Whatever you do, make it count
Jak is doomscrolling.
He hasn’t eaten but soon he is going to the store to buy food and a birthday card for his mom. If he doesn’t, there will be a scene like last year when there was crying and a slammed door and ‘after all I have done for you?’
All the news is bad. No one can believe there’s a war, again. He clicks on links telling him it will all be over soon and scrolls past ones about how it won’t be over and will in fact expand and contaminate everything everywhere.
There is a thread lots of people he follows have commented on already.
Generation X is weird.
Well, that’s a fact, he thinks to himself, opens it and reads.
Amazingly both kids are asleep. Maria can’t remember a time they both went down for a nap at the same time, without complaining.
Maybe she’s cracked it? If that’s the case, she can blog about it, set up a group and become a parenting guru.
She goes to the fridge and makes herself a bagel to eat outside.
It’s a warm afternoon and the sun makes it more obvious that the deck needs some love. She will have to see to it – paint it or something. If she doesn’t, no one else will.
Twitter tells her that her boss, Jak, has commented on a thread about Gen X, writing lol, this at the part about how Gen X expect you to send proper emails, with all the words in full.
Jak doesn’t know she follows him. She has a fake profile called @Mindy89 through whose eyes she sees what all her millennial colleagues do outside work and also a real one called @MariaMongle where she talks earnestly about the company. She prefers Mindy. She found Mindy’s picture in an article about cutting-edge artists in Berlin. Mindy has more followers and more fun and is allowed to express her real views, even about controversial matters. No one ever sends Mindy DMs about how ugly and fat she is. Mindy is definitely not a Karen.
As someone born in the middle of Gen X, she reads the thread with interest. Its main point seems to be that there is a clash between Gen X who like to do things properly and Millennials who like to talk about themselves and their trauma much more than they like to do any actual work. Well, that is how she reads it anyway.
@Mindy89 doesn’t like or retweet the thread, and neither does she.
There was a time when she would have read a book whilst eating her lunch. She was less angry then.
Maria puts down the phone to get a book while the sun still shines and the children still sleep.
She tiptoes into her office but accidentally knocks over a bin which falls loudly, waking the kids.
Reading will have to wait.
At the store, Jak buys an avocado. (Ha! Only kidding, of course, he doesn’t.)
At the store, Jak buys bread and the only card he can find which is not terrible. It has a picture of a cat on it and says ‘Happy Birthday! I pooped in your shoes!’ which he thinks his mom will appreciate as it is something Maggie their cat is known for.
There isn’t anything suitable he can buy as a present so he picks up some chocolates and plans to get flowers later.
Outside the store, he bumps into Alison and Rai who tell him they are having a party that night and he should come over.
“On a Sunday?” he asks, unchaining his bicycle.
“Yes, Mr Corporate,” Alison says, he thinks flirtatiously, but who knows, “on a Sunday. Come!”
“I’ve got a family thing,” he says, “but maybe after.”
All the way home he considers whether he should go to the party or not. Tomorrow is their team away day and he has planned it for weeks. It is his first one as team manager.
Yesterday he even went to the stationery store and bought post-its in four colours.
When he gets home, he opens the card and writes a birthday message and, remembering the thread from earlier he writes every single word in full.
The rest of the afternoon is long. Mike is visiting his mom who has early-onset dementia and so it is just Maria and the kids who both want to do entirely different things.
She gets out the art supplies so they can be creative but Max throws them on the floor and cries for his iPad and Maya sits by the door saying ‘out, out, out,’ in a high-pitched whine that makes Maria want to die or run away like a woman in an Anne Tyler novel.
She definitely won’t write a blog about this.
Eventually, she gets both of them in front of the TV sitting quietly with juice boxes and something resembling a lunch but not one you would want anyone else to see your kids consuming, sits down and opens her phone again.
She sees Jak has tweeted a gif of Homer Simpson saying ‘Oh I Can’t Decide,’ and this is related to the question- party on a Sunday night or not?
