A short story where a disparate assemblage of colleagues is given the opportunity to reinvent themselves, which only transpires if they are honest about who they are in the first place…
by: Carolynn Kingyens ((Header art by Dániel Taylor.))
Gemma Louise Ellen Jacobson was an admissions counselor at Madison College, an institution known for their budding theater program and a few note-worthy alumni who’d either gotten bit parts in daytime soaps or on Broadway.
Today, Gemma’s boss, Mike Sanders, had a peppy, academic trainer come in for an all-day work session to help bolster the collective morale of their department, and, more importantly, to improve new student numbers.
Mike Sanders was a number’s man, and a leg and boob man, and a man’s man — none of which pertained to Gemma. Mike was a fair boss, though, and had promised two Carnival cruise tickets for the admission counselor who had the most students enrolled for the next semester. The pressure was on, except for Gemma. She could care less about a cruise, and would’ve never been caught dead in a bathing suit out in public. So for Gemma, it was a moot point.
Most of Gemma’s colleagues were a decade, or more, younger than her. She would often make herself unavailable to them, too preoccupied with “busy work” so as to avoid superficial chatter, which she was never really good at anyway. Besides, there was a high turnover rate in Gemma’s department due to meager starting salaries. People came, and people went in the eight years she was employed there.
It was a good salary for Madison, but not for Manhattan.
The trainer who Mike brought in had manic energy. Gemma noticed he sniffed a lot, too. His peculiar sniffing habit reminded Gemma of a Seinfeld episode, “The Sniffing Accountant,” when Kramer, Newman, and Jerry suspect Jerry’s accountant of doing drugs but later come to the conclusion that the accountant must be allergic to Jerry’s mohair sweater since the pizza delivery man also started sniffing around the sweater, and he revealed an allergy to mohair. In the end, Jerry’s accountant was indeed on drugs, and had gone bankrupt because of his addiction. Thinking about that funny episode put a smile on Gemma’s, usually, blank face.
“Hi, my name is Evan Cooper.” Sniff. “I want you all to stand up for this next exercise.” Sniff…Sniff.
Gemma and her colleagues slowly rose to their feet.
“Now, I would like all of us to make a circle,” Evan continued, before inserting another emphatic Sniff.
“I’m going to ask each of you about your spirit-animal.”
“A spirit-animal,” he clarified, “is a spiritual guide that also shares some of your own personality traits.”
Gemma and her colleagues simultaneously rolled their eyes.
“I’ll go first,” said Evan. Sniff.
“My spirit animal is a dolphin because I love to swim, and I’m very friendly.”
Evan Cooper ate a lot of fish, another similarity shared with his spirit-animal. He was what you’d call a pesco pollo vegetarian — ate fish and chicken but avoided red meat and pork. His meat aversion stemmed from a Lone Star Tick bite he’d unknowingly gotten a few years back, when he lived, for a time, in Texas. That bite would cause an allergy to red meat and pork. He’d wake up with mysterious rashes, and had aching joints, some fatigue.
Evan went through a year of depression, insomnia, and anxiety before his diagnosis. A change in diet seemed to alleviate his troubling symptoms. It was around this time that he began to develop an annoying tic — sniffing. He’d go on to blame this new tic for the demise of his relationship with Dan, whom he had followed from their eclectic row house in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia, to a semi-detached craftsman style home in a series of semi-detached craftsman style homes called a “planned community,” right outside of Austin.
After Dan ended their seven-year relationship, Evan decided to return to the Northeast to live with his parents for a time, who lived in what he coined the “suffocating suburbs.” He was the happiest he’d ever been with Dan in the home they’d made in the city, including the “Friday Night Supper Club,” hosting intimate dinners for their friends and neighbors. Evan missed the simple things he did with Dan, too, like drinking bottles of Corona from their rooftop deck as they watched the sunset over the mirky, rolling river.
Evan used this time to reinvent himself. First, he boxed and stored away all traces of Dan: their photos, exchanged gifts, even ashes of their beloved Pomeranian, Sugar-Bear. Evan would swim for an hour every morning at his parents’ local YMCA, pretending, at moments, he was a dolphin — free, albeit briefly, from the trappings of complex emotions, where he’d vacillate between rage and sadness.
He would work in the afternoons in his parents’ basement, at his dad’s old desk next to the laundry room. That’s where he called Mike Sanders, one of the old “Supper Club” members from years ago, to ask him for a big favor.
Evan Cooper was back.
Mike Sanders was the first one up to reveal his spirit-animal. No one was surprised when he said “bald eagle.” His nick-name around the office was “Eagle-Eye Sanders” because of his ability to quickly catch expense report errors, typos, lack of fact-checking, or someone taking off early on a Friday. Mike was also bald, and prone to self-deprecating humor.
Margaux Little, a new admissions counselor who’d graduated from Madison in May, went next. Her spirit-animal was a “giraffe.” A few smirked, and another let out a snort but quickly contained it. You see, Margaux Little was just that — little. She was barely five feet tall standing on her tippy-toes, and had a child-like voice to match her child-like stature. It was a little too coincidental. Everyone expected Margaux to say “field mouse,” “humming bird,” or better yet, “Lhasa Apso” and were caught off-guard when she said “giraffe.”
They’d been expecting “giraffe” from Alfie Sanchez, one of their popular managers, who stood at 6’5”. He was a basketball legend at Madison College, and took them all the way to the NCAA March Madness tournament in 1999, first and last time, to date.
Evan Cooper called on Gemma next. She knew her spirit animal was a bear, and longed for winter solace as well, where she could go live in some dark, underground, earthy-womb and disappear for a season to only reappear when she was ready to face the world again. Most weekends she’d spent in hibernation anyway. So to say her spirit-animal was a bear wasn’t too far fetched. In fact, it was the honest truth.
“My spirit animal is a black mamba,” Gemma lied.
Mike Sanders immediately raised one of his eyebrows. He would do this whenever he was perplexed.
“It’s a venomous snake from sub-Saharan Africa. It won’t bother humans unless humans bother it,” she clarified, “then it will attack — repeatedly.”
Her voice lowered when she said will attack — repeatedly, taking on the same scary emphasis of a campfire story.
Gemma recalled the black mamba from one of her weekend National Geographic binges. The snake’s name sounded more like a Spanish, “Day of the Dead” dance, conjuring images of death and bad juju. Nothing of the black mamba resembled Gemma Louise Ellen Jacobson. In fact, it was a lie.
Carolynn Kingyens’ debut poetry collection — Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound (Kelsay Books) — is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Greenlight, Book Culture, and Berl’s Poetry Shop. She will be on a radio show in April for National Poetry Month. Today, Carolynn lives in New York City with her husband of 20 years, two beautiful, kind daughters, a sweet rescue dog, and a very old, happy cat.