Jane Doe – Victoria Helen Stone

I see the moment he first notices me. The slight double take as he spots the new girl in the office. I don’t notice him in return. I make sure of it. He’s a man who likes to think he’s in charge. He’s afraid of women who come on strong. How could you ever control a girl that bold? So I only watch through my lashes and keep my face turned toward my work. My job doesn’t require much concentration. There’s no evidence of my true history on the résumé I submitted to this office, but I’m one law degree and six years of experience too qualified for this kind of work. Still, data entry is soothing. It’s satisfying in a way that legal work isn’t. I settle back into the rhythm of it and ignore him completely. He isn’t the boss. Steven Hepsworth is a classic middle manager. He shows respect to the bigwigs.

He’s decent at his job. He has an MBA and is Caucasian and classically good-looking, so he’ll do fine in life. A great catch. I noted his easy good looks during my orientation tour of the office yesterday. He uses too much gel in his hair, but he smiles a lot and the smiles feel genuine. The warmth of his brown eyes invites you closer. They distract from the weakness in his chin. People like him. The other women in the office flirt when he speaks to them. He’s a nice guy.

Someone brings me a stack of records for input, and I put Steven Hepsworth out of my mind for the rest of the day. I’ll flirt with him like the other women do. But not yet. CHAPTER 2 He finds me in the break room at lunchtime on my third day. It’s possible he came upon me accidentally, but most of the managers use the break room upstairs, or so I’ve been told. Then again, Steven likely prefers being the big man in the room, so maybe he’d rather dine with us peons. “Hi!” he says brightly. “I’m Steven.” “I’m Jane,” I respond with a smile, offering my hand. He shakes it gently, his fingers barely pressing mine.

I despise men who shake a woman’s hand as if their masculine power might crush her inferior bones, but I beam up at him. “New girl in the office?” “That’s me!” I’m inclined to let my hand flop lifelessly onto the table when he lets it go, but instead I cross my arms beneath my breasts. His eyes flicker to my cleavage only briefly. He’s interested but discreet. The dress is soft and flowery, like all of my recent purchases. It could be demure, but I’ve unbuttoned one too many buttons. He’s a breast man, our Steven. Mine aren’t large, but they are there, and I’ve pushed them up to make them look more C than B. He likes the result. If he ever sees me naked, he’ll be disappointed, but that will only work in my favor.

“What brings you to our little office?” he asks. “Oh, you know. Same old story. I moved back to town a few weeks ago, and I heard you guys were always hiring for data entry. So here I am.” “Just finished college?” I’m thirty, so I laugh at his flattery. “More along the lines of a bad breakup.” “I know what that’s like,” he says, settling in with a hip on the break room counter, his eyes sparking with interest. A girl coming off a bad breakup is vulnerable. He’s calculating whether he can get me into bed.

“Well, welcome back to Minneapolis.” Yes, it’s been too long. Far too long. I should have come back a year ago. Two years ago. The microwave dings behind him. My sad lunch is ready. He moves aside, and I let him see the cheap low-calorie brand name before I pick up the box I left on the counter and toss it in the recycling. I’m not doing well financially, and I’m trying to lose those last ten pounds. That’s what he sees.

The truth is I’m almost certainly richer than he is, and my body is fine. It works, I’m fit enough, and no one needs a perfect body to get sex. Sex is the cheapest commodity, and any body at all is up for trade. I’m not interested in love, so I don’t spend time worrying what my partners think of me. My lack of shame simplifies things. But that kind of confidence would terrify Steven, so I smile self-consciously and take my lowfat beef stroganoff from the microwave. “Looks good,” he lies, as if I can’t see the shit-colored pile of sauce atop noodles that are half-limp and half-overcooked. “Wanna share?” I ask. He laughs too hard at that. “I’m going to grab a meatball sandwich downstairs.

” Manly food. Meat and balls all at once. “But thank you!” he adds brightly. “Can I get you anything while I’m out? A coffee?” “No, thanks. I brought some tea from home.” The truth is I hate tea, but I’ll drink it weak and tepid for him. “Well, it was really nice to meet you, Jane. See you around?” “I can almost guarantee it.” When he laughs, I grin proudly at his response. He rewards me with a wink.

