For my very first temp job, I was recruited to help with paperwork, filing, and all that fun stuff at a laboratory/office that dealt with blood work. When I arrived on my first day, someone from human relations led me through a maze of hallways until I was at the door of the VP of the company. He was sorting through multiple three-ring binders with a woman at his desk. They both looked up as we entered the room, and the first thing I noticed were the man’s big, fake white teeth. As we were introduced, he gave me a proud grin and shook my hand, his gold rings and bracelets flashing in the fluorescent light. After some quick exchanges between everyone, the VP told me that I’d be helping this woman organize their master copy binder while putting together a duplicate of it. I didn’t really get what he was talking about (the last job I had was working with Kindergartners, not documents regarding carcinoma cells) but the woman seemed to know what she was doing, so she led me back down the hallway into a room. There was a small conference table in the middle of the room with cubicles all along the walls around it. There were probably ten people maximum working in there, all of them sitting at their desks in complete silence. They each had a computer and a big microscope on their desk, and they were each quietly peering into the scope at… I don’t know, cells, tissues, something. The woman set us up at the conference table, clearly comfortable despite the awkward silence. I was nervous to even clear my throat, but we began to talk.
She was sweet and friendly. She had a raspy voice that sounded natural and not due to smoking packs of cigarettes a day. Her eyes were a clear blue that glimmered as she stared at me, always with an eager expression. She was short — as we walked to the room I noticed that I was a good three inches taller than her at least. But she made me feel comfortable and asked me genuine questions and would sit expectantly smiling as she awaited my responses. I liked her, but there was something about her demeanor that I thought was a bit off. Maybe she was a bit too cheery? Her focus a bit too much while pulling papers from the binder? We sat there for a little while casually talking as she went through the original binder, making sure everything was in order as I stuffed the corresponding papers into plastic binder sleeves and snapping them into the duplicate. Even though I had no clue what we were really doing or what purpose those binders served, something about her instructions just seemed wrong. There were numbers at the top of each document, and she wasn’t having us put them away in numerical order. She was going based off another list that she had, but it didn’t seem quite right. I didn’t want to correct her or point it out when I wasn’t sure what was really going on, so I kept my mouth shut and followed her lead. I was a temp after all. The last thing I wanted to do was come in on my first day and question my supervisor’s methods.
Until the VP came in to check on our progress. And asked why we weren’t going numerically. We both stared at her.
“Because we’re following this list. The list you gave me,” she replied, immediately getting defensive and raising her voice. I looked around to see some employees peaking over their scopes. I sat there cringing on the inside as they began to bicker back and forth.
“You told me to go through this. To make sure everything is in this order. I’m just doing what you told me to do, and now you’re saying it’s wrong?! You’re making no sense!!!”
She made no effort to compose herself and speak to him in a dignified manner. She was visibly aggravated, yet he couldn’t have approached the issue more kindly. And it was clear he had dealt with this from her before. He was her superior, yet he was coddling her like a child, patiently trying to calm her down.
Just say okay! I was screaming in my head. Just say it’s fine and move on! After seeing her unnecessary reaction, I realized that she was definitely an emotional woman. She kept letting out long, frustrated breaths, kept shaking her head while he spoke, interrupting and disputing his every word.
“I’m sorry for the miscommunication,” he articulated as if to a preschooler, “but let’s just make sure the files are ordered numerically from now on, okay?” After she gave a defeated nod he finally left us alone, and as I waited for her to initiate the work again, she abruptly stood up without a word and walked out of the room.
I opened my mouth, thinking to maybe say something, but closed it again. I glanced around the room. Everyone was back to their business with their microscopes, the confrontation already forgotten about. Both binders were spread out in front of me with various documents, checklists, binder sleeves. I stared at them, then looked up at the empty doorway. I nervously drummed my electric blue nails on the table. I inhaled slow and steady, filling up my lungs as much as I could, then let all the air back out in a long breath. I slipped off my flats and wiggled my toes, praying my feet didn’t smell from not wearing socks. The carpet beneath my bare toes was an ugly burnt orange, sort of like baby throw-up. Two minutes passed — then five — then ten. I kept glancing at the clock, then to the door, then down at the work in front of me.
What does she expect me to do? I thought. Did she just quit her job and leave altogether and I have no idea? Should I go get further instructions from the VP and his chiclet teeth?
I looked at all of the papers spread out in front of me. Very cautiously, I began to organize the binder the way he told us to, the right way, the obvious way. But I didn’t want to piss her off. What if she gets mad at me for doing it without her? My hands hovered over a binder sleeve.
I glanced at the clock again. She had been gone for seventeen minutes. And that’s when it hit me. It was unmistakable. She was crying. Without a doubt, she ran to the bathroom to sob about the tiff with her boss. I suddenly got the feeling that this happened quite regularly. Shit, I mouthed, rolling my eyes to the ceiling.
Lo and behold, twenty minutes later she returned with a crumpled paper towel in her fist and mascara smudged beneath her eyes. She sat down, forced a smile at me, and let out a breath, “Okay.” I sat there dumbfounded. Do I ask if she’s okay? Do I just ignore it? What. The. Fuck.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out. “I didn’t mean to get so upset. He can just be such an ass. He was never clear about what to do. Then he gets pissed at ME! I wouldn’t even have to redo these binders if this idiot from downstairs didn’t screw them all up. Did she get in trouble? NO! And here I am, picking up her mess and getting yelled at.”
I’ve never felt so uncomfortable. The whole time as she spoke, her eyes watered and she dabbed at her mascara with the stained towel. I squirmed in my chair. As I racked my brain for something to say in response, she continued.
“People have quit because of him, you know. Employees couldn’t take him anymore, so they quit.” I just nodded along, trying to appear empathetic. Meanwhile, all I could think was, Isn’t she nervous bashing her boss surrounded by employees? And what does she expect me to do? Talk shit with her? Agree that he’s an asshole when I just met him twenty-five minutes ago?
“You’re gonna come across these people in life, so be prepared,” she told me, her voice cracking. “You’re gonna have to work with assholes like that, who talk down to you, who belittle you, like your job isn’t worth anything. He doesn’t praise anything I do. Nothing! Ever! He never has something positive to say, he’s just always talking down to me, making me feel insignificant. I’m sick of it. It’s just so… so horrible.”
She apologized again for getting emotional, smiled broadly through her leaking eyes. I reassured her it was fine, despite the fact that she had just put me through the most awkward moment of my life on the very first day of my very first temp job. For what seemed to be no good reason either.
We finished the binders as she sniffled and explained to me the shitty day she had been having beforehand. There was very little I could do besides nod with concern and offer consoling sounds.
Although that day was painful, it did actually teach me something. At my next temp job I had to deal with a couple of real fuckin’ assholes. And when they did yell at me, the last thing I did was run to the bathroom and cry about it.