Rain for the last week and a half though the sun threatened to burst through the thick blanket of clouds draped over the city this morning. In the end, however, it relented. Finch has been reading one of his magazines since he arrived at his cubicle forty minutes ago while I troll the web. Every now and then he lets out a sharp laugh or happily makes some comment into the air, directed at no one. He is fit though his hair is thinning, and he must be the same height as me, but he looks about twenty pounds less, so that he can pull off slim-cut jeans, a blue oxford button up, and ropers to complete the look; a real urban cowboy.
I haven’t even turned on the lamp at my cubicle yet, just the calming monochrome blue light of my monitor. I wonder if the sun will be out at my lunch break, about anything but work.
“Morning Finch,” I say not to be friendly but because I am curious how he will respond and also to disrupt him from his reading.
“Oh, hi,” he says in his polite way, sounding mildly disappointed that it is me and not someone else, Cassie perhaps, his answer carrying the accent of back East and not of the Midwest.
I am infinitely curious about him—how he came from back East, much farther than I, but we are both lackeys in our cubicles, I am chained to mine even though, yes, now that I check it, the neat grid of the schedule on my monitor doesn’t have me booked for any meetings until this afternoon. Curious now because Tanner is gone, left a week ago for graduate school. Ellen left, too, got a big freelance contract and said she hoped to leverage that into her own enterprise. Don’t ask me what exactly it is she does. I’m not sure what it is I do.
“What did you study in college, Finch?”
“History,” he answers. “You?”
“Communications Studies.” I consider this as if I hadn’t during the entire four years of my undergraduate. “And here we are,” I say.
“Here we are.” I hear the flip of the pages of his magazine.
I decide to ask Finch, who seems reasonable enough, logical. “What do you think we’re doing?”
“What do you mean?” he says.
I look around the office, the interior carefully designed to look like a boutique design firm of some kind, rafters visible in the high ceilings, the easterly wall a series of giant windows that look down upon a parking lot, a design that seems somehow personalized, private, and that offers absolute transparency. “At the Prevention Institute,” I say. “What do we do?”
“We help people is all. It’s not too complicated,” he says with a look and a shrug of the shoulders as if to say why do you have to make things complicated? Then he reminds me of his magazine. “I’m trying to finish this article before my first client—” and then his eyes widen, tracking something or someone moving, it seems, just beyond the peripheries of my vision. For a moment I am afraid to move, that it might be our boss, I almost ask him what or who it is, but his look tells me to be silent. The mysterious effluvium of unfamiliar food—a concoction of meats, perhaps, garlic and ginger, unknown spices—fills the air. I turn and see Shafiq, another employee in our division, materialize as if out of the unlit shadowy corners of the giant office floor with a lost look on his face, and I am drawn to his eyes, frightened, they seem. I am the one who should be afraid, because he has appeared before us like a ghost, without warning, and not him. Yet it is he who seems frightened, as if he is surprised to find that he might be of flesh, of this world. His tan slacks look in need of ironing as does his orange polo. His ID badge with its clear black numbers embossed beneath his headshot dangles from his belt. “When did you get here?” I ask.
Shafiq looks at his wristwatch. “I don’t know.” His voice carries the long oh sound of a Midwesterner like myself, “This morning sometime.” He turns to leave and says, “I’ve gotta go.”
I listen, wondering how I didn’t hear him before, to the swishing of the polyester and Lycra of his tan slacks, the faint click of his loafers on the lacquered hardwood as he slips back into some unknown corner of the office. Finch and I return to our morning routine as if it had not been interrupted, and forget that Shafiq was there at all. Pretty soon Finch’s first client of the morning will arrive, and I return to the monitor that bathes my thoughts in its sea-like blue gaze.
I recommended Cassie for a job here about a year ago, and I’m not sure why I did it anymore—now she is moving up the ladder while I occupy the same cubicle space that I have for the two years I have worked here. She was a friend of my ex-girlfriend, so long ago did we meet that I forget how we met. It seems she was just one day a part of my life, fully matriculated and with knowledge of my personal details that only childhood friends of mine had.
I had only a passing interest in her when I was with my girlfriend, I barely noticed her brown hair and matching eyes, the way she wore black, thick-rimmed glasses and pencil skirts that hugged her curvy hips, a white button up that revealed her pale neck, her delicate clavicle. Some days in the cool, lime green-colored office, she appeared to me like she could be librarian, wound up and repressed, waiting to be debauched. Well, this became my fantasy at least, and maybe if I think about it long enough, this is why I recommended her for the job and not because she needed it and because she was a friend of my girlfriend who moved out not long ago. Yes, I tell myself it was the Cassie with a boyfriend named Arjun who needed a break to help them get firmly landed on their feet. She spoke of him so often that I told myself this was the person I recommended for the job, Cassie who was in a relationship. It wasn’t the Cassie of slim waistline and curvy hips, pale neck and delicate clavicle for whom I repressed my desire. But in order to do so, I had to make myself available to discuss her boyfriend, Arjun. I even talked about my girlfriend as we were breaking up.
“He’s super mechanical,” she said once.
“He’s an artist, right?”
“Yeah. He just finished his degree.”
“What kind of art?”
“Oh,” she began almost with a disappointed sigh as if she should know, exactly, what he did, but she didn’t. “Big things. Installations, like, stuff.”
“Interesting,” I said.
“Except it’s the kind of stuff that will never get picked up anywhere.”
“It’s all too big for small galleries, and he doesn’t have a big enough name to merit the space it would take for a big gallery.”