Once he’s gone, I eat my low-fat beef stroganoff and open the paperback I had stashed in my purse. Reading is my favorite hobby. I don’t have to fake that. CHAPTER 3 It’s not that I don’t have feelings. I have some emotions. I do. It’s just that I can usually choose when to feel them. More important, I choose when not to. I don’t think I was born this way. I suspect I used to feel things too deeply until my brain rewired itself to protect me.

My parents are still alive, still together, and they love me, I suppose. But they love me the way a careless child loves a pet. Too much attention one day, absolute neglect the next. The changes in current were too much for me to survive when I was young, so my brain learned to ride above them. It’s not something I think about now. It’s natural. I observe people’s emotions, but I rarely participate. I talk to my parents occasionally, but I only initiate contact on Christmas. If I happen to be in Oklahoma, I’ll stop in for a visit—but, really, who ever happens to be in Oklahoma? I send money on each of their birthdays. They always need it.

I don’t hate them; I just don’t understand why people feel the need to try over and over with toxic family members. I know who my parents are. They’re not the worst, but they’re still awful, and I don’t need their chaos spinning in and out of my life when I’m not expecting it. They used up all their chances to hurt me when I was very young, and they can’t hurt me now even if they want to. That’s all. When I call them on Christmas, I listen to their tales of misadventure and bad luck, and I offer a couple of stories about living and working in Malaysia. They tell me what my brother, Ricky, is up to. I don’t speak to him. I have nothing to say to a redneck asshole who’s somehow managed to create five children with four women during his brief stints of freedom from incarceration. That’s my family.

As for friends . well, Meg was my best friend from the first day we met. She’s dead now. CHAPTER 4 A month ago I was still working as an American import-export attorney for a big Asian manufacturing conglomerate. I lived in a gorgeous apartment in a modern high-rise in Kuala Lumpur outfitted with Western luxuries. I’ve always found it funny that the expat Americans rarely cook anything but need the biggest, best kitchen appliances. I include myself in that observation. I loved my shiny six-burner stove. I had a view of the whole city, which was rather brown and hazy during the day but sparkled like a universe at night. I went to parties.

There were always parties. I bought designer dresses and shoes. I don’t need beautiful things, but I like them fine. Now I live in a run-down one-bedroom apartment three blocks from my new job. I rent it for its proximity to this office and because it has nice security measures for its price point—which is low. I could almost afford to live here on the pittance of an hourly wage I’m making now. The furniture is all cheaply rented. My Malaysian employer thinks I’m caring for a dying relative. I now have less than fifty days for this little adventure. If I stay longer, I’ll lose my job.

And I like my job. I like my life. I like my condo in Kuala Lumpur. I want to get back to it—but not until I’ve finished this. I like Minneapolis too, but I’ll be happy to leave. There are too many memories of Meg here. Or should I want to stay so I can remember her and pretend I might run into her at any moment? I don’t know how grief works. I have no idea what I should expect or even what I should want. Regardless, my kind doesn’t worry much about the future. If I lose my job, I can sell the place in Malaysia and move to New York.

I’ve always loved Manhattan. Instead of depending on Meg’s vibrancy to keep me human, maybe I could rely on the crazed heartbeat of that city. Melodramas playing out on every street and on every floor of every building. It might be good for me to be surrounded by that kind of emotion. Kuala Lumpur is like that, but I don’t speak enough Malay to truly sink into it. Minneapolis is fine during the summer but too empty during winter. And I have too much ice on the inside to live with the dark and cold. Today I don’t run into Steven in the break room, and I’m concerned that I haven’t snagged his interest. When he joins a supervisor at a desk two rows from mine, I take off my cardigan and toy absently with the button at my dress’s neckline. Unfasten, fasten.

