The walk to work is endless in the bitter cold. I must will myself forward, re-commiting to the journey with every step. I so badly want to call in sick and just lay around the apartment watching tube – high – but I have to make it to work. I have to get that paycheck, have to get it to the check-cashing store, have to get the drugs in order to get right. Choice has nothing to do with it.
Eventually the expanse of Union Square unfolds in front of me. It’s a welcome refuge from the mind-bendingly-cold wind screaming down characterless 4th Avenue. I really must get some more substantial clothing. My thin black leather motorcycle jacket just isn’t cutting it. I take solace in the fact that it won’t be long now before I’m ensconced in the warm confines of PDC’s corporate headquarters. Thank Christ.
With any luck I’ll be able to fetter away the day in the break room, smoking cigarettes and catching up on paperwork. How much work can a company expect from its employees the day before Christmas Eve day for God’s sake?
From the North end of Union square it’s a short 5 blocks to 5th Ave just above 21st. I resist having a last cigarette. A cigarette spared is a cigarette earned, that’s how fucking busted I am.
Another 4 or 5 minutes walk and I make it to the building entrance. The lobby of the office building – the building PDC takes up 3 floors in – is absolutely unassuming. Entering it you wonder, “is this really the entrance to an office building? Or have I mistakenly stumbled into a utility closet?” I push through the glass double doors and enter the under-lit, meager room that serves as the lobby for a 17-story office building.
As usual at the far end of the narrow room sitting behind a small metal desk is Lawrence, the surly black security guard. He’s almost always here. You have to pass him and his comically small desk in order to reach the elevator bank. On a near daily basis I experience a flash of empathy when I see this large man sitting behind what looks to be a desk for use by an elementary school child.
The empathy doesn’t last however, as Lawrence, who looks to be around 40 or 50 or so – he could easily be older – seems to have it out for me. Or perhaps more accurately, he doesn’t like me.
I enter and exit this building multiple times a day, 5 days a week and consistently Lawrence won’t speak to me. And it’s beginning to really piss me off. I didn’t think much of it when I first started, but now that I’ve been working here for 5 months – and I’ve seen the way he interacts with other people – I’ve begun to take it personally.
On the rare occasion that he does spare me a look, I wonder if he can see through me? Can he see my secret? Is he judging me? He probably lives in a neighborhood where my problem – you know, the whole junkie degenerate thing – is pretty common. I mean I think I’ve managed to conceal it at work thus far, I still have a job anyway, but maybe I’m not pulling the wool over Lawrence’s eyes. Maybe because he’s experienced so many drug addicts in whatever shitty neighborhood he lives in, he can tell I’m an addict just by looking at me.
But even if he has guessed, why can’t he spare a fucking pleasantry for me? What did I ever do to him?
Today, I make a point of saying “Hello.” He doesn’t return my greeting. He doesn’t even look up from his newspaper and I’m left to pass by him unacknowledged. I make my way to the elevators, my hip clearing his miniscule desk by all of a foot and wait, rebuffed. I stare over his shoulder; at his newspaper (The Post, naturally) and then absently at the backlit doors that open onto 5th Ave.
Suddenly, the vacuum seal of the room is broken as a couple of office workers – a white man and an Asian woman – push through into the room. The woman, an attractive and fashionably put together Asian lady, smiles broadly at Lawrence, her cheeks rendered red from the cold. “Merry Christmas, Lawrence!” She shouts.
Lawrence’s reaction is positively fucking jovial, “Merry Christmas to you too, Joyce.” He says.
What the fuck, Lawrence? Do you think you could you be any more ecstatic to see her? I wonder.
The three of them have a quick conversation, ending with Lawrence saying that he’s, “looking forward to a couple’a days off.” The elevator arrives and the man and the woman step on behind me.
The two interlopers – actually it’s probably me that’s the interloper, as unlike me, these two seem to be at peace with the world – chat amiably, resuming their conversation about a co-worker not getting a satisfactory Christmas bonus.
“I mean she’s been here for 5 years!? Did you have any idea?” Joyce asks of her colleague. “5 years!” She repeats.
“I knew it was a long time but… No way!” He replies, salaciously.