“That’s a problem,” I said. “You guys could throw a party in your place, feature his art. Get people to see it that way.”
“Yeah,” she said, again, with disappointment or without ambition or excitement. “Except I’d have to organize it. Arjun doesn’t plan things.”
I thought about what I would say. I didn’t want to bad mouth her boyfriend, but the peculiarities of his art and personality were already getting on my nerves and I had never even met him. She talked of him like he was a piece of art himself, like someone at a museum staring at the complexities and mysteries of painting or a sculpture, trying to wrap her mind around him, always at arm’s length and making leaps in judgment to explain the unexplainable. And, as she talked, I realized that I wished that she looked at me in the same way.
Ever since I broke up with my girlfriend the days and weeks all get broken up by the commute under the bay, back and forth. I live alone in a gated community next to the waterfront in Oakland, and I don’t have any intention of moving. Our place was advertised as a loft back then, but when my girlfriend and I went to look at it, we realized it wasn’t. It was quiet and carpeted, anechoic like a recording studio, with a dishwasher in the well-lit, almost yellowish modern kitchen, a small closet with a washer and dryer stacked neatly behind its door. It had its own balcony that could be reached from the bedroom, and overlooked the parking lot and I didn’t think it was worth it to shell out a few hundred more bucks to have one that overlooked the neatly manicured lawn that surrounded the heated pool: Always eighty degrees, the guy who had showed us the apartment had said confidently. He also pointed out the small exercise room with a StairMaster and an elliptical. Free weights rested heavily in a rack in front of a full-length mirror. My girlfriend seemed happy and I was slowly warming up to the feeling that, if I planned groceries accordingly, I might be able to spend entire weekends on the grounds of our complex without once venturing out into the East Bay or back into the city itself. Not only that, but the grocery store could be reached quickly by a shuttle that stopped right outside the gates, and that same shuttle could take me to and from the train each morning so that I could tunnel under the bay in the neat, compact if hot car with other workers making the same commute, so that, no, my girlfriend and I did not even need a car. There was, however, a reserved parking space in case we should get one, our friendly attendant reminded us before we wrote the check for our deposit and he prepared the lease.
Ellen came some time shortly after my second year, left not long after she started, and I learned that she had been lining up another gig before she had even taken her position in the office. I remember her telling me, “It’s only a matter of time.”
I didn’t really believe her, mainly because I found the prospect of my own moving on, my own leaving for another gig unimaginable. I had given up on it. During my first year at the PI, I often considered quitting, and so destabilizing and frightening did it seem, and then so comfortable did my life in the gated community become, the cubicle each day didn’t bother me so much. The occasional walk on my lunch break down to the Embarcadero seemed like enough. I looked at the giant gray Bay Bridge arcing across the water, an inverted parabola leading to the massive cranes lined up along the Port of Oakland and, behind them, the Oakland skyline all blanketed in a gentle haze even on the clear days, and I was comforted. Before and even after my girlfriend left, it made me feel safe to know that she was somewhere over there, not far if I needed her.
I remember now that it was because of Ellen that I started paying attention to the protests. At first they were so polite that they barely caught my attention. Once, while we went for coffee down the street from our office on a short fifteen-minute break, she told me about her boyfriend who was not only active in the protests, but an aspiring filmmaker shooting his first documentary, the subject which was to be the activists that erupted politely now and then in Oakland and San Francisco.
“He used to be in a band.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah,” she began. “They toured the East Coast for a while last year.” She smiled to herself.
“Sounds like fun.” I had never really gone out East, and I had no desire to visit either.
She smiled, not looking anything in particular.
“What is it?” I asked.
“No it’s nothing,” she said. She paused, reconsidering, and then began talking again. “He worked at a co-op grocery store and they didn’t even know he was gone while he went on tour. He had a friend who clocked him in and out three times a week, picked up his paychecks, and deposited them into an account.”
“Huh,” I said, looking down, suddenly aware of how my shoes pinched my feet uncomfortably. I instantly hated Ellen’s boyfriend after she said this and perhaps she felt my discomfort with her, although I’m not sure how she would have known. Now I looked up the long and wide avenue that terminated against the Bay. I thought considerably less of her, and if I had been interested before about what she would do when she left the job, I didn’t want to know now. I imagined myself drifting alone out on the water, beneath the arcing gray bridge, now riding a current and being swept out to sea. We walked in silence for the next block and a half and I maintained my dream of drifting out to sea, a dream of uselessness, an existence without all the things I had now that were essential to life. I dreamed of becoming lost and of losing myself, of becoming totally, uncompromisingly useless.
On our way back up to the office, a to-go cup filled to the brim with black coffee warming my hand, I picked up the conversation exactly where I had left off as if no time had passed and I had not missed a beat.
“And so now he protests?”
“Yeah,” she said proudly as if she was talking about herself. “He’s really active.”
“So what does he do?” Now I was just looking for more ways to hate him and her for not seeing through such a charade.
“He interviews people, records them, and puts them on a website for people to see…” She continued on about how he came out here from the suburbs of Chicago, but how this linked up to what he was doing now, I wasn’t sure. I had completely written him off at that point as a spoiled rich kid who had probably spent his teenage years in a private school.
I tried to direct that hatred at him but I couldn’t. That hatred went inward. I hated myself for not having what he did, everything, not the least of which was a private education and now leisure time to record protests for his breakout film and a cushion to fall back upon if everything fell apart. I had no cushion that would protect me against debt and student loans, against being fired if I didn’t work enough, against missing rent or groceries.
“—and so when he gets back, we’re going to travel down the coast for a week,” was the last thing she said before we reached the giant glass doors of our office building.
