Authors: Katrina Onstad
Ana was surrounded by men all day, and had been for years, but she didn’t understand them, really, their shimmery foreheads, their noise, their presumption.
Sarah listened, asked Ana questions that no one else asked her about intellectual property. “What’s the infringement?”
“Oh—it’s nothing. It’s a tech company suing another tech
company over storage device interfaces.” Sarah nodded lightly, her mouth pursed in listening. “I give the opinion. They ask for it, I give it.”
The men drifted off into a separate conversation about hockey. James talked from down on the rug with Finn, who attempted to pull himself along the edge of the coffee table. Every few minutes, James would grab him and make farting sounds on the baby’s belly, and the boy squealed with delight.
Ana’s certainty that she was dull was offset by the wine, which had the effect of speeding her up. So she told Sarah how there was a new young temp on her floor, a meek young woman merging documents for special projects.
“Special projects!” said Sarah. “I love that. Makes me think of birthday parties for handicapped people.”
This girl, Ruth, was off-putting. She hovered with a half smile, hoping someone would talk to her. The other day, her cardigan was buttoned wrong, and it dangled lopsided off her torso.
“I didn’t know if I should pull her aside and tell her.”
“What did you do?” Sarah asked. “I know what I’d do.” (Only later did this aside come back to Ana. In the night, she jolted awake: What would Sarah do? Why does she know so easily?)
“I did tell her, but late in the day. Around three. She was mortified, too, and since then, she’s seemed kind of angry with me. She walked right by me yesterday, and not even the office nod.”
“That’s fucked,” said James. Ana startled. She hadn’t known he was listening.
“Is it? She’s the youngest woman on our floor, she’s not even a lawyer, and I criticize how she looks. Doesn’t that affirm
a certain currency for her?” Ana frowned. “Maybe I did it because I’m threatened.”
“But you were trying to help her,” said Marcus.
“But I only drew attention to her. I didn’t help.”
No one said anything, and in that silence, Finn grew frustrated, unable to walk more than a few steps along the coffee table without falling. He sputtered: “Bababa! Ba!”
“Oh no!” said James, grabbing Finn under the armpits. James held him out for the pass, and both Sarah and Marcus stood up quickly, extending their arms.
“Oh!” said James, holding Finn under the armpits, jokingly waving the baby back and forth between his parents. “Who loves me more? Who loves me more?”
“Here,” said Sarah, stepping forward, blocking Marcus with her body. Ana tried to find Marcus’s face, offer a small smile to diffuse the puff of humiliation in the air, but he was looking to the side, and Ana was stuck with it, this unreceived grin.
A stuffed bear and several blankets were gathered, the baby placed inside his jacket, all with great efficiency. Ana offered a Tupperware container of leftovers, which Sarah at first resisted, and then slipped into the bottom of the stroller.
At the foot of Ana and James’s walk, a group of young people appeared out of the darkness, the girls with bare legs and metallic purses. Cell phones bulged from the boys’ hip pockets. Their loud directionless voices crisscrossed one another.
The two couples watched them from the porch.
“It’s nice that there are still students around here,” said Sarah.
“Except they don’t know when to take out the garbage,” said Ana.
“And they play their shit music all night,” said James.
“If it was better music, would you mind?” asked Marcus, laughing.
“It doesn’t even have words,” said James.
“Jazz doesn’t have words,” said Ana.
Marcus lifted the stroller with Finn tucked inside, moving down the path toward the sidewalk. Sarah followed him. The students remained, their talking elevated to yelling. They did not move to make way.
“Right on!” shouted a boy into his phone. It was a signal to go; plans had been made. They passed through Sarah and Marcus and the baby like ghosts walking through walls.
Marcus put his hands up to his shoulders, palms out, and shrugged.
Sarah and Marcus waved as they walked away, pushing the stroller, calling thank-yous behind them as Ana and James stood on the porch, James’s arm protectively around his wife, wondering if anyone else had noticed that Ana had never once held the baby.
NA STARED OUT
the window at another tower just like hers. She looked at her watch: Finn would be at daycare, still. But James would be picking him up soon, and they would leave together, hand in hand, she was certain. She let that feeling push itself across her chest.
