After hours of driving and without thinking about it too much, Harold wheeled into the rain-slicked driveway of the office building he had left eight hours before. He eyed the modestly towering building as he weaved his car through the mostly-empty parking lot. Rain dripped down a few lit windows, but most of them were dark. As if the detritus of some forgotten society, the windows beckoned to him. For lost souls driving on a rain-soaked night, was there anywhere else to go? Was this not an oasis where he could imbibe the elixir of work, accomplishing something useful to be rewarded with the quiet clicks and beeps from his computer? He felt vaguely depressed about it being the only thing he could think of to do that would keep him from curling up into a ball and sliding out onto the pavement.
His chest felt tight and breath wheezed in and out of him. He pulled up to an empty slot underneath the pale yellow light of a lamp post and watched the glass doors that opened into the belly of the concrete and steel temple of making a living. At its altar he poured hours of his life like so much blood in exchange for a house where he wasn’t welcome and a bed cold with remorse. There had to be more to life than the shrill of a home where he was no longer alive and the aching tick of a clock on his office wall.
For long minutes, the rain spattered against the concrete, showcased by the light spilling out from the lobby so the rain sent up glistening sparks to splash against its glass doors. An expensive car pulled into one of the parking spaces near the entrance. A man he didn’t recognize, still dressed in a suit already wrinkled from a full day’s work, hopped out and ran to the door with a newspaper over his head. He swiped his badge and hurried inside.
Harold watched the side of the building until he saw another window flicker to life. It was one of the larger windows, higher up in the building. The newspapered man was an executive of some kind and Harold imagined the man hurriedly stirring sugar into microwaved coffee before sitting down to anxiously peck at a keyboard.
Harold looked away and stared at the smear of city lights on some distant street. He had once strove for that kind of career. Harold wondered if the man sitting now sitting on the eighth floor had left behind the turmoil of a languishing home. Or had he instead forced himself away from the womb of a better place, where he might have huddled with his family in front of a fireplace to bask in the warmth if its crackling flames.
Either way, the newspapered man in a wrinkled suit was here now, and probably not because he wanted to be.
Harold looked back towards the lobby and saw a woman in a long brown overcoat strutting towards the door with an oddly deliberate gate. He couldn’t quite make out the face or the hair just yet, but seeing the firm steps that seemed to announce their own movement to the world, he could easily imagine it was Maia. For a moment, he imagined he was in a different world and she was coming out to meet him. In that world, she wasn’t just an object of fascination. She was his friend, a cozy soul who understood him. Where no words need be spoken except the easy and obvious conversation of people who knew each other and got along.
The woman stepped out onto the concrete walkway and ducked away from the rain as she flowered a pink umbrella over her head. She straightened back up and stepped into the parking lot.
As she ventured out across the wet asphalt in search of her car, she drew closer and he felt the comforting sting of recognition when he realized it really was Maia. She stopped a few feet away from his car and looked straight at him. He blinked, not knowing if she had seen him, not knowing what he should do if she had. The moment dragged on for too long and he felt his shoulders tense. He couldn’t quite see her face hiding in the shadow of her umbrella. What was she thinking? Or maybe she didn’t see him at all and was simply trying to remember where she had parked her car.
Looking at her through the rain was much like watching her through the thinly drawn slats of his venetian blind. He could watch her, hoping that she didn’t notice.
He let out a sigh, shook his head and lightly thumped the steering wheel. Looking away, he suddenly felt stupid for even caring about any of it. What Maia, some forgotten clerk in accounts payable was doing in the office parking lot wasn’t supposed to matter. It was among things to be unnoticed. He watched the blur of city lights and decided that after she had found her car and left, he was going to go back home.
He flinched when he heard a tap on his window. He turned to see Maia bent down, her face veiled by the rivulets of rain streaming down the glass. Her eyes creased with the smile that was a little too big for her face. His heart felt as if it had been dipped in an elixir. He looked at her and fell into a trance, paralyzed by soft air, by the fear of shattering the moment’s gossamer tendrils as he felt the tension and confusion draining from his body.
He rolled down the window and held his breath for a moment, because he couldn’t help looking at her with a fondness that he could neither control nor understand.
“Harold, how are you?” she asked softly.
He felt as if she had caught him looking through the blinds and that she could sense the steeping turmoil of his fondness for her and the angst at knowing that he shouldn’t feel that way. The way she tilted her head, the slight curl at the ends of her smile. She could tell he was struggling. This woman who set up the punch bowl at office parties and answered calls every day from collectors demanding money, then chased down purchase orders and the people who sent them in forgotten e-mails because they needed some mundane thing to do their job. People who hadn’t even told her ‘good luck’ when everyone one thought she had left the company.
