Tobias Munch stared blankly at his computer screen, allowing the letters to blur and drift into one another and then back into words. It was Tobias who put those letters there in the first place and found their manipulation through visual trickery to be of far greater interest than what they represented in the form of language. The sound of throat clearing behind him snapped him back into the florescent-lit, three-dimensional world of corporate malaise.
He swiveled his desk chair a quarter turn to observe his supervisor Carl standing at the opening of his cubicle holding a file folder in one hand and a glazed donut in the other. Carl had not finished chewing the donut when he asked, “You think you’re going to be able to finish that troubleshooting section by the end of the day, partner?”
“Yeah. Just waiting on that email from graphics,” Tobias replied. He had not emailed the graphics department about anything. Passing the buck had proven to be an effective stalling technique. His good-natured and confrontation-averse supervisor bought it once again.
“Good. We’re way overdue on this. Here,” Carl said, handing him the blue folder and taking another bite of his glazed donut. “Research on our next project.”
Tobias noticed a flake of donut glaze that had fallen onto Carl’s seafoam green Oxford just above the left breast pocket. Almost, Tobias thought, feeling a twinge of disappointment that it hadn’t made it fully into the pressed pocket. Insignifi- cant failures of this kind affected Tobias far more than the average person. “Can’t wait,” he replied dryly taking the folder and nodding with his lips pressed together in a horizontal line, as if to say Is that all? Are we done here? I’d really like to get back to zoning out some more.
Tobias hated his job as a technical writer. Writing user manuals and instruction materials for everyday products like coffee machines, curling irons, and leaf blowers was never his dream. It was never what he thought he’d be doing by the time he was thirty-four. Most of these consumer products were intuitive enough to use right out of the box even without the written admonishment to READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY, or warnings to only use the product for its intended purpose, or if an electrical product, not to immerse it in water. Other than safeguarding the company from potential litigation, he found his work to be utterly meaningless.
Carl bumped his fist twice upon the top edge of his cubicle wall and turned to walk away. He turned back around extending his index finger skyward. “Oh hey, how’s your book coming along?”
Tobias fancied himself an aspiring novelist. Technical writing was only technically writing. He had undertaken an epic science fiction fantasy novel for the better part of a decade. Truth be told, he’d been re-writing it for the last six years. The unwieldy tome was down to only 879 pages from a mind-numbing 1422. The meandering intergalactic tale defied any semblance of plot structure and sprawled along self-indulgent curiosities to dead ends before returning to some unrelated branch in time and space.
“It’s getting there.” He was lying again.
Carl stood there nodding and chewing, his posture limp and unflattering, like a tree sloth forced to stand erect. “Cool, man. I’d love to read it sometime.”
“Yeah, of course. It’s not quite ready, you know. I still have a few dents to hammer out. It’s . . . it’s a process.”
“I’m sure,” Carl said, bobbing his head. “Well, no pressure. I mean, if you ever needed any notes or first impressions, or whatever, I’d be happy to take a look.”
“Yeah, thanks. I appreciate it.” Please go away.
Carl nodded, this time more emphatically. “Oh! Grace brought donuts. They’re in the break room if you want one.”
“Cool. Thanks.” Goodbye now. Tobias felt a sense of responsibility to placate what he assumed was some kind of social gesticulation on Carl’s part. He almost wished his supervisor was more of an authoritarian and less of a just- because-I’m-your-boss-doesn’t-mean-we-can’t-be-pals kind of a boss. It felt like a burden.
“Sure thing. Well, I’ll let you get back to it. Later dater!” Carl did that fake gun thing with his thumb and forefinger while winking and making a clicking sound from the side of his mouth.
Tobias hated that Carl used this phrase. It was such a goofy thing to say in the first place, but it also reminded Tobias that he wasn’t, in fact, dating anyone. If there was anything about Tobias that might have implied he had any proficiency in the dating department, what did that say about Carl?
Tobias was unhappily divorced. His ex-wife Everly Bron- son, a bestselling author in self-help and women’s issues, used her connections to help him find this job after seven years of supporting him through graduate school and his subsequent yearly recurring cycles of depression. To her credit, she made sure he was gainfully employed and financially stable enough to support himself before she ran off with a publishing executive with whom she’d been having an affair for the last year. Their marriage had been characterized by this inequitable dynamic of unceasing, one-sided support, both financial and emotional. It was Everly who got him into therapy and made sure he was taking his medication regularly.
Despite all her support and caregiving through the years, Tobias remained bitter toward her and his job by proxy. It was yet another example of his ineptitude—another hand-out. He felt he was above the work and yet he was terrible at it. As it turns out, this was his general take on life. Despite evidence that he had failed in almost every aspect of his life, his attitude was aloof and disengaged so that his failures could be easily dismissed as a lack of effort or interest rather than the humiliating swing-and-a-miss. The fact that his book remained in an endless cycle of revision gave him the sense that his lack of success as a writer was only a matter of his untimeliness rather than from any external judgment or objective failure.
The effect of these ongoing revisions pushed the novel’s completion further and further into the future. It was always one step forward and two steps back. With every new solution or improvement, he would create yet another problem that needed solving. This created an illusion of progress that effectively kept his depression at bay.
There was one other bright spot in Tobias’ mundane and unvaried life. Each weekday on his way to work, he stopped in at the Higher Grounds Cafe outside his building for his regular morning cortado, which he ordered with a half packet of stevia. Usually, he was directed to a buffet table where various sweeteners, creamers, napkins, and thin wooden stirring sticks were arranged. He graciously took the direction to sweeten his own beverage but persisted in including it in his order each morning. As annoying as that was, there was something principled, or perhaps borderline rebellious about it. It was a strange stand to take but it was one he could take without much consequence.
