The tinted glass doors slid open when Tanya approached them, smooth and silent. She’d always thought they suited the building perfectly, but now they just seemed gratuitous.
As she was leaving, she spotted the receptionist at the front desk out of the corner of her eye. It was the same receptionist that had very kindly greeted her on her first day of work and showed her the way to her supervisor’s office. Tanya stuttered in her stride, almost turning to go over to the desk and say good-bye.
Her head turned, for a good five seconds, but her body didn’t, and she walked straight through the tinted glass doors.
Tanya’s car, a grey Honda which she purchased second-hand, was parked on the side of the street in a one-hour parking spot. In fact, it hadn’t even taken that long to collect her things. It was a small cubicle that she had occupied, featuring cream-colored walls and a fun spinny chair. Yet, it was no more unique than the dozens of other cubicles boxing her in.
The cubicle held a rather old-fashioned CPU that contrasted with a sleek monitor, a coat hanger that left less space if you hung your coat as opposed to just wearing it, various stationery that belonged in a Staples ad, and Tanya’s personal items, which really just consisted of a messenger bag.
Two months ago, on Tanya’s 25th birthday, she had needed to work overtime. She had received birthday cards and tiny trinkets from exactly four of her co-workers (yes, she counted), and had pasted them on the walls of her cubicles. Now, they were the only things she had come in to take down, stuff in her bag, and put them away somewhere at home where they would never be seen again unless she accidentally dug them out while cleaning the apartment.
After putting the boxes away in the trunk, Tanya stepped into the driver’s seat, pulling off her bag and placing it in the seat beside her. Her right hand went to her left wrist, scratching at the skin exposed by the narrow gap between her analog watch and her arm.
Her watch had caught the attention of her boss one time, back when she had first joined the company. Her boss had glanced at it and asked, “Why do you wear an analog watch? I feel like it’s so outdated, don’t you think?”
Tanya had had no response, unable to offer up anything except a meek smile and a murmur of agreement. A barrage of thoughts crashed through her mind like waves against a cliff, but not a word of it was freed.
As she walked away, she could have sworn she heard the barest hint of a snicker from behind her.
Even though that was only her fourteenth day working there, she had clocked out early, against her better judgement.
Her sour attitude had lasted throughout that evening. It had to, since Tanya couldn’t exactly justify herself out loud. The watch was one thing. It didn’t mean that she wasn’t fun, you know. She was fun. She was hip. Even her parents were hip. When she had visited them in Kolkata the previous year, she had taken them to see Gangubai Kathiawadi. Neither of them had said anything about the themes of sexuality and prostitution. Tanya was damn proud for it, too. She had had a lovely conversation with her mother about female solidarity and Alia Bhatt’s acting, and then they had gone home.
It was the middle of the afternoon when they got back, but something in Tanya had urged her to call her sister. Maybe it was the movie she had just seen. So she sat down with her phone, parked prim and proper on her bed, nails digging into the mattress slightly.
Her sister had picked up on the seventh ring of the second call. “Hello?”
“Hi, Kritika.” Her instincts had been right.
“Oh, hi, Didi! Sorry, it’s—” Deep bass blared into the speaker for a moment, before the call picked up again. “It’s really loud in here! How are you?”
“I’m good. Where are you?”
“At a party!”
Tanya’s eyebrows creased slightly. “A party? Isn’t it like 4 AM over there?”
“It’s an all-night thing, Didi. It’s like, part of this—oh, sorry, it’s my sister! My—yeah—”
“Kritika, I can’t hear you.”
“Sorry, Didi—god, I’m literally putting my fingers in my ears right now—I was saying it’s part of this new club downtown, it’s like a thing they’re doing! For promo!”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you must know, you’ve been to college. Missing you, Didi!”
That brought a small smile to Tanya’s face. “Miss you too, Kriti.”
“Tanu! You can’t say that now! Tanuuuu…Tanu and Kriti. Yaar…” Kritika was slurring now.
“Are you drunk?”
“What are you saying? Oh shit, my nail—” The line went dead.
