to 5

    on the 5ives




My partner and I look so much alike that we share a job and our employer and our colleagues do not know. We share six blue pantsuits, three pairs of black loafers, and a black briefcase with a shoulder strap. We trade off by the week; one works, and one is free. One takes the car, and one uses the bus pass.

The only discomfort that I have had with this so far was when a colleague made a glancing, one-on-one reference to a medical condition that I have never had and have never heard about at home. Something in the nature of a burst appendix, a herniated pocket in the abdomen during high school. Very painful, apparently. The colleague was not specific enough and of course I could not press to find out where the passing reference came from. But I know I never made it.

I suppose it is possible that the mention my partner must have made of this incident is just one of those bits of the past that surface and are forgotten, unremarked rather than purposely concealed from me, though why it would come out to the colleague and in what kind of conversational digression across the desks or in the foyer I'm sure I don't know. In a small way it offends me and I remember the unpleasant surprise of it sometimes in the evenings at home, sometimes at dinner, when we sit side by side at the table, watching the news while shaking out the batik napkins and eating from the oiled wooden platters.

And then I put it out of mind while we clear away the rattan placemats and all the other tableware that we have brought back from our vacations in foreign sunny places where we stroll in the markets together, appearing in public at the same time and holding hands.

Of course I am aware that we differ. I know we are not actually the same person, though I have learned to compress that fact at work. We both diverge from the composite identity, and we each need to underplay a few aspects of our personality. It is not that difficult. The only challenge, for me, is that my spending patterns are distinctive. I don't just whistle in with a pack of gum and nothing else to show for my lunch hour in the streets of the shopping district surrounding the office. I don't and won't abstain.

I'll say it here, but no place else: I have decided that if I have to live like this, then I deserve to choose four pretty purchases each month as compensation. One of these, by my reckoning, must cost considerably more than fifty dollars, one must cost less than five, and the others cost whatever they cost.

When I first acted out this policy it must have seemed a sudden blossoming, and naturally my colleagues wondered what was in the shopping bag when I came in a few minutes late from lunch. My purchase must have been especially noticeable, since after all I wear one of the plain blue suits to work every day. What's in
the bag? they said. I tried to draw attention away from myself, tried to make a joke. The bag that day was from a boutique whose name was visible and sparkling on the bag, a boutique filled with antique mirrors reflecting glass beads, watered silk, and close-fitting caps tucked with small cruel feathers and artistic mish-mash.

I wasn't used to being looked at persistently, and they were looking. I hoped they would never comment on it again. Too quickly I said something like, These clothes are what I wear at night when I dress up like a slut and dance around alone at home.

Nobody at the five desks surrounding me understood that I was trying to make a joke, trying to be light, as well as firm and private. It was awkward. They felt sorry for me, but they didn’t know that I feel sorry for them, eking out their one or two vacation weeks allotted for the year, prizing them and planning in advance to make the most of the short time in which they make their own
decisions in expensive time-share apartments, almost easy walking-distance from crowded tacky beaches, while the minutes of their free time tick, tick, tick away. I pushed the bag that day down under the desk and sat for hours with the tips of my loafers touching the rattling paper, thinking of the next week, waiting for the next week, when I would wear what I wanted, go where I wanted, and sleep and speak and eat and dance around, behaving exactly as myself all day long.




the blue suits

maile chapman