Anna Krestler is adrift. The Internet has draped itself, kudzu-like, over her brain, which makes it even more difficult to confront the question of what to do when she is dismissed from her job as a cubicle serf at a midtown law firm. Despite the exhortations of Leslie, her friend and volunteer life coach, Anna seeks refuge in the back alleys of craigslist, where she connects with Taj, an adherent of a nebulous movement known as Nowism that occupies the most self-absorbed fringes of the art world.
Art, Anna decides, is what will provide the meaningful life she’s been searching for and knows she deserves. She joins Taj’s “crew” and is drawn into his grand experimental film project. But making art is hard and microwaving pouch foods is easy. Soon enough Anna finds herself distracted by myriad other quests: remembering to ask Leslie “How are you?,” reducing her intake of caloric drinks, and parrying her mother’s insistence that she attend hairdressing school. But when Anna’s twenty-seven-year-old roommate—a perpetual intern named Brie—announces her pregnancy, it forces Anna to confront reality, setting off a chain of events that lead to a horrifying climax of betrayal.
Time theft. This was Anna’s first thought when she found out she was being let go. Everyone was doing it—Brandon was practically webcasting gay porn from his cube—but for some reason management had decided to unleash the mailbox scrubbers and digital hounds on her. Worse, she couldn’t deny it. The Internet had draped itself, kudzu-like, over her brain. There were disturbing signs. Or rather, signs that Leslie later pointed out were disturbing. Like the spam collection. “Spam’s not a collectible,” Leslie had said when Anna laid her confession on the table. “That’s not a thing, Anna.” And Anna had to explain because Leslie didn’t know what it was like out there—her floors were cleaned by tiny robots with cute names. Market brinksmanship had driven spammers to new poetic heights. Someone should be saving it, studying it, sorting it according to some matrix of desperation, even.
“‘Tiny bubbles of discontent surround me because I’m as lonely as a shark in the deep blue ocean.’” Anna quoted from a Ukrainian escort’s solicitation she’d rescued from the filters. “Don’t you think that’s kind of beautiful?”
“Don’t you have better things to do than read spam?” Leslie countered.
That assumption, Anna had to admit, was debatable.
Of course, when Anna was called into Mr. Brohaurt’s office, she felt ill at the thought he’d discovered her littleKunstkammer of spam. Only four years older, Chad Brohaurt made forty times her annual salary and could cleave the Earth with his jawline. There was some incredibly filthy stuff in there, things she’d felt obligated to include for the sake of completeness. Sitting on his couch of real leather, she had the urge to confess, explain that she always started off clicking on something perfectly reasonable. Then one thing led to another and before she knew it,whoops! down the rabbit hole. Only it wasn’t a “rabbit hole” was it? “Rabbit hole” implied someplace whimsical and fun, an enchanting place where you could enjoy weapons-grade cocktails with a well-dressed rodent. The Internet was more like an asshole. An asshole whispering of African fruits with miraculous weight-loss properties and discounted mani-pedis in some forlorn section of Queens.
It turned out her dismissal from Pinter, Chinski and Harms had nothing to do with time theft, though. Mr. Brohaurt had sat down by the window, put a sad hand on the knee of his expensive pants. “This has nothing to do with you, Anna,” he’d said. “Everyone’s getting a haircut.” And Anna had stupidly looked out at Madison Avenue, curious about the new haircut. Of course, he’d meant budget cuts and the other white-shoe law firms. The new austerity. The end of everything.
But that was five weeks ago, and now here was Leslie’s voice calling her back to their “sesh” like the gentle chime of a laptop rebooting.
“Thirty-seven is not the end,” she was saying. “It’s really just the middle.”
