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Jane Dorner had never used a butt plug, and manicures made her cuticles bleed.
At first it had been fun, the refining of Public Relations Jane. She was breezy, overly familiar, sexually omnivorous, joylessly joyful, and clever in a nonthreatening way. She was hot, but only with makeup on. She liked her shoulders but hated her arms. She wouldn’t steal your boyfriend, but she might fuck his brother and tell you about that dick. She did barre and boot camp, but she was just in it to cancel out the day-drinking. She thought women with visible muscles needed to take it down a notch, even though, obviously, you do you!, et cetera. She liked VIP lounges and Champagne-flavored gummi bears and USB drives shaped like baby animals. If your mother died, PR Jane would send you a gift basket a month later—one of her clients, UnBereave, was a subscription box service that focused on self-care after tragedy, including lavender bath bombs they’d rebranded as bath blooms—but she probably wouldn’t be able to go to the funeral, because she already had tickets to see her college roommate in LA for the long weekend. She’d post her brunch-themed sign from the Women’s March and go to brunch after. She was up for whatever, but she wasn’t someone you called in any kind of emergency. PR Jane was twenty-five and she figured she had two more good years before she had to really knuckle down and listen to the answers to her questions.
Actual Jane was twenty-nine. She had $97,000 in medical debt, a limitless capacity for disappointing first dates, and a malaise so deep she wondered if it might just be her personality. Lately, she was becoming increasingly concerned about her career and her future—neither of which seemed like the low-stakes annoyances they once had.
All of a sudden, without warning, the conversation about so-called passion among Jane’s cohort had turned from thinking about starting a band to thinking about accepting my manager’s offer of corporate leadership training. Jane didn’t begrudge anyone their selling out; she only wished she could have done so more effectively. All she’d done in the seven years since she graduated from college was accumulate an unfinished PhD, a closet full of clothes that all looked slightly wrong on her, and the debt.
She knew that in order to be a participant in capitalism rather than solely a victim of it, she had to have something to sell, but she didn’t believe in her own viability as a product and had no ideas for better ones. As an account manager at Relevancy PR, she shilled goods she knew to be third-rate, and her lack of conviction fed her stasis.
When she took the job, she had been blinkered by the impressive title—impressive, at least, compared with “grad student without distinction”—and the idea of the kind of life it suggested. Jane had never been able to envision her life more than six months into the future, so a job with a ready-made identity was appealing. Only when she was already mired in the day-to-day drudgery of Relevancy did she realize that “PR Maven” was, like “middle-class homeowner,” an identity on its way out. And while there were plenty of other jobs she wished she had, it felt impossible to imagine a job, any job, that she would like to do.
“Jane—” Her boss Rand Hagen materialized like a flinch beside her. “Stop by and see me whenever you get a chance. Now would be best.”
She followed him into his office, repulsed, as always, by the skeletal shoulders visible beneath his thin white button-down. She sat opposite him and prepared for the intermittent but unrelenting stream of Hmms that was the hallmark of their meetings. Every time Rand Hagen peered at her with his dark button eyes and Hmmed, Jane felt an unmistakable tugging on her second left toe. It always started out as a twinge, but as the meeting wore on and the Hmms persisted, the tug became excruciating. Jane had once read on a yoga store’s shopping bag: trauma lodges itself in our bodies—release the wounds of your past. Though the same bag had also warned that tomatoes were a leading cause of depression, Jane couldn’t deny that the trauma of Rand Hagen had lodged itself in her second left toe.
She got the job at Relevancy through a combination of name-brand schooling (her incomplete PhD in poetry from Columbia), a moderately viral satirical essay (“Makeup Tips for the Apocalypse,” which she now suspected the Relevancy recruiter had taken at face value), and, she later learned, the fact that two buttons on her shirt had come undone during her interview, fully exposing her bra and convincing Rand Hagen that she was “one of the fun ones.”
Her job was to oversee content creation for the firm’s Women’s Empowerment Sector and manage a team of junior copywriters. Relevancy was a large, multi-armed agency that was forever being re-orged, and Rand had been shuffled from Travel & Leisure to Emerging Technologies to Healthcare Solutions before finally landing in WE. He spoke wistfully about projects and managers past, and had spent the last two years failing to impart his lifetime of leadership lessons to Jane.
