Evaporation

Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen. "Evaporation" was selected as a finalist in Money Chronicles: A Story Initiative, a national short story contest supported by Principal Foundation.

Image of Principal - 2023
Last performance review cycle, I got a "barely meets expectations"—something I could've avoided if I slept with my VP, but I liked to believe I had an unshakeable moral ground. I wouldn't be too sad about a pay cut if it weren't for the evaporation. Everyone faces a chance of evaporation, but the higher up you rank in corporate America, the less likely you are to evaporate.
 
I could feel my body giving way even though only a month had passed since the review. I struggled to hold my chopsticks. They'd clatter on top of each other, falling through my fist to the table. Cooking became a hazard because I'd be frying doubanjiang only to drop the entire jar of fermented soybeans, oil splattering while I waited for my arms to materialize and rescue the jar. It wasn't all downsides, of course. I'd vanish in the middle of meetings which provided an excuse to leave. I showed my face to our weekly stand ups and then disappeared behind my laptop camera. I avoided the cafeteria, fearful that I'd go translucent before I could finish my food. 
 
My manager pulled me aside while my body still held its form, skin and clothing opaque with color—even the lavender of my blouse and ivory of my skirt felt clumsy and leaden, as though I'd get dragged through the concrete and into the earth's crust.
 
"If you continue like this, I can't guarantee a stock grant this year. If you can't meet your level's expectations, that's grounds for putting you on an Improvement Plan," he told me solemnly, blinking and looking off to the corner of the room where the AC vents heaved, as though it burned his heart and melted his eyeballs to break the news. 
 
"If you demote me, would I meet expectations for my level?" I wondered.
 
"You can't go down in level. If the company doesn't see that you are an asset for its long-term growth, you'll see increasingly severe results in your paycheck," he warned. "You could evaporate."
 
"What do you suggest I do?" I asked. My right hand was beginning to fade, my sleeve cuff deflating with nothing to keep it in place. 
 
"Take more initiative, be proactive, and be consistent," he said. I wondered if this meant I should invite our VP to the bedroom. 
 
"I'll try my best," I said, returning to my desk. My left hand maintained its form, so I placed my laptop in my bag and pushed the doors open to leave before I became a heap of clothing on my seat and empty loafers on the ground. At home, I'd let the couch absorb my limbs, rest my neck against a penguin plush, and sleep.
 
"Everyone is replaceable," my manager had warned me. Everyone was replaceable indeed, a mantra that I repeated like a lullaby, soothing my mind as my physicality flickered in this purgatory. At least in death, earthly ties didn't drag you back: the Slack ping, the context switch, the ask from a random coworker whose face you don't remember to pull data because they're too lazy to learn how to construct a query. 
 
Mom was concerned I stopped calling home every other evening. By seven pm, the remains of my body consisted only of the air I once exhaled and a few particles of lint trapped on my sweater. She thought my career trajectory would shoot to the moon and liked to fantasize about her retirement in my future guest house by the mountains: planting tomatoes and blackberries, raising two chickens and a duck, teaching her hypothetical grandchildren Chinese so they "wouldn't end up whitewashed like Vivian." Vivian was the daughter of a family friend and went to med school, became a doctor, married a white man, and evolved into a stay-at-home mom creating TikToks and Shorts. I'd seen her videos in my feeds despite never training the algorithm to show me her kid-centric content. People like that are never worried about evaporating. Their view count tethered them to the earth. 
 
If it were between having sex with my VP and evaporating, Mom would tell me to have sex. I used to think the same way until I realized my temporary evaporations were like extended periods of deep sleep—you didn't know when you'd wake up, but it didn't really matter. Plus I preferred not to become the Other Woman. My VP and his wife lived in different countries—I knew because he'd shared an image of his vacation home in France—his desktop wallpaper—while projecting his screen, and because whenever he spoke of his wife, he'd complain about the time difference and scheduling calls with her. 
 
I refused to quit my job. I wanted to exit with a nice package at least—several months of severance so I could afford a trip to Antarctica and see the penguins. The only problem was I couldn't be certain that I'd still have a solid enough body to spend the money in three months which was when our next review cycle was scheduled and the "final straw" according to my boss. I began to work slightly longer hours so that my body would linger a little longer and I could collect my dues. 
 
My body held up best in the mornings when clouds covered the sun and condensation blurred car windows. As soon as the sky brightened, the atmosphere would lift me away, scattered like sand. I waited until the sky turned black to return home. 
 
Mom called me a workaholic which was saying a lot for her, the one who once walked several kilometers to school while memorizing idioms in the next grade's language textbooks. I told her modern work culture is a zero-sum game and it's not just about feeding yourself. She didn't understand.
 
My VP also spent early mornings and late evenings in the office. I avoided him by using the restroom whenever he approached my cubicle. He still managed to catch me in the elevator as I was leaving work, the dark hallways flickering on as my motion triggered the hall's automatic light sensors. The sun had just begun to set, and the sky reminded me of a watercolor painting I had made of dolphins jumping under a sky spanning half the canvas. I painted as a child, obsessed with pink and convinced I'd strike it rich as an artist if I practiced enough. The canvases and paints cost Mom too much money, so I quit.
 
"I heard from your boss that you're struggling. Don't struggle alone, we're here to help. We don't want to see someone with potential like you go," my VP said in the elevator after the doors closed.
 
"I'm fine," I said. 
 
"I know these things can be difficult. Sometimes managers aren't transparent. Feel free to talk to me if you're unsure about anything." 
 
"Sure thing," I replied. 
 
"Do you need a ride home?" He asked as the elevator neared the first floor. I made a mental note to take the stairs next time. "It's getting dark and don't forget about last month's kidnapping on the bridge that happened in broad daylight."
 
I hadn't forgotten, but it hadn't bothered me much since you can't kidnap evaporated body particles. 
 
"Thank you for offering. I'm good," I said, stepping out of the elevator and walking to the exit. "Look, it's still bright outside." I pointed at the sky, the clouds dispersed elsewhere, a bright hue of reds and oranges submerging us. 
 
As I stepped through the sliding glass doors, my bag swinging and chafing my neck, I heard my thousand-dollar laptop clunk against the asphalt ground. I registered the lightness in my shoulders and the lift of pressure from my feet. People evaporated all the time: quietly, peacefully, so much so I wasn't sure if anyone remembered them—even when headcount no longer matched up. I considered: if the clouds reunited in a tempest and the rain flooded the streets tomorrow, I might not return. 

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