We walked to the coffee shop at the corner, down the cobblestone sidewalks of the old neighborhood dominated by row houses. I’d been distracted at work. Two people in my life had died, and I’d also recently left my abusive ex husband, all in one late winter to early spring period. I was untethered in all the best and worst ways. Oblivious, I chatted with the marketing head at the museum where I worked in the fundraising department, asking her how her weekend had been. It was warm, almost in the 70s. I ordered a coffee. The head of marketing didn’t. Hadn’t she invited me out for a coffee? I shrugged it off, took my drink, and followed her outside to the parklet across the street where we sat down in iron bistro chairs. Then, she told me.
I had come back on that day after a long weekend off, spent visiting my mother and family. It was 2018. I’d cracked a diet Pepsi at my desk, a little embarrassed by my tastes, and got to work. My desk, a large L situation with multiple neat filing cabinets, sat between my boss’s desk and the assistant’s and intern’s area. The third floor of the museum’s offices were bisected by glass, where the sole woman who made up the marketing department sat and worked. The Founder of the museum made sure the fundraising department was well-staffed, especially with the capital campaign that was in the quiet phase, for which I was diligently working on prospect research. The marketing head sent me a Slack message. Did I want to go grab a coffee? Sure, I could use a coffee. I said yes.
When I interviewed for the job, it was a three-step process involving two rounds of in-person interviews as well as a written round. In the first round, I had to impress my thin, blonde, heterosexual boss (for whom this was a personality) — and I did well enough. In the second interview, I was starving in more ways than one. My clothes hung on me. Something was wrong in my relationship, and the only thing I could cling to was restricting eating — one of the only markers of my reality wound up being counting calories. In the blazer leftover from the last batch of interviews I’d gone on a year and a half ago, I told the truth about my abilities as I understood them. As Hannah Gadsby once said, “I’m a compulsive truther.” It’s…just…more of a hassle for me to lie, but I also don’t often lie in the socially acceptable ways that would really really help me. I was interviewing for a position that would be incredibly challenging. The museum had been gifted the plans for an artwork, the plans alone worth over a million dollars, and the capital campaign required to build it totaling to several times more than that. That’s why they were expanding their development department. The conference room was cold, and contained a model of the future artwork. A gentleman across the table with a monogrammed and pressed shirt, a fundraising consultant of significant pedigree, shook my hand. “You’ll do well,” his eyes crinkled.
While I sat in the parklet with the head of marketing, the first flowers of May peeking out around us, I welcomed a sense of freedom and relaxation at last, after years of the effects of an abusive relationship floating around me like the perfume of the new buds, I learned about a thing that had been rotting within the walls of the museum for some time.
One of our coworkers had finally broken her silence.
She’d told the rest of the museum workers about her experiences with a male coworker of ours. She’d already told her story to the museum’s Co-Director, and that was months ago. He had assaulted her, violently. It’s difficult, for many reasons, for sexual assault and abuse survivors to come forward — they have to relive trauma, they are often blamed or not believed, they have to let other people into an experience that is incredibly intimate and private and upsetting. In spite of all that, this strong-ass woman spoke out because this man had started hanging around my young assistant. She didn’t want the cycle to repeat with her. Not only had our coworker approached The Co-Director about this, but she had also gotten in touch with four or five other survivors — most of whom had worked for the museum in some capacity, several of whom left the museum because of this man’s abuse — who approached the Co-Director and shared very personal accounts of their abuse, assault, and rape at the hands of this man. After an “investigation,” the museum and Co-Director concluded there was nothing much they could or should do, reasoning that the majority of actions had occurred off museum property, despite the fact that this man used the museum as his personal hunting grounds, despite the fact that there was apparently a whisper system where employees would warn each other not to be alone with him or to leave a function with him. I’d also noticed that he and the development assistant had started going out after work, but his reputation had evaded me. Because no one wanted to be around my boss, and because I was married for a while, these whispers never made their way to my ears — they didn’t need to. I floated in a little bubble of untouchability when it came to him.
