I. The Media
The building is thirty stories tall. It’s made of metal and glass, a seam in the pinched skyline of lower Manhattan. Its windows are all sewn shut, yet the automated doors on the ground floor never stop revolving. By day, it’s a pillar of light.
The interior is outfitted in large expanses of carpet—terrifyingly deep azure—with wide-open stairwells and seating that is luxe and low to the ground, throw-pillow-style. Each floor is exciting and somewhat different, overflowing with bars, beds, restaurants, and club bathrooms. The building is full of clean and smartly dressed people whose job it is to interact with one another and produce visual content (video, VR, words), sometimes about each other, oftener about what they watch happen outside the office from their intelligent devices. A ring of glass conference rooms surrounds the communal workspace. Beyond that is one more expanse of glass, then sky.
Tana begins her second week of work on the fifteenth floor. She had spent her first week on the fourteenth floor, eating fistfuls of gummy worms and making eyes at an upper-management cog named John-Steve. She noted first of this particular cog his extraordinary length, then his permanently flushed cheeks and the creeping void of his hairline. He was in the break room with a roast-beef sandwich. Mayo occasionally dripped onto his black crushed-velvet suit, giving him the overall effect of a deglazed garbage bag.
At the time, she was still so fresh, had only a foggy notion that the job entailed being well-liked, or at least buzzed about, in real life—approachable, fuckable, and distant. But you had to be smart about it, why else would anyone bother to look?
She decided to take the initiative and get him hot. She filled her coffee mug, then crossed the room to his left, lingering around the candy dispensers, ten feet from his shoulder. Like everything in the office, sweets were free. She tried slowly unwrapping a Snickers bar, but the performance had no effect on John-Steve. Maybe he didn’t like chocolate, or could it be that the squeaky splitting sound was vaguely threatening, dick-deadening? She knew so little about him; he coded in a language above her pay rate. It made her queasy to stand there in her five-inch stilettos and not have him even put the sandwich down.
So she unleashed the gumballs. They fell obediently to the floor in a torrent of colors and clatters. Fifty shining spheres of innocent fun. She began crushing them, one by one, beneath her steel-kissed heel. She fixed her red lips into a wide grin, flashed her teeth, and laughed noiselessly. The act was, more or less, a riff on a recent Miss Dior commercial in which a Swedish model ran cackling through the streets of Paris, dodging raindrops the size of fingerling potatoes. Suddenly the clouds part, the sun comes out, and bonbons fall from the sky. If John-Steve got the reference, he never let on.
Still, she was promoted to floor fifteen just two days after the botched flirtation. Something to do with “fearless journalism” and “ingenuity”—in other words, her snooty coworker Cathy had clandestinely filmed the incident, which apparently half the office and half a million clicks were snickering about behind her back. Tana was, needless to say, thri!!ed.
SHE begins her day in a conference room with her immediate supervisor, Matt-Alex, the man who hired her but hasn’t had the time for an in-person status update until her eighth day on the job. He has luscious, curly brown hair down to his Adam’s apple and an overly serious look in his narrowed eyes, like he’s always, currently, getting head. “Tana,” he’d told her in the meeting where he’d hired her, “You have beautiful hair.” He waited in silence for her flustered reply, then continued, “but it’s not as nice as mine.”
“Tana,” Matt-Alex tells her now, “You’re new here, and you know what you signed up for. At Urge Media we like to think of our employees as our extended social network, we want to make sure you get as much out of your time here as possible. We want to support you.”
“And you have,” replies Tana, “more than you know. It’s been my lifelong dream to climb the ranks quickly. Now I feel solid somehow, hopeful, I’m finally in this place that knows what it’s like to be me —”
“We believe in you,” Alex-Matt cuts in. “Please update your Internet Presence to reflect that you are 23 years old.”
“I will, thank you.”
“Moving briskly along. You’ve been promoted from Image to Editorial, and with that comes a slightly more expansive role. Plenty of possibility. Editorial at Urge are integral because they’re packaging, shipping, maybe even a little bit of what’s inside. Their job is to go to bars, have friends, get wasted, hook up, test out new products, pump the Presence hard—you catch my drift?—faultless 24-hour news-essays-life integration. If you get too drunk and pass out on the floor, you get time and a half to sleep it off, so long as you have been Instagramming consistently and take a selfie after. Part of the reason we love having visual artists, like yourself, on the team is that they never forget that part. Technically, of course, you are a television and film writer. Some reviews are to be expected. I hope none of this will be too unpleasant for you. Any questions so far?”
“Haha,” says Tana. “None.”
