Across from our fourth-floor unit is our one-legged neighbor on his balcony, perched by a small black metal grill. I don’t know his name, so I will call him Bob. With a yellowed and weathered crutch, he pivots from one side of the covered cement to the other. The lower-middle class backyard. His blonde, hay-like hair receding from his frameless glasses. Eyes as blue as the paint of the community pool below our units. He yells to someone inside, “Hey, Rocket, can you grab me the salt?” Moments later and without a word, a pale arm reaches out of the apartment with a salt shaker. “Thanks”.
Slouched on a puffy cushion atop a wicker chair, shoulders forward over parted knees, I watch Bob to my right from my own cement slice of fresh air, iPhone in hand. My unshowered black hair falls as clumps in front of my eyes, like thick palm tree leaves frame waves at the beach. I pound invisible keystrokes into Google search. “Can employers access your private accounts when they run a social media check?” “What makes you fail a background check?” “What is sexually inappropriate content?”
“Rocket, can you find the sesame oil for the salmon?” I see Bob hold the frame of the balcony door as he leans his head into his apartment. A train goes by down the too-close tracks. A hand appears to pass a dark bottle. “Thanks, Rocket.”
Eyes back to iPhone. Search results provide little comfort when the motivation to look is anxiety. Never once have I Google’d a concern better queried to professionals and thought, I’m going to feel better after this. And that is not because Google is designed to terrify, but because I will hone in on the worst possible search result, the one that justifies my worry. “OK,” I turn to Graham through the open balcony door to my left, “apparently employers can’t use anything posted over seven years.” Some simple mental math. “Oh, that’s just perfect. I was the worst from 2013 to 2015. I’m going to be unemployed. No one will understand and I won’t have a job.”
I lean against the black metal railing, the sharp edges cut into my tanned skin. Bob brushes sesame oil against a dead fish. A siren blares from the center of town, is carried through the thick July air and, saturated by it, arrives warbled and dull. The pond beyond the train tracks is slime green with algae. Entire ecosystems layered like birthday cake. Humanity a fork that hunts the sugary cream cheese frosting jackpot, that scrapes the carrot cake structure to the edge of the plate, just a pile of crumbs.
A husband might be expected to calm his wife as she spirals, but not after she has gone down the same rabbit hole four times the same day, the same hour. An endless echo of doubt that results in a cacophony of catastrophe. Graham is inside on the couch. His limber legs, one over the other. His eyes widen and his thumb pulls the news up, up into the ether on his Android. His exhale a sigh that says, “Whatever I say right now is going to be fuel to some fire that burns inside your head that was set a long, long time ago, that you refuse to extinguish, that my love and support cannot extinguish, that you walk into when bored and that you blame for the blisters on your feet.” I stare at him. Wearing a Manchester United shirt, his black beauty marks scattered like a series of volcanic islands across his pale skin. Thick black eyebrows a bird in flight, eyes so big eyelashes so long. His long fingers bony. “Graham, I’m freaking out.” His long neck bends back, eyes toward the ceiling, back of his head rests on the grey fabric couch. He looks at me from the bottom of his eyes.
I jump as if an idea has landed in my lap. And it has. A glorious new idea! One more vein to pump poison into until it collapses.
“I’m calling them.” I bring the phone up to my ear.
“You are calling who?”
“A background check agency. One of the ones that has published most articles on why it’s so important employers scrutinize not just quality of experience, but quality of character.”
“What are you going to ask them?”
I’ll ask them to pacify the malignant worry. Code the neural network inside my head with inputs that process information without bias and outputs that don’t derange my environment. All information is new information. All information is new information. All information is new information.
My eyes follow the sound of metal on concrete. “Shit.” Bob balances on one leg, his right hand holds the railing, he does yoga. Downward bending war veteran. “Rocket, I dropped the knife.”
Bob grunts. He has the sullied knife in hand and hops toward a chair to sit. A lone breeze hits us both, and the obese summer air is lifted. “Rocket? Rocket can you come here?” Bob looks defeated, the tip of the knife about to touch the floor again, barely held between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
“Del, what are you going to ask these people when you call?”
The breeze seemed to mute all other things. The train that had been inches away from view, a journey that would take it east across my line of sight, faded to silence before it could mimic the roar of a plane. The road behind the other side of the building, the side that completed the “U” shape of our complex, the chalice, holding the pool as a sacred serum which we sat around like pilgrims and worshiped the sun, made no sound. I could not close my eyes and trace the path of commuters. The children below, silent film actors. The water that splashed as they kicked and flailed, stage decoration in a vacuum. “Rocket, can you please come HERE.”
Rocket is Bob’s wife, maybe. But whatever he is, he is not her first long-term partner. There is a 12ish year-old boy that comes around, her son. He spends his time there watching Bob barbeque spiced and marinated dead things and enthusiastically describe his favorite video game. Bob’s response is always to wait for a pause, usually as the young fellow takes a 1,000 word breathe, prepared to rave about about the games conclusion, ultimate purpose, to interrupt with, “Yeah that’s great, can you go ask your Mom for_____.”
Graham places his phone in his lap and leans toward me. “Del.”