I wanted to yell at her and I wanted to run away and then I thought about my blue monitor, the potential to help some poor long-suffering client. Then I remembered today was payday and I thought about money. I would be able to deposit money into my savings account, to cushion myself against the eventualities of life, and I became sanguine once again, sipping at my steaming coffee that would warm me through the afternoon and until I returned safely to the other side of the Bay.
“Well, have a good afternoon,” I said to Ellen before returning to my desk.
After I had finished my client preparedness training, and had been taken off probationary status—something that had made me feel suspect and I said this to Janelle, a great, Nordic-looking woman with blue eyes and blonde, curly hair with half a foot on me in height, large breasts that I tried not to look at. She was my boss during probationary status, but assured me that all new hires were given this status and I felt assured when she smiled her clean, white-toothed smile and in her navy slacks and matching sports coat like any power suit except that she wore sharp heels that raised her hind quarters and slimmed her figure, and looked to me like they could easily puncture a hole in my neck.
This was when I began to notice Tanner peeking over his monitor to catch a glimpse of me and so that I could catch a glimpse of him until one day we introduced ourselves. Like Cassie, he wore thick, black-rimmed glasses. Everything else about Tanner’s clothing, his accessories—the iPhone, the paper-thin laptop that he faithfully brought with him each day in a beautiful, Italian leather satchel that looked vintage but had been specially designed for holding contemporary technological accessories that everyone carried—seemed to fit squarely into the twenty-first century, the slacks, the button up, ironed and collared shirt. I thought of slick modernity with its austere and minimal living quarters, the orderly interior design. At bottom though, it seemed to me, it upheld the same old-school conservatism that reeked of stuffy rooms and floral-patterned wall paper, dark rooms overflowing with collectibles from the Orient, burgundy-colored rugs from India, some strange amalgamation of the clash and final acceptance of the values that separated our parents’ generation, the baby boomers, and ours. These were the hidden values that activists like Ellen’s boyfriend were protesting against. In any case, he seemed like a hard worker, like he took our job seriously. I thought he was a nice guy after I got to know him, and eventually we talked about sports to pass the time between clients. Probationary status flew by.
Well, sure enough not long ago, we were walking to the train and Tanner told me: “I’m going back to school. In the Midwest.”
“That’s great,” I said quickly, though as we walked up Montgomery to the train and as I had time to think about what this would mean, I felt my heart sink from my chest. It was tied to my girlfriend leaving, Ellen’s moving on, and now Tanner’s announcement, to Cassie taking a new position just above the one I had helped her secure, the protests that sparked quietly now and again. After they shut down the Port of Oakland, the authorities unleashed the helicopters. I got the feeling that they hovered to chip away slowly at the morale of the entire city, to breed hostility between those who protested and those of us who didn’t. I heard people complain how these were our tax dollars hard at work. They began to ask what the protesters wanted.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s about that time.”
“What will you study?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m not sure exactly. Something dealing with cognition and rhetoric, I’m trying to pin down a moment in cognition when things take shape, organization, arguments…” He trailed off.
“Sounds way beyond me,” I said. “So what will you do with it?”
“I want to teach high school English.”
I tried to remember high school, but couldn’t. It was like running up against a void. Instead I thought about our office erased of recognizable faces, and I began to feel sorry for myself. I imagined me sitting at my cubicle quietly waiting for my appointments to come. I wished that I could go back to school, to be at that carefree stage of life that Ellen’s boyfriend found himself in, or Tanner for that matter, without the hot breath from the debt of student loans, the high rent I paid to live in the comfortable townhome fortress I occupied now without my girlfriend. I rubbed my temples, then my eyes.
“Are you okay?” Tanner asked me.
“Oh, yeah,” I said after another moment. “Just thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner when I get home.
“Ah, okay. You looked worried for a minute.”
“Dinner can be worrisome.”
We arrived to the platforms where I would catch my train under the bay and he would take his further into the neighborhoods of the city. “So, listen,” I began. “We should check out a baseball game before you take off.”
“That’s a good idea.”
We shook hands heartily and I said, “I’ll look into it and let you know.”
We parted ways and my train was already pulling up as I got into line. The doors rattled open and a small wave of passengers sloshed out, then we funneled in.
The once-polite mob that had been collecting itself in front of government buildings in downtown Oakland—they had renamed the plaza, their camp, out in front of the mayoral office after a young man who had been gunned down on BART New Year's Eve two years ago—had grown in its rebellion. I heard stories of revolutionary artists, factions breaking off from the protesters, no doubt, that's what they called themselves, going to different shop fronts throughout East and West Oakland, door-to-door style, offering their services in exchange for a small fee: one grand for a mural and protection from would-be taggers that would vandalize their property. Protection wasn't 100 percent guaranteed though; the murals might not be a deterrent against rogue taggers, but it was better than the alternative, which was to have one's store repeatedly vandalized by bombers, they called them, and incur fines from the city. I heard that the muralists, the revolutionary artists as they called themselves, came from all over, New Mexico, Minnesota. They came from places in the middle of the country, like myself, where nothing of consequence ever happened, or so they thought. That's what I thought when I came here with my girlfriend six years ago.
Toward the end of it all with my girlfriend, it all started with Cassie at a party at a loft in Oakland’s Chinatown, right above a Vietnamese restaurant, and where the faint odor of pho wafted in and out of my nose between sips of lager and where people, including my girlfriend, gathered around a single turntable and speakers in the cleared out living room, a heavy beat thumping away. I was in the kitchen talking with Cassie about work and nothing else, nothing else because my life was nothing but work. At the time, she was a barista at a café.
