What Good Secretaries Do, First Leaves Literary Journal, May 2009
Monday. Sophie finds herself once again in her squeaky chair at Vintner’s Deluxe Winery. She’s worked there four years, and every day it’s the same. Type letters for Connie. Create presentations for Connie. Arrange travel itineraries for Connie. She talks to her boss more than her own mother. She even dreams of Connie sometimes. Profiled in The Wine Spectator, Wine Today, Napa Valley Style, The Wall Street Journal, Connie Brooks receives dozens of faxes, e-mails, phone calls every day of the week, and Sophie is part of it all. Yesterday, Robert Mondavi called—Connie didn’t feel like talking to Robert Mondavi, had Sophie take a message.
Now, Connie lumbers into the office, and Sophie smiles in greeting. Her boss wears a tan raincoat the size of a tarp and clutches her usual Starbucks selection: extra large toffee coffee deluxe with whipped cream and sprinkles. She doesn’t return Sophie’s smile; instead, she nods abruptly: an “I see you” gesture. Her eyes are red-rimmed and crinkled, and when she thumps past, Sophie feels the hardwood floors heave beneath her boss’s girth.
It hasn’t always been this way. Connie used to greet Sophie whenever entering the office, grateful for her loyal secretary—who, since starting the job at 18, has always been cheerful, punctual, and smartly dressed, aware of Connie’s status, and her own, as Connie’s secretary, the secretary at Vintner’s Deluxe.
Connie used to be a normal-sized woman too, tall and slim, a size eight maybe. Now she has a double chin. Her shoes squeak in protest as she walks. And those pretty blue eyes have sunken into the flesh of her face. Last week, Sophie saw a smudge of mustard on Connie’s chin and wanted to touch her boss’s hand as if she were a child and say, “It’s going to be all right.”
Connie slams her office door. Only last week did she begin shutting Sophie out, even though they’ve always worked so well together.
The phone rings. “Connie Brook’s office,” Sophie says. “How may I help you?”
“It’s Ralph Cox. Sales, East Coast. I need to speak to Connie.”
Sophie knows Connie doesn’t want to speak to Ralph; she never takes phone calls before nine o’clock. She likes to drink her coffee and eat her chocolate glazed doughnut in peace. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cox. Connie’s in a meeting. May I take a message?”
“This will be my third message, sweetheart,” he says. “Tell Connie I want to talk to her.”
Sophie remembers Ralph from the sales meeting last August—a squat man in his mid-fifties with dark, salted hair and square-tipped fingers that he extended to every person in the room for a firm shake. Sophie scribbles down the message, but Connie won’t call him back. She told Sophie after that meeting that chauvinists like Ralph Cox were outdated pieces of furniture, and the sooner they were dropped off at the Salvation Army, the better.
Sophie wholeheartedly agrees—being called ‘sweetheart’ by a man she doesn’t know—and gives him a warm goodbye, knowing that Connie, in refusing to return his phone call, will avenge his behavior for both of them.
The second call is from Willa Robins, a journalist with Women in Business. Sophie glances at her watch. 9:07.
She tiptoes to Connie’s door, taps. At this time of day, Connie hasn’t come into full force, and Sophie accommodates her boss’s sensitive time by limiting her interruptions and speaking in low tones. She peeks inside the office. Connie, at her desk, rolls a pen back and forth beneath her palm. Her face is crumpled like a tossed piece of paper, and tears stream down her cheeks. Sophie’s stomach lurches in shock. She shuts the door.
So out of breath she can hardly speak, she takes a message: “Yes, Ms. Robins, I’ll have her call you… as soon as possible… yes, yes,” all the while glancing at Connie’s closed door with the nauseating awareness that things are not what they seem. She hangs up the phone. The shining gold name plaque: ‘CONNIE BROOKS Chief Executive Officer’ taunts her. She has always prided herself on her ability to read her boss’s cues: Connie’s neck-slash swipe of “I’m not here” for certain phone calls; her heavy breathing when immersed in thought; how she sits sideways at her desk when she doesn’t want to be disturbed, and if she must be, expects Sophie to whisper. To be a good secretary, Sophie must be highly empathetic, capable of reading all of her boss’s moods. Now she chastises herself for not having seen the depth of her boss’s pain sooner.
