Posted on: April 16, 2015

The florescent lights beam, brutal and unforgiving. Her computer monitor flickers, one speaker making a low humming sound. Joy taps the speaker against the dirty gray cubicle wall and the hum subsides. The flicker continues, a blip Joy notices on days when she feels terrible and everything annoys her.

Today is one of the worse days. Joy chugs a fizzy orange concoction of water and Emergen-C and devours a lukewarm Sausage McMuffin.

Like I always say, drown your allergies and feed your hangover.

Joy checks her calendar for the day and groans, slumping down in her chair and jutting her chin with a childish pout.

“What’s wrong?” Her cubicle neighbor Shawn pops his head over their shared wall. “Jesus, Joy. You look awful.”

“I feel awful,” Joy admits.

“Is it your allergies?”

“And nausea.”

“Maybe you’re pregnant,” Shawn says. He walks around to prop himself on the corner of Joy’s cubicle, crossing his legs and blocking her escape.

“I doubt it,” Joy says — but she sits up straighter and sucks in her stomach a little, angry at her body’s treason, for giving Shawn a reason to think he could be right. She tucks a swath of braids behind her ear and glances back at the Outlook calendar on her screen. “I have an early meeting I forgot about, and since I’m not feeling 100%—”

God, I should not have had a second margarita. Who gets hungover from two margaritas at dinner?

“You’re at that age, you know. You should be careful. I mean, it’s possible, isn’t it?” Shawn presses.

Joy’s brown eyes meet his blue ones, soft and kind. She twists her gold bracelet around her wrist, searching for a response that doesn’t involve expletives.

I got nothing.

“Just think about it, Joy. And let me know if you want to talk. Or need some aspirin,” Shawn says. He withdraws back to his cubicle, the wall separating them once more.

The speakers emit the same long, low hum. Joy unplugs them and throws them in the trash, watching them fall to the bottom and the plastic trash bag billow, an insulated bubble forming and absorbing one of the morning’s grievances. She collects her warped legal pad and the pen with the fewest visible teeth marks on the cap and heads to her boss’s office.

When Joy returns she has six pages of notes to transcribe, the imprint of her bracelet on her wrist, and Paulo pawing through the top drawer of her file cabinet.

“Can I help you?”

With a wrinkled Oxford and Ray-Bans perched on the edge of a broad nose, Paulo looks how Joy feels, but without the benefit of being able to slap on some makeup and minimize the reanimated corpse effect.

Chalk one up for the beauty myth.

“My highlighter ran out. Hey, do you not want those speakers?” Paulo gestures to her trash can.

“You can have ‘em, but they don’t work. They keep making noise,” Joy says.

“Isn’t that what speakers are supposed to do?”

Joy feels like her whole body is blushing. Maybe it’s just the hangover. She shakes her head and takes a swig of tepid vending machine Vitamin Water that cost her $2.50.

And what little appetite I regained.

“No, I mean, they make a weird feedback sound like every few minutes. It was driving me crazy,” Joy bites her bottom lip and presses forward. “And you can have a highlighter, but ask next time, okay? It’s rude to go through someone else’s desk.”

“Mee-YOW!” Paulo quips as he curls stubby fingers around her favorite purple highlighter. “Someone’s in a mood today.”

Shawn takes the opportunity to wheel his desk chair around and mortify Joy.

“Mood swing?” He looks at her with the same kind eyes. “Could be hormones.”

Oh for fuck’s sake.

“Thanks for the highlighter,” Paulo retreats to his cubicle at the end of the row, his usual swagger diminished to a sluggish stumble.

“Sunglasses inside? Yikes,” she jerks her thumb in Paulo’s direction, hoping Shawn will take the bait.

“Probably out late last night. It happens!”

Ladies get hungover, too.

“Probably. Happens to all of us,” Joy agrees. She pauses, twisting her bracelet around until the largest chain centers over her pulse point, faint but dark veins underneath. “You know, Shawn, asking someone not to go through your desk isn’t a mood swing. It’s basic common courtesy.”

“You’ve never gotten mad at Paulo before,” Shawn waves his hand dismissively.

“He’s always asked before,” Joy counters. “You’d say something if you came back and he was clawing through your stuff.”

Shawn mumbles an agreement. The arm of his office chair connects with the cubicle wall, the smack punctuating his retreat.

That night, Joy slides her heels off as soon as she steps into her apartment. She slides the bracelet off her wrist and lets it fall onto the counter, the clatter echoing. After half a dozen makeup remover wipes, the fresh healthy face she wore most of the day lies in layers in her trash can.

Paulo never took those speakers.

A spring storm settles in for the weekend and Joy binge-watches the first two seasons of Orange Is the New Black and eats only oatmeal and the dregs of her frozen dinner supply, refusing to leave or pay delivery fees.

Joy thinks about Shawn, too: his misunderstanding, but also his kindness. The way he asks about her weekend and saves a corner seat for her in department meetings. How large and bright his smile was when he came back from meeting his first grandchild.

He doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t mean it.

The sunrise wakes her on Monday. Her routine is slow, deliberate: selecting the perfect outfit, packing her gym bag. Before she leaves, she slides her gold bracelet back on, the metal cool but comforting.

Carpe diem.

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Rob Gregory

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