It seems like a fitting enough place, all things considered – even if no one knows it and no one knows why. Here where the air is rich with the scent of steam which shouldn’t even be a scent at all and the various fragrances of food and drinks being made, consumed, and discarded mingle together in that way which should create some abominable odor but never quite does.

But I get ahead of myself.

“Hmm…” the doctor offers with his hands wrapped in the sterile nitrile gloves of his profession. “How long has it been like this?”

“Not sure anymore,” I tell him. “So long I can’t remember.”

He gives me another sound through a mask that hides his face and I know what he’s going to say before he says it because I know everything that can be said.

The sad truth is that I want it to be something meaningful. I want him to say it’s an infection or cancer. I want him to say that it’s alien DNA and a xenomorph is going to burst through my chest. I want him to say that they need to take blood samples and I want them to find out that the needles don’t pierce the skin.

Ask someone if they want to see a violent alien invasion and – sure, they’ll admit that it would be terrifying – but they’ll almost always say yes even if they don’t really want to say it – even if they don’t say it with their mouth.

They say it because we all want to believe that there’s something else. Something more. Something different. We want to see water that flows uphill and trees that grow sideways. We want to see somebody spontaneously combust just so that we know something amazing can actually happen.

We want Hagrid to kick the door down and say, “You’re a wizard, Harry.”

And then we remember that we’re not. We never will be. We can’t be.

I know that gremlins aren’t stealing my pens at work unless Dave in Professional Services used to – by mere chance – be called “the gremlin” back in his varsity days.

We’re all of us looking at a tagline that says, “This is the artist’s interpretation of human isolation, encompassing everything and nothing and coalesced into the mental state of the post-post-modern society as seen through the lens of…whatever…” but we all know we’re looking at a blank canvas and the artist just knows how to bullshit a gallery so that they’ll pay him for it.

Bonus points for cleverness. Points deducted for integrity.

“Apply cortisone cream and Neosporin,” the doctor says. “Try to keep it covered when you sleep. You’re probably scratching it at night.”

I feel like I’m saying the words along with him in my head.

No need for a prescription. No need for a follow-up.

The unbridled, downward slope of the mundane is the only real diagnosis and the only cure is – according to most – not so much a cure as it is a resignation.

Some people will lie and say that the mundane is fine with them. The routine is fine. Life is fine. If you asked them about the addition of any new chaos in their life, they would look you in the eyes and tell you that they have no need for it. Better the peaceful reprieve of boredom than the insertion of needless mayhem and all the pain and tears that it will likely bring.

It reminds me of a study that was done some time back. Participants were placed in a room with nothing to do. In the room, there was a button. The only thing the button did was administer a painful shock. Every participant was told that the button was there and they were told exactly what the button would do. Over half of all participants, when left alone with nothing but boredom and their thoughts, would push the button because eventually, the insertion of self-inflicted pain was preferable to all those seconds that led up to it.

When I get to the office, things look the way they always look. They sound the way they always sound. The beep of the door that lets me in. The scattered, muffled noise of people on phones and people typing and people being there but not really there because they’re looking at the phone in their hands instead of the screen in front of their faces. Luckily, the other people on the screen don’t notice because most of them are just looking at themselves, looking at themselves, looking at themselves because everyone wants to be the center of the universe and watching yourself in a Zoom meeting is as close as most of us are ever going to get to a camera on a film set.

In my mind, a few spare synapses seem to jokingly say, “Lights, camera, action!” and I time it so that my screen unlocks right on cue.

A star is born.

Somewhere else a star is dying – literally and figuratively, I suppose.

In a meeting with nine other people comprised of three still images, two black screens, and four faces that occasionally move out of sync with the person responsible for the face in question, my microphone is muted and my eyes dart from screen to screen.

I’m not busy or even sure what I’m looking at or why, but no one is saying anything I care about, and looking at something other than Tabitha’s double chin when she speaks about cloud integration with user data profiles seems like a worthy escape even if never lasts long.

If I had a shock button of my own, my finger would be glued to it.

While everyone is doing their four-thousandth “okay, goodbye,” “see you” “take care” that accompanies the wave and disconnect dance of the digital meeting, we’re also informed that it’s Tabitha’s birthday and there’s cake in the break room.

