Life, Unscheduled: Chapter One

Life, Unscheduled


Parisa’s wedding plans were extremely disruptive.

Let me be clear: I was absolutely thrilled for her. Mike was a great guy. Hardworking, intelligent, loving, supportive. He made Parisa radiate joy. If she wanted to have a magnificent celebration to honor their union, then dammit, that was what she deserved. And I would do whatever I could to help make her day as special as possible.

The problem was, I had plans of my own. A meticulously organized schedule, with important meetings and strict deadlines. I had to stick to them. Otherwise, I could kiss my hopes and dreams goodbye.

I wanted it to work—I tried to make it work—but in the end, there was no room in my schedule for both her plans and my plans. Inevitably, something important always got shunted aside. Someone was always disappointed.

The first time Parisa’s wedding plans disrupted my schedule, I was eating lunch in the company dining hall. That was what they called the cafeteria at Virtuality: the “dining hall.” Like we were college students instead of full-time employees. The food was far superior to anything you’d find on an undergraduate meal plan, though. For one thing, our menu was designed by the most recent winner of Top Chef. For another, it was free of charge.

On the day in question, I ordered a beef bulgogi bowl. I always ate bulgogi on Wednesdays. The line cook, Dwayne, knew exactly how I liked it—“No green onions for you, Nicole!”—and placed it on my tray with a warm, familiar smile. I took it over to my usual table in the back left corner, where I sat down next to my usual crew, Vimi and Ben. The three of us always ate lunch together. At least, when we didn’t have to work through our lunch breaks.

“I can’t stay long,” Vimi said, between breathless bites of her sandwich. “I’ve got so much work to do.”

“Neither can I. I’ve got a meeting at one.” My mouth went dry at the thought of it. “With Jon.”

“Your performance review?” Ben asked, casually scrolling through his phone.


“You look nervous,” Vimi said. “You know there’s nothing to worry about, right? You always get a stellar review.”

“I know.” She was right. In the five years I’d been working here at Virtuality, I’d never received a rating lower than 4: Exceeds Expectations. The highest rating there was.

I’d also never received a promotion.

Which, to be fair, was largely my fault. My performance was consistently stellar, but that was also true for most of the other five-hundred-odd employees at the company. This was Virtuality, a top-tier tech company specializing in cutting-edge artificial intelligence software. Their interview process was designed to root out the unproductive and unenthusiastic; they only hired the best of the best. So you couldn’t just sit around and expect a promotion to fall in your lap. If you wanted one, you had to ask for it. And I’d never asked.

This year, I swore, would be different. This year, I would make my intentions clear. I was ready for growth, for change, for recognition of my accomplishments. It was time to reap the benefits of all my hard work. As soon as I finished this bulgogi bowl, I was going to march confidently into Jon’s office and ask for that promotion.

Thing was, I didn’t want to admit that to Vimi and Ben. What if Jon told me no? Then I’d be completely embarrassed. Instead, I said, “I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”

“I feel you,” Ben said. “I’m juggling four different projects right now.”

“Yup.” Vimi nodded, chewing frantically. “I’ve been sleeping at the office. Haven’t been home since Sunday.”

Such was life at Virtuality. Long hours, tight deadlines, multitasking to the max. We were all stretched thin, all putting in 110 percent of our efforts all the time. Which made me wonder why I deserved a promotion above anybody else. Vimi, Ben, and I were all junior user experience designers with comparable qualifications. Who was to say they weren’t worthy of a senior title instead of me?

Popping a chunk of beef in my mouth, I tried to remember the talking points I’d outlined the night before. Nothing excessive, just some highlights from my Virtuality career to make my argument more persuasive. But my phone instantly dinged with a text message, derailing my train of thought.


It was Parisa. I hadn’t heard from her in over two weeks, since before she and Mike had taken off on an epic New Year’s island-hopping adventure in the South Pacific. They’d decided to leave their phones at home in LA. She called it “extreme digital detox.” To me, it sounded like extreme torture.

This text must’ve meant she was back in the States, but I didn’t understand the question. Was she asking if I could believe she’d survived two weeks without an internet connection? If so, the answer was no.

I plucked a thinly sliced radish from the top of my bowl, and the chopsticks made it halfway to my mouth before another message arrived. No words this time, just a photo of her extended left hand, deeply bronzed from the Fijian sun. A diamond ring sparkled on her third finger.

Parisa was engaged.

The radish slipped from my chopsticks and skidded down the front of my clean white shirt.

“Omigod!” I cried out.

“You okay?” Ben asked, his brow furrowed with concern.

“Yeah. I just found out my best friend is getting married.”

“That’s nice,” Vimi said, a tinge of longing in her voice.

I wrote back, OMG congrats!

Thanks! she replied. He proposed on the beach in Bora-Bora. Caught me totally off guard.

