The Oar

"Office At Night" Edward Hopper, 1940  Oil on Canvas
“Office At Night” Edward Hopper, 1940 Oil on Canvas

Today marks my one year anniversary at The Company. I could say it marks my one year at any company, but I’m glad it was this one. A few months ago on my birthday, Madame Receptionist gathered a smattering of colleagues in the breakroom, enticing them with what she claimed would be a “ginormous” cake. At the office, I have come to learn, there are only so many ways to surprise someone on their birthday, but as far as birthdays and surprises and birthday surprises go, it was my very first and I was grateful for it. At 2PM she dragged me by the arm through a strangely quiet first floor – I thought for some reason most people had taken a late lunch – and said hurriedly, “Oh my goodness come quickly I have a gift for you but it’s so big I need your help to get it out of my car.”

I was flattered but also uncomfortable, thinking back to my sophomore year of high school when a friend had gifted me with an oar for my sixteenth birthday, upon which she had scrawled in thick black Sharpie, “Betty Ho’s an OAR”. We had zero period together and at the time, I didn’t have a car to keep it in, nor did it occur to me to leave it in the principal’s office until I could get it after school, so for the length of the day I carried it around with me like a rower who had lost both her rowboat and the other oar.

“Betty,” my classmates would say as I clunked it down in each classroom, “Is that an oar?”

I was embarrassed (I don’t think I got it then, but maybe she was making a pun on my name, a slangy synonym for “whore” but that’s something to ponder another time…) but in a good-natured “what can ya do” way, and by the time third period rolled around I felt naked leaving the room without it. My friend wanted to draw attention to me and while an oar was an interesting albeit awkward invitation, I welcomed it. She was a year older and we had no overlapping classes after zero period, but word got around that she had gotten me an oar and that idiot Asian girl with the orange backpack and the oar was in fact, a year older. It is to this day, ranked high on my list of “Most Random Birthday Gifts Ever” (tied perhaps with the blue chicken fetus in a glass jar and a life-sized cutout of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider – I now detect streak of strangeness in my friendships).

I have lost contact with the friend, but the oar she so randomly gifted me that year persists, leaning idly against a corner of my room, the side with writing facing outward. It is one of those things that people immediately point out when they walk into my room, as though the oar had wandered in there by accident  – “Hey, there’s an oar in your room,” – but really, it is a collection of sweet memories from high school, of my friendship with the girl (I am sure  and the times we had laughing together and finishing each other’s sentences with absurd non-sequiturs. All of it improbably, comically represented by a long smooth pine stick with a paddle, sanded smooth and finished with the lightest coat of varnish.

Madame Receptionist had no such random gift that I had to awkwardly carry about the office or stand next to my desk. Instead, she led me straight to the break-room where standing against the counters and vending machines were dozens and dozens of faces that had, in the course of the past year, become familiar and friendly. It was a busy week (every week is a busy week, now that I think about it), and no doubt there were meetings to attend, emails to respond to, and consumer electronics to sell and ship, but for a few precious moments of their working day they left their desks to gather (some would say under the tyranny of Madame Receptionist) to wish me happy birthday.

And not just me, but another coworker whom I’d recently found out was a writer as well. He stood awkwardly at my side behind the “ginormous” cake which, when it arrived, turned out to be the exact opposite. We stood blushing as our colleagues sang us the requisite song. My boss too, came down from his corporate ivory tower and asked us each to say something.

“I can tell by this turn-out that you two are quite popular,” he said, “Now tell us something about yourselves.” As my colleague spoke first, I was reminded of the oar and my sixteen year old self clutching said oar. Eyes were on me. An oar! What is she about? It was not a bad feeling, not at all, just the bittersweet mix of knowing and not knowing. I felt close to these people, loved even, and even though just days before the seeds of leaving the company had sprouted, I wanted very much to remember forever the day when someone, my darling Madame Receptionist, had taken the time to corral my busy darling colleagues into a brightly lit room to watch us stand awkwardly behind a small cake and sing to us.

“And you?” my boss looked at me.

I cleared my throat, knowing full well my face was red.

“Well, thank you,” I said, “I’ve not been here a year, but this is the longest I’ve ever worked, anywhere. I’m glad it was here.”

They laughed, but it was true. It is true. I have strange ideas about work and adulthood – and by “strange” I mean half-formed, fetus-like….a rowboat with one oar… but that day, I recognized some truth to my position. Aside from the glaring verity: that a career it was not because I was under-utilizing a skill I needed to develop further but instead, due to time constraints and a constant lack of energy, was allowing to fall to the wayside, aside from that, the other, no less vivid truth was that I was in many ways at least as a person in a company, quite in my element.

I made friends. I laughed and joked often, and happily partook and sang in several surprise birthday parties for other colleagues. And most telling of my fitting in, boss seemed to be in no hurry to replace me with someone more seasoned and serious despite my professional shortcomings. These were certainly things to consider, but in the end, a surprisingly serious meta-view of my need to write and write well and write often won out over the exhaustion and professional dissatisfaction.

But as a writer it helps to see life like a good, long novel, filled with chapters that make you cringe or cry or laugh and smile. The Company can stand on its own as a novel – not quite a bildungsroman but somewhere between Harry Potter Book 1 and David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. In all honestly I am still not quite sure how to classify this past year – it feels too precious to say that it was a period of growth, but isn’t it true that growing entails learning what your limitations are? And I think I would embarrass myself to say that it was an accomplishment, but what then?

It is what it is: a chapter, a particularly good one, essential to the overall story arc of a long and winding novel, still being written.

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