“Excellent. I should add that the fifteenth-floor open office plan is the company’s pride and joy. Of course every floor follows a related layout, but each is also special, featuring its own unique delights and trashbars. At its center is Sauvage, the bar that gets us the most fucked up. And at the center of Sauvage is a submissive in a gimp suit with no name who holds a tray of cocaine steady for all eternity. You must go there sometime.”
“I would love to.”
“We’ll see. For now, there’s a bar on the south side of the office called Alejandro’s. Be there at three o’clock sharp this afternoon, your mentor will be waiting for you. In his office. He will be an hour late to the bar. There is no fucking or sleeping allowed in the conference rooms, but anywhere else is cool. In the meantime, please make use of the vending machines.”
“I haven’t any money,” Tana bemoans, her forehead suddenly seeded with sweat.
“The vending machines are merely a formality. All the vending machine treats are laid out in wicker trays next to the machines, postpaid. Of course the snacks are all free,” Matt-Alex winks three times, involving both eyes. “And you’re not allowed to leave.”
II. The Words
They asked me to write a review of the new Wonder Woman movie:
Wonder Woman: The Fifth Wave was a revelation. First off, I’ve never seen a movie where supernaturally gifted humanoids battle Nazis and lose. I’ve also never seen a superhero movie more self-consciously humorous. My mentor came with me to the theater and wouldn’t stop whispering about this story he’s reporting while he’s in town. Something about a U.S. senator killing an intern with his wife’s car.
They asked me to write about why Louisa on the seventeenth floor is a toxic cunt:
My mentor tracks corruption in foreign lands. He is permitted to make video content and I find him incredibly intimidating. He has returned to fill his yearly gossip quotient, make business deals, report a local story, and mentor me. I look forward to being like him someday, but with a more nimble interiority.
When I met him at Alejandro’s our conversation was initially difficult, and I’m still not sure I’ve warmed to him entirely. I realize, however, that it’s all part of the job, part of the lifestyle, to doubt and grow from it, until you’ve risen to become a fortress of doubts and cannot have any interrogating done to you that you have not already done to yourself. Then maybe you’ll go places. “If you’re lucky, you’ll be let out one day too, just like me,” he told me during our first hour-long chat.
Max-Tim is his name and he’s a bit of a sensation. That’s probably why Louisa is so jealous of me. She and Max-Tim used to mentor each other, but his career has now overtaken her own. Once I got close enough to her workspace (a lying-down desk, much like a bed) to detect that she smells like pancakes. Her hair is dark, glossy, short, with pink tips that don’t look desperate for attention, but natural. Same goes for the faded black leather of her pants. Her leather tank top and choker. She idly strummed the air around her figurine mouth as if petting a toy cigarette, her cheeks paler than the skin around her eyes, eyes incapable of startling. In fact, I can report that her entire body was a network of lonesomeness, as if having been arranged outside money and time.
They asked me to recap Chopped:
This week’s episode of Chopped was themed “Please Don’t Eat My Pets,” and was particularly depressing, even for a show that regularly makes a game out of race, class, and gender warfare while wasting approximately forty-seven pounds of food per week, haha. I cried literal tears while watching it. It’s been sixteen hours since I finished watching it, and I’m still sad. Even having to write a tiny article about it is a chore, let me tell you! So, without further ado, it gives me no pleasure to present to you the choicest quotes from last night’s episode, courtesy of AmazonHome™ and on behalf of all my Bitches Who Binge at Urge.
Dan-Dave: I do classic American cooking, so the parakeet was no problem. I treated it as I would a very lean chicken, brushed it in a basic flour dredge, left it aside to fry at the end of the twenty minutes so it would be fresh.
Sansa: I got Jared’s goldfish. I’m thinking, It’s a fish, you know what to do with it, just stick it in a pan and let it go. But the thing is, I can’t do it. Not with Jared at the station next to mine butchering the cat that’s been in my family for fifteen years. I don’t know what to do, I feel like I’m going crazy. But then something comes over me in that moment—not a thought, but a fear, something I can use. I thrust an AmazonHome™ steak knife through the goldfish, nailing it to the cutting board where it continues to wriggle, like a neon sign lighting up in segments. I go to the pantry, retrieve a dishrag, and blindfold myself with it. I blend a mixture of eggs, milk, cream, salt, chives, horseradish, and goldfish meat. I head to the ice cream machine.
Jared: I hear my competitors complaining, whining, screaming, What the fuck, man, you just killed Careless Whiskers, my parents are going to disown me, blah blah blah. The truth is: You’re a chef. Get over it. Before I was a chef I served two tours in the U.S. military, and I love my country, so I know a thing or two about sacrifice.
Dan-Dave: So, I’m a former addict [expression of pure glee flashes across his face] and I came on Chopped to spread the message to other young people that it’s not too late to change your life around.
