My fingers reflect the glare of my laptop screen, as I ponder my next chat message to her. "idk why u miss it so much. It's only a game. U have so much more 2 offer. Ur so good at lotsa other stuff, 2."
"...Ok, Ames, I move to have that stricken from the record, on the grounds that it highly offends me. It's clearly not just a game." Ouch. I guess I really hit a nerve.
"Sry. I don't get it, but was rude of me. Consider stricken." Guess I didn’t ponder my message long enough. Maybe it read harsher than I intended. It's impossible to convey inflection, tone, and body language over chat. It might also help if I typed in complete sentences.
"It's ok, I know you didn't mean it. How's the new job?" My least favorite subject. Why can't we keep talking about her? Oh, right, I just dismissed her interest in a whole sport that she loves and can no longer play. Good one, Amy.
"S'ok. Still getting used to peeps I hafta deal with. Boss still scares me."
"Ah, you'll get used to them. And I bet he's not so bad. My first job was tough, too, but I'm sure you had a harder time than I did, haha."
"Well, u didn't have panic attack just bc u left ur house, so yeah. U prolly fit right in, made friends right away. Ur magnetic that way."
"Nah, it's easy, girl. You just talk, and they talk back. It's like a dance, only with our mouths." Anya's so funny. We're alike in so many ways, except for two. She loves hockey, and I'm a klutz who couldn't play a sport if my life depended on it. And she's super outgoing and can make friends instantly with just about anyone. I, on the other hand, do my best to melt into walls when another person so much as looks my way.
"Anyway, how about u? Ur gig going well, too?" Redirect away from me. She's used to it and doesn't ever seem to mind.
"It's alright, I guess. It's just a boring office job, gotta do the 9-to-5 thing while taking night classes. The people are nice, so that keeps me from the bad thoughts." The bad thoughts of killing herself, she means, but neither of us dares to say it. When we first met in that online forum, I found it shocking that such a lively, funny, interesting person would ever contemplate suicide. But once she told me about how her lifelong hopes and dreams were dashed and the rest of her life couldn't possibly live up to any expectations she had for herself just a year ago, I could see where she was coming from. It's amazing how you can never really know what someone else is going through, even if they seem peachy on the outside.
I've had those thoughts myself, though for much different reasons. It's how we initially bonded. We help keep each other balanced. I should've known better than to dismiss the game she loved playing. I kinda suck at empathy sometimes. It's one of the many reasons I don't go out much.
"Give any thought 2 seeing Dr. Gibson? She's pretty kewl." I told her about my therapist last time we chatted. She seemed uninterested, but maybe after thinking it over for a few days...
"Nah, you're the only therapy I need. You've been awesome, Ames. Honestly, the last few months have been so much easier since we've been talking. Not too many other people wanna hear my sob story. They think it's 'not important enough' or whatever. I really do appreciate it, bud. I hope you know that."
She can't see my smile, and I can't fully relay how her kind words make me feel. "R U kidding? U've done as much 4 me, prolly more."
"*hug* It helps that you play a mean game of air hockey, hahaha. So when can we hang out again? That was hella fun!" Ooooh boy. She knows going outside is out of my comfort zone. Maybe I can ask mom and dad about getting an air hockey table in the basement.
"idk, hafta see when I'm free. Work's been busy." My job's only 9 to 5 too, but it drains me so much I need each weeknight and all weekend to recharge before I can face anyone again, even people I like, like Anya.
"Ok, lmk. g2g, getting sleepy. Say goodnight to your mom and dad! Ttyl!" Heh, this girl. Ever since I told her I sometimes don't even speak to my parents for days, she "reminds" me to at least be respectful, and that they love me, no matter what. I know this, of course. Sometimes I'm just in my own little world, and I forget.
"Yup, ttyl, An. Good night." I shut down my laptop, walk down the hall, and knock on my parents' door.
I poke my head in and tell them good night. They seem appreciative that I'm making the effort, and both wish me sweet dreams. I hope they know none of this is their fault. It's just how I am. I force a smile, wave, and head back to my room.
