by: Yen Ha ((Header art by Hanna Barczyk.))
“I keep a chorus of women nearby. They chant in my ear and sing in my mind. We lift each other up! We soar, we fly.” An affecting short story that walks the reader through a woman’s daily struggles, and the limitless strength drawn upon to get her by…
I keep a chorus of women nearby.
They chant in my ear and sing in my mind.
We lift each other up! We soar, we fly.
Hear them calling? We. Are. Fine. WE! ARE! FINE!
We are the wind beneath your beating wings.
We destroy those who call us silly things.
I nod in polite greeting to the new security guard in the lobby of my office building. He responds:
Hey, why aren’t you smiling?
Uninterested in replying, I shrug and turn towards the elevator.
Smile beautiful! Smile, come on what do you have to be sad about? You’re not looking like sunshine today.
Not content with my silence, he continues in a voice that bounces off the marble floor. It echoes and repeats.
Smile beautiful. Smile!
If only he could see inside my head, the sun has barely crested the horizon and my coffee’s not even halfway done. It’s far too early to be going on about smiles.
Goddamn it bitch. You’re a bitch. You should smile and you’d be pretty.
His words turn my ears into bright crimson flame. I’m not sleepy anymore. I get in the elevator, blindly hitting the button numbered two-one. The cab jolts upwards. In the silence of myself, I turn to address the elevator doors. Thank you for that revelatory statement. It’s such a relief to know I can stop with the hair straightening, skin clearing and face smoothing, not to mention the yanking of hundreds of hairs every month or the careful washing of my face with two moisturizers and a cucumber scrub every night. I appreciate you letting me know that I no longer have to wear a bra that binds my chest or heels that draw blood from my feet without rest. I won’t spend hours every morning blending foundation until it achieves the perfect tone of not too young to be taken seriously but not too old to be furiously ignored. If I’d known all it would take is a smile I wouldn’t work so goddamn hard.
The chorus of women says: You go girl!
You tell him! Don’t let this man-thing, no-thing,
tell YOU to smile. He makes me want to hurl.
A woman’s worth is not measured in bling.
Wo-man, you are fine just the way you are.
Say it louder, you are a super star.
The schedule says staff meeting today. I forgot when I got up this morning that it’s my turn to present this month’s earnings reports. I change my flats for heels kept tucked beneath my desk, accepting future blisters for three inches now that will force Steven to meet me eye to eye. Am I ready to be tough yet kind? Understanding yet firm? I should have worn pants. This dress makes me look frumpy. Or not frumpy enough. The phone rings. Hello?
Hi! Can I talk to your resource manager about our company?
I’m sorry, (wait, I don’t know why I apologized) she’s not in. Can I help you with something. What did you say your company provided?
I’m happy to tell you. We sell model making supplies and office supplies such as pencils and pens and foam core and paper.
Thank you so much for the call but I’m sorry (sorry again?), we have no need, none at all. Thanks anyway. (Did I have to thank him twice? I guess it never hurts to be nice). I hang up and turn to the presentation I am reviewing for the third time. I’m not going to let Steven try and mansplain me why. The phone rings again. Hello?
Hi, I just called you.
I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. What did you say? (why did I pick up the second time?)
Does your office ever need cardboard for making models?
(What this guy again? Is he a dunce? I just told him no we did not), I just told you no we do not. We don’t make models in our office. (Maybe I sound snippy and snide. It’s possible my sentences come out with derision.)
Well you don’t have to be a bitch about it. Don’t be a fucking cunt.
He hangs up. I lay down the headset with a soft click, silencing the malicious dial tone. My palms, trembling, feel sweaty and a little warm. Maybe I was a little short the second time he called. Maybe I shouldn’t have hung up so quickly the first time. Maybe if I had been a little nicer, maybe he wouldn’t have had the last word.
Enter my chorus of women: Wo-man!
Hear us ROAR! Do not go laying blame on
your blameless self. Do not let that sad man
tell you how to speak. He is no doubt wrong.
Do not let maybes clutter your fine mind.
Shout out loudly, you are fine! We are fine!
I get to the meeting early to connect to the conference room display. Last month, I spent ten minutes bent over the room’s laptop trying to figure out why my screen wasn’t displaying. Stephen spent ten minutes unwaveringly gazing at my backside. I rearrange a couple slides and when I look up, the room has filled in. Steven sits next to Bob. He catches my eye, nudges Bob, nods at me, and they both grin. I knew I should have worn pants.
I nail the presentation. I don’t stutter or hesitate or apologize. The extra half hour I spent this morning on color coding the graphs pays off when my boss remarks on the clarity of the information. Feeling absurdly pleased with myself, I look for a seat but the only empty space is next to Steven, which he lovingly pats as I make my way over. I lean into the table, away from Steven, and ask the rest of the room if they have any questions.
Steven, I was wondering if you can explain why you chose to compare this month’s company earnings graph with yearly projections?
Steven pitches his body forward into the center of the table and starts to respond. I clear my throat to speak, raising my arm for attention, but Steven pats it down, there, there, and doesn’t stop going on. I try again. Bob glares at me and under his breath—
Honey, wait your turn, Steven’s talking.