Your ring is stunning, I wrote, and it truly was. Bright, clear, and classic, the round solitaire dazzled without being ostentatious. It suited her personality to a T. How do you feel?

Three dots bounced on the screen before disappearing and reappearing again. This went on for a while, as if she was thinking about the right way to answer my question. Finally, the reply: Like I’m about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Considering she’d just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to far-flung islands most people could only dream of visiting, that was quite a bold statement. Her life was one adventure after another. Mine was decidedly not.

But right now, she wrote, I need to sleep. My plane only landed like two hours ago, I just couldn’t wait to tell you. We need to catch up once I’m over this jet lag. Dinner Friday?

I swiped over to my calendar app and perused Friday evening’s schedule. At six o’clock, I was supposed to attend a live webinar at work. In theory, it was optional, but the whole design team was planning to grab food from the dining hall and gather in the fourth-floor conference room to watch it together. Afterward, we’d hit the office game room for our usual Friday-night tournament.

As I tapped my reply, another message popped up on my screen: And don’t even try to tell me you are spending it in the office. You are 27 years old, it’s a Friday night, and your BFF just got engaged. LIVE A LITTLE, NICOLE!

My thumbs froze midsentence. Normally, I wouldn’t see any problem with my plans for Friday night. I spent most of my waking (and some of my sleeping) hours at the office, but it wasn’t always about work. It was also about camaraderie and community. I ate my meals here and hung out with my friends. In a way, Virtuality was like my extended family.

But after all this talk of grand adventures, my Friday-night plans suddenly seemed small and sad. Like I didn’t know how to live, even a little.

Friday’s good. [emoji with party hat]

Dinner with Parisa wasn’t exactly an adventure, but it would at least be a change of scenery. I reconfigured my schedule, deleting the blocks of virtual time labeled Webinar with the Design Team and Game Tournament and adding Dinner with Parisa in their place.

There. That worked out nicely.

“I’m gonna skip out on the webinar this Friday night,” I said.

Vimi stopped chewing and slid a sideways glance toward Ben, who squinted at me like he couldn’t quite understand what I’d said. “Why?”

The tiniest twinge of discomfort took hold in the pit of my stomach. “I’m gonna have dinner with my friend. To celebrate her engagement.”

Ben raised his eyebrows and went back to scrolling through his phone. Vimi swallowed and said, “That’s nice.”

I could tell they thought this was a terrible idea. And maybe they were right. Maybe I shouldn’t be bailing on this webinar. It wasn’t required, but I knew how things worked around here. Everyone else on the team would attend, making my absence all the more apparent. I was about to ask my boss for a promotion. Now wasn’t the time to start slacking off.

My smart watch buzzed against my wrist with a reminder for my performance review starting in five minutes. I hopped to my feet and said, “I gotta run.”

“Good luck,” Vimi said.

“You won’t need it,” Ben added. “You’re golden.”

“Thanks, guys.”

Leaving my half-empty bulgogi bowl behind, I made my way to Jon’s office. With each step I took, I felt the panic rising in my belly. What if I stumbled over my words? What if he laughed me out of the office? What if I wasn’t going to get the good review I had been hoping for?

When I arrived at Jon’s closed office door, there was a thin layer of sweat on my upper lip, and my heart was pounding like I’d run a marathon. Worrying about these what-ifs was throwing me off my game. The key to success was to stay calm, confident, and focused. I shook my head and took a deep, cleansing breath. In-two-three-four, out-two-three-four. Then I slapped on my most self-assured smile and knocked at the door.

“Come in,” he called.

“Hi, Jon.”

He motioned to the guest chair facing his desk. “Everything okay? You seem out of breath.”

“Everything’s great,” I said, perhaps a bit too forcefully, then pointed to my smart watch. “Just trying to get my steps in whenever I can.”

He nodded, my explanation making perfect sense. “I hear you. It’s hard to find the time to exercise with everything else we’ve got going on around here. Have you tried one of those new treadmill desks they hooked up in the gym?”

“Not yet, but I’ll definitely check them out soon.” Truth was, I hadn’t set foot in our state-of-the-art employee gym since I was hired. I had no intention of going now, especially not to try those new treadmill desks. Working out was not my favorite activity, to put it mildly.

“So . . . performance review.” He clicked his mouse a few times, eyes scanning his computer monitor before flicking over to my face, then, ever so briefly, down to my chest. I followed his gaze to discover what was so distracting: a withered curl of radish clinging to the third button on my shirt.

Without a word, I plucked it off and flung it into the trash can beside his desk, leaving a streak of brown bulgogi sauce behind on the white fabric. I shifted, crossing my arms across my chest in an awkward attempt to hide the stain, but it was a pointless effort, considering he’d already seen it.

This was off to a bad start. I really wanted to put my best foot forward in this meeting, in every way possible. To appear calm, confident, and focused on the outside, even if my insides were riddled with anxiety and doubt.

Jon dived right into the review. “As usual, you’re doing great. The design team benefits immensely from your contributions.”

