One day, Mercedes Bernal went to work in a three-piece suit, carrying a long umbrella. A big orchid bloomed from her buttonhole; a thin mustache adhered above her lip. She had expected an instant laugh – that would have been the natural reaction back in Mexico. But the whole office fell silent and stared as she strode through the swinging glass doors, hung her blazer on the hat rack, and settled down at her desk just like any other day. The usual murmur resumed in a slow crescendo but didn’t reach its original volume. Mercedes didn’t hear her name uttered, only the usual office chatter about the week’s TV, last night’s dinner, and home improvement projects for the weekend. But every time she glanced up, someone’s eyes were on her, and slid away rather than meet her gaze.
Within five minutes, Mercedes’s boss sidled to the edge of her cubicle. She was relieved, at last, to see someone smiling, even sarcastically.
“What’s with the new outfit?” Nick asked.
“You like it?” Mercedes returned his broad smile.
“It suits you. But it’s a big change, I’ll have to get used to it.”
“I thought maybe if I dressed like a man,” Mercedes said, raising her voice so the whole office could hear, “you and the other guys would stop asking me to make your damn coffee every day.”
Nick’s face dropped. The office fell silent again, but a ripple of laughter erupted from the women sitting nearest.
“You tell ‘em, Mercedes!” Nancy shouted from across the office.
“Damned women’s libbers,” muttered a man in the cubicle behind her.
“Yeah, I know, these women are so annoying, doing men’s jobs twice as well and for half the pay,” agreed Mercedes, twirling her moustache.
Mercedes had not had a woman in her life for some time. She’d been working too hard. She had no regrets though. By starting early and finishing late, she was on her way to becoming the bank’s first female VP, too valuable to be fired for the kind of statement she made today.
Still, her 40th birthday was approaching. Mercedes hated to restrict herself with arbitrary deadlines, even self-imposed ones, but she’d envisaged having, at this age, a personal life as resplendent as her professional one. Walking through the door of her apartment at 10:30 pm, she crumbled onto the leather sofa, gently pulled off her moustache and stuck it on the edge of the coffee table. She turned her head to contemplate the soothing relay of traffic lights down Yonge Street, changing from green to red, stopping and starting the waves of traffic in continuous rhythm thirty-five floors below. Turning back to her apartment, she gazed at the empty space above the granite fireplace and decided that it was time to fill it. Picking up the phone, she called Tino to ask for the number of that artist, Clem.
On Saturday morning, she was reclining on a sofa again, this time in a room flooded with light. She had purposely decorated her condo in black. Since she was normally only there when it was dark, early in the morning or late at night, she decided to extend the darkness that soothed her eyes after a long day staring at blinding white documents and spreadsheets. Today there was nothing to distract her. She had been forbidden to leaf through her copy of Business Week, and for once she complied without argument.
Boredom, apparently, was an essential part of the process. She cast her mind back to the night before, and wondered whether people in his profession had a sixth sense: could Clem read the succession of thoughts like clouds of various shapes crossing her face? Today they were mostly gloomy: the sadness and disappointment of her first visit to Sassha Vavin in four years.
Nothing had changed apart from the addition of a few new faces, mostly too young for her liking. Women in oversized jeans and sloppily buttoned shirts sidled up to her on the dance floor like they were in the same league as someone wearing a Gucci dress. Those who were better looking, more elegantly attired, danced with themselves in front of the mirrored walls. And that same Amazon with the absurd orange platforms danced alone in a corner, as she had for as long as Mercedes could remember. Here every Friday night, without ever finding anyone. But how could she, when she danced with her eyes shut?
“Sorry, this is kind of a delicate question, but do you want me to include your bush in the painting?”
“Of course,” said Mercedes, staring fiercely at Clem.
“I’m gonna ask you to repeat that look later on when I do your face. I love it!”
Mercedes wore a smart black suit to work on her 40th birthday. Not a man’s suit this time but a woman’s, an expensive one. She hadn’t told anyone it was her birthday. Ten years previously, for her thirtieth, she’d planned a night of celebrations with Jo, and enjoyed keeping it from her colleagues: a secret to be savoured by the two of them alone. First stop, The Senator for jazz and cocktails, followed by dinner at Faccini’s, then on to Vavin, where they danced until three in the morning. It’d been an amazing night, but looking back, so had just about every night with Jo. On a normal evening, she’d get home earlier than was her habit now, and Jo might whip up her special tagliatelle bolognese she learned to make during her student days in Bologna. Over dinner, they’d talk about the day at work. Jo always had the most to discuss, and Mercedes had a knack for calming her anxiety about office politics; she usually managed to convince Jo, at least for the evening, that whatever it was, she shouldn’t take it personally.
