Over the course of a month, I’m posting a short novella titled We Almost Had It which traces the friendships and romances of a group of thirty-something social media managers in Seattle as they try to figure out what a fulfilling life looks like in the digital age. The story was inspired by Shopping Is a Feeling, an album released by former Gastbys American Dream guitarist Bobby Darling under the moniker What What What. Click here to read the first chapter, “Shopping Is a Feeling.”
Growing up, it seemed to Alex that everyone found a passion that they couldn’t live without. There were kids who obsessed over baseball or anime, maybe playing guitar or writing code. Everyone seemed to have something that they were cut out to do. Everyone, that is, except for Alex.
Though it pained his well-meaning parents who were eager to support their son as he pursued his passions, it had never been easy for Alex to know what he liked, much less what he was passionate about. It had always been far simpler to identify the things that he didn’t like and then to direct his life so that he avoided them. A mild social anxiety helped to shape those aversions and he quickly became adept at avoiding all but the most necessary of human interaction. That self-imposed isolation gave Alex some comfort but it also meant that he lived on the outskirts of even his own social circle. The chief exception was Paul, his older brother, who Alex viewed with the imperturbable admiration that only a younger sibling can feel.
It’s hard to make a living in isolation, though. After a single nightmarish career fair had convinced Alex that corporate life would be a living hell, he turned to tech, a field that seemed to relish in its “for loners” reputation. As he learned to code in college he also began to discover himself on the internet, a place that was infinite in scope and therefore never felt crowded. To Alex’s own surprise, he found that in his online life he actually enjoyed interacting with others. Removed from the stressors that came with face to face interaction in meatspace, he found that engaging in dialogues and sharing ideas could be a rewarding pursuit. He also found that, on the internet, he could talk to girls. As long as the connection was digital, the distance between them measured in bandwidth, he was confident and comfortable. Shockingly, Alex found that he could flirt online.
His digital life bloomed. A disjointed MySpace page became a modestly read blog which eventually refined itself into an active Twitter handle. In an unexpected twist, Alex finished college only to find that social media skills had become a requirement of corporate life. His online habits had developed in him a skillset that was in high demand.
Of course, he had never learned the interpersonal skill of negotiation and so he accepted the first social media job that he was offered, at what he would later realize was a wage far less than he could have earned elsewhere. After a few years, a recruiter came calling—the industry was booming—and Alex took a sizable raise. Now that he’d settled into the routine of the job, Alex realized that he didn’t find much joy in the work. It was one thing to live your personal life online, it was another thing entirely to live a corporation’s life online. And yet he was comfortable now, able to afford a nice apartment in the city and to regularly visit the bars and breweries that dotted his increasingly posh neighborhood. He couldn’t really comprehend leaving, at least not unless another headhunter came calling.
Day after day, his routine was the same and this morning was no different. He threw himself, bedraggled, into a well-worn office chair. A few passwords later and he had clocked into his shift. Without thinking about it, he flipped through several different windows, the images and information flitting across his three monitors, none of it registering as important or real. His mouth split wide and he yawned, making no attempt to stifle it. He cracked his knuckles meticulously, one at a time, the soft pops and snaps offering some vague sense of relief though he couldn’t tell from what. Reflexively, he pulled out his phone and scrolled through his personal social media accounts, ignoring the corporate ones that glowed and flickered on his monitors.
“What a surprise,” said Randy. As usual, he arrived a solid thirty minutes late for his shift and sat down at the station across from Alex. “Big man can’t be bothered to answer his texts last night and yet he can’t be bothered to put his phone down this morning.”
“I was asleep,” said Alex defensively. Randy glared back, eyebrow raised. “Yeah, okay. I was awake. I was trying to fall asleep, though.”
“Sure you were,” Randy said as he directed his attention to his own monitors, logging in past a series of failsafes and eventually spreading Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn across his displays. Both Alex and Randy agreed that it was unlikely that anyone actually wanted to see social media posts from a cloud storage company but here they were making good money doing what would have seemed a laughably ridiculous career only a few years ago. It would have been self-sabotage to complain about the situation, although in Randy’s assessment the job was still laughably ridiculous.
“What narcoleptic were you using this time,” he asked. “Netflix menus? Obscure Twitter threads? Oh, wait, no. I got it. The classic: high school girlfriend’s Facebook page?”
“Bluetooth speaker,” Alex said. “Thinking about getting a new one.” Randy didn’t need to know that he’d spent more time looking through her Facebook photos than he’d spent reading speaker reviews. In his lurking he had noticed that she hadn’t posted in a long time. He wondered what she was doing now, what her life looked liked. Still, it was the old photos he like the best, the ones where they were together, the ones where she was smiling.
“Truly important stuff,” said Randy. “Thank god you weren’t out enjoying your one and only life and were instead at home, alone, tending to these grave matters.”
“Get off it.”
“You’re coming out tonight, though? Right?”
“Alex. My friend. It’s Thirsty Thursday. And you have no substantial commitments, no girlfriend, no charity work, no pet—not even a fish. There is literally no reason on God’s green earth that you should spend such an evening in your-” he paused here and raised a finger at Alex, “-admittedly beautiful and pristine apartment.” Alex chuckled at the flattery; he was rather proud of his new place. “You should be out living your life. Meeting people. Women, particularly. Or, more valiantly, you could be helping your friend meet women. You know, in ancient times, before the advent of social media, it was considered a great honor to be someone’s wingman.”