If I wasn’t mistaken, this was the same exact thing he’d said to kick off our last performance review. And possibly the one before that.

“We can always depend on you to deliver on time and according to spec.”

His praise was annoyingly vague, too. Frankly, it could’ve applied to anyone at Virtuality, in any department.

“Whether you’re working independently or collaboratively, you always perform well under pressure and maintain a positive, can-do attitude.”

Jon had been the director of product design for as long as I’d worked here. I wondered how many years he had spent in a junior role like mine, accepting murky, impersonal critiques from his manager, before he’d started to rise through the ranks.

“To wrap things up, your rating this period is a 4: Exceeds Expectations. Keep up the good work, Nicole.”

With a firm nod and a small smile, Jon turned his attention back to his monitor. It was a signal that we were done here, a cue for me to get up and return to my desk. But I wasn’t going anywhere.

This year was going to be different.

After a moment of awkward silence, his eyes slid back to focus on me. “Is there something else you wanted to discuss?”

There was a lot I wanted to discuss. Unfortunately, now that I finally had the floor, I couldn’t think of a single coherent thing to say. My brain had turned to sludge, all my thoughts jumbled together, none of them making sense. I couldn’t remember my intentions or my talking points or why I even wanted this promotion in the first place. I was seized by the urge to hide under a big blanket and hope this problem would somehow work itself out.

Except Jon was starting to look concerned, which meant my window of opportunity was rapidly closing. I employed a few body language tricks to help myself appear more confident—chin up, shoulders back (bulgogi stain be damned!)—and launched into my speech.

“I’ve been a junior designer at Virtuality for five years now. I consistently go above and beyond my job requirements. I always put in extra hours, and I’ve never once missed a deadline. Every six months, you give me an excellent performance review, but I’ve yet to receive a promotion.”

My heart raced, the blood swooshing through my ears as I waited for Jon to respond. He didn’t say anything, though. He just sat there, staring at me as if I hadn’t properly finished my thought.

Leaving no room for ambiguity, I said, “I’d like a promotion.”

“Oh.” He scratched the back of his neck and frowned down at his keyboard. “It’s not that I don’t think you deserve it, Nicole, but I can’t make that decision myself. Every staffing change is subject to committee approval.”

“Right.” I’d heard of this practice but didn’t know precisely how it worked. The company shrouded the whole process in secrecy, and no one who’d been through it was supposed to share details with their colleagues. The atmosphere at Virtuality was nothing if not highly competitive. “How can I go about pursuing committee approval, then?”

“You’ll need to assemble a portfolio. Samples of your work, both for Virtuality and for your own personal projects. Written statements defending your request. Letters of recommendation.”

I gripped the arms of the chair to avoid flinching. This sounded frighteningly similar to a college application. And what kinds of personal projects was he talking about? I didn’t do anything outside of my work for Virtuality.

“Also,” he continued, “you’ll need to demonstrate some quantifiable accomplishment, usually by making a significant contribution to a successful, high-profile project.”

“Can you assign me to a high-profile project, then?” I asked. “I’d really like the chance to prove myself.”

He tapped his index fingers on the desktop as he mulled it over. “We’re onboarding a new client—a big client—who wants a customized chatbot. I was going to give it to Charles, but if you’re really interested, I can try to switch some things around on the project calendar.”

Ugh, Charles. If Virtuality were really an extended family, Charles would’ve been my wicked stepbrother. He’d been hired last year on the design team as a senior user experience designer—a position I should’ve been given. There was no way I’d let him take another opportunity away from me.

“I am really interested,” I said. “And I’d love to be involved.”

“Are you sure? Management’s hoping to get it out the door by June, so it’s gonna be a lot of work on a tight timeline.”

“I can handle it.”

“Okay.” He jotted something down on a Post-it, then said, “Let me get your name added to the project team. The kickoff meeting is being held next week.”


This time, when Jon turned his gaze toward his monitor to dismiss me, I immediately got to my feet, a smile spreading across my face. I’d done what I’d come here to do, and now my stagnant career was in forward motion. In hindsight, all that worry and dread seemed pointless.

As I opened the door, Jon called after me, “You’re going to the webinar Friday night, right?”

“Of course.” There was no way I could blow it off now. Parisa and I could meet up later in the evening, or maybe for brunch the next day. She’d understand my dilemma. Even though she often gave me a hard time about my workaholic tendencies, she understood how important Virtuality was to me. How closely entwined my sense of self was with my sense of professional accomplishment.

And now, after five years of grinding away and going nowhere, I was finally getting the chance to climb the org chart. These next six months would no doubt be challenging, but I was determined to knock this chatbot project out of the park and convince the committee to give me the promotion I so greatly deserved. All I had to do was work hard, stay focused, and minimize disruptions.

It sounded doable.

Little did I know what Parisa had planned.

Thanks for reading!

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