The Metamorphosis is a fascinating book, partly scary, based on the metaphor used to describe its main character’s boring life as a traveling salesman, the hatred of the job, and the general feeling of unhappiness. I find myself connected to the story since my life and the lives of many people out there revolve around a daily and monotonous routine that sometimes gets so unbearable you don’t know what to do. Notice that I am using the present tense above, where I usually used the past tense because, by the time I wrote these words down, I was still holding a regular job and writing fiction every time I could.
Every day is a struggle. It has been like this since I can remember. Every day a new challenge keeps me from reaching a life of stability. I guess being an illegal immigrant is my hamartia, my tragic flaw, the defect that pushes me down the social ladder, making my life consistently unbearable.
Life hasn’t stopped being unbearable.
Going back to that time in 2008, I shut the book, which I read in one sitting. I felt something inside of me, a feeling of apprehension, thinking for a moment that reality and fiction had merged and that I was going to wake up one day and become a vermin, just like the story’s main character. Perhaps the only difference would be that I would die alone, forgotten in a room somewhere in the big city. I shook off that thought, admonishing myself for my constant self-loathing.
The next day I woke up at four in the morning and went to clean restrooms at Staples. Thoughts of the book still swam in my head as I inserted my gloved hand in the toilets, extracting bundles of wet, smeared toilet paper. I had the rest of the day off at McD’s, which I intended to use for writing; reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis gave me ideas I would implement. I was inside my head the entire morning, more than usual, that is, and musings of a better job kept projecting light towards the front peripheral of my brain. McD’s was, without a doubt, a better choice, even though I wasn’t too fond of smiling and pretending I was grateful just because people bought a cheeseburger or two.
I never thought of myself as an actor, but I had to learn how to act since duplicity is an art form in this kind of business.
But there was the matter of the store manager, Omar, who I began to realize had nothing against me. He just simply didn’t think I was manager material. Sometimes, that is the worst position because you acknowledge their existence when you dislike someone, and he wasn’t acknowledging mine.
I couldn’t help but feel the sting of that.
So I was off at twelve and went back home, took a nap, and woke up with thoughts of coffee and a Big Mac. I grabbed my notebook and a pen, went back to the shopping center, bought my food, and started to connect myself to the writing source that was about to pour out of my brain.
Marlen was at work again. I said hi to her. The way she looked at me now was different, I noticed. When I was a simple customer, and she thought I was handsome (God knows where she got that idea from), she would keep eye contact a bit longer. Now, I was simply an employee and made less money than her. She was still friendly, though, the same way you are to a person who just bought lunch at your restaurant.
Trying to make small talk, she asked what I told Margaret yesterday to make her laugh so hard. I told Marlen, and her expression was not as welcoming as Margaret’s.
“That’s so inappropriate,” she said, but there was this thin layer of amusement behind the moralistic veil she was trying to cover herself with.
“You think so?” I challenged her.
She didn’t say a word.
I broke the silence with a question I knew she would find more appropriate as I lifted my tray off the counter. “So, who were those two who came yesterday? The white guy and the good-looking Latina?”
She also didn’t like the way I said that. “You mean Monte and Gabby?”
I’d heard those names before. They were the two big-shots who ran the show. Monte Baker was the CEO, and Gabby Vazquez was some sort of a supervisor of several restaurants. There were six of them, 4 in Santa Barbara and 2 in Goleta, and Gabby was the supervisor at three of them. In other words, she was my direct boss since I worked at one of the restaurants she was in charge of.
“So, is she the person I have to dazzle so I can become a manager?”
“Dazzle? What’s that mean?”
“Impress,” I said.
“I didn’t know you wanted to be a manager.”
“I do, but Omar doesn’t think I can do it.”
“Yeah. In fact, he said he put me in charge when you guys have a meeting only because he doesn’t have a choice.”
She was taken aback. “Wow, he said that?”
“Yep. Also, he said you guys don’t need another manager.”
There was a moment of hesitation, as though she wanted to say something but didn’t know how to say it. In the end, she said what she had in mind, knowing for a fact that I would know sooner or later.
“It’s weird Omar said that because he is gonna promote Juanita.”
Juanita was the young woman who had gone on maternity leave, opening a spot for me at the store. She was coming back, and a new manager position was waiting for her.
“Really?” I said.
Marlen nodded, seeing the colors in my face drop and that unmistakable feeling of envy rising to the top.
“Sorry,” she said, showing some sympathy.
“Not your fault,” I said, looked at my food, and lost my appetite all of a sudden. “Can I have this to go?”
She got the hint, gave me a bag, and I put the food in it. I went home, threw the food away, and worked on my essay again. I poured my guts and soul into it. I was mad at what Marlen told me but wanted to find a productive way to deal with it.
