Parvaneh walked to the coffee shop in her cleanest shirt and dress slacks at rush hour, just to hold onto ritual and routine, now that she no longer had a job to structure her weekday. All it took was one ultra-popular friend retweeting her grouchy hot take on the manager with the simmering bigotries– not even naming names– to launch her from person with a job and a Twitter account to a central figure in the fight against office microaggressions. A clickbait mill retweeted the retweet, quoted and linked it at the top of their big feature about harassment, which had the effect of funneling all new harassment into her mentions and, soon enough, her personal email, her work email, and the work email of her human resources director, whose fifteen minute review of the situation left her circling the cream and sugar island in the The Bee’s Buzz instead of having anywhere else to be on a Monday morning.
She took the entire shaker of chocolate powder with her to a round table in the back of the cafe and tapped on the three-hundred unread messages alert on her phone.
Strangers were indignant about her original gripe. They called her a liar, a slut, a terrorist, variations thereof, and threatened to perform all manner of violences on her. One by one, she screenshot, blocked, and reported the messages, as if this might do some minor good like tossing back a single dried-out starfish into a polluted sea. Doing this without letting herself read them was a lesser of two anxiety attacks. But this morning, as abruptly as she’d become unemployed, the vitriol dwindled, and the pictures started.
The first picture came with a note: “I saw your story and your avatar and the documents about you and I recognized you from this photo that hangs in our first floor hallway. See attached.”
The attachment was a photo of that photo, in its frame, in the wallpapered hallway. A white family– mom, dad, goth-looking daughter, startled-looking son– smooshed together in front of the Byrd Weatherbee statue in the University neighborhood where The Bee’s Buzz operated as well. All of their hands touched Byrd’s brass foot, a tourist-folk tradition for good luck which persisted in spite of the Weatherbee University hazing standard to piss on that same foot late at night, after their proud parents have stumbled drunk into rideshares and been whisked away like reverse-Cinderella’s to luxury hotels.
In the background of this photo, Parvaneh saw herself sitting by the statue, shoving a bagel in her face, with wet hair, adding an unintended layer of sloppy reality to an otherwise idyllic family portrait. She looked up from her phone and her drink and out the front window of the coffee shop, where she could glimpse the left elbow of Weatherbee’s brass akimbo stance behind a swarm of pedestrians.
Parvaneh squirmed. How many photographs existed of her in the albums of strangers? This partial answer was tantalizing. More of them arrived throughout her first week of unemployment, from different kinds of people, in all corners of the city. There were more families, couples, packs of friends, selfies, the creative commons licensed photo from the Wikipedia page about the Byrd Weatherbee statue. In every single one, she was present, walking, sitting, eating her lunch, picking her nose, rifling through her purse, finishing a beer, reading a book. Sometimes, just waiting for something, a train or last call or the laundromat dryer. In several, she looked right into the camera with the beginning of motion in her stance, her gaze already drifting unaware to the next blip of interaction with the lives of others. The torrent of threats evaporated, but neither were these new messages friendly in any conventional sense. Each one said some variation of the same simple description: “here you are, near me.”
Kelsey Tait Jarboe is a writer of speculative fiction, critical essays, and reviews. Their work has been published in The Atlantic, The Toast, Strange Horizons, many other wonderful magazines, and most recently in the Procyon Science Fiction Anthology. They are currently an artist in residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska, but otherwise live in Boston.