With a fresh haircut and crisp suit, Austin was polished for the interview. He stepped into the conference room. From behind the desk, all three people stood. The first to speak was the woman. She said she was from Human Resources. She gave her name and title: Susan Hartley, Human Resources Staff Coordinator.
Susan asked if something was wrong. She asked Austin if he was alright.
Austin said he’d known a Susan once before. He said he’d rather not go into the details but their acquaintance hadn’t gone well. He said he was afraid having another Susan present might have an adverse affect on his performance in the interview.
The room apologized to Austin for his discomfort. They asked if there was anything to be done.
“May I call you Vicky?” Austin asked. “I’ve had mostly good experiences with Vicky’s.”
Susan said it would be fine to call her Vicky.
Austin said, “Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be considered for the position.”
Vicky said it was a pleasure to meet Austin. She held out her hand. Austin said he couldn’t shake.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I hope you’re not disabled. I apologize if I’ve offended you.”
“I’m not disabled,” Austin said. “Why would you think that?”
“Well, it’s a little curious why you can’t shake hands. Disability is the first thing that came to mind. I’m sorry if I’ve presumed wrongly.”
“Handshakes are archaic and patriarchal,” Austin said. “My father shook hands. I hated my father.”
“I see,” Vicky said.
Austin tugged at his earlobes, both at the same time. Then he nodded.
Vicky understood and followed, tugging at her ears to.
“Pleasure to meet you too,” Austin said.
The introductions commenced, with the other two interviewers giving their names and titles and cordially tugging at their earlobes.
The man who introduced himself as Austin’s potential manager asked, “I have a question. This greeting. How does it work for people with no ears. Isn’t this greeting rather insensitive to those with no ears.”
“You’re judging me as insensitive?” Austin asked.
“Surely not,” the manager said. “Obviously you’re an extremely sensitive person. I’m just curious.”
With his middle finger, Austin flicked the end of his nose, as if flicking a crumb off the table.
“Ingenious,” the manager said. “Thank you. Thank you for enlightening us all. I think we’ve already learned some quite valuable lessons here today.”
Having phoned in their smiles and the rest of the cordialities, they seated. The HR woman took a hurried noted about the ear tugging which she intended to Google shortly after the interview.
To Austin’s far right sat the Human Resources Staff Coordinator, now Vicky. She was young and thin. Her fair, creamy skin and the shape of her eyes and the color and style of her hair made Austin assume she was Asian. But he couldn’t be sure. So he didn’t allow himself to judge. He didn’t allow himself to make the decision if she was probably Asian or not. He convinced himself it didn’t matter anyway. It didn’t matter her gender or ethnicity. It probably didn’t even matter her title or role in the organization.
Beside her, sitting in the middle, was Austin’s potential manager. Combined with some common sense, the clues pointed to this being a man in his fifties. Based on the suit and the wrinkles and the voice and the greying, thinning hair and the stubble on his neck, Austin would have guessed it was a man. A middle-aged, white man. But he couldn’t be sure. So he didn’t allow himself to judge. He didn’t allow himself to make the decision if it was a man or not. He convinced himself it didn’t matter anyway.
Beside the manager was another possible man, younger than the manager, it appeared to Austin. Younger than the manager and black, he wanted to guess, due to the darkness of his skin and the color and texture of his hair. And younger from the presence of a full head of heard and wrinkleless skin. And this one was more slender than the manager, Austin thought. Then he considered, momentarily, What is slender? He realized he couldn’t be entirely sure what slender even was or what it even meant. So he immediately gave up on trying to determine what his potential supervisor might be. All Austin knew was this person was to be his supervisor, should he pass the interview. Austin battled against the assumption that this was a young, professional, black man. Austin wouldn’t allow himself to judge. He didn’t allow himself to make the decision if it was a he or she or whatever the person or thing was or might be. He convinced himself none of that mattered anyway. He convinced himself all that mattered was the interview.
The HR lady began, “Why don’t we get started. Chuck, do you have a question?”
With a name like Chuck, along with the suit and the masculine hairstyle and the voice, Austin thought, Maybe this is a man. Maybe I should address him as ‘sir‘.
The manager, Chuck, asked the interviewee, “So why’d you leave your last job? We contacted them but you know how it is nowadays. With all the legalities, everybody remains as vague as possible. Everybody’s afraid to say anything that might jeopardize a disgruntled employee’s future employment.”
Austin took a deep breath, but he wasn’t nervous.
“The cameras caught me masturbating in my supervisor’s office,” he confessed.
“Just once?” Vicky asked.
“Well, I did it a lot,” Austin admitted. “But I only got caught twice.”
Vicky scribbled on the notepad, beneath the notes about the ear tugging.
She looked up from the pad to ask, “Why twice?”
“I guess they wanted to make sure the first time wasn’t a fluke.”
