Work Header

You're a woman, I'm a machine

Work Text:

The year before Charlotte Hendricks’s senior year of high school, she’d competed in the International Olympiad in Informatics on the United States team. It had been hosted in Estonia that year, and the team had stayed in a hotel near the university in Tallinn. She’d been the only girl on the team, and none of the head coaches had been women, so she’d thankfully gotten a room to herself, where she’d spent half the night before the competition trying to fall asleep and not throw up from stress.

On the first day of the competition, she’d felt strangely calm, at least at first. She’d coded up solutions to the first few problems easily, but then she’d gotten stuck on the second-to-last one because she’d misread the problem statement, and her concentration had been shot for the rest of the day and all through the second day. In the end she’d won a silver medal, indicating her position in the top quarter of all contestants; the three other guys on the U.S. team that year had all won gold. It was a respectable outcome, though she’d been upset that she’d done worse than the rest of the team, and her parents’ “silver is still okay” speech apropos of nothing when she’d returned home had only made her feel worse. In the end, though, she’d gotten into Stanford, so it had been fine.

It hadn’t actually been fine. In college everything had gone to shit, and Charlotte had found herself leaning on the memory of that win, in that stupid, contrived Soviet-era relic of a programming competition from high school, more often than she would have liked to admit. Washed-up jocks—not that there were many at Stanford—had house parties and all-state championships to be nostalgic about, and Charlotte had that time when she’d beaten some teenagers from Belarus or Kazakhstan at programming. Sometimes she’d needed that, when her brain felt so full of static that she couldn’t write any code, and even the idea of looking at a textbook or her problem sets made her feel nauseated.

She’d taken medical leave in her junior year, and realized after a miserable two years spent at her parents’ house that she was never going to go back to college. At Hooli, she’d amused herself by putting horrible optimization hacks in her code, just tricks she’d picked up in her competitive programming career, knowing that those changes would never get past code review. At some point, she’d played her own miserable game of Where Are They Now? with the members of the 2004 IOI team, looking them up on Google and Facebook: one guy’s already finished his Ph.D., one guy is in his final year, the last guy is a senior engineer at Google, and Charlotte Hendricks is an entry-level engineer in the mobile QA department at Hooli.

There’s a photo taken at the IOI award ceremony of Charlotte standing among her teammates and coaches, which her parents framed and put up on a wall. After Pied Piper wins at TechCrunch Disrupt, Jodie hangs up a photo of all of them holding the oversized check in the incubator’s living room, and it reminds Charlotte of that older photo whenever she walks past it. The one where she’s wearing a dorky polo shirt with the logo of her STEM magnet high school embroidered on it, grinning and holding up her medal, as unselfconscious as she ever has been on camera.

After TechCrunch Disrupt, Wired wants to interview Charlotte, the first female founder to ever win the Startup Battlefield in its five-year history. Charlotte doesn’t really have a choice, so she agrees.

Monica’s coached her on questions like How does it feel to be the first woman founder to win the Startup Battlefield? and What advice would you give to aspiring woman founders? So, those questions go relatively smoothly. Charlotte spends maybe five minutes explaining the middle-out algorithm, and only stops when she realizes the interviewer has stopped taking notes, but that’s not a big deal. The point where things really go off the rails is when the interviewer asks her how she got started with programming.

“Well, I’ve been programming since I was a teenager, although I was mostly into theoretical stuff back then,” she says. “Like, I did programming competitions and math competitions, and I was really interested in computational complexity theory, and that kind of thing. I wasn’t really into the idea of startups. I didn’t want to”—Charlotte makes air quotes—“make an app, and put it on the App Store, and whatever. I just thought it was one of those tech douchebag things, you know? I had this idea of a bunch of guys with popped collars networking with VCs and doing all this startup marketing business bullshit instead of actually writing code or doing anything interesting. I just felt like it wasn’t really me. But I guess it is me, now, which feels weird, honestly.”

The profiles of female founders get published in Wired not long after that. It takes Charlotte a second to even recognize herself in the photo with her hair and makeup done. The article quotes her on the “douchebag” thing, which is not great, but the context is even worse. Charlotte is unusually candid in telling us about the struggles she’s faced as a woman founder in an industry full of “douchebag” male founders, feeling like she didn’t fit the mold of a typical startup founder because of her gender.

Charlotte’s read a lot of articles about middle-out compression that explain the algorithm in totally wrong, dumbed-down ways, if they even bother to explain it at all, and she always takes it personally, even if she knows that journalists are always going to get it wrong and that it doesn’t matter. The way this Wired article describes her makes her feel the exact same variety of defensiveness. Journalists are always going to get it wrong, and it doesn’t matter, and she hadn’t not been complaining about guys who are startup douchebags, but—they’ve still gotten it wrong, and it’s hard to even explain why, but it feels awful.

The other profiles are of female founders who talk about being the non-technical founder who gets ignored, or having people assume they’re a recruiter or designer because of the way they look. Nobody, in tech settings, has ever mistaken Charlotte for anything but a programmer. Anyway, Charlotte’s the CEO of her own fucking company, and she doesn’t have time to think about this stupid magazine article. It’s pointless to even dwell on it. She has too many other things to do.