I shut my eyes and appreciate the warmth in here. Today is payday. I’m hoping against hope that there is something extra in my pay envelope today. I know I shouldn’t, that there probably won’t be, but I cant help but imagine the drugs I would buy with some unaccounted for, extra dough. The voices of my co-passengers fall away. Standing still, feels good. A wave of comfort rolls over my frontal lobe, and suddenly I’m swimming in a warm, salt heavy, viscous ocean. The feeling of being immersed in amniotic comfort overtakes me and the cold recedes from the extremities of my feet and my fingers. The sensation intensifies with each moment my eyes stay shut. Heroin can be a giving master sometimes. Like right now. This is what drugs are all about, I think.
I try not to let go or give in to the euphoria. I want to stay angry and figure out a way to get Lawrence the security guard to like me. I don’t know if I can live with him not paying me the proper respect I’m due as a human being, but after a moment I succumb. The comfort is too delicious. After a moment, the elevator stops at my floor and there’s a long second before I realize I’m the one meant to get off. The couple – I’ve decided the dude is gay because of his lilting mannerisms – actually stop talking for a moment and look over at me, before I snap to. I’m actually sort of high, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I’m only taking a maintenance dose. I shot only about half a bag this morning. Which means I should not be high. Of course, I’ll take it where I can find it, thank you very much – but if anything I should be feeling withdrawals after shooting just half a bag – not high.
In the PDC entryway the receptionist isn’t at her desk. I immediately turn into the nearby men’s room. I can’t be caught nodding off at work. My desk is out in the open in the middle of a very busy part of the office, which means I have to be mindful of decorum towards the beginning of my shift, when the office workers – those with the regular 9 to 5 schedules – are winding up their workday alongside me. They clear out between 5 and 7 and then Thomas, Greg and I will then have the run of the place. It wouldn’t do to be caught facedown on my keyboard, as appealing as that sounds. I run the tap, get some lukewarm water going and then splash it on my face. The water stings as it dries, my face raw from having just come out of the bitterly cold, dry air outside. The action accomplishes its goal though; I’m revived to semi-alertness.
Stepping out of the restroom the receptionist is still not there. It’s unusual for Angela to be up from her desk for more than a minute or two. Indeed, the whole office is unusually quiet. I thread my way through the hallway toward my station and notice that doors have been left open but the attendant people are nowhere to be seen. I hang my jacket on the back of my chair and head to the opposite end of the office, towards the conference room.
I hear the fracas before I’m halfway there. Sure enough, what seems like the entire company is in the midst of a holiday celebration. Is this impromptu? Or maybe I just missed the memo?
In any case I spot my boss Thomas, a very gracious and down to earth Swiss man in close conversation with some higher-ups I don’t really know. I avoid him and walk over to the refreshments table and grab a couple of sugar cookies and some eggnog. I force myself to say hello to some familiar faces nearby. It’s important to take advantage of these caloric windfalls when they come along. I’m not a big eater, but by forcing down a few cookies perhaps I can save a few bucks and skip a meal later. Using that logic I shove an additional 5 or 6 cookies in my pockets. I look around to see if anyone is watching. Nobody appears to be but then, who knows… Who cares, is probably the more accurate sentiment.
I locate my fellow NYU student and co-worker Greg standing off by himself towards the side of the room. I took last semester off from school to earn money for tuition by working here at PDC full time. It’s not working. I’m spending all my money on drugs. At this rate, I’m never going to get back to school.
Greg is a character. He has a kind of normal, middle-of-the-road type quality about him – he’s not preppy, just kind of average in an almost “Dockers” pants sort of way – but he also radiates that characteristic New York blasé attitude, like he’s seen everything under the sun and nothing could shock him. He’s really quite pleasant, though once you get to know him. Perhaps for this reason I’ve chosen him as my confidant. I tell him about my drug and girl exploits, the stuff I normally wouldn’t tell anyone else. He doesn’t appear to judge me. I don’t think he does anyway. Not that I would really care if he did.
For some reason, the people around the office don’t respond to Greg though. I don’t understand why. Our boss Thomas clearly doesn’t care for the guy either, which baffles me, because I can seemingly do no wrong. Me, the piece of shit swindler gets away with murder and poor earnest Greg puts his best foot forward and gets shit upon for his efforts.
