When she woke up the next morning her entire body was screaming from the workout, and a day spent chained to her desk did nothing to improve matters. Bizarrely, she found herself flicking through old photos of Kathy’s original cat whenever she had a spare moment, allowing a mesophilic sentimentality to gather in the singular fine line between her brows. It wasn’t that she was fond of the hairless creature that watched them with such intent she felt like it was hiding their secrets in the folds of its skin. No, she wouldn’t miss it, but she truly thought Kathy would have - Kathy who had adored its leathery face and unblinking eyes as fervently as a first-time mother.
The mood in the Arena was hyped. Wednesdays signalled the start of the weekend for most, finding synthetic strength to push through Thursdays and Fridays on two or three hours’ sleep. By 3pm her colleagues were hungry and impatient for the day to close and milled around each other’s desks making plans for the coming evening that involved throwing money down their throats in liquid form.
An email popped up on her right hand screen when she was on a phone call. The moment she hung up the computer began dictating it in her ear, making her tongue flick fast against the back of her teeth as her jaw clamped down like a bear trap. The pain in her thighs was forgotten when she slowly raised herself from her desk, locking the screens as she straightened her hips and heeded the summons to Bateman’s office.
He was poised one floor above the arena and made no attempt to hide his enjoyment when surveying the workers scuttling beneath his feet through the glass floor. Although not quite the ‘big boss’ of SM, his bullshit bureaucratic acronym was enough to galvanise the brokers into a panting workforce in his presence. Standing at six foot two with an incredible, broad physique for a man in his forties, Bateman reeked of masculinity, alpha sweating out of his pores and glaring in his unwavering, male gaze; it growled in his bass line and hunted from the hollow of his cheek. His ravenous sexuality throbbed voraciously at each of the pulse points on his body, ebbing out with each beat to devour his prey and oppressively arrest the victim betrayed by the goose-bumps on their flesh. His mastery of this particular tool of intimidation used on both sexes was impressive and resulted in almost everyone feeling a disquiet - even fear - in the face of such a wild animal.
Approaching his office door she could hear him bitching at an assistant in his unusual lexicon; despite the aggressive masculinity his language was laughably camp, another weapon in his arsenal deployed to confuse and disarm his opponents. As his open door grew larger in her field of vision she saw him standing over a seated young man, their knees only inches apart. Bateman was holding a sushi box over his crotch in one hand and smoothing the knuckles of his other over his clean-shaven jawbone.
‘Young man, did I ask for a tacky box of sushi or for something delicious and sweet?’ The assistant had his eyes pinned to the balls of his fists resting on his knees, his obvious discomfort pushing through the back of the chair as he tried to create more space between himself and Bateman’s belt buckle.
’Delicious and sweet, that’s what I was just craving today. Something for my lips.’ He put one hand in the pocket of his suit trousers, faintly smiling. ‘Now, does this look sweet to you?’ he asked, knocking the box against his belt.
‘Look, I said - look at it.’ The boy dutifully raised his eyes to look at the near-empty clear plastic box. ‘Does this look delicious to you?’
The assistant’s knuckles whitened and he looked pleadingly at Bateman, the tendons in his neck visibly strained in trying to stop his head from bowing down in fear. From that angle Bateman’s dyed blonde hair must look like a fucking halo, she thought to herself as she knocked loudly on the open door to deliver the poor pubescent.
‘Hope I’m not early.’ Bateman snapped his eyes up to hers as the assistant quivered by his knees. The sushi box was thrust at him as his cue to leave, which he gratefully snatched with both hands before fleeing the hot seat. The energy in the room transformed almost instantly when she entered and Bateman stalked back around his desk, his movements a little less fluid than normal. She slowly lowered herself into the assistant’s chair, enjoying the rasp of her nylon tights when she crossed her thighs, tilting her head slightly to observe her boss. They looked at each other for an unusually long period as the digital clock on the wall faked a tick-tock around its face. Even though she despised Bateman she found his presence thrilling. She challenged his belief that women were a transient sex unable to harness - or even feel - lust due to their wanton energies being spent on maternal desires. Because of this the dislike between them was mutual and, unable to accept being matched, he tried to disable her by throwing ice at her own heat from the grave he retreated into when around her. This cold attitude did, indeed, wear down the points of her canines. But while she inwardly mourned the loss of what could have been a clash of titans she continued to project her fierce, purring womanhood - just to piss him off. She missed the early days of his constant shifting trying to figure out how to play her. It had been like watching a chameleon drowning in a bouquet of flowers.
He stretched out and rested a forearm on the edge of his desk and gently stroked a video frame that sheltered a film of his husband and two young boys with his thumb.
‘Do you like my suit?’ he asked her eventually. She counted slowly to five, holding his gaze and formulating a response. She didn’t have a clue as to what the suit looked like, barring the fact it was dark.
‘It really brings out your eyes,’ she said flatly, after pointedly roving her own down his arms. Silence whipped the air that sat over the desk between them like a rain cloud. He stared at a point between her eyebrows. She tilted her head to the opposite side. While she might appear to be a languorous feline, in reality her heart stuttered under her ribs as she inhaled his icy demeanour into her desperate lungs. She felt like a naked hunter, prostrating herself to unnerve him, but nevertheless stuck in a pose that displayed her claws as both defence and weakness. She feared her heart would be destined to strike like a metronome echoing through an empty cavern as she petrified in this posture.
He moved forward over the desk to rest both arms on the chrome top, interlacing his fingers so gently she almost forgot he had the power - and desire - to squeeze her value from her. His skull held a brain bunched with the energy of a boxer’s fist, desperate to explode. But she perpetually held him in the stalemate just outside the ring, and, like a winner, he kept his face impassive.
