The weary face behind her in the bathroom mirror startled Lia. Her mother usually slept in after a late shift at the bowling alley.
“Don’t go getting any big ideas,” her mother’s reflection said.
“Uh huh,” Lia answered.
Lia’s morning routine, bathroom to hallway to kitchen, was slowed by her bathrobed mother who exhaled loudly in irritation at each contact. Finally her mother lit the first cigarette of the day, clicked on the TV, and sat down. The heavy plastic couch cover crackled as she leaned back.
“You’re not something special. You hear me?”
Lia left the apartment without answering. She hurried down the stairs knowing she’d have to run to the bus stop. She should have figured her mother would pay her more mind today. When Lia attended Lincoln West her mother scoffed at good grades, at homework done. “Won’t do you no good,” or “Don’t stick your nose in the air,” she’d say.
Lia excelled at escaping notice. Back in school she dreaded teachers who paid attention to her. Her English teacher, Mr. Laurent, was the worst. He used to ask her to meet him after school, where she would stand awkwardly by his desk watching him cut an apple. He’d offer her a piece. She’d shake her head. He asked her to do things she’d never do, like enter poetry contests or write for the school newspaper. He told her she was gifted. He said she should go on to college. Sometimes he brought brochures from universities in different parts of the country. They unfolded all thick expensive gleam into pictures of students who were nothing like her. A few shared her skin color but they all smiled and leaned on one another with confidence she’d never known. The week before graduation Mr. Laurent gave up. He helped her get a job downtown instead.
But today after work Lia was starting her first college class. It had taken a few years to gather herself. She watched new hires in the office. The ones with college degrees became managers. They had offices with doors that shut. They cluttered their desks with personal things and freely went out to lunches that lasted for hours. Plus they had something else, an extra layer of the assurance that everyone else seemed to have been born with, a quality Lia studied like an immigrant to the human race. Maybe a degree would free her from a tiny cubicle, even if it couldn’t give her the ease she saw in faces everywhere around her.
The way she counted the credits she’d be well over 30 by the time she graduated. If her mother wanted to get the last word in, well Lia let her have that. As she settled on the half-full 45A bus headed downtown she watched people as she always did.
A heavy woman with hands older than her face had an expensive baby carrier next to her. She unfolded a magazine from the diaper bag over her shoulder. The tiny blonde baby slept, its lips puckering as if tasting the air, the woman’s dark arm over the carrier like a roof sheltering that new face.
An elderly man sat across from her. He had the powdery skin that some old people get, the kind that looks dry and soft. He was wearing a raincoat and had an umbrella on his lap, although there was no hint of rain. His hands trembled so much that the fabric of the umbrella shivered. Lia decided to look up diseases next time she went to the library. That way she’d know if the tremors stopped when he slept.
The bus jerked to a stop and new riders got on. A young couple walked down the aisle, his arm on her shoulder as they sat down. The girl had complicated bracelets twining up her wrists and her skirt looked as if it was made of fabric from far away, from a place so interesting that Lia knew she wouldn’t recognize the language spoken there. Lia noticed that the girl had acne scars and the boy wore jeans that were scuffed and frayed. The couple didn’t face straight ahead but turned to look at each other as they talked. Then the girl put her head on his chest and closed her eyes. Lia wondered if she might be listening to his heart.
This was her only skill. Lia could observe freely without anyone noticing. That’s what she’d done all through school. She studied the popular kids and the loners. She listened to what they said and the expressions on their faces and especially how they acted when they thought no one was around. She’d read many times that people sense when they’re being watched. But no one ever looked back at her. Sometimes she felt like a shadow.
This didn’t always work to her advantage. Lia might be standing at the counter of the used bookstore and the clerk wouldn’t look up from his phone. Or she’d be waiting in line at the corner grocery only to have or people cut in front of her like she wasn’t there. She rarely said anything. When she admitted it to herself, she was sure that her problem wasn’t shyness; it was something worse, a kind of invisibility that didn’t have a name.
As soon as she headed off the elevator she knew the office had been fumigated again. She didn’t smell it so much as feel it, a choking fog that settled in her chest making it hard to breathe. Her eyes watered as she sat down.
Around her cube other employees were arriving, chatting freely. Lia kept snippets of small talk memorized for emergencies although she hadn’t quite mastered the casual look that seemed to accompany conversation. Occasionally people spoke to her but they usually turned away to talk more eagerly to someone else soon after. These moments were becoming less exhausting for Lia. Still she preferred the comfort of invisibility. Whenever she saw someone make a gaffe or slip on the sidewalk she knew that they would like a temporary taste of the oblivion she knew so well.
She opened a dull gray folder next to her keyboard to start the morning routine. She liked to work while listening to what her co-workers had to say. Andy talked about a late night with friends and Maria chided Andy for not taking better care of himself, as usual. Then Darnell said he was going to check out another used car after work and hoped his wife liked this one. Allison flipped through a catalog looking for something to wear to a wedding, showing Maria her favorite outfits. Her co-workers reminded Lia of teacups in an amusement park ride. Their lives twirled around and around with such bright colors that Lia felt glad to know they were on tracks, sure to be coming back the same way when they talked the next day.
