Must Like Spinach

By: Con Riley


I dedicate this book to whooping cough.

Last year I was sick for the entire summer. I spent three months looking through my bedroom window, too tired to weed my garden. It grew wild as I watched. Then it grew even wilder.

My garden took three months to transform. I thought about that for a while, and then I wrote this story.

Chapter 1

JON’S ABOUT to get fired.

It’s not exactly a surprise when, after a long week of waiting, the ax finally falls on Friday. The email he gets from HR doesn’t reveal a whole lot, simply ordering him to a meeting, but he knows what’s coming. He’ll get canned within the next hour, and no amount of hesitating outside his head office will reverse that outcome. It only makes people grumble when they’re forced to step around him, pissed off at the space he takes up on this bustling Manhattan sidewalk.

He can’t say he blames them.

Some people fit easily in this city.

He’ll never be one of them.

Still, he can’t stop looking upward until the building seems to lean in. It houses one of New York City’s top consultant firms, famed for streamlining property development companies that are bloated. Each year they skim the cream of business graduates who study land acquisition, but it turns out a 4.0 GPA counts for nothing if recruits like him lose their cool with clients.

There’s no way they’ll forgive a rookie trainee who refused to keep his mouth shut.

Jon accepts that when he finally enters the building. A frosty PA quickly corrals him until his meeting is scheduled, like him lingering at the front desk might spook high-class clients. Perhaps she sees what he’s known from his very first day—he’s not cut out for this environment. In fact, he’s wilting in this city like the solitary plant in the waiting room where she herds him. All of its leaves are withered, its roots barely covered by dusty compost. It’s starved of sunlight in this windowless place, slowly dying in a corporate climate where only fake things flourish.

Dripping water into the plant pot might be completely pointless; Jon’s only staving off a sad end that’s about as certain as his. Still, he doesn’t fight his instincts. The same will to do the right thing that’s caused so much trouble lately has him doing just that, until he’s finally ordered upstairs.

He takes the elevator up to a floor that’s fancy, all gleaming glass walls and high-end marble floor tile. Whip-thin women blank him as they pass by, and slick-haired men in business suits stare right through him. The way they all adjust trajectory so their paths don’t cross with his, suggests they see the truth too. They’re all sleek guile and charisma, designed for driving business forward. Transfer them to a high school sports field, and they’d be the touchdown-scoring bright stars. He’d be way back playing defense, and that’s not only down to his height and solid, broad frame.

He doesn’t fit in here, but that’s okay.

He’s passing through, not staying.

It’s almost a relief to know he’ll have to start over. Maybe now imposter syndrome will quit nagging so hard each time he wakes up, surprised he made it this far. Getting selected for a program this prestigious was meant to be a shortcut to a great life: the key to a corner office. Now, as long as he doesn’t recall his mom’s delight when he scored it, he’s not even sad to flunk out.

He sees more reactions as he passes cubicles that confirm his suspicions.

It’s right there in the way backs turn as he sees people he knows.

There’s Mitch, who was on the same fast-track program last year, working all the way up here already. Jon would go congratulate him if he didn’t look so damn awkward. And there’s Hiroto, who was super patient during Jon’s orientation in his accounting department. Working late for a mentor like him hadn’t been a hardship, especially when he let Jon kiss him once all the cubicles had emptied. It had been a one-off that Hiroto had warned he should never repeat if he wants to fly high here. There’s no need to wonder today if he regrets their hurried hand job in the bathroom. His expression staying carefully blank is enough of an answer.

Jon tries to mirror that mask when he reaches the door where his upward flight will soon end. Maybe it’s ironic that the Statue of Liberty is visible through the window when he enters, holding her torch aloft way across the harbor. He’ll be free soon, like she promises new arrivals by sea. Free, even if it’s only to collect unemployment. He’ll be out of a home too if he has to give up the apartment shared by others on the fast-track training program. It’s a real-life implication. One that means holding on for dear life would be more rational than accepting defeat like it’s a ticket to freedom.