Introduction by Halimah Marcus
When the pandemic hit in March of last year, Electric Literature’s staff began working remotely, like so many others. Outside of work there were Zoom happy hours and Marco Polo videos, group chats and family phone calls, but despite all that, sometimes it felt like the schedule, necessity, and responsibilities of work were the only things keeping me sane. If I didn’t have to log in every weekday and occasionally look semi-presentable for video calls, my whole life might have felt as mushy as my evenings, when, as one viral tweet put it, I rewarded myself for staring at the medium screen all day by staring at the big screen while scrolling through the little screen.
Despite being a canny satire, “Office of the Mind” by Lelund Cheuk is not that far from this three-screen reality. The story came to an editorial video call—which, well into late-pandemic, was still a highlight of my week—the same day another pandemic story had the entire editorial team in tears. Reading these stories back-to-back exemplified the kind of emotional whiplash that was becoming increasingly familiar: one moment you’re crying over Storycorps and the next moment you’re laughing at a kid falling off milk crates on TikTok.
But if we were crying over “Office of the Mind,” it was the fun kind of crying; the story is hilarious, pointed, and bleak. The narrator, working remotely during “multiple pandemics” (a colleague explains their brother just died from “the emu one”), starts a new job that offers new Office of the Mind (OotM) technology. OotM’s VR headsets simulate all the platonic ideals of an office: water coolers, walk and talks, free snacks, even getting coffee. All of this feels real (something about the earpieces), and requires the narrator to walk around the tiny apartment he shares with his girlfriend Nicole, essentially blindfolded. For this the OotM team offers helpful videos like “How to Person-Proof Your Home,” which, after Nicole’s office also switches to OotM, the couple embraces: “We opted to have padded walls installed like the ones in psych wards. Expensed to our employers, they’re more elegant and fashionable than they sound.”
The pandemic has lasted long enough that this is the third contemporaneous pandemic story we’ve published—pandemic fiction still doesn’t have the luxury of being fully retrospective. Instead, “Office of the Mind” looks forward. The future may be bleak, but in Lelund Cheuk’s hands, it’s also funny.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor of Recommended Reading
Stay Forever in the Office of the Mind
“Office of the Mind” by Leland Cheuk
On the first day of work, I sat at my desk in the bedroom and put on my company-issued Office of the Mind (OotM) glasses, earpieces, and haptic gloves. Immediately I was transported into an office again, in a half-cubicle, a new clean desk, a 55-inch HD curved monitor at my workstation, with coworkers chattering all around me in their cubes, like the old days. All of us wore work clothes, and the pop-up tutorial prompted me to customize mine with a few taps of my index finger and thumb tips. In reality, we were likely in the clothes we slept in, inside our various homes, hiding from all the diseases.
“Welcome aboard,” said my cubicle neighbor, a sales engineer named Murray, a middle-aged white gentleman, who added that he was based in Mozambique, originally from the UK. He had moved to Maputo after getting fed up with Brexit and earned citizenship. “Wanna get coffee?” he added.
“We can get coffee?!” I squawked.
He laughed and beckoned me to follow. We walked across the virtual cubicle floor, turned the corner at the elevator bank, and waited for the elevator to take us down. In my apartment, I had traversed my bedroom and turned into my closet. I could feel my hanged clothes brushing against my face.
“Where did you work before?” Murray asked.
“I was a freelancer for a long time,” I said, taking a step back. I left it at that. I had been a little shocked I got the job. But every multinational needed readable content these days for the search engine algorithms.
“A lover of freedom, eh?” Murray said.
“Until it became too much.” I kicked myself for saying that. It made me sound like a layabout instead of what the freelancer life was really like: doing fifteen assignments one day for $30 each. Then doing zero assignments the next week and eating packaged ramen for dinner. I just felt lucky to have health insurance for the first time in a decade.
The elevator doors opened. The interior was gold-plated. I felt the familiar unbalanced feeling as we descended. How did my OotM hardware simulate those sensations so accurately?
“It’s the earpieces,” Murray said, as if reading my mind. “They emit electrical pulses that mess with your sense of balance.”
“Wild,” I said with childlike wonder.
“They even sent me a roomier set of glasses because I wear these,” Murray said, pointing to his tortoiseshells. “I’m definitely buying stock in Office of the Mind when they IPO.”
When the elevator doors opened, we walked out into a bustling café. Our coworkers communed, sitting at tables, drinking espresso drinks. Tears came to my eyes. I used to love cafes. Murray and I walked up to the barista stand and ordered cappuccinos.
“How does this work?” I asked.
