The law of entropy and spending time as a fill-in employee, and girlfriend
In college, I copied a line from my Physics 101 notes onto a post-it and put it on my wall: “Time moves in one direction, forward, because of the tendency of the universe to move from improbable to more probable states.”
A trembling graduate student had taken over the lecture a few weeks into the semester, in what the professor said would be a temporary arrangement but then lasted for the rest of the term. Class attendance dropped; the TA’s lectures were slow and difficult to follow.
I took his words to mean that time was passing, was progressing, and that my life was part of its progress. I sat in the front row of the almost empty lecture hall, trying to hear the TA’s explanations for the laws projected onto the screen behind him. I didn’t learn why time moves forward, but I enjoyed his quiet, earnest lectures on tides, gravity, and objects flying through space.
When I filled out the career aptitude questionnaire for my high school guidance counselor, I wrote that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life. “Professions that interest me,” I said, “range from espionage to rodeo performance. Something with excitement that pays okay.” My first year of college, a professor told me I should be a writer. “It’s the only path,” he said, “that doesn’t close every other path off to you. A writer can write about anything, become an expert in anything, do anything for a living.”
I hadn’t been joking about espionage and rodeo performance. I wanted to learn secrets and to be at the center of a spectacle. After college, I got into an MFA program and moved to New York.
A month after I finished graduate school, I sat in the office of a temping agency, Brenda Gold & Associates, where Brenda Gold told me I would make an excellent temp.
Brenda had white-blond hair and wore a tailored black suit. It was early summer. We were in Midtown, upstairs from a McDonald’s.
Other people’s résumés covered Brenda’s desk, in piles that I imagined conveyed how employable they were, whether they wanted temp to perm work, or whether, like me, they needed something temporary to fill in the gaps.
“I love teachers!” Brenda said, looking over my résumé. “You can work anywhere. We have some really great clients—they rely on us to send them, you know, quality people. And teachers, you’re articulate, you know how to dress, you’re obviously smart, and you’re cute.” Brenda called her assistant into the office and told him she wanted me to start filling in ASAP for a hedge fund receptionist going on maternity leave.
“You’ll love the company,” Brenda told me. “They have a gym you can use after work, lunch provided every day—I’ve heard lobster sometimes.”
Brenda’s assistant led me to a computer kiosk in the reception area to fill out some paperwork. The computers looked about a decade old; heat radiated from them. I started sweating through my blazer.
“What would you wear to a job interview?” Brenda’s assistant asked me.
“Probably this?” I said, looking down at my knee-length skirt with its bright pattern of overlapping shapes.
“We’re dealing with some top-of-the-line people here. Like, suit-to-work type people. Or a blazer and a dress. Always heels. We had a girl,” he whispered, “who we sent out on an interview, a nice girl like you, good schools and all, and she showed up in a sundress and a denim jacket. Can you imagine?”
At sixteen, I got a job as a Colonial ghost-tour guide. “Follow an eighteenth-century costumed guide by lantern light,” the brochure promised. I wore white gloves so the lantern’s cheap tin handle wouldn’t burn my hands.
I worked in retail during college, then as an office assistant, then an intern. In grad school, I was an adjunct, a teaching fellow, and a teaching artist leading poetry lessons in public schools. I didn’t have a definite plan, but I’d found it encouraging that each job seemed better than the last.
I had health care when I graduated, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. But I didn’t get a call back for the adjunct positions I’d applied to, and the teaching arts nonprofit couldn’t say when they’d need me next. An old boyfriend said he could maybe find me something at his tech company in the sales department, since I was pretty. I was too embarrassed to email him back.
A friend from college had passed Brenda’s email on to me, in case I ever wanted to temp. In the coming years, I would give her email to several more friends, all writers, one of whom still has the job Brenda found for him. My friends, in turn, passed Brenda’s information on to others. Once, at a party, I overheard someone I knew only peripherally saying, “And then the last name is Gold, like the metal.”
On the sunny sidewalk outside Brenda’s office, I took off my blazer and stuffed it into my bag. I pulled out my phone and texted Richard. (Some names have been changed.) “Guess who’s temping at a hedge fund now?”
Richard lived in the Village and wrote inscrutable concrete poems. I’d started spending time with him after my old boyfriend, the tech wiz, said we should try to date people with whom we had anything in common.
Richard wasn’t handsome—his features were so angular that even his eyeballs, a doctor told him, came to a point—but when I thought about him, heat shot wildly through my body.
He replied at once: “LOL. Are you serious?”
