“It’s a boy.”
Merriam’s mouth sagged at the corners when she made her announcement yesterday, like she was reporting a cockroach sighting in the break room. She reminded us that Navin’s paternity leave starts today; we’ll all need to pick up the slack while he’s out.
Of course, we knew it was a boy months ago when Navin started parading around the office with that artificial womb strapped to his belly. His wife Lanelle is president of Jarvis Corporation, so naturally, they paid for the deluxe womb with the clear walls where everyone can see the little darling.
Like the pompous show-off he is, Navin didn’t drape the womb with a coverlet. Oh, no, he wanted to draw attention to his miniscule contribution to the process. At the beginning of the pregnancy, he kept insisting that the genital tubercle on the fetus was a glans clitoridis. He caught me in the break room one morning, and actually juggled the womb until the little fetus rolled over. Then using a stylus, Navin proudly poked at a tiny nub. “See? It’s a girl!”
But once the tubercle continued to extend, Navin could no longer carry his false hope around with the unborn child. The appendage was definitely phallic. After that, Navin adopted the privacy coverlet that most expectant parents wear.
Andrew says there was a time, long ago, when those three words—‘It’s a boy’—meant more than even the words ‘I love you.’
He says the birth of a boy was heralded as a major event, bringing untold pride and joy to parents and the community. Evidently, a boy held the mystical guarantee of the continuation of a family’s lineage.
When I was young, I imagined my mother crying tears of disappointment when she heard the news that her first-born was going to be a boy. Back then, the artificial womb was still experimental, and too expensive for my mother’s salary as a young orthopedic surgeon. She didn’t get the disheartening news until I was nearly 20 weeks along. I visualized my father hanging his head in shame at not being able to carry out the simple task of creating a girl child.
My mother said they tried all the usual tricks to produce a girl, but it just didn’t work out that way. Always the martyr, she lamented my father’s cursed Y chromosome that screwed everything up, and shamed us both in the process. But my dad has never acted like he was disappointed. In fact, he and I are a lot closer than he is with my sister Jillian.
According to Andrew, all children were given the father’s surname, and that is how families were recorded generation after generation.
I don’t know how Andrew remembers all this trivia. He and I went to the same schools but I don’t recall seeing all this stuff about how revered male children were. All I’ve ever read was how men screwed up the world so bad that women took away their ability to make any kind of business or political decisions.
My grandmother says that if a woman is responsible enough to nurture a child from birth to adulthood, she can certainly nurture a business. She says all men ever did was cheat and steal from each other.
When I ask my father about this role reversal, he seems reticent to discuss the matter. Notice how I used ‘reticent’? Andrew says I need to improve my vocabulary, to raise my score on the Approved Partner Registry.
I’ve been on the APR for over a year now. The board won’t consider men until they’re twenty-five years old, and then the open enrollment is only once a year. The first two times I applied, I was rejected. It’s that questionnaire! They ask the same thing twice, only they put a little twist in the second time to see if you slip up. Like on one question, I strongly agreed that I preferred work that is routine, which was the right answer. But then on the question where it asked if I considered myself creative, someone who comes up with new ideas, I disagreed and got penalized.
But aren’t those kind of the same question?
Andrew says I was just trying to answer the way I thought they wanted me to. But what does he know? He’s never taken those stupid tests. He’s never had to sweat it out, waiting for the results. I know, I shouldn’t be so hard on him. He’s not on the APR and his chances of getting on are slim. He has Erb’s Palsy.
The brachial plexus muscle in Andrew’s shoulder was damaged during childbirth. That kind of accident rarely happens these days, but his mother and father were in some third-world country as part of a humanitarian effort to help people recovering from an earthquake. His mother had assured everyone she’d be back in plenty of time for delivery, but then the country was hit with a second quake and they were stranded.
She went into premature labor at some godforsaken outpost. A midwife was sent for, but Andrew’s father panicked. The baby was coming. Some hidden instinct to take charge overwhelmed him. He pulled Andrew’s head to the side as he tugged to free him from the birth canal and the muscle in his shoulder tore.
Now his left arm hangs useless at his side, and it’s definitely smaller than his right. He always wears long-sleeved shirts, even in the summer, to hide the deformity. Funny how just a moment’s panic during those few seconds of childbirth can determine your whole life.
