V. has been one of my co-workers since I started this shift in September. Not just someone I worked with, but part of a kind of group of four of us; we partnered with each other — though usually she partnered with Jonathan — sat together in the break room, teased and picked and made juvenile off-color comments. One slow day, we had a rubber-band war while we waited for mail to show up. One night when I couldn't mentally function, she sat on the floor with me, an arm around my shoulder, humming.
November and December were hard for all the PSEs, the contract-temp workers like us who aren't fully vested career people. We went from 40-hour weeks to 48, to sometimes having to stay late and ending up working over 50 hours. We were all pretty damn worn out. V. was maybe worn out more than the rest of us, because she has a family, obligations outside of work. Then things slowed down in January, and while I think all of us were still not as energetic as we'd been in the fall, V. still seemed more tired. Someone said something was going on with her father but I never knew what; she didn't say anything to me, and I don't tend to ask about things like that.
She's missed a lot of days at work this winter and spring. She's been worn out on the days she's been there. And more and more irritated, by smaller and smaller things. Nothing directed at me, but it's still hard to be around, partly because I don't deal well with discord or outright anger, but partly... I worry. She's unhappy, and it's hard to see her unhappy because she's a friend. Or I considered her a friend.
She's been wearing perfume, or something scented, for weeks, going into months. I'd never noticed it before, and at first I only noticed it once a week or so, and I didn't work at a machine with her often, so it didn't matter. But it slowly became an everyday thing, and on the days I worked near her, I was miserable: migraine, lightheaded; I think now that scents trigger the irregular heartbeat that's becoming more of an issue. Thinking about it now, I might have seemed irritated to her, at her, because I probably didn't speak much, didn't interact more than I had to, partly because it made my head hurt worse to be near her, partly because one of the effects of scents on me is that it feels like my brain slows down, it's hard to think, and all my concentration goes to the work I'm doing and it still feels like it's not enough, and I don't have energy left to have a conversation.
Then my regular partner switched shifts. So did V.'s usual partner. And the only person without a regular partner is V. I knew I had to talk to her, but I feel like I'm oversensitive, and I should just learn to deal, and it's not an easy conversation to have with anyone. And she's been so irritated, angry, tired. I was afraid it wouldn't go well.
But Friday, I nearly had to go home; it was bad enough my vision was tunneling in on a few occasions, bad enough I was sitting down during a lull, and the supervisor came and asked if I was all right, because, well, feeling like crap had been a regular occurrence for me for several months, including going home early, and taking an ambulance ride one night from work because I either passed out or was so close to it that I was unresponsive. And really, what I felt now was the beginning of that. Maybe it's just stress, psychological, and scents trigger stress which triggers the arrhythmia. Maybe it's more. Either way, I can't will myself to relax and not pass out, if that's all it is. I told the supervisor that the scent was the problem at the moment, and that I had to talk to V. about it. But for the time being, the supervisor moved us to different, separate machines.
Maybe V. was angry at how I'd been acting all day; if you didn't know I felt like crap, I probably seemed like a sullen child. Maybe she thought I'd told the supervisor something bad, and her being moved away was punishment. Or just was angry that she was being moved, which is annoying, and knew or suspected that this move was my fault. She'd already been fractious all shift; I didn't see her much for the next couple of hours, but she seemed more pissed than before. But I tend to feel like people are angry even when they aren't, worry that they are angry at me. And regardless, I had to talk to her.
So after the shift was over, in the break room, I went over to her table. She was on the phone, but she paused and asked what was up, or something like that. I said, "I can't work with anyone wearing scented products." She said, "That's okay, Bev, I don't plan on ever working with you again, anyway." The syrupy bitterness to it, the stereotypical passive-aggressive bitch-ness of it, was so over the top that I almost expected her to start laughing. It was exactly what would have happened in September or October. It's what the v. I knew then would have done. But there was no laugh, no smile. I walked away.
It was a bad night after that. I was in tears walking to the train, on the train, waiting to start sobbing until I was at my station, and then sobbing most of the next two hours. It was a typical response from me to rejection, especially to the girly/bitchy rejection that goes back to horrible interactions in middle school and high school, threats of violence, threats of sodomy with a broomstick. And back to interactions with my mother, subtle, indirect, dehumanizing, annihilating. I am nothing. I am not a person. I do not exist. By the next day, I was pretty much mutedly resigned, jaw not clenched but set; but she wasn't at work, so I had a day to let it fade, not to regrow skin but at least to let the nerve endings give up and stop screaming. Sunday, she seemed to studiously ignore me, except for the two minutes when the supervisor of the day asked, once there was mail to run, if we wanted to partner up and she very quickly said, "No," and she was sent off with some fill-in guy from the other end of the plant. Or maybe the ignoring wasn't deliberate on her part; maybe she just honestly didn't see me anymore. It was what I expected, and not pleasant, but it didn't destroy me like Friday night had.
I want to be mad. I am mad, but I want to just be mad, uncomplicatedly "fuck you, too" pissed off. But what I feel most... I don't know, it's not a feeling, not an emotion, I just, it hurts to think about her, to think about the her I knew for months, the her I liked, the her who was fairly happy, and, God, she's so fucking miserable, all the time at work, and I don't even know what life outside of work is like, and just, I just want to ask, "What happened? Can I do something? Can I do something to help bring back the V. from last fall?" And "Why the perfume?" She never wore it before, or not that strong. What changed, that she suddenly now needs that? Does she feel unclean, like she smells? Is her father ill, and she spends so much time at the hospital or caring for him at home, smelling disinfectant and medicine and illness, that she needs to surround herself with something that doesn't smell like that?
Part of what I feel — what I felt even before this last straw — is just, everyone likes to be around happy people, fun people, so it's entirely selfish that I want the old her back: it's less stress, I'm human, I like laughing with people.
But that's only partly it. Because: it's V. We were never exactly friends, but we were colleagues, and we made each other laugh, and she offered me comfort, and she didn't treat me like a freak, and I want to offer comfort back. But I can't, not through this wall of anger. Anything else I could deal with: sadness, depression, fear, anxiety, crying, screaming, curled into a ball, any of those I would at least try to reach through, try to punch through the wall. But anger — it's not brick or barbed wire or something I can withstand the pain of: it is fire, and I have no protection. I want to try. At least I think I want to. But I know, I just can not do this. It will destroy me, and I'll be no good to anyone, I'll just make it worse. So I sit helplessly, and I burn with a different fire, with shame and helplessness and smallness, my hands aching with the desire to do something, my throat aching with words I can't even think of, let alone say.