A short story about looking up and escaping the rat-race
The sky turns orange as I stare out from the jaded rooftop. The air is cold, but the fire lamps around keep us warm. The purple streaks of light cut through the dark gray clouds, creating a render so divine it made me question everything I had ever known. For a few moments that instant, time stood still. The people all around me seemed unaware of the beauty that surrounded them. All they had to do was look up. But they were mesmerized by the event instead. A work conference with loud music and fancy cocktails. The boss and his crew had flown us all to New York City for the week. Somehow they never had the funds to give us a decent raise, but there was always a budget to fly us around the country and get wasted. Supposedly this stuff boosts morale. Yeah, right. They even hired a motivational speaker to pump us up. I really couldn't care less.
Hi, my name is Max. I'm turning 25 next week. This was supposed to be my dream job. I started straight out of college as a UX designer, but I'm really an artist. A real artist. The kind who paints with their hands, not on some mickey-mouse digital tablet. I only do that at work. Yes, it's true, I don't really have the time or energy to paint when I get home anymore, so I suppose I'm more of the latter kind. But isn't everyone here the same? I look around. Everyone else seems rather content and happy to be there. Perhaps it's just me. Why can't I just get myself to sit still and not always question things?
I sip my drink as I hear some footsteps approaching. It was Mike, the new intern.
"Hey, Max! Woh, this place is rad, am I right? Did you hear that guy on stage? I'm so pumped!" he shouted excitedly. He had only been here three days and clearly still had his gusto.
You see, it wasn't always like this. The first 3-6 months were great for me as well. I was learning, growing, making friends. Everything was a challenge. Then it started getting repetitive. It was all just about the deadlines, and daily check-ins, and the micro-managed meetings. Oh, god, the meetings. I wasn't even doing work that mattered anymore. My colleagues all left, and I just stayed on the path of least resistance. The day was draining all my energy, and the weekend was spent recovering. I wasn't learning or growing anymore. At that point, everything else just falls apart.
"Yeah, wild. Did you see the sunset over there?" I try to stay calm and not bum out the intern with my frosty attitude. "Oh yeah, no, I didn't see it. That's cool. Hey, you wanna go inside? They are about to start the bingo tournament. Jack told me to go grab you," he replied, eager to get back in.
I feel my eyes twitch. Jack was my boss, and I couldn't believe he had sent an intern to go get me. For BINGO! What a jerk. I scream inside. What am I doing here!? I stare out at the moon. It's here every night. No complaints. Just shows up, standing tall. It's been here longer than I have, or even my parents. Older than any human being that ever lived. Maybe I could learn something from the moon.
"Uhh, you coming?" I hear in a somewhat annoyed tone.
The moon wouldn't let some intern boss it around.
"Yeah, sure Mike. Let's go play some bingo!"
I look back at the universal canvas. The camera on my state-of-the-art phone wouldn't be able to capture this moment. I close my eyes and take a mental snapshot as I head inside to go play some bingo. It's not like I ever had a choice.
I wake up the next morning and immediately start looking for a new job. I found a UX role right here in New York. It would be a big change from the California sun, but it was at none other than BubbleSoft! Supposedly one of the best places in the world to work. I applied instantly. I contacted the company and let them know I'm in town for a few days to try and speed up the process. I had nothing to lose. To my surprise, they got back and arranged a phone screen for the day. I passed. They invite me for a day of intense interviews two days later. I did well, too well. So well that they offered me a role as a project manager. I couldn't believe it. It all happened so fast. All because I dared to ask. I wasn't quite sure what a project manager even did, but I was excited to be one. I would be learning things again and be able to grow, I thought. At least for the first 3-6 months, I negotiated. I might not have time for my art, but the salary they offered me was double my previous one. That would surely make up for it, right? I try and reassure myself nervously as I catch my flight home.
I break the news to Jack-off. Oh, sorry, I mean Jack. He didn't seem to be too interested or needed much notice. Said I could leave on Friday. That made me feel special.
I decided to take the next month off and enjoy my life. It was a struggle to even make that happen. My new employer wanted me to start right away. I didn't even work there yet, and they were trying to control my time. I stood my ground, just like the moon would. I was starting to pick things up, it seems.
I managed to get a month off in between. This was unheard of in the "real world."
The first day off was a total shock. Woh. It's Monday, and I don't have to go to work? This is wild. I spent the whole day at a nearby beach. At first, I even felt guilty being there. Should I be here? Everyone else is at work. That thought didn't last a chance as I looked up. A gigantic wave the size of a small mountain was headed my way in what felt like slow motion. I was in awe. The foam sparkled like diamonds in the bright blue sky as the misty droplets splashed on my face. I couldn't hold myself back. The surf was up, and you know damn well I caught the waves! I hadn't felt this alive in years.
