Inside Reality Entertainment didn’t turn up a single accurate result when I Googled the company. That should have been enough for me to turn and run away from the “job opportunity” they are offering, but anyone who has been in the American job market lately can probably agree that when you get called in for a job interview, you pretty much just have to take it unless they make outright threats to you in the coordination.
The job I found in the always dicey “Marketing” section of Craigslist’s job postings called for a Senior Marketing Manager at a technology company in downtown Los Angeles and listed salary range of $50-60k. For a corporate tech slacker who had been kicked out on the street via equity firm-endorsed layoffs almost two years before, who had been trying to sneak his way back into a cozy office job in that time span, it seemed like a legit opportunity.
The second red flag was thrown when I noticed the company address for the interview I received from Nadia, the company’s human resources manager, directed me towards the murky sliver of downtown LA which had not been gentrified. Populated almost exclusively by seemingly-abandoned warehouses and seemingly-dangerous homeless people, I seriously wondered if I would be safe parking my car there.
Yet, desperate for a real paycheck and a break from Uber driving, I made my way to skid row and dodged the endless parade of riff raff which greeted me on the sun-bleached dirty sidewalks until I was at one of those seemingly-abandoned warehouses. I would have assumed the building had been used for nothing but filming cop shows for the past 30 years had there not been a small graphic sticker which read Inside Reality Entertainment plastered to the door, and a one button call machine of sorts which looked a lot like just an iPhone.
I pushed the soft, round, red button on the call system and listened to a pulsating dial tone broadcast out from the little box.
“Inside Reality Entertainment,” the cheerful voice of the young woman on the other end shocked me.
I fully expected to be greeted by just the grunt of a man of Eastern European descent at this point, but was instead greeted by what sounded like the voice of the young, attractive actress they get to play customer service people in commercials.
I stammered my reply.
“Uh, hi. My name is Eric Lincoln. I’m here for an interview with Nadia.”
There was no answer. The door just started buzzing and vibrating. I headed in.
I was greeted by a sparse, but clean lobby. The kind you might find at a nicer doctor or dentist’s office – white walls, a few plastic chairs, glass coffee tables and thick trade magazines. I instantly felt out of place, having spent 99 percent of the past two years sitting in my filthy studio apartment laying on my spaghetti-stained futon with my red hot laptop burning a hole in my bare stomach.
The sight of Nadia further put me on edge. Like the gruff voice I envisioned would greet me through the call box, she had an Eastern-European look, but the kind you see on fashion runways as opposed to driving a dirty cab. Tall, slender, with olive skin and dark eyes, I think she noticed me taking her in a little bit too much when she walked out from behind a pebbled glass door and greeted me with a lithe handshake.
“Eric, so excited to meet you. Come with me.”
“Really nice, to meet you, too,” I struggled with every word as Nadia led me out of the lobby and through the pebbled glass door.
Once through the pebbled-glass door, Nadia led me down a long, nearly-dark hallway lined with nothing but fresh white paint and the distant sounds of machinery I could hear over the small chit chat she made until we were at a thick steel door garnished with a serious-looking security keypad. I suddenly felt like I was in Jurassic Park. Why would you need a 10-inch steel door and a Mission Impossible security system to protect someone who was doing “marketing?”
The room the door opened up into reminded me of the dream apartment of most of the 20-something LA girls I had met through online dating the past few years. Lined on three sides with exposed brick, furnished with vintage couches, chairs, and tables made of fine wood, the only wall which wasn’t brick looked out onto a brick courtyard filled with plants.
Nadia led me over to the stiff leather couch and invited me to take a seat. She continued to make generic small talk, but I was fully distracted by the face mask I saw sitting on the glass coffee table before me. Some kind of virtual reality headset I had only seen on TV, I immediately knew it was going to be part of what I was doing.
I gave leaving the place one last thought, but my pathetic beta male, passive-aggressive meek nature won out when Nadia took a seat next to me on the couch and my eyes caught a good glimpse of her toned, golden legs. I was still mesmerized when she reached over and picked up the virtual reality mask.
“So Eric, what we are offering here at Inside Reality Entertainment is an incredibly unique job experience. Because of that, we bring an equally-incredible approach to our interviews,” Nadia started in while working some instruments on the mask. “Our managers want to make sure those interested in the position bring the kind of iconoclastic thinking we believe our company works with to this position, so we do things a little differently.”
Nadia took the mask and handed it over to me.
