By Yehezkiel Faoma
It was dusk approaching evening and I still had a stack of documents to do. The greying sky outside the window cast everything into silhouette. I felt like I was watching a shadow-play with cut-out puppets of file cabinets, printers, and junior associates pacing up and down the screen, turning flat when they turn. It was hardly the Ramayana, but I thought I deserved a thirty-second break after many hours of sorting, reading, correcting, and re-reading litigation papers. It all wouldn’t matter soon.
I scanned through each sheet and put them in new stack next to the old one. When these were almost as tall as each other, the bright text on my monitor had started to sting. Nobody had turned the lights yet. Scarlet evening fractured behind the ongoing shadow theatre. I walked over to the rose-tinted window and looked down on the ring-shaped interchange, twisting and coiling under the sunset, like gleaming ornaments clasped around the wrist of a Balinese dancer.
“Pretty.” A voice came from my side — I saw Reza.
Reza and I knew each other vaguely from college. We both got in with scholarships, he took business law and I took international. Outside of that and the book club I never made any effort to talk to him and neither did he. Then one time I saw a familiar face on induction day, learned that we had the same floor, and found my anchor in this strange new place, until I started getting on by myself.
“Trafficky, but yes, pretty,” I said.
“That’s exactly why. Know what it reminds me of?”
“Everyone down there has their own lives, their own stories.” He paused. “It’s called ‘sonder’.”
I cringed and looked away to hide it. “That’s not a real word.”
Reza was my friend but he never fought back and I hated that. They tossed piles of work at him and he’d gladly slave away till eleven. Wasn’t there anything else he wanted other than this? His face looked pathetic under this light. I wanted to protect him and berate him at the same time.
“Let’s order something,” he said after a pause. “On me.”
“On what!” I clapped his shoulder playfully. “What are we celebrating?”
“I might get published.”
“It’s just The Scoop. I have a real good feeling about it, though.”
The Scoop was the company magazine that published twice a year, circulated internally, and read by no one besides the editors and the two of us. Reza would come over to my desk and we’d pick out our favourites, the other would point out the flaws, and we’d defend them like they were our own. It was as if that magazine was made just for the both of us, but sometimes I’d leak the worst ones to Lucy and we would have a good time together.
Suddenly I remembered the dinner with her tonight. I thought about it for a while.
“I’m meeting someone," I said. "An old friend, sorry.”
“Ah. Where are you going?”
He hesitated. “Want me to drive you? I got an extra helmet.”
“Thanks, but I’ll take the bus.” Sudirman was an hour away and in the opposite direction from his place.
“Don’t worry.” I walked away from the window, leaving the silhouette of a man and two short stacks of paper before a dimmed screen to continue the shadow-play for the rest of the night.
Forty minutes later my bus crept to a halt in front of the university where the police shot and killed four protesters in the nineties. It was long past study hours but a few rooms remained lit — little bright squares, housing scenes and stories in each one. I picked a window, imagining a student slipping his overdue essay into the submission pile before sneaking back out, maybe to a futsal game, or perhaps to a girl. I smiled at the thought.
Thinking of a name for him, I began to wonder about the names of the four dead. Behind the iron gate, the faculty building was drenched red by the glare of taillights on my window. They had careers lined up in the Golden Triangle, but still they chose to march down the quad that day, knowing what awaited. Some called them brave for fighting for what they believed in, others said they were fools for believing in dreams; I wouldn’t know.
The light in that room snuffed out, then the one next to it lit up. I guess it was just the security guard.
The bus lurched and began to crawl again. I looked at the time: eight fifty. Reza must’ve been finishing up by now — a silhouette labouring on his desk while the other puppets exited the screen, one by one. I felt like a traitor. I sent him a text accepting his offer for tomorrow, thinking about this cheap vendor he might like.
