I hope you don’t come away from this email thinking that I hated my time at Claimantex. On the contrary, most of my days here were perfectly in line with what a young, uninformed recent college graduate could expect from her first job. I did not hate the last burnt coffee at the bottom of the pot, nor the banal lunch banter as I brought my reheated noodles back to my desk, nor the occasional bouquet of balloons for someone who had to spend their birthday at the office. In fact, they represented to me a certain kind of status: this was the “real world,” and I had arrived in it. So for that, I’d like to thank you.
Granted, this is not to say that there weren’t individual days I hated in the midst of my general satisfaction. Again, I’d like to stress that my average day was, if days can be evaluated on a sliding positive-negative scale, on the positive side.
But there was that first day. I came in, wearing what I thought was a work-appropriate ensemble—black jacket, matching skirt, white blouse, brown heels fresh from the store that dug into my ankles. I thought I looked powerful, even if I didn’t feel it. Renee the receptionist—may God bless her— told me I looked sharp.
She handed me a packet of materials with the Claimantex logo embossed on the front, in which you told me about my new position, and how my new life as a Claims Management Associate would help me leverage my hard-earned skills to help people in need get the insurance they were owed. I felt like I was part of something. My friends thought I was a real loser for going back home to work in an office, instead of bumming around and going to concerts, or whatever it is they’re doing these days. But at that moment, I felt like a winner.
Then, however, I met a person whose identity I will conceal should this note find itself forwarded into unwanted hands. You’ll know exactly who he is.
Let’s call him “Jake.”
On my first day, “Jake” shook my hand genially. With his flyaway brown hair just barely combed into obedience, and his red silk necktie done sloppily around his unbuttoned collar, he reminded me of my college friends.
“So you’re the new executive assistant?” he asked me. And I smiled and told him, no, I wasn’t, I was actually one of the new hires into the claims management trainee program.
“Are you sure?” he asked me, which confused me even more. I checked the packet of papers I had been given, and my momentary doubts were assuaged. And then Renee—may God bless her again—corrected him, and confirmed I was not the new executive assistant.
To you and your colleagues in People Resources, this might be a familiar story. This is because, at my one-month check-in, an amiable coffee meeting at the Starbucks around the corner, I told you about my interactions with “Jake.” About that first day, and about other days where the burnt coffee, reheated noodles and cheery balloons just couldn’t push me into positive territory.
I told you how I optimized my schedule to avoid him. My 9 a.m. trainee team touchbase, a team which was blessedly devoid of him, would touch enough bases to take us to ten. The next two hours I would spend on the phone, not needing to look at him as I talked with lawyers, actuaries, insurance providers, and a dozen other categories of middle-people whose existence mystified me, revealed to me the vast anonymity of the working world, answered the question of who filled the tall and ghostly office buildings I had driven past for years without a thought. Against best practices (as you spared no chance to remind me), I would talk to some people for longer than was necessary—the lonely adjusters who spent long days out in the field, missing their families and kids, or the pitiable junior attorneys whose understanding of the coverage documents clearly didn’t exceed mine.
I would leave for lunch at noon sharp, making sure “Jake” did not follow me out. My small sandwich from the Jewish deli would be done each day by 12:15, but I wouldn’t return until 1. After another two hours on the phone, or whenever I had no more unanswered emails in my inbox to occupy me, I was––in the obtuse jargon of my industry––at peak risk exposure.
On one such day, he was standing at his waist-high cubicle wall, staring at me. I looked back at him, and my expressionless face must have been what brought him over.
“Can you make sure to follow up on those Westfield cases before you leave today?” he asked me.
He said this as if it were the simplest thing in the world, but I pictured myself writing the long and tedious emails to the insurance providers explaining the circumstances, entering the data in the right format, and being careful not to anger them to the point where they would go over my head to my managers. Plus—strictly speaking—it was not my job. These were cases he was assigned, and it was thus his responsibility to follow up. It was 4:47.
“I’m not sure. I don’t know where you left off with those.” I said to him.
“Oh it’ll be easy. Let me show you,” he said, with some attempt at geniality, peering over my shoulder.
