Fiction: Do the Watchers Laugh, Too?
By Cassie Margalit
It is three in the morning and Himeno Higashiyama has already gone completely and utterly insane, she knows, over the line imperceptibly… and maybe if someone had intervened at some point she would’ve been able to go to work today— but now that’s no longer important. Reason and physics and any kind of logic has collapsed in on itself, and some sick god has cursed poor innocent Himeno with putting all the pieces together. It’s worse than actual work.
A paranoiac parable: The mirrors are all covered. She hasn’t smashed them, yet, their continued not-smashedness is evidence she’s sane, that at least she’s not quite started howling like an animal and gone at them with a rock or a pot- is there even a pot in her apartment? Because she hasn’t smashed the mirrors she can safely explore where reality shouldn’t without losing her grounding, no matter how much it erodes her… but she keeps coming to the conclusion that really, there isn’t an answer, and everything she’s tried to think of doesn’t work but neither does what’s happened… and she keeps returning.
It is three in the afternoon and there is nothing left to describe. Poetry is dead. Language is, too, an inefficient way of communicating what data can in a fraction of the time. Only formality remains. Language is a second set of math used for navigating a social field. Formality is its natural conclusion. Wear this, sign this, shake the hand- the language accompanying formality is a coat of paint being gradually shredded away in favor of raw data conveyed through business casual wear. The average English sentence is filled with unnecessary fluff that must be culled, look at the Russians, they’re already ahead of us in terms of article abandonment, let’s shave off a few words- and then she remembers she needs to finish the paperwork. A glance to the Garfield comics on the wall. “There’s nothing happening.” “I just got the wildfire in my sock drawer under control!” “Out of the ordinary, I mean.”
This is the preentrepreneurial lifestyle. Himeno did not choose this, it chose her. Hm… That’s too much agency involved. Maybe it’d be more accurate to say she fell into it, or it fell into her, while she was feeling depressed about flunking every other potential major at faux-ivy league university besides, of course, business. Business has progressed beyond language, philosophy cowers in fear at its statistical might, and even mathematics isn’t all too necessary beyond accounting. Business, she discovers, is not just a field, it is a lifestyle. The course is programmed exactly to break down your language and habits until you embrace the opportunity-cost decision making model in all things, every behavior is a calculated and rational decision of minimizing economic waste (time, money, all equal production potential) in service of becoming the ultimate entrepreneur. Oh yeah baby. Honestly on Himeno’s path it was inevitable, it was inevitable ever since she was born. The system is fundamentally created to let the best individuals rise to the top. Himeno is one of them. Since she was a kid she wanted to lead, wants turn into suffering equals effort. It is a guarantee. The preentrepreneurial lifestyle consists of living the routine and sitting back with the ease that you know you’re going to make it big, really big, just by living the way you are. Inspiration will strike. It will strike like a missile.
Meetings are the opposite of inspiration. Himeno is looking at all these people and beneath everything the thought that none of them are going to make it as big as her is cropping up and up as she just looks at them. She will be inspired soon, she is almost thirty so it has to strike soon… She is there. In the meeting, she is looking at herself but she is not looking back but she is definitely there. Himeno Higashiyama. Does she notice- the other one- Himeno Higashiyama? She doesn’t, she’s zoned out as usual- and she isn’t Himeno Higashiyama, she has to be someone else, someone who looks pretty similar but just isn’t Himeno. There, Himeno’s picking up details like it’s a kids’ spot the difference puzzle, she looks remarkably similar and that’s it. That might make good workplace conversation, good for networking.
Oh. The meeting has ended already, it flew by so fast and so has the day. She’s clocked out and catching that lady who looks like her on the elevator.
“Hi,” she says, sticking out a hand, “I’m Himeno Higashiyama. You were in that meeting earlier, right?”
And she looks scared, then the mouth goes into a pleasantly shocked expression for when something funny but not disruptive (then is the time for the disgust expression) enters the routine, and she laughs a little and says “Oh wow, that’s mine, too!” and they both laugh, while thinking how unlikely and magical this is because there aren’t many Himeno Higashiyamas on this evidently tiny, tiny planet. They get to talking, and their interests, what calculated few of them remain, are similar, so similar, and they have a lot in common, like their interest in business. A-and she’s, well, ha ha, Himeno’s not used to this feeling, she’s kinda cute, and she think’s Himeno’s cute as well… but there’s fear, too and it’s the opposite of formal there are no words in her language to describe it, because it describes an impossibility: the fact that the date she now has on Friday might mean she settles down, gives up her dreams and becomes just another- oh phooey- wage-slave.
