CHAPTER 1 | Meghan
On the day she met Diego, Meghan lost her job. One door opened, another closed, and everything had changed. Just like that. Spawned from a few chats on Match.com, their first date was nearly eclipsed by the sudden upheaval at work. That morning, Diego texted her a breezy reminder: “Can’t wait @Megsy!” Moments later, Meghan received an all-staff email: “Announcing company-wide restructuring.” Funny how the harmonic convergence of two messages can shatter a life into its elemental pieces, like the ones and zeros of machine code ready to be compiled into something new.
The question was, what would she build with that code? Already a few years since graduation, a few years into the new millennium, and Meghan Miller’s life still remained a black screen waiting to boot up, a blank canvas of possibilities. She could do anything, be anything. She could achieve greatness! Meghan’s future self was a famous artist, or a celebrity chef, or a best-selling novelist. Her soon-to-emerge self would surely be an all-around cool person who did creative things, hung out with interesting people, and had lots of brilliant lovers. At the very least.
More than a passing desire or a pleasant daydream, a great well of need had thrust Meghan out into the world to find that pitch-perfect calling that would manifest an authentic life. Out there alone, unformed and adrift in the thorny wilderness of adult life, she explored, dabbled, started, and eventually abandoned dozens of projects. Poetry lost its gleam after a few lackluster pieces. Pâtisserie classes had produced ten extra pounds around her hips. Her watercolors were as amorphous as her pottery or prose. A string of boyfriends had been a secondary hobby, but none were capable of nurturing a specific passion within Meghan, for love or purpose. Year after year, her “real” self was ever elusive, teasing her from the shadows.
Despite Meghan’s many false starts, the only constant had been her work life, which offered a straightforward career path, should she choose to follow it. She could not quite bring herself to embrace the identity of “marketer”—that conventional, corporate, boring person—even temporarily. Still, she had to make a living, and this was better than anything else she could think of for now. Within the bland, workaday world, Meghan found opportunities to grow her natural professionalism and even be creative now and then, which dulled the ache, just enough, to get through the days while she searched for her true North Star.
This day, however, would be different. Meghan sat at her desk struggling to cope with the prospect of sudden, involuntary change. “Today is the first day of the rest of my life,” she whispered to the past. Six years at this job, and she was back to square one.
The game company was a sinking giant, desperate for a new generation to keep it afloat. Like a siren, Meghan’s role was to produce enticing copy for websites, disk jackets, sales sheets, presentations—any marketing song needed in the frenetic swim of business to promote games, gamers, and the power and triumph of fun. The classic brand, beloved by the game industry for its enduring legacy and good-old-days console titles, now struggled to keep up with the quicksilver startups that were redefining fun out from under them. Who had time to lounge on the living room couch and play a real game these days? And for those few minutes of dead air in your on-the-go day, you could download thousands of micro-moments of fun to your phone. For free.
Although Meghan had never considered herself a “gamer,” she relished the full spectrum of game genres and mega-hit franchises that her company produced. And she made sure that she tried them all—even the most testosterone-pumping, bikini babe-infested, first-person shooters, games that targeted the opposite end of the demographic spectrum from herself. Her personal tastes gravitated toward puzzlers and arcade-style games, where she would be challenged by a string of problems or tasks to complete while racing against the clock. Somehow, they were the perfect metaphor for her work life as she barreled through her everyday circuit of minor hurdles and small victories. If she could break away for a few minutes and narrow her focus to a puzzle game’s simple, clear demands, she could feel utterly in control, even if she had to replay the tougher levels over and over. She either failed or won; there was no in-between.
Above all, she found it thrilling to work with colleagues who passionately loved everything about games—the players, the industry, game history, and the sweet ache of nostalgia for favorites from their youth. These guys fiercely debated game design strategies and talked for months about new titles on the product roadmap, only to drop everything when getting their hands on a pre-release copy. On those happy days, a crowd would immediately converge in the office lounge, a small, windowless room that was tricked out with worn, overstuffed couches and a full lineup of every game console ever produced. They’d play noisily, rowdily, their enthusiasm thickening the stale office air like overripe tropical fruit. She loved working for a legendary brand that represented something cool and edgy, and made her feel a part of an exclusive club of diehard fanboys whose lifelong passion and level of dedication she aspired to herself, whenever she finally found the “thing” she could love as much.