There’s a part of me that dreads this as someone will inevitably walk by and mention there’s cake. They’ll ask me if I’m getting cake. They’ll ask me in the past tense if I’ve had it. It’s the same routine I see every time it snows and the whole world acts like it’s the first time it happened.

“Did you see it’s snowing?” “Hey, it’s snowing” “Wow, it’s really coming down” “They say it’s gonna be at least three inches”

I hate dodging the cake question because anything other than excitement for cake breeds questions about diets and diabetes and with a two hundred, thirty-seven pound body that often feels like a tube of pudding spilling over my size thirty-nine jeans, it’s hard to say the word diet and have anyone think that it means what it’s supposed to mean.

I’d love to say that I’m eating healthy or trying to eat healthier but I know that eating more kale is limited in functionality when it’s just replacing the lettuce on a double cheeseburger, and the myriad of other pretensive actions I take are the equivalent of switching out soda for tea and paying no attention to the size of the fries I keep ordering.

I cave to the conversation that I don’t want to have before it happens and I let myself fall into the wonderful, human repository of justifications.

I don’t get to have a xenomorph or the ability to climb walls. I don’t get to see an alien invasion or shoot lasers from my eyes. I don’t get to escape the circle that, pixel by painful pixel, has begun to look more and more like a spiral with each passing year and so I tell myself that I should at least get to enjoy cake.

It’s the honorable mention of life, after all. The participation trophy of human mediocrity. We find the things that didn’t kill us – the ones that could have been worse – and we pretend it’s a celebration because the flip side is that we recognize that we wanted something better than “at least you’re not dying” and since we can’t have it, we allow ourselves a piece of cake to celebrate that the news wasn’t worse instead of getting to celebrate news that’s actually good.

Mark is behind four other people, queued up like cake cattle at the long table in the room, and when he sees me he says, “Things check out okay? Not cancer, right?” He says it with a grin because that’s what we do to diffuse things. We turn life into jokes and punchlines because if we stop smiling for too long we know that there won’t be a reason to start it up again and so we protect our fragile, fake smiles with artificial sweetener and what passes for conversational wit so that we don’t lose that particular battle and realize it’s the last one we have left to lose.

I stifle the urge to say that it is, in fact, cancer but part of me wonders if he realizes that one day he’ll say that to someone who was just told that they have stage four pancreatic cancer and that they’re still there at work because the news hasn’t settled in just yet and it’s easier to pretend that life keeps going and that deadlines still matter because their last smile is about to give and they’ve just been informed of the delivery date.

“All good,” I say instead. I give him the same smile I’ve been perfecting for so many years that I don’t even know where it came from, but I know it isn’t mine and it never has been.

We have nothing else to say beyond that. What else can be said? How many conversations can be had about server errors and that someone is quitting and someone else just got hired? Cake, in and of itself, cannot carry a conversation that is any deeper than the frosting that’s sitting like a crown of complacency on its soft, pillowy frame.

I take mine back to my cube where no one can see me. I oftentimes imagine myself as a stray dog picking up a scrap of food and running away into a dark alley, hunched over it and consuming it like I’m fearful of food theft. I have no fear that anyone plans to steal my food, however. I’ve simply eaten alone for so long that the idea of people watching me eat makes me nervous as though, unlike all other humans, my method of consumption is crude and alien and would frighten small children.

The cake is the type of cake that you expect to get in a corporate office where people say things like “team” and “family” and “unity” and “cohesion” and “synergy” and all the places look the same so that if the lights were off you could get lost in the same-on-same, square-on-square formatting that makes me feel like a courier new character – individual in concept only, but as evenly spaced as the rest so that whatever is unique or special can be mitigated so that the other letters don’t feel overshadowed.

In short, it’s the kind of cake made in bulk repetition – it tastes about the same.

I think about scraping the frosting off as the inane mental guilt machine within my brain pretends to care about calorie counts and step goals, only to be overridden by the desire to pretend I’m celebrating because the doctor didn’t say that life is like a school where everyone has forgotten to plan a curriculum and I get to leave early.

No one really looks up and pays attention until something is out of place.

Curiously, if something is suddenly in the place it’s expected to be – even if that’s usually the place it never is – people are less likely to notice.

