I remember the first time I made a mistake in public. I must have been 9 or 10 years old. I went to a snack shop after school; my mom had given me a few extra credits that week for getting good marks on my math test. I excitedly planned to get something sweet as an afternoon snack before I walked to my Youth Testing and Training session.
I ran into the snack shop, my mind busy deciding between fruity beans and protein chocolate bars. My little 9-year-old preoccupied brain missed the tall woman in an emerald green suit standing by the vitamin drinks, and I barreled right into her. She stumbled back and looked at me with a frustrated face. “Oops sorry! Miss, do you have any fruity beans?” I asked with youthful enthusiasm. It looked like she wore a yellow dress like the shopkeeper would; however, she was a top city official and had I been able to see that she sported the emerald green vestments of only the most important of important people, I would not have simply said “oops, sorry” but I would have quickly moved out of her way, averted my eyes, given a solemn apology, and made myself as invisible as possible. Had I simply said “oops, sorry” and kept running would have been bad enough, but the addition of assuming I addressed a shopkeeper added grave insult to idiotic injury. I immediately received a swift, sharp, slap for my insolence and waste of this important woman’s time.
“Where are your manners?”
I looked up at her intensely stern face, still in shock from the slap. I’d never been hit before, not even by my little brother. She continued, “What’s your name?”
“I, I, uh.” I held my face.
“Let me see your info tablet.”
I handed her the device, still stunned, but slowly gaining my mental footing. “M-m-my name is Cecelia Martinez-Le, Ma’am.”
“Hmm unfortunate, I know your father. Nevertheless I’m taking 15 credits from your account. Perhaps that will teach you to mind your manners. This has been highly inefficient. Good day.” She handed the tablet back to me.
Being told I caused something to be ‘highly inefficient’ stung worse than my slapped cheek. Needless to say, I did not get any fruity beans that afternoon or for several afternoons after.
Now, nearly 20 years later, I sat in the dimly lit conference room on the 17th floor of the office building I worked in. I’d been working here for 3 years. I sat on the cold hard chair and placed my tablet down on the table. For the second time since I started working here, I’d been called to the red room. I was told this conference room was accented with bright red to remind one of the severity of the coming conversation. Had this been a blue-green room, my coming conversation would have a much different topic to discuss. It could possibly even be about a promotion. At least I hoped I was sitting in the red room; it was the red room the last time I had been called in by my boss. I couldn’t tell, red didn’t look that different from brown. I told myself that this had to be the red room; I would have heard about the change if it had in fact been moved to a different location.
It’s my fault, of course, I missed the subtle hues of purple on the Minister of Natural Resources’ official inquiry I received yesterday, and subsequently did not follow prescribed guidelines of respect and flattery that she is owed. It looked brown. Or at least what I think is brown. And I proceeded to treat her as I would a low ranking education official. Perhaps I shouldn’t be treating them poorly — I’m only two levels above them as a green financial technician. But treating everyone with a mild friendly state was frowned upon too, and had landed me in this room two and a half years ago. But to me, the accents on her letterhead just looked blue. I read once that in the United Nations of Earth, people write their titles on their letterheads. Was it really more efficient to leave it to color to communicate rank? But I’d began questioning a lot of our practices.
Sitting in this muddy room gave me the same sense of shame and failure that I felt during that first misstep. Not only am I a magnet for inefficiency, I’m also a magnet for impropriety. I remember my grandma talking about three strikes. Will I get a chance to prove myself or is it two strikes and I’m out? My supervisor opened the door.
“Cecelia, I just read the report about the incident.” He took a deep breath as he sat down across from me.
“I’m so sorry, sir. I’ll be especially vigilant from now on.” My hands were shaking and I felt a lump start to expand deep in my throat. I clasped my hands together on my lap to try and stop the shaking. Would there be a next time?
“Minister Rangel was not pleased and she lost a whole day of productivity because of the incident.” His tone burned. I nodded my head and tried very hard to swallow. I felt the warmth of tears screaming to pour out. I held my ground against the warm surges in my eyes.
“Cecelia, I don’t know how to even ask this.” He took a breath. I knew what he was about to ask and I knew it could cause me not only my position as a financial technician at the firm, but also my status as a financial professional. What distinction would I get? Would I be forced out of my place in society? I had heard stories, but I’ve also heard of those who have learned to work around their differences and inabilities. Either way, I didn’t want to deal with this today, as my mother didn’t want to deal with it when she realized what I lacked. Again the shame tightened my chest and flushed my face. I braced myself for his coming question.
