Before I wrote essays, I wrote user manuals for payroll software. This was in Silicon Valley, land of excess and innovation, and I felt very, very alone.
My commute was 50 miles there and back, and along the 580-East that took me in four lanes of traffic into the Valley I’d sometimes scream at the top of my lungs and wonder if anyone in the other cars could hear me. When my voice inevitably cracked and I grew tired of wailing, I’d look out the window and track the roadkill. For several weeks there’d be a dead deer on the side of the highway. Two decaying raccoons and a cat would appear. The cat would disappear first, then one of the raccoons, then the deer, which would be replaced by another raccoon, and another cat, until the whole cast of roadkill was changed.
After the first few months of this, I began to wonder if only animals could understand me. The office was dog-friendly and my colleague Roger would come into my cubicle every Tuesday and stand behind me with his pet husky, waiting. When I’d turn around, startled to find him craning silently towards me in a Hawaiian shirt and his toes poking out of thick brown sandals, he’d hold out a miniature Snickers bar like some kind of peace offering. The husky would look away, embarrassed.
With each visit from the husky I ate the Snickers bar in tinier and tinier bites, one nibble for each half-hour increment of the day, praying for some human company. The husky’s nemesis was a Labrador retriever named Butters who sprawled across my feet, panting, as I puzzled through the latest payroll product: a tool to divide paychecks for workers in multiple tax jurisdictions, or a complicated system of steps to automatically garnish wages for child support. There were no visits on the days when Butters came to the office and so I’d have to slip away to Roger’s cubicle to give the husky a quick scratch under the chin. “You know I love you,” I’d whisper under my breath. “You know how I feel about Butters.”
The husky knew how I felt about Butters. In my fifth week at the company, when I was still riding the thrill of my first real nine-to-five office job, I’d turned the still-tender age of 21. The morning of my birthday I’d dressed carefully, ready to celebrate: pink shoes, pink dress, a pink clip in my hair. It had been Sandeep’s birthday the week before and the team had surprised him with a big cake and balloons and a banner that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY SANDEEP that still hung over his desk on the sixth floor. I hoped my cake would be chocolate, or at least vanilla with chocolate frosting.
But there was no cake waiting for me at the office and no group photo of my nonexistent celebration to be sent out en masse in the department newsletter. Instead I spent the day hunched over my desk, where Vivian came to sit with her tupperware of reheated casserole, which smelled like the fetid miasma of an old earring back. She did not mention my birthday and so neither did I.
“I’m just too new here to be celebrated,” I told myself at the end of the day when I walked out to the parking lot, my pink shoes scuffing against the asphalt.Whenever anyone in the office spoke to me, I stumbled over my words, watching them blanch at my sweaty upper lip and the way I wrung my hands like an anxious widower.
I knew I’d make friends eventually. I had Vivian, after all, and Roger, and I had the dogs. It was a solid start. Soon I’d begin receiving invitations to the endless stream of group lunches at P.F. Chang’s, and then it wouldn’t be long before I’d take my rightful place as the social center of the office, the one to send out those precious lunch invitations, which my colleagues would jockey for unabashedly.
When I arrived to work the next day, there were a dozen balloons floating around the perimeter of my desk. I was elated. They’d just been confused! They’d had the wrong day all along! Visions of the future loomed before me: high fiving Alan when the latest payroll product was finished, going out for beers with the hot, glamorous women over in HR, being awarded the coveted title of Workmate of the Month by the company’s CEO, who would whisper to me secretly that I was really their best employee, the true life of the party, and I’d really raised morale since they’d hired me.
I shared a cubicle with Butters and his owner, Kristen, and as I walked up I saw a small crowd gathered around her desk.
“It’s Butters’ birthday!” one of them exclaimed to me. “Party at 10.”
I slumped into my chair. The invitation to Butters’ birthday party flashed up in my calendar—bring gifts! it said—and I pulled up my latest user manual topic and got to work before anyone could register my disappointment.
But when I walked into the breakroom at 10 for a slice of Butters’ triple chocolate cake, my manager rushed towards me, furious. “These are not billable hours!” she hissed. “Go back to your desk.”