“I apologize for the vague nature of our communication and company profile, but I promise all of the details that attracted you to our job posting are accurate, and so you know, we are a virtual reality company. What you will be doing in our initial interview process is interacting with our technology through an exercise which will reveal to our director of marketing and CEO how you think in a virtual reality environment,” Nadia went on and then locked eyes with me for the first time. “Is this something you are comfortable with?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I agreed even though I wasn’t sure if I was.
My agreement prompted Nadia up onto her high heels.
“Well great. Please put the mask on and the system will start up in a few minutes. The instructions are very simple and will be laid out for you on the screen. The exercise will last fifteen to twenty minutes. I will be back to let you out afterwards.”
I heard Nadia’s heels click out of the room while I strapped on the mask and adjusted it to my head.
The screen before me was black at the moment, but I saw it illuminate to a dull white.
It took a few seconds, but the white fog of the screen started to fade and form into a living setting. A few more seconds and the setting was fully formed and I truly felt like I had been transported to a new place, but new place I had been before, many times.
My bedroom from the house I rented in college.
The sight kicked me in the stomach. How in the hell did they know the design of my college bedroom?
Had I not been so stunned by the situation, I probably would have left the room, but numb from the shock, I stared out into the room I hadn’t been to in nearly 10 years and was quickly intrigued by the sound of the dated ringtone I had set for my phone during my college years.
I instinctually started to comb around the room, searching for my cell phone. I overturned the stained flannel comforter on my full-sized bed, checked the mason jar on my guitar amp where I stored my cell phone, and checked over by the computer. I cringed when I noticed the front page of a porn site loaded up on the screen when I scanned my cluttered desk and listened to the phone ring. I blushed from behind the mask.
I was finally able to track the direction of the ring tone to underneath the desk, back over by the electrical outlet. There I saw the old Nokia brick I used in college, tethered to a charger, radiating with each tone.
I dove at the phone, hoping I caught it before it went to my embarrassing voicemail which started with me playing an acoustic, Dave Matthews Band-inspired guitar lick.
“Hello,” I answered the phone without looking at the caller ID.
The voice which started in on the phone took my breath away. My mom.
I wanted to respond to my mother calling out my childhood nickname, but couldn’t muster up the strength. Hearing her voice for the first time in nearly 10 years paralyzed me with nostalgic sorrow.
I fought back my sadness and responded, breathless.
“Mom,” I felt a couple of salty tears fall onto my lower lip once the word came out.
“There you are,” my mom’s sweet voice went on and I wondered if my cascading tears would harm the mask I was wearing. “I tried to call earlier, you didn’t answer. I just wanted to say hi. What are you up to?”
I didn’t know how to answer her question. I knew the situation I was in. The bits and pieces around me slowly came back to me over the past minute or so. I remembered the porn that was on my computer, I remembered what I was wearing, I remembered the cold tickle of the Colorado fall morning on my skin, I remembered the painful shrinking feeling my brain was experiencing due to the wicked hangover which mounted in my skull and stomach. It was a typical Sunday late-morning in college.
“Hey,” the return of my mom’s voice distracted me from cataloging the situation. “Macy keeps jumping on my computer.”
“Macy” was my mom’s beloved, but obnoxious, orange tabby cat who had a penchant for wanting attention only when you were distracted. The authenticity of exactly something my mom would have said on the phone dropped my heart further into my stomach. I let out the kind of half-laugh I would have in the real situation and waited for my mom to go on. Tried to tell myself it was all a simulation.
That talking to myself wasn’t working though. I was lost in the virtual moment and couldn’t stop crying. Filled with tears, my mouth now tasted like I had swallowed a gulp of ocean water.
“Well, I’m heading to church in about ten minutes, but I just wanted to call and say hi. I hadn’t talked to you in more than a week. You aren’t hungover, are you?”
My mom’s conversational 180 was the final straw on the freaked-out camel’s back. I started to loosen the straps of the mask.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized, but was cut off by my mom’s voice.
“I love you Wreck. I’ll talk to you later.”
I ripped the mask off and it slipped out of my hands and fell to the hardwood floor. I cringed for a moment, but quickly pushed past it. What did I care if I damaged the machinery of some horrifying company that somehow just simulated the last conversation I should have had with my mom, but didn’t because I didn’t pick up the phone in real life?
Nadia walked into the room just as I was storming out.
“What the fuck was that?” I exclaimed and pointed a stiff finger at Nadia like I was a professional wrestler delivering a pre-match tirade.
Nadia couldn’t have kept her cool any better than she did. She placed a comforting hand on my shoulder and stalled my forward momentum.
“I completely understand how jarring our technology can be. That’s why we give any potential new hires an exercise like the one you just experienced to make sure they can handle any situation which could arise from technology and so they fully understand how it works.”
