by Esther C. Werdiger
At work, when I don’t want to be at my desk, but also don’t want to be trawling the daytime shit-show streets of Midtown West, I hang out in the office bathroom. Our offices used to be on the Upper West Side, and our setup was a subterranean joke, but each of our bathroom cubicles was a tiny room equipped with a sink, a mirror, and ample floor space. If I had time to kill, I’d snap some selfies, adjust my entire outfit from the undies up, or try on whatever I’d ordered off ASOS. And when, by accident, I cluelessly got the tiny nonprofit I work for charged a large amount of money by Google Ads, I had a small space in which to go and curl up and wish for death, before summoning up sufficient boldness to go talk to my boss about it.
In our new offices, we share bathrooms with all the other offices on our floor. For the first while, I used a luxurious and expansive wheelchair-accessible bathroom on our level that I’d stumbled upon. One day, I discovered it to be locked and no longer accessible to me, though luckily not before a gynecologist appointment which rendered me in need of a cold, tiled floor to writhe on, in solitude, for 40 minutes. But now it is locked and I have to use the regular bathrooms, along with everyone else, reevaluating my appearance, looking in the mirror side-on, applying lipstick, makin’ my faces etc. in the company of whoever else might be there.
I do this a lot lately because I’ve been thinking about makeovers. There is nothing vaguely superficial about the desire to look different. Surely, a wish to alter one’s appearance must have something to do with wanting to actually change. I curse the wretched fashion industry on the daily for giving me another reason to be dissatisfied with my appearance. I always believed that if I were just thinner, I’d look awesome all the time, a sexy vision of tailored edginess! Anyway, I am a bit thinner now and I still don’t look all that great. Back in my freelance WFH days, I’d change several times a day; fancy pajamas, dresses, hats made out of literally any item of clothing, shoes just comfortable enough to make it to the coffee shop down the block.
Come Thanksgiving, it’ll be one warp speed year since I moved to New York and plunged into the pee-warm and chlorine-y deep end of full-time office work. I’m 29 and this is my first full-time job, ever. I still have not figured out how to exercise sufficiently, bring food from home, not have the highlight of my morning be a Venti hobo-latte, or get enough sleep before my iPhone marimbas each morning. And the same three outfits I wear each day are killing me. What I’m craving in a makeover is versatility — both in appearance and lifestyle. I want to be Secretary Esther one day and Stevedore Esther the next because what I really want is to not be in an office doing roughly the same thing each day, and for the same people. I want to seamlessly glide through worlds. I guess what I want is to do whatever the fuck I want — most especially, the things I’m good at.
Last week in the bathroom, while exiting after washing my hands, a middle-aged lady in a hijab yelled after me, “You broke my watch!”
“What?” I said, turning around, still in the doorway. But there it was, on the floor. A broken watch. The face was fine; it was the absurd ceramic band that had broken. Her keys, wallet, phone and watch were spread around the sink and yes, I guess it’s possible that I brushed against her belongings on my way out.
“You were walking too fast!” she said, clearly in a panic, as one would be, I suppose, after having a valuable item surprise-broken. She should definitely not have had her shit all over the place in a busy bathroom, especially, I’m sorry, the stupidest watch Anne Klein has conceived. I’m bad in a crisis — I have frozen at the phone when a power line exploded outside my parents’ house, deferring the job to an older sister; I have watched my baby brother, whose floaties I forgot to put on, almost drown in the pool before another older sister rescued him; I have stared at my tiny, anaphylaxing niece while other, more capable family members ran for the EpiPen. And so here I was, speechless, consumed with the feeling of being in trouble. “It’s from Nordstrom!” she yelled, turning the name into a three-syllable accusation with serious chant potential. Nor-de-strom! Nor-de-strom!
