By Jack Pemment
The whole day in the office had been leading up to this. A large cross functional online meeting. I had maxed out the most reasonable amount of time one could spend hiding in bathroom stalls in the never-ending quest to recharge, and now it was time to put on my mask and do that thing that kept the paychecks coming in.
The door to the solo meeting room clicked shut and the voices from the many workplace conversations compressed into a stream of low monotone-but-manageable background radiation. I was still busy subtracting the current time from the meeting time so that I could obsess over how much time I didn’t have left to hide in the bathroom.
These rooms had to be booked in advance and were designed so that one person could schedule privacy for an hour at a time from the departure lounge-like atmosphere of the workplace.
If privacy was even a privilege for the non autistic, why did humans do this to themselves? Was it part of the daily penance of willful discomfort so that any relief felt good by comparison? Afterall, people did allow themselves to become hungry so that come lunchtime they didn’t mind the taste of overly regulated offal from an outsourced company with an x in its name. Willfully prescribing the deterioration of concentration and focus among one’s colleagues sure would make the pursuit of privacy an orgasmic endeavor.
Only it wasn’t private.
A twisted candy wrapper, a small punctured carton of blue cheese dressing, a discarded and torn N95 mask, streaks of finger grease on the desk, and the odor from an antisocial antiperspirant meant I was still in here with at least the last three occupants.
I sat down on the fashionably incomplete chair, opened my laptop, and at the end of a surprisingly deep sigh, I pinched the skin on my bottom lip with my teeth and muttered, “Why do we do this to ourselves?”
The blue tooth connected to the noise canceling ear buds that lived permanently in my head during the workday and once I was happy that my camera and microphone were off, I entered the online forum. The first slide of the meeting read Oversight of Third Party Vendors.
I had only been at the company for three weeks and the term third party never failed to highjack my curiosity. Who were the first and second parties? Why was it always a third party? When did the first and second parties take place? Did I miss them? Were there going to be fourth and fifth parties? Was it like a third wheel? Is that why we treated them with the passive aggressiveness usually bestowed on the redheaded stepchild? Do they know they’re the third party? Are we the third party to them? If I yell “Third Party” during Q&A, will I induce a paradox and break the meeting?
The attendance list erupted from three to fifty and the pit of my stomach dropped away as my awareness and wherewithal held hands and floated off into deep space.
I could not possibly focus on all of these people. Would that be okay or would they think I was rude?
Why couldn’t I remember what happened in the last meeting? Had it been traumatic? At the sight of the first flowchart would I be cowering under the desk and screaming for absolution and a sedative?
The first slide changed without warning and a voice crashed out of my headphones only to welcome me to the meeting.
I closed my eyes and the number 526 floated up out of the abyss. I knew it would. It always did. It was like the access code to reset my attention. Numbers always came to me when my mind raced. I had come to believe they were simply error messages.
Error 526: Emotion not found. Return to factory reset.
526 melted away and my eyes fired open. With the skill of landing a space craft on a comet, I clenched onto the host’s voice with everything that I could clench. I pinched the skin on my bottom lip with my teeth and muttered, “Why do we do this to ourselves?”
“It came to our attention,” said the host, “that they were not documenting all of these mistakes.”
Two people came off mute to express their indignation for the thing being reported by the host. For somebody that struggled to derive meaning from meetings, I had begun to conclude that venting and evidence-lacking diatribes were clearly part of the framework.
I had already lost interest in the topic. Whatever it was, it was not worth the belligerent and unapologetic rabble assaulting my brain. I rhythmically gnawed on my lip to massage my sanity and tapped the desk with each pinch of pain. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” I thought, triggering Error 526.
By the time the host’s voice was independent of all other interference, seven and a half minutes had passed. Some of what she was saying sounded vaguely familiar from e-mails earlier in the week.
A flowchart appeared, or maybe it had been there the whole time, with seven steps that could be given to the third party to ensure they documented all of the mistakes. I released my focus on the voice so that I could concentrate on the words observation, identification, innovation, integration, reconciliation, documentation, implementation.
“-ation,” I pondered. A common suffix overly used to extend the length of one’s words when wishing to sound more authoritative. Commonly used in meetings and often accompanied by colorful charts where arrows provide the directionality of thought where logic fails.
I had reached the part of the meeting where my own narrative had supplanted any and all things being discussed.
This was the workplace. This was the next part of life, after college. I was aware that I had overly romanticized the job of a long distance truck driver, and the simple profession of solitary nocturnal hole digger didn’t exist, but I seriously began to wonder how much of my remaining time from now until retirement could reasonably be spent hiding in the bathroom.
An Excel sheet was now buzzing on the screen that would put any intergalactic travel timetable to shame. The font had been reduced so that it could all fit on one slide and it was just small enough that a headache preceded any attempt at reading. The meticulous spacing and gradated color shades used across rows suggested it had been made by anxious nanobots with OCD looking to hide their location by blinding anyone bold enough not to blink for two seconds.
“and so not only will this tool help to enhance our partnership, but it will also help to show auditors, in the event that we are audited, that we have complied with all contemporary regulation.”
The congratulatory pile on began, with as many as ten people at a time coming off mute to express praise. I refused to believe that any of them actually understood this tool, and so by thanking the host they were really just absolving themselves of their ignorance and expressing elation that they now bore no accountability for an issue they only half remembered.
I tasted blood on my lip, but I still could not stop nibbling.
“Well, if there are no further questions, I guess I can hand you all some time back.”
With an entryway of the necessary five seconds of silence, I came off mute.
“I don’t know why this tool has been created. In our meeting with them last week they acknowledged the error and the person responsible for sharing their own tool with us thought we could view it on their portal, but we couldn’t. This has been fixed as was documented in the minutes that were sent to all of you.”
The silence from deep space was deafening.
“You should have all had them in your inbox last week,” I clarified, just in case I had not been understood.
A third of the attendants dropped from the call, which triggered the exit of the next third.
Finally the clear aged tones of a senior manager crackled through. “Couldn’t you have brought that up in the meeting we had on Monday?”
“I wasn’t invited.”
An aggrieved sigh preceded the exit of the remaining attendants and the host closed the meeting.
I was used to feeling alone, but there was something about the speed of everyone’s departure that smarted. Had I not meetinged correctly? I appeared to have ruined something I never wanted to be a part of in the first place, it was like my childhood birthday parties all over again.
I shut my laptop and opened the door. The background radiation immediately split into multiple workplace conversations and nobody seemed to have any idea of what I’d just been through.
I headed for the bathroom and didn’t know if I’d have any lips left by retirement.