Why did office complexes have to feel so dead after lunchtime?
She pondered this while her heels clicked against the white tiled floor as she made her way toward the security desk. Office lobbies were always so large; they suggested an influx of people traveled in and out, but in the middle of the day, there were only security officers and the occasional food delivery service person to be found.
Every step, every click, click, click was like a rope being wrapped around her lungs tighter and tighter still.
She could barely breathe.
The guard let her through the gates to the elevators. He gave her a smile, but she wasn’t able to fake one in return.
Five elevators waited in front of her, each labeled for different floors of the forty-story building. On each floor were various dentists, lawyers, doctors, publishers, software engineers, and financial workers. So many people were crammed into this building; some people likely worked in cubicles, or maybe some had to ignore coworkers’ noise in the open-air office plan; others worked at receptionist desks, while doctors had small offices. Old magazines would litter the tables of waiting areas, and somewhere there would inevitably be a strung-out mother with a screaming child who refused to settle down into a chair.
She was so lost in her thoughts that she forgot to press the elevator call button. A man who had walked from behind her tapped the UP button.
A few moments later, the lights lit up above an elevator going to the fifteenth through thirtieth floors. She realized that was where she needed to go, anyway; so she followed the man inside.
The elevator was a dark antique bronze color; it must have been built a while ago. The man pressed the button for the sixteenth floor. When she didn’t say anything, he asked, “What floor?”
His deep voice brought her out of her waking slumber. Now that she paid attention to him, she realized he was quite tall. He seemed to tower over her. His skin was dark, and his face was hard to see in the dim light of the old elevator. “Oh, sorry. Twenty-three.”
He pressed the button, and both numbers faintly glowed. The elevator shuddered for a moment, closed its doors, and then slowly marched upward.
It smelled like a basement that hadn’t been used for a decade—ever so slightly damp and musty. She’d been in a few older office complexes, and occasionally their elevators felt like they were from another time period; no one had received the memo that they needed to be cleaned into the modern age. Forget the chrome—this needed a heavy amount of cleaner and vinegar first.
She’d lost herself in her thoughts again until the tapping of the man’s foot brought her to her senses. He glanced at his phone’s display.
How much time had passed? How long does it take to travel sixteen floors?
The elevator shuddered and screeched. It hadn’t been moving fast enough to knock them off their feet with a sudden stop, but the two of them could definitely tell that they were no longer in motion. They were stuck. On what floor was anyone’s guess; the elevator didn’t have an indicator for the current floor.
The knot in her chest tightened.
This was supposed to be a quick trip. Any additional time, and she’d be paralyzed by indecision.
The man let out an exasperated sigh. He pressed the DOOR OPEN button once. When it didn’t respond, he pressed it a second time, then a third, and then a frustrated fourth time. He tried pressing the fifteenth-floor button, and it didn’t respond.
“Did…did we stop?” the woman asked.
“Seems so.” He pressed the alarm button. Was there supposed to be a noise or something? He frowned. He looked for a plate on the elevator with an emergency number, but there was nothing.
“Are we stuck here?”
He dialed 911 and calmly explained the situation, much to the woman’s relief. She could just stare at her phone and erratically scroll through her social media feed, not actually reading any posts but just running her thumb down the touch screen.
He assured the 911 operator that the situation was fine, they were unharmed, they just wanted somebody to come fix the elevator and there was no emergency number they could find inside. He ended the call but kept the phone in his hands. He sighed again and sat down in the corner, legs crossed.
“I’m not sure how long we’ll have to wait. Might as well get comfortable,” he told her.
“Oh…okay.” She sat on her legs, tucking them under herself.
When he noticed her frantically turning on and off her phone screen, he prompted, “You all right?”
“Yes, yes, I’m okay.” Her answer came rather fast. “Wow, it sure is dark in here! Did the lights go out? It was so dark in here when we entered that I can’t really tell.” She forced a laugh.
She was wearing glasses with thick plastic frames; they were large enough to overtake her face. Her hair brushed the tops of her shoulders, but it was thin and lifeless. She pulled at the hair tie on her wrist, letting it slap her, and she repeated this a few times but never used it to pull her hair back. She wore black slacks and a floral-print blouse. She was short, and she was large, yet she held her limbs in tight, like she was trying to shrink herself, he thought.
The man was dressed formally in a suit and tie, and he was bald. He really was tall; the woman guessed he was taller than six feet.
The silence was uncomfortable. She asked him, “So what are you doing here?” and then immediately realized how rude that was. Now it sounded like she thought he didn’t belong in the building. She just wanted to make small talk to fill the air.
“I work for the Wescott law office on the sixteenth floor.”
“Oh, so you’re a lawyer?”
“Paralegal, actually. I work for the guy who’s the big lawyer. He runs the place. I’m hoping to become a lawyer sometime soon, though. I got into the field a little later than others.”
“Are you saying you’re older than you look?”
“What, are you trying to flirt or something?”
Her face turned bright red. “N-no, I—”
He laughed. “Relax, I’m just messing with you. Yeah, I just turned 40 today. I was out for lunch with my wife. I took a longer break than I usually do, and I’ve got a meeting in—” He checked his phone. “Actually, it already started. Shit. Hold on, let me send a quick message.”
