Just Stop

Submitted into Contest #151 in response to: Write about somebody breaking a cycle.... view prompt

16 comments

Fiction

THEN

           When I knocked on the door of my manager’s office at 9:30 a.m. that morning, my throat felt dry and constricted. Despite the 22-degree-Celsius setting of the office air-conditioner, my shirt stuck to my sweaty back and my hands were clammy and shaky.

           “Come in please,” he said in his usual toneless voice.

           It was a regular office with staid furniture, an uninspiring colour on the walls and air that smelled of paper and ink. Today, like on several occasions when I had been present in my manager’s office, I could detect the aroma of sambhar — the lingering smell of lentils, vegetables and spices clinging to the fingertips of my manager, who often ate idlis with coconut chutney and sambhar for breakfast and neglected to wash his hands thoroughly afterwards.

           “How are you, Riya?” he said while typing on his laptop.

           “I’m good, Ajay. Hope you had a good weekend.”

He lowered his laptop screen and leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands over his pregnant-looking belly. “Well, yes, kind of. We had some guests over, so it was quite busy. I actually could not find time to read your self-appraisal. So, if you could take a few minutes to walk me through it, we’ll save some time.”

           Oh, great. I’d spent one full day writing my self-appraisal, detailing my accomplishments of the last fiscal year, hoping for a promotion and a raise in this cycle, and he had not even bothered to read it?

           “Well, of course, Ajay,” I said, referring to the highlights of my performance I’d scribbled on my notepad last evening, sub-consciously anticipating this exact situation.

           I began detailing the impact created by my work, the goals I accomplished for our team and our business unit, the glowing testimonials I received from some of the leaders and team members and the new skills I acquired through online and offline training programs in the last fiscal year. While I was talking, my manager neither interrupted nor — it seemed — paid any attention to what I was saying. He avoided eye contact as much as possible and kept fiddling with the stationery on his desk, his laptop charger or mouse. At one point, I nearly stopped mid-sentence just so that he would pay attention and ask me what was wrong, but experience told me that confronting him about his inattentiveness would backfire. By the time I finished talking, I found my energy flagging and my small reserve of optimism dwindling.

           “So what do you think, Ajay? I was really hoping you’d consider me for promotion and a raise this cycle.” I hated how my voice sounded deflated and hopeless as though I already knew what he was going to say.

           “Thank you, Riya,” he said, rubbing his hands. “Firstly, I want to thank you for your contribution to our team and business unit. You have performed satisfactorily in most areas. However, two instances come to my mind immediately — there may be more — when you failed to perform your responsibilities.”

           Satisfactorily? I had literally spent 80% of my evenings working until 7 or 8 o’clock, attending calls with colleagues located in the US and Europe and delivering output that surpassed expectations.

           “Ajay, I’m not sure what you’re talking about. When have I failed to perform my responsibilities?” Repeating the words stung as much as hearing them for the first time.

           My manager pounced on the question like a predator attacking its prey. Displaying zest I thought him incapable of, he dissected two insignificant errors I’d made in the past year, which I had corrected before the output was passed on to our business unit head. There had been no financial impact, no harm done except I had to re-do a part of my analysis.

           “Okay, so maybe I used the wrong word,” he concluded. “What I meant to say was that you were careless with the KPI reporting. Incorrect data would have led to wrong analysis and inaccurate targets for next year.”

           Fighting a strong urge to bite my nails, I kept my hands clasped under the desk. “I admit I made those two errors. But I explained to you that I received the wrong data from Finance...”

           “Then you should have validated the data before using it for your analysis.”

           At that moment, all I wanted to do was slam my fists on his desk, grab him by the lapels of his coat and yell into his face that I was not responsible for the accuracy of output produced by others.      

           “You’re not new to this company, Riya. You’ve been here for three years.”

           Exactly! Three years without so much as a pat on the back or a kind word. No promotion. Just one paltry raise two years ago. My job sucked. My manager sucked. My life sucked. 

           “We’ll look at promotion when your performance is up to the mark,” he said as though bestowing a great favour on me. “For now, I’ll nominate you for a raise, but I must warn you that not everyone in the team will get a raise. Budget constraints, I’m afraid,” he said, raising his shoulders and clapping his hands, a sort of conclusion to his rehearsed performance.