I was so wound up I hadn’t even noticed that Nadia had led me back over to the couch. We sat down together with our hips touching and I tried to catch my breath with my eyes stuck on the VR mask which rested at our feet.
“I have to ask you,” Nadia went on softly. “Are you still interested?”
I didn’t even know what to think. Part of me wanted to run out of that room at that very second, go back to my sad apartment, crawl underneath a blanket, and cry for the rest of the week. However, another part of me was strangely addicted to what I had just experienced and wanted to know how in the hell they did it. If a company could produce something like I had just taken part in, they were ready to set the world on fire. Shit, the whole world was about to be a different place. Could I really just walk away and go back to driving a fucking Uber?
“How did you do that?” I asked softly, still shaken.
Nadia gave a coy smile, the kind someone gives when they are proud of something they did, but want to act like they aren’t gloating.
“Our system can access social media accounts and build worlds. Since you have a public Facebook profile, our system was able to go into your account before you came in, pull the environment of your former bedroom from pictures, pull the voice of your mother from a video from one of your birthdays. Same goes for what your phone looks like, oh, and the ring tone. Crazy, isn’t it?”
I let out a quick laugh.
“It is. It is. But what is this job even supposed to be? The only information I got from the posting was that it was a marketing job?”
“Good question,” Nadia replied. “The job is more of a marketing analyst or beta tester. Basically, you will be testing out the system, providing feedback to our marketing team, and offering your own insight and opinion into how the system can be optimized.”
“So you’re going to pay me sixty thousand dollars a year to basically try this thing out?”
“It’s not quite that simple, you will have to provide extensive reports and genuine recommendations along with working with the marketing team, but yes, that’s a bit of an elevator pitch of what you would be doing.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
I agreed with an uneasy nod of the head and a nervous laugh. I couldn’t believe what I had agreed to, but I also desperately needed the money, the stability of a full-time job, and something deep inside of me had a desire to see where their technology could take me.
The seven nights between the day of my interview and my first day of work were restless. I know everyone has the vision of the sunny paradise of Los Angeles they’ve seen in movies and heard in Beach Boys songs, but the reality is unless you make more than $150,000 a year, you will live in a small apartment without air conditioning, miles from the ocean, trying to sleep in sweat on endless hot nights.
The city was in the midst of a never-ending heat wave while I waited out the days for my job and it certainly didn’t seem to help me shake the sting of that first experience with the VR headset. The more time I had to think about it, especially in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, the more I remembered the situation I played out in the virtual environment.
That cold, Sunday morning in college I lived should have been the last time I ever talked to my mom, but it wasn’t. In real life, I didn’t pick up the phone that morning. I heard it ring. I saw the caller ID display my mom’s name and number, but I didn’t answer. Lost in the midst of a hung-over porn-watching session, I figured I would call her back in half an hour, but I wouldn’t get that chance. My mom was killed in a head-on collision on her way to church that morning.
I couldn’t help but wonder, would she still be alive had I answered that call? Would she have left a little bit later for church, missed that pick-up truck which smashed into the front of her little Yaris? At the very least, I would have had one last chance to talk to her and hear her sweet voice. Hear her say I love you before the call ended and I never saw her face again.
I had no idea what to expect when I came in for my first day of “work,” but was still incredibly surprised when I walked into an environment that was just like any other place I had ever worked.
Nadia ushered me into a standard cubicle farm with dated Dells, dying house plants, men in khakis and Target dress shirts in need of an ironing and the aroma of watered-down Folger’s. I knew I was back at home in the warm arms of soulless, corporate America when the first thing I heard was two people talking about their preferences for egg bagels over sesame while they toasted their sad, gluten treat.
Nadia led me to cubicle populated by an H-P from the mid-2000s and one of those tear-away Office Depot calendars which still have appointments penciled in from whatever departed office soul had sat there before me. She wiped away the scraps of what looked to be Chex mix by the mouse before she introduced me to my work station and the company email and instant message systems.
I was told to finish the basic setup of the systems and that, Graham, the director or marketing, would be by shortly me to get me started on testing again. I finished what I had left to do in exactly one minute and forty-five seconds and then sat there like an idiot, doodling on the Office Depot calendar for almost an hour before Graham swung by to introduce himself and whisk me back to the testing room.
Graham looked exactly how I imagined he would. Approaching 60 with a magnificent gut, receding hairline, Merona slacks and a cheap gray dress shirt, he looked like the guy who sat around the office long enough to where they had to eventually promote him to a position that sounded important, but was really just middle-management and paid $70,000 per-year in a city where rent on a cardboard box under the freeway was $900 per-month.
