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g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
Artwork by Cynthia Milionis
You do your best to avoid the morning cigarette. It's worse than an after meal smoke or a drunken chain of inhales. This is the one responsible for your lungs now like two blackened fish. You feel sickly as you glance at your makeupless face in the mirror. It’s a little insane of you to think you look 40 but you are unmoved by protests that you look younger than your age.
As you make your way from the car to the elevator (the stairs are hopeless as they will only induce an asthma attack), you slow down your meander to glance if David’s car is sitting in its reserved parking spot. It is.
As you walk toward the office, you hold back from crying. The day was over when you woke up. A man in a suit knocks into you.
“Sorry,” he mutters unapologetically and retreats around the hallway. You glare at the glass doors, the tacky logo; a series of differently colored triangles that somehow illuminate the company manifesto.
You’re not sure what that is. Two years of your life were bitten down like fingernails. Two bloody stubs for life lines. Two years out of college, the better end of your twenties, gone.
You touch the handle of the door but draw back as if it is covered in acid. Ten minutes until work. You withdraw to the bathroom, to the handicap stall, a place synonymous with contemplative thoughts of hell and bridges. Ten minutes until David becomes suspicious.
You hang your things on the door. No one is there. You slide down the side of the wall into a heap of disheveled limbs. Bending over the toilet so that your tears collect into a pool of dirty water, you support yourself with one hand on the tile, the other running through your hair. You’re on a roll, folding eyes over water as they topple together.
Enter the sound of heels against tile. It’s 8:58. You spend a few moments staring into a compact, hoping the red blotches will vanish by 9. The heels exit after a few minutes. You gather your things and leave the bathroom.
The office is quiet. You pass Naomi, and she gives you a half smile. You’re annoyed with her for never answering the phone so you return a cracked grin and a twisted “Good morning.” Kelly offers a half hearted "Hey," and you wave back. Besa sits next to you. You notice she’s early without good reason, as she speaks in Albanian to her husband, presumably, and lowers her voice when she eyes you coming near. You don’t bother to say hello, or contemplate a greeting.
Before you’re able to take off your coat, David gestures for you. You take off your scarf, put down your bag, and slowly walk to his office.
“Good morning,” he says.
“Morning,” you return, less cracked but heavy.
“Coffee?” he asks and you nod. He’s in a good mood, you think, as you saunter into the kitchen and pull the I Heart Dad mug from the dish rack.
Years spent getting coffee on the weekdays and getting trashed on the weekends; an orbit of caffeine and alcohol. It can’t just be the job that’s making you recoil in the bathroom three times a day. You know a small part of your anger is owed to the weekend and the way New Years panned out with you in a corner watching couples softly kiss juxtaposed by confetti and the TV screen blaring well wishes.
You stood in your party dress, the second choice picked after returning the original dress you bought assuming the night would be spent at home drinking wine and watching Twilight Zone reruns. Your friend Denise took pity on you, knowing you didn't have plans. The week before, you ran into her and her boyfriend. You hinted at them to include you in their New Years party. That was the same night you met James and you flirted with him even though you didn't really like him and felt your forehead in your palm for at least five minutes the next day after realizing you gave him your number. Still watching the living room filled with couples, James appeared beside you to interrupt your voyeurism and drunkenly whispered “Happy New Year.” You didn't have time to think about how, up until then, you did a fine job avoiding him. He leaned in for a kiss.
The coffee gurgles as it finishes and you stir the sugar and powder creamer in tiny circles. You walk into David’s office and place the coffee on his desk.
“Anything else?” you ask with strained kindness.
He slides his glasses off his nose, takes a hard look and gestures toward your hips.
“Is it that time of the month? You just don’t look good.”
The kindness evaporates as he smiles proudly at his detective work.
“It’s not,” you bite back and he laughs just a little.
“Oh come on,” he insists. “You just look so sad. If I were thirty years younger, I’d sweep you off your feet and kiss you. Just like the picture of the sailor from the forties. And I’m telling you, it would put you in a better mood. I could do it now, but I’d probably kill my back.” He laughs to himself. You remain stoic. You don't have any words because you're exhausted. You know this is one of the sweeter things he's said and you take it in stride.
"Will that be all?" you ask. The way you say it is a cliché. His smile has already faded as he shifts his chair to watch TV. This is your answer. You walk out of his office but just as you close in on your cubicle, you pace to the bathroom. Your face slackens. No one is there. You slide down the side of the wall and fumble for toilet paper. You hang your head over the toilet and imagine the future as something other than a steel wall. The future is a junk yard, is a void, is a peephole of someone else's life and you haven't arrived. You joke to yourself that you could live here, with half your face gracing white tile and your body buried under oceans of thoughts.
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