This was the trouble with bringing a gun to work: you couldn’t stop thinking about it.
This understatement comes from “Rutting Season,” a story by Mandeliene Smith in this week’s new issue of Guernica that flirts with every office worker’s worst nightmare—or secret fantasy—while exploring the divide between the public persona and the private self.
The story is told from three perspectives: Lisa, the hot girl from fundraising; Ray, the computer guy; and Carl, the computer guy’s assistant. They are three people who work together and draw assumptions about each other but, as so often happens with coworkers, don’t know each other at all.
Carl had a secret thought about his boss, Ray. Ray had a secret thought about Lisa, one of the girls in fundraising. Lisa had no thoughts about Ray, secret or otherwise. At least that’s what she would have said if anyone asked her.
The way that Smith sets up these office relationships is subtle and nuanced. There’s Lisa’s slight guilt over accidentally starting a mocking office nickname for Ray, though she rarely thinks about Ray at all. There’s Ray’s self-flagellation over bombing a rare conversation with Lisa by snapping at Carl in the middle of it. There’s Carl’s seething hatred for Ray’s constant disdain and his humiliation of Carl in front of Lisa (“Carl’s face had turned the dark red of an internal organ”). And there’s the desperate desire, in each one of them, to be liked, which Smith teases out with skill and empathy.
The most fascinating part of “Rutting Season” isn’t the office politics, however, or even the sensationalism of bringing a gun to work. It’s how Smith renders the characters’ self-awareness of how they each appear to the world and their struggles to control that persona—to appear kind, or funny, or smart, or sexy, or even just to not be awkward, to say the right thing. It’s something all of us are concerned with to a certain extent, and it can be exhausting. Take Lisa, for example, who doesn’t have much to complain about—she’s the hot girl, after all—but all she wants is to feel at one with her body, with her secret self:
Being attractive became just a part of Lisa’s sense of herself, something she could flaunt (in a white halter top and mini) or pretend to disregard (sweatshirt and baseball hat). This public Lisa was her, but also was not; she held it out at a little distance from herself, like one of those old Venetian masks.
It was a relief, at times like this, to forget all that, to just let the sound of the running water, the warm sun from the kitchen window, lull her into silence. An animal silence, without any need to think or react or monitor, the clamoring, unruly thing she knew as herself suspended, bat-like, in a corner.
Smith expertly guides us toward the story’s inevitable conclusion through dozens of tiny slights and miscommunications and thwarted desires. “Rutting Season” reminds us that though we spend forty hours a week with the same people, we’re all essentially strangers. We all have a public self and a private self, every one of us, and you can’t truly know who’s on the other side of the cubicle. But the good news is: at least it’s Friday.