It’s not that she forgot, but that she really wanted to forget and did her best to, so as eleven o’clock rolled around Erica went out of her way to find ways to get involved in her work, to find something that would sweep her up so completely that she would–whoops, would you believe it’s already twelve-thirty? I guess I missed my appointment! Oh well, I’ll reschedule for next year.
She tried cleaning out her inbox, but remembered too late that she’d already done that a few weeks ago when she was trying to forget about the dentist. So she called her mom, who was always exasperated about something Amelia was doing or had done or was talking about doing, but her mother was on her way to do “djoga” and couldn’t talk but would call her later to ask about her appointment, okay?
She went to the cafeteria but Marjorie wasn’t in on Tuesdays anymore and the lady who took her place didn’t speak any language Erica could fake so that was no use.
She reviewed Elizabeth’s vouchers but they were all in order, and Mr. Larson was going to be in meetings all morning. By about eleven-thirty she was getting desperate and decided to call Amelia directly. After all she had done for that little twerp over the years surely Amelia owed her at least this much, right?
“Ellie, what’s up?” her little sister said over the phone.
“Nothing, nothing,” Erica stammered. “Just…checking in. What are you up to?”
“I’m in the middle of class, dummy. Can I call you tonight?”
Shit. Now she probably would call tonight, and unload all of her craziness at a time of day that was entirely useless. And then her mother would call and insist that Erica repeat the entire conversation verbatim, and ask all sorts of speculative questions that nobody could answer except Amelia, and of course Amelia would never tell her mother those things. Where did we go wrong with that girl? she would finally ask.
So the evening was ruined, and it still wasn’t noon.
Maybe she could just forget, get into one of those open-ended time-insensitive tasks like reorganizing the share drive or updating the client lists or offer to take lunch orders from everyone. People forget things all the time. She knew of a guy who once forgot to go to his own wedding.
And then Julie came in. “Erica, do you think you’ll come back after your assessment? I need you to go over the plan for the park thing and I was hoping to get the draft to Ross as soon as possible.”
Erica pretended to blink. Well, she did actually blink, but pretended it was because she was really surprised and not obviously faking it. “What assessment?” Julie stared at her blankly. “Oh, is that today?” She turned around to her monitor and made a show of checking the calendar. “I don’t see it.”
“You probably didn’t put it in but you told me about it at lunch last week, remember? Were you going to skip it?”
“No,” Erica spun back in her chair. “No, of course, I–no, I just… I was about to place an order at Julian’s and wanted to see if anybody wanted… but I guess I won’t have time.” She blew a lock of hair out of her face, and it fell right back to where it had been before.
“It’s important, Erica,” Julie said. “It’s for your own good, and ours, too. And also, are you coming back? because Ross will want to have a chance to look it over.” Oh, she gets to call him Ross. Fantastic.
Erica slumped down so it felt like her shoulders were going to melt off and hit the floor. There was probably a “djoga” move for that. The downward-melting moron. Probably her mom was doing it right now, only a lot better than Erica possibly could. Probably Amelia invented it, or slept with the guy who invented it.
“I’m going.” She slumped away past Julie, dragging her feet like a Little Leaguer who just struck out.
“And keep your back straight!” Julie called out so Everyone could hear. Everyone responded by looking up and watched Erica slump out. Everyone was good like that. Sometimes Erica hated Everyone. “They like it when your back’s straight.”
There was an accident or a water main burst or a terror attack or something similarly stupid and so the traffic was backed up in every direction and everyone was honking and screaming. The cops were trying to show off the best of their sensitivity trainings by doing little dances while they flapped their hands around to direct the traffic but Erica wanted to tell them that if one of them shot the truck driver who wouldn’t stop honking then nobody in the city would complain.
So Erica couldn’t take a taxi, and she still had about twenty minutes to get there which was actually plenty of time if she walked quickly, which would probably definitely make her all sweaty, which was just about perfect.
The Assessment Center was on the tenth floor of a pretty Art Deco building that didn’t get much sunshine. The lobby was gorgeous but when the elevator doors opened she could see that most of the floors were all dim rat mazes of miserable little offices. The Assessment Center itself was modern and anonymous, that sort of bland municipal gray. She presented herself at the counter. The receptionist was a pleasingly chubby older woman.
