By Dominic Dayta
For some reason known only to him, the president required that he have five different secretaries, one for each day of the week. Naturally they were all young women, looking more or less alike. Not that appearances mattered all that much for the job, since none of them ever got so much as a peek of the president throughout their service. If he saw any of them, it could only have been through photos or security footages — though why he would bother to do so, none of them could think of a reason. As far as they knew, they had no personal interactions with the man, nor he with his secretaries. And in fact, in the course of an entire day of work, except for his name and stamps on official documents, and the occasional notes they would receive from him asking them to call up manager this and officer that, or to reserve a table for five at some upscale bistro in Makati for a luncheon or a dinner meeting, they had no other evidences that proved he actually existed. For all they knew, the president was just a wisp of smoke, an illusion, made up by 10 vice presidents, 20 board members, and five other private investors that composed the higher echelons of MaxiMedia, Inc.
But of course the president was real — and he himself called up F that morning in April five years ago to tell her she had gotten the job. She had just turned 19 then, fresh out of college with an honours degree in Mathematics. A very capable woman, even at the fresh age of 19, an age when most young men and women carried their naivety like a badge on their chests. She specialized in topology; her undergraduate thesis gleaned over generalised properties of non-commutative geometries over Hausdorff spaces. With her intellect, she was often told that she could purchase a spot on any position in the world she desired — an idea she would later learn with smug disappointment was only a shared delusion in the academic circles. It turned out she couldn't purchase anything in the world except with hard currency.
The landlady's urgent knocking on her dorm room door startled her awake. "You've got a call!" She screamed into the door, as if the wood would absorb her message and relay it to the sleeper still cocooned in her blankets inside. She draped a bathrobe over her sleeping clothes and climbed down the stairs into the common room, towards the telephone lying solitary on a wooden stool beside the TV. On the couch, three other girls were snacking on cup noodles, their eyes glued to the latest episode of a Korean drama playing out on the screen.
"Is this Ms — ?" the voice that spoke to her sounded deep and full of restrained strength, all muscle and testosterone, the kind that one often heard flirting at anonymous ladies in deodorant ads on TV. "This is Mr — , President of MaxiMedia Inc. I hope you're free to talk right now? Yes? Great. Well, I would like to extend my congratulations to you for being a new member of our team. Terms of employment will be discussed with you on your first day. Can you start this Wednesday?"
Even years later, F can still pinpoint with the lucid precision of a seasoned mathematician all the factors that led her, a specialised and highly intellectual woman, into taking a job as a secretary for one of the largest and well-known corporations in the country. By that point she had already applied for — and gotten denied — seven better-regarded positions (certainly better regarded than being a secretary) in a number of firms scattered across the metro, for reasons ranging from her highly technical training ("we kind of need someone with a stronger bent on application") to her lack of experience ("we feel the position calls for someone who's already had couple of notches in his belt — if you know what I mean"). In some instances, the company would call her back to inform her that, while they couldn't give her the position she'd applied for, they had an opening they might interest her in. Three hardly even bothered to call her back at all. So it wasn't so much the sense of urgency in the man's voice that ultimately drove her across the precipice, but by that point she had already resigned herself to taking the fall.
F scanned the room, at the girls lounging on the sofa wearing last night's sauce-stained pants and sleeping blouses, balancing emptied instant noodle cups on their bellies, swooning at the scene playing on the TV. She swallowed.
"Yes," she said into the phone.
The five secretaries were each assigned only one day of the week in which they would report to the office for duty. Because the secretaries came and went at a somewhat rapid pace (it turned out to be a job one wasn't too keen at having for too long), and since there was a different girl on duty each day of the week, the president and all the other employees could no longer be bothered to memorise their names. As an alternative, they were referred to by the days assigned to them — and that was how F came to be known as Wednesday. Wednesday mornings, she got up with a name all her own, and she referred to herself with that name at the mirror while brushing her teeth and doing her make up. The same name she'd carried all the years of her life, the name printed on her ID cards as she took the crowded bus that transported her through the swell of shiny private sedans and rust-mottled buses and jeepneys along EDSA, across three cities. But at the double glass doors that opened into the offices of MaxiMedia, Inc, she left that identity like the bags checked in by non-ID-carrying visitors to the guards and became only Wednesday — or Wednesday Girl, as the other officers referred to her.
