I went to see The Shape of Water today. I had been wanting to see it for a while, ever since I saw the trailer last month. The film was everything I expected and more; I wasn’t disappointed at all. It was a full theater, and we gasped and sighed together as a single entity, as they spoke of longing and love and loss, and everything was beautiful and bleak. It reminded me of Amelie at times. When I was returning to the underground structure where I’d parked, I had been walking at a brisk pace, and a lady walking ahead of me was startled enough by the sound of my footsteps to turn around and look at me frightened. Oh, that this first world we live in still requires us to be as wary as deer come to water at a lake, touting our pepper spray and begging men to accompany us to view rentals and ferry us around after dark, lest we be carried away by evil terrible.
Star Wars managed to do worse than the low expectations I had for it. It had nothing that resembled vaguely a plot. It had moments of choreography that stood out amidst awful dialogues, little to no progression, and extremely poor and wooden acting, perhaps except the villain who did manage to bring a touch of flesh and blood into his performance. I have to say that I see these movies, various sci-fi franchise movies, and the superhero ones only to stay in loop with my colleagues who enjoy them. I feel excluded enough without knowing all this to nod along sagely at lunch conversations. Now that I have seen Star Wars, I have enough membership credit in those groups to manage along for a few months. It isn’t all darkness and misery. Wonderwoman pleasantly surprised me. They talk about white-knights and social justice warrior plots that have plagued the recent years’ movies. The suffragette movement had once been called disruptive and threatening to the fabric of civilization. Critical thinking isn’t our forte now. Whatever plagues Star Wars isn’t social justice warrior pandering, but an utter and complete lack of continuity and coherence in plot. And what worked for Wonder Woman isn’t that it catered to a specific crowd, but that it had a decent story told well and acted out passionately by its cast.
Yesterday, I had a call from an old friend. She was one of my first friends when I came to this country, to attend grad-school. She had been three years older than me, and had been doing a Masters in Computer Science. She had been married. It had been an arranged marriage. She had taken me under her wing, taught me to cook a bit, taught me the ways of this new world, and I had delighted in speaking with her in a language other than English when all around me had been changed from all that I had once known. Her brilliance impressed me, when we worked together. She is one of the best programmers I have worked with. I looked up to her then. I had wanted what she had, to be accomplished, to be married to someone who spoke the same language and had been from the same social-economic-educational background. She graduated, went on to work for a large company in Seattle where her husband was based. They had a child, were planning to get a mortgage and everything seemed settled. My life turned away in one of its twists and turns, and we barely spoke in the years after, apart from the customary greetings on birthdays and New Years. So when she called yesterday, I was surprised. I had already wished her for New Year’s.
“I have decided to be a home-maker,” she told me.
I processed that slowly and tried to find the right response. Life and life’s choices rarely have any single right answer, so I just opted to let her speak. The hesitation surprised me. She is one of the boldest people I have met.
Then the story came in pieces and bursts, of a male boss, of attentions covert and overt, and of how she had tried to find inconspicuous ways to deflect the issue without affecting her job. Then it had ended her being called out as an easily offended little princess, and the other person had been promoted nicely with a raise, towards more responsibilities. Perhaps he was more valuable in terms of what he contributed. I don’t see the point in asking about any of that. So I let her talk.
“I don’t need this,” she finished. “My husband earns more than enough. I’ll do consulting later, perhaps. Maybe I’ll become a K12 teacher. I like teaching.”
“You’ll be brilliant at that,” I tell her honestly, because I know her skill set and abilities.
She had tried to teach me, under the red leaves of our school’s canopy, as we coded away in C for our high-performance computing assignment. She had told me to wear a ring on my left hand to keep the men away. She had told me that nothing good happened if I reported weird talk and touch to people whose job it was to listen to concerns like this. She had told me that the best way to deal with it was to learn to be very good at what we did, and to always have the ability to walk out on Friday and find something new on Monday. I learned under her tutelage and I am so very grateful. I hadn’t believed, sheltered as I had been then, that such things happened outside Mad Men. I had seen very little of the world. She taught me other matters too: how to slice onions without crying, how to use GDB effectively, and I’ll never forget the amazing explanation she gave me about how the compiler works. She was generous with what she knew and what she had, of her time and of the lessons she had learned. After my first breakup, I had run to Seattle to her, and she had told me kindly that we hadn’t been right for each other, and it was better for both of us in the long run. I had spent that week in a daze, walking with her by the piers, nodding along absently as she spoke of her life and work. She loves programming.
“You love programming,” I told her yesterday. I was unsure what I meant by that. Was I trying to get her to change her decision? Was I trying to offer a solution that avoided this sort of problem?
“Not enough to deal with this shit,” she told me cheerfully, already immersed in her plans for her future, already determined to leave all this behind her. I have always admired her boldness and strength of conviction.
