On our third and final round of interviews, they read us the Riot Act. Literally. Brian from middle management reads us an abridged version of the 1714 British proclamation and says that, if more than three of us are seen together, talking, and don’t immediately disperse, we will be fired on the spot. I can’t imagine a scenario where we would gather in such numbers—we are all fighting for the same coveted position, after all. As soon as a customer walks into the cucumber-mint fragranced entranceway, we pounce. Those gabbing would be last to catch the prey, the batlike cameras in the corners would swivel in their direction, and a quick tap on the shoulder from Brian would let them know they had been unceremoniously axed. Or, at least, that’s what happened during Saturday’s trial shift. Looking around at those of us still in the running, I know that won’t be a problem. None of us are talkers.
It’s hard to say what the startup sells because it sells experiences, which some argue can’t be boxed and shrink-wrapped. But the startup’s simulations are so good that the main complaint from users is how difficult they are to differentiate from reality. Customers recount to friends the time they heli-skied the Swiss Alps in the dead of winter, their blades cutting through the deep snow like knives through lemon meringue, only to have their friends remind them that they’ve never actually skied and that they get rashes when exposed to the cold for long periods of time.
During Saturday’s trial shift, I managed to convince a customer to purchase ten minutes in the booth with that same ski sim and five minutes with one of our top-shelf sims—a lap of a circus tent on the back of an elephant for $100 a minute. This earned me the camera’s approximation of a mechanized nod from Brian, who himself was vying to become part of upper management by proving how proficient he was at training us.
We weren’t sure what the task would be for the final round. Over the course of the initial interview and trial shift, we’d been whittled down from a group of thirty-two to four candidates. On Saturday, after we had officially been told we had passed the second round by successfully upselling a customer from one sim to two, those remaining went for a smoke break in the mall’s parking lot, which reeked of piss and chlorine.
“I bet it’s weirdo clientele,” Heather speculated, her voice baritone with vapour, “like we have to sell deep-sea diving to a claustrophobe or crowd-surfing at a music festival to an agoraphobe.”
“I bet we have to try and get them to stay in the booth for over an hour,” said Rory.
“What if we have to sell to masochists,” asked Ian, his voice hitching at the word.
Everyone sucked a little harder on their vapes. “No way,” said Heather, relaxing us all with an eye roll. “That’s a different job altogether.”
Post Riot Act reading, we stand in our assigned placements, Ian and I on one side of the entrance, Heather and Rory on the other. It’s strange how quickly even this small arrangement manifests: I’m much more annoyed when Heather gets a sale than when Ian does, since he’s, physically, on my side. I suspect management planned it this way, inspiring competition and animosity between us to drive up sales. And, even though I know this rationally, I still feel a primal churning in my stomach when I see Heather roll up her sleeves.
We were told that the candidate who makes the most money by EOD—by selling either a top-shelf sim or a few mid- to low-range ones—will get the job. I fiddle with the brochures in my apron, sliding my thumb along the glossed descriptions of the sims, ready to brandish one as soon I see a customer approaching.
One does. A man in his mid-forties, pouched in the middle, with a knob at the base of his neck I intuit to be the product of years of listless work punching numbers into a computer. An easy sale. I select the brochure without taking my eyes off him, “Winning an Oscar for Best Director.” But, before I can get to him, my mouth already folded into a smile, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“A word,” says Brian, whose features cluster together in the middle of his wide face, giving him the appearance of a baby trapped in a man’s body. He crooks a finger, indicating for me to follow him. A few steps away, we stop. Just enough time for Heather to swoop in with a “Lead Singer/Guitarist at a Sold-Out Stadium Show” brochure, her hand fluttering above, but careful not to touch, the small of the customer’s stooped back.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Brian says. “Upper management wanted me to come to you personally to tell you we’ve—I mean, they’ve—noticed how well you’ve been doing.”
“Thank you,” I say, my eyes flicking back to Heather, who’s now leading the man into one of the simulation booths, where, once the experience technicians have sat him down on the leather chair and wired him up with electrodes, he will soon be so immersed in thunderous applause—guitar pick warm between his fingers, marijuana smoke wafting around him—and so filled with the sudden, undeniable, and temporary revelation that he is worthy of praise that he’ll walk out of the booth a little straighter, thanking Heather effusively. He may even forget himself and his budget and ask for another suggestion.