A few weeks ago I got in trouble with another older lady. A comic I’d made about meeting an elderly, long-lost relative had been published on the entire back page of a Jewish newspaper, mostly read by old people in New York. Ordinarily, I publish my comics on fun blogs online — blogs I actually read, and the readership that comes with that is fairly obvious to me. But when this newspaper agreed to publish the piece, I didn’t rethink my audience. I was super-excited to be in print, and getting paid (rare!). When I received an incensed letter in the mail, sent by certified post, typed, signed — I thought, of course she saw it.
Oh and, I used her first name, which itself is a diminutive of her proper name, but still. I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I knew I shouldn’t have done it while I was doing it. And I did it anyway. So, she was furious. When I opened the letter, my eyes scanned the first line. I caught a snippet; “the evilness of what you have done.” My eyes skipped to the end; “make this right or I will” — I couldn’t even read it. I handed it to my boyfriend, who read the whole, lengthy thing. When he was finished, he lowered it. “This woman,” he said, “is crazy.”
“Still though!” I said, “I was careless.”
“Yeah, but, whatever you did, does not warrant this,” he said, waving the letter.
“Just send her some flowers, and a really nice card before Rosh Hashanah,” said my mum on the phone.
“If someone I hated sent me flowers,” I said, “I would throw them straight into the rubbish.”
“Just ring her up,” my dad said, “and just say, outright, ‘What would you like me to do?’”
I did not call her and ask her what she wanted me to do. I did not send her flowers for Rosh Hashanah. I wrote her a letter, apologizing as well and respectfully as I could, and I left it at that. I had done a dumb thing, and this was the best thing I was willing to do in order to fix it.
This was what came to mind in the face of fuming-in-the-bathroom watch lady. Nor-de-strom! My father’s advice flew out of my mouth: “What would you like me to do?”, my voice, perhaps, glazed with a very watery version of sarcasm. But I messed it up; I did not wait for a response. I should have definitely waited for a response. I should have allowed for a moment to open up, a moment that may have sobered us both. I did not wait! I followed my question with another: “…Buy you a new watch?”
“Yes!” she said.
What? I sighed, memories of stupid parking lot car accidents flooding me, the exchanging of details, the dread that comes before having to tell your parents about something you did. I told her I’d come back in a second with a pen and paper. I wanted to disappear but I thought, Do the right thing! Which, at that moment, was buying this lady a new stupid ceramic-banded watch from Nordstrom so she’d stop yelling at me. While rummaging for a pen and paper in my desk, she barged in, impatient and suspicious. She asked to see my boss (“Excuse me, this has zero to do with my boss!”) and asked for proof that I actually worked in this office (“This is my desk; I sit here literally every day!”) — all my answers exciting my mouth with a little more sass than intended.
She finally left my office and went back to her own. But by the next day, I realized that I did not have to actually buy her a watch. That would be ridiculous. So I sent her an email, apologizing and saying that it wasn’t my responsibility, but if she really felt it was owed to her, I would pay for half of the new watch. By the time she got back to me, a day later, to tell me that she thought it was a fair agreement, I had decided that actually I didn’t feel comfortable paying for any of it. I’d also called the Anne Klein watch repairs department and found out that repairing the band was pretty easy, and not expensive. I emailed her with this information, with email addresses and phone numbers. “They’re pretty friendly,” I added, and then requested that she not contact me again, or come into my office. It had taken me a couple of days, but I finally felt like I was actually doing, more or less, the right thing.
I spent a few days going to the bathroom as infrequently as possible, and made those trips spartan, with no dillydallying at the mirror. I imagined her waiting for me, swinging a bike chain, flanked by tough co-workers. Those fears have since faded, but I’m still slightly haunted by Suggested Posts of that fucking watch on Facebook, but also with the feeling that I’m doing a whole mess of things wrong, that I will never know how to best respond, and that I’ve done things that cannot be undone. Maybe this is why I am thinking about makeovers.
Esther C. Werdiger is a writer and artist from Melbourne. Her essays, comics and illustrations have appeared at The Hairpin, Saveur, The Toast and in Lilith. She lives in Brooklyn and also has a podcast.