Checked Out: Cinderburg Part 41
It had fallen to me over the last year to organize everyone’s farewell party when someone left. I had organized Amy’s baby shower, Martha’s goodbye in January, Amy’s goodbye in May, Ajay’s goodbye in June. So when I heard of Barb’s departure, I wanted to be the bigger person and organize it.
I asked Quinn to do some digging on Barb’s favorite cake flavors. Quinn tried to dissuade me.
“You shouldn’t have to get a cake for her.”
“Quinn,” I said, giving them a look, “It will look really petty if I get a cake for everyone else but refuse to get hers. I need to wish her well just as much as I have with everyone else.”
Quinn conceded the point and attempted some digging. But before Quinn finished the first question, Barb was already suspicious.
“Who wants to know?” Barb demanded of Quinn, “Who told you to ask me?”
It was clear she knew the answer to her own question.
“No one!” Quinn answered, trying to deflect, “I’m asking.”
“If someone wants to get me a goodbye cake, they should ask me directly,” Barb spat, on the verge of an outburst, “They shouldn’t go through you.”
“Barb,” Quinn stopped her before she could build up steam, “Lacy and I want to get you your favorite treat before you go. Just us. Others might contribute, but it’s just us.”
“Oh… okay,” she said, deflating, “I don’t want a cake. I don’t even want a party. Let’s not make a big deal out of it.”
Quinn didn’t need much convincing. Both Quinn and Lacy insisted on following through with that assurance and bought a few random treats and offered them up the day before Barb left.
When her final day arrived, I imagined the end of the day over and over again, as the staff would collectively walk out the door together and loiter by the cars as everyone said goodbye for the last time. I knew without a doubt that I did not want to be there for that. I had plenty of sick time leftover, and the week on the whole had been an exhausting one. I would treat myself to a three-day weekend.
I called out Friday morning.
I had plans to spend the weekend being productive: deep cleaning, writing, searching and applying for jobs. But a few hours into looking at job openings, a depression sunk in. None of them seemed remotely interesting. The ones that did left me feeling infinitely underqualified. And most would have required a huge pay cut. My optimism for my future dwindled.
Instead, I spent all Friday binge-watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and imagining myself as an Australian lady-detective living in Melbourne during the 1920s. It was a nice daydream.
The next day, I put away my pity party decorations and got to work. I didn’t make much progress on applications, but I did clean my home thoroughly.
When Monday arrived, I showed up early, eager to see what a week without a certain toxic someone would feel like.
Diane sat at her desk, catching up on something or other. Lacy sat in her office. No one else had arrived yet.
I set my bags down when I reached my desk, but was distracted almost immediately as a sealed envelope resting atop my keyboard caught my eye, my name carefully printed on the cover.
I hummed to myself, wondering who left it before turning it over and opening it.
Inside was a single sheet of computer paper, tri-folded. Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” was printed very prettily on the front and most of the back.
Why would someone leave a copy of “Still I Rise” on my desk? I thought to myself.
I flipped it to the back where a short paragraph was written.
I pushed the purse I had dropped into my chair onto the floor so I could sit and read through the note.
Working with you has been one of the most toxic, difficult, and harrowing experiences of my life… but still, I RISE. I almost lost my mind… but still, I RISE.
I truly hope you can find a way to be happy with yourself and stop torturing everyone around you.
We all deserve kindness, dignity, and RESPECT.
I forgive you.
My heart thundered in my chest. My head pounded. I blinked at the paper in my hands. Was I reading this properly? I could feel my eyebrows hovering up near my hairline and my mouth hanging open.
Of course Barb would leave a passive aggressive, completely delusional note for me on her last day. Of course she would leave it so that I couldn’t respond and she could feel like she got in the last word.
“Morning, C!” Lacy greeted me with a smile, striding briskly to the break room.
“Lacy, wait! Read this,” I said, thrusting the paper at her.
She gave me a questioning look and started reading. After a second, she said, “Oh my God,” throwing her hands down and glancing at me as she realized what it was.
“Keep reading,” I urged her.
She brought it back up.
“Oh my God!” she said again, as she continued on. I nodded along, at a loss for what to say.
“OH MY GOD!” she said, finally reaching the end.
Quinn walked in at that moment.
“Does Barb realize this poem was written about the Civil Rights movement?” Lacy asked me.
I shook my head, “I’m not sure she has a real grip on anything, really.”
We heard Quinn finish clocking in.
“Quinn, come read this,” Lacy said, then stopped herself. She turned to me and said, “Can they read this?”
I nodded. Quinn knew everything. I had no problems with them reading it.
Quinn nearly dropped their lunchbox.
“She left this for you?” Quinn asked, outraged.
“You know,” Lacy said, pointing to my desk, more fired up than I was, “I thought she might do this. When I left on Friday, I almost checked your desk to see if she’d leave something for you, but I thought, ‘No! Barb isn’t that petty. She’s not that cowardly to leave something like this for C to read after she’s gone and you can’t respond to her.’ Clearly I was wrong.”
“I cannot believe she left this!” Quinn was still in shock.