“Welcome, Ms. Alvarez. If you could just fill out this form–” and she handed over a clipboard and a pen– “and take a seat over there, I’ll call you in a minute.”
One last desperate gamble to get out of it: Erica looked up at the clock over the receptionist. “Will it take long? My secretary made a scheduling mistake and I have a very important appointment…”
Mrs. Chubby smiled. “They’re actually just wrapping up now. This team’s very efficient. You’ll be out of here in twenty minutes, I bet.”
And so she had been defeated by everything. Erica sat down and filled out the form. Very innocuous questions, things she bet they already had on her file anyway and they just wanted her to write down in order to pass the time. Name, age, race, date of birth, married/single/widowed, are you pregnant, have you experienced any of the following symptoms in the last ninety days, do you or anyone in your immediate family have a history of psychiatric disorders. Are you nervous about being here today?
Did it matter? Would they let her go home if she said yes?
“Ms. Alvarez?” Mizz. Very nonjudgmental. Always a classy touch. “Room 17, just down the hall and to the left. There’s a bubbler in the hall with nice cold water, if you’d like.” A bubbler. Where was this woman from? Did she always smile this much? “There are cups right next to it, too. Help yourself.”
The bubbler was indeed there, and the paper cups were nice and big and had a good solid quality that proved the office manager cared, and the water was indeed very cold. By now Erica could feel the sweat on her face and her back and so she appreciated the cold water, even if she told herself it came from a fountain and not a bubbler.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said in her mousey voice. She had wanted to stride in with gusto and tell them all off before they could say anything but in her heart she always knew that mousey voice would come out no matter what, and it did.
“Not at all. You’re actually two minutes early. Please take a seat, make yourself comfortable.”
There were three of them. Always three. Last time it was two men and a woman, this time two women and a man. She didn’t know if that made it better or worse. They sat behind a table and Erica got to sit in a chair facing them. The walls were white and blank except for the one with the window and the one with a weird abstract painting on it.
The two women were named Malika Harris and Stephanie Marsh. Malika–call me Malika, she said–was, of course, gorgeous, with cinnamon-colored skin that shone even under the fluorescents and jewelry pieces that accented her office-chic clothes just so. Stephanie was clearly of some kind of German stock, a bit mannish if Erica wanted to be uncharitable, but she knew how to present herself well and tone down her more aggressive features.
The man, though–good lord where did they find him? Gorgeous eyes, hair, face, skin, teeth. Whatever else he could possibly have, it was all gorgeous. If he and Malika got married they wouldn’t even have babies, they’d just produce rays of pure beauty.
It was Stephanie who would take the lead. “Your last assessment was three years ago,” she said in a tone that was devastatingly nonthreatening.
“I’ve been very busy with work, it’s hard to find time.” Only it was more like, “I’ve, I’ve been very, uh, busy, with, um…” And mousey.
“That’s actually good to hear, with this economy. And what it is you do?”
Good thing she had a cup of ice-cold water. “I work in publishing.” They all nodded approvingly; it’s a fine profession. And then looked at her. And kept looking. Are you an editor? A publisher? Something important? These were very interrogative looks.
“I’m an–the official title, but we’re very flexible about those at the company, I’m a–” and she looked up and to the left as if she were reading off a nameplate embedded behind her forehead– “‘junior administrative associate.’ I do some office management and I sometimes take the lead on event planning and I update the client databases, but we have a lot of ‘other duties as assigned’ that kind of take up a lot of the time because we’re a small firm even though we have a global reach and every girl in college wants a job in publishing but with digital and whatnot there’s actually not as much need for actual people and margins are shrinking always so we have a much smaller team than you would expect and so we keep our job titles as it were very vague because we end up doing a lot more always.” Big drink of water. “You know, ‘other duties as assigned.'”
“Wonderful,” Stephanie said, and made a note on the paper in front of her, and so the downward spiral began.
“We always start by giving a little background about the process,” Malika said soothingly.
“I know what it is,” Erica said. “I’ve done it before.”
“Of course,” Malika continued. “But it’s standard practice. And it’s good for everyone to be on the same page.”