           I left his office feeling more depressed than I’d been all week. When I had joined this company three years ago as a fresh MBA from one of India’s top B-schools, I’d hoped that my job would add meaning and purpose to my life and I would excel at it just like I’d excelled at academics and sports all throughout my school and college years. But it turned out that the real world was different. It required more than just following the rules to succeed and thrive. 

           As I drove home that evening, my thoughts revolved around how I was failing in every area of my life. I was still dealing with the heartbreak of losing my boyfriend — while it had not been a very long relationship, I was deeply in love and when he said those words, it just broke my heart. Why people said such hurtful things to the ones closest to them, I’d always wondered. I was not faring much better in my professional life. Most of my MBA batch mates were already working at Manager or Senior Manager-level — some of them were building their own start-ups and a few were following their passions in music and acting — while I was still stuck in a mediocre company as a Senior Consultant. Maybe my manager was right about me being careless and incompetent. In my haste to get things done, I could be a tad sloppy sometimes. And I’ve never been the most hardworking person in the room. Maybe I didn’t deserve the promotion; there were many better performers than me in our team. As soon as I reached home, I kicked off my heels, grabbed the bottle of wine and the box of chocolates from the kitchen and turned on the television.

NOW

           I frowned as I re-read the message from him.

           I’m really sorry, honey. Something came up at work. I’ll explain. We’ll have to cancel our trip this weekend. I love you.

           This was the second time in three weeks that he had cancelled plans at the last minute. The fact that I’d really been looking forward to going away with him for the weekend was making it hard for me not to feel frustrated and angry. Maybe he was no longer interested in me. Maybe there was someone else...

           Just stop!

           I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and deliberately focused on my breath for a few minutes. Every few seconds, my attention started to wander, but I brought it back to my breath. Wandering and focusing, wandering and focusing several times until I achieved stillness of body and mind. As soon as I emptied my mind of thoughts, feelings arose to the top of my consciousness. Under those feelings of frustration and anger, I was feeling hurt and fearful that this relationship too would end and I would have to start all over again.

           I snapped my eyes open and started talking to myself, purposely and slowly.

           Was it possible that something did come up at work for him last minute? Given the nature of his job — he worked in defence services — and his commitment to his work, yes it was possible. Was he the kind of person who would blow off work for a personal commitment? No. Was he a trustworthy person and was our relationship good otherwise? I trusted him and yes, it was mostly a fulfilling relationship. Was I okay being with a partner who prioritized his work over his relationships? I didn’t know, but I would work it out. Did I need to have a talk with him about anything in particular? Well, it bothered me when we didn’t speak for days because of his busy work schedule. I’d have a word with him about it; let him know that for me to feel emotionally close to him, regular communication was important. After that, the ball would be in his court.

           As I drank my morning coffee at my desk, I closed my eyes and began visualizing my ideal life, holding images of my goals being accomplished — mental and physical health, fulfilling relationships with friends and family, a loving relationship with my partner, building a meaningful and successful career as an artist, giving back to the community — experiencing the joy and satisfaction I would feel when my goals were accomplished. For those twenty minutes each morning, my mind believed I was already there and for the rest of the day, I made a focused effort to achieve my goals.

           After forty-five minutes on the treadmill, I was ready to gulp down my protein shake and check my weight. A whole week of waiting had heightened my anticipation and I was curious to find out how much weight I had lost in seven days with regular exercise, a healthy diet and eight hours of sleep. As I climbed on the scale, the numbers climbed quickly and steadied at 56.8 kilograms. I had lost 400 grams of weight in a week. At this rate, I would reach my target weight in seven more weeks. The shot of dopamine boosted my confidence and I felt ready to try on my old pants that had been snug around the waist a week ago. To my dismay, the pants still did not fit. You’ll never lose the stubborn weight.

           Just stop!

           Nobody lost weight overnight. It required dedication, hard work and patience. Besides, I had lost weight. My strategy was working and I only had to give it more time. I closed my eyes and held onto an image of myself laughing, exercising, eating healthy food and looking and feeling great. I was getting there.

