This is the story of how I went insane.
The office was a long way off but the commute was short. At 5:20 a.m., expressway traffic was light. If I really stood on the gas, I could get to work in half an hour. All the better for me that there was no one on the road, as I was at the office in what seemed to me a blink. Piecing events together after the fact, I figured I’d dozed off at the wheel for a few miles. I was exhausted.
I pulled into the car park and took the elevator up to the eleventh floor. As usual, I was the first to arrive. The time-activated lights in the office wouldn’t come on for another ten minutes, at 6:00, but by then I’d already had a cup of coffee and gotten started on my second.
Well before the sunrise, I was already at work.
My desk was covered in file boxes, looking like an overstuffed filing cabinet had gone on a bender the night before and puked all over my desktop. Not a square inch of faux wood saw sunlight.
That last thought made me take pause. For nearly a year that I had been working for the firm of Banco Banque and Banquiao, I hadn’t seen any sunlight either. Every day I woke up before sunup, bedded down at midnight, and spent the hours in between at the office. Even at eleven stories up, the office never felt more like a subterranean cavern. My pasty white complexion was proof of this.
The boss checked in at 7:05. I met him in the break room and had a coffee with him. At 9:00 I was due for another, as the effects of the first were starting to wind down. The rest of the office staff filed in at 9:00, and so I thought it best to get a fresh mug before the support staff emptied the pot.
By 10:00 a.m. my caffeine-addled heartbeat felt like a flock of hummingbirds trapped in my chest, yet I was still nodding off at my desk. It annoyed me to no end that I was falling asleep where I least wanted to sleep, and just hours ago I could not sleep where most I wanted to.
There was no time to sleep. There was no time even to live. The billable hour is a thing of the devil, and it had me in its grip.
The office required me to account for every minute of my work time, and expected each minute to be devoted to making my boss money. This I did to an admirable extent: of the fourteen hours spent at work daily, on average I captured twelve billable hours. Two of those hours were spent doing those ancillary, non-billable things I needed to do to support the billable time, such as book-keeping, drinking coffee, and using the bathroom, though I knew of co-workers who had discovered ways to bill the client even while on the toilet.
Of those twelve billable hours, every day my boss skimmed another three off the top, nicking fractions off of each of the billable activities I’d completed. Every week, before writing big checks to the firm, the client would review my time report and knock off another hour or two each day. The firm where I worked would grudgingly acquiesce, thankful to accept some payment over none. By month end, half of my billable hours would be gone, and the boss would drag me into his office by the scruff of my neck. Our discussions were always the same: “Get your hours up, or you’ll get canned.”
It had gone on this way for ten months. As long as I’d been working there, the firm had had it in mind to fire me.
Things really started to get strange at 11:00 a.m. It was Monday, but I had to keep reminding myself because I’d worked fourteen days straight. To me, it felt like the middle of the week.
The days were running together, as though days past and days ahead had melted into a pudding and were blobbing up together. I kept reminding myself to do things I’d already done days ago, because I’d forgotten I’d done them, and because they were super important and needed to be done. I doubted whether I’d actually driven in this morning or just spent the night at the office. My dreams - when I could sleep - were of things I had done at the office or things I needed to do on arriving there. That I was sitting at my desk seemed surreal, like some bizarre yet mundane deja vu.
Lunchtime rolled around. At the bottom of my desk drawer was a bag of apples. I ate one whenever I got hungry. For several days straight I’d eaten nothing but apples, going through a half-dozen daily. At the time - and this is the scary part - it made perfect sense. Eating apples was a boon to efficiency. They were healthy, they needed only one hand to eat and left my other hand free to do work, and since they came in a bunch, I could eat these all day without ever having to leave my desk.
Hungry as I was, I tried to keep the drawer shut as much as I could. The bag of apples was see-through, and underneath it was the resignation letter I had written three months before. I hadn’t signed it, but I’d come very close. It wasn’t dated, but that was intentional, as I could just as easily write in the date when I felt it was time.
I called my wife to let her know I wouldn’t be joining her for dinner at home. Although I told her that I’d be home at 7:00 p.m., I’d already devised a plan for the day. I didn’t tell her this while on the call, but at 7:00 I’d call her and tell her that I needed to stay a while longer. Then, at 9:00, I’d send a text saying that I’d be at work ‘til midnight. Everyone would have gone home by then and the office would be quiet, making it an optimal environment to net a ton more billable hours. Then, when I needed to, I’d sleep at my desk and wake up at 5:00 a.m. the following day (still at my desk) to start the day off. Thankfully, I’d stashed extra clothes in my office, so I could change into them and none of my co-workers would be the wiser that I’d spent the night at the office.
I revised my plan after I’d had another coffee. I didn’t need to sleep. Sleep was beneath me. I shuddered with giddy laughter. I was thinking so fast I was almost prescient. It felt great. My hands shook and my typing speed took a tumble, but these losses could be recouped tonight since I had no need to sleep. And the feeling in my chest that my blood had turned to glass shards as it coursed through my heart could be ignored as a passing inconvenience.
Furtive whispers accompanied shuffling up the hall. “Someone’s fallen.” A man in the building across the street had hurled himself from the top of the car park. What a mess he’d made. He’d ruined his suit, which didn’t matter much anymore, because it didn’t fit him as well as it must have before he took the dive, as the man was spread out for yards across the asphalt.
A question struck me then, as suddenly as an open-palm blow to the forehead: what could drive a man to leap from an otherwise structurally sound office tower? This question may as well have been rhetorical, judging by how quickly the answer came.
I rubbed my eyes, elbowed past the crowd thronged at the glass to get a better look at the dead man lying in the street. In a blink he had gone from wearing pinstripes to brown trousers just like mine and back to pinstripes.
That was the wake-up call, more so than the alarm clock buzzer at 5:05 - SOS - a.m. I went back to my desk and wrote a two-sentence resignation email, completely forgetting about the carefully drafted letter that had sat in my desk drawer for months. I threw the bag of apples into the wastebasket. I didn’t know it just then, but I would develop a taste aversion to apples that would last months.
I powered down my PC and sat, elbows propped on the desk, with my face in my hands. A partner at the firm shoved through my office door without so much as knocking.
“Get your stuff and get out,” he said, which was polite enough, considering he refrained from punting me in the ass when he said that.
That same day my name was removed from the associate roster, and my profile and all signs that I had worked at the firm for nearly a year were obliterated. The Egyptians did no less a job with Hatshepsut.
I went home and slept for two days straight, not rousing even to eat. When I awoke, a shooting pain between my eyes rippled my vision and threw off my sense of balance. As I hadn’t had any coffee during those two days, my body was furious. You don’t come down easy from a ten-month caffeine binge.
I rolled out of bed. My first piss in two days looked like infield clay and collected into silt at the bottom of the toilet bowl. I felt like I was ninety-nine years old. Even shuffling around the apartment in sandals got me winded. It would be a month before I was in any shape to do anything more physically demanding than shopping for groceries.
Without any sense at all of the time, I went outside and stood in my apartment’s parking lot. The sun was out, shining in the center of a cloudless blue sky. A single tear rolled down my cheek. More followed. Many, many more.
It seemed such a trivial thing to forget over so short a time as a year, but I remembered then, that the sky is blue.