The upstairs neighbors are having sex again.
I cannot sleep. I navigate the familiar dark of my apartment from the bedroom to the bathroom, bare feet, white as lonely irises against the pale, blue tile of the bathroom floor. Standing in front of the toilet with one hand on the lid and the other on my penis, taking careful aim, I hear the unmistakable sound of hot, sweaty monkey sex.
I stand perfectly still, suddenly very awake. I hear the rhythmic squeak of bedsprings, the dull thud of a headboard slamming against a wall, a woman’s breathy squeals of approaching ecstasy, the deeper bass of a man’s low moans. I find myself holding my breath, straining my ears.
The hum of the refrigerator.
The whir of the air conditioner.
The ticking of the hallway clock.
Keep going, I will them to continue. But after a moment the sounds of sex subside. I remain still another moment just in case the sounds resume, but when nothing more happens, I urinate, flush, and walk back toward my bedroom in the dark.
I wake up nearly an hour and 40 minutes before the alarm is set to go off. If I fall back to sleep immediately, I can still get an hour and thirty-seven more minutes of sleep. My brain has made this calculation before I realize it. I try to grab on to the tail end of a vagrant dream, just behind my eyes and disappearing, try to remember it, but then remember that if I am to fall asleep immediately I must stop thinking.
I cannot stop thinking about not thinking.
Now there is too little time to go back to sleep. I wonder if I should get up early, shave, make an effort to look nice for a change. Maybe if I looked more professional I’d get some recognition, a promotion, a “shining star”, something.
I turn off the alarm three minutes early, thoughts of work looming large in my mind. I squeeze my eyes shut tight.
I tell myself, “Just five more minutes.”
I tell myself, “Just five more minutes.”
I force myself out of bed and into the shower. I stand beneath the steaming water with eyes still closed. As long as they are closed I can pretend that work does not exist. I find myself thinking about the sounds of lovemaking I’d heard earlier. Suddenly I’m aroused, turgid in the shower. Despite the fact that I am late, I find myself masturbating onto the blue shower curtain.
I run out the door, late. There was no time to shave.
I run out the door for the second time, having forgotten my glasses the first time.
Traffic. My car crawls bug-like down a monochrome stretch of highway, inching beneath the thin, anemic, gray of morning car exhaust and fog. I find myself looking into the windows of the cars beside me, wondering about the lives of the occupants inside. I invent lives.
The woman beside me has just left her husband and three children to meet a lover in San Antonio. A dark, Hispanic lover. A dark, Hispanic, lesbian lover. They’re going to fly down to Mexico, to Cabo San Lucas to walk hand in hand along sunlit beaches and drink exotic blue drinks from coconuts, to take pictures standing in front of Incan relics, to make love in the rain in an abandoned cabana by the beach.
Two minutes late for work, I leap into my ergonomic chair and start my computer. I open a diet coke and drink my breakfast, squinting beneath the sickly florescent, carpeted walls of my cubicle. I read somewhere that two thirds of America’s work force is in customer service. The lucky ones who are working. The knowledge does not reassure me.
On the windowless wall behind my cubicle there is a cardboard palm tree and blue construction paper waves, a cutout paper sunset, and words that say, “No one is an Island.” Above that there is a sign that reads, “There’s no reason for it, it’s just Policy!” I’ve never been able to determine whether this was meant as a joke.
I draw eight squares on my company provided note-pad. As each hour passes, I will dutifully cross out a square until the day is finally over.
I put on my headset.
The phone rings.
“Damn,” I say, fumbling with my headset. “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet Paper, this is Lance. How may I help you?”
“No. Lance, like Lancelot.” I say.
“I have a problem. I can’t get this damned toilet paper you people make off the roll. It just tears to shreds!”
“Okay,” I say. “Are you trying to tear at the perforations?”
“The little dotted lines that separate the squares of paper,” I explain.
“No. Is that what I should be doing?”
“Yes,” I say, sighing deeply. “That is what you should be doing.”
“Well. Somebody ought to put constructions on the back of these rolls so you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.”
“I’ll be sure to forward that along to my supervisor, sir.” I say. “Is there anything else I can do or answer for you?”
“In that case, thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet…”
The familiar silence of dead air.
Time for my first fifteen minute break.
