Vacation Behaviour

Todd’s wide khaki bum loomed above Jamie on the escalator. As usual, she feared it was going to disengage from the rest of his body and fall and crush her. Not many silver, slatted stairs left now, though—three, two, one—they disappeared into eternity and Todd pushed off heavily onto solid ground. He retreated down the corridor without so much as a backward glance. Jamie finished her journey safely, light of heart, and disappointed.

"It happened again—that spooky ahead-of-me thing—thankfully it’s over," she told Julia, the receptionist, on her way in the door. No further explanation was needed—Julia knew all about Todd. Julia came into work every day at seven-thirty and was competently performing menial tasks as the employees arrived, some in stony silence and others ready to talk her ear off. Jamie fell into the latter category.

Julia was a superb receptionist. Pretty and capable and outwardly sweet. She lifted weights and ran on a treadmill at a nearby gym each morning before coming in. Her hard-earned physique was tasteful, and showed through her clothes in only the best, subtlest way amid some still-soft curves. Secretly, Julia hoped her infuriatingly perfectly-put-together presence made people feel lazy, unkempt and useless, as though they should just turn around and go back to bed forever. Freshly-scrubbed looking at all times, neither the sweat she shed while exercising or the toll her futile job had taken were ever apparent. No red face or quivering hands, no quick breathing patterns, no flailing nervous breakdowns. Her exterior was elegantly cool. She was a traceless sort of person.

But Julia guarded a part of herself that was lumbering, growling, and hate-filled. It had to be wrenched deep within her, and hunkered down, buried and nearly suffocated amid her bones and blood. Every patience-trying work day offered a new reason for it to come churning forward, frothing and snarling. And even before her office hours, it was stirring. The elevator in the gym’s lobby taunted this creature-self every dawn, the pale light spilling through the bottom of the slowly opening doors, licking the ground like flames. Julia would get on in a feigned sprightly manner, to pretend eagerness if only to herself, while the creature howled and banged against her insides in protest. She contained it masterfully but not without pain, kept it from springing out of her. This took much discipline, but it was worth it. If all went according to plan, Julia would be lying on a beach in Tahiti this time next year, unemployed and getting fat on purpose.

Julia rode the subway everywhere. Whenever the ad posters started to get to her she would aggressively doze as the cars chugged from stop to stop, letting the mournful people on and off. A department store’s latest print campaign was giving her that familiar, creeping sensation; the models were wholesome, with disproportionately small facial features, the kind the company appeared to favour. Their inane poses filled her with hopelessness, so she would turn resolutely into the hard wall, curled up unconscious but not in such a way that would mess up her outfit.


Although she did not altogether despise Jamie, Julia dreaded having to listen to The Todd Saga. Jamie went on and on and on about it, every day, without fail. It was pathetic, really. Todd simply wasn’t a stalker, as Jamie liked to dramatically proclaim. And even if by some strange fluke he was, Jamie was not his target. There was just no way. Julia guessed that Jamie got off on the deranged appeal of it, the idea that being an object of obsession made you the winner of some psychotic popularity contest. Jamie was, after all, alone and lonely, a demented workaholic. She seemed unable to form any functioning relationships, romantic or otherwise. Her bizarre sisters were her only link to the outside world, and the benefits of this link were questionable. It made sense that even a panting pervert would have been a welcome addition to her life, a macabre void-filler. But there were holes in Jamie’s stories of torment, and Todd was usually in front of her on the escalator, a position which did not exactly conjure up images of evil pursuit.

Unfortunately for Julia, it was imperative that Jamie be indulged and coddled, no matter how ridiculous her needs or delusions. This was an unacknowledged but very vital part of Julia’s role. And Julia genuinely did feel sorry for her; there was a child-like quality to Jamie’s attention-grabbing schemes that was endearing. But Jamie was exceedingly aggravating, and frequently Julia found it difficult not to let the beast out, to tear her superior to shreds. When there was a danger of this occurring, Julia would merely think of the word "Tahiti", letting the syllables bounce mellowly around in her head, and the desire would subside. She also kept a fern at her desk. It was sturdy and reliable and persevered through both kindness and neglect. With such resilience blooming in front of her, some things were easier.

