Fiction · 04/05/2017

Office Women: Three Portraits and Thirteen Questions

I. Allergies

Maartje Dijkstra lives in a squeaky-clean apartment whose surfaces are scrubbed daily by the hands of others. Her legitimate excuse: she’s allergic to dust, pollen, mold, hairs, and latex. At the high-rise office near the Rotterdam port, she works in a private cubicle with squeaky-clean linoleum floors and glass partitions. The rest of the insurance company is carpeted, because carpets don’t scream when you walk all over them. Some employees get lost in the impersonal building, marching up and down the endless corridors, lost and not heard. But each time Maartje Dijkstra rolls her chair back or steps to her file cabinet on her rubber soles, her colleagues are notified and irritated. Squeak Squeak. Desk rage. They are even more irritated when she has a sneeze attack after having spent some time visiting the carpeted cubicles of others. Her indifference to their complaints is almost spiritual—her allergies are not her fault. People say Maartje Dijkstra could have been a big-time businesswoman with nerve and a taste for fancy clothes. In reality, she has developed a committed relationship with sugar and wears her work on her face, below her eyes, inside the pores of her tired skin. You can’t tell from looking at her that she has known victory, that she once climbed the Eiffel Tower with six friends, wanting to arrive on top first and succeeding. At home, in her squeaky-clean apartment, she lives with her twelve-year-old daughter born from a marriage that lasted no longer than fourteen months. The ex-husband—she adored him—is a professional liability lawyer and amateur soliloquist. The other women never bothered Maartje Dijkstra. It was their odors he brought home with him on his skin. She’s allergic to perfumes as well.

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II. Out of Time

Anke Vredenburg lives happily out of time. When she’s at the Amsterdam headquarters unstapling reports for the board’s meeting on EU lobbyists’ regulations, she’s simultaneously in Vondelpark underneath the large oak with the face of an owl grown into its bark. Feeling the papers slide through her fingers, she also feels the sharp edges of the grass with which she tends to play while reading Zweig, or Austen, or another author writing with a romantic touch on domestic life and death. When she actually sits in Vondelpark later, with her back against the oak’s trunk and her legs stretched out in front of her, a novel in her hands, she concurrently finds herself at home, at the kitchen table cutting into the body of a line-caught wild salmon that has been soaking for at least eight office hours in a marinade of citrus and ginger. The park’s scent of pine needles effortlessly transmutes into the bitter taste of the fresh thyme she will add as a last-minute seasoning. At the kitchen table, she’s already in bed, in bed she’s already rinsing her hair, rinsing her hair, she’s already Xeroxing papers for another bureaucratic hassle at the soulless business. Every morning it’s the same thing: waking up, unfurling herself, meeting the day. But Anke Vredenburg is known to beam after her first three cups of coffee. She flexes her face into a smile and freezes it as a dare—can you outdo my pleasantness? She may be a mousy woman, but she has charm. People say she never feels trapped in whatever moment she happens to find herself.

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III. Higher Ambitions

When Tessa van Wouden, former volunteer for Green Peace, starts working for Royal Dutch Shell, her friends think she has lost it. The young woman is known to be an individualist with a mouth full of reform. Has she given up her dream to save the world? Not exactly. She’s just tired of chasing the money and decides to work for it instead. Aware of the advantages her glorious body affords her, she goes from bed to bed, testing men some say, testing testicles. But she’s not testing anything, she’s merely contributing to the good cause. She seduces the rich and powerful and collects information to betray them to their wives, children, superiors. She seizes the moral high ground before seizing what she can, blackmailing them into donations and charity. It’s a lucrative strategy, sleeping with the hypocrites. Nobody wants their reputation damaged by perversity or illicit affairs, so they all rise to the bait. Under the patronage of Tessa van Wouden, Amnesty International flourishes. Every once in a while she suffers from guilt or self-loathing, but in the interest of the world she pursues her game. The end justifies the means, right? Besides, most suits don’t seem quite human to her, and she never preys on the clean-cut boys, the ones with no dirty hands to hide. Her physical health, people say, is impeccable.

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IV. Thirteen Questions

  • Does Maartje Dijkstra enjoy the privacy her allergies afford her?
  • Can collectively picking on someone give colleagues a sense of solidarity?
  • Why did the ex-husband not try to sue the perfume companies?
  • Should Anke Vredenburg be described as having pale, dreamy eyes?
  • Can she claim a higher pay rate for working outside of regular hours?
  • Does her story take place in an office?
  • Are the seductions of Tessa van Wouden unethical?
  • Does she experience orgasms while at work?
  • If yes, are they unethical?
  • Are the three portraits told in the right order?
  • Would our three protagonists recognize / sympathize with / understand each other if they met?
  • Who of these three women has chosen the best escape?
  • What questions are missing from this survey?

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Claire Polders (Twitter: @ClairePolders) is a Dutch author of four novels with a debut in English on the way. In 2016, Denver Quarterly nominated one of her stories for a Pushcart Prize. Her short prose also appeared in TriQuarterly, Green Mountains Review, Tin House (The Open Bar), and elsewhere.