AJ Strosahl


It is incontrovertible that spraying soapy water into one’s own eyes to fake an allergic reaction to a colleague’s pet is, at minimum, conduct unbecoming. This I cannot dispute. All I can offer to explain is the following: everyone has limits to what they can endure.

When Everly hired Helene Hachette, I knew there would be trouble. Andrew, Everly’s founder, was a man for whom middling success was a foregone conclusion. He was medium-smart, medium-handsome, and came from a medium-rich family. Risk-averse but reasonably charismatic, Andrew was thusly compelled to go into advertising. Everly, started up with parental capital, had shambled along amiably for its thirty-year lifespan, a purveyor of press releases that misused contemporary slang and local business ad placements in regional magazines and television. The work did not require anything of the authentic self and seemed in fact to actively reject all efforts of genuine innovation or feeling. I would know; by the time Helene arrived, I’d worked at Everly for nearly twelve years.

On Helene’s first day at the office, I did not initially recognize the gleaming reddish creature at her side as a dog. It was nothing like my Randy, who had been a trembling, rough-coated basketcase. Helene’s companion was medium-sized, with long, thin legs and a stubbed tail that stood at perfect attention. Its face was long and almost equine, though its muzzle seemed intricately mobile in a human sort of way as if it might break into a grimace or a wide smile at any moment. It had a barrel chest and athletic-looking haunches, and its air of placid alertness seemed to stir the entire office to action. Everyone stood up, rushed over. Helene and the animal received them with forbearance, like royalty greeting their adoring public, before stationing themselves in the empty cubicle across from mine.

I waited for Andrew to come out of his office (the only one exempt from the preposterous open floor plan, with an actual door) and send the dog home, or at least warn Helene off bringing her in again. By late afternoon, I realized that he had no plans to do so and that I would need to address the matter directly with Helene. I wasn’t surprised. It never comes as a shock when attractive people assume that exceptions will be made for them; nothing deforms moral character more quickly than conspicuous beauty.

“Excuse me, hi, I’m Frances,” I said, poking my head into her cubicle. Helene and the dog––who lay beside her office chair on a large sheepskin mat––turned to me in perfect, elegant unison. “She’s really adorable, but I don’t think we’re allowed to bring dogs into the office.”

“Oh, Frances, nice to meet you officially!” said Helene. “This is Dolly. Thanks so much, um, for the info, but I asked during the hiring process and they ended up saying it was fine to bring her in, as long as she stays quiet. Andrew said something happened years ago with a dog in the office, but––”

“I see.”

“–– they thought it was time to revisit the policy in any case.”

I nodded.

“She’s very well trained; she won’t bug you, I promise,” Helene said, touching my arm reassuringly. Dolly made a little hmph noise at our feet, and I knelt down to take a closer look at her.

“Oh no, not at all,” I said, stroking Dolly’s ears tentatively. “I love dogs. Mine recently passed on.”

“Oh, how horrible.” Helene was instantly consoling. “When?”

“About six years ago,” I told her. Her hair was almost the same length as mine, just touching the shoulders, but it was glossy and intentionally styled, almost severe.

She regarded me strangely then like she couldn’t make out what I was saying. After a moment, she told me that Dolly was nearly twelve years old, a Vizsla, and once a decorated champion in the ring.

“My old lady,” Helene said affectionately. “We call her Meemaw. My mother has her daughter and granddaughter, and my grandmother has her great-granddaughter, kind of a reverse-chronological thing, hah. Our family used to breed Vizslas, and I grew up with Dolly. I mean, I support rescues now, and wouldn’t buy a dog again, of course, but it’s lovely, living with so many generations of Dolly’s family. She’s quite suited to being a matriarch. Aging like a damn champ. Unlike her momma.”

Helene pulled a silly face, the commiserating expression that beautiful women employ when they know that complaining about their looks is in poor taste. She had a cultivated warmth that some people fail to recognize as strategic.

“Oh, no, you’re both gorgeous!” I laughed, then backed out of their cubicle with my hands in the air, hating them both.

