Lena is twenty-seven and vital. She carries her blond baby against her hip and walks, chin straight and heel first, through the constellation of grey office cubicles. A stain of drool spreads on her shoulder as a small baby hand reaches for her ponytail, but she is determinedly unaffected, as though imperfections in her life cannot exist without her acknowledgement. And it works: she’s risen through promotions like a swimmer cuts through water: effortlessly, to the audience.
I dip my face behind my computer screen as she passes. Lena doesn’t see me, but her presence is enough to overpower me, remind me of the laundry strewn across my floor at home, of unopened checks I haven’t deposited. She adjusts the baby into her left arm as she reaches her right arm out to swing open the glass double doors at the exit. I hear the baby wail momentarily on their way out, and then the door closes on its anguish.
My office chair creaks dangerously as I relax back into it. The newsroom is just on the edge of darkness, kept awake by gently glowing monitors and emergency exit lights. The employees who had successfully wrestled their lives onto an adult path — who had responsibilities to occupy their evenings — had left for home hours earlier; Lena was the last of them. My only child is the paper’s Web site. It had launched in the early spring, six months ago, and through the previous winter I had tended to each pixel as though I was worried it would turn black in the bitter Northeast frost.
Tonight it’s a chart that’s keeping me at my desk: counts of teachers laid off in the last five years, an indictment of the city budget in five bars, that will go live before I reach the office tomorrow morning. I squint at the labels one last time before standing up too quickly, and pain sears my stiff muscles. I roll my neck and pull my purse onto a shoulder, switch off my monitor, briefly survey the small battlefield of empty coffee cups and abandoned drafts littering my desk, and turn to leave.
Near the glass doors something presses against my shoe, and before I have time to react I hear it break under me. I’m in the habit of channeling anxieties into my body to keep my mind clear, and I leap back dramatically, my back tensed. It’s a doll — it was a doll, my foot having severed an arm. A princess doll, outfitted in a frothy pink dress, the kind that traps real broken princesses in a cocoon of expectations and low self-esteem. Lena’s baby must have dropped the doll as they left.
I fold over softly onto my knees and reach for the broken arm. There’s a crescent-shaped scar across a corner of my left eyebrow where the hair hasn’t grown since I was six years old. My mother was not unlike Lena: beautiful, stringent, exhausted. When I was five years old I had owned this same doll and when I was six years old it was flung across the room and it struck my forehead and at my small height, through a film of tears, I watched my mother’s fingers begin to tremble, then shake, until she collapsed into a heap under the horrified weight of her own conscience and my childish forgiveness.
At editorial meetings Lena likes to talk about objectivity. She stands in front of the easel and scrawls in broad strokes: Your opinions are not your news. Your emotions are not your news. When my mother passed away last year objectivity was like a lead vest protecting me from an onslaught of emotions, or perhaps protecting me from revealing them. It was effective: no one asked questions. My feelings bled into each other like muddy paint across the rest of my life, but the office was a white canvas, and Lena made sure it stayed clean.
But I’ve long admitted I can’t measure up to Lena, I don’t have her dedication to the profession. I collect the doll’s pieces into my hands and draw myself into a corner near the glass doors, hold my knees, and cry.
Ananya Mehta writes programs and stories.