This story is by Rebecca Baulch and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
So I have a problem, and it’s kind of huge actually; I just realised that I’ve been pinning my hopes for the future on getting this job, on finally getting this amazing promotion and I’m staring at an email consisting of four glorious words: you are in, kiddo! and I feel… nothing. Wait, not true, I feel terrified, because I am absolutely not, down to the tiniest molecule of my being, excited about this. I am not relieved. I am not even glad. I. Do. Not. Want. This. Job.
I am watching my boss give me a big, goofy thumbs up through the glass walls of her office and of course I plaster a giant grin on my face and return the gesture, because I am a people pleaser and reacting entirely appropriately to every situation is what I do. But it’s not what I want to do. I want to be selfish and tell the world to ‘suck it’ and just swim around in a giant pool of greedy wish fulfilment until my fingers shrivel up like prunes.
I creep through the office partitions with my shoulders hunched, until I reach my friend Cheryl in human resources. When I tell her I think I might need to turn down the promotion she looks at me with horrified, open mouthed shock.
‘You can’t!’ She says, once recovered.
‘Couldn’t I just say it’s not the right fit for me?’ I suggest trepidatiously. ‘Maybe the powers-that-be will understand?’
‘No, I mean, Ellie, if you turn down this promotion, you’re screwed!’ Cheryl’s eyes dart furtively across the office, ‘they’ve already replaced you.’
A heaviness settles into my stomach at that revelation. ‘They wouldn’t.’ I say stupidly.
‘I’m sorry, Ellie. They wanted to make sure they could cover your role before they promoted you. They’ll be so pissed if you dick them around like this.’ Cheryl doesn’t have any qualms about etiquette. That doesn’t make her wrong though. ‘Shouldn’t you just take it anyway? I mean, it’s better money and no shit-kicking. And if you hate it you can always look for something else.’ Cheryl’s expression is all concern and well-meaning, and everything she says makes sense. Nevertheless, the weight in my stomach rolls and expands until I feel breathless.
‘I guess that is the right thing to do,’ is all I can finally say. Still, there must be something off in my demeanour because Cheryl is unconvinced.
‘I don’t really understand why you’re upset about this,’ she says quietly, worried it might be rude to ask. Which is ironic for someone so generally crass. It forces me to think carefully about my answer and, honestly, a large part of me doesn’t understand either, other than feeling a puzzling sense of wrongness about it.
‘I usually get here somewhere between the early starters and the lazy latecomers, right?’ I begin attempting to explain.
‘Ri-ight,’ Cheryl echoes, pulling at the word, not sure where I’m going with this.
‘So I get to see all the slumped shoulders and the gruff greetings and the coffee guzzling that goes on in this office. No matter how dedicated or slack they are, Cheryl, nobody here is happy.’
‘Hey!’ Cheryl cries indignantly, before looking around and conceding that I may have a point. ‘I mean, that’s probably true but, you could say that about every workplace.’
‘That can’t be right, Cheryl,’ I react, shaking my head and keeping my voice low. ‘Surely there are happy people out there who love what they do. Or at least like it most of the time.’
Cheryl’s face is telling me that my epiphany has really terrible timing. And I agree, except that sometimes it’s only in having something that you can truly understand you don’t want it. I know I should take the job, because I have bills to pay and responsibilities, but taking it would be a surrender to conformity. A surrender I would likely continually repeat, just like every other sad sucker in this office, until I was entrenched.
‘I need to think about this, Cheryl.’ I say as I head back to my desk. ‘Talk soon, yeah?’ And I give a jaunty little wave so that she doesn’t worry about me, because I’m still, at heart, a people pleaser. That sort of thing doesn’t change overnight; or over a life altering email and a five minute conversation, as it where.
‘Can I ask you something?’
Sitting at the bar of a rather dive-y establishment in the city, I’ve just accosted the fiercely attractive man standing at my arms length. He’s caught my eye unlike anyone else has, in that he looks happy, and even though – I know – it sounds like a line, I really want to know why.
When his eyes find me his smile widens, and damned if that doesn’t skip my heart a beat. Not that I’m here to pick up, mind you, I came straight from work in a bid to clear my head, avoid anyone from the office and just have some space to think.
‘Sure, anything.’ He says with lazy charm. He thinks I’m hitting on him, and, under normal circumstances, having such a man grin at me like this would be thrilling, but I have more important business here. I ignore the flirting and get straight to the point.
‘You look happy.’
‘Is that a question?’ he asks, looking slightly confused, but no less charming.
‘Yes. I mean, why are you happy?’
‘Why am I happy?’ he parrots. His smile falters somewhat, suggesting he thinks I might be slightly off my rocker.
‘Yes,’ I nod, ‘sorry,’ I say, attempting to sound less crazy, ‘It’s just that I have this big decision to make at work and I need to find out if I’m happy. Or how I can be happy, I guess, you know, if it turns out that I’m not.’
He drags a stool closer so that he can sit down next to me and loses the smile almost completely. His head tilts to the side inquisitively and it’s an inherently friendly gesture, like he’s trying to understand me.