One barista in particular, however, always accommodated this small inconvenience without question or reservation. Mia Navarro, a sun-bleached blonde-haired sprite of twenty-five with a tattoo of a bumblebee on the inside of her left bicep, always seemed to have just heard an amusing anecdote and was trying to be professional in keeping it to herself when she spoke to customers. When she stood at the register awaiting a customer’s decision, she bounced slightly, almost imperceptibly, on the balls of her feet. When the customer finally placed their order, Mia gave the impression that they had just made the best decision of their day. To Tobias, this was pure magic.
The highlight of his year was the day Mia recited his order to him as he approached the counter. “Cortado with a half packet of stevia, right?” She beamed wide-eyed, turning her head to one side and giving him a sideways look. Her mouth remained playfully agape in anticipation of his confirmation.
“Uh, yeah. You remembered,” Tobias said awkwardly straightening his glasses, which did not necessarily require straightening.
“Of course!” Mia smiled. “That’s $4.85.” She rotated the point of sale register around for Tobias to enter his card payment and floated away to make his coffee. He watched her expertly release the grounds from the bean grinder into the portafilter, tamp the grounds, and latch it into the group head of the espresso machine. She slapped the dispense button and got to work steaming the milk while the espresso dribbled forth into a ceramic demitasse. Steam clouded the sides of the glass cup as she poured the espresso into a Gibraltar. Using a spoon to filter out any froth from the stainless-steel pitcher, she slowly poured the milk in. This was all standard barista artistry, but the best part was watching her take that single light green packet, tear off the top, and meticulously dispense exactly one-half of its granular contents into the beverage and stir it well. That extra care she took, the attention to detail, to Tobias, was an act of love. It was love.
He never knew which days he would interact with Mia. Some days she was making the coffees or darting in and out of the back but when she was at the register, his heart raced and a wave of anxiety would wash over him as he entered the coffee shop. Anxiety, as an evolutionary adaptive function, is the brain’s way of pushing one toward action. His anxiety was compelling Tobias to say something! But he never did. He was both captivated and helpless to act on his desires. Now that she knew his drink order, it was hardly necessary for him to say anything at all. He was content with this plight since it was the most prudent way to remain in good standing with his young muse, who by remembering his coffee order and her willingness to go the extra mile to fulfill it, knew him more intimately than anyone else in his sad, uneventful life.
On his way home from work that day, at a stoplight, Tobias glanced over into the display window of a big-box bookstore. Shockwaves reverberated through his chest. There must have been thirty hardback copies of Everly Bronson’s The Courage to Start Again stacked artfully into a literary tower of betrayal. It was the first day of her book’s release. Although he hadn’t read the women’s self-help bestseller in its entirety, Tobias summed it up as How to give up on the things in life that are hard and take advantage of opportunities to trade up.
A car horn startled him. The man in his rearview mirror was gesturing forward with his palms face up and mouthing the word, “GO!” Tobias offered a vaguely apologetic wave and proceeded to navigate home to an even more tangible confirmation of his failed life.
Tobias took up residence at the Vista Hermosa apartment complex in a less than desirable part of town where liquor stores, self-storage, and used tire shops were never in short supply. It was the style of apartment building that resembled a 1960’s motor inn with geometrically designed metal railing along the second-floor units. The apartment listing boasted poolside views, which was a true claim since the three identical buildings formed a ‘U’ around a semi-regularly maintained rectangular swimming pool. The same geometric metal railing encircled the pool area, which included several adjustable lounge chairs, yellowed by the sun, and two sets of metal picnic tables with four chairs each, all attached by bicycle cable locks to prevent theft.
Tobias lived on a second-floor, 550-square-foot one-bedroom unit. He lived minimally, more so from indifference than philosophical principle. Everly was generous in the divorce settlement, giving him most of their furnishings and essential household supplies. She even paid off the remaining balance on his car and student loans so that he could start his new life debt-free. All of this, Tobias regarded as pity and resented it bitterly.
He only selected the essential pieces from their furniture collections, mainly due to the drastic reduction in square footage. He had a bed and a dresser, a couch, a coffee table, and a large desk that took up the entire allotted dining area off the kitchen where he sat for hours either toiling over his book revisions or playing Ever After, an online sandbox game. He didn’t bother putting up any wall art or decorative embellishments, except for a painted cow skull he bought at a flea market one year, which Everly disallowed from being displayed in their home. He haphazardly hung it, above the couch and off-centered, from a single nail. The ugliness of it, and the rest of the furniture placement, was an apostasy against an oblivious recipient, a performative tantrum no one would ever even notice.
Seeing his ex-wife’s book display sent Tobias into a downward spiral of self-loathing. As he entered the modest residence he made a b-line to his desk and started up his computer. His manuscript was open on the desktop screen. His manuscript had been organized by scenes rather than chapters so that he could endlessly rearrange them, creating tedious timeline tweaks. This had become a kind of rudimentary therapy and he felt compelled to toil away, alternating fruitlessly between creation and destruction. It was a neurotic game that provided a placeholder for purpose, in the way that worry provides a route for the anxiety of uncertainty.
The cursor blinked impatiently after the last word he had typed the night before, as if it were mocking him, as if it were dubious of any creativity, any originality at all. He minimized the window and logged into the Ever After web portal. He placed a plastic souvenir Viking helmet upon his head and for the next six and a half hours, Tobias was Lord Magnus Magoo, ruler of the Terakaan Empire. He played until his eyes burned, pausing only to urinate or forage for snacks, never once removing that ridiculous helmet.