Amy Reardon has an MFA in fiction from UC Riverside. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Alta Journal Electric Literature, Glamour, The Common, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She lives in Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Trey Burnette
How to Boss
(cw: sexual assault and harassment)
One. Wonder for the first time if perhaps you handled your colleague Libby’s complaint wrong when she fake smiles at you and returns to tapping furious dots on her canvas.
You’re at team building, for work, painting cherry blossoms at one of those drink-wine-and-imitate-the-master studios, when you notice Libby stippling tiny dots into long, elegant branches. “Hey, that’s cool, where’d you learn to do that?” you’d asked, but now, rebuffed, you smash your brush into a gob of red paint and twirl it on your own empty canvas, going back in your mind to this morning, when Libby pulled you into the conference room and closed the door.
Two. Know instantly she is about to tell you something bad, something personal.
Know it from the way she does not sit down at the conference table. She stands. She says: “Something happened in Vegas.” Know it from the disbelief on her face. Know it in your body. Know it from the time it happened to you.
Three. React first, think later.
It’s easier to give away your power if you don’t believe you have any in the first place. In Vegas, where she went to represent your biggest client at a trade show, Libby explains the sales guys all wanted to go out and party after dinner.
This is standard practice at conferences. The big team dinner, lots of drinks. The ringleader standing up: Who wants to gamble? No mention of the wives and children smiling in picture frames on their desks back at the office.
“I thought they were safe. They’re all married,” Libby says, and it’s this fact that seems to hurt her
But doesn’t Libby know about the B-side of charming, successful guys with expense accounts?
“Libby, did they hurt you?” you ask.
She shakes her head. “I guess, not really?”
Four. Embrace disbelief.
Not that it happened, no. You absolutely believe the sales guys did this. What you can’t believe is that she is this naive. Libby is twenty-five years old. Doesn’t every teenage girl or her best friend get assaulted? If it’s not you, consider yourself lucky and learn the lesson by proxy.
The week you got your driver’s license, your best friend Sloan declared she was sick of high school boys, which is how on Halloween, you found yourself in an upstairs bedroom at a frat party with a white sheet tied over one shoulder, light blue eyeshadow up to your eyebrows and an adorable tall boy admonishing you.
“You girls need to be careful,” he said, gesturing to the house around him. “You can’t just do this, you know.”
At sixteen, you’d tossed your hair and laughed, prettily you hoped, for you’d just been felt up by your first college man and were working your way around a new kind of power.
But downstairs, Sloan grabbed your arm hard. “Let’s go.”
In the car, she pulled her top down off her shoulder. “Look,” she said. Purple broken blood vessels streaked her collarbones. “He hurt me,” she said, in a voice you will never forget. Sloan was a king-of-the-world sort of girl, but now in her eyes, you saw a dimming, a dawning that perhaps she was not the predator, but the prey. “It was Jeff,” Sloan said. You had stayed away from Jeff. He looked mean. “He was rough with me. I had to fight him off,” Sloan said and leaned back into her seat. The streetlight through the car window gave her bruises a terrible golden glow. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
Did you or Sloan report this incident? Of course not. You’d both chosen to go into dark rooms with older guys. This was Sloan’s fault somehow, you’d both figured, though you couldn’t explain exactly why.
Was it the part when Jeff pinned Sloan down on her back with his knee, one hand holding her wrists together over her head, as she later would describe to you?
The part when she asked nicely for him to stop?
Or later, when she begged, “please, oh please,” then when that didn’t work, panicked and kneed him in the crotch?
Or after that, when he kicked her foot, said, “dumb cunt,” and left her there on the floor?
Back at Sloan’s house, while Sloan showered, you dug around in the freezer until you found a bag of frozen peas. Then you sat in bed together, drank chamomile tea and listened to Taylor Swift while Sloan iced her bruises. Neither of you told your parents.
Five. Embrace the status quo.
It’s a matter of semantics really, a question of gray areas, of just wanting it to go away, the suspicion you both should have known better.
“Libby, what did they do to you?”
“They cornered me in the elevator and grabbed me.” Here she crosses her arms over her chest.