Well, at least the rest of the week passes quickly. Menial tasks flooding her mind, giving her something else to think about besides, yknow. Date is exciting, though, and Himeno’s heart is pounding out of her chest because there’s no formality for dates… Which is to say she hasn’t been on many. Any, rather. The faux-fancy Italian restaurant looms, even on the inside. The smell of bread is assaulting her nostrils, the weird pizza-time-esque music’s cranked up way too loud, it’s an authoritarian design, she can almost see the “SI SI SI”. And there she is, in there, standing awkward as Himeno. Okay, you got this Himeno, crack a joke, a funny little small talk gaff-
“Well, this place, it’s… uh, it’s a singular, just one rung above Olive Garden, huh? Ha ha.”
“Ha ha.” You blew it, but hopefully she’s just nervous because both of them soon fall into quiet after that, table for two and they sit down. Still silent, a list of meeting icebreakers runs through Himeno’s head, and mechanically, she starts:
“What’s your favorite idea?”
“Being creative. Where are you from?”
That one, it catches both of them. Apparently they’re from the same state. This is immediately followed by a cordial and intrigued “Oh, where from?” on Himeno’s part, and for a moment there’s relief as they’re back on script until the other one answers with Himeno’s town, and Himeno can see her replicating the nervousness on her face. She asks about the other one’s parents, and they have similar parents, same names, same family history… They went to the same college, too, and had the same major. They never saw each other.
This conversation gives them both the same idiotic and stupid idea. It’s an idea that seizes, and makes them start looking around, wildly, eyes darting seeing all the different people and doing anything they can to avoid looking at the mirror in front of them. Because, that mirror, does it really have the potential to- and if it does, what does that make Himeno? That singular thought is too much to bear, around the same time their faces start getting red and eyes watery and neither one knows which one is copying the other, they leave, suddenly. Himeno hops on the bus and- oh thank god she’s not following.
And now she’s in her apartment, getting in her sweet sweet depressurization time before the next day at work. It’s getting later and the feeling still isn’t going away, it’s just lessening bit by bit as she’s playing on her phone while the TV’s on to some random reality show, and music’s in one ear blasting pop, rock, esoteric slurpcore- whatever turns her brain to mush works for now. By the time she realizes it’s midnight already is the time she realizes that she’s in one of those moods, those unhinged and floaty moods that makes her think, for once, about taking a mental health day. Her vague internal pride grapples with the fact she feels like she’s falling throughout the weekend. When she looks at the clock and realizes it’s three twenty-two on Monday she just decides to go, with the additional reward of around five hours of pacing aimlessly in the morning.
It's not like she’s any more or less productive now, besides, work’s a good distraction, and she’s a hard worker, so she’s really putting herself to the grindstone and feeling good about it, looking at text as it blurs. Oh no, on the schedule, what’s that? Another meeting! Running hands down her face, she’s thinking about if she can actually manage this… a few greetings, maybe, some generic reports, her. She was the worst thing about it, because Himeno’d start thinking again, she was Himeno, Himeno, the real one, and- and this was somehow just a big coincidence. She might not be there, so it might be fine, she was also probably thinking the same thing, she’d looked like it when she left. Yeah, it’d be fine.
Time comes fast, passing by, resisting the urge to collapse onto the desk in a puddle of drool and snoring. She stands up, her legs are unsteady, unused for a moment but she quickly adjusts, sits down again in room number whatever. She’s there alright, and she’s hiding her expression beneath that face, that empty blank stare into nothing, vaguely focused, that kind of look you give when you’re staring at a corporate slideshow made by idiots who’re never going to get where you’ll be and you can’t laugh or look bored so you just sit there, fazed out looking at one location. The meeting’s on and it’s exactly that type of meeting, just a mess of incompetence no one’s bothered to fix because the ones who can are all too good or tired for it (like Himeno). She looks over to where she is and she has that same expression on, good posture, too, it’s risky taking a look like this so Himeno looks back to the idiot that’s speaking but- something’s assaulting her peripheral vision, a vague blob that looks just like a mirror. Oh god. It’s another one. With that same expression, and Himeno can tell she wants to die underneath, formality’s breaking down under shared emotion. There’s a horror movie emotion, she’s got to get out of there right now, just after he finishes speaking. She even fidgets a little. All the while she’s staring at her, and she’s staring at her back…
It's done, she’s clocked out because her stomach hurts or something. It doesn’t but that doesn’t mean she can’t convince herself that it does. She tries going home but it just doesn’t feel right anymore, everything’s stale and dusty now, and it’s making her sick in a way that feels fake but she knows is real. So she goes to the gym, being productive, and she really feels like a CEO. It’s relaxing. The music flows through into her steps on the treadmill. She’s completely exhausted before long. Back home, she collapses, doesn’t even remember the transit. It’s Tuesday already. As soon as she’s conscious she’s already thinking. Is there going to be another one? This is already more than a coincidence, but three, that’s just too far. She’s already feeling like she’s going too far, somehow, even though she’s done nothing but act normal. She calls in sick, she has to, a vomit-like array of colors and sounds follows. It doesn’t work. The next day she feels like she went to work anyways.