I receive a text from Hannah. “Sorry about last night. Didn’t feel like going out. Drinks tonight?”
I reply, “Sounds lovely!”
I log back onto the phone two minutes late.
The phone immediately rings. I put another hash mark on my notepad, one for every call. Two and a half hours in and there are already 20 hash marks.
“Damn,” I say, fumbling for my headset. “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet Paper. This is Lance. How may I help you?”
“No, Lance, like the magician, Lance Burton.”
I wonder how many more years I’ll be sitting in this cubicle, or some facsimile, being strangled by a tie. I wonder why there’s even a dress code since I only interact with people over the phone anyway. My co-worker Marc is wearing a blue, velour shirt with yellow rhinestones sewn onto it. Everyone has a different conception of business casual.
I have the sudden, disconcerting realization that if I retire at the age of 65 it means I’ll have to spend 36 more years working. My existential crisis threat-level teeters between orange and red.
Cinnamon Brown does not believe in dinosaurs.
She is my co-worker, and I mentioned reading an article that suggests birds evolved due to a drastic change in dinosaur development, and she says, flat out, “I don’t believe in dinosaurs.”
I pause for a moment, unsure how to process this information before I finally say, “But what about fossils?”
Cinnamon thinks fossils are a hoax implemented by scientists so that people stop believing in God.
I have no response to this.
Because I’m broke, I have lunch in the office instead of going out. The employee break-room is subdued. Someone has stolen my low fat frozen pasta so I steal someone else’s macaroni and cheese. It’s a vicious cycle. There are two microwaves at my disposal, however, both have “out of order” signs taped to them, so I put the macaroni and cheese back in the fridge and get a candy bar and a bag of chips from the vending machine.
A group of my fellow employees sit in front of a muted television watching a closed captioned, Spanish soap opera. All of them are on their cell phones, sexting, looking through the online want ads, posting pictures of cats on social media sites. A girl in a band is folding up flyers for their next gig. “Bitter Semen and the Fallopian Tubes! Live at Flaming Moe’s, Friday10:30!”
“You should come!” She says.
“I’ll try to.” I say, having learned that when it comes to co-worker relationships it’s always best to be non-commital.
I ask two of my co-workers who are openly perusing the want ads, “How’s it going? Anything interesting?”
“We’re being downsized.” Janice, the 300 pound secretary wheezes. “Rumor has it they’re outsourcing all our jobs to India.”
“They’ve been saying that for years.” I say, but I secretly hope the rumor is true.
I imagine some unfortunate Indian man in a shirt and tie in some Indian call center saying, “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes” with his Indian accent, and I half smile, empathizing.
“The only thing worse than having a job is not having one.” Janice says.
I go to the bathroom. Someone has taped a sign above the urinal that reads, “Employee Satisfaction Survey, Question 27: While at work I often long for death. a. completely agree, b. usually agree, c. agree, d. somewhat agree, e. liar.” The rubber, splash-guard in the urinal is black with white writing that says, “Don’t do drugs.”
The temperature is always 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the perfect temperature to encourage productivity without putting everyone to sleep. No Musak plays on the speakers. Instead white noise muffles the sounds of coughs, squeaking chairs, computers and air conditioners, making one gray sound the same color as the cubicles, the carpet, and the sky through the cracks of blinds over tinted windows.
I sit at my desk, breaking then re-sharpening the lead of my pencil until it’s a tiny nub. I darken in another square on my notepad, denoting another hour passed.
I ask my co-worker in the opposite cubicle how her acting classes are coming along, and get no response. I say, “Melissa?”
I hear a deep voice answer, “Who’s Melissa?”
“The person who normally sits in your cube.” I say.
“I’ve been here two months.”
On my second fifteen minute break I receive another text from Hannah. “Not feeling 2 great. Some other time?”
I reply, “Sure.”
Over the wall of my cubicle, I can hear one of my co-workers quietly sobbing.
I log back in to my computer.
“Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s toilet paper, this is Lance, how may I help you?”
“Yeah.” I say. “This is Claire. How may I help you?”
“Lance, do you have a moment to go over your Quarterly Performance Summary?” My manager is the physical manifestation of my greatest fears in life, bald, arrogant (despite the lack of any accomplishment to warrant it), pudgy, and stuck in a middle management rut in a call center for a third rate toilet paper manufacturer.