“I’m so sick of it.” She had a drink from her beer; I noticed her lips delicately touch the mouth of the glass bottle, glistening, “Of making lattes and foam and assholes that don’t tip.”
I told myself this was her way of asking for help without asking for help, that I was giving her help, and in my loneliness, and thinking about the solitary blue light on my computer monitor, simultaneously cool and warm on my skin, and perhaps foreseeing the immanent departure of my girlfriend, I offered her my help. “I could put you in touch with someone where I work, Janelle.”
“Really?” she said, the register in her tone had changed already, the muscles in her face had relaxed, happily, into a hopeful smile.
“Yeah,” I said with more confidence. “It’s no problem. You should definitely talk with Janelle. Mention my name, that you have experience with people.”
She had already taken out a pen and slip of scrap paper, so quickly, in fact, that I wondered where they had come from. “What’s her name again?” she asked.
“Janelle,” I said, smiling. “Here.” I reached out for the pen and scrap paper. I wrote down Janelle’s email address and gave the pen and paper back to Cassie, told her to send an email first thing Monday.
“I really appreciate it,” Cassie said. “Thanks.”
She bit her lower lip, and I thought for a moment she was going to give me a hug and I became tense at the thought, but she didn’t. Two weeks later Cassie was in cubicle three.
And so the time at my cubicle, number four, passed by effortlessly and quickly, it seemed, with Cassie nearby to make conversation. Even if we didn’t talk, I liked having one more person that I knew there. Sometimes I watched her stretch her neck, rubbing the nape with her palm. And when we weren’t providing consultation to our clients, it seemed we were giving it to each other, comforting and bracing ourselves for an uncertain future, validating our histories, because what is a personal history if no one can confirm it with you? Yes, we decided that we were exactly where we needed to be even if we were not sure, exactly, where that was, and things would be great and if not great, acceptable.
Now and then I notice Shafiq shuffling around down the corridor near the supplies room, slacks and a polo, almost same as always—some days more well-ironed than others. I could not tell if he was eyeing me, or if he was eyeing Cassie.
And then, one late afternoon, Cassie asks: “Who is that?”
“You don’t know Shafiq?” I respond. She’s been here long enough that she should, but I understand why she doesn’t. Most people in the office don’t mention Shafiq and avoid eye contact if they ever run into him. “He’s been here since I got here. Doesn’t say much.”
Cassie lowers her voice to a sharp whisper so that only I can hear. “He seems a little, you know, not all together. I feel like he’s watching me. Does he speak English?”
I laugh. “He’s from not far from where I grew up. You can hear his accent.”
“Ohhh,” she says.
I do not also say that his aimless wandering around the office all day, his seeming to be here before I arrive, and still here when I leave, spooks me in the least. I feel relieved that I’m not the only person to have seen him and, so close I have come to him and his strange and somehow foreign scent, I know that he is not foreign, that he comes from where I came, assaults my nose. “I don’t think he’s watching you,” I say. “He’s a really decent guy. Just quiet.”
Sometimes clients came in with letters, hopeless messages scrawled in handwriting and, if I was lucky, other times a printed document that nonetheless tied my brain in painful knots and that made me want to cry at the same time: My parents divorced when I was ten and I don’t think anyone has ever loved me. Or the grammar was so hideous, a message so bereft of the fundamental rules of the English language that I could not relate in any way: I exciting at future, are made me relaxing and therefore he were some dementia wife and freaky son. When I received things like this I excused myself, the client’s face hopeful that he could be helped, and I went to Janelle, whose open cubicle faced ours even though I had been at the Institute for over a year.
“What do I do with this?”
Janelle does not say anything, but nods to the white, dry erase board where the closest thing to our mission is inscribed in capital letters green, red, blue, and dry: DO NO HARM.
“And be polite,” Janelle says.
I return to my cubicle desperate to help, to communicate. I fill out a proof of visit form for the client to take with him, a litany of vague and general terms that we worked on: syntax, organization, clarification—yes I want to help our clients, to make our systems work for them, to send them out of the office into the afternoon with a shard of hope that they can carry throughout the day like a talisman. And yet I am so aware of my inability to do so that I become clipped, jagged, sharp, and often send the client away in a sullen huff, never to ask to see me again, but perhaps I will see them, a week later, slipping into Cassie’s cubicle or to Finch’s for consultation. And I think that perhaps this is why I remain in the same place after two years on the job. I expressly don’t do what Janelle trained us to do in our client preparedness training (sessions in which definitions and nuances of words like empathy and sympathy, conversation and confrontation, are dragged forth and beaten unremittingly to death with the help of handout after handout, PowerPoint presentation after PowerPoint presentation faculty development personnel after faculty development personnel)—to recognize that we cannot possibly help the clients with all of the problems that plague them, to assuage their grievances, to keep them at arm’s length, and send them on their way thinking they have been helped, and above all, we must do no harm.
It still rains now, the first Friday of the new month of May, a warming rain. For a moment this morning I saw a sublime crack in the thick quilt of clouds draped above the city before our train glissaded cleanly into the gaping mouth of the tunnel, into the dark crossing beneath the bay. Even if it is small, the blue opening so deep blue, so penetrating and beautiful sky blue, it tugs at the strings that hold my heart in its place and give it hope. I take my time arriving to the office, stopping for a coffee, a pastry and drink and eat them in the window of a café while I watch the waves of workers walk to and fro past me like a cinema. I am later than usual to the office, and the floor is buzzing. Finch and Cassie, I notice are talking loudly about plans for the weekend with another guy who sits in cubicle five, Owen, a jolly Iowan with a blonde beard that matches his blonde hair and who celebrates each weekend drinking and socializing, music and so and so, the art crawl of the first Friday would be just the place for all of us to meet up.