Hot Australian Male Judge Who Wears Glasses: Sansa, I absolutely . . . HATE what I’m about to tell you because it’s making me break out in . . . HIVES trying to keep my honest opinion bottled up inside me, which is that this is positively the . . . BEST ice cream I’ve ever tasted, but the garnish was truly . . . UNNECESSARY.
They asked me to do some drugs:
A looping visibility was upon me. It circled as a series of doors about my head and some of them meant “danger” but in my paranoiac state there was no telling which. I tried imagining the possibility of each door, since bullshit came easy. One gave way to a better job, and one tamed my moods to a successful evenness, and one let me die with more dignity and poise than I possess currently, and one would open upon a fitful room filled with thousands of half-drunk tea mugs, and one lead to being left behind over and over, and one was loftiness incarnate. I liked that the drugs made my thoughts sluice away from me, their expression playing out as if on a screen moving farther into the distance. Then I stammered, Oh shit oh shit, where am I? Everything that was blue was dancing and also everything was blue. A vision appeared to me of George Bush’s promised weapons of mass destruction hidden in a dazzlingly hued ball pit. Then every color was different. Life is a rich tapestry! Demons were crawling out of my ears and talking to my eyes. One of them was Max-Tim, and he was really there. He said, “That dress is three sizes too big for your body, you practically swim in it.” Clarity interrupted the sea of free-drifting information to assure me that we were in the office, on the fifteenth floor. Relief reinforced me. I asked Max-Tim if I was drowning. “No,” he said, “you’re not drowning.” “Well then,” I ventured, “Might this be what drowning feels like?” He said, “I like that, can I quote you?” And took my dress off.
Now we are together in the ball pit, laughing about it.
III. The Letters
The morning after he fucked his mentee in the company ball pit, Max-Tim woke up with a sex hangover. His lonely, naked body still felt erogenously peaked, not by lust, but by shame—or rather, the desire to force shame to turn a profit.
In his haze of horny regret, Max-Tim dashed off an email to Louisa, his throat flexing and gulping from the muscle memory he’d attained swallowing so many Advil on mornings like this.
Everyone will see this letter before you do, but I can’t care about such things at a moment like this. I need you first to know that I—I and no one else—wrote this letter. (Our safe word is jellyroll, your brother lost a leg trying to free a giant zoo cat and is now in Justice Quarantine, there’s a tattoo of Tweety Bird evolving into Big Bird on your upper left thigh, your speaking voice sounds somewhere between Jodie Foster and Buffalo Bill.) Louisa, I made such a big mistake, and I can’t pay it back. I should never have returned at all, but I was under contract and the contract was invoked. I can’t believe I didn’t tear it up, run away—with you, if you would have consented. Now my sexual impropriety grunts will be sung around the world, and even this letter I’m writing you now will be all over the Internet. I know we weren’t technically dating, but no one dates—thinking about dating as a set of actionable rituals is like thinking about time as a dimension. It hurts my head. Still, I thought what we had was special. Really really so so special. Please know that in my heart I never wanted to betray you, not for an instant.
He’d just sent the email and stepped into an Urge shower station when he received a more formal missive of his own. A gloved hand knocked twice upon the frosted shower door and vanished into the workplace abyss. Max-Tim switched off the gush midshampoo and breached the glass divide to find a letter—on official company letterhead, in an official company envelope—waiting at his feet. It was addressed to him from the Executive Director, requesting his presence in the Leather Room in twenty minutes, an obvious honor as this was by far the most exclusive and expensively furnished conference room in the entire building. His coworkers had talked it up for years, rumors mostly, he’d never been.
The envelope smelled like fertilizer.
He fetched his best band T-shirt (Nirvana, but really colorful), and his fedora which, like the most frantic comets, came back around every few years and even then people didn’t bother to look at it. The watch he affixed to his wrist had a computer on it, and the computer had a watch on it, and this ingenuity hastened his calculation of time approximately zero, a gripe of his, but everyone in the Company wore them. He headed to the Leather Room, on the topmost floor, full of admiration for himself.
A long, gold-plated hallway led to the room, whose doors were flung open, waiting for him like the jaws of a majestic, underfed lion. Max-Tim appraised instantly that this was not the “leather” of Louisa, not the bodices, tights, and boots that snapped shut and withheld everything, up to and including normal blood circulation. No, this was poacher’s leather, a hidebound paradise of conquering manhood, full of roaring fireplaces, Axe shower-gel samples, and bull-testicle trophies. The Executive Manager sat upon a massive leather throne atop which was mounted the head of a giraffe, the most accomplished surveillant of all land-roaming creatures. Was the throne bolted to the floor? Even so, how did it not fall over?
