The office was built in the 1970s, a concrete monolith with water-stained ceilings and tinted windows that didn’t open. Every time Ruth walked into work she was reminded of big ties and sideburns; coffee from a can and rolodexes. The kind of stuff you couldn’t get without trying anymore, and usually only if you were trying to be ironic.
Depending on where you stood, the floor belonging to Richter Communications Group LLC was either overly fluorescent or eerily dark. The hallways were especially dingy—the carpets a color grey not seen in nature, the color of obedience. The bathrooms, on the other hand, were so bright Ruth sometimes put on her sunglasses to use them. She would watch herself washing her hands in the mirror, the pink soap so sticky between her palms it was almost sexual, and grin to her reflection like a famous actress in a heist movie.
Ruth had stolen the sunglasses. They had been there on her first day, staring up at her between stretched-out paper clips and dusty rubber bands in the top drawer of the desk she had inherited. Without recognizing the specific brand name, she knew they were designer—a label she could never afford, with hardly a scuff on them. They weren’t that useful for the city (the buildings so tall they cast a perpetual synthetic gloom), but she relished the person they made her feel like, so she kept them.
To Ruth’s credit, she had left the sunglasses in the desk for a full two weeks before stealing them. She had even had a few casual conversations with coworkers, wondering if the woman who had used her cube before her was into expensive eyewear, or had reached out to the office manager for any reason after she quit, perhaps to pick up a missing item? But no one seemed to remember anything out of the ordinary, nor even a defining characteristic of her predecessor. So, it was with very little guilt that Ruth slipped the glasses into her purse at five fifty-nine p.m. on a Friday, walking past her coworkers and into the freedom of six o’clock with her heart pounding.
She had never stolen anything before.
In fact, the word “steal” felt too dramatic for what she had done. But “borrow” was inaccurate and “trade” too much of an implication, so Ruth settled on “gift.” The glasses had been a gift to her, a present for showing up every day, for keeping her head down, for expecting nothing.
Up until the day she decided to take the sunglasses, Ruth had lived a quiet life. Not out of asceticism or lack of imagination but more because she felt her options to be limited; by her upbringing, by her talent, by her looks—even by her name.
“Ruth” was the type of name that made a baby an adult. She couldn't imagine her mother cooing to her, shortening her name to Ro-Ro or Ruthie. In her mind, she was always the grown- up Ruth—the Ruth who shopped at Banana Republic and drank two-percent cappuccinos (one sugar please), and worked out at the all-female gym that was three blocks away from her subway station and ten blocks away from the office and who used a plate for everything, even a midnight snack. She wasn’t prim or prude. She wasn’t uninterested or insecure. She was just herself. And the girl with her life and her name hadn't had many adventures.
It felt odd, then, that she was constantly being called “brave” by her colleagues. Perhaps that was the reason she had finally taken the sunglasses, she thought, lying awake the night of their adoption, staring at the black frames where they stood silhouetted atop her dresser. Perhaps enough people had called her brave that she was beginning to believe she was.
Ruth had the worst job at the office.
It wasn’t just Ruth who thought so; her boss had mentioned the unofficial honorific to her in her preliminary interview. “Well, your resume looks great, and like most post-grad Millennials—can I call you that?—you’re way overqualified for the job. I’d love to offer you a position here: there’s plenty of room for growth, competitive starting salary, eventually benefits if you stay on with the company, but it is probably the worst job you will ever get or have. At least, that’s how it’s known at this office.”
He had winked at her, slipping her resume into a pile on his desk. “Don’t worry, you’re young. You’ll survive it.”
Ruth had imagined herself buried in papers and fast-food bags stained with grease; working her way up the ranks and sleeping at her desk, doing the best-ever work at the worst-ever job, triumphant music playing behind her rumpled hair and bluing under-eyes like those transformation montages in cheesy romantic comedies.
The reality was something different. But then again, it always is.