Lately however, the entire office had been on edge, fueled by an undercurrent of prickly tension that infused meetings and emails and the collective mindshare. Ambient chatter had died down to an eerie calm. Even the most dedicated workaholics among them found themselves distracted and frazzled. Fueled by rumor and an occasional reconnaissance mission outside the HR office, the prospect of layoffs had seemed like a tornado building in the distance.
Meghan often wandered past the office kitchen in hopes of picking up reliable intel. More often than not, what she got was speculation spun from the thinnest of threads.
“Quarterly earnings tanked again. Fourth quarter in a row. You know what that means,” said José, the web team’s lead engineer, as Meghan lingered with a few jittery co-workers one afternoon. He drew a slice across his throat. Meghan winced.
“Yeah. I was in the elevator this morning and heard the security guy say that he has to attend a new training session,” replied Jim, a QA test manager, as he yanked an invisible rope above his neck.
“Nick’s been out a lot lately, and he never takes time off,” said Nick’s junior producer, as he cocked his finger pistol at Jim’s bulging belly.
“First, they cancelled Pizza Fridays, then the free sodas disappear, and now, no more watering service! We’re all gonna die with the plants,” snorted Milo, a user experience designer. Meghan saw Milo put a few extra tea bags in his pocket before filling his cup with hot water.
Listening to her team’s spiraling morale, Meghan hoped selfishly that when the storm of change hit ground zero, it would zigzag over her cube and strike someone else’s instead, wrenching others from their job security into the free fall of unemployment during the worst recession in decades.
However, today had begun like any other. A cold April gust swept Meghan’s long coppery hair across her still-sleepy face as she quickly climbed the stairs to Market Street from Montgomery BART station. Downtown San Francisco was awash in bustling commuters, everyone bundled up against the blustery roar of spring. Meghan was greeted by a 360-degree panorama of San Francisco history—elegant old buildings shoulder-to-shoulder with sturdy newcomers—that spanned an entire century of optimism and aspiration. Rising from the ashes of the Great Quake, it was a city undefeated by earthly impermanence and determined to preserve its reputation as a haven for cheerful good living. Meghan stopped at a cable car-themed coffee cart tucked into the sheltered corner of a pocket park in between high rises. As she sipped her double latte, she felt her shoulders unwind a notch. What would the day bring? It was only Tuesday, which meant anything could still happen before the week wound down into slow motion by Friday.
Arriving at the office, Meghan ran through her mental data check of things that signaled “all is well.” Her key card still worked (thank God). The vast armies of character dolls from various game franchises still stood guard above her colleagues’ cubicles. The usual office early birds were at their desks with Starbucks cups in hand and eyes glued to YouTube. She relaxed, settled down at her desk, and booted up her day.
“Wow, I’ve got back-to-back meetings all morning. What’s up with that?” she mused to Karen, a fellow marketer who shared her cube space.
“Yeah, I don’t know why we’re moving forward with any of my projects. Seems like we should wait until we know what the hell’s going on,” Karen replied.
“I hate wasting time, and I hate wasting work even more,” sighed Meghan.
“Heads-down, girl. Keep looking busy,” advised Karen, who’d already survived two layoffs in her fledgling tech career. “We’ve got to look indispensable, even if we’re just spinning our wheels.”
“My wheels are getting squeakier by the day,” said Meghan dryly. She bustled around their cube tidying up pens and papers and jumbles of stuff in order to soothe her revved up nerves.
“Whatever you do, Megs, no whining! Not even once! That’s a sure way to get on the blacklist!” Karen said.
“It probably doesn’t matter at this point. The list is what it is. Our fate is sealed.”
“I don’t want to leave, but I also don’t want to stay and be alone in this place.” Karen looked so despondent that Meghan felt an intense need to tease her out of it.
