I wrote this story in my college Creative Writing class. I was thinking about how narrators are usually a main character (or characters) and how a story would work if the narrator was tangential. In this case, Becca is telling a story about Lily, a co-worker she isn’t close to, and makes all sorts of assumptions. Because Becca hardly knows Lily, she has a great deal of blanks to fill in, and I didn’t fill in those blanks myself.
My classmates didn’t get it.
Recently, I went back and rewrote it. I’m trying to imply, not state explicitly, a bit like Hills Like White Elephants. (If you haven’t read it, you should.) I like this version better, but obviously I know what’s going on. What do you think?
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Lily Wasn’t There
As Becca slumped over her coffee mug while Lily worked, she wondered how can she look so happy this early on a Monday? Lily was way too involved—one of those overachievers that made the rest of the world look bad. Becca doubted that Lily had a life outside of work—probably went home to her cat and watched TV every night. Unlike Lily, Becca wanted a life, which was why she’d stayed out until 2 a.m. on another disappointing date. There’s no good guys out there. But I’m almost thirty, not much time left.
“Have you finished the H.M.I. folder yet?” Irving asked.
“Almost.” Becca opened the folder on top of the stack on her desk. Ten minutes to get some caffeine in her, that’s all she needed to focus on the deadly boring numbers. She glanced at the gleaming pink metal clock on the corner of her desk. 9:14. Almost three hours until lunch and her brief break from the mundane. If she didn’t need the money so badly, she’d quit. But her daddy refused to help her financially anymore. So what if she’d lost three jobs in the year after she graduated?
Later that afternoon Becca suffered through a meeting, trying to appear involved. She was meant for so much more than fixing other people’s budgets and taxes. Years of work and her manager had never given her a raise, instead giving Lily one, even though she’d worked here for a year less than Becca. She figured that Lily, who was always at work before her and there when she left, was able to waste all her time on the job. But Becca, who wanted a husband before it was too late to have kids, couldn’t always be on time. When the meeting was over, she hurried back to her desk.
Irving swiveled his chair to face her. “Thank God that meeting’s over!”
“I thought Vicki’d never shut up about the Fazio account.” Becca blinked her eyes, irritated by her colored contacts,and rummaged in her desk drawer for her eye drops. Too bad there wasn’t an easier way to transform her blah brown eyes into an eye-catching green.
“She thinks she’s better than everyone.” Irving shuffled through the pile of folders on his desk, dislodging one that spilled its contents across the brown and gray speckled carpet.
“Like we don’t all have the same job.” Becca eased her feet out of her new Miu Miu heels. She rubbed at the red marks on her ankles as Irving chattered on and retrieved the paper he’d dropped everywhere. She’d learned to tune him out—he’d talk forever about his favorite sports team or boring reality show.
Irving finally finished chasing down all the paper and fell silent. He crumpled up discarded pieces of paper and tossed them one at a time at his trashcan, which he kept at the end of his desk for target practice, not under it like everyone else.
“Was Lily at the meeting?” Becca glanced to her left at Lily’s desk.
“I don’t know.” Irving flipped through his meeting notes, pages filled with neat angular writing. “Yeah, she was. She suggested we combine those Holt accounts, remember?”
“Why would I?” Becca shrugged. “Are you going to the barbecue next month?”
“Yeah. I hope Martin doesn’t take his family. I had to toss the Armani pants his little monsters splattered with mustard.”
“Some people just can’t control their kids,” Becca examined her blond hair for split ends. The bleach made it brittle, no matter what her stylist tried. “But then, Martin’s such a putz, isn’t he?”
“We’d better get back to work.”Irving glanced toward the manager’s office. Becca spread open a file on her desk, clicked open a spreadsheet on her computer, and then picked up the phone to call her friend Louisa. Irving worried about management too much. She could spare a few minutes—she worked too hard for her measly pay anyway.
* * * *
That Thursday, Becca fidgeted, watching the minutes slowly tick away on her desk clock. Lunch officially began at noon, but she always left early so she didn’t have to wade through her co-workers. At 11:49 she shot out of her chair. Vicki hurried after Becca past the receptionists chirping, “Quinn and Eckhardt Accounting, how may I help you?” Becca clicked down the hallway to the elevators, stabbed the down button three times, and waited impatiently.
“Lily’s still at her desk. Think she’s staying in for lunch again?” Becca asked.
“She’s always here. I think she sleeps curled up under her desk each night.” Vicki studied a tiny chip in her deep red nail polish.
“Vicki!” Becca giggled, glancing at her own nails, which sported a much less trampy pale pink and a tiny rhinestone-centered flower on the thumbs.
