Blokes in the Break Room

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Vincent Van Gogh,Interior of a Restaurant in Arles

I’m trying to breathe through the last five minutes of my break, fiddling with the earphone jack, staring at the photos of Christmas parties decades old, trying to understand but not wanting to listen. This is every fact I have never wanted to know about my coworkers, every question I have not asked for fear of the answer. From my table, I try not to judge. We’re all different in the break room; we’re all different around our friends. And it’s a mostly female workforce, single mums, and teenage girls. It’s understandable that they would gravitate, friends from the beginning. I guess when you’re standing in a crowd; you tend to stand next to the person that looks the most like you.

But they aren’t kids anymore, the dopiness has grown out of their faces, their haircuts are respectable and they’re laughing and chatting. And there is a part of me that wants to laugh and chat too, regardless of the topic. But the topic matters. And it is so apart from me I can hardly grasp it, and suddenly I am standing at the edge of an ocean, staring across water I thought was a creek. That I had decided to believe was a creek.

“I’m so fucking sick of all of these sexual harassment posts on Facebook,” one says.

Its like a snap to attention, the morning coming all at once, watching a tsunami roll in from the shore; surprise and confusion and every bad feeling wrapped up like an angry email no one ever meant to send. But this is the boy who greets me every morning when I get in to work, this is the boy that learned my name and remembered it. So I wait. Because I have been taught my whole life that you can’t judge someone before actually know what they’re talking about.

And I wait.

“I mean, I believed them all in the beginning, but the more there are the less possible I think it is.”

Goddammit.

The other grunts and for a moment I just stare at the back of his head, like this conversation cannot be happening, blossoming right in front of me like some paralyzing flower. Just like the grainy footage of a collapsing building, the slow impact of a train crash, I never wanted this, I didn’t ask for this, but I’m stuck watching, in awe of this shift.

“A few of them probably just slept with him, and wanted some money when one came forward.”

Jesus Christ.

And I know, I know that I cannot heal this. I can’t just slam my hand down on the table and scream, “what the actual fuck is wrong with you?”. And neither can I offer any salvation, there is no, “why do you think this? And here’s why you’re wrong.” There can be no confrontation; I have learnt that there can be no confrontation. You can’t yell the prejudice out of a person. When someone doubts sexual assault victims simply because of their number, there is no break room conversation that can fix it.

I can’t help you.

I can’t help you out of this hole. I don’t know how we got here, I don’t know how to leave, I don’t know what it’s going to take to move you. I don’t actually know what the fuck is going on. I can’t help you. There is nothing I can do.

This is too big for the break room. This is too much to face running only on half a muesli bar and a mug of water. So for the next fifteen minutes I stew in my own distress, confined, held back, I can’t help you.

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Margaret Preston, Western Australia Gum Blossom

But my barista is a painter. She’s light, and sweet, and she’s a painter. Went to the national art school and everything. And, fuck, what are people still doing being painters? It’s like a breath of fresh air, a pastry in the morning, sitting in the sun, arriving gently like the spring. The personification of what I want to believe in handing me a coffee with a big smile. I could hug her because I needed that.

Instead I thank her with everything I’ve got.

I imagine next Friday like oncoming traffic. He’ll open the door for me because he always opens the door for me, and how am I goingto be able not to take him by the shoulders and ask, “what the fuck is wrong with you? Who told you to think like this? Don’t you understand how important this bit is?” How am I going to keep ahold of my coffee, keep ahold of my composure?

Every nerve is on fire with the compulsion to assert every position, to change his mind with how compelling my words can be, pull out my slide projector, play out the testimonies, dedicate as much time as it takes to make this better. Because I want to help. I want justice. I want to go back to where we were before this. To go back to where we were when I thought that we were the same even though we’re not. But that’s not the good in me.

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Winslow Homer, Summer Squall

That is the bit of me that wants to hide behind the ocean rocks when I see the waves rolling in. But I’ve got to bear it, stand on the shore and watch them come in, because this is the reality we’re in. This is where we’re at, and my time will come. And I can wait.

And I’ve got to believe there are more painters than break rooms, more generosity than baseless doubt, more mornings than there are conversations. There is nothing I can do today, but I will standby for tomorrow and the day after that.

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2 thoughts on “Blokes in the Break Room

  1. The waters we are, we are in, almost always we interact from the outer surface. For whatever reason the break room bloke broke the surface. His currents and flows at the bottom broke the surface. The thing he was wrestling with unsaid emerged briefly. Generally our social bodies of water work to restore the state of least energy.

    I doubt there are more painters than break rooms. But just knowing that painters exist? That alone can keep one afloat.

    As a visitor this month in your country, I observe how people are to each other in public. No real difference on the surface. Yesterday, needing a forgotten item not available in convenience stories, I wandered into a Discount Chemist Warehouse store. The shelves are so close together you cannot easily pass. I sensed that the line, er queue, was long, but had no idea how many snakes and turns it wrapped around. Had I known I was about 50th I might have left.

    But its a chance to observed. Especially as my phone was dead. But others had phone power, and it’s easy to judge what is happening when you see mostly people staring 4 inches from screens, and yes, there was the typical mom ignoring her kid.

    There was a moment when I was closer to the rows of cashiers, young men, women, all of different backgrounds all in their blue smock. Thankless labor. The young woman on the end looked up, caught me watching, and briefly smiled when I smiled. The waters of normalcy, disturbed for a moment, resume the calm contactless state.

    You are wise knowing you cannot change the bloke from confronting yet neither can you unknow what you read from him, About the best I have found to do is to give them somewhat of a sly look, an eye awareness that silently says, “I read you”– whether they ever know it or not. But you know about painters.

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