The Best Time I was Publicly Humiliated by a Colleague
I sometimes say that a woman feels most vulnerable when she is either a.) naked, or b.) eating, so when the sentence dropped into my silence, I was afraid.
“You’re so much hotter than you let yourself be.” She was studying me with a look that felt penetrating, pan-searing.
I’d done an editorial internship the summer after graduating college, and she’d been one of my rope-teaching superiors. While I was no longer associated with the magazine, I was still hanging around town and so continued to be included in the party e-vites. These were events I went to with gusto, and some fear. They were stocked with all the culture I’d generally accused my hometown of lacking; but for all the import beer, Whole Foods, obscure music, and tantalizing literary types, there was the inkling that I was an imposter in such a circle (and furthermore knew nothing about anything). Also, side-room pep talks with the editor—a sporadic mentor—could equal parts inspire and deflate me; telling him that I was still living at home and working at T.G.I. Friday’s was not at the top of my to-do list.
My ex-superior and a guy I’d never met with the Mississippi River system tattooed on his forearm had started speaking French on the back patio, at which point I retreated to the kitchen. Ginger beer (alcohol-free, I would discover after it was too late) required no author opinions nor grungily-romantic hobo stories. Somehow they’d found me here, though, my eyes full of fear, my mouth full of lemon cookies.
“Uh,” I said, laughing, because she was joking, right? “I’m not sure if I should take that as an insult or a compliment.”
I remember it like a matriarchal face-off before a rumble—her directly across, the only other female in the room, flanked by strange men. There was the new associate editor, a gentle-voiced guy from New York; his friend with the tat, who’d come here to write a novel; and a visiting author from New Orleans, camera in tow. I was meeting them all tonight for the first or second time.
“I just mean, you could be so much more attractive than you allow yourself to be.”
Coughing-laugh noises from the audience.
“I disagree, for the record,” the new associate editor offered from his corner of the bar top.
I was regretting my decision to wear the 80s-lesbian-power-suit jacket. I’d wanted it to say “casual and bold!” But I wasn’t all that bold, and maybe I looked better in skirts. Maybe it, along with antisocial snacking, was not becoming. (“Not becoming”: words the editor would use to describe my current lack of direction.)
More nervous laughter from my side. She finally indicated her beef: I didn’t act as intelligent as I was. I only dated dumb, traditionally attractive guys.
I might have pointed out here that her boyfriend had the jaw structure of a 90s rom-com heartthrob and that she had never met a single one of mine. But I had grown up in the Bible Belt and was inclined to submit. Maybe she had my best interest at heart.
“Really? Do you think so?” I did seem to have a thing for men who were into sports instead of reading. Men who snapped, “Spit it out!” in a no-nonsense way that felt justified, if a little jarring.
“Yes,” she said like she was blessing my heart. “You act like a dumbass.”
There was something about the word—dumbass—the texture of it in the room. Toothed, slapping, like a big, cold fish hitting me in the face. I’d noticed that breaths and voices had been sucked up, as if the vents were hoovering tension. Mississippi River guy had made a quiet exit.
“I don’t think that’s fair…” I began.
I’ve been told there’s something about me that invites destruction. Friends and lovers have corroborated the claim, in one way or another. When explaining it to me, my college roommate used the illustration of sibling rivalry. Her younger sister would cry, recoil, fumble words—and this made my college roommate angrier. It fed something in her, a mean little flame.
“You do. You act like a dumbass so boys will like you.”