They left the elevator, walked through the downstairs lobby, and headed outside. The dry summer air slammed into them as they headed to the parking garage. Becca’s polyester skirt clung to her legs, inching its way up her thighs. She tugged the skirt down as she slid into her new Mercedes M-Class. Becca drove to Koi Garden, one of their favorite lunch spots. She and Vicki sat in their usual corner table, eating noodles and grading the other customers.
“What’s she thinking?” Becca nodded towards a woman in an unfortunate pair of khaki shorts that sagged in the rear.
“She probably wasn’t thinking at all.” Vicki sipped her green tea.
Becca resettled the gold sunflower pin on her suit jacket, which had an annoying tendency to tug the lapel lopsided. “Well, not everyone can be us.”
“So, how’d your date go last night?” Vicki asked.
“Horrible. Can you believe he asked to split the check?”
“Really?” Vicki’s eyes widened.
She just loves to gossip, Becca thought. Got to be careful how much I tell her. “Yeah. His profile said he’s a doctor, so I thought he’d take me somewhere nice. Instead he picked this greasy diner and asked me to pay!” Becca half-listened to Vicki commiserating about the horrors of the dating scene as she thought about her wasted evening.
The doctor hadn’t been much in the looks department, either. She’d tried to be nice despite her disappointment, but he hadn’t appreciated her efforts. Every guy lied on his on-line profile and her friends couldn’t find her any decent men. All her friends were married or engaged, and a few already had babies. Becca had been the first girl among her friends with a high-school boyfriend, the first to go to prom with a senior, and the first to get a proposal, though that hadn’t worked out like she’d planned. Now she was falling behind and she didn’t like the feeling.
* * * *
The next morning, at yet another meeting, Becca forced herself to pay attention. They’d be given assignments today, and she hated the way people snickered if she didn’t respond to her manager immediately.
“Rebecca, you’ll have the new Montemayor account,” Mr. Williams said.
Becca nodded, scribbling a note down. She forced a pleasant expression while the meeting continued, but didn’t bother to pay attention anymore. After the meeting, she approached her boss in his office.
“Sir, about the new account. I’m not entirely clear on a few of the details…”
“Why don’t you ask Lily?” Mr. Williams glanced at his watch. “She had it previously.”
Becca fixed a bright smile on her face. “Of course, sir. I’ll go ask her now.” She trotted to her desk. Why’d it have to be Lily? Becca tried to avoid her—Lily never showed any interest in Becca’s opinions. Becca straightened the folders on her desk, and squared off her stapler, hole-punch, and container of paperclips, all of which were a matching glossy pink and had her name neatly written on the bottom so no one would steal them. She checked her lipstick her the pink floral mirror, and then looked over to where Lily sat. Lily wasn’t at her desk.
With a sigh, she walked over to search Lily’s desk for a clue to where Lily might be. There was nothing on the surface except Lily’s computer, phone, and in and out trays. Two photographs taped to the wall caught her attention. The first was of a teenage Lily holding a dark-haired, brown-eyed baby. One of those stupid awareness ribbons was stuck next to the picture, a zebra-print one. The second picture was of a grown-up Lily standing next to a blue-eyed toddler and a handsome blond man. That was weird. Did Lily have kids? It didn’t seem likely that she’d catch a man’s eye with the way she dressed, with hardly any cleavage and no dresses above the knee. Maybe they were pictures of family.
Curious, Becca pulled up the first picture to look on the back. It had “Emma” written on the back in black permanent marker. As she reached for the second picture, someone cleared their throat behind her. Becca flinched and turned.
Lily stood behind her, a stack of folders tucked under her arm.
Becca took refuge in critiquing Lily’s outfit—another boring suit, this one gray with a lighter gray pinstripe, and a purple shell. Becca smoothed the ruffles on her aqua suit jacket and tugged at the middle shirt button that always seemed to come undone. What a homebody like Lily thinks doesn’t matter, she reminded herself.
“Can I help you?” Lily’s hazel eyes showed no emotion Becca could read.
“Mr. Williams said I should ask you about the Montemayor account.”
Lily sat at her desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out a neatly labeled folder. “Here you go.”
“You should leave a note if you’re away from your desk.”
Lily pointed to her computer screen, which displayed a screen saver scrolling the words ‘Faxing copies, back in ten.’ “I’m sorry you missed it. If that’s all…” Lily began entering numbers from one of the files into a spreadsheet.
How could Lily just ignore her? Not that she wanted to talk to Lily, of course. Lily must be jealous. That’d explain how distant Lily always acted. Becca returned to her desk and played a few games of Solitaire to calm down.