What did the museum ultimately decide? The predator was told he had to take a one-day HR training.
The pay at the museum was meager for everyone who worked there. Still, they obscured that fact as best they could with artworks that dazzled and frequently available free food. The museum played host to numerous events as a part of its revenue model, and the leftovers were turned over to staff who would supplement our grocery budgets by eating day-old danishes with apricot and raspberry filling — discards from someone’s brunch-time wedding — or by digging into the olives and cheese that remained after board and committee meetings, uncaring about the fact that the food we put in our mouths was the literal discards of the people who ruled our work lives. Except for the development team who attended board meetings and worked closely with board members, the people who guided the museum’s future and budget often did not know the names of most of the people who worked in its brick and stone rooms, who patched holes in white walls, who unclogged toilets after parties, who took small children into the mirror room or who helped artists to build the artworks — sometimes a single fiber or a sequin at a time.
At the board meetings, we drank wine because that was part of how you treated the people who showed up. One time, when the employee who normally drove to the Walmart in West Virginia to pick up cases of $3 / bottle cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay was on vacation, we ran out of wine and I had to go pick some up, but with the same budget and no time to spend three hours round trip. I provided them with what was honestly decent boxed wine — which turned out to be a grave error. The Co-Director — who’d lived in the museum since he was in college — pretended like he’d never seen wine come in a box before. It was silly. I think it was more important to him that the wine we serve come in a glass bottle and appear elegant than it actually taste good and present in an unappealing container. Some board members took my side, I think, themselves, not believing that The Co-Director had never, ever in his life encountered wine from a box.
Oh yes, that’s right. My bosses lived in the museum. Where I worked. The Co-Director was mine and my direct boss’s boss, but the founder and Executive Director of the museum, The Founder, at 88 years old, was in charge of it all. It’s my belief she got things done because she balanced both hard and soft, an open curiosity about other people, combined with a legendary Aquarian stubbornness that had held the museum that she helped shape with her own hands up for four decades. She bought the place, a six floor warehouse, in 1975 and renovated it, turning it into a space for artists, taking residence on the sixth and top floor with her daughter. In the 80s, The Co-Director, a student at what is now Carnegie Mellon University, showed up, glommed onto the museum, and never left. Eventually, he would become her right hand, living with her in the loft. They split it down the middle, two beds, two bathrooms, two sitting spaces, with the dining room and kitchen on The Founder’s side and the elevator on The Co-Director’s. It was easy to see the line, because they decorated their own side completely to their own tastes. The Co-Director thrifted relentlessly and filled his side of the loft with mid-century modern clocks and sleek modernist furniture. He had a case full of valuable gifts from artists who’d exhibited at the museum, like a book/artwork by Damien Hurst, for example. The two had a Yayoi Kusama glass pumpkin balanced on a shelf and Alexander Calder mobiles hanging from the ceiling. On The Founder’s side were heavy wooden cases packed with her utterly delightful collections of antique toys. Think: dolls with bright lead-painted faces, those monkeys with cymbals staring out with sinister beaded eyes, puppets and wind-up tin animals. Where The Co-Director’s space dealt in clear lines, hers reveled in a curated claustrophobia that was creepy and cozy all at once. They used their unusual living quarters to their advantage. Whenever we needed to encourage someone to join the board or do something for us, the evening of discussion often ended up in the elevator, on the way to their loft, where they would open up their home and host, putting their guest in a place where they would be far more likely to succumb to the hypnotic quality of this inconceivable space. I don’t know that they would have been able to convince the rust-belt city of Pittsburgh to play host to their weird-ass art experiment if they hadn’t been something like a Fae royalty, able to charm you out of your mind.
