point, the blouse snaps at my thighs like a locker room towel, and becomes wrinkled beyond simple ironing. The dark pants bristle with carpet lint and cat fur, and a cuff lets down its hem. With five minutes remaining if I’m going to make the streetcar, I bodyslam my fight-weary shirt, flattening it against the kitchen tiles and using my shower-hot belly to press out some of the more obvious creases. The pants can be fixed with a staple or two at the office; the belt, that fucking traitor, stays home today.
Strappy heels and a lunchbag packed the night before, and out the door, running fingers through my freshly tangled hair. A cereal bar wrapper (raspberry-filled) pokes from my breast pocket.
It’s 10:15 and the office ladies are sharing recipes for Sunday roast beef: the best way to oven-cook, to barbecue, to stew the carved remains Monday night. They speak of optimal cuts, broad flat brushes, rotisserie rods and the best utensils for boring holes the perfect depth and diameter to accommodate peeled garlic. The foundation, I learn, for a nice moist rump is to slather the raw beef in pungent condiment, sear it, then lower the temperature and have patience. No opening the grill hatch to monitor charring, no peeling back the foil to peer into the roasting pan. Park yourself on the deck or in the TV room, have a few wine coolers, and let the mustard work its private magic.
There are basics, but each lady favours a minor deviation from the universal guidelines, individualising her technique and thereby the meal that is brought to table. Each takes pride in casting her voice loudly above the others, pronouncing the superiority of basting over a single liberal mustard application (it’s a roast, after all, not a poultice!), poo-pooing the addition of root veg to the pan, or advising that in her opinion, Carla’s cooking duration is far too short for these days of Mad Cow and listeria. Apparently one needn’t splurge on ridiculous fancy mustard; an ordinary yellow-plastic squeeze-bottle variety, the same as for burgers and dogs, is more economical. And geez, do you know what they charge at those gourmet markets for stuff with grains and chunks? Outrageous! Practically criminal!
I feel left out as this culinary moment is shared by the sporty mom from accounting, her butch yet fancy supervisor, the twenty-two year old clerk who has never traveled outside her hometown, the wizened temp who seems up for anything yet excited about nothing, and the Filipino office manager who agonises over minute daily operations. Until now, I’ve prided myself on having nothing to contribute to their nattering daily salon; I’ve set myself apart from these women with whom I pass more time each week than I spend with my boyfriend. But, clearly I’ve underestimated the cross-cultural significance of a well-done pot roast. The only one with nothing to say is me.
Eavesdropping on their finishing touches (plating and carving), I think of television commercials depicting holiday meals, the montage of suburban scenes and swelling soundtrack, the family all smiles as someone presents a platter of grilled meat, basted turkey, or heaped pasta to her eager kin. And now, I know how to cook the dish that’s about to be dined upon a few moments after a brand flashes on-screen and a giddy child is swing high into the air.