Valencia and Valentine
Valencia didn’t think about death too often.
If anything, everyone else thought about it too little. Too lightly. After all, there were a lot of people in the world, and every single one of them had to die at some point, no two in exactly the same way and place and circumstance. Maybe standing in line at a bank at the hands of a robber. Maybe stretched out on an operating table under bright white lights and flashing surgical steel. In a hospital bed with family standing around, looking sad and saying comforting things, or on an airplane, or in a garden, or crossing a street—maybe jaywalking.
Murdered, sick, fatally clumsy.
Oslo, Norway. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Outer space.
She wasn’t immortal, and she knew it. That was all.
The part that was, perhaps, excessive or unhealthy was the way she thought about death, and the way she thought about death was the way she thought about everything else: in graphic detail and at inopportune moments and in sticky, cyclical loops. She’d be walking down the street and see a speeding car, and she’d think, That car is driving too fast, and that was all it took; her brain would grab the thought and shut like a fist, and she’d spend the next hour or so picturing her body cracking against the front of the car like a giant egg. Afterward, she’d feel as battered and tired as if she had, in fact, been run over and into repeatedly.
It wasn’t that Valencia believed she would die that way; she just couldn’t stop picturing it.
And if it wasn’t a car, it was a sharp edge, a high-up ledge, a flash of lightning in the distance. Every day supplied her with endless possible deaths, hundreds of awful scenarios for her brain to clutch and knead.
The only way she could get herself to stop thinking about being hit by a car or burning alive in her bed or falling and hitting her head on the corner of something was to picture—in great detail—the place where she was actually going to die: West Park Services Call Center, where she worked as a debt collector. The thought of it soothed her, not because it was a good job or because she liked it there but because it was so bland and boring that her active imagination couldn’t do anything with it.
The call center was a massive warehouse full of cubicles. The walls looked beige or pink or brown depending on the time of day, depending on the way the light hit them, and no one had made any kind of effort to hang art or pick out nice curtains for the windows. The point was not to look at the walls and windows; the point was to be contained by them, to do work within them. It felt, at times, like a jail.
The only sounds in the building were shuffling feet and hundreds of hushed, one-sided telephone conversations. It smelled deceptively surface clean, like they’d only sort of made an attempt at covering up the stale air and body odor. Everyone seemed either uneasy or bored. In some ways, it was less like a penitentiary and more like a hospital; you got a feeling of dread in your stomach when you walked in. You got the sense that the people inside were all sick or dying or dead.
The cubicle walls were thin and short—barely enough to separate Valencia from the men who sat on either side of her. Even still, in the seventeen years she’d been at West Park, she hadn’t ever met them, and she hadn’t wanted to meet them, and they hadn’t seemed to want to meet her either. One smiled slightly in her general direction to acknowledge her existence every now and then, while the other stared straight ahead at all times. They were middle aged, and they wore heavy-looking glasses and had moustaches, maybe to make up for the lack of hair on the tops of their heads or maybe because of some sort of middle-aged man peer pressure, if that was a thing middle-aged men still struggled with. They were like somewhat mismatched bookends.
Everyone else at West Park blurred together into a huge, chaotic mass when she dared to glance around, but in her mind they all looked the same as the bookend men, and they all moved in perfect synchronization. She imagined only one of them was even human, that he was the prototype for some strange corporation that manufactured socially awkward robots just to work at call centers because no one else wanted to. Robots with blurry vision and thin hair and bad breath and flat, boring voices.
So these were the people she would be looking at, and this was the place, but then there was the exact spot in which she was convinced she would die—a stiff but worn-out office chair. She’d be sitting in it, she thought, leashed to her desk by a phone cord, staring at the six-by-four photograph of a painting of a bird pinned to the cubicle wall behind her computer. She could imagine it happening without taking any kind of in-depth bodily mechanics into consideration, just the basics:
The day would feel very normal until it didn’t feel like anything at all.
Her lungs would refuse to do what they were supposed to, and her heart would slow and stop.
She’d open her mouth, and nothing would come out except a wisp of a breath, a dainty, feathered thing (surely a person’s last breath was something you would be able to see).
The thoughts would stop—this was her favorite part. The thoughts would stop.
Her head would loll forward, and, if anything, she’d feel a shot of relief that she didn’t have to hold that thing up anymore. The bird picture would rush up as her eyes rushed down. A blur of beige. Desk. The person on the other end of the line would say, “Hello? Hello . . . ?” and the sound of the phone crashing down would be the last one to reverberate through her old, dead skull.
She would die having experienced nothing but this, having been for the larger part of her existence a prisoner in her cubicle cell. But her death would be easy, and it was easy to think about. No violent images to play on repeat. No sharp corners or spattered blood or evil people—just a picture and a chair and a computer amid a sea of weird robots. The only thing about it that wasn’t easy was that it probably wouldn’t happen for another sixty years or so.
Death was a thing that happened to everyone. Debt collection as a permanent occupation was a thing that happened only to the supremely unlucky, and for her it was a life sentence thrown down from the bench of a pitiless judge. She was being punished—and she deserved it. She’d only ever done one terrible thing, but it was very terrible: she’d killed someone.
How ironic, Valencia often mused, that her debt to society—to the dead girl and her family—would be paid in overseeing the collection of other people’s monetary debt. It was almost poetic.
Debt: the meaning of life—not just her life, everyone’s. Accumulating it and then paying it off—or, in the case of some religions, working it off, and in others, having someone else pay it off for you.
It was all about debt.