After half an hour had passed, she flipped open the file Lily had given her with a deep sigh.
* * * *
That afternoon, Becca clattered down the stairs, deciding that three flights in heels was a better deal than waiting with the horrid crowd in front of the elevators. She was already late for lunch. She shoved open the stairwell door, nearly hitting a man in the lobby.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Becca said, moving to the side.
“It’s okay,” the man replied, bending to pick up the blond toddler at his side. “Come on, Danny, let’s go see Mommy.”
Becca frowned at the man, running her eyes over his broad shoulders and chiseled features. “Do I know you?”
“You’re one of Lily’s co-workers, right? I’m her husband, Jason, and this is Daniel.”
“Is he your second child?” Becca recalled the pictures taped to the wall above Lily’s desk.
“No. He’s my first.” Jason offered a polite smile. “Excuse me.” He opened the door and disappeared up the stairs.
How rude, Becca thought as she shoved her way through the crowd leaving the building. Later, when she was eating, she wondered about Jason. Why’d he marry Lily, instead of a prettier girl like Becca? Maybe that first baby was his, but he didn’t like to admit that he’d accidentally gotten a teenager pregnant.
* * * *
On Sunday afternoon, Becca stepped out of her fifth store of the day, bags dangling from her wrists containing treasures by Prada, Gucci, and Chanel. There’s no better way to spend the day, she thought. Shopping and dinner at Café Voila. A flash of purple from the park across the street caught her eye as she headed toward her car.
A kite bobbed in the air, and Lily held its string. Beside Lily, her husband played catch with a shaggy mutt. The dog dropped a no doubt drool-covered tennis ball at his feet and sat, its tail thumping against the ground. On a nearby red plaid blanket, Daniel sat and chewed on his fist. Those were the downsides of kids, all the spit, throw-up, and dirty diapers. But you had to go through those to get to the cute stage.
Jason walked over to Lily and kissed her. Together they returned to the blanket, Lily winding in the kite as she walked. They sat, and Lily opened up the picnic basket.
That should be my life, Becca thought. She tried harder—dyed her hair, spent an hour getting ready every day, wore colored contacts, worked out three times a week, tanned, and bought expensive clothes. Lily didn’t even have highlights in her black hair and she hardly wore any makeup.
Lily’s husband ran his hand down her shoulder and said something that made Lily laugh. Lily scooped up her toddler and sat him in her lap. They made a sickeningly perfect picture. How did Lily get what Becca wanted? Since Becca was a little girl, she’d dreamed of her wedding. She’d wear a Vera Wang gown and a tiara, and invite four hundred guests who’d be in awe of the fairyland her wedding planner would create. But each year passed and she didn’t find the man who’d buy her all the things she deserved. At least not one who’d love her forever instead of being suspicious and demanding a prenup, a sure sign he was planning to trade her in for a newer model down the road. Yet there Lily sat, happier than she had any right to be, while Becca was stuck without even a boyfriend. Pain stabbed up Becca’s arm and she relaxed her fingers, revealing four crescents indenting her palm.
Becca turned away and stomped to her car, bags bouncing against her legs as she walked. Damn Lily for ruining my mood. She’d been content while she’d shopped, not worrying about the way her life was falling apart. She hadn’t thought about the debts she couldn’t pay, her lack of a love life, or her stupid job all afternoon. Now, she might as well give up and go home. There was no way her date tonight would go well.
* * * *
A week later, Becca sat at her desk, working on a job application for another accounting firm. Her phone rang on the internal line. She picked it up immediately. “Rebecca Carver speaking.”
“Rebecca, will you come to my office?”
“Of course, Mr. Williams.” Becca cradled the phone. She hoped he was going to give her the promotion everyone had been talking about. If she didn’t start making more money soon, she’d have to quit. And there was no way her daddy would understand when she couldn’t pay her cell phone bill. But if she got the promotion, she’d stay with the company until she found something better. Becca paused before her boss’ door to smooth her hair and knocked twice.
“Come in and close the door.”
Becca sat in the high-backed leather chair, summoning an attentive smile.
“You’ve been with us for four years now.” Mr. Williams flipped through the folder on his desk. “Recently, there’s been a marked decrease in your job performance. The Montemayors called yesterday and requested a different accountant.”
“I fell a little behind because of the complexity of the job, but I can still do it.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve had complaints. We’ve discussed them, and for a time you showed improvement, but your record is inconsistent. I’m afraid I have to let you go.”
“Please clean out your desk immediately. That will be all.” He closed the folder, and put it in his out box.