At work the next morning I stare at my computer monitor, double checking my code's logic. The last thing I want is a tester bothering me later because I "if"ed when I shoulda "else"d. Everyone thinks my bugs per line count is low because I take such pride in my work and test it thoroughly myself before committing it. While that’s all true, it's not because I'm a perfectionist. It's because I hate talking to people.
People often get the wrong idea and think I hate everyone, which I don't. I actually like people very much. Most of them, anyway, in small doses. I just don't love talking to them. It weirds me out. I can never think of anything interesting to say. I hate small talk; I don't follow sports or politics, and the weather just isn't that interesting. I'm never quick with a quip or a witty retort. I'm comfortable with, and capable of, all those things when texting or chatting, but never when I actually have to open my pie hole in front of other real live people standing in front of me. I'm happy to sit in silence with someone and just enjoy their company, but for most people, that's awkward or uncomfortable. So they start yapping away, which only manages to make me awkward and uncomfortable. It's downright draining.
Only my family and a few of my closest friends get it. They follow my lead, letting me initiate conversation. I know most people find that strange or controlling, but it's least stressful that way. For everyone. If I could wear a shirt every day that said, "Please don't speak unless spoken to," I'd be happier with the world and not have these scars on my arms. But I'm told that would be rude, even though it says "please" right on the shirt.
"Hey, Amy." Oh no. Igor.
"Hi," is all I can manage to squeak out.
"Dude, do you know what this All Hands meeting is about?" Why would I? I don't even know what an All Hands meeting is. Igor's nice, one of the more friendly people here. I find it odd but humorous that he calls everyone in the office "dude." Even the women. But he's my complete opposite, the anti-Amy. He'll find any reason to talk about absolutely anything with pretty much anyone. He would get along well with Anya, I bet. He probably doesn't even care what the meeting's about. He just wants to recharge his batteries, sadly, at my expense. I shake my head. "That's what I like about you, Amy. You have all the answers, and you're not afraid to speak your mind."
His thick Russian accent still ringing in my ears, I make eye contact for the first time. I can tell from the wide grin on his face and how he said it that he was playfully teasing, not mocking me or being mean. I don't think he has a mean bone in his body, honestly. He's like a big teddy bear. Well, except that he's so thin that you can't see him if he turns sideways. I smile back and return to my work.
"So listen, some of us are getting drinks after work." Oh god, no. "There'll probably be some gossip about the meeting, maybe talk about the new campus. I hear the new space is gonna be one of those open office floor plans. No cubicle walls or anything. It's supposed to foster more collaboration or something." He probably sees the look of horror on my face. The only thing keeping me from a panic attack every day I come here are these semi-high walls around me. While we're standing, we can see over the tops of them, but when we sit, we at least feel like we've got some privacy. "It'll be ok, I guess. I bet you could just get Help Desk to give you a few monitors, and you could build a little fort with them. We'll call it Fort Amy." Hmm, could I do that? I nod my head.
The janitor comes and grabs the garbage pail to empty it. He looks at me as he picks it up, and again when he puts it back. I don't like how he looks at me, but since I never say anything, Igor tends to strike up conversations with him around my desk, which he seems happy to oblige.
"Will, are you moving to the new space with us, or you gonna stay at this office for the next tenants?" He already knows the answer to this. I honestly don't know why he bothers sometimes.
"Igor, ya know I work for the company, not the building. We done been over this." He has his creepy eyes on me the whole time, which Igor still doesn't notice. His off-putting Southern drawl doesn't help. "I'll keep cleanin' up after y'all when we move."
Igor finally picks up on my discomfort and puts his hand on the janitor's shoulder. This is what finally causes him to look away from me and toward Igor. "Dude, that's great to hear. It's always good talking to you. How are your cousins?"
Will looks at Igor's hand on his shoulder, and Igor casually, smoothly, lets go. "They're fine, I guess. They're still a couple of pains in my ass, but ya know, family." Igor nods in understanding. "I been stayin' at a motel the last couple weeks, needed a break from that cramped apartment with the two of 'em. I'll probably go back soon." That explains why he keeps wearing the same two sets of clothes lately. Does he think no one notices?
