It was only as she stood in front of the receptionist’s desk, tugging at the purple scarf that she had thrown over her shoulder in a casual, elegant sort of way but that kept sliding down her arm, that Illy realized she didn’t know Banana Woman’s name.
“Hi. I’m here to speak with… someone.” She looked pointedly at the receptionist as though she should know exactly who Illy was talking about. The receptionist didn’t look up. In fact it appeared that she exerted a fair bit of energy in ensuring she would never have to meet anyone’s pointed looks. Her eyes were securely hidden behind thick glasses and dark bangs that nearly reached her eyelashes. She wore a brown turtleneck with long sleeves that covered half her hands. Illy recognized the desperate and familiar longing for invisibility, though she’d rarely seen such an effective attempt. It really did seem like she had caught the woman in the last few moments before she disappeared altogether.
“Someone,” the receptionist repeated, still looking down at her computer keyboard. “Anyone in particular?”
Illy noticed an envelope on the desk addressed to Margaret Martinez and decided to risk it. “Margaret.”
“I’d like to speak with Margaret please.”
“That’s me.” The receptionist looked up for the first time. Even through the blurry lenses Illy could see her eyes were gorgeous- round and dark with eyelids that blinked slowly like a doll that Illy had loved as a little girl.
“Right.” Illy pulled up the scarf again. How did so many women manage to keep their scarves in a permanent casually flung state? She suspected the involvement of safety pins. Illy tried to discreetly tuck the rogue scarf into the back of her skirt to keep it in place. “Well, I can’t seem to remember her name, but I was personally invited by a woman who works here. I’m sure I’ll think of her name in a second…”
“Can you describe her for me?” Margaret tapped her fingers on the edge of the keyboard in an elaborate pattern, like she was playing Mozart on a miniature piano.
Illy thought for a moment. “She was wearing yellow.”
“Yellow?” Margaret repeated, obviously needing more information.
Illy offered the only information she had. “Lycra.”
“You’d like to speak to a woman you met who was wearing yellow Lycra.” Apparently that wasn’t the sort of information Margaret was hoping for. “Maybe you have the wrong office.”
“No, no, Hartfield House Publishers, I’m sure. She asked me to come by this week to show her a novel I’m working on. She’s a publisher, or editor, or something. I met her at a…” Illy didn’t know if it would be unprofessional to disclose where she had met Banana Woman. Perhaps belly dancing was a secret hobby that she indulged in as an escape from her daily persona. “…at a meeting.”
“A meeting.” Tap, tap, tappety-tap.
Illy was getting tired of Margaret’s repeating. It didn’t help the conversation progress in any useful direction and left Illy feeling like her answers were inadequate. “Yes, a secret meeting.” That should prevent further questions.
“You would like to speak with a woman that you met at a secret meeting wearing yellow Lycra?” Margaret had stopped tapping. Her eyelids closed and opened in slow motion as though she were trying to draw the curtain on this scene that had obviously derailed, and put all the actors out of their misery. She looked apologetic when Illy was still standing there.
Illy was just about to thank Margaret for her time and make a confident but quick exit stage right when she saw someone cross the hall behind Margaret’s desk and enter the bathroom.
“That’s her! The woman I’m here to meet. She just went into the bathroom.”
Margaret looked skeptical, as if this had been Illy’s most ludicrous claim yet.
“She came out of that office there, across from the washroom,” Illy offered.
“Louise Topping? You have a meeting with Louise Topping?” Margaret was obviously impressed. Illy wondered if Louise was the president of the whole company. “Why don’t you have a seat while we wait until Louise…is available.” Margaret gestured to a chair by the front door. Illy really wanted to be situated nearer to the hallway so that Louise would see her when she came out of the bathroom. And she wanted Margaret to notice when Louise recognized her. Illy pulled the chair a few inches away from the wall as she sat down. Still not quite in Louise’s line of vision. She coughed a few times as she scooted the chair a little further. Then coughed again for good measure without moving the chair. Margaret didn’t seem to notice. She had returned to the task of disappearing.
Illy waited. Louise was taking an embarrassingly long time in the bathroom. Illy decided she must be sick, which might put her in an irritable mood. Maybe she could offer Louise some Tums from her purse, revealing that she was not only observant and caring, but also well-prepared. All these little impressions would really contribute to her desirability as a writer for the publishing house. Illy slid her chair a few more inches towards the hallway, careful not to distract Margaret from her finger tapping. She wondered if Margaret ever did any real typing or mostly passed her time with the imaginary version. It definitely looked more artistic than hitting the actual keys, but presumably less productive.