“Oh, you wouldn’t be alone. You’d be sitting with the testers!” Meghan pointed toward a remote corner of the office suite. The boisterous Quality Control team spent their days playing the games that were still in development in order to report on bugs and other errors. Occasionally, spontaneous swag fights broke out, with branded projectiles targeting rival cubes and inevitably catching the odd passerby unawares.
“Ugh, it reeks of old socks and stale burritos over there,” replied Karen. “And that heavy metal playlist on low volume—I’d never get it out of my head. I’d go insane!”
The two women laughed, relaxing into their familiar camaraderie for a brief moment before turning back to the blank screens of their day.
Later that morning, the announcement that they’d all been expecting finally arrived. The company was going to reorganize and “right-size,” which would affect a whopping one third of their workforce. The tip of the funnel cloud hit Meghan in the form of an urgent email summoning her to a conference room called “The Bunker.” Appropriately named, it was the largest in their office suite and the only one without windows. She stepped into the sterile room and discovered it was already filled to capacity with dozens of other dazed souls, including Karen sitting stiffly at the back. Meghan touched her friend’s shoulder briefly and took the empty seat next to her.
The unfortunate news was delivered to everyone at once in a single, efficient strike, HR staff circling like drones to ensure the mission was accomplished successfully. Info packets were distributed, Kleenex discreetly available.
“We are really, truly, deeply heartbroken to inform you of this,” intoned Ros Blackwell, VP of HR. Standing in front of the room’s only whiteboard, she paused and frowned in a show of compassion, yet remained arrow-straight in her silk navy dress and patent leather heels. “Due to company restructuring in response to dramatic market shifts, some tough decisions needed to be made. Unfortunately, we’re losing up to thirty-five percent of our workforce. Peter wanted me to send you his condolences and sincere appreciation for your contribution to the company.”
“How nice of our fearless leader,” cracked production manager Jacob Green, his lip curled into a twisted smile. “Is Pete going to sponsor my rent next month?” Tense chuckles rippled quietly through the packed room. Ros furrowed her heavy brow, an extra dose of sorrow glazing her dark eyes.
“Every effort to support you in your transition will be made, including a month’s membership at an outplacement agency. Again, thank you for your contribution. You’ll find everything you need to know in your information packets.” Ros nodded to her assistants, Tim and Ruth, who began quickly handing out thick manila envelopes, careful to deliver the correct packet to each person. Immobilized, Meghan had to consciously will her right arm to reach out to receive the one with her name on it. It felt unusually heavy and she let it drop onto her lap with a thud. Karen sniffed quietly next to her, looking utterly lost.
“Before you leave, please sign up with Jen here for an exit interview timeslot,” commanded Ros. Sitting by the door with her laptop, Jen smiled weakly and waved to indicate her readiness for the onslaught of signups, only be met with stillness and stony glances.
Meghan dutifully scheduled her interview and reviewed the thick stack of paperwork that officially terminated this chapter in her career. It stated her legal rights, and at the same time required her to sign away her rights to any legal recourse. “In case I feel inclined to aim my slingshot at the corporate goliath,” she mused to Karen, who smiled wanly in reply. As the two walked back to their desks, Meghan noted some stern looking strangers standing around. “And here’s…Security.”
Stacks of flattened cardboard boxes had suddenly appeared throughout the office. They were neatly piled next to the cubicles of the unlucky, including Meghan and Karen. As her initial shock from the news deepened into a greater realization of its implications—of change, unemployment, loss, mostly the great unknown—Meghan braced herself against a swirling fear that threatened to engulf her.
Back at her desk, she discovered that her email had been turned off, so there was no opportunity to send “Thanks and Farewell!” messages to her team that would somehow mark her exit with a sense of dignity and closure. Oh well. Meghan had already friended her favorite co-workers on Facebook and everyone else on LinkedIn, so no need for long, sad group hugs. Still, she knew that she’d miss the real-life presence of her office community, some of whom she’d never see again.
“Megs, I’m soooo sorry!” said her neighbor Mike, one of the lucky survivors. Irritation rose in her throat as Meghan began assembling one of the boxes. She hated pity in any form.
