In retrospect, Sidney Dott’s bowtie should have warned me that something was terribly wrong. It was one I’d never seen before, dyed his signature power colour, a red-orange, burning-tar-tinted blend he refers to as “funky sunrise,” a freakish mix that probably elevates Sid’s endorphins. Sid is our chief technical officer, my boss’s boss, and he’s famously fond of wearing power colours to difficult meetings. From what I hear, he’s even more enamoured of his endorphins.
I had run into Sid in the hallway after snagging my second Coke of the morning from the break room, and he had deftly steered me towards my office. My boss, Elliot, our vice president of technology, fell in step beside me, and within seconds the three of us were all having what I thought at the start was an impromptu meeting. But I was distracted by Sid’s bowtie and his shiny grey three-piece suit, his cowlick so aggressive today it left him looking more than a little surprised. So maybe that’s why it took me a few minutes to realize that the meeting was actually about me.
When Sid said, the first time, “You’re definitely not fired,” I started paying attention. He repeats it again, now, probably because I haven’t said anything in response.
“No, definitely not,” Elliot echoes. Elliot is business-casual, bald-egg bald, nerdy, plump, and proud of it. Today, as ever, his shoes are spit-polished.
“Really?” I ask, even though all I can hear is that one word echoing in my head: fired.
“Definitely,” they answer at the same time, an off-key duet.
“So I can come to work tomorrow?” I try not to sound too eager.
“Yes, of course,” Sid says, before smiling in that inscrutable way of his.
The squeeze in my chest eases as I exhale and slowly move back in my seat. “And next week?”
The look that runs between the two of them is an I told you so. “Uh…no.” Sid lifts his shoulders in a kind-of-but-not-really apologetic shrug. “So, Viive,” he says, mangling my name the same way he always does: Vee-vie instead of Vee-veh. “We know you’ve been under a huge amount of pressure lately, and we want you to take some time to get yourself together.”
I take a sip of my Coke to try to ease the moment, but that small swallow manages to turn itself into a cough that won’t stop. Another look passes between the two of them, one that makes my stomach hurt. When I finally get a hold of myself, I say, “Sure, the Dagobah project was a lot of work, but we’re up and running now. Everything’s fine.”
“Well, here’s the thing, Viive,” Elliot says. Elliot starts a lot of conversations like this, and it’s generally not a prelude to anything pleasant. “Sid and I have noticed over the last few months that morale in your team is down, and you’ve missed…how many?” He turns to Sid.
“Six,” Sid says succinctly, pulling on his bowtie, a little tic he has.
“Six management meetings,” Elliot says, while he holds his hands out in a well there you have it kind of a way. “And you were late for the conference call with Spiegel and Spiegel earlier this week—”
“I was dealing with an emergency that day, and I had one of my guys take that call. Unfortunately he was waylaid by an executive assistant—” (I don’t say who did the waylaying, because we all know it was Sid’s corporate helpmate, a pouty twenty-something blonde who breaks into a little dance that looks like she needs to pee whenever she wants something.)
I continue, “…who needed help with her printer. Like we’ve discussed before, I run a technical team, but we don’t fix printers.” I pause for a minute before adding, “And with all the overtime lately, everyone’s morale is down these days.”
“I respect what you’re saying,” Sid says, a nothing answer that means he has no intention of asking his assistant, Bethie, to stop doing the little pee dance. “But it’s not really the point.”
“I hear you’ve been lying down in the nurse’s office every day at lunch,” Elliot adds.
“I did that, like, once, weeks ago, late on a Friday night,” I say. The muscles on the back of my neck are ratcheting tighter by the minute, and I’m starting to get a headache, a dull nudge behind my ears that’s hard to ignore. Since all these headaches are the reason we’re having this little meeting, I decide not to mention it.
“You just don’t seem your usual self, lately.” Elliot shrugs.
“Well, I…I’ve been having a few challenges, but everything will be fine,” I say. “Everything is fine.” I hope neither one of them notices that my right hand has slipped under my desk, that my fingers are now crossed. I try to ignore the slight tremble in my wrist as I do it.