Krystal, whose cubicle was next to hers, came in last. She wore tight outfits and heavy make-up. Her laugh was harsh as she stood looking past Lia to talk to Allison, complaining about late support payments for her two-year-old. She called the boy every day at lunchtime before she went out to smoke. “Put him on,” she’d say to her grandmother. Then her voice would change. “How’s my big man doin?” she’d practically sing into the receiver. “Whachoo havin for lunch, baby?” She’d tell him what they’d do when she got home that day. Sometimes it was just a trip to the laundromat, but Krystal talked like it would be the best thing ever. She told him what they’d pass on the street and how he could carry a bag like a big boy if he wanted, and that he could put money in the gumball machine when they got there, and then they’d watch cartoons till the clothes were dry. Lia couldn’t help but imagine the evening being perfect as Krystal described. She wondered if her own mother had ever used such a voice.
A rustle spread across the office like an incoming wave. It was the sound made when Judy was sighted. Workers sat quickly, swiveling their chairs forward and clicking to the correct screens. Judy operated on many levels at once. She could chat conversationally while looking over a worker’s attire, desk, and computer screen; fitting comments about job performance into an apparently innocent remark. Lia noticed that people managed to seem friendly, even unguarded around Judy, as if they genuinely welcomed her. But they hated her. Not her power over them, which was understood, but something more. No personal details about Judy were known, only that her toothy smile never matched her eyes. That made everything about her the subject of intense speculation. Although no one solicited Lia’s opinion, she had nothing to offer. There were only a few people she never really looked at. One of them was Judy.
Today Judy’s progress through the office was unusually speedy. That was bad news. Everyone’s attention was heightened on days when Judy came down to watch the goings-on in each division. She would stroll around in no predictable pattern, sometimes spending the morning getting through all areas. Everyone strained to perform at top efficiency until she retreated to her spacious office upstairs. But when she headed directly from the elevators to a particular division it meant only one thing. Layoffs.
Judy was hands-on about such things. Lia could feel her co-workers’ tension, more toxic than the fumigant, and could sense their relief as Judy passed. They didn’t dare look up from their workstations but still, in the seconds it took for Judy’s heels to go by, they’d gone from potential victims to rubberneckers at the scene of an accident.
Lia muttered the only prayer she knew. It wasn’t a Christian one. Her father used to take her to church when she was small. He was a large stern man. He and his new wife had a collection of children, hers and their own newborn twins. In the pew Lia sat at the end of the family like the last bead of an unlatched necklace, straining to hold her leg away from the child next to her. The only thing she liked was the church music. People in the choir wore the same robes, swaying in unison and singing as if they were one person, only mightier. She imagined joining the choir when she got older. But her father moved to Seattle and a few months later, died in a car accident. That ended her desire to sing.
Lia’s mother had no use for churchgoing. Sometimes when her mother was at work Lia would watch evangelists on television. They talked a lot about prayer, but not how to do it. They talked even more about sending in money. Then one Saturday Lia found a paperback introduction to Buddhism at the used bookstore. She kept it on the shelf in her bedroom for a while, having second thoughts about the foreign-looking cover and the unknown places the contents might lead her. When she did start reading she stayed up half the night to finish it. She read about detachment and wondered if she’d been Buddhist all along without knowing it. She read about cultivating compassion, then looked out the window into the darkness, staring at nothing for so long that she wondered if she had unknowingly meditated for the first time. Near the end of the book she found a prayer to repeat throughout the day, a prayer for the happiness of all beings. This prayer moved silently across her lips now.
Judy’s heels made a softly carpeted warning as she approached. Lia hadn’t considered that her own job might be in jeopardy. In fact, her job kept getting more burdensome as other employees were laid off. The more she was asked to do the harder she worked, until her head ached with the effort to get everything done and still get on the last express bus out of downtown. But Lia could see Judy approaching the cluster of cubicles that made up their shrinking division, now down to seven of them. Maybe she’d be let go.
No attachment, she reminded herself. She vowed to keep the prayer on her lips. Her thoughts went to the bowling alley. Her mother always said they’d find a job there for her. Well, her mother usually accused her of thinking she was too good for the work they’d find for her. Lia knew she’d make a lousy Buddhist, because she kept thinking of herself even when she tried to pray for everyone else’s happiness.
Lia heard a collective intake of breath in the surrounding cubicles. Judy had halted, her presence an announcement that the layoff would be in their division.
She was standing behind Darnell, who was a recent hire. He was fast, efficient and had the kind of graceful charm that went along with his soft Carolina accent. He made the work look easy. Everyone liked him. Lia couldn’t understand why he’d be fired.
Judy lingered for a long moment. Then she leaned down and spoke into his ear. It looked like she was sniffing Darnell’s shirt. When she straightened he turned in his chair and looked at her without the smile subordinates usually show a boss.
Barely pausing, Judy stepped over to Lia and leaned over the same way. “I’ll need to put an extra helping on your plate,” she said quietly. “I know you’re up to taking this on.”