“They were drunk and saying what they wanted to do to me. They were all there. They were all in on it. They all let it happen.”
This gives you goosebumps. This is bad. You’re Libby’s boss. You have to take care of her. "Libby, were you raped?”
“No,” Libby shakes her head, not looking at you.
“Okay good,” you say.
Six. Try to address the problem without really addressing the problem.
Next you deliver a little lecture (and here begins the part you will regret most):
“Going out late with the sales guys is never a good idea. I know they seem fun, but at night, after they’ve been drinking, well, it’s just not a good idea. I should have warned you. I’m sorry. This is my fault.” You add that part trying to take responsibility. “Never go out and party with them after the team dinner. Never, never. I’ve never once gone. They’re clients. Plus, we have to be rested to work in the morning, right?”
Libby nods. She’s watching your face closely. “Okay,” she says.
You’re both sitting at the table now.
“Are you going to mention this to Smith?” she asks.
Seven. Try silencing her. It’s what you’ve always done to yourself, isn’t it?
You know who wins and who loses here. The sales guys work for your biggest client, and the truth is, Smith, the CEO, is turning out to be a yeller and a hothead. Last month at All Staff, the weekly meeting of department chiefs, he went off on the head of HR.
“You’re not making any sense, Phyllis,” he said.
“Sir, if we’re planning on filing for IPO next year, we’ll need to update our policies. I hoped we could begin with flex time.”
“Flex time? I don’t get flex time.” Smith leaned way back in his chair and hung his arms over the sides, so that his hands nearly reached the ground.
The head of HR shuffled papers in her file folder. “Well, for instance, if a child is sick, day care is closed, etcetera.”
Smith sat up. “You want to know the reason we have a pay gap in this country? You want to know why women make less than men? I’ll tell you why,” he said. “This is the reason. Sick kids, school meetings.” Now he was waving his arms. “I am so goddamn tired of hearing about this Me Too bullshit.” He looked around the stunned table.
That’s when your face got hot, and your cheeks started to prickle.
“Sir, with all due respect,” the VP of HR said. “Wall Street is going to expect our policies to be up to certain standards. Furthermore, using flex time to care for children has nothing to do with Me Too.”
“All I’m saying is women should appreciate their position. Who do you think built this country? Men. Ever read the Constitution? Men. Who do you think goes off to war? How about a little gratitude? If you want to be in the PTA, be in the PTA. Just don’t work at my company.”
On the outside, your body remained motionless, but on the inside, you wanted to run. You pressed your back into the chair as hard as you could, your feet flat onto the floor, and held them there. While the rest of the exec staff looked down and adjusted their seats, the person you watched was Phyllis from HR, who appeared unflappable. She tried again. “For instance, we need to have a policy that we honor pronoun requests."
Now Smith leaned back again, clasping his hands behind his head. “Do you hear yourself? I don’t even understand what you’re saying, Phyllis. I feel stupider for having listened to you.”
Next the VP of HR did what one does when the boss is wrong in public. “Yes, sir,” she said, and made a note in her folder.
Smith grinned. “Let’s talk about something that matters,” he said, searching the table, and pointing at you. You stood, held in your stomach and walked to the front of the room, where you plugged into the big screen, and presented your launch plan. In the moment, you’d felt victorious, proud of soldiering through. Of being able to handle anything that was thrown your way. Of being unflappable.
But Libby is waiting for an answer.
“No, let’s keep it quiet,” you say. “We’ve got the launch coming up in two weeks. We can’t afford any distractions. Anyway, we’re not there to have fun.”
Eight. Fail to connect Libby’s experience to your own.
Why weren’t you furious at the sales guys? Why did you first consider if you could afford to be outraged instead of just being outraged? Same as when it happened to you.
The truth is you still wonder if it was a little bit your fault, don’t you? Because you are full of desires and your body aches to be touched, and there is a monster inside you starving for proof that you are lovable. The stuff you never say aloud.
It isn’t until you’re home in bed, after team building at the art studio, and you close your eyes, that you see it. Libby, speed tapping dots on her canvas. Libby, in the conference room that morning. Something itches in your spine, you twist against it, a scab ready to fall off. No, a bug stabbed through its center with the tip of a knife on a picnic table squirming in agony and disbelief.