           While I drove to the office of my potential client for an interview regarding a project to design artwork at several locations on the office campus, I kept picturing myself meeting the interviewer confidently, showcasing my portfolio of work, discussing art ideas to meet their specific needs and feeling ecstatic when I was awarded the project. The magnitude of the project made me a tad nervous — it was bigger than anything I’d done in the past two years — but I kept telling myself I would get it. As I parked my car and began walking through the sprawling campus towards tower 11 with my portfolio case held under my arm, I rehearsed talking about some of my recent projects, the techniques I used and how I incorporated the client’s core values into the artwork.

           Parminder, or Pammy as she asked me to address her, was a Senior Marketing Director, heading branding for the company.

           “Have you seen photos of Google offices?” she asked, doodling with a pencil on her notepad. Her cabin was a personalized office space with photos of her family and framed certificates on the wall behind her desk.

           “Yes. Do you have something similar in mind?”

           “Kind of. On a smaller scale, of course. But before I go into the details, I would like to see some of your work.”

           As I began unzipping my portfolio case on her desk, a realization tore through me, leaving me paralyzed and suddenly without the ability to form words. I’d forgotten to bring the output of my latest project, the one I was most proud of and wanted to show her, the one I was sure would help me cinch this project. How could I have been so careless? I forgot the one thing I absolutely had to bring. I’d spent so much time in front of the mirror fussing about my appearance that I completely forgot to double-check I had everything I needed. I could be such an idiot.

           Just stop!

           It was a careless mistake, but it was okay. Just breathe. It was okay. There had to be a way I could still fix it.

           Excusing myself, I stepped out of Pammy’s cabin and dialled the number of my last client, hoping he wouldn’t be in a meeting right now.

           There was an answer on the third ring.

           “Hi, Riya! How are you?” he said in his usual friendly voice.

           “Hi Adi, I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”

           “I’m good too. I still have employees coming into my cabin and gushing about our new office. You did a great job.”

           His words lifted some of the weight on my chest and I could breathe easily. “Thank you, Adi. Actually, I want to request you for a favour.”

           He listened carefully as I explained that I would love it if he could speak to my prospective client and tell her about the work I did for his company. I also said that I was aware this was an unusual request and that I would understand if he declined.

           The thumping of my heart was loud in my ears as I waited for his answer. The silence that seemed to stretch on forever was killing me.

           “Adi, are you there?” I said.

           “Yes, I’m here. You know, Riya, your idea is good. But I have a better idea.”

           Over the next twenty minutes, Adi gave Pammy a virtual tour of their new office that I’d designed. Watching my work live over a video call and hearing face-to-face from my last client created an impression on Pammy that I could never have achieved by just showing her my portfolio. It also helped that during their call, Adi and Pammy discovered that they had both graduated from the same college two years apart. When the call ended, I was bursting with excitement at the prospect of having bagged a significant project. Although Pammy told me that the official decision would be communicated in a few days, she whispered congratulations to me on my way out.

           I reached home that evening pumped up about getting started on my new project. Even the one-hour drive through the crippling Bangalore traffic had done nothing to dampen my spirits. Every cell of my body was vibrating with the belief that great things were going to happen to me. The doorbell rang just as I was finishing the garnishing on my grilled fish with a side of sautéed vegetables.

           Who could be at the door at this time? I wasn’t expecting anyone.

           Holding a bunch of red roses in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other hand, it was my boyfriend, still in his uniform, with a goofy smile on his face. “Surprise!” he said.

           “Hi! I’m so glad you’re here,” I said, feeling like my chest would explode with joy.

           “I was really disappointed about our weekend plans getting cancelled, so I thought hey I’m free today. And I really wanted to see you, so I came here directly from work.”

           “It is the best thought you’ve had in a long time,” I said, leaning up to kiss him.

           “Hey, how did the interview go? It was today, right?”

           “You won’t believe what happened today,” I said, chuckling, as I let him into my house and closed the door. 





June 25, 2022 03:51

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16 comments

Seán Mc Nicholl
09:20 Jul 04, 2022

Lovely story Kanika! Beautiful character arc and you made the main character so real and relatable!