It was a surreal experience, having to adjust to an entirely new name. On her first weeks, there were multiple occasions when a high ranking officer or a manager of some division or other would come by the president's office with some paperwork for her to deliver to him, and, busy with typing up memos and arranging meeting schedules, she'd fail to respond to their repeated calls of "Wednesday Girl! Hey, can you hear me? Wednesday? Wednesday!" Until they were all but rapping on her tabletop. Recognising her fault, she'd make up some excuse about having been too engrossed in her work, though inside she wondered just how engrossed a person could be with typing up memos. They never seemed anything beyond slightly annoyed, fortunately, and would usually laugh it off with her. Nevertheless they all urged her to get used to being called that quite soon, for the president might not be as forgiving.
Years of self-sufficiency throughout her college days (born to middle-class parents from Bulacan, she was sent off to study in the metropolitan the soonest she had stepped off the podium at her high school graduation, and had since lived alone at the women's dormitory in Quezon City) and armed with a liberal education from one of the top universities in the country, F took pride in her strength of will. Within two months she had perfectly adjusted to her new identity as Wednesday Girl. And while the process didn't involve literally scraping off her old identity like wearing down skin and plastering on a new one, it was no less excruciating. Now settled in as Wednesday Girl, she found herself often failing to answer to other people outside the office — at the dorm, for instance — when people called her by her real name. And mornings, while washing up and getting dressed for work, she'd catch her reflection in the bathroom mirror and be helplessly struck by a lack of recognition, feeling like a newborn child faced with a new thing for which she hadn't yet learned the word.
For her work, she had the secretaries' desk stationed outside the door that led into the president's office. There she handled all his documents, took in calls, and logged schedules and memorandum on a desktop computer. Because all five secretaries shared the desk, they weren't allowed to decorate it with any personal belongings — no frames bearing photos of their parents or boyfriends, no name tags of any kind, not that she was keen on decorating her desk with such knick-knacks in the first place. The desk, at least, was spacious enough for her to organise the documents that flooded in at a rapid pace in the course of a single work day, and the chair was very comfortable for reading in during her lunch breaks. As for the work itself, except for the beleaguering prospect of skimming and sorting through hundreds of official documents — many of them 20 to 50 pages apiece, littered with all sorts of business jargon — it wasn't too taxing, and she had never found the need to bring home any work. For this, the pay itself was nothing to complain about. At the strike of five o'clock on her computer, she wrapped up whatever work she was still in the middle of and began cleaning up her desk. Any remaining documents that hadn't been sent in or out, she locked in a special drawer for endorsement to the following day's secretary. She packed up her bags and, whistling the tune to some half-remembered song, bounded down to the elevators and out of the building.
If anything at all bothered F, it was the fact that despite being in such close proximity to him, he had never seen or again heard from the president. He knew the name, had seen several pictures of him on the business dailies whenever the company became the centre of attention — which happened quite frequently. On the photos, he looked exactly like the person F had imagined him to be from the sound of his voice, the perfect match of cornered jaws and sturdy shoulders, glossy hair slicked back, not a strand out of place. He must have stood somewhere at five-foot-six or five-foot-seven, and he stood with a stance that seemed to be expecting someone to charge and tackle him at any moment. Of course, no one ever did, for the whole country, it seemed, was in thrall of the man who, through his company, singlehandedly pushed the stock market again and again to unprecedented heights, who practically saved the economy after a long recession caused by a virus outbreak of which people now had just a vague recollection. Everyone respected him, and yet it seemed no one in the company — at least, not that F knew of — had ever actually seen him. This she gathered from the lingering stares they would throw at his door, whenever they came this way. Even division representatives, managers, associates who came to send in reports would subconsciously cast a glance at the threshold that separated this genius from the rest of them.