Stephanie picked up the thread. “There’s always a lot of rumor and misunderstanding about this whole process–the media misrepresents things, and people sometimes forget what we’re doing here and why. It’s good to set down the parameters and clear up any confusion before we get going.”
“Of course,” Mouseyvoice answered. Stephanie nodded to Malika, who went into her packaged spiel.
“In an ideal world we would all be able to grow and develop as people and as a members of society according to the best of our abilities. But you and I both know that this isn’t an ideal world. We all start the same, as beautiful little babies, but the decisions we make, the decisions others sometimes make for us, and things entirely beyond our control change our trajectory. We try to address these problems and to give everybody the best chance to succeed, regardless of their personal circumstances. But discrimination is real, and it costs Americans–hard-working Americans–millions of dollars a year in lost wages and lost opportunities.”
Stephanie again: “We can’t, of course, calculate what those losses would have been and what impact they have had, but we can at least be aware of the position in which some of us find ourselves and try, for the sake of everyone, to provide at least some correction.”
To be honest, Erica had stopped listening after the first few words. She had mentioned to Julie that she wanted to order from Julian’s, and at the time it had been just a quick thought–“Julie” led naturally to “Julian”–but now she was imagining the lunch spread and thinking to herself that it might not be a bad idea. Had she actually committed to coming back after the assessment? And Mr. Larson wouldn’t even see the stupid report today no matter what time they gave it to him.
“We have laws protecting people from racial and sexual discrimination,” one of the women continued. “But discrimination based on physical attractiveness is impossible to pinpoint and quantify.”
The other one, whichever one it was, continued, like an annoying tag team wrestling on a television she wasn’t watching. “So we try to educate people, to make them conscious of the damage done, and to help those who have suffered by providing modest compensation.”
Julian’s serves a fantastic risotto. And the garlic butter they bring out with the bread bowl–the bread is warm and crusty, and they’re generous with the butter. How was she still sweating?
“To get to the point, we rate people on a scale of one to five.” A clear, deep, earthy man’s voice. It jolted her back into the room. Even his voice was gorgeous. “In any given room, most people are threes. These are average, perfectly normal people, those who do get to rise or fall based almost entirely on their own ability and motivation.”
She nodded because it seemed like the right thing to do. Mr. Man continued.
“Above them are ones and twos. These are people who enjoy a pronounced or even profound advantage based on their looks. They generally grow up being the center of attention and react accordingly: they’re more confident, more outgoing, and tend to earn substantially more than those who, controlling for all other factors, are simply less attractive.
“We don’t penalize them, but try to educate them about their advantages and make sure others, especially key decision-makers, understand that a person should be judged foremost on their inner qualities.”
He was a one. So was Malika. Erica bet that Stephanie was a three. Maybe a two on a good day. Julie told her once that she–Julie–was a two, but Erica didn’t believe her. You’re supposed to keep your rating to yourself, or at least be discrete about it.
Malika resumed the conversation, and it became less interesting right away. “Others are less fortunate. Fours and fives may be denied job offers or promotions, often suffer from low self-esteem, and are generally more insecure both emotionally and financially. For them we offer a modest stipend, based on current sociological research, to cover at least their presumed lost wages.”
“Do you have any questions so far?” Malika asked. Erica shook her head no and then said “No” in a voice so mousey nobody, not even she, could hear it.
Superman leaned forward. “We’re going to ask you a few questions, to get to know you. There are no wrong answers here, answer however you like. You may choose not to answer any question you’d rather not answer, and while we encourage you to remain until the end, you may of course stop us at any time. Is that all right?” She nodded again. “Can you tell us a little about yourself?”
Erica nodded. “Okay, I…” She cleared her throat and told herself to buck up and be a big girl. “My name is Erica Alvarez, I’m twenty-nine years old, originally from San Antonio, Texas, but I’ve lived in New York for about eight years now. I live in Chelsea with my roommate Becky. She has a cat named Boobs, but it’s a small apartment so it’s kind of my cat, too, even though I’m a little allergic. But Boobs is a sweetie. I’ve never been sure if it’s a boy or a girl.”
Stephanie interrupted. “May I ask why it’s named Boobs?”
