She is followed by a lens. It swivels as she walks to the ladies’ toilet. The ladies versus the lads. She smells the perfume of many women mixed with morning odours of toilet bowls and hungover leftovers. She wasn’t planning on drinking the night before, it was a Thursday night, after all, but friends can be so persuasive.
The small cubicle closes in on her. She feels trapped. Even today’s heels aren’t doing the job it usually does. To perk up her butt and then her spirit. She dreams of wearing flats. Walking out the door. To something else. Anything else.
But she pulls herself towards herself. She has an important client meeting in 10 minutes, and client expects only the best. Perfect hair, lips coloured in, eyes shiny, words flowing and to-ge-ther.
She looks in the mirror, her green eyes bloodshot. The small veins crawling to her brain. Eye drops. A tiny green worm escapes from the corner of her eye and crawls to her hair. It rests there.
When our girl exits, the lens focuses on her face. Runs through the previous night’s images. Picks a snap of her and her friends looking shiny, sparkly, crisp. Opens Instagram. Chooses filter. Walden. Posts. #besttimes #happiness #agencylife
An office conversation:
“How did you get home last night?”
“Don’t even ask.”
“Oh! Did you sleep over at His place?”
“Of course I didn’t.”
“Your eyes are lying.”
“Then don’t look. Did you finish the copy for that radio ad?”
“You’re blushing. I didn’t think you had it in you to blush. Do you like him that much?”
“He only makes my vagina blush, okay. How about that 30 second ad then?”
“I’m still crafting. Give me another 30 minutes and you’ll have it.”
“Have you picked the voice over yet?”
“How about that man with the movie trailer voice and long hair?”
“That could work. Should I email his agent so long?”
“Not yet, let me finish the script first.”
“Fine-fine-fine. How about a coffee before you get cracking on that script? I need one. Desperately.”
“Because your vag is still blushing?”
“But you’re giving me nothing. I’m imagining you doing the walk of shame to work this morning. Or did you stop over at your house first? I know you keep fresh clothes in your car boot.”
“Damn. I hate it that you know me so well.”
“So? Tell me! Put me out of my misery.”
“Let’s just say I’m not drinking again. Ever.”
“Because alcohol makes you go home with bad boys?”
“He’s not a bad boy. He is… something else.”
“He’s. Behind. You. Coming. From. The. Boardroom.”
The lens follows the two girls to the coffee shop. Hones in on their multi-coloured nails holding Flat Whites in recycled cups. Takes a picture. Chooses filter. Crema. Posts. #besties #singlegirls #capetown #coffeerun
Our girl overheard this conversation that day. Or it might have been another day. Or a day in the future. She might have joined them for coffee. They might have stopped at her desk on their way out, asking if she wanted a coffee too. Her friends. Her agency family.
“It’s time for the big C,” the one might have said with a wink.
She might have followed them, a step behind, to the coffee shop on the corner. She might have listened to their conversation that continued from the office.
“I thought you went home after our Uber dropped me off?” she might have asked. Or semi-asked. She already knew the answer.
She felt sick. A deep sick that started in her abdomen and spread to her chest.
She had a crush on Him. She felt faint in His company. She remembered the first day she saw Him. She felt he deserved a capital “H” from that day, and so she used it. And then her friends. And then her friend who got to Him first.
The first day she saw Him she was nervous. About the interview, the newness of things. She walked into the agency with a degree behind her name (BA Creative Brand Communications, specialisation in Visual Communications: Art Direction) and three years of slogging at a small DTP company. This was the Big One. The agency she had dreamt about. Longed to be a part of. Followed on Facebook and Twitter. Lusted after. Fantasised standing next to the hot team on the stages of award shows.
The first day she saw Him she was sweating. Pools of saltwater formed under her armpits, under her breasts. She wiped her hand on the back of her skirt before she shook his hand. He didn’t notice the wipe as he was talking to someone else when they were introduced. He didn’t make eye contact. He made sideways contact. He ushered her into his office. He was big and busy and full of creative director sexiness. And sex. She imagined him in sexual positions. She felt soaking wet and scared.