Finally the bathroom door opened and Banana Woman, now dressed in a very non-fruitlike navy blue, crossed the hallway. She was just about to close her office door behind her when Margaret called out, “Excuse me, Louise? Could you come here for a moment?”
Illy’s stomach turned a little when she realized her chair was situated in an unlikely angle in the middle of the room, but decided any sudden repositioning would draw undue attention. She chose to embrace her location with confidence, crossing her legs and tilting her chin up a little. The image of Julie Andrews clicking her heels and singing “I’ve Got Confidence” came to mind. Illy smiled. This was her moment.
“This woman is here to see you. She says you set up an appointment?”
Louise looked around the empty room before her eyes settled on Illy. “This woman?” She spoke as though Illy couldn’t hear her. Illy pretended that she couldn’t, swung her foot, and kept smiling.
“Yep. Um, excuse me? Louise is here to meet you.” Margaret sounded desperate for the two women to establish their own conversational connection so she could back out of the uncomfortable situation.
Illy looked up at Louise with a little too much surprise as though she was emerging from a deep and consuming daydream, then tried to stand up to shake her hand. She felt like someone was tugging at her back, so she sat down and then tried again more quickly. The chair hopped behind her. Louise hadn’t moved. She watched Illy with uncaring solemnity as Illy twisted around to find her scarf snagged on the corner of the chair. “Excuse me, sorry,” she continued smiling at Louise as she tugged at the scarf, which ripped a little but came loose. She winced. It was her best scarf.
Illy reached out to shake Louise’s hand, proud that she’d navigated that slight hiccup with graceful composure. “So nice to see you again, Louise.”
“Sorry, have we met?” Louise held Illy’s hand between her thumb and pointer like a soggy dishtowel.
“Yes, just last week, you know at…” Illy glanced over at Margaret who was scraping a pencil under her fingernails, and leaned toward Louise’s ear. “At the class.” She wiggled her hips just a little, a sort of secret sign between belly dancing conspirators.
“Oh, dance class. Right. You’re the one who had some sort of attack, aren’t you.” Recognition dawned on Louise’s face. Illy had been hoping to be remembered as the promising and charming young novelist, but figured emergency medical victim was better than nothing. She nodded.
“Why don’t you come have a seat…”
“Ilia. My name is Ilia.”
Louise ignored this introduction as she led Illy into her office and sat down behind a large black desk, glossy and bare apart from a carefully aligned silver ballpoint pen. Illy was distracted for a moment by the desk’s vast emptiness. Where was the woman’s computer? Paperwork? She blinked and looked away from the shiny surface as though it might be a trap to distract unsuspecting young writers. She would not be distracted. This was her momentous chance to pass on the vision of her novel and secure her place in the publishing world. She felt her leg start to bounce like it used to when she played piano in her elementary music concerts. This was a bad sign. Once her leg started bouncing the only way to stop it was to jam her foot under the piano pedal. She tried stepping on the pulsating foot with her other foot but that just got them both going. She laid her purse across her lap in an attempt to hide the unruly leg, and began her speech.
“Thanks so much for seeing me. I’m so honoured that you’ve agreed to look at my novel and I’m sure that once you catch the vision I have for it, you’ll agree that it will be a great fit with Hartfield House Publishing.” Illy’s leg was still bouncing, but she plowed ahead. She had practiced this speech for an hour in front of the mirror and wasn’t going to abandon it now. “You see, the story is about the struggle of modern women to define their identity in a world-”
“Excuse me? “ Louise interrupted. “There must be some miscommunication here. You say I agreed to look at your novel?” Louise picked up the silver pen and squinted at Illy as though through the scope of a long range rifle.
“Yes, yes you did, or at least when I mentioned my novel you were very encouraging and said I should bring it by this week.” This was not going as planned. She considered trying to restart her speech, but before she could begin, Louise snickered like a bully who has just found her favourite victim alone in the school yard. Louise was turning out to be a villain. The Publisher of Doom.
