by Patricia Anne Smith

Carmen slowly pulled her wet underpants down to the floor, stepped over them, wrapped them in a wad of toilet paper, and straightened her long denim skirt. Relieved that no one else had entered the restroom, she emerged from the stall, quickly discarded the toilet paper, rinsed her underpants, and folded several thick paper towels around them.
If only she could move the coat tree from near the office door to a space in front of the large plate glass window and hang her undies in the sun. Or, maybe she could move the tree into Marcy’s temporarily vacant cube, or drape her undies over the back of Marcy’s chair. Carmen even imagined telling Marcy and Nora that her period came unexpectedly, instead of admitting she was a victim of what she assumed was a just another sudden, urgent post-menopausal pee urge. Carmen smiled to herself, wondering what her much younger colleagues might say.

Not that they knew they were much younger. When Carmen first started working, she decreased her age by six years. Now people thought she was anywhere between twelve and sixteen years younger than what was on her birth certificate, a fiction aided by her trim physique and an abundant amount of light brown, wavy hair, marred only by one or two hard-to-see gray strands.

Carmen suspected that her husband and sister-in-law, John and Julianne, were secretly planning a surprise sixty-fifth birthday party, even though she had repeatedly told them she didn’t want any kind of celebration. Nor did she want to tell John and Julianne that when the birthday list circulated at work, she had indicated her birthday was in May, not November, because she always liked spring better than fall.

Carmen emerged from the restroom, carrying her small lumpy package. She opened the door from the hall to the cubicle-filled office as quietly as possible, passing Brad, a junior programmer, who looked at her quizzically. “Just a little left over lunch,” she felt compelled to say.

“You know,” Brad said, “there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”


“My wisdom teeth. I’m having them extracted next week and I need to tell the dentist if I want general anesthesia. Did you have yours removed?”

“Wisdom teeth?” Carmen asked.

“I just wondered if they were pulled out. And if you had anesthesia. What you would recommend?” Brad asked, as Carmen clutched her package tighter, wondering if any drops of water were oozing out onto the coffee-brown carpet below. Carmen only remembered that a handsome young dentist had once removed her wisdom teeth and she drank liquids for a day or two afterwards. Unless she was confusing that with the time her first crown was inserted on one of her upper teeth.

“I never had them removed,” Carmen said.

Once Carmen reached her semi-private cubicle, enclosed on three sides, she quickly placed the package in a back corner under her desk. She noted that Greg, who sat in the opposite cubicle, was not in. He rarely was, since his marketing job required him to travel. But because Carmen never could predict when he might show up, she didn’t want to take any chances that he might wonder about the soggy bundle.

Occasionally, Carmen thought about the future. She still felt young, wanted to work, and needed the money. But, she had long ago stopped learning new skills, volunteering for extra work assignments, updating her resume, and caring whether anyone thought she was working hard enough. Since she was four years older than John, and he didn’t plan to retire until he reached sixty-six, she figured she’d work until she was seventy.

Only Erwin Dixon, the manager, knew her age. Since he never attended staff birthday lunches and was generally pretty closemouthed, Carmen figured no one else would ever know her age or that her birthday was really in November.

Carmen remembered her fiftieth birthday, and the party she had then, a lavish, catered extravaganza. She didn’t mind turning fifty with other people who were near her own age. Carmen felt like she’d be fifty forever, much like she felt when she turned twenty, and thought she’d be twenty forever.

Carmen didn’t really remember when she started feeling that she ought to be younger than her real age. Sometimes she even forgot her real age and was surprised to learn that one of her friends had retired.

Every other week at lunch with Janet, she heard about Janet’s retirement activities—volunteering at the Sierra Club, yoga and exercise classes, bridge, afternoon matinees, and a lot of time for gardening. “I’ve never felt better,” Janet said. “I can’t believe I spent thirty years at that company, years spent going from one useless meeting to another, years caught up in one dog-eat-dog intrigue after another, years that have gone by like a whiz, yet years amounting to nothing.”

In fact, it was thanks to Janet that Carmen now worked at HLDRS. When Carmen’s previous job collapsed along with the company, Janet suggested she contact her old friend, Erwin Dixon, who affirmed he would hire anyone Janet recommended.

At the end of the day, Carmen wavered between taking her still-damp package home or just dropping it in the garbage canister outside. Finally, she decided to lock it in her bottom metal file drawer for the weekend.

The next Monday, Carmen brought a thick plastic bag into the office, figuring that at some point during the week she’d move her undies into the bag and either take them home or throw them out.

In the middle of the afternoon, she suddenly heard Jim, the lead software engineer, attempting to speak softly to Marcy in the adjacent cubicle. Carmen jolted up, stunned, as she thought she heard Jim say “A surprise party. At O’Connor’s Bar and Grill. Her big birthday. ‘A really big one in the life of a working girl,’ he said.”

Carmen shrunk back into her olive-green mesh ergonomic chair, while straining to hear Marcy’s reply.

“Shh. She’s here,” Marcy seemed to say.

“I’ll show you how the user is supposed to navigate to make different kinds of queries,” Jim said a little too loudly.

I’m listening. I can hear every fucking word of what you’re saying
, Carmen wanted to shout. Instead she sat silently, staring at a Word document, until she heard Jim bump against one of the gray cubicle dividers as he walked off, and until she heard the sounds of Marcy steadily tapping her keyboard.

Then, as silently as possible, she slipped on her jacket, grabbed her purse, and walked out of the office, down Main Street for blocks and blocks, stopping at a small park where she was sure none of her colleagues would venture. “No party. I don’t want a fucking party,” she kept saying over and over again. And, just to make sure, she decided to inform John she absolutely wanted a private, family-only celebration, perhaps near a beach, and she’d make the reservations.

“Your birthday is May 11, right,” Jim asked after Carmen’s return from a long weekend in Santa Barbara.

Carmen nodded.

“The oddest thing happened a few weeks ago. Your husband called and said he was planning a surprise birthday party for you. Then he left a message saying it was off.”

“He was planning something for his sister and thought he should include me and people I would invite to a party. I don’t know why. Sometimes he has odd ideas,” Carmen ad-libbed rapidly, wondering if her excuse was plausible.

“Darn. I’m always ready for a party.”

“When I’m 50, I’ll have a big bash—drinks and pizza at Gillespies for everyone in the office.”

“I think he said he was planning your big retirement-age party.”

“You’ll know when I’m ready to retire, and it’s not any time soon. You wouldn’t retire at 50 would you?” Carmen asked.

“No way. Not with zero savings. My Dad’s still working and he’s seventy-three,” Jim replied. “By the way, I was looking in a locked cabinet and found something else our old friend Sorin forgot to take when he quit--
women’s undies! Do you think he might have snuck someone in here one night before he quit?”