When she was younger, she had fantasies about her mother. It began with her mother’s name, Nadine. Quite a sophisticated name, Sophie has always thought, although her mother wore a yellow-flowered apron and smeared Vaseline on her calloused hands. Sophie imagined her mother had a secret life—she wasn’t a woman who’d grown up on a cattle ranch, but was actually a fashion designer from Paris or a hardcore news reporter from New York City. She was a woman who had purpose in life outside of cleaning bathrooms and packing lunches, a woman who acted—or at least looked—like a Nadine. Now Sophie’s fantasies for her mother are gone. She doesn’t need them anymore; she works for Connie Brooks, CEO. The three letters thrill Sophie. Her mind harkens back to her cheerleading days, and she sees herself shouting into a packed stadium: Give me a C! Give me an E! Give me an O! What does it spell? The crowd roars.
But Connie is crying on the other side of the door, even with those three powerful letters behind her, holding her up, in spite of her two hundred pounds, and Sophie doesn’t know why.
Maria Diaz, the accounts payable clerk, clicks down the hallway. Her hair poofs from her face, and smells sweet, like peaches.
“What’s wrong with Connie?” Sophie whispers. “She’s crying. A CEO shouldn’t be crying.”
Maria says, “Her husband’s divorcing her.” She smiles as if this is a great joke. Behind her white teeth, a faint snap, and Sophie realizes she’s chewing gum although Connie has forbidden it. Anger flares in her chest. Not only because Maria ignores Connie’s admonitions, but because Connie is getting divorced and there are people in the world who are amused by it. No, Maria must be wrong. Sophie wants her to be wrong.
“How do you know this?” she asks.
“She called him last week, screamed into the phone about ‘the Bitch.’ Told him she’ll be taking him for all he’s worth.” Maria shrugs. “You must have been at lunch.”
“That’s awful,” Sophie says. She glances at the pale green accounting textbook on her desk; it has the forlorn look of a child whose parents have forgotten to pick up after school. A few weeks ago, Connie had pushed the book at her, commanding that she learn bookkeeping. Sophie had warmed to the idea, feeling she was talented and bright, worthy of attention, taken under Connie’s thick wing. She studied the first two chapters diligently, and day after day, placed the textbook in clear view on her desk, hoping Connie would follow up, realize her hard work, praise her. But she’d said nothing. Now the textbook appears hopeful and foolish. A one-sided love affair.
“I don’t think she can take her husband for anything,” Maria says. “With her salary?”
Sophie nods. She always made copies of Connie’s tax returns. Last year, with her bonus, Connie topped three-hundred and twenty thousand. A twenty three percent improvement from the year before, and Sophie had beamed with pride.
“Did you think her husband was good looking?” Sophie whispers.
“Better looking than her. Lately.”
The weight gain. Sophie agrees, but would never in a million years have said this aloud. A secretary should remain discreet at all times, especially in regard to her female boss’s growing obesity.
“I didn’t think he was attractive,” she says now, tilting her chin up. “Not really.”
Sophie had met David at her first company Christmas party, his dark hair square around his forehead like a Ken doll. He carried a large pink box of pastry into the conference room; Connie kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, sweetheart.” She peeked inside the box. “Did you remember the bear claws?”
“I did,” he said, blinking about him, a lipstick kiss now imprinted on his cheek. Later, when Sophie and David were introduced, she gazed at the kiss, wondering why no one told him it was there. Not even Connie.
He had shaken her hand vigorously. “Connie tells me you have such a nice working relationship.”
“Thank you,” Sophie said, feeling this to be a great compliment. After all, to be valued by her boss meant she was valuable. Especially a boss like Connie Brooks, who receives handwritten invitations from Bill Gates’ wife.
“What are you doing for lunch?” Maria asks.
Sophie doesn’t want to go to lunch with Maria, someone who rejoices in Connie’s pain. And she feels betrayed that Maria should know about Connie’s life before her. She shakes her head. “I have other plans.”
“Whatever.” Maria clicks back down the hallway. The sound reverberates in Sophie’s ears in a sinister way, like a bomb ticking.
She stares at Connie’s closed door, and feels something fall away. Maybe it’s her picture of Connie as married. Or perhaps her image of David as a nice person—a nice man doesn’t cheat on his wife. He certainly had Sophie fooled. But people can’t be trusted. At least that’s what her mother has always said, in a soft voice, as if speaking to herself. “Some people just can’t be trusted.” Sophie always thought her mother said these words as recrimination for her life as house slave to four daughters and a husband. After all, Sophie’s father never touched the laundry machine. He didn’t change diapers. As far as Sophie can remember, he has pushed his plate aside after dinner and left the table. Her mother picks up whatever he leaves behind. But over the years, Sophie has cultivated small deeds of revenge. Pouring triple the amount of bleach into her father’s wash cycle. Knocking over his can of Miller Lite when forced to serve him at table. Returning his shoes to the living room closet so he cannot find them in the early morning hours. Her father had called her stupid and transferred these demeaning tasks to one of her younger sisters. Even if he took the time to look at her face, he wouldn’t understand the glint in her eye. He was the one who was stupid.
