It was daylight in the loft, and cold. A room covered in demented silver paper, tacky and peeling. The light poured in and reflected myself back at me. From certain angles I had a halo of light, like an angel. From other angles I looked ridiculous. I was concerned by my own appearance. Anxious, ridiculous questions. I wore the shirt I’d shoplifted. I’d stuffed it in my bag and waited for my life to co- llapse. The stress and pressure had ruined my reasonable taste. I had only realized it was terrible when I put it on that morning. If you want to look good you have to fight for it in this ugly world, my mother always said. But I’d fought – and I still looked bad. The silver confirmed it for me. On the couch, some young people were stretching, yawning as if waking up, although it was the afternoon; their slim bodies spread out, their faces sleepy. A girl stood in the middle of the floor, unmoving, with a wide red mouth. I couldn’t hear any noise from outside, and the noises I could hear were slowed down, as if time itself had stood still. A shirtless man stood by a silver payphone, turning the dial aimlessly, seemingly no one on the other end. A girl with the long legs of a dancer laughed and her laughter reverberated, seemed to reflect off the walls.
My presence here was pitiful, but it was too late. I kept walking. I couldn’t go back. At the far end of the room three girls who appeared miniature were gathered around desks: three drifters in a parking lot. As I approached them I braced myself for an onslaught of judgement, but the group barely acknowledged me. If it wasn’t for my silver reflection I wouldn’t have known I was there. I could tell one girl was slightly older than the others. She was tall, not made-up, tense. I still gravitated towards adult authority, and she seemed more like a grown-up than anyone else I’d seen in the building. She had a harried air of responsibility as if it was her job to make everyone else’s dinner, put them to bed. Her appearance was sober, comforting in a room where everyone else was a blur. She slouched in front of a typewriter, papers piled on either side of her. Several of the pages were covered in coffee stains, a pattern tirelessly repeating. I watched her experienced hands move across the keys.
‘Could you die from inhaling paint fumes in here?’ I asked.
‘Excuse me?’ she said. She didn’t look up.
She looked tired but that could have been an affectation. I glanced at her handwriting on the paper, an unhurried, bluntly organized print. She pressed the keys of her typewriter deliberately. There was the whisper of a click.
‘There’s worse things for your health,’ she said. I picked up a paper clip from her desk. ‘Is that why you all go to the doctor? I’m Mae, by the way.’
‘Aren’t you funny?’ she said. ‘Where are you from? Hey Dolores, this little girl knows the doctor. Would you believe that?’
‘The doctor,’ a short-haired girl repeated. She sat a desk away and didn’t turn around. She and the third girl kept their fingers moving, their backs rigid, their attention far away. ‘The doctor, our hero.’
‘Hey, can I please have a cigarette?’ the older girl asked. For the first time she looked at me directly. ‘What did you do for the doctor then?’ She smiled. ‘What did you do to get him to be nice to you?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. I placed the cigarettes on the desk. I’d taken a pack of Mikey’s that morning. I’d tried to buy my own but I’d been overwhelmed by choice. I knew one of these brands would define who I was. There was very little I could do in life except get dressed, smoke the correct cigarettes. I slid them across to her. I wanted to act above the job. I wanted to act above explaining myself. But my body wouldn’t comply: it moved in jerks and starts as if each part was being helmed by a different captain. I cleared my throat. ‘He was impressed by me. He said this would be a good place for me to expand my horizons.’
She reached gracefully for the pack, tucked her little feet underneath her. ‘Aren’t you just fantastic,’ she laughed. ‘I’m glad the doctor stopped bragging about his sex life for long enough to spot your enormous potential.’ She put a cigarette in her mouth and lit up with a pale, bony hand. ‘My name is Anita. Do you have any skills or are you one of those girls that just hangs around?’
‘Girls that don’t work,’ Dolores supplied.
‘They come here,’ Anita said, ‘their parents pay their rent, they have these nice fucking dresses, they smell of hairspray, the perfume counters, they congratulate themselves for just getting up in the morning. I’m tired of listening to them.’
I could hear Dolores and the third girl clacking hard on their keys, working efficiently and without passion, producing reams and reams of paper. There was something familiar and tranquil about the act.
‘I can type,’ I said. ‘I mean, I learnt in school.’ I said it as if it meant nothing to me. ‘I found a lot of what I learnt in school pointless, but that was useful, I guess.’
‘Be a secretary,’ Anita said. Her voice had a note of approval. ‘Or be a slob, go to bars all night.’
‘Those are not the only two options, Anita,’ Dolores said. ‘You look too young to have left school. Did you drop out?’ Anita asked.
