15. The Lives in Distant Windows (Part 2)

The terror and panic that Erika felt as she ran lasted right up until the bus rolled up to the stop at the moment she arrived at it. It was an unusual enough time that she was unsure whether it was the bus she’d meant to catch arriving late, or the next bus arriving early. That uncertainty deepened her anxiety, even while the bus’s presence filled her with relief.

The doors swung open and she almost leapt aboard.

‘Hello,’ she said to the bus driver, fumbling in her handbag for her pass.

The bus driver, a young man with eyes shadowed by a lack of sleep and a stubbly beard that made him look barely out of his teens, nodded dispassionately and turned his gaze back to the road.

Erika caught the bus at one of the extreme ends of its route, which meant that it was usually less full. This didn’t change the fact that it was rush hour, however, and if she wanted to find a seat she would be forced to sit next to someone.

Standing, she decided, was preferable.

Erika found a spot behind the bus driver. It was a small nook she usually stood at, which kept her out of the way should anyone else get on the bus. In order to stand there, she was forced to block off a seat occupied by a tiny old woman. The woman was wearing a small hat and was clutching the handle of a personal shopping cart, both a vivid pink. To Erika’s relief, she either didn’t notice her presence or pretended not to.

Erika grasped the pole that sprouted from the woman’s chair, and stood motionless, staring out of the window, as the bus pulled away and into the road with a rumble and a cough of exhaust. The woman smelled faintly of lavender and an unidentifiable medical smell. It at least masked the default smell of public transit in New York.

The run to reach the bus in time hadn’t shortened Erika’s breath. Instead, it energised her. Now that she was still, it had left her feeling restless and pent up. She had done everything she could to reach work on time, and now she just had to trust that the bus would get her there before 9:30.

Erika’s fingers whitened as they clutched the pole tighter. Against logic, she found herself willing the bus to go faster.

Thankfully, the bus did seem to be making a good speed through the city. She watched as the buildings shape and size subtly change as they made their way through the streets and eventually the expressways of Brooklyn. Throughout the streets, people would periodically leave or enter the bus. More would get on than would go off though, Erika noted, to her growing discomfort.

With each stop, each slight lurch as the bus slowed its speed, Erika could feel her heart sink. It meant more precious seconds lost. More chances to reach work on time evaporating.

One of the few things that Erika enjoyed about the bus journey was the regularity of the avenue names, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet. Along the journey, they would climb all the way from ‘z’ to ‘h’, after which they abruptly changed to more conventional street names. Still, while it lasted, their regularity brought Erika a great deal of comfort.

As she stared blankly through the window, Erika’s mind ran a calculation of speed, distance and time, working out how quickly they would need to reach certain points for her to avoid being late.

As long as we don’t stop at Avenue M, I’ll be on time.

We’re late, but if the lights are green at Courtelyou Road, we’ll make up the time.

If we just reach the Prospect Expressway in the next four and a half minutes, I won’t be late.

By the time they reached the expressway, the bus had become somewhat crowded. Erika turned her body completely to the window, trying to ignore the ever mounting press of bodies behind her. Doing so meant that she was facing more completely the little old woman, but seeing the open sky from the window was worth it.

Then the entrance to the tunnel appeared before them.

Erika relaxed her breathing, as she had done countless times before.

Traffic meant that the bus was almost crawling by the time it reached the entrance to the tunnel, but to Erika it still felt like it was coming all too quickly. The utter dread building up inside her as she saw the mouth of the entrance close around them, biting away the sky, was enough to make her hand tremble on the pole. It was almost enough to counteract her desire for the bus to go forward.

She stared from the window. Letting her eyes adjust, and fixing her gaze on the well-lit wall of the tunnel.

Now that they were in the tunnel, she felt more in control. More stable. Each second that the bus sped along, she was getting closer to open air.

In twenty minutes, everything will be fine. I will be fine. Just another twenty minutes.

To relax herself further, Erika counted the tiles as they sped past on the side of the tunnel. She could lose herself for minutes at a time in their number and their neat tessellation.

A person jostled her from behind.

Erika’s whole body tensed. Her breathing quickened.

‘Oh, sorry,’ said a bored voice from behind her.

Erika barely turned, instead nodding a brief acknowledgement from the side, then returning to look out of the window. It’s not the subway, she reminded herself, At least it’s not the subway.

She barley breathed until they reached the open air. Glorious, pure daylight poured from the entrance as they approached, and Erica’s relief nearly made her forget about how late she was becoming.