What most people didn’t understand about their experience of the world—what Ruth now knew, and didn’t know how to unlearn—was that it was highly curated. The scenarios put forth by popular sci-fi movies and TV shows in which human beings could pick and choose the actualization of their food, children, news, opinions, desires, hopes, sexual proclivities, etc., through screens implanted in their occipital lobes or hologrammed above their kitchen tables wasn’t that far off. For the most part, it was already here. Ruth knew this because it was her job to do the curating. She was the docent of a museum that no one knew they were visiting, a thankless guard of useless, disposable, irreplaceable images.
Technically, Ruth’s title was “Quality Assurance.” Which made it sound like she worked at a car dealership. Every time she saw her name placard: "Ruth Patet - Quality Assurance," she had to stop herself from cringing. What made matters worse was that Ruth was very good at Assuring Quality. She was efficient and emotionally compartmentalized. She was a perfectionist and had always been good at cleaning up. In fact, the job used to be called “Scrubber” before her boss changed it, citing lack of political correctness. Yet coworkers who had been at the office long enough to remember the old name would still walk past her desk singing that TLC song from the 90s, nodding knowingly at her as they did so. Ruth got the joke. She just didn’t find it all that funny.
To her coworkers, the internet was a beautiful, amorphous mystery—a massive and unseen system, like the Milky Way or plumbing. To Ruth, it was not. To Ruth it was square and defined, tiled and grouted. It had nooks and crannies and caverns and high shelves and it was her job to search every inch of them for what couldn’t be seen, but might be found. It was an impossible task, Sisyphean in nature—a horrible Groundhog Day Zen parable in which every day was both full of effort and useless; a glass of water that each time it was emptied, filled right back up again.
As Quality Assurance, it was Ruth’s duty to scour the internet for violent, triggering, mutinous, fetishized, or otherwise depraved content. Every morning she sat at her desk and thought of the worst possible words to put together to lead her to the most assaulting images, which would lead to sites with built-in devotion to those images, which would lead to followers and feeds devoted to those sites. Then, using a series of ethically ambiguous tracking networks, she would find the people who were responsible for the images and sites and block them, pulling up the drawbridge and lowering the gates on their online inhabitance.
The blocking was the tricky part. Her first few weeks on the job had been spent learning the Blind Man’s Mirror, a sneaky bit of code developed over years and through much trial and error by Richter Communications Group LLC (and the reason for her boss’s three houses and one Porsche as well as Ruth’s ironclad N.D.A.). The code provided a graceful solution to the smut problem without puncturing anybody’s ignorance. In the Blind Man’s Mirror, everything would seem normal from the side of the person blocked—pictures go up, posts are published—but nothing would actually make it through to the other side, onto the internet’s walls. There had been a small hiccup when, after his particularly vocal following went silent, one troll found them out, but the technicians quickly developed a way to add bots into the code so that any post made by a Blind Man would still get comments and likes from a seemingly wide array of sources. It was a perfect double-bind, a flawless trick of mutual denial that left no one the wiser. Except, of course, for Ruth.
What surprised Ruth most was not the images she was able to find, nor how the depth of human depravity was both inexhaustible and repetitive. It was how easy it was for her to discover what no one else knew to look for.
Everything about Ruth—whether she liked it or not—made her good at her job. What made her great, however, was her ability to pinpoint exactly what others were most ashamed of in themselves, and so, inevitably, what they could not resist exploring. She was like a random word generator for the horrid and deranged; a psychologist and a mathematician with infinite variables for both sickness and solution. Ruth found her knack especially odd considering how carefully she lived her life. How adamant she was about staying firmly at the center, avoiding the pull of any extreme. Maybe that was why she could so easily imagine other people’s deepest, darkest desires: she’d never had any herself.
At first, her coworkers were delighted by Ruth’s consistency. They liked not having to get used to another person every two to three months (sometimes weeks), and enjoyed the relative good mood Ruth’s lack of complaint engendered in their boss. But as time passed, Ruth could sense a certain growing unease towards her, a distrust of her unflagging productivity widening in conjuncture with the berth people kept when nearing her desk. It was unnatural, Ruth knew, to exhibit so little side effects in her line of work. There was the retreat from social life—a slow returning to herself like a lake shrinking in the desert—which she justified as a normal part of starting any job. But Ruth had heard that other people in her position often fell prey to much worse afflictions: debilitating depression, crippling anxiety, amputative disinterest. That a scrubber in Phoenix kept Zoloft and Xanax taped to the bottom of her desk so she could take the pills at work without her colleagues seeing; that another in Ontario had jumped from the highest floor of his building into a freezing lake after only a month. Maybe they didn’t have something like the Blind Man’s Mirror. Maybe more people came after them. Or maybe they knew something Ruth didn’t.
