Should I have written Busy? Occupied didn’t feel right. Please Knock? Stay the hell out was my first impulse, but acting on impulse hadn’t always served me well.
There wasn’t room on the yellow sticky note for more than a word or two, and I had the distinct feeling that a tiny sign on the door might just draw more attention. Everyone in the building knew what I was doing anyway, aside from the warehouse employees below.
They knew my breasts were full.
I heard last Thursday that Krissy Boyd said it wasn’t right that I took a break every two hours.
She hadn’t said that to me, of course. On my first day back at work, she’d smiled tightly and handed me a toy store gift card. For the baby, she said. Not Congratulations, or even a quick how are you. I started to say thank you, but she’d before I could open my mouth, she’d already turned to leave, heels clicking down the hallway.
Before, I might have been worried about what Krissy Boyd had to say about my work product. Glossy black hair swinging down her back, her nose pinched with self-importance, Krissy had her finger on the pulse and her nose to the grindstone. She wasn’t in my department, and she certainly had no business monitoring my schedule.
We’re peers. Well, we were peers.
Krissy wasn’t working at the nonprofit for the money, and she certainly wasn’t there for the mission. She was there for the prestige, the growth opportunities. The brand-new Vice President of Development. I’d heard about the promotion while I was on maternity leave – Craig, my graphic designer, sent me the significant updates.
Yes, she was good at her job, and while competitive, we’d developed a begrudging mutual respect. She’d earned the right to manage what needed managing. The major donors were her specialty. She loved any chance to rub shoulders with the well-financed. Always looking for her next big opportunity.
It’s been four years since I sat in my frigid sensible sedan on my first day. I was so young, too eager to get started in my first management role, and chronically early. I watched dozens of harried employees lug their CG Denver work bags through the door until finally, the digital clock on my dashboard read 7:56, and I decided to go in.
Krissy started the same day that January, the Denver sky clear and cold, sun shining relentlessly in the thin, dry air. We walked through the door at the same time, me smiling vaguely as our eyes met, and we stood waiting at the receptionist’s empty desk, unsure of what to do next.
I tried to be friendly.
“Are you new here too?”
She turned and gave me a once-over, then nodded, but didn’t speak.
Instead, she surveyed the room, her fierce brown eyes flitting from one spot to another. I was reminded of the murderous orange cat that lived on the street I’d grown up on, ready to pounce on anything that crossed its path. When I was ten, a mama bird and her babies lay slaughtered on the sidewalk, their heads and downy feathers slick with the cat’s saliva.
And pounce Krissy did when the receptionist walked back into the front room, her thin hands wrapped around a mug of tea.
“Excuse me. I’m Krissy Boyd. The new Development Manager.” Krissy was positively brimming with self-importance.
The receptionist blinked, but a look of recognition quickly replaced her surprise.
“Yes, yes, of course, welcome! There are a few of you starting today – someone from HR will be right down.”
We waited in the lobby together, though I didn’t try to engage her again. She sat on the edge of a chair, back straight and legs crossed, a pebbled leather tote perched neatly in her lap. I found myself mimicking her posture:
Professional Woman at Work.
I didn’t realize I was staring at Krissy’s shoes until Nancy from HR resources bustled in, a broad smile on her face, beckoning us to follow her as she talked at breakneck speed about our schedule for the day. Krissy walked behind her at a fast clip, taking notes in a tiny black notebook. Relief flooded through me when we stopped at the marketing department’s offices first, my new boss already on the phone.
“I’ll come check on you later today,” whispered Nancy before she guided Krissy down the hall.
Now, it was 11 am, and I’d waited too long. I was starting to leak. I stabbed the sticky note on the door to my office and slammed it shut, louder than I’d anticipated.
I finished the speechwriting last night, but I didn’t want to send it to Tom for approval right away. The content tame and lifeless as usual; I can write Tom’s insipid speeches with my eyes closed.