Monica, unsurprisingly, calls about the article. “Look, it’s fine that you’re being honest about the sexism. It’s actually humanizing, up to a point. And it’s not like I don’t sympathize. I mean, I’ve been there too! I can’t tell you how many assholes have hit on me at work events or assumed I was Peter’s assistant and not a partner. It’s just about the tone.”

“Oh, I mean, I wasn’t really complaining about the sexism,” Charlotte says. She’s digging herself deeper into this hole, but she needs to say it to someone.

Charlotte has never felt completely comfortable around Monica. Monica’s one of those super-gorgeous women whom Charlotte feels weird about even making eye contact with. It’s not (just) that she’s attracted to them—she’s bisexual, but she’s not a total loser, not like that. It’s just that she doesn’t enjoy being reminded of how awkward she is in comparison. It shouldn’t matter, but it does.

There’s also a shitty, traitorous part of her that feels like Monica is setting a bad example for women in this industry and making Charlotte’s own life harder, being feminine and pretty and working in a non-technical role. She sometimes wonders if Monica feels the same way about her, but in the opposite direction.

Back to the conversation. “So, what, you just called every other founder in this industry a douchebag for no reason?” Monica says.

Well, when you put it that way. Charlotte is about to try to try to reconstruct what she’d said, but she realizes she’d also listed “networking with VCs” as a douchebag move, and she decides to just stop digging. “Look, I know this was a bad idea,” she says. “I won’t do it again.”

Monica sighs. “Charlotte, I don’t want to lecture at you, but it’s my responsibility to give you this feedback as a board member. I think I’ve gotten my point across. Just be careful of what you say in interviews, and please err on the side of not saying anything if you’re unsure.”

“Right,” Charlotte says.

Possibly prompted by the Wired article, Charlotte gets a few more requests for interviews after that. Someone from the Stanford Undergraduate Women in Computer Science asks her to be on a panel, but Charlotte deletes that email without responding and only feels slightly bad. (She’d gone to a few meetings in her freshman year of college; nobody had ever talked to her, and the meetings had all been about planning social events and hosting panels like this one, and she’d started sitting in her dorm and feeling superior as an alternative. Just another thing about college that she’d prefer to forget.)

She’s invited to be on Bloomberg TV, which is kind of a big deal. Charlotte manages to get through that segment without saying anything seriously embarrassing to Emily Chang. It turns out, though, after the segment airs, that Monica is not done with her. She calls Charlotte, and is suspiciously full of compliments about her Bloomberg TV appearance, which makes Charlotte suspect that something is wrong.

“There’s just one thing,” Monica says, hesitantly. “I’d like to talk to you about your wardrobe.”


“I don’t mean for this to be a big deal.” Charlotte can tell that Monica’s using her placating voice, the one that makes Charlotte feel like an idiot. “I just—I know this is an incredibly unfair industry, and there are plenty of male founders who dress similarly to you—”

“‘Dress similarly’ to me? What does that mean?”

Monica pauses. “Casually,” she says. “I mean the hoodies and the t-shirts and the sneakers.” Charlotte remembers, now, that she’d worn a hoodie and an old t-shirt on the day the segment had been taped. Monica continues, “Look, the truth is that people here pretend they don’t care about anyone’s image, but they totally do. It’s just something you have to do as CEO. Think of it as part of your job—”

“I’m three weeks away from having to ship a demo, and you’re talking to me about how I should go clothes shopping?”

“Not right away. I just mean for future TV appearances and other situations where you have to be in public—”

“Jesus Christ, Monica, you’re saying that like I’m some kind of—of feral child, who isn’t allowed outside or something—”

“Let me finish,” Monica says. “Charlotte, I don’t think this is too much to be asking here. Your image affects the image of the company.”

“You just think I’m some kind of gross programmer who has no idea how to be a real person, don’t you? Like, is that what this is about?” Charlotte is on a roll, now. That last part might have come out a little too strongly; it’s possible that she’s still feeling on edge from the bug she was trying to iron out this morning. She cringes. But she’ll stand by it.

“Wow,” Monica says. “I didn’t say that, and I have no idea where that came from. Look, just—”

“That’s bullshit, you were implying it—”

“Charlotte, stop.” Monica sighs. Neither of them says anything for a few seconds. Finally, Monica says, “Well, I’m sorry this conversation turned out like this. I’m going to hang up now, and we can resume at some other time.” She hangs up.

“Fuck!” Charlotte yells, at the dial tone. She throws her phone on the carpeted floor, and then opens the door to her room and walks out into the living room.

Jodie is looking at her with concern, turned all the way around in her chair. Gilfoyle and Dinesh are ignoring her. “Charlotte, are you alright?” Jodie says.

“How much of that did you hear?”

Jodie looks pained. “Only your side, after you started raising your voice. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop—”

Gilfoyle looks up from his monitor. “Who were you talking to?”