Helene brought Dolly in every day, and the problem worsened when Andrew decided I’d be the right person to show her the ropes. Helene wanted to meet clients in person, so we took road trips together and presented to bemused owners of sporting goods shops, mattress emporiums, hardware stores, ailing restaurants. The purveyors sat at rapt attention in dingy conference rooms and at diner tables as Helene spoke about search engine optimization and geo-targeted campaigns and micro-influencers, sometimes touching her hair in a poor imitation of nervousness. It sickened me to see how accustomed she was to being absolutely cherished. After, I’d agree to scale back the client’s print and local TV buys to accommodate Helene’s new strategy.

Working with her was like dating someone who is vaguely humiliated by you. I felt her behind me, always; smiling encouragingly, giving our audience little winks and theatrical cringes.

“Obviously,” she’d say, with a generous, lopsided smile, “the most bang for your buck is in social, but one thing you get with Everly is a diverse approach that will let you connect with the stakeholders who are often overlooked. The elderly. People who still listen to the radio. No man left behind. Right, Fran?”

I’d laugh at her jokes too. I’d smile. I’d nod. I hated myself for moving aside so the spotlight could more easily find her.

At home, I’d pull up Helene’s Instagram feed and gorge myself, each post a fresh horror. Helene at a long pine table with hairpin legs, sipping “sacral balance” tea from a steaming mug. Helene in a tiny sports bra at the gym, flushed pink and grinning as she flexes her petite bicep. And the hashtags, dear god. #Riseandgrind, #nevermissamonday. Helene, her mother, and her grandmother embracing, blonde heads pressed together, on the tenth anniversary of Helene’s father’s death. The four dogs leaned against their legs, unconsciously mirroring, their canine faces solemn in communal grief.

The caption under the death anniversary post was 10 years––#missyou, #dad, #staystrong––and there was nothing ugly whatsoever about the way they missed him. The next was a close-up picture of a tiny white flower perched on Dolly’s upturned nose, followed by a video of Helene cooking a revolting mass of gangrenous “zoodles” over a Viking range, then feeding one to Dolly, who took it gently in her mouth, winced, and set it carefully on the floor, appalled; #baitandswitch, #healthyhabits, #ithinkshesmad, #lol, #meemaw.

Helene told me the dogs were named after leading ladies in musicals––Dolly, Maria, Effie, Roxie. Dolly, the dignified eldest, in her younger years open-faced and dumbly cheerful. Maria had been a tentative puppy whose confidence grew into outright sauciness, then mellowed into her wistful, supportive bearing. Roxie, true to her namesake, still at six years old an insouciant strutter. And poor Effie, the youngest, who escaped Helene’s grandmother’s home via an unsecured gate and raced into the adjacent highway, where she was promptly struck by a passing Buick. Effie had lost her back left leg as a result of the incident, and it had only enhanced her voraciousness for all life had to offer. When Helene’s grandmother readied the dogs for a walk, Effie would charge ahead, panting and straining at the lead.

The vacation pictures are what did me in. The dogs and the Hachette women walked the beach in Martha’s Vineyard like a tribe of Amazons. Helene, her mother, and her grandmother played Scrabble and did 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. They made blended margaritas and fed their charges grain-free kibble and homemade biscuits made of carrots, peanut butter, and wheat germ. The animals lay about in various loose configurations, lifting their heads for intermittent petting. Seven bitches, expensively maintained.

In the office, just hearing Dolly’s soft breaths left me incensed. It became difficult not to say things to Helene. Things about how some people still miss their fathers in an abject and uncontained way, still cry until their shoddily applied eyeliner is an even worse fiasco than usual and their lungs are fit to burst. Some people are swept away on this wretched tide of grief regularly, even though their fathers fucked off twenty-five years ago before they were eleven years old, and in any case, those fathers were brutes, idiots, or seducers. Or, according to my mother, all three.

Helene will never know what it’s like to just be Helen. She will never know about girls whose plainness has become the premise of their personhood, the wound. Girls who must wax their seven unfairly dark chin hairs biweekly. Girls who are certain that attractive dates they’ve pulled on rare occasion somehow had a sort of extrasensory understanding of the chin hair situation, and trusted their internal handsome-guy compass to unconsciously steer them away from any possible future that contained a bristly-chinned wife. At the very least, it steered them effectively away from a second date. Girls whose loneliness had calcified, become structural. Girls who took a boring job right out of grad school and then burrowed into it like a tick.