The Tahiti Treatment, combined with vacant plant staring, came in very handy for Julia, especially when Jamie was engaged in her most annoying habit. This was to act-as-though-her-every-move-deserved-the-world’s-undivided-attention. It was by far Jamie’s most despicable ploy, worse even than the Un-Stalking nonsense, which was somewhat amusing. The reviled Look At Me! game went like this: after being away in a meeting or at lunch, Jamie would cry "Oh!" (or some other variation) loudly upon returning to her disgustingly spacious office. This was to signify that there was something surprising, something unexpected, that demanded external curiosity and interest. It was a cue to the peons.

"Whatever is it?!" Julia knew Jamie was dying for a person to call out excitedly. Nine times out of ten, some dupe did. Jamie was high up in the company and had legions of underlings simpering around her, trying to make a good impression. So, when her "Oh, no!" was wailed behind her closed door, and a knock or an "Are you okay in there?" was being fervently anticipated, someone usually delivered. These episodes disgusted Julia; the extreme desperation emanating from both parties made her gums throb.

Worst of all was that if no one was around to cater to Jamie’s pitiable neediness, the responsibility fell to Julia. On one occasion she had let the opportunity pass; Julia sat frozen in her chair, willing her crinkling scalp to be still, waiting for the dreadful moment to end. She felt like the townspeople in The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Was this a legitimate summoning? Was she making a job-costing error? Did Jamie’s "Well, looky here!" actually mean something? Probably not. Julia exhaled ever so slowly through her nostrils, wishing to disappear. When she heard Jamie’s door open with a sad squeak a few minutes later, she hightailed it to the photocopy room, a place where it was reasonable to assert, if pressed, that she hadn’t heard Jamie’s exclamation.

Jamie sailed in soon after and eyed her suspiciously. "Busy in here?" she asked.

"Not too," said Julia calmly, pointlessly rearranging ballpoints in their little baskets. Shit. Shit. Shit.

"Well, it’s nice that some people can relax around here. I, on the other hand, am totally stressed out. I have three major client meetings in the next two days, that conference in Spain in July, and to top it all off, my allergies are killing me. Those dust balls in my office certainly aren’t helping. I just found a giant one behind my computer, less than a week after the memo went out to the cleaning guys about shaping up. I’m lodging another complaint."

So. It had been a dust ball. Come here, everyone, please gather round and ooh and aah and cluck sympathetically over a gathering of dirt. Jesus Christ. The inner beast kicked Julia sharply in her muscled gut and she winced. Jamie was already gone, off to find a bigger crowd to whine to in the lunchroom.

Today, however, Jamie seemed to be in a low-maintenance frame of mind. Julia heard her door close firmly but cheerfully after the Todd comment and the retrieval of her pail of morning coffee (made by Julia); this usually meant that honest work with minimal yelps for care could be counted on. When Jamie was settled, the rest of the staff followed suit, thus making Julia’s life relatively easy. Unbearable were the days when Jamie flitted around restlessly, sucking the souls out of everyone, injecting the atmosphere with an almost visible haze of tension and near-despair. Most employees’ bathroom breaks doubled in number (Julia noticed everything); those who didn’t smoke rushed out to puff and choke on borrowed cigarettes; the perky turned sour and mean and the cantankerous told dirty jokes and hooted maniacally. Productivity sagged. In all, Jamie’s moods wreaked havoc on the company. Levin, the president, an austere man better suited to the pre-industrial age, wasn’t around enough to notice. Julia knew that he would have no patience for the real Jamie; the Levin-friendly puppet version was a perma-smiling but no-nonsense money-making machine.

Around one o’clock, Julia returned from a leisurely lunch break to find Jamie’s sisters hovering around the coat hooks. They clung to each other like orphans, wearing garish flowered dresses which looked unspeakably awful together. One sister was bigger than the other, but they were nearly identical, with their round, scared eyes and tiny mouths hiding painfully crooked teeth. Julia was convinced that Jamie was adopted; it was impossible to accept that she shared genes with the two lost beings teetering around the foyer. Jamie was nuts, to be sure, but in such a different way. Jamie was corporate-anorexic crazy; these two were farmhouse-incest crazy. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at their family reunions.

"Here for the monthly luncheon, girls?" Julia asked, sitting down and putting on her headset. The sisters took three alarmed steps back at the sound of her voice. This happened every time.

"Yes," the smaller one said quietly. "Is she…here?"