Yet Ruth continued to feel fine. Contained. She had shored up her boundaries and fortified her mind against the influx of endless shit greeting her each morning. She behaved no differently than before she started the job.
Except, of course, for the stealing.
A few months into her tenure at the office, Ruth had discovered the Lost and Found. It was located in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet in the break room, where—Ruth realized— she was supposed to have put the sunglasses when she found them; where occasionally a scarf or a monogrammed pen ended up. Once, somebody put a Forever Flower in the drawer—a pink orchid in a hardened topiary of gel and pebbles, its petals crimped by the cabinet’s metal teeth.
Ruth took the immortal thing. She also took the scarf and the pen, even though she knew to whom they belonged. Ruth returned to the file cabinet's metallic yawn as many times as she could without arousing suspicion, but she soon found that whatever her coworkers managed to lose or leave was not enough.
She started walking into fancy restaurants and making up items she had left behind after fabricated exorbitant dinners. At best, her descriptions were close enough that she walked home with something chic and smelling of Opium perfume. At worst, she left with apologies and the promise of a complimentary dessert if she decided to return.
Ruth’s boss, unashamed of her productivity and unaware of her habitual kleptomania, expanded her position, giving her more jurisdiction over more quadrants of the internet’s infinite grid and spooling out new reams of The Blind Man’s code for her to learn. As Ruth’s work hours increased, so too did her extracurricular habit of Bogarting and pinching; palming and ripping off. She joined gyms to pilfer the locker rooms at closing time; took trains outside the city to hotels with high commuter populations and lazy concierges, more concerned with offloading the paraphernalia of the forgetful then making sure that Ruth was the rightful owner of this electric razor, that boar-bristle brush.
With a slow immediacy—like noticing a precancerous mole or a lover’s disinterest—Ruth awakened to a second life growing alongside her own. It seemed to her that everything she did or saw could be replaced by the experiences of the objects she collected. Her memories became their memories—what the lady having dinner in her Hermes scarf had felt like, drinking red wine over ravioli as her fiancé gazed at her through candlelight; how inebriated the Uber passenger had been when he left three Lotto tickets and a matchbook tucked into the brim of a sweat-stained fedora in the back seat of a stranger's car. She had been alarmed, at first, to discover the alacrity with which she inhabited so many other people’s stories, how their personal effects felt so familiar to her, like things she had once lost and found again, buried in a box in the attic or hidden underneath the bed. But as time passed with nothing bad happening and no one noticing anything out of the ordinary, Ruth forgot to be worried. The only slight problem was that, when asked, she had a hard time remembering the particulars of her own life, so attached were they to the particulars of the lives she had gifted herself. But people weren’t asking that much anymore.
In hindsight, Ruth realized she should’ve known. That if her job had taught her anything, it was that the anonymous never stay that way for long.
One morning, in the middle of month in which Ruth had stolen more than she ever had before, including two of her biggest items (a Razor scooter and three bulk boxes of cereal from the loading dock of a local grocery store), Ruth arrived at her desk to a card, peeking out from the corner of her keyboard.
It was pink, her name written across the front in silver sparkle pen. Its colors felt shocking against the industrial taupe of the office. Looking at it, Ruth was convinced that she had been caught; that someone had finally discovered her habit and would now expose her. But who would put such a nasty note into such nice packaging? It was insane, to think that this was the way she would be confronted. Irrational! But Ruth's heart pounded all the same, vibrating through her skin in a way it hadn't since the sunglasses.