I just gave a longsuffering smile, shaking my head slightly. I glanced back occasionally at Diane, who knew nothing of my issues with Barb, to see what she was making of all the commotion. None of us bothered to be discrete, so I’m sure picked up the gist of our outrage. Besides, I had no more plans to shield my coworkers from my Barb issues. I didn’t care anymore. I was done trying to protect her reputation at the library.
“What do these symbols mean?” Quinn asked. Lacy and I peered closer. At the start of the poem, Barb had written in about a dozen symbols that looked like Nordic runes.
“I don’t know,” I said with a shrug, waving it away. I wanted to view it all as entertainment. I obviously didn’t care that much about Barb’s opinion of me. And that she took the time to show her pettiness this way just made me all the more glad she was gone.
“Or these,” Lacy pointed to the backside, “These look like Chinese symbols.”
“They might be Japanese,” I said, remembering Barb’s Japanese friend from when we’d still been on speaking terms.
“Can I take a picture of this?” Lacy asked.
I didn’t care too much, so I said, “Sure.”
“I just… this is a perfect example of what I’ve been dealing with. I’ve been trying to explain to HR and my mentor about the things she’s been doing, but it’s hard to describe it without hard evidence. This… this is just what I need to show them what she’s been like,” she looked at me again, “You’re sure you don’t mind if I send this to HR?”
“Send away,” I said, gesturing to her happily.
Quinn, dazed with Barb’s delusional nerve, walked to their desk and went about getting ready for the day. I could tell they had been thinking that they’d heard the last of Barb. I wondered if there were any other notes elsewhere.
Lacy disappeared into her office for a little while and I went back to my computer.
I noticed Diane, who had paused during the kerfuffle, turn slowly back to her work, disappointed at not being in the loop.
A bit later, Quinn called to me from across the room. They had been gripped by an intense curiosity to know what the symbols meant. They’d found a few websites that should have allowed them to translate the symbols, but each attempt resulted in nonsense.
Later, they remembered a contact who knew Japanese and sent them a picture.
This person eventually got back to them saying, “It looks like they’re trying to say ‘I forgive you,’ but the way they wrote it just looks like nonsense characters.”
I found poetic justice in Barb’s carefully passive aggressive letter featuring a message no one could understand.
Great job, Barb.
Even now, I’m still not certain what all of them mean. I’ve been able to use Google translate to work out three of them, and they loosely translate to “forgiveness,” though some of her lines are wrong for the characters.
I kept the letter at my desk for the rest of the day. I tried to keep the letter from my mind and not let it bother me. I’d spent long enough not worrying about Barb anyway. Why would I care what she wrote to me in a letter?
But my eyes travelled to it far too much throughout the day for me to really convince myself that was the truth.
By the afternoon, the entertainment I felt had evaporated completely only to be replaced by depression. Her words hurt. I was toxic? I was harrowing? I brought our interactions to mind, going over every tiny action and word, searching for any sign that I had actively been toxic or harrowing. But no matter how I looked at it all, the only thing I could see was an argument that neither one of us handled well. Plus the incident from a week before. I wasn’t sure how calling someone out, holding them accountable, translated to toxic behavior. What had she seen that I couldn’t?
I thought back to the toxic people with whom I’d worked in the past. Was my memory of them distorted? Because clearly Barb’s had to be distorted, right? I never in a million years would have associated those words with me. I thought of Jen and her obvious brown nosing practices and her mean, cutting manner with everyone else. Jen had been openly nasty. I hadn’t ever been openly mean.
I could hardly tear my thoughts away from those words.
Both hit me in different ways. Toxic I had my own unique experiences to turn to.
Harrowing? I had nothing for that word.
Harrowing should describe something else altogether. Harrowing was for legitimately traumatic experiences. How was our fight harrowing? How was me telling Quinn she wasn’t where she was supposed to be harrowing?
And yet working with me was harrowing. It was toxic.
I spent Monday in an obsessive mood in my own head and hardly aware of the patrons in front of me.
Eventually, Lacy called me to her office.
She shut the door, as had become our practice lately whenever we met, and sank into her chair.
“I wanted to check on you after that note. How are you doing?”
My knee jerk reaction for this question is almost always, “I’m fine.”
But I’d gotten so sick of lying. With my mind haunted by Barb’s words, I was very clearly not fine.
“I thought it was funny at first,” I said, being more honest with Lacy than I had been in months, “But I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Lacy nodded as if she’d suspected as much.
“You need to understand that what Barb wrote in her letter is not an accurate depiction of you or of what working with you is like. I cannot believe that she left it for you like that.”
I pictured the word “cowardly” flashing through her mind.
“You know that everyone else here finds you a delight to work with, right? Everyone loves working with you and I don’t want you to put any stock in what Barb said. She clearly is dealing with some severe mental health issues and she did not have a proper interpretation of what was going on around her. I don’t want you to pay any heed to Barb or what she wrote.”
And after folding up the note so I couldn’t see it, but pinning it to my board above my desk as a reminder, I did just that.
Next time, new Nesca issues crop up.
Until then, I remain…