THE TRADE-OFF

“Go fuck yourself’ – but as she said it, she knew there would be a trade-off.”

muse: nigel simmonds

With a stoic sigh of resignation, she descended into the suffocating claustrophobia of the subway, just another molecule in the vast and undulating mass of pinstriped, tailored, monochromatically-clad human flesh migrating from the innermost hub of the sprawling city.

The loneliness and anonymity found in this engulfing throng of corporate humanity always astounded her, that she could have her personal space invaded so significantly, that she could feel skin on foreign skin, stray and unassuming limbs brushing sacred curves given only to lovers without her slightest consternation.

The snow that peppered her hair and shoulders slowly returned to its liquid form, seeping to her scalp and shoulders, a spontaneous chill before warming against her skin. The blizzard that still raged through the darkened avenues of concrete far above her head had a disquieting air of Armageddon to it. She had left the austere, grey offices of Lyman, Hutz and Pitt law firm with her heartbeat pulsing in her upper chest and throat, its rhythmic throbbing swallowing the sounds of the world as if, with their news, the partners had placed tightly-rolled wads of cotton wool deep into her ears. She had expected it, each word reaching her as if recited from script, but the aftermath had been no less of an affront.

How could they, after all the days and months and years she had poured unpaid hours into their gains? How dare they.

•  •  •  •  •

The train doors opened with a despondent, hydraulic hiss and another twenty passengers tried to wedge themselves into the remaining gaps between the bodies already crammed onto the train. The pointed tip of an elbow dug into her back and she pressed herself further into the mushy folds of the businessman next to her, an involuntary convulsion quivering her nose and upper lip at the familiar wretched stench of stale cigars and too much cognac. Celebratory or commiserative she wondered, and the perplexity of human nature struck her once more. How was it that the very same acts could have such polar purposes? But wasn’t that the nature of addictions, to fill every void they possibly could in life, regardless of reason, their insipid fingers creeping into your soul like pickpockets in the night, finding your weaknesses, silencing your rationale to weave their infectious magic and steal your will?

The carriage jerked across a junction-point, passengers swaying with the train, but there could be no concern of losing one’s balance in this tight-knit morass of limbs and bodies. She clicked the remote dangling from her headphones up another few notches, willing the sound to drown out her other senses too, begging the music to stifle the smell, whisk her away from this place and quell the torments of her emotions.

•  •  •  •  •

“Miss Eve, we can’t help you anymore than we already have. I’m afraid you’ll just have to accept this as the best possible outcome.” Lyman-or-Hutz-or-Pitt’s jowls shook as he dispensed his pathetic excuse, and she knew that, despite his obsequious smile, he just didn’t give a shit.

As the lights on the train flickered and the next station appeared in a blur of colour from the subway tunnel’s darkness, she pictured that smug and arrogant face, the skin slowly seeping south like the wax of a melting candle. She had wanted to smack him as hard as she possibly could, reach across that long, wide desk, empty but for the three of them staring back at her from the far side, and belt him with all her might. She imagined the sensation, the sagging skin moulding to the shape of her hand, giving under the impact of her blow, liqueous and devoid of its former elasticity.

The train plunged into darkness once more and the hundreds of eyes around her searched for anywhere to look but into each other. She recalled coming into the city as a child, filled with excitement and wonder, smiling into the vacant faces around her. Back then, they would always smile back, succumbing to the innocence of youth, unfettered by the weighty burdens that seem to mount ever more with each passing year.

She would cling so tightly to her mother’s hand, terrified that she might be lost to the surging torrent of bodies all around her, and they would emerge in gasping relief, regurgitated by the claustrophobic vaults beneath the city into the bustling street above. She would gaze up at the towering buildings, so contrasting to the one- and two-storey timber houses of her country neighbourhood. Sometimes they would go to galleries, sometimes to the cinema, once even to see a ballet, after which three months of avid dance lessons had slowly petered out in disillusionment. But her favourite places were the toy shops, expansive, exciting, filled with the dreams of a million children just like her. Rarely did she emerge with anything, rarely would she care – it was enough just to see it all.

•  •  •  •  •

She squeezed her way to the door, stepped from the train and wondered where to go next. She knew that her path lay at the top of the escalator, through the automatic gates, out into the cold once more and to her car and the thirty-minute drive home. That this was her designated route, but it all seemed so empty to her, purposeless.

There would be on alarm clock tomorrow morning, there wouldn’t be the shower and breakfast and donning the same staid and conforming outfit devoid of personality. She came to find a hatred for those shining glass doors, the clink of her ring upon the steel handle an ominous sentence, committing her to the déjà vu reality that had become her life. She had longed for her freedom, dreamed of the day she would exit those same shining doors for the very last time, a wide grin of elation upon her face and endless opportunity at her feet. She had craved cathartic release, but not like this. Sitting in her office, she had surreptitiously browsed the internet for yoga retreats, adventure holidays, horse trekking tours in the Andes. She had even Googled images of the nearest public park, anything to give her imagination respite from the four enclosing walls that stole her waking hours six days a week.