And I found it.
After submitting the essay, I was ready to expect the worst. I wanted to be optimistic, yes, but optimism and I had never gotten along; it didn’t matter how hard I tried to make it work. Being aware of how much life sucks makes you highly cynical.
We would have the results the next week, so I continued doing what I always did. At Staples, things had changed. There was new management. Arturo and Juan had moved on, as well as other people I managed to talk to but never really learned their names. The only person left was Roberto, pushing his cart like always, lifting his glasses every time they menaced to slide down his sweaty nose.
I talked to him about my managerial aspirations.
“Do you think you can do the job?” Roberto asked, looking attentively at the tags he was swapping over on the Pens and Pencils aisle.
“I think I can,” I said. “Besides, the money is way better.”
“So, you are doing it for the money?”
I shrugged. “I know, that makes me sound like a common whore.”
He chuckled. “Well, there is nothing wrong with that.”
“I don’t think anyone decides to be a manager at first because they think they like it,” I opined, “but because the money is always better. In other other-”
“In other words, that makes us all whores,” he stole the words right out of my mouth.
“To-what?” Roberto said, having never heard that word before.
“Touché,” I repeated. “I followed your advice and got the word of the day on that Free Dictionary dot come you talked about.”
He was proud to hear that. “Good job. So, what does that word mean?”
“It’s an exclamation of acknowledgment, something you say when you agree with something that had just being said.”
“Aha,” he said, “just like we did right now.”
He frowned. “It sounds French, doesn’t it?”
“It is French. English borrowed it, just like everything else they’ve borrowed since the beginning of times.”
“Very well,” he said and continued changing tags. After checking something on the list he was holding, he went back to our conversation. “Just make sure you impress that manager who doesn’t like you.”
“I don’t think I am gonna be able to,” I said.
I looked around, the same way you do when you are about to say something that is none of your business, and you want to make sure you don’t get caught while doing so.
“Between you and I,” I said, “this manager looks like the kind of man who promotes people based on looks instead of merit.”
He turned and looked at me. “Really?”
“Just like any other man, then?”
I nodded again.
“I’m not surprised.”
“Neither am I.”
“I guess you’re gonna need a miracle to be able to get on board of the managerial ship.”
“Yep,” I said, as my cynical and pessimistic self shunned the idea of a miracle.
However, even though I don’t believe in miracles, life was about to throw a bone at me.
Well, I like to think they were two bones. One at school. The other one at work. I felt good about both, but the one that gave me more gratification was at school. There we were, the same scene like the one we had gone through before, making me feel as though I was trapped in Groundhog Day, like Bill Murray, only with a bit more promiscuity, self-deprecation, and profanity.
As usual, I sat at the front when an itch on my left testicle managed to make my butt-cheeks cringe. The left hand went right to the rescue, but the watchful eye of a girl who sat right next to me kept me away from looking for a chance to kill the discomfort.
I tried to think of something less traumatic, as Thomas Arnold called on the students’ names. As soon as he called the name of the girl who sat next to me, I went ahead and inserted my hand in my left pocket and scratched at it in the most inconspicuous of ways, finding absolutely no relief. That egregious itch was otherworldly.
I was nervous. Very nervous. And sweaty. Very sweaty.
Every student who had the essay back would then leave the classroom. This was the last day of class before the final test, and we were pretty much done. I saw the faces around me. They were all relieved, as though taking a class was something terrible, and they were about to be freed from their punishment.
I was glad that it never felt that way to me.
Nobody looked incredibly sad or happy. It was unsettling, somehow, as though my classmates wanted to just find something to pass the time. Were they just doing it for the money, the promise of a better job in the future?
I guess not everyone wanted to be a writer.
Perhaps intentionally, Thomas Arnold decided I would be the last person to get the essay back. I had forgotten about the itch for a second, but it came back with a vengeance, thick and fast, like a swarm of bees inside my pants, when I started thinking about it again.
Oh, son of a motherfucking bitch, I said to myself, and just when Thomas Arnold leaned down to grab something off his briefcase, I went ahead and inserted my left hand inside my sweaty boxers and scratched and scratched until the itch went away.
That felt good. Orgasmic, even.
Thomas Arnold looked back at me as he took out my essay. Luckily, I had taken my hand out just in time.
“Gabriel,” he said, and his voice was like an invisible mechanism that made me spring off my seat and stagger to the front.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He looked at me, giving me that same proud look Roberto gave me after I had told him that I followed his advice.
“You did it,” he said, handing me the essay back, which now had a perfect-looking letter ‘A’ encircled on the top right corner.
I had to smile. It was a must. This is the kind of thing that gets me going, gives me hope, and one less reason to die. Perhaps I should give myself a little more credit sometimes, pat myself in the back for my unrelenting and inexorable willingness to keep going, always against the storm of shit life throws at me.