She glanced at her own phone. Her appointment was in five minutes. She hoped they wouldn’t cancel it if she took too long to show. If their rescue took too long, she could call them and let them know the situation; she hated talking on the phone, though.
“Happy birthday, by the way,” she said.
He thanked her and stuffed his phone in his pocket. “Okay, your turn. Why are you here?”
Her fingers gripped her phone tighter. She lightly bit the inside of her mouth with her canines. Her palms were sweaty.
“Oh, sorry. You don’t have to tell me,” he quickly said.
The silence returned. He didn’t know how to clear the air, and suddenly she was lost in her thoughts again.
What did her boyfriend, her parents, her friends think of her wanting this? And did she have a right to be so torn up about this decision when people in other places of the country would have to travel much farther than a few blocks to see a doctor about the problem?
“I’m pregnant,” she blurted out.
He stared at her face, which was still focusing intently on the screen of her phone, even though the display was off. “I get the feeling you don’t want congratulations.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She took in a deep breath. She closed her eyes to think. Everything seemed frozen in space and time. When she was ready, she continued, a long mess of words she must have been keeping inside all along.
“I haven’t talked to my boyfriend about it yet, but I don’t think I’m ready to have a child, I mean who the hell has money to raise a kid in this goddamn city, and I live in an apartment with two roommates, it’s not like my boyfriend and I even live together yet, and I’m so frustrated because we use birth control, and of course I’m the incredibly unlucky person who gets pregnant regardless, and I’m afraid to tell my extremely Christian parents, I don’t even know what my job’s policy is on maternity leave, I don’t know anything about raising a child, I’d probably be a shitty mom, and I’m afraid of sounding selfish if I voice what I really feel—I’m not done living my life for myself yet.”
She’d said it.
It didn’t make everything feel better, but it helped a little. It helped enough.
“Why does it matter what they all think? You’re the one who’d be having the baby,” he said. “And if your man’s got any respect, he won’t question whatever decision you make on this. It’s not like he’s the one who’d be carrying the sucker around for nine months.”
She took in another breath. The rope around her lungs was starting to loosen. “Wow, I sure hope my OB/GYN is as relaxed about this as you are.”
He chuckled. “I’m sorry if it seems like I’m making light of your problems. It’s easy for me to say all of that when I never have to go through it. I just don’t think other’s opinions of yourself matter as much as your own do.”
She shrugged. “You’re right. It is easy to say.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You do realize you’re talking to a very tall black man, right? I walk past people who look like you, and they clutch their bags just a bit closer to their bodies. Police have been watching me ever since I was a little boy. If I let their opinions determine my worth, I’d be a silent participant in my own subjugation.”
The elevator went quiet—uncomfortably so.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a long pause. “That sucks.”
“Yeah, sorry for making the mood weird.”
“I’m pretty sure I made things awkward long before that. Besides, you’re right. If I had let other people dictate what I do, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I could do without the broken elevator, though.”
“Happy to help. Thank you for sharing your story with me. My name’s Aaron, by the way.”
“I’m Liz. Well, Aaron, got anything else you want to get off your chest?”
He laughed. It was a full, loud one, like it came from his belly. “If you insist, but it’s nothing particularly noteworthy.” He was silent for a few moments, collecting his thoughts, and his expression turned somber. “I work long hours for a boss I don’t like, trying to make more money to provide for my wife and two kids so that we can move to a place with more room, but that means I rarely get to see them. People say things like time with your family is all that matters, but what about clothing your family? Feeding them? Putting a roof over their head and making them feel safe?”
Liz nodded when he paused, waiting for him to continue. She didn’t have much experience with this; she came from a middle-class family and had never worried about food as a child. She wasn’t really sure what to say.
“This is one heavy elevator ride,” Aaron commented, not going to elaborate further.
Liz was fine with that. “Life sucks.” No other words of comfort came to mind.
“That it does. That it does.”
Something was clanging around them, the pair suddenly noticed. The noise made Liz jump, and then she laughed when an engineer called to them, explaining that there had been a broken contact on the door lock, which had prompted the elevator to stop for safety reasons.
Liz and Aaron didn’t talk much after that. Their little therapy session didn’t feel quite so private anymore.
The engineer reset the elevator, and it rose just enough to get in line with the fifteenth floor for the doors to open. Liz and Aaron stepped out and received several apologies for the inconvenience before they waved them off and moved to the stairs.
They continued to the sixteenth floor, where Aaron bid her goodbye. It was an awkward one, rather short. Liz didn’t think a hug was appropriate—she’d known this man for maybe all of twenty minutes—but Aaron knew more about her worries than anyone else did. Maybe that was something she’d have to rectify.
She ended up getting on a different elevator to reach the twenty-third floor.
The doors slid open, and she walked into the OB/GYN office. This wasn’t some grand beginning or ending to her story. It was just going to be another point in her life. She was pretty sure she’d made up her mind now on what to do about the unintended pregnancy.
“Hi, my name is Elizabeth. I had an appointment for one-thirty.”
And the rope burned away.