Fulfilling the sad office stereotype I built in my head, Graham lectured me on the joys of “bagel Monday” and explained that he had worked at the company, which apparently used to be called Urban Industrial Solutions until a year ago, for nearly 25 years as if that was a great thing.
Graham eventually ushered me into the testing room and explained that I would do the same thing I did last time, basically just explore the universe and interact the way I would in real life for as long as the simulation runs and then go back to my computer and record my observations. He walked out of the room before I could confirm I could do that and left me alone with the VR mask I strapped to my face.
The first thing I was able to make out was a crackling campfire which plumed black, acrid smoke which billowed in my direction. I squinted my eyes, almost feeling the scalding heat of the smoke in the way I would have in real life.
The setting became familiar once it all came into focus. I was at the deer hunting campgrounds in the foothills of central Washington where I would go with my dad, his friends and their sons for a week each October when I was a child.
An only child and the real loser of a divorce between my parents when I was six, I grew most of the year in the comfortable suburbs of LA with my mom and stepdad Steve, but spent most of the year dreading that week in Late-October when I would have to head up to rural Washington state to go hunting with my dad. A soft suburban kid tenderized by shopping malls and Super Nintendo, I was no fit for the frigid, high-altitudes of hunting camp, the kick back a gun gives back when you fire it, the brutality of hunting, and the junior wrestling-hardened kids who were the sons of my dad’s friends.
The whole environment and experience was a yearly torture where I would intentionally aim to miss the deer or two I would see each season. About the only thing it was ever good for was slightly impressing girls on first dates when I told them about it by suggesting to them that I at least used to have a rugged side.
Taken back to that scene, I instantly remembered the specific night the screen had placed me in front of and felt a sense of fear spark and begin to stoke in my heart. Of all the awful nights at hunting camp, this one was the worst. I could remember it by the empty cans of meatball Spaghettios I saw burning in the campfire. The one time I can remember eating something I actually liked up there for dinner bled into to disgusting dessert I had yet to forget.
I felt the hard tap on my shoulder that I knew was coming. I turned around to see the scarred face of Jameson Watkins looking back at me in the light of the fire. Only seven, and already living a life that sounded like Jeff Foxworthy joke, Jameson’s face was dripped with scars which came from a hot pot of venison and gravy which fell off a stove and splattered on him when he was a toddler.
I dreaded what I knew Jameson was going to say next.
“You wanna see something cool?”
I didn’t know what to do. I knew the horror which was waiting in Jameson’s dad’s trailer if this was going to reenact what took place in real life. At the same time, I felt as if maybe I should make the decision I should have made back in time, the way I did with the call from my mom in the last simulation.
I agreed to follow Jameson to his dad’s mossy camper trailer at the edge of camp surrounded by long, straight rows of whistling pines which allowed you to see seemingly for miles into the woods in the moonlight. I felt the same feeling I felt that night when those delicious Spaghettios started to turn sour in the bottom of my throat.
I knew what was waiting for me once I stepped into the musty camper, Jameson’s dad, Mike, was sprawled out across the bed in the heart of the camper, covered by just a camo sleeping bag with naked limbs dangling out and a bottle of Canadian whiskey and a can of Pepsi next to his head.
“Lil Oak,” Mike greeted me with the nickname only my dad’s hunting buddies used, referring to me as a “Lil” version of my dad, Oakley.
I put my head down, avoided looking at Mike’s bare hairy chest and military tattoo when he sat up and Jameson took a seat on the end of the bed.
“Big Oak pass out already?” Mike went on.
I nodded and finally looked up. Jameson had scooted a little closer to Mike on the bed and the blanket had fallen down a little further on Mike’s torso, the light brown patches on his hair and the thin sinew of his strong form almost made him look like one of the deer we were out there to slaughter.
“He didn’t lock you out of his camper again, did he?” Mike asked me even though my dad had never locked me out of our camper, no matter how drunk he got. “I think he told me earlier tonight he was going to lock you out, didn’t want you in there,” Mike went on and then took a sip of his drink.
I thought about what I did all those years ago in that forest. I remembered mumbling the word “no” with my eyes locked on Jameson as Mike slithered closer and closer to him and I remembered slipping back out of the camper and running through camp to my own camper and trying to sleep the rest of the night, but failing, and instead staring at the wall until morning came, wondering what went on with Jameson and his dad.
That’s not what I was going to do on this day. I eyed the black, six-inch hunting knife which proudly hung on the wall next to the kitchen table.