It was the 90s, and I stared at a poster of Britney Spears looking at me sultrily over a can of Pepsi on the side of the dance studio where I was sent by my parents to make sure I didn’t get fat (their philosophy, not mine — I didn’t want to be there) and also because I kept running into walls (I had to admit I could use a little more grace). This small hall led to a fire exit in the back of the studio, past the mirrors and the bar. There, we lined up to embark on the exercises where we would, one by one, traverse the entire floor of the dance room and for the teacher’s assessment. Britney kept smiling over her regular Pepsi at me, a huge poster among a series of posters of pop artists and dancers, layered one over the other, corners curling up. A poster of Janet Jackson claimed its own large place on the wall, her face set into an expression of concentration among a ring of backup dancers.
Our dance teacher told us a story about a time when she had worked in a practice studio and Janet Jackson came to rehearse for a music video. Janet and her team arrived, wearing sweats. They nailed their moves, ran through the routine several times and got out on schedule. Then, according to this dance teacher, on the very same day, Britney and her team arrived late for their time slot. Britney was in full costume. She and her crew spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out how a guy was going to pull off her clothes from behind while she danced to reveal what was apparently a skimpier outfit. According to the teacher, their dancing was sloppy.
Whether or not this was true, it told me all I needed to know at a young age about what kinds of women were taken seriously. Janet Jackson was a woman deserving of respect because she wore sweats and desexualized herself. She took herself and others and punctuality seriously. Britney Spears was to be discarded because she wore sexy outfits, was a mess, regardless of what her handlers and team might have done or not done to enable her and push her into that role. Looking back, the comparison doesn’t hold up well. Janet is about 15 years older than Britney. In the 90s, Britney was anywhere from a teen to her early twenties. Weren’t we all messes then? Not to mention that Janet, as a Black woman, isn’t given the kind of leeway a white woman like Britney is, the opportunity to party publicly and unapologetically and to come back from that in the public eye and still have work. Even then, they’re both women, and Britney would later run up against the limits of the extent to which she was allowed to push against the grain when she lost her freedom to a conservatorship. Her party girl persona worked for her PR until it didn’t, until a judge decided, against all usual practices when it came to conservatorships, to strip her of her autonomy.
Britney, in an interview after she kissed bicon Madonna, a real relic of a video, states that she drinks “regular” Pepsi, smacks her gum, and tells Tucker Carlson that she watches CNN “all the time” while seeming pretty tired of his whole deal. It’s an interesting piece of cultural study. You can watch as Carlson (who now displays “she/hers” pronouns on his Twitter as a way of mocking queer and trans people) honing his craft in this interview, working to undermine any political statement Britney and Madonna’s kiss could have made by treating Britney like a little girl. Britney, however, seems to be in control of herself, to the extent she can in this situation. She’s adept at playing her character, at making herself in the interview a caricature of herself, leaning into audience expectations and subverting Carlson’s attempts to pin her down. In the interview, she says she is herself at home. In the interview, she is not at home. You can, therefore, assume that everything outside the home is a performance. The end of the interview features Anderson Cooper and Tucker Carlson being super gross about her, making fun of her, and Carlson insisting, again, that she appeared to him to be like a child. To this child, she represented an ideal I wanted to chase, someone who was flawed and fun, entertaining and loud in so many ways I craved permission to be. In that era of low pants and midriff-baring shirts, my parents never bought regular pop, only diet. I still can’t stand the taste of pop with sugar in it. The chemical coating on my throat is what tastes like home.
