Payoff

Graphic by Abbie Holbrook

The committee calls her in. One, two and the fat one makes three of them; a triad of half-balding men with blue ties and the same white button-down; like small, painted replicas or collectibles. She almost laughs at how identical they are, knowing that it’s not speculation to say they all went to one of three universities and have wives called Grace or Lisa and that this is their fifth closing interview. This profession isn’t one for preambles, which is a pity, as it could have done something to cushion their next words.

“You didn’t quite tick all our boxes.” Richard leads.

She’s been cast aside for a Daniel, a Darren, or a David and she listens silently as the panel tells her how close she was before eventually deciding she was ‘too good’ where they had her. They will be looking again in 6 months, but she can’t give six more months. All she can think about is her fifteen minutes, the only reason she works so hard. She imagines what could give her life meaning without it, if she wasn’t measured in accolades and transient successes. Grades, internships, ‘Female Employee of the Month in Workplace Excellence’ – what else really was there to value in a person? And now, ‘there goes your shot’ her mind cries pathetically, ‘your fifteen minutes gone’.

Nicole would call her relationship with legacy and success a hungry sensibility. In university, whilst others had been drinking, and acquiring memories and other things of ‘substance’, Nicole would sit in her two-bedroom apartment, studying material she knew she would never need, and repeating to herself that she would make it: ‘fifteen minutes, or thirty, or a lifetime’. It would all be worth it.

Now, in the silent moments in her car, she looks back on all the many sacrifices she had made for a pointless dream. The friends she had slowly separated from, weaning them off her presence through missed phone calls and emails because she was wasting their time. Stupid moments she didn’t care to taste or relish, and the one relationship she thought would work out and didn’t. ‘And now you have everything’ she’d repeat, and to an extent she did. Her job – ‘the youngest law researcher in company history’ – and a better boyfriend who is just dumb enough that she’ll never have to resent him. Now she lives near the beach, though it’s an empty pleasure; she doesn’t get to enjoy it. Fletcher spends his nights at the beach, but she stays at the office.

As everyone around her aged, they all wanted to share stories. She saw this in her colleagues. When they stayed late working they’d complain about the children who cost them too much money, and the half-baked relationships with boyfriends and girlfriends fifteen years their junior for which they repeated the same sentiment. But there were always good memories littered amongst ones of regret and when they mentioned the glory days of their early-twenties Nicole would sit silently, pretending to write or do something else important. When they asked about Fletcher she’d always recite stories of their first date at the karaoke bar or the time they cooked coq au vin together in France, splashing red wine across the kitchen like in the films. “He’s a sensitive man,” she’d repeat, every intonation and syllable polished from years of repetition. She didn’t include how secretly mad she had been when he’d stained the white carpet and she’d lost her security deposit. “Oh to be young.” they’d often smile secretively. ‘Or to be immature’ she’d retort back in her mind.

She is thinking about these times in the seconds before she makes the decision. Go or stay, go or stay. Be unhappy or unhappier. The moment she decides to quit feels like a buffer. A pause or a shift in her life and then something goes wrong. She strays from the path she’d promised herself and suddenly she’s in a different world and its new, and its scary, and for the life of her she doesn’t know how she got there. There’s a thirsty pause.

“I quit.” she says to the room. The words – so clean and full – engulf the space between them before contracting. One second of relaxation and the air is tight again. She stands before the panel, dull and silent and can’t quite think of something more to add. ‘I quit’ is just one of those statements, like ‘Will you marry me?’ or ‘Do you love me?’ Once it’s said, there’s really not much else to say, and so Nicole walks out of the room, gently closing the door behind her and making her way to the exit.

She realises it had been hours when she returns to herself strangely at the beach, resting upon the sand dunes and looking at the water with a coolness she’s never felt before. When the screams of dancing, wild children dull into the crash of far off waves, Nicole approaches the ocean tentatively, as if asking the tides to be her friend. The sea parts, stretching back to welcome her home, a natural greeting. As she goes in deeper she drops each layer of cloth until it is just her and nature together. She swims into the night waves, far past where she knows is safe. The churning water gliding against her bare skin, she imagines the predators below, ready to rip off a limb or paralyse her, swimming away when the taste of blood isn’t as nice as they’d thought it would be. What would they write about Nicole if she drowns tonight or dies from one keen bite? Will they include that she’d just quit a job that hundreds of Nicole-replicas would have killed something they loved for, or that her partner sold glamorised twine made from cannabis out of his van and thought Nicole’s life didn’t have purpose? The water moves and so does she, now excited by how it feels to have no control; thinking how addicted she could become to this.

But from fear – of the addiction, or of the waves, she’s unsure – Nicole turns back to land, her arms burning from the rapid movement through the water. The ocean ignores her frenzy and pushes her back to shore with a mother’s protectiveness; the current a hovering, guiding hand below her belly, shepherding her back to the sanctuary of the beach. When she reaches shallow waters her mind dances to shallow things. Where did she go wrong? Maybe it was the few months she’d taken off before university. She bet whoever had gotten her job hadn’t done something that stupid, but at the time it had felt like the right thing to go ‘find herself’. All of her friends were doing it, booking cheap flights to Bali and London and then returning a year later, preaching to Nicole the importance of their ‘inner spirit’ and the ‘wild woman’ that lived within them. She’d returned home two months into her trip, no more sure of herself but $4000 out of pocket and a term behind everyone she’d been equal with only two months before. She’d caught up of course. In fact, she’d graduated with First Class Honours and now, what was waiting for her at home? A boyfriend who didn’t love her and a life she didn’t want. She’d always imagined walking back into her high school at the 20th reunion, her old classmates congratulating Nicole on her latest success, the ‘I told you so’ balancing on the sharp edge of her tongue but never slipping over – a sign of her maturity.

There’s a sudden need to yell. To express. To show something tangible for her anger and despair.

“Where’s my payoff, what have you given me?” she screams, the words so immediate and forceful that they feel as shocking as fuck! The waves merely crash slowly around her ankles, rising in a crest to caress her knee with nature’s soothing gentleness, unaware of her emotional haemorrhage. Instinct tells her that if she doesn’t move the waves will soon engulf her entirely, claiming her as their own, rechristening her with the soft rush of the undertow. The night shore is a happy companion to her grief, swallowing her bittersweet confessions with each lull of the rising tides. The tiny spikes of pain in her soles from the crushed shells on the ocean floor exhaust her perception of the hours which have slipped by. Clarity feels needed. Maybe a fresh start or a declutter; a purge of all the meaningless objects in her life. They always told her she was too materialistic, too concerned with the surface level beauty, of success and pretty, inoffensive things.

When Nicole gets home she’ll throw everything out; the company awards, all the photos from staff trips, the polyester curtains she’d bought with her Christmas bonus and the stack of documents she keeps on the bedside table for when she’s kept awake by Fletcher’s snoring. She’ll go to him first, his hand dropping heavily off the side of the bed, limbs sprawled across the covers. She’ll trace a soft finger around his eyes and nose, delicately stroking a single strand of his thick, greasy hair which will fall easily from her hand onto his head. “Hemp rope,” he had once said, “is so much stronger than regular rope.” And as she flips the handle of the hatchet in her hand; slitting her thumb to slice off a thick piece and pulling back the strong fabric, she’ll congratulate him. This will be the first time in their relationship he’s been right.

It doesn’t break, not even when he awakes, his last gurgled ‘Nicole’ inflating the room. Fifteen minutes and she was done.