(Header Image: Markus Winkler / Unsplash)
It was a small piece of squid that stole the breaths it no longer had, perhaps with vengeance from the afterlife, blurring the world before draining everything just a few moments later.
I can’t remember the details until the memories gradually replay. They do so themselves, likely provoked by this newfound bombshell that comes after the last-minute diagnosis of tragedy. The fragments of the day reassemble, forcing me to re-experience the day. I’m marked by this inexplicable visceral feeling.
* * *
On the corner of a bustling one-way street are mechanical strides and solemn expressions, a collective blandness that matches the day’s overcast. We march like ants to the adjoined colonies encasing the road, mirroring one another as clones would. Since graduating from university and embroidering myself into the nearest available workplace, mundanity has been waiting outside my door like a grim reaper, bestowing me with a cyclical disenchantment that never stops rebounding.
This chapter of my autobiography could be captured by a single sentence: inside one of these towering office buildings is a quartz corridor that leads to a spacious elevator, which I ride to the 25th floor every weekday. Title it “Nine to Five” and everybody would get the gist.
Despite its grandiose appearance from the outside, the office’s interiors wield copy-and-pasted khaki cubicles that obstruct every smidgen of scarce sunlight. Rows of ivory light panels embedded into the ceiling ultimately fall short of generating any convivial warmth. They’re only slightly less unavailing when providing light after sunset, since most of the success comes from the glares of our monitors.
I make my way down the hall, my feet barely sauntering over the familiar carpet that’s equivalent to the stiff shell and colour of walnuts. It manages to muffle the stomps of dark loafers, heels and brogues, although never the sounds of commotion past noon. I twist around tight corners, fortunate that it’s a modest time preceding the rush hour of last-minute clock-ins. The scents of fresh coffee cascading down the corridors leads me past two relatively new interns discussing the great straw conundrum.
“Topologically, a straw only has one hole,” Intern #1 says, after taking a swift sip from her ceramic mug, which is a comfy gradient of lavender and violet. Ironically, the mug has more personality than the grey atmosphere it resides in, resembling a dazzling beacon in a colourless chamber.
“If a cylinder has two faces, like how a straw has two openings, then it’s gotta be two holes,” Intern #2 counters, swatting his hands as if there’s an invisible fly pirouetting around him. If someone snapped a picture of this and got it on the cover of a business magazine, then any pair of eyes would assume they were discussing a million-dollar Shark Tank proposal.
“Like, if one of those tunnels you drive through collapses on one side, then you wouldn’t say zero-point-five of the tunnel’s hole is blocked.”
“I’ll entertain that thought for a sec,” Intern #1 responds. “It’d still be one hole, except one exit is covered. By that logic…”
“It depends how you define a hole, in that case,” interrupts our supervisor in his whimsical tone, disbanding the party by bridging between them. “I’d need to replace the hole in your cubicles if you both get fired for not doing your jobs. Shoo.”
His eagle-eyed supervising, accompanied by his inexplicable ability to teleport into the middle of any non-work-related conversation, strikes again. His hair is unruly, like usual, as if he’s walked through a tornado — maybe he does have teleportation powers, which would explain his whirlwind appearance and agility. I theorize that it’s hidden at the core of his signature gargantuan viridian tie. To avoid getting caught in Big Boss’s crosshairs (and awful “jokes”), I take a seat on my familiar armchair’s dented cushions.
There are boxes and scattered stacks of paperwork to get through that’ve been dropped off yesterday. Funnily enough, I used to think those were just office job clichés birthed by movies and TV shows. I wish I was right. Unfortunately, these scenes are very real, very daily and very repetitive. Trudging through them is like being caught in a GIF that loops for eight hours straight.
An old distant voice lodged inside whispers about how I should be content, since this environment is what I’ve consistently craved in the past all through high school and university. In addition, its granted stability is a plus. However, it’s not entirely persuasive since my appetite has been gradually evaporating as each month is torn off from my calendar. Even though my endurance is burning out, it almost feels clandestine to relinquish this position.
Contrastingly, blasts of productivity are being exerted from a few cubicles down. The interns, like many other coworkers, seemingly found their art here. The constant whirring and snarly beeps of printers are abrasive to me, but probably sound like jazz music in the background of a cafe to others.
As the second hand of the office’s generic wall clock inches ahead, additional colleagues (and some fresh interns) are shuffling in, perfect postures being seated in every aisle. On Mondays, it’s the norm to exchange phatic greetings before bartering small talk about the weekend. I can’t help but eavesdrop on some conversations surrounding getaways at the beach and indulgences in unique hobbies, some as unorthodox as chili-eating competitions. Suddenly, Big Boss materializes out of thin air behind me.
“Already eyeing the time? Well, I’ll speed it up by sending one of the newbies here. Teach ‘em the basics, pretty please?” His eyes land on the boxes by my desk. “I’m sure another two hands can help with that.”
He turns around and gently shoves Intern #2 towards my desk before careening into the adjacent cubicle. For a few seconds, we watch Intern #1 being injected into the igloo of my next-door neighbour, who only tangentially glosses over the preliminaries. Then, Intern #1’s fingers hammer the calculator on the desk while scribbling onto different catalogues with her royal blue pen.
“We’re not going to be imitating the Flash over there, are we?” Intern #2 asks.
