Despite everybody’s warning, I’m still giddy to go to work on Monday morning; I’m naïve like that. I disregard red flags so often I might as well be colorblind.
The entire office of GM Publishing covers only three floors in the building—small for a publishing house that carries more than fifteen titles under its name. The ground floor is where the reception area, conference room, and the marketing department are stationed. On the left side is a staircase slightly obscured from view, which leads up to Dato Ina’s and Dato Al’s offices. Naturally, the writers, publishing executives, and the graphic artists stay on the lower ground floor. Because who needs natural lighting and a view? Not the creatives, apparently.
The lower ground floor is one long, sad stretch of an office, with rows of tables on either side, separating the writers from the artists. On one end of the floor by the stairs are our desks, the publishing executives. Aish sits nearest the stairs, perhaps to stop anyone from escaping. At the far end of the room is the small pantry, and right next to the table is the bathroom door. So when you get up to go to the bathroom because you think that you need to pee, it is an aggravating three-minute walk in the long aisle; and if you change your mind half-way through, people look at you and question your conviction.
I share my first day jitters with another publishing executive, Lane. She is a local, and a fresh graduate. She tells me she mostly took the job because no respectable magazine will hire an inexperienced fresh graduate like her and she needed a job badly. I tell her it couldn’t be that bad. After an hour, I take back my word.
We sit for fifteen minutes on our desks, Lane and I, drinking in our new position. But we are immediately called to a meeting with Dato Ina. We are told it is sort of a welcome meeting, so I get more excited and less scared. But ten minutes into the meeting and D.I. has already yelled at me twice.
“Aish, what is she doing?” She asks the publishing manager sitting across from me, while pointing at me with disdain. I don’t understand at first, because I’m not looking at her. I’m writing down notes. When I look up at both of them, Aish looks like I failed her and D.I. looks at me like I’m vermin.
“I was listening. I’m just writing down some notes for later,” I answer rather stupidly, and look from Aish to D.I., because I really think what I’m doing is obvious.
“Dato doesn’t like it when people don’t pay attention and not look at her,” Aish says as if she’s talking to a mentally stunted six-year-old.
“I was paying attention,” I say carefully. I’m beginning to feel like I’m entering the Twilight Zone. “That’s why I was taking notes.”
“Oh, she’s paying attention,” D.I. scoffs as she looks at me. Ironically she is talking to me in third person but looking at me. I decide right then and there that I don’t get this woman. By this point, I’m so confused and it’s not even 10 AM.
“Am I not important enough for you to look at me in the eye while I am explaining?” she continues. “Didn’t your mother teach you to look someone in the eye when someone is talking? Was it okay in your school and in your previous jobs to disrespect the speaker like this during meetings?” She dares me to answer, but I just look at her, not even blinking. I don’t know what to say anymore. After a few seconds, she takes my silence as her victory.
In ten seconds, she goes from insulting me, my mother, and my education to discussing the publications under my purview with so much enthusiasm as if nothing happened that I can’t help but to look at her with genuine awe. I concentrate on memorizing all the six titles, the fifty two tasks I’m supposed to do every morning, and the contact numbers of people I’m supposed to call right after the meeting. I zone out after the first publication, but I keep looking at her and nodding, and she seems reassured by this.
But she explodes again after only five minutes; because I am not writing anymore, I keep clicking my retractable pen just so I could do something to avoid falling asleep. D.I. stops mid-sentence, looks at Aish again, points at me, and says viciously, “Aish, please tell her to stop doing that. It’s so annoying.”
The air inside Dato’s office where we are having our meeting smells thickly of musk. Translation: it is difficult to breathe without gagging. And when everyone stops talking for a few moments after she tells Aish that I’m annoying her again, I seriously think I’m going to suffocate.
All this time, Lane sits quietly beside me, like she doesn’t exist to Dato. Meanwhile, Dato keeps picking on me like I’m this huge eyesore she can’t tolerate anymore. I look at Lane for a moment and silently tell her I wish there’s an emergency eject button under my seat. I think she gets my look and nods at smiles at me kindly.
The rest of the day doesn’t go smoother at all, as what sometimes happens in movies. It goes from bad to worse within a few hours, and by lunch time I am ready to fly home.
After the meeting, it seems too kind to still call her the respectable title of Dato. But D.I. feels too unassuming, as if those initials do not do her justice at all. Lane and I go for Devil Incarnate, and we blurt our disbelief of all the drama the moment when we get back to our desks.
But after my first day of work as a power trip igniter to the Devil Incarnate, a position elegantly disguised as Publishing Executive, the girls and I bond over our mutual hatred for the publishing world, our inevitable doom in the foreseeable future, and our sorry luck of getting the trifecta of the corporate world—being overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid.
When I get home that night, Nora and Andrea already know what I need. They pour me a glass of vodka, tell me to sit with them in the living room, and ask me how my first day has been so far. I tell them everything, because why not?
“What is the silver lining here?” I finish off with a question to the two women miserably downing their glasses of vodka in front of me. Andrea just shrugs; but Nora responds, in a manner that sounds rehearsed (perhaps because she has said it more times than she would care to admit).
“Patience. Patience is what you’re going to get out of this,” she gestures to the entire flat, probably meaning the entire country. “You are not going to learn shit about publishing, but you will come out a very patient person.”
“What if I’m already patient?” is my very childish comeback. We finish our drinks after that, I go inside my room, and cry so intently it feels like my lungs are going to give up on me.
I cry because I spent New Year’s Day alone in my room, in an empty flat, in a strange country. I cry because for the past week I’ve been eating nothing but instant noodles and bread because I’m on a strict budget. I cry because days are longer here and the sun usually starts to set at 7:30 PM. I cry because I don’t know anyone within a 30-mile radius who cares if I cry myself to sleep. I cry because the 10Mbps internet connection speed only magnifies the fact that it is taking forever for my friends to respond to my messages of despair and cry for help. I cry because I have never been so blindsided before with one insult after another that I feel severely violated and I am actually shaken. I cry because I realize I’m not strong enough to handle this. I cry because I probably made a mistake.
The next morning, my eyes are swollen, my spirits deflated, but I decide that I will not easily give up. Evil bosses exist everywhere, both in movies and in real life. Did Anne Hathaway give up on her first day in The Devil Wears Prada? No, she didn’t.
I summon up what’s left of my self-respect and go to work on Tuesday with a brand new resolve to survive the day without crying.
Immediately when I sit on my desk, however, I knew it wasn’t going to happen.