Jane excelled at suggesting snappy wordplay to the copywriters, but she was temperamentally unsuited to lead anyone—even toward greater awareness of a remote-controlled butt plug. Her PowerPoints read like personal essays, full of bloated asides and dubious anecdotal evidence, and heading meetings made her sleepy; she had never been able to stretch one past twenty minutes.
Jane had been at Relevancy for two years. For the last two months, since being dumped by a milk-pale poet named Byron, she had completed almost no work. Post-dumping, she gave herself a week to grieve without accountability. She didn’t intend to shirk her responsibilities indefinitely, but her team’s work carried on much as before, and her grief had manifested mostly as exhaustion. Now she still came in every day, but she pitched ideas she knew she couldn’t execute and promised placements in publications that would never touch Relevancy’s third-tier brands, no matter how many desperately cheeky emails she sent.
There was something liberating about dereliction. As the days during which she did absolutely nothing piled up, she wondered if she could, possibly, stop working forever, but continue to draw a paycheck, at least until she paid off her debt. In a way, it would be the more ethical thing for her to do. Her job did nothing to improve the world, and given the volume of microplastics in the products on her roster, her semi-intentional work stoppage was probably a net positive for the environment.
“Walk me through the status of the reFaun campaign,” Rand said. reFaun was an at-home fecal transplant kit marketed—like all of Relevancy’s products—to the upper-middle-class millennial woman who was her own hobby. Even if reFaun’s claims had been substantiated by the FDA (the closest thing Jane had to a doctor’s endorsement was a chiropractor who said it was “likely” safe, at least in terms of spinal alignment), the product was disgusting, and no one wanted to touch it.
“We’re in the weeds right now, but everyone is pulling together to . . .” Jane kept a list of Rand Hagen’s favorite business jargon on a Post-it at her desk. “. . . think outside the box. For the reFaun campaign.”
“Hmm. And your workload. Is it manageable?” “We’re all working hard, but we’re hanging in there.” “Jane, there’s no delicate way to say this: Per Relevancy’s employment agreements, I—we—have the right to audit employees’ computer activity, a right we exercise when the employee’s keystroke activity falls below a predetermined number of strokes per minute for four consecutive days, as yours did this month. I just want to read you some of what we found. This was some of the internet activity from your machine for last Wednesday.”
Jane’s personal best humiliations always reappeared to her at times like this, when she suspected their number was about to grow, a slide carousel of moments ftt-ftt-ftt-ing behind her eyes: flickers of misplaced hope—an “O!” where an “O” should have been—or simple bodily obviousness, visible sweat and audible farting and a creeping facial rash, anything that made being alive look like work.
“Rand, there’s really no need to—”
“Most alarming here is the number of searches for the name Iza Brecht. We have Iza Brecht’s Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Yelp accounts, as well as his-slash-her Amazon customer page and Gallatin School student publication archive.”
Iza Brecht was Byron’s girlfriend now, and had been before Jane, too. Jane had thought Byron’s interest high-lighted some quality in her that she had been unaware of. The kind of thing that the romantic leads in movies allude to in climactic declarations of love: You don’t even realize how special you truly are, et cetera. Instead, Jane was the interlude, the blip. Her Iza Brecht tracking wasn’t only masochistic. She was researching her own deficiencies. She felt ashamed that Rand Hagen had witnessed this, but also furious. Her instinct was to shout I’m in here!
Iza Brecht was thin in a way that was both slinky and heartrending, like a neglected cat, all length and unsubtle bones, and had broken Byron’s heart and made him vulnerable to Jane’s less-obvious charms. In the many pictures Jane had seen, Iza Brecht was always smiling lazily under thick bangs and long, fashionably clumped eyelashes. She wore expensive clothes insouciantly and looked like she would smell of cigarettes and orange blossoms and leather. Jane had gleaned from the Gallatin website that her undergrad thesis was about the eroticism of John Donne. Of course.
Byron had some kind of nebulous artists’ grant that, along with a part-time job at a bookstore, allowed him to make a modest living as a poet. He described his own work as “an exploration and amplification of the perceived arcanity of poetry that is by turns frolicsome and melancholy.” Byron was irrevocably dedicated to the arcane—whole stanzas of his poetry detailed nineteenth-century cleaning lore, ecstatic descriptions of the taste of rampion root, the smell of liturgical incense. He and Jane met at a reading of a cycle of war poems written with an app that mimicked a cipher machine. She got drunk enough at the after-party to give Byron her real opinion on the poems—that they were farcically opaque and terrifically boring. He called her refreshing.