Extra helping, as if workers were being served more food at a banquet instead of given someone else’s job to do. Lia steeled herself, then copied Darnell, turning to gaze at Judy without smiling. What she saw beyond the distance in Judy’s eyes surprised her. It was the look of a dog chained too long.
Lia forgot the prayer, forgot to act busy, she just stared as Judy walked a few steps over and asked Krystal to come into the conference room. As if the privacy there made any difference. Nearly everyone in the office watched the two women walk away. Krystal’s generous backside rolled in her thin green pants and her hair swung sideways at each step. Next to her, Judy’s tailored suit and stiff hair seemed ridiculously prim.
The moment the door shut behind them a hum of conversation started up in the office. It was subdued, watchful, aware that the conference door would open in a few minutes.
“Thank God,” Allison said to no one in particular. “I thought for sure the bitch was after me.” She gave a little laugh that sounded like a doll’s cry.
“Corporate squeeze in action,” Darnell said. He put his hands behind his head and swiveled around as if announcing to the room, but he spoke in a near whisper.
“What’s Krystal going to do?” Maria said. “She supports her granny and the little boy. It isn’t right to just toss people out, more all the time.”
“Yeah, what are you gonna do about it?” Allison said. “I’m sure as hell glad to keep my job. Maybe Krystal shoulda worked a little harder.”
“Harder?” Andy spoke up from the other side of the cube wall. “They keep adding to the workload. They take away benefits and still cut jobs. Pay attention, the execs upstairs get loads of bennies plus huge salaries. Ever looked at the cars they drive?”
“Arnie in accounting told me about some of the receipts Judy submits in her expense account,” Darnell said, just as quietly as before. “One lunch would cover my family’s groceries for a week.”
“My father said it’s always been this way,” Maria said. “He said owners would be happy to make us pay for the right to breathe. He should know, he tried to start a union back in El Salvador. It didn’t end too good for him.”
“You’re talking like a bunch of radicals,” Allison said. “I for one am glad to have a job. And I work damn hard at it.”
Andy snorted at that.
Darnell said, “Yeah, we all work hard. I’m just seeing that it’s impossible to get ahead here.”
Lia never thought about any of these things before. She went to work, puzzled about the behavior of her co-workers, then went home afterwards. In the evenings while her mother was gone she read novels and then puzzled about the behavior of those characters too. Or she watched movies. But in movies and books the conversations were too exact, problems too easily solved.
Lia imagined the whole moment backing up, then starting over as a movie scene where her co-workers would agree to go on strike if Judy didn’t reinstate Krystal. But she didn’t say anything.
She knew by mid-afternoon Judy would send a memo giving instructions to redistribute Krystal’s workload. Lia and Darnell were the chosen ones this time, so their jobs were probably safe from the next round of layoffs. Krystal’s vacant cubicle would be would be taken apart, deconstructed they called it, leaving no space where they’d once heard Krystal’s two voices, the one she used at work and the one for her son.
Lia still felt sick from the fumigant. Her stomach roiled with nausea. She stood up, telling herself that she would head to the bathroom. But her steps didn’t veer to the right. Instead she found herself walking directly to the conference room door. For the first time in her life she knew everyone was watching her. It felt strange.
After she knocked on the door and swung it open it was easy as Darnell’s charm, Allison’s anger, Andy’s smarts, Maria’s spirit. It took one sentence. She told Judy to give Krystal another chance because she was planning on quitting, right then, that moment. Then without waiting for an answer Lia walked to the elevators and left.
All the way down to the lobby Lia thought of Mr. Laurent. The last time she saw him he didn’t slice his apple in pieces as usual. He cut it in half crosswise, then held it up to show her that the core and seeds formed a perfect star in the center. He apologized for being a sentimental old man. Then what did he say? Something about a star hidden in each person. She’d forgotten the exact phrase.
As Lia stepped outside, late morning sunshine glinted off One Cleveland Center, she decided to tell her mother that she’d been fired. It would make her mom happy to have Lia “knocked down a few pegs” as she called it. And making her mom happy made things easier for both of them.
But right now Lia had all day before class with nothing to do. The feeling was satisfying as the warm sun on her face. Office workers hustled by. An unfamiliar spicy odor caught her attention. Her brown bag lunch was still in a desk drawer on the 4th floor. She followed the scent to a push cart at the corner and without any of her usual hesitation looked right at the man wearing an apron lettered “Amir’s Falafal” to ask what he recommended.
“Oh, do I have a treat for you,” he said cheerfully. “First customer of the day.” He talked to her while he piled and then rolled fillings into a foil covered offering she couldn’t pronounce. When she held out money to pay he insisted on giving her the drink of her choice for free. She chose a bottle of lemonade, keeping her head up and looking into his brown eyes as she thanked him. He smiled broadly as if giving drinks away was the best part of his day.
Lia held the cold bottle in one hand and warm bag in the other. Then she began to walk against the crowd on the busy sidewalk, seeing stars everywhere.
“Everywhere Stars” first appeared in Cleveland Scene.