I might’ve begun with the defining infatuation of my youth: an aloof boy three years my senior who listened to indie music and wore church polos ironically. I’d tried to become more sophisticated. Affect the alluring melancholy of Sylvia Plath. Later I would swear off trying to win the approval of someone who would throw the fourteen-year-old version of myself out on her heart. (Sure, she was bubbly, and posted Avril Lavigne lyrics on her AIM away messages—not ironically—but in many ways she was more earnest than I could ever hope to be.) I might’ve mentioned the time my (female) tenth grade English teacher took me out in the hallway to ask, had I used the Internet for the poem analysis assignment? Had I gotten outside help, maybe a family member? Was I sure? The time my (male) political science professor told me I was a talented writer, but called me a flake and advised me to step up and “stop being a goofball.” (I’d been making As in his classes. Did he possess some sixth sense for my all-nighter crams, my serial procrastination? Or was this just his shtick to keep students on their toes?) I might’ve mentioned that, during the internship, I’d taken to reading articles with titles like “Subtle Ways Women Undermine Themselves in the Office” and trying to be aware of how often I cocked my head or said statements like questions during magazine meetings.
Instead I opted for the panicked, soupy, “I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but I suppose it’s possible—”
“You act like a dumbass, and it’s sad.” She was collecting momentum or righteous indignation. I remember being surprised at the number of times and with what delight she seemed to wield the word.
My mother is possibly the most hard-working, self-sacrificing, kind, and all-around genuinely cute woman I know; taking advantage of her had been like second nature. She’d surrender her portion of dessert, never demand help with the dishes, habitually allow her sleep to be interrupted by us, the dog, my dad’s snoring. It was like her life was spent in hopeful waiting that other people would be benevolent enough to restore her, and the older I got, the more I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to stop being so ladylike before she withered away. I considered aloud the possibility that I had inherited some sort of learned helplessness.
“Isn’t your mom, like, a professional housewife?” she asked.
Once, I’d noticed this ex-colleague silently wiping tears from her eyes while sitting at her desk, catty-corner from mine. I’d felt for her an intense tenderness, the kind that occasionally punctuates resentment. I’d found her irritating—her frequent use of the word “gauche” and predictable disdain for Kings of Leon songs—and intimidating. She talked back, achieved a charming balance of fierce wit and self-deprecation, seduced hipsters at music events. I thought she was ridiculous and incredibly cool.
“Maybe I do do that, I don’t know. I mean, I could spend forever trying to analyze how much of my personality is authentic,” I said. “But at some point you just have to accept that you are the way that you are, you know?” She had no idea how many times I’d taken this train of self-reflection; it could only wreck itself in the is-your-blue-my-blue? pretentiousness of an intro philosophy class, the kind that could move one to extol the virtues of an Adam Sandler movie.
Here, her boyfriend chimed in. (He’d started listening from the doorway at some point.) He explained in a consoling psychologist’s voice the importance of examining and challenging aspects of yourself in order to improve. This was the second time we’d met.
“I had to spend three months in a room with you, trust me, you do,” she said. “And, I mean, I liked you—but god, you were so annoying!”
I wondered if she’d forgotten that we were still talking about me. My entire personality.
Before leaving with her boyfriend, the associate editor, and the friend, she and I agreed that that we had to have a Guinness milkshake party. After she was gone I was surprised to discover that, more than share in a Guinness milkshake party, I desired to never see her again.
She never apologized, unless you counted the curious embrace before her exit wherein she held my face and assured me that she “didn’t mean it bad.” Later, the author from New Orleans would admit he’d thought we might kiss. It would’ve struck me as an appropriately bewildering finale to the evening.
Monday I got an e-mail from the managing editor of the magazine with a link to an article by the author whose piece I’d obsessively fact checked and co-edited during my internship. It was an ode to fact checkers in which he admitted to taking my work for granted, even apologizing to me by name. I was thrilled by the validation. I even relished his earlier depiction of me as a ruthless, meddling force, since “brazenness” was something I possessed in my face-to-face professional dealings only in my most ass-kicking daydreams. In the forwarded e-mail, I was able to see how the managing editor had been alerted to the piece’s existence. “I don’t have a sub, but is this about what I think it might be ?!?!?!” my ex-colleague had written. It felt deeply satisfying, her discovering the article, one that contained someone’s perception of me as competent, dignified. And, if not like an apology, at least a shared nod—even if there would be no milkshake party in our future.
This essay was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of the literary magazine Penumbra. With the author’s permission, it was also featured in The Unfamous in April 2014.