Still, she stopped to smile and ask him the simplest and most agonizing question he could possibly imagine. He tried to smile back, nervous from being caught in his own desolation.
“Oh. Well, I had to come back to finish up something. I forgot the -” He pointed at the windshield. “And now this rain. I was kind of waiting for it to stop.” He wondered if she was buying any of it, or if she saw straight into his soul and sensed the agony of his heartbeat and the curling warmth effusing his chest that came from just looking at her. But that seemed like an awful lot to expect. She’s just being polite, calm down.
“Yeah, sure.” She glanced at the sky. “I don’t think the rain’s going to stop any time soon. Didn’t you bring an umbrella?”
Of course he hadn’t. You didn’t think to bring an umbrella when you stormed out of the house to flee the relentless assault of a wife who couldn’t say one single word that wasn’t barbed with the razor’s edge of her wrath.
“Well, you know, I -” He let out a slow breath and summoned the courage to tell a small truth. “To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to need one. I didn’t expect to come back to the office.”
She stepped back from the car and beckoned. “Well, come on then.”
She was still smiling, and he could sense some pride in that smile as she reached out to rescue a colleague from the dull torment of walking through the rain. True, he didn’t want to arrive inside with his hair dripping and a rain-soaked suit jacket pressing down on an equally rain-soaked shirt clinging to his skin.
But he hadn’t expected to go inside. He had told her a small lie so he didn’t have to explain that he was driving around in the dark to cool off from a fight with his wife. Now, Maia stood waiting for him to follow through on that lie. What he should have done was tell her good night, roll up the window, and drive away.
But he couldn’t stop looking at her.
“No no, that’s alright. I’ll just wait it out.”
She frowned playfully. “Don’t be silly. What, you can’t let a girl walk you through the rain?” Then a nervous laugh that was a little too loud and unnecessarily self-conscious. She was clumsy that way, wallowing in earnestness while everyone else hid behind polished masks. “Come on, let me walk you to the door.”
He tried to think of a way out of it, but she stood there, in the rain, waiting for him so she could be nice to a man she didn’t even know. How was it that nobody had bothered to tell such a person goodbye?
He looked at his hand as it tugged at the door latch. It felt like some foreign thing attached to the end of his arm and he didn’t quite understand what it was doing or why. The door seemed to open more on its own than from his own intention and he stepped out into the rain.
“Alright,” he said. “Thanks.”
Maia sidled up to him and leaned her head in so they were both covered by the umbrella. Their shoulders touched as they walked across the parking lot. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been this close to a woman and he felt a daring sense of intimacy that he knew she did not intend. It was agonizing. He breathed steadily through his nose, etching a memory of the scent of her hair, her skin, even her overcoat, as he tried to match her steps while they walked together in a painted moment that he knew he was supposed to forget. Like a drop of rain, it was supposed to dash through the air and splatter into oblivion.
But he knew it never would.
When they reached the door, she stepped back, smiled and gestured at the door as if she were presenting at an auto show.
“There you go.”
He smiled at her warmly and in that moment he didn’t care if she did see the agony of her allure sculpted in his face. He felt the corners of his eyes crease, just as hers did.
She started to turn back to the parking lot and he realized he didn’t want her to go.
“Hey, so I didn’t know they moved you to nights.”
“Yeah.” she let out a good-humored sigh. “They have a lot of backlog in APAC and nights are quieter, so I’m starting to get things caught up. I’m good at processing the paperwork and it’s easier when you don’t have people walking up to your desk all day while you’re trying to keep up with e-mail all at the same time.”
“At last, sanity reigns in some corner of this company.” He immediately regretted the word ‘corner’ and wondered if she took it as a comment on her professional stature, as if she had been sequestered to some dark place, forgotten and unimportant.
“Yeah, well it happens. Anyway, it was nice seeing you again, Harold.”
She turned and stepped back onto the glistening asphalt. He watched her walk all the way across the parking lot. When she reached her car, she stood for a moment in a pool of dull orange light as she fetched her keys out of her purse. He gazed at the silhouette of her shadowy profile etched against the rain scampering through the light. He realized she probably shouldn’t see him still standing there watching her, so he turned around, quickly swiped his badge and walked into the lobby.
He would stand inside for a while – long enough for her to start her car and leave. Looking around at the marble and tile under dull blue light that only came with the night shift, he realized he didn’t want to be there any more than he wanted to be at home.
He grunted and shook his head. He never had intended to get out of his car. But she wanted to walk him to the door. And their shoulders touched. And he wondered if maybe she really did sense some whisper of his suffering.
©2021 Michael J Lawrence