On the wall behind her stretched an enormous screen connected to the computer on his desk that cast a faint sheen across his face. He turned to it now, tapping the screen to life and making a sweeping motion across it with all five fingers that brought the display up on the big brother model straight ahead of him. Her cheeks reddened following the screen on his desk as he ignored her, instead looking through her to write emails, schedule an appointment, check the market trends, scan Twitter, book a taxi for Saturday and find his ‘something sweet’ from a delicatessen nearby.
’Try ‘Joe’s Kid’,’ she interrupted, trembling with anger and panic as Monday’s email incessantly bleated ‘time is money’ in her head, thinking of the clients waiting on her call.
Without looking at her or acknowledging her suggestion Bateman spoke. ’I’m actually rather busy right now. Let’s reschedule, shall we?’
Teeth gritted and tongue flaying her bottom teeth she slammed her hands down onto the arms of the chair, snapped to her feet and marched out, smoothing a palm over the top of her hair exposed by the encircled headset. She strode through the corridor, taking the fire exit instead of the lift, and before she even reached her desk the headset was dictating the exact same email of Bateman’s as before, except this time scheduling a meeting in just twenty minutes. She halted as if having slammed into an invisible wall, seized by the worry this ‘meeting’ was going to cost her over an hour of her day in total. Minutes, let alone hours, were precious in the Arena. She stood ten feet from her desk as rigid as the steel cage surrounding the room, racing through her options to try and salvage the remaining time.
The large screen of the arena glared viciously at her and the numbers appeared to curl themselves up into pellets and spit themselves into her vision causing her to sway slightly and rush both hands to her temple, fingers groping at the tightly clamped headset. She remembered the disconnect button at the back and lurched towards her desk, throwing it down as she huddled her small body into the chair that now seemed to swallow her frame. Struggling to pull oxygen into her chest she scanned the room for Kathy who was all too familiar with her own panic attacks. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw Kathy crouched by Milo’s desk smiling widely at whatever homogenous joke he had cracked and allowing him to leer at her sheer camisole. She wanted to wail at the clouds and the powerless Mary above, imprisoned and displayed just as she was. The only way to know someone was to know their DV - everything else, from their laugh to their opinions to how loudly they orgasmed was staged for the bright lights of this altruistic system. Somehow, a person’s DV had become more of a genuine identifier than their chromosomes, and any marks of character became forgotten. What was not forgotten was simply no longer seen, like the burning orange of a sunset, or the red nose of a child in winter, or the blue silk of a butterfly ambling through green and gold seas. Her heart spasmed with grief, but she remembered to breathe, finding strength in the fantasy of throwing Bateman head first into his wall-screen.
She clumsily snatched her phone from her desk and text Kathy:
I can’t take Bateman. I’m going to quit.
She could see her friend holding her iPhone in the left hand that rested on Milo’s desk. Laughing as it buzzed, Kathy unlocked it quickly, frowning as she typed out a hurried response before turning back to the despicable man:
You need to learn to put up with him. You can’t quit.
Why not? Her thumbs replied immediately, looking at Kathy not looking at her.
Stop it. You know why.
She stared at the black and white screen before her wishing for the first time she could see what they all saw and thus enjoy the life it was demanded she live; so she could see the heart-stopping lights that painted the city and fall in love with her home, so she could unsee the sights that cast shadows over this reality, like the happy memory of an ex-lover. Caught in a one-way mirror looking out onto their black and white world with naked, unlying eyes, she again felt the isolating membrane of her secret bubble between her and the others as she watched Kathy strut back to her desk. Her head filled with the guttural cries she had forced inward since she first understood the concept of difference. But this time she heard a smaller, more fragile weeping among them as her self tried to hide from the frustrated and lonely howls.
Her jaw hung open, unnoticed, until it was time to pick herself up once more and ascend to Bateman’s office.
The expansive protraction of his speech littered with lexical landmines forced her to snap into the present and stay still, fearing an unpredictable discharge. The words ‘separated’ and ‘isolated’ became ‘rogue’ and ‘Machiavellian’ during his ponderous monologue about her tactics. While her face struggled to remain unflinching his threats wiggled into her ears and nostrils. She wondered if he even knew who Machiavelli, and his definition of Bateman’s kind of ‘gentleman’, was.
‘A non-conformist can break the backs of an entire team,’ Bateman concluded having thoroughly explicated his personal feeling towards her in his deliberate, obtuse manner.
‘I’m not a part of a team, Mr Bateman.’
‘Not officially, but I want you to see all of us as an extended team with no star player.’ He paused. ‘Your stunt on Monday undermined a lot of your colleagues’ confidence.’
‘So shouldn’t they be working harder rather than me being punished?’
‘I am not punishing you - believe me,’ he warned.
‘Are you asking me to sacrifice my profit margins for morale?’
‘I don’t want to have to sacrifice anything,’ he rumbled. ‘But I’d rather kill a lone wolf than sacrifice an entire flock, wouldn’t you?’
There it was - that old chestnut. That illicit doctrine, the loudest of the unspoken commandments, normally dressed in far warmer tones whenever it was rarely acknowledged. By foregoing the sweet coating that made the truth more easily slither into the body, Bateman had laid it clearer than any of her teachers, doctors and friends before him - to stand apart was to designate yourself as a target at a shooting range. But she saw through the bullet with eyes that stretched past herself into a history long since deleted from their vision. She could not live to match their bleating tones or curly coats. Trudging out of his office, she felt like a sober clubber desperate to go home in the midst of an ecstasy-fuelled crowd transfixed by the flashing kaleidoscope of coloured lights.