The Executive Director was a roundish man, clumsily dressed in a rumpled black suit, but his motions were deliberate, endowing him with a lithe authority, and the baby-pink V-neck peeking through his unbuttoned blazer was an outrageously self-assured touch.
“Max-Tim,” boomed the Executive Director, “so cool of you to come.”
“Your invitation was super unexpected, but in a good way.”
“That’s how I meant it. Cigar?”
Max-Tim considered his boss’s offering, which looked like some kind of Victorian tampon.
“Is it —”
“Wrapped in the finest Italian leather? Yes.”
“I didn’t know you could smoke leather.”
“Well, I wouldn’t advise it, but stick in your mouth all the same, suck on it, taste it, it gives off . . . incredible mouthfeel.” The Executive Director threw each word from his throat like a boxer pushing a helpless opponent around a ring. Performative, and mean.
“Very generous, thank you.”
“Porn noises on or off? We’ve got aural cum shots on a loop, the finest sound quality money can play.”
“Wow, this room really does have everything . . . Off?”
“As you wish. Now I’ll tell you outright that it’s not a promotion you’re here to discuss, but a lateral move I believe you’ll find quite interesting. We’re reassigning you to VR.”
Not what Max-Tim had been anticipating, not in the abstract or in the particulars (deep down he wanted glory—specifically, to be paid for it).
“We’ve been watching you closely,” said the Executive Director, “and I don’t think you’ll object to my pointing out that you suffer from more than a little anxiety over how you are perceived by others professionally. For instance, you’d like to be seen as more of an intellectual, or maybe preternaturally compassionate. You're more than just brawn, and tactical analysis and good politics. We think this new assignment will allow your image to grow in the more edgy-cum-philanthropic direction that you desire.”
Max-Tim was taken aback by the Executive Director’s candor. It was true enough, he had been feeling restless, incapable of achieving the personal brand satisfaction he’d always felt on the verge of, if not owed. But he bristled at management’s apparent calculation that he wasn’t an intellectual, not yet at least. Like most people working in media, he’d long harbored two secret beliefs about himself, especially in relation to his peers. The first was that he was a radically unrepressed communist. The second, that he was smarter than everyone else, with the exception of a few unprecedented individuals already famous for their brilliance.
The Executive Director continued. “Your first assignment will be to work on one of our virtually ethical investment programs where we donate VR goggles to homeless people so they can experience what it’s like to have real estate, and safe families, and expense accounts. We give the goggles away for free, brands pay to advertise, and the hope is that seeing the life that’s passing them by will give these individuals—impoverished by the fucking system—the motivation they need to start generating higher incomes and become consumers of the companies that reinvigorated their life goals. They are the visionaries, we’re just giving them the tools to make their dreams a reality.”
“It sounds like . . .” Max-Tim trailing off, the words coming slow.
“Yes,” the Executive Director beckoned eagerly, with lively, expectant eyes.
“A tremendously soul-dividing task. I can hardly muster a response ironic enough to meet it,” Max-Tim managed.
“Cheers to that,” roared the Executive Director, lifting a rawhide tumbler to his lips.
Max-Tim requested a glass of whiskey, and an intern leapt out of a hidden compartment in the wall to procure it. He was a VR journalist now, and where was the fun in that? There was no risk in it, so no momentum. How much more could he fade from his own life? He felt like he’d been given a gift by someone he loved that in no way suited him, and that erased him instead. A dead snake in a box.
“By the way,” said the Executive Director, “an email of importance arrived for you while we were having this little chat.” He extended his heavily-tattooed index finger toward a mahogany side table on which sat a silver tray with a matching domed lid Max-Tim hadn’t noticed when he came in—perhaps because it hadn’t been there, but that seemed unlikely given the special effects that would be involved in making it just appear like that. Max-Tim walked over to the table, removed the lid, and feasted his eyes on a small white laptop patterned with cow spots. He logged in to his work inbox like it was no big deal, but he sensed danger, his mouth so dry. The Executive Director’s proposal sickened his purpose with disappointment. If he was an abject failure he didn’t want to know it, couldn’t know it, not yet. If life failed to move forward today, he didn’t know how he would breathe tomorrow, and this room did feel so dramatically stale. Not at all what he’d been expecting.
He read Louisa’s letter out loud first.
Max-Tim, you will find enclosed a .gif of me smoking a cigarette at my desk. As for the emotions you may be experiencing, they are merely The Consequences. Of what, I’m sure you can’t say, but there can be some joy in bearing them I’m sure you’ll never know. For now, and in perpetuity, I suggest you get a grip.
Then he read it over and over in his head.