Thursdays were always lunch at Rioja with his other CEO buddies from the Christian Business Network. He’d be gone until two at the earliest, and I didn’t want him dropping something else in my lap. Walking into my office unannounced, coming around behind the desk uninvited. Leaning over my shoulder, his breath hot and garlicky from the creamy artichoke dip, a blob of which inevitably remained on his snowflake tie.
He was harmless – a balding man from Colorado Springs the board hired to make some sense of our financial situation. But between his chronic halitosis and lack of boundaries, I avoided him as much as possible.
He’d asked about my pumping last week, how long it took, how much milk I got. His wife had four girls, you see, so he knew all about it.
“You make skim milk with those things, or more like half and half?” he’d cracked when he saw me carrying the bottles to the fridge in the break room. A shit-eating grin was plastered on his pale face, eyes like Lutz marbles, glistening with Christian sincerity.
I laughed and shoved the bottles behind Krissy’s giant red lunchbox. I’d only gotten two ounces from each side that day, which just wasn’t enough. After that, I started bringing a cooler and locking my office door. The sticky note was the newest addition.
Today I was wearing my best work shirt for the meeting with the new agency, a competent brood of women I’d tasked with fixing our hopeless ad campaign. According to my mother, the blouse was aubergine. I was hoping the color might help my skin look brighter, my eyes less tired. But the silk strained across my chest and pulled at the shoulders, the unforgiving material refusing to cooperate with my post-baby body.
I couldn’t risk getting milk on the blouse, not when the meeting was so late in the day, so I pulled it over my head and chucked it toward the other side of my desk, where it lay waiting for my return.
I’d developed a pretty efficient system for pumping at work, but I disliked having to disrobe completely. Now shirtless, I unhooked my bra, a shapeless tan thing I’d worn throughout my entire pregnancy. My breasts were growing ever larger; I’d shoved anything remotely uncomfortable to the very back of my drawer.
On went the baby-pink pumping bra, two holes placed directly over my saucer-sized nipples, with room for the flanges and the valves. The pumping bra had to be tight, strapped on my chest like a suicide bomber’s vest. Tight enough that it couldn’t fail.
I settled in. Computer. Phone. Work phone. Water bottle. All within arm’s reach of my swivel chair. The pump switched on, and I zoned out to the monotonous mechanical noise, the squeeze and release intended to mimic a baby’s suckling.
It took a long time for the letdown.
I was supposed to look at a picture of the baby, to help with the stimulation. But all I could see were fluorescent lights. The empty water bottle in front of me. Shit. I’d forgotten to refill.
My review was in two weeks, and I needed to complete my Self-Assessment. I didn’t expect much, knowing the financials were in disarray. Still, I deserved a promotion. I had been essentially running the department for over a year. I was a VP in all but name. Even a couple thousand would make a dent in the childcare bill. Spread out over the year, it wouldn’t mean much per paycheck, but it would be something.
When my boss had left a year ago, the new CEO Tom was tasked with finding someone new to replace her. Somehow, that never happened. In the meantime, the rest of us held the department together, working long hours, bonding over copy edits, brochure design, and our shared love of reality TV. The day I told Tom I was pregnant, he barely looked up from his computer. “Let Nancy in HR know. Oh, and make sure you finish the annual report before you leave.”
He didn’t think I was coming back.
Yet here I was, back in the office, the pump whirring while I worked.
Three ounces on one side, two on the other. A decent showing for the afternoon session. I emailed the speech to Tom and congratulated myself on a job well done. Someone had to.
Getting things done while topless in the office every successful woman’s dream.
When I got home from work, I was thrilled to find the cigarette lighter power adapter sitting in my mailbox. Pumping in the car was going to be my savior, my brilliant, life-changing idea.
The baby hadn’t eaten well during the day; the white piece of paper waiting in her cubby told me she’d only had six ounces of milk all day. I looked around for someone to talk to about why, but all the teachers were engaged with other infants or slack-eyed toddlers on the verge of a meltdown. The witching hour, they called it. When everyone was exhausted and ready to go home, but mom or dad still hadn’t arrived. Corporate America’s schedule didn’t care that the infants in the Greenhouse room didn’t get a good nap because the church next door started construction that afternoon.
