You can feel your heart beating in your ears as you walk the squeaky-tiled hallway to the small conference room. You have been summoned to meet with your boss and a woman from HR because of an essay you have published about your job. It was accepted by a small, online literary magazine in a faraway state. It wasn’t even good enough for the print version. But, here you are.
They call it an article as if you’d been contacted by the New York Times and commissioned to write the most self-centered hit piece ever constructed. When you tell them it’s a personal essay, they say they’re worried about your mental health. The HR woman reminds you of the free over-the-phone counseling service offered by the company. She doesn’t remind you of the onsite career counselor because she knows he’s said lewd things to you in the past. You didn’t even mention that in the article.
In retrospect, you probably should have changed all the names instead of just some of them. You don’t regret telling the truth about how little you’re paid or how silly of a job it is. You used specifics because you were taught that’s good writing, and it is. After the whole debacle is over, your boss will admit that he thinks the writing is very good.
You want to ask them, are you two so thrilled with this job? Tim, when you’re sneaking a cigarette by the dog park up the road, are you happy with your choices? Susan, is it your one true purpose on this Earth to organize personnel files?
You know this framing is one-sided, but it was you against them in that room and you conceded everything. You did not fight. So, this is how you fight. It may seem dirty, to go home and type fiery words you couldn’t find in the moment into a document. It may not seem fair. But there is no fairness. It’s not fair that the one thing keeping you sane, the one thing giving you purpose, you have to hide. You have to be ashamed of.
They have printed out a page from the employee handbook and the woman slides it to you across the table. Employees are not permitted to share details of the organization’s procedures on social media. They want you to sign it. They tell you that if you sign it and have the essay taken down, they won’t take any disciplinary action. You don’t ask what that action would be.
You’re crying like a 27-year-old baby. Your boss looks at you meaningfully but not meaningfully enough. He says, And maybe you can, and then stops himself. He says, never mind.
You think about your options for approximately one second. What if, just this once, you took a stand? What if you lost your job over a piece of writing? Would that make the writing better? More poignant? You’re already dying to get home and record this surreal situation; it will make for a great story. But your nose won’t stop running and your hands are full of snot and you didn’t mean to hurt these people, if they’re even hurt. It’s their job to be hurt, you suppose. They were probably legally obligated to call you into this room.
You worked on the essay for so long, though. Whole years! You submitted it to magazines and contests and journals until one very kind editor gave you edits and asked you to resubmit. After endless rejections, someone finally gave you a chance.
You were so excited that you didn’t stop to think maybe sharing it everywhere wasn’t such a great idea. When your coworkers resonated with your words and wanted to share it too, you were touched. You never imagined that the newly hired woman in charge of social media would find it and take it upon herself to defend the company’s honor. You were just writing about your silly little life.
Now, you must go home and email the editor and ask him to take it down. After all his notes and finding matching artwork and the time and care he took with it, you must ask him to kill it. You tell him you’ll donate to the magazine as penance, and he says not to worry about it. He says these people are being silly. He says as soon as you find a new job, he’ll put it back up. And you are thankful once again for his kindness, this person you don’t know at all but who knows your words.
You think about quitting, but of course, you need the money. You would love nothing more than to walk calmly into your boss’s office and give your two weeks, then spend the rest of the summer writing down all the stories in your head. You run this by your partner and he says what you know he will say. He says be practical. He says you need the money. He says you can’t quit your day job.
You look for other jobs. You begin applying for one scanning X-rays at a hospital but they want you to retype your whole resume out in little boxes so you close the tab. You’re sure that you can find another quirky place to write about, but then you’ll have to work much harder than you do now. You don’t know what to do. You think about calling your mother but decide against it.
You don’t quit. You don’t take a stand. You take a day off to stew in your anger and hurt and deep clean the shower, kneeling on the linoleum tiles of your apartment bathroom, scrubbing at the dark scum that never comes all the way clean.
You resolve to stop working as hard, stop making them so much money. You’ve resolved to do this a few times before, but the boredom and chronic need for approval always get you in the end. Maybe this time it’ll stick.
You wonder if everyone in the office knows and if they’ll look at you differently. Your direct coworkers felt seen, they told you, but those in the front office have more impressive job titles and therefore more to lose.
You go back and it’s fine. You remember the term catastrophic thinking, a phrase you loved from the moment you discovered it while reading a medical book about a disorder you might have. You loved it because you saw yourself in it and because it’s beautiful to think about what goes on in your head as catastrophic. Not melodramatic, not overblown, not ridiculous, but a true catastrophe, like a natural disaster. Where did it come from? Who knows. What will the damage be? Unclear. Can it be stopped? Probably not.
What is certain is that without your little pills or people to bring you back down to Earth, your thoughts just might gain speed until they spiral completely out of control and you do something very stupid. So, it’s good that your partner is there to tell you not to lose your health insurance.
Your coworker David (FAKE NAME NOT REAL) asks you when your next “transmission” is coming out. After reading your piece, he gives you a small, fancy bar of dark chocolate and says, “You inspired me today,” which will probably keep you going for a few years.
You know, deep down past all the bullshit, that you just have to keep writing. Even after being scolded like a child for spilling secrets, you always come right back to the page. Maybe it’s settling the score, maybe it’s making yourself the hero, or maybe you just need to say what it was like to be in that room, trying to explain the thing that means the most to you but coming up empty.
You will eventually leave this job, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The editor will repost the essay you’ve come to feel so proud of. You’ll change all the names, but it will still be your own at the top under the title, real and resolute.
And in a room of your own, you will keep writing, taking note of everything that happens, making a case for your silly little life.