This was my darkest secret, my deepest shame. Somehow, when I’d been hired five weeks before, I’d ended up not as a full-time, salaried, real employee of the company but as a contractor, hired by an outside agency at an hourly rate. I couldn’t take a sick day and would come into work wheezing with disease, sullenly taking an extra five minutes for my unpaid lunch break as my colleagues filed out of the office from noon to three. I couldn’t take advantage of the on-site hairdresser or oil change and instead of wearing a blue ID badge like everyone else, my lurid orange one marked me as the ultimate outsider. People would glance down at me in the elevator and look away tersely as if my condition might be contagious.
Whenever anyone in the office spoke to me, I stumbled over my words, watching them blanch at my sweaty upper lip and the way I wrung my hands like an anxious widower. I wasn’t sure how I’d even ended up as a contractor—the interview process had been entirely foreign to me after years of cobbling together the sort of part-time jobs that paid me under the table in wads of cash, and while I felt I’d given a strong performance during my final round of interviews, I knew that the interviewers must’ve seen something in me that made me unworthy of joining the company as a proper employee. It must be my terrible personality, I theorized. Or it must be because I’m so shy. Or it must be the shoes I wore that day, which I knew were too pointy, or the way I’d picked nervously at my fingernails each time they’d asked me to discuss my aspirations.
A handful of my colleagues turned away from Butters to stare as I fled the room. Their blue ID badges swung from their hips in tandem as if to say go away, loser.Soon, my initial excitement at being gainfully employed was crushed by the sad realities of a job so boring that I felt like asphyxiating myself might be a better option.
“I resent him,” I told the husky again and again in the weeks after this incident. “Deeply.”
While Butters reveled in his continued popularity, my days at the company wore on. The dogs kept coming. Before long, Sherry started to stop by my cubicle with her dog Rocco and there was always a fart smell that I hoped was from the dog. Rocco would stare up at me with his beady eyes and wag his tail mournfully. I know how you feel, the look said. This world is not for us.
Soon, my initial excitement at being gainfully employed was crushed by the sad realities of a job so boring that I felt like asphyxiating myself might be a better option. The latest user manual topics were all to do with checkboxes, but according to the company, I couldn’t say the word “check box” in any part of the user manual. It was too familiar. But also too inaccessible. I’d write “Double-click the—” and then slide down in my chair so that I could just see the top of Solange’s head through the cubicle glass. I liked Solange. The top of her head, with its little streaks of grey at the roots, brought me enough strength to get up every few hours to refill my company-issued water bottle. “Hydrate,” Solange would nod.
I always drank too much water but at least it gave me an excuse to stand up to pee every twenty-three and a half minutes. There were six buildings on the campus, each with six floors, four bathrooms on each floor, for a total of 144 bathrooms. I migrated between them like an intrepid tourist, always in search of the latest in automatic hand-dryer technology. After a while I noticed that everyone was experiencing constant bouts of explosive diarrhea. Was it the complimentary snacks, I wondered, which included mass amounts of Greek yogurt alongside an incongruous supply of diet Mountain Dew? Or was it the sheer brainpower it took to write so much code, which surely must speed up the digestive system along with it?
I began to wish for this same level of catharsis. But then I’d sit in the bathroom stall and change my mind as a cacophony of fecal matter chimed in each toilet bowl—these people were deeply sick.
During my fourth month on the job, my manager took me aside to tell me that there was a path to the blue ID badge for someone like me: a process which she called “conversion.” I’d been baptized into the Episcopalian church at the rather advanced age of nine, and so I knew the fundamentals of conversion well—there was the piousness, the assimilation into the Sunday School crowd, the recitation of particular moments in the liturgy. Visions of the future loomed before me yet again: my acceptance into the fold, impending sainthood, the day I got my special mug with my employee number printed on it. After months of suffering in silence at my desk, I was ready to nail myself to a cross, made not of wood but of shimmering new payroll software.
I already worshipped the company’s fearless leader, Aneel, who had dressed up in a full body velour cow costume for the company-wide Halloween party that month. When I ran into him in the elevator I’d been overtaken by the excitement of such immediate proximity and instinctively reached out a hand to stroke one of his pink rubber udders. “Hey there!” he’d said to me. “Want to take a selfie?”
“Yes,” I had wheezed, my palms sweating. This middle-aged man, a hero, with his soft belly ensconced in a thin layer of faux fur, wanted to take a picture with me. When he put an arm around my shoulders and leaned in with a big toothy grin and his teeth too white, a quick rush of adrenaline rose in my throat. I smiled a neat smile with my tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth and then walked away triumphantly with my photo. I couldn’t wait to show the husky, or my boss: I’d been chosen by Aneel, singled out, which meant that my conversion might be closer than I had initially imagined.
