I’m outside for a cumulative ten minutes each day before work. Five to walk from my apartment building to the subway, another five to go from the subway to the anemic obelisk that houses my office. I try to breathe as deeply as I can in those minutes, because I never know how long it will be until I take fresh air into my lungs again. Not that the city air is all that fresh, tinged with the sharp stench of old garbage, pollution’s metallic swirl. But it beats the stale oxygen of the office, already filtered through distant respiratory systems. Sometimes, during slow moments at my desk, I inhale and try to imagine those other nostrils and lungs that have already processed this same air. I’m not sure how it works in reality, any knowledge I once had of the intricacies of breathing having been long ago discarded by more useful information, but the image comforts me. Usually, I picture a middle-aged man with greying temples, a fringe of visible nose hair, and a coffee stain on the collar of his baby blue button-down. He looks nothing and everything like my father. An every-father, if you will.
My office is populated by dyed-blonde or pierced brunette women in their mid-to-late twenties and early thirties. The occasional man, just a touch older than most of the women, but still young enough to give off the faint impression that he DJs at Meatpacking nightclubs for extra cash on the weekends.
We are the new corporate Americans, the offspring of the grey-templed men. We wear tastefully ripped jeans and cozy sweaters to the office instead of blazers and trousers. Display a tattoo here and there—our supervisors don’t mind; in fact, they have the most ink. We eat yogurt for breakfast, work through lunch, leave the office at six if we’re lucky, arriving home with just enough time to order dinner from an app and watch two or three hours of Netflix before collapsing into bed from exhaustion we haven’t earned. Exhaustion that lives in the brain, not the body, and cannot be relieved by a mere eight hours of sleep.
Nobody understands exactly what it is we do here, and neither do we. I push through revolving glass door, run my wallet over the card reader, which beeps as my ID scans through the stiff leather, and half-wave in the direction of the uniformed security guard behind the desk, whose face my eyes never quite reach so I can’t tell you what he looks like. He’s just one of the many set-pieces staging the scene of my days.
The elevator ride to the eleventh floor is long enough to skim one-third of a longform article on my phone. I barely register what it’s about, something loosely political, or who is standing next to me in the cramped elevator.
When the doors slide open on eleven, we both get off.
In the dim eleventh-floor lobby, a humming neon light shaping the company logo assaults my sleep-swollen eyes like the prick of a dozen tiny needles. Today, a small section has burned out, creating a skip in the letter w. Below the logo is a tufted cerulean velvet couch where guests wait to be welcomed. To the left there’s a mirrored wall reflecting the vestibule; people sometimes pause there to take photos on the way to and from the office, usually on the Friday afternoon before a long weekend. I see the photos later while scrolling through my various feeds at home in bed. They hit me one after another like shots of tequila: See ya Tuesday! *margarita emoji* Peace out for the long weekend! *palm tree emoji* Byeeeeee! *peace sign emoji.*
She steps in front of me, my elevator companion. Black Rag & Bone ankle boots gleaming, blade-tipped pixie cut grazing her ears. Her neck piercing taunts me, those winking silver balls on either side of her spine. She’s Lexi O’ Connell, the website’s senior editor. She walks ahead with her head angled down, thumb working her phone’s keyboard, and doesn’t look up as she shoves the interior door open, palm to the glass.
I trip over the back of one clunky winter boot with the other as I speed up, considering whether to call out for her attention. It’s what a good web producer, one who is eager to move on from the endless drudgery of copy-pasting and resizing and into the slightly more thrilling drudgery of writing and rewriting, would do.
By the time I regain my footing, I come face-to-face with the smear of her handprint as the door glides shut in front of me.
I work at a website.
It’s like most other websites; we publish content, mostly articles: news stories, essays, interviews, glossed over with the polished opalescent sheen of commercialized feminism. The occasional quiz, video, or photoshoot rounds out our offerings. This is how websites work in the age of ad revenue: Each provides a slightly varied selection of mindless entertainment, news updates, and watered-down hot takes about everything from climate change to plus size fashion, hawking their wares on the digital marketplace, leaving The Reader to wander drunkenly through the bazaar, wielding her cursor like an Amex. You can find everything you’d want to read in one place online, dozens of times over. The algorithms have erased choice. Search engines and social media platforms, they know what you want before you do.
As a web producer, my job is to input article text into the website’s proprietary content management system, or CMS. I’m a digitized high school janitor; I clean up the small messes, the litter that misses the rim of the garbage can. I make sure the links are working and the images are high resolution. When anything bigger comes up, it goes to an editor or IT. I’m an expert in nothing, a master of the miniscule fixes.