Unfasten, fasten. I let my fingertips rest against my bare skin. I drag them lower. When I look up, he’s watching, and I gulp and smile and drop my face in shame. A few moments later I glance through my lashes. He winks. I let him see me giggle. All in all, it’s a decent show. I hope it works. I work until 5:30, then go home to my dingy apartment, which shares a wall with the apartment of a single dad who has custody three nights a week.

Sometimes I like hearing the squeals and laughter of his kids, but tonight they’re excited about going to the store to pick out Halloween costumes, and I hate them for their happiness and for my memories. For our sophomore Halloween at the U, Meg made me dress up, the first time I’d bothered since I was ten. She went as a sexy nurse. I was a sexy teacher. The whole point of college costumes was the sexy, of course, and it worked. That night I got laid, and she met a boy who became her boyfriend. Kevin, I think. He was fine for a college boy, and I liked him. It only lasted three months, though. Meg always fell hard and fast, and I was good at giving her the space for that.

That was my role in her love life: to be there waiting when it all fell apart. To help her understand the logic of getting over it and moving on when she couldn’t see past her torrent of tears. Her role in my love life was to encourage me to give each guy a chance. He’s nice! He likes you! He’s so cute! Most of my college dating was just to humor her. To try it her way for a little while. I liked the physical closeness, the sex, but I could never get to the part where you opened up to the other person. Why would I? People cause pain. Even good people hurt those they love. We all do it because we can’t help it. Most of us aren’t evil; we’re just stupid and flawed and not careful with others.

Meg thought the hurt was worth the goodness that came with it. Most people do. It’s what keeps them going. What keeps me going? I don’t know. Small pleasures, I guess. Coffee. Chocolate. Competition. Silk dresses. A hot bath on a cold day.

Winning. The satisfaction of shaping my life into exactly what I want. Oh, and right now, my hatred for the muffled chatter of tiny children outside my door. I close my eyes and imagine they are Meg’s children instead of a stranger’s. She wanted kids. She wanted a husband and a white picket fence and a swing set in the yard, and I wanted it all for her. She would have been an amazing mother, overflowing with love and attentiveness. She would have decorated for every holiday. She would have baked cookies and not cared how messy her kids got with the sprinkles and icing. And she would never have disappeared for three days at a time to hit up the Choctaw casinos with her friends.

She’d never have left her daughter home alone with strep throat and such a high fever that she hallucinated exotic animals. She’d never have let strange men rent a room. Imagining Meg’s love for the children she won’t have fills me up with bittersweet yearning. It swells so tight in me that I briefly wonder if I could manage that kind of love myself. Maybe I could have a child and love it the way I loved Meg. But no. Meg’s childhood had been filled with motherly affection, so she’d been able to accept my cool logic as a soothing balm. But children can’t thrive on calmness and remove. They need love too. Hugs and giggles and unfettered warmth.

If that had ever been inside me, it isn’t now. I’m empty. But not empty. I’m filled with sorrow. As the children pass my door on their way out of the building, I cover my face with my hands and squeeze my eyes tightly shut, unwilling to share vulnerability with even my bare walls. I need Meg, and she’ll never be here again. CHAPTER 5 On Monday, Steven finds me in the break room once more. He can’t very well come by my desk to chat. It’s in the middle of an open room full of desks and low cubicles, and health insurance administration is boring work. If he lingers, his interest will be noticed by the whole floor.

This works well for me. He’s forced to time his approach carefully. He has to plan ahead. This makes me seem more desirable than I really am. I pretend not to notice him standing in the doorway. Frankly, I’m deeply absorbed in my book and resent having to jump back into real life. Or unreal life. Whatever this is. But when he clears his throat, I look up and smile at the sight of him. “Oh, hi!” “Hey, Jane.

I was thinking we could grab a sandwich. I figure you’re not familiar with the neighborhood, and my favorite place is just one block over. Gordo’s. Have you tried it yet?” “Oh, I’m sorry.” I gesture toward the whirring microwave. “I already started cooking my lunch.” He checks the box on the counter. Spaghetti with low-fat meat sauce. “Sunk cost,” he says. “Throw it in the trash and I’ll buy you something better.