Six months earlier, Richard and I had sat on his sofa late at night after a poetry reading. He’d opened the coffee-table-book anthology of an experimental art magazine and spread it over both our laps. Our knees touched as he turned the pages, his hand moving from my lap to his and back.
He said, as if suddenly remembering, that he had a girlfriend who lived out of state. “I should head home,” I told him, and moved the book.
Richard insisted on walking me to the subway station, then on keeping me company on the platform, on riding the train with me to Brooklyn, and on walking me to my door. “I couldn’t forgive myself if something happened to you,” he said.
The next morning, I woke up to a text from Richard, saying he’d gotten back home at dawn. “I’m an idiot,” he wrote. I was smiling, thinking about it, as I sat in the kitchen, watching my roommate make her breakfast.
She asked if I’d gotten lucky. “I thought I heard you talking to a dude at like 3 a.m.” I told her what had happened.
“So, he has a girlfriend, but he followed you home all the way from Manhattan and then he just left?” She looked up at me. “That makes me really uncomfortable.” She turned and opened the refrigerator, then said, as if to herself, “Yeah, that’s got to be the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Richard said we could be friends, and I agreed. Best friends, he said, after a month had passed in which we’d seen each other almost every day. He’d never told anyone else the things he was telling me. I knew him better than—he paused—than 99 percent of people he’d ever met.
I noticed ladies’ shaving cream on the corner of Richard’s tub once; the next time I came over, it was gone. When he lent me a sweatshirt, I saw that the left side of his closet was empty, as if waiting for someone else’s possessions. Richard had a chair and a pile of books, but no bookshelves or desk. Blue velvet curtains and a bare, cold floor.
A professor said she could help me get a job teaching comp at a college where a friend of hers was department chair. The school was in a small town, and her friend was desperate to find adjuncts. I emailed my CV right away.
That night, while I was at a reading with Richard, my professor’s friend wrote back.
There must have been some kind of misunderstanding, she said. She wasn’t the person to approach about this kind of hire, but she could tell me then that it wasn’t going to work out because I’d taught creative writing, not composition.
Richard turned the phone so he could see the email, too. He kept his hand there, holding mine, for the rest of the reading.
I went to my training at the hedge fund two days after I met Brenda. The office was on Fifth Avenue, in a building behind an Apple store that looked like the Louvre. Inside, twin sculptures of muscular horses flanked the office’s wide glass doors.
The receptionist told me the company had offices in Dallas and New York. Each of the guys, she said, had an assistant—she called them “the girls”—who filtered his calls.
When any of the girls in New York or Dallas went to a doctor’s appointment, or to pick up a kid from school, or on vacation, or just to the bathroom, an instant message popped up on the reception computer. “Cover my guys,” it would say. I’d need to look up the guys in a three-ring binder on my desk and check whether they liked being emailed with caller information and how many rings to wait before they would like me to take a message.
The receptionist’s dark, glossy hair fell in perfect ringlets, each strand curled into place. A window behind us cast our reflections onto her huge, polished computer screen. I looked at my own curls, frizz blurring one into the next, and wondered what I was doing wrong.
“Each day temporary, and then it’s spring,” I wrote in the notebook I kept surreptitiously on my desk, during my first week as a temp. I thought it could be a good beginning for a poem, or a good ending to one.
In the second week, I made a list of what I wanted in a job, which included “health care” and “people who look me in the eyes.” I made a pros and cons list about Richard. I made a list of journals to send poems to, another titled “Opportunities,” another of people I might email for advice.
I spread out newspapers on the reception desk each morning for the partners to take on their way in. I wasn’t allowed to read the papers, nor was I allowed to read on my computer since it was visible to anyone who walked into the office. “Look busy, but not too busy; happy and ready to help,” the receptionist told me in my training.
I pulled up the Times during lulls and emailed myself articles to read later, with titles like “Can an Algorithm Hire Better Than a Human?” and “The Value of a Mindless Summer Job.”
When I was teaching, I’d sometimes stop at Richard’s place on the way home from my 8 a.m. class. “We can get breakfast,” he’d say, or “I want to see you.”
I sat in his bed and lesson planned. He always seemed to be doing laundry when I arrived and wore basketball shorts around his apartment. They showed the contours of his dick, which was often erect.
One morning, when I was about to leave the apartment, Richard picked me up and carried me back to the bed. He stood against the edge of the mattress, looking down at me as I lay on my back, his hands behind my knees.
“What are we going to do?” he asked.