“Will Arjun come along?” I ask Cassie, half expecting to meet her boyfriend of whom she speaks with me so often.
Finch smiles as if laughing at a joke that he has missed, “Who’s Arjun?”
I want to speak up, but Cassie stops me, explaining. “My roommate. You know Arjun.”
“Ah, right,” Finch says, rolling back on the heels of his ropers.
Cassie turns to me. “No, he can’t make it tonight. He works at the restaurant.”
I nod, but keep my mouth shut, only half aware of what is happening and I think of the slogan happily written across the dry erase board, DO NO HARM, and my heart, so big and full this morning when I saw the shafts of light falling effortlessly through the break in the clouds, felt like it was shrinking, dropping into my stomach.
“You should come out Finch,” Cassie says. And to me next: “You too. It will be fun.”
I am about to say I’ll think about it when I notice a flickering of movement out of the corner of my eye, near the back of the office and realize that it is Shafiq orbiting closer and closer to our ring. He looks at me in a knowing, expectant way and I wonder if he has heard our conversation. “Hi Shafiq,” I say, clearing my throat nervously.
He stops his drift and moves in on the group: Finch, Cassie, and Owen all turn and stare.
“Hi,” he says.
Before searching Cassie and Finch’s face for their approval I say, “Tonight’s the art crawl. You should come.”
He looks at me like I’m some kind of trap, like I might spring on him at any moment.
“Join us, Shafiq,” Cassie adds. “We never see you.”
Finch rolls his eyes and Owen doesn’t seem to care one way or the other and finally Shafiq speaks up, “I’ll think about it.” He wanders off in his aimless way, and it seems like a cloud has lifted after he is beyond earshot.
“What the fuck was that, Greg?” Finch hisses at me.
“Yeah,” Cassie says.
“He probably heard us making plans. It would have been rude not to invite him.”
“He probably won’t come anyway,” Cassie says, returning to her desk.
She smiles at me and I smile back and now I begin to wonder about the last few times I’ve seen Cassie and Finch talking with each other in their cubicles, the brush of a hand on a shoulder, the quiet laughter, all these things appear before me, simultaneously, it seems, and I am hoping that my feeling about them is not true, but it is the feeling I had before my girlfriend left, and now my heart has shrunk completely, dropped into the pit of my stomach and now the sensation hits my groin not unpleasantly, and I am reminded of my girlfriend and I wish that she had not left.
That night when I’m back home from work, inside the almost anechoic living room of my apartment, munching an apple and watching sports news, when my phone begins vibrating and a number appears on the face that I don’t recognize. I let it ring and then, for some reason, decide to pick up before the voice mail kicks in.
It is Finch calling to invite me out tonight, the first Friday art crawl. I’d almost forgotten about it and was peeved to have been reminded.
“Cassie said I should call,” he says, and “The more the merrier, as they say!”
I laugh nervously at this and feel my stomach knotting up. This is the first time he’s asked me out to do something since I’ve met him. I say maybe and Finch says he hopes to see me there and we hang up. I turn off the television and check box scores and stats until, as planned, I begin to feel drowsy (I hope that I can fall asleep without eating dinner so that I don’t have to think about making anything until cereal in the morning for breakfast) and am interrupted by the persistent vibrating of my phone and so I look and see that it is Cassie, and so I answer.
“You should come,” she says. “Finch just broke up with his girlfriend and he needs support.”
“I didn’t know he had one.”
“I thought everyone knew. Just come.”
I am looking out my window now, opened to let the air in off of the waterfront, the quilt of clouds thinning, and think that it will be beautiful out tonight and don’t be a wet towel or something to that effect and I don’t really want to go pretend to look at art and eat organic grass-fed polish sausage at nine bucks a pop. “Fine,” I say, “I’ll be there in a while.”
And I gather my jacket and prepare to leave my apartment, the surrounding gates, that not unpleasant feeling in my groin goading me, it seems, almost against my will and out to the shuttle and before I know it I am among the throng of Friday night revelers, cans of beer in hand, the sweet aroma of pot and of savory cooked meat saturating the air, lovers arm in arm and youths and artists and there, where they said they would be are Finch and Cassie and nobody else from the office. We walk around and it’s not like we’re actually hanging out, rather we are taking turns following each other through thick patches of people, and finally I stop and buy the polish sausage (grass fed, organic) I was thinking about and a soda. I sit on the curb and eat my food.
“Finch and I are going to find beer,” Cassie says, taking my moment’s rest as her cue, it seems.
“I’ll be here,” I say, swallowing the savory and sweet sausage, licking the grease from my lips and teeth, and I watch their backs as they go. The sausage and sugar from the soda couple nicely with each other, creating in me the warm feeling of sedation and I sit and stare, without realizing it, at the sky that has opened up pink and violet, the soft and hazy wisps of clouds. I am not sure how long I’ve been on the curb when I notice Finch and Cassie returning with giant bottles of beer wrapped in brown paper bags, laughing about something or another and stop before me.
“How was your food?” Finch asks.
“It was great,” I say and stand up. “Shall we walk?”
“Sure,” Cassie says happily and we join, again, the phalanx of people and I notice we are moving in stride and toward the rhythm of what sounds like a drum circle and we reach Broadway and look at a crowd of protesters holding giant signs and waving at us, the onlookers, as they go by like a parade. The helicopters haven’t come out, but it’s early yet.
