Dante’s Infernal Inbox

A divine comedy for the modern age.

Midway upon the journey of my life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway through my inbox had been lost. Ah me! Trapped within the sins of clutter, I descend through one sphere of undeleted emails after another. Through my inbox is the way into the suffering city, through my inbox is the way to eternal pain, through my inbox runs a quest to achieve the divine: Inbox Zero. Abandon all hope, ye who scroll here.

Illustrations by Annelise Capossela

First Circle: Limbo

The first of the daunting 9,586 emails before me seems hardly deserving of its unanswered fate. A friendly request from someone I don’t see often, for advice on something about which I don’t know that much.

O, the misery that could have been avoided had I just responded with a vague sentence or two when I first received this! Instead, I allowed weeks to pass, leaving me with no choice but to provide a thorough response or to leave this blameless email forever marked as unread. With one last pitiful glance, I star it, like that means anything, and scroll on.

Second Circle: Lust

“hey..” the subject line whimpers. An email from an ex looking to “catch up.” The time stamp of desperation reads 12:09 a.m., and though I first read the email at 12:10 a.m. that same night because I, like everyone, check email constantly, I know I must not reveal this fact by responding immediately. The plea must remain, gasping and groaning, in my inbox for, like, three more days. For there is no greater sorrow than passing up an easy opportunity to appear better off than an ex.

Third Circle: Gluttony

Scrolling down, I see new sufferings, new sufferers surrounding me on every side. Rising from the depths of order confirmations and delivery estimates is a three-headed beast of Seamless, Grubhub and Eat24. All are owned by the same company, and yet I get separate emails from each. Most are easy to vanquish, but O, here is one hurling a 20 percent discount offer straight into my famished jaws if I order two meals in one day, and who am I to delete such a deal?

Fourth Circle: Greed

The stars that marked our journey’s beginning fall away as I am assailed by cries of, “One Day Only!” “Don’t Miss This!” An anguished hand reaches out to warn that these deals won’t last, and, over this monster of commerce’s shoulder, I see the decaying remains of hundreds of Flash Sales. “How did all these places even get my address?” I holler, and yet I stumble against the force of want. Everlane has a box-cut turtleneck dress that will make me look like a fat-faced baby art teacher, but I save the email just in case I change my mind or, perhaps, my face.

Fifth Circle: Wrath

As I approach the next email, an invitation to a former co-worker’s birthday party I surely won’t attend, my heart lifts in the face of such a supremely deletable request. But no sooner have I clicked the trashcan icon before hot fumes of reply-all passive aggression pour from the invitation’s mangled corpse like boiling blood, for the sender did not use BCC. After the first accidental reply-all, each following request that people stop replying to all is sent to all, creating more rage and more eternal replies.

Sixth Circle: Heresy

I cross into a valley, my eye catching on the 3,542nd email. Though it has a July send date, the word “Christmas” shrieks from the subject line. O, the wretched horror of a holiday planning email from my mother! I have already gifted Christmas to my in-laws, but I shall wait until Thanksgiving to reveal this blasphemous fact so that it’s not a whole thing.

Seventh Circle: Violence

“No! Please, no!” I moan as I find yet more replies clinging to a 62-message battalion of bridesmaids’ logistics. What started as an honor has become a curse as the Damned Captain, the bride herself, fuels my fury with each demand for her collection of loyal friends who don’t know one another to purchase plane tickets and penis straws and a very specific shade of coral dress that no one actually sells. Ah me! If she thinks I’m buying her a wedding gift as well, she is sorely mistaken.

Eighth Circle: Fraud

“Time Warner is now Spectrum,” the message bellows. “Exclusive offers” follow mere moments later. I wrestle and drag these oppressive alerts to the trashcan’s infinite abyss. But then I notice that my monthly autopay went up by almost 30 bucks. What fraudulent scheme is this?! Now I must leave this slimy swamp of landline bundle deals as a reminder to call and complain about my bill. Just as I know that I will never actually call, I know that Spectrum will send me all these messages again in the real mail.

Ninth Circle: Treachery

At last! I’ve made it to the furthest depths of my inbox where, surely, only the real erasable detritus lingers. “Do it!” a pained voice cries. And I, shaken to my bones, discover the voice is my own. “Do it! Do it!” One after another, all the task reminders sent to myself and never addressed. The betrayal burning through me, I fight the only way I can: “Clean out inbox,” I scrawl, then send this missive to join the others in the interminable pile, a monument to my failure, before I scroll back to the surface. I’ve received nine new emails.