It was good money, very good, and it was enough for blind eyes to be turned and excuses to be made. His sweaty hand creeping from knee to thigh, his prolonged gaze 30 centimetres below her eyes, the not-so-subtle double entendres laughed off as playful banter. The first time she had been pressed against the back of her office door as it snapped shut behind her and the cigarette-stained fingertips of the senior partner had traced her waistline, the bulging gut concealing the swelling of excitement, she had excused it as misjudged flirtation. When he had rested his hand on her shoulder, nonchalantly sliding it across her collarbone, and inching slowly downward as he pointed out figures on the spreadsheet in the screen in front of them, she had frozen, convincing herself it was an innocent mistake.

The groping had become worse, suggestions more frequent, acceptance more prevalent, but the lifestyle had also come with them – the company car, the expensive dinners, the pay rise, the bigger house, mortgage, holidays, wardrobe.

Until that day.

That day, it had all changed. That day she understood that these were not rewards for a job well done or benefits of her employment, they were payments for his crude desires and she, she was his prostitute.

•  •  •  •  •

It was still snowing when she emerged into the night, but the wind had dropped almost completely. The world was silent, any noise instantly muffled and muted in the swirling whiteness. She walked to her car, materialising from darkness into the glowing pools cast by the street lights like a stone skipping across a pond in a chain of concentric circles.

She knew she wasn’t the only one. She had seen the tear-stained cheeks, witnessed the hurried packing of personal belongings of colleagues soon to be preceded by the word ‘former’, but this hadn’t stopped the loneliness or the isolation.

She turned the key in the door of her Mercedes that was soon to be collected by the leasing company, sunk onto the driver’s seat and from nowhere, she found a promise, a vehement affirmation as if she were reciting vows. She probably hadn’t been the first, she certainly wasn’t unique, but she would be the last, and his payments and actions would be returned in kind.

•  •  •  •  •

He had broken his leg skiing in Aspen at the start of winter, shortly after the first heavy fall when the air is still too warm, thawing the surface, the night’s cold turning snow to ice. She had relished the pain and suffering he must have endured, quietly delighted that it had happened on only the second day of his vacation, wasting countless thousands of dollars. Spiteful glee had turned to gratitude in the hope that, at least for the next four weeks in a cast, his nauseating advances might abate.

He had become more demanding in his disability, with a sycophantic mockery that turned her stomach. First it was getting him a coffee, then bringing him books from the shelf at the other side of his office, then a laundry list of stationary that he ticked off one at a time. She began to wonder how long it would be before she was called to the men’s toilets to help him wipe his sagging, pasty ass for him and she gagged at the prospect.

For the sixteenth time that day, and she noted it was still before midday, her phone vibrated on her desk with a text. “Come. Need help” was all it said. She sighed, rose from her desk and walked the twenty-one paces to his office.

“Ah good,” he said as she appeared in the doorway. “Close the door, I need a little hand with something.” His white leg cast stuck out from behind the desk, causing him to slouch even more and causing him to appear more toadlike than ever. “Come, come,” he ushered, pointing to the floor. She followed his finger to the mottled beige carpet, turning back to him with the expressional equivalent of a shrug.

“The paper clip. I dropped it and I can’t get to it.”

In the angle of wall and floor next to his desk lay a single blue paperclip looking tragically solitary on the pale brown short-pile carpet. Its numerous siblings lay in a jar upon his desk and yet this single orphan was the only one desired.

Squeezing into the constrictive space behind his desk and with no space left in which to manoeuvre, she had no option but to turn her back to him, projecting her posterior towards him to retrieve the coiled piece of metal. She tried to expel the vision of him leering at her toned buttocks behind him, closing her eyes in disdain.

And then, drawn up from her deepest dreads, her worst imaginings manifested, she felt the creeping caress of an unknown object brushing her the sensitive skin of her inner thigh. It was as if the room was instantly plunged into a supernatural Arctic chill, a shiver wracking her body, and she froze, like a naked, vulnerable rabbit caught in the apathetic gaze of headlights.

The grey rubber tip of his crutch appeared between her legs, its smooth shaft skulking upwards, drawing her conservative, knee-length skirt with it. An eternal moment of nauseating terror gripped her as the cold, brushed aluminium found its objective between her thighs, gently rubbing back and forth as his heavy breath echoed in her ears.

Once, twice, three times it stroked her in motions only given in the sanctuary of bedrooms and confided lovers’ safe embrace. As if waking from a hideous dream, a heated flush through her body brought her back to the moment, the office, the disgust and the fury. She threw herself upright, snapped her thighs together and span, clamping the crutch between her legs and tearing it from his grip, hurling against the wall to clatter to the floor, and she glared, wrath pouring from her eyes to his, which squinted in sly delight, his lips curling into a malevolent grin.

“Oooh,” he derided, “kitten’s got claws.”

Without a word, she stormed from the room. Furious, she marched to the bathroom, slamming the door of the bathroom stall behind her, crashing the toilet seat down and sitting, panting heavily, enraged, calming herself. And she wept.

