[If I’d done a year end review again, this song and this album would have been top of the list. But things are what they are and I didn’t have the time or energy to get something like that done. This song has been haunting me the entire time, though, and exercising it requires letting something of my own out, too. So here we go. And as always, questions, comments, and critiques are welcome.]
There was this feeling that followed Heather like a shadow. An insatiable emptiness lurking at the edge of her thoughts, poised like darkness waiting for the flick of a light switch. She could run, she could even hide, but it was a black hole that held her in an ever-decaying orbit from which she could not escape. Knowing it was out there didn’t always help her see it coming, either.
Each Saturday, when Heather took her place with the other customers in the switchback lanes of her bank, she felt the atmosphere of the place pressing in on her. The queues were getting worse. Not longer, or slower, or in some other sense that could be measured, quantified, and addressed with a series of buzzword-heavy memos and a rallying pep talk from a customer service manager. The bank itself had changed from a place where she did business to her most consistent social ordeal, lingering like a chronic illness as everything else fell away. The methodical space, the way it looked, its distractingly unobtrusive colour palette of off-whites and matte reds and blacks. The way everything that happened there did so to the same never-ending playlist of focus-grouped MOR. Even the air conformed to corporate mandates of temperature and humidity. Despite the self-congratulatory copy and the smiles of the carefully diversified models plastered all over the posters, Heather knew that “valued” actually meant “tolerated.”
As bad as standing in line had become, the end of the line was worse. There waited the bank’s newest, and youngest, teller. A pretty girl, well put together in one of her fitted suits, the teller always had a perfectly white grin at the ready. She was polite, laughed at all the awkward jokes customers made about the weather. And she made Heather want to cry.
It began with the forced greeting. The, “How are you doing today?” It never hurt so much when it came from the mouths of the other tellers, who were middle-aged women so bored by the routine that they would struggle to locate Heather in a lineup though she’d been using the same bank for years. There was something else in the way this new teller would look at Heather when she stepped past the wilted rope barrier and up to the long counter. With her, it was, “How are you doing today, Heather?” and the Cheshire smile that didn’t touch her eyes. Always using her name despite Heather having never formally introduced herself. It was a sort of prying disinterest that scratched at some primal nerve, giving Heather flashbacks to her school days, when an alpha girl might casually single her out for the day’s ridicule.
The teller would roll her wrists and click at keys with manicured nails while she kept the small talk going. Heather tried to keep up, to play it off. Like the bank itself, the process gave her the impression of the overly-deliberate dialogue of a spy thriller, where everyone spoke in mannered code, using words that meant the opposite of what they said. A pretence of obfuscation that hid nothing from anyone, ever. “Getting ready for a big night out?” “Visiting family for the holidays?” “Seen any good movies lately?” All with her eyes on the monitor, tracking the dwindling numbers in Heather’s account. Engaging at what she thought was the minimum amount of effort acceptable for the situation, Heather used short answers to deflect, hoping that over time this girl would get the hint. But it never happened. “Going to any shows this summer?” “A vacation?” Has anyone asked you to the dance yet? Did I miss you at Becky’s party?
“How are you doing today, Heather?”
Over time, Heather felt it digging in further. Maybe it wasn’t the girl’s fault. Maybe she really was trying to be friendly. But Heather was also keenly aware of how even the one person in her life who bothered to ask that question didn’t care about the answer.
Week after week. The teller asked, “How are you doing today, Heather?”
Heather didn’t say, “I just quit my job after my boss tried to defraud me and this is my last paycheque.”
Heather didn’t say, “The last time I had any contact with my family was when I sent my brother a happy birthday text that he didn’t respond to.”
Heather didn’t say, “My last friend moved out of the city to get married and without work, I have no reason to ever leave my apartment or even answer my phone.”
Heather didn’t say, “I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be touched.”
Heather did say, “Good, thank you.”