The barista, a man-bunned and willowy twenty-something white fellow, handed us our virtual drinks, and Murray and I walked over to a table round and sat. In my bedroom, I was on the corner of my bed.
“Try it,” Murray said.
I raised the fake cappuccino to my lips and fake-sipped. The buzz and the taste felt real!
“Pretty cool, huh?” Murray said. “It’s all in the earpieces.”
I raised my virtual cup. “I’m going to love working here.”
OotMs were all the rage now. After Nicole was fired from her editorship at that magazine-turned-clickbait-factory, she started in entry-level PR at The Bank, and those larger, more institutional companies were slower to adopt new tech. She was still doing her same old video conferencing and phone conversations. She and I had started dating before The Shutdown and moved in together about a year ago when we couldn’t afford our own places anymore. Our apartment was only 500 square feet so all of my blind roaming while in the Office of the Mind had me bumping into Nicole and/or our things frequently.
“That’s just my partner again in his Office of the Mind,” she’d tell her coworkers on video conference, while pushing me in the direction of our living room, where I would then nearly trip over our coffee table or armchair. The end of my workdays would be filled with random bruises on my shins, elbows, and knees. One time, I went ass over couch and was lucky not to lose a tooth—or worse, break my OotM glasses. These challenges were worth the experience of being part of an actual office work culture, part of something larger than myself. Nicole and I lived in a place with no central heating and drainage so bad that we wore galoshes in the shower and couldn’t even flush TP in the toilet. Our neighborhood had a serious vulture problem from all of the pandemic deaths. We were both supposedly well-employed, highly educated knowledge workers but our $500 espresso machine was our nicest possession. Getting a full-time job with benefits felt like being dragged out of the open ocean onto a rescue ship.
“I’m loving my job,” I told Nicole, taking off my OotM glasses at the end of an especially invigorating workday, both professionally and socially.
“I’m really going to need for you to watch where you’re going and to pay attention to me every once in a while,” she said.
“We could try looking for a bigger apartment,” I pointed out. “It’s only a matter of time before you’re going to be working in an Office of the Mind.”
Sure enough, a month later, The Bank shifted to OotM. Within the hour, she understood. “I love not being in our shitty apartment while being in our shitty apartment,” she said. “I love not seeing you at all during the day even though I live with you so I can focus on my work.”
I’m not going to lie; our OotMs affected our home life in some deleterious ways. The most obvious one, of course, was that we were both now injury-prone, walking around blind in our tiny apartment, bumping into walls, knocking into each other, flying over furniture. We looked for ways to ameliorate the household danger and found that there was already a sizable and growing repository of online content on the topic. Some were instructional videos from the OotM team like the “How to Person-Proof Your Home” series, which already had dozens of videos, each with millions of views. There were also many listicles like the ones I used to write, with headlines like “27 Things You Need to Do Right Now to Avoid OotM Head Trauma.”
We opted to have padded walls installed like the ones in psych wards. Expensed to our employers, they’re more elegant and fashionable than they sound. There were boutique online businesses that made wall padding in all kinds of colors and textures. We chose shiplap, which looked like wood but felt like down pillows when you slammed up against them face-first. We also got rid of our glass and metal coffee table and replaced it with a bean bag that you could just kick out of the way if it happened to be in your path. (Always humorous to see your colleagues suddenly do a kick in the OotM while they’re walking the halls with you.) Finally, we child-proofed our dining room table, kitchen counters, anything with a hard edge or corner, and we wore elbow and knee pads and bike helmets with our OotM gear.
Despite our stylish, new home mods, when we took off our hardware at the end of a long workday, our apartment looked impossibly drab, our various screens tiny. Our wall-mounted TV was a meager twenty-seven inches. In the Offices of our Minds, they were all at least twice as large, we complained to each other. My work cubicle felt like half the size of our apartment. All the appliances in the office were brand new. We had free food in the kitchen that, even if it didn’t give us actual sustenance, tasted great to our brains. When I’d cook dinner for me and Nicole after work, real food just tasted bland. I wanted the virtual foie gras pasture-raised egg breakfast sandwich from my Office of the Mind. We both began to lose weight.
One night, around 1:00 a.m., thinking about work and trying to get a head start on the next day, I left Nicole in bed and pretended to use the restroom. In our bathroom, I put on my OotMs. The office was at least two-thirds full.
My cubicle mate Murray was there. It was 6:00 a.m., Central Africa Time.
“You’re here early,” I said.
“I can say the same for you.”
“Lots to do,” I said.
As I walked around the office, filling my fake water cup in the kitchen and getting a fake bowl of muesli with fake oat milk, all the while doing circles in my bathroom, I noticed tons of people I’d met who said they lived in The City, which meant they were also working at 1:00 a.m.