I say, “Sure,” dismayed by what will inevitably be a painful experience, but glad to get off the phone for a while.
In the dimly lit “Breakout” room we sit across from one another in plush, purple chairs.
“Well Lance,” he begins, “as always you sound very courteous and professional on the phone. Your quality is excellent, but I am concerned by the number of absences on your chart the past three months.”
“Oh yeah,” I say, fidgeting. “I’ve been a bit under the weather these past couple months, but I’m feeling much better now.”
“And your productivity recently is slightly below the group average,” he continues. “If you look at these charts you can clearly see your log on and log off times…”
My manager’s voice becomes a dull, monotonous bit of static. I imagine how different my life could be if only I had some other job. On a TV show I watched once, there was a Candy Expert whose job was to taste and judge candy and lend his or her candy expertise. How does one get that kind of job?
I was valedictorian of my graduating high school class. I have a college degree. How is it possible that I’m barely making above minimum wage working in a call center for a toilet paper company? What decisions have I made in my life that have led me to this place?
Every instinct tells me to quit, but I’ve learned to ignore my instincts.
“Where do you expect to be in five years?” My manager asks.
“I’m sorry?” I say, caught off guard.
“You’ve been here for over three years now. You’re a good worker, for the most part, but you don’t show any initiative. What is your plan?”
“Well,” I say, “This is really just my day job. I’m really a writer.”
“Yeah.” My manager laughs, sarcastically. “So am I.”
The phone rings. I hang up without answering and log off early with a sigh. I rip off the top page of my notepad covered in hash marks and darkened squares and throw it in the blue, recycle bin, leaving a fresh white page for tomorrow. I think of the meeting with my manager and frown. I imagine a newspaper headline that reads, “Manager Dies in Karma Related Accident, Local Office Rejoices.” I smile.
Traffic on the interstate on the way home is bumper to bumper. I find myself holding my breath from the car exhaust. I stare out of the window at the car beside me. A young man with spiky hair and rock-star bumper stickers and sunglasses despite the gloom is rocking out to some unheard music. I imagine that he is a musician, a drummer in a punk band. To relax, he listens to Jazz. He goes home to his loft in the city with hardwood floors. He cooks intricate gourmet meals and eats them on his starlit balcony with a glass of wine. I press my forehead against the dusty film of the car window, willing the young man to look at me. But he doesn’t.
I drive down the same stretch of road every day, I think. Every day down the same stretch of road, at the same time every day, and all of these people also drive everyday at the same time as me. Why is it that I never recognize a single person in these cars from one day to the next?
Home is a dubious apartment in an even more dubious neighborhood. My answering machine says, “You have no new messages.” I only even still have a landline at my mother’s insistence.
I look in the refrigerator which is sterile and white, empty except for a few moldy, unrecognizable vegetables in the crisper, some peanut butter (no bread), some pickles, a Tupperware container filled with peas, some dry and crusty mustard, a package of tofu and a carton of orange juice. I take out a frozen dinner from the freezer that claims to be a healthy alternative to all those other frozen dinners. A close inspection of the nutrition facts shows that the only thing that differentiates it from its fellows is that there is less of it. I put it in the microwave anyway.
I look through the mail. There is a sale for a discount clothing store, but no attractive guys. I throw it away. Then there are three solicitations for new credit card accounts. I rip them all in half and throw them away. There are two credit card bills. I put these in a pile of unpaid bills that I will pay when I get paid again, (days after all of them are due). Last up is a Christian singles club addressed to me (or occupant).
I call the number on the bottom and politely ask to be removed from their mailing list. When they ask me why, tell them, “Because I’m a Gay, Atheist Vegetarian.” I hang up the phone with a feeling of satisfaction.
I remove the frozen dinner from the microwave. The edges are burnt, but the middle is still frozen. I attempt to eat it anyway.
My phone rings. “May I speak to Lance Brister, please?”
I eye the phone suspiciously. “He’s not here right now.” I say.
“Then may I speak to the lady of the house?” The voice asks.
“This is the lady of the house!” I say in the butchest voice I can muster. “So what did you want?”
Silence. The other person disconnects.
The phone rings. “Hi, this is Mandy with the Statesman. Is this Lance Brister?”