“What do you think of the protests?” Cassie asks me.
“Oh, I don’t know.” I look at Finch for the right thing to say next. Nothing. “I guess I’ve found it kind of annoying to the rest of us.”
“Ha!” Finch says. “Like who?”
“Us,” I said. “People like you and me and Cassie that don’t have a choice but to work.”
“I don’t mind,” Cassie says.
“Me neither,” says Finch.
Great, I think to myself. Just one more thing they have in common. I double down anyway. “Like who can afford to just pitch a tent downtown and skip out on work?”
Cassie looks at me as if I have said something deeply offensive.
“They’re doing it for you, you know,” Finch says.
“I don’t know, man. It just seems like a bunch of spoiled rich kids from out of town who don’t want to hold real jobs and don’t have anything better to do.”
“Huh,” he says.
I’m watching the protesters now, their picket signs bobbing up and down.
“And the fucking helicopters. I didn’t get to sleep the other night until after one in the morning.” When I turn to look for Finch and Cassie they have disappeared. It seems like no sooner have I said this that I feel myself being swept up by the protesters, the feeling in my groin that has been bothering me all night has turned into something else, something with purpose. I try to wonder what my life would be like without my job, but it is unimaginable.
I look across Broadway, and I notice Cassie and Finch once more, holding their brown paper bags with bottles of beer, before they disappear finally and for the evening so that I know and don’t know what has happened here and for some reason am feeling sorry for Arjun—the last of him I heard was that he needed to get out of the service industry and into a real job, I suppose, like the rest of us, like Finch especially who would be moving into another full-time job with benefits at the end of the month. He could do something mechanical or carpentry so that he could use his hands and not so much his disorganized mind and that was where the last discussion of Arjun was left and I somehow felt like I was getting a behind-the-scenes look at my own break up with my own girlfriend, now over a year ago so that I knew and did not know. I didn’t, however, feel sorry enough for Arjun that I wouldn’t have slept with Cassie had the opportunity presented itself. The chant of the protesters rises, but I can’t make out what they say. I would have fucked her the first opportunity I had in one of the darkened and unused rooms of our office building if only she had asked, if only she had made the slightest gesture in the right direction I would have, if only.
It was after Finch and Cassie had disappeared that I notice him, some strange dark angel roving the frayed edges of the crowds of people, Shafiq. Our eyes meet unmistakably and as he came to me his face was sullen, downcast.
“What’s your problem?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says, his voice upbeat in a way that didn’t match his visage. “Just checking out the scene down here.”
“Pretty wild, right?” I say absentmindedly, scanning the crowd for Finch and Cassie, searching for them.
“Is everything okay? You seem edgy.”
Struck by his sudden interest in me, I stopped looking for them. “Me?” I shout over the drums. I thought about this. “No!” I say and then something inside breaks open, a stream of language flows from my lips like shit or vomit or both—“Cassie’s probably fucking Finch I just know it and they dragged me out here so that she doesn’t have to feel bad being on a date behind her boyfriend’s back and now they ditched me and I don’t care because I’m going home and and don’t they realize I’ve got better things to do?”
“Cassie’s fucking Finch?” Shafiq asks me as if he’d heard nothing else.
"What? Oh I don’t know,” I said. “Sorry,” I say. “You can ignore all that.”
“Bullshit?” he asks
“Yeah, I guess. I’m going this way,” I say. “You want to come?”
“Why not,” he says.
And so I was walking back to my apartment, Shafiq trailing behind me like a wraith, and fully aware now and unable to deny my fantasy of Cassie in the office, her delicate clavicle protruding just noticeably from the base of her pale, white neck, and following a back street when I come upon a darkened gallery that was lit by a single black light at the front door, and for some reason that I don’t understand, I decide to slip in to have a look.
“You want to have a look around in here Shafiq?”
I go in first. The violet walls are lined with framed paintings of monsters, demons, and unmentionable things standing in front of nightmarish hellscapes. Others are rendered before nothing at all, just a white, antiseptic background and casting small, circular shadows directly beneath them as though the ghoul were standing beneath the spotlight of an operating theater or within the confines of an insane asylum. I had completely forgotten my desire to ravage Cassie and had completely imagined myself into the mythological world that the artist, Partie, had created—one a man in a business suit, a quarterback’s build, frank forehead but eye sockets sewn shut, and two streams of blackened blood like tears dried down each cheek. Yes, this Partie had imagined himself to be a hunter of nightmares, a doctor of the terrifying, exorcised and recorded from around the world then rendered them exactly, with painstaking detail and accuracy, grotesque and horrific as they were, chewing bones and raw meat, one a madman holding a child’s doll, all fang or eyeballs protruding horrifically from some strange and unknown sockets with the whiteness of madness, or some outsized cyst, a massive exposed cerebellum, and I think of, I suppose, the world gone mad with logic and reason, the poor and suffering thing made only to think and to compute and not ever to feel with the heart or, for that matter, the liver—only a brain. I stroll slowly through the gallery, breathing in each painting, and then I walk back out past the black light and into the lukewarm evening. I have completely forgotten about Shafiq, and when I look for him, he is gone. My thoughts return to Cassie and Finch, the not unpleasant feeling guiding me back to my apartment on the waterfront until I am back home and beneath the comforter of the queen-sized bed that I had purchased for my girlfriend and I and where I fall into a pitch-black and dreamless sleep.
