A foreign phone number appears on his device as he sits at his desk, but he doesn’t care to discover who the text is from based on the misspelling. It’s an understated insult in the form of a typo, which annoys him worse than the nagging pain irritating his traps already, a deep ache that’s frequently elicited by poor posture, sitting all day, hunching over a keyboard and phone.
He gets a new notification on his Teams app at work that he can now choose his preferred pronouns to appear in his name for messenger, so he thinks he’ll either choose “it,” since he’s pretty sure he doesn’t have a soul anymore, or he’ll go with “us,” since he’s almost positive he’s hearing voices in his head that aren’t just his. He tries to pick his options, but he’s limited in his selection, which feels like pronoun discrimination; he’s not sure if that’s a thing. He’d probably bring it up with HR, but he doesn’t want to come across as ungrateful, since the company decorated his cubicle and left a vanilla cupcake on his desk with rainbow sprinkles and a little birthday card. It’s a thick stock of paperboard with golden embellishments too, featuring the facsimile signature of the CEO and a $25 gift card to Chili’s that will cover at least an appetizer. Yeah, he feels pretty special with the glitter banner that’s wrapped around his square box, an ornamented fishbowl; there’s confetti on his desk too, along with a few “Happy Birthday” balloons, tangible emojis.
Oscillating between Microsoft Excel and a calculator, Christian spends his day typing numbers, streamlining arithmetic, entering formulas into columns, and checking the accuracy of company finances. He’s inundated with blue light, glancing at his phone in between tasks while listening to Pandora, tolerating 30 second commercials since he refuses to pay for Premium. The minutes add up as he adds up the client acquisition costs, ensuring the spending is within budget; and it’s during this tasking, the tapping of keystrokes, adding and subtracting integers, and discerning business liabilities and equity that Christian experiences an equanimity. It gets him out of his head for once, an ephemeral moment of peace where he’s engaged in what he does best, a monotonous function he’s repeated countless times, a role that makes him feel purposeful, a modern Sisyphus. It’s the nucleus of his identity, accountant, the only way he knows how to define himself, an occupation that pays him $87,800 a year to live within his means. And he was destined to do something with math since he was a kid, learning his times tables before any of his peers and excelling in all advanced arithmetic classes; he always thought one day he’d might become an acclaimed mathematician, solving impossible equations for some noble, righteous cause, maybe something that would help change the world. But altruism isn’t as lucrative, he found out, and having dreams is naive and not conducive to becoming successful.
He’s checked his phone 101 times by the time it’s time to leave work, sustaining the optimal level of dopamine to get through the day. He’s up to 60 birthday posts on his Facebook with an array of messages from old teammates and girlfriends, which is nice, but he’d really prefer a message from his late Aunt Gale that used to take him to haunted houses when he was a child every Halloween; he regrets not paying more attention to her anecdotes when he was younger. But he really could go for a phone call from Max, his childhood friend who accidentally overdosed on painkillers for a torn ACL, the only friend he ever used to confide in; he wishes he could tell him how guilty he feels for not noticing his addiction, being too wrapped up in his own schedule to bother. And he’s rehearsed a different interaction than the last one they had; yeah, it’s one where he’s not distracted by his company’s stock dipping for the day and tells him how much their friendship means and actually listens to what Max is saying, instead of just waiting to talk.
The phone clatters on his desktop, grabbing his attention, sucking Christian into the vortex; it’s an unfamiliar phone number calling with a familiar area code; maybe it’s something important, he thinks, snatching the device. Holding the phone with both hands, Christian stares at the enlarged numbers appearing on the screen, illuminated on the black background; he fixates on the recognizable first three digits, like it’s a picture of his past. It continues to ring, a tacit sign it’s not a mistake, but Christian waits, letting it vibrate against his fingertips. It could be someone he might know, perhaps someone he’s just been dying to talk to, he debates; what if it’s someone he lost contact with, and it’ll be great to reconnect. Maybe they come bearing great news, and he’s a click away from a life-changing conversation. The ringing phone icons motion on his screen, prompting him to choose between green or red, two call-to-action buttons. But he’s not in the mood to talk, even if it’s his birthday; it’ll probably be some fucking telemarketer asking if he wants to extend his car’s warranty, anyway, he assumes; it’s most likely a coincidence that the caller has the same area code of his family’s phone number, completely arbitrary, just how life seems to progress. Besides, the caller can always leave a message if it’s urgent, if someone really wants to talk to him, he concludes.