I say, “I’m sorry. I don’t speak English.”
“Mr. Brister, I’m not trying to sell you anything or make you take some survey. I’d just like to let you know about an incredible offer that our newspaper is making to its readers.”
I say, “I do not exist.”
“Mr. Brister, is there a better time for us to contact you about this?”
I say, “Yes,” and hang up the phone. I recognize that Mandy is only doing her job, a job she no doubt hates as much as I hate mine, but I can offer no solidarity. I’m quietly amazed that newspapers still exist, along with landlines and paper mail.
“Large, soy, no whip hot chocolate?” The tattooed barista asks when I go to the counter. I don’t know his name, but he, like all of the baristas at the Small World Café, knows my order without me having to ask.
I imagine saying, “No, tonight I’ll have an Italian soda for a change,” but I think better of it. I like hot chocolate.
Looking through the glass doors outside, I see a pair of men in leather jackets talking on their cellular phones. I wonder if they’re talking to one another and smile. A student sits at the table across from me in an unseasonable white tank top. His brow is furrowed as he pours over a chemistry book. Another two young men with early tans sit beside my table talking about how many carbohydrates should be in their diets and what exercise regimen they should begin. I glance back and forth at faces, standing at the counter, behind the counter, at full lips, dark eyes, young, smooth skin, intense brows. The faces I see lean into one another when they speak. The faces either do not see me, or see me and dismiss me.
In my notebook I draw the sign of Cancer. I write one line, “I sit across from you in coffee houses, too afraid to speak to you.”
I think to myself that I should leave, that there is no reason to stay, but I remain sitting with pen in hand, waiting for inspiration to come.
“I’ll just stay until 8:30,” I think as dark begins to slip into the clouds outside and everywhere, descending.
“I will stay until 9:00,” I amend as 8:30 slips by and I remain unspoken to. Outside a sudden burst of rain pelts onto the concrete sidewalk.
Bored, I walk up to the counter to order another hot chocolate.
The barista says, “Another rip roaring Wednesday night, huh?”
There is a young man with dark hair so beautiful that when he leaves he takes all of the air out of the room with him. I sit and silently resent the young man for being young, for not having even said goodbye, without stopping to wonder why it should make me sad that a stranger didn’t say goodbye to me.
“I will wait until it stops raining,” I say to myself, looking at the sky of blackened clouds above the dull, orange street lamps.
“Lance?” A voice beside me asks.
Startled into looking up, I see an attractive man in his late twenties, who seems somehow familiar, though I can’t place the face just yet.
“Hey, it’s Steve.” The young man says, shaking my hand. “We used to work together at that shit-hole, Stars and Wipes.”
“Oh yeah.” I say, remembering now. We’d been hired the same time. We’d trained together and complained about the ridiculousness of the company and the training propaganda. We’d made fun of the boring trainer’s lisp. We’d reassured ourselves that we were only there temporarily until we got a break in the writing world. The only difference between us was that his stint was temporary.
“So what’s up, guy?” Steve asks.
I say, “Oh, you know.” I find myself folding up pieces of poetry and dropping them into my half-full coffee cup. “How about you? I ask.
“I just sold my third screenplay.” Steve says, grinning broadly with a mouth full of perfect, white teeth.
“Oh.” I say, dismayed. “That’s really…” I am unable to think of the appropriate adjective.
“Yeah.” Steve agrees. “So, buddy, what’re you up to these days? How is post shit-hole life treating you?”
I pause before answering. “I’m actually still working at said shit-hole.”
“Oh.” He says, suddenly visibly uncomfortable. He looks at his cell phone, though it hasn’t made any noise. “You hated that place more than I did.” He looks for a way out. “Still, you must be like a supervisor or something by now, huh?”
“No.” I say, ashamed, but enjoying Steve’s now obvious discomfort. “I’m still doing the same job. I’m even in the same cubicle as when we started.”
“Oh.” He says, having already checked out of the conversation. “Well, it was really good seeing you, Dave. I’ve got to take off though. I’m meeting some people.”
“Okay.” I say. “Congrats.”
“Take care.” He says. “Good luck with…everything.” He makes his hasty retreat.
I leave the coffeehouse, packing up my books and laptop without looking at anyone.
