At 11 p.m., the night felt different than it did at 2 a.m., just like how 2 a.m. felt different from 3. Sitting in the office, he tried to savor the fleeting nature of the night’s beginning, something only possible because he knew it would end.
The first thing to set in was almost always a simple drowsiness. Thick and onerous, this sensation would seep in from the edges, before wrapping around his head and digging deeply into the skin near his eyes. Next came a gradual discomfort in his legs, precipitated by the office chair. It was typically like clockwork; around 3 his legs would begin cramping, almost begging to be stretched out horizontally.
Yet without peer was what happened to his eyes, often at approximately 4 or 5 a.m. What would begin as a faint, almost imperceptible irritation would grow into something ghastly, often feeling like someone had taken a hot poker to the back of his corneas. However, he knew that this agony was still a few hours off and that he needed to be productive for as long as possible. He had set a goal for himself before coming in for the night shift. He was going to complete three job applications or die trying.
Of course, once he pulled up the site for the first application, death began to feel like a welcome alternative. There were a number of things that almost immediately dissuaded him. First, the company’s site wouldn’t allow for an easy application submission, requiring instead the creation of a whole profile. Fuming, he began to savagely pound in his biographical information, data that he knew he would have to replicate on the actual application. Once the profile was created he readied himself to begin the actual work, yet was thwarted again and prompted to create a recovery code.
Smiling like the Grinch, he briefly fantasized about plugging in something obscene for the code, something that would signify his displeasure with the entire process. FUCK YOU immediately sprang to mind. Yet even a small act of rebellion was beyond him, and dutifully he punched in an entirely innocuous phrase: the name of his childhood pet. The hoops had been placed in front of him, and he began jumping like the good little boy he was.
Moving onto the central application, he reflected on how the process related to the broad circumstances of his life. He had never been one to deviate from the socially approved path, adhering instead to the narrative prescribed to people of his socio-economic background. He had thrown himself into high school, structuring his experience around what he thought colleges wanted to see on an applicant’s resume. Yet he had never taken the time to understand what he wanted to see for himself, in himself.
College had felt like a plateau of sorts, the culmination of something rather than the beginning. He had acted under the mistaken belief that getting there was really all that mattered and that once he was there the rest of his life would take care of itself. But it hadn’t worked out that way. He floundered in school, like a fish attempting to survive in too little water. Because he had never practiced introspection, no clear path emerged that melded any passions he had with pragmatic realities. College had eventually come and gone, and when it was over, he had found himself with few options. The whole cultural mantra of college being an “investment” in the future may have still been applicable to him but only in the sense that return on investments are never, ever guaranteed.
One of the problems was that his interests didn’t really lend themselves to solid career paths. In fact, he couldn’t think of many that did these days, aside from something like actuarial science. Still, he recognized that he could have still been more prudent with his choices, and his failure to critically approach things had left him with a small mountain of debt. This was a source of constant anxiety, as it was perpetually swelling like an unchecked tumor. Despite recognizing that he was at least a partial architect of his own demise, he still felt shortchanged, as though he had been given a raw deal. This was perpetually on his mind these days, as he looked for ways to increase his marketability and enter into the lower tiers of the middle class.
The application he now stared at was as good as anything he had seen: a research assistant post at one of the hospitals in downtown St. Paul. The basic requirements of the role were within his grasp; and yet, the application’s various components still felt onerous and oppressive. The fatigue he typically associated with the night’s later sections began to prematurely encircle his head, inducing a foggy, stupefying malaise.
Oh god a cover letter, he thought to himself, staring at the section of the application that asked, no, required him to upload one. It wasn’t that he was afraid of doing the writing. In fact, he enjoyed writing in his free time, as long as it was unstructured, where he could type with a sense of carefree abandon. Being asked for a cover letter, however, was like being asked for a new scientific algorithm. He had never understood what he was supposed to say. The only advice he had ever been given was that they offered one the chance to describe themselves “beyond the information in one’s resume.” This was a task for which he felt ill-equipped, and in contending with it, he suddenly started feeling lonely and tearful.
