Sometimes Toby wondered if his life was some big, cosmic joke. Like a contest between God and Fate, maybe Buddha, too, to see just how miserable they could make him.
The one small comfort he had was there was nowhere to go but up.
He remembered being happy. There was a period of time, during college and for a few years afterwards, that life was good. Great even. Living in California, meeting Shannon, getting his psychology degree, the whole world at his feet.
Not that life was perfect then. They were living in a tiny one-bedroom. He was working as a social worker and the work he hoped would be uplifting, he found depressing instead. Plus, Shannon was putting in a lot of hours at her job as an assistant director of marketing for the local talk radio station.
But every night they'd be in bed together and she'd curl up against his side, and every morning he'd wake up to her kissing him and he was happy. They were happy. What was a crappy job and small apartment when you had a beautiful woman who loved you by your side?
About five years after they got married, Shannon was offered a promotion. The media company that owned the radio station was buying another station in Scranton and she was offered the Director of Marketing position. She'd accepted without consulting Toby. It was the first thing she'd ever done that made him genuinely angry.
He hated Scranton. Hated it with all his heart. He'd grown up there and, after his mother died in his junior year of college, he vowed never to go back. There was no reason to. Then, through no fault of his own, he found himself moving back, to the place he despised.
Shannon apologized, saying she thought he'd be happy to move back to his hometown. In that moment he realised maybe she didn't know him as well as she should. Because he'd never said one kind word about Scranton the entire time they'd known each other.
Initially the move wasn't as traumatic as he thought it would be. With Shannon's job they could afford a nice split-level with a yard and a double-garage. He got a job in human resources at Scranton City Hall. It was entry level, but the salary was decent with plenty of room to advance. The people he worked with were nice and not even the ones he went to school with remembered him as the poor, nerdy Toby Flenderson they'd alternately picked on and ignored.
So life wasn't that bad really. They had a nice house, they were making friends and they both had good jobs.
Despite all that, their marriage grew strained, though it happened so slowly he didn't notice. They weren't spending a lot of time together as Shannon's job had her working a lot of hours and when they were together they always seemed to bicker. Then one night Shannon stayed in a hotel overnight and when he asked about it the next day, she said she wanted one night that didn't end up in a fight. They realised they had a problem.
After that night they tried to be kinder with one another, really tried to make things work. It worked for almost a year. But slowly Toby grew resentful that she was spending so much time at the radio station while Shannon seemed bitter that Toby wasn't moving up at City Hall as quickly as she thought he should. And Toby desperately wanted to leave Scranton.
They were already discussing divorce when Shannon found out she was pregnant, from a night when their fighting dissolved into angry sex with her shoving him onto the bed and Toby ripping her shirt (three hundred dollar silk, she later complained) to get it off.
With a baby on the way, they decided to try one more time. Toby figured attempt number three would either be a charm or a strike.
Before Shannon told him of her pregnancy he'd been planning to move back to California. Get a job, live near the beach, learn how to surf. And now that would never happen.
He kept it buried, though. His sadness. His anger at her, at himself. Instead he just got quieter. Eventually, he stopped letting her know how he felt at all. Just did what he could for her and for the baby.
Shannon wasn't making any effort with him, anyway. He felt her slipping away from him bit by bit. They hadn't had sex since the night they conceived the baby. There was always an excuse. She wasn't feeling well, he was tired. The truth of the matter was neither of them wanted to be intimate with the other. Even sharing the same bed became too much and half of the time Toby ended up sleeping in the guest room.
Then, one day at work he got the call: she was in labour and was heading for the hospital. Sixteen hours later he found himself holding the most perfect baby girl ever brought into existence. She was beautiful. Blue eyes, blond hair, button nose, ten fingers and toes. He fell in love the moment he saw her.
For a month after Sasha was born, life went back to being great. In the flush of new parenthood, Toby and Shannon were elated, with their baby and, by extension, with each other. She became affectionate again and he did anything he could to make her happy while they both lavished attention on their new daughter. He slept in the master bedroom again and on the days that he wasn't woken up by Sasha fussing, it was often to Shannon's kisses.
But things started to disintegrate about a month after Sasha was born. Shannon got frustrated with him, asking him why he wasn't being promoted or why he wasn't going after more glamorous jobs. Money wasn't an issue with them as her maternity leave was a paid leave and he made fairly good money at city hall so he wasn't quite sure what her problem was.
