In the food line, he smooshed my hand with his tray. Technically, it was his hand pressed hard against my hand, both of our hands holding the sides of our trays on the cafeteria rail, the edge of my tray imprinting in my palm. I wanted to punch his rubbery face.
His hand was cold. I slid my tray down the rail. He smelled like a person with cold hands smells, a ginny, juniper berry, scotch tape smell. When I reached the end of the rail, by the juices and flavored water, I picked up my tray and turned to face him. He looked away. He is the guy with small, round teeth who can’t handle stress. When we have deadlines, he claps. Sometimes he claps fast and hard, like he is in the audience for a really good play and there is a standing ovation. When he claps, I stop coding, my hands poised over the keyboard. I want him to keep clapping the way I want babies to keep crying, to throw their heads back and wail.
I went to his apartment once, shortly after joining the team. We were meeting there, our whole seven person team, and then we’d play laser tag. I wore the t-shirt we got when our project shipped. I’d cut off the sleeves and collar and carved a waist in the loose fabric with rows of safety pins. When I took off my coat that morning, my manager frowned.
His apartment smelled like scotch tape too. He showed me around the el of living room, dining room, kitchen. His table was an ornate iron affair, something more for a patio. The seats had vinyl leopard print cushions. Outside the window, snow on the sidewalk, gritty and pee-soaked, reminded me of home. After about 15 minutes of small talk and watch checking, he brought out his marionette.
“I’ve had a few shows,” he said. The marionette was a woman in a Spanish mantilla, her black skirt a mass of ruffles. She had a knowing, nonchalant expression, but he spent several minutes sorting out her cords and I said, “No, please,” and “you don’t have to.” Then he turned on some music, some kind of Spanish guitar shit, and he made her dance. She kicked up a heel and her dress rippled and she threw back her head to expose her pale throat. He pulled and plucked and tweaked the strings, his eyes half closed, his tongue poking through parted lips until I yelled, “STOP.”
I left. The others went directly to the laser tag place. They texted when they remembered to, but by then he was mid-performance.
I wear what I want to work now: paisley pajamas, a silk sheath, a poncho, leather pants. A vintage polka dotted bathing suit with ancient black jodhpurs. A Russian fur hat, ski pants that schuss all day when I walk around the office.
“Sorry,” he’d muttered when he smooshed my hand. I carried my tray to the register. My muumuu flapped in the heat vent breeze.
One day soon, I’ll wear my black flamenco skirt, short in front with a train of chiffon ruffles flowing off the back, following me down the halls like a pack of skittering poodles.
Michelle Fredette is the co-host of the Plonk Reading Series, and the podcast Go Away, I’m Reading. She took a short break from her roller derby novel in progress to write this piece, “Marionette,” and likes to think it’s the culmination of 20 years in tech. Michelle doesn’t have a roller derby name, but she does have an MFA from the University of Alabama.