Here’s a picture of my office on the day they let me go:
We fill three floors of a former tobacco factory. The windows have thick blinds, but we have fluorescents in the ceiling. The carpet is the everything gray color that coffee can spill on without staining. The bathrooms never run out of soap, and the kitchen always has forks. We’re lucky in that way. Some offices run out of forks.
From 10 am until 7 pm, we sit at our desks we stand at our desks we eat delivered lunch and Kind bars we stare at our work we complain about the President we complain about health insurance we complain about our spouses or hookups or whatever.
Except I never told stories about Ben.
The first two floors are for marketing and accounting and other jobs that require the distortion of the self. We creatives have the third floor. This one woman vapes during meetings, and no one cares. We are a virtual reality studio. Imagine a film, any genre, that you can put on a helmet and move into. That’s what I did. I helped build that world.
I’m in the fourth row of stand-up/sit-down desks, between a guy my age and a girl just out of college. He buys something from Amazon almost every day, and sometimes his stomach rumbles. Sometimes her boyfriend texts and she turns her phone off instead of responding. I try to stand for at least four hours a day. I try to eat only three Kind bars per week.
We ride skateboards around the third floor. The joke is that you take a certain board to the bathroom if you need some, you know, privacy. Once, after a life insurance presentation, the person from HR took that exact skateboard back to the elevator, trying to be in on third floor culture, I guess. It was one of those situations where you couldn’t help but laugh. That day, I almost joined happy hour.
I’m not attracted to my own gender for the most part, but I do sometimes stare at the woman who vapes. She wears leather pants. I wonder what it would be like to inhabit a body that’s smaller than mine, that’s half the size of mine, maybe, and to fit that body into tight leather pants.
Before they let me go, I was a writer for thirty or so virtual characters: the baker in Everytown, a purple bear in Playland, a barely-eighteen in Underground Island (Adults 18+ Only)™, and others that I don’t think about anymore. During orientation, we watched a video of this long-time employee. Like, he has a conference room named after him. He said his career at the company took off once he started giving his characters the same love and pride that he devoted to his own children. We’re artists, he said.
So one time I asked the guy with the desk next to mine if he wanted to lunch at the food market. I made sure we had a casual conversation about what we’d each done the previous weekend. He’d been to a Halloween party; as for me, actually, I never said. And after he’d eaten five pieces of his salmon roll, I said, “So I’ve noticed that sometimes your characters use lines that I wrote for my characters. I mean. The same lines or very close to the same. You know?” And he looked at me—not surprised or embarrassed or anything, just expectant, waiting for the second half. But I didn’t have a second half; I thought the first half would be enough. So I changed the subject to Halloween again.
It’s hard to be an artist when every day is the same. One of our company values says that hard work gets noticed. Here, hard work is nine hours in a room where the light does not change and the conversation repeats itself, maybe not in substance, but in meaning.
Again, this was all before they let me go. Maybe everything’s different now. Maybe they have one of those plant-covered walls where the basketball hoop used to be.
I’m looking for work, but I’m also not looking for work. Most days I spend with Ben.
Here’s a picture of Ben’s home, the day they let me go:
There is color. Greens and blues and the red windowsills of his house in the woods. A raccoon-toppled trash can in the side yard. Once, Ben tells me, he was out here with his ukelele late at night, and a moose walked out of the woods and stared at him for maybe twenty minutes. The day they fired me, he was reading Steinbeck. His writer is the woman who vapes.
Most nights now I sleep wearing my virtual reality helmet. During the day, I take a couple hours to make a can of chicken and stars or to put underwear in the washer. I’ll send my resume and portfolio around, buy some groceries from the bodega. Some days I water the plant, but to be honest, it’s almost dead now. In the afternoons, I go back to him.
Our story goes like this: I’m on the run, from someone, somewhere; it’s not important. I’m hitchhiking in the rain, cold and feverish. Ben slows as he passes me in his old, blue truck. Then he backs up and opens the passenger door.