“I read what you write,” she said then, apropos of nothing, changing the topic away from her news. “I like that you keep going on when such stuff happens at your work. And you’ve always worked in those male only type settings.”
It hasn’t been honestly as difficult as it could have been, as it has been for many. At the beginning of my career, I had strong male colleagues and superiors who were willing to protect me from this sort of stuff, when I needed that protection. And recently, when it happened, though there was no support system in this team setting, I was sufficiently confident in my ability to land on my feet somewhere else.
“I remember telling you to wear a jacket inside always because otherwise what if your nipples poke out through a t-shirt,” she says, laughing. “And you said that you weren’t going to obsess over your nipples when you had to take it in your stride that many of your colleagues wear jeans that just flash their arse-crack whenever they bend and stretch.”
I must have been very young then. I have seen much more than arse-cracks I hadn’t planned on seeing since that time, so long ago. I am rarely phased by that sort of thing, though. Bodies are bodies, and work is work, and I am not so demented that I hold people’s dressing choices against them. I expect that I am returned the favor, so that I don’t have to stress about wearing jackets to shield people from the perils of air-conditioning. Not everyone is the same though. I have had colleagues eye my legs when I skip shaving in the winter and wear skirts.
“Don’t you care?” a Japanese colleague had asked me once.
“Not enough,” I told him frankly. It was only a week after I had to deal with an intern whose clever tactic of dropping his keys whenever I wore a skirt had attracted quite some attention in our little team.
“I remember telling you to put up with things, to not complain, because nobody likes a whiner, because they’ll write you off as just a team downer,” my friend continues.
Yes, she had told me that, many times. Acceptable and unacceptable aren’t binary variables. It was all about the grey in between. And don’t complain. Whatever else you do, don’t complain, she had drilled into me.
“I hope things get better before my daughter becomes an engineer,” my friend continues merrily on the phone.
I hope so. I certainly want all that to happen sooner than later. I have also become less optimistic. There isn’t much of a business case for changing things from how they are. I’ll continue until I transition into something better and nicer for my life, walking out on Fridays to go somewhere new on Mondays as long as necessary and able.
“I wish they get it someday,” she mutters then, falling from her self-forced cheerfulness.
That is a slippery slope, from what I have seen. It is just easier to pick up and leave, and not deal with the ugliness that is past and futile, and not try to explain in vain what professionalism could be. Why swim upstream when you can swim with the current? I rarely get treated with anything less than condescension, as if I was hired as a quota-filling head, and mostly everyone is always surprised whenever I show competence. If I took that as a personal affront everywhere I go, I’ll be a very tired me. Instead, I bet on how long it will take for each new colleague to be convinced that I am capable enough, and I am always so happy if they are convinced faster than I expect them to be.
I don’t think that I should talk about these coping mechanisms of mine. So I change the subject, and tell her about my new job, which has been surprisingly pleasant so far, despite the vagaries of the commute involved. I’d commute to hell if it meant that I was treated like a human being, so that isn’t a deal-breaker.
When we end the call, she has managed to cheer me up, and promises to cheer on, and I promise to do the same for her. I wonder if I want all that she has, after all these days. Perhaps I don’t, not anymore. I have changed so, and on some days it terrifies me.
I end up drinking wine and crying a bit, even though I don’t really have any good reasons. Perhaps I am just sad that she’s leaving me behind, that I’ll have to carry on, lonelier than before, and we weep at night because joy cometh in the morning.
It goes back to you. It goes forward to you. You have to exist, somewhere, and somewhere close. That faith is the crux of my carrying on now. Perhaps that is folly, but I think it is less delusional that waiting for a better dawn in this industry. All that I take in my stride today, I try to think about what waits at the end of this road, of you. I try to label these characters as inconsequential, in the big picture, and on some days I fear if this is to be all that there is. I’ll not last very long in this line of work if there is nothing beyond, if there is no you beyond.
I hope one day, soon, you’ll enter my life, and what you bring will be nothing like the crumbs I have been offered before.
Perhaps I shall tell you of what I have seen in this industry, and we’ll laugh together at the silliness of it all. Perhaps I’ll tell you what I plan to do, about how I plan to get away from this madding crowd.
Perhaps I can tell you of how much I love Lisp, without having to tell you what that brilliant man, who taught me so much about it, suggested as a Saturday past-time.
Perhaps I can tell you of how much I love this business of cars, and that I look forward to my mother being able to click and summon a ride one day on an app, without having to worry about unknown drivers and her safety, and when I tell you about this work of mine, I wonder if any of my words will be tainted by the men who had little qualm or care about trying to sabotage a career over a refusal to give them what they wanted.
Perhaps I’ll tell you of how you became the fulcrum of this simple machine, of how I have painted your flesh in my dreams. I have begun to long for you. I have begun to ask for you. And I’ll choose to believe that somewhere you are doing just the same, equally fiercely and full of longing, waiting for our lives to join and twine.