“Toby, I’ve got a call for you on line one,” I say into the phone, clicking off the line once I hear his voice come through.
I can feel my stomach roll over the hem of my too tight skirt. My armpits feel damp and my face feels hot. It’s like I’ve been shoved into the trunk of a car in mid-July, the Nevada desert sun beating down on me, baking me into peach cobbler. I look at the computer monitor and realize it’s only ten a.m., my shift doesn’t end for another seven hours. My mornings start off by checking my emails and shredding some memos. Sometimes I get to pick up the phone only to pass it through to Toby. At lunch I eat an egg salad sandwich, I play some solitaire and I stare at my 5x5 gray cubicle wall. Weeks spent in this office melt into each other, leaving one long hazy memory. My desk is completely bare, save for a plastic solar-powered hula dancer that never moves. Fluorescent bulbs buzz, chairs creak and the coffee maker hums.
“Do you ever smile?” a voice cracks from behind me.
I snap out of my silent monologue and whip my swivel chair around. A balding man, about 5’5 and 200 pounds stands in front of me, wheezy and mouth breathing. It’s Danny from accounting.
“Do you?” I fire back.
“Jeeze Maggie, lighten up some,” he says.
“Danny, I need you to keep walking. Your musk is violating our fragrance-free office rule.”
“I’m not wearing any cologne,” Danny says.
“That’s the point,” I mumble.
Danny stalks off through the row of cubicles, looking for his next pair of nostrils to obliterate. I spin back around to resume my game of solitaire.
This job’s become more tolerable as the years drag on. I used to cry a lot, now I just sort of whimper. I remember calling my mother and begging her to let me quit.
“No sweetie,” she would say. “There are bills to pay, RRSP’s to invest in, mortgages to save for, student loans to get rid of, mouths to feed, lives to save, extinct animals to bring back from the dead, cancer to cure, backs to break and a mother to make happy.”
It’s understandable. Mothers only want the best for their daughters, even if their best is this shit hole windows and doors wholesale company. It’s not like I ever imagined my life this way, I had a university degree in public affairs and a bright future. It came to my attention early on that a working class girl from the suburbs without connections would have to spend eternity climbing the hypothetical ladder everyone seems to obsess over. When it came time to finding my dream job, months turned into years, laziness set in and I was forced to settle. Student loans were piling up and a girl’s gotta eat.
I’m thirty-three now. A sad cliché, your grandfathers worst repetitive joke, overused and tired. Or according to myself, a highly educated woman, who simply lacks the determination to be someone she’s not.
Caught up in one of my many daydreams I completely forget what time it is. Paul, who’s in the cubicle next to mine, is putting on his jacket and heading for the door, it’s five o’clock at last. My weeks run like clockwork and every other Wednesday my best friend Erika and I meet up for happy hour drinks at Frank’s. A dingy dive-bar just down the street from the office. We often treat that place like a much cheaper form of therapy. Chugging vodka soda’s and gushing about our lives, the only way old friends can.
Today is Wednesday. Flicking off my monitor, I grab my jacket and purse and begin my walk down to Frank’s. I wonder what mood Erika will be in tonight.
Two weeks ago we had really pissed each other off. Our night had begun like any other, discussing in detail the horrible date she went on and my disastrous love life. After a few more rounds of drinks, our conversations usually turned deep and prodding. Erika would often tie her long brown hair back, sink into her seat and ask me about the meaning of life.
“I think I’m in purgatory,” I remember saying.
“Maggie, you’re stuck in the in between,” she said.
You know, that place we learned about as children going to church every Sunday. It’s this state between heaven and hell, apparently it’s where the souls of sinners go to be purified on their way to heaven. I think purgatory looks something like that office, gray walls, gray carpet, gray people.
“I’m just waiting my turn,” I slurred. “Trying not to step on any toes, hoping I get a chance to reach heaven.”
“You know we deserve better right? We don’t need to feel so stranded,” she sighed.
“Speak for yourself, Erika. We can’t all be risk-takers. Someone has to fill the role of photocopier-telephone-answerer. It might as well be me.” I felt my bitterness seep through. If anyone had a chance at an interesting life, it was Erika.
“Maybe if you actually applied yourself. You know, put a little emotion into what you do,” she frowned.
There was Erika’s condescension again. That familiar tone I heard as a child.
“Right, because you have it all figured out? Everyone has it figured out but me. That’s what you think, isn’t it? Well I hate to break it to you, but you do not have a lot going on for yourself either.”
“Damn Maggie, tell me the truth why don’t you…”
“No Erika, I’m realistic. At least I can acknowledge my own inadequacy.” The booze had reached not only my cheeks but my speech and temperament too. Why was I so angry all of a sudden? I needed to change the subject, lighten the mood a little.
“Remember that game we used to play?” I asked.
“The one with the superhero sidekick names?”
“Sure, that one.” We had a lot of different games. This one was my least favourite. “You go first,” I responded.
“Maggie the paper pusher extraordinaire,” she said.
“Master of mediocrity,” I called her.
No amount of Cipralex or self-help books could help us forget that reality. The last thing either of us needed was to be reminded of our monotonous life styles.
I remember seeing her slump against the back of chair, her eyes narrowing, shooting angry laser beams. My cheeks turned a violent shade of red and I threw my money onto the table. Snatched my belongings hanging off the chair and stomped out, knocking into tables and chairs as I went. This one hit too close to home for both of us. We couldn’t laugh it off and so I hadn’t heard from her since.