“So you were fired?” Chuck asked.
“No. I quit. And successfully sued.”
“Why’d you quit?” the manager asked.
“So I could sue. It made for a better case.”
“Why’d you sue?”
“Distress. Trauma. From everybody making fun of me for masturbating in the supervisor’s office. The thought of their taunting still distresses me today.”
“Sorry to have brought it up,” the supervisor said. “Are you okay now? Do you need a moment? Can I get you some water?”
“I’m okay,” Austin said. “For now.”
“That’s horrific,” Chuck said.
“Which part is horrific?” the supervisor asked. “The part about masturbating in the boss’ office or the part about his trauma?”
“Of course, Austin’s trauma,” the manager said.
“Thank you for clarifying,” the supervisor said. “I couldn’t be sure.”
“So HR or somebody from security leaked your indiscretion to the rest of your workplace?” the manger asked.
“No,” Austin said. “I sort of hinted to a few people why I was sent home for a couple of weeks. I mean, it wasn’t a huge secret what I did in there after hours. It wasn’t like they didn’t already have some evidence.”
“What sort of evidence?” the supervisor asked.
“Let’s just say I left a trail,” Austin said.
“Semen?” the superivor asked.
“Tissues,” Austin said.
“I like this guy,” the supervisor said. “He seems very conscientious. Very honest and forthcoming.”
Chuck, the manager, reddened to ask, “Was your supervisor….?”
“What?” Austin asked.
“Was she hot? Did your behavior have something to do with a carnal attraction? A lust you couldn’t tame? Or did it have nothing to do with the supervisor? Maybe the office was just a matter of convenience to relieve your impulse from an altogether different sort of trigger?”
“She?” Austin asked. “Why she? Why not he? Why are you presuming my supervisor was female and it would have to be a female for me to be aroused?”
The HR rep interjected.
“People. I think we’re getting off track. How about we stop and reset.”
They all looked around the table and seemed to agree.
“Did you learn a lesson from this experience?” Chuck asked.
“Sort of,” Austin said.
“What was it?”
“Any tragedy can be spun into a triumph.”
“The power of positive thinking,” the manager said. “I like it. We’re all about positivity and teamwork here.”
“But weren’t you humiliated?” the supervisor asked. “For being exposed as a pervert?”
“I had a great lawyer and we negotiated a very nice settlement,” Austin said. “So, no. Not much. But I suppose I could still be triggered.”
“I think we’ve heard enough,” Vicky said.
“Do I have the job?” Austin asked.
“We’ll keep in touch.”
Austin pulled out his phone.
“I’ve got this whole interview recorded.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Well, if I don’t get this job, maybe you’ve got something against people who masturbate in private. People who’ve been traumatized by having their privacy invaded.”
“A supervisor’s office isn’t exactly private,” Vicky said.
“The door was closed,” Austin said. “The lights were off.”
“If the lights were off, how did they know?” Chuck asked.
“Day/night cameras,” Austin said. “Of course, the images are kind of eerie and ghostly in the dark. That’s why they waited to catch me twice.”
“But the cameras were on,” Vicky stated. “And you did it anyway.”
“There weren’t any signs alerting me to the cameras,” Austin said. “That’s what my lawyer so brilliantly argued.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Vickie repeated.
“It would be a shame to think I might have to sue you for discrimination.”
“Discriminating against who? Or what?” she asked.
“C’mon now,” Austin whispered. “Let’s be real. We’ve all masturbated.”
“Yes. But never at work,” the manager said.
“But some of you have. Either at work or somewhere else where you shouldn’t have.”
The team didn’t now how to reply.
Austin asked, “Is there anything in the employee handbook explicitly prohibiting masturbation in private in the workplace?”
“It’s vague, but it’s there,” Vicky insisted. “It could be read into any number of our statements and policies about professional conduct.”
“Vague isn’t legal,” Austin said. “And if it isn’t explicit, then maybe you’re dismissing me based on a rule that doesn’t really exist.”
They looked around the table. The supervisor sighed. The manager’s face turned grim.
Vicky stood and declared, “Mr. Walters, you’re a very clever individual. I think we can all agree it would be a pleasure to have you as an associate.”
The rest stood, followed by Austin. They held out their hands. Austin tugged at his earlobes. Embarrassed, they all withdrew than handshakes to tug on their ears.
“We’ll be calling you about the paperwork,” Vicky said.
“Thank you,” Austin said.
He left. The supervisor got up and closed the door. He looked at his colleagues.
“Shit,” he said. “Now we’re stuck with another one.”
“Does this mean I have to go by Vicky from now on?” the newly named Vicky asked.
Each felt disoriented and dismayed, failing to understand that each of them was just the same as Austin. Failing to understand they’d gotten so used to being him, they tended to forget what it was until it was sitting across the table, in plain view. Sitting right there in front of them and staring them back in the face.