For a while, there had been a blond woman about Ana’s age in the office across the way. One day they were wearing the same navy polka-dotted blouse—an unusual blouse, expensive—and Ana laughed at the mirror image. The next time it happened, Ana spontaneously waved at the woman, gesturing to their matching shirts. But the woman didn’t respond, kept typing, her head bowed in a willful manner. When Ana returned from the bathroom, the woman had drawn her blinds. Embarrassed, Ana did the same.
Now the office was occupied by a man who sat with his back to the window, his curly hair somehow childlike over the collar of his shirt. That choice, to turn one’s back to the window, seemed obscene to Ana.
She started, spinning her chair toward the door.
“Having a moment to yourself?” asked Christian. Everything he said came off like he wasn’t so much talking to her as gathering information for a dossier he was preparing about her faults.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“An opinion,” he said. “We need it fast, but I don’t think it’s complicated.”
Ana wanted to say:
Now, why would I do that for you?
Instead, she said: “I’m quite busy right now.”
“Looks like it,” said Christian with a barking laugh. He behaved like a businessman from a movie, without one sincere gesture in his repertoire.
But, in fact, he had found her with an open space in her schedule, now that the servers trial had begun. She had been wondering what would come next. The impermanence was what she loved about being a research lawyer: the presentation of a problem, its resolution, and then a new problem. Litigation hadn’t worked for her—all that noise and bluster—but up here, on the fifteenth floor, her inwardness was a virtue. She billed high and long; her bonuses arrived twice a year. But that wasn’t why she loved it: She was vicious in her determination to make the law understood. She hacked problems into tiny pieces and spent hours on the computer, trawling databases until she had solved each question, wrapped it in understanding from every direction. Then she presented the finished product, the opinion, to the lawyers, who crowed and hollered. She was a costumier, arming them for battle.
But she preferred not to work with Christian. His officiousness, his white teeth. There were other research lawyers he could use, but he always came to her.
“What is it?”
“Biotech. That old chestnut …” He adopted the booming voice of a news anchor. “Should higher life-forms be patentable?” She knew the law, had mined it several times for several different cases: Humans couldn’t be patented, but seeds could.
“They’re suing that farmer.”
Ana had anticipated this. It had been in the news that Emcor, one of the firm’s multimillion-dollar clients, had been knocking on the doors of farmers when their trademarked seeds, genetically modified to perfection, began to turn into crops on the fields of farmers who hadn’t bought them. The farmers said they didn’t know how it happened, blaming the wind. Intellectual property theft, the Emcor representatives called it. Ana pictured men in suits handing subpoenas over white picket fences to men in overalls.
“Soybeans,” she said.
“Right. Those naughty farmers are infringing.”
She couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.
“Really, Ana,” he said, leaning in. “I need your wisdom. I’m in over my head, I think.” He said it like it could never be true.
Ruth appeared in the doorway, looking tidier today, her hair pulled back, her skin clear. Ruth the Temp, but could she still be temporary? She had become a fixture, a shadow of slouch in the halls.
“Leave the file,” Ana said, and Christian gushed his thanks, blew her a kiss on his way out.
“What can I do for you, Ruth?” asked Ana.
Ruth sat down, pulling her skirt over her knees.
“I just wanted to see if, you know, you’d had a chance to talk to your husband.” Ana cocked her head, blank. “Do you remember? When you said that about me maybe talking to him?”
Ana winced. The invitation. For a year, the girl had been silently waiting for Ana to set her up with James, to discuss her career path.
“I’m so sorry,” Ana said. “James isn’t even working in TV these days.”
Ruth’s mouth closed, and her face, which seemed as if it could fall no further, did so, reddening.
“We’ve had an intense few days,” said Ana. Then she tried it on, saying it out loud for the first time, slowly: “A friend of ours died, and we’re looking after his little boy.” Where was Sarah in this version? She couldn’t bring herself to say it; the mawkishness was overkill, the story unconvincing.
“What do you mean?”
It was not a response Ana had expected.
“Just what I said. So I’m unusually tired.”