As I pull open the heavy metal door of Frank’s bar, unleashing the cigar smoke, I realize Erika isn’t there yet. Confused, I make my way over to our usual table, tucked into the corner. The floors feel sticky and my shoes make suction cup noises as I move across the room. I sit down and wait for her to arrive. The hour passes slowly, I’m already on my third drink and the linoleum seats are starting to cause my thighs to itch. I’m starting to get anxious, Erika is never late, she must really not be happy with me. I decide to stick it out and wait, maybe she got caught up at the office.
“You want another?” Jerry, the owner, shouts from across the bar.
“Yes, please!” I yell back. This might be a long night, I think.
I really need to speak with Erika, to make up. We’ve argued before, like the time she cut my hair and gave me bangs. Or the time she stole my favourite dress and spilled red wine all over the sleeve.
I’ve known her since the age of 5. We grew up across the street from each other. Every time there’s an argument, we’ve always forgiven each other. And every other Wednesday for the last 6 years, no matter the disagreement, she always shows up.
I see Jerry come from behind the bar. His height has always amazed me, at 6’5, he always has to duck below the rafters. The green giant is what everyone calls him. Green, because of the old shamrock coloured tee he’s never seen without. My drink in hand, I watch as he makes his way towards my table.
“I thought I’d never see you again!” Jerry exclaims.
“What, why?” I question him.
“The way you stormed outta here last time was quite a show,” Jerry smirks.
“Oh, sorry about that, Erika and I get pretty heated sometimes,” I say.
“Is that why she’s not here tonight?” He wonders.
“No, she should be coming. She’s just running a little late,” I mumble.
“Why don’t you give her a call?” Jerry asks.
“Good idea,” I smile. “Thanks for the drink.”
Jerry walks off to deal with a heated argument between two regulars.
I start to rummage through my purse, searching for my cell phone to call Erika. It takes me a minute but I finally free my phone from the depths of my oversized bag. I flip it open and dial her number, a number I know off by heart. I’m speechless, as it rings only once and cuts to that automated message you hear when people don’t pay their phone bills.
“We’re sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please check the number you have dialed and try again.”
My stomach feels like it has fallen through my pelvis and hit the floor. I dial again. The same message wails in my ear. Why would she disconnect her phone? This must be a mistake. I call 6 more times; I now have the automated message memorized. Frantic, I jump out of my seat, slap some money on the table and run out of the bar. Why didn’t she show? Where is she?
It’s 8 o’clock now. The sun has set and a brisk fall evening has descended on the city. I pace the sidewalk for at least 10 minutes, debating what to do. Her apartment is only a few blocks from here, instead of waiting for the bus, I decide it’s quicker to jog.
It takes me 8 minutes. By the time I get there I’m gasping for air, keeled over and distraught. Something does not feel right.
Erika lives on the 3rd floor of a triplex. The building looks like it was built in the 80’s, everything is square and plain. I walk up the steps to the main door, there are buzzers with the names of the tenants printed beside the buttons. I reach to press Erika’s buzzer out of habit when I realize her name’s removed. This is too messed up! Now I’m agitated, I begin ringing her bell repeatedly. When I receive no response over the intercom, I start banging on the glass front door of the building.
The old lady from the first floor apartment, Flora, I think, sticks her head out into the hallway. I can see her through the glass door, peering out at me. She recognizes me and makes her way over, a grimace on her face. She opens the door and lets me step inside the hallway.
“What is the reason for all the racket!?” She shouts. It looks as though I’ve woken her up. Her bottom dentures are missing and she’s wrapped in a pink fleece robe.
“I’m so sorry, I’m looking for Erika, have you seen her?” I beg.
“Who? Your friend from upstairs?” she questions.
“Yes! Have you seen her?” I’m getting desperate as the time passes.
“She moved out last week,” she answers, frustrated.
“No, you must be thinking of someone else,” I exclaim.
“I’m not losing my memory yet, sweetie,” she says, drily.
I turn around and leave. I’m too tired to run home and I’m too upset to wait for a bus. Reaching for my phone, I call for a taxi.
Once home, I walk straight for the mailboxes in the basement of my apartment building. If she’s going to leave me a message, this is how she’d do it. Over the many years of our friendship, especially while we were away at different universities, we would mail each other long hand written notes. Maybe, she’s sent me something. I take my key and open the lobby door, I head straight for the stairs that will take me to the basement.
The bulbs are flickering in the dark basement, only adding to this ominous feeling at the pit of my stomach. I reach the wall of metal mailboxes, finding mine, I jam the key into the hole and open it. I haven’t checked my mail in a few days. All I ever seem to receive are Ikea catalogues and pizza coupons. But laying on the top of the pile of fliers, is a post card. One cardboard rectangular shaped post card. I slide it out of the box and examine it. The front of the card is an image of the Sydney Opera House and the waterfront that surrounds that city thousands of kilometers away. I don’t know anyone in Sydney.
I flip the card over and immediately recognize Erika’s hand writing. All that it says is,
I hope this finds you before Wednesday happy hour. I’m not mad at you, I just needed to leave. I knew you’d try and talk me out of it but I’ve always wanted to travel and see the ocean, so here I am. We can do better and you know it. Sorry to leave you like this, maybe one day you’ll find your way here too. I love you.
I think about her on the beach, far, far away from this lonely town. I know that I’ll never have the courage to do what Erika did. Besides, gray sort of brings out the green in my eyes.
Emily Andrechuk can almost always be found nose deep in a novel, usually historical fiction or one of her many travel guides. When she’s not counting her pennies for flights abroad, she’s at home cooking, drinking wine and writing. She is a direct entry student in Algonquin College’s Professional Writing program.