“You’re a recent graduate, correct?”
“Yes,” I lie. Technically, I should be finishing my final year now, but no one ever bothers to confirm that sort of thing.
“Your degree was in—What was it again?”
“Ah,” says Brian, his tiny mouth breaking out into a tiny grin. “Makes sense. I knew there was a reason I kept you so long. Well, as I was saying, upper management,” he raises his chin toward the camera, “noticed you. They think you have great potential.”
Great potential. I heard that in the seven job interviews I had before I applied to the startup, all ending in how I “wasn’t the best fit” or how they had “decided to go with an inside hire.” My chest deflates. “Can I at least say goodbye to Ian?” Between job-hunting and ensuring my mom showers, eats, and shuffles her slippered feet around the block before slumping back into bed each day, I didn’t have too much time for friends. There was something about Ian—beyond the manufactured alliance I had just experienced—that reminded me why they were necessary. Like the way he passed a customer off to me last shift when he saw I was struggling to make a sale, or how animated his face gets when he speaks of the simulations, as though he genuinely believes they can help people live better, richer lives.
Brian’s eyebrows tug inward. “Oh, oh no.” He laughs. “We’re not letting you go. No no no. Au contraire, we think you have immense potential. Immense. A real grasp on human behaviour, unlike some of your fellow applicants. Which is why we think you’d be a good fit for our Growth Development Program.”
“You want me to sell to the masochists?” I say without thinking. As trainees, we’d all been comped every simulation so that we could have experience with each experience. That was another gauntlet only those now remaining had survived. At first, we were thrilled: the simulations could cost up to $500 per minute, and here we were, getting them for free. We hang-glided through the Arabian Desert; we made out with Robert Pattinson, who told us he loved us after we had delivered coffee to him on set; we discovered an entirely new species of monkey in the Amazon. But we also had to sample the negative sims, the ones the Growth Development Program employees sold to “Seeker-Type” customers, or as we called them, “masochists.” I found myself stuck in a city without knowing the language. I ate the spiciest pepper from Spanish tapas. I wasn’t able to move my arms or legs properly while trying to outrun a bear. Of course, it sounds crueller than it actually is: we were allowed to opt out of certain simulations if we’d been through something similar in real life, probably in order to avoid lawsuits. I opted out of “Death of a Beloved Parent” and “Living on 800 Calories a Day.”
Brian’s face suddenly becomes much more adult, weary and expectant. “We don’t like to use the word masochists, especially around the customers.”
He brightens. “It’s an incredible opportunity. Think of it as giving people the requisite tools they need in life. Pain is the cornerstone of growth, you know.” I begin to think of growth as a callus—a protective barrier but an ugly one, devoid of feeling. Before I can object, Brian beckons over Paige, one of the GDP employees placed at the back of the store. Brian introduces us, explaining that I will be doing a trial shift as a Growth Development Guide. “Why don’t you take her into the break room to give her a brief overview?” Paige, who has bouncy red curls, just gives Brian a curt nod.
Paige leads me into a windowless room with two matted chairs. She removes a sandwich from the mini fridge. I tamp down the urge to ask her questions about the job—why she chose to become a Growth Development Guide, how quickly she received a pay raise, if the benefits covered counselling for family members. She sits down on one of the chairs and crosses her ankles, acting as though she’s management and not just a staffer like me. “At least I get a bit of an extra break out of this” are her first words. After taking a bite out of the sandwich, Paige turns her attention to me. “So, you’re training as a GDG?”
“I didn’t ask to.”
She gives me a look of painful disdain. “None of us did.” A bead of mayo rests on the corner of her lip. “The trick,” she continues, “is to know the difference between those who know they want a bad experience and those who don’t yet know.” I take out a piece of paper and a pen from my apron and scribble this down, perching on the arm of the chair Paige’s feet rest on. “The ones who know they want it are easy. They’re people looking to ‘expand their horizons,’ to have a taste of something difficult but not the whole dish. They’re usually white, usually rich.