It wasn’t until the long commute home that queasiness set in. I remembered my acute need for closeness, that still lingering feeling of warmth where his hand had rested on my back, the obscene way that those pink udders had been caught between us during the photo and then sprung outwards when we stepped apart, as if unzipped from a pair of pants.
For weeks there was no news of my conversion. I kept writing my user manual topics: tax jurisdictions, pay groups, multistate withholding rules, run pay calculation, run retro pay complete. I kept drinking too much water, sneaking off to pee too often, slipping away to the break room where they had installed a soft-serve machine, or downstairs to the “fun room” with its new ball pit, which a trio of baby boomers tentatively waded through, their laptops clutched to their chests.
There were seventeen billboards on my drive home, and I’d read them between praying over the roadkill and changing radio stations. My two favorites were right next to each other near the Fruitvale BART station— the long thin one that said Sunshine Biscuits in big red and white letters and the funny one with a photo of a baby that said Beyond Reasonable Doubt… JESUS IS ALIVE. I liked to picture Jesus showing up to work at the biscuit factory, walking around and tasting the wares. These are great, he’d say. Nice and sweet. His fat baby feet would be white from all the stray flour. Best of all, there would be no software allowed in the biscuit factory. But perhaps there would be no dogs, either, I thought. And what is a workplace without dogs?
In December, lining up at a holiday potluck for parathas and pot roast, Sandeep leaned over and invited me to the upcoming payroll party. Not billable hours, the small voice in my head reminded me. I went anyway, taking the long way to avoid my boss’s desk.
At the party, everyone had to wear a sequined masquerade mask. There were streamers and a cake that said PAYROLL ROCKS in red icing. A game of bingo was called so all 50 of us lined up at two long tables, frantic to win as Alan, half drunk on Corona, butchered each round by reciting numbers that we’d already marked on our bingo sheets.
I sat next to Orchis who held my arm at the elbow so that I could hardly mark my sheet, and Annamarie wandered in and sat down, wanting to play too, but Kerry refused to share her pencil. They all had their special mugs with their employee numbers printed on them. According to company lore, Aneel had personally interviewed the first 500 employees, which meant that any mug number under #250 meant you were a real celebrity—the lower the number, the closer you were to God. Kerry’s mug had #138 emblazoned proudly across it. Annamarie’s was in the 2000s, despite having been at the company for six years. Mine, I knew, would be even higher. Would Kerry share her pencil with me? Would Kerry even look at me?
My boss walked into the party, made eye contact, said nothing. I wondered if she just didn’t recognize me with the masquerade mask on. She sat across from me with her bingo sheet, smiled. I was afraid. I turned to Orchis and Annamarie, who smiled, and to Kerry, who smiled, and I wondered what was happening here—what strange conspiracy had brought me to this place after six months of near-solitude.
It continued. A few days after the payroll party, a woman named Micaela arrived at my desk with an invitation to lunch. She wrote the user manuals over in Human Capital Management, our sister department, and she had a blue ID badge. I wondered if she’d been sent by my manager to spy on me—someone to make sure that I was truly fit for conversion. But she was young, perhaps only a few years older than me, and she carried a little blue Bible everywhere she went. Spies don’t carry around Bibles, the husky insisted.
Despite my misgivings, when lunchtime arrived I climbed into the back of Micaela’s grey minivan. Three others climbed in with me. “We go to the same church!” Micaela chirped in explanation.
Over the next few weeks, this group shepherded me to different Korean barbecue restaurants around town, offering to lend me books with titles like The Case for Grace and Beholding and Becoming. At every meal, my new friends looked over at Noah, who was the pastor’s son, to see if they should pray in front of me. They always did.
Then, over our matching bowls of bibimbap, we’d talk about the right and wrong ways to love and be loved by God. I told Micaela that I’d been raised Episcopalian and she smiled a sweet smile and called me a lukewarm Christian. “God will spit you out of his mouth,” she said. “You should come to our Bible study after work tomorrow.”
Noah sat next to me with his blue Bible flipped open to Psalm 25:16, which he had highlighted: Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
Ew, I thought. Not even Butters would be so obvious.
