Working from Home

by Kanak Kapur

          • The curtains buzz like wet white sugar. Outside, past the bald neighbor’s garage, past his
            school-bound children, the morning sun moves on a set of leaves. We will exchange something small, the green and I. A flicker, a quiver, a nod of hey, there. The leaves rustle back their response. We understand how we will share the world forever, yet see so little of one another. A shot of desire runs through me: I want to touch the slight brown veins that run through their bodies.
            #
            I turn on the dreaded machine. The uproar begins. Everything gets hot. There are green dots beside the names of colleagues, many of whom are online before the recommended hour. Now and then their dots flicker to yellow. That is how I know that they are scrambling eggs, talking to mothers, injecting insulin.

            On the other coast, Laura’s dot goes from green to yellow to red. I know that

            1. She has entered a call.
            1. Introduced herself.
            1. Stated her role.
            1. Asked about everyone’s morning.
            1. Forgotten to mention that her grandmother, love of her life, survivor of (1) abusive marriage, (2) bouts of cancer, (3) bankruptcies, is dying in a hospital up in New Jersey.

            #

            At ten, Laura calls. There is something disarming about her voice. I want to stretch out on the warm curve of her tongue. For a moment, I do. I mention the dreaded client presentation, the goddamn mid-year review. Ok, ok, ok. Me too, me too, me too. I remember the hour. I let her say her piece, give answers to her questions.

            1. Yes, the boss is reptilian.
            1. Yes, there are times that I really do regret calling off the wedding. I had to give back so many beautiful presents.

            It is her turn:

            1. Yes, she says, Dustin treats her well.
            1. But he will make her move to Los Angeles one of these days.
            1. Was it nice in Los Angeles?
            1. Yes, I tell her about the fallen jacaranda petals, how they would stain the pavement lavender just before summer.
            2. Oh, and the lime-soaked pizzazz of East LA chilaquiles.
            1. It was really nice.
            1. Okay, I have another call, she says.
            1. Have to go. Bye.

            The day unfurls before us.

            #

            Things move forward in fantastic, bullet-train motion. All is firing, flickering. Screens are not tables of light but dendrites firing. The machine hums its morning song.

            At noon, a mandatory conference call. The reminder sashays on and off the screen. We will discuss how to convince a client to hire us. The goal is to procure more money for our wealthy boss. The goal is to feel certain about the arrival of next week’s paycheck.

            The Vice President sends a note: Have a conflict. Can you ask the intern to take notes + send a recap? Thanks.

            The intern responds: Hi Prakash, thank you for the opportunity! I will send you a recap!

            Sincerely, The intern.

            #

            I step into the call. Ding-dong. I spend a premeditated minute smearing attention on my tiredness, how my lunch break today will be a flimsy five minutes. I just have call after call after call, I say. The attendees sympathize; they vow to have the intern pick up some of my responsibilities for the day.

            Thank you for the opportunity! the intern writes in the chat.

            The project manager calls for a more streamlined strategy. A more agile delivery. A work-first approach. We turn over his words silently in our heads. We wonder how to retain a moment of speech; how to be sure a string of words was truly spoken. Is it unholy for twelve different people to arrive at the same interpretation? When the silence lasts too long, I decide to deliver my thoughts in quick bricks of prose. There are no blurred edges to a conference call.

            Here, I know, all words must be easy. They must flow from the machine speakers straight to emails, to notes scribbled on yellow squares, to moments of anxious epiphany late at night, when a colleague forgets to answer her portion of the question. The project manager has let us down.

            To give us back the time he wasted, I unfold my education, my logic. A to B to C. They call this a proposal. I press a key that carries us to a new screen. The display is bright, geometric, still as moonlit lake water at night. Have a look, I tell them. Send me your questions. They lean in closer. The project manager’s brow furrows; the intern addresses an inner-eye itch. I wonder how much of my confidence is delusion. I let the bruise pulse. I allow myself a knife-flash of a fantasy: I am sitting at a seaside café, a thick slice of cheesecake on my plate. A novel is tucked between my thumb and pinky finger.

            Very clear and organized, the project manager writes. Thanks for getting us back on track.

            Keep going.

            The silver gong of acceptance rings. The speaker floods with approval. I hold their words close, fold them tight into everything else.

            #

            My lunch is still at the top of my heart. I chew through my introduction. The client wears a starch-stiff suit in his living room. The tip of his nose is red. The sounds of a far-off vacuum appear when he speaks.

            Apologies for the noise, he types in the chat. The neighbors are using a leaf-blower.

