After so many visits to the promotion room I should have memorized every depression in the coffee table, however small, made by the force of so many individual mugs planting themselves on the surface. As if the degree of assertion of the mug's position allowed the person clinging to the glazed porcelain to stay. My fingertips tease the indentations, some deeper than others, but all perfectly partial circles. I coaxed them, the aestheticians ready for their promotion, to look at me, every time feeling I had thrust my entire arm through the filmy tunnel of a black widow's web. Immune, I continued.
In my first week, Steve Sullivan summoned me to his office, gestured for me to sit on the concrete chair opposite his desk. An homage to brutalist design. Too heavy to move closer or further, and no cushion. Sometimes Steve Sullivan called an aesthetician in to sit on the chair while he perused documents with no ulterior goal than to measure how long the aesthetician would sit still for, and he somehow equated this ability to sit, immobile, on solid stone with strength of character.
In my first week, I possessed no notion of Mr. Sullivan's proclivity for inciting discomfort. Just out of university, working an internship at Central Processing, and desperate to get hired as a full aesthetician. And I was the only woman.
Statisticians fed us the knowledge that women were, simply, 'choosing not to pursue such occupations or career trajectories associated with the creation of memory reservoirs.' We did not choose to create memory reservoirs because we only saw women stored in membraries. Throughout our degrees we transposed our useless memories, factoids and experiences, to free enough space for education. And every time we did, we gave the cast-off thoughts to a woman, a grandmother. Imbued with a fear so tangible and paralysing, so real, by the repetition of women, you begin to see your face, the pattern of freckles and nearly faded acne scars on every MR until you transpose all memory of that face and find yourself unrecognisable when you arrive home and catch yourself in the mirror in the entrance way above the squat table that you toss your keys onto before removing your shoes.
My best friend, Ryan, with her male-coded name to get her resume through the first screening process. Ryan. Whose parents set her up to succeed, whose fiancée called me, slobbering because not only did she not know her own features, but she had self-induced prosopagnosia. Transposition, back then, was not as precise as today.
I did not benefit from the same luxuries as Ryan. My parents settled for 'Genevieve.' A name you must prove, command attention with or recede, forgotten. I whittled away my childhood on the outskirts of a city. My parents succumbed to the fantasy of suburbia, but bought so far out the city never grew to reach us, and I made playthings of the wilderness beyond the back fence. Discarded branches became maps to alternate worlds: the hollowed inside of a cedar transformed into a cave, a hive, a place to create a new colony; leaves larger than my palms were birds, patient, ready to wrestle a vole as it trundled by; the mosquito netting cast between shrubs made luminous gloves that could direct the fantastic to overwhelm the fence for our little yard and push itself through the backdoor and into the kitchen where my mother canned tomatoes out of habit, tradition. Instead of netting, the gloves wove themselves from silk, spider's silk, and the black widow whose house I plunged my hand down let me know her displeasure. I flung her off, but soon my hand spasmed and every muscle in my arm, then shoulder, then across to my other arm, flinched incessantly. I upset my mother's box of salt when I fell through the doorway.
When Steve Sullivan called me into his office, I lunged toward his door with the same verve I had for those silken gloves.
"You might not know, but CP put out a new directive that all aestheticians, upon reaching age sixty-five are given the option of a promotion or termination." Mr. Sullivan spoke before I sat on the uncompromising chair.
"I am neither sixty-five nor an aesthetician."
"Yet. Not an aesthetician, yet. You will deliver the option of termination or promotion to Darryl, who celebrated his birthday yesterday. Here, read this. You meet with him in twenty minutes."
I took the proffered folder and began scanning the pages, still standing at almost the centre of Steve Sullivan's office.
"And do sell the promotion. Company interests and all."
"The promotion is becoming a memory reservoir for use at membraries."
"Do you have a problem advocating on behalf of our employer?"
I felt my smile pulse in my eyes. "No, no problem at all." All these men, getting older, and when they outlive their usefulness in a physical sense, repurposed as a storage facility.