After a minute of looking up at him, I said, I couldn’t, if he was still—. He dropped my legs. I stood up and left the apartment.
Richard’s hands, his long, precise fingers; how he loved lavender; his over-large shoes, which he made me try on; how rich he was—I imagined vacations, skiing, renting decadent apartments; how each dinner and subway ride, each hour in a gallery or at a park felt like a flash-illuminated photograph, our bodies bright and startled, everything beyond us, impossible to see.
His relationship; how my friends didn’t like him; how he didn’t like my friends; how he brought up my publications and funding as if keeping score between us; how rich he was—I imagined his terrifying mother, country clubs, falling in my skis and breaking something; how, if he went bald, he’d look like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons; how I felt a little sick anytime I was with him because he had a girlfriend.
I looked forward to visitors at the hedge fund. They said hi to me, sometimes making conversation. Most of the guys didn’t look at the reception desk as they came and went, nor did the other assistants, except one woman, who had several children, lived in New Jersey, and often asked if I was okay.
I started two weeks before the receptionist went on maternity leave, so she could supervise me. She had a pair of flats hidden under her desk—“Shh!” she winked at me—but wore stilettos eight months into her pregnancy.
Once, carrying the tray of coffee a partner had asked me to bring into a meeting, I walked out of my heels altogether and had to try to slip back into them without dropping the tray.
I spent half of my first temping paycheck on new clothes from an outlet mall. It turned out that none of the other girls wore blazers; instead they wore pastel dresses and nude heels, as if they were ready to join a bridal party at any moment.
Richard was a liar. He told people he lived in an industrial neighborhood in an outer borough so no one would think he was rich. He said he was a year younger than he was so he would seem more successful for his age. Because he admitted these lies to me, I felt close to him, everyone else separated from us by a buffer of deceit.
He suggested I move in with him when my lease was up. He said I would love his parents when I met them. He told me nothing had ever felt the way my hand felt when it touched his. He said the calls he was ignoring were from a wrong number.
I told my friends nothing was happening between us.
“When is your girlfriend moving in?” a woman at a party asked Richard. She looked at me, almost smiling.
Richard mumbled something about the summer.
I put down my drink and left the party. I wanted to cry, but I wanted to reach the train first. I started crying on Lexington Avenue. I kept crying as I walked south, trying to remember where I could catch the subway. Goddamn East Side, I thought, looking around for a street sign.
I turned and saw the woman from the party trailing behind me. She smiled faintly at me before reversing course. It was as though she had wanted to be sure I was really leaving, the way someone might shoo a feral animal off their property.
Richard called me the next day, and kept calling until I picked up. He wanted to see if I was okay. He wanted to come over and talk.
We sat in my backyard, and he said yes, his girlfriend was moving in, but things could change. I had to trust him. He’d figure it out.
I wrote a poem in which Richard was a voice in a dark garden. I wrote another in which he ran his fingers down my arms, over my stomach, along the line where my bra met my skin. “Too realistic,” he said, when he read it.
Every morning, the computer at the hedge fund wanted to log me in as someone else. Her name wasn’t in the employee directory. In my third week, I asked an assistant who she was. “She’s the temp they sent before you,” as if it were obvious.
I looked her up online. About my age, also blond.
I’d been at the hedge fund for a month when the teaching artist nonprofit coordinator called, offering me a short-term position. I said yes on the phone, then emailed Brenda.
“I am so sorry,” I wrote. I told her I had an offer to go back to teaching and was giving two weeks’ notice.
Brenda called me within minutes.
Never, she swore, never would I temp in this city again. How could she explain this to my boss, the most senior of the assistants?
I said I would be happy to tell her myself.
“Oh no,” she said. “No, this is my responsibility. I never should have trusted you. But I swear to God you are dead to me. You may as well not show up tomorrow. What will they think, you abandoning them like this?”
As I did every day, I got to the hedge fund first, then waited for a real employee to arrive and unlock the doors. I fanned out the day’s newspapers on my desk, erased the login of the previous temp, and typed mine.
Midmorning, the senior assistant strode down the hall toward my desk. She wore a short hot pink dress that exposed her long, tan legs. “Victoria,” she said, spreading her arms wide, as if for a hug. “Just heard your fantastic news. A teacher should be teaching! We are all so happy for you.”
I thanked her, then started apologizing. She interrupted. “I love it when good things happen to good people. And you’re a good person.” She grabbed a Wall Street Journal for her guys and turned to walk back to her office. “Brenda will send us somebody else next week. No skin off our nose.”