This is quite shocking to her as tomorrow is their away day. If she was the manager, which of course she isn’t, she knows she would be sitting up tonight going over her plan, checking her resources, and probably baking muffins.
She sees that underneath a girl called Alison Ruffkey who describes herself as a writer and thought-dreamer has written, lol dude come.
Party. Always. writes @Mindy89.
One second later @jak_a_thwaites likes Mindy’s response.
OK then, thinks Maria. OK.
When he gets to his parent’s house, Jak’s dad is out front cutting the hedge as if he has been lying in wait and maybe he has.
The first words he says are, ‘Tell me you got her something?’
This makes Jak remember he forgot the flowers. He waves to try and convey the message yes but not enough, see you in 5 minutes, then turns around and heads to the kiosk.
Behind him, his dad shouts, ‘do you need money son?’ But he keeps walking as though he can’t hear. He is a grown man with a job and a team he manages who look to him for leadership. He has post-its.
It is unbelievable to him how much flowers cost. He buys the smallest acceptable bouquet he can find and heads back to the house. Water from the flowers trickles down his sleeve as he walks.
On the way back he checks Twitter and sees on balance most people are saying he should go out tonight, including Alison and also some hot girl he doesn’t know called Mindy – a dorky name but whatever- and he thinks given the last two years of not going anywhere or doing anything it is probably his duty to go.
Maybe Mindy is a friend of Alison’s?
His sister Janice arrives on the doorstep at the exact same time.
Janice still lives at home and is hoping to become a writer.
He likes her a lot better now she is his sister. Before, when she was Jonny, she was mostly a douche, but now they get on OK.
Often his dad will say dumb things like, ‘Hemingway didn’t have to go to college to become a writer,’ and in those moments he is definitely on Janice’s side. What does his dad know? The man is still on Facebook.
His mum is in the kitchen arranging a plate of cakes.
‘Happy birthday, Mother,’ he says, giving her the bouquet.
She pulls it towards her chest and he can see there are real actual tears in her eyes.
‘Oh, Jak, you shouldn’t have,’ she says, which is confusing given last year.
He shrugs, embarrassed, and sits down at the table, ready for cake. Just wait until she sees the card, he thinks.
There was a time when Maria’s career was going somewhere. That time was before the time that is now when she has to leave work every day on the dot of five to make the day-care pickup.
If you are five minutes late you get a disappointed look from the manager. After that, they charge 10 dollars every 5 minutes. None of that is as bad though as the sight of your child sitting alone on the carpet, waiting for you, too distraught to even cry.
The first day she arrived at Mongle she was excited.
This is what the website says under the ‘Work with Us’ section:
Mongle wants you to bring your whole self to work and has four key values:
- Whatever you do, make it count
- Whatever you do, do it with your whole heart
- Whatever you do, keep the customer in mind
- Whatever you do, do it as a team
Underneath this is a paragraph entitled ‘We Got You’ about the benefits you will enjoy including a hot food buffet, on-site dry cleaner, free gym, health insurance, games room and unlimited ice cream.
When she applied for the job, she had to read about ten pages before she worked out what she would be responsible for marketing, and to be honest six months on, she still doesn’t fully understand the company’s purpose.
This all compared very favourably to her previous role as a stay-at-home mom though, which at the time, she felt enjoyed precisely no benefits whatsoever.
The night before her first day she spent a long time deciding what to wear. Her work clothes had been boxed up since Max was born and when she got them out, they looked like something from a bygone era when pronouns were just something you learned about in grammar lessons. She taped the box up and put it in the car to donate.
In the end, she settled on a pencil skirt and a Uniqlo sweater. Flat pumps. Neutral.
The guy who showed her around was not the one who hired her. Apparently, he had already left since her interview when he had asked her where she wanted to be in five years.
A picture of herself in total solitude flitted into her mind whilst she said, ‘Here, at Mongle.’