Back in the U.S., his mother’s insurance paid to try and correct the damage, but the surgeon did a crappy job. Too bad Andrew wasn’t born a girl. His mother would have insisted on a top surgeon, for sure.
So of course, he’ll never be a candidate for the APR. Only attractive men with above average IQs, and strong compatibility traits are accepted. I mean, I’m pretty good looking, but I still had a hard time getting in.
My supervisor, Merriam, once told me I was a knock-out. She said if she weren’t already married, she’d take some of that Mason magic. That’s sexual harassment, but I’m not going to report her. I appreciate the compliment.
My best friend Ben took the APR test the day he turned 25 and aced it. Within a week, he was getting all kinds of requests from women, and last year he got married. I try not to be jealous but come on, he had three different women interested in him. He’s going to call me any day now to say he and his new wife are launching a pregnancy, and I’ll have to be all positive and supportive.
I grab a nutrition bar as I pass through my kitchen, rip away the end of the wrapper, and gnaw off a bite. The dry nuts and oats get stuck in my throat and I can hardly swallow. How do some guys have all the luck? Even Oliver has a steady girlfriend from the APR. I can remember in high school when the three of us did everything together. I always thought we’d get married and have kids and hang out in somebody’s backyard cooking burgers while our wives huddled to talk about work. Now the only friend I have left is Andrew.
I stuff the rest of my tasteless nutrition bar in my pocket, then lock the front door with the Universal Identification chip embedded in my wrist. Nearly everyone uses these now. It’s the law.
I’ve heard horror stories of people’s UI chips being cut right out of their arms, stolen by unsavory individuals. But I think that’s just urban legend. What good would it do to steal someone’s UI chip? There’s way too much information stored in those for anyone to assume another’s identity. A UI has everything from your DNA to your credit history in there. And with retinal scanners everywhere, it’s impossible to try and impersonate someone else.
It’s still dark outside, but not as cold as it was last month. The weather service says it will rain today, but thankfully it hasn’t started. I’ve got my umbrella just in case.
I can’t afford an automobile on my salary, so I take the train to work. Cars are discouraged anyway; they cause traffic congestion, and some of the older models still use a fuel that pollutes the air.
The transit line runs right next to our neighborhood, so it’s no big deal to walk the three blocks to the MARTA station.
The homes in our area are older; they aren’t wired for all the electronics so I have to actually turn on the lights when I walk from the living room to the kitchen. And the climate control gauge has to be manually set, but at least the system filters and humidifies the air.
Most women on their way to the top of the corporate ladder aren’t interested in these older homes, but mine will do until I get settled with someone.
There are a few single-income families scattered around the neighborhood. The husband stays home with the kids while the wife works long hours to get ahead. They don’t stick around long though. Once the money starts rolling in, they move to the suburbs with the fully-automated homes.
Right up the block is a new family that moved in a couple months ago. I slow down to look at the playset in their side yard with the tiny slide and brightly-colored plastic swing. Toys are scattered around the front yard; there’s a playpen on the large covered porch where the dad sits at a small desk. I think he’s writing a book.
A gust of wind blows a pinwheel stuck in the grass; it’s red and blue and green blades whirl around. It reminds me of a movie I saw when I was young. A father is helping his daughter with a science project on wind power. They have the mechanics all set up, but then the little brother comes toddling along and messes it up.
The daughter is crying, and the little boy is crying, but the father takes them both in his arms and soothes them. I love that scene, with the kids on the dad’s lap. He knows just what to say to make it all better. And he doesn’t get mad at the little boy. He loves his son as much as his daughter.
Ever since I saw that movie, I’ve wanted to be a father like that. I want to teach a child to catch a ball and draw a picture and read a book. We’ll make sandwiches for lunch, spreading the peanut butter across the bread and over our thumbs. We’ll pretend we’re explorers and wade through a creek in our boots looking for salamanders and unusual rocks.
My roommate Damon doesn’t care if he ever gets into a relationship, much less married. He’s on the road all week, setting up and demonstrating 3D copiers. Most companies just send a video demonstration of their equipment, but Damon’s company claims that by sending a live rep, they answer more questions, and get fewer complaints and service calls. They must be right because they’re the top seller of 3D copiers in the country.