In his home, I wear his flannel. He asks me if I’m warm enough by the fire. I don’t tell him who I am or where I’ve come from. I sleep on the bed; he’s on the couch. In the middle of the night, I move to the couch too. I replay this scene multiple times a day. Sometimes he joins me in the bed. Sometimes we make love in the back of the blue truck.
We have a daughter. Sometimes she’s a toddler, jumping in our bed on a Sunday morning. Sometimes she’s a young woman—a beautiful long-haired version of Ben. Our daughter joins the revolution—somewhere out there, fighting someone; I don’t know who. Ben and I worry for her back home.
Then there is the one where they come for me (those someones, from somewhere). Ben and I fight them off together. I’m wounded, but I don’t show it until we’re safe.
I know I’ve lost feeling for a particular version of our story when I start to wonder if I have emails or if I should try virtual dating. That’s when it’s time to come up with something new. Ben and I start an underground newspaper. Or I travel with our daughter.
Or I go back to that first night and we do things differently. Ben never tires of us. He doesn’t remember that we’ve said these lines hundreds of times.
They fired me because I missed deadlines and didn’t participate in meetings. My Barely-Eighteen felt redundant to the regulars and the kids didn’t play with Purple Bear anymore. “This is a competitive industry,” the person from HR said. “We need artists who are fully committed to our mission.” I felt like I might cry, so I didn’t let myself blink. I imagined that I was the version of myself that Ben knows. She’d say something revolutionary and perfect. She would get a conference room named after her. But I bet I looked like a scared moose, just staring. The person from HR asked again if I would please sign the severance papers.
The guy with the desk next to mine was home sick that day, so I stole his philodendron on the way out.
The other night, Ben and I were reading in bed when I got a notification that my monthly subscription was overdue. Credit card declined. So I visited a virtual bank and they told me that based on my profile and health metrics, I could get a loan if I spent just four hours a day helping the algorithm identify dog species. I agreed, and I’ve been doing that for the past few days. I know what they say about these things. I haven’t told my parents. I’ll get a real job again soon and pay off the loan. It’s just. I just need. A break.
Except this morning I woke up in white space. Ben, the cabin, the raccoons—all gone. I’m on an error page. Restart your helmet, it says. And when I do, I’m returned to the main menu. Ben is no longer an option.
I find her leaving the office at 8 pm. The streetlights in the old factory district are 19th Century. Most of them are too dim to make a difference. The sidewalk is brick, and it’s quiet out here. The restaurants in this neighborhood close after lunch. I say hello from a distance so I don’t scare her, approaching in the dark. I’m taller and sometimes wider than other women. Next to the woman who vapes, I feel like a dinosaur.
I have to say hi a few times before she realizes I’m talking to her. She stops on the sidewalk and pulls out an earbud with her vape hand.
“I need to talk to him,” I say. “I know he’s been retired, but is there something you can do?”
She’s about to keep walking, but then she says, “Oh fuck,” and turns toward me.
“You know I based him on my dick ex,” she says. “He’s all words. You can’t count on him.”
“Are there any backups, or isn’t there something you can give me?”
She shrugs. “I got a promotion. And I got tired of writing him.”
We stand there. I don’t know what I was expecting. I should have rehearsed this scene before coming here, and of course she doesn’t care. Why would she care? She dated the real-life Ben, and then she dumped him.
“I’ve got to go,” she says. “But look. Annie, you’re better than this. I didn’t know you really, but you’re a good writer. You don’t need this.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I say.
She takes a hit. A vape? Whatever.
“I mean, he’s not real. It’s VR. None of it’s real. Right? Don’t debase yourself.”
Debase. What a word. It makes me feel like algae.
“But then why are you here?”
She looks around, but there’s no one else on the sidewalk. “Look girl,” she says. “As soon as I pay off my student loans, I’m giving notice. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do, but like. Be honest with yourself, you know?”
I don’t know what to say.
The woman who vapes sits on the curb and pats the space next to her. “Check this out,” she says. I have to go home soon. I have to identify thousands of German Shepherds before midnight. I have to lie in bed and pretend I’m with Ben. But I sit, just for a minute. We count the stars as they appear in the sky. Her name is Sarah.