I knew that I fundamentally did not belong here, with these people, the same way that I had never, ever in my life felt like I fit in any place: not at Berkeley, where I had lived in a big house with sixteen people, or at any of the multitude of jobs I’d held before this one, or even amongst my family, who looked at me like I was an alien when I showed them the drawings of dogs in my sketchbook or told them about the premonitions of disaster that loomed over me. Even when I had friends, even when I was surrounded, I felt far away.The check boxes, the buttons which we could not call buttons, the search bars which we could not call search bars, the payroll processes with all their different names and purposes. I wanted to call things what they were: a waste of time.
And so I stopped accepting Micaela’s lunch invitations, and I stopped waving back at Noah when he would smile at me in the hallway. These were not my friends. I did not want what they were offering me—a false god, nothing like Aneel, and a false heaven full of anemic books about the eternal love of Jesus. Instead, I doubled my efforts with the dogs and with the motley crew of people who had surprised me with their kindness at the payroll party: Annamarie, Orchis, Kerry.
“I love this place,” I’d tell them shyly. “I’m so happy to be here!”
By the end of January, my conversion date had been scheduled. I received a contract, a nondisclosure agreement, and a $35,000 pay raise, along with $10,000 in company stock. My mug arrived: employee #8673. I was given a backpack, a plastic bowl, a t-shirt, and an invitation to the company’s yearly meeting, where I found myself in a coveted second row seat of the auditorium. On stage, a band was pounding out spirited covers of 80s rock songs. A massive screen projected their image to those in the very back rows who couldn’t see.
To the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” Aneel strolled onto the stage with his fists in the air. My colleagues heaved to their feet in exaltation. The crowd was adoring, ready to spring forward at the slightest provocation, all decked out in their company-issued t-shirts and lanyards, a sea of blue ID badges twinkling under the lights. I looked around and saw Noah two seats down, craning towards the action.
Afterwards I headed to the afterparty, where I snapped a quick photo of the colossal open bar and the empty dance floor with its lonely DJ. In the lobby, a crowd of hundreds had coagulated around Aneel. I stood there for a moment, at a loss, and then I left, pushing past Noah on my way out.
Our father, I prayed on the drive home. Who art in heaven. There was an especially large buck on the side of the onramp, his back coated with a thick patina of dried blood. I thought of Rocco again, the sad way he stared at me every time he visited my cubicle. His words echoed in my head like a curse: this world is not for us.
And so, two months after my conversion, I quit.
A few weeks before I left, the company offered me an incentive that would allow me to freeze my eggs so that I might be able to work uninhibited into my forties. I considered the fact that they might just be planning to cook up a big omelette of tech eggs—sell each little thing on the black market to families who want kids with an aptitude for writing code and playing ping pong in the break room. But I couldn’t write code, I remembered. And nobody wants to buy the eggs of the girl who wrote user manuals.
In those final days, my premonitions of disaster increased in intensity. One night outside my apartment, somebody fell off a balcony and died. A woman was hit by a car. My upstairs neighbor, forgetting the key to our front gate, impaled her leg on a metal spike trying to vault herself over the fence. The end is near, I thought to myself. Only a matter of time. I considered leaving the company with a couple of my eggs on the way out, for posterity.
“I trusted you,” my manager said in my exit interview. “I trusted you to be more transparent with us.” She looked like she might cry. I thought back to the day that she’d stopped me from getting a slice of Butters’ cake and did not feel the slightest bit sorry.
“What went wrong?” she asked me. “Why leave now?”
“I’m going to be a writer,” I told her, and then laughed at my own stupidity.
“You already are a writer,” she said. “You write the manuals.”
The fucking manuals. The check boxes, the buttons which we could not call buttons, the search bars which we could not call search bars, the payroll processes with all their different names and purposes. I wanted to call things what they were: a waste of time.
When I moved to Iowa that fall I missed my long commute and began driving 11 miles into the country each day, 22 miles a day, 154 miles a week. The roadkill on this route was even more visceral than it had been in California: decapitated fawns, skunks with their flesh and fur spread across both lanes in oozing chunks and tufts, the indecipherable remains of so many raccoons.
Vivian, I nodded. Sandeep. Micaela, Noah, Annamarie. I prayed for them with new fervor, and I prayed for myself, too.