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Jane Dorner had never used a butt plug, and manicures made her cuticles bleed.
At first it had been fun, the refining of Public Relations Jane. She was breezy, overly familiar, sexually omnivorous, joylessly joyful, and clever in a nonthreatening way. She was hot, but only with makeup on. She liked her shoulders but hated her arms. She wouldn’t steal your boyfriend, but she might f*** his brother and tell you about that dick. She did barre and boot camp, but she was just in it to cancel out the day drinking. She thought women with visible muscles needed to take it down a notch, even though, obviously, you do you!, et cetera. She liked VIP lounges and Champagne-flavored gummi bears and USB drives shaped like baby animals. If your mother died, PR Jane would send you a gift basket a month later—one of her clients, UnBereave, was a subscription box service that focused on self-care after tragedy, including lavender bath bombs they’d rebranded as bath blooms—but she probably wouldn’t be able to go to the funeral, because she already had tickets to see her college roommate in LA for the long weekend. She’d post her brunch-themed sign from the Women’s March and go to brunch after. She was up for whatever, but she wasn’t someone you called in any kind of emergency. PR Jane was twenty-five and she figured she had two more good years before she had to really knuckle down and listen to the answers to her questions.
Actual Jane was twenty-nine. She had $97,000 in medical debt, a limitless capacity for disappointing first dates, and a malaise so deep she wondered if it might just be her personality. Lately, she was becoming increasingly concerned about her career and her future—neither of which seemed like the low-stakes annoyances they once had.
All of a sudden, without warning, the conversation about so-called passion among Jane’s cohort had turned from thinking about starting a band to thinking about accepting my manager’s offer of corporate leadership training. Jane didn’t begrudge anyone their selling out; she only wished she could have done so more effectively. All she’d done in the seven years since she graduated from college was accumulate an unfinished PhD, a closet full of clothes that all looked slightly wrong on her, and the debt.
She knew that in order to be a participant in capitalism rather than solely a victim of it, she had to have something to sell, but she didn’t believe in her own viability as a product and had no ideas for better ones. As an account manager at Relevancy PR, she shilled goods she knew to be third rate, and her lack of conviction fed her stasis.
When she took the job, she had been blinkered by the impressive title—impressive, at least, compared with “grad student without distinction”—and the idea of the kind of life it suggested. Jane had never been able to envision her life more than six months into the future, so a job with a ready-made identity was appealing. Only when she was already mired in the day-to-day drudgery of Relevancy did she realize that “PR Maven” was, like “middle-class homeowner,” an identity on its way out. And while there were plenty of other jobs she wished she had, it felt impossible to imagine a job, any job, that she would like to do.
“Jane—” Her boss Rand Hagen materialized like a flinch beside her. “Stop by and see me whenever you get a chance. Now would be best.”
She followed him into his office, repulsed, as always, by the skeletal shoulders visible beneath his thin white button-down. She sat down opposite him and prepared for the intermittent but unrelenting stream of Hmms that was the hallmark of their meetings. Every time Rand Hagen peered at her with his dark button eyes and Hmmed, Jane felt an unmistakable tugging on her second left toe. It always started out as a twinge, but as the meeting wore on and the Hmms persisted, the tug became excruciating. Jane had once read on a yoga store’s shopping bag: trauma lodges itself in our bodies—release the wounds of your past. Though the same bag had also warned that tomatoes were a leading cause of depression, Jane couldn’t deny that the trauma of Rand Hagen had lodged itself in her second left toe.
She got the job at Relevancy through a combination of name-brand schooling (her incomplete PhD in poetry from Columbia), a moderately viral satirical essay (“Makeup Tips for the Apocalypse,” which she now suspected the Relevancy recruiter had taken at face value), and, she later learned, the fact that two buttons on her shirt had come undone during her interview, fully exposing her bra and convincing Rand Hagen that she was “one of the fun ones.”
Her job was to oversee content creation for the firm’s Women’s Empowerment Sector and manage a team of junior copywriters. Relevancy was a large, multi-armed agency that was forever being re-orged, and Rand had been shuffled from Travel & Leisure to Emerging Technologies to Healthcare Solutions before finally landing in WE. He spoke wistfully about projects and managers past, and had spent the last two years failing to impart his lifetime of leadership lessons to Jane.
Jane excelled at suggesting snappy wordplay to the copywriters, but she was temperamentally unsuited to lead anyone—even toward greater awareness of a remote-controlled butt plug. Her PowerPoints read like personal essays, full of bloated asides and dubious anecdotal evidence, and heading meetings made her sleepy; she had never been able to stretch one past twenty minutes.
Jane had been at Relevancy for two years. For the last two months, since being dumped by a milk-pale poet named Byron, she had completed almost no work. Post-dumping, she gave herself a week to grieve without accountability. She didn’t intend to shirk her responsibilities indefinitely, but her team’s work carried on much as before, and her grief had manifested mostly as exhaustion. Now she still came in every day, but she pitched ideas she knew she couldn’t execute and promised placements in publications that would never touch Relevancy’s third-tier brands, no matter how many desperately cheeky emails she sent.
There was something liberating about dereliction. As the days during which she did absolutely nothing piled up, she wondered if she could, possibly, stop working forever, but continue to draw a paycheck, at least until she paid off her debt. In a way, it would be the more ethical thing for her to do. Her job did nothing to improve the world, and given the volume of microplastics in the products on her roster, her semi-intentional work stoppage was probably a net positive for the environment.
“Walk me through the status of the reFaun campaign,” Rand said. reFaun was an at-home fecal transplant kit marketed—like all Relevancy’s products—to the upper-middle-class millennial woman who was her own hobby. Even if reFaun’s claims had been substantiated by the FDA (the closest thing Jane had to a doctor’s endorsement was a chiropractor who said it was “likely” safe, at least in terms of spinal alignment), the product was disgusting, and no one wanted to touch it.
“We’re in the weeds right now, but everyone is pulling together to . . .” Jane kept a list of Rand Hagen’s favorite business jargon on a Post-it at her desk. “. . . think outside the box. For the reFaun campaign.”
“Hmm. And your workload. Is it manageable?”
“We’re all working hard, but we’re hanging in there.”
“Jane, there’s no delicate way to say this: Per Relevancy’s employment agreements, I—we—have the right to audit employees’ computer activity, a right we exercise when the employee’s keystroke activity falls below a predetermined number of strokes per minute for four consecutive days, as yours did this month. I just want to read you some of what we found. This was some of the internet activity from your machine for last Wednesday.” Jane’s personal best humiliations always reappeared to her at times like this, when she suspected their number was about to grow, a slide carousel of moments ftt-ftt-ftt-ing behind her eyes: flickers of misplaced hope—an “O!” where an “O” should have been—or simple bodily obviousness, visible sweat and audible farting and a creeping facial rash, anything that made being alive look like work.