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Work Wife
Olga’s coworker, known privately as her Work Wife, had said the wrong thing about Olga’s new haircut. “It doesn’t look like the photo you showed me,” she’d said. This is what the Work Wife fixated on, rather than the glory of the haircut before her. The Work Wife said something else about the staff potluck later that day, but Olga could barely hear her. She cut the conversation short and walked back to her cubicle. Olga could feel the Work Wife rolling her eyes. It was ruined between them now, at least for the day.
     The Work Wife had said other things to her over the years.
     During a discussion of celebrity lookalikes: “You have a striking resemblance to Anne Frank.”
     After Olga had accidentally, horribly, dug a deep, slow-to-heal hole in her cheek while popping a pimple and tried to hide it with makeup: “What happened to your face? Asking as a friend.”
     And yet, how Olga loved her, the Work Wife.
     And yet, how she hated her, the Work Wife.
     Out Olga’s office window, clouds like wilted geese drifted across a thicker, darker layer above the highway. Possibly, somewhere not far from the building, a cow was lying down in a wet field. Olga hoped the cow either had a friend or was happy to be alone in the grass. Sometimes, sitting at her desk, Olga wanted so badly to be discovered and taken away from this place, she thought she might pass out. Fall forward on her desk, break her nose. Blood everywhere. Other times, she wanted to wrap the parking lot oaks around her like a shawl and sleep. It seemed criminal that she should be trapped in this brutalist building, a large, luminous moth dying in a basement. It was only a matter of time before the moth expired on a stack of old manila folders.
     Worse yet, the Work Wife was always there, lurking around the corner with her own pale wings, taking the romance out of Olga’s suffering.
     Olga filled out a form, then took another bathroom break. A board member, his blazer flapping open cheerfully, strode towards her in the hall. The hall was long, like a corridor in Versailles, and it took a whole minute to approach and pass each other. Looking away, looking away, dreading the moment when they’d have to look up and smile. The board member probably had one more meeting today, then he could go home. Meanwhile, she had to keep on beating against the windows and skittering over paperwork for six more hours.
     But what made her so special that she should feel alone in this, like she above everyone else deserved the board member’s life—to be always on her way somewhere in a nice silk blouse, fresh coffee in hand? A life of meetings and other people carrying out the tasks discussed. People like herself, in a place like this, among cardboard boxes, stained blue office carpet, heathered gray cubicle walls, and necks and shoulders that never felt good no matter how many stretches and massages and breathing exercises were conducted.
     Her bitterness was great and hot and cooled daily into lava, collecting years of black, immobile matter, mounting higher and higher, building a fortress.
     Who would rescue her?
     Certainly not the Work Wife. The Work Wife only dragged her down, kept her locked in her little cell.
     At her desk, filling out another form, Olga had terrible visions of growing old with the Work Wife. Somehow, they would be required to work together forever, there in the same building. And even if by some extraordinary chance they were released from the office into decadent, work-free lives, still they would never escape. No matter how strenuously they avoided each other, one day Olga would be strolling down a forest path and there she’d be: the Work Wife.
     Looking at each other, horns would sprout from their temples, thick, greenish-brown horns, growing towards each other, reaching towards the trees, and fusing above their heads.
     Then two strongmen would leap from the bushes and try to pull Olga and the Work Wife apart, until the horns gave up and dropped to the ground, slithering away. And due to this heroic act Olga and the Work Wife would be forced to marry the strongmen, one Work Wife per man, because that’s how the world works with the Work Wife in it. Olga’s existing marriage would be annulled, her new husband broad, almost faceless, and she would have to love him, just as she had to love the Work Wife.
     Of course, Olga would blame the Work Wife for these developments. Making another effort at escape, Olga and her strongman husband would move away to a distant country, her new husband weeping as they boarded the ship because the two strongmen were, in fact, brothers. Olga wouldn’t much care for the new country, or their moldy hut, but it was what she’d have to do to protect herself from the Work Wife.
     And so Olga and the Work Wife would lead grim lives on opposite sides of the world, but they’d always feel the pull of each other like magnets. At odd times, their foreheads would ache in the spots where the horns had erupted.