Since graduation, it had felt like blink, and my whole life just passed by in a flash.
The ocean had its own serenity. I came back the next day for another round. The golden sands felt as crisp as the warm sun on my skin. Just the right amount of warmth. What a beautiful day. I brought my canvas with me today. Would I really get down to paint once more? Too slow. I was already on my second piece. The sea was deep blue, and the sky turned a pinkish hue. I had captured the light in its element. Every detail, seized by subsequent brush strokes, rang melodic to my ears.
I was able to listen to music just for the sake of it. I picked up new skills, learned how to paint with oils, and even managed to design my own surfboard. My growth was compounding at the speed of light. It was wild how much you could achieve if you just had the time and energy to think clearly. It didn't even feel like work. I thought it would be pretty cool to see my surfboards in the real world someday. Someday, perhaps, but today, I wouldn't know where to begin.
The days get more and more calming. I have no schedule and wake up with the sun, naturally. I hit the waves and then focus on what truly matters. I am free to live exactly as I want.
I was starting to get my drive back and thought about all the things I could do with my life. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, I'm hit with an enormous wave of anxiety. I have a week left before I head to New York. The dread kicks in. No more ocean, waves, sunshine, art, learning. I've been in the Golden State for the past 5 years. Why did I never come here before? The irony of the situation hit me in the face. The pursuit of money had led me to miss out on what I wanted to do most. I had the money now but no time to spend it. Perhaps that's why my apartment is filled with junk I don't need. It'll all be heading to storage soon, where I'll be paying rent for the next, I don't even know how many years. What a bummer. It's too late to back out now. I've already signed the contract.
I head into the sunset to go pack my stuff. I look up to the moon, disheartened. What are you trying to teach me?
I try and console myself. Usually, the first few months at a new job are always fun, and I would be learning things. Why didn't it feel this way, though? I realized I was already learning things now, but the stuff I wanted to learn. I should have taken three months off instead. Nope, can't afford it. I shake my head.
All I could think about now was work and what’s next. My mind is cluttered, and I lose sight of the moment in front of me. I stop heading to the beach once more and get wrapped up in sorting things out.
The rest of the week disappears into thin air. It never stood a chance.
I arrive in New York on Sunday night with a grim look on my face. I have to start work the next day. I wake up late. It's been weeks since I last used an alarm. I forgot how obnoxious they are. I also forgot about the time difference, and the jet lag is hitting me hard now. I rush to get in to work on time.
I managed to make it, just a few minutes late. There was some kind of welcome committee at the entrance. It seemed like they hired a cheer squad from a '90s toy store. They were over the top excited, "Welcome to BubbleSoft, Bubblers! Today is going to be the best day of your life! Woooohoooo!"
Bubblers!? What is this, a kindergarten cult? What have I gotten myself into? I shake my head in frustration. I miss the calm waves of the ocean, splashing in my face just long enough to drown my thoughts, leaving only the fantastic blue planet in front of me.
"Ok, Bubblers! Time for the office tour! LEEEETS GOOO!!!"
There seemed to be some kind of queue forming. I soon realized there were at least a hundred more people starting today, and I was just one of them. Not sure why I thought it would be just me. I join in like a fish caught in the currents.
The office is grand. I've never seen a building so large. They even have a snow room. I have no idea why. Once you look past the amenities, though, it was just an endless sea of desks. They don't even have walls here. At least my previous job had some privacy.
I meet my new team. Apparently, there's a meeting going on. I was introduced to my boss Steve. He was not one for formalities. A quick hi, and then it was straight to work. I heard him speak to one of our colleagues. "Our esteemed client wants this done by tomorrow. Please reply within the hour, address her as Madam, and be very polite." he asserted sharply. What a jerk, I thought. Who talks like that anymore? Is this what I'm going to have to do as well? I even catch myself starting to miss Jack for a second. Woh, did I just say that?
I couldn't get myself to stay awake. Perhaps it was the jet lag.
I sit around aimlessly for a bit until a quirky girl walks in. She was about my age and wore giant round glasses and a beanie hat. "Hey, I'm Mia. Nice to meet you!" Her curly brown hair flowed through to waist height. She was about 5ft 5in tall, and I might just have stopped in my tracks.
