COLUMN: DIRT CITY | 04.18.2022

Executive assistants at the end of the world
by Barbara Genova

For this story, I’m a light-skinned blonde woman with a buzz cut, the verb snatch personified. Watch her roll up battered tshirts in a travel bag for convenience. She can and she will pick up a loose cigarette from the sidewalk, run a flame on the filter, make it safer to smoke, there you go: you can’t hurt me. You can’t even find me. Want to put the fear of God in me? You’re gonna have to bring a shotgun and company. Have fun figuring out where I live.

Last summer I had a birth name, the season came with two separate hands, and they did not talk to one another: left hand was typing collapse into four hundred search bars, right hand was searching for an executive assistant, young fast and restless, someone who could get things done to project me into the kind of headspace a woman needs if she’s serious about wanting a full-on career resurrection. For years on end my arms had been stuck in the 1970s Barbie doll pose: ninety-degree sharp angle, the better to hold boxes with. Breaking free had been a struggle, had to teach myself what to do with my hands, since no one else did – you try posing when the shooter goes, cross your arms over your chest – what’s this, an insurance commercial? – now lay a palm on the windowsill, okay cool, and the other hand, what am I supposed to do with that?

Here’s my main trick: I used to throw the whole arm behind my back, as if the Invisible Man was taunting me into submission. You love it don’t you. Can’t get enough. When I did learn to be a good model – the lippy, feral look was there and the brain clicked into place – I was all about glancing up at you from a subway wall and going, sooo, you know we’re all gonna be dead real soon, you do know that, correct.

I loved Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, dream husband if there ever was one. I loved the double strategy his character deployed in that movie: you get swamped with visions of acid rain, you start building a wartime bunker, but also, maybe see a therapist. Made sense. My spin on the material was: try and hire an assistant, postpone pressing charges for assault because you have a photo shoot in the morning, keep this up and you won’t stay alive much longer, but also meanwhile, find yourself the best place to die. You rent a spare room, buy an air mattress (a sleeping bag will do), sure sure, and then you wait for the horsemen to catch up with your bones.

At first I went searching for transition towns – oh this one’s kinda close, oh they don’t let new people in, well fuck you. Neeext. I bookmarked list after list of eco-villages where the original settlers seemed amenable to receive unattached visitors, a trial run, see how you fit in. I could show up on a weekend, pockets turned inside out, promising I’d wire them all the money I had in the bank for a chance to ride out the inevitable decades of chaos in a secluded place and –

(this is where I hit pause on the monologue: follow-up sentence would have been, let’s hope we won’t get plowed by marauders – blink –   guys I swear I can learn how to use a chainsaw but someone must be there to teach me, first thing in the morning.)

Unfortunately, most if not all these sunny-sunny places, no matter how great of a show they put on the brochures – hello hi welcome to post-petroleum disorder – they still get super vague when it comes to the future, for real. What happens when the future is there for real.

Fine, I’ll ask: ma’am, how do you plan to secure your perimeter.

Oh you don’t.

How are you not getting robbed on the daily.

The assistant I wanted more than any candidate past present or future was an extra neon bright young woman on track for an early college degree. We’d met at a soiree hosted by a mutual friend, the cold cold night stars above the terrace, Pringles crumbled in a plastic dish, and months later on a Friday we were walking down the same city street, a stretch dominated by barren doorways and shaved dudes dragging carpets off to laundromats, and we started talking, pretty cool!, and in a minute it was sliding in a direction only now with the benefit of time and space I can recognize as cute budding mutual psychosis you’ve got there, how are you getting on.

So then came official phone call scheduling time and then came freak jittery DMs time and every day it got more twisted, and I was the one who should have pumped the brakes, put a stop to it.

Bright said I wasn’t booking as much work as I deserved because I represented a threat to the system in power. (What.) Bright said we were all going to be dead by 2030 unless a monumental societal shift occurred, and she had tears in the voice she used to scream. We die! Super high volume achiever who at 21 had outdone anyone I knew back when I was the girl in the picture, and her core issue was death from below, complete with Boomer parents pushing her to join a corporation: she was gonna grow out of the ecology mindset, they said, it was just a phase.

I was on the phone with Bright when an ugly redhead manning the cash register smiled at me and said wow, you smoke more than I do, to which I said, lady we’ll both be dead in ten years nothing’s gonna save you, and on the other end of the line Bright went, I love you.

It made me swerve, this power. It felt good in the nastiest way. Her approval overriding the dirt in my mouth.

