The first time I saw Sandra James wear the scarf was at the group interview. She wore it as a bright violet accent to a dark violet designer suit. Sandra looked to be the most sophisticated, professional woman there, and it worried me; I believed she would beat me out of the job. As it ended up, we were both hired in to the customer service department. I would see her wear the same scarf every day since then, and that pretentious purple thing got gaudier by the week.
Because we were hired at the same time, our cubicles were beside each other. Despite this, I spoke to her less often than many of my other coworkers. Most of us would gather around a table at 10 15 when we took our break, gossiping over coffee about the ridiculous demands customers would make and what we had to put up with. Debra would always lead our gossip circles, directing the conversation and making her opinions known most loudly. We discussed work, home life, love life. Sometimes a few others floated in to our circle for a day or two. We spoke with nearly everyone who worked there. But not Sandra. She always took her coffee from the break room back to her desk, and spent her fifteen minutes of freedom on the phone to call her lover—I could tell by the phrases I heard her speak, by the sparkle I saw in her eyes, and the smile she wore; this was when she really smiled a genuine smile, not just the type of upturned lips one normally keeps to appear pleasant. She did the same thing during lunch hour, when she would eat a paper bag lunch alone in the break room as quickly as possible before returning to her desk to place another call.
After a few months, some of the other customer service girls began to wonder about her. At one point or another we had each tried sparking conversation with her. We had invited her to join us but she always declined without giving a reason. I tried nearly every day for the first month until it became clear that she didn't care to discuss much about work or home, answering questions with quick, vague, normative phrases: Yes. No. Good. Fine. That's funny. Oh. OK. How nice. That's upsetting. How unfortunate. And then she would turn her head back towards the faint light of the screen, and the corners of her mouth would fall in to a frown and she would go back to work.
Eventually, she became a subject of gossip herself. Our table would hush and we would lock our eyes on to her as she entered the break room, filled her cup, and left, and then we would say things we hoped our boss wouldn't overhear. Why doesn't she talk to anyone? How can she afford those brands on this salary? Who does she think she is? Does she think she's better than us? Aren't we good enough for her?
Of all of us, Debra was the most bothered by her. Debra was an ambitious woman who grew up poor and had an eye for anything expensive, but couldn't afford the things she believed would make her happy. Unlike Sandra, who apparently could. It was Debra who suggested it, and everyone else who voted that I should be the one to ask her about it. Out of everyone, I had spoken to her most often, and because my cubicle was beside hers, it would be more natural for me to have noticed than anyone else. We wanted to satisfy our curiosity without offending her too deeply; it was a delicate operation. I decided to approach her in the break room while she prepared her coffee, so the group could overhear our conversation.
"Hey Sandra," I said. I took my empty coffee mug with me, and for an awkward moment we both stood there, listening to the gurgling of the coffee machine.
"Hey," she said, glancing my way. Maybe it took her a moment to figure out I was talking to her.
"I like your scarf," I said, and smiled.
"I noticed that you wear it a lot, pretty much every day."
I glanced over at the girls, they were watching with thirsty ears. I felt I was failing them. The coffee machine slowed to a drip. "Sorry for asking, but I was wondering, why do you wear the same scarf every day?"
Sandra rolled her lips in to her mouth and pressed her penciled eyebrows together. She turned to face me and said, "It was a gift." Her voice had all the implications of it being the most obvious thing, and she was clearly at least mildly offended by the question.
"Oh," was all I managed to say.
Sandra filled her cup and left the break room. After I watched her go, I filled my own cup and sat down next to the girls. Her response had raised more questions than it answered. We spent the remaining break period and the following lunch hour discussing how touchy she'd been about the subject. There must be a reason for it, we decided. A juicy reason.
Over the next few weeks, we passed our time pondering over who could have given it to her. My theory was that it was given to her by a lost loved one, which is why she wore it every day; she didn't speak much because she was grieving. It wasn't a very popular theory. Lindsay believed that Sandra was secretly a lesbian, and the scarf was given to her by her lover. The other half to that rumor was that her girlfriend was the jealous type, so Sandra couldn't speak much to other women. Debra believed Sandra was really a very poor girl, and that her expensive clothes, shoes, and handbags were bought by a sugar-daddy, and that she didn't say much because she couldn't expose her secret. She even went as far as to suggest it was probably why she took the job here, and that her secret had been exposed at her previous place of employment so she quit to avoid embarrassment. Tina believed she was a hooker, and only took this job as a cover for her taxes. I didn't believe that one. Somehow, I expected hookers to have much more to say. Another rumor floated around the office that she was having an affair with a wealthy foreigner.
Eventually, we exhausted that discussion and returned to looking down on the customers we aided earlier in the day. It wasn't until the company Christmas party a few months later that the topic arose again.
