BROKEN RULES • by Elle Marie Gray

The office is a labyrinth of pre-fab cubicles, grouped in communities of six to eight, taking up every inch of carpeted floor space. There is an uneasy awareness of how physically close everyone is to each other — without the fabric-covered wall barrier, one would feel the moist breath of a neighbor on their neck. Unwritten rules of office etiquette are maintained for the sake of sanity and survival. For example, one never talks over a cubicle wall to another; one never comments on overheard phone conversations; radios are never loud enough to be heard in another’s cube; cologne is used with restraint (or, preferably, not at all); and no one, no matter what, ever microwaves leftover fish for lunch.

I sit in the lead cube of a row of two cubes by four. In front of me is a well-worn aisle that leads to the floor’s bathrooms which gives me an unwanted and perverse knowledge of the toilet habits of my co-workers. It took me months to train my middle-aged kidneys not to respond to the constant sound of flushing water — I’m now able to sit for almost an hour before I have to pee.

My current cube-mates are a tolerable group. Walter, on my right, deals with high-profile cases for the agency. Unless there’s a crisis, his phone conversations are low-key and mostly about himself. Last summer, he spent a lot of time talking on the phone with contractors who were installing an in-ground swimming pool at his house, and conferring with his wife, Claire, about brick patterns and outdoor lighting choices. About a month ago, he had a mild heart attack and was out for a few quiet weeks. Now that he’s back, his numerous phone calls are to and from friends who get to hear (as do I) the 16.5-minute story of his ordeal. “Let me tell you what happened… they had to use four stents… it was touch and go for a while…” He uses variations of the same theme with each phone call, but the ending is always the same — he didn’t die.

Behind him is Ben, a stats geek who works on computer spreadsheets and databases all day. He quietly recites each number or formula aloud as he taps it into his computer and then tries to run some kind of report. Many times, the report doesn’t turn out the way he planned. “Son of a bitch. It didn’t work,” I hear him say, always with a tinge of bafflement in his voice. And, so, the ritual must be performed out loud again — and again, and again. Most mornings, at 10:00 am sharp, he hungrily munches and crunches what sounds like an apple while making “mmmm” noises of satisfaction as he chews. He slurps soup at lunch.

Behind me is Sonja who is so quiet, I never know if she is there or not unless I hear her sigh, or until she steals silently out of her cubicle to retrieve something from the printer, and startles me with a cheery, “Good morning, Margaret” before slinking back to her chair. She’s young, and smart, and beautiful with smooth, caramel-colored skin and an easy smile. Another young woman, Livvie, sits behind Sonja and seems to start her workday whenever she feels like it. I sit with my back to the opening of my space, but I am conscious of Livvie’s high-heeled arrival — the swish, swish, swish of her clothes as she comes down the aisle, and the overwhelming scent of her pungent cologne that gets to her desk before she does. She frequently stops by Sonja’s cubicle to talk about the latest regrettable man she went out with the night before, and the drama that always seems to unfold at the end of the night. Sonja’s voice is soft, and serious, and cautionary about the risk Livvie takes by courting strangers. Livvie giggles and excuses the men’s bad behavior with a bangled wave of her hand. She tells Sonja, dismissively, “It’s just a game. I know how to take care of myself.”

Until yesterday…

“I have to talk to you, Sonja. He called again last night. He said he’s gonna kill himself if I don’t agree to see him again.”

I stop in mid-keystroke and strain to hear Livvie’s shaky voice behind me.

“Don’t do it,” Sonja responds in a low, controlled voice. “He’s just trying to scare you into doing what he wants.”

“But he keeps texting me, and calling me. He said he was coming here. I think he’s gonna do it.”

“No, he’s not. I keep telling you. It’s a game to him. Like the way he got you to meet up with him the first time.”

Livvie, in a whisper, “But he texted pictures holding a…”

A ringtone is heard.

Livvie whispers, “It’s him.”

Sonja again, sternly, “Don’t answer it.”

Livvie emits a small whimper as she walks past, her body’s cloudy scent sweeping through the cubicle air, her stiletto heels clicking dully on the rug, the fabric of her tight black pants rubbing in rhythm against her thick thighs. She heads for the single handicapped bathroom just in front of the cubicle row. The ringtone stops, followed by a frightened “hello?” before the door clicks shut and the lock is engaged. A one-way, murmured conversation is heard inside the lav. There are muffled sounds of pleading and conciliation followed by silence. Then retching. Ka-flushhhhhh. More retching. Two more flushes of the toilet.

The HVAC unit suddenly shudders on and the motor hums persistently above the eerily quiet cubicles. A distant radio twangs a country-and-western song. Pregnant-filled seconds pass before the click-clack chatter of a keyboard slowly fills the stalled air, followed by another. “Son of a bitch,” says a bewildered Ben. Sonja sighs but remains seated. Walter’s phone begins to ring. “Hello? Oh, hi Claire.” I have to pee, really, really bad. From an open window in a manager’s office, several sirens wail their annoyed arrival.

Elle Marie Gray is the nom de plume of a writer with a real-life surname that few can pronounce, even fewer can spell, and fewer still are able to remember.  This is her first published piece.

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