            On this call, I will not think about

            1. The fresh zing of spring energy in my pelvis.
            1. The movie man I thought I wanted throughout college, who always wanted women far thinner than me.
            2. The unfinished secret manuscript, buried inside a folder inside a folder in the machine.
            3. My father pouring a finger of rum into his morning coffee.
            1. The conical grief Laura holds at the base of her throat.
            1. The buzz buzz buzz of the robot on my wrist, asking me to take a few steps before the end of the hour.

            Looks like everyone on our side is on the call, the client writes in the chat. Let’s begin.

            # 

            Light pools a warm white circle on the wall. The client projects a screen with colorful charts and numbers, something prepared by an intern. The slide is titled Our Expectations. But I am stuck in a perfect moment in college when Dr. H— accused L— of not being generous to the text. (It was Nietzsche.) I wonder what it means to be generous to words. I pull out a notebook from the table drawer, scribble in a hot, careless hand:

            Light pooled a warm white circle on the wall. Dr. Haile said: “Laila, you are not being generous to the text.” It was Nietzsche.

            Without pause I go on, giving Laila a history and memories of Egypt in the Arab Spring. I give her lovely sea-glass eyes and a no-nonsense bent of dialogue. She gets to the point. She disagrees with the professor. I add curving scripture to the imaginary chalkboard behind them. I read it over. It is a difficult task to believe that others will find value in the strange specks of beauty that I do. It is difficult to think there is value in digging them up in dim afternoon lamplight. I will try again tomorrow, I say, marking the resolution with a tiny ballpoint star.

            Should we reconvene when you have an updated proposal? the client asks.

            Yes, the project manager says. We will get back to you by EOW.

            #

            Three p.m. Laura needs help with an email draft to the boss.

            Hi Reptile,

            Hope you and your family are safe and healthy. I saw your email about updating the event deck by 5 PM, but I don think that will be possible. Right now I am rushing my daughter to the ER.

            Will early tomorrow morning be ok?

            Thank you,
            Laura

            I make the edits with no explanations. She trusts me.

            Hi Reptile,

            Hope all is well. Thank you for your email about updating the stats on the event deck. I agree that it is top of mind and should be completed ASAP. I’d be thrilled to get it done today, but I have to take my daughter Maria to the ER. She unfortunately came home from school with a serious playground wound.

            Would tomorrow be ok?

            Apologies for the inconvenience!
            Laura

            I tell Laura that she must humanize her daughter. Allow the girl her apricot-colored ringlets and blossom out. Maria, Maria, Maria. The Reptile should know her face. Then the far-awayness of old lullabies comes back. Ringa-ringa-roses, pocket full of posies. I think of how close I had come to singing the three-noted melody to a child of my own. But there is something unsettling about lullabies. The old songs once belted, puffed into the air like glitter, always to settle a mess. The girls go round and round and round. They clutch each other’s unmanicured little hands. Somewhere, the rhyme is stopped short by gravity: We all fall down. Their skirts bubble to the ground. I press send.

            #

             Is this a good place to pause? The midday coffee break. It is time for the piano arpeggio, the idle foot-tap, the biscuit-brown crumble of lost love. The espresso pours caramel and I think back to that old Koreatown restaurant, where we watched a group of girlfriends across from us. They wore beige overcoats and delicate gold, though the weather that day had been seventy-five and sunny. The once-fiancé across the table wears a navy blue t-shirt. He smells clean and soft, like a razor has just combed across his cheek. He spots someone famous, feigns shock that the name rings no bells. He orders an appetizer to share, two glasses of wine. He predicts that in a few years, TSA agents will wear sponsored uniforms. Sponsored by XY Inc., the embroidery will say, above their badges. We order mains, more wine. Laughter comes and stays like the white fizz of a wave.

            We might go back further, to another President, another unemployment rate. When he was only a man in the South Bay. No rings on anyone’s fingers. We lunched at a coffee shop called the St. Tropez Café. The sound of the nearby waves could have been distant and widespread applause. Our knuckles got sunburned; the table, the forks were all alive with light. Warmth and wind traveled through full branches; the rumple and fall of silk. We walked arm in arm around the neighborhood.

            (New email: ACTION REQUIRED)

            In some time, we sit in an abyss of problems. Hesitations bloom when sentences curl, when mothers call, when an arm brushes the other at a street corner. The daily prayer is a question: What is he thinking? His face is a mask. When he slips it on, it feels like a bulb of skin being lanced. A wind of relief, for the mask is now familiar, followed by coppery, red pain. The wound oozes obscenely all day. But why are we here again? Why are we always returning here, to the St. Tropez Café?