The first day she saw Him he looked through her portfolio. Didn’t approve of the boring DTP work, but liked her end-of-year college work. He liked the realness, he said. When He touched her work through the plastic covers of her portfolio pages, she thought she would pass out. Her heart was blossoming out to him, his fingertips, his touch. She crossed and uncrossed her legs for ventilation. It didn’t work. She felt her panties stick to her, sweaty and all over.
The first day she saw Him he offered her a job. On the spot. She thought she might explode all over his desk and crouch over him on his chair. She wanted to put her arms around his tanned neck and bite into it. Strong and sweat and man. She shook his hand again and forgot her portfolio on his desk. She had to chain-smoke three cigarettes after she had left.
Back to our gaggle of girls getting coffee. Our girl didn’t feel gaggle, she felt gag. Why did He pick her, and not her? Are all the hers the same to him? It could have been her if she had said yes that one time. That one time only. After her first office party, when He had invited her to go home with Him. With his sideways glance. When she could barely put one word next to the other, tequila making her tongue swim. When her wetness was screaming yes and her mind no. Career killer. Don’t sleep with the boss. Be a good girl, now.
Our girl looks straight into the lens as it shoots her. Green eyes milky pink. A larvae nestled in her ear. Filter: Nashville. Posts. No hashtag for you tonight.
The office is abuzz with money-talk-career-review-peer-review electricity. Insecurity. Greed. Raises. Promotions. Possibilities. Some will break. Some will make. More money. Onto the next one. AE to AM to AD to BUD to Dicks-in-Glass-Offices. Junior to mid-weight to senior to GH to CD to Dicks-in-Glass-Offices. Receptionist to Nothing. PA to executive PA, aka Boss’s Bitch. All of the titles, swimming around the office. Hovering above heads. Heads that have cheated, climbed, rolled, opened, cracked, broke, inflated.
But let’s go to our girl. She’s sitting behind her laptop, junior art director over her head. Her review is soon, too soon, but not soon enough. She is pretending to check emails, but the words are contracting and expanding in front of her. She is trying to form better words in her brain. Why she deserves a higher salary. Why she can’t possibly survive with a monthly income of R8,000 CTC, living in Cape Town. No, not living. What’s living? Living is eating, sleeping, working, playing, funning, sleeping, working, loving, living. She’s barely breathing. Her chest is tight with anxiety-insecurity-longing-hope-desire.
Because you see, our girl is a talented fine artist. What she sees in pictures she forces through her brain until it connects with her fingers. When she picks up a pencil, her fingers dance. They weave and tango and fly and tapdance. When she puts her pencil away and places her hand over her mouse, her spirit dies as the computer lights up. She distorts her tango into a client logo. She rapes her tapdance into a print ad with a stockphoto image. She slices her dreams with every click of the keyboard until she bleeds in Pantone.
“Don’t you make shitloads of money in advertising?” A friend from high school had asked. A chartered accountant. Where shitloads of money meant holidays in foreign countries where you could lose your name and return tanned and enlightened. Where weekends were spent on wine farms and sports events and mountains and champagne, more champagne. And more.
“Not when you’re a junior creative,” she had answered. “But you can make good money if you’re a senior. Or a creative director.”
She put it up as a shield. To stop the questions. To explain. To explain herself. To explain herself to herself. To understand, to try to understand why, why, why? Why do you stay in a job that pays you shitfucknothing where you work like a monkey and create work you will never take to the grave?
Yes, our girl is a talented artist. Some would argue art direction is an art. It sure is. To survive it is an art. To produce, vomit, change, flip, produce and create within tight deadlines with client, client service, boss, bossman, bosswoman breathing down your neck. Yes, to survive agency life is an art. But not the art our girl longs for. Not the art she dreamt about creating as a little girl.