“Monica called me,” Charlotte says. “She told me to fucking buy some—some girl clothes, so I don’t look like such a fucking slob all the time. Can you believe that?”

Jodie gasps. “Monica said that to you?”

“Okay, not literally,” Charlotte says. “I just—okay, you know what, never mind. Forget I even said anything. Nothing to see here.” She turns, goes back into her room, and slams the door.

Jodie’s also tall and pretty, but Charlotte doesn’t trip up over her in the same way, probably because she’s just too weird. She fawns over Charlotte in a way that Charlotte doesn’t understand. Charlotte had thought at first that this was just the ass-kissing everyone had to do to get to Jodie’s level in the corporate ladder at Hooli, and she’d subtly—well, “subtly”—tried to tell Jodie that she didn’t have to do that anymore. Pied Piper wasn’t a corporate environment. But Jodie hadn’t stopped.

Charlotte had also considered the possibility that this was one of these things about acting like a girl that she’d never absorbed properly. Acting friendly, giving compliments, that sort of thing. But Jodie’s behavior, as far as Charlotte can tell, isn’t at a normal-girl level of niceness. It’s something else. It’s unnerving. But Charlotte’s in no position to tell anyone else they’re being too weird.

It takes a few days, but the guilt over being an asshole to Monica starts to set in. That, and a sense of needing to prove to Monica that she’s wrong. Clothes don’t really matter, so she can just go buy some new clothes and then just go back to writing code, right? She can beat Monica on her own turf. She’s going to be the bigger person and do what Monica tells her to do. It’s this kind of thinking that leads her to pull Jodie aside, and ask, “I know this is kind of a weird question, and I’d appreciate if you didn’t tell Dinesh and Gilfoyle, but, um, do you think you could help me buy some clothes?”

The look that spreads across Jodie’s face is—well, Charlotte had been kind of taking for granted the fact that Jodie would agree, but she hadn’t expected Jodie to cover her mouth with her hands, clearly overcome with joy. “Charlotte, I’d be honored,” she says. “Of course I’d like to help. When were you thinking of going?”

“This weekend?” Charlotte says. “Uh, thanks, also.”

“Just name a time, and I’ll be there,” Jodie says, still beaming. “The privilege of being able to dress you isn’t something I take lightly. I’ll think hard on it.”

“Oh, uh, okay. Thanks,” Charlotte says, again. She wonders, for the first time since the shopping idea came to her, whether she’s taking advantage of Jodie’s—devotion? “Uh, see you this weekend, I guess.”

Charlotte leaves with a nagging feeling of having gotten herself in over her head. The privilege?

“Why are you just standing there and checking your phone?” Dinesh says. “Actually, I don’t care what you’re doing. It’s just that you’re fidgeting in my line of sight, which is really distracting.”

“I’m, uh,” Charlotte says. “Jodie and I need to go somewhere. I’m just waiting for her.”

“Where are you guys going? It’s Saturday.”

“I thought you didn’t care,” Charlotte says. She should have come up with a better cover-up beforehand.

Dinesh narrows his eyes. “You seem kind of nervous,” he says. Gilfoyle looks up.

Charlotte sighs and throws her hands up. There’s no point in trying to hide this, now. “I’m—we’re just going shopping.”

“Shopping for what?”

Charlotte grits her teeth for a moment. “Clothes.”

Gilfoyle’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly. Dinesh says, “Wait, seriously? Jodie Foster here is taking you clothes shopping? Do you do that regularly?”

“Dinesh,” Gilfoyle says, “that joke has never been as funny as you think it is. They literally just have the same name.”

“Gilfoyle’s right,” Charlotte says. She glances toward the door to the kitchen. Hopefully Jodie finishes whatever she’s doing in there soon.

“It’s not just the name, okay? She looks just like the Jodie Foster character in Silence of the Lambs—”

“So they have the same haircut. I guess I’d forgotten that all women look the same to you.”

“I’ve never said that Charlotte here looks like Jodie. Also, fuck you, Gilfoyle.”

“I still don’t even know what that is,” Charlotte says. “Is that a movie?”

“Wait, seriously?” Gilfoyle says. “Even Dinesh has seen that movie.”

“Yeah, even my parents didn’t lock me in a bunker to only be allowed to do programming competitions or whatever the fuck—”

“Okay, can both of you just…I’m sorry I asked,” Charlotte says, looking at the kitchen door again. “And I’ve seen Contact, okay? I know what Jodie Foster looks like. She doesn’t really look like our Jodie.” Charlotte’s not actually certain. She’s terrible with faces.

“Oh, of course they let you watch the nerd one, about space or whatever.”

“Charlotte’s right. We’re forgetting the important questions,” Gilfoyle says. The door opens, just in time for Jodie to appear and hear him say, “Are we going to get more VC attention if Charlotte shows up to these meetings dressed like Gavin Belson’s secretary? By the way, Dinesh, I’m going to ignore the fact that you called someone else a nerd, even if it was Charlotte.”