Steven doesn’t take a breath and continues on and on and on. When he finally pauses, I take the chance to leap in and clarify why I showed the monthly and yearly graphs side by side. I manage two sentences before—
Thanks Bob for that, as I was saying before I was interrupted, if you look at this month’s numbers you will see them comparing favorably on a year to year trend. But if we look at this month’s in isolation you don’t get the same sense of forecast.
He’s repeating what I already said. I explained that two slides in. I went through, point by point, showing why I decided to put that particular information in today’s presentation. I had made four colored bar graphs, and then a summary pie chart, illustrating the differences. Steven doesn’t skip a beat as he says, almost verbatim, everything I said out loud in my presentation. Then he makes a joke, the room laughs and he leans back in his seat, man legs, man spread. His man space pushes into me and at first I resist but then the heat of his body, the largeness of his self forces me to shuffle a little sideways in my chair. Trying to reclaim the room, I jump in, speaking loudly, but no one is listening.
Loudly my women’s choir affirms:
That guy is looking to trip you to fall.
It’s obvious, he wants to make you squirm.
Don’t let it get to you. Stand proud, and tall!
Shoulders back! We are telling you, you’re fine.
You’re fine. You are so very fine. We’re fine.
I’m fine I tell myself. I’m fine. I’m totally fine. Frustration simmers in a low ripple beneath my skin and I avoid Steven and his man gaze for the rest of the day. On the way home from work, I stop for a bottle of Merlot. A man cuts in front of me while I am deciding between California or France. The clerk is too busy watching a soap opera on the small TV mounted low in the back corner to notice a paying customer. The man calls out to her. She shifts up from the stool and glares at him.
His eyes widen, taking in only her breasts pushing through a blue button-up.
Oh you can help me, you have everything I need.
Her eyes narrow.
He places a bottle of water on the counter and grabs a bag of pretzels.
You are FINE, he adds before taking his change. When he finally pulls his eyes away from the breasts that have already settled back in the cozy nest behind the counter, he sees me standing behind him.
Well hello there. You going to drink that all alone? A sweet young thing like you?
I stare ahead, willing a commercial break to come on so the clerk will see me standing there pleading with my eyes to distract this guy. I don’t blink. My grip tightens around the bottle neck until I think it will break.
Come on now, you can’t drink that bottle all by your pretty little self. You need a man to help you out.
Come on, come on, come on. Look up, look up. The sounds of a commercial jingle starts and finally the clerk rouses herself to look around. I take one step closer to her and away from the eager drool.
The store door slams shut, but not before he shrugs:
Aw come on girl, nothing to get all uptight about. I’m just trying to make conversation.
Crushed to small bits, I stand in a pant.
The chorus of women in my head chants:
Jackass. Street trash. Don’t let him bash
you down to the ground or give you whiplash.
You are fine. You are oh so very fine.
Don’t listen to him, or any of his kind.
Out on the street, the crisp air lightens my step. So close to home and a bottle of wine now. Two guys look up from their phones as I walk by. One guy pushes the other and smiles at me. I keep walking.
Say, don’t I know you? Hey bro, check her out, doesn’t she reminds you of—
I keep walking towards the comfort of my couch. I hear them shifting away from the wall and measured steps fall in behind me. Their voices murmur too low for me to catch.
Oh yeah! I know who you’re talking about. She sat behind us in chem right?
Let’s get closer, I can’t tell if it’s her or not.
I wonder if I should stall, let them pass, but there is nowhere to stop that I can see. Lengthening my strides, slowly and calmly, I shift my bag to the other side, I dig in my pocket for my house keys, shifting my wrist to palm them, key side out in my closed fist. They are closer now. I grip my keys tighter.
Can you tell? I think her hair was lighter.
I can’t tell. It’s too dark out.
Hey, what about that game last night? Did you catch the last quarter? It was ridiculous! I almost fell on the floor when he fumbled.
Laughter. A nudge I don’t see. I can feel the key ring imprinting the palm of my hand, reminding me of the relentlessness of today, of everyday. Keep walking. Walk. Faster now. A little faster, but not too fast. No need to let them see your fear. Keep walking.
Oh I know, I can’t believe he dropped it! What an idiot!
More laughter. Up ahead I see the shelter of a shabby hardware store decked in plastic pots and gardening rakes and I am close to running, skipping, tripping into the open door, almost skidding on the vinyl floor. I glance quickly back at the sidewalk, surreptitiously eyeing them from the safety of commerce, but they have already disappeared from view.
Good-natured chuckles trickle back and they leave me in silence, my breath coming out in short bursts, underneath the fluorescent glow of the checkout counter.
A beat later my chorus softly chimes:
Wo-man. Please go home. We’re spent and tired
singing the ongoing rhyme of your times.
It’s no small feat all the day in full choir,
chanting about our every fineness. Please.
This is a never-ending tragedy.
Yen Ha is a principal at Front Studio Architects in New York City, an immigrant and a maker of writings, drawings and spaces. Her work was a Top 25 finalist and Honorable Mention in Glimmertrain’s Short Story New Writers Contests and has been published in Crack the Spine, the Chicago Quarterly Review, Kentucky Review and the 2017 New Rivers Press American Fiction anthology.