“The ones who don’t know they want it yet are tougher to pick out,” she continues, her face becoming more animated. “They’re wandering around the store kind of aimlessly. They’re usually older, around forty or fifty. They clear their throats or crack their knuckles a lot. Give them space. Hover close, but not too close.” Paige pulls her feet off the chair, her neck pushing forward, arms winged out on either side. “They’ll pace, their eyes drifting around the room until they meet your eyes.” Paige’s own eyes are two hot pans. She leans back and takes another bite of the sandwich. “That’s the moment. That’s when you make your offer.”
“And offer them what?”
“Anything that counts as a Growth Development Program simulation. My biggest go-to is ‘Going to School Naked Thinking It’s a Dream but Then Realizing It’s Not,’ but everyone has their own arsenal. ‘Barely Escaping a Fire That Burns Your Entire House Except Your Cat’ is pretty popular.”
“Why would anyone want to do that voluntarily?”
Paige shrugs. “Boredom. Anger. Grief. The desire to have a defining moment in their life.” Her eyes narrow. “Just remember to take payment up front.”
“Because no one’s going to be thanking you afterward.”
Ten minutes later, I’m wandering around the back of the store, which looks, with its glossy white walls and ubiquitous logos, like just about every other tech store in the mall. The only thing that sets it apart are the brochures lining the walls and stacked in my apron; apparently, the CEO felt the analog format would inspire a sense of nostalgia in customers, easing open their purse strings. A few customers approach me eagerly but with the wrong sim brochures in their hands. Begrudgingly, I pass them off to Ian and Heather and Rory, who thank me with mystified smiles. I don’t bother returning them except for Ian’s. It’s bad enough that I lost precious time in the meeting with Paige, but GDP sims are notoriously more difficult to sell, for obvious reasons, even if they are all technically top shelf, and I don’t need my fellow candidates’ pity on top of everything else.
A woman appears in my line of vision. She’s so slight I feel she could turn sideways and disappear. It’s hard to gauge her age, but I get the feeling she looks older than she actually is, her pale face worried into lines. Her hands skim the brochures placed against the back wall, never resting on one for too long. Her eyes meet mine briefly, then turn back toward the wall.
I approach slowly, my hands behind my back. “How can I help you?” I ask, careful to keep my tone even.
“I was just looking for something . . . ” She trails off and touches her forehead as if she’s forgotten something important.
I round my shoulders. There’s something in the frailty of this woman that makes me want to send her to Ian to sample every dessert in a Parisian café or jump into a cold lake on a hot day. I look up into one of the cameras mounted on the wall opposite me. “May I ask what you do for a living?” I say, running through my script.
“I was a teacher.”
“I’m on bereavement leave.”
I force myself not to react outwardly. “Oh,” I say. “Perhaps you need a trip.” I glance at the camera once more, willing it to swivel away. But the camera’s lens remains fixed on me.
“Perhaps,” she says, flossing her necklace across her chin.
I take in a deep breath. “Or maybe something a little more unusual. A shock to the system.”
“A shock to the system,” she repeats.
“People often don’t know what they need until they get it,” I say, improvising now. At this, the woman nods. “We have several options for experiences that are a little bit . . . unusual.” I select a brochure out of my apron. “One I’d recommend is ‘Held Under Waves Until You Lose All Air Then Kick Off Sand Bottom.” I show the customer the brochure of the sim, one of our most expensive, with its photo of a middle-aged woman triumphantly breaking the surface of a roiling sea.
For a moment, I consider tearing up the brochure; telling the woman to hightail it out of this store, to get real help, to resist the urge to escape; reminding her that she must have people who still need her, and not just financially, although that too.
The woman slips the brochure from my hands and holds it carefully. I blink and the face on it becomes anonymous again. “Does it hurt?”
“Pain is the cornerstone of growth,” I say.
“I don’t know,” she says.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Heather leading another customer to the booths. My stomach swoops, my skin static with attention again: even if she’s selling mid-range sims, that’s still two more sales than I have. I meet the woman’s eyes. “You don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re pushed,” I say in an urgent voice. “And, once you see, once you see how much you’re able to withstand—well, that’s something you’ll never forget. You won’t know until that moment just how much you want to survive.”
She looks down at the picture. “Just like that?”
I break protocol and touch her hand. “Just like that.”