The first time I tried to visit the museum, it was with my stalker and rapist when he made me accept his visit to my college. We never found it. Now, I feel like that was fate. It was like I was meant to experience it on my own. When I finally entered this museum, I was in college. I remember, more than anything, a piece by the late artist Greer Lankton, a recreation of her Chicago apartment. As a sexual assault survivor, as a self-mutilator, as someone with a history of various eating disorders, as a queer person who at the time felt not cis but had no real language for it, her art held me in a vice grip for years while I worked through school, for years after when I taught at an art studio and gallery for adult artists with intellectual disabilities, for years while I struggled to scrape by mentally and physically in the Bay Area. When I returned to Pittsburgh in 2015 and made it back to the museum, it was the piece — an installation in the permanent collection — I sought out, getting as close as I could to the glass of Greer’s false house, peering so deeply my glasses clicked on the glass, my heels digging into the astroturf surrounding the aluminum sided false-room. My eyes scraped over the familiar textures of the painstakingly constructed dolls, the torsos with bloody crosses carved out in the chest, the images of unrepentant queerness, the glamor inhabited by a woman who hung photos of herself by Nan Goldin and Peter Hujar up on her walls like I might display snapshots from moments spent with friends. Was this home?
In the 90s, my mother also took me to Saturday art classes, where a group of kids painted with acrylics all day in a farmhouse somewhere far out in the countryside. It cost only $10, and this woman would watch us for what felt like almost the entire day. We even packed a lunch. We used magazines as source material and drew and painted for hours. At one point, a teacher asked a couple of us to work on trying to draw the three dimensional ice cubes of a Pepsi ad. Another student whispered to me about the infamous Coca-Cola blow job ad and subliminal advertising. In a room that smelled of wood smoke and acrylic paints and the turpentine the eldest boy was allowed to use for his oils, we spent a long time crawling the ice cubes for messages, finding nothing. Still, forever and ever, cola advertising would be linked to sex in my mind. Once Britney came onto the scene and signed onto the brand, it became a surety. Pepsi leaned further into sexiness than the wholesome Coke. In 2012, Lana Del Rey would make this indisputable when she sang, “My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola.” Pepsi was synonymous with a certain sexually forward American girl sensibility, whether the brand had fully intended it to be or not.
The same year I went to see the museum and visited Lankton’s piece for the first time, Britney Spears’ single and accompanying music video “Womanizer” came out. It was still a time when new music videos premiered first on TV. I honestly can’t remember if it was MTV or VH1, but a friend group of gays and lesbians I hung out with organized a small Britney Spears music video premiere party. One of the gay men declared a drinking game — whenever Britney did something “ridiculous’ in the video, such as steering a town car with her foot while completely facing the man riding in the back — we took a shot. That was too many shots! Following the release of that album, late nights in the art studio or in my apartment working on papers were accompanied by Britney’s infectious beats.
We’d travel downtown together in a group on weekend nights, venturing into what was a dark and deserted neighborhood, long before its “revitalization.” There, after walking down dark and way-too-quiet downtown block after block, we’d get to Pegasus, the gay club that let anyone over 18 in. Their solution was found in a chain-link fence that stretched from the top of the ceiling down to the dance floor. At night, I ground against fellow not-quite-of-drinking-age queers against the flexible chain link while older patrons at the bar looked on and Britney remixes blared across the speakers, and we would scream when Lady Gaga’s music videos would pop up on the video screens across the bar. And during the day, I dreamed of installation art and threw myself into my sculpture classes, determined to make it to the higher levels so I could take the department head’s rare and beloved installation art class.
One aspect of working in the offices of the museum was that I was also expected to be deeply familiar with the artworks. It was easy to forget my lunch only took up a few square inches when I was alone in a dark room with a few painstakingly placed beams of light that formed a box that leapt out from the wall. The museum was, in a sense, also a residency where visual artists were given an apartment, a stipend, a huge gallery space, all the supplies they needed, guidance and gallery assistants — all of which was free to them and dedicated to aiding them in creating original site-specific installation artworks. It was a magical place and remains a concept I deeply believe in. When we were stuck on something, sometimes, one of us would just go off to “meditate in the Turrell,” an artwork by James Turrell who I can best describe as a light-based contemporary artist. The piece shrouded the visitor in near-complete darkness. You had to follow the right wall to enter and the left to leave. If you sat for long enough, a light would slowly appear. Visitors would leave, wondering if it was ever really there or if it was a hallucination.