A man can forget to put his keys on the hook by the door every day for a month. Every day, the same moment occurs where he goes to grab his keys, sees they’re not there, and then he looks for them. Almost every day they can be found in the pants he wore the day before. Every day, he expects to find the keys on the hook and yet his brain will never normalize that they will always be in his past-tense pockets.

The one day he leaves and the keys are on the hook, he will grab them as though this is the norm. He will leave his home and drive to wherever he’s going. He might never once stop and realize that the exception to the rule is the exception to the rule because he firmly believes that the rule is the exception so that when the exception occurs, it means that life is normal. Things are as they should be. Life is going smoothly.

It’s a Wednesday when I realize that I’m using the same pen that I feel certain I saw last week. It’s not the most mind-blowing revelation ever, but in a world where excitement is synonymous with a stable VPN connection, it eventually stands out enough to notice.

Granted, many a pen is the same, but I’m looking at it now and I’m seeing the words “Reltech Industries: Where Innovation Meets Imagination” and the back end has the little bite mark I reflexively make like I’m a teething puppy every time I put the pen in my mouth because I’m one of those people that puts pens in his mouth even when I know how disgusting that reality is.

The proverbial keys are by the metaphorical door and I’m now literally curious.

I’m not, however, curious enough to care. Or inquire.

After all, if I lived in a neighborhood where my belongings are constantly stolen, I would not – upon finding my belongings not having been stolen – go searching for the criminals to make sure they were okay out of fear that they had not stolen enough from me.

It’s Friday when we’re having an “All Hands” meeting and someone mentions the card going around for poor Dave in professional services. I don’t know what’s wrong with him and I’m mostly sure I won’t find out anytime soon.

Three years ago, a woman named Karen died. She was younger than I was. I have no idea how or why. In truth, the only reason I felt curious was because of her age compared to mine. Was it something I need to worry about? Did she die in her sleep? Was there pain? Was it cancer? Did she find herself looking at someone asking her, “Not cancer, right?” only to find herself incapable of saying that it was because then she’d have to let her smile drop and, like dominos, see everyone else’s follow suit?

It’s peculiar how often so many of us allow ourselves to be made uncomfortable and voluntarily inconvenienced so that other people don’t have to hurt or worry even when – and, I might say, especially when – those who we are trying to not infect with discomfort and pain would never do the same for anyone but themselves. Dying slow deaths of willful neglect because we’d rather drown in tears than make one callous, self-serving asshole feel for half a second that they don’t get to be the hero in their own self-constructed universe of selfish intent.

What I remember most about Karen’s death is that I started trying to eat more kale and did a decent job of quitting smoking until they made nicotine taste like blueberry muffins.

It’s Monday and I’m at home, but not because it’s my normal routine.

Life has changed because Dave never did get any better. There was a virtual meeting where everyone was again silently obsessing on how good or bad they looked while looking at themselves, looking at themselves and pretending that they cared to look at anyone else while not really listening to anyone. Mark mentioned that Dave wasn’t coming back and no one actually asked for any further clarification because no one wants to pry.

It’s the same reason people die in the snow on street corners. It’s not that we don’t want to help – we just don’t want to pry.

It’s why a wife gets beaten by her husband on the other side of a wall so thin I can talk along with their television – it’s not that I don’t want to help – I just don’t want to pry.

It would seem absurd that the whole office is taking precautionary measures but I get the feeling that someone else has likely gotten sick and – even if it’s not the same thing – everyone is paranoid and now a cleaning crew is probably in the office with machines pushing steam so hot it could take the skin off your body through the paper-thin, economy carpet of our offices. Chemicals that would make bleach feel shy being spritzed by people wearing protective gear because the only thing the chemicals won’t devour is plastic.

Like everyone else, I’m mostly just waiting for the all-clear so we can once again tap our feeder bars and tell ourselves that tomorrow will be the day we finally start to live – or else, finally start to die in some way that has more flourish than the slow deprecation of existence that we’re all slowly typing out letter by letter on mechanical keyboards and glossy cell phones.