“Okay, I’m all ready to go!” Jodie says. “I see you’ve told the guys about our little shopping expedition.”

“Not her, the movie, dumbass,” Dinesh mutters.

“Yeah,” Charlotte says. She glares at Gilfoyle, then Dinesh. Both of them go back to typing. She sighs. “Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go.”

In the car, Charlotte says, because she already feels weird enough about this shopping trip and the awkwardness from their earlier encounter is hanging over her, “Does it ever bother you to have the guys talk about you like that?”

“I don’t mind,” Jodie answers, maybe slightly too quickly. “I know that the three of you have been living and working together for some time, and that it takes some time to acclimate to having someone new around, especially since it’s a very male space. And I know that Gilfoyle didn’t mean anything by the secretary comment. I’ve found that coders sometimes purposefully mix up different kinds of non-technical roles to prove a point.” Charlotte winces. Guilty as charged.

“And, to be honest, I wouldn’t have faulted anyone at Hooli for actually thinking I was an administrative assistant, at least at first,” Jodie continues. Charlotte is now guilty on both counts. “I sometimes found myself doing various admin assistant duties at Hooli. Sometimes people who were under that mistaken assumption asked me to schedule meetings, and it was faster for me to do it than to correct them and direct them to the right person. Although other people would see this and then make the same mistake, so I guess it was actually my fault in feeding that vicious cycle.” Jodie smiles, or grimaces; Charlotte isn’t sure. “And some of the actual admin assistants would use me as a sort of go-between. I think some of them were reluctant to interact with Gavin because he wasn’t always very kind to them.”

“Oh,” Charlotte says. She’s not sure how to respond to that. “That’s…terrible.”

“Well, I can’t tell you enough how grateful I am to be working at Pied Piper now,” Jodie says. It always sounds momentous whenever she says it, except for the fact that she says something like it several times a week.

Charlotte doesn’t mind, since she has a default response by now. “I’m glad you’re here too,” she says.

They’re on the freeway, and Jodie doesn’t take her eyes off the road, but she smiles. “I don’t really mind the Jodie Foster references, either. I mean, they’re kind of flattering, actually.” Charlotte makes a mental note of the fact that apparently sound carries to the kitchen from the living room more easily than she’d thought. Or maybe Jodie just has freakishly good hearing. “Although, as you can probably guess, it’s not the first time someone’s thought of that connection. At times I used to wonder what it revealed about Gavin.”

“What—oh, right.” The thing where Gavin renamed her. Charlotte’s memory is not at its best today. “Well, uh…I get it. I kind of have an old-lady name too, I guess.”

“Personally, I think Charlotte’s a beautiful name. Like Charlotte Brontë, or, I suppose, Charlotte Corday. If you don’t mind me asking, is your family of English extraction, by any chance? I only ask because Charlotte Hendricks is just such a wonderfully English name.”

“Uh, yeah, actually, my grandparents on my dad’s side were born in England. Hey, you know Charles Darwin?” Charlotte knows she’s not a very interesting person in general, so she likes to save this one up for the right moment.

“Of course! The great English naturalist and cataloguist of Galapagoan finches.” Jodie gasps. “Charlotte, were you named after him? Is he a relative?”

“No. Well, sort of. Transitively, I guess.” Most people don’t make the connection between their names so quickly, but Jodie just did, which means the rest of the story is going to be disappointing. “So, I was actually named after Charles Galton Darwin, the evolution guy’s grandson. He was my great-grandfather on my dad’s mom’s side. He did some foundational work in quantum mechanics in the twenties and thirties, and he studied under Ernest Rutherford, if you know who that is. Anyway, my dad is an astrophysics professor at the University of Tulsa, and he’s pretty proud of the family history, I guess. If you were ever wondering where the, uh, the astronomy and the stargazing stuff came from.” That was kind of self-centered. Of course Jodie wouldn’t be wondering. Charlotte continues, “The Tulsa branch of the Hendricks family isn’t the most distinguished one, obviously. I mean, I have a distant cousin closer to my dad’s age who’s a math professor at Cambridge. Stuff like that.”

Jodie has been lightly nodding along. “That’s so exciting! I mean, I suppose I should have known that you come from a long history of distinguished scientists. It’s not exactly surprising.”

“Yeah, well, it’s kind of fitting, right?” Jodie nods emphatically before Charlotte can finish. “The first Charles Darwin was one of the most important scientists of all time, and the second one was some guy nobody knows about, but he still got knighted and was a Fellow of the Royal Society and everything. And then there’s me, and I didn’t even graduate from college, so I think the precipitous decline or the regression to the mean or whatever you want to call it is definitely real.”

“Oh, Charlotte,” Jodie says, frowning. “I think these Charles Darwins are perfectly appropriate namesakes.” Now Charlotte feels bad. Saying anything self-deprecating to or around Jodie is always more trouble than it’s worth. “Do you keep in touch with the English side of your family? I’ve always thought it might be exciting to have an extended family with such far-flung relatives.”