Not long before Tanner leaves, I ask him about going to a baseball game like I had mentioned when he told me he would be leaving the Prevention Institute. He says that he’d like to go but on the night of the game he calls me and adds that his girlfriend, Dana, would come, that I should head to the Coliseum and wait for him to text me.
“You have a girlfriend?”
“Yeah,” he says “I thought you knew.”
“No, but that’s great. Is she going with you when you leave?”
“Yeah,” he says.
I smile thinking of my own girlfriend. “That’s really cool. Congratulations,” I said as if he had announced that they were getting engaged. After I’ve hung up I wonder why I never hoisted up anchor, or cut it altogether, and left California or the country altogether. Now and then at work or on the weekends I look at the travel section of the news, the pictorials that depict exotic islands, countries that seem to have been forgotten by modernity, or at least that is what we are made to believe, and I imagine myself there. Once, my girlfriend and I went to Tulum for a week and stayed in a hut a stone’s throw from the emerald Caribbean. If I don’t think too much about it, I can tell myself it was perfect, that there could be no other way to pass one’s days. We lay out on towels in the afternoons, drank Mexican beer with fresh lime, ate ceviche when we became hungry, and cooled ourselves off in the sea when we became too hot. After the sun had sunk below the watery horizon, we made love by candlelight and safely inside the mosquito net hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Each morning, after breakfast, we came back to our hut to find the bed made, fresh towels folded in the likeness of swans or hearts, and set gently at the foot of the bed. However, if I remember more closely, the sheen fades, pulled up easily like an old tapestry, and I remember the sense of panic with which I strolled the beaches and laid in bed at night (after we made love) in darkness lit only by the moonlight falling benevolently from its perch in the sky and its reflections off the gently rolling sea, the rhythm of the waves that lapped the sandy shore like a soft tongue. It all had the combined effect of merely reminding me that beyond all this was my real life, the mechanical BART and air-conditioned offices and waiting rooms, the blue, blue monitor waiting patiently at my desk for me, or for someone new to take my place.
At the Coliseum I buy the cheapest ticket I can find and am seated in the first row of the second deck, not bad, I think, considering they are playing the former world champions, a team stacked to the hilt with talent, well paid for, of course with only five players in a twelve-man roster earning under a million dollars per season. I arrive in the bottom of the first, climb up the cement stairs and catch my first glimpse of the field this year: it is neat, orderly and green, the turf crisscrossed with sharp lines from the freshly mowed grass, a beautiful display of symmetry and geometry, the diamond-shaped field, the clean, white and square bases like buttons, and the away team plays catch, and shags balls before the leadoff batter. My eyes are drawn as if to a vortex to the circular giant, brown pitcher’s mound that rises ten inches above the playing field with its white rubber plate like a plinth, and standing atop of it, the pitcher, a Dominican mountain of a man, standing six-feet-seven inches and weighing two-hundred ninety pounds (so I figure, with his arm fully extended at the apex of his windup, he slings the ball downward from a vantage point of nearly fifteen feet) hurling the white baseball like a white star and to my eyes nothing but a blurry white vector that disappears the moment it reaches the warm-up catcher’s mitt. A good second later the sharp snap of it can be heard in the upper deck. Finally the lead off batter steps into the box and he seemed half the size of the man on the pitcher’s mound, and the contest begins.
The game is scoreless until the seventh inning, a duel, and surprisingly our pitcher holds his own, with only one score at the top of the fifth with one out and runners at the corners and which ends abruptly on a double play, the ball slapped sharply to the third baseman and quickly converted into two outs. I barely even notice that it’s not until the seventh inning when Tanner and his girlfriend catch up with me. They amble toward me with plastic cups of beer in their hands, sit down in two empty seats next to me.
“This is my girlfriend, Dana,” he says to me, and I reached my hand out to her.
“Nice to meet you.”
She smiles back. “Hi.” She’s wearing giant sunglasses and a baseball hat.
So, it’s the top of the seventh, and our pitcher is still throwing strong. He is another Dominican except that he stands at five eleven and weighs in at two sixty-seven. The force and strength that seem more evenly distributed throughout their pitcher was all centered in our pitcher’s gut. It doesn’t really matter, I think. He is still singing. The leadoff pitch comes streaming down the pipe and leaves their batter frozen for a strike. The second down and away just enough for the batter to lay off.
“Did you hear about Finch?” Tanner asks.
“That he’s leaving? Yeah, someone told me last week.” This wasn’t true. I had been eavesdropping on him and Cassie talking in the office one afternoon before the art crawl when she should have been talking with me.
“Well, yes, but also about him and Cassie?”
The next pitch thumps into the catcher’s mitt, a ball so far off the mark that the batter leans away from it to stretch his back as he sees it coming down.
“I hadn’t heard.”
He leaned in close to me as if he was letting me in on a big secret, and so that I can smell the beer on his breathe. “You can’t tell anyone.”
“Finch is leaving anyway,” I say. “Besides, who would I tell? Shafiq?”
“Haha! Right,” he says and then became serious. “Yeah, there’s always Shafiq.”
Another ball floats across the plate and someone behind us boos and I can’t tell if he is booing the call or the pitcher or the whole game.
“I wouldn’t want Cassie to get in trouble or whatever.”
The catcher scoops the final pitch out of the dirt, and there goes the leadoff batter trotting down the first base line. I look at Tanner for his response but he has turned to Dana and put his hand on her thigh. She smiles at something he says, her sunglasses were big and black and round so that they covered much of her face and leave me with the impression that she wasn’t really smiling at all but something else I couldn’t tell. Her teeth are clean and white. I turn back to the game, acting like I don’t care because I didn’t care. It all feels so adolescent to me and now I am getting angry in the same way I was at the art crawl, at being embroiled in something that I did not want to be part of: the bullshit office romance and gossip. And, yes, I had wanted Cassie. I can admit that to myself now.