He leaned forward, tilted his head a bit toward me. With narrowed eyes and a bit of a hushed tone he asked, “Cecelia, can you distinguish between colors?”
I widened my eyes and feigned shock, “Mr. Thompson, I assure you I can. I can’t believe you’d ask me that.” I shifted a little to show my discomfort.
“Forgive me, Cecelia, but I had to ask. I could possibly find a way to help you. Of course, you would have to be registered as color impaired.” He clearly didn’t buy my answer, but I kept up the act. Any “impairment” would cause inefficiency and I would lose the bit of prestige that I’d gotten accustomed to.
“Mr. Thompson, I promise it will not happen again.” I lied, I couldn’t promise that. It’s obviously happened twice.
He nodded, “Well, I’m going to have to deduct some of your credits to cover the emotional damage and waste this has caused.”
“And my position?” I asked, somewhat sheepishly.
“I can’t afford to lose you, not right now.”
He didn’t bring up my color impairment again, but it was clear he knew and didn’t think it wise that I admit it. But I had to figure out a way to be extra careful not to make that mistake again, at least not at the office.
I walked home in the rain, appropriate weather for the situation. Part of me kicked myself for not just admitting what I had to work around. Hiding my colorblindness was exhausting.
A walking tour of holidayers from the UNE walked around, taking pictures with their own identification tablets. Although we were no longer a part of the federation colonies, we continued to work with the UNE as allies; we had the same origin planet, after all.
I could hear the tour guide from where I stood on the walkway, “I’m sure you’ve heard about Epsilon 7’s focus on efficiency and attention to detail.” Everyone giggled; focus was a polite way of saying it, obsession was more like it. “Well here we can see one of the earliest examples of their shift to efficiency. This is the Koch Building, built just 3 years after Epsilon 7 seceded from the UNE Federation.” The holidayers nodded their heads. Clearly this tour guide was not a native — she spoke about us as an amused observer.
“This is where the founders of Epsilon 7’s societal structure sat and decided how to make the most efficient and productive planet. These wise men and women built a society of excellence, often considered the Sparta of the modern age, but instead of war, they rage positive productivity and advancement.”
I rolled my eyes and made a loud, exasperated grunt. The foreign publicity department’s usual rhetoric felt especially insulting today. Should we really be striving to be the Sparta of the modern age? If this were Sparta, I would have been dead. And I guess if I had really been found out, it would have been a ‘modern’ equivalent. But that’s kind of the thing — I had been almost found out, more than a few times. Maybe it wasn’t the most productive use of everyone’s time to worry about my “inefficiency,” or maybe we as a society really were more empathic than we let on. Either way, I felt tired of my home world, completely disenchanted by our way of life, especially of the way we presented ourselves.
As I continued my commute home on the train, my mind raced with thoughts of leaving. Maybe I could just find a place where my color impairment wouldn’t cause so much inefficiency. I stopped at that thought. Maybe being inefficient isn’t that important. I kept hearing the tour guide’s smug tone when she said, “I’m sure you’ve heard about Epsilon 7’s focus on efficiency and attention to detail.” I played it over and over in my head. Why were we so obsessive? Did it really matter that a section of our population required a few seconds to read a description of a room, a badge, heck, where a train is going? I had to memorize the map of the city just to understand the routes. This society had made me inefficient. And I realized I did it again. I don’t care if I’m inefficient.
I opened the door to my sparsely decorated apartment and walked straight to my bedroom. I felt as if I were a ghost floating instead of walking. I grabbed my suitcase from the top of the closet and filled it with my clothes. I wanted to get out of here, off this planet. I wanted to run away. I opened my tablet and checked my credits; I had enough for a one-way ticket to the closest UNE planet. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then I heard a knock at the door. I wasn’t expecting anyone. I hid my suitcase under my bed. As I stood up to go to the door I heard a chime from my tablet. It was a message from Mr. Thompson. It read, “I’m sorry, I didn’t have a choice.” My stomach dropped, my heart began to pound. The knock grew louder. For a brief moment I thought maybe I could hide. The knock was even louder this time, “It’s the police, Ms. Martinez-Le, we know you’re in there. We just have a few questions for you.”
Maybe there’s a reason I’d only ever heard about people like me but never met them.