This piece is featured in Issue No. 2 Fake News

short fiction

A Hope for Future Quiet

I’m not happy about the virus. I don’t want anyone to die. Let’s get that clear first.

Sometimes, though, I must admit, I smile about how my life has changed since the shutdown, since the end of “normal.” Here’s what I mean.

Three years ago, when I was hired for my job, straight out of university, to be a junior marketing manager at ———, one of my professors told me: “Matthew, it’s not that you aren’t smart enough for the role. What worries me is the incessant meetings, the hustling. You might get worn out. When I used to be the VP of marketing at ———, before I started teaching, I wasn’t so dissimilar. I was, like you, a bit of an introvert. I got drained by all the conversation, all the team stuff, all the people constantly dropping by my desk, asking me for input, insights, advice, promotions, money.” 

“Sounds stressful,” I said, palms sweating, sipping a chamomile tea. We were at a Panera in a pumpkin-coloured booth.

She said: “My advice is this. Between meetings, hide in a bathroom stall for five minutes. Sweat. Hyperventilate. Then go back to your desk, the boardroom, whatever. That’s how I got through.”

Since then, I’ve spent more time hyperventilating in bathroom stalls than I care to recall. Grey walls, beige tiles, incessant reek of bleach. Toots and farts coming from the neighbouring stall. Between my trips to the loo: “Have you seen the numbers?” “What do you think about what Deborah said?” “Is it actionable?” “We need to schedule a meeting.” “Can we level set, here?” “Let’s level this up.” “We aren’t hitting our KPIs.” “Can you brief me on the KPIs?” “Pssst. What does KPI stand for?”

“Unfortunately, we’re an in-person, participatory culture.” I was having panic attacks, wanted to work from home, at least a few days a week. HR, in a meeting in a grey room with beige carpeting, said “no.”

“You’re being so extra,” a friend told me when I confided that my hands were shaking, heart racing, every morning before I left my apartment. “I just feel exhausted by people, by life,” I said, sniffling, crying. “Working from home is for lonely losers,” my friend replied.

“You’ve gone old before your time,” a different friend told me when I said my dream night was reading a book, not sitting in a bar. Another friend, after I turned him down to go out dancing, said I was the “worst gay ever.” Clearly, I had a hard time meeting like-minded, aspiring hermits.

The lockdown upended everything. Which, I can appreciate, is probably hell for lots and lots of people. Parents, you have my sympathies. When you had kids, you surely thought: well, at least

for eight hours a day, most of the year, this little bundle of energy and sass will be packed off to school. I also feel for my opposites — extraverts. I imagine the lack of company probably hurts, and can’t be replicated by Zoom, with its awkward lags and inconstant audio quality.

But as I said, I’m not taking joy from other’s suffering. I’m joyful because after the shutdown, my company’s “in-person, participatory culture” stopped. We all got orders from HR, telling us to stay home, work from home. “For the next three weeks.” “For the next three months.” “For the foreseeable future.” “We’ve given up the lease on our office to save money. You will have a chance to pick up your plants, photos and other personal effects later this month.” By the time that last message was sent, I was too far away from the city to care about picking up my ficus.

I spent the first few months of the lockdown, stuck 24 hours a day in the too-small apartment I couldn’t afford, missing sunshine. My space was lost in the shadow of dozens of tall skyscrapers, low enough to the skywalk that I could hear the inane patter of everyone walking by. “I love Starbucks because it is just SO reliable.” “Is that woman peeing on the sidewalk?” “We need to pick up more Solo cups.”

I never wanted to live in a place like that. I was born and raised in rural New Brunswick, missed the rolling green hills, the lush woods. I moved to Toronto reluctantly, for university, for work, because there were jobs, opportunities I couldn’t find at home. Not that I’m passionate about my job. I keep it to pay my bills. Boring, unsexy, honest. At one point I had wanted to be a writer. That was my original dream. “You’ll never make any money.” Thanks, mom.

What does the future hold for all of us after COVID-19? Who knows. “Focus on the things you can control.” That was maybe the best advice I’ve ever received. I didn’t get it from my professor. I think I read it in a fortune cookie.

Anyway, let me tell you where I’ll be in the future. You’ll find me at the little cabin, way up north, I rented after I ripped up my condo lease, after working remotely became standard for office hacks like me, after I no longer felt tied to the city. It’s where I am writing this, where I intend to stay.

The cabin is made of honey-coloured logs. It’s small. The size of an elementary school portable. No larger than my old condo. But it smells like cedar and has big windows that look out to sprawling forests. I can’t see my neighbours. In the morning, birds wake me up. All summer, I picked wild raspberries, have learned to make jam.

From my cabin, I can see a lake in the distance. On sunny days, it sparkles white on azure waves. On overcast days, I get lost in the calming navy tones. If I’m stressed, between Zoom meetings and Slack messages, e-mails and DMs, I swim, cool down. No one has asked me to go dancing lately. Yay. Instead, I’ve read so many great books, written in my journal. I’m being a bad gay, the worst gay ever, but laughing, smiling, enjoying more than I ever have before. My hands no longer tremble.

Winter is coming. With every falling leaf, I feel It’s almost here. I won’t miss the muddy slush that builds up on Toronto roadsides, my wet boots squishing as I climb up into too-packed streetcars. Winter might be tough here, too. That’s fair. There will be fewer birds, no raspberries. But my future is filled with plans. I’m going to snowshoe, ski, build fires, listen to the crackle of the flames, pen and paper in my hand. And when the embers dim down to nothingness, and the night gets pitch dark, the silence I’ve longed for will envelope me, bring me the peace I have never seemed able to find in the hustle, in the crowds.