Anna had taken Leslie up on her offer reluctantly. In general, she felt pretty ambivalent about time spent offline. With other people she always ended up pretending to be someone else, someone more like them. Whereas alone with the Internet, she was totally herself. There were no vagaries. She clicked on exactly what she felt like clicking on and each click defined her. Even the spam. Especially the spam. Besides, what kind of person needed a life coach? Of course, Leslie wasn’t a real Life Coach, but she was a consultant at McKinsey, which trafficked in all the same theories, or so she had assured her. But to her surprise, Anna found herself looking forward to the ritual. They met on Sundays at Café Gowanus, which she liked even though it was built on a Superfund site. The café was as clean and bright as the Apple store it might well have been, full of ambitious people with hyphenated jobs and nice clothes, hunched over their MacBooks. It was as though the sugar packets had all been secretly filled with Adderall; just being in the room gave her a charge. Each week, Leslie armed Anna with a variety of motivational sayings—Reposition Your Disposition, Negativity Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy—cranks to power her way toward a new life. It hadn’t exactly worked out that way. For now, her weeks were still powered by Triscuits and the Web, but she enjoyed the security of Leslie’s firm hand on the rudder.
“Did you think about what we talked about last time?” Leslie said.
“Yes,” Anna said, remembering only that last time they had talked about what to talk about this time.
“I’m thinking of taking a class.”
She waited, but Leslie’s expression did not change. The pen stayed where it was, next to the half-eaten scone and the egg timer.
“You already have a master’s,” Leslie said.
“This is different.”
“Taking a class isn’t strategic, Anna. That’s operational.”
“It depends—” Anna began, because she already had a theory about this, but Leslie cut her off again.
“Remember: a goal without a plan is just a wish.”
“And I’m sure you’ve already asked yourself this, so let’s pretend I’m not asking, but is this really what you need to be spending your severance on?” Leslie set her latte down inside Anna’s Core
Competencies as if it were nothing more than a cocktail napkin. Which, of course, it was. They were sitting by an open window, the air off the canal as fresh as a newborn fart, with Anna’s Life Map on the table between them. “Your Core Competencies still look thin,” Leslie said, prodding the moist napkin.
“Let’s go back to your experience at grad school, mine it for some strengths.”
“That was years ago,” Anna began. If anything, shouldn’t they be talking about Pinter, Chinski and Harms, where the wounds were still fresh, Google-searchable? “Why rehash that stuff now?”
“Because you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” Leslie said, possibly for the second time. “Start with the dissertation.”
Anna’s stomach plunged. Dissertation had the same effect on her as the word sarcoma.
How she had missed graduate student life at first! Her amorphous days tethered to an illusory sense of purpose. Setting off for a bright café like this one each morning to not write her thesis. How she missed lunches with Sveta and Evgeni (the Slavic Studies department was stuffed with Slavs perfecting their Slavism). Of course, a month after the department kicked her out the pendulum had swung hard the other way. Academia, she realized, was a sham. An intellectual sports club where she could walk the treadmills of her pointless arguments for years, mesmerized by the illusion of progress. Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to rise early each morning, get on the subway with her lunch in a bag, disgorge at the foot of some gleaming mass of glass and steel, serve as the filling in a capitalism cannoli. She had taken the job at Pinter, Chinski and Harms because it was a name that made people say “Oh!” They hadn’t heard of it, just felt as though they should have. In truth, it didn’t pay that much—not enough to live without a roommate—but there were benefits, including, Anna remembered with a twinge, tuition reimbursement. Six years later and what did she have to show for it? Aside from the cubital tunnel syndrome she’d developed dragging files from one subdirectory to another for hour after useless hour. No, she didn’t want to talk about the past, she wanted to talk about the future.
“Criminology,” Anna said. The idea had come to her while watching a TiVoed episode of True Crime.
“Huh?” Leslie said, looking up from the Venn diagram she’d begun drawing.
“The class. I know it sounds random, but in a crazy kind of way, it’s perfect. Look, it’s got something for each of my Spheres.” And to Anna’s surprise, Leslie allowed her to take the pen from her hand.
“Criminology. It’s about figuring things out. It’s about writing and analysis. And when you think about it, it’s all about people.” Leslie continued to say nothing, which Anna found encouraging. “The other thing I like is how it’s sort of, you know, provocative. Because—let’s admit it—murder is interesting.