Greg is happy to see me.
“Hey man, how you holding up? Merry Christmas.” He says, extending his arm for a bro-shake.
“Yo, happy Chanukah.” I reply, intentionally mispronouncing the word, making sure to say the “ch” sound. I forgot to mention Greg is majorly Jewish. He even wears a little gold Star of David around his neck. The Jews – even though I’m an English/Italian/American mutt – are my people. I’ve always felt most comfortable with the Jews for some reason. I even attempted to convince my parents to give me a bar mitzvah when I was 13 – mostly because I wanted a moped – but I was willing to go the distance and become one of the chosen people. My parents saw through my scheme though and I never became a Jew.
“You know, I was thinking about that thing, you know, on your arm… that you showed me last night. You really ought to go see a Doctor about that.” Greg says. Low. So nobody else can hear.
I have a growing lesion in the crook of my arm and last night I showed it to Greg. It’s developed because I’ve been jabbing my most prominent vein much too frequently. I’ve sworn off hitting that spot in the past but the access point is just too dependable to ignore. I hit blood every time, despite the growing lump of pussy, inflamed flesh growing up around the entry point.
“It’ll be fine.” I say. I get off being casual about this stuff with him. Not that I don’t agree; the wound is looking perfectly disgusting and infected and alarming. I’ve just apparently got more faith in my body’s ability to heal itself. That said I really must make a point of jabbing myself elsewhere and letting the fucker heal.
I lean against the wall and take a sip of the eggnog. It’s yummy, thick with syrupy sweetness, just my kind of beverage. It’s remarkable how one’s palette changes when under the influence of opiates. I crave sweets nearly all of the time. Orange juice is the nectar of the Gods as far as I’m concerned, whereas beer, which has long been my drink of choice, holds little appeal these days.
I notice Mr. Powell, the president of the company taking a spot in front of the room. He’s attempting to get everyone’s attention by clapping his hands and cajoling those nearest him for quiet. I nod in his direction for Greg’s benefit.
“Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays, everyone!” he shouts as the room settles to quiet.
“Now I know….” He pauses for a last burst of conversational laughter to trail off. “Now I know, this has been a challenging year. One fraught with change and insecurity that has, at times, made it difficult for you to perform your jobs as effectively as I know you are capable of. I wanted to take this opportunity to acknowledge that I know things have been challenging… I also wanted to tell you, personally, that this tumultuous phase of PDC’s evolution is over. In short… Congratulations! You can relax, now!” He gets a smattering of applause.
Mr. Powell, a quaffed-hair, California-preppy version of Patrick Bateman – the psychopath serial murderer from the movie ‘American Psycho’ played by Christian Bale – is technically a newer employee than I am, having been installed a few months back when PDC was bought by a West Coast financial holding company. For a month or so, all my co-workers were flipping out in fear of losing their jobs. Without knowing too many details, from my vantage point, the situation appeared to be much ado about nothing. So far, my opinion has been born out, as there have been no layoffs.
Powell continues doing his duty as the ship’s new captain, assuring his nervous crew that they aren’t going to fall off the edge of the earth and that it’s smooth corporate sailing from this point onward. I go someplace else, savoring the eggnog’s sweetness and anticipating my immanent trip home – which at this point it’s just a few hours away. I wonder which of the girls that spurned me in high school will want to attempt an ill-fated go-around after the inevitable night spent drinking at the “Sea Witch,” the pathetic watering hole that my high school classmates, home from college elsewhere, will inevitably visit on Christmas eve and the quiet nights leading up to New Year’s.
I’m hoping this Christmas will be an opportunity to have revenge sex with at least one of the girls that didn’t think I was cool enough to date in high school. I attended middle school and began high school in a small town on the North shore of Massachusetts. Only jocks could land any of the best looking girls and a jock I most certainly was not. In my heart of hearts I’m hoping to seduce Madeline Flemming. The thought of sexing up Madeline was an unattainable daydream for me in middle and high schools. I was strictly friend-zone material. She’s come down a few notches since high school graduation though, and she’s finally getting a clue that they guys she favored back then might not be as interesting as she initially imagined.