“Of course it was.”
“It was! A tremendous rite of passage.” Randy grinned broadly from beside his monitors, then his face turned severe. “I’m offering you the opportunity to be the best version of yourself, you know. Nothing less.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“And?” Randy said, prodding his introverted friend. They had worked together for almost four years now and, despite Alex’s reluctance to let anyone into his life, Randy was simply too good-natured, too gleefully, cheerfully nihilistic to accept Alex’s isolation. Outside of Paul, he was the best friend Alex had.
“Fine. I’ll come out tonight.”
“You’re goddamn right you will.”
“But I’m not staying out all night,” said Alex. He tried to sound defiant but the result was childish, like a toddler negotiating with their parent.
“Of course not, of course not. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if you stayed up all night having fun.”
“Oh, shut up.” Alex turned back to his computer. The queues were still empty. It would be another long day.
The morning wore away in a mindless slog. Shortly after noon, Alex noticed Adam, the IT guy, rifling through the glass-fronted office that belonged to Brad, Alex and Randy’s boss. Nothing if not an overcompensated underachiever, Brad was remarkably incompetent and how he managed to get—and then keep—his job had long been a point of debate between Alex and Randy. He also hadn’t been in the office all morning, now that Alex thought about it.
“Hey, Adam,” said Randy. He walked over and leaned against the office door. “What’re you—wait, no. No way, man. Brad? No fucking way. They canned Brad?”
“Let him go last night, I guess.” Adam shrugged and then put the last of Brad’s personal effects into a box whose lid he sealed with clear packing tape. Then he sat at what had been Brad’s desk and let his fingers fly across the keyboard, reinitializing Brad’s old computer and preparing it for its new user.
“Why’d they can him?” Randy asked.
The rest of the employees in the area were watching and listening now, Laura and Jen in operations, Matt, Liz and Zack in account management. Travis, who was technically a senior vice president—just as Brad had been—but whose actual job function appeared to be loudly complaining about everything all the time, was standing in the doorframe of his office, watching the scene unfold.
“Don’t know, man,” said Adam as he logged off and then locked the computer. He lifted the box of Brad’s possessions and wedged it under his arm. “Sounds like they already found somebody else though. We got an order for a new passcard this morning.”
“They didn’t waste any time, did they?”
“You know how it is.” Everyone watched Adam go in silence, the weight of Brad’s unceremonious departure hanging heavily over them all.
“Fuck,” said Alex, breaking the silence.
“Fuck, indeed,” said Randy.
“Don’t act so surprised, you guys. Brad didn’t even know how to do his job.” To hear these types of statements from Travis was both typical and incredibly hypocritical.
“Go fuck yourself, Travis” said Randy.
“Watch it, Randy. I could report you for that.”
“And I could report you for spending more time on your fantasy team than on your actual job, so again: go fuck yourself.”
Travis made a wrinkled face as he scrambled for a worthy retort but when he couldn’t think of anything he retreated into his office and closed the door behind him.
“God, I hate that guy,” said Randy. The rest of the crowd dispersed and he sat down at his desk. He stared straight ahead, not lifting his fingers to his keys.
“Why’d they fire Brad?” Alex asked. His computer had fallen asleep.
“I don’t know. Maybe he finally fucked up something big. Or maybe they just found someone better.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Alex. He wondered about his own job and whether or not it would be easy to find someone better than him. He didn’t love his job, but he counted on it and he didn’t want to lose it. Because he couldn’t stop thinking about Brad’s firing and the prospect of his own potential unemployment, he spent the rest of the day in a funk, his anxiety growing by the minute. Eventually his compounding stress broke the limits of his will to keep quiet.
“Do you think we’re gonna get fired?” he asked Randy, who sighed deeply in response.
“Alex, this job is ridiculous. It’s absolutely insane that we get paid to do this. We sit on computers all day, dicking around on Facebook and Twitter professionally. That’s what we do, that’s our job. We’re not, you know, doing anything. Not anything real. It’s unbelievably stupid that we get paid to do this. So let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
“Yeah, but Brad-”
“I hate to admit that Travis was right about anything, but we both know that Brad didn’t know the first thing about social media. He could barely log onto his computer and he wouldn’t have known a Nyan cat if it hit him head on, directly to the forehead.”
Randy leaned back and Alex could hear the clacking of his fingers on his keys, their rhythm slow and deliberate as it always was when Randy was pretending to be busy.
“You never really answered my question.”
“We’re not Brad, man. His problems aren’t our problems.”
“That’s still not an answer.”
“Christ, Alex. If I knew whether or not we’d get fired, I’d tell you. But I’ve got no idea. You got your last paycheck, right?”
“Then you’re fine for now. Nothing you can do about the future so try to relax.”
That wasn’t an easy proposition for Alex. He had an uncomfortable relationship with endings. Endings stoked the flames of his anxiety more than almost anything else. The finality of it, the severe cut of termination, was overwhelming for him to the point that he had rarely enjoyed anything once the fear of its ending had settled in. It was why he had broken up with every girlfriend he had ever had, save one. He’d rather cut things short than let them run out to their eventual, miserable end. He still didn’t know what he wanted to be, not really, but he knew what he didn’t want to be: fired, done, over, ended. Endings, with their finality and irreversibility, terrified him. But so did beginnings, with their painful twists and starts. He preferred to be numb in the middle.
Click here for the third chapter of We Almost Had It, “Outdated Mode.”