Thumbtacked to the wall outside my boss' office is a giant piece of draft paper. On the right half, she's meticulously drawn a floor plan complete with ruler-guided lines, a shorthand map of the building to which she and I and two other colleagues will be moving next month. The other half is a space where the eight women in my small building have been instructed to list all the things we want in the divorce.
You see, our building is going to be demolished, and so the two groups, who have shared this space for what seems like centuries, are being split up. To say the separation is amicable is to underestimate what it means to piss on your territory. It's impossible to imagine how attached some folks get to a 5-year-old, Lean Cuisine-splattered microwave until you're sitting in mediation.
On my first day at my current job nearly eight years ago, I was led to an office the size of a toddler's shoebox (sucky) in a building 200 paces away from the one where my then-boss worked (unsucky). I opened the door to find computer guts strewn about the floor, a monitor sitting face down on a table that hadn't been wiped down since 1973 and a beautiful slew of twisted cables and cobwebs, a few spider carcasses dotting the mess like well-placed brooches. My supervisor said something to the effect of “See ya around!” and left me to work it out.
Over the subsequent days, I brought in a Hazmat suit and cleaning supplies and tried to put humpty back together again. When the space was all scrubbed up and my computer finally asked me, “Would. You. Like. To. Play. A. Game?” I thought, Why, yes—yes, I would. But first I had to go hunting for a chair. Fortunately, there was a whole sea of them in an abandoned area behind the front desk. So, I did what any new employee without a chair would do: I took the least stained one. I wheeled it all the way down the hallway to my office, where I hoisted it over my head and wrestled with it until it fit behind my desk. It was rather graceful.
Before I could even slide into my new old seat and focus intently on a round of Solitaire, a woman who I'll call Roxanne appeared at my doorway. “Um, hi. Yeah. Hi. Um—I just wanted to tell you that, well, you can't have that chair.”
“I don't mean to butt in or anything, but it's just that that chair belongs at the front desk.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, there were seven of them and since nobody works there, I didn't think it would be a big deal.”
“I understand, but still,” she smiled at me. “The chair belongs at the front desk. It's always been there. I've worked here for five years, and that's where it belongs. At the front desk. It's a front-desk chair.” It didn't take a sociologist to tell me that Roxanne needed to be made to feel she was in charge and that she needed, at all costs, to avoid change.
Fast-forward to August 2008 and scary changes are upon us. The pending move has made the chair battle—which I won in a quiet victory—seem simpler than a president who thinks there's more than one Internet. Suddenly, the air in our four hallways had become uncomfortably thick with whispered jealousies about Why do they get bigger offices? and We don't get to pick out paint chips!
Then there's The List.
It was started in July and has been growing exponentially each day with words like “toaster oven” and “shredder” and “fax machine” scratched angrily in one long, Pisa-esque column. The scrawl of “freezer” is uneven as if written by a person with a tremor. “File cabinet” is faint in places where gravity pulled the ink away from the tip of the pen used to write it. All the anger from some perceived jilting is visible in the leaning enumeration of office supplies that will not be shared in a joint-custody agreement.
I tried to remain above it all, mocking the petty division of possessions by writing “red stapler” in tiny print at the top of The List. But then the words “paper cutter” caught my eye and I froze. The letters were confident, bold with ownership. And I thought, Oh, heeeelllllllllll no! This is where I draw the line. I'd been more than willing to part with the toaster oven, a bookshelf, even some FedEx packing slips if it meant freedom from the endless power struggles. But the paper cutter was staying with me, no visitation.
Over the past weeks of backhanded comments, flaring tempers and one tearful potluck, I've kept silent and approached any teeming confrontation with a yes-girl attitude. But I secretly developed a plan of attack and was waiting for the exact right moment to implement it.
During our final meeting to hash out which group would retain the fax line, I saw my opportunity. But instead of making my case, I had a King Solomon moment. In an all-I-saw-was-a-bright-light, out-of-body experience, I couldn't split the baby. Instead, a peacefulness came over me and I offered up the paper cutter with genuine sincerity. I was getting out of this relationship with little more than my chair, and that was enough for me.
Apparently, it was enough for Roxanne, too, because she kindly said I could keep the baby, that it wasn't that big a deal to her. She seemed to be coming to terms with the fact that we won't be waiting together for the clogged sink to fix itself or for the toner in the copier to be refilled or that, despite it all, we won't be casually chatting in the hallway any more. But it's like this: If she wants to reminisce about the good ol' days, she'll be able to find me in some dimly lit basement where the paper cutter will be collecting dust.