I take respite in the fact that fear is a drug that can do as much for human interaction as alcohol and when some people are faced with the reality of mortality, they become that person in vegas who realizes that they’ve gone too long placing coins in the slot machine and now they’re putting their car keys on double zero on the roulette wheel.

I’d love to say that it’s here that my life takes a sudden dramatic turn. Things become bright and meaningful. I want to say that I learn that, with the love of the right woman at the right time, life suddenly takes on a profound meaning. Suddenly, there’s a purpose. Suddenly, the spiral isn’t a spiral anymore but some amazing fractal design of interconnected lives and variables and it’s all so beautiful.

So beautiful you just can’t imagine.

What I can say instead is that a lack of social aptitude can only be mitigated so much by the circumstances of fear and our own mortal imperative. I can only say that appetizers and dinner for two with drinks came with a bill of $82.27 and I gave the server a 25% tip because I tell myself I’m not a monster so that I don’t have to feel like one later that night when I hear Amanda Simmons crying next door and Johnathan – who goes by Arthur because he thinks it sounds more masculine – is slurring his words because he’s a machine that runs on bourbon.

It’s August and, if I’m being honest, days don’t really seem all that important anymore.

Last month, people were admitted in bulk to various hospitals and no one really knew why. Everything seems a bit murky. Carl Thompson had been admitted with heart palpitations and doctors said that he seemed to be showing signs of a shellfish allergy but they couldn’t confirm if he’d eaten shellfish recently because he died before he could tell them.

It was one of those occurrences that only became a talking point two weeks later when similar issues were happening to other people, though it didn’t seem connected because it just seemed like this person is allergic to strawberries. Another was allergic to peanuts.

People have allergies, after all. This is nothing new.

It didn’t become worrying until they finally had people dying of allergies to things they didn’t ingest – weren’t around – hadn’t touched.

Part of me pivots between “I’m glad it’s not me” and “even in this, I’m not included”.

Leave it to the human condition to see myself as a victim because I’m still alive.

Doctors have so many EpiPens at the ready that there are whole cleaning supply closets filled with them. Beds don’t fill up so much as they are temporarily occupied and then made vacant because the window between life and death versus life and more life is happening at the speed of anaphylaxis.

Agencies are going through restaurant dumpsters and three men are arrested because they emigrated from Tunisia and one had a brother who was a suspected terrorist in a bombing on the Algerian border.

Every alphabet-soup collective and think tank is sorting through the debris and the growing pile of bodies and data to connect strings to pushpins – CSI: Mt. Saint Nowhere.

For me, it just means that work has become so concerned with talking about who and what and where and why and what we’re doing about it that I can mostly not exist and no one would be the wiser. I can sit there quietly with my eyes darting around my various screens and ignore the chatter more than usual because so little of it seems even tangentially work-related.

I tell myself that maybe karma will come through and Johnathan Arthur Simmons will finally get a case of whatever this is because we live in a world where it’s easier for me to think that some mystery problem will kill a man than it is for me to realize I should have called a cop seventeen months ago and then every third day since.

This is what passes for human compassion these days.

Lights, camera, action.

I’m not a fastidious man and I am not Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac.

I would love to say that I crack the case. I solve the puzzle. I put it all together and I alert the authorities so that we can all collectively find salvation.

I would love to say that I was instrumental in some meaningful way. I helped. I cared. I did my best and it mattered. People lived because of me.

I can’t say any of those things without all of them being lies and I tell enough of those to myself every day so that I won’t tell so many to anyone else. Lying to myself, after all, is the lesser evil.

What I do instead is notice my keys on the hook by the door.

Metaphorically speaking.

In a proverbial sense.

In a very literal way.

I find myself at a restaurant that I could have likely never been able to get into without a reservation made by my great grandparents because I’m celebrating that I’m not dead and sometimes an honorable mention is the only thing we get to populate our trophy case.

I find myself eating ice cream because eventually some allergy of mine will come along and that’ll be that. I don’t want my last moments to be filled with regrets because of all the ice cream I didn’t eat. Being fit won’t save me when my throat closes and my eyes roll back into my head and the doctor says “Time of death – 8:18 PM”.

I find myself having sex with someone I never would have – someone who I feel very certain is thinking the same – because expectations get lower when ‘any moment might be your last, after all’ and suddenly rationalizing that regular life is more toxic than any STD gives us a false sense of liberation.