“You must be on deadline,” I said to Casey, a marketing coordinator who lived in two neighborhoods over.
“Not really,” they said. “I just can’t sleep.”
“Me neither,” I said.
Casey and I went for coffee downstairs. We both knew our fake cappuccinos would keep us up all night.
“My life isn’t great,” they admitted. “I’m single. The pandemics. My brother just died last year from the emu one.”
“Gosh, I’m sorry,” I said, not saying that I was partnered because Casey was a looker. “Hopefully work can be a distraction from all the horrible things going on outside. For me, it’s nice to know I can come here and be part of something. My life isn’t great either.”
“So you’re liking your role?”
“I am! I got tired of writing those ‘eighty-nine reasons its unhealthy to pee sitting down’ listicles.”
Casey laughed and laughed, the OotM version of their face turning red. Tears were in their eyes. I wasn’t even trying to be funny; I was being honest.
“I was doing deliveries and rideshare driving before the androids,” Casey said.
“It’s all for the best, I suppose.”
“Things worked out the way they were supposed to.”
“Where are you right now?”
“In my bedroom,” they said.
“Been wearing them for months,” they purred, mock-flirtatious.
Even though I knew they were joking, I grew hard. Casey looked great in that fake pants suit and those black ankle boots.
“What about you?” they said, looking down into their fake coffee.
“Seated on the lip of my bathtub.” I didn’t mention that it was still draining the murky water from my nightly shower.
Casey tittered. What a titter.
“I’m sorry,” I said, taking myself out of the moment. “I’m just thinking how weird this is.”
“I know, right?”
I heard my name in the distance. From outside the bathroom door.
“Who are you talking to?” Nicole said.
I flipped up my smartglasses, autopausing the OotM, and opened the door. “I’m on a work call.”
Nicole’s brows rose. “Okay.” She didn’t buy that even a little bit. I shut the door in her face. By the time I put my OotMs back on and rejoined Casey, it just didn’t feel right. My heart was beating really fast. I knew I had hurt Nicole’s feelings and that things would be chilly around the apartment for days, if not weeks. And Casey’s feed was jittering, their mouth moving with no audio coming out.
“Hey, I should get back to work,” I said. “This was fun!” Then I turned off my glasses.
When I got to the bedroom, the lights were on, and Nicole was perched on her side of the bed, her back turned to me.
“Sorry to wake you,” I said, sliding under the covers. “I should turn off work notifications.”
She didn’t respond. I reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. She turned around, startled.
Nicole was wearing her Office of the Mind glasses.
We didn’t talk about that night as I expected we would. Instead, we both started using the Offices of our Minds almost twenty-four-seven. When we streamed movies after a long workday, we snuck peeks at our smartglasses, darkened when at rest, save for the green lights on the temples. When the lights flashed, that indicated a medium-priority-or-above work message.
At night, I continued to have trouble sleeping, so I retired to the bathroom more often, inviting Casey for late-night coffees. I learned a lot about them. They had grown up in Y— and had always dreamed of living in The City, but now found it disappointing. They wanted to move to S— and was saving up to buy the relatively low-cost real estate there.
Their true passion was music, and they shared a link to their artist page, from which I streamed their songs while I was working. The tunes were a little folksy and twee for my tastes, but they had a lovely voice. They also made and sold jewelry online. They said the time it took to walk to the post office to ship their products was their designated time to be away from the Office of the Mind, when they could see the world with their own eyes. I was impressed by their creativity. Nicole and I weren’t creative. I’d tried to start a novel at least a dozen times, but didn’t have the guts to finish. Nicole was into all kinds of trendy pandemic-borne crafts like mask-masking and goggle-blinging, but she liked to start things and never complete them. I admired Casey for their confidence, their perseverance, their ability to make actual objects and send them out into the real world where they were touched and enjoyed by other humans. For Casey, this company was just a waystation to some better, bigger future. For Nicole and I, our OotMs were it for us, sucking off the teat of companies creating value for society, rather than us making anything worthy ourselves.
One night, Casey gave me a handcrafted gold bracelet, of which they’d snapped a photo with their OotMs. Cool feature: hold your thumb and pinky tips together and the virtual office disappears and your smartglasses turn into a camera. Take a picture of any object from your real life, and OotM converts it into virtual form so you can drag and drop it into your office environment. I wasn’t much of a desk decorator, but Murray, for instance, had framed photos of his family and running medals and all manner of personal memorabilia in his cubicle. I wore the bracelet with my work outfit, and my wearing the gift made them smile.