On the weekends, Damon is happy hitting the bars with his buddies to watch sports. Or they hang around the house, drinking beers and playing video games. I don’t have a lot in common with Damon, but that’s okay. We aren’t supposed to judge others.
I’ve been sharing the house with him for a couple years now. When I first graduated from Georgia State my dad wanted me to move back home—‘to save money’ he said—but I really think he was looking for an ally against my mom and my Grandma Lisa. That lasted about six months before I had to get out on my own.
The house Damon advertised fit the bill; it was on the metro line, and the rent was reasonable. Once I’d moved in, I asked him if he was on the registry. He looked at me like I was crazy.
“Why would I want a woman bossing me around all the time,” he said. “Or expecting me to change dirty diapers, and wipe snotty noses.”
He said he was registered with the escort service and as soon as he found a woman who wanted to fuck a couple times a month, he was taking his name off. That kind of talk can get a guy in real trouble, but Damon doesn’t seem to care. He acts cocky like that whenever he’s around his friends and me. In the two years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him with a woman to know how he behaves around them.
Getting into the escort service is pretty easy compared to the registry. You just enter some information online and you’re in. But with the registry, you have to actually go into one of their offices. I guess they had too many inaccurate registrations, where a man misrepresented himself. Now you have to prove that you’re not a troll.
And you have to take the tests at the center instead of online at home. I heard there was a lot of cheating; guys helping each other with the answers. I know I would have asked Andrew to help me if I’d had the chance.
I’ve never told anyone this, but I had some ‘performance’ issues as well. Two different women reported me to the registry and I was classified as PME: A premature ejaculator. How embarrassing is that?
During high school, sex wasn’t even an option for most guys. Solexa was just coming on the market and a lot of parents put their boys on the drug before they got their first wisp of underarm hair. Those pills did a great job of suppressing the libido, but they didn’t do much for a guy’s confidence. Once I got accepted at Georgia State, my mother decided to wean me off the stuff.
Unfortunately, the college girls were just like they were in high school, so driven to excel that they didn’t pay much attention to guys. The few girls who weren’t on the fast track didn’t appeal to me, so I was a virgin when I got on the APR. What did those women expect? I had no experience.
Nevertheless, I had to take remedial training with a surrogate for two months. And believe me, having sex with a surrogate is not as much fun as you might think be. It’s like she’s evaluating everything you do, timing you, trying to get you to slip up.
Thank goodness I passed the course, and got the PME removed from my profile, but I’m constantly worried that someone will find out.
My counselor assures me that a PME classification is sometimes preferred. Lots of women aren’t interested in sex, they just want to get pregnant, so a man who can get in and get out quickly is a benefit. But I’ve masturbated enough to know how good an orgasm feels. I want the fireworks, and I want to be married to a woman who wants them, too.
A raindrop hits my cheek, then another on my forehead. Here it comes. I dash the last half a block to the MARTA station. Once under the overhanging roof, I skid to a stop, swipe my UI, and step through the security scanner.
Downstairs, a crowd waits on the platform for the next train to downtown Atlanta. I don’t have to be at work until 8:30, but there’s always a good mix of women on the 7:23—the early birds who like to be at their desk before eight—so I try to catch it every morning. Maybe I’ll get noticed.
Our station is far enough out of the city that I usually find a place to sit, but if a woman gets on, I always give up my seat. It’s a show of respect. And I never know when a woman might strike up a conversation just because I’m polite. It’s happened a couple times already. And of course, they ask if I’m on the registry. I don’t get many hits on my profile, but it’s all about playing the numbers.
Someday I’ll get lucky. I don’t mean to sound conceited, but honestly? There isn’t a day goes by that a woman won’t turn her head to get a second look at me, or pause just a moment longer when she’s scanning the crowd of faces.
They’re not allowed to say anything. There are strict laws about sexual harassment, and they are rigidly enforced. But that doesn’t stop women from looking. I see it in their gaze, the twitch of a brow, the slight parting of their lips. They’re fantasizing about me.
Even now while I make my way to an empty seat on the train, a woman gives me one of those up and down inspections, like she’s checking out the whole package. She turns to whisper something to the woman seated beside her, and she gives me the once over, too.