When I got married, the founder of the museum gifted me a champagne toast for my whole wedding party. She got all the staff she perceived as women and presented me with stacks of crates of sparkling wine. I was overwhelmed. The installation art teacher, who was also on the museum’s board, officiated our wedding. We toasted the museum after we toasted ourselves, thanking the not-present but beloved Founder for her gift. It would not be long after that I would notice — distinctly notice — while my ex and I stood in the kitchen that he did not seem to live in the same reality as me. I told him about something he’d done, something he’d said that hurt me. He replied that it didn’t happen, a conversation we had had, that I remembered, had never happened, was no more real than a popped bubble. This incident stands out in my mind because it is so simple and because it would later be one of the things I could recall when I wrote down my six years worth of “evidence,” trying to prove to myself again and again that I wasn’t crazy, or really, that even if I was losing it, it was because I had become so destabilized.
From the spreadsheet I made that year, I wrote:
“Insists frequently during arguments that I have a faulty memory of past events. Insists I do not remember events correctly. Says that I misinterpret things, misunderstand his motivations, misread events and words, and that I blow things out of proportion.”
“Says that he is not gaslighting me. Says that gaslighting-like behaviors could exist on both sides.”
“Seems to have expectation that I would not ever want to leave relationship. Said he had not even considered that, despite being the one to leave me for several days.”
The hilarious-to-me note:
“Mistrusts and judges others. Has frequent interpersonal conflicts, including with staff. Has trouble making friends. Relies on gift-giving, paying for things, and peacock-like pageantry to woo friends.”
And, among others, is a note about the fact that he explicitly told me not to work at the museum. That was where the escalation took off, I think, in part because we had both idolized the space, but I was the one who gained some level of access. He would rather me fail than have me succeed in a space that was important to him, even one he never had any intention of applying.
After I left my ex, I would wake up in the house I shared with roommates and walk my dog Mya in the dark mornings before work. The sidewalk wound along a cliffside with a rotting and abandoned apartment building, vines creeping everywhere, holding up the dirt with their Virginia creeper roots. Just beyond it, I could look out and see the neighborhood where the museum rested below, the light-up sculpture on top of it glowing up at me, reaching out like a hand in the dark.
Because when I’d woken up in our bed each morning, rubbing my eyes, reminding myself that I had to keep packing, keep throwing stuff out, keep hiding my important papers when I found them, then, rubbing of my eyes felt like rubbing raw veins. We were so dysfunctional and though we had, in theory, dressers we could put together, I’d never moved beyond just having a giant plastic bin as a night stand. I still remember scuttering my fingers across the blue plastic in the morning, reaching for my phone, looking to the door, making sure nothing was moved. It had only been a month or so before when, for my birthday, I’d taken several days off to finish my novel and had pounded several two-liter bottles of diet Pepsi in the process. My body ached, and it craved it — that dark fizzing thing — now, in my most depleted moments.
It was all garbage bags each night and morning. I would stash them in closets, and take them out early on trash day, when I was certain he wasn’t about to show up out of the blue and spy my planning. Because everything I knew told me that leaving was a dangerous time and I had to keep it as secret as I could for as long as possible. It was something else, too, as I lost the ability to eat at work. While I packed at night, I flinched by day at the barbs thrown by my immediate boss who held her position over me like a cudgel. Multiple of my former colleagues said that they (the art installers and educators) were all afraid to come to our floor. One of them would, later, over drinks, aptly describe her as “a walking knife.”