I tucked her safely into the car seat and headed home. I missed her all day at work; still, I dreaded the night in front of us. I knew she’d be hungry. Four months old, her arms and legs chubby with my body’s bounty. Somehow, though, it was never enough. She always needed more.
The baby nursed all night long while I rocked in the grey chair, counting the animals in her room. Three deer in a photo. Herds of elephants covering the sheets. The llama, a clock my mother had given me, going on about how I’d want to know what time it was in the middle of the night so I could time my feedings properly. But time loses all meaning in the haze of sleeplessness, the night wakings ceaseless and punishing.
She fell into a fitful sleep, but every time I tiptoed to her crib she awoke with an angry start, her tiny body in freefall once I’d unlatched it from mine.
Finally, the sun rose, and so did we. In the bathroom, the shower curtain smelled suspiciously like mildew, and I kept brushing up against it as I applied a pointless layer of concealer and sprayed half a can of dry shampoo into my unwashed hair.
Today I’d get to see my speech in action. Though it wasn’t riveting by any stretch of the imagination, it was well-written. Tom had sent over some changes late the night before, but I’d made good use of those waking hours and had updates ready to go.
The black pump bag nestled perfectly into the passenger seat, and after dropping the baby at daycare, I worked quickly to attach the various parts.
After seven minutes of finagling, I realized I should have done a dry run the night before. The milk bags hung dangerously close to the steering wheel, so I had to drive with my arms out wide like I was hugging a giant invisible beach ball.
As I shifted into drive and looked at the clock, I knew I’d arrive a few minutes past 8, but at least I’d walk into the office ready to go. I had a meeting with Tom at nine to prep him for the all-hands at noon.
As I drove the familiar route, my thoughts drifted, oxytocin coursing through my veins. I pulled up to the railroad crossing and saw six SUVs stopped ahead of me, waiting for the graffitied train cars to pass through on their way to Grand Junction. A trucker leered down at me from the left lane, his eyes fixed on the plastic flanges and their vise-like grip on my nipples, pulling them like so much strawberry taffy. I inched forward, ignoring his gaze.
I wheeled into the parking lot smiling, happy with the four ounces I’d gotten out of the left side and the record-setting five out of the right. But once the milk was packed neatly into the bag, a wave of panic set in. Between the extra time in the parking lot and the train delay, I was late. It was 8:16, and Tom was an old-school stickler when it came to working hours.
“Well, finally, there you are!” His voice echoed up and down the wide hallway as I rushed around the corner. He was leaning up against the wall between the break room and my office, trying to look casual. He spent a good half hour there every morning, pretending to say hello to everyone, but we all knew he was checking in to make sure we went straight to our desks and didn’t spend too much time gabbing over our morning coffee.
The mildew and milk rose in my throat, my eyes watering with frustration. I would not cry in front of this man. I would project leadership and expertise and competence. He didn’t need to know I’d been up all night, that my mind was blurry from the lack of sleep and my incision, even four months after my c-section, still throbbed with pain.
I tossed the pump bag behind me – I didn’t need him equating my lateness with the baby.
“Oh, Tom, good, I’m glad you’re here,” I said with practiced proficiency. “I’ve got a few updates on your speech. Isn’t our meeting at nine?”
The Lutz marbles hardened; his smile faded. Shit. I should have apologized first.
“You know I don’t think I need any new comments. You’ve clearly got your hands full,” he said, gesturing to the bag I’d dropped on the floor. “But uh, Craig, you come down to my office, and we’ll talk about the slideshow. You wow them with the graphics, and I’ll do the rest.”
Craig shot me a look of pity but beckoned the intern, and together they followed Tom down the hall.
Krissy Boyd appeared in the breakroom doorway, and I was surprised to see a shadow of sympathy cross her face.
As she looked down, my eyes followed hers; nine ounces of liquid spread across the floor.
Jeni Anderson is a communications professional and professor at the University of Denver. She writes fiction, creative non-fiction, personal essay, and more.