Spring. Tulips. Migraines. Bruises. Road closures. Fires. Tornados. Strikes. Leaves of absence. Avalanches. Leaves in autumn. Baby teeth. Rain. Fury. Shame. Arousal. Push notifications. Notoriety. Fashions. Inebriation. Heat. Joy. Clean sheets. Floods. Adjunct appointments. Wounds. Scabs. Exhibitions. Ceasefires. Fevers. Insomnia. Desire. Grief.
Minerals. Styrofoam. Oceans. Layoffs. The Blue Ridge Mountains. Economies. The interstate highway system. The moon. Marriage. Lifetime appointments. Priesthood. The Supreme Court. The Internet. Deserts. Horizons. Tenure. Truces. Units of measure. Chronic illness. Hope, springing. Insomnia. Desire. Grief.
I missed a call from Richard on my birthday. He was angry when I texted him back the next morning. “I had to leave the apartment to call you, and you don’t even answer?”
He suggested we get breakfast a few days later. He had something to give me.
We went to a café near my apartment. Richard tapped his phone every few minutes to check the time. “Listen,” he said, after a long silence. “You’re going to see my girlfriend at parties and readings. I need you to be nice.”
I said I was leaving.
“Wait,” he said. He pulled two books out of his bag. One was a book I’d mentioned wanting to read. The other was published by the press where Richard interned. “It’s about a woman trying to say what she means,” Richard said. “She takes the whole book just trying to say it. I thought of you immediately.”
In French, temps means weather, and also time—the idea of time, not the precise, nameable hours that pass. Temps can be the time away or the time it takes, the time until or the time since.
Colloquial phrases for bad weather include temps of the dog and temps of Toussaint, the French day of remembering the dead.
No one uses temps to make a forecast, only to describe the weather today, or in the past. Temps cannot predict the future.
I told Richard I wanted some distance, and he said, “A lover’s task is waiting.” He said that he was reading Barthes to understand me better. He told me he wasn’t eating; he was so unhappy he didn’t know what to do. He said that his girlfriend was noticing he’d lost weight.
Labor Day passed, schools started, it was almost Halloween, and I hadn’t gotten a call about a teaching artist assignment for the fall. I got some freelance editing work, applied for full-time jobs, answered calls for adjuncts, and sent writing samples out.
When I hadn’t answered any of his messages for a week, Richard texted to say that one of my friends was being unfairly critical of him in a writing workshop they were both taking. “Did you tell her about us?” he asked. “I feel like she hates me.”
“Hey, I’m sorry,” I wrote back. “I’ll ask her to stop.”
He called right away. “Don’t say anything to her. I made it up. I just wanted to see if I could still get your attention.”
Two weeks before the National Book Awards, I got an email from Brenda about a temp job at the other NBA. She made no reference to her earlier declaration that I would never temp again.
I sat in the reception area outside the NBA commissioner’s office, waiting for a second temp to arrive. The assistant supervising us said she didn’t want to explain everything twice.
I took a covert photo of a glass case full of all-star bobbleheads. I sent it to Richard with the caption, “NBA shortlist.”
The elevator doors opened, and a woman with one foot in a medical boot emerged slowly, using crutches. She started talking before the elevator doors had closed. This was her first time temping—was it mine? She was interviewing for admin positions, but no one had called back. How long had the assistant worked at the NBA? Was it a good job?
“The big boss is out today,” the assistant said as she led us down a hallway, “so you guys get his private conference room. It’s got the best views here.”
She told us we would be stuffing envelopes with booklets containing game times and letters explaining that, to cut down on costs and save the environment, the NBA would not be sending this booklet in the future.
The other temp leaned her crutches against a wall and sat heavily in one of the dark leather chairs. “What’s your deal?” she asked. “We’re going to be stuck together for a couple of days, may as well talk.”
She told me about her job search, her college years, a recent mishap at the salon, her yoga practice, her singing practice, her bad roommate. I stuffed envelopes. “Could you slow down?” she asked. “I’m trying to get two days’ pay out of this.”
She took off her cardigan, leaning back in her chair. “So, are you with somebody? Single? Dating?”
I said I was kind of seeing someone. She said she got that. She got complicated. The thing she was in, it had to be the most complicated relationship of all time. “Do you know what Acapella is?” she asked.
This was not a question I’d expected. “Like music without instruments?”
