I am five years old, wearing a steeple-shaped princess hat and holding a sparkly thing from my mom’s desk. We’re at her office on a Saturday so she can catch up on emails. I take the sparkly thing to my mother and ask what it is. She says, “It’s a paperweight, honey. It says, ‘Thank you for 20 years of service.’” The sparkly thing becomes a magical object in my princess game. The smoke character from FernGully wants it; the tiny-waisted Disney fairies protect it.
Today, my mom’s got an even nicer paperweight. It says, “Thank you for 40 years of service.” If you ask her about it, she’ll tell you how she started as the only law librarian in a closet-sized library, and now she’s the director of a library that takes up the top two floors of the prettiest salmon-colored building in downtown Milwaukee. When she decided to change her title from manager to director, nobody asked any questions. She’s one of the Baby Boomers who made it. Hard work and audacity paid off in promotions, financial security, and clout.
When I graduate college, I fulfill the dream of every Millennial: I get a full-time job. I have a salary, health insurance, and a matching 401k contribution. I have found the home for my paperweights.
What I Do
My job is a computer help desk assistant for a university. Said another way, my job is to do this:
“Thank you for calling the university help desk. My name is Erin. How may I assist you?”
“I need to speak to the PowerPoint expert!” The voice is loud, Russian, and pissed.
“May I please have your first and last name?”
“Are you the PowerPoint expert?!”
“Sir, we don’t actually— “
“I must speak to—”
“Yes! Yes. I’m the PowerPoint expert.”
“Okay. I leave for Russia in thirty minutes. My presentation must be perfect.”
“May I please have your first and last name?”
Forty-five minutes later I discover there was, in fact, nothing wrong with the PowerPoint presentation. The professor’s cat had stepped on his keyboard.
That’s all I’m supposed to do.
I answer phones and keep award-winning physics professors from lighting their Microsoft Office Suite on fire. Once I get the hang of it, though, I want to do something more. I want to contribute. I come from a family of determined problem solvers. If my mother were here, she’d be wheeling a projector across campus to give that professor a PowerPoint tutorial. Then she’d feed his cat.
So I go off in search of problems I know how to fix. I start writing an onboarding curriculum for my job. I become the mediator for co-worker conflicts. And I’m happy, because my work feels like it means something.
What I Wear
I cultivate a professional wardrobe that includes anything that isn’t a spaghetti strap. You’ll note that my pink, skin-tight, lacy cocktail dress fits into this category. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking, “I’m bringing a little of myself to work. A little pizazz. It’s a good thing.” I am also twenty-two and oblivious to my great ass and C-cups.
I do not have an entire wardrobe meticulously designed to conceal bra straps yet. I do not yet hope that protection can be earned by the judicious and consistent use of camisoles.
My co-worker is fifty years old. He is frumpy, balding, and hilarious. We bond because we both love stage acting. He walks past me one day as I’m locking up my bike.
“Sup?” says Fifty-Year-Old.
“Doin’ great. Nice outfit.”
“Aww, thanks man!”
We walk to our building together, talking about Sex in the City.
“Well I haven’t had sex with my wife in years,” says Fifty-Year-Old.
Now might be a good time to explain how I was raised. I’m a sex-positive liberal Wicca that got dropped into the body of a stoic Midwestern Catholic. My mouth spent so much time clamping down the impulse to talk about sex that the chastity hinges got wrecked. After half a decade of liberal arts education and performing in a handful of plays, I found that there was a world where talking about sex didn’t land me in a cop car. So I told Fifty-Year-Old he should start banging his wife.
A few days later, I’m at my desk, completely immersed in my work. It’s the last section of the onboarding documentation, and I’m feeling useful, determined, and psyched. While I’m working, I feel a hand on my back, right between my shoulder blades. It rests there for a moment in an intimate way, rubs three gentle circles, and leaves.
Here’s a thing you might not know. When women experience unsolicited touching, there is this sometimes a quick, vicious moment where our brains don’t correctly interpret the threat. There is a millisecond where we make sense of the touching with thoughts like, “Wait, why is my boyfriend here?”
And then that second ends.
For me, it ended when I turned and saw a grinning fifty-year-old man pulling his hand away.
He looks me in the eye and chuckles. I laugh nervously and say, “You’re crazy,” because that’s what women say to de-escalate when a man crosses a line. I want to make sure he thinks what he did was okay. Then I can try and figure out if I think it was okay.