And then, The Founder was also dying. She stopped coming downstairs. Sometimes, after an event, I’d have to help lock the museum up. The basement, with its damp stone walls and cool air that left the taste of limestone on your tongue, gave me chills when I turned off the lights and made my way to the elevator. I’d once asked The Founder if she’d ever encountered a ghost in the museum. She laughed, her bright blue eyes sparkling in her face, a blend of white skin and ice white hair, her bold black glasses standing out in stark rings. “It was a warehouse. No one died here! No one’s wandering around.” The Co-Director began to take over her duties. We kept hoping she would recover, but her illness stretched on for weeks, then months. The fate of the capital campaign hung in the balance. Could we even raise millions of dollars without her spark, her fervor?
Still, while the museum’s founder was actively dying, that did not stop the urgency of our task. We had begun to organize around seeking some kind of transformative justice and repair regarding the presence of the predator, starting with a letter demanding the predator be fired and asking for the museum to institute more progressive HR practices that actually prioritized the wellbeing of their most vulnerable employees. I joined them and asked to see the letter they had written. That night, alone in the attic of the house I shared with my roommates, I booted up my computer and put my head in my hand. I had only just gotten settled, reached a point in my therapy that felt like progress, and was ready to dig back into the fantasy novel I was writing, but here I was, instead, saddled with something that would consume my life for a year and a half.
I revised the letter. The shakes from adrenaline kept me awake that night. In the morning, I shared the document with my colleagues and packed my bag full of cans of diet Pepsi from the 12-pack I kept chilling in the fridge.
We’d planned to sign the letter on a Friday, but the timeline was sped up when the predator’s parents showed up at the museum, where they found and berated my colleague who had come forward. She called us to a park, in tears. I got up from my desk and left when I got the text, my boss peeling the skin off my back with her sharp, wide eyes. Together, we decided to print the letter as it was and to each sign it and hand it to The Co-Director before the end of the day. I looked down at the letter and, as the most senior person there with the most power and arguably, the greatest cushion, took a pen and signed it first. We passed the letter around, room to room, person to person, throughout the day and collected 21 signatures. I photographed it and we made copies of the original before handing it over. By the time three of us handed it to the Co-Director, he was livid and accused us of “making it a thing.” He’d heard the letter was coming, no doubt from my boss.
The Co-Director didn’t speak to me after that. When he came up to our department, he would pull his face into a mask of disgust, corners down, nose up, eyes locking in mine like I was so far beneath him that my existence was offensive. It was a look I recognized because it was so much like my ex’s when he wanted to put me in my place. I couldn’t get feedback on grants, couldn’t do my job. It was a far fall from the champagne toast, from being told he liked that I was honest. He just liked it when I was humble, and challenging him did not fit the person he’d thought he’d hired. My boss acted like nothing was amiss, like it was not in any way her job to attempt to reconcile things between her boss and me, to help me do my job. I just had to keep working like nothing was wrong. I couldn’t afford to quit outright and so had to stay and endure, sitting at my L-shaped desk, writing grants and planning the few events left on my plate. I began to relish the moments I was left alone on the third floor because I was specifically excluded from planning meetings that everyone, including the assistant, attended. I’d open the door to the fire escape and let the spring air in and count the minutes until I could go visit my dog on my lunch break.
The Pepsi felt like a jab at never-seen-boxed-wine-in-his-life Co-Director, at the place’s worst qualities. Drinking pop with Britney on it — Britney who men like him wouldn’t take seriously ever in their lives, something that wasn’t healthy, something that was an outer physical manifestation of trashy insides — was a small act of defiance. It was okay to put white trash aluminum siding and astroturf in Lankton’s art exhibit — she was an artist — but I was supposed to unmake myself and re-mold myself as a sleek and small, black-clad member of the museum’s staff, a bisexual vampire sophisticate who was expected to keep my criticisms to myself. Those criticisms should, especially, stay buried when the Co-Director went out of his way to defend a[n alleged] rapist, when he let a grown man’s parents into his office so they could yell at him on a sexual predator’s behalf, when he was happy to disregard the safety of large numbers of his staff in favor of some kind of twisted solidarity with one scumbag man.