“Her brother gave him–it–that name. He died in the war. The brother, not the cat. The cat’s probably sleeping on top of the microwave right now. So she keeps the name out of respect for her brother, I think. It’s embarrassing, though. I wish he’d either picked a better name or not died.”
Oh god just make it stop, she thought to herself. It was better when her voice was so small nobody could hear.
“I’m sorry, that came out wrong,” she apologized.
Malika answered while she jotted down notes. “Don’t worry.”
Erica wasn’t sure what to do next. One at a time her three assessors looked up at her, and she realized she was supposed to continue.
“I…my family…” Start over. “My parents are Puerto Rican, not Mexican. Not that it matters, of course, but in San Antonio everyone Spanish was Mexican, and sometimes people make assumptions and it gets weird. My parents divorced when I was twelve, and we lived with my mom. She was a librarian but retired last year and now lives in Miami. She’s really into yoga now. My dad was a carpenter. He still lives in Texas. He used to take us to construction sites when we were kids, on the days he was watching us. He and my mom met when they were young and kind of in the same place emotionally, but their paths diverged over time. The divorce wasn’t bitter or anything. They still talk to each other.”
More notes. She felt more comfortable talking about her family, and could hear herself speaking more clearly.
“I have a little sister, Amelia. She’s six years younger. We had a brother in between us but he died in a car accident when we were little. She doesn’t remember him at all, I don’t really remember him much at all. Amelia is a bit of a black sheep. We love her but, um…” Dammit. “I’m sorry, let me start again.”
“You’re doing fine,” Stephanie said. “Can you tell us more about yourself? Who are your best friends?”
“Oh.” The water in the cup wasn’t so cold anymore. She took another sip to stall while she gathered her thoughts. “Probably my best friend is my roommate Becky. She’s a bit of a train wreck, it makes me feel better about myself. Wait, that’s not what I meant. Um… I’m friends with Julie, too. She works with me. She actually got me my job. We worked together right out of college. We were hired together. She got a better job at Grossman Press, and then I got fired, and she got me an interview at Grossman and I’ve been there ever since. She’s my supervisor now but she’s really nice, we go out sometimes.”
The man spoke without looking. “Can you talk a little about your love life? Do you have a romantic interest?”
“I do now, handsome,” she thought to herself. Of course she didn’t say it out loud.
“No, well, yes.” Crap crap crap. Start again. “There’s a couple of guys I see sometimes.” Slut. “On-again-off-again, not at the same time. Lewis is, um, I met him right when I got to New York. He’s not really the settling type. But he’s funny. And Anthony is sweet but, you know, I don’t know, he’s…” And she thought to herself, “This doesn’t matter anyway. Just say it.” So she did: “I’m pretty sure he’s gay.”
It was the first time she actually said that to herself. Anthony was definitely gay. She needed to stop seeing him. He needed to come out.
“I’m sorry, can I go now? I really have to be at a meeting.”
“We can wrap it up quickly, I think,” Stephanie said and looked at other two. They looked back at her and nodded. They exchanged notes. They whispered a bit, and nodded a bit more.
“Miss Alvarez,” Stephanie said, “we are rating you a four.”
“Wait, what?” She blinked. A for-real blink, the kind she’d tried to fake earlier. “I’ve always been a three. I’ve been rated a three three different times. I’m a three.”
They might as well have told her she had cancer and would die in an hour. Malika and Stephanie both made serious and sad faces. Malika spoke very sweetly, like she was talking a suicide off a roof.
“These things change, and it’s been three years since your last assessment. Sometimes we don’t even notice the change in ourselves.”
“I’m not ugly,” Erica protested. “I’m not.”
“Nobody’s saying you’re ugly,” Stephanie said.
“I hate that word,” Malika insisted.
“Beauty is personal, on the inside,” Stephanie counseled.
“But we’re often judged quickly, purely for what’s on the outside,” Malika kept saying.
“And you’re saying my outside is ugly.” Erica wanted to cry.
“No,” Stephanie said firmly but not too firmly. “No, get that awful word out of your head.”
“That word is the only thing that’s ugly,” Malika insisted.
“But,” and now Erica was really near tears. She wasn’t even able to look down at herself to see what she’d done wrong. Was there a run in her hose? “Why?” Mousey voice.