“I can’t believe this is happening!” Mike exclaimed. “What a crappy way to treat people. Too cold, man. This company is fucking doomed.” His voice fell to a whisper. Meghan could imagine the impact of this layoff on Mike and the remaining members of their broken team. Demoralized, they faced more work with a reduced staff. Their tournament buddies and morning chats were gone forever. The compassionate ones like Mike probably felt some survivor’s guilt, or at least concern for favorite co-workers cast out into the wilds of the industry diaspora. This sucks for us all, she reminded herself.
“I just got the summons,” shouted Jim. “Time for Wave 2!” Glum eyes followed his shuffling steps as he ambled off toward The Bunker.
“They’re kicking us out of here in two hours. Unbelievable,” Dan, one of the senior producers, spat bitterly. “I’m gonna need a U-Haul, and I took BART today. It’s a long way to Castro Valley.”
Every inch of Dan’s double-wide cubicle was filled with game-related merchandize and memorabilia—stuffed character dolls, action figures, key chains, inflatable weapons, rubber masks, and even a few bizarre items such as limited-edition bubble bath and a backscratcher shaped like an alien arm. Dangling from the cube posts were close to a hundred nametags from different game conventions he’d attended throughout his career. Meetings in Dan’s cube always felt to Meghan as if the team were building yet another brick to add to his shrine, paying homage to the game characters on his walls as immortals in a long and noble lineage. Meghan cringed at the thought of this proud industry veteran faced with the horror of job hunting (which was like practically begging) so that someplace (maybe anyplace) would pay his mortgage and family expenses.
“Now I can’t wait to get the hell out of here,” Meghan responded, rolling her eyes angrily. “Good riddance.”
Dan flipped both his middle fingers at the ceiling in solidarity.
“Ditto,” added Karen as she plopped down heavily in her desk chair. “The Corporate Reaper finally got us this time.” She frowned and swiveled her chair from side to side.
“Yeah, I guess we didn’t look busy enough,” Meghan replied, recalling their earlier conversation. “We’re dispensable after all.” She reached down to give Karen a hug.
Unlike Dan, Karen was among the majority on the spectrum of staff ages. In her mid-twenties, she had no significant financial responsibilities beyond paying her rent and student loan. “I’m taking my severance and going somewhere,” she declared. “Mexico maybe, or Guatemala. Somewhere far away from technology. Somewhere real.” Her friend seemed to perk up a bit at the grand idea.
“Sure…good luck with that,” teased Meghan. “The whole world is wired now. That’s what’s real.”
“Okay, then you can write me a real paper postcard when you want to visit!” Karen quipped, as she began unpinning photos from her cube wall.
It didn’t take long for Meghan to gather her personal items and the gaming merchandise she’d collected over the past two years. She took the couple dozen videogames that were lying around her cube, many still in their original shrink-wrapped packaging. She could get a good price for them and some of the premium branded items on eBay. For my retirement fund, she thought sourly and hoisted the boxes roughly onto a mail trolley. She’d have to call a taxi to get home.
All that was left now was to make a final tour of the office to say her goodbyes. Apart from Karen and Jess in Public Relations, she didn’t socialize with anyone outside the office, so she wouldn’t see most people again for a while, if ever. She was truly fond of them, and the loss weighed heavily on her heart. No matter how temporary or artificially formed, these were people who cared about each other.
Waiting until the beefy security guy’s back was turned, she snapped a photo of her empty cube to post on Facebook: 2 years of my life, up in smoke. Behold the ashes.
The brief exit interview was a formality meant to soften the blow on a more personal level, but Meghan couldn’t stand to witness Ros’s “brave face” for longer than absolutely necessary. She wanted to simply drop off her badge, phone, and laptop, and then leave. Fingers crossed that the cute IT guy that she occasionally flirted with was still employed and would erase her personal files from the phone and laptop, hopefully without snooping.
“Thank you again, Meghan, for all your hard work,” Ros said, her broad face pulled tight in an expression that seemed to both empathize with, and distance herself from, Meghan’s unfortunate situation. “Best of luck to you, and if I can help at all, you just let me know!” Meghan could hear the well-trained tone of optimism in Ros’s voice—just enough to placate without promising anything.
“Sure, thanks,” Meghan replied dryly. “It’s been real.” She heard her voice strain from the desire to burn this bridge to the ground, and hoped it didn’t show.