Her eyes flicked thankfully up to the skyscrapers, and before them her fear evaporated.

Though the sky was grey, the buildings glowed after the tunnel. They towered against the sky, dwarfing everything around them. Erika loved looking at the buildings, seeing the idiosyncrasies that went into their construction set against the regular angles of the city blocks.  Unique patterns set against regular patterns. She thought of all the precision of their construction. The planning, the manufacturing, and the many hands that had driven these buildings from the earth, growing them like a shining forest of silver and black and reflected sky.

As they drove though, the angle of her position pulled her view down, until she could just see the storefronts and the people that scuttled around in front of them. Though constrained, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the tunnel, she reminded herself.

When the joy of seeing Manhattan’s skyline had faded, the time suddenly made itself apparent in Erika’s mind.

9:27

Even if the bus drove directly to her stop, ignoring every other person but herself, she wouldn’t make it. With a cold certainty, she knew she was going to be late.

She cursed herself for growing too distracted to will the bus forward, then felt silly for her lack of logic. Her muscles were tightening. She thought she could feel something in her arm twitching, and her breathing was coming ragged and quick.

Erika was so lost in her sensations, that she failed to notice the old woman trying to get her attention until she tapped her on the arm.

‘Excuse me,’ the woman said, flat and hard, ‘This is my stop.’

As if waking from a sleep, Erika looked down at her. ‘Oh! I’m so sorry!’ Smoothly, she backed up a little, giving the old woman a chance to stand up.

The old woman ignored her response. Instead, she laboriously stood up and began pulling her cart to the exit of the bus.

9:30, Erika thought. She was now officially late.

As the old woman moved, Erika saw her wallet fall from her pocket.

Before it was halfway to the ground, Erika caught it without thinking and returned it to the woman’s pocket.

It was done so smoothly that the old woman didn’t notice. Erika barely noticed.

The woman left the bus, and disappeared into the street.

Erika did not occupy the now empty seat. She was two stops away, and was already thinking of the best way to get to work to make her as less late as possible.

When it got to her stop, she left, saying a hurried ‘Thank you,’ to the bus driver, before exiting the bus, and walking as fast as possible down the street.

9:31

She weaved through the huge crowds, becoming panicky and frantic whenever she was caught behind a slower pedestrian, and almost running when their numbers thinned. She was clutching her handbag to her side, her eyes fixed ahead of her. She must look ridiculous, she knew, but she didn’t care. In her head, the game of speed and distance and time was in full swing, as she work out how to mitigate her lateness. All the tension, all the terror, was being channeled into moving quicker.

After making a fifteen minute walk in less than ten, she was at her building.

9:38

Erika walked as quickly as she could without running through the large glass doors. She flashed her security card to the man at the desk and moved past him towards the elevators. Several people were already patiently waiting in the lobby, but Erika still had to fight the urge to press the button again.

‘Erika!’ said a small, young woman holding a coffee and a paper-bag, ‘Hey! I see you’re late too.’

Erika smiled tightly. ‘Hello, Cindy.’

The small woman made her way through the crowd to Erika, ‘The man who made my coffee this morning – I swear he didn’t speak a word of English – I must have explained to him fifty times what I wanted, and he still made it wrong! Can you believe that?’

‘Hmm,’ said Erika. A tight knot was forming in her stomach. She shouldn’t have eaten breakfast.

9:39

Cindy took a sip of the coffee, and then indicated the cup. ‘And would you look at this!’ she said. On the cup, scribbled with a black black marker, was the name Sandy. ‘I mean, who’s even called “Sandy” these days?’

Erika opened her mouth to speak, but caught herself before saying anything. She smiled and shrugged instead.

The elevator doors opened, and the crowd piled into the small space. Despite their proximity, and the fact that they were all but elbowing each other out of the way not to be left behind, none of them made eye-contact or changed the practised blank expressions of their faces. A few people were left behind when the doors closed.

Erika and Cindy managed to get on though. Erika would normally never consider getting in such a small space, but she desperately needed to be there as fast as possible. Plus, one of the sides of the elevator was a window that looked out over the city, making her feel less enclosed.

The elevator began to pull upwards. Suited men and women with blank expressions pressed in on her from every side. She could feel their bodies touching hers. She could smell sweat, and cheap scent, and coffee. Her stomach was spasming now, and it was all that she could do to keep her expression neutral.

9:40

Cindy was pressed up against her, still holding the coffee and the paper bag. She smiled up at her.

‘Cramped today, isn’t it?’ she said.

Erika smiled and nodded once more.