The feeling that arose from my gut at that moment was akin to an electrical current, tickling my every bone and muscle from the bottom up, concentrating all up in my head and giving me a short but welcoming headache. I was not a silver-tongued politician, didn’t have an eloquent speech at that time, but the look of satisfaction on my face was enough to let Thomas Arnold know I was grateful.
“I guess reading Kafka before working on my essay was a good idea,” I said, finding the strength to talk. The overwhelming feeling was about to make me cry.
Thomas Arnold’s pupils opened up as he broke into a smile. “You read Kafka!” He said, then added. “Let me guess… The Metamorphosis?”
“That was a good story. Very traumatic, just as the essay you wrote.”
“True,” I said. I didn’t want to elaborate on the essay. Not then. Perhaps on another occasion. There are experiences in life that leave you in a sea of distraught eternity, they occur in a second, but their effect lies inert in you, forging your future, making you who you are. ‘How Laziness Saved My Life’ is that to me, a part of my life I’d rather keep to myself. For the time being.
“And so you know,” he added, “this is the kind of essay I am never going to forget. You can be a great writer. You just have to keep on going.”
I thanked him and smiled, grabbed my stuff, and walked carefully out the door; my ego was so high at that moment I was afraid I would hit my forehead on my way out.
I saw the good-looking Latina and the white CEO the next day. Omar was also supposed to be there, as it was the one day he and I worked the same shift. Marlen covered the shift, since Celestino, who usually covered Omar because he was the Assistant Manager, had a family emergency. Then, it hit me; I hadn’t seen Omar in about a week.
Soon I learned why.
Marlen was more cheerful and attentive than ever, going as far as opening doors for customers. That woman was running so much I was afraid she would burn all the calories she had and evaporate right in the middle in the lobby while holding a to-go bag and a drink.
Seeing her work that hard had me reconsidering my managerial aspiration, just for a moment.
“Where is Omar?” I asked as she stood next to me to get money off the drawer to bring change.
“Um,” she said, holding hundreds and twenties in her hand, grabbing them out as fast as she could, trying to look for a lie that might serve as a response. But she wasn’t a good liar.
“I can’t tell you.” She looked me briefly in the eye, then said she was sorry.
“It’s ok,” I said.
She stopped and inhaled, readying herself for a short answer to calm my inquisitive nature. “Things are gonna change around here,” she said, “and perhaps, when you become a manager, I can tell you what’s going on. Ok?”
Marlen stepped back, and before making her way to the office, she summoned everyone’s attention. The guy in charge of the fry station looked at her. The food runner, too, and even a Gothic-looking cashier who stood right next to me.
Why didn’t I notice him there?
“You guys! Monte and Gabby are coming! I want everyone in their positions and be friendly to customers. Ok?”
“Huh,” I said, noticing a thought that was forming inside my head, a point of view that was better kept unspoken.
But Marlen, being so close to me, was not going to let it go. “What?”
I had to man up. “Well,” I said. “It’s that you seem to be working way too hard just because Monte and Gabby are coming. Shouldn’t you work hard all the time regardless of who might come?”
If the look on her face had been a bullet, I wouldn’t have been writing these words down today. Marlen tried to ignore my comment, which she might have interpreted as acrimonious and hostile, but I only tried to give what I thought was my most honest opinion.
Trying to come up with an explanation, she said, “I am showing respect for my superiors. You should do the same.”
“Again,” I said. “Shouldn’t that be done even if they are not around?”
Her cheeks reddened, making me think of the ink I had come to loathe, the one that covered the pages of my essay.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong. I am just… never mind. I’ll shut up now.”
She looked pleased, then walked away to get her change.
Not long after that, Gabby and Monte came. Standing right next to Gabby, there was another white man, taller than Monte, with a permanent smile on his face that made me wonder what he was so happy about.
Soon, I learned about that, too.
The business had been slow for a moment, a strange occurrence in a place like this, where you need less than four dollars to satisfy your hunger; in truth, you would live to regret that later for having made such a poor eating habit, but I guess when people are hungry, they don’t think straight.
Marlen took a moment to breathe and collect her thoughts. She wasn’t rushing anymore, but as soon as she saw the big-shots waltzing into the restaurant, it was as though she had grown wings and started flying around frantically. If she intended to impress her superiors, so they thought she had everything under control, Marlen was doing an appalling job of it. It was comical. She made me think of Tom & Jerry, running around the place like a headless chicken.
Rapidly, she jumped to the register to my right, and now I was sandwiched between a gothic, passive, and humorless male cashier to my left and an overly cheerful Latina with a smile that couldn’t get any closer to her earlobes.
I opted for a more stoic yet attentive facade.