That threshold F and the rest of the weekday secretaries knew better than everyone was larger and more impenetrable than it appeared. The door behind her led to a narrow anteroom that held only a second desk not unlike hers in the centre, with two trays for documents labelled "IN" and "OUT." Beside the trays was a small metallic box that looked like a fancy cigarette lighter laid on its side with a small blue button. Whenever she had to deliver documents for him to read through or sign, she piled them neatly in the "IN" tray and pressed the button on the metal box to alert him of the documents. Once done, she would scutter out as silently as she had come and shut the door firmly behind her.
During her orientation for the job, her trainer had expressly warned her against leaving the door open whenever she left documents for him. She was also told never to barge in through the second, inner door that led to his quarters. On more than a few occasions she had thought of doing either of these things. Sometimes, when she was depositing new documents for him, after shutting the door she would lean on the wood from outside and listen to the sound of him exiting through the second door, the faint stirring of air as he approached the desk, the rustle of the papers in his hands. She imagined him, built like a football varsity, carefully scaling the distance from door to desk with those sturdy knees. She pictured his hands massaging the corners of his square jaw as he mulled over the contents of the memos. Then, in her mind, she pictured herself bursting through the door, and catching him standing there, like a kid who had just been caught swiping some food from the fridge past his bedtime.
She never did.
She would eventually leave the job after two years. The company's HR, used to the comings and goings of the president's girls, never bothered to stop her or ask her why, even though in her two years as Wednesday girl, she had worked diligently and never received a single complaint from the other employees or the president himself. The official reason which she'd written on her resignation letter indicated that she had an interest in returning to academia to get her master's degree and eventually a PhD in Mathematics, but this was something she'd already been mulling over even before she accepted the job. The catalyst — F decided it was apt to call it that, and years later, whenever a friend of hers at university asked her about her previous work, she would use this exact term, bringing to mind the image of a slow-heating fluid that, after what initially seemed an interminable process of heating up by fractions of degrees, suddenly ignites into brilliant tendrils of flame — happened in two separate stages, only a week apart, on the last leg of her time as Wednesday Girl.
The first stage happened in the afternoon, just after lunch break. For lunch she dodged the never-ending attempts by the boys from Creative to take her out for a meal at some of the fancy bistros that lined the office building's shiny, glass-lined avenue, pointing to the Tupperware of spaghetti Bolognese and chicken parmesan that she'd brought for the day. When much of the office crowd had taken off, she set about her meal whilst reading a book. The noise on the floor would begin to rise again as people returned from their lunches past 12.30, and at 1.20, by then finishing a cup of coffee, F would close her book and get ready for another bout of work. It was like a scene from a nightmare: that afternoon, F put her book down only to be greeted by the sight of herself standing one yard away from her desk.
Like a twin had just materialised out of thin air in front of her. Eyes wide, F regarded her doppelgänger's hair, black and tied back in a tight bun no different from hers, wearing the same prescribed black blouse under a maroon cardigan, black skirt that opened up an inch above the kneecaps. They probably stood at the same height, too, and with those same well-shined heels. The doppelgänger stared back at her with the same look of shock in her face, and F caught herself beginning to wonder, which of them was real? Maybe she was the doppelgänger, the copy who had taken over this woman's life.
It was one of the other secretaries — that much became clear as the initial shock subsided. F had known about the president's insistence that they all look alike, for what else explained the strict rules on their uniform and hair? But since they never really interacted with each other, F had never considered exactly how disconcerting the similarities could be. She and the other secretary exchanged blank stares. Her doppelgänger didn't move a muscle, and remained standing there for what must have been a full 10 minutes, until the floor manager arrived to intervene.
"Tuesday!" he exclaimed, bounding to her side and breezily planting his right arm around the back of her waist. "Always a pleasure to see you in this office, but aren't you supposed to be on break?"
He tried to nudge her astride, but the woman — Tuesday — remained planted on her spot, eyes still glued at Wednesday.