The two women weren’t sure where to begin, so Handsome Man answered for them. “You lack confidence. You shrink into yourself when you speak, your voice is hard to hear when you’re nervous. You’re at least twenty pounds heavier than you should be, probably closer to twenty-five, maybe thirty. You won’t admit this to yourself so your pants are tighter than they should be and your top is looser than is right so it hangs off of you in a way that you hope hides your extra weight but which actually makes you look worse.”
“I forgot I was coming here today,” she protested. “This isn’t what I normally wear.”
“You shouldn’t even have that outfit. It shouldn’t exist. The patterns clash and you have two different shades of blue. Your haircut doesn’t flatter you. No professional stylist would cut your hair that way. I’m guessing you went to a stylist five years ago, probably on Julie’s suggestion when she got you that interview, probably even it was her stylist, and he gave you a good haircut and ever since then you’ve gone to Supercuts or something similar and had them try to replicate it, only–again–you’ve put on some weight and the cut no longer flatters your face.
“You can only name two friends, and you’re ashamed of one and the other is ashamed of you. Without knowing either of the men you mentioned I can tell you that your relationship with Lewis is unhealthy for you and your relationship with Anthony is unhealthy for him.” He said this whole thing without batting an eye, as if he were reading back her tax returns.
“You are not ugly. Ugly is subjective, unique to each person. You are, however, marginally unattractive. You are clearly intelligent, intelligent enough that your friend Julie felt she could vouch for you at her new job, but you aren’t being promoted and that is because you lack the confidence to project your best qualities.
“Because you believe yourself to be unattractive, and because the people around you agree that you are unattractive.”
“Marginally,” Malika added.
Erica sunk back into her chair. She tried to drink from her cup but it was empty, and then she couldn’t figure out where to put it. There was no trash can anywhere in here.
“You can just leave it on the floor,” Malika helped.
“This isn’t a judgment of your character at all,” Stephanie said. “It’s just a statement of fact. It says nothing about who you are as a person.” She cleared her throat and then shifted away from counseling mode and back into professional mode. “We’ll finish our report and send it to you later this week. It is confidential; we’ll only share it with your employer.”
Was her groan audible? Probably.
“Your report will come with information explaining your benefits, including how to report discrimination and harassment. Do you have any questions now?”
Erica shook her head and said “No” in the mousiest voice possible. Satisfied, her three reviewers closed their papers.
“Thank you for coming in today, Miss Alvarez,” Stephanie concluded, and Erica got up and left.
And no, she was not going back into the office today. Julie who said she was a two could review the draft herself if it was that important. Which it wasn’t, because it was Erica that they wanted to take a look at it.
She wanted to go to Julian’s, to drown her sorrows in risotto. Forget the risotto, get the lasagna, and a plate of cheesy bread. Two plates. Eat a box on cannolis on the subway.
Twenty-five, maybe thirty pounds too heavy. Christ. And this wasn’t a strange outfit, it was one of her favorites, she hadn’t put it on necessarily on purpose but she had hung it up near the front so that she might grab it on the day of the assessment. The pants were a little tight, true, but the top–which contrasted nicely, thank you very much–hid her muffin tops.
She passed the cafe in the park and though she didn’t want to eat she was hungry so she plopped down and slammed her face onto the table a little harder than she’d originally intended. She lifted her head up to rub the sore spot and the pretty little waitress was already there.
“Welcome to the Corner Park, can I bring you a menu?”
The table had probably left a mark on her forehead, the mark of Cain for a fat girl. “A cappuccino, please,” Erica said. “No, wait, a tea. Plain tea, no milk or sugar. Just water, actually.”
“Okay.” PrettyGirl didn’t care about Erica’s anguish. “Something to eat? Menu?”
“No, no. Actually, yes, a bowl of grapes. A fruit cup. How big is the fruit cup? Do you have a chicken salad? Does that have dressing? No, just the grapes.” Go now, SkinnyPrettyGirl, Erica thundered in her mind. The waitress turned around to place the order. “Actually–” She turned around again. “Get me the cappuccino. And the ham and egg croissant.”
The waitress smiled and bounded off. Erica rolled her eyes and sighed and slammed her face back down onto the table.
And then later she’d go back to the office. No sense in wasting her sick leave.