Employee of the Month

When I stepped off the train after my last day at my last job, the thought bubbled up from some vial of dark ether: “I would like to go get shit-faced.” This specific urge was new to me, though the feelings that motivated it were not. Endings make me melancholy. They twist my frame of mind into something that can no longer hold my portrait in place. The oily pigments of my painted face run all the way to the edges of the frame, and then drip onto the floor. Richly overdramatic purple, green olive, waxy pink. Pooling there, in a rainbow oil slick, until I can run my hand through—my fingertips, teardrops of wet, glassy pink, green, blue that, when mixed, go plummy, like basalt in the shadow of the sunset—and anoint myself anew.

Inside me, a bubble of glass is slowly growing. It expands until it sits right beneath my skin. I feel the membrane of glass against the membrane of my tissue, both surfaces engaged in gentle, exploratory contact. My cells worm their way around the intruder, probing the hard, transparent surface with their plasma-soaked limbs. Then the bubble breaches the boundaries of my body, painlessly. It now holds me within it, rather than vice versa. The air inside the bubble is both clear and cloudy, and I can see the path of the planets circumscribed around it. They flicker past me: spheres of old gold. Constellations that proceed on predetermined paths, that already know their futures. Saturn winks as he passes, teeth bared slightly in warning; I suppress a shiver of disgust.

My mother, the amateur astrologer, arrives via shooting star. She grabs my hand; she pulls me into her orbit, where she holds court in the cosmic theater. She convicts me, quickly, correctly, of the crime of cynicism, which springs eternally from a cup of bone embedded in my torso, irrigating my flesh like blood. In front of an unfeeling jury of my peers, hands folded against my gray tunic, I admit that my cynicism has been known to overcome me, has been known to erupt from my mouth and onto the inside walls of the bubble of glass. A gasp rises from the audience. “But is it not punishment enough,” I plead, “that I have to live with the thorn-shaped stains, crowning my vision forever?” My cynicism, beading on the glass like raindrops, is bile-green, ocean-blue, and streaked with daggers of red. It distorts the patterns of planets. Like torrid rain streaking against a windshield, it obscures my path forward. “No, it’s not enough,” says my mother, in her powdered wig, pounding her gavel with childlike glee. “You’re a danger to society and a corruptor of your own youth.”

As I am dragged away in heavy chains, I think: “My own—?”

I thought I was done writing about quitting my job. But it turns out that I’m still not done with that process. I feel it sitting in my mind like a stack of paperwork. The pages slip and float to the floor; their edges grow a pelt of dust. I retrieve them, sighing, and rearrange them into a more balanced configuration. No part of this endears me to the necessity of reading these twisted pages. “I don’t think I ever heard the reason you left,” a former colleague tells me over a final lunch. I raise a glass of water to my lips. I’ve rehearsed this answer a hundred times, and I’ve delivered it a hundred more times. I put the glass down a little more heavily than intended. “It was a timing thing,” I say. “Everything is about timing.” She nods, solicitously leaving any follow-up questions unasked. We both understand that I cannot be forthright about a place that we have both chosen—her, to stay; I, to leave.

Sometimes, I imagine how to tell her the truth. It begins with a fairytale about a lonely girl who grew into a confused woman. She was not a princess nor a beast. She was not Ariadne and not the Minotaur. Mundane in her mundanity. She was the granite that built the tower. She was the walls of the labyrinth. She was the on-call family therapist all throughout her childhood and adolescence. At the time, the role felt like a privilege, a natural outgrowth of emotional maturity, proof of preternatural wisdom. But she eventually came to understand that it had been an imposition, a form of deprivation, and that it was very possible—possibly inevitable—for a sensitive child to mistake adultness for a propensity for martyrdom. But old habits are hard to break and throughout her twenties she continued in the role, conducting daily relationship therapy between obstinate Minos and cruel Theseus, between Saturn and the painter, between image and frame, between bull and man, between desire and shadow. The most difficult of these was the duel between red-eyed cynicism and its ideological opposite—which was not quite optimism, nor hope, nor dream, but some union of the three that railed against the walls of the maze, fighting to prove that things could be different.

As she was locked in the cell, the keys jangling as the door closed behind her, she wondered: “That what could be different? That I—could be different? I—?”

From the window cut into the stone, optimism answered: “Yes. That you could be different.” (A muffled cry as, somewhere outside on the grass, optimism choked the air out of cynicism, preventing its rebuttal.)

Then, hope, sensing an opening, softly: “Not to mediate, but to create. Not to be underused, nor underestimated.”

Then, dream, with such purity of tone it induced her to crawl to the window frame as it rang out, like a bell: “To fight,”—she wedged her knee against the stone, scrambling for purchase, for a better view, to peer out into the light—”for the future of something you can’t yet name.”

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