Then, something weird happens. The janitor looks like he's gonna be sick, and hurries off toward the bathroom. Igor looks back to me, smiles, and winks. "I guess he ate something bad for breakfast. I'll see you at happy hour later, cool?" I shake my head vigorously at the worst idea ever. He smiles again and heads off to chat up someone else. He really does mean well, I guess, but honestly, what's so happy about happy hour? Just a buncha drunk people yelling to each other over blaring music, not listening to anything. If he wanted to hang out in a quiet park, maybe, but this? Going to happy hour would make me need a special session or three with Dr. Gibson.
Dr. Gibson. She doesn't pin blame on me or my parents for how I am or try to force me to be an extrovert or anything. She just connects the dots and shows me how some aspects of my lifestyle over the years have contributed to my current situation and encourages me to take small steps to improve my mindset. It's helped me land this job, after so many failed attempts. I just hope it can help me hang onto it.
I like her well enough, except for the parts of our sessions where she makes me talk. A lot. I say more in one hour with Dr. Gibson than I do the entire rest of the week at home or work, combined. And it's not even close. I've been seeing her for almost a year now, and we've got our routine down. She says hello, I say hi, and pledge to myself that I'm not gonna say much this time. She asks me a few questions that I give short answers to, then she probes deeper. I start to shake, she calms me down, and suddenly I'm an open book. I honestly don't know how she does it. She just understands introverts, I guess. I don't exactly enjoy it, but I always feel better once our time is up. I used to think it was just out of relief to be outta there, that I could just shut the hell up now. But lately, I've been wondering if there is something to this whole therapy stuff after all. Who knew that just talking about your feelings would make you feel better? Not this girl.
Oh boy, here comes my boss, and he doesn't look happy. I start to shake but am able to calm myself for the moment. Did I do something wrong? Maybe he saw Igor or Will talking to me? That wasn't my fault! I swear, if they get me in trouble... Huh... well that was weird. Mr. Anderson just barely sideways glanced toward my cube, shook his head, and walked on by. What was that about?
I hear him mutter as he walks away. "Unbelievable. She's gone again? Is she ever at her damn desk?" Uh... what?
"Mr. Anderson?" I say it louder than I care to, but he's already two cubes down from me. He stops and turns around. He looks around, confused, as though he doesn't see me. Then he walks up to me and leans over my cubicle wall. I hate it when he leans in.
"Ms. Chen. Where have you been?" He seems to say it out of exasperation rather than anger. I know he wears glasses, but he can't be that blind, can he?
I don't intend to stammer, but I'm pretty perplexed. "Uh... I..."
"Look, I know you're new here, and this is your first job out of college, but look around." He casually waves his arms around the office. "Most everyone here is hard at work at their desks, most of the time... except for Mr. Volkov, who seems to prefer being our social director." I try to think of something to say to prove to him that I've been here working all along. But how? All I can do is point to my monitor. "Now..." He pauses mid-thought and checks out my screen.
I can see the gears turning in his head. He knew where I left off yesterday and can see the progress I've made. It only makes him more confused. He sighs. "This looks like good work." He turns back to me. "You did all this today?" I nod my head vigorously, and he sighs. "Okay, so, if you don't like your desk, it's alright if you sit in the cafeteria or wherever you're going. Just shoot me a message in case I need to find you, ok?"
Cafeteria? I never even eat there, let alone do work there. Too many people. Besides, as Igor has pointed out, I tend to graze throughout the day, picking at snacks like a bird rather than eating full meals. When I first started, Mr. Anderson took a few of us to lunch so I could get to know the team. When I took almost the whole hour to eat a quarter of my meal, I could tell they all thought it was weird, but of course Igor was the only one to point it out. That stands as the most uncomfortable meal I've ever had. I really hope we don't do that for every new hire.