She goes to work, like clockwork, another useless meeting that disturbs her doing actual work. She’s losing meaning in the grind. Or maybe she’s gaining meaning, gaining a sense of a lack of meaning, maybe, that there’s some kind of why that explains all this and she hasn’t figured it out yet. She knows that once she does everything will be solved. Yes! It’s all a matter of time, and thinking, more inspiration inevitably. She considers briefly talking to them but that’s impossible.
Into another meeting, confidently, like she’s already figured it out, she strides in all confident and snaps when she sees the four others. Five in total. No one else thinks anything is strange. Himeno’s not the most talkative, sure, but there are five of her. And they’re all saying the same things, no, different, formality dictates they’re saying all different things, examining every minutiae in exquisite detail like a jeweler trying to find out if a diamond is real or not. She shouldn’t have to do this by now, she should be up in her office, not in a cubicle, wondering why there are five of her, staring at the Garfield comic on the wall and feeling time slide out of her hands like sand. Thursday. Six. And she’s clawing at her own face to fall off, begging her tired legs to get up and kick someone’s head off. Seven, now. The entire room is almost filled with Himeno. All talking to each other, pretending they’re different people. A fear pervades the room. They could kill each other at any moment, but there’s some kind of primitive civilization holding them back, divine laws ordained from the whispers of idols (now smashed to bits) telling them to hold it together. It’s coming from her head. Something’s coming from her head as she heads back to her cubicle, as she sees the rest go to their cubicles, as she wonders if their cubicles look like her’s. “Out of the ordinary, I mean.”
It sounds like morse code. Beeping and bleeping inside and outside, particles of something trying to break in, radiating outwards. It’s hard to tell where her head ends and where everything else begins. Music carries thought waves. Manifesting sight, the TV screams voraciously. Its Sunday. She’s brought out the ice cream, stocked up the day before, or maybe late Friday afternoon, some other time, she doesn’t remember. She doesn’t remember why her freezer is suddenly filled with gallons of ice cream. She starts eating them, crying in her pajamas, waiting for it to pass over. It doesn’t. Everything goes silent. A cut. She calls in sick. No one picks up the phone. Pacing. She keeps looking in the mirror. Pacing. Thinking. No, she’s not thinking. It’s Tuesday. She’s not been thinking. She calls in sick. She’s been pretending to think so she keeps herself occupied. She can’t take it. She lapses back into the drowning-out-mechanism. Above water again, Wednesday, still no response when she calls in sick. She’s beginning to worry. A worry that all of this is real. Her first thought is aliens. She makes it to Thursday thinking aliens are doing it all. Frantic google searching so much she almost forgets to call in sick. She falls asleep at 3 PM. Friday. No response still.
She’s back at the present, she thinks, and she is terrified because she cannot feel any of her memories. Her entire body’s gone numb. She loses track of place. Her apartment warps and shifts and it becomes a labyrinth of rotten ideas. Nothing is to be found here; she keeps searching. Sometimes objects appear or disappear and she doesn’t remember them. Where’d the mirrors come from? There is an empty table missing something. Everything’s missing something. Puzzle pieces fall out and stitch themselves back together. Always incomplete. Sometimes its aliens. Sometimes its a conspiracy. Sometimes its magic. Sometimes she’s crazy. They all fall apart all the same. She finds herself thinking thoughts and she realizes they aren’t her own. Perhaps it’s the others. Invading her head with their mere existence she becomes the other— time collapses— they say it’s Monday, or Tuesday— it doesn’t matter, no one’s called for her and no one’s called. Himeno’s a non-entity. Where is she? Where’d the mirrors come from? She’s back at the present, she thinks. And she looks at the mirror but the mirror’s not there. Her thoughts are not her own. Yes, they’re thinking about how boring this meeting is, and they’re thinking about how much better they are than the others, and they’re thinking about their work and careers— oh god. She advances further and throws up a little. She knows why there hasn’t been a single phone call. And she looks at the mirror but the mirror’s not there.
It hits her then. Inspiration. She doesn’t realize it, but as she’s staring into the mirror’s coverings her body aches with a primal despair. She cannot feel it. It is the most powerful feeling in the world, a feeling that overpowers and erases: She knows something. She knows something better than she knows anything else in the world. And she ignores it. Because what she knows is that if she looks in the mirror nothing will be staring back.
Now she is ready to work again.
Cassie Margalit is a 17 year old writer who is previously unpublished. She likes Pynchon's style a little too much, and lives with her parents and four cats.