Behind the office door, Connie’s voice rumbles, waking Sophie from her daydream. Her boss speaks loudly—one could say yelling—but that’s what Sophie has always liked about Connie. She’s unfeminine. Direct. Doesn’t care what anyone thinks. So unlike Sophie’s mother, whose voice drops in volume whenever her husband steps into the room.
The door swings open, and Connie bursts through, clutching her cell phone. “Sophie, I need last month’s financials for the Carneros label. By sales region.” Her nostrils flare like a bull’s. “Hurry up. I’m long distance.”
Sophie yanks open the cabinet door. There are her files, labels neatly typed and color coded, all in chronological order. Within ten seconds, under Connie’s discerning gaze, she finds the reports and hands them to her, trying not to look into her bloodshot eyes.
Connie scans the numbers, face rigid. “Sales aren’t even close to our projections this year,” she says into the phone. “Don’t tell me it’s my fucking problem. You’d better pull your team—“
The door slams.
Sophie falls back into her chair, a wrenching in her chest. Sales not up? She glances at the report Connie shoved back into her hands. All the numbers have negative signs, accentuated in an alarming red. Losses. She skims the past year’s reports, and to her horror, sees that almost all the numbers are red, like a terrible, scathing rash. She can barely swallow. How could she not have noticed? Not have seen? The terrible truth had been an arm’s length away, tucked into her very own filing system, and she’s the last to know.
Sophie pictures her mother, hunched over the kitchen sink, strands of hair falling around her face. It’s her mother’s fault she’s in this position. Her mother, who wrings Sophie’s lungs like an old dishrag, her mother, whose existence, at every turn, has told Sophie that her own life will be as diminished as a twenty-watt bulb. She thinks of her mother’s sighs, her perpetual gazing out of windows. Just the other day, Sophie read an article in Glamour that claimed over eighty percent of women end up like their mothers. Even when they promise themselves they won’t.
But she has work to do; she won’t let this get her down. Sophie thinks of The Little Engine That Could—her favorite book growing up—and as she turns to her computer, chants within her mind, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. She has her own business cards. She gets manicures at Avalon Day Spa. And not once has she cooked dinner for her father. When Sophie looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see her mother; she sees the possibility of sidestepping her mother’s life.
Vintner’s Deluxe is bidding on a winery in Argentina. “The land is cheap,” Connie breathed into her ear last week, and Sophie now coordinates the travel itinerary for her boss’s trip to South America next month. Equipped with Connie’s American Express, she calls the Starwood Hotel, makes all the usual arrangements. King sized bed, aisle seat in business class, a hired car, and two copies of the proposal, one for Connie’s suitcase, and one for her carry-on luggage. Connie will make the presentation. But doesn’t it matter that she’s fat? Certainly it makes a difference. After all, being attractive as a CEO is just as important as a secretary being attractive. It’s part of the territory.
Poor Connie, Sophie thinks. Bloated to two hundred pounds. Betrayed by her husband. Trying to manage a failing company. Fingertips tapping away at the keyboard, she whispers, “It’s a hard, ugly world.” Her hands drop. That’s something her mother says. “Hang in there, Sophie. It’s a hard, ugly world.”
For you, Mom, Sophie thinks. Not for me.
She stands, repeating the words in her head—not for me, not for me, not for me—and knocks at Connie’s door. A headache has glommed onto the back of her skull, and her temples beat-beat-beat with anticipation and fear. But she’s Connie’s secretary. Her most loyal ally. They can make Vintner’s Deluxe a success; she won’t let some divorce affect their standing in the world.
“What is it?” Connie barks. Harsher than her usual tone, and Sophie considers turning away and pretending she never knocked. But where was there to go?
No, she’ll go ahead. She has to. That’s what good secretaries do. They do their jobs. Connie has an awards ceremony this afternoon. She’s been nominated as President of the Viticulture Society of America. She needs to be at her best. Without Connie’s success, the phone would stop ringing, the invitations would no longer come, and Sophie would be alone in a job, empty of excitement and status, alone like her mother.