Ruth nodded. “My sister has two kids.” Ana saw a flash of silver in mouth: a stud through her tongue. “Someone’s always puking or throwing a shitfit or something.…”
Ana tried to picture Ruth at a job interview. No one in here possessed a sense of humor, so what was it that got her hired?
“Mmm,” said Ana. Ruth rose, mumbling, and something in that incomprehensible sound prompted Ana to say: “I’ll talk to him, though. Maybe next month you can come by. When we’re more settled.”
Ruth nodded, walked out, leaving Ana to her window. Then suddenly she reappeared: “I could, like, babysit for you or something if you needed it. You know, if you need any help or anything.”
Ana smiled, surprised.
“Thanks, Ruth,” she said. “That’s very sweet.”
Ana watched Ruth shuffle out into the hum of the office and wait for two people to pass. When there was enough space between
them and her, she trailed behind like a footman, head bowed.
Ana remembered that she and Ruth had almost entered each other’s lives once. Though it had occurred nearly a year ago, she could recall it vividly because it was one of those times when she and James had been clawing toward parenthood.
She had walked a long time that day, looking for a place to eat, past the smoky glass of Ki, glancing at its leather banquettes and ceiling of long, narrow lamps dangling like shining knives. She had recognized a group of associates, with Christian at the center. Usually they waited until after work. But she sensed in these younger ones a retro dream, a wish to return to the three-martini lunches and sharp suits of the old days. The corporate credit card that Ana kept tucked behind her driver’s license, unused, was at the front of their wallets, ready for the draw.
She had gone farther than usual, away from Bay Street, rejecting the subterranean food courts, past the high-end sushi restaurant where the counter was surrounded by a river, and the sashimi rode past in a little boat, and you could reach out your hand and pluck whatever you wanted.
Off King Street, on a quieter one-way street crowded with delivery vans and bicycle couriers, a man approached. Noting his tank top, Ana thought:
Is it that warm out today?
But then she saw that he was muttering to himself, his face covered in deep, bloody acne, his fingernails running up and down his arm like he was doing scales. She tried to decide which way to go, and bobbed and weaved. He mirrored her and then stopped abruptly, face-to-face, smelling like urine. He shot her a fuck-you look.
Ana pulled her coat tight around her and walked away quickly. She felt the man’s eyes on her back, watching her like she was a celebrity. She turned into the next restaurant she saw, a sushi place with a ring of half-dead Christmas lights around the window. As soon as she set foot inside, she knew it was a bad idea. The room was almost empty; only a couple of teenagers, possibly cutting school (undiscriminating diners; cheap), sat together in the window. A smell overwhelmed her, something chemical, treacherous. A waitress swarmed her with unidentifiable Asian chatter, ushered her to a table with a hand on Ana’s back. Ana found herself seated in a booth, looking at a greasy menu, a dollop of something red crusted to the center of the photograph of a Hockey Sushi Box.
Ana tried to relax. She liked her lunch hour, waited for its arrival, mourned its conclusion. Most people in her office didn’t take lunch. They ate out of Styrofoam boxes at their desks. But Ana went out a few days a week, speaking to no one, reveling in her anonymity. Often she would stop at the kitchen store or the storage store and peruse the towers of large plastic containers. She sometimes bought something small, the Portofino Office Storage Box in olive, with the faux-leather grained top. She had a stack of these boxes in different sizes and colors—chocolate, cranberry, pastel floral—in a wedding cake shape on a shelf next to her desk at work. Sometimes, while on the phone with other lawyers, she surprised herself by noticing that as she talked, she was stroking the boxes, so beautiful she couldn’t bear to put anything inside them.
In the restaurant, she had pulled out an old issue of
The New Yorker
that Sarah had dug out for her. She was halfway through a story on Raymond Carver and his editor that Sarah had insisted she read, saying, “Oh, Ana, you would love this.”
But as she read about Carver, too drunk to notice his editor thieving his words, she couldn’t fathom why Sarah had recommended it. She often seemed to hold an image of Ana that was entirely foreign to Ana’s own conception of herself. Sarah had told Ana when they first met that she thought Ana looked like a figure skater. Even James had no idea what this meant.