I go home that evening with a rancid feeling in my stomach. Over the next few days, this feeling grows these hairy Catholic arms and scrawny Catholic legs and begins whipping itself for existing at all. I know I’ve done something wrong. That hand, those circles on my back, mean Fifty-Year-Old and I crossed a line somewhere into a relationship where that’s okay. I de-construct every conversation, all the body language, and I still don’t know what I did to make him feel like it was okay. I don’t know how I got here, and I have no idea how to get out. Corporations have a department for this, right? So I go to HR.
HR Rep Kathy suggests I talk to him.
“Really,” she says. “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.”
I walk to Fifty-Year-Old’s cubicle.
“Hey, I’m sorry, could I talk to you about a thing?”
“Sure!” he says cheerfully.
“Could we talk in one of the meeting rooms?”
“Yeah, no problem,” he says.
We sit alone in a room.
“So this is no big deal and I feel ridiculous bringing it up, but remember when you touched my back?”
“It made me kind of uncomfortable.”
“Okay! Good to know.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I know you didn’t mean anything by it, I just wanted to—”
“No, it’s no problem, I’m glad you told me.”
I walk proudly to HR Rep Kathy and tell her I’ve handled the issue with clarity and poise.
Post-Thing Dumpster Implosion
The room I get fired in is gray and green, with textured walls that look like Styrofoam. It is (coincidentally) the same room where I told Fifty-Year-Old that I was uncomfortable when he rubbed my back. My boss Freddy is quiet, short, and has a meticulously shaven face. He’s the boss who tries to pal around with you, but he is dyed-in-the-wool corporate. He sits next to HR Rep Kathy.
“We don’t think this position is a good fit for you,” Freddy says.
“Okay?” I say.
I’m confused. He is speaking in a tone that’s says, “Something is about to explode,” and I’m trying to figure out what it is.
Kathy hands me two pieces of paper and says, “This one is for you to keep; this one is for you to sign.”
The papers are identical. My eyes locate the place for a signature. Right above it, a neat line of text says, “Termination as of March 12th 2012.” Then I get what Freddy is expecting to explode. It’s me.
“Wow,” I say. “I’m getting fired. Today? Okay.”
“Take your time,” says Kathy, with feeling. “Read the paper. Let us know if you have any questions.”
The paper states why I’m being fired. I look for something that makes sense, something I did wrong. This is when I realize that when you dig in to fix a problem, it makes you vulnerable. The document says my writing training documentation implies I am unhappy with my onboarding experience. I want to say, “If I had known you felt this way, I would’ve stopped doing this stuff. I would’ve done anything you wanted. I just didn’t know.” Instead I say:
“I don’t have questions.”
A small army of fastidious HR reps help me pack my cubicle into three boxes that once held printer toner. One of the reps opens a cabinet and throws two bottles of Dayquil and a box of tampons into the trash. I am mortified.
I will find out later that Freddy had taken every full-time staffer in the office and put them in a room. They were waiting for Kathy to come in and say, “It’s done. She’s gone. You can come out now.”
It’s six years later, and I’m sitting in a hip little coffee shop in Austin, Texas. There’s a cute guy at the table next to me who has no idea that I gave away a pink lacy cocktail dress because I was so ashamed that I wore it to work. He doesn’t know how ashamed I feel for thinking sex was a good conversation topic with a co-worker. You know what good corporate conversation is? Turnips. Or triathlons. Boating accidents would’ve been preferable.
Somewhere in this mess I realize that I’m never going to get that paperweight. Or a ticket to see Led Zeppelin. Or a 25-inch-waist.
Now I have a job as a recruiter. I work from home, which allows me to wear my boyfriend’s boxers and take FaceTime calls from my mom. My Midwestern work ethic, however, is alive and caffeinated. I’ve systematized my recruitment process with redundancies built in (increasing efficiency and decreasing mistakes). I had my annual review last month, and my boss said I was incredible. She said my work ethic is unparalleled, and she wishes she could clone me. I have absolutely no idea how to take this information. I know for sure that I don’t trust it.
 Rule #1 of de-escalation, make male counterpart feel like he is doing you a favor just by listening to you.
 Corporations talk about firing in the same way the rest of the world talks about death. A year later I will work at a spa; when Jordan the hair stylist gets fired, I will be instructed to tell people, “Jordan is no longer with us.”
E.C. KELLY is a writer, teacher, and performer living in Austin, TX. She has an M.A. in Liberal Arts, which is a fancy way of saying she’s studied teaching, acting, and creative writing a lot. What motivates her writing is the queer kid born to an unaccepting family. She wants to reach that kid.☆ Proximity Editors selected “Millennial Paperweights” as Editor’s Choice in Proximity‘s 2017 Personal Essay Prize Issue.