“Look,” Elliot says, “you haven’t taken any vacation since you started working here, which is four years ago, right? There’s a policy coming in the new year—if you don’t take your vacation, you’re going to lose it. You have twelve weeks saved up—”
“You want me to take off three months?” There’s a jagged, nervous energy in the room now, and I have to put both hands against my desk to try to steady myself.
“No,” Elliot says, looking at Sid. “No one is saying that.”
“Why don’t you take…?” Sid fingers his goatee in the creepy way he does, taking his index finger and running it through his beard. “A month.”
“A month! Come on, guys,” I say, my throat suddenly parched. I take another sip of my Coke while I consider my next words, and the can empties with an unexpected slurp. “I appreciate your concern, but like I said, I hit a rough patch a while back, and everything’s fine now. And even when I’m a little under the weather, I’m still here longer hours than most people.”
Elliot glances at Sid, who’s still rummaging through his goatee. “She’s right, you know.”
Sid nods before shrugging. “Can you pass me your pen, please, Viive?”
I hand it over, wondering why his request bothers me so much, and then I realize I’ve never heard Sid say please before. It seems so wasteful of him, to throw away a please on such a nothing comment.
Sid scribbles in the little notebook he keeps while Elliot says, “We’re only trying to help, Viive.”
“I appreciate that, guys,” I say, forcing a smile to materialize on my face. “I really do.”
“So, three weeks?” Sid says.
After looking at my face, Elliot says, “Okay, two weeks. You go, get back on your feet, and come back all rested up.”
“Sure,” Sid says. “Hell, take your husband on a trip. Go to Bali. It’s great this time of year.”
Relief swells in my veins; two weeks suddenly sounds like something to celebrate, like winning a Pulitzer or a bake-off.
“And then come back with a note from your doctor saying you’re able to work,” Sid says.
“What?” I ask, the relief draining out of me.
“We’ll need a note from your doctor,” Sid repeats.
“What if I don’t get a note from my doctor? I mean, I barely even have a doctor.”
“Viive,” Sid says, pinching the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed. “How is it possible that you have a chronic illness but no doctor?”
“Oh, come on,” I say, forcing a smile to my face. “It’s hardly a chronic illness.”
“My wife read in the newspaper last week that migraine is one of the most debilitating diseases in the world,” Sid says.
I’ve never liked his wife.
“What happens if I can’t get a note?” I ask.
“We’ve been heading this way for a while, Viive,” Elliot says.
“We’re all busy,” Sid says. “And keeping your shit straight is really your job, don’t you think?”
Elliot looks past my shoulder for a minute, focusing on something there. He looks older than his forty years. But Sid looks pretty happy, one hand resting on his lapel, the other exploring his neck. Sometimes it seems like Sid can barely keep his hands off himself.
The two of them make a few noncommittal noises and then go, leaving me with dark thoughts about strangling Sid with his bowtie. After I run through a few more revenge fantasies, I sit back in my chair, my nerves still pulled tight, a jumpy twang in my bones. I exhale, my breath an exhausted sigh. There’s work to do, but I can’t focus on the buzz of my cell phone, or anything remotely productive. Instead I look around my office, like the walls will give me an answer. It’s really nothing but a glorified cubicle, four walls with a door but no ceiling; a sham of an office. I can’t even have a private phone call in this not-quite-a-room. The walls are grimly positive, with posters made by our creative department extolling the virtues of being AGILE, TEAMWORKY, and IMPACTFUL. My desk is cut-rate Scandinavian chic, my chair a beige colour that’s supposed to be reassuring, and the floor is circa late 1800s concrete, when this loft was an industrial business that probably employed child labourers. The space is huge—twenty thousand square feet over two floors, tucked into a corner of Toronto’s Adelaide and Spadina neighbourhood in Chinatown—and open-concept cool, sleek and modern and old-school all at the same time. It’s also drafty, cold, and uncomfortable. I have to wear sneakers most of the time because walking around on concrete kills my ankles. But the execs think the floor looks nice, which, I guess, is the point.
It doesn’t seem like much, not something to get so upset over and want to hang on to. But the overclocked thump of my heart against my chest reminds me that it is. I like working with Elliot. Up until now he’s been supportive of me and my career. And I need this job, for a lot of reasons.
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