After about a minute of staring at the screen like a dumb baboon, he sighed and opened a new window. It was almost instinctual for him to flip to social media when faced with a problem, and he did it in a mindless way, like a muscle memory that requires minimal cognition. This was a habit that had been cultivated over the past few years, and its effect was profound. Once the white “f,” surrounded by a cool, navy blue square came into view he felt a sense of awesome relief. The seriousness of the application, with its multiple parts and penetrating questions, began to feel like nothing more than a bad dream, whose reality begins to dissipate immediately upon awakening.
This site was a place of ultimate escapism. He had lost whole hours, whole afternoons to its functioning. There were thousands of pictures to view, dozens of statuses that could be liked and an endless amount of mind-numbing surveys to take. “Which Breaking Bad character are you?” was about as invasive as it got. Skyler White, duh.
The sections of his personal profile that called on him to define himself were placid and unthreatening, far removed from the stark and frankly intimidating character of his job application’s cover letter. From movies, to books, to “heroes,” the overwhelming complexity of a personality, a life, became condensed, simplified into manageable segments of cultural preferences.
Each time he came to the site he swore that it would only be for a minute. Yet inevitably the minutes multiplied, stretched together, until he could barely remember what he been working on in the first place. This was unsurprising; being on the site felt good. Underneath the pomp, the deluge of ads and brands, the whole apparatus was about him but also safely about anything but him.
However, for as much as the site was a reprieve, in the past few weeks he had become conscious of its ability to provoke different and less pleasurable emotions. In between the self-indulgent joy of listing off bands that he liked, there was another feeling that was unmistakably one of anxiety. He had first noticed this after trying and failing to put his degree to use, and then watching as photo after photo was uploaded showcasing the successes of his peers.
Moving into a list of his friends, he studied their profile pictures. One photo showed an image of a woman on a corporate retreat, laughing with sheer, uncontrollable elation, her long, amber-colored hair swirling around her. In another, a young, sharply-dressed man, with what looked like a blond flat top, was standing outside a newish, suburban home, his arm clutched tightly around a beautiful if conventional-looking woman. The man and the woman in front of the home had gone to his high school. He remembered them clutched tightly together then as well as they made their way up and down its halls. Typically during those years, the woman could be found hidden under the billowy-form of the man’s letter jacket, especially during cooler months.
Matched with the pictures were titles. Senior Buyer. Software Engineer. Lead Program Analyst. Founder of Such and Such. He personally didn’t have a title and had never thought about putting one into his profile. In looking at others, the feeling of anxiety, which at one point had been little more than an abstraction, became sharp and well-defined. Unnerved, he heard himself audibly groan. He flicked away from the list back onto the site’s “news feed.” There, in between a multitude of ads, which were all disturbingly tapped into his browsing history, he found a status update from an old girlfriend that made him immediately want to quit the whole enterprise.
Hey everyone! The job came through, and I’m moving to Seattle at the end of the year. Let’s get together and make some memories before I go!
Inside his chest he felt a familiar cold rush, accompanied by what felt like the bottom dropping out of his stomach. He didn’t understand this sensation, as he didn’t particularly want to move to Seattle. No, it wasn’t about that. It was more about the act of moving somewhere in its most vague and generalized form. It was something that had once been his title. It was something that he wanted for himself again.
Pushing away from the computer, he spun about on the black leather office chair, exhaling a strangely harsh-sounding breath of air. Ok, just stop, he screamed inside his head. Completing a full revolution, he quickly exited out of social media by smashing his finger into the mouse. The window died, and he again entered into a staring contest with his uncompleted application, a contest he knew he was in real danger of losing.
“Oh goddamn it!”
Enough was enough. Pushing forward with his feet, he scooted back to the desk so his hands could reach the computer’s keyboard. Overshooting the mark, he winced as the soft, doughy part of his midsection pushed roughly against the unyielding metal of the desk’s edges. Then a new wave of determination coursed through him, shutting out the thoughts of titles and houses, of moves and new beginnings. He tackled the application, entering data with a quick and ferocious alacrity. The cover letter too began to come together, a hodgepodge collection of words that he feverishly hoped would speak to something outside of his resume. Hardworking, independent, collaborative, were the sorts of words that appeared on his letter, although what they meant he hadn’t the slightest idea. Autonomous, compassionate, loyal.
