Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Glass Tank

 

It was time to hit the gym. Never mind that Shepherd was in the middle of his shift with Henry--everyone in the department but the admin assistant, who was, incidentally, the only woman, seemed to have an unspoken understanding to go to the gym together. Working out took precedence over working, right?

Or maybe it was only unspoken to Henry, who suspected they came to this and other agreements without him because he wasn’t the right sort, i.e. the sort of person who’d bring his overpriced smoothie blender and old sports injuries to work. How many green protein shakes does a person need in an eight-hour period anyway? Is Shep constantly dehydrated?

Henry wasn’t as out of shape as he looked in his boot-cut jeans, which Dana was always offering to replace with a slimmer, darker pair.

“They don’t need to be as snug as jeggings,” she said, “But you don’t need room to grow, either. Right?”

Outside those jeans, well, Henry avoided full-length mirrors. And when he shaved, he didn’t much mind the sight of mounds of flesh pushing against the front of his shirt.

He did promise Dana he’d start working out, back when they first started dating six or seven years ago (they didn’t quite agree on the number). She hadn’t reminded him in a while now, he realised. She hadn’t wrapped her arms around him in a long time, either. She used to measure how easily she could join her hands behind him and tell him the result, her voice, as it travelled up through his chest, sounding as if under water. Most of the time, Henry couldn’t understand her at all.

The office managers slung their gear over their shoulders and headed for the door, Greg, the only other Asian guy in the department, looking cool and condescending in a West Coast way, Bryan with his smile that was all teeth. With a blender under one arm, Shepherd dashed out of the storage room and joined them. He turned to wink at Henry through the closing door. Henry's face burned as he thought of the carefully scheduled tasks he’d have to cover for Shep.

Dana used to find Henry’s red cheeks endearing, too. “You change colour faster than a mood ring,” she said.

Mood rings could still be found in dollar stores, and his job at the university had changed little in six (or seven) years, but the girlfriend...

Six months ago, Henry was training Bryan and Will. Bryan was the second newest clerk while Henry was the most senior clerk in the office who wasn’t yet Senior Clerk. Just as training ended, one of the five managers failed to return from his extended leave--there were casual mentions of HIV in the office--and a position higher than senior clerk opened up. Henry applied, of course, as did his then-protégés Bryan and Will. They joked about the internal interview, agreed to stay “the three amigos” regardless of the outcome, decided whoever became manager would treat the other two to a dinner of shepherd’s pie in honour of Shep, then a temp, who had been a janitor on the night crew and was not taken seriously by anyone.

Anyone but Greg, apparently. As soon as Bryan and his double-rowed smile moved into his new office, Greg made Shep full clerk, like Henry.

These and other grievances Henry poured out whenever he had time to see Dana, and the exercise left him sagging, as if physically emptied of complaints: how he had trained three clerks already and found them slow and lazy, how the others toadied their way into Greg’s favour, how Greg was keeping him down because he didn’t want to promote another Asian, how Shep was going to be more successful than he’d ever be. There was one opening for a senior clerk left, but there was no way he’d get it. His job was a dead end. 

“So quit,” Dana said, her voice slicing through the stifling air. They were sitting in Henry’s car with the windows up because he grew chilly easily. “You’ll find something else.”

“It’s not that easy,” he said. “Do you know how many jobs I’ve applied for already?”

Dana did. She had listened to him complain about each one from job posting to post-interview disappointment.

"I read about this disgruntled employee who hid fresh fish all around the office before quitting,” she said, “in hard-to-find places, like in the pots of the plants. The fish only started rotting after she left, and no one could find the source of the smell for weeks, even months."

Henry laughed for the first time that day.

Encouraged, Dana continued, "When you give your two weeks, I'll get you some fish, to celebrate."

"No," said Henry, his face darkening. “That’s for sure a felony.”

“Well, I’ll do it for you, then.”

“You can’t.”

Dana turned towards the window, her lips pressed into a sharp line.

Henry wrote an email to Greg, listing the demonstrations of Bryan and Will’s ineptitude Greg had overlooked, the small changes Henry had implemented to streamline operations, and apologies for appearing disgruntled the past few weeks due to his “sincere hopes to build a career with the university, not just to have a job for a couple of years before moving on, like Bryan, who as you know was going to accept the offer from the school board...”

