After Thanksgiving, when our work slowed, we found a fake Christmas tree in the stockroom. We took it to the breakroom and tag-teamed its assembly, removing limbs from the box, passing them around, attaching them to the trunk. We hummed a carol but stopped when we found a clump of plastic greenery that didn’t belong. Mistletoe. We knew what to do.
One of us stood on a chair and taped the clump to the breakroom doorway. The rest kept watch in case an older employee, one of those with a salary, mortgage, and career path, came along. They wouldn’t scold us for not working—they never did, they acted like we weren’t even flesh and bone—but seeing us on a chair hanging mistletoe would give them one more reason to think of us as inferior, as children.
We spent our whole lunch hour trimming the tree. Normally, we would linger at the breakroom tables and talk. We were all, always, hungry. We finished half the salads we brought from home and let the rest spoil in the fridge. When one of the older adults posted a note, YOUR MOTHER DOESN’T WORK HERE, we let our salads rot another week out of spite. We were young and hopeful about our futures, which we expected to be glamorous and rewarding. Dieting and doing aerobics fed our hopes. Improving our bodies would improve our prospects. To reach our goals, we would have to stick together.
Most of us had lost weight during our months of answering calls at the anesthesia company’s headquarters, but Maeve, who started out with a spare tire and more to lose—which is to say, she was really overweight—didn’t. She rarely brought salads from home. She dropped her quarters into the vending machines and took out a Diet Coke and a bag of Lay’s. She set the open bag on the table, extracted the potato chips one by one, and chewed like the chips might bite her back. To everyone’s surprise, Maeve gained weight. She swore she didn’t eat breakfast and not much of a dinner. We believed her. She was unlucky. We loaned her our videotapes—“Abs, Buns, and Thighs,” “Get Up and Dance with Paula Abdul.” She said she used them. All those crunches made her stomach ache. She asked how often she could use the tapes and we said every day, thinking that she ought to.
After we hung the mistletoe, we would sit at the tables and watch the breakroom door and wish for certain men, like Hassan, the handsome human resources director, to pause so someone could ambush him. Who would be bold enough when the moment came? We made bets as we speared our salads. We drank water and tea without sugar. After none of the adults noticed the mistletoe, we pointed it out, and all we got out of them was, “Oh.”
We arranged garland and scented candles elsewhere in the office, a low, beige building on the interstate’s service road a half-hour train ride from downtown. We planned a holiday party and organized a Secret Santa exchange. Expecting the older adults to forget their gifts for those whose name we’d assigned them (not randomly, as we schemed to spark office romances), we wrapped extra gifts, suggestive things like massage lotions and large elastic bands that could be used for exercising or for bondage restraints in our imaginations, but we thought never in the adults’ imaginations. We had busy, uncomplicated sex lives and they had none.
On the afternoon of the holiday party, we made a punch with three kinds of liquor. We followed a recipe, feeling restrained and sophisticated, and were surprised when the punch turned out a neon green. We tidied the breakroom, set out platters of cookies, and waited for the adults to join us with their good-sport faces.
Soon after the party started, the room was just as loud, crowded, and humid as we’d hoped it would get. We stood near the punch bowl and filled and refilled cups. We felt the older adults sizing us up, finally noticing us. We watched them get tipsy. We drank just as much but held our booze better.
Suddenly, Maeve ran out of the breakroom, and we had to stop what we were doing and run after her. We huddled in the stockroom.
Maeve had a name that didn’t suit our generation, but it suited her. She permed her hair, which was something the rest of us would never do. She painted her nails maroon or frosted plum. She wore a charm bracelet. She would show us the charms and describe each one like she was giving a tour of historical ruins: a flute from when she played in high school; a four-leaf clover because she was part Irish; a beer stein, a souvenir from when she’d traveled to Frankenmuth, Michigan; and a race car in remembrance of her father, who had left her life long ago, although she didn’t say what “left my life” meant or what the racecar had to do with him.
On the day of the party, she was wearing an unfortunate outfit, a black knit sweater with a green zigzag across the belly that brought attention to her size. What choice did she have? None of us could afford new clothes.
“Dee asked when my baby was due!” She gulped and sobbed.
We tightened our hold on her. We nursed our outrage. Maeve worked so hard—eating less than any of us, maybe exercising more—and Dee, drinking and unable to hold her tongue, had spat this cruelty. Dee, a manager in marketing, was blonde and petite. She could eat anything and never get fat. Once, she had referred to us as “underlings” within our hearing. She had complained that the computer we installed in her office was “off-gassing” and went home with an “oppressive” headache. She made us open her windows and bring in a fan and told us to call her after the smell was gone, but since we couldn’t smell anything unusual before opening the windows, we never called her.
We hugged Maeve hard. She moaned, “I can’t understand.” She smelled like talcum powder and Poison perfume. We felt her plump middle section against our waists. Some of us secretly thought Dee could be forgiven for thinking Maeve was pregnant. We whispered, “Hold your head up. Ignore her.” Our long hair caught in Maeve’s hoop earrings when we parted, and she thanked us.