“I mean I know how to do it, I just don’t have all the information,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I think those were your cases originally,” I reply, hoping I had maintained my equanimity.
Clearly not well enough. “I wasn’t asking you,” he said. Any sense of college-kid boyishness was gone.
“I mean, what do you want me to do, send the provider the wrong information?” I was unable to keep my cool.
“Oh my God, just do it.”
“I’m not your executive assistant.”
He pivoted on his rubber dress shoe heel and walked away, passing his desk and heading around a corner. Less than two months on the job, in my naïve state, I did not know where he was headed.
But I soon would learn. That was to be my first disciplinary meeting with your team at People Resources. In fairness, you were not that harsh with me, but your tone was clear that I had done something wrong and should apologize. You did not directly tell me to. You framed it as something I “should do,” that conflict management was something I would have to learn in my career, and that learning to work with “Jake” was part of growing as a young professional.
Now, if I were a smart young professional, not in the bookish sense but in a certain politic sense where I knew what was best for me, I would have obeyed. I would have knuckled under and apologized to “Jake” for him telling me to do his work. Told him that I was still learning and that I wanted to build a constructive working relationship.
“I’m not going to apologize,” I said. “He is pawning his work off on me when I am already handling a much larger caseload than him, and he’s getting away with it.”
You looked me patiently in the eye. Your smile was simpering. You said, in your kindest indoor voice, that if I did not apologize to “Jake,” our relationship would be hurting The Claimantex Culture, and that I would need to be reassigned.
This is when I stopped. Despite my situation, I did not want to be reassigned. As I will say and say again, the majority of my days were perfectly fine. Pleasant, even. If a “reassignment” meant I would be fetching someone’s dry cleaning, I would resist it.
So I apologized. I sent “Jake” what I hoped were my sincerest feelings of remorse for treating him as I did (in a note which you insisted on reviewing). To his credit, he responded in kind, saying that he was out of line and that the disagreement was his fault, blaming his fatigue at the end of the day. I remember thinking that actions late in the day are most likely to reflect one’s true habits, but I did not question him. We buried the hatchet, so to speak, and moved on.
Maybe you were right. “Jake” and I started getting along much better after we resolved our first issue. He actually became helpful. When I had a tough case, he was the first at my desk to walk me through it. Challenging customers were no problem for a skillful manipulator like him. For once in my life, I felt like I had someone I could call a mentor. One day, after a particularly fearsome customer was put to pasture, I found myself feeling guilty. I thought to myself that I must have misinterpreted him, or—worse—that it was my fault that he had gotten so short with me. I thought I must have seemed threatening to him. Made it seem like I was after his job, or something.
“Hey,” I said, “I’m sorry we…you know.”
“I’m over it,” “Jake” said.
He said this so quickly, I could hear his desire to not talk about it anymore, but I went on anyway.
“I feel like I was a bit of an asshole,” I said.
“Oh, so was I. Cancels out,” he said.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“What is this, fucking preschool?”
I had a momentary flicker of panic, but then I saw him smile. I could see then why he was drawn to this lifestyle, where guile and disarmament were tools to be celebrated. I felt suddenly fine that my wit and dark sense of humor, which I had been taunted for since middle school, would be accepted here. I felt like I had a race to run, where I could honestly try my best and be rewarded for it.
It was towards the end of the day, and we were alone.
“Do you like working here?” I asked him.
“Pays the bills,” he said.
“Oh come the fuck on,” I said, “You love every minute of it. You’ve got your office picked out already.”
He smiled even wider. “I’ll save you the window desk.”
It was this comment that made me swell up with pride more than anything else. It meant that he thought I was worth something. My friends would have called me a capitalist bootlicker, but I did not care what they would have thought at that moment.
“Listen,” he said, “there’s a tricky set of cases that I can’t seem to reconcile with the billing records. You’re better with that. Maybe you can help me out?”
And in a second, I told him of course I could. In fact I would be happy to.
“Great, you’re the best,” he said. “I need to send it to finance by 10 tomorrow morning. Does that work?”
I could hardly back out now, but I said it was fine.
“Should be quick,” he said, as if he sensed my uncertainty. “See you tomorrow.”