It was the next morning that the directors requested her company in the boardroom. She couldn’t have chosen three more descriptive or eloquent words for the farce that had unfolded, nor a more satisfying retort to their condescending hubris:

“Go fuck yourself” – but as she said it, she knew there would be a trade-off.

•  •  •  •  •

“Dear Mr. Hutz,

“I realise my actions and words were vastly inappropriate, for which I apologise profusely. While no excuse can be made for my reaction to your decision for my dismissal, I believe they may be regarded as testament to my passion and devotion to the firm of Lyman, Hutz and Pitt.

“I respect your decision, but would like to discuss with you the possibility of my re-employment under your provisional and understandable conditions. I believe myself to be a true asset to your firm and hope that you might agree to visit me at my home to discuss this matter further.

“In humility,

“E. Eve.”

•  •  •  •  •

Even in the sterile, emotionless pixels of the email on her computer screen, the eagerness of his reply could not be contained. She was certain that her position could not be retrieved. It was as illusory as the intent with which she had requested it.

His PA had emailed, suggesting a Thursday evening for their tête a tête, referring to it as an ‘interview for further employment with the renowned and respected legal firm of Lyman, Hutz and Pitt’.

She had spent the day in planning, selecting the most appropriate attire; not too formal, revealing but not slutty, provocative yet conservative. She had showered, shampooed and conditioned her hair twice and plaited each side, to be curled around her temples and fastened with a ribbon behind. She had set the stopwatch on her phone, driving the twelve-block journey to her house, accounting for differences in speed. She had tidied the house, made herself a light dinner, and waited.

She made the phone call with calculated execution, just the right amount of whispered panic and urgency in her voice, hurrying to hang up as the door rattled under her ex-employer’s curled fist.

“Good evening – thank you so much for coming,” she greeted. Pouring him a healthy glass of single malt, she seated herself on the couch, freshly-shaved and moisturised legs lightly crossed, hands folded upon her knee.

She entered her practiced speech with its pledges of allegiance and dedication, imploring apologies for her outburst, the passion she held for her position and the respect for the trinity of her employers.

He accepted it all in silence, and she knew not a single word was being absorbed, his disregard for her ersatz pleas matching the distraction of his lustful gaze. She could feel his eyes like the crawling tendrils of an octopus crawling across every inch of her exposed skin and suggestive curves.

“whatever you decide,” she concluded, “I want to thank you for all you have given me and my three years of very happy employment.”

With an insouciant glance at her watch, she stood and he reflected her actions. She stepped towards him, close enough to enter his personal space without physical touch.

“Thank you sir,” she breathed, leaning to kiss him gently on the cheek and drawing back, fixing him with a beguiling look that was alluring without being seductive, just as she had rehearsed in her bathroom mirror.

He stepped closer, his distended gut pressing into her toned stomach, and in an alarmingly swift motion, wrapped his left arm around her waist, pressing her into his gelatinous form.

His right hand reached behind her head, fingers wrapping in her ponytail anf the peppermint green ribbon that held it, drawing her face towards his stubble-rimmed mouth, which opened to reveal the tobacco-stained pegs of teeth too long neglected. She resisted, not too much, but enough to let him know that this was far from consentual, but he pulled harder, his lips pressing to hers, his slimy tongue invading her mouth, worming its way through her red-glossed lips. She stepped back, arms pushing against his chest, her bare legs finding the edge of her coffee table and in a single, slow-motion moment, she stumbled and fell, landing heavily, her breath stolen momentarily. His callous laugh echoed through her living room as his hands reached between them, hoisting her skirt, probing between her legs.

It was too soon; not yet, she thought, her legs curling around each other, pinning his hand and sealing his quarry from him. He yanked his hand free, groping her breast roughly before retreating once more, his pudgy fingers fumbling clumsily at his belt buckle. She heard the clink of the clasp, felt his feet forcing their way between her shins to prise her legs apart and, at the faintest whisper of the gratifying sound she had been waiting for, she relinquished, allowing her body to fall limp, her arms resting gently on the floor at her sides, his disgusting body writhing upon her.

And then they came. His heavy form pressed her into the cream IKEA rug she had coveted for so long, his whisky-soaked breath burning her eyes as she stared at the ceiling, waiting for their appearance. The sulphurous yellow of the street light beyond the window was drowned out by their flickering, mollifying blues and reds and she knew, it was over.

The front door burst open in a cacophony of noise, slamming against the wall behind it, indistinguishable shouts shattering the cocoon of her home and this nightmare. Dark shadows swarmed upon them, firm hands grasping his shoulders and wrenching him from her in a blur of noise and chaos: the clink of handcuffs, the Miranda Rights echoing from the four walls of her living room, and his shouts.

“What the fuck! Don’t you know who I am? She wanted it – I’ll fucking have your badge for this!” and all faded to a blur as she breathed heavily, gratefully, in utter relief on the soft, warm rug.

As the female officer crouched to her side, gently pulling her skirt back down, cradling her elbow to raise her to sitting, she heard the last words he would ever speak to her:

 “You whore! Bitch you’ll pay for this – you’ll fucking pay!” but she knew the debt, to her and so many women before her, was all his.

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