“I’m so sorry…Lydia, You clearly misunderstood my intentions in that conversation. You see…” She cracked her knuckles. It was so cliché, Illy wondered if she was trying to be a comic book villain. “You see, I’m the Executive Editor here at Hartfield, an imprint of a very large publishing corporation. “ She raised her eyebrows and nodded, urging Illy to respond with awe or applause. Illy just waited. ”The manuscripts I consider are by well established authors in the publishing world. This one, for example,” she slid open a desk drawer and lifted out the top file folder, as though presenting evidence in a crime case. “This one is by Earl Peterson, the winner of two National Book Awards. And this one,” Louise didn’t even look down as she pulled the next file from the drawer. Illy suspected this was a routine she had executed many times. “is by Jane Lowden. I’m sure you’ve read her work, or Michael Gorn, you know, the Booker a few years ago?” Louise was piling files onto the desk at a frenzied pace. “And this is a very impressive new work by the best selling-”
“Okay, okay, yes, I’ve heard of them. So, you’re saying you won’t look at my book.” Illy glared through her own rifle scope.
“I’m sure you understand that with so many prestigious authors needing my time, I can’t skim through every local wannabe writer’s scribblings. There’s a ladder that you need to climb, and well, you’ll need to climb pretty high to reach me.” Snicker. Smirk. Louise was clearly proud of her rejection routine.
“Well, then,” Illy smiled her best plastic smile. “Thank you for your time…Lenore” She stood up, remembering to hold her scarf in place over her shoulder, clutched her purse to her chest and walked out the door. She strode straight into the bathroom where she locked herself in the last stall, and burst into tears.
How could one woman be so cruel? Illy yanked at the toilet paper and wiped her runny nose, not even bothering to tear the toilet paper from the roll. She leaned against the wall and slid down to the floor. This had been her one chance to talk to a real life publisher and the woman wouldn’t even let her finish her sentence. Illy imagined a comic strip about the Publisher of Doom. The villain was shaped like a banana. Banana of Doom. A giggle bubbled through the snot running down Illy’s face before becoming another sob. She pulled more toilet paper.
The bathroom door creaked as it swung open. Oh no. Louise had concocted more brilliant insults and was going to stand outside the stall, zinging them at Illy and cracking her knuckles. Or maybe she’d found more famous people files to slide under the stall door.
Illy unfolded herself from the floor and sat on the toilet seat. The old pretend-you’re-going-to-the-bathroom-for-so-long-that-the-person-leaves-in-embarrassment-trick. Illy was all too familiar with it.
Whoever had entered the bathroom wasn’t saying anything and wasn’t going into a stall. The bathroom was dead silent. Illy sniffled a little and pulled at the toilet paper, trying to fill the silence with some natural bathroom sounds by crumpling it in her hand.
“Um, hello?” The voice sounded like Margaret. “I don’t even know your name, but…woman with the scarf, I sort of heard what happened in Louise’s office, and I’m sorry.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. Illy pulled more toilet paper. “She can be so awful. I should’ve warned you.” The faucet started running. Margaret had her own repertoire of noise-making techniques. “Are you going to be okay?”
Illy paused for a moment, decided she couldn’t hide on the toilet forever, and stood up, flushing the toilet to maintain the dignity of her charade. She opened the stall door, still holding the giant mass of soggy toilet paper. Margaret was leaning against the sink, chewing a hangnail. She was taller than Illy had expected, and now that she wasn’t behind the desk, no longer looked in danger of disappearing. Against the pale yellow bathroom tile, her various shades of brown looked solid, earthy. She looked up at Illy with her huge eyes, still blurry behind her glasses, and a sympathetic smile, “Really she’s a witch.”
“I was thinking evil villain was more appropriate.” Illy remembered to tear the toilet paper from the roll before dumping the wad in the trash can by the toilet. She walked to the sink and splashed cold water on her face. “It was a disaster. I can’t imagine how it could have been any worse.” Another residual sob escaped. She splashed more water.
“Um, I’m on lunch break now.” Margaret was still concentrating on her hangnail, allowing Illy her own private recovery ritual. Illy pressed wet paper towels to both her eyes. “There’s a great little falafel place down the block that’s pulled me through my own share of near death Louise encounters. Do you want to join me?”
Illy peeled the paper towels away from her eyes and stared at herself in the mirror. The front of her blouse was soaked, her face and eyes were a puffy, blotchy pink, and her once favourite scarf trailed dejectedly behind her on the bathroom linoleum. She definitely needed falafel.
Continue Reading: Chapter Eleven