Within minutes, I was staring at a spreadsheet and a pack of PDF billing statements he had shared with me. Each one of these represented a customer record: what they had asked for, what we had authorized to pay them. From what I gathered, I was to match the spreadsheet with the records, but quickly encountered some problems. The spreadsheet didn’t have customer names—or dates, for some records. Some billing records matched up, but occasionally a random number would appear on the spreadsheet which I couldn’t find in any of the records. The number of spreadsheet entries and billing statements didn’t match. Some lines in the sheet indicated billing records I did not seem to have.
Before I knew it, an hour had passed. It was six thirty, and unless someone was lurking quietly in a closed office around the corner from my view, the office was completely empty. I was nowhere near being done.
The warm, pillowy feeling of accomplishment I had felt just hours earlier had dissipated. I started to hate “Jake” again. I started to think that he could have totally done this himself, but had put it off until the last minute and asked me to do it.
I thought of finishing it, then pointedly copying you, the full People Resources team, when I sent it to him. But then I thought what you might say. You might—correctly—call such a gesture “passive-aggressive.” But would it be worth it? Did two incidents really make Jake that worst of all things: a true asshole? Or was I making a big deal out of something that was routine for someone of my limited experience? A coming-of-age ritual that he and many others had passed before me, but which was now tripping me up?
I kept going. It took me hours to find matches for just a few figures on the sheet, and the sheet was over a hundred rows long. Occasionally, the sheet would mix up the claimed money and what was ultimately paid out. I would fix it, but not without running afoul of some Rube Goldberg formula he had programmed in there, which required me to spend precious minutes correcting myself. I thought that I should have just started from scratch, but that would have taken even longer.
I went to the kitchen and made a pot of coffee, just for me. I sipped the blackened slop. Too strong. Steeling myself, I drained it. The surge of energy it provided was feeble and momentary. I began to think of what else I might be doing if not working here—and, thinking of nothing, felt even worse. Had I wasted all my evenings not being productive? Had I sacrificed my chance to join “Jake” in a coveted office desk because I was still naïve enough to believe the fiction of what your team might call “work-life balance?” My number-plugging became slower. My mistakes, clumsier.
I pictured what I might say to you if—no, when—I met with you tomorrow to discuss “Jake’s” baldfaced malfeasance. I thought of sending you an email right then and there, just to drive home the lateness of the hour. 1:14 a.m., the small white digits in the bottom right corner of my screen said. I went to the panel of switches on the wall, and turned off the blinding white office lights. My desk lamp provided the only illumination. My eyes, burned and cockeyed as they were from the endless staring at the spreadsheet, felt at ease.
The sun does not reach my desk. I sit in a central area of cubicles surrounded by the offices of my elders, which are all closed. This is why, when I awoke just after 5 a.m., I did not immediately realize what time it was. My desk lamp, which had seemed so dark, now blinded me until my eyes could adjust. I slowly figured out what must have happened. I jiggled my mouse and, when my screen flashed on, discovered the true time. My work was not nearly done.
I could hardly show up to work in the same outfit I had worn the day before. I thought of going home, changing, showering, and perhaps getting another hour of sleep. But my ambitious mind overruled this. I had to finish the job. So I went into the bathroom, put on a pair of leggings under the skirt I had worn the day before. I swapped out one color of flats for another, and threw on a cardigan I had hanging on a hook in my cubicle. To complete the effect, I let my black hair down from its usual bun. I smiled blearily at my reflection, satisfied with the illusion. To celebrate, I made another pot of coffee, and poured what didn’t fit in my mug down the sink. The rest could make their own.
It quickly became apparent that even starting from six o’clock, that I was not going to finish in time. Despite my fuming about “Jake,” I hoped he’d understand, or at least grant me leave to finish by lunch. I kept going, but my focus waxed in and out. At one point, I had spent a half hour skimming through the morning’s Wall Street Journal before I noticed what I was doing. Early birds came into the office, and were startled by my presence. Partners and senior managers whom I almost never saw because of how divergent our schedules were looked at me as if I were an irritating stranger.
As nine o’clock came, and as the rest of the office began to fill in, I began to rehearse my story for “Jake.” The job he gave me was trickier than I thought, and I needed his help to finish it. He could feel free to blame me for the delay if the finance department asked, as far as I was concerned.