Casey had become my work spouse.
I suppose I should have noticed that after she got her OotMs, Nicole wasn’t particularly present in our lives either. We were ordering more takeout than ever, sometimes twice in one night if one place was dissatisfactory. Often I would say I had a meeting during dinner when I didn’t, or she would say she had a meeting, and there was no way for me to know if she did. I would hide in the bedroom behind my smartglasses and just be at work, walking back and forth to the fake printer. I went to virtual meetups in conference rooms for channels like #cookingtogether and #socialimpact.
Casey would be at the channel gatherings too, and we would make fake sushi, bake fake cookies, and feed them to our fake selves. I’d never been so happy. I couldn’t believe that I’d waited ten years to latch onto a legit corporation, wearing my freelancer’s liberties like a badge of honor, instead of what it was: a financial albatross. The company paid me well and gave me community in a time when we weren’t allowed to have community in real life. The degraded state of my home life felt like a small price to pay.
Nicole and I asked each other about work happenings. Higher-ups quitting or getting fired. Re-orgs and their implications for our roles. But the reality was: I didn’t care about her Office of the Mind, and she didn’t care about mine. The only time we seemed to be together was right before we went to bed, and we were both exhausted, eyes bloodshot from being on the glasses all day. We’d now both started to gain weight from all the takeout we’d been eating and the exercise we weren’t getting. We’d stopped grooming because the OotMs automatically groomed our virtual selves. Our avatars were delightfully outdated, fifteen pounds ago. In real life, our hair grew long, all over our bodies. I was sporting a scraggly, patchy beard, which Nicole openly hated to kiss, and she was an incredibly hirsute woman, I’d come to discover. Luckily, we only looked this shitty to each other. I felt horrible about my actual body. I was still attracted to Nicole, but when we made love, I couldn’t help but see Casey in their digitized pants suit and ankle boots, and when Nicole moaned, I couldn’t help but hear Casey’s falsettos and see that smile they gave me when I put on their fake gold bracelet.
After six months at the company, I was promoted. My boss said he’d never seen anyone so committed to our culture and reported that everyone on the team loved me, and I was doing a great job. Nicole wasn’t promoted, but was transferred to a role she liked better: in Corporate Social Responsibility.
On the rare day off for her, Nicole wanted to go for a Plexiglas-covered scooter ride (one of those pandemic impulse buys that we rarely used). Winter in The City had broken, the sky was lavender instead of the fiery orange we were used to. We’d been outside a half a dozen times all year, on each occasion taking care to wear our respirator masks, protective eyewear, gloves, and utility belts that shot out six feet of measuring tape at a press of a button. Nicole understandably felt nostalgia for the outdoors and asked me if I wanted to join. I told her I was too busy at work. After she left, I slid on my OotMs and messaged Casey to meet up for coffee.
They suggested we meet in the #cookingtogether channel conference room instead. Since I had the apartment all to myself for once, I didn’t bother to hide in the bathroom or bedroom. The conference room had been fully decorated with Casey’s jewelry, like the room was their own store. The fake office tower windows gleamed with sunlight from a clear white sky that I didn’t think I’d live to see again in real life.
“Do you like it?” Casey asked.
“It’s amazing,” I said. “You’re amazing.”
We started kissing. I could feel their lips (and the little buzzes from my earpieces). In the living room, I reclined on the couch, lowered my sweats, and fondled myself with my haptic gloves as Casey laid down on the virtual conference table. We were both fully clothed in the Office of the Mind (a bit of a bummer, for sure, but naturally, solid HR policy). I hovered over them and kissed their neck. I was impressed with how real it all felt. I could feel Casey’s hands on my chest and then down at my hips. Too bad touching each other’s nethers was out of the question. When I tried, my hands disappeared, and I felt nothing but air.
I’d later find out that Nicole had received a work message that brought her back to the apartment early. I heard the door open and her saying: “Where did I put my glasses?” and then a squeal as she saw me with my sweats down, OotMs up.
“What the fuck?!” she shouted.
I ripped off my glasses, took off my earpieces, and pulled up my sweats. What could I say about myself? Nicole stood there in our tiny living room, mask below her chin, goggles off. Her scooter, bared of its Plexiglas hood, was parked near the kitchen counter, which was festooned with takeout boxes that neither of us had bothered to bag up and lug to the trash because it required us to put on our various forms of PPE. Our apartment with the padded walls like a psych ward was nearly empty of furniture because we had gotten rid of most of it. How had we come to this bleak place?
