I start a game I call You’re Just So. It goes like this. “You’re Just So . . . Ahh, never mind.” I sigh. He takes the bait.
“Handsome. Intelligent. No, wait. Superior to everyone. You’re coming to your senses, Lucinda.”
Joshua locks his computer and opens his planner, one hand hovering over the cup with the pens and pencils. I hold my breath. He frowns and slaps the planner shut. The gray shirt should make him look like a cyborg, but he ends up looking handsome and intelligent. He is the worst.
“You’re Just So predictable.” Somehow I know this will cut him deep. His eyes become slits of hatred.
“Oh, am I? How so?”
You’re Just So basically gives both players free rein to tell the opponent how much they hate each other.
“Shirts. Moods. Patterns. People like you can’t succeed. If you ever acted out of character and surprised me, I’d die of shock.”
“Am I to take this as a personal challenge?” He looks at his desk, apparently deep in thought.
“I’d like to see if you attempt it. You’re Just So inflexible.”
“And You’re Just So flexible?”
“Very.” I fell right into that one, and it’s true. I could get my foot up to my face right now. I recover by raising an eyebrow and looking up at the ceiling with a smirk. By the time I lock eyes with him again, my mouth is a neutral little rosebud, mirrored off a hundred glittering surfaces.
He drops his eyes slowly down to the floor, and I cross my ankles, belatedly remembering I kicked off my shoes earlier. It’s hard to be a good nemesis when your bright red toenails are showing.
“If I did something out of character, you’d die of shock?”
I can see my face mirrored on the paneling near his shoulder. I look like a black-eyed, wild-maned version of myself. My dark hair falls around my shoulders in jagged flames.
“Might be worth my while then.”
Monday to Friday, he turns me into a scary-looking woman. I look like a gypsy fortune-teller screaming about your imminent death. A crazed lunatic in an asylum, seconds from clawing her own eyes out.
“Well, well. Lucinda Hutton. One flexible little gal.” He is reclining in his chair again. Both feet are flat on the floor and they point at me like revolvers in a Wild West shootout.
“HR,” I clip at him. I’m losing this game and he knows it. Calling HR is virtually like tapping out. He picks up the pencil and presses the sharpened tip against the pad of his thumb. If a human could grin without moving their face, he just did it.
“I meant, You’re Just So flexible in your approach to things. It must have been your wholesome upbringing, Shortcake. What do your parents do again? Could you remind me?”
“You know exactly what they do.” I’m too busy for this nonsense. I grab a stack of old Post-its and begin to sort them.
“They farm . . .”
He looks at the ceiling, pretending to be wracking his brains.
“They farm . . .” He leaves it dangling in the air for an eternity. It’s agony. I try not to fill in the silence, but the word that amuses him so much comes out of my mouth like a curse.
“Strawberries.” Hence the nickname Strawberry Shortcake. I indulge myself in molar grinding. My dentist will never know.
“Sky Diamond Strawberries. Cute. Look, I’ve got the blog bookmarked.” He does two double-clicks with his mouse and swivels his computer screen to face me.
I cringe so hard I sprain something internally. How did he find this? My mom’s probably calling out to my dad right now. Nigel, honey! The blog’s had a hit!
The Sky Diamond Daily. Yes, you heard right. Daily. I haven’t checked it in a while because I can’t keep up. Mom was a journalist with the local newspaper when she met Dad, but she quit to have me, and then they opened the farm. When you know her backstory, the daily entries make a sad kind of sense. I squint at Joshua’s screen. Today’s feature story is about irrigation.
Our farm supplies three local farmers’ markets as well as a grocery chain. There’s a field for tourists to pick their own and Mom sells jars of preserves. In hot weather, she makes homemade ice cream. Sky Diamond was certified organic two years ago, which was a pretty big deal for them. Business ebbs and flows, dependent on the weather.
When I go home I still have to take my turn at the front gate, explaining to visitors the flavor differences between Earliglow and Diamonte strawberries. Camino Reals and Everbearers. They all sound like the names of cool old cars. Not many people look at my name badge and make the connection with the farm’s name. The Beatles’ fans who do are deeply, smugly pleased with themselves.
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.”