Back at home the first thing that I do is check my messages.
There are none.
I turn on my computer.
I have two options. I can try to finish a short story and submit it to a writing contest, or I can work on my supposed novel.
I have two options. I can watch a black and white French film with subtitles, or I can watch the impassioned South American documentary with subtitles.
I watch some horrible reality TV show where people attempt to cook while being angrily berated by a doughy-faced soccer player, while simultaneously surfing the net on my laptop.
I should probably get ready for bed.
I really should get ready for bed.
How have I spent two hours watching video clips of baby sloths?
I attempt to convince myself to go to sleep, but begin to dread the upcoming workday and find it impossible to do so. Eventually the Earth will be absorbed by the sun, and none of this will matter. Of course that’s billions of years down the road, and I’ll have long been dust, an infinitely small particle in an ever expanding universe that is unmoved by my existence or lack of existence.
I lie in bed, fully clothed with all the lights on, staring at the ceiling. Upstairs, the neighbors are having sex, again. “Who’s your Crazy Monkey ?” The man shouts.
“You’re my Crazy Monkey!” A woman shouts back in reply. Then, “Oh yeah! You’re my crazy monkey! You’re my crazy monkey!”
It is raining again.
I am no one’s crazy monkey.
I get ready for bed. Brushing my teeth, I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. A thin, pale body. The dark brown hairs of my chest. The wrinkles beginning to form around my eyes and mouth. The thinning hair above my forehead. In places I can see my scalp. I squint until my image blurs, smoothes out, disappears, and Cheshire Cat’s itself into a fading smile. Then I rinse my mouth, turn out the bathroom light, and go to bed.
I lie on a bed of dinosaur bones, on my back, trying to position myself around a spring, but no matter how I insinuate myself, it grinds into my kidneys. I try first my left side, then my right to no avail. One leg outside the blankets. Both legs. Neither leg. It is too hot beneath the blanket, too cold outside it. I cannot sleep.
Some people count sheep. Fat little, stumpy Q-tips leaping over wooden fences. I count the different ways that the world could end. This is my discordant lullaby, my nighttime ritual.
One. An asteroid crashes into some large, metropolitan area sending a plume of ash that blocks out the sun, causing mass extinction.
Two. Uncontrollable greenhouse gases raise the temperature of Earth enough to melt the polar ice caps. Coastal cities flood. The temperatures continues to rise until the Earth is a bubbling, unbearable liquid planet.
Three. Some crazed dictator sets off a nuclear holocaust, starting a chain reaction of exploding bombs, leaving the world radioactive. The survivors are all mutants, scouring the barren wasteland for any usable item from the pre-war days.
Four. Alien invasion completely obliterates humanity, those of us who aren’t enslaved are cloned as an endless chain of people burgers for some intergalactic gourmet restaurant.
Five. A virulent pandemic wipes out 90 percent of the population, sending the remaining populace back into the middle ages, struggling to survive.
Six. The robots become self aware, and destroy us before we find a way to destroy the universe.
Seven. Zombie apocalypse.
Eight. I find my mind drifting off toward the edge of sleep. I need to do this every night. Destroy the world so that I can bear to wake up and face another day.
My cell phone rings, waking me from a fitful sleep. I fumble around the bedside table for the phone in the familiar dark of my apartment. I hesitate when I pick it up, not recognizing the number, thinking that a phone call this late can only mean something bad.
The phone rings again, startling me, and I answer, “Hello?”
“Is Eddie there?”
I hear loud music in the background, the sound of laughter. Thinking I might have misheard, I say, “Huh?”
The voice on the phone says, “Tell that asshole we’re leaving without him.”
The phone disconnects.
I stare into the dark at the phone before rolling back over to try to sleep again.
Just four hours and twenty-three minutes until I have to be awake to go to work again. Which means nine hours and twenty-three minutes until lunch. About fifteen hours and twenty-three minutes until I’m home again, and 20 hours until I’ll be back in bed longing for sleep to wash over me. I try to stop thinking about the minutes, the hours, and days that make up my life. The fragments make one day interchangeable with any other. I need to get some sleep, to momentarily forget the carbon-heavy belly of my still-born days, to lose even the faintest flicker of myself, to lie on my body’s reflection in the middle of a rain swept street. To lose myself in dreams.