‘Abnormal personalities,’” Anna air-quoted. “Psychopaths, rapists, pedophiles.” Leslie looked around in alarm at the word pedophiles, but Anna kept going. “So even if you’re just moving a bunch of papers around on a desk, the serial killers still keep things jumping on a certain level—”
“If,” Leslie cut her off, “you are really serious about criminology and you’re sure that’s what you want to do, we’ll put it on the map. It’s your map, Anna. Honestly, do whatever you want. You can be a criminologist. You can be a unicorn. It’s all you. But know that this is major. OK? Something like that changes your entire Vision Statement. It’s a campaign, not something you can just stick in your Spheres.” Leslie took the pen back from Anna, who had waved it decisively all around the map without daring to make an actual mark. And as it slipped from her hand, Anna couldn’t help but notice that Leslie’s pen, which was heavy and silver and probably had her initials engraved on it somewhere, was, let’s face it, kind of obnoxious. It was—how hadn’t she noticed this earlier?—a fuck-you pen. Despite herself, Anna suddenly hated Leslie all over again. Leslie, who could sit there looking so very Whole Foods, with her curator husband and three-bedroom condo at the Emory, her job at McKinsey, those Selima Optique sunglasses—telling Anna exactly what she could and couldn’t stick in her Spheres. Anna couldn’t help but wonder if Leslie and Josh were still trying to have another baby or if things had gotten dire. She imagined Leslie wouldn’t let it go lightly. There would be egg donors, sperm spinning, even surrogacy. Wouldn’t it be just like Leslie to outsource?
“Of course, if you feel like you’ve given criminology the proper amount of consideration,” Leslie continued, “and you’re ready for Process and Learning, then let’s do it. Go ahead. Put it down.”
They both knew that Anna was not ready for Process and Learning.
And criminology wasn’t even the worst of it. Anna had spent last night jotting down ideas in the margins of The New Yorker that she’d gotten from ads—the Middle Monterey Language Academy (Make a language breakthrough!), Voyages to Antiquity (Experience the extraordinary cultures of ancient civilizations!), Vantage Press (Publish your book now!)—opportunities that had seemed so alluring, with their elegant font and refracted New Yorker glory, when she’d perused them alone at her kitchen table.
“You think I’m mean,” Leslie sighed.
“I just want you to weigh your options before jumping into something,” she said, rising from the table.
“Again. Honestly, Anna. You have a nice life. Is this the kind of thing you really want in your head before you go to sleep at night? Murder? Pedophiles?” She shook her head, shook out the pedophiles.
“I’m going to run to the loo, and when I get back, I think we should start all over with some To-From statements. Stop worrying about the big picture, OK? Better to have some low-hanging fruit at this stage. Makes the whole thing look doable. Start without me and think about the ‘From.’” Leslie gave Anna a light squeeze on the shoulder and smiled. “Carpe diem, right?”
Leslie’s eyes were so clear and calm, so reassuringly full of goodwill that all Anna could do was smile back. And as Anna smiled, she hated herself for hating Leslie, who had, after all, sacrificed her Sunday afternoon to help Anna. Leslie was, in fact, always volunteering to help Anna, forwarding e-mail about secret sample sales, reminders about daylight saving time, status updates from people they’d both gone to high school with, whom Anna had deliberately (and at no small emotional cost) managed to ice out of her life. Leslie had canceled her Pilates class to make Anna’s whole thing look doable, but what had Anna ever done for Leslie? And on the heels of this self-doubt came another panicky thought: had these laptop people been sitting here the whole time, listening to her and Leslie? The tables at Café Gowanus were jammed right up against one another, practically overlapping. Anna turned to the couple at the neighboring table, and was relieved to find them both too deep into their screenplays to notice much else.
“What’s with the Celtx?” the man was saying. “I thought I told you to buy Final Draft.”
“It does the same exact thing,” said the woman, who looked gaunt and Vice magazinish, her cheekbones holding up her face like tent poles. “The only difference is one’s free.”
“If you think producers won’t see the glitches when you convert to PDF, you’re wrong. They’re definitely gonna think you belong in the slush if you won’t even cough up two-fifty for professional screenwriting software.”
The woman stared morosely into the screen, not saying anything as the guy retreated to his cell phone.
