Home > The Hating Game(8)

The Hating Game(8)
Author: Sally Thorne

I bet you can guess what I eat when I’m homesick.

“No. You didn’t. How did you—”

“And you know, there’s the nicest family picture somewhere . . . here.” He clicks again, barely needing to glance at the screen. His eyes light with evil amusement as he watches me.

“How nice. It’s your parents, right? Who’s this adorable little girl with black hair? Is it your little cousin? No . . . It’s a pretty old picture.” He makes the picture fill his entire screen.

I’m turning redder than a flippin’ strawberry. It’s me, of course. It’s a photo I don’t think I’ve ever seen. The blurred treeline in the background orients me instantly. I turned eight when my parents put those new rows into the west quarter block. Business was picking up then, which accounts for the pride in my parents’ smiles. I’m not ashamed of my parents, but it never ceases to amuse those who were raised in the city. Most white-collar jackasses like Joshua find it so quaint and cute. They imagine my family as simple folk, hillbillies on the side of a hill covered in rambling vines. For people like Joshua, strawberries come from the store prepackaged in plastic boxes.

In this picture, I’m sprawled at my parents’ feet like a foal. I’m wearing stained, dirty short overalls and my crinkly dark hair is a scribble. I have my patchwork library satchel looped around my body, no doubt crammed with The Baby-Sitters Club and old-fashioned horse stories. One of my hands is in a plant, the other filled with berries. I’m flushed from sun and possibly a vitamin C overdose. Maybe it’s why I’m so small. It stunted my growth.

“You know, she looks a lot like you. Maybe I should send the link in an all-staff email to B&G, asking them who they think this wild little girl could be.” He is visibly trembling with the need to laugh.

“I will kill you.”

I do look completely wild in this photo. My eyes are lighter than the sky as I squint against the sun and do my best big smile. The same smile I’ve been doing all my life. I begin to feel a pressure in my throat, a burning in my sinuses.

I stare at my parents; they’re both so young. My dad’s back is straight in this photo, but each time I go home he’s a little more stooped over. I flick my eyes to Joshua, and he doesn’t look like he wants to laugh anymore. My eyes prick with tears before I stop to think of where I am and whom I’m sitting opposite.

He turns his computer screen back slowly, taking his time closing the browser, a typical male, awkward at the sight of female tears. I swivel and look up at the ceiling, trying to make them drain back down to where they came from.

“But we were talking about me. What can I do to be more like you?” An eavesdropper would think he sounds almost kind.

“You could try to stop being such an asshole.” It comes out in a whisper. In the reflection on the ceiling I see his brow begin to crease. Oh lord. Concern.

Our computers chime a reminder: All-staff meeting, fifteen minutes. I smooth my eyebrows and fix my lipstick, using the wall as my mirror. I drag my hair down into a low bun with difficulty, using the hair elastic on my wrist. I ball up a tissue and press it into the corner of each eye.

The unsaid word homesick continues to rattle inside my chest. Lonely. When I open my eyes, I can see he’s standing and can see my reflection. The pencil is in his hand.

“What?” I snap at him. He’s won. He’s made me cry. I stand up and grab a folder. He grabs a folder too, and we’re seamlessly into the Mirror Game. We each knock lightly twice on our respective boss’s door.

Come in, we are simultaneously beckoned.

Helene is frowning at her computer. She’s more a typewriter kind of woman. She used one sometimes before we moved here, and I loved hearing the rhythmic clacking of keys from her office. Now it’s in one of her cabinets. She was afraid of Fat Little Dick mocking her.

“Hi. We’ve got an all-staff in fifteen, remember? Down in the main boardroom.”

She sighs heavily and raises her silver-screen eyes to me. They’re big, dark, expressive and sparsely lashed under fine eyebrows. I can detect no trace of makeup on her face bar a rose lipstick.

She moved here with her parents from France when she was sixteen and even though she’s now in her early fifties, she still has the remnants of a growly purr in her voice.

Helene doesn’t notice that she is elegant, which makes her even more so.

She wears her hair in a short, neat cut. Her short nails are always painted cream pink. She buys all of her clothes in Paris before visiting her elderly parents in Saint-Étienne. The plain wool sweater she’s wearing now probably cost more than three full carts of groceries.

In case it’s not painfully clear, I idolize her. She’s the reason I stopped wearing so much eye makeup. I want to be her when I grow up.

Her favorite word is darling. “Darling Lucy,” she says now, holding out her hand. I put the folder into it. “Are you all right?”

“Allergies. My eyes are itchy.”

“Hmm, that’s no good.”

She scans the agenda. For bigger meetings we’d do a bit more preparation, but the all-staffs are pretty straightforward since the division heads are doing most of the talking. The CEOs are there mainly to show involvement.

“Alan turned fifty?”

“I ordered a cake. We’ll bring it out at the end.”

“Good for morale,” Helene replies absently. She opens her mouth, then hesitates. I watch her try to choose her words.

“Bexley and I are making an announcement at this meeting. It’s very significant for you. We’ll talk about it straight after the meeting.”

My stomach twists. I’m fired for sure.

“No, it’s good news, darling.”

The all-staff meeting goes according to plan. I don’t sit next to Helene during these meetings, but instead prefer to sit with the others, mingling in. It’s my way of reminding them I’m part of the team, but I still feel their reserve with me. Do they honestly imagine me snitching to Helene about their shitty days?

Joshua sits beside Fat Little Dick at the head of the table. Both are disliked and seem to sit together inside a bubble of invisibility.

Alan is pink and pleased when I bring out the cake. He’s a crusty old Bexley from somewhere in the bowels of the finance section, which makes me feel even better about making the effort for him. I’ve passed a pretty frosting-covered peace offering over the fence between the two camps. It’s how we Gamins roll. In Bexleyville they probably mark birthdays with a new calculator battery.

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