After the meeting, we spoke briefly, and I found out she grew up in the same town as me. "Wow, what are the odds of that!?" I gasp. "I know, wild, right!" she laughed excitedly. It turns out she was also an artist and worked on the other side of the floor. I immediately regretted taking the project manager role. Should I switch back to being an artist? Could I even do that? This is a job, I remind myself. I can't just do whatever I want. Plus, the salary for this role was much higher, and I had already signed the lease on an expensive apartment. I wouldn't be able to afford that on an artist's salary. "See you later!" she smiled. Later indeed.
I go to the break room to grab a coffee. Perhaps that'll wake me up.
This is unreal. I can't believe it's day one, and I'm already sick of this place. I wait in line for coffee. There's a young man with headphones on, bobbing his head to techno music. Everyone else seems so happy to be here. What is with me?
He turns back as I almost crash into him, still not fully awake. He pauses for a few seconds, then smiles after staring at me suspiciously, "Hey, you doing alright? You look disgruntled!".
I'm caught off guard. It seems my cover is blown.
"Oh, no, it's just my first day."
"Haha, Wow! well, sounds like you've made a huge mistake then," he quipped jokingly, though we both knew he meant it.
"Ah, sorry, it's just the jet lag," I awkwardly lie as I shake my head in embarrassment.
"Alright, well, let me know if I can help you with anything," he smiled. "Welcome to BubbleSoft! I'm Sebastion, but everyone calls me Seb."
"You got it! Thanks, I'm Max," I respond with a sigh of relief. He was a bit too enthusiastic for my taste.
Mia walks in.
"Who was that?" I ask, still shaken from the encounter.
"Oh, that's Seb. He's our top gun data analyst. BubbleSoft wouldn't be in business without him."
Wow, I thought. He must really love his job.
I decide it's best to just accept my situation. I blend in and try to make the most of it.
The next few days are quite boring. Until one day, I hear some ruckus in the break room.
I rush in to find out what's happening.
"Did you hear Seb quit!?" I overheard Mia. "What!? I thought he was our top gun? I thought he loved it here. What happened!?" I ask in a rapid-fire succession of excitement. I wasn't quite sure why I was so shocked. Why do I even care about this? God, I hate having a job. It just messes with my head and priorities.
"I'm not sure," responded Mia. "It was something weird about it being the Year of the Tiger," she shrugged as she headed back to her desk, far away on the other side of the floor. Same floor, yet light years away.
With Seb leaving, I was questioning whether I was the only one who, indeed, didn't feel like they belonged there. But there wasn't any time to question things now. Steve had an urgent task for me.
A few weeks later, BubbleSoft was still standing. Guess he wasn't as big of a deal as everyone thought. "Everyone is replaceable ..." I mumble under my breath.
I put my head down, forget about my dreams and blend into my new life.
A few years passed by ...
I'm turning 28 soon, out of shape, and starting to lose some of my hair. I stayed in the same job, and life just passed by once more. The expensive lease kept me locked into the paycheck. The rest of it went to upgrading my lifestyle to match the fancy apartment. I stopped learning after the first month and didn't have time for my art. The hours were long, and the job was sucking the life out of me as usual.
Mia left a few weeks ago. I didn't see much of her anyway. Work was taking too much of my time, and we rarely crossed paths. It's surprising how much distance there can be between two ends of the same room when you are glued to a screen all day.
Steve was still a jerk. The job involved a lot more meetings than I was used to, and everything I needed to pick up was about the project, nothing I could use outside of work or that was interesting to me. The rest of my time just went into babysitting external clients. What a drag.
Later that week, in a weird twist of fate, I'm back at a conference on the same rooftop from three years ago.
Nothing has changed.
I have a sudden sense of Deja-vu.
I look up at the glass skyscrapers full of people. The light reflects the sunset once more as I sip my drink. I can see it in their shadows. Everyone seems happy. But what does that really have to do with me?
I look up to the moon. It's still here. I'm stopped in my tracks and begin to ponder. I zoom out like a telescopic lens and put myself in its shoes. It's seen it all. Millions of years of evolution. Countless civilizations. The earth must look so small from up there, softly spinning in slow motion. You can't even see the people, or me, or my problems. Everything is just a blip in existence. Yet, from down here, it was the whole world. All we get is a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things. If other people enjoy selling their time, that's fine. Not me! Why waste it doing something I AM not passionate about? I'm finally starting to see what the moon was trying to tell me this whole time ...
My insight is suddenly, out of nowhere, broken by a hand clenching my shoulder firmly.
"Hey! You," I hear in a familiar voice I couldn't quite place.
I turn around swiftly as a chill rushes down my spine.
"Time to fly."
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