Her head aches behind her cheekbones, as though her mind were a ball of fire lassoed by cords of skin. She does her best approximation of a gentle smile as her work colleague explains his frustrations with a client. We both have so much more to offer, she thinks, but you’re a work friend and not a friend friend, so I can’t tell you that. We spend minor eternities here, together, entombed in synthetic ferns, dusty glass, and printer paper. We should be honest about our experiences. But there’s a vast and indispensable firewall in place when we interact. I see its flickering aquamarine flames when I lift my eyes from my laptop screen. A warning. We couldn’t be close, she thinks, and still do this job.
A dove with red eyes occasionally travels between them. Beneath its wings, out-of-office, vulnerability is admissible. “I don’t often tell someone the truth,” he says to her, on a Wednesday during lunch. She is ripping up a paper napkin—slowly, methodically, as though stripping the flesh off a bone—in her lap as she listens to him talk about his life outside of work. Beyond the eight to twelve hours that he spends clicking around the vapid and crushing universe of a PowerPoint, he has dreams, desires, many variants of darkness that bide their time before rapidly multiplying and, occasionally, overcoming his defenses.
They talk “purpose.” They talk “meaning.” Two notions as intrinsic to modern life as breath and heartbeat. They’ve had to exile both from their minds in order to take an office job and not die of cognitive dissonance. To discuss them now fills her with raw, divine emotion.
“I’m a negative utilitarian,” she says, somewhat loftily, somewhat intoxicated by the feeling of talking so freely. “I am focused on minimizing suffering and maximizing joy in the people around me. That’s all the purpose I need.”
For almost a minute, he says nothing. He looks up at the ceiling and then back at her. The dark brown of his eyes glimmers with something that is almost tears, the way the sound of a single guitar string is almost mournful. “Don’t you wish for something bigger than just that?” he says, finally. “What are you doing with your one life?”
It’s a gamble of a cliché, but it connects. Twenty-nine in 2023, and she holds her fifty remaining years of consciousness in her lap and, distractedly, thoughtlessly, is shredding them, one by one. Blood on her fingers. Petals in the soil. Something swells. A boom of noise. Flesh beneath a blister. Water approaching the shore. It surges onto the look on her face, and she finds she can no longer pretend.