And what about his mom, Rocket? I think of their apartment, where Rocket sits for the brief moments she is allowed. Before she is summoned to provide the next needed thing. The unit line they have is two-bedroom. I know because we viewed the still vacant unit below them, then remembered there is more likely to be life on Mars than inside my ornamental ovaries, and settled on the one bedroom with no personal space. Does she escape to the windowless corner of that master bedroom, the farthest point from the balcony? I imagine she has a lone chair just at that spot. She placed a basket next to her chair and filled it with skeins of yarn – a color for every time a stitch has been interrupted – that she added basket after basket, so many baskets that her chair is a tomb. She has been knitting the same sock for years. “ROCKET!”
I shrug. The reflection of myself in the stationary twin of the two pane sliding glass balcony door, only slightly more unnerving than the smaller, distorted reflection on the pane of glass twins who gets to move. Reflection: Unplucked eyebrows an acute reminder of my priorities, my inability to prevent my mental state reflect on my physical self, the dirty glass unable to spare me the neglect I show what I can control. I click the hyperlinked phone number and dial across the continent to a 415-area code. My right foot taps a balcony covered in flecks of cigarette ash, fresh basil and parsley, flower petals, a Stella Artois bottle cap, carcasses of the previous night’s winds and drink.
Graham stares. I point to the phone and yell-whisper, “IT’S RINGING. IT’S GOING STRAIGHT TO A PERSON!” My nails are under my teeth and Graham’s mouth is agape, with a slight turn up at the right, a smile he fights. He exposes a truth when I create a crisis. He secretly hopes all of my anxiety will lead to this intensity of skepticism, for the moment I become my most manic, genuine self. He loves me most right in this moment, for not standing shouting from inside one of my many walls, but out in the open where he is able to see me. But I choose to see the nightmare. “Hello? Hi. This is probably weird but I was wondering if you might explain how your service works.”
“I DROPPED THE KNIFE, ROCKET.”
“No, I am a potential employee.”
“…DROPPED IT ON THE FLOOR, ROCKET.”
“I understand you don’t typically speak with job seekers but that doesn’t mean you can’t.”
“I NEED THE OTHER CHEF’S KNIFE, ROCKET.”
“Please. Just a few questions, nothing specific.”
“ROCKET, I NEED YOU.”
“…but specifically, do you use some publicly unavailable software to view private or deactivated accounts?”
“ROCKET, I NEED THE CHEF’S KNIFE.”
“…but surely there’s a way around a private account. What about if I was @’d on Twitter and that @ is public?”
“THE KNIFE IN THE DRAWER.”
“…or a retweet of me saying something…”
“THE KNIFE. IN THE DRAWER. ROCKET, I NEED THE KNIFE IN THE DRAWER BY
“…so to confirm, you can only report back on publicly shared, active content…”
“DAMNIT, ROCKET. I HAVE ONE FUCKING LEG.”
I end the call and turn to Graham whose eyes are on Bob as he disappears inside his apartment. “You know who doesn’t have to worry about passing a social media check? The President.”
Graham looks at me. “You don’t have to worry either. You think too much.”
Too much? What if the world were to fall apart and no one looked at each moment with the scrutiny required to see it coming? All a bunch of somethings ending in ruin. My constant rationalization for being abso-fucking-lutely consumed by anything that could, potentially, if- looked-at-this-way, end in crisis. “I hate that ever even had a Twitter account.”
“We met on Twitter.”
“But what if I fail this background check?”
“But what if I do?”
“Not going to happen.”
“You can’t know that for certain.”
“No, I can’t know every possible outcome of everything you worry about.”
“See, it might happen.”
Graham’s eyes close and his jaw clenches. I stand up and stomp into the apartment. I
make a show of getting a beer out of the fridge. I yank open a drawer and bang things about, grab the bottle opener. From a posture of exasperation, Graham says, “It’s 10am.”
“Well, you’re not helping.”
“There is nothing to help with. All this panic and things will be fine.”
But it doesn’t matter. I am faced with the unknown. I am vulnerable. I took a risk to get
myself a job out of the city, the mania, the 12 hours days and two hour commute; to start a life that I want. That allows me to be with him. Be present. I stand with the cold beer in my hands, in the tiny kitchen. I drink the beer to leave reality and not be present.
The old appliances left by the previous owner, the dishwasher we have to replace. I tip the bottle to my lips. Again. And again. Because I am not in my kitchen, I am lost in my mind, on a strip of land just shy of the rocky shore. I stand here every day and watch the blue ocean be pulled forward and away by the moon above me. I watch the water crash and chip away, and the strip of land gets a little narrower, the shore a bit farther. My thoughts fall about me as messages in a million bottles, every honest need for help lost in the waves. I don’t know how to get to land, how to feel safe.
The days unfold and an email arrives while I stand on the balcony, American Spirit cigarette at my lips. I have passed all of the background checks. Before I give Graham a chance to hold me and say, “See, all is well,” I have permits, hard hats, and a crew at work to construct my next labyrinth of panic. Bob is at his grill, he yells inside for teriyaki sauce. Rocket is in her chair, as out of earshot as she can be.