“Uh, not really, no,” Charlotte says, feeling guilty, which is a not-uncommon theme when she’s around Jodie. “I mean, I barely even talk to my parents, so.” That might have been an insensitive thing to say. “We also have some family on the East Coast, although I’ve only met a few of those people. My dad met my mom when he was a postdoc at Yale and she was a grad student in the same research group, and she followed him to his tenure-track position at UT. But that was all before I was born.”

“Oh! Your parents work together?”

“What? Oh. No, my mother kind of became a stay-at-home mom at that point.” They’re pulling into a parking lot at the Stanford Shopping Center. Driving this close to the Stanford campus puts Charlotte slightly on edge, but it’s been six years since she’d actually taken any classes there, and she can keep it together. “Sorry, you probably don’t actually care about that. I’ve got all this stupid family trivia in my head that I wish I could just forget, you know?”

“No! To the contrary, I’m always happy to learn more about you,” Jodie says, looking over and giving Charlotte a smile, looking unfazed.

Charlotte manages to smile back. “Alright,” she says, “that’s—that’s good.”

Jodie leads them to J.Crew. “Shopping for business casual clothes is always such a treat, though I don’t indulge more than once a year or so,” she says. “I remember the first time I came here after my first Hooli paycheck. I splurged and bought the loveliest merino cardigan, and I was really unaccountably upset when it was accidentally destroyed during an offsite corporate retreat a few weeks before I left.”

Charlotte’s not clear on how clothes shopping could be a treat for anyone, but Jodie’s doing a nice thing for her, so she just nods and makes sounds of agreement.

She feels out of place as soon as she enters the store. Jodie, though, looks like she could be one of the saleswomen, or one of the mannequins. Today she’s wearing a navy blue cardigan and a matching sweater-shirt-thing, her usual pearls, a gray skirt, and flats. (“I’ve found that adding any more height tends to draw even more unwanted attention,” she’d explained once.) The other customers in the store look mostly like Palo Alto athletic mom types, but there are a few college-aged girls.

Jodie’s explaining colors to her. “…with your complexion, forest green would be a flattering, classic choice, though navy would be wonderful too, and a little more conservative. As for lighter colors, I think cream would be nice. I’m not a believer in the accepted wisdom that if your hair is that lovely shade of auburn, then you can’t wear pink, and I actually think some shades of pink would look fetching on you,” she says. “Although I get the feeling you’re not really a pink sort of girl.”

“Yeah, not really,” Charlotte says. She’s been zoning in and out of this conversation, following Jodie around the store as Jodie methodically inspects everything, aimlessly brushing her own hand through the clothes lined up on hangers. It’s not that she doesn’t care, but Jodie’s clearly on another level here, working within some system that Charlotte doesn’t understand. She’s probably given more consideration to Charlotte’s complexion than anyone else, including Charlotte herself, has in her entire life. (Jodie herself has nice skin; Charlotte makes a mental note of that, in case she ever needs to swap compliments.)

The fluorescent lights overhead are noticeably flickering. Charlotte raises her hand so she can chew on her nails, but drops her hand when she realizes what she’s doing. At some point, she catches a glimpse of herself and Jodie in the mirror, and feels the disorienting realization that the disheveled person in the mirror is her.

“I think we’ll want to avoid the neon yellow that’s popular this season. It’s a bold choice for a bold CEO, but it won’t read well on television,” Jodie is saying. “How about this?” She’s holding a whitish blouse now.

“Yeah, I’ll try it.”

Jodie adds it to the pile of clothes she’s holding. “I think that brings us to the limit for the number of items you can take into the dressing room, so let’s head over.”

In line for the dressing rooms, Charlotte finds she has nothing to say. She and Jodie aren’t really friends, or at least not close ones. They mostly talk to each other about work, but Charlotte senses that anything related to her compression tech startup would be out of place here. When they get to the front, the person working in the dressing rooms gives Jodie the plastic tag with the number of items they have. “They’re actually all for her,” Jodie says, and hands off the pile of clothes on hangers to Charlotte, who’s so startled that she almost drops everything. “I’ll be out here by the mirror in case you want a second opinion on anything.”

Inside the dressing room, Charlotte drops the pile of clothes on the floor. The door doesn’t go all the way to the floor and ceiling, so it’s more like a bathroom stall, and she can sense Jodie’s presence just outside. She takes off her hoodie and old flannel shirt, and takes the whitish blouse from the top of the pile. It takes an embarrassing amount of time just to figure out how to put it on.

She’d kind of been hoping against hope that Jodie picking clothes for her would just automatically make her look like Monica or like the other women profiled in that Wired article, or at least like Jodie (who looks more preppy and middle-aged than Charlotte can imagine herself looking), and then that would be the end of it. No dice. Her hair is even more of a mess than usual from wrestling with this blouse while trying to pull it over her head, and her skin looks ghastly, both pale and splotchy, under these terrible fluorescent lights. The blouse is cut in a flowing shape, and she doesn’t know if it’s supposed to fit like this. She looks like a little kid playing dress-up.