There he is: your boss at your first job out of college. Did you want to go to a movie after work? “I don’t know anyone in town,” he’d said. He was there temporarily, to manage a campaign for a local political race. Sure, it was odd that he only invited you, not the other organizers, but you felt a little sorry for him. Plus, you couldn’t say no; you wanted to kick ass at this job. Anyway, he’d mentioned a girlfriend back home. He was safe, you figured. Same as Libby.
“Come in, you want a beer?” he said, when you showed up as requested at his apartment. You didn’t want a beer. You accepted the can anyway.
“When do we need to leave for the movie?” You asked, taking a small sip.
“We have time,” he said, leading you to the couch. After a bit, you asked again from your end of the couch, “What time does the movie start?”
That’s when the boss became filled with sorrow. “My dad died when I was thirteen. My mom fell apart. I had to be the man of the family and take care of her and my brother.”
It felt awkward to get there so fast. “I’m sorry,” you said from your side of the couch, but he remained silent so to fill the air you asked, “Are you OK?” That’s when he reached for you, and in one fast, disorienting move pulled you on top of him, and you were kissing.
Now would be a good time to explain you were not attracted to this man and what you realized right then was that for the first time in your life, you were kissing someone you did not want to be kissing. It took a minute to get oriented.
The first voice in your head screamed, get away! But another voice right behind issued a warning: careful, this is your boss. So what you did was to keep your lips on his, your body on top of his, while your brain spun on the problem of how to get away. Somewhere deeper, another part of you busied itself justifying the situation. After all, he wasn’t hurting you. It was just ... what was it? Not exactly disgusting, more just wrong, like kissing a pervy uncle. Yes, that was it.
You ended the kiss gradually, so as to make it appear it had simply come to its natural end and pulled back to your side of the couch, playing as if you were only resting, sated, rather than trying to escape his octopus arms. You controlled your body language, not showing distress, stuffing your revulsion. As if the kiss was fine. During the kissing, you’d come up with a plan. You would chitchat for a few minutes then escape. You would be cool. The kind of girl who does not make trouble.
The boss must have suspected because he took another sip of beer then began to cry. The pain of his youth, et al. He seemed to want to be comforted and reached in for a hug. Ah, you realized, hugging back but guarded now, this was a thing he did. How he got girls. You were about to get up and leave when he must have sensed that too because he looked into your eyes and said, “You’re gorgeous.”
Maybe gorgeous people hear this all the time, and it doesn’t affect them, but no one had ever said this to you.
“God, you’re beautiful.” He came closer, kissing your cheek, so gentle. The softness you craved. “And your body is to die for. I want you so bad.”
Nine. Lose yourself.
How long had you longed to hear these words? They hit you instantly. He kissed you again, and this time you allowed it.
“You don’t even know how hot you are, do you?” He said, breathing heavy now, his tongue working yours, tugging and tugging until you relented. Because isn’t that the goal? To be desired?
He was not such a bad kisser if you kept your eyes closed. In seconds, you were on your back on the couch, naked except for your navy work skirt, now pushed up over your stomach. That’s when something happened to knock you back into yourself. He slid his fingers inside of you, moaned, and said,“You’re so wet.”
Your eyes snapped open. You sat up, pushed down your skirt, found your panties, bra, sweater, and pulled them on. “I’ve gotta go,” you said, grabbing your keys, slipping your shoes on. Because it was one thing to prey on your sympathy, to compliment you into submitting. But saying you wanted it was going too far.
Ten. Find yourself.
It wasn’t until you were safe, in the cozy familiarity of your car, with the doors locked and the heat blasting, driving in the dark, that you squeezed the steering wheel and screamed. At home, you did not say hello to your roommates but went straight to the bathroom, closed the door, and turned on the shower hot. In the steamy corner of the tub sat a guinea pig-sized scratchy natural brown loofah left by some former roommate, and you grabbed it, your hands buzzing with fury, squirted half the bottle of plumeria shower gel on it, and scrubbed your crotch until it stung.