In the kitchen, the staff was gathering. With a frowning, industrious energy, they put out Tupperwares brought from home. Olga refilled her coffee, made a note to avoid the kitchen until the potluck began. If she loafed in the area, the staff might mistake her for a dish and arrange her efficiently among the bean and fruit salads.
     By this time in the day, the Work Wife typically visited Olga’s cubicle, which was semi-private and had the coveted parking lot view. But because of the haircut incident, the Work Wife had not come by, and even if she arrived Olga would discourage her with subtle looks.
     Their conversations tended to range widely, but there were a few recurring topics. Due to their devastating salaries, Olga and the Work Wife had only $40 of disposable monthly income apiece, and they discussed the items they would buy with the $40 obsessively, dust drifting between them like snow. Often, the item was a face cream, advertised so consistently that initial annoyance and distrust turned to interest and then infatuation and finally frustrated craving, so that when the purchase arrived, they felt relief rather than delight. The worst months were when Olga or the Work Wife wanted something that cost more than $40, such as pants or a blouse, and they’d have to wait until the next month to combine the two allotments. In these cases, one Work Wife would spend the first month consoling the other.
     Several times a week, Olga and the Work Wife took rapid loops outside the office building, bent as if against the wind. They passed the same squirrels and trees with each loop, discussing some personal problem with intense force, winding the problem around the building like a rubber band. When they turned inside and went up the elevator, the rubber band snapped back, loose and useless.
     Work Wife, O Work Wife! Olga howled, inside, at her desk.
     They had become Work Wives because they were young women with dreams in an aging office. In every other way, they had nothing in common.
     The Work Wife had terrible views. Sometimes, looping around the building, they would talk carefully and angrily about politics.
     The Work Wife was like a bundle of rags. Like a thin pillowcase full of other musty pillowcases. Silently hurling insults at the Work Wife kept them circling around in Olga’s body, poisoning the whole system. But the more she thought about the Work Wife, the more upset she became.
     Even when Olga was not at the office, she argued with the Work Wife in her head, muttering as she walked home with grocery bags. She knew she must look insane, and for that she held the Work Wife responsible. Little popping farts (Olga was lactose intolerant, but she loved creams) punctuated her retorts against the Work Wife’s views as she moved down the street, quick and mean.
     “Can you believe,” she said at home to her actual husband, “what the Work Wife said?”
     Olga told him, and cackled.
     Her husband raised his eyebrows. “Don’t you think it’s dehumanizing to call her Work Wife? And slightly insulting to me, your real spouse, to boot?”
     Olga waved this away. “She gets plenty of humanity at work. Too much. All I do is address her humanity.” She thought about the winding rubber band.
     “But isn’t she a good friend to you? You tell each other everything, she brings you treats when you’re having a bad day.”
     “That makes it worse. It’s like she’s my only friend.” Olga paused. “Who even are my other friends?”
     And Olga and her husband looked at the ceiling, thinking, trying to count.
     “You need to get out of your head,” her husband said. “Start reading again, even just the news.”
     But she couldn’t read the news, because when she wasn’t with the Work Wife, she was thinking about the Work Wife.
     She knew the shoes the Work Wife wore on her period, her sleeping habits. She knew when the Work Wife was using the microwave; she could tell by the rhythm of the beeps. She knew the conflicts and joys of the Work Wife’s major and minor relationships. She knew about the Work Wife’s favorite roasted nuts and the movie she had been watching very slowly, in ten-minute increments, over the past two years. “I just want to savor it!” said the Work Wife. I just want to slap your face, thought Olga.

On her way to the potluck, Olga considered their entrapment further. The strongmen’s wills stated that the Work Wives must live together after their husbands’ deaths. We want you to forgive and forget, the strongmen had struggled to write in large, boyish handwriting on butcher paper. But the strongmen, as the Work Wives had long known, were utter fools, because the feelings between the Work Wives had nothing to do with forgiving and forgetting. It was horror, not pain, between them, mysterious and goopy as mud.
     But regardless, in this nightmare that the Work Wife surely had some hand in creating, the Work Wives were required to follow their husbands’ every direction, and the Work Wife had to fly across the world to Olga’s hut, where, their lips so wrinkled and old they looked sutured, they sipped soup across a sea-battered wooden table.
     Oh god, they would have to shuffle around doing household chores until their dying days, bumping into each other’s bony hips as they swept and put dishes in the cupboard! Their backs hunched from all those years in the office.
     Oh god, they would be so old in that hopeless hut at the edge of the world, so old that ants would skitter away from them. The Work Wife would glare at the ants, and they’d run away audibly. Loudly. Ants!
     When would the end come. When would the end come and take them. When would the end come and drag them away by the ankles, kill the Tuesday afternoon feeling, the feeling of being flattened by an industrial roller and slipped into the walls like Sheetrock, while their souls wandered hungry in the bathroom, visiting each empty stall?
     At the potluck, Olga sat in a corner far from the others with a piece of cake. She watched the Work Wife get caught in a conversation with the clammiest man at the office, a man they made fun of on their loops.
     But Olga did not rescue her. She ate her cake quickly and threw away the little plastic plate and fork.
     She glanced at the Work Wife before leaving, and the Work Wife looked over and smiled, a genuine, easy, loving smile, indicating that she had not even noticed the haircut incident, had just gotten busy that morning, and moreover knew nothing of the horns and the strongmen and the will.
     Olga felt an ache, a longing for the Work Wife. She wanted to joke about the clammy accountant, ask the Work Wife about the dullest beats of their conversation. But Olga was already halfway out the door, it would be awkward to go back in.
     Out her office window, the parking lot shone with rain.
     She took her vision of the horns and strongmen and crumpled it up like a piece of paper, a form gone wrong. Put it in her mouth and ate it. The day’s black lava had cooled, and she scaled the rungs of its fortress. Going up or down, she couldn’t tell. Then, unbelievably, it was five o’clock. Olga gathered up her things and went home to her real husband.

Taisia Kitaiskaia is the author of four books: The Nightgown and Other PoemsLiterary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers, a collaboration with artist Katy Horan and an NPR Best Book of 2017; and Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles as well as its follow-up, Poetic Remedies for Troubled Times: From Ask Baba Yaga. She is the recipient of fellowships from the James A. Michener Center for Writers and Yaddo.