Despite my belief, though, my work at the aerospace company suffered; I had difficulty concentrating those days before surgery. I credited it to exhaustion from the Kinesiology classes we’d just attended in Fairfield. Then, I had to ask my manager, Warren, for two days off to get a biopsy.
Warren had an open door for employees; his most distinguishing feature, a disarming smile, made one feel he was always approachable. I genuinely liked him. He had explained to me over coffee once that when his Navy tour of Vietnam ended, he had landed in San Francisco and discovered Haight Ashbury. Unlike his peace-marching peers who scorned military men who returned from Vietnam, the Hippies adopted Warren. They introduced him to an alternative way to heal his PTSD: psychedelics.
“It changed me forever,” he confessed.
Warren reacted as any friend might. “A biopsy! For cancer? I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t know if it’s cancer. I have a lump the doctor thinks I need to remove.”
“Well, it’s best if you get it checked. Of course.
Then he wrung his hands, and his voice became tense. “I hope it’s not. We had a woman on our team who died of breast cancer.”
“Warren,” I interrupted. “I don’t have breast cancer.”
He ignored me and continued with his story. “Carol would be out two or three days of every week after she had chemo,” he complained. “She was a mess! We kept her because she was an employee, but you are a contractor. They’ll replace you in a heartbeat. I can’t lose you, but I can’t stop them either.”
“Wait,” I pleaded. “I don’t even know if it's cancer. They are just going to remove a lump. I’ll let you know exactly what is happening but promise me you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone until we know for certain.”
He agreed to keep quiet and gave me the two sick days that I sought.
I retreated quickly and returned to my own cubicle, a garish chartreuse, my least favorite color. The outdated sixties decor clashed with everything: the overflowing boxes of old reports under the desk and the mess on top. Manuals opened to the page instead of bookmarked were stacked between letters and reports. I’d glued sticky notes to the overhead bin door, and the open bins showed the loose-leaf binders, instruction manuals, and books with papers stashed haphazardly between them. Dead leaves peppered the top of a stack where a Chinese evergreen listed sadly. I had bought it because I’d read that they oxygenate and clean office “sick air,” but I was so busy I forgot to water it.
The cloth backing beneath the bins was papered with layers of phone lists, charts, data diagrams, status reports and company notices fastened to the green cloth with pushpins. My computer screen had gone dark; I had not logged off from the application I was currently working.
I slumped down in my chair, the standard ergonomic revolving variety with arms. At least the upholstered seat and back matched my chartreuse cubicle walls. I’d forgotten where I left off and surveyed the stacks on my desk with confusion.
Warren’s reaction to my news shocked me, but I knew I was fortunate to have told him first. Had I confided the operation to my coworkers, the news would have spread fast. The rumor mills were more efficient than speed-of-light, fiber-optic transmitters. What is more, the rumor mill distorted facts and exaggerated any bad news to gain more appreciative audiences. I realized I’d never be able to tell my coworkers, whatever the biopsy result, on threat of losing my contract.
If I lost my contract with McDonnell Douglas, the contract company that employed me would drop me from their rolls, and I would lose my health insurance. My husband did not have steady employment as he was finishing a master’s degree in education; his income was fifty dollars for every day that he substituted in the St. Louis schools. As the chief breadwinner, I could not risk my employment. No one could know.
I was deeply absorbed in thought when I spotted the turquoise sticky note fastened to my keyboard: “conference room, three-o-clock.” Jolted into the present, I panicked. I forgot . . . logistics catalog . . . What time . . . Five minutes . . . I can still make it. I picked up the folder on top of one of the stacks (I prided myself I’d ordered the stacks by job and priority.) At the stairwell to the conference room, I fell in line with my co-analysts——employees, not contractors. The two young men talking business just ahead of me ignored my presence. This behavior always made me feel uneasy, but I thought then it was routine for full-time employees to stonewall contractors. I was an outsider by status. I eavesdropped on the progress and turn of events.
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