Clean, in pajamas and wet hair, you grabbed your brand-new work clothes in a fist, marched them outside, and threw them in the dumpster. You never told anyone, and the reason why was those three words. You’re. So. Wet.
Had you liked it? You wouldn’t learn until much later that by saying you wanted it, your boss was making you complicit in the secret.
Monday morning, he called you into his office. “Friday night was so great. I had such a good time. We’re going to have so much fun together. Do you like Dave Matthews? He’s my favorite. I’m going to take you to concerts.”
You squeezed the seat of your chair. No, no, no, no, no. He kept talking and talking, never needing any reply, until finally, you worked up some words. “No,” you shook your head. “That’s not what I want.”
Over the next three months you came to understand how every single person in an office who remains silent gives permission. Morning meetings were the worst. He’d run through the team’s numbers on a small white board on his lap, saving you for last, when he would place his tongue between his lips obscenely and tap a red dry erase pen to the board, making 10, 20, 30 angry dots next to your stats. “Are you padding your numbers?”
“Am I what?” you said the first time.
“Padding,” he said. “Artificially inflating.” You were horrified. This in front of your colleagues, who frowned in their chairs and rubbed their chins.
There is a unique slow, seeping misery to being terrorized at work in small daily acts. You considered quitting, but the thing was, besides him, you were having a blast. The job challenged you. You and your teammates had a vibe. You didn’t want to quit. Not one person ever asked, “Why does the boss treat you that way?” Nor did you explain. Finally, someone must have said something because two weeks before Election Day, the boss’s boss showed up. Ted occasionally zipped through in an overcoat, talking into his cell phone, usually, heading straight into the boss’s office, where he closed the door. But this day Ted pointed to you. “Can I speak to you outside for a minute?”
Eleven. Keep giving away your power.
Out in the hallway, he pulled two chairs to face each other and sat so his knees almost touched yours. “I’ve heard what’s going on around here.”
Hearing the words made it real. “I think he’s harassing me.” You whispered these strange new words aloud for the first time.
“I know,” Ted said, looking grim, and in his vagueness, you saw it: You weren’t wrong; you were right.
“Is this going to be a problem?” He asked.
The sad thing was that Ted didn’t know you at all. You had never been a problem in your entire life. This wasn’t the kind of power you wanted. To be the girl who caused the scandal?
No way. You wanted the kind of power he had, the power to win the campaign, not to be its downfall. You lifted your chin and turned your cheek to him. “No, it’s not going to be a problem.”
Curse at the ceiling in the dark of your bedroom. Sit up. Drag your miserable idiot self downstairs to the kitchen, cringing at what you said to Libby. Reach up to the cupboard where you hide your bag of Snickers Minis. Unwrap five and set them on the counter in a line, stuffing one in your mouth while you grab the open bottle of New Zealand pinot from the fridge and pour it into the nearest water glass.
Set a Snickers Mini in your mouth. Bite the bottom nougat layer off first, follow it with the caramel peanut layer. Accept that you may lose this client, the pride of your career. Easiest client to pitch ever. But this isn’t about the work, it’s about who you are going to be in the world.
Years ago, a senior partner at your firm invited you to lunch. When the salads arrived, Liz said, “I need to tell you something. I was at Steuben’s last week, and I saw Paul with a woman. They seemed romantic, so I confronted them.”
Perhaps if this had been new information, you would not have remembered Liz’s words with such clarity, but you already knew the relationship with Paul was over, you just hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it yet, so your fascination in that moment was Liz. You would have never thought to do what she did.
Why not? How had she become a protector, a goddess, a queen? And why weren’t you? You wanted to know what Liz knew (not about Paul that coward), but about how to live.
“They laughed me off, said it was a work thing,” Liz said, forking a smooth slice of avocado. “I told him if he didn’t come clean, I was going to tell you.”
Rest one hip against the kitchen counter beside the row of naked chocolates. Now, look at Libby earlier in the evening, head down, making furious dots on her canvas. Now, look at Liz holding her fork upright. Realize you have no idea how to report sexual harassment.
Thirteen. Fix it.
Do like you do everything else. Stop. Think harder. Find someone who knows. Someone like Liz. Place one Snickers Mini between your teeth. Bite down.