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"A Practiced Office Dance" by Tarsilla Moura

Jillian Montgomery climbed the steps to her office on the 4th floor. Her high heels sounded loud in the silent stairwell. It was 8:47 a.m. and already she tugged at her blazer restlessly. The day hadn’t even begun, and yet she felt drained. Boxed in. Usually avoiding the building’s invasively crowded elevators helped, but today not even taking the stairs worked.

She entered her office floor, head held high but eyes never resting on anyone for long. Making herself small and invisible, that had always been Jill’s formula to a good day when she was younger. But she quickly learned she couldn’t stay invisible forever. Before long, what had kept her sheltered from the world had suddenly made her easy pickings. A target.

She now knew not to stare at the floor like her instincts always screamed at her to do. Instead she learned new tricks: Give off the impression of confidence without inviting challenge; Look up but never make eye contact; Don’t hide sweaty palms or shy away from contact; Shake someone’s hand firmly but never for long.

“Good morning, Jill,” she heard a deep, male voice too close to her ear.

“Morning, beautiful day, isn’t it?” she answered. She never stopped walking until she reached her cubicle.

It was no longer about invisibility. She was a master of deception now.

“Jill! You’re early,” someone else said. He leaned against the grey foam partition, obstructing the way out. She registered his presence but turned her back to him.

“Yep. Had an early start today,” she said. She never faltered in removing her blazer, stashing her briefcase, and turning on her monitor.

Be friendly but look busy. Don’t look bothered or put out.

“Any plans for Thanksgiving?” he asked, still in her space. She vaguely recognized him. She wasn’t sure. She never looked long enough to know what any of them looked like.

She sat in her chair and tucked herself closer against her desk. She threw a distracted smile over her shoulder.

“Going back home, spending it with family.”

People are used to being half-ignored, she’s found. People no longer expect someone’s full attention. She’s learned to use that to her advantage.

“Can you believe I completely forgot to turn in the survey results over the weekend?” Jill threw another practiced look and hair toss over her shoulder. “My head, I swear. Good thing I’m early.”

From the corner of her eye she saw him falter and take a step back. Already she could breathe more easily.

“Better let you get on that,” he said.

“Gotta get it done,” she laughed. He finally walked away. She suppressed a relived sigh.

She stayed in her cubicle for the remainder of the morning. When lunch came around, she waited until everyone was settled in the break room or at their own desks. She then grabbed her salad bowl and moved to the copy room. She usually ate while she did the filing she needed to get done for the day.

The rhythmic, automatic noises of the copier soothed her. She let the motion and sounds of the machine fill her mind while she munched on her quinoa salad. She didn’t notice she was no longer alone.

The sound of the paper tray of the adjacent photocopier slamming shut yanked her out of her trance. She shivered so violently she almost dropped her bowl. She turned wide, startled eyes to the new intruder, berating herself for her inattention.

“You alright there, dear?”

“Ms. Hart,” she breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t one of them. It was just Ms. Hart. “You startled me.”

“I’m so sorry. This damned thing. Always running out of paper.”

Jill looked at Ms. Hart frowning down at the photocopier. The older woman was short and plump, and she sported a full head of white hair. Jill sometimes sought her grandmotherly presence. They were the only two women in the office.

“So,” Ms. Hart turned to her. “I heard you tell Lester you were going home for Thanksgiving.”

“Yes,” Jill meekly answered. She could feel a blush heating up her neck and cheeks. She had told Ms. Hart she would be celebrating with a few friends in town. “Change of plans.”

“Right,” Ms. Hart said, and Jill could clearly hear the disbelief in her voice.

She hated lying. She was good at it, great even. After years of conditioning herself, the lies just spilled out of her lips. But she still hated doing it, hated that she had to do it. She opened her mouth to explain, to apologize, to confess. She couldn’t find the words.

“Well, it’s just me and my husband this year. My daughter is overseas and my son and his wife just had a baby.” Jill closed her mouth, surprised. “We would love to have you over. It looks like you have plans, but should they fall through… In any case. You’re welcome to spend Thanksgiving with us.”

Jill was mortified to find sudden tears prick at her eyes. She quickly turned back and looked down at her copier. The machine was still, and the copies sat in the output tray waiting for her. No wonder the silent room was too loud in her head. She racked her brain for words.

A hand on her shoulder brought her out of her inner turmoil.

“Dear, you can either make it or you can’t. It’s fine either way,” Ms. Hart said, careful to extract her hand, Jill noticed. “I’d just hate to see you miss out on Thanksgiving, is all.”

Jill nodded, honestly too overwhelmed to say anything. Ms. Hart smiled and left the copy room. Before the older woman could get too far, Jill called her back.

“Thank you,” she said. “I, just — Thank you.”

With another smile, Ms. Hart went back to her desk. No longer hungry, Jill threw away the rest of her salad and went back to her cube, fresh batch of copies in hand.

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© 2016 Tarsilla Moura

About Tarsilla:  She is the Managing Editor at Global HealthCare Insights magazine. She recently graduated from Emerson College with a Master's degree in Publishing and Writing, and completed her graduate thesis on the applicability of online fanfiction within the publishing industry. She received her Bachelor's degree in English Language & Literature from the University of Maryland, with a focus on creative writing and editing. Tarsilla divides her time between Boston, Washington D.C. and her home country of Brazil. When not working, she is either tutoring international students on English writing and speaking, reviewing romance novels, or reading and writing fanfiction.Follow her at @tsm_athena.