In other words, it’s my time to shine and I need to take advantage of it. Those handsome, muscular slabs of meat, those titans of high school athleticism, their luster isn’t as bright as it once was. Their futures aren’t quite so secure. Meanwhile the funny, intellectual nerd, punk rocker has blossomed into a cosmopolitan up-and-comer with the entire world a stage before him. That would be me. The girls, or some of them anyway, are finally beginning to realize that they might want to get in on the action, before the train has left the station for good.
No reason to inject Hilary, my girlfriend, into any of this.
“Jonas? Are you with us?” Mr. Powell’s voice penetrates my revelry. To my horror, practically the entire company, I don’t know 75? 100 people? Are staring at me.
“Uh, oh, what?”
The room erupts into laughter. “Sorry to wake you there, my friend,” Mr. Powell says, “I was complimenting your work on the library database. From what I understand, it’s largely been your undertaking.”
What does he want from me? What am I supposed to say?
“Right, while Jonas may not be up and running, the database is. So make sure to take advantage of it.”
Mr. Powell continues on, singling out the next staff member whose feats over the previous months he feels are worthy of recognition.
“Nice one, dude.” Greg says, elbowing me playfully in the ribs.
“I just came in for my paycheck today. I don’t need this shit.” I say to myself, but Greg hears me.
“Jeez, calm down, buddy.” He says, shaking his head. “It’s not that big a deal…”
I cross my arms and try to pretend the entire office isn’t looking at me, laughing if not out loud, then quietly to themselves. I want to murder Mr. Powell for singling me out like that, but more potently and realistically I want to kill myself for allowing myself to be made such a fool of. FUCK!
The adrenaline shooting through my system recedes quickly and a short minute later it takes every ounce of strength to maintain consciousness as Mr. Powell drones on. This speech is fucking endless. I don’t understand why I’m so close to the nod. Dope can work in mysterious ways. It can surprise you, as it’s powerful shit. But I guess that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
When Powell does finally end his speech, it doesn’t take long for the room to empty out and for people make their way back to their workstations.
Back at our desks, Greg tries to console me but I’m not having it. I wave him off and sit at my station, trying to immerse myself in my work, which isn’t easy. Being in the middle of an open area with all sorts of people coming and going in front and behind me, combined with the overwhelming physical desire to faceplant on my keyboard makes for a rough hour or so. Fortunately nobody else seems to be doing much work either. The sounds of holiday revelry emanates from more than one office across our floor. As such, I’m fairly confident I won’t be judged too harshly for being unproductive.
At close to 5 the office manager, Sheryl, comes around with a stack of paychecks and greets Greg and I cheerily, “Happy holidays boys,” she says, reaching over our cubicle walls and handing us our envelopes. “Thank you,” I say and rip mine open, giving myself a paper cut in the process.
For the past week I’ve been pushing the thought – the hope – that there might be some kind of Christmas bonus in this envelope out of my mind. From the get-go I realized that it was a dangerous thought, mostly because it’s unlikely to happen, I’ve heard that only employees that have been with the company for a full year get holiday bonuses.
A jolt of adrenaline courses through me as I pull open the envelope and see a red holiday card alongside the usual printed paycheck. I pull it from the envelope and open it up. Stuck in the crook of the card is a FUCKING $50 TGI Friday’s GIFT CARD! MOTHER FUCKER! Mr. Powell has signed the card, “Thanks for your hard work! Enjoy….”
“God Dammit!” I say. Loud. Sheryl, who was headed out of our area, stops and looks back over at me, clearly concerned.
I pull the paycheck from the envelope. It’s the usual amount! Just over $340. “FUCK!”
Argh! I drop the envelope on my desk and bury my face in my hands. I realize now that I had allowed myself to hope for – no, count on – that bonus. So fucking stupid of me.
“Jonas, are you okay?” Sheryl asks.
Looking up, I hope there aren’t tears in my eyes. I do my best to smile. “…I’m fine. Thanks, Cheryl. Merry Christmas.” She stares at me for a beat longer, says, “Merry Christmas,” and continues walking.
I look over at Greg who wears an amused look. He holds up his gift card and says, “Banana daiquiris later?”
“Fuck you, dude.” I say. Apparently I’ve worked through grief and I’m already at the anger stage.