"Come now," the floor manager whispered into her ear. "What's the matter?"
He eventually managed to get her out of the office. Yet for the rest of the afternoon and throughout the succeeding days, the image of Tuesday standing in front of her refused to leave her mind. Her shocked face, no doubt looking exactly like hers, as with the rest of her, haunted her thoughts. The night after the encounter, F came home to her apartment and, instead of crashing straight onto the bed, ran into the bathroom and stared at herself in the mirror. There was Wednesday, and Tuesday, and probably all the rest of the secretaries. Really they didn't look exactly alike. In fact, the face she remembered had prominent East Asian features, and later she would learn through gossip with the other employees that Tuesday's real name was Ms Jung, born to Korean immigrants from Incheon. Yet those were only minor details — added up they still amounted to the same thing: like copies of an artwork that carried unique embellishments, yet seen as a whole nevertheless remained as reproductions. Which of them was the copy? How many Wednesday girls had there been, before she was hired? And how many of the other girls? In her mind she pictured an interminable line of them, secretaries, wearing the same blouse and blazers, hair all tied in a tight bun, an endless procession of F and Ms Jungs, copies of copies of copies. She had relinquished her name for this job, but now it turned out her image had stopped being hers as well.
The following week, she found it difficult to focus on her work. Her knife-sharp concentration had been blunted by the encounter, the keen eye and attention to detail which she'd prided in herself gone, her whole being thrown off-balance. On multiple occasions she would catch herself staring at the wall; otherwise, she would be in the middle of skimming through a memo when suddenly the words ceased to make sense, and she'd keep her eyes on the last word for a full minute, just wondering how that odd little permutation of lines and curves ever came to mean anything at all. Once — and this she considered most embarrassing in all her time as Wednesday girl — the president buzzed her in to fetch a document and, upon coming into the anteroom (the man already disappeared into his inner room), discovered in the "OUT" tray the memo that she had brought in for him only a few minutes ago, this time bearing a yellow sticky note that said, in clean, blocky letters, "You were supposed to send this out."
It could have gone on like that for much longer, until perhaps the president started to complain about her messy work. The third Wednesday after her encounter with Ms Jung, she was just as out herself, if not worse. She was at her desk, struggling to write a memo (of the making of memoranda, there is no end — a joke she liked to tell herself every time she opened the office letterhead), when she heard a loud crash from inside the president's office — a heavy bang, like something heavy hitting the floor. She jumped from her chair. Instinct told her to run inside to check on him, but she stopped herself just as she reached for the doorknob. In case of emergencies, was she allowed to come in? She couldn't remember. The rule given to her expressly said that she couldn't come in, but she couldn't recall any exceptions. Still, the crash could mean any number of things. He could be have been having a heart attack, or he could have just dropped something like a really heavy book. Should she risk it? Her hand on the doorknob, she looked around the office, at the other employees, their heads either bowed down over documents or glued to the phones. The other secretaries milled about the floor, fetching lattes and photocopying documents. A regular Wednesday at MaxiMedia. Fuck it, she said to herself, and pushed the door open.
She had never ventured into this room, but she at least had her expectations. After all, being a secretary meant that part of her job had her coming in and out of other people's offices and, at least at MaxiMedia, they all followed the same themes: the same tasteful, off-white walls with brown accents, carpeted floors, a laminated, faux-wood desk to one side with a reclining chair facing the door, shelves along the wall filled with books and trophies from some entrepreneur's rotary club or other. This was what she had in mind when she finally pressed in through the second, inner door and was stopped in her tracks by the thick fumes of antiseptic that greeted her past the threshold. Tears welling up her eyes, she tried to see through the fumes at the room that was nothing at all like she expected. Here there were no windows, and the walls were a bland, oppressive white all the way to the ceiling. No carpets — the tiled floors looked about as bare as the rest of the room. The dim room was lit only by a single, white bulb installed behind a diffuser on the wall beside the door, over a hospital bed.
