Seventeen blocks of pixels stared back at her. She lifted her mug with her company logo on it to her mouth, letting the steam from her coffee warm up her lips to calm her down, while her eyes darted from square to square on her screen. She replaced the mug so it formed a venn diagram with the coffee stain ring on her new desk. She straightened her back and lifted her chin out of her neck. A free ergonomic assessment had told her that her back and neck pain wouldn’t go away anytime soon if she didn’t work on her posture.

“Team, I am so pumped to be kicking off the year bringing this global team together. I really have no doubt we will exceed our goals for the year and have fun doing it,” her new manager gushed. His enthusiasm was so overstated it had to be an alibi. Or perhaps he actually enjoyed these meetings this much because it broke up an otherwise mundane day. She couldn't decide which was better.

His bobblehead was carrying on, “My management style is all about making you shine and empowering you to do your best work. I will treat you like adults.” He said the last sentence with such pronounced condescension that as if on cue, the other seventeen faces on the call broke eye contact and seemed to find something very fascinating on their keyboards. Nothing like the bosses’ first jerk move to bond a team together.

There was something profane to her about people who felt the need to explain who they were as leaders. In her experience, when someone felt the need to say they were hands-off, they were the opposite. They just wanted to state it as they hoped the words would show on their manager evaluations, so they could get their bonus.

He was passing on the talking stick, “...would love for you all to introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about you. I am a strong believer that we have to bring our whole selves to work and so I am really excited to get to know all of you and what makes you tick.”

Soon it would be her turn. The idea sent her breakfast up in exchange for air that seemed to be caught between her food and her intestines. She hated talking about herself. Not because she was shy or hated public speaking. It was the idea of summing up the way she wanted these strangers to perceive that threw her into a tailspin. A pithy summary somewhere between a disingenuous demographic description and a rash recounting of reality. It had to be just authentic enough without giving too much away. Fortunately, she had a practiced introduction for these awkward occasions.

“Hiya, team. Pleasure to meet you all! I am Evan from Sydney,” he said Sydney like Seed-ney as if to prove that was his origin story. “I used to work at a private investment firm before this but felt the soul being sucked out of me. Really love what this company stands for and can’t wait to do work that actually matters and makes a difference in this world.”

She felt her eyes rolling so viscerally that for a minute she was afraid she had actually done it. Why was it that people continued to look for meaning in a world which made no bones about shareholder profit as the only thing that mattered? Why did people want there to be a profound reason for why they spent eight hours a day doing what they were doing, hiding behind the very obvious, “Everyone else is doing it” and “I need a paycheck”.

“I love surfing and snowboarding,” Evan was finishing up. “I live thirty mins from the beach and two hours from the mountains so I am kind of living my dream, mate!”

She imagined Evan was single. No one who was living their dream had room in their lives for anybody else's. If somehow two people’s dreams aligned so perfectly that they could build it together, sooner rather than later one of them would realize living a dream was incorrigibly dissatisfying and opt out.

Brian’s silhouette was moving vigorously now. Even though she could only see his face, it told her enough. Body language was overrated in her estimation. Faces, even the ones that were good at poker, gave her enough information to steer the first few interactions.  Brian likely used to be an athlete but had faded. His double chin (and likely matching beer belly) seemed tacked onto his face as if for a trial run. His eyes were sunken into his cheeks which looked like a translucent wrapper over raw meat. Maybe a new father? And secretly wishing he still had time for drinking with his buddies than alone on his couch in between power naps.

Brian was finishing up, “...My newborn, Aidan, is keeping us on our toes. He’s definitely quite a character and doesn’t seem to like to sleep very much, but we are enjoying the ride!”

There were three women on the call including her. Three out of eighteen; typical really. There had been many times she had been the only woman on the team. She missed those days. She had been different from others on the team in such an obvious way that no one bothered going beneath the surface, which was oddly comforting.

One of those women spoke now. “Hello everyone, Maria here. Great to meet the team today. I live in Houston but am originally from Mexico. I have been at the company for eight years and worked on many teams. For those who are new, if you need any help let me know. I love baking when I am not working and watching the Great British Baking show. Like everyone else, I have been baking lots of bread while working from home.”

Maria’s dark eyes and enunciated way of speaking which revealed her heritage was reassuring. Hers was a nonchalant confidence that probably came from tenure and a “been there, done that, still here” air. She could relate to Maria’s ethos except that rather than giving her a self-possessed air, she suspected it gave her a resigned one. If her energy could speak, it’d say, “I’ve tried and learned the hard way that it doesn't get any better”.

Then it was Jennifer’s turn. “Hi team, Jen here. I’ve been here for two years and it’s been such a fun ride! I am a mother of two lovely boys and when I am not working I am chasing them around and homeschooling them."

She couldn’t stand it when people defined themselves in relation to someone else. Parents always liked to remind others of it, as if that fact should excuse everything else in their lives, and everything else about them. Surely becoming a parent doesn’t fundamentally change who you are, ascertained by the number of people in therapy to get over the ways their parents had messed them up.

Suddenly the call seemed to go completely quiet. Shit, what had she missed?

It was her turn. She blinked and in an instant she felt her team could see right into her; her loneliness, exasperation, hopelessness, despair was all there on her face for everyone to see. The words from her practiced script seemed to be stuck in her throat, the weight of their futility descending into her lungs. She knew in that instant she had to throw out the script for her own sanity. She had to get real.

“Hi everyone, I am Clara…” Her laptop went blank.

January 16, 2021 01:48

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