The next batter, the bottom of their lineup, hadn’t touched the ball all night, not even to foul it out of play but this time he dribbles the first pitch up the middle so that the shortstop catches up to it in shallow center without enough time to make a play, denying the double play which I’d been hoping for.
Tanner keeps talking, “I guess it’s not a big deal. Last weekend, after the art crawl, they ended up back at Finch’s in the city.”
I feel a lead ball drop from my throat to my stomach. They have reached the top of the lineup: a terrifying stretch of superstars, each paid more than the last, it seemed, and none of them measuring under six feet. From here and with their helmets they remind me of old World War II infantrymen. And they spray the ball all over the infield and outfield like a machine gun, each of the next four hitters finding the holes in the field where the defense was not. And now I wish I had not met up with Tanner and his girlfriend who, at this point, is nowhere to be seen, off getting a beer or a hot dog somewhere.
“And so what?” I ask, irritated.
The bases are loaded and the number five batter is up, another monster of a man I have never heard of or seen before and holding his bat like a club loosely above his head. I check my game roster, but can’t find him on it. We put in a new pitcher, an American this time, six three and two-hundred pounds with an arm like a sling shot that shot the ball screaming into the catcher’s mitt. I hope that we might get out of this inning without giving up more than a couple runs and can surely bounce back. The DH watches the first two pitches, strikes both of them. The crowd cheers.
“They got together, man,” he yells. “What do you think?”
The DH chooses the next pitch and launches it with a crack deep into center field, high into the second deck into a section that is closed, no man’s land. A grand slam that tears the game open, it seems, beyond repair.
“Huh,” I say. “What about Arjun?”
“Finch didn’t tell you?” That’s Cassie’s boyfriend. She lives with him.”
Tanner lets out a sharp laugh, but he didn’t say anything. Then, “You’re not friends with him are you?”
“What if I was?” I say, and waited for him to answer, but again, he just sits there. I let him off the hook. “I’ve never even met him.”
I look of relief sweeps over his face. “I thought I’d really fucked that all up,” he says.
I make a laugh. “Good thing you didn’t.”
“Wow.” Tanner notices the score. “We’re getting crushed.”
“Yeah,” I say. We watch the game silently. The away team bats around the lineup, scoring another six runs, making it 10-0 before we finally get the third out. The bottom of the seventh is three up, three down, light’s out and I turned to see if people are leaving but not yet. Dana comes back with a beer in her hand.
“What did I miss?”
When she sits down, I stand up. “This game’s over.” And, “We’re not going to get over that last inning. I’m going to take off.”
“Sure thing man,” Tanner says.
“Good luck at school.” I put out my hand.
We shake and then I shake Dana’s hand and say nice to meet you and she says likewise and I take one last look at the bright, well-lit and green, green field beneath the almost opal-colored sky. I am ready to sleep.
I leave the Coliseum among empty cases of beer and half-eaten hot dogs. Night has almost completely settled in and I had thwarted myself out of this little joy as well—watching the bright, sunny afternoon come to a rest over the ball diamond, the pale white moon floating above it all in the gentle sky. I take the footbridge over the train yards, the high, chain-link fences topped with razor wire, glinting stainless steel, sharp and smiling, inquiring someone to try his luck climbing over. I walk past an old Mexican couple selling churros for two dollars, and a saxophonist who hadn’t yet started to play for the crowd that would soon be making its sad and defeated way back home.
“How are you doing?” he asks as I pass.
“Good, thanks. And you?”
“All right, all right.”
Right before I enter the BART station he asks, “We winning?”
“No, not tonight.” I descend the stairs to feed the turnstile my ticket and re-ascend to catch the first train back downtown. The hills over East Oakland are dark, but for the twinkling of lights in people’s homes and streetlamps, and quiet. I stare at the giant glowing Mormon temple embedded just above Fruitvale like a chunk of a much larger spaceship has broken off and hurtled down to earth, East Oakland, and crashed into the hills. I imagine it was just biding its time, glowing away, refulgent, until one day it would be found and leave the rest of us behind.
My gated community is silent, and my apartment is silent, and for some reason, my ears ring as I shut and lock the door of my place. I stand for a moment and listen to the blood circulating around my brain. I go to the bookshelf in my room and take out a scented candle that my girlfriend left behind when she left, Sparkling Icicles. I light it and watch the flame flicker. I think of my ex-girlfriend, of Cassie, and I think of him, that urban cowboy Finch. I turn off the lights and lie in bed on top of the comforter (I don’t even take off my clothes), the moonlight falls through my window. The room begins to smell of men’s cologne from the candle. And it was quiet save for the humming in my brain, the occasional whooshing sound of BART coming or going from the city to the East Bay or vice versa. I am thinking of her and trying to let it go and Cassie, the pointless, aimless job, Janelle who lorded probation over me, Finch and Tanner, Ellen and, yes, even Shafiq.
I imagine the protester’s tent camp downtown, and I imagine them all coming together and marching from downtown to my gated community on the waterfront, their picket signs and drum circles and chanting. They are chanting for me, they want me to come out. When they come, if they come, I will not join them, but I will not resist. I smile at this thought. Still I lay quietly on my back and I feel myself slipping into sleep but not before a moment of panic that my girlfriend might come home at any minute, and then of relief when I remember that she won’t and then, finally, the blackness of dreamless sleep.