            Maybe we go further, to a time when better laws have been passed. When people drive electric cars. When everyone composts. The once-fiancé has gained some weight. His navy blue t-shirt has been donated and thrifted by a teenage girl. Instead, he wears a hygienic, office-white button-down. He orders an iced Americano, no milk. There is no tan on his ring finger; he never thought to stand at the altar with anyone else. He wears expensive leather shoes with a stiff leather belt. His heroes were men who survived on steak, so he tried to do the same. They were men who often got obliterated on debate stages, on talk shows, on their own terrible podcasts.

            But he is a loyal man, a loyal follower. He often says the wrong thing, especially to women, more concerned with how he looks to the chorus of Big Men in his mind than to anyone else. But his heart is good. It is still good. He brings the cup to his lips, drinks. He eyes the wedge of cheesecake on the table beside him. Here the piano stops.

            We must be kind to old lovers, a quiet voice instructs. It is Laura, who is always right. When we are kind to old lovers, we are kind to our younger selves.

            (A missed call from the Reptile.)

            #

            The intern wants to have a coffee chat. But we can’t really meet, I tell her. No, no, she says. We can both drink coffee on camera.

            She asks about

            1. My education.
            1. My journey to XY Inc.
            1. My experience with XY Inc.
            1. Other people that should connect with to succeed at XY Inc.
            1. Anything I wish I’d known starting out at XY Inc.?

            She has prepared more questions, but she’d like to tell me more about herself first. She grew up in Sacramento; read business journals; studied Mandarin; felt the rush of her blossoming ego when she won the race for student body president in high school. In college, she studied economics. Saw power where there was a kiss and an opportunity where there was a tree. President of Consulting Club where she consulted and president-ed. A good leader lets herself make mistakes, we both agree. Her interest in consulting was a mistake. Her real interest is in the work of XY Inc. She takes a loud, sustained sip of water. It is four p.m. on a Tuesday and there is no life, no crystal formation, no growing vegetable beyond this phone call. As long as her voice is at my ear, the roots in the ground are paused in their tight grip. The vultures at the lake stop pecking the silver corpse they have pulled out of the water.

            1. I have a hard stop at four-fifteen, she says.
            1. But it was just lovely getting to know you better.
            1. And I feel so much better prepared to succeed in my role here at XY Inc.
            1. Bye for now!

            And we all unwrap our skins.

            The galloping little girls unclasp their hands. They lift their frocks up over their heads, scaring away bystanders with a show of their big white underpants.

            #

            Hello, reptile?

            1. Hello.
            1. Sorry I missed your call.
            1. Yes, I needed to get your thoughts on the new deck that was sent over for the proposal.
            2. How about I look it over and send over some feedback as soon as I can?
            1. Yes, that works. I’d like to land this plane as soon as possible. A close friend of my mother’s is in the ICU over in Jersey. I need to go pay a visit before it’s all over.
            2. I’m so sorry.

            #

            The week goes Monday Monday Monday Monday Friday. Then, the bank account will chime its holy bell. The neighbor’s children will come home. They will rush in, thrilled by the violence of their swinging backpacks. They have urgency in their flesh; the limb moves with purpose.

            Maria’s vein sputters blood all over Laura’s hands. It’s alright, she tells her girl, who asks to see her grandmother. It’s alright. On Tuesdays, the St. Tropez Café sits empty. Does anyone go there, sit under the lemon trees, desire the same cheesecake in the glass cabinet, but decide against ordering it?

            The last email flies to its destination. I imagine it worms through telephone wires. Now, I attend to the pressure in my pelvis. I do not dig out the manuscript. How will words ever capture the magic of orange light on wrinkled tree bark. When my father dies, will it be the rum in his coffee? The bark is green, like fish skin. Monday I saw some creature’s bare spine curl in the sun. The little girls are all at home, crunching biscuits at the table, rubbing the crumbs onto their skirts. I put the machine to sleep for another night. Its breath grows heavy, then vanishes. The green dot beside my name turns to white. I light a candle, boil the pasta. I think of him once more, the birthmark behind his left ear. A dark dot like the bottom of an exclamation mark. My love! We were almost married. I touch myself thinking of his arms folded across his chest in a navy blue t-shirt. Open them, open them. Come back to me, I trick myself into thinking. The curtains are closed, there is no light. I dream.

 

Kanak Kapur is an MFA candidate in fiction at Vanderbilt University. She grew up in Dubai and immigrated to the United States at fifteen. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.