Christian still hasn’t figured out what he’s supposed to do now or what the meaning of life is as he enters his early forties, even though he’s checked off all the societal achievement boxes. He’s thinking the answers might just come to him after he gets a semicolon tattoo on his wrist like he’s seen influencers do or maybe after he makes a bucket list like popular positivity blogs suggest, but he can’t think of a single thing he’d like to do before he dies besides see a Platypus. Maybe he should travel, become a wanderlust, like inspirational articles highly propose, but he knows he can’t get away from himself, no matter how far he ventures. Maybe he just needs some more vitamin D, like wellness reads recommend, more sunlight is probably just what he’s missing, a little boost for his circadian rhythm for it to all make sense, but he burns easily when he’s exposed, and he can’t seem to escape the clouds. Maybe he needs to turn to religion, start a conversation with God, but he hasn’t talked to imaginary characters since he was a child.
He’s saved a motivational quote from David Goggins in his archive that he thinks is pretty insightful: “Suffering is the true test of self.” He even took a screenshot of the graphic so he’d never forget it, big white letters against a silhouette to really emphasize the depth of the sentiment. He’s also got one from Gary Vaynerchuk too, “You didn’t grow up driving, you figured it out,” and he likes that one because it’s inspiring, like maybe everything will just click and he’ll figure it all out one day, like how to let go of the past. The Hemmingway one he screenshotted is his all-time favorite though, it’s the background of his phone: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know,” and he loves this one because it means he’s probably just too smart for his own good; he’s really just a genius.
Christian sends a group email to thank his team for the decorations and cupcake, including a Seinfeld GIF for a jocular touch, the one where George, Jerry, and Elaine embrace one another with a happy dance, something wholesome everyone can identify with before he leaves, appreciative for the lack of face-to-face interaction. He accesses his desktop organizer, opening the bottom drawer to dispose of his annual birthday card, the same place he’s kept the other 10; a pill bottle slides out with the old stack of birthday cards along with the drawer, rolling out like a soda can from a vending machine. It’s his Prozac, and he hasn’t taken it in a long time, giving it up on his last birthday, convinced he could find happiness without a prescription or guidance from a charlatan shrink that costs $180 an hour; he shoved the anti-depressants into the bottom drawer after he ate his birthday cupcake last year. But he’s thinking maybe it’s okay to need a little help, even if that makes him a coward, since he can’t seem to get his mind in order without a steady serotonin intake, requiring mental training wheels to navigate life; it’s really his only chance, since the pessimism is becoming too much, deafening and disgusting, tainting even the most optimistic of his thoughts like a terrible aftertaste. He’s afraid if he waits any longer, it’ll be too late, becoming permanently hardwired, impeding neurons with irrevocable despondency. Popping a handful into his mouth, he washes it down with the remnants of his cold afternoon coffee, a bitter relapse for the better, he concedes; the hefty serving, an abundance of mood enhancing neurotransmitters, is just what he needs to stop the nihilism from further infiltration, the pervading negativity, even if it comes with possible adverse side effects.
An English literature graduate of James Madison University, Chris Cooper's 2020 short story "Finn Almost Buys a Goldfish" won the 'Emerging Writer’s Award' at Spank the Carp Magazine, and his short story “The Swim” was recognized as the Best in Fiction for 2019 at Across the Margin. Chris' work has also been featured in Hash Journal Mag, Expat Press, Bookends Review, and elsewhere. Chris recommends the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.