‘Progress’: A Short Story from ‘Everything Is Awful and You’re A Terrible Person’
Alternative title: A Day in the Life of the Millennial Office Worker.
The following is a short story from Everything Is Awful and You're A Terrible Person, to be published by Arsenal Pulp Press this spring. The short story collection is the first book from Daniel Zomparelli, editor-in-chief of Poetry Is Dead magazine. The interconnected stories follow a series of gay men looking for love and finding dysfunction in the 21st century.
I was putting paper tacks up in my cubicle and trying out different shapes. I was working on a pirate ship being sunk by a giant octopus. I ran out of blue tacks, so I turned to go to the storage room when I heard the beep of an email arriving in my inbox.
Co-worker 1 used to send me daily emails with sad faces; the number of sad faces equalled how many hours were left in the workday. In the last hour, he'd changed that to minutes, and then seconds when it was close to five p.m. We recently used the sad faces to mean the number of days left in my contract. Boss 2 had made it clear that my job was done when the contract was over. Boss 3 made it clear by posting my job position on the office website. Boss 4 never came to the office, so I didn't know how he felt about it.
firstname.lastname@example.org: X grabbed my ass again. Not sure why no one is calling it sexual harassment.
>email@example.com: Did you report it?
>>firstname.lastname@example.org: No L I need this job for another few weeks and I don't want to stir anything up. Plus I heard someone reported him before, but no one cared. I guess it doesn't count if a guy is doing it to a guy.
>>>email@example.com: I'd tell him to go fuck himself next time.
>>>>firstname.lastname@example.org: I did, he said only if I watched.
>>>>>email@example.com: lol, that's pretty funny.
>>>>>>firstname.lastname@example.org: :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :(
To fill in the time at work, I began to take photos of myself with different emotions to see what I looked like when I was sad, happy, surprised, etc. They all kind of looked the same. I began to organize them in folders labelled sad, happy, surprised, etc. I took the photos every day to see if they were different and put them in a hidden folder on my computer titled "Progress."
Co-worker 6 stood over my shoulder one day as I was taking a sad face photo. "Are you working?" She smiled.
"Yeah, just testing out the webcam for my computer. It was being weird."
"Well, I fixed the scanner, so you can finish whatever you were trying to do before."
I nodded. I'd been scanning portions of my arm and zooming in to see the hairs.
"Isn't it funny how we hire people with degrees, but then they end up doing work that anyone with a high school education can do?"
I nodded, then watched Co-worker 6 head into her office. She was the snack hoarder. Every day someone would bring in a snack for the whole office, usually doughnuts. Co-worker 6 would always grab a few doughnuts or whatever was the snack of the day, eat one, and hide two in her stash cabinet. She also had a keen sense of smugness that made me like her.
An email popped up that said someone had brought in salt-water taffy from their recent trip to Halifax. I slowly made my way to the office kitchen. When I arrived, Co-worker 2 was talking about being cyberbullied the week before. She'd been tweeting about the Beyoncé concert and some guy harassed her, saying Beyoncé wasn't even a real person.
"I used to cyber all the time," I said. "One time I cybered with a guy in an online Family Feud game."
"How does that even work?"
"The avatars were all seated on this couch, and one of them kind of looked like they were sitting on my lap, so I mentioned that and—"
"Please stop." Co-worker 2 sat back in her chair and sipped her coffee. I got up and went back to my desk. We had a report due on the new reporting system, so I still needed to fill in the empty paragraphs where I had written, "write something."
I would usually write something, then copy and paste that paragraph into each blank space of the report. I would reword each paragraph so it didn't look like I was repeating myself, but the idea always was the same. The reporting process needs to be looked at more closely.
Read More: Sex at Work Can Go Very, Very Badly
I logged online to read the local news. There was another article on the local housing crisis. Fuck. My head began to pound. I found the author of the article's Twitter account and tweeted: Moronic. They blocked me within minutes. I could feel the sweat ring around my hairline. Fuck.
email@example.com: :( :( :( :( :( :( :(
Boss 2 looked up from her desk, her hands placed firmly in front of her like she was preparing to be mounted. "I'm sorry, but this report is completely nonsensical. It's like you wrote some random jargon and then filled in the blanks, last minute." I noticed that her breasts were being squeezed by her shirt. I stared blankly at Boss 2.
She wore very tight clothing, which was distracting for the three straight guys in the office. Meanwhile, the only thing I usually noticed was that she wore cheap underwear. (The labels were sometimes visible from her light-fabric skirts.)
"You're going to have to write this again."
I stared blankly at her.
"Listen, I know you're going through a lot of stress, so maybe I can just help you out with this."
I stared blankly.
"Why don't you send the file to me, and I'll fix it up for you."
I nodded. "That would help me out a lot." I strolled back to my desk. I sat down and gripped the arms of my chair. Rage crept up slower than usual. I closed my eyes. I thought about disappearing if I pressed hard enough in my chair.
firstname.lastname@example.org: :( :( :(
I had only a few days left to take more Post-it notes. I'd collected several boxes of them in my closet at home by that time, but I figured I would need them since I wasn't going to have a job soon and Post-it notes were expensive.