I’m sure you must know, you’ve been to college.
Yeah, Tanya knew. Knew that that was the lie she’d like everyone to keep believing.
After that call, Tanya had gone out to the local vendor five minutes from her place, and bought a pack of cigarettes. Her hands shook as she handed over a couple of bills. She didn’t smoke, but she wanted it in her room. But she could find no hiding place better than the top of her cabinet.
It probably remained there even now. Her parents had never said anything. It was probably gathering dust at the corners. Not just at the corners, actually. All over.
The cigarette box had looked old when she picked it up. Like it had been sitting in the store for years. But it still felt newer than this memory. And in retrospect, it had felt newer than her, back then.
Tanya pulled the car up to the grocery store, narrowly wedging her car in between a pick-up truck and a convertible colored a rather garish shade of yellow. She stepped out, cloth bags in hand, and walked through more automatic doors.
“Welcome in! Can I help you with anything?” warbled a cheery cashier who looked no older than eighteen and had a pink stripe in her hair. Tanya almost ignored her—her head turned, but her body didn’t—but then she said, “No thanks.”
She headed straight for the Bath and Bodyworks section, which honestly could have been a whole store on its own. It comprised at least 5 aisles of bottles, tubs, and boxes, vividly painted with hundreds of hues. Well, most of them were, anyway. Probably about 25% of the products were made up of more clunky looking packaging and monochromatic tones. Their logos contrasted with the clean, modern ones that were paired with a pun or catchphrase. Rather, they portrayed models, and writing in tiny, old fonts, and artwork that looked like a bad PNG found on Google Images.
The thing is, though, Tanya trusted those brands more than any new or stylish ones. She had used those her whole life growing up, because her family never spent more than what was necessary. Sure, these other companies may boast “skin revitalization” and “anti-aging” and what not, but all she really needed was body wash. She didn’t need a face wash that had hyaluronic acid - she didn’t even need a face wash at all. She just needed to be clean.
Never mind that a former co-worker had once, about two weeks ago, for reasons entirely unknown to her, pointed at her cheek and said to the entire office at large, “Dude, what is that? Are you ok?”
He had then proceeded to educate her on the wonders of face wash and how “it would really get rid of that shit, bro!”
Tanya wanted to tell him that face wash doesn’t help with discoloration, that nothing she had ever tried had fucking worked. Didn’t he know that she had already fucking tried? That she had bought every product she could find labelled “skin brightening”? That she, too, wanted to be fair and lovely? Bro?
She wanted to yell it to the apocalypse, to the hellish flames of Tartarus.
After the guy finished his opinionated rant and left for lunch, another co-worker had sidled up to her.
“That was kinda uncalled for, honestly. You didn’t choose to have this face.”
Weird phrasing, but ok. “Yeah, I don’t really know what that was about. I just wanna do my job and go home.”
“I get that. That must have felt pretty brutal, huh?”
“I’ve heard it before, but this time it was just unnecessary, I think. Not that it ever is necessary, but…you know? I just feel like…”
“I don’t know. That guy’s a fucking asshole. I feel like I shouldn’t be saying that, but it’s true. He’s a jerk and I honestly never wanna see his stupid face again.”
“...There you go. You can be honest with me.”
So Tanya ranted. Because she never did. And it had felt good to get back at him.
The words were no longer nailed to the ground.
A rainbow of nail polish bottles lined the walls. Tanya averted her eyes, picking a generic brand of body wash that cost $3.59.
She brought the singular bottle over to the check out, back to the peppy cashier, who grabbed it from her, scanned it and plonked it down on the other side. “Alright, your total is $3.92. Would you like to pay by cash or card?”
“Alright, and do you have a membership—”
“No, I don’t.”
“Ok, just tap whenever you’re ready!”
“I don’t know if I need to be ready for that,” Tanya mumbled, placing her card against the reader.
The cashier let out a small snort. Tanya glanced up, bewildered. Something sour instantly curdled in her chest, like a defense mechanism. “Are you—laughing?”