‘Yes,’ I said, in what even I recognized as a hideously affected voice. ‘I dropped out because of external pressures.’ In a few, short minutes, I told them about the girls at school, the dance performance, the fit. The ostracism after what I thought was a simple remark. I was high on self-pity. I’d been trying to communicate a complicated feeling to these schoolgirls, one that they didn’t understand, and they hated me for it. A feeling about death, about God. I knew from the way that Anita and Dolores inclined their heads that they were listening, and it felt good to be around women who understood me. All my life, I’d been looking for that. I found the girls in school banal, and perhaps here was evidence that they were banal. I knew immediately that I could show these women who I was privately, underneath it all, and they would understand. The silver made us look like we were shining, like we were already in the future. I was running away with myself, embellishing, misrepresenting. I explained the part my former friend Maud had played – I highlighted her immense betrayal – but also how it didn’t matter because she was a phony who needed to grow up. I recognized her falseness. She was living in a fantasy. I said all of this with total, immovable conviction.
‘Stupid bitch,’ said Dolores, when I finished. Her voice was soft.
‘I can’t tolerate people like that anymore,’ Anita said firmly, ‘I just won’t tolerate them.’
‘High school girls can be hateful,’ said the third typist. Her face was fixed on the paper in her typewriter which was filling up. Her feet moved in time with her confident, impressive technique. She pulled out the page and placed it face-down on her pile. She reminded me of women I’d seen in adverts about housework – full of brisk, dead-eyed efficiency. Her hair was wrapped tightly in a bun. It resembled a coiled snake resting on her head. Her mouth was a thin, forbidding line.
‘I try not to hate those girls and Maud.’ I paused. ‘Even though they attempted to ruin my life,’ I added dramatically. ‘I forgive them.’
‘What really matters is how you make mistakes. Let’s give you a try.’ Dolores stood up and put her hand on my shoulder. She maneuvered me in front of her chair. It was so easy to follow someone. I didn’t want to go home. I would have done whatever I was told. I took her seat.
‘Once we figure out how you make mistakes, we will know how productive you can be,’ Dolores said. ‘Do you have a CV?’ Anita asked. ‘Have you committed any crimes?’
‘How you make mistakes,’ Dolores explained. ‘If you’re fast, chances are you’re sloppy. You’re not thinking. If you’re too precise, you’re slow or excessively cautious. You won’t meet any deadlines. If you’re full of ego, you’re likely making errors you don’t even notice. If you’re shy on the page, that’s no good either. We give everyone a quick test to figure out their weaknesses. We’ve had girls here, girls that made a lot of blunders.’
‘Not that it really matters if you’ve committed crimes,’ Anita said.
‘It’s fine,’ the quiet typist said. ‘Everyone has weaknesses.’
The turn of her face, the lift of her long neck, like a little pony announcing itself. She reminded me of hundred things at once – a Christmas ornament of a child, the carving of a young girl on a soap, a face pressed to a storefront window.
‘Shelley is young too,’ Dolores said. ‘Your age.’
‘But at least she files her nails,’ Anita said, roughly grabbing my hand. ‘Gross.’ She took Shelley’s hand and placed it beside mine. The curve of her short nails, the softness of her palms. She was the cleanest person I’d ever seen. ‘Neat, very neat,’ Anita said. ‘Get an emery board. It will make you a better person. Do you have a boyfriend? We can get you one if you want. People are always breaking up around here. A cool guy. An asshole. Would you like that?’
‘Not particularly,’ I said.
‘Give it a rest, Anita,’ Dolores said. She took my hands and placed them on the keys. It was a newer model than I used in my classes, a typewriter that a hundred girls had known, trying to improve themselves, trying to improve their lives, with worn keys and broken springs. This machine was more impressive – the silver keys transformed it into something modern and powerful.
‘So,’ she said, ‘at the beginning it might seem like you’re not in control, that the typewriter is working independently of you, but you can control how you react to it, OK?
‘If you make a mistake,’ Anita said, ‘you can start again patiently or you can tantrum and destroy everything. Be warned – if you throw tantrums no one will respect or like you. There’s enough people doing that here already.’ She was writing in a little grey notebook. ‘Or you could be like Shelley and be a perfectionist.’
Shelley’s smile in our direction. A row of uneven teeth. She handed me some pages, scraps of unimportant paper. ‘This is just practice, Mae. Don’t think you can’t ask me questions.’
Then I was alone.
From Nothing Special by Nicole Flattery, on sale July 11th from Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Nicole Flattery. All rights reserved.