So, with a knot in her gut and a quick handshake, Meghan walked out of the office, the building, and her former life. She felt like a character in some kind of tacky meme being retweeted and reposted across the social globe: The door actually hit me on the way out!
That evening, Meghan met Diego at the Atlas Café in San Francisco’s Mission District. It was a windy spring—way too cold to sit outside, as she would have preferred, especially when meeting someone new. She had envisioned the two of them as Italian lovers engaged in an intimate tête-à-tête, trattoria-style, bathed in the glow of the late afternoon sun, enjoying crisp white wine and bubbly conversation. Instead, she had to settle for meeting him inside the café, which always felt to her like a somber, lonely workspace. Fueled by caffeine, it seemed fraught with expectation and purpose as everyone sat heads-down and hunched over their demanding laptops.
With a nod to her romantic vision, Meghan chose a light-splashed table by the window and settled into a chair facing the door. She wasn’t nervous exactly, but she had purposely arrived early in order to savor the first glimpse of her date from a relaxed viewpoint. At six p.m. on the dot, a likely Diego candidate strolled into the café and scanned the room. Not classically handsome, this guy had an appealing, boyish face with a grown-up set to the jaw and an expression of cheerful curiosity. His ragged Levi’s, black T-shirt, and grey hoodie reflected the current uniform of urban hipsters, but underneath, his body seemed to carry itself with a distinctive, quiet confidence. The man and Meghan caught eyes, and both raised eyebrows in hopeful recognition. Meghan held her breath as he approached the table.
“Diego Garcia,” he said, reaching out to shake Meghan’s hand. “But everyone calls me Digs.” He flashed a warm smile and she exhaled in relief. A normal guy. Maybe a nice guy.
“Megs,” she said, smiling back. “Great to meet you!” She noted happily that he looked better than his profile pic.
Diego ordered drinks and pizza at the counter, returning with two glasses full to the brim with house white wine. Well, we get a taste of bistro culture after all, Megan thought. A good omen.
As they sipped their drinks, Meghan had plenty to talk about after her action-packed day at the office. The dramatic tale gave them both the luxury of being able to avoid the awkward, generic blind date script: Where do you work? What do you do for fun? Meghan launched into a blow-by-blow account of her day with the cheerful zeal of a master storyteller with some juicy dirt to dish.
“I couldn’t believe how utterly ruthless the whole thing was. A hundred of us booted out in one day, just like that!” she exclaimed, still incredulous.
“Sounds like a surgical cut,” Diego said thoughtfully. “Try not to take it personally, Megs.”
“One minute you’re in your cozy little daily groove and the next you’re completely stripped of every connection to the thing that you’d given your heart and soul to for so long. The thing you’d sacrificed your personal time for, your well-being. When I think of all the overtime I gave to those assholes, all the stress I went through on a daily basis, it just makes me nauseous!”
Diego looked bemused as Meghan grew more and more animated, feeling her cheeks grow pink with the flush of righteous indignation. She took a gulp of wine and leaned forward.
“These days,” she continued, “a job is like a virtual thing, like a web page that—POOF!—can just cease to exist and just disappear without a trace, with no past or future, no legacy. You turn around and even the people you used to work with are gone. Not to mention all the virtual stuff you worked on for years. It’s as if your résumé is your word against—what, nothing?”
“Hey, it could have been worse,” Diego said smiling. “They could have found a stupid reason to fire you and not give you a dime in severance or benefits. I’ve heard that happen more than once.”
He reached across the table to take Meghan’s hand in sympathy. In that moment, she felt the whisper of possibility and also his realness—the warmth of his stocky frame, the faint whiff of his meat-pie scent, the brush of hair on his arms, his solidity shoring her up and holding firm. Diego’s dark eyes belied a multilayered intelligence and intensity of will. She willed that will to envelop her.
“Yeah, hopefully my game industry cred will land me another job fast, before I break out the credit card…credit cards, plural…” She sighed, squeezing his hand and meeting his gaze full on. Pick me! Pick me! She hoped to knock out any Match competition for this awesome guy.
Digs not only picked her, but he also hired her.