” I laugh and shake my head. “I couldn’t. But thank you.” “Tomorrow, then?” Glancing down, I feign shyness, but I’m really calculating whether he’d be more interested in a yes or a no. I should probably keep up the chase, but I’ve been a little bored with all the planning. And I don’t want to bruise his ego this early in the game. Decision made, I risk a yes, but I spice it with obvious hesitation. “It’s probably not a good idea . ” He smiles because he knows I’m giving in despite my gut instinct. “Nah, it’s a great idea.

” “You think so?” “Definitely. Tomorrow?” “Okay. All right. Tomorrow.” He stands taller, his chest puffing out before he inclines his head toward my book. “What are you reading?” I hold it up, showing him the name of a famous thriller author. Steven grimaces. “Genre fiction?” “My favorite.” “I only read nonfiction.” He wants me to feel self-conscious, but the truth is that a man like Steven doesn’t want to immerse himself in someone else’s world.

It gives the author too much power. It makes Steven feel small. I ignore all that and pretend I don’t register the implied insult in his disapproval. “Nonfiction? What kind?” “US history, mostly. Civil war stuff.” “Oh, cool. I watched that Ken Burns documentary.” “It was okay but pretty general.” Neither my books nor my viewing habits are good enough for him. I have to bite back a grin.

If this were a bar, I would’ve told him to sod off by now. But right now I’m supposed to believe he’s better than I am. More discerning. I should probably apologize for my inferior preferences, but screw that. I don’t have the patience today. The microwave dings and I get up to open it, then set the meal on the counter and lean down to poke around at the plastic tray. The soft pink-and-tan fabric of my dress gapes to reveal a lacy white bra beneath. I peel back the plastic wrap and frown as if the spaghetti is not quite done. When I look up, his eyes dart away from my cleavage. “I’d better head out,” he says.

“Meet you at the elevator tomorrow at noon?” “Sounds great!” When he’s gone, I’m relieved. Partly because I can get back to my reading, but mostly because I know he’s on the hook. Goal achieved. I’ve never had too much trouble getting dates, but I’m not beautiful, and people are unpredictable about attraction. Maybe his number one turn-on is an adorable button nose. Maybe he can only get hard for tan blondes. You can’t tell these things from a distance. But I know which emotional buttons to push. I know what he likes in a woman’s personality. And manipulation is my specialty.

Still, if he didn’t even nibble at me as bait, I have backup plans, but there’s no need yet. Apparently I’m good enough for Steven despite my subpar entertainment choices. Snorting in amusement, I carry my lunch to the table and settle back in with my book. I love losing myself in someone else’s world. I like learning how others’ lives work even if I don’t understand them. Frankly, fictional people appeal far more to me than real people do. In fiction, the choices have to make sense. The timeline proceeds rationally. Emotions are explained to me. Characters feel the way they are supposed to feel in response to the actions of others.

Nobody stays in a bad situation because of inertia or low self-esteem. That would make for a truly shitty story. But in real life . God, in real life people so rarely behave in ways that improve their circumstances. Why? Why, why, why? This is one of those things I’ll never understand. All I know is books are better. Just as I’m closing the paperback, my phone buzzes, surprising me. No one calls me. No one except—yeah, it’s my mother, the call forwarded from my real phone number. I ignore her and let it go to voice mail.

She knows what to do. I wouldn’t want to actually answer her call and shock her into a heart attack or something. She hasn’t lived a healthy lifestyle. I toss the remains of my lunch, refill my water bottle, and wait for the message chime. I don’t really need to listen to her voice mail, but I do. When I get back to my desk, I write a check for $800, then steal an envelope from the supply closet and beg a stamp from the receptionist. Five minutes later my mother and her broken-down car are out of my thoughts. Ten years ago I would have called her back and grilled her to be sure the money was actually for car repairs and not bail for my brother, but I no longer care. It’s worth the money to not have to bother with any of them. Maybe I love them in some way, because I don’t have to send money but I do.

Or maybe I feel freakish for not feeling one damn thing for them and the money is an easy salve. I have no idea, and I don’t waste time thinking about it. I have more data entry to do.

.

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