His face falls. “Merry Christmas to you too, dude.”
God, I’m such an asshole. I go smoke a cigarette in the break room.
Later on, when I’m back at my desk, Thomas pops his head out from around the corner and asks to see me in his office.
I follow him down the short bit of hallway and he shuts his office door behind me. It’s not large, not much more than a closet really. I sit in one of the two seats pushed up tightly against his desk.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asks.
“Yeah I’m fine, really. I’m sorry about earlier. That won’t happen again, I promise.”
I assume I’m in for a reprimand.
“Are you sick or something? What’s going on?”
I look him directly in the eyes for the first time. My instinct is to lead with anger – if I’m angry I’ve got ground to retreat from – but when I see the concern in Thomas’ eyes, I decide against that tactic. A wave of self-loathing overcomes me. This guy, this lovely, soft-spoken European technocrat of a boss – a man who has been nothing less than obscenely generous with me – expects at a minimum for me to be coherent amongst my coworkers and I repay him by nodding off at the Christmas party in front of the entire company.
“I have been fighting a cold actually. I’m sorry Thomas… And I haven’t been sleeping. I think my girlfriend and I are going to break up. We were up all night fighting…” I don’t know where the thing about the girlfriend came from. I haven’t seen Hilary for a week and last I checked, things were fine between us. That doesn’t seem to bother me when it comes to delivering a bold-faced lie quickly and hopefully, convincingly though.
“You were asleep back there at the party. I was watching you. You were drooling on your shirt and everything.”
Shit. I didn’t realize it had been quite that bad.
“God. I’m so embarrassed.” I say.
“Max Powell asked me about you a few days ago. He must have been preparing the speech he gave today I guess. He wanted to know about the database and whether he should bother mentioning you. I told him, ‘by all means,’ but now, I don’t know. It doesn’t look good. That reflects badly on me, Jonas… on my judgment.”
“Ugh, I’m sorry.” I say. I mean it.
“Other people have noticed too, Jonas. They’ve said things. A few weeks ago, Sheryl asked me if you were stoned one day. I told her that she was being ridiculous, but maybe I’m the ridiculous one. Is there anything you want to tell me?”
“Like what?” I ask. I don’t mean to sound indignant, but I do. I know Thomas means well. I also know exactly what he’s asking me, but there’s only one play here: deny, deny, deny.
“Anything at all. Is there anything you want to tell me? I want to help… if you need help.” He looks at me earnestly. God this sucks. Get off my back, man! Nobody fucking asked you for your help!
“Thomas, I’m good. I just need some sleep man. I gotta get on a bus in a few hours. I’m just stressed out, you know? It’s just holiday bullshit. I swear.”
He breaks eye contact and looks down at his desk, like he’s disappointed. That makes two of us.
“Okay. Fine. Well, when you get back next week it’s time to turn over a new leaf. Understood?” He says.
I exhale, realizing that I’ve been subconsciously holding my breath. “Absolutely. Thomas, I’m sorry. I understand what you’re saying and it won’t happen again.”
This latest supplication seems to soften him.
“Well okay, why don’t you take off for your break then. The day is basically over anyway.”
“Really?” Suddenly I can feel the paycheck folded in my front pocket like it’s on fire. It’s as good as drugs.
“Yeah, Merry Christmas.” He says. I notice a look of distaste on his face that wasn’t there before. Like he’s being forced to eat something he dislikes.
In a flash of inspiration, I decide to apply a bit of misdirection, make him think I’m interested in him and his life. Maybe he won’t realize that by letting me leave early he’s unleashed my drug fever. I ask him, “What are you up to for the holiday?”
He purses his lips, as if considering whether or not to answer. “Nothing much. A quiet weekend, just me and Cheri – head out to Jersey Christmas day for a meal.”
“Cool. Well…” Fuck it. What was I thinking? Who gives a fuck what he’s doing. “Well, thanks again, for everything. Merry Christmas. I’ll see you next week.”
“See you.” He doesn’t look up as I spin around and open the door.
Drugs. Drugs. Drugs. Drugs.
The starting gun’s been fired. I am officially in a race against myself to go score and get high, a race against no one, a race I know I’ll most likely lose, despite being the only competitor.