Co-worker 1 was reading through reddit pages and sending me his favourite inspirational quotes, the most recent being, "Feelings are a gateway to our hearts, which is a journey to love."
I logged in to Twitter, where someone was posting about more funding for the arts. I tweeted at them to get a job like the rest of us. The rage boiled in my stomach, I didn't know what it was, but I typed furiously until the person blocked me. Meanwhile the office was still buzzing from the latest firing of an employee. There had been three firings in one week. Apparently someone was stealing office supplies.
Co-worker 3 came up to my desk to ask about the theft. I steered him off-topic by asking about his latest vacation. He'd gone to Disneyland, where he spends one week every year. This year he took his girlfriend. He's thirty-six. This is his first girlfriend.
I nodded my head as he excitedly described seeing the Disney characters and going on each ride. A pang of jealousy rose in my stomach. I couldn't figure out what it was. It twitched my abs. I excused myself and went to the coffee shop for my second break of the day.
I turned on my phone and went online. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Logged in and began to slide down the updates. Every update felt like an attack. Oh yeah, this is exactly what we should invest all our money in. Rage covered my body; sweat covered my forehead . She should have tried harder. Blocked.
I opened the email from Co-worker 1. It was just the image of an ocean wave and the quote: "Love is happiness. Full stop." The ocean doesn't give a fuck about love, I thought.
Boss 1 took me into her office and began her speech about what a great employee I had been and how sad it was to see me go. They had already planned my party, which involved a cake left over from the previous employee's farewell party. There had been so many in that month that one cake now had to last for four different parties.
The entire staff came together in the conference room. It was a ritual that the entire staff showed up. Mostly because the entire staff really wanted cake.
Co-worker 6 was standing near the cake, and Boss 1 was pretending to listen to her story. Boss 1 stopped once she saw me, ushered me to the front of the conference room, and asked me to say a few words.
"Uh, thank you for having me," I said. I took a bow.
The staff stared awkwardly at me, so I moved toward the table that had the sparkling apple juice. The office wasn't against real alcohol, but that was too expensive, so a few of us kept beer and wine in our desks. I pretended to pour myself a glass of sparkling juice and then walked back to my desk to pour in the wine.
The staff rarely went back to work after an office party, except for the bosses. They would pretend they were working by sitting on their desks and drinking sparkling juice, which they had replaced with bourbon after the party. I walked into Boss 2's office for our afternoon meeting about the new letterhead we needed. Several of the male workers were listening as she talked about her latest trip to the Okanagan. There was a weird twitch in my abs as she described the winery where she'd stayed.
Boss 2 asked the other workers to leave and closed the door. She looked at me with sad eyes.
"I'm sorry you're leaving."
I nodded in response. She did look genuinely sad. I coughed awkwardly and pulled out the letterhead options.
"No, no. I'm not making you worry about this. Someone else will order new letterhead. I just wanted to talk with you on your last day. Any plans after this?"
I didn't really know what to say. I hadn't actually thought of any plans except to take my unemployment insurance and stay away from work for several months.
"I think I might take some time to learn a sport or try knitting."
She laughed, which shook her breasts. I tried not to stare at them. She walked around her desk and picked up a gift bag. She placed it gently in front of me.
"Is this for me?"
"Of course! I had to get something for you on your last day."
I opened the bag and found a few packages of Post-it notes in neon colours, a batch of office pens with the corporate logo on them, and a small flask. I murmured a thank you, and she gave me a strong hug. My hands dangled at the sides of my body. She laughed and said I needed to work on my hugs. She made me try again, told me not to be afraid of squeezing too hard. "Everyone loves a good strong hug," she said.
We tried again, and I did my best to squeeze her body. I felt a cold sweat coat my forehead. She laughed and said that it was a good start.
We stared blankly at each other for a moment, and then she looked down at her feet. After a couple of minutes, I grew tired of the silence and went back to my desk. I opened a Word document. I copied and pasted the statement "I feel weird" over and over again until it filled 3,000 pages, then I clicked print.
I pulled the Post-it notes out of the gift bag. Without thinking I started to write "goodbye" on each one with a sad face, and I posted them on all of the office computer screens.
When I was putting the Post-it on Co-worker 1's screen, he stopped me and said he wanted to show me something. He walked me toward the bathroom. When we got inside, he pressed into me and awkwardly kissed my mouth. I kissed back and slammed him against the wall. He fumbled to get his hands down my pants. I pulled him into the bathroom stall, and he quickly dropped his pants. He said he had this planned for my last day. We locked the bathroom stall and made no attempts to stifle the noise. No one came into the bathroom, or at least we were so distracted, we never noticed.
When we walked out of the stall, we saw a felt pen on the ground. Someone had drawn a few happy faces on the door of the stall. It looked like a half-finished sketch with gaping spaces between the happy faces. I picked up the pen and drew sad faces in the empty spots.
When I finished, Co-worker 1 was still washing up in the bathroom. He turned to me and said, "You know no one likes you here, right?"
I nodded and looked in the mirror. I couldn't tell if I was smiling or frowning.
Lead image via Flickr user Michael Arrighi.
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