Julia swiveled sideways, craned her neck down the hall, saw that Jamie’s door was partially open. A short, wide foot, stockinged but shoeless, appeared and disappeared in the visible space, bouncing along to the radio that was playing. Something Big Band.

"She’s here," Julia told the sisters, and again they shrank back.Whispering, so as not to alarm them further, Julia said, "I’ll get her."

Not necessary. Jamie suddenly came out of her office, shoes on, lipstick perfect, designer purse hitched over her shoulder. She must have heard her siblings, or felt their tenuous vibes. "Hi!" she cried, and the sisters sprang into action, came apart, fussed around Jamie, put her in the middle, between their generous hips, made her the extra-lean meat in a sandwich of gaudy-patterned bread. Julia marveled at the weirdness of it all.

"Jule, you remember Raye and April, right?" Jamie was saying. "They owned the catering company before it got bought out and made them millionaires? Aren’t they adorable?"

They were the furthest thing from adorable, and Julia had never heard anything about their catering business, but she nodded mutely in agreement on all counts. Then everyone smiled, all four of them, and Julia wondered underneath her forced grin if Jamie’s teeth had been fixed, or if she was just lucky. Surely the sisters could afford to straighten theirs, if what Jamie said was true. But you never knew with Jamie.

"Well, have a great time," Julia said, tiring of them, trying to hurry them out. The dresses were giving her a headache.

"Thanks," Jamie said, making a contorted face at Julia that communicated she would in fact have the worst time, ever. Raye and April had already turned away. They tittered back and forth, clearly beside themselves with glee. Poor gals.

When they were gone, Julia sank deep into her seat and crossed her arms in a very un-receptionist-like way. There was no one around to see. She wriggled out of her Mary Janes, looked at her bare feet and thought of how different they were from Jamie’s. Julia had dancer’s feet, long and pale and veiny and knotted. But she didn’t dance, never had, and their ugliness was wasted. Hideous for no apparent reason. Her mother had been a ballerina, briefly, but what did that matter now? When Julia stretched her legs out on the beach in Tahiti, she would have to bury her feet in the sand, soles burning, so as not to repel friends, lovers, and passers-by. She was happily expectant about letting go and getting bigger, becoming roly-poly and slack where she used to be firm, but she was sensitive about her feet. She wanted people to like them. But that would probably never happen.

There was a buzz in the processed corporate air that was lulling her into a near sleep. The phone was silent. Julia settled into one of her tropical daydreams; she could almost taste the salt water and daiquiris and foreign skin. But then, intruders. Jamie and her sisters bumbled their way into her make-believe, Jamie in a black bikini and Raye and April in lavender paisley one-pieces. Julia tried to remove them, to will them away. But Jamie spread out a towel beside her and, giggling, took off her bathing suit top. Too irritating for words. Julia ignored the request to help with sunscreen. The sisters moved toward the water’s edge, waving idiotically at Jamie. Julia tried to snap out of it, to return to the universe. She couldn’t. Her beast had been roused, and was forcing her to stay. The barely-contained creature had made the most of a vulnerable moment, and Julia was powerless. It now leaped out of her ribcage, roared, and grabbed at Jamie, broke her in two in a non-gory, efficient manner. Julia could do nothing as it charged after the sisters, chased them into the sea. It was doubtful that they could swim.

Julia felt no pleasure in witnessing these events. She was too distracted to enjoy them, too caught up in considering the implications of the escape. Both in her mind and out her mouth, she sighed. It would take a great deal of precious energy to capture and re-chain the beast, excess energy she was quite sure she didn’t have. And how would she exist normally while coiling its obscene length back inside herself?


In real life, there was someone standing over her. Brad, one of the accounting people. Julia opened her eyes a fraction and squinted at him insolently. She remained inappropriately slouched in her chair.

Brad seemed to puzzle briefly over Julia’s modified physical presentation. His tone was hesitant as he asked, "Could you…copy this for me?" He timidly tried to hand her a brightly coloured package of papers.

Julia grabbed at it with her bare ugly feet; her shoes felt ages and ages away. Some of Brad’s documents fluttered off at this abuse.

"Actually, I can’t copy this for you, Brad," said Julia. "So could you…go fuck yourself for me?" At these words, the tiniest release of pent-up flab extended from the back of Julia’s upper arms.

Maybe Tahiti was going to have to wait a while longer.

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