The new guy is taller and has brought his whole self to work including a vast array of piercings and body art and an unfriendly demeanour.
When he shows her the ping-pong table and ice cream fridge, she tries to make a joke about, all work and no play making people dull and sees him mouth, ok mom, to himself when he thinks she isn’t looking.
Luckily the girl who sits next to her is friendlier or she would have left on day one and taken her whole self home to her children and her own on-site unlimited ice cream freezer.
After that, it gets better.
‘Tell your father about your big away day tomorrow,’ Jak’s mom says, leaning across the table to pour him some juice.
‘Yes Jak, do tell us about your exciting job,’ says his sister, mocking his mom’s voice the way she hates.
‘It’s no big deal,’ he says. He hates the way they act as if working is a kind of cute thing he does, like a picture brought home from school to stick on the fridge. ‘We’re just taking time out to think about our goals for the next year and stuff.’
This does the trick. He sees their collective eyes glaze over and the conversation is soon taken over by a mini-argument/discussion about what takeout to get – Thai or Chinese. It ends up being him and his mom versus his dad and Janice, the conversation proceeding down well-worn grooves. Neither side wants to concede so in the end, they compromise and get pizza, because underneath it all, it’s what they really want anyway – to sit in the den and eat pizza on their laps like nothing has changed.
When he says goodbye, he sees his mom has tears in her eyes and remembers the parts of the Gen X thread that were kind of sad – the workaholic boomer divorced parents, feeling ignored, not trusting institutions. A lot of that does apply – he’s sort of startled to think of his mom as a person who might have feelings.
He gives her a hug and speaks to her directly (like the thread advised). ‘Love you, Mom,’ he says, heading down the steps ‘thanks for everything.’
As he walks away, he sees his parents waving on the doorstep, together, receding into the distance.
Now, it’s time to party.
The kids are in bed, finally, and with the dishes done and the house quiet, Maria knows this is the time she should get on with starting the blog she has been meaning to start forever or look at courses she could take in the evenings to improve her writing or qualify as a therapist or just something (anything) that would be more meaningful than what she is currently doing.
Yesterday when she was on Twitter, she saw this quote that said,
Why not now go toward the things I love?
And had thought yes, why not.
And she will, soon.
She logs on to remind herself who wrote it (Natalie Diaz), gets side-tracked and sees Jak is at the party.
There is a picture of him – handsome, bearded, awkward – standing between two girls (Alison the thought-dreamer and some other person), smiling and looking happyish.
Clearly, he doesn’t care about work, doesn’t appreciate he has cruised into management whilst she has remained stuck like a limpet in the lower tiers never to progress. It makes her feel so mad she wants to do something radical.
In the back of the drawer by her bed, she keeps a pack of cigarettes for moments like this when Mike is out of town and her rebel heart just won’t beat in tandem with her suburban life. She used to be a party girl. She used to be someone on track to somewhere.
She lights the cigarette and looks again at the picture of Jak and the two women.
As she exhales, outside on her unloved deck, she recognises her rage for what it is. Jealousy.
They are just so young.
Imagine having the choice. Imagine choosing fun.
Didn’t she use to be fun? Didn’t she use to Party? Always?
Didn’t she use to go to parties in search of things, unaware of what life would be like once she found them?
Why not now go towards the thing I love?
Jak wakes up. Alone.
He had looked around for that Mindy person from Twitter but she wasn’t in evidence and nothing was happening with Alison who was in fact all over Rai who had just split up with Mads.
The party was OK but whatever it was he was seeking wasn’t there and now his head hurts and where he should have enthusiasm for the day ahead, he has a lump of dread. He feels like a walking cliché. The hungover, over-promoted, lame-ass, millennial, douche-bag bro boss everyone will laugh at behind his back.
He packs the post-its, pens and some retro hard candy he bought from Amazon for the team. Everyone likes candy, right? And these are the kind he used to buy when he cycled to the store as a kid you can’t buy anymore. Just seeing them makes him nostalgic.