I find myself waking up with blurry eyes because even though I was never one to drink, I have to ask myself what sobriety is doing for me as I slide toward the inevitable decline of absolute certainty.

I suppose I could say that I at least got over eating in front of people but it’s a thin consolation.

As numbers tend to do, numbers keep increasing.

The three men are eventually released but still deported.

Part of the city has signs on buildings letting everyone know that things are closed. Some are doing so because business is failing. Some are doing it because agencies are still combing through their trash and their records. Some are doing it because they see the inevitable and they’re trying to keep whatever assets they have before they die the same death as the business next door.

I haven’t been on a Zoom meeting in weeks and I’m not particularly concerned. Work kept paying me even though the only thing I’ve done regarding work in the last month is to open my laptop, stare at it for a moment and then close it again.

I’ve received eight emails about our Employee Assistance Program and the last two seem like they were not stock letters but rather ones that were definitely written for me.

I can’t say that I’m particularly concerned.

I’m leaving my house and my keys are on the hook by the door. Exactly where they should be.

Next door is a calm world of silence and I haven’t heard crying in days.

The roads are emptier than ever and I couldn’t be closer to some word that another human might call content on a good day or happy on a bad day.

Maybe I have those reversed.

I’m sitting in a restaurant that has more people in it than you’d expect. People are still nervous and I know why. People are telling the restaurant what allergies they have.

Food is being inspected and sterilized as though it’s a new level of culinary chic.

“Give me the brazed lamb twice sterilized with a pre-soak of Elehydroxamine Sulfinate.”

The waiter is wearing nitrile gloves like a doctor and I think about how my rash finally went away. I can’t even remember the last time it flared up.

I order a cup of coffee and nothing more which, I’m sure, seems less odd these days than it might have before.

Tracking back all the who and what and where, I find it funny in a way that is both funny comedically as well as funny curious that so much can happen to so many people and that enough variables in enough places makes everything look like a suspect. I find it funny that when everything is a suspect, it becomes impossible to find the one that matters.

I’m thinking about the places I’ve been and the places I’ll never go and I notice that I don’t see a spiral anymore because the whole circle has been hijacked and bent into something else. It’s not a beautiful fractal and it never will be but sometimes the best we get is what life is not rather than what life could be.

All the same, it seems like a fitting place. Here, surrounded by people who have never known me just as much as everyone who ever knew me never really did. Here where people are looking at their plates and wondering if they get to survive this bizarre edition of the not-so-hunger games.

I’m thinking about the restaurant where Carl Thompson had eaten the same night I was there. I’m thinking about how I touched my neighbor’s mailbox with my middle finger up in some pathetic moment of teenage angst as though it could save Amanda from the violent fists of her husband and how I was so drunk I could barely stand and how I tripped and fell and only barely got inside before Arthur came out and made me confront how big of a coward I really was.

I think about the woman whose name was apparently not Tiffany – and it had never been – who told me she was a philosophy professor as though either of us cared about that between our ninth and tenth shot of rum and our apathy about using condoms and how I wasn’t surprised to see her face with a different name in a later edition of “today’s body count”.

I think about how so many people would rather know that a xenomorph will rip through their chest than to hear another doctor tell them to take these pills because the only condition you’re suffering from is existence and the only cure is to give up or keep suffering.

I tell myself that if these people were alone in a room with me, they would push me to feel the shock of pain because it’s better than the banal existence they keep enduring.

The waiter stops for a moment and asks, quite jokingly, if I’d like some coffee with my sugar – what with the container draining into the cup like a waterfall of white.

I smile at him and say nothing.

I know that in the near future, most of these people will be dead or wishing they were or else lamenting that the person they were eating with died while wondering, “Why them? Why not me? Why is this happening?”

Honestly, the truth is so cumbersome. I tell myself I’m sparing them the burden.

I tell myself that one day I’ll find my own button but for now, this will have to do.

I can’t give them an alien invasion, but I can give them this.

In my mind, I say, “Lights, camera, action.”

I time it so that I swallow on cue and I let science and biology do the rest.

Somewhere a star is dying – but here – everywhere around me – everything smells like sugar.