“Don’t think we could even if we wanted to,” I return. “Unless you have similar secrets up your sleeve.”
We trade introductions and then bleat over the boxes of deceased trees. That’s another reason to antagonize the printers here — the office wastes too much paper.
“What’d you major in to get yourself into a corporate office for seafood?”
“Economics,” I say. “You?”
“Finance,” he replies, briefly leaving the cubicle and then scooching back in with his own chair, notably in ostentatious condition. “Is this what you had in mind post-grad?”
“Not necessarily, but the occasional complimentary seafood is a good pro in the cost-benefit side of things.” That’s something that requires weighing because forfeiting free sushi is pretty awful.
“The only cost I can sense on your end is in the form of exhaustion, ‘cause you look tired.”
Instinctively, I rub the bags under my eyes before letting out a mild snort. “So, you’re a detective now too?”
“Sorry for the candid observation. I always found inspiration in Sherlock Holmes as a kid,” he shrugs. “Anyways, what’ve you been up to over the weekend?” There’s the trademarked colloquial chitchat of the workplace.
“Nothing much, to be honest. Watched a few movies and tried to recharge my batteries.”
“What did you see?”
I couldn’t answer the question because Big Boss walks by, shutting us both up. We’re like kids nearly being caught by our grade school teacher for briefly slacking off. I shuffle through some files and hand over folders to my colleague to show him the ropes of the company’s paperwork procedures and computerized systems.
Emails. Scheduling. Bookkeeping. File maintenance. Voicemails. It goes on and on and on.
When you’re busy, time staggers by quicker… but not quick enough, in my case. These are just the basics, but if I have to file any more paperwork or crunch any more numbers, my brain will probably implode.
Slowly but surely, the hour hand on the ugly clock is falling down its right side. Having company isn’t so bad.
Soon enough, the already scant amounts of natural light are diminishing. We’re left being blanketed by the ceiling’s semi-feeble brightness. Our monitors are straining our eyes, casting glows burning into my pupils. A teardrop threatens to splash down on the wavering stacks of pages on my desk.
I could easily check the time on the computer, although looking up at the barely visible office clock is an ingrained habit. The digital numbers on my monitor read 4:59 p.m., and almost simultaneously, the intern and I stand up to stretch. He bids farewell and retreats into his own cubicle to retrieve his stuff. One day depleted, four to go.
This cubicle is a jar. A suffocating, languishing and claustrophobic jar. Forgoing this place has been an alluring thought in my mind for a long time, although I never actually sought to pursue it.
I haven’t come this far to jump ship, right?
Big Boss teleports behind me again, a bunch of burgundy bags in his hands.
“Here, take one,” he says, carefully chucking two bags onto my desk. As bags are being delivered to more cubicles, I open mine to find a box of calamari. Despite not being a fan of squid, I take one out of impulse and flick it into my mouth.
I’m not sure how it happens, but I feel the calamari being caught somewhere in my upper esophagus just milliseconds later. A series of coughs are demanding an exit, although they don’t manage to escape. It feels as if a cement block is obstructing my airway, and the weight of it kicks in. I begin to panic.
* * *
A familiar, ethereal light returns. I’m back in the azure, now fully reminiscent of the day’s events.
…What a way to go out. Fried squid.
What a place to go out at.
While time changes us, we don’t have the power to change time; otherwise, I’d rewrite these past few chapters. It’s tragic to dream of chasing fireflies without ever leaving the cave to do the actual searching.
So the feeling that comes with this tragedy is regret.
But the final fireflies don’t burn out. I don’t want to go out as the person defined by something I don’t want to do.
I’m not trying to negate the value of the last four years of school; they don’t necessarily have to be labelled a waste. Everything’s an experience, and experiences can awaken the most unforeseen lessons. In hindsight, I’m sure there was a way to leverage it into other fields. Risks are risky but throwing a shot in the dark could’ve done it.
I’m slipping out of the reverie. The jar cracks and the final fireflies break free.
A second chance.
* * *
Everything comes in blurry pieces. Reawakening. A burst of oxygen. A mangled piece of calamari on the ground, barely blending in with the carpet.
It feels like an invisible boa constrictor has just slipped off my neck. I rub my throat, not managing to reduce the sore, scratchy feeling inside. Fortunately, I feel the colour returning to my face. I look around, and it seems like no one’s seen anything.
There’s a faint glint reflecting off the clock, obscuring the time. People are clocking out, and I follow suit, strolling down the hall after cleaning up my mess with tissues from my desk.
For a moment, I remember the interns’ conversation. A straw has an escape. I may not know how many holes it has, although I know there’s one end to another. The only way to see for myself if something else is on the other side is to leave the cave.
Why I Wrote This Piece
In this fictional narrative, I assumed the perspective of someone who craves escape from their job. I’ve always imagined this as “The Worker’s Dilemma.” Everybody has their own preferences regarding what jobs suit them and which ones don’t; what’s fitting for one person may not work for another. I approached the idea with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in mind, which ignited my inspiration for this piece. If we discover that what we do isn’t right for us, is there a “reality” beyond the cave that we’re trapped in?
I deliberately left the ending ambiguous to represent how these types of decisions tend to work out differently for everybody. Variables differ from person to person; this tale is more of a call to find contentment.