When he finishes setting up the room, he finds the team waiting for him on the sofas and he feels a rush of something a bit like love, which surprises him. After all, they are his team, different as they all are.
‘Did you have a good weekend?’ Maria from Marketing asks, offering him a cup of coffee from the pot, ‘Do anything fun?’
‘Not much,’ he says, taking the coffee and drinking it even though it is boiling hot. ‘It was OK, I guess. My mom’s birthday. You?’
‘Oh, nothing much either,’ she says, sitting down next to him, ‘but I’m looking forward to today, to getting started. I think we’ve got a great year ahead of us. What about you?’
He looks at her, surprised. She’s not normally this upbeat, is usually kind of quiet, the sort of person he thinks of as being one of those Gen X sticklers the thread was talking about, judging him secretly for everything, but now she’s chatting to him, and being nice.
‘Yeah, totally,’ he says, ‘I think we’ve got a great team and we’re going to make this year count.’ He fist-bumps the air as he speaks, sort of ironically.
‘I hope you’re right,’ she says, as they stand up and walk towards the meeting room, ‘it would be great to really make things happen.’
‘Yeah, well me too,’ he says, holding the door open, ‘and look, whatever else. I promise you, there will definitely be plenty of candy and post-its.’
‘You have post-its?’ she asks him, walking into the room and seeing how he has set it up already with a name card for each of them and a big bowl of candy in the middle that matches the company colours exactly, ‘wow, my favourite.’
In the break, Maria goes to the bathroom, sits in the stall and gets out her phone to see if Mike has messaged about how his mom is doing. He hasn’t.
@Mindy89 has a DM. She opens it. It is from Jak. It says ‘hey.’
Something about this makes her so sad that she wants to cry right there and then but the stalls are not fully enclosed and she knows her colleagues will hear.
She feels like in all her life she has never seen anything as sad as this beautiful young man reaching out to a figment of her imagination and she wants to take him in her arms right there and then and tell him – what? That it will all be OK? That he will find love? That one day he too will shackle himself with responsibilities that make him long for these days of uncertainty? She doesn’t know.
All of a sudden, she has a rush of love for Mike and for their home life and all it entails. When she gets home, she will make sure to tell him she loves him. Maybe she will even put on some nice nightwear tonight instead of her vest and joggers?
She closes @Mindy89 down, opens @MariaMongle and writes, ‘Amazing team day with the best team around. Thanks to @jak_a_thwaites for making it happen!’
Then she goes back into the meeting room, ready for whatever the rest of the day brings.
The away day goes really well.
In the afternoon, he has organised a session where they spend time talking about what they really want from the next year.
‘And I don’t mean corporate bullshit stuff,’ he says to the team, ‘I mean really. I want to know what your goals are and how can we all work together to make them happen.’ And they surprise him because they do open up and Maria from Marketing starts talking about this thing she saw on Twitter about ‘going towards the thing you love,’ and how she is hoping to bring more creativity into her work life and this really energises people and they all start talking about the skills they have outside work and the things they love to do and how they can harness these in the team. And he feels good, like maybe he can be a leader, after all.
@Mindy89 doesn’t reply to his DM but that’s OK. Maybe she’s involved with someone else or maybe she’s not looking for someone like him now. He knows that you can’t tell a lot from a picture and that she might not even really be his type, even if she looks like she is.
He cycles home and thinks about going towards the thing you love and what that might mean for him.
He doesn’t know but decides to stop in on his parents on the way home and ask his Mom if she liked the card. And maybe, he thinks, if they and Janice are up for it, they could all hang out and get more pizza.
Deborah Zafer is a highly successful mid-level manager who lives in London with her family and rabbit. She can be found @deborahzafer on twitter and at deborahzafer.com. She has only recently been brave enough to start submitting and now has work in Oranges Journal, A Thin Slice of Anxiety and forthcoming in 3am Magazine, Jewish Fiction and Janus Literary.