dress code

"How was work?" Felicity's roommates asked, as they did occasionally. Not every day, and not every other day; just once in a while, tossed over a shoulder while someone made stir-fry or watched TV.

It wasn't an interesting question, and the answer was always, "the same." It was a greeting, not a question. She stood behind a counter for about six hours, smiling, and rang up people's overpriced business-casual slacks and blouses. She wore the same outfit every single day. A white button-down shirt, ablack skirt, pantyhose. The pantyhose were as mandatory as the rest of it; she didn't realize anybody still wore them, and was pretty sure it had to be illegal to require them of all female employees, but it was what it was. There was plenty to complain about (No sitting! No leaning! No frowning at the people who yell at you!) but little to discuss. Even complaining about it had gotten boring after a few months.

When she arrived home, she made a beeline for the bathroom to peel off her work clothes and shower. The cloying smell of department store perfume always clung to her even after she left the building, and washing it off was as routine as wiping off her makeup.

Until, one day, it wasn't. She wasn't sure when, exactly, it happened. She stepped out of the shower and toweled off, and when she lifted her face from the towel there it was - barely detectable past the smell of soap, lingering in the air, the faint smell of perfume.

Felicity wrinkled her nose and shrugged it off. Was it that day in particular, or had this happened before? It was hard to tell these things - when does something start, as opposed to when does one start to notice. After a few days she decided that it was simply her lot in life now to smell like a department store, and put it out of her mind. She knew a guy who worked at a restaurant whose hands always smelled like onions. It was just one of those things.

It was her makeup next. She rubbed her makeup removing wipe over her face, and nothing at all happened. It came away clean, and her face remained as it was. She didn't wear much makeup at all most days. She looked at the pad and blearily looked at her face and wondered if she was wearing makeup at all. Perhaps her skin was particularly smooth and her lips particularly reddish and her eyelashes particularly dark and long, but there was nothing blatantly fake. (Natural makeup, required the dress code. Not no makeup - that was discouraged - just enough to look like you weren't wearing makeup.)

Felicity blinked a few times, slowly. It was makeup, wasn't it? Though, when she thought about it, inspecting her face in the mirror, she couldn't quite remember how she was supposed to look. Nothing was really out of place. She ran the swab over her face, and then tried again with a different swab, and it remained the same. Leaning close to the mirror revealed no smears or smudges at all. No obvious signs of makeup, either - not like freshly-applied makeup, anyway. It had settled into her skin, as makeup does after a few hours.

Or she'd always looked like this. She finished washing her face and left the bathroom, too worn out from her shift to spend any longer poking at her face.

The makeup bothered her enough that she couldn't quite un-notice it. She stopped putting it on in the mornings, and she looked the same regardless. No one told her she looked sick they way they did when she didn't wear makeup - or the way they used to when she didn't wear makeup. She developed a habit of gnawing on her lower lip, scraping and tugging off bits of thin loose skin with her teeth. She thought if only she were persistent enough she could peel off the lipstick-stained skin and find her real lips underneath.

"I feel like my job is taking over my life," she said once, over dinner. Her roommate grimaced and nodded sympathetically, and Felicity got the feeling that she hadn't quite managed to communicate the gravity of the situation.

Or maybe she had. Doing the same thing every day, in the same clothes, in the same place, wore everyone down. No one liked working, she thought. Everyone felt tired and bored. Or did they? She never could tell. It seemed like everyone her age, everyone she knew personally, hated working, but there was something different about older people. The folks who'd been selling business-casual slacks and blouses for decades, managers who took the rules very seriously and unironically quoted the employee handbook and said things like "customer service is our number one priority." They sounded like they really meant it.

Then again, she supposed she sounded like she really meant it when she told customers to, "have a nice day!" They would smile back, sometimes make a comment about how cheerful she was. It felt hollow to realize that there was no practical difference between how something seems and how something is. Not for most people, not for most purposes. Certainly not at work.

Sometime after that, she could not stop smiling.

Not that she was in a better mood. She simply could not arrange her face in any other way. It was stuck in the bland hi-how-are-you customer service smile she had to keep fixed on her face all day at work. It had become second nature to keep it on her face even when there was no one around - you could never tell when a manager might pop out of nowhere and scold you for looking unfriendly - and she had gotten too good at it. She came home smiling, and showered smiling, and smiled blankly at her reflection in the mirror.

It didn't hurt her cheeks the way a real smile would - it couldn't be, since she had to maintain it all day every day. It was just that her resting face had been replaced entirely with a bland upturn of the mouth. She could move her face - furrow her brow and open and close her mouth and bite her lips - just fine, but when she stopped, when she rested, she smiled. It took active effort to do anything else, and no matter how long she stood in front of the mirror grimacing and scowling she couldn't figure out how to look neutral the way she used to.

Though it didn't help with the lipstick problem, biting her lips at least mitigated her permanent smile. They were raw and oversensitive, but she didn't mind that much. If her mouth was sore, she felt more aware of it. It couldn't do anything without her knowing about it. Her mouth often tasted like blood, but this wasn't too bad either. It meant she couldn't taste lipstick any more.

It was a Friday when she thought seriously about quitting for the first time. She'd thought about quitting before as a fantasy, but not as a serious possibility. Everyone wanted to quit, after all.

Her blouse clung to her skin as she peeled it off and she tugged her pencil skirt off like a skintag. The pantyhose, though, were gone. Or, rather, they weren't gone, but it was as though they had never existed. There was no elastic waistband pressed into the soft skin of her waist. There was still a distinct line around her waist where the pantyhose began. Her legs were still tinted black. When she touched her hands to her hips, she could feel the texture of the stretched-out nylon against her palms. When she wiggled her toes, she could feel the thin fabric stretching slightly with the movement.

Felicity pinched at her hips with both hands to try and tug the material away from her skin, but she couldn't separate the two. She sat down heavily on the edge of the shower-tub in silence for a minute, staring down at her legs.

Tugging at the fabric between her toes only gave her a bit of stretched-out fabric flopping around; it didn't pull the rest down her legs. She tried tugging and stretching that floppy bit, gently at first and then harder to try and tear it. It didn't work; it just stretched and flopped.

It would take something sharper than her nails to tear it, and the nail trimmers were in her bedside drawer. She picked up the razor she used to shave her legs instead, and she sighed before beginning the long process of peeling her skin off of her legs.

She thought, then, that it was a good thing it was Friday. That's how she remembered clearly what day it was. It was a good thing it was Friday, because that gave her legs time to heal over the weekend before she had to go to work.