Slowly, whatever sense of urgency she'd initially had upon entering the room diffusing into the fumes, she ventured further inside, making a wide circle around the bed. To its left was a large monitor fixed to a metal stand, filled with numbers glowing a bright, angry red. From behind the screen, a tangle of wires slithered down the metal stand to a body — a man — lying helplessly on the floor. The undone sheets on the bed, a corner of which was draped over the side, touching the man's leg, indicated that he had fallen over. F remembered the reason for her coming inside. She fell on her knees at the body.
The old man's eyes widened as she approached, and in them F recognised shock — no, fear. He tried to reel back, to run away from her, but he could do no more than flail his legs impotently across the floor. Realising his inability to escape, he bent forward at F, buckling his shoulder, as if waiting for F to lunge at him. This reaction only confused F even more. What was this room? And who was this man? Should she panic? Should she call somebody? Kneeling uselessly over the body, F looked around the room, trying to find in some dim corner an anchor on which she can moor her mind, but there was nothing but the sterile walls and the unadorned white tiles. It was like walking into a white void. Even the air inside, regulated by some unseen and unheard ventilation system, was kept to the perfect ambient temperature. If she closed her eyes, she would have been unable to pinpoint the boundary between the room and herself.
Having made her survey of the room, F regarded again the man before her. Their eyes met. F was struck by the sudden realisation that she had seen those eyes before. Not personally, no. Those conversant eyes, the buckled shoulders, and bony lower jaw — though covered in this unfamiliar, brittle skin, she was certain she had known them from somewhere. They stared at each other in disquiet. The old man's lips kept quivering, as if meaning — and failing — to say something. F, meanwhile, had completely lost her grip on the situation. As if her consciousness itself had dissipated, engulfed entirely by the antiseptic air, she felt herself floating, floating up over the old man and then drifting away, back towards the door. It was only when the harsh fluorescence of the anteroom struck her eyes that it occurred to her she had, in fact, been hoisted up and escorted outside by another person, a younger man who looked like the exact opposite of the old man from the inner room. His features were more feminine, and his blank stare made it seem like he wasn't seeing her at all. He closed the door behind him. He cleared his throat. He spoke to F in a telemarketer's tone, as if this was just another casual interaction at the office.
"No need to worry about that," the young man said. "You can go back to your work now."
F, still lightheaded, turned for the other door without a word in response.
"Oh, and Wednesday?"
He pointed at a sheet of paper — a yellow sticky note bearing the familiar blocky handwriting stuck to the upper-left corner — that had been left in the "IN" tray.
"Can you fax that one for me? I wrote down the numbers."
"Uh-huh," she said.
"Thanks Wednesday," he said, almost in sing-song, flashing her a wide grin.
There was no chance of F getting any work done after that encounter. The rest of the afternoon she spent staring blankly at the flickering cursor on her word processor while stacks of memos and contracts piled up in front of her. Every five minutes, someone would ring on her phone, but F wouldn't pick up. Everything felt disconnected — the murmurs of crouched heads behind the cubicles, the ringing phones, the interval ting! of the elevators. She felt like a prop that had been haphazardly plastered onto the scene. And like a prop, the whole office floor remained oblivious to her, and to the sense of unease consuming her from within.
F rang her superior to inform him that she was suddenly feeling unwell and would have to leave early to visit the doctor. Because it was nearly the end of day anyway, and such incidents were rare for the typically diligent F, he obliged without any questions. He even sent in an intern to finish the rest of the work she had yet to finish — which it turned out was all the work F was supposed to have been doing all afternoon. The day after, F sent in her two-week notice. Her resignation was accepted without dispute, although at her exit interview both the HR manager and her superior took the trouble to remind her that even as a secretary she was covered under the same strict nondisclosure agreement that all MaxiMedia employees were made to sign on their first day.
"The agreement is binding in perpetuity," the HR manager pointed out.
"Just please be careful about any statements you'll be making about MaxiMedia, Inc," her superior said.
"Or its personnel," the HR manager added.
F replied with a nod.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021