It was not until ten past ten when, without any update on my progress, he stopped by my cubicle.
“Hey,” he said, “Did you finish up justifying those cases?”
He said this in a firm but friendly way, making me feel confident in my excuse. I started into my story, but he cut me off.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “Say that first part again.” His tone hadn’t changed.
“I said you can tell the finance department it was my fault,” I said.
“No, before that.”
“Oh,” I said. “I said it was trickier than I thought.”
“No, before even that.”
I couldn’t think of anything. That was there I’d started my excuse. “That was the first thing,” I said.
“No, it wasn’t” “Jake” said. “You said you didn’t finish. And that’s the only part I care about.”
Whatever hope and good will I felt had gone.
“I have continually tried to help you manage your deadlines like any competent professional should be able to,” he said. “I have stayed late to help you, and yet you still can’t grasp that when I ask for an assignment, I expect it on time.”
A dozen different defenses poured into my mouth at once, but all of them collided with each other so none came out.
“I will have another conversation with People Resources about this, but I have given you far more than three strikes,” he continued.
Just as he had done the first time, he spun on his heel and went off to find you. Despite the oppressively cold air conditioning, my face glowed hot with shame and indignation.
I still had not finished his work, but no longer felt any inclination to. I sat at my desk for half an hour, stewing over every argument I ought to have made. I literally only took time off to sleep while I was working on this. This was something that you should clearly have done by yourself. They swirled around in an incoherent mess. I am not your assistant!
I finally attached my half-finished spreadsheet to an email and addressed it to “Jake.”
Hey, I said, I am so sorry for the misunderstanding.
Then I paused.
I am actually not going to do your work anymore. Here is as far as I got in 12 hours. Please feel free to finish it yourself. Thanks, and all the best.
As soon as I sent this, I felt like I shouldn’t have. I knew he would forward it to you. Let him, I thought. But then I despaired, because I had just thrown away the moral high ground. You would have all the material you needed to give me a good and well-deserved talking to. Before, I had some slim hope of exacting justice, but now I had thrown it away in a petulant moment of weakness.
You summoned me with a note that was predictably curt. I came at once.
“This feels like a conversation we’ve had before,” you said when I sat down, but your previous warmth was gone. “Your issue with ‘Jake’ is having a negative impact on our workplace.”
“Yes, it is a conversation we’ve had before,” I said. “But we’re here again because you didn’t do anything about it.”
You looked at me, silent for a moment. “Please go back to your desk. We have reconsidered your employment at Claimantex. You have until the end of the day to remove your belongings.”
Reconsider. It was all made to sound so reasonable. I returned to my desk, fuming. And that was when, as you might have guessed, I began to compose this note to you.
I watch the clock on my computer, which will soon no longer be mine, tick forward another minute. I can tell you are anxious to send me on my way, so I will leave just a couple parting thoughts.
I will admit I feel bad about how this ended up. You gave me a shot. You made me feel, even if just for a moment, that I was worth your time. And I went and threw it away pursuing a petty grudge. I cannot help but feel ashamed of myself. Maybe I do need to grow up. Maybe I am not as mature as I make myself out to be.
Perhaps, though, when you leave the office, you grit your teeth at having to tell me it’s my own fault what happened to me. Perhaps you—unlike me—don’t find most of your days at Claimantex to be generally positive. Perhaps you had a “Jake” in your life, or still do. Perhaps you wish you could tell him off, or send him a snide email. Perhaps he did worse things to you than he ever did to me. I will admit I have the luxury of youth—of not needing to feed a family, or pay for a house, or plunge myself into debt to support a family. However, I hope that if any of this rings true to you, you will join me in dropping this pretense, and do some reconsidering of your own.
Thanks, and all the best,
# # #
John Perilli is a fiction writer based in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City, where he lives with his wife. His work (both fiction and non-fiction) has appeared in publications including Electric Literature, The Valparaiso Fiction Review, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and others. He is a volunteer fiction reader with Five on the Fifth.
He can be found on Twitter @JohnPerilli (https://twitter.com/JohnPerilli) and online at https://www.johnwperilli.com/