I stepped out of the bus and hired a bike to the front of the restaurant. The lights were dim, accentuating the candles’ faint orange glow on the faces around the tables. Lucy recognized me the moment I walked in and hugged me. Her perfume made me conscious of my own sour, smoky musk.
“Girl, I’ve missed you!” she said, squeezing my shoulders.
“Lucy! Man, how long?”
“You look so messed up. You work as a coolie or something?”
I laughed. “Nice to see you too, princess.”
We rekindled the old friendship over the little candle-cup. I met Lucy in English class on the first day of junior high. She was one of the few who actually liked the lesson and the only one who saw the passages as I did. We always chose each other for the semester projects, working together on plays, debates, and even that terrible romance novella that she could never talk about without turning red with laughter.
Her poems were always selected for the wall magazine and I’d even had mine pinned alongside hers once or twice. She had this way of pronouncing ‘poem’ as ‘poyem’. I’d tease her for it, but her poyems were all very good, and there was this one about a dancer—
“I’m freaking starving, aren’t you?” she said.
I flipped the thick, coarse leaves of the menu, saw the prices, and skipped to the drinks. I felt her eyes following my finger as it traced over the teas.
“My treat,” she said.
“Well, now! What’s the occasion?”
“I got a new job.”
“Nice. Is it near my tower? Cause—”
I knew what she meant. But I had to make sure. “SF?” I asked.
“San Francisco! Can you believe it?”
Her face lit up into a smile. I stared into the flame as she told me about the life lined up for her in America. The wick was suspended in the oil by a floating piece of metal, its tail submerged in the dyed oil and its tip blazing above the surface. Every time I breathe, the surface would ripple and the flame would quiver, making the shadows on our table dance, like a musical. I thought how nice it would be to dress up and watch one in an actual theatre, on a weekend, or perhaps after work.
Lucy blew the candle out with a sharp draft.
“Yo,” she said, waving her hand in my face. “Snow! Did you hear what I said?”
“Yeah,” I mustered up a smile. “Send me some so I can touch it.”
My phone vibrated under the table. I opened it and saw Reza’s name, but I couldn’t understand the text. Every time I read a new word my brain lost its grip on the one before. I read them again and again and I strained but nothing just made sense. I felt like the stupidest kid in class.
“It’s late, isn’t it?” said Lucy, car keys jingling in her hand. “I’ll drive you, c’mon.”
In the midnight traffic jam, I looked through my red-tinted window at the buskers, bikers, and beggars strewn on the pavement. Above us, skyscrapers perched high above the din and the smells, snuffed out like concrete candles save for a few bright little squares.
“Lucy,” I asked.
“Do you remember that poem? In grade eleven?”
“Poy— poem?” she said, adjusting her blazer under the seat belt.
“It’s about a girl who dreamed of being a dancer, but one day she stopped walking. So with her fingers she made these shadows of ballerinas dance on the wall till her hands blistered from candle fire.”
Lucy turned away and stared out of her window into the night. The nape of her neck flushed with the red of the taillights. The radio host bid farewell amid the muffled buzzing of bikes swerving outside.
“Nah,” she said. “Sounds like something you’d write.”
It was past midnight and the office was fully lit for the two people still working. Reza’s desk was empty but the two stacks were still here on my desk. I picked up the finished stack and walked over to the window. Feeding the sheets one by one into the shredder, I looked down on the city as it inched away in the night under the looming shadow of a thundercloud. I tried to think again — I tried and tried and wracked my brain but nothing came to me. I wondered what Lucy was doing now.
When I reached the final sheet at the bottom of the stack, I realized how the bright light made my reflection so clear in the glass. She looked straight at me like a mocking imitation, standing there in the night before the image two others hunched over their desks, slaving away behind stacks of work. Clutching that last sheet, I looked beyond the pale scene and onto the city for one last time, then I fed my resignation letter into the shredder, turning it into coiling ribbons. Nothing came to me but the same cliched metaphors and half-stories. But it didn’t matter — I still had a stack of documents to do.