Everybody Matters

Not only was my early pandemic writing an exercise in experimentation, it was also a great way to work through my frustrations and trauma. When I entered ReedsyPrompts contest #49 and used the prompt “Write a story that take place in a waiting room”, the story became a way for me to work out the latest frustration.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was let go from my job with no severance and no hope of return. And while I was in the midst of recovering from this sudden loss of employment and income, I watched as Mark’s old job treated him poorly – both as an employee and as a person. I was angry at office culture and felt like the corporate world was trying to destroy us both. It should come as no surprise then that the waiting room in “Everybody Matters” is part of a harsh, unfriendly office space.

Thankfully, Mark and I have since moved on to better jobs, better companies, and better career prospects. To everyone out there still struggling with shitty jobs, this one’s for you.

I find myself staring at the clock and I remind myself, yet again, to stop doing that. It won’t make the time pass any quicker. But almost as soon as I do, my eyes wander back over to the clock. I’ve been here for over half an hour already. Granted, I arrived early (maybe a little too early), but I’ve still been waiting here for far too long. They should have called me in by now.

I’m getting tired of the music.  It’s got that classic waiting room feel to it. Mostly slow jazz covers of familiar songs. And it’s all instrumental. I think I recognize some of the tunes, but I really can’t tell. I can’t believe the receptionist can bear to listen to this kind of thing all day.

I tear my eyes away from the clock to watch the receptionist. She has kept her head down almost the entire time I’ve been here. She barely looked up from her desk when I came in. Even now, I can hardly see her face because the front of the reception desk is so high. She’s hidden behind a sleek, white wall and all I can see is the top of her head and a little bit of her glasses. I can also see a bit of an obscured reflection of myself in the plasticky whiteness of the reception desk. But I can’t bear to look at myself right now. I’m too nervous. So, I look back at the clock. Not much time has passed since I last looked, and I remind myself not to look at the clock again.

I was a little nervous coming here today, but having to wait for so long has only made things worse. Maybe they had another meeting scheduled before mine and they’re just running long. That seems like a plausible explanation. But even so, thinking that doesn’t help to make me any less nervous.

I let my eyes wander around the small waiting room, although I’ve already done this a couple of times before. There’s really not much to look at, and that makes the waiting worse. The reception desk is white, the walls are white, the chairs are white. The only colour in the room is the black trim around the clock that hangs above the desk, and the covers of the neatly organized magazines that sit on the white coffee table. But even the magazines are bland as they are all about business. There are no windows and no pictures on the walls. There’s not even a sign on the white door that leads to the offices of upper management. The door is something else I’ve been staring at, waiting for someone to appear and tell me they’re ready to see me.

Everything is clinical. There’s no feeling, no emotion. Nothing that suggests that anyone from upper management cares about the employees who have to wait in this horrible room for important and nerve-wracking meetings. This is a stark contrast to the company’s motto: “Everybody Matters.” I suppose the goal of such a motto is to instill a utopic sense of belonging within the company. If everybody matters, then we’ll all feel good about being here and we’ll all work extra hard to show our appreciation for mattering.

Upper management certainly tries to make everyone feel like they matter.  They do a fairly decent job of remembering people’s names and birthdays. They hold special events and treat people to dinner if their team has worked a lot of over time. Despite all this, I really don’t feel like I matter all that much to the company. Every time I’ve ever asked for a raise, I’ve been told something along the lines of “there isn’t room in the budget this time” or “next year, for sure.” Despite all the hard work I put in, I’ve never really felt like I matter. Especially not in the past year.

January started off rough. My daughter passed away at only four months old. The company let me have two days off before I had to go back to work. It wasn’t enough time to grieve. And even though everyone at work knew what I was going through, I was still expected to work hard and produce the same quality and quantity of work as before. Even though I was able to get counselling, I still don’t think I’ve ever properly grieved. I feel cheated that I wasn’t able to spend more time with my wife when that happened.

And then there was my “vacation.” I was supposed to have a week and a half off for vacation. It had all been approved months in advance. But apparently, I’m the only one who does what I do within the company, because I kept getting calls and emails every single day. My manager keeps telling me that I work so hard that I should take more time off to relax, but I know that whenever I try, I’ll get interrupted. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had an uninterrupted break from work. Even on weekends, coworkers will reach out to me to fix their problems.

So, when my manager and the head of HR told me that I would be getting a promotion and a raise, I thought that all of my hard work had finally paid off. All of those extra hours, all of that extra work finally meant something. During that call, for the first time I truly felt like I mattered to the company. When the call ended, I cried. And when I got home that night, my wife and I celebrated. She hasn’t been able to go back to work yet, and with the cost of living going up I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to make ends meet. But a raise, even a small one, would help tremendously.

Now I just have to wait. I’ve been called to this meeting with all of the head managers and important people of my department to discuss my promotion, my new role, and my raise. I’m finding it so hard to wait that it’s almost painful. And the more I watch the clock on the wall, the worse the waiting gets. I was supposed to be called in to the meeting quite some time ago, but no one has come out to see me, and the receptionist acts as if I don’t exist. I’m starting to feel like maybe I don’t matter anymore, but I try to rid myself of that thought. After all, I’m finally getting a raise.

I hear a noise over the slow jazz that makes me jump, and it’s a second or two before I realize that it’s the phone at the reception desk. The receptionist barely moves as she answers it; she has one of those fancy headsets so all she had to do was press a button. The music in the waiting room isn’t very loud, but I still can’t hear what she’s saying or if she’s even saying anything. It sounds more like mumbles of comprehension. I wait nervously, my stomach churning violently, wondering if the call is about me. Maybe they’re finally ready to see me. Finally, I’ll learn how much of a raise I’ll be getting and what my new position within the company will be.

When the call is finished, she tilts her head ever so slightly so that I can see her eyes from over the high wall of the reception desk. I still can’t see her mouth, but at least I can hear her when she speaks.

“They have decided to do some restructuring within the company. You will be contacted again in six months to discuss the possibility of a promotion. You can leave now.”

But I couldn’t move. I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach. I wasn’t getting the promotion after all. I almost couldn’t process the information. I felt betrayed. I felt–

“Have a nice day,” the receptionist said firmly in a tone that suggested she wanted me gone.

Numbly, I got up from the chair and walked out of the waiting room. I had to get back to work.

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