They started fighting often, using hushed voices so they wouldn't scare Sasha, though she always seemed to pick up on the mood of the room, anyway. He went back to spending the night in the guest room, occasionally ducking into the nursery to watch Sasha sleep or soothe her when she couldn't sleep either.
Seven weeks after Sasha was born he came back to an empty house. All but one of the suitcases were gone and all that Shannon left was a note: Toby, I can't take this anymore. I'm going to my parents' for the rest of my maternity leave. I've filed for divorce and my lawyer will be contacting you shortly. I'm really sorry to do it this way. I'll call when we get there. – S.
Two hours later, she called. He managed to be civilized for about two minutes before it dissolved into a shouting match. How could she take his child away and not tell him? How could he not see how desperately unhappy she was? How could he? How could she?
And then came the kicker – he was going to have to submit to a paternity test. Apparently Shannon had been seeing the radio station's programming director, Bill Becker, on the side. There was a chance that Sasha wasn't his.
And that, more than anything else, was what broke him.
The paternity test was going to take two to three weeks. Sasha and Shannon weren't returning for over a month. The house was too empty. He ended up sleeping in his car that night because he just couldn't take being in the house alone for another minute. And the next morning he packed the one suitcase that was left and headed for JFK airport.
Once he got there and looked at the departing flights he decided Amsterdam sounded good. Foreign. Exotic. He'd only ever been to Canada and Mexico.
Toby had a credit card with a twenty grand limit and, with the last-minute purchase, managed to score First Class seats at a nice price. He sipped wine, watched Castaway, and ate great food.
He did a lot of sightseeing in the first two days. Got a nice, mid-range hotel. Ordered room service. It would've been great if he wasn't so miserable.
On day three he realised he hadn't told work he wouldn't be in. He decided it didn't matter. He did send Shannon an email letting her know he was gone. Not that she cared.
He found the hash bar on day five. After that things were a bit of a blur.
When he came to, he was on the floor of an apartment. The apartment's owner, Erik, told him they had been partying for the past two days. When he went back to the hotel said they hadn't seen him in nearly three weeks and checked him out. They had kept his luggage though. He stayed one more night before going back to the airport and booking the first available flight to JFK.
It turned out he'd been gone almost a month. He thought. He couldn't really remember when he had left.
The house was still empty when he got back, but at least it was familiar. The messages were plentiful. He'd been fired. The lawyers had divorce papers for him to sign. Shannon put their house up on the market. She would be moving in with Bill when they got back. But among the wreckage there was one piece of good news: the paternity test came back and Sasha was his.
For about half a minute he considered moving back out to California. But the thought of only seeing Sasha a handful of times a year depressed him more than staying in Scranton ever could so he dismissed that out of hand.
After learning from Shannon what they'd be getting for the house he started looking for his own place. He found a cozy little three-bedroom bungalow with a yard that Sasha could run around in and a park nearby. He started scanning the want-ads and the internet for openings in HR positions.
The first three places he applied at were polite during the interview but turned him down due to the fact that he disappeared without warning from his last job. He was starting to contemplate filing for unemployment when he got an interview at a mid-level paper company based out of New York but with a branch in Scranton.
The interview was odd. He met with Jan Levinson, a corporate manager and she actually seemed very hopeful that he'd take the job. And kind of nervous. Which made him very suspicious.
He understood the next day when she took him to the Scranton office to meet the regional manager. It only took Toby about five minutes to realise that Michael Scott was the most obnoxious man on the face of the earth. And in the next five minutes he realised that the job was an HR rep's nightmare. But beggars couldn't be choosers so he took the job.
Michael did make Toby's life a living hell. By and large it wasn't intentional, but that didn't make things better. Toby learned from Oscar in Accounting that the two HR reps before him had lasted a grand total of four months each. The one before them stuck it out a whole year and the entire office staff thought she was a hero for lasting that long.
The girls came back to Scranton at the end of his first week at work. Shannon wanted to file for full custody but that was the one thing Toby was willing to fight her on and let her know as much. After arguing she finally consented to shared custody. The rest of the divorce was neat as a pin.
Three months into his job, he had a probationary review with Jan. Just the same questions that everyone asked in those things but after it finished, it made him reflect on his life in some detail. Reflection was something he tended to avoid when he could.
For good reason, he decided. He had one bright spot with Sasha, but life outside of her was pretty unbearable. But Toby remained hopeful. It could only get better.