She slowly opens the door, and takes two steps inside the darkened room. It’s quite remarkable, she thinks, that although Connie’s life is in a state of upheaval, her office looks as it always has. The orchid that Sophie spritzes every day sits on the left-hand side of the desk; the glass lamp glows from its usual spot opposite. The window blinds behind Connie’s hulking body are half-opened. Sophie adjusted them this morning. She arranges everything for her. It’s as if she lives in this room too.
Connie’s eyes, directed at her, flare danger.
“Do you need anything?” Sophie asks.
“Can I type a letter? Get you a coffee? Make copies?”
“What is this?” Connie asks.
“You’ve been behind this closed door all this time,” Sophie says. “I thought that rather than your coming out, I’d come in.”
She cringes beneath Connie’s laser beam stare of hate, realizing now this was a mistake. She can’t possibly help a woman with Oreos stashed in her desk and a husband who cheats on her. Connie swivels sideways, the chair groaning beneath her. On a good day, the gesture means, Leave me alone; on a bad, Get out of my face. Sophie has seen it dozens of times. But now, the skin between Connie’s eyebrows wrinkles tree-shaped—Sophie can’t tell if she’s going to laugh or cry—and she waits for some other signal that she can understand.
But Connie only sits there, a great heap of a woman, facing the wall. What size did she reach when David decided she was too fat to be his wife, too fat to love? One hundred seventy five? Two hundred? Did he make this decision while Connie sat at this desk so well tended by her secretary? Sophie suddenly feels afraid. She’s always pictured a lovely wedding for herself, a fantasy wedding, a happily-ever-after affair—something far different from her parents’. But looking at Connie, that dream feels strangled of possibility. Looking at Connie, Sophie knows she’s an absolute fool for even imagining such a thing. Her mother has been showing her the truth all along. No wonder Sophie has hated her so much.
Her boss swings forward and sighs with such vehemence that the papers on her desk shift. “I don’t need anything. From you or anyone.”
“I’m sorry about your husband,” Sophie blurts out. “Whatever happened. I’m sorry.”
Connie’s blue eyes, unnaturally dark, hook into Sophie’s chest. The room becomes very still.
“What did you say?” she whispers.
“It’s not your fault,” Sophie says. “Okay? It’s not.” She glances about the room in mad panic, searching for something that would make sense of it all. “Some people just can’t be trusted.”
Connie bursts into laughter, but there’s no joy in it. “You’re pathetic.”
Sophie flinches. She has heard Connie dismiss other employees, laugh at them, tear them to shreds, but she had never done that to Sophie, her loyal, devoted secretary. Now she realizes—it’s all too clear—that Connie doesn’t care about their “nice working relationship” as David had claimed. She sees Sophie as a servant. Nothing more. Just like her father.
“Sophie!” Connie claps. “You’re standing there like an idiot. Is there anything else? Or can I get back to work?”
“You have the awards ceremony at one o’clock,” Sophie says, returning to her familiar, breezy tone. In spite of Connie’s glare, she approaches her desk, smiling now as she crosses the line, entering her boss’s domain further, in spite of warning. Her heart slams against her skin, but she’s not a servant to anyone. She belongs in this office as much as Connie does. With a gentle hand, she straightens the orchid, noticing Connie’s eyes transfixed on her caress, her fat face hungry, filled with longing. It’s almost too easy. “Your speech has been typed,” Sophie continues. “Would you like to review it?’
“I’ll do that on the way.” Connie pulls her eyes from the orchid. “Get East Coast sales on the phone, fax the financials from last quarter to Rick in LA, and I want to speak to Joan in HR before lunch.”
All the bravado! Sophie loves it, for no matter what Connie thinks, Sophie is the one in control. She could walk out of this office today, taking all of Connie’s travel itineraries, her conference information, her passwords, her credit cards, her tax returns, her passport, her Blackberry, and her Rolodex. The woman’s entire life could be wiped away in an instant, just because Sophie chooses it. And the most wonderful part—the part that pushes Sophie to the brink of laughter now—is that Connie has bestowed all this power upon Sophie herself. Of her own free will, she’s given away crumbs of her life, bit by bit, day by day, month by month for four years. Now it’s not her life anymore.
Sophie gazes at Connie until she looks up. She will not be ignored. “Would you like for me to arrange a car?”
“Have it here by twelve-thirty,” Connie says. “Make sure it’s from—“
“Fitzgerald’s,” Sophie says. “I know.”
“Twelve-thirty. On the dot.” Connie swivels back to her computer, dismissing Sophie, but Sophie doesn’t care. Tomorrow, she’ll ask Connie for a raise, and she’ll get it. But that’s another day.