"Common Mistakes" by Kim Magowan

Kim Magowan

Kim Magowan

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department of Mills College at Northeastern University. She is author of the short story collection Don't Take This the Wrong Way, co-authored with Michelle Ross, forthcoming from EastOver Press; the story collection How Far I've Come (2022), published by Gold Wake Press; the novel The Light Source (2019), published by 7.13 Books; and the story collection Undoing (2018), which won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf's Top 50. She is Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

Common Mistakes

Human Resources’ Woohoo initiative has hardly taken its first breath when eager-beaver Wendy Chase, one of the Curriculum Engineers, sends the company’s first woohoo. She tags Barry Stevens, Lashmi Patel, Martina Rodriguez, and Sibley Meyer-Banks, all also Curriculum Engineers. The woohoo commends Barry on his eye for details, Lashmi on her willingness to pitch in, Martina for her dedication to always doing what’s right for students, and Sibley for being an enthusiastic team player.  

Soon, the Woohoo channel is flooded with woohoos from people all over the company. Each woohoo is accompanied by a supporting detail describing the woohoo’d individual’s woohoo worthiness. I take notes. 

At 11:45, the earliest time feasible, I walk over to Gigi’s cubicle and say, “Get lunch with me?”

Gigi looks at me guardedly. “I brought a sandwich,” she says.

“We can sit by the fountain. I can get a quesadilla at the food truck. Come on,” I say. “I want to talk to you about something.”

“Anne, I absolutely do not have time or energy to talk about ‘us’ right now.”

I, of course, expected this response, so it is with a certain satisfaction that I say, immediately, “This has nothing to do with us! The last thing I want to talk about is us. This has to do with some observations I’ve made about our work environment.”

Gigi narrows her eyes. “I also don’t have time, or energy, to hear you bitch again about your job.”

“Observations, not complaints,” I clarify. “I’m interested in getting your thoughts about certain conclusions I’ve been drawing about what qualities this place values in women.”

That hooks her. Gigi is even more attuned to the way the world shortchanges women than I am. Also, Gigi cannot resist an opportunity to give her opinion, which she will often do unsolicited, regarding, for instance, the bad economics of not packing one’s lunch for work and procuring it instead at a food truck. 

Reluctantly, she gathers her purse and her sandwich, which is exploding with alfalfa sprouts.

We sit on the concrete rim of the fountain, already hot from the morning sun. Gigi places, deliberately, her purse between us, so I flatten my paper on top of the purse and point to the “Happy Helpers” heading I’ve written on top. 

“So, note the pattern of Wendy Chase’s Woohoos,” I say. “See how she’s woohooing Lashmi for pitching in, Martina for her dedication to students, and Sibley for being an enthusiastic team player? Then there’s Darren woohooing Ali for always stepping in to assist anyone struggling to complete a project on time? And Rosamund woohooing Kirsten for her positive attitude? And Kevin woohooing Paula for her generosity? See how the women are all being complimented for being nurturing mamas and cheerful second bananas?”

Gigi blinks at my notes. She chews a big bite of cucumbers, avocado, and sprouts. After swallowing, she takes a long drink from her water bottle. Then she says, “You’ve taken quite the inventory, haven’t you? Is this what you did all morning?” 

“No,” I say, even though I know it’s useless to lie to Gigi. She knows all about how once I get worked up about something, I struggle to let it go. She claims that if our time together were made into a pie chart, my rants would take up a Pacman-sized portion of that pie. According to Gigi, my rants are also indicative of all kinds of flaws in my cognition—that I have a poor attention span, that I have a negative mindset. Gigi is on the Assessment team, mathematics to be precise, meaning she spends her days figuring out how to pinpoint flaws in other people’s computations. A topic Gigi will talk on and on about, if you let her, is how to write discriminating assessment items. A good distractor answer choice, she says, gives concrete information to teachers about where students’ thinking is misguided, where they need further instruction. Gigi’s self-described special talent, in fact, is coming up with these distractor choices, figuring out what common mistakes will tempt, even compel, test respondents toward the incorrect answer. 