I don’t care. I like the attention. I want to get married and live in a nice house instead of our rundown rental. What’s wrong with that?
As soon as I was hired at Campbell and Fetter, I signed up to volunteer at the company’s daycare on the first floor. My assignment is three year-olds. Inexperienced men are prohibited from handling infants under a year, but evidently, once babies are out of diapers, and are mobile, men can be trusted to monitor these children. Basically, I follow little tykes around, making sure they don’t conk each other on the head, or trip and fall on sharp objects.
There’s this little kid, Evan. He’s really shy. The first time I noticed him, he was off in a corner playing by himself. We’re supposed to encourage the children to be active, so I had started the song ‘Watch Me’ and there were maybe ten kids all jumping around. As we flew past Evan, flapping our arms like birds, I called to him to come on and join us, but he wouldn’t. So after the song, I flew over to him, perched on one of those tiny chairs, tucked my arms up, and peeped at him until he finally smiled.
He’s such a cute little dude, with his wispy red hair poking out all around his head. I’ve kind of made him my special project. Whenever I see him, I fold in my arms, flap my elbows and peep. He makes his own little wings and peeps back.
He doesn’t talk though. Deana, one of the supervisors, says he’s a slow learner. Maybe. I think he just doesn’t have anything to say yet.
Today I brought a stone I found once in Michigan. It’s called a Petosky stone. When it’s dry, it just looks boring and gray. But when it’s wet, you can see all the little segments that used to be living coral. Evan’s too young to understand what a fossil is, but I think he’ll be surprised to see how different a plain rock can look when it’s wet.
I’m working from three o’clock to eight today. It’s one of my favorite shifts because most of the children are picked up by six. Then the rest of the kids are fed supper, and sometimes we watch a movie.
Evan’s mom almost always works late, so he and I can hang out for some quality ‘man time.’ If there’s a movie, we’ll make the sound effects, like a door creaking open, or a dog barking. Evan’s really good at animal sounds.
My building is on the same block as the train station, which is good this morning because as we all ride the escalator up to street level, I can hear the rain coming down. The pace of the crowd slows at the exit, like we’re all assessing the situation, judging if we can walk without getting too wet, or if this calls for a mad dash.
Then umbrellas pop open, almost in unison, and the crowd disperses. I’d offer a dry spot under my umbrella, but all the women have their own.
I guess that’s the whole problem: women don’t need men anymore.
My grandfather says there was a time when a woman would intentionally act helpless just so a man would come to her aid; like she’d forget her umbrella, so a man would offer the use of his. It was all part of a master plan to find a husband.
In the olden days, a man wanted a female companion, ‘a pretty little thing on his arm’, my grandfather says, like he was showing off an exotic bird or rare flower.
But it’s not like that anymore.
If a woman wants a companion, she usually chooses another woman. They think alike, they see things from the same perspective, they’re on the same wave-length. Women aren’t interested in listening to men talk about themselves, and they don’t want us hanging around all the time.
I’ve heard different theories on how everything changed. My grandfather says this role reversal started once the majority of Congress was female. Grandma Lisa says that education reform is responsible. Teachers were trained to encourage girls as well as boys to excel in school. My mom insists that advertising restrictions stopped women from being viewed as sex objects and portrayed them as strong and independent.
Personally? I think women gained their greatest freedom when the artificial womb was invented.
It’s probably a little of each of these things. All I know for sure is that men once ruled the world, and now they don’t.
Inside the lobby of my building, I tamp the end of my closed umbrella on the rug, then wrap it tightly and snap it shut. I don’t want water dripping on the marble floors, causing a woman to slip in a puddle.
I wait at the bank of elevators with several others. The ‘up’ light dings, and a group of us all shift to the left, lining up to get on. Ahead of me, three women step in. They’re chatting like they know each other. They work together, or maybe they carpool.
One of the women presses the button for the 15th floor. So, they’re middle management. After pressing the 5th floor button, I move to the side.
The women are discussing a merger, although it doesn’t appear that any of them actually took part in the negotiations. They’re young, upwardly-mobile, probably in acquisitions. They dream of the day when they will make their own first deal.
I fold my hands in front, my shoulders squared, and study the numbers as the elevator rises so they won’t think I’m eavesdropping on their conversation.