"Ms. Chen, you with me?" Right, he asked me a question. I give him a big thumbs up. He sighs again, smirks, and goes about his day. I return to wondering how he couldn't see me sitting right dang here. Did I bend down to pick something up as he walked by? No, surely not. I watched him approach the entire way. I start to wonder if I'm going mad. Maybe my parents didn't sign me up to start seeing Dr. Gibson because of the times I've cut myself, but because they think I'm losing my mind.
Think, Amy. This has happened before, hasn't it? I don't think Mr. Anderson has ever stopped at my desk, come to think of it, though he's walked by plenty of times. He usually sends me emails or messages over our chat app. I look back through some of them and a trend emerges. "I didn't see you at your desk, so I was wondering…"; "I stopped by, but you weren't there, have you taken a look at..."; "When you get back, can you do me a favor..."
I'm, like, always at my desk. Always. Unless I'm off peeing, which is always quick, I'm here, head down, writing code. Igor walks by my desk at least three times a day to strike up futile conversations, and he never acts like I'm gone all the time. So what's the problem? Mr. Anderson makes me nervous enough, being my first ever boss and all. This is just gonna make it worse.
Thinking about the other people in the office, some of them say hello as they walk by. Others are usually in their own little world and don't even notice me. And I'm always glad for that. The people I like the least, including creepy janitor Will, don't really stop to talk unless Igor's here already yapping away.
I think back to other times I've been forced to be around so many people at once, but I struggle to remember many other times like this, having so expertly managed to avoid group settings throughout my life. My, how I've cheated my way through existence.
My parents noticed this problem of mine at a young age, before I even knew what it was or how to explain it. They totally enabled it. Dr. Gibson has asked me about thirty times if I think it hindered my social development. They initially thought I had developmental problems when I didn't start speaking at the "normal" age. After the batteries of nerve-racking tests they ran me through with doctors and therapists showed that I was perfectly healthy and sharp, they realized it was simply a matter of anxiety. I hated being confronted, asked questions, or called upon. I didn't play with the other kids; I would only engage in what they called parallel play. I reacted poorly when my parents tried to nudge me to interact more, sometimes violently shaking until I fell over, other times just lying perfectly still, wishing I could become invisible. They would look worried or confused for a few moments before pulling me in for relieved hugs and trying to calm me down. I liked the hugs, and they helped, not least of which because it meant no one was talking.
It didn't take long at all for them to decide the best course was to separate me from all the triggers that made me shaky. My mom was already a teacher, after all, and dad had a good enough job that he could afford for her to stop working and start home schooling me. They even found me an excellent piano teacher. They would've preferred I learn the yehu, but it's not really a solo instrument, and being part of an opera orchestra wasn't exactly in the cards for me. My dad enjoyed my playing most, calling me his little Piano Girl. Once he saw how it made me blush and start to shake in front of their friends, he would only say it when we were alone or with Mom.
As I got older, I worried they might make me go to college, but it didn't take much prodding to convince them to let me get my degree exclusively through online courses. Even the few friends that I've made over the years have been online buddies like Anya, rarely seen in person. In fact, this job is the first time I've left our house on a regular basis. I've only been here a month, and have almost had nervous breakdowns about ten times. My parents are worried sick about me going out every day, so I try not to tell them the worst of it. I save all that for Dr. Gibson. I really need to convince Mr. Anderson to let me work from home, like, every day. Or find a new job where I can.
I leave my desk to go to the restroom and I find my thoughts returning to my childhood. For some reason I remember playing hide and seek with my cousins the few times they would come to town to visit. They always teased me that I was cheating, that I knew all the best hiding places in and around the house, because they could never find me. I thought they were just being nice, because there were so many times when they'd walk right by me, or look straight at me but not tag me. I always assumed their parents had just warned them about me, so they were trying not to stress me out. Instead, I wound up feeling left out, which was fine by me.
I finish up, wash my hands, and stare into the bathroom mirror. I wonder... have my parents sheltered me for so long not because of my problems with social interaction, but for some other reason? Don't be silly, Amy. Your mind is just playing tricks on you. Like the times I've hurt myself. Dr. Gibson asks if I do it to compensate for my lack of strong bonds with others, in order to feel something, anything. She wonders if most of the time, I'm neither happy nor sad, and it's because I'm not influencing the world around me, or letting it shape me. I tell her I’m plenty happy at times, and plenty sad other times, like most people. I tell her the physical pain is nothing compared to having to talk to people, hoping she’ll understand.