There are five of us who produce for the entire website, each handling about 20 articles a day. We sit at a long grey table on display at the very center of the open office, surrounded on all sides by editors and writers.
The web producers’ bullpen, Lexi calls it.
The light fixture above the table buzzes loudly like a nest of bees is trapped inside the fluorescent tubing. I drop my bag on the floor and take a seat, shedding my coat like a layer of skin. My chair faces the beauty editor’s desk, the cruelest seat in the house. All day long, I watch Charlotte Miller receive package after package stuffed with pastel tissue paper. Inside those packages: lipstick, foundation, perfume, happiness. A thousand simulacrums of Christmas morning spread across the two-hundred and sixty-one workdays of the year. She has piled the trappings of Brooklyn hipsterdom on top of her blonde, big-toothed, prettiness. Wire-frame glasses, a tattoo of a constellation on her inner left forearm, a rose gold nose ring. She seems Texan, but she’s actually from some wholesome upper Midwestern state, I can never remember which one. Right now, she applies red lipstick from a warm golden tube in the flat gleam of the golden mirror next to her monitor. Everything about her is color-coordinated.
I open my laptop. The screen blinks twice and prompts me for my password. I type it in, and the CMS appears, open to where I left it when I signed off the previous evening. Our CMS is called LIZZIE. There’s a rumor that it was named after Lizzie Borden, christened during the pre-launch party when the tech team pounded too many shots after they finished coding. As in, “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks.” Lizzie Borden rebranded in the 21st century as a symbol of righteous feminine anger. LIZZIE, my best friend, my closest confidant. She’s an equally comforting and infuriating presence, constant in her bland attention. She gazes at me, always emotionless, saying nothing as she watches me teeter on the edge, fighting tears or trying not to doze at my desk or simply staring, in search of answers she cannot provide.
My eyes droop in their sockets as I scan the articles that were submitted before I arrived this morning. The whites threaten to turn liquid and splash onto my keyboard, pool between the keys and jiggle like eggs minus the yolks. Thinking of this causes a tiny laugh to slip out from between my clenched lips. Charlotte slides the cap onto her lipstick, glares at me over the lip of the mirror.
That’s Tom, the only male web producer, who sits across and slightly left of me, keeping my view of Charlotte’s towering wonderland of boxes and bags clear. He’s four years older than me, twenty-eight, but the plush chipmunk curve of his cheeks makes him appear much younger, like he’s about to graduate high school. He’s cute, though, in the way of a movie star who always gets cast as the geek in teen comedies. Definitely hot but dress him down in an argyle sweater and glasses and he could be a Hollywood nerd. I’ve always wanted to ask him why he works here, doing this. There isn’t really a web producer archetype. We’re all different, a true island of misfit toys.
But if there is a type, Tom doesn’t fit it. He seems smart and driven. He’s consistently the only person who attends company book club meetings having read that month’s selection from cover to cover. I’ve never asked him why he works here because we don’t talk much. No one in our office talks much. Not out loud, anyway. We communicate through a private Morse code, fingers dancing on keys, expressions scanned and evaluated from a distance.
Sometimes I think about flirting with Tom, for something to do, but he wears a wedding ring. Not that I care about his wife; it’s more the fear of rebuff and rejection, of hearing the low-voiced Sorry, I’m married, that stops me. He usually sails in a few minutes after I do, smelling like his bodega coffee and the egg sandwich he carefully unwraps and eats at his desk. He nods in my direction. Morning is the only word we’ve exchanged the entire time I’ve worked here, which is coming up on a year in January. It’s not even a greeting, merely a statement of fact. It is morning and we’re both here. Again.
Three hundred and sixty-five days lost to the hum and twitch and click. I can’t seem to remember how I got here. It all feels like a dream. The mundane kind, full of banal details, but something slightly off about it all. I don’t remember applying for the job, or interviewing. One day, an offer letter appeared in my inbox and I signed.
And here I am. Day after day, I wait for someone to need me. I open articles. I tweak the formatting, check the links, correct the occasional typo that catches my eye. It isn’t really my job to copy edit, or even to read closely, but sometimes I notice things, grammatical errors or awkward phrasing, and I then can’t not notice them; I have to put them right or else they nag like a papercut on the soft webbing connecting two fingers. The brain wants to be useful. It craves activity, even after almost three hundred and sixty-five days of operating at its lowest frequency.
I open emails. I download attachments. I insert numbers into spreadsheets. I email those spreadsheets to Lexi and my direct boss, Ashley, who manages the homepage.
None of it ever seems to add up to anything.
Excerpted from Fan Club by Erin Mayer, Copyright © 2021 by Erin Mayer. Published by MIRA Books.