After 20 minutes or so he sighed with relief and contentment, observing a completed application with an intense feeling that resembled pride. This might be it, he couldn’t help thinking. Maybe this is where it will begin. Excited, he giddily pushed the “Next” button on the computer screen, expecting to see that gratifying stock message about how his application was complete and how they would contact him if his credentials were a match.
But he didn’t see it. Instead the page seemed stuck in the loading process, its little, multicolored pin wheel spinning in an endless rotation. Watching it, he started to feel overcome with something awful, a sickness of sorts, as if his internal fluids, some bile or acid, had become destructive or noxious. Finally, the page loaded, but it wasn’t the one he wanted. Instead of a confirmation message regarding his completed application, he had been taken to a test, a skills assessment that would gauge whether or not he had basic competency in core areas.
He stared for a moment at the screen, which listed an exhausting number of directions, and then dutifully began. The question list was long, judging him in all the areas he had been judged before. There were questions in reading comprehension, in quantitative reasoning, all designed to see if he was worthy, to determine if he should be admitted to the next step. Most of the queries were fairly easy, straightforward enough where he had no problem finishing before the two-minute time limit he had been given for each question was extinguished.
Working through the question list, he couldn’t help but feel a bit like a puppet, continually prompted to show what he could do. From as early as six, there had been a pattern in place similar to this one, a life revolving around tiers, levels, where advancement was paramount but the meaning behind it was not. He paused for a moment. The test had moved to a question that was anything but straightforward. A lengthy, multiple paragraph question now faced him, discussing different airports and their specific routes, and asking which airports a passenger would have to utilize to go between two airports that weren’t connected by a direct flight. Head buzzing, he groped drunkenly for a piece of paper. In order to make sense of it, he needed to sketch things out.
Grabbing a scrap, he looked at the test’s timer. Thirty seconds had already evaporated, leaving only 90 more to complete his deranged diagrams and successfully answer the question. Shooting his arm towards a purple cup full of writing tools, he zeroed in on a crisp looking pencil, branded with the logo of a professional consulting service. He missed the mark, knocking the cup back against the wall, and spilling its contents down the crack between the wall and the desk itself.
Pushing himself away from the desk, he got down on his hands and knees and crawled underneath the open space in the desk’s center. Wiggling like an overgrown earthworm, he wedged himself deep underneath the desk whose metallic frame barely accommodated him.
The light that emanated from the office’s standing lamp was robust and powerful, illuminating every nook and cranny of the room. Yet its force was dimmed immediately when he entered the space underneath the desk, so much so that he was startled. The space between the entrance of the desk and the wall itself was also longer than he had expected, and his struggle to reach it was exponentially more arduous.
It was perhaps par for the course that the pencils and pens that had been in the purple glass had not fallen straight down where they would be easily reachable. Instead, they all bounced away from the open space where he was now and were underneath the solid metal bulk of the desk that rose up on both sides of him. He pressed his face against the carpet of the office’s floor, which felt course and hot, straining his eyes against a darkness that seemed to have become thick and impenetrable. There, in the sliver of open space between the fibers of the carpet and the heavy, dark metal of the desk’s bottom, lay the pencil that he wanted. From where he lay, with his face flattened against the ground, he imagined that the fibers on which the pencil was nestled had wrapped around it, anchoring it to the floor.
He adjusted himself and wiggled an arm out from under his body. Pressing it as flat as he could, he reached out into the dark sliver and felt the top of his hand scrape roughly against the desk’s underside. He knew the seconds were ticking by and imagined the hands of an old-fashioned clock moving inexorably ahead. With it, he knew that his chances were also receding. He wasn’t special, and his minimal credentials would be matched by others, perhaps others with perfect scores. His chances were slowly being annulled by a stupid pencil stuck underneath the corner of a stupid desk. But then another thought emerged from an unknowable place that was deep within him. Maybe it wasn’t the pencil, maybe it wasn’t the bad luck of him knocking a cup of them off the desk and onto the floor. It could be that there was something simply wrong with him. Perhaps what he had always needed to be successful in this life was lying just beyond. Perhaps it was always going to be within his line of sight but just painfully and barely out of reach.