If Mercedes had moved to the US with Jo, they’d be celebrating her birthday together again this evening, even if it would be in some boring American suburb. Both of them had been too proud to give up their jobs, and their phone calls had become less and less frequent during the first few months after Jo left. Tino was now their only link, relaying gossip to Mercedes about Jo’s trouble with a colleague who took all the credit for her work. He gossiped to Jo too, no doubt. Mercedes wondered what he said about her. That she’d become a sad workaholic who’d had little more than a handful of one-night stands since Jo left? Would he tell her that abject materialism was filling in for a non-existent love life?
Mercedes looked around the beige office at the carefully coiffed heads and tailored shoulders bowed over endless paperwork. Had it really been worth giving Jo up for this? If Mercedes had left her job instead, she wouldn’t have been able to afford the red Maserati that just pulled up outside the office window, with a big white ribbon tied around it. ‘Delivery for Mercedes Bernal,’ said the man with the clipboard. ‘Happy Birthday to me!’ Mercedes cried, and sprinted for the door to take her new car out for a lunchtime spin.
She arranged the second delivery for 8pm. It was months since she’d been home so early. Two deliverymen carefully manoeuvred the package, wrapped in brown paper, from the elevator to the front door. She couldn’t resist unwrapping it in front of them.
“What do you think?” she asked, arms akimbo.
“Wow,” said the first man, raising his eyebrows.
“Umm, very nice?” said the second, scratching the back of his reddening neck.
Mercedes laughed and put them out of their misery, tucking a fifty-dollar tip into each of their sweaty fists before sending them away.
“Tino, I LOVE it!” she cackled down the phone.
“I can’t wait to see it hanging above your fireplace. But I have to admit I had a sneak preview. Clem showed me a photo. You look good for a middle-aged lady. Tell me, did you have your boobs done?”
“All natural, baby! So, will you get him to paint your portrait when it’s your fortieth? Only five years away now, right?”
“No, and thank you for reminding me. I’ve decided I’m going to wait until I’m 90 years old and my stomach’s so fat it hides my dick. But listen, I’ve got some news. I had a call from Jo today – she’s back in town. She wasn’t sure whether to call you, but I told her you’d love to catch up. Did I do the right thing?”
Mercedes pulled up to the restaurant in her new red car. Le Trou Bourgeois wouldn’t have been her first choice, but there was no way she’d get a reservation at Faccini’s on such short notice. Tino invited her over for his special celebration burritos weeks ago when he’d assumed she wouldn’t have a date for her birthday dinner, but he wisely scrapped their plans the second he heard from Jo. Mercedes had pressed him for updates over the phone, accused him of hiding things from her. How else could he have failed to mention Jo’s return until now? Was she back for good?
Mercedes glanced at her reflection in the side mirror. Her hair was neatly cropped – luckily she went to the hairdresser’s last week. Her eyeliner was immaculate and her eyebrows were smooth as apostrophes on a printed page. She hadn’t been working out, but then again she hadn’t been eating much either – normal when she was busy with work. She was the same size she’d been since she was twenty-one.
Still, she asked Tino several times if he wouldn’t like to come along to the restaurant to take some pressure off.
“Are you kidding, with the electricity that’ll be flying around? I might get shocked!”
When Mercedes walked into the restaurant, through the heavy velour curtain, she instantly zeroed in on Jo. She was sitting at a corner table, gazing out the window. She wore a black wraparound dress, the kind that used to show off her beautiful breasts, but she looked less curvy than before. Black never suited her, and now it just made her look more gaunt and tired. It was why Mercedes had always loved her in red.
To her surprise, Jo greeted her with a long kiss on the mouth and, as they sat down and ordered, immediately began to pour out all the painful details of her job. Mercedes felt grateful that Tino had saved her so much time on the phone by filtering hours of complaints into an occasional sentence or two. Had Jo always been this obsessed with work?
They ordered dessert before Jo asked Mercedes anything about herself.
“I’m fine,” she said, too exhausted by Jo’s saga to go into detail. “Work’s going well. I just bought a new car.”
“A red one, right? And what’s all this about a portrait? Tino told me his friend Clem painted you in the nude,” Jo said, wide-eyed.
“Just to be clear, I was nude, not him,” Mercedes said.
“Maybe I could come over and see it some time,” Jo suggested, reaching across the table.
“Of course. But maybe another night? I’m forty now; I get tired easily.”
Originally from Toronto, and normally based in the UK, Alison Frank is spending a year in Cambridge, MA, to take part in a creative writing workshop at MIT. Her short stories have appeared in MIR Online, Tears in the Fence, Sarasvati, Lab Lit, The Bohemyth, Matrix, Moving Worlds, Hotel, The Literateur, Litro and Gold Dust. You can follow her on Twitter @alisonfrank.