She takes off the blouse and tosses it on the floor. That’s the “maybe” pile. One down, several more to go. The next blouse is pretty similar, and this time, Charlotte keeps it on for longer, and thinks about putting it on every day, taking it off the hanger where it’ll hang in her closet.

She could always just tell Jodie that she wants to buy all this stuff, have it rung up, take it all home, and just start dressing like this. She wouldn’t have to do it every day, just when she has to go to Raviga or if she ever needs to do another interview. Maybe she could just buy one outfit and have it be her one nice outfit, or buy multiple copies of it, like Mark Zuckerberg with his identical gray t-shirts. She could just try on all of these things and then pick whatever outfit she hates the least. Hopefully she can cut off the uncomfortable tags without ruining anything. She thinks of Jodie, ecstatic at the idea of dressing Charlotte (in her words), and immediately feels guilty for considering the minimum-energy route. What would it be like to be Jodie or Monica? To just put on nice clothes and look like—like a real person every day, like it’s nothing.

Charlotte has a company to run that’s barely gotten itself off the ground and rapidly losing money, and she’s currently working herself up in a dressing room at the fucking Stanford Shopping Center. She remembers the issue she’d been trying to debug this morning, one that she suspects might require a major refactoring to fix, and a sense of roiling anxiety overtakes her. She starts tugging this blouse off.

“Charlotte, are you decent?” Jodie says, startling her. “I have more things you could try on, if you’re done with what you’ve got in there.”

“Uh, can you wait a minute? I’m just—”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine!” Charlotte manages to finally get this blouse off.

“Charlotte, are you sure you’re alright?” Jodie says, and knocks on the door again, more insistently this time. There’s a definite note of panic in her voice, which is the last thing that Charlotte wants to hear. She grabs her shirt off the ground, buttons it up halfway, realizes the buttons are misaligned, curses, and then, without really even thinking, opens the door.

Jodie looks taken aback. Charlotte reaches up and tries to nonchalantly button a few more buttons, misalignment be damned. “I’m fine,” she says, before Jodie can get a word in.

“Okay,” Jodie says after a second. “That’s a relief. I was worried out there.” Charlotte shrugs. “Well, how’d it go? Did you love anything in particular? I can get you a different color or size for anything. I think I have a pretty good handle on what size you wear, but I’m not too proud to admit that I might be wrong in some cases.”

“Oh, uh,” Charlotte says. Where to even start? She lets Jodie into the stall, and Jodie shuts the door behind her. There’s a pile of clothes on the ground that she still hasn’t tried on. “It’s kind of…not that great.” Jodie looks crestfallen, which makes Charlotte’s stomach drop. “I mean, it’s not you. I just—maybe I need more time or something.”

“Sure, take all the time you need,” Jodie says, infinitely patient as usual. The idea of spending more time in this dressing room seems incredibly awful, actually, and Charlotte must grimace or something, because Jodie frowns. “Charlotte, are you sure nothing’s wrong?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Jodie looks unconvinced. Charlotte sighs. “I’m just not really used to dressing like this, you know? It feels like I’m pretending to be one of those CEOs in that Wired puff piece.”

“Charlotte, I don’t understand what you mean,” Jodie says. “You are a CEO profiled in that article—”

“I know,” Charlotte says. The dressing room is too small for two people, but there’s no way to ask Jodie to leave. She feels cramped, and the flickering lights are starting to give her a headache. There’s too much tension in her head, behind her eyes. “I just—I don’t know if I want to do this.”

“What do you mean?”

Charlotte sits down on the tiny, uncomfortable bench. Jodie crouches down next to her, and Charlotte puts her head in her hands. “I have so much work to do,” she says. “I kind of thought this would just be an in-and-out kind of thing, and it turns out I look weird in pretty much everything, and I don’t even, I—like, I don’t even know how to pick out my own clothes, and I’ve got a major refactor I should be doing but I’ll probably just end up putting in some shitty hacks because I don’t have time, and I’m just totally fucked.” To her horror, she’s starting to feel teary, but she presses on carefully, concentrating on making herself not sound hysterical or on the verge of crying. “I just looked like an awkward teenager in everything, pretending to be an actual company founder and an actual person, and I know I’m pretending, okay? But it’d be nice to just do literally anything in my life without being reminded of that for fucking once.”

Her voice cracks on the last word, and now she’s actually tearing up.

“Charlotte,” Jodie says. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you felt that way.”

“Why are you—it’s not your fault,” Charlotte says, between pathetic sniffles. “I just feel like I can’t do any of this. Even buying clothes is this huge fucking ordeal. I didn’t know how to file my own LLC paperwork, I didn’t—” She feels Jodie’s hand on her arm, and jerks away. “I’m just never going to be like you, or Monica, or the CEO of or Cupcakely or whatever the fuck it’s called.”

“Charlotte, you’re not—”

“I’m just this weird, disgusting freak who wears gross hoodies on TV,” Charlotte says, barely even registering what Jodie’s saying. “I don’t know how you just look so fucking clean and nice every day and do all the bullshit work that nobody else wants to do. I can’t be like that. All I can do is cry in a fucking dressing room—” With that, she starts crying in earnest, which is probably for the best. It’s better than subjecting Jodie to this word vomit.