The back and forth dragged on for months. The predator left his job shortly after the initial letter, but I suspect he was “taken care of” with some kind of severance (intel I picked up from something the board chair said). The fight wore on as, unsatisfied with the museum’s repressive tactics, the museum’s staff pushed back as the director chewed out individual gallery attendants in closed-door meetings, threw a temper tantrum and a stack of papers at the head of marketing, and screamed at the volunteer coordinator just yards away from the museum lobby before they stormed out, quitting that day. At events I organized, board members would ask, glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres I’d shuttled to some mansion or other in my old Subaru in hand, whether the staff was “over it” yet, assuming that the expectations of my position infiltrated every cell in my body, that I was on their side, that I was a class traitor because they felt they were paying me to be one. “No,” I would say, “not until we get the change we’re after.”
I would lie on my bed, recounting to myself over and over what was true, what had happened, that I was not crazy, that I needed to believe the survivors, that I was losing my mind, that they were trying to make me doubt myself, to believe I was just some kind of woman-child, that I was what they saw me as. At once, my recent escape from an abusive relationship where I’d spun out hard enough from gaslighting that I’d started seriously contemplating suicide, fueled me, an irrepressible anger and ability to just say fuck it because I had nothing to lose mixed together with my having spent years doubting my own perceptions of reality. I used every source of divination at my fingertips and the cards and more reassured me that yes, yes, yes, I was right, but I let the gaslighting hollow me out anyway. I didn’t have a choice. I sat in a cold and silent office day in and out for months. At one point, a gay man, an ally, spoke to his mother who was a lawyer about our predicament. She advised contacting the Women’s Law Project. We did. When the response came through that they would help us, pro bono, something settled into my bones. This was a legitimate enough situation that a lawyer was willing to dedicate her time, her energy, free of charge, with no expectation of compensation, to this cause. Even then, with representation, the process of gathering materials for a potential NLRB filing was long. In the meantime, the museum wound up just creating more evidence for our case by marching forward boldly and brashly and retaliating against staff to an even greater extent.
I used to love grocery shopping after my divorce. I would buy things that only I liked. It was then that I saw them, the 2018 limited edition Britney Spears diet pepsi cans. An illustration of Britney danced on the aluminum can in shades of blue and white and silver. I bought them and put them in my fridge. Sadie and I had started dating then. One night, after she’d stayed over and we’d been up until the early hours again, I dumped a small pile of Britney-adorned diet coke cans into my bag.
“Are those…?” Sadie looked at them. At the time, she still held this image of me, an elegant museum worker who wore only black. I smiled wide and said “It’s Britney!”
“Don’t you know that stuff’s toxic?” she said, waiting for me to get the joke.
At the time, we were ten years into Britney’s conservatorship, into her complete and total control by her abusive father. He controlled the narrative. She was not allowed to speak. And I engaged in the funneling of money to her father by buying this Pepsi with her name and face on it, with my meager wages, because I needed something to keep me going when I was so sleep-deprived and dehydrated and fearing for my own sanity that my head felt like it was stuffed with cotton. That, and I still liked Britney.
Eventually, the retaliation got to the point where they’d taken away most of my job duties, but nevertheless, I had to show up to work for eight and a half hours. I was no longer allowed to communicate with the board. No one in my department talked to me. I stared at the can of Pepsi and read Autostraddle articles on my phone and pretended to be busy at something while applying to other jobs and emailing all of my documentation to myself, BCC-ing my personal email on complaints I sent to the board of directors, and collecting every scrap of evidence I could for the NLRB charge. Just before I left, my boss had been watching The Handmaid’s Tale. She, as with many straight women like her, deeply identified with June. What I didn’t say out loud was that if the book’s events came to pass, my boss would most likely be wearing blue. Earlier, she’d told me discussing sexual harassment policy at work was enough to get me fired. She was aggressively heterosexual, not just as a sexual orientation, but as an alignment with the patriarchy. She had clawed her way close to power, and she wasn’t about to let it go, even if she had to sacrifice other women and their wellbeing and safety to keep her arts administration job.