In the middle of the night, I’ve developed many theories about what it means that Gigi is so adept at composing these red herrings, and what it means that I fell in love with and have lived for three and a half years with a woman whose special skillset is to come up with the perfect bad answers to lead one astray. 

I’ve also pondered how proximity to someone who is good at spotting and then exploiting flaws in another’s cognition has made me, through a kind of osmosis or close observation, adept at this myself. For instance, I know that my girlfriend is susceptible to opportunities to proffer her opinion, solicited or otherwise, particularly in the form of “constructive criticism.”

The red herring I’m particularly susceptible to, I’ve decided, is unfairness. My most recent fixation, prior to the sexism embedded in my coworkers’ woohoos, involves the bags of clothing Gigi’s ex gave her when they last had lunch together. Tamara gave birth last year to twins and has officially given up on getting back to her pre-pregnant clothing size, so she gifted Gigi with various clothing items Gigi coveted and sometimes borrowed (stole) when they were still together, including a gorgeous, skimpy red dress that Gigi has a framed photograph of Tamara wearing. Yes, Gigi is in the photograph, too, as well as four other women Gigi is still good friends with. No, I am not particularly bothered that Gigi has a photograph of Tamara in our house or that she’s still friends with Tamara. The issue is that dress. Here’s the thing: Gigi sees no problem with her wearing that dress, but she objects to me wearing it. According to Gigi, if she wears the dress, she’s just wearing a dress that she’s worn on numerous previous occasions, albeit some years ago when she and Tamara were still together. On her, the dress has no significant meaning. But if I wear the dress, Gigi feels creeped out. On me, the dress becomes representative of Tamara. “That makes no sense,” I complained to Gigi. “It’s perfectly logical,” Gigi countered. But her explanation was about as comprehensible as her process for composing distractor choices on assessment tests. It made me think of one of our worst fights ever, when I asked Tamara for her mocha cheesecake recipe so I could make it for Gigi’s birthday, and Gigi refused to eat it. Gigi acted as if my emailing Tamara for the recipe for Gigi’s favorite dessert ever was weird overstepping on my part, instead of an expression of thoughtfulness and love. In the middle of the night, I have sometimes relived that evening, except instead of having it end with me sleeping on the couch, it ends with me force-feeding Gigi that cake in creamy forkfuls.

A few days ago, Gigi relented, and she took the dress, along with Tamara’s other hand-me-downs, to the thrift store that benefits the local women’s shelter. 

But this didn’t satisfy me. I believe Gigi should have at least let me wear the dress one time before giving it away, and I say so again now as a little bird swoops in fast to grab one of the sprouts from Gigi’s sandwich that has fallen onto the concrete. I watch the bird drop the sprout and circle it, trying to assess how to swallow it.

Gigi shakes her head at me. “I told you I don’t want to talk about us right now. You know I have to get that test ready for Simon to green-light by 6:00 today. I am sick of discussing that damn dress.”

I explain again that I endured a social gathering at which she wore that dress, so she should have given me a turn, too. 

Gigi looks at me like I’m one of the kids who picks what she calls throwaway distractors—answer choices that are so obviously wrong, all the choice can possibly reveal about a test taker is that she isn’t even reading the questions, just randomly circling in bubbles. “Anne, you are impossible to please,” she says, through ostentatiously gritted teeth, so I can see the enormous effort it requires to have a rational conversation with me. “I did what you wanted. I took the clothes to the shelter. Instead of haranguing me about the dress, you should be appreciative that I made a sacrifice purely to appease you.”

There are times when I feel like I’m dating my mother. When Gigi looks at me in that particular bleak way, I can hear my mother say, don’t roll your eyes at me, young lady. Being made to feel petulant was so lonely. I remember as a teenager imagining that I would one day meet someone who appreciated and perfectly understood me; I remember believing this person was out there, waiting for me to materialize.