No, no, she said. It was a music collaboration app. It was on the app that she’d met the man she was dating. He lived in England. She put her phone on the table and started playing their cover of Hallelujah.
“Is it the distance, why it’s complicated?” I asked.
“Yeah, that and he’s technically married. It’s really over, but they’re still together for the kids.”
I told her that sounded kind of messed up. She said I didn’t understand. He was a really good guy.
Richard’s voice cracked, like he was going to cry, one afternoon on the phone. “I’m so sorry I’ve messed it up,” he said. “I’ve messed the whole thing up.” He asked if I was going to make him a villain in the story of my life. “Don’t be melodramatic,” I said. “I don’t think you’re a villain.”
I read up on how to be happier. I started keeping a gratitude journal, which was like my notebook full of lists, but even less interesting.
I listened to an inspirational talk about how to fail often. Another on how to lose well. I read about silver medalists who refused to take the podium at the Olympics, who cried more than those who took bronze or didn’t medal at all, because they’d come within reach of winning gold. Compare yourself to someone less successful was the lesson.
I’d been on waitlists, shortlists, and longlists that year for fellowships, awards, grant money. I’d gotten letters saying I was an alternate and letters urging me to reapply next year. More often, though, I got no response, or a form rejection note.
I thought the almost-wins were progress, proof I was getting closer to success. But I was also almost-dating Richard, and getting no closer to really dating him as the months went by. Maybe, I thought, the silver medalists had it right, refusing even to stand on the podium.
On the second day at the NBA, I arrived with headphones in. “What are you listening to?” the other temp asked.
I said, “A podcast.”
“Is it TED Radio Hour? There’s this one about a woman who—”
I offered to put my podcast on speaker, hoping we could avoid conversation for the rest of the day.
By eleven, we had finished almost all the envelopes. “I’m going to stop now,” the other temp said, “so I can make sure we get a full day’s pay.” She got up and hopped around the table to the windows, which looked down on Fifth Avenue. She rested her palms against the glass.
“What do you think I should do?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Now, in life, if you were me,” she said, “what would you do?”
The commissioner’s assistant let us go early with a full day’s pay. On the street outside the NBA, the other temp said she didn’t usually like temps, but she really liked me. She asked for my last name so she could add me on Facebook.
A few months later, she posted a selfie in Phoenix, where, according to her profile, she’d moved. She was on a hike with a new boyfriend. She looked happy and fit, her ankle or foot—I’d never asked what had happened to it—long ago healed.
On the days the receptionist had trained me at the hedge fund, she’d sat elsewhere, at a vacant desk deep in the maze of offices. “It would be weird for people to see two of us out here at once. We don’t want to confuse the guys,” she told me.
No one asked who I was when I sat at the reception desk, not because I resembled the receptionist or did her work well but because my presence filled her absence.
In the first poem Richard wrote about me, I was a flock of birds. In the last, I was yelling at him in an upscale sandwich shop.
The first time I saw Richard was at a bar, with friends. The last time I saw him was at a bar, with his girlfriend. They sat at the high-top table where I’d sat with him a year earlier.
The way she turned her face up to look at him. After that night, I stopped answering his messages, and after a while, he stopped calling.
I looked up the second law of thermodynamics again, years after I took Physics 101. I had thought of time’s forward movement as a sign of hope, of the inevitability of improvement. But it’s also true, I realized, that a closed system tends toward chaos. That time’s progress depends on loss and waste.
The man who taught me about the universe was a temp, a grad student covering for an absent professor. The idea of time I learned from him, too, was stopgap, a metaphor that sustained me until it didn’t.
I learned, when I searched his name online, that my TA had become a professor before leaving to work in a government research lab. He studies very thin fibers and what attracts some of them to others.
I finally wore the right dress on my last day at the hedge fund. In the elevator, one of the assistants said, “I love that pattern,” then introduced herself and asked if I worked there.
I never found the gym Brenda had said I could use, but I did get lobster for lunch once. It was not very good, but I ate an enormous bowl of it on principle.
I had a sense, by the time I left, of which partners liked to be instant messaged with caller information and which wanted to be called. Of who would yell at me if the coffeepot ran low. (The charitable giving officer.) Of which assistants took long lunches, and which had kids who struggled in school.
I opened my notebook in the hours between expected guests and meetings and closed it when I had to answer a call or cover for one of the girls. Time sped and slowed; I catalogued some days in lists, others not at all.
On the first page, I’d written the word “Temping” and, below it, contact information for Brenda. Brenda Gold, like the metal.
Victoria Kornick is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California.