When I gave my two weeks, I caught the Co-Director smiling. After the meeting where I announced it, I saw him practically skipping down the hall, all in black, his satchel at his side, stark round glasses on his nose. Two weeks and three days later, three days into my new job at a local immersive theater company, the NLRB charge and the local NPR/WESA article the survivors and employee group had collaborated to bring about dropped. From my desk in the lamp-lit basement windowless basement of the theater, I watched my coworker crack open a Coke Zero. I drank the Britney-branded diet Pepsi and relaxed into the fact that, for now, I was at a place that suited me, that felt safe. My heart was beating fast, our texts were firing, but I had real work again, tasks to concentrate on, documents to read and institutional history to learn. I had missed working for real. Three days later, the Co-Director was put on leave by the very same board who wouldn’t listen until we held their faces and names up to public scrutiny.
From coworkers in the exhibitions department, I had heard a rumor that a male artist had threatened to pull his work if The Co-Director were not reinstated. Because this is a story about men’s loyalty to men as much as it is about anything else. Because it is about the legitimate and political actions of women and nonbinary people and less-statused men being made out to be the squalls of children. Much like Carlson and Cooper’s snide remarks post-Britney interview, much like my ex, my boss, like so many men throughout my life, I got the sense from that artist, the board, the Co-Director’s actions that he felt that he, a real man, the only acceptable kind of logical adult, understood what was actually going on. I still can’t look at that artist’s work.
It would be almost a whole year more until the charge would come to its ultimate conclusion, and it would rest, forever effervescent and unresolved in my chest. The Founder had died just as we began to take action. I mourned her with the other two deaths I’d experienced that spring, breaking down, when I could, in dark corners of the museum and back stairwells. The Co-Director blamed a lot of his actions on her death, but it doesn’t hold up, not really. I’d suffered three deaths that spring, and at no point did the experience make me sympathetic to rapists or hateful toward sexual assault survivors.
On my last day of work, they put me in a back room where I had to fold packets printed with the founder’s memorial ahead of a big party in her honor. A lawyer who was on the board who worked for a union-busting firm became interim director of the museum after the charges came through. I don’t know what happened to the predator, and I don’t know that anyone does. Not weeks after the article came out, our lawyer would be contacted by a worker at a small film festival who’d been sexually harassed by her employer, and details would come to light about his allegedly serial predation upon the young women he hired. Years later, museum workers in Pittsburgh would vote to join the United Steelworkers Union. I have to wonder if our labor action, though moderately successful, at the very least, was another log in the fire, something that helped keep the spirit of labor organizing burning. I’d go to work for Autostraddle. Britney would eventually win her freedom back in court.
Even now, I know that it was worth it, but I still replay all of the events. Being made to believe on some days that I had the mind of a child, the silent treatment that made me ache for it to end, the quiet of being at my desk with no work while everyone else gathered around meeting tables, feeling the walls of something that had once brought me so much joy, that had felt like what my life and career was leading toward suddenly became a cage — it stays with me. The guilt I always feel for going against my indoctrination into our culture lingers like the aftertaste of aspartame clinging to my tongue. I follow Britney on social media, read her posts when she first won her freedom back, watched her own the fact that she is unafraid to speak to what she survived. Her resistance and anger is, again, a foil to her bubbly persona, but I know that so many people have welcomed it because it is her, actually her.
Anger is helpful when it comes, cleaner. No matter how much work I do, I’ve never gotten comfortable with all of my actions in this time. I’ve had to hold that thorny bundle of contradictions and move forward anyway, letting myself feel satisfaction in the rare moments it comes, icey and cold and crisp and dark.
Bubble Trouble is a series helmed by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about the nostalgia, effervescence, and never-ending appeal of carbonated beverages.