“I’m telling you,” he said, jabbing apps with one finger, “you send it in like that, you’ll hear crickets.”
“Whatever, MFA timewaster.”
And in that moment, with their undrunk drinks, shadows tattooed to the wall, the man’s hat struggling to contain his hair—there was something so oddly familiar about the scene. Suddenly, she had it. L’Absinthe! Only it was the modern-day equivalent of the Degas painting: L’iPad. Feeling pleased with herself, Anna took a fresh sheet of paper and wrote the words Pinter, Chinski and Harms under the word From. She underlined the words twice, stared down at the page. But a minute later, it was still blank and she couldn’t help thinking this whole exercise begged the question How many fresh starts can a person reasonably expect to make in life? Unironically, that is.
Now here was Leslie again, looking somehow refreshed. She had done something to herself in the
bathroom. What was it? A fresh coat of lipstick? Or blush, the invisible kind that looks like you aren’t even trying? No. Maybe she’d removed a coat of something? Was that the trick? You refresh by stripping back, like peeling away the generic wall-to-wall carpeting to reveal the charming hardwood below? Suddenly, more than anything, more than solving the riddle of her future, all Anna wanted to know was what Leslie had done to herself in the bathroom.
“What?” Leslie said. “Is there something on my face?”
“No.” Anna pressed a glass of ice water to her cheek. “I just like your hair more the other way.”
Leslie glanced at the piece of paper, flipped it over. “You’re taking things too literally. What do both of these things have in common? Grad school and Pinter?”
“The B line?” Anna ventured.
“Stasis,” said Leslie. “I want you to stop worrying. Stop thinking.”
“Don’t take it as criticism.” Leslie drew a line down the middle of the page, wrote “Definitional Present” at the top of one column, and “Aspirational Future” at the top of the other.
“And don’t drift off on me again. This whole process will go so much better if you clear your mind.”
“Remember, there’s no need to rush into Implementation.”
Anna was about to agree again. To agree as many times, in fact, and for however long, as Leslie wanted her to, when a man balancing two lattes bumped into the table, spilling his coffee. They both looked up. He wore the standard hipster uniform—a T-shirt featuring a bleak water tower and skinny jeans—yet somehow radiated the unmistakable air of a cherry picker. There’s unread e-mail in that man’s in-box, Anna thought. His cell phone was probably vibrating against his balls at this very moment. Lately it had become hard to separate what Anna really wanted from the things she felt obligated to manufacture for Leslie’s consent, but now she experienced a moment of clarity. The thing she wanted more than anything else, the answer to every To statement, was simply: e-mail. More e-mail, better e-mail. Looking up at the man, she lost herself to a fantasy of his in-box: booty calls, exclusive invites, jokey messages from intelligent colleagues about inspired, time-sensitive projects. E-mail like that one she’d received from Columbia years ago informing her she’d been accepted to the Department of Slavic Languages. Con-gratu-fucking-lations. Her heart beat faster now, just thinking about that e-mail. What she wouldn’t give to feel the adrenaline rush of that first virgin click again.
Since leaving Pinter, Chinski and Harms, Anna had kept a solitary unread e-mail in her in-box. It sat there like a goldfish in its parenthetical bowl, keeping her from feeling lonely. When she went to lunch, she turned off her phone just to ride the high of withdrawal, and while she ate tried to guess the number of messages that would be waiting for her back home. Often the number was still one. She would then sit in front of Gmail for a minute or ten, willing the 1 to change to a 2. And sometimes, as if by sheer magic, it did.
“Excuse me,” the man said, executing a deft, Zumba-like move to prevent more spillage.
“No problem,” Anna said, wondering how many Google search results there were for his name. Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? More? She looked back down at her Life Map, watching as the slow latte river blurred the word objective, coming menacingly close to the little star-shaped icon. The one representing her.
ALINA SIMONE is a critically acclaimed singer who was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her music has been covered by a wide range of media, including BBC’s The World, NPR, Spin, Billboard, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of You Must Go and Win, a collection of essays. Note to Self is her first novel. This essay originally appeared on FSG’s Work in Progress.