Becca stumbled to her desk. She stared at the Vogue calendar hanging on the divider wall, surrounded by her favorite photographs. She pulled down the picture of her high school prom, vacation in Paris, and University of New Mexico graduation. As she removed each picture and tossed it into the empty cardboard box someone had left on her desk, she grew angry. How could they fire her? She worked so hard, but all her clients did was complain. She threw her stapler after the pictures.
“Did you quit?” Lily looked up from her computer screen at the loud thunk.
“No, I was fired. Not that it’s any of your business!” Becca thumped her clock into the box.
“Congratulations on your promotion, Irving!” Vicki said from the other side of the divider.
“Irving got my promotion?” Becca dropped her sunflower mouse-pad.
Irving walked around the corner, a wide smile on his face. He stopped when he noticed Becca standing next to her denuded desk. “Oh.”
“How the hell did you get the job?” Becca demanded.
“Becca, don’t get excited. You never did any more work than you had to. You can’t be surprised.”
The bastard! She put up with his stupid sense of humor, the way he talked on and on about nothing, and his annoying fidgeting! How could he say that about her? She kicked over his trashcan, spilling wads of paper on the floor. That was satisfying. He deserves worse. She followed up with a kick to the side of his desk, which made a satisfying thump but stung her foot. A few files cascaded to the floor to join the scattered trash on the floor. Well, it was all trash, really.
“Careful of my computer!” Irving darted forward, but retreated when she stalked toward him.
“I’ll be very careful.” Becca grabbed the full coffee pot from the nearby break area and poured it over his computer and the remaining files on his desk. That’s what he deserves for stealing the promotion from me. She dropped the pot on the floor, swept the rest of her stuff off her desk into the box, and scooped the box up to get out this lame place.
“You crazy bitch!” Irving knocked the box out of her hands. “You can’t do that!”
“Don’t call me a bitch, you loser!” Becca slapped at him, missing, but catching his arm with her nails.
Irving’s computer crackled and emitted a shower of sparks. A wisp of smoke curled up from the pile of trash on the floor.
“You ruined my computer. You’ll never get a job in this city again. Who’d hire a psycho like you?” Irving yelled, face flushed with anger.
Becca lunged at him, and this time her hand connected solidly with his jaw. Her hand throbbed, but she’d left a satisfying red mark on his cheek. Good. He earned that, too. Before she could hit him again, two men from security pulled her away.
“Becca!” Vicki’s hands fluttered in the air, nervously smoothing her hair and clothing. “What’s wrong with you? You need to calm down before you get into more trouble, and-”
“Like you care? You love this! Something else to gossip about. Did you say I called in sick during the mall grand opening? I bet you did. You were never my friend!” Becca swung wildly at Vicki, who recoiled. “You all hate me, but you don’t matter! None of you are as good as me!”
“Excuse me.” Lily pushed through the crowd of people tending to Irving, a red fire extinguisher in her hands. Unnoticed in the commotion, small flames licked the paper on the floor, spreading out to char the carpet. Lily pulled the pin on the extinguisher and dowsed the flames in white foam. The fire smoked and died just as the fire alarm went off.
“Everyone get out of here! Follow the evacuation plan!” The two security guards shoved Becca toward the stairs.
“I’m calling the police!”Irving spoke, muffled by the paper towels over his face.
Security pushed Becca through the mass of panicked employees. Annoyed at their manhandling, she fumed and tried to shrug them off. They all wanted her gone, and they’d gotten their way. But I’ll be better off when I’m free of these idiots, Becca thought. I hate Albuquerque anyway. I’ll go somewhere else. New York, maybe. The crowd jostled at her like sheep, tearing her away from the goons latched onto her. She took advantage of that and plowed her way through the crowd, trying to get to her car. A hand landed on her shoulder. “Get off of me, you-”
“Is this her?” The police officer asked over his shoulder.
“Yes, that’s her,” Irving said.
“You have to come with me.” The officer moved Becca away from the building. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say…”
That bastard Irving! She hoped his new job was so stressful that he got ulcers. Becca twisted to look behind her. Her co-workers huddled together, staring at her with pale, shocked faces. What a bunch of losers. Lily, standing at the edge of the group, met Becca’s gaze. For once, Becca could read the expression on Lily’s face—disapproval and concern. Then Lily looked down, and lifted her cell phone to her ear, her frown fading as she listened.
The police officer pushed Becca’s head down as she got into the back of the police car, and slammed the door shut behind her. Out the window, Becca saw Lily standing in profile, smiling as she cradled the phone against her ear. What did she have to smile about? Didn’t she care that Becca’s life was over?