It was an hour in to the party when Sandra arrived. It was a typical sort of affair; the boss rented out a small hall in a mediocre hotel, and it was decorated with the gaudy bright green and red garland one would expect. He'd also chosen Christmas music sung by modern rock and R&B singers to hang too loudly in the background. Almost the whole company was there, amounting to around one hundred people. No one was dancing. The other customer service girls and I met up at Debra's to drink a little before the party began, and we were all tipsy by then, aside from Debra, who was very drunk, and Tina, our designated driver, who was completely sober. When Sandra walked in on the arm of her husband, we all looked over and Debra laughed.
"I told you," Debra said to Lindsay, "I told you she wasn't a lesbo. I bet that's her sugar-daddy."
We all sized him up. Tall, strong arms, beer belly. His jeans and a T-shirt ensemble looked lazy compared to Sandra's four hundred dollar dress. I knew how much it cost because Debra had been on about buying it for the past week, intending to wear it to the Christmas party, but had ended up buying the knock-off from a discount store.
"I bet you he played football in high school," I said. "I bet you 20 bucks." I pointed to my purse, trying to show them all I meant business.
"Can you believe that?" Debra said, looking at me. "That's my fuckin' dress."
"It's not that sexy, anyways," I said. "You can pull off a style that shows more skin." Sandra's dress was old fashioned, skin tight and sparkling black, with long arms and a full skirt, cut on the sides to reveal her slender legs coated in black tights as she walked. As always, she wore the violet scarf around her neck.
"Fuck her," Debra said. "I'm gonna get another drink." She wandered off, and Tina followed her to the punch bowl.
"This could get ugly," I said to Lindsay.
"Yeah. Let's watch." Her eyes widened with excitement. She grabbed my arm, and we walked towards them as nonchalantly as we could manage.
"Hey Sandra," we both said, as we drew nearer.
"Oh, hi." She clung to her man's arm.
"Aren't you going to introduce us?" Lindsay said, and smiled. "Who's this big hunk of man you got here?"
"You didn't tell me you had friends here," he said to Sandra, looking down at her.
"They're just co-workers. We don't talk. Just like I told you."
"Hey now," Lindsay said. "We can be friends. Let's all be friends!"
"Yes," I said. "Why don't you introduce us, Sandra?"
Sandra hesitated. "Patrick, these are my co-workers, Lindsay and Janet. Janet sits next to me. Janet, Lindsay, this is my husband, Patrick."
"Pleasure to meet you," Patrick said, and he shook hands with Lindsay and then with me. "So, what has Sandra told you about me?"
"Practically nothing," Lindsay blurted. "We wouldn't've known she was married if it weren't for that ring on her finger."
"Oh, really?" Patrick said. I couldn't tell who he was talking to because he was looking at Sandra, and Sandra was looking up at him.
"Yeah, really," Lindsay said, and giggled. "Why don't you just fill in the gaps and tell us about yourself." She sipped her drink, then smiled at him, batting her lashes.
"Oh, I'd like to," he said, now looking at Lindsay. "I'm surprised she hasn't said anything. This girl's got quite a mouth on her."
"Could've fooled me," I said.
Just then, Debra appeared between Lindsay and I, her arms swinging behind our heads. "Hey girls." She smiled at me, then at Lindsay. Then, she glared at Sandra. "Hello, whore." Debra stepped forward, drawing her arms down from behind our necks, and splashed her drink on Sandra's dress and on to her scarf. Lindsay and I stood still in shock, our mouths wide open.
"Excuse me," Sandra said, and headed for one of the bathrooms.
"She got what was comin' to her," Debra said. She looked down at her empty glass. "I need another drink." She left us for the punchbowl.
"What was that all about?" Patrick asked.
"Oh, uhm," Lindsay was able to pull herself together faster than I was. "Deb's just pissed because Sandra's wearing the same dress. Actually not the same dress. Deb's is a knock-off."
"Heh, I always told Sandy that she shouldn't spend so much on clothes. Now look where it got her. Guess now she'll see I was right all along."
"I'm going to go help her clean up," I said.
"What do you think of my dress?" I heard Lindsay say as I began to make my way across the party.
Sandra wasn't in the first bathroom I checked, she was in the second. "Hey," I said, opening the door. "Sorry about my friend. I'm here to help." We were alone in the bathroom, her scarf was on the counter, and Sandra was dabbing a paper towel on her dress. When she saw me, her eyes shouted at me in shock, she grabbed the scarf and held it up to her neck. But it was too late. I had seen the dull purple streaks burned in to her throat. The door slammed shut behind me. "Oh my God." I walked over to her. "What happened? Are you OK?"
"I fell down some stairs." Sandra said. "I just fell down some stairs. I'm fine." Hot mascara ran down her cheeks, melting her foundation. "I'm a very clumsy person."
As soon as we finished cleaning her up, Sandra and her husband left the party. I couldn't enjoy the rest of the night, no matter how much I drank.