Bright had constant panic attacks (I’m adding the constant here, but every time we were supposed to talk about work, really talk, she just had a panic attack so harsh she’d lie down on the floor, legs up in the air breathe in the bag). I’ve been there and it sucks and no one will hire you if you disclose a mental health issue, and so I was willing to cut her a lot of slack. Anyway, we had been discussing money matters – I mean, we had gotten to here’s how much I can afford to pay you per month – and that’s when she told me she had signed up for an office job, entry level, and she was positive she was gonna have plenty of time to help out with any project of mine, over the weekend!

And that’s where I went yeah, just spitballing here, but I’m gonna chop my arm off and I’m gonna adjust to a new life in the one-armed streets faster than this girl texting me back– and the last I heard from Bright she was in the middle of a full doom gonna-throw-up meltdown: office work entry level, surprise, it’s you doing admin and filing a bunch of receipts, the denouement. And I would have told her – you’re a very intelligent person but what did you think an entry-level borderline mailroom three month stint in a metropolitan office setting would entail, my green eyed wonder, did you think you’d be running the place in no time – and maybe she did. Maybe she did think that.

Kids, huh.

For a while I kept pushing. Maybe the label was wrong, assistant, I didn’t need anyone to take out the garbage for me (or did I), how about we lose this skin and slip into something comfortable, I’m looking for a creative partner, better yet: a business collaboration. Neat. Preppy.

Brand ambassador I met in a dog park, ladies’ choice, she popped herself a brew as she told me there was no point in doing any shit since we were bound to starve in twenty years or less. Glassy white-blue stare, soft metal shard voice. Long blazed past pretending to give a fuck on general principles. Same guy who terrorized the town with casual rape and threats of destroying Your Career had been her first roommate when she moved. First trauma right there, she added.

She was in therapy at the time, CBT, you tell me how well it was going – luxury car placement by day, talk about mass graves when the sun goes down – but what if staying alive and vertical was the goal of behavioral treatment all along.

What if, hear me out. What if that was as good as it got with her.

Last time I tried it was a culture person – a young man, for variety, a festoon of hateful regret made flesh – he started a 10:30 AM meeting with low burnout pep in his features / alright alright let’s see what we can collaborate on / and two hours later he was screaming for the apocalypse, we’re all gonna have to vote for eco-fascists in thirty years!, no one cares!, he was red in the mouth, the demon was out, boom, and the office girl sitting across the table from him, your regular Baby Nothing private school type, she left her body in real time, her face dark ashes, her eyes locked into white, and sure, I was aware I did precisely that whenever I got yelled at, but I’d never seen another woman do the whole thing. The melting face of permanent hollow trauma. And a couple lessons did leave a faint ding in the back of my mind – huh, so that’s what it looks like from the outside; huh, maybe I shouldn’t have told my manager I could visualize getting shot in the head over access to clean water – but the first order of business was, steer clear from this crowd, you’ll be sorry the longer you stay.

The same day I called Baby Nothing to let her know I was out, I had fifty thousand saved up and I was keeping the money, and guess what she did? She minimized. Turned around and tried to roll me over, in real time, the gall, she went yeah yeah when he’s on a tear I kinda tune him out, he does that, you learn to let it slide, can we circle back to you having fifty K to invest in a project, potentially?, and I was like, yeah, why don’t I take that money and invest in ammunition and septic tanks, or maybe get a second opinion on the way I’ve been living. Maybe start over for real.

In the city kids still loved Edward Snowden. They loved him. Couldn’t get enough of him. Everyone had skimmed Deep Adaptation and they walked around like that, eyes coming out of their sockets, mouth hanging open in freeze, and nobody ever moved to a quiet country corner, let alone the desert. Once you break it takes a thousand miles and a hundred years to get in a human shape again. Someone who stands up, speaks in sentences. It takes time to get back to that. You’re just a meat bag until then and any old wind devil can blow straight through the cracks.

Barbara Genova (she/they) is the pen name of a public woman who went private. Poetry and stories written as Barbara have been published / are forthcoming at The Daily Drunk, surfaces.cx, Anti-Heroin Chic, Sledgehammer Lit, Scissors and Spackle, The Final Girl Bulletin Board, Fahmidan Journal, Misery Tourism, Hallowzine (2021), Expat Press, The Bear Creek Gazette, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Roi Fainéant Press, Discretionary Love, and the Hecate Magazine anthology issue #2 (DECAY, winter 2021). She can be found on Twitter and on Instagram.

Image by chriswanders at Pixabay.

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