By: Evan Schwarzbaum
The elevator took its time getting to the 35th floor that day. Nothing alarming, but Jon happened to have been in a rush to get to the office for his nine o’clock. He looked down at the carpeted floor and then back up at the many unlit buttons beside the elevator door. He glanced to his right and, accidentally locking eyes with the lift man, quickly averted his gaze, though not before recognizing the man’s presence with a short nod and a contortion of the face which, for some reason, he felt communicated “hello” to people he didn’t really want to talk to.
Now he was locking eyes with himself in the elevator’s side mirror and wanted to give himself the same nod-contortion-huff combination, but thought it might put off the liftboy. Jon’s jet-black hair couldn’t quite keep the word jet in its description those days. It’s not that he was going gray, but at a certain point, when a man passes the age of thirty, has two children, and despises his job more than his own appearance, his hair might be black, but jet-black is just an exaggeration. His black pinstriped suit imitated the coloration on his head, giving off the same experienced and professional feel; from his experience, the big execs preferred to work with a man who had a little gray in him and wasn’t afraid to show it.
A bell, a gesture from the liftboy, and Jon was out of the elevator. The truth was that Jon hated elevators. At least long rides in them. That time between the things he needed to do. The gaps in his life that weren’t already filled with meaningless content scared the shit out of him. He never knew what he was supposed to think about. No secretary, no schedule, just a liftboy and a mirror that reminded him of truths he’d rather have forgotten long before.
And indeed, he left them behind as he walked into the office, past a bright fluorescent light fixture, a cherry wood desk with a sexy redhead behind it, three copying machines, and a ringing phone. The ringing phone was for him.
“Jane Timons, Gallagher Consulting, how may I help you?” It emerged from her lips less a question than a line from a middle school play. “Mr. Anderson, Atlas Copco on line 1.”
Standing in the doorway to his office, Jon turned his head to look back at Jane. “Tell him to leave me a message. I’m on a business trip.” He tried to look at Jane when he talked to her; the other consultants didn’t.
The nine o’clock came and went. Pens scribbled, spun around fingers, pointed at figures, and bent under the pressure of tense consulting teeth. Eyes barely blinked as they took in slides and graphs and bullet points. Several hours alone in front of a computer, and Jon was ready to take a deep breath. He didn’t though, because he didn’t really have time for that. He did look out the window, marvel at the clear blue sky, and shake his head.
Jon moved quickly through the office but, as always, paused to smile at Jane and communicate the slightest recognition of her existence. He preferred to walk quickly in general so as not to waste time, but also to minimize the time between activities—those gaps in existence he so feared. He now returned to that one gap he could not control: the elevator. The cafeteria was on the 32nd floor, only a few flights down, but the staircases in his building were alarmed in case of fire. Jon hated that. Just another reminder of this generation’s laziness. And somehow they couldn’t figure out why their kids were all obese.
Jon’s eyes already carried small bags, if only the size of the small carry-on he brought on business trips. Between working late the previous night and the morning’s grueling meetings he thought he’d eat something refreshing. Maybe a salad, or something with tofu. Certainly not a day for ham and cheese. He pressed the button outside the elevator and thought about how good ham and cheese would have tasted. There’s always next time. The red arrow lit up accompanied by a high-pitched, amorphous sound. The door slid open and the liftboy gestured, ushering Jon back into his favorite, mirrored place.
“Where to, kind sir?”
Jon wasn’t sure when the liftboys started speaking Victorian English, but he mumbled something that made it clear he could do it himself. The orange light behind the twenty-eight button lit up, surrounding the black numbers with a bright but blurry hue. Jon had now begun to accept his leaf-fated meal, and thought he’d go with feta this afternoon rather than his habitual mozzarella. He focused his gaze on the elevator rug’s complex and incestuous geometric pattern to avoid repeating that morning’s awkward confrontations. He tried to wrap his mind around it, but the shapes continued to twist away from his grasp. The red LED lights scrolled to 28 with a ping and the door slid open.
Jon was still looking down when he strode through the door so he couldn’t yet see the strange world before him. What he did notice was the hardwood floor beneath his feet and the lack of redolent cafeteria stench in the room. He recognized the smell. The smell of his wife finishing a shower, lemon furniture cleaner, and that distinct smell he identified only with his house.
He instinctively raised his right arm to flick on the light in the foyer. The same as he left it. Nothing moved. He could hear the ten-o’clock news playing to a den empty of people. The beige couch still sat there looking comfortable asking him to sleep there for the night as he had too many times to remember. A soft rug, mahogany side tables with cheap romance novels—Nancy did love those. Smiling pictures of his little boy—an infant wrapped in a blanket held by an exhausted mother; holding the couch to try and stand; Jon looked away. How did he get back to this hell-hole? He couldn’t tell whether to laugh or cry. The truth is, he didn’t really believe it yet.