“Charlotte, you’re not a—look, I may have followed you to Pied Piper because of your brilliance and your courage, but it doesn’t also mean you’re not—”

“Please stop,” Charlotte says, weakly. That was pretty cruel, but she really can’t listen to this. It rings so hollow to her. “Sorry,” she says, after a second. “I just can’t—not right now.”

They sit in silence for a while; Charlotte doesn’t know how long. Finally, Jodie says, in a very small voice, “Can I say something?”

Charlotte gives an equally small nod.

Jodie starts speaking after a few seconds. “The summer before my senior year in college, I interned in D.C. and had to buy a professional wardrobe for the first time. I had to scrimp and save to be able to buy clothes from the thrift store, and it definitely took some improvisation, but I was able to pull something together.” Charlotte is not exactly looking forward to hearing the rest of this story. She's not sure if she can handle hearing a story about Jodie’s past that makes her feel even guiltier. “I mean, after a lifetime of service jobs of various kinds, I also thought I’d been pretending to be someone else, the first time I put on a skirt suit.”

Charlotte lowers her hands slightly and looks up. Jodie has rearranged herself so that she’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, her pleated skirt falling across her lap. Her limbs are too long for this tiny stall; one of her knees is wedged against a wall. Her expression is placid, even dreamy.

“Yeah?” Charlotte says. Active listening.

“I guess, over time, I started thinking of those clothes as my armor,” Jodie says. “I think a lot of the other interns were used to dressing and acting in that way, and were comfortable with working for no pay for an entire summer. I guess that environment was…well, it wasn’t particularly easy for me, at the time.” Jodie frowns. “I mean—don’t get me wrong—I was incredibly fortunate to have gotten the position at all, and it was an essential stepping stone in my professional development. It was just that I felt like my clothes were something I could control, if that makes any sense.”

Charlotte nods. She’s not sure if she understands, but she’s smart enough to know that Jodie’s telling her something here, and that she needs to try.

“That, and the drugstore makeup. I took a real sense of pride in that.” Jodie, Charlotte realizes, is getting emotional. “To be honest, I sometimes still can’t believe that I can have a life like this, and that I’m really a business professional with a stable life and not just”—Jodie dabs at her eyes—“someone who puts on a costume every day.” She looks up at Charlotte, and Charlotte tries to make her best reassuring face. “I just—I wouldn’t presume to know exactly how you’re feeling about all this, because you’ve already achieved so much that I could never imagine achieving, and I could never imagine what it’s like to be in your position.” Jodie takes a second to wipe away more tears. Charlotte looks at a spot on the floor. “I’m just—I’m so honored that you were willing to be vulnerable with me and share that part of yourself with me.”

“Oh,” Charlotte says. “That’s—I didn’t know. I just—” She looks at Jodie again, who is currently surprisingly composed considering that she’s also crying. She looks nothing like how Charlotte probably looks right now. This feels like an out-of-body experience, crying with her head of biz dev at the mall.

This close up, she can see the texture of Jodie’s pores under her makeup, her flyaway hair strands, her slightly puffy eyes. Charlotte’s suddenly overwhelmed with the sense that Jodie is a real, flesh-and-blood person, not a devoted, efficient corporate automaton, and—as much as Charlotte hates to admit it—it’s a new and uncomfortable feeling.

Time to slightly change the topic. “I just hate that guys don’t have to think about this stuff in the same way, you know?” Jodie nods, which is encouraging. “I mean, I guess if this were really corporate, they’d have to wear suits, but, like, you know how the guys at the incubator dress. Or those assholes who were at Disrupt! They look like shit as much as I do, and it’s like—never mind.” She’s basically just repeating what Monica had told her. “I just really hate thinking about any of this stuff at all, you know? Like I’m a woman founder, like I’m a doll who has to be dressed up for everyone, since that’s just how they see me.” Charlotte drags her hands over her face. “I just hate it. Like, I know Erlich and Dinesh and Gilfoyle are fucking assholes, but at least they don’t treat me like that. I don’t have to, like, perform for them when I’m at the incubator.”

“I can understand that,” Jodie says.

“You don’t have to say that,” Charlotte says, feeling stupid and out of her depth. She thinks of this morning at the incubator, which now seems like a lifetime ago. Jodie definitely knows a thing or two about assholes. What can Charlotte tell her that she doesn’t already know?

They sit together like that for a while amid the piles of discarded clothes, but it’s not uncomfortable. At some point, Charlotte is going to have to pull herself together and exit this dressing room, which will be difficult, since she still feels barely human. But that can wait.

“You know,” Jodie says, “we don’t have to buy clothes that are so different from what you’re used to wearing.”

“Oh, right.” That’s what they came here for.

“I’d be happy to try to pick out some things that are closer to what you’re already comfortable with,” Jodie says. “Just to freshen up your wardrobe a little. Or we could also go home! It’s entirely up to you.”