‘You don’t know if you’re happy?’ he finally asks.
‘Right.’ I confirm. ‘And, well, you look happy. Like you have it all figured out, and I was just wondering how you did that.’
His initial response is quick and, I fear, somewhat superficial. ‘Well I’m in a bar, drinking good beer with my friends, so… You have friends right?’
My response is glib in return. ‘ Yeah, but I’m avoiding them at the moment. Having an existential crisis requires a sort of solitary reflection period.’ I quip. He appears suitably chastised.
‘Sorry, okay. Let me think about this.’ And he does, for about a minute, while I stare into my drink. ‘I guess it’s not so much the fact that I’m happy, just that I’m not actively unhappy about anything in my life right now.’ Which seems like a legitimate observation. ‘Is there something that you are unhappy about?’ he flicks the ball back in my court, adding, ‘your job maybe?’
‘Well, I’ve spent the last few months putting all my focus into this promotion at work and I mean, the title and the money would make me more important and more valuable-‘
‘-and you didn’t get it?’
‘No, I did. The problem is, I did get it. And it’s all the same, only amplified, you know?’ He nods along with me to suggest that, in fact, he does. ‘Yes it’s more money but it’s also more stress. Mindless stress. And when I started this job it was meant to be a stepping stone so that I could figure out what I really wanted except after a while I forgot to keep looking.’ I run my hands through my hair and sigh in exasperation. It’s difficult to articulate exactly why this is bothering me so much. The mysteriously ‘happy’ stranger diverts my attention by taking my hand.
‘Listen, uh, what’s your name?’
‘Right. Listen, Ellie, I actually, mostly, really like my job. And I know that I like it, because even though some days I want to quit, or cry, or knock back a shot of Jack, I also sometimes smile and laugh and feel like I’m genuinely changing people’s lives.’
‘What do you do?’ I ask, buoyed by the fervour in his voice.
‘I’m a teacher. A high school teacher.’
I whistle my admiration, because that has to be a tough gig.
‘I think I would hate that actually.’ I say honestly. He laughs good naturedly.
‘Yeah, it’s not for everyone,’ he shrugs and drinks purposefully from his pint glass.
‘So how do I know what to do?’ I ask after a decidedly non-awkward pause.
‘I don’t know, Ellie, but if money wasn’t an issue, if you never had to work again, what would you choose to do? You know, everyday?’ I shrug evasively, because if I had an answer to that question I wouldn’t be here. But I suppose it gives me a jumping off point for my solitary reflection. ‘Well,’ he says, standing up and wiping his hand on his jeans before offering it to me in farewell, ‘good luck with it all.’ I shake it and acknowledge his good wishes. ‘I’m Aaron, by the way.’
‘Oh, well thank you, Aaron. It was nice to meet you.’
‘Likewise.’ He smiles and turns to the bartender. Borrowing a pen, he writes something onto a coaster from the bar and hands it to me. ‘Just, you know,’ he says, ‘if you want your reflection to be less solitary next time.’ And I look down to find his name and number in very neat block letters.
By the time I look up from the coaster, Aaron is gone and I am alone with my thoughts.
I get home from the bar and the first thing I do is grab my journal so I can put all this on paper. Writing down my thoughts is always a uniquely calming and cathartic experience and I could use the help to focus right now.
I really quite enjoy it actually.
I beeline for Cheryl as soon as I get to the office the next day.
‘I keep a journal.’ Is my somewhat cryptic greeting.
‘So?’ Is her monosyllabic way of saying, ‘it’s eight in the morning and you need to be more contextual’.
‘I write in it. All the time.’
‘Well yeah,’ she says, ‘that’s sort of their point.’
‘I know, but I do it for fun!’ I try to explain myself better. ‘Because I enjoy it!’
‘Right. You love writing, Ellie, it’s why Cruella -’ our managing director, about whom Cheryl loves to be hyperbolic, ‘-always gives you the Christmas newsletter. You make it hilarious every year.’
‘Exactly, Cheryl! It’s my thing! The thing I would do if I won the lottery! It makes me happy!’
Cheryl tips her head back and hums to imply she finally understands my ramblings. ‘So you’re not taking the promotion.’
I shake my head, smiling. ‘Nope, I’m taking early retirement.’
‘Eleanor, you are twenty eight years old. It’s called quitting.’ She emphasises this with a friendly smack upside my head. I laugh and get up to go face the music.
‘So what will your first novel be about, Hemmingway?’ she asks as I walk away.
‘Well I have this idea for a meet-cute between a teacher and a business analyst…’
‘Oh yeah? Does it have a happy ending?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say, discreetly patting the coaster tucked into the side pocket of my purse with a sappy grin on my face, ‘I have to do some research’. Cheryl laughs and I wave goodbye, turning back when she calls out to me.
‘You do look happy.’ She says, her expression soft and full of warmth.
‘You know,’ I say, experiencing a weightlessness which is entirely new to me, ‘ I think I am, actually.’
And honestly, I am.