Since dropping out of grad school, Jane mostly avoided poetry-adjacent activities, which reminded her of her failed degree. Her knack for analyzing poetry had been a source of pride in her undergrad days, and she had conflated her aptitude with a deep love for the thing itself. But in grad school—among people who wanted to think and talk about poetry almost exclusively, who gently mocked her not only for watching television but also for reading fiction, who could earnestly debate for forty-five minutes whether heartsick and bronchial rhymed—she was a rank amateur.
She hung on for three years after she realized how comparatively dull her curiosity for poetry was, but gave up when it became clear how much work even a mediocre dissertation required. When she talked about her time in grad school now, she told people that one day, in the middle of a seminar on the sublime, she had been struck by the realization that she actually hated poetry. Which made for a better party anecdote than the truth: that she liked it, just not enough to overcome the grinding shame of her own lack.
The night she met Byron, she had been lured to the reading with the promise of literate single men. When he ended the relationship after five months, he wept. “I’m like a dog. I just want to herd everyone into a room and make them be happy,” he told her plaintively. Jane had been happy with Byron. She could make him smile without deviating too far from her real thoughts, and he acted so grateful after she went down on him that she felt secure in his affections.
“But I’m happy now,” she told him. “Because of you.
You did it.”
“It was a metaphor,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Jane tried very hard not to roll her eyes, because she still wanted him to like her. Byron was the kind of person Jane wanted people to think she was. Everyone agreed he was brilliant, but he wore his intelligence like his perfect jean jacket—I stole it from my mom, he’d confessed on their first date—an effortless afterthought. Being with Byron made Jane feel like maybe she was brilliant, too. Their mutual acquaintances seemed to regard her with a new respect when they learned of the relationship. Byron’s attention had made her more worthy of theirs.
She felt smarter when she was with him, too, and more charismatic. He was generous in conversations. He laughed easily, and dispensed compliments, seemingly for no other reason than that they had just occurred to him.
As if he lost nothing by pointing out another person’s strengths. As if he had enough of everything to spare.
They took long walks around the city, stopping to eat or drink when the mood struck them, at the first place that appeared in their path, without so much as a quick Yelp check to see if it was any good. The low-level spontaneity was thrilling to Jane, even if most of the meals were mediocre.
When Byron went on a research trip to Berlin for three weeks, he called her every day from the single-stall library bathroom and they had phone sex, which neither of them had ever done before. You’re hot, you’re hot, you’re hot, Byron panted when he came, and Jane got off more on her power to render him inarticulate than his middling sexual narration.
She felt like all her previous romantic flailing had led her to him, and just at the moment she’d developed an awareness of her looming thirties. Her uncharacteristic certainty that they would stay together, probably even get married, made the dumping extra humiliating. With his kindness, he’d tricked her into believing it was safe to reveal herself to him fully. Or almost fully. But more than that, he’d tricked her into believing that something could be easy.
For a few weeks after the breakup, she sent Byron emails that were first pleading, then icy, the latter’s potency diminished by its proximity to the former. He got back together with Iza almost immediately. Jane imagined him reading Iza her emails, pityingly. What should I do? I don’t want to be cruel. Since then, she had mucked through Iza Brecht’s digital leavings with a fervor she had never brought to her education or her career.
“I was considering hiring Iza to write copy for the reFaun campaign,” she told Rand. The plausibility of the lie amazed her.
“Hmm.” He consulted his paper. “On April twelfth, fifteenth, and twenty-first, you searched: Iza Brecht untalented.”
“It’s important to find out whether the people you’re hiring are untalented.”
“We audited a week of your internet use, Jane, and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Iza Brecht. Frankly, I’m struggling to see how you got any work done at all.”
Jane was excellent at following directions, but when it came to setting them herself, she spun in lazy circles. She did not suffer from a lack of ambition. She wanted plenty. She wanted money and prestige and shiny hair and poreless skin and the envy and admiration of everyone in the room. Any room. Every room. She was hungry, just not in the sense that people applied it to young investment banking analysts who never left the office before midnight, or publishing ingénues who spoke up in meetings with firm but sweet confidence. Her hunger was nonspecific.
From The Glow by Jessie Gaynor. Used with permission of the publisher, Random House. Copyright © 2023 by Jessie Gaynor.