Charlotte thinks about it. She kind of owes this to Jodie, and she really doesn’t want to repeat this trip. “Sure,” she says, “that sounds fine.”

She helps Jodie pick up all the clothes off the floor, and waits for Jodie to return, idly thinking about the refactoring again. Jodie comes back in a few minutes with a shirt and a sweater. “We can just start with these,” she says.

Alone again, Charlotte puts the new flannel shirt on. It’s a solid dark gray, and it fits a lot better than the one she’d been wearing earlier today. She looks less like she’s wearing her hypothetical older brother’s castoffs or something, and more like an adult who’s…kind of butch? Apparently, Jodie does know Charlotte’s size, even better than Charlotte does.

She tries to fix her posture and stand taller. Now she looks almost like a different person, but in a way she actually likes, unlike with that photo in Wired. Tentatively, she smiles at the mirror, trying to imagine herself wearing this on TV.

She opens the door and lets Jodie in. Jodie’s face lights up when she sees, and Charlotte’s not going to pretend she doesn’t like that. Jodie says, “You look wonderful,” and it’s just her usual over-the-top enthusiasm, but Charlotte flushes and looks at the floor anyway.

“You really think so?” she says, trying to not take the compliment to heart too much, since Jodie’s just always like that.

“Of course,” Jodie says. “You can try it with the sweater, too, if you’d like.”

Charlotte pulls the sweater over her head. “May I?” Jodie says. Charlotte nods, and Jodie starts making adjustments, tugging everything into place and smoothing the fabric, adjusting the collar of the shirt where it meets the sweater. Charlotte can smell Jodie’s perfume this close up.

“All done,” Jodie says, and moves out of the way of the mirror. The sweater is dark green with flecks of gray and blue, kind of tweedy and forest-like. “That’s so lovely,” Jodie says, looking proud of her own handiwork, and Charlotte can’t help but smile. She won’t even have to talk herself into wearing this. It looks great.

There’s a part of Charlotte that registers the fact that she and Jodie look like a matched set. Something flips in her stomach, and—

Shit. This had been going pretty well, all things considered, but the flicker of attraction she just felt to her probably-straight coworker—employee—is not good. (It shouldn’t even matter that Jodie is probably straight. She’s seriously, incredibly off-limits.) Charlotte keeps smiling.

“What do you think?” Jodie says.

Charlotte realizes she’s forgotten to say anything. “Oh, it’s, um, really great, actually,” she says. “Thanks. I—I really appreciate it.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Jodie says, and looks like she means it. (Charlotte has dealt with these kinds of crushes before. She’ll be fine. She just needs to think about something else, and there are plenty of problems at Pied Piper to think about.) “Would you like me to keep looking? Maybe get some other colors? You know I’m more than happy to do that.”

They leave the store with that sweater in two different colors, that shirt in three different colors, and a pair of pants. “God, I guess I should just get rid of some of these clothes I’ve been wearing,” Charlotte says, on their way to the car. “I mean, some of that stuff is from high school.”

“Well, don’t throw them away,” Jodie says. “They’d be great as cleaning rags, if you’d be willing to let me have them.”

“Yeah, sure,” Charlotte says. “Wait, have you been cleaning? At the incubator?”

“Well, only minor tidying up, dusting, wiping down surfaces, things like that. Nothing major.”

“Jesus Christ,” Charlotte says. “That’s—you’re the only one of us who doesn’t live there. You shouldn’t have to do that.”

“Sorry, maybe I should have asked?” Jodie says. “I mean, I do spend most of my time there, and it is a shared office space for all of us. But I understand that it’s your home—”

“That’s not what I meant. Look, we can book a Homejoy or a Handy, or—I’ll just tell Erlich to get the guys to clean up more,” Charlotte says. “And, like, I can start trying harder too.”

“Hey, so,” Charlotte says, over video chat, “sorry about last time.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” Monica says. “Look, I’d also like to apologize. I know this kind of thing can be sensitive, and I could have been better in how I brought it up.”

“Yeah, well,” Charlotte says. “You were kind of right. I mean, not about everything. But, like…” she shrugs.

Monica just nods. “Well, I think that sweater looks great on you, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“Oh, uh, thanks,” Charlotte says. “So, uh, are we…” She shrugs. “Are we good?”

“We’re good,” Monica says. “I was thinking, we should have lunch together sometime, just the two of us. Just to casually talk about whatever’s going on. I know we didn’t have a lot of time leading up to Disrupt, and honestly it’s been pretty crazy over here with Peter’s passing, but let me know if you can find some time.”

“Okay, sure.”

“To be clear, this isn’t, like, some sort of girl bonding time or whatever, if you’re afraid of that,” Monica says. “This is just two professionals in the tech industry having lunch with each other. I know we got off to a bit of a rocky start, and it might be good for us to just have a little one-on-one.”

“Yeah, I know,” Charlotte says, and Monica rolls her eyes a little, but it comes off as good-natured. “Yeah, I mean, that sounds good. Just put it on my calendar.”