“Come back, Will; we really need you!”
I hesitated. My ear was pressed against the cool glass of the phone, now almost dripping with condensation. Why do my ears always do that? They get so hot and turn so red; you could practically see the steam hissing out of them.
“You know I can’t.”
“You can. It’s time to let it go! It’s not as bad as you think!”
I heard Linda heave the heaviest sigh, laden with desperation and disappointment. Then the call ended without a goodbye.
I don’t blame her because I would’ve done the same. Here was my business partner, begging me to go to the company we built together. The company everyone bet on failing but thrived instead. The company I breathed in and out and dreamed of all day, every day and every night for six years.
But I couldn’t go back. I’d already lost my dignity and self-respect. How could I ever face them again? Yes, they needed me and were facing the prospect of losing their livelihoods, but that didn’t, and wouldn’t, stop them from mocking me, both behind my disgraced back and before my lost face.
I got up and went to the kitchen. Well, at least my house was always clean now. In the past year at home, I discovered that I loved cleaning. Or maybe it was because of all the time I suddenly had on my hands. Perhaps just an attempt to control whatever aspects of life I could still control: cling to a crumb of cleanliness. I’d stopped asking Mrs D to come and clean my home. I wondered if she still cleaned at the company. Did she still put little sweeties on people’s desks? Did she continue to leave a single flower in the little vase on my desk even after I stopped showing up? Or did she see it too and deem me unworthy of her little niceties? Sometimes I wondered who eventually ended up taking my office, the desk my father spent a year making for it. Not that it mattered.
As my sleek coffee machine spat its shot of espresso, I glanced at the thousands of unopened emails on my phone.
When I decided to stay home, it was supposed to be for a few days until the story “died down”. But after that, every morning I woke up and put on my suit, I looked in the mirror and was reminded of that night. I would get closer to the mirror and stare into my own eyes. All I wanted to do was spit on my mere reflection. What I saw was not the clean-shaven, slick-haired, strong-jawed man that was desperately looking back at me, begging to be freed, but the drunk, disgraced, disgusting dirtbag of a man who made a fool of himself in public.
“Wallowing Will”, everyone now called me.
I took my little cup and went to sit on my sofa. That was where I spent most of my days now. A few weeks in, when it became clear that this was now my life, I changed the couch’s position from facing the TV to facing the big window. This gave me plenty of time to think about what happened and provided the only form of entertainment I could tolerate: watching life go by outside my house. Because I stopped going out. I got my groceries delivered, cut my own hair, turned the guestroom into a gym, and my dad was the only person I allowed in. After my mum’s passing, he needed my company, and it seemed that he truly wasn’t aware of what the internet said about me.
Looking outside the window, I saw an old man in a battered leather jacket leaning on his cane waiting for the bus. I wondered if he was married. What was in that opaque plastic bag? Were they groceries his wife asked for so she could make his favourite meal? Or was he alone like me without an aim in life, waiting for old age to reap his soul?
Was this really my life now? A bum on a sofa watching passersby go about their lives because his own was ruined after one bad picture?
I felt my fist tighten around my miniature cup. I still don’t know who took that picture. Well of course, I was wasted. Wasted Will. But they must know who took it. And why would whoever took it share it with the world? Why did I deserve this? I really thought I was a good boss. A really good boss in fact. The lavish parties I organised, the yearly bonuses I made sure they got, the countless hours I spent to ensure their slip-ups were covered, and the coaching I offered when Linda thought they should be fired.
Linda always disapproved of my “enabling leadership style”, but I always waved her off. Those people were our real capital and only asset.
Last year, six days before Christmas, I was late for the company Christmas party. My phone kept lighting up with missed calls and text messages asking where I was. But I was in the office finishing up some reports and having last-minute phone calls with our clients in China.
When I finally arrived at the venue, everyone cheered. Was it genuine? I couldn’t stop wondering now.
Someone handed me a cocktail. And that was the irony.
The irony was that I never drank alcohol. I only allowed myself to go wild at the Christmas party. I felt they couldn’t relax and let their hair down if both Linda and I watched them, sober. So, I drank and drank and then drank some more.
On Monday, I went to work and slowly realised people were “smiling” at me. Not the usual “good morning” or casual “hi” smile, but the kind of smile that hid an open secret behind it. The kind of smirk that people can’t suppress when they’re in on something. I just nodded, smiled confusedly, and went into my office to catch up on work I’d meant to do over the weekend.
Around lunchtime, Linda stormed in with a huff and slammed the door behind her.
“Oh, dear!” I looked up at her narrowed eyes and flared nostrils, which usually meant she was mad. “What happened?”
“How many times did I warn you not to treat your employees like your drinking buddies?”
I got up and went around the desk to her. Any chance to get near Linda was a chance I never missed. Every fibre in my body ached, longing for her, but she never knew.