Nicole just shook her head and snapped up her OotM glasses, which were encased in their brushed chrome cylinder on the counter. “I have to take a call,” she growled, before putting on the OotMs and storming toward the bathroom. But with her eyes covered, she didn’t see the scooter she had forgotten to put away and went flying over it. She landed with a thump and cried out.
“Are you okay?” I said, rushing over.
“Oh, oh, oh!” She got to her knees and held her right forearm as it spurted blood. Her still-gloved hand and wrist stuck out from the arm at an unnatural angle. Her glasses had flown off, and one of the lenses had cracked against the hardwood floor near the entrance, the only area of the apartment we had neglected to pad.
I dashed into the bathroom and ripped all our bath towels off their hooks and used them to contain the bleeding. I fired up the rideshare app on my phone and fingered a self-driving car because the ones driven by androids were insufferably rude. I reaffixed Nicole’s mask and goggles, and then wore my own, before rushing us downstairs into the car, which said hello and drove itself to the hospital, which needless to say, no one wanted to visit during multiple global pandemics.
As one might imagine, there was awkward silence on the way. The towels had slowed the bleeding but were sopped through with red. In the back seat, Nicole was on her cracked OotMs leaving a message for her team, telling them that she had broken her arm and was on the way to the hospital and would log in later when her arm was set. She said, “Log off,” and the glasses cleared.
“Take them off me,” she said icily.
I did as told and put the glasses and earpieces in the case and into my sweats pocket, before sliding Nicole’s goggles back over her eyes.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said, figuring there was no hiding what had happened. “There’s a colleague at work. Casey. We’ve been having a . . . thing. It’s not real.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Nicole said. She was blinking slowly, and her breathing was ragged and audible. I worried she was in shock.
“Do you need to lie down?” I asked.
“I said: shut the fuck up!”
When we got to the urgent care unit, the medical workers were mostly androids, except for the ones managing the androids. The robots were all muttering expletives under their breaths, and two laughed hysterically as they wheeled out a gurney with an uncovered corpse of a woman whose eyes looked like they’d been taped open, and whose mouth was forced agape by a pair of those big forceps they use for childbirth. Behind their face shields and masks, the human medical workers had dark circles beneath bloodshot eyes. They all looked like they hoped we wouldn’t ask them for help. At the front desk, a young woman in scrubs wept while typing something on her tablet with nitrile-gloved hands.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said to her. “But my partner has a broken arm. Compound fracture.”
The nurse plucked tissues out of a box and lifted her face shield to dab her eyes. “Oh, that’s it?” she said chirpily. “That’s the easiest thing we’ve had to deal with all week. I’ll call an android.”
Just then, one passed by singing, “‘It’s murda. It’s murda.’” Nicole and I watched in horror as it stared back at us with its dead-eyed metal head while its body continued to walk down the hall.
“Can we request a human for this job?” I said to the nurse.
“Oh, that one is a big fan of rap from the 2000s,” said the nurse. “Follow me.” She led us into a closet where she uncovered Nicole’s arm, disinfected the wound, padded the area, and applied a vacuum splint. After the nurse shot Nicole up with a painkiller, we waited in the hallway for X-rays. There weren’t even any chairs. We leaned against a wall. Nicole swayed from the anesthesia.
“Do you want your Office of the Mind?” I asked her, trying to get her to talk to me about anything.
She shook her head, eyes glazed. She just drifted away from me without a word, like we had drifted away from each other.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Bathroom,” she said without turning around.
Her Office of the Mind case vibrated. The lights on the hinges flashed red, indicating an urgent work message. What else could these people want from her? She already told them she was having a medical emergency. I opened the case and put on the glasses. A message bubble slid across my field of vision and disappeared.
“Ok, I’ll leave her,” a fellow named Liam had written. “Will u leave him?”
My legs grew weak. I snapped off Nicole’s OotMs and saw her frozen in the hall, cradling her broken arm, staring at me. For a moment, I thought she was jittering on my OotM feed like Casey had. From the look on her face, Nicole seemed to know exactly what I’d seen.
“I—” she began. Then she just sagged and rejoined me against the wall while I put her Office of the Mind glasses back into their case.
We avoided looking at each other. I watched more corpses being transported down the hall and back. Who knew where they were all going? Probably to the empty meatpacking plants outside The City. I thought of my OotM glasses back at the apartment. How I wanted to put them on and escape into that simpler virtual existence instead of the ever-narrowing one in which we lived. The desire throbbed in my ears and punched out of my ribcage it was so intense. I looked into Nicole’s eyes, and she looked into mine. I suspected we were thinking the same thing although neither of us would ever know for certain.
She put her head on my shoulder and asked, “When do we get to retire?”