But what if there is something else going on? Something's nagging at me about these handful of times I can recall where people seemed to not even notice I was there. I've always dismissed it easily enough, relieved that I'd escaped another excruciating conversation. But what if...
Oh, why not? I'm all alone in here, what could it hurt? I try to think of something that'll make me uncomfortable. The janitor... no, he just weirds me out. Mr. Anderson makes the most sense as a test subject, the imposing authority figure that scares the bejesus outta me. I concentrate on him, visualize him approaching my desk, and I start to shake. I calm myself, using the meditation exercises Dr. Gibson taught me. Then I open my eyes. And boy does it open my eyes.
I'm still looking at the mirror, but I'm not looking back at me. More accurately, I see my short sleeve shirt, my slacks, my earrings floating in mid-air, and little else. As I look more closely, I can actually see myself quite easily. My eyes are right there, my short, spiky hair, too. I wonder if I stick out my tongue--AAAHHH! That was freaky. Note to self, don't release the free-floating food muscle again. But other than that... how do I even explain this? I can't even believe it, let alone process it. My skin has... changed shades? It's matching the background? Is this for real, or have I finally gone off the deep end?
I turn to my side and look at the mirror in my peripheral vision. No wonder Mr. Anderson never sees me. Even with the few cues I can pick up, I don't see a person standing there. Weird how the brain fills in the blanks when you're not paying super close attention. This can't be, though. I'm making this up, my eyes are messing with me. I... I turn back toward the mirror, examining my lack of self more closely. Either I've got selective blindness, or I'm... camouflaged.
Have I been able to do this my whole life? Is this why my parents were so easily persuaded to isolate me? I was able to do it with little effort just now, so how many times have I done it by accident? Oh gosh... have I done it in front of Dr. Gibson? Second note to self: ask her about this at my appointment later.
Crap! Someone's coming! I hear the bathroom door creak open, and it breaks my concentration. I look back at the mirror, and there I am, clear as day. A whole, real-life girl.
"Hi, Amy." It's Neha, a developer on one of the other teams. I hope she didn't see any of that. I put my head down and rush back to my desk. She's nice, but now she probably thinks I'm a freak, too. Even if she didn't not see me.
It's hard to focus on work for the next few hours, and I make a few mistakes along the way, so I'm not as productive as I had been in the morning. I keep checking the clock, looking forward to 3PM. I'm leaving work early for my regular appointment with Dr. Gibson, and I have so much to tell her. And ask her. If I have gone invisible during any of our sessions, she didn't bat an eye. Oh, she's good. Normally, I dread going to her office more than asking Mr. Anderson if I can leave early. Not today.
Today, I'm excited, confused, worried, anxious, nervous. This could either be the beginning of something weird and wonderful, or I could find out that my mind is slipping away worse than I thought. It's a coin flip, really.
Finally, the little hand on the clock has mercy on me, and it's time to pack up. I’d thrown all my things in my bag hours ago, leaving just my laptop and my teacup. I leave the cup to wash tomorrow and close up my computer, tossing it recklessly in my desk. I lock it and dash to the exit. I hear Igor say goodbye and I throw up a hand wave without looking back. I can feel the eyes behind me rolling, the heads shaking at the weird Taiwanese girl not saying a word yet again.
Once in the parking lot that's packed with cars but devoid of people, I fumble for my car keys. It's another bright, sunny day, and the glare is bothering me, so I reach for my sunglasses, which I find in my purse before the keys. As I put them on, I hear a car pass behind me, paying it no mind as I root through the jungle that is my Kate Spade.
I hear the car idling behind me, but don't really take notice until a door slides open. I turn my head to the side just long enough to see two men rushing toward me. I yelp, but they quickly throw a sack over my head and grab me.
I start to shake, but it's too late. They've already seen me. They've already caught me. I'm in their van, and we're driving to who knows where.