The tension in her stomach was getting worse. She wanted to scream or throw up. Most of all, she wanted to get out of this tiny space. There was a man’s shoulder practically pressed into her back. There was another woman’s hip against her leg. She could even feel the warmth of someone’s flesh against her ribs. It was horrifying.

She found herself staring at the back of a newspaper that another passenger was reading on the opposite side of the elevator. It was upside down. She didn’t read it, though she could have done. Instead her eye focused on the word ‘date’. With the tension in her stomach growing, she felt her vision alter, and zoom in closer. She focused on the ‘e’, letting it fill her whole consciousness. It pulled closer, until she was just looking at the hole in the ‘e’. The tiny point of whiteness bordered by a moat of black. She pulled in closer, looking at the ridges on the paper that made it look almost like a tilled field of some white crop, surrounded by jet-black water. A slight smudge had left a dot of ink inside the space. It was no bigger than a dust mote. A microscopic discord in the whiteness.

As the breath-stealing tension closed in, Erika felt something rise in her mind. It was like watching a wave form in choppy water. Turbulent and disconnected thoughts that fluttered around her mind were synchronising. Purposeless processes were being given purpose.

The cold wave washed over her, leaving less calmness, and more the absence of emotion.

Her right hand reached for her handbag.

A cold logic.

Data and images began to populate her thoughts. A series of simple calculations. The measurements and angles were almost fun to compile, and they fit together so well. If she just let herself, she could do it. There were only fourteen people in the elevator. Before half of them could react she could-

No! Erika thought, so loudly she was scared that she had said it aloud. She wrenched her eyes away from the speck. When the anxiety poured back into her, replacing the cold, hard logic, it was nearly a relief.

Her eyes fixed instead on the tiny section of the window she could see between two heads. Her eyes focused on the towers of Manhattan as they shrunk down beneath her. She caught her breath.

As her breathing returned to normal, she noticed that Cindy was looking at her expectantly.

‘Sorry?’ she said.

‘Earth to Erika? Hello? Are you on something this morning?’ she said with a grin, ‘And can I have some?’

Cindy laughed at her own joke. Erika made herself join in.

‘I said, “I was getting coffee, what’s your excuse for being late?”‘

Erika thought for a moment, unable to decide what to tell her. ‘I got talking to someone in my lobby, and I missed my bus,’ she settled on.

9:41, she thought.

‘Erika!’ Cindy said, grinning broadly, all mock surprise, ‘I expect better from you! I can’t believe that you would blow off work to just to talk to someone in a lobby!’

For a moment, Erika had to remind herself that Cindy was making fun, and not being literal. Cindy leaned in a little closer than she already was in the cramped elevator. As if doing so would in any way make their conversation private.

‘Was he hot?’ she said.

Erika thought of Mr Tarasovich. ‘Oh, no,’ she said, before she could stop herself.

9:42

Cindy laughed loud. Too loud in the crowded space.

Erika blushed.

‘First time I’ve ever heard you talk about what a guy looks like!’ she took a sip of coffee, but then interrupted it to start speaking, ‘Oh my gosh! Speaking of which, I need to tell you about the hottie at the security desk! You know Carl, right?’

Erika nodded, partly in ascent and partly in relief, as Cindy continued talking about Carl, and about how she was convinced he was gay, but that she had caught him looking at some girl from the mailroom, and so on. Erika let it wash over her. Any other day she would make an attempt to be interested in what was being said, but today it was all she could do to breathe normally. She at least tried to smile in the right places.

Every few floors, people got out of the elevator, and it became less unbearably cramped. Finally, just as Erika managed forget about her own breathing, they reached their own floor. They walked together down the hallway to their office. Erika’s panic was now turning to a dull knot of dread. They were both almost fifteen minutes late for work. She tried to kindle some hope that they would be able to find their way to their desks unmolested.

9:43

Cindy, for her part, seemed entirely unconcerned. In fact, as they entered the fogged glass door, she was continuing her story as loudly as she had in the elevator. She was so loud, in fact, that her voice drew glances from the office as she entered.

Erika felt the sick dread rise, as she fought to ask Cindy to just be quiet, but she found herself unable to open her mouth.

They had nearly made it, about to pass around a corner to their cubicles, when Erika heard a voice.

‘Excuse me? What time do you call this?’

Erika couldn’t summon the will to squash the tiny, otherwise unnoticed noise of defeat in the back of her throat as she turned to see her boss.


Previous: 14. The Lives in Distant Windows (Part 1)

Next: 16. The Lives in Distant Windows (Part 3)

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