Statisticians market memory reservoirs as a state of being where the elderly can relive their best years through their memories while performing their civic duty of accepting extraneous memories from the working class and students. I learned from those marketing advertisements. No other aesthetician could produce the same results: a ninety-three percent acceptance rate of the promotion. And the other seven percent usually did volunteer themselves as MRs when their children left home or their spouse passed. Eventually, I delivered all company promotions. I waited twelve years to propose the ultimatum to Steve Sullivan. And I savoured every syllable.
"Steve, you know what this meeting regards. You should have already decided. I expect you did decide, but upon sinking into the sofa across from me, you began reconsidering. Tea or coffee?"
Bravado stolen, Steve looked at the fine creases on his hands, crumpled into them. Some part of him thought he was important enough, special even, to turn sixty-five without consequence. Devoted, he resolved to accept the promotion, until he reasoned that the company denied showing the same loyalty to him. Unoriginal. I raised my finger as if I were my younger self and still taking notes in class, tentatively positing a question. An intern brought a mug of decaffeinated Lady Grey, thinned with skim milk and laced with one spoon of sugar.
I practiced variations of this move until I mastered the balance of demure deference and withheld authority. I offer both tea and coffee, but not choice.
Now, I find myself in that familiar room, but opposite my armchair. I neglected to consider the ivory cotton from this perspective before, how the impenetrability of its weave added to my demeanour. Comforting to know I will not miss the feel of that straight back against my own, that instead I will relive the moments in entirety. I will dwell in this room, revel in the panicked breathing of the men across from me because I lived here, in every sense.
In this room, I can linger. Taste the undulations in the air as the men curl into their knees, rendered, suddenly, infantile, despite knowing this moment would come. Perhaps the majority transpose this inevitability, choose to ignore the conversation to come. But that would be tedious, would require the transposition of the summons of every co-worker to this room and every conversation about approaching sixty-fifth birthdays. I suppose they practice a willful self-deception over an authentic ignorance.
I considered signing the papers to become a memory reservoir last week, as a statement of my confidence in the company and excitement for the promotion. I had this debate with myself earlier, decades ago, when I contemplated transitioning into a memoir, the advanced version of an MR that retains other's memories for future viewing, when my brain was young enough. No one wanted a memoir older than twenty-nine, at least not back then. Now most prefer under twenty-five. Statisticians say the age limit depends on the rate of mental deterioration and storage, but they mean to say the market determines the limit. I would have, back then, if I had already promoted Steve Sullivan, but he was too young and I waited to tell him the good news.
I decided not to pre-emptively sign because I craved, almost lusted, to know my successor. Alone in the promotion room. Maybe the company wants to make me sweat, maybe they doubt my commitment to the program. Or maybe they still seek my replacement.
I hope they send a man.
They do not, of course. A man cannot handle or control me, never has. Smart, they send Aliyah, dressed in her fenestration scrubs.
"So sorry I'm late, Genie."
I don't bother acknowledging her.
"I mean, Ms. Marks. They told me to 'embody a distant professionalism.'"
"Why would they instruct that?"
Aliyah twirls a pen between her fingers. Amateur move, which she realises and stuffs the pen into her breast pocket. She breathes outward twice.
"I must inform you of the choice before you: a promotion, where you will serve the Central Processor with your entire mind; or termination, which does not include a pension or reference letter."
"Oh, Aliyah, sweetheart. Your delivery is all wrong. You do not 'inform' me, you need to convince me. Refuse to offer the choice."
"But it is a choice. A personal one at that."
"No, no, no. Not a choice, a business model, a framework. The CP, the company, through you, wants me to accept the promotion because then they spend less on recruitment advertisements for memory reservoirs. You are an ambassador, Aliyah. Act like one."
"That doesn't seem fair."
"Fair? You want to talk about fairness? What about the empty beds in the membraries that lead to increased wait times for users and elevated stress put on the MRs that necessarily means those units wear out quicker than anticipated? What about the job opening I leave for a younger, even brighter, aesthetician to fill? You cannot argue that I should stay, not with my arthritis. What if I create a stylobate one capillary too large and ruin a whole model?"