Marlen patted my hand with her intrusive paw, saying, “Smile.”
I looked at her, frowning. “Why?”
She gave me a quick I-am-gonna-kill-you look.
After that, I looked at a man the big-shots allowed to get in line first. I said, “Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order please?”
I felt how my testicles vanished after saying such an absurd sentence but then realized it wasn’t such a bad idea to follow Marlen’s orders. Listening to her was, in fact, the inception of a greener chapter in my life.
People started to pile up out of no-fucking-where. I knew Marlen had been momentarily happy to see that it cooled down a little bit, but as soon as she saw the herd break in like cows in a corral, her face started to color up, and she felt like the world was going to break.
Her hand was on the counter. I gave it a quick, reassuring squeeze. “Calm down. You have everything under control.”
She looked at me, sadness already covering her pupils. “You think?”
I shrugged. “Well, not really, but you’re doing your best.”
She slapped my hand. “I hate you sometimes, you know?”
I nodded. “I do.”
The big-shots allowed even more burger-craving humans to get in line while they continued wasting their time and getting paid for it.
Marlen whispered. “That’s a test. They want to see how we do.”
“Well, let’s give ’em a show,” I said, looking at her and Gothic Boy. Marlen was in, but Gothic Boy was deader than a vampire on a beach in the middle of the day.
As we took orders, we also gave the big-shots a show. Every now and then, I would look at them. As Monte talked, his theatrical hand movements were charged with so much drama; it made me want to give him an Oscar right in there. I wanted to know what they were talking about. I was still thinking about Omar, his absence made a lot of noise, and I wanted to know why, even though it was none of my business.
The smiley gent who came with them was the first person to approach the register. I took his order, saying the same sentence that had made my manhood disappear. Marlen took care of Monte and Gabby. I heard Omar’s name thrown out during the conversation. More hand gestures.
Marlen noticed how I was eavesdropping and gave me that murderous look again. The restaurant got noisier, to her dismay. She was really aiming for a smooth hour as Monte, Gabby, and the new character dined.
She invited them to sit down, saying, “I’ll take the food to your table.”
“Thank you!” Monte said. The smile on his face seemed genuine.
Moments later, when she took the food to their table, Marlen came back and stood next to me. “Come with me to the office,” she said, walking away, expecting me to follow her. I followed, wondering what she had in mind. Maybe she was going to give me a write-up for being so disrespectful, thinking that was kind of the most accurate deduction I could come up with.
Once in the tiny office, she turned back and looked at me, waiting to see if anyone was around, listening. “Ok,” she said. “I can’t keep this to myself any longer.”
I squinted. “What?”
“You see that guy who came with Gabby and Monte?”
“Yep. I took his order. Was he mad or something?”
She shook her head. “No, he actually liked your service, but that’s not what I am trying to say.”
“What are you trying to say?”
I didn’t know why she paused for about three seconds, intentionally adding suspense to the situation. I guessed it was perhaps her inherited love for Mexican telenovelas, or she just wanted to add some flavor to this saucy piece of gossip she was about to put on my plate.
“He is our new store manager?” Marlen finally said.
I smiled at that. It was an inadvertent smile. Perhaps deep inside, I was happy to see Omar gone.
I shook my head. “Wait. Does that mean what I think it means?”
What she said next carried a bit of contempt. “Well, if what you are thinking is that Omar isn’t going to work here anymore, then yes.”
“Sorry, I don’t mean to gloat.”
“I mean, I don’t mean to be happy about this.”
“So, why are you smiling?”
I inhaled. “Ok, let’s forget about it. Tell me, why is he leaving? Did he get promoted?”
Another moment of silence.
“No,” Marlen said. “He got demoted.”
There. I had to smile again.
She slapped me on the arm. “Why are you so happy?”
I laughed. “I’m sorry! I don’t mean to!”
Some of the kitchen people stared at us, wondering what was happening. It was there that I also noticed something else. As a rule, there should always be a floor manager, Marlen was the one in this case, and there should also be a kitchen manager. But there was no one in charge that day.
I looked back at Marlen. We seemed to be reading each other thoughts.
“What was the kitchen manager’s name?” I asked.
Then, by some superior force or just an excessive amount of alone time that allowed me to think and made deductions better than Sherlock Holmes on Adderall, I thought about that moment when I saw Luna and Omar talking. That moment when I thought they were flirting.
Everything fell into place.
“Where they doing it?” I asked.
Marlen nodded. “They were.”
Schadenfreude is a German word that describes joy after someone else’s misfortune. I had recently learned it as I was delving into all things Kafka. According to Wikipedia, most kids experience schadenfreude. Adults also do it, but they are better at concealing it. I guess I was a kid at that moment because I couldn’t stop smiling after eating up such a savory slice of good news.