I want to tell her that the things she doesn’t know could fill a book, an Internet, an ocean. She has no idea how it feels, for instance, to have a beloved old dog that is unpalatably, shockingly mean. A dog who, in the months before he dies at the age of ten, was brought into the Everly office once and managed to bite a temp receptionist’s calf and leave a reeking trail of anxiety diarrhea around his humiliated owner’s workspace. Helene could never understand, not any of it; Dolly will never make a visit to the office so catastrophic that a drastic and restrictive policy is implemented to bar her from further interaction with the workforce.

I didn’t tell Helene any of this.

Instead, I emptied a bottle of Visine I kept in my purse, then refilled it with soapy water. I bought a dusty tin of Altoids. I hated the burning chemical taste of them, but for my entire life, they had induced me to bouts of uncontrollable sneezing. I felt I had come to a thorough understanding of the necessary course of action. That night, for the first time since Helene started at Everly, I slept well and woke invigorated by the task at hand.

Every morning as soon as Dolly and Helene came into the office, I discreetly, agonizingly, dripped the contents of the Visine bottle into both eyes, sometimes pulling the upper lids back to assure maximum irritation. I would pop an Altoid, breathe deeply through my nose, and let the sneezing begin. Rinse and repeat. I’m not proud of it, but it worked quickly. Even Dolly herself seemed to avoid me, sensing––as animals do––

“I don’t feel sick,” I’d say humbly to my worried coworkers, eyes streaming. “And I didn’t want to miss work. I’m not sure if I’m allergic to something in here, or what.”

Andrew himself stopped by my cubicle that first Friday.

“Frannie,” he said, staring gravely at me as I sneezed four times in quick succession, then looked up at him, dizzy. “Go home. Go to the damn doctor.”

In Helene’s cubicle, Dolly slept.

I read a story once and I don’t remember if it was true or not. It was about a girl, in a far-flung country whose language I didn’t speak. She was ill with something that stripped the color and texture from her world, rendering everything noiseless and monochromatic. It was difficult for her to get out of bed in the morning. One day, the girl met a man in a bookshop who frightened her; she sensed something monstrous in him, lurking below his equable surface.

As they chatted, the girl grew increasingly certain that if she went with him to a second location, she would come to a brutal death at his hand. She did not flee. Instead, it became clear that her suffocating ennui was powerful enough that she would endure her own murder to end it. When later that evening she was merely robbed by the man, she was colossally disappointed and felt unmoored from the fabric of the world. She’d been ready, she thought to herself. She’d been so ready.

This is all to say that I saw, in my mind’s eye, all the potential consequences of what I was doing, and I welcomed them: anything was preferable to the current reality. Helene took meetings alone now, converting accounts to social-only strategies, and coming back to the office sheepish but victorious, saying, “They want to try a fresh direction, at least for a while.”

After two weeks of my regimen, I asked Andrew for a meeting and said that my allergist thought my affliction might be a late-onset dog allergy. He looked at me with unvarnished skepticism, no doubt remembering Randy and his ill-fated office visit those many years ago. He’d known me since I was Helene’s age, before I’d grown so tired and let my figure run to ruin. I wondered if Andrew saw what I was compared to Helene: just a rotten berry, withering off the vine. I considered for a moment telling him that while I was not allergic to dogs in the physical sense, I had developed something of an existential allergy to the assumptions beautiful women held about what extraordinary courtesies they are owed by the world.

“I know the policy has been updated,” I said weakly. “But I’m not sure I can keep working in the office with Dolly here.”

He looked at me for a long moment, like he was trying to take my measure but found himself without the appropriate tool.

“Well,” Andrew said. “Helene’s given notice, and she’ll be moving on next week. Better offer from some start-up in the city, ready for something a bit more challenging, you know?”

I knew when I’d been beaten to the punch.

Before she left, Helene gave me a bottle of Prosecco and a fern in a little wooden planter. She thanked me for “mentoring” her. My vision was still a bit blurry from my latest allergy attack, and my throat was raw from all the sneezing. When I hugged Helene and petted Dolly’s long, soft ears for the last time, my chest tightened, and I was seized with some complicated emotion I could not name. As they walked out of Everly, Dolly paused for a moment and turned back to stare at me. Her face, as usual, was sphinxlike and impassive. It wasn’t until she’d turned away again that I thought I could, in her unfathomable dark eyes, make out something like reproach.