“What did I do?” I held my hand from touching her arm. I was a master at it.
“Will,” her voice quavered, “there’s a photo of you… no one would tell me who took it. Must’ve been way after I left!”
“Yeees?” I said slowly, urging her to spill it out.
“Well, you’re on the floor looking like you were about to cry or something! They added a caption to it that says…”
I was starting to get flashes of Friday night. “Says what?”
“Wallowing Will,” she whispered.
“Let me see it!” I said.
“Absolutely not! You don’t need to see that. The idiots have been sending it around on their phones since Saturday morning. Now they’re sending it using work emails!” She hissed through gritted teeth.
She was mad at them, I could tell. Linda didn’t love me the way I worshipped her, but she cared deeply about me, like a big sister who had to protect her adorable younger brother from his own naivety.
I stared at the bus stop with the gigantic ad with a smiling lady talking on the phone. I sat there, thinking. I wanted to help Linda, I really did, but how could I show my face to them after what they’d done? Now that I know how they see me?
Linda had advised me to take a few days off until they stopped sending the picture around. I didn’t think it was necessary, but she had that determined look she wore when she was not going to back down.
Two days before Christmas, I decided I was done with hiding from a silly picture. I got up, shaved, had my espresso and was tying my shoelaces when my phone buzzed. I looked at the message in the preview:
Are you OK, Will?
It was from a business partner turned close friend. I wondered what he meant, so I looked at the accompanying picture. It took a few seconds to load, but the knot had already formed in my stomach.
It was a screenshot of a subreddit with the title WALLOWING WILL.
When I clicked on it, I was hit with a picture of myself in my suit, on a dirty floor littered with confetti and food rests, half lying and half sitting. I had two shots in my hands and an ugly grimace on my face, complete with the classic red eyes. But the worst part was that my fly was clearly down and my chin was covered in some brownish mess. There were hands trying to pull me up.
Frantically, I Googled the subreddit and there it was, two thousand subscribers. The description read: THIS IS A PLACE FOR YOU TO SHARE YOUR LOWEST MOMENTS (OR THOSE OF YOUR BOSSES)
The blood in my veins froze and I felt my eyes bulge and harden. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried. I didn’t remember what tears tasted like, but here they were, down my face and in my mouth. Was this how I was now perceived? Had I always been perceived like that?
There I had been, walking around like I mattered, like I was somebody, until I was reduced to the most humiliating meme. The people I considered my team, my tribe, my true family were the people who decided to immortalise this one image of me for the whole wide world to see, mock and share when words failed to portray the word “pathetic”.
That morning, I went back to my bed, still in my suit and shoes and pulled the cover over my head, wishing for a pitch-dark pit to form under my bed and swallow me whole.
Linda came to talk about it that night, but I didn’t let her in.
I’d dreamed a million times about the day Linda would leave her boyfriend and come knocking on my door. I imagined the little high-five in the mirror before I rushed to open the door, scoop her up in my arms, and kiss her delicious smile.
But I never expected her to come to visit me to hold my hand through my moment of global fame in shame.
She rang the doorbell, pounded on the door with her fists, sent me a string of messages begging me to open the door, but I just covered my ears and looked at the black, starless, moonless sky.
I Googled the meme and monitored its trending trajectory every single day. It was everywhere. I was nowhere. I was no longer the successful entrepreneur, the festival lover, or the travel addict, but rather the Wallowing Will. I became him and he became me. And I hated us both.
Every now and then, a new pathetic name would pop up in my head.
Will the Worm
But sitting on my sofa now, it suddenly hit me: I couldn’t continue like this. If the company went down, many innocent people would lose their jobs, I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage or afford this life in hiding anymore. And Linda, the woman who put all of her faith and inheritance in my hands, Worthless Will’s hands. She didn’t deserve this. I remembered the desperateness in her sweet voice and put my espresso down.
Even Will the Worm could burrow through the dirt and poke his head out when he had to.
Let them point and snigger. I guess sinking any lower was not a possibility, so I might as well save my company as I wallowed.
I shaved and put on my special suit, my silk socks and snakeskin shoes. I looked in the mirror and, as usual, fought the urge to spit on my reflection. This time, however, I high-fived myself– slowly, half-heartedly but intentionally.
The old Will looked me in the eye and whispered, “Perhaps it was never about you. Maybe it was just one of those pictures the internet leeches off of.”
Quite possible. Perhaps I was able to forgive myself, forgive the person who took the picture, forgive the age of ruthless availability and unnecessary interconnectedness we live in and move on.
That was a good day. The company would slowly get back on its feet, and Willing Will with it.
Nowadays, to address the elephant in the meeting room, I put all cards on the table and introduce myself to people, including business partners, as “Will…Wallowing Will, if that’s your thing!”
Six times out of ten, I get a puzzled look of no recognition. The other four just laugh and move on.