We stop on the third floor and a man I’ve seen before steps in. I think he works in the insurance department. When the doors close, I see one of the women staring at my reflection in the door. I quickly drop my gaze to the floor.
At the 5th floor, I look back up at the shiny chrome doors and see that she’s still checking me out. It makes me so flustered I stumble out of the elevator like a doof. As I turn to my right, I hear a woman call out, “this isn’t our floor.” I can sense that someone has gotten off the elevator.
“I know,” another woman says. She’s right behind me.
I don’t dare turn around, but she must have made a face, winked at her friends or something, because they chuckle.
“Leave him alone, Irina,” one of the women says.
“We’ve got a meeting in ten minutes,” another calls.
Then I hear her call back. “I’ll be up. Don’t let them start without me.”
The doors whoosh shut.
Should I stop walking, turn around? Wait for her to speak to me?
“I like your tie,” she says as she steps up next to me. Her eyes skim around my face, up to my hair, checking me out.
Don’t be nervous, I tell myself. And for godsakes, make eye contact.
Her eyes are a beautiful kaleidoscope of brown and green flecks. Her nose is a petite button above the slightly-parted lips of a smile. My heart lurches in my chest.
“Thanks,” I manage. “I got it at Theo’s.”
I learned that in one of the remedial classes I took when I failed the admissions test the second time. Don’t just thank someone for a compliment. Offer some information that encourages further conversation. But don’t be boastful by repeating how much you paid.
“I love Theo’s,” she says. “Their shoe department is fabulous.”
I immediately check out her shoes since obviously that’s why she mentioned it.
“Those are gorgeous shoes,” I say. “They really set off your outfit.”
She mouth widens in a grin. I’ve responded correctly.
When Andrew asks me later what she was wearing, I won’t be able to even give him the color of her suit. All I will remember is how the pants draped against her hips; how the collar of her blouse lay so perfectly against her creamy smooth neck.
“So, I guess you work in the travel division,” she says. She throws her head back, and her beautiful brown hair flitters up off her shoulders for just a moment before settling back down.
I can’t even respond, I just nod like a dope. Keep eye contact, Mason, I scold. The last thing I want to do is let my eyes drift to her suit jacket, and the breasts that lay beneath.
Her smile is so confident, and her eyebrow gives me just that hint of a wag that is all too familiar. She thinks I’m attractive.
As we stroll, she tells me her name is Irina. She was recruited by the company right out of Ohio State University, and has been here for a little over a year.
The only thing I manage to tell her is my name.
“So, Mason,” she says, hesitating to make sure I’m looking at her. “Are you on the registry?”
I’m so excited my hands are still shaking when I get to my desk. Irina. A beautiful name for a beautiful woman. Surely, she’s going to look me up as soon as she gets to her desk. No, she can’t. She’s got a meeting. Don’t let them start without me. She must be on the fast track if they’d hold up a meeting for her.
See? It’s all about the numbers. Day after day, you go about your business, and finally one day, it pays off. I can’t wait to tell Andrew at lunch.
I turn on my computer, call up a numbered account. Our executives travel a lot, and there are thousands of ways an expense report can be erroneous. It’s my job to make sure a hotel doesn’t overcharge, or forget to give us our corporate discount. Did a restaurant include an extra steak dinner on the tab? Sometimes, customers come to the city, and our executives wine and dine them here. I know the menus of nearly all the good local restaurants, so I can spot an overcharge in a second.
Merriam never comes right out and says it, but she also wants us to make sure none of the executives have charged an inappropriate expenditure, like more than one cocktail per person during a lunch meeting.
The accounts I audit are numbered, so I have no idea who I’m checking up on. Thank goodness. Last month I had to kick back a report with a room service charge for an expensive bottle of champagne. When I researched the expenditure, I discovered the charge was really for an article of clothing from the hotel’s boutique. The executive had purchased a satin bathrobe for her escort. That caused quite a stir, not because the VP had an escort in her room, but because she falsified a document.
Everything looks legit on this particular report, so I send it on to Merriam for approval. Immediately, the next one pops up on my screen. I wonder if Irina ever travels? She’s pretty young. If she graduated at twenty-one, she’s probably only twenty-two, twenty-three at the most. Even if she’s taken a business trip, chances are the company hasn’t given her a corporate credit card. Not yet. She’d have to turn in a voucher.