Ruth clutched at the envelope, lurching awkwardly into her chair and swiveling so that her back faced the other cubicles. Sweat beaded on her upper lip, ignorant of the year-round air conditioning. All the objects she had hoarded came to her in a series of images more violent than any she had erased: a watch without the second hand, a gift card to Victoria’s Secret, a baby’s rattle, a vintage shawl with the initials S.E. stitched into the label. Scenes from her life and the lives she had adopted flitted across her brain like she was seeing death; their colors as vibrant and abrasive as the envelope's neon.
Breathing deeply, Ruth forced herself to trail her finger under the lip of the envelope. As calmly as she could with her hands shaking so violently, she lifted out the note inside and placed the empty envelope upright on her desk, turning it so the glittery “Ruth” faced her. She opened the card slowly, as though it were the door to a basement in a horror film. She tried to read what was in front of her but the series of stolen stories kept clouding her vision. Her eyes watered, fuzzing the boundaries of the letters, fusing them with the candy-colored stationary. She blinked. The note looked like a cartoon, like a demon, like a shadow. Just as she managed to make out its first two words: “Dear Ruth,” she heard from behind her:
“Huh?” Ruth nearly shouted, swiveling her chair back towards the office. She felt like someone who had just turned on their hearing aid; the whole world was tinnitus.
“I see you got my card.” The moon-face of her boss loomed in front of her. It seemed to Ruth that she hadn’t seen him since her first day here; that she hadn’t seen anyone for a long time.
“My wife did the calligraphy; forgive the you-know of it all.” Her boss laughed.
Ruth swallowed, her throat contracting against words she couldn’t remember, had forgotten how to pronounce.
“You made it! Eleven months! It’s the longest we’ve ever had someone in this position. I considered waiting until a year but that seemed like counting my chickens.” He winked. “Keep going, Scrubber. We’re all pleased, if a bit dumbfounded. I don’t know how you do it!” He pulled up his pants with a hitch, and gave Ruth’s shoulder a well-distanced squeeze.
“Well… Back to work!”
Whether she said “Thank you” aloud or just thought it, Ruth wasn’t sure. But she did know that either way, she didn’t mean it.
Ruth listened as her boss walked away, the pad of his loafers heavy and insignificant against the gravitational pull of the office's carpet. She didn’t bother to finish reading the note. With something like relief, Ruth put the card back in its envelope and placed it in the top drawer of her desk, face up.
Eleven months, she thought as she turned on her computer. Eleven months, as she logged into the multiple servers and watchdog organizations she trolled. Eleven months, and she couldn’t remember any of it.
Ruth didn’t delete a single image all day.
At five fifty-nine p.m., Ruth took the sunglasses out of her purse where she had kept them for the past ten months and two weeks. She placed them exactly as she had found them: turned on a forty-five degree angle in the first drawer of her desk, only this time right on top of her congratulations card. That way, she thought, the next person who found them would know to whom they belonged.
Ruth powered down her computer and walked the dingy hallway to the fake wood- paneled elevator that always dropped an inch whenever she arrived at the floor belonging to Richter Communications Group LLC. She watched the hour turn to six o’clock as the elevator doors shut, aperturing the office in front of her like at the end of an old-fashioned cartoon. Ruth pressed 1, the button cool and polished under her finger. She was reminded of the playground her mother used to take her to as a child. There was a copper statue of the Mad Hatter from Alice and Wonderland right at its center, after the swings and before the seesaw. All the kids loved it, sitting on the Hatter’s outstretched arms and pretending to drink from his fake teacup. The grooves of his fake copper shirt had worn smooth from use by the time Ruth was big enough to climb on it. She used to run her fingers over his arms, feeling the nooks and crannies that were somehow softer for their hardness. She imagined she was the sculptor—her little hands remaking the statue into someone new, someone whose story only she shared, like a secret.
As the elevator doors opened, Ruth started: whose life was that? Was that her childhood, or someone else’s? And how was she supposed to know either way? Ruth tried to think of a quick method to test for the truth of her memory—one that didn’t involve pictures, people, anecdotes, all the things she was so tired of. She couldn’t.
Shaking herself, Ruth pulled her purse—ten pounds lighter—from the crook of her elbow onto her shoulder. Right before she crossed the threshold of the office, Ruth stopped. She realized, now that she was thinking about it, she had no idea how to get home.