He peeked into the candlelit dining room and then into the kitchen, where the dishwasher’s low and steady rumble played the soundtrack of the past. A few cotton balls pasted on a piece of red construction paper formed a rudimentary snowman. He lifted it to see a teacher’s handwritten identification of the artwork: Aden, 4-C. Jon knew what that meant; he remembered hitting on Aden’s preschool teacher at the Parents’ Day recital. For someone who taught four-year-olds she was pretty feisty. But obviously Nancy walked over and, well, that was that. Jon thought himself a bit of a caveman in that sense: shitting where he ate was almost a matter of principle. But then again, when you’re on a leash so tight, it’s hard to get far enough to shit anywhere else. Four years old. Wow, that must have been three years ago. Yes, Aden had recently turned seven.
For a moment Jon made sure his calculation was correct but, as he reached into the fridge for a quick late-night yogurt, he stopped himself. How the fuck did he get here? Back in the hallway, he stared into a freshly Windexed mirror. Still had the same salt-and-pepper he had five minutes before. But somehow he wandered into the night of his thirty-year old self: Nancy. Aden. House. He hadn’t seen the place since the divorce. He picked up Aden from school to avoid seeing the Ex; let’s just say Jon thought that even if cheaters sometimes prosper, they never make it out with a clean and easy divorce. Last time he saw her she actually spat in his face. Jon was no germy, but that—not to mention a whole list of other villainies (which he had vigorously typed one late night after work while Nancy slept)—was incentive enough to keep him away. Now he stood enveloped by the scent of her Pantene shampoo.
Jon heard the water shut off and the slam of the magnetic shower door. “Honey is that you? There’s macaroni in the colander. The sauce is in the fridge, I just restocked.” She knew he was there. She could hear him? She didn’t want to kill him? Jon didn’t respond.
He made his way back to the staircase and then up towards the bedroom. She’s filing her nails. He opens the door and, when she looks up, she puts down the file. She’s wearing only a towel; well two towels, one covering chest down and one wrapped on her head. Somehow still not sexy. Her naturally red lips spread and she lets out a small sigh, the kind that means she’s relieved, and not the opposite. She stands up, approaches, and embraces him, both arms as far as they reach, her face nestled in Jon’s warm neck. A small peck on his lips, then another. Jon stands motionless. “How was your day honey? Mine was horrible. I think I just smiled for the first time all day. And you know exactly why.” Jon had no idea why. “Oh, I love you Jon,” and another peck on the lips. They were soft, if nothing else. Red, just the way he liked them, just the way he remembered them. But he hated her. But now he remembered how good she was with her tongue. He resisted.
Jon felt himself falling back into a world where he had no control, not when he was thirty-two, and not now. He tried to exert his authority.
“Let’s go check on Aden.”
They stood over his silent bed. Aden’s thumb was in the process of being wrinkled by his succulent mouth until Nancy intervened, pulling it out gently as she did every night. Jon knew that didn’t work; Aden still sucked his thumb now and he was already in second grade. Nancy slid her arm around Jon’s back and held him. Her hand was warm and so was her body. Her terry robe was pink and had her name embroidered—a valentine’s present from god knows when. Jon stared at Aden without blinking. When he blinked, the decision had been made, and his arms were around her, pulling her close to his body. Jon kissed her on the forehead and then the neck. She looked up at him and his eyes met hers for the first time in more than two years.
That night in bed, they made eye contact more than he could remember. He knew her body and she knew his. The product of their love lay asleep in the next room over. A bowl of macaroni and a fresh stock of marinara sauce were ready-made for him in the kitchen. They laid next to each other breathing heavily. Nancy’s lips spread again.
“I liked that.”
Jon touched his nose to hers, then gave a peck on her lips.
“I love you.”
Jon woke up at 6 a.m. like he always did in the morning; after shower, breakfast, and travel, he’d make it just on time to work in the city. Women’s hair products cluttered the shower, but he found his own in the heap. He threw some pop tarts in the toaster for breakfast and watched the morning news for weather and traffic reports. On his way out, he grabbed a Tupperware, filled it with macaroni covered in marinara.
He twisted the knob on the front door emphatically but held it there, closing his eyes. He pulled it open and looked up. A ping, a liftboy, a brightly lit mirror.
“Where to, kind sir?”