The girl waved her hands wildly. “Oh no, I’m so sorry, not at you! It’s just—you’re right, like, I don’t really know why we have to say that. It’s not like a test, you don’t exactly need to be ready for it.”
Tanya smiled. “Oh…yeah, I guess so.”
The sky had blended into hues of indigo and caramel by the time Tanya walked out of the store. She took out her phone, an iPhone 8 with a singular crack snaking through the screen, and unlocked it. Her battery was already at 30%.
Someone had seen her phone once at work. “Hey, isn’t that phone from like 5 years ago?”
Tanya’s hands clenched around it. Her face felt like it was plastered in cement. “Yeah, it’s pretty old, I just don’t see the point in buying a new one. It still works.”
The other person nodded like they understood. “I suppose that makes sense.”
They had gone their way, and Tanya had continued down the hall, into her supervisor’s office, planting herself like a toy soldier in front of his desk.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
“Yes, thank you for coming in, Tanya.” her supervisor said gruffly, the desk chair creaking. He always pronounced her name with a hard “T”, like in “Tonya Harding”, instead of a soft one, like in “thumb”.
Her supervisor spoke casually, not dissimilar to when they had first met. “I’m afraid I have some rather unfortunate news for you. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you are fired.”
“...What? I’m fired?”
“Yes, very sorry about that.”
“Um, may I ask why?”
By this point, her supervisor was already rifling through papers on his desk, but he answered. “We were informed by someone that you had been bad-mouthing one of your superiors, who, according to the information, was only trying to help you in…skincare, I believe? As I’m sure you know from our company’s workplace harassment policy, gossip and defamation is not tolerated at the workplace. As such, the higher-ups have made the decision to fire you for improper conduct.”
Tanya’s words floated within her, bouncing off the walls of her ribcage, but none welled up. Her supervisor glanced up at her briefly, looking at her over the rim of his glasses. “Truly sorry.”
That was the third time he’d said that, and as he said it, the dialogue streamed into static.
The static continued as Tanya left the room, walked the corridors, reached her cubicle.
It never stopped.
Tanya pulled up her recent calls, clicking on the number fourth from the top. After three rings, the line picked up.
“Hi Amma,” Tanya said, fumbling with her keys in one hand.
“Hi, Tanu! I just got up half an hour ago. Where are you?” Her mother’s voice sounded like warm honey, even crackling through the phone, somewhat distorted. It coated her, muffling the outside.
“Just at the store,” Tanya replied. She unlocked the car, almost getting inside, but then her head turned, and her body turned with it, and she leaned against the door instead, crossing one leg over the other and bringing her hand up to her chest.
“Amma…I miss you.”
“Aww…I miss you too, Tanu. We’ll see each other soon, haa?”
“Yeah. Also, I have to tell you…” Tanya trailed off, biting her lip. An uncomfortable feeling rose in her gut, like bubbling lava.
“Yeah. I got takeout ‘cuz I just didn’t feel like cooking today. But I don’t know if it was the right decision. It cost me a lot of money. And it might make my stomach hurt.”
The lies would, anyway.
Tanya could feel her mother’s confusion through the phone. “Tanu, what? You got takeout?”
“Yeah. I got takeout.”
“And you are not sure if it was correct?”
“Yeah,” Tanya murmured, pressing her nail into her thigh, the sensation stinging slightly. “I know it sounds dumb, but—can you help me?”
Her mother spoke, kindness dripping through the line. “Tanu, don’t worry. I am sure takeout was the right decision if you are tired today. I know you work hard.”
“I do, right?”
“Yes, yes, you do. And it is ok if it did not…feel right. These things happen.”
“It’s ok, right?”
“It’s ok. Tomorrow, you might not be so tired.” Her mother took a deep breath. “I love you, Tanu.”
“Love you too, Amma. Bye.”
Tanya ended the call and powered her phone off—it was at 10%. The lava was still present, but now it was less bubbling, more simmering. She got into her car and started the engine, the vehicle rumbling to life.
Maybe she’d cook pasta.