“Would you like to supersize that?” she asks with zero expression. She doesn’t look at me. She’s evidently staring into some fast-food dimension visible only by the brain dead culinary professional. I have the feeling that if I was bleeding profusely out of my jugular and my entire head was on fire, she would not so much as blink an eye.

I look slightly behind me to confirm that she is indeed not looking at anything in this world.

“No thanks,” I say.

She pushes a few buttons. “$4.89,” she says.

I want to wave a hand in front of her face. She’s still looking somewhere off slightly to her right and a little downward. If she were Maine, she’d be engaged in an uneventful staring contest with Iowa.

I hand her a five. I’m pleased to see her arm actually move for the money. I watch her robotic, lifeless maneuvers, and I am struck with amazement. I am amazed, but not surprised as this is the typical zombie behavior of a person hating their job. But I — on this day, at this moment — am blown away by an epiphany. It hits me: This fast food worker’s space-off session is a metaphor for my own career. Maybe even my life.

No, no, I don’t work behind a cash register. You see, I went to college. I put in my time, expecting that pot of gold at the end of the college rainbow they sell you on while in high school. That pot could be a life of blissful affluence and corporate power, or maybe backpacking the globe and serving the impoverished in third-world countries, or perhaps nobly slaving away in a lab somewhere, discovering cures for the incurable. At least those were the marketing splashes the prestigious state institute of higher learning spoon-fed me. Even my parents got in on it. “Go to college,” my dad would say, “and make a great life for yourself like I was never able to do.” He’d squeeze my shoulder, making me believe I would be someone. So when my buddies chose manufacturing jobs, lawn-care work, or doing push-ups in the Marines, I chose college.

And guess what? I did it. I graduated four years ago. Did I find that pot of gold? Well, I did get a job at the largest employer in town, making $32,500 annually. I have my very own gray cubicle to sit in, and I am invited to attend team meetings that sometimes have bagels. You be the judge.

I design corporate training programs. I’ve been doing this for four years, and in those four years I’ve gone from “Training Analyst” to “Training Analyst II,” which means I’ve gone from $32,500 to $37,883. In only four years! At this rate, when I retire, I should be making close to maybe 48 large.

One of the great perks of being a Training Analyst II is that we qualify for better cubicles than the Training Analysts. Our floor has no less than 250 cubicles — some “ghetto,” some “middle class,” and some definitely “upper crust.” The cubicle I’m in now is closer to the restrooms — a fairly coveted spot on my floor that approaches middle class. Most people want to be in the cubicles by the break room, though. Those are really nice and very tough — but not impossible — to get.

But me? I’m shooting for the stars. I, like dozens of others on my floor, ­have my eye on that cube Carol Johanski is in — the one by the drinking fountain and the window with the choice view of the east parking lot. It’s the nicest cube on our floor, no question. And Carol, in all her smugness, knows it. It’s obvious by the way she has her bobble-heads and cacti lined up where everyone can see them. It’s like — “hey, since you’re obviously doing a walk-by of my sweet cube, you might as well take a look at how a REAL office space should be decorated.”

Carol Johanski, I swear.

Perhaps that’s what my dad meant when he talked about making a great life for myself: getting Carol Johanski’s cube. That would really be something.

You probably think I’m being sarcastic, and you’re right. Because, yeah, I feel a bit gypped by the whole go-to-college-and-have-a-fulfilling-career spiel. And you know what? Sometimes, when I look around at my co-workers, I get the feeling I’m not alone. I’ve caught Carlos, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology, surfing online for construction jobs. And I’ve overheard Donna Payne tell her husband on the phone she’s having a good day because one of the course review questions she wrote “might be included in the final materials — verbatim!”.

She cries quietly at her desk sometimes.

Louise, my manager, likes to motivate us, likes to pump us up. She frequently reminds us that “everyone plays an important role here.” She’s right. I mean, if I were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, those training pamphlets on integrity in the workplace wouldn’t get written. At least not until they’re reassigned, that is. That could slow the process down by maybe two whole days.

I’ve noticed that Louise takes more and more smoke breaks, lately.

I watch the fast-food girl slowly piece together my change. It’s depressing. Her making change is like me copy-editing a training document prior to emailing it off to the trainers. Dull. Meaningless. But all part of the job.