Aliyah blinks, faster, restrains a thin tear from overwhelming her eyelashes.
I lower my voice, almost whisper. "Forget about the company. You, Aliyah, want me to volunteer for the operation so I can continue to help people in the only capacity that remains. You do not want me cast from my office to live on what meager amounts I saved while the cost of living towers higher than the skyscrapers in this city. You do not wish that fate on anyone."
Aliyah's palms viciously wipe at her cheeks, rubbing away tears that haven't yet dropped. She opens her mouth to speak but emits a high-pitched keen, interrupted by a bout of hiccups. They leave her shuddering on the chair for longer than I expect. Perhaps they want her to consider a position as a memoir, and this was a last promotion for me to give.
Dom enters with a blanket that he holds up to entice Aliyah to stand. His arms barrel around her, swathing her in the blue fleece, and leads her out without a glance at me.
"Who next?" I cross my arms at the camera in the mirror on the opposite wall. My face, flushed, glowers back. This is my room, my home. I cannot tolerate my web callously brushed away to allow space for a timid creature to nest. They should have accepted my offer to train the other aestheticians in the art of promotions. Perhaps they will reconsider, keep me on for another week, maybe two, just to make sure someone can get the job done.
By the time the door opens my skin has faded to its usual muted pink. Jeremy enters, stands with his hands on the back of my chair, the one opposite where I sit, one I know so well.
"Where to begin." He refuses to ask. I like Jeremy and his questions coated in confidence, delivered as answers. He might suffice.
"Offer me tea or coffee."
"I did not ask. And you know we do not provide coffee; it destabilises the sedative used on models."
"Yes, I know. Offer it nonetheless."
"But everyone knows we do not have coffee to offer."
"Precisely." I smile at him, all lips.
"Okay. Tea or coffee, Genevieve?" Jeremy finally sits.
"Do not wait for a response. Have the tea ready; force the mug into my fingers."
He smirks at me, "Oh no. We're doing this my way." Jeremy stands still. Eyes gouging into me.
I gesture at him with my chin. "You think you're special. How precious."
He abandons his post, moves closer. Puts his arms on either side of my face, holding onto the back of the sofa. His breath, redolent of spearmint gum, oozes into my mouth, nose. I push myself flat against the sofa back and he wedges a knee between mine.
"Did you consider yourself valuable because of the results you produced in here."
"What? We're having a conversation and I asked you a question."
I shove his shoulders and he stands upright. Laughs, while he lowers himself atop the coffee table. I feel my venom leave, evaporate from my pores. I am an old woman.
"Genie, you know I respect you. Sign the promotion papers and go home. And then relive all those times you felt powerful and forget about your inconsequential impact here. Anyone could have done the job. Anyone."
I unbutton the top two beads of my blouse and lean forward. "Do you feel powerful? Bullying an old woman into submission. Do not confuse me with the interns who allow your caresses for the hope of a job."
No, my venom did not leave, instead it burrowed deeper and found my younger self sitting on that concrete chair in Steve Sullivan's office. Trying not to blink as Mr. Sullivan's fingers grappled inside her. Scratched her cervix and radiated pain through her abdomen. He refused to look at her, but she stared into his Adam's Apple and envisioned herself biting into the flesh, how it would taste like a red delicious, sweet.
"My relations with women are not your concern. If they did not want my affections they would simply refuse."
Jeremy still sits on the table, arms at his sides, his body language a mockery of invitation. I stand and trap his legs between mine, kneel on the table so my pelvis pins him. Grainy linen between my legs.
"They could just say 'no'?" I extend my hand beneath me, into my underwear. Jeremy wriggles but does not push me backwards, does not scream out his distress. I remove the black widow from my vagina, cloaked in a film of white-ish liquid, my own web, and ease her into his mouth. His tongue laps at the offer.
I pluck the promotion papers from the inside pocket of his jacket and release him. "Do you have a pen?"