She’s not a little girl anymore.
Her calendar notification pops up. Review with Him in 10 minutes. 7 minutes to smoke a cigarette. 3 to pee, wash hands, check circles under eyes.
His office smells like that first day. Man and sexy and toxic. She hears a faint whisper in her ear as the larvae moves inward. She puts her hand over her ear.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” He asks as He turns to her. Sideways. “Do you have earache or something?”
“No. Nothing.” She puts her hands in her lap as she positions herself opposite him. She feels dry. No sweat, only dry, dry skin. Barren and desolate.
He fingers a paper on the desk. “So, I’ve checked out your peer review and everything looks cool.”
The larvae shakes inside her ear canal. She doesn’t move. Silent.
“How long have you been with us?”
The larvae becomes still. She feels it rest at the back of her throat. It is unfolding quietly.
“Three years to date.”
To date. What a strange thing. Today. To date. Her three year anniversary of three years. Happy anniversary to her! But there’s no champagne. An email to All Staff saying congrats you little worker bitch for surviving this long.
“Yeah, cool-cool.” He lifts the paper and reads another one. “All good then, I suppose. Looks like you’re well-liked by everyone, your work ethic is great, you’ve won us a few awards. Blah-blah-blah. The usual.”
She feels a flutter in her throat and almost chokes on it. She tries to swallow, but it pushes forward. To her tongue. The tip of her tongue.
“So, anything else?”
“I was hoping to chat to you about a… You know, an increase?” Why did she put a question mark there when there should be a full stop. A big fat fucking full stop. She. Needs. More. Money. For life. To survive. To justify. To help. To drink. To have more drunk. To make art on weekends. At night. To make sense.
He sits back, a slow movement of leg over knee. He whistles through his teeth. “Damn, not you too. Sorry, lady, we’re not doing increases this year.”
And then it happens. Her mouth opens wide and a butterfly escapes from it. Colourless, beautiful.
“Why?” she manages. A question. To question the authority. To demand an answer. For the first time in her life.
The butterfly unfolds her wings. She knows it’s a her. It is her. Her butterfly. She flaps her wings leisurely.
“Why?” He repeats. “Why, for fuck’s sake, because of the recession. Why else? No one in this industry will be getting increases for fucking years. It’s not just you. It’s all of us. I won’t be getting one either.” With His 40K monthly salary. CTC. Cunt-to-Cunt.
Maybe that’s not exactly what he said, but that’s what she heard.
The butterfly moves to His hand. She hovers above his fingers, dancing from tip to tip.
Our girl doesn’t look at him. Her eyes are on her butterfly. “I understand, but I’ve worked here for three years without getting an increase. At all.”
He sighs. The butterfly moves away and settles on the paper on His desk.
“Okay, fine. What I can offer you is a new title, then. What are you now?”
The butterfly moves towards a pot of black ink. She trails her wings over it. Dips it in. She makes little kisses of insect love on the paper.
“Junior art director.”
“Well, I can’t make you a senior art director, because you aren’t. So, we can make you just an art director. You can put mid-weight on your LinkedIn profile, or whatever.”
The butterfly kisses become bigger and bigger until it fills the entire page. She starts tearing the page bit by bit with her feelers. She throws herself headfirst onto the page and breaks one wing in the process. Her body limp, she moves back to the ink pot.
Our girl is screaming, her little girl voice inside. Deep, dark, hard, wanting, demanding, throwing a tantrum, wanting to believe in more, better.
“That’s not good enough,” her dream voice says. Steady. Hard. So he can understand every word without question.
He looks at her not sideways for the first time. “I can’t offer you more than that, girl.”
The butterfly folds her wings – broken and unbroken – into herself and lets her colourless body fall into the ink.
The lens snaps. No Filter.
“Then you give me no choice but to leave.”
She dips her fingers into the ink and extracts the butterfly. Her self. Her body, wings, brain, mind, brainstorms, ideas, designs, concepts, art. Hers.