I don’t book travel, or make reservations. Merriam and Angela do most of that. But some day, I hope I’ll prove I’m good enough to handle that kind of responsibility. Management jobs are hard to come by for men, but maybe I’ll be one of the first. I’ll pave the way for others.
I glance up at the clock. Three more hours until lunch.
* * *
The commissary isn’t too crowded at 11:45. People at my pay grade get the early lunch times, so when the managers come down later, they can find a seat.
Andrew is waiting right inside the door, off to the side. He tries to be invisible, even to other guys.
In the elevator, coming down, I rehearsed how I’d tell Andrew about meeting Irina. I decided to act real casual, like this sort of thing happens a lot. But as we make our way to the sandwich bar, Andrew starts in on some tax story.
“She coded the purchase as a fifteen-thirty five, then expects me to authorize it as a legitimate deduction.” Andrew shakes his head, like I’m supposed to be just as indignant.
He works in the tax division, up on the tenth floor, auditing numbered accounts just like I do; only his are tax files.
Years ago, when companies were trying to attract personnel, they added a new perk: they agreed to keep a running tally of their workers’ taxes. It was only natural, in this electronic age. The employee’s pay is deposited into an account, and taxes are deducted each pay period, just like they always were. But anytime a person qualifies for a deduction, it’s tallied in their account.
So let’s say someone buys a house. The mortgage payment is deducted from their pay, and the interest is recorded in the tax file. If a child is born, not only does the insurance company record the event but so does the employee’s company. And since no one uses cash, all expenditures—office supplies, lawn irrigation systems, a new car—are deducted at the time of purchase. It’s all in the way the purchases are coded.
At the end of the year, everything is in order and a tax return is ready to submit. Most people love it because they hate doing their own taxes.
But the problem is that people suspect the company might make a mistake and miss a deduction. (Read that as ‘cheat us out of our money’.) So corporations hired monitors to randomly audit the records to make sure all deductions have been credited.
Some women think tax monitors like Andrew can go into any account he wants and have a look around. But they’re numbered, so it’s not possible. That doesn’t keep women from trying though. Every now and then a woman will sidle up to Andrew and pay him some attention, in the hopes that he can check out their current tax liability. Once he makes it clear that he can’t, they scuttle away pretty fast.
I scan today’s selection of sandwiches, and settle on a turkey and swiss with avocado. Andrew goes for the roast beef on rye.
“If she thinks we’re doing a bad job,” Andrew rants, “she should have been around when the Internal Revenue Service was in charge.”
Tuning out his recitation of old tax laws, I weave through the dining area to a table back in the corner.
Andrew thinks his job is more important than mine. It’s because the his office is on the tenth floor. But really, there’s no difference. In fact, I applied for tax monitoring, too, but I didn’t get the job. It’s those stupid tests!
My instructor at the community college said I had a real aptitude for math, but I get so nervous during the testing that I miss easy questions. What’s the point in a test anyway when all we do is verify numbers?
I unwrap my sandwich and take a bite. It sounds like Andrew is finally running out of steam. When he starts to unwrap his sandwich, I see my chance. It takes all of his concentration to get the cellophane off with one hand. I used to offer to help but he got really pissed, so now I let him do it alone, no matter how long it takes. I just hope they didn’t slip any mayonnaise in, or he’ll rant about that.
“A woman flirted with me this morning,” I say.
Andrew stops picking at the wrap and glances up at me. “What did she say?”
“She said she liked my tie.”
He shakes his head. “That’s not flirting.”
That’s exactly what I thought he’d say. I’m baiting him. He can be a real know-it-all sometimes.
“She followed me off the elevator to tell me,” I say.
Oh, ho! The look on Andrew’s face. Is that jealousy?
Naturally, he grills me about the entire encounter. How did I behave? What did I say? He’s encouraged by my comment about her shoes complimenting her suit. But then he has to ruin my good mood by insisting that I not get too excited yet.
“They all ask about the registry,” he says. (Like he would know.) “Sixty-five percent of the time, they don’t check it, even when they say they will.”
Then he takes off on some tangent about statistics. I make a note to check online when I get back to my desk, to see if he’s right.