The reply came two days later:

Henry, Got your email. Let’s talk on Monday. -Greg

Henry was going to be out of town for workplace safety training the entire week, as Greg knew. The talk did not take place, and Will became senior clerk.

Dana had once showed Henry an article about sex being, at least between monogamous adults, the ultimate stress relief. Henry now wondered if the researchers had forgotten about the stress caused by everything leading up to the act. His skin was flushed from the chest and above as he knelt on the bed, knees apart. Next to but not touching him, Dana lay propped up on one elbow. Between Henry’s thumb and forefinger, a soft piece of flesh flopped up and down like a goldfish out of its bowl.

Henry’s first pet had been a goldfish. Five goldfish, actually--four died in quick succession. His mother spent her days keeping the house germ-free, and Henry didn’t want responsibilities, so he never would’ve had a pet if a classmate hadn’t shown up at his 11th birthday party with a plastic baggie full of water and fish.

Henry named the survivor Junior. Junior grew plump in a spare Tupperware container over the summer. When Henry’s mother brought home a large glass vase from a yard sale, Henry placed it on his shelf and filled it to the brim, to give Junior a higher ceiling.

The next morning, the vase was empty. Henry suspected his mother of doing away with the bacteria-ridden tenant, her offering the vase being a trick of some sort, but she wasn’t home to confirm or deny this and he was building a papier-mâché volcano with friends from school, so it wasn’t until dinnertime that he returned to his room and found Junior behind the bookshelf. He stayed on his hands and knees for a long time, not daring to touch the fish. Its warm odour reminded him of the sea.

Dana was looking not at the “fish” in Henry’s hand, but at her own curves. Her brown hair hung in a screen around her.

“It’s like mermaid hair,” Henry had said with uncharacteristic poetry after their second night together, before pinching Dana’s smooth thigh.  

Her skin was less smooth now; there were dry, scaly patches on her shins, more lines around her eyes and mouth. Henry wasn’t sure these changes explained how, as a whole, she had transformed into a stranger.

Henry felt his coworkers sneaking looks at him the next day. Will and Shep guffawed over his few half-hearted jokes and did not ask what was wrong when he scowled.

They know. Greg must’ve shown them his email. What infuriated Henry most was their careful tread around him. Only the janitors’ open stares were tolerable.

“Though they’ll probably all become management before me at this rate,” he said to Dana over dinner.

After dinner they streamed a movie online. Fifteen minutes in, he grabbed her through her dress. One thrust, two. His hips slowed. Henry sat back on his heels. Dana watched wordlessly as the translucent rubber between his thighs crinkled with the ebb.  It looked like a grocery bag dredged out of a pond.

“You want to give it another go?”

“Up to you,” she said, twisting her neck away. He could only see the whites of her eyes.

The second attempt failed more quickly. Henry got off the bed and went to the bathroom.

Maybe he should just quit sex. Maybe he’ll quit his job and move to New Zealand. But what would that accomplish? Henry couldn’t imagine anyone regretting his departure. Even as a child he had never yelled, “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone!” at his parents or tried to run away from home. Not even for an hour. He was good and hard-working. Wasn’t that enough anymore?

Henry began brushing his teeth. Through the door, he heard Dana stirring in bed, likely having realised he wasn’t going to try again.

“Just leave, then,” she had said again hours ago, “If you’re really the only one actually working and overlooked. Why the hell not?”

Henry paused in the doorway, glaring at Dana’s unmoving form on the bed. She lay with her face in the pillow, not having bothered to push her long hair out of the way. Didn’t she realise he’d lose everything if he quit? Salary, stability, good references and all. Greg would say that Henry left them holding the bag, that he confirmed what they’d been unwilling to suspect of him all along, which was, ultimately, that he wasn’t a team player. And other sports metaphors like that.

Under the thin polyester sheets, Henry could feel Dana’s movements reverberating through the mattress as she turned over.

If I just stay put, they’ll have to promote me eventually. Shep can’t keep his head above water for long... Henry shifted his legs away from the coolness of hers and fell asleep.

 

 

 

Monica Wang was born in Taichung, Taiwan and raised in Vancouver, Canada. She received a BA in English and philosophy from Simon Fraser University.