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Kanika G
06:11 Jul 06, 2022

Thank you so much, Sean. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. :)

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Sue Hunter
11:47 Jul 01, 2022

This story feels very real to me. As someone who struggles with negative thoughts on the daily, the protags 'relearning' how to think hit really close to home. This is such a good short story that accurately describes how we need to be kinder to ourselves and those around us.

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Kanika G
10:02 Jul 03, 2022

Thank you for your feedback, Sue. I'm glad you were able to connect with this story. The MC in this story is a lot like I used to be and from what I've read about this topic, a fair number of people are prone to negative thinking. Due to the way humans have evolved, our brains are wired to notice the negatives more than the positives - our survival depended on it. This is why when we receive one negative comment on our story along with ten positive ones, our mind tends to focus on that one negative comment. But this behaviour doesn't serv...

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Wendy M
18:15 Jun 29, 2022

Great story. I like your MC, she's very relatable. I wonder how she got from then to now. I can see she's learned some useful techniques, perhaps she could point me in the right direction!

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Kanika G
09:52 Jul 03, 2022

Hi Wendy! Thanks for your feedback. :) I've tried to make the MC relatable and realistic. She was prone to negative thinking, taking things personally and beating herself up over failures. But then she realized that these behaviours weren't helpful at all. So, she rewired her brain by infusing positive thinking (visualizations, affirmations) into her life and carefully guarding her thoughts against negativity. Instead of making assumptions about people and jumping to conclusions, she decided to ask questions. When she made mistakes - and sh...

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Laura Eliz
18:14 Jun 27, 2022

It was a regular office with staid furniture, an uninspiring colour on the walls and air that smelled of paper and ink. Today, like on several occasions when I had been present in my manager’s office, I could detect the aroma of sambhar — the lingering smell of lentils, vegetables and spices clinging to the fingertips of my manager, who often ate idlis with coconut chutney and sambhar for breakfast and neglected to wash his hands thoroughly afterwards. THIS IS SUCH A GREAT DESCRIPTION OF AN OFFICE. I love it. This was a really gre...

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Kanika G
13:50 Jun 28, 2022

Your comment made my day. Thank you so much for your wonderful comment. :)

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Betty Gilgoff
05:39 Jun 26, 2022

An enjoyable story to read. Riya’s character is very real with the self talk and lack of confidence yet you give her enough success over time to justify her growth, making it believable that she should be able to break the cycle. Nicely doné.

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Kanika G
13:50 Jun 28, 2022

Thank you so much, Betty. I wanted to show that while the character is breaking her cycle of negative self-talk, it still requires effort. Our brains are wired to focus more on the negatives than the positives and it requires deliberate effort to break that cycle. Thank you for your comment. :)

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Thomas Graham
23:25 Jun 25, 2022

Riya's see-sawing between confidence and a lack of confidence is very realistic and convincing! Nicely written - very good flow!

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Kanika G
13:41 Jun 28, 2022

Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. :) I meant to show the character breaking a cycle of negative self-talk. It's interesting that it can also be interpreted as the character see-sawing between confidence and lack of confidence. Thank you.

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Michael Regan
19:55 Jun 25, 2022

A nice story. There were two items that might be confusing to a North American audience. The use of 'cabin' instead of 'office'. In NA 'cabin' usually refers to a room on a boat. And, 'weighting scale' were we would just say 'scale'.

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Kanika G
12:25 Jun 28, 2022

Thank you for your helpful feedback.

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Michał Przywara
19:12 Jun 25, 2022

An enjoyable story! I like the contrast between her taking everything personally in the beginning, and then later being able to separate herself from the issue. Although, that boss in the beginning was infuriating :P I also like that each time she hit a wall in the Now section, it took her a while to recover. She had to iterate over a number of questions. Of course, that's how it goes with strong emotions. I did notice a typo in "vegetables and spics".

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Kanika G
13:47 Jun 28, 2022

Thank you for your feedback. :) Each comment on this story is making me realize different ways of interpreting it. While I meant to show the character breaking a cycle of negative self-talk, your interpretation (taking everything personally versus being able to separate herself from the issue) applies as well. Thanks for catching the typo. The boss in the story is inspired by a real-life character and he was infuriating. :)

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