I suddenly feel a kinship with this girl. We’re the same, she and I, really. Both doing something that any human being (or less) could easily do. Both relatively the same age. Both a few years out of school. Both wishing we could be somewhere else — on a sailboat, perhaps, or maybe at Six Flags, eating cotton candy in the summer sun, laughing it up with friends. Or perhaps working in a job that yields deep (or, at least shallow), intrinsic reward.

I want to say something to her. I need to connect with her so she knows I feel her pain and that she’s not alone in this zombie apocalypse.

She hands me the two nickels and a penny without looking at me. She is now looking to the left somewhere — Maine now gazing at a schooner off in the Atlantic. And in my mind I picture Carol Johanski’s cube, in all its glory, and I think, “Eat it, Carol!”

I’m going to take a serious risk here. Something that feels more right than waiting for Carol’s cube could ever feel. I’m going to do something brave and alive for the first time in my life.

With my left hand stretched out, palm up to receive my change, I quickly put my right hand on top of hers, sandwiching it between both of my hands.

I do not let go.

She jolts to life, and I can almost see the husks of apathy and boredom crumble from her face. She looks at me with wide eyes and an open mouth. I realize she is beautiful.

“Eleven cents is your change!” She says with urgency, trying to free her hand.

I smile. “You hate this, don’t you?” I say.

“What?” She tugs again at her hand.

“It’s cool — I hate it too.”

“Eleven cents is your change….DALE!?” She looks back to the grill, where I assume “Dale” is flipping burgers or something.

“I just mean that you’re better than this. Remember back in college, or even high school, when you dreamed of your future and all the things you would accomplish in life? And now…well…now you’re here.”

She looks at me like I am bleeding out of my jugular and my entire head is on fire.

“I mean, at one point, you probably thought your life would be filled with adventure, right? Me too! And now look. You’ve been out of school for what — a few years, and where’s that adventure? See, you’re just like me! I may not be working fast food, but I’m stuck in a boring office all day doing nothing of significance. At the end of the day, I go home. I eat a TV dinner. I watch TV, and I’m back in that cube twelve hours later. Every day it’s the same. And every day I eat lunch here, for Pete’s sake! How pitiful is that?”

“DALE!” she shouts again, keeping an eye on me. “Can I have my hand back please?”

“Oh, yeah…sorry.” I let go and her arm retracts with the speed of snapped rubber band. “Uh…it’s a very pretty hand,” I add.

“Eleven cents is your change.” She drops the coins on the counter and takes several steps back.

I look at her name tag. JESSICA.

“Hey, Jessica, you wanna go somewhere?” I ask. “You wanna go…I dunno…bowling? Wouldn’t that be weird? Bowling in the middle of the afternoon?”

“Freaky weird,” she agrees, rubbing her hand.

“Come on. Let’s put some zest, some passion, some…you know…HOPE back into our lives, like we had in college. Like we had in high school!”

“What are you even talking about? I still AM in high school!”

I freeze. “You…what?”

“I’m a junior.”

I choke out a nervous chuckle. “You can’t be in high school. I mean, I assumed we’re close in age. And…I’m twenty six. Besides… it’s the middle of the day.”

“Dude, it’s July. Summer break? Hello!”

“Oh.”

“And besides, I’m not gonna work here forever. I’m gonna be a trainer of wild horses.”

“Wild horses?”

“Totally. I plan on going to a really good equestrian school or something after I graduate. Here’s your order.” She slides the meal my way, arm fully extended with her body as far back as her arm will allow. It’s like she’s handing a banana to a gorilla.

I shake my head. “Wait. A horse trainer? Do you have horses now? I mean, have you ever trained a horse before?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean anything. Someday I’ll be, like, the best. I’ll be a horse whisperer or whatever.”

I look at her and I realize I want this dream of hers to come true more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

But what can I do? I’ve already made a fool (or worse — a perceived pedophile) of myself. I stare at her for another moment. She stares back. Dale, wearing a grease-stained apron and thick glasses, has joined her now and asks “Is there a problem, or something?”

“Uh..no, no. My bad.”

I grab my tray and shuffle away. I sit down at my usual booth. I eat slowly but taste nothing. When I’m done, I get back into my car, numbly buckle up, and drive back to the office — my hands at ten and two.

As I enter my cube, I wonder: when I’ve finally climbed the corporate ladder and qualified for Carol Johanski’s cube, where will Jessica, the fast-food-cum-horse-whisperer girl, be? I’m confident that at that point, she’ll no longer be working fast-food. I’m confident of that. Because she’s better than settling — she has ambition.

In fact, she may have one of the cubes over by the break room.

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