A week ago, Heather almost blurted her thoughts out, had actually opened her mouth to explain that the last year felt like falling down a flight of concrete stairs, that she’d resigned herself to tucking and rolling until she finally hit rock bottom. That she had this growing fear now was that she might never even land. But the young teller looked her over with blank eyes, gave Heather a practised smile, and asked what plans she’d made for the weekend. So Heather muttered something about Netflix, initialled her receipt, and left, counting it a small victory that she’d held the tears back all the way to her front door.
Today, as she stood in the bank’s lobby, some spunky mall-punk trying desperately to imbue the place with a fun (but sanitized) weekend spirit, Heather saw the teller’s familiar creased suit, her over-complicated new hairstyle, and knew she couldn’t go through that again. Couldn’t play the unwinnable game of trying to decide whether the mocking subtext in the girl’s uninterested banter was real this time or imagined. Sandwiched in the middle of the line, Heather turned away, head down while she forced excuse mes past tight lips.
Heather drifted into the bleary winter afternoon, walking as she watched the other people move around her. Groups of individuals who shared connections, shared each other. Children holding hands with parents, young lovers bundled up in thick scarves and puffy jackets, friends taking up too much space as they laughed and lived in their own small worlds. And Heather moved through them all, feeling like some Dickensian orphan stumbling through the snow, peering in through frosted windows at the warmth inside. Only, there was no snow. Mid-December and it got cold but never snowed anymore. Even the weather had given up.
Later, Heather found herself in a small coffee shop. She didn’t like coffee, but it was getting colder as it got darker and she needed a break from that. Standing in line there almost felt normal. It was a thing that normal people did, after all, they lined up next to the kitschy exposed brick walls, pretended to like the smooth jazz murmuring out of the cheap speakers. She saw them all around her, those normal people, and tried not to appear the imposter that she was, keeping her eyes forward as she used her sweater to wipe the condensation off the lenses of her glasses.
“I hate it when that happens,” said someone next to her. Heather checked the lenses, saw they were still smudged at the edges and that her rubbing at them was only adding more. She put her glasses back on. “When my glasses fog like that,” the voice continued. “Used to be even worse when I had metal frames, you know? I’d get headaches when it got cold.”
Heather turned to track the voice and only when she saw a man looking back did she realize that he’d been talking to her. “Oh,” she said. “Yeah.”
He smiled. A real smile that showed in his dark eyes. “I was going to ask,” he said, “if you can read the prices on the menu from here. I just got new lenses, not sure if they’re actually working.” He touched a finger to the side of his own glasses.
Adjusting the way her frames rested on her nose, Heather squinted at the mirrored wall behind the counter, focused on the small, red numbers that appeared to be written out in lipstick. “Sorry,” she said after a few seconds of concentration. “But I need a new prescription anyway, so I’m not the best person to ask.”
“There’s never any harm in asking,” he said.
Heather said, “I think there’s a nine. Does that help?”
He laughed, a bold sound that he clamped down on immediately. “Sure.”
It was Heather’s turn to order. She asked for a hot chocolate and gave her name, speaking it clearly and emphatically without looking back at the man standing behind her. She paid and moved to the end of the counter where she realized she didn’t know what she was doing or why. The man ordered his drink, giving a name that Heather didn’t hear, and had his phone out almost before he’d handed over his cash.
This was all normal, she told herself. Normal people doing normal things. I’m not a freak and there’s nothing wrong with talking to a stranger in a coffee shop. It had never happened to her before, but that didn’t mean anything. You don’t drink coffee, remember? But other people did and other people talked to each other.
Normal people didn’t stare, either.
The barista called her name and Heather stepped forward to receive her drink. She found an empty seat, a bar stool that was too tall for its table–a polished tree stump–forcing her to bend down so she could set her drink precariously on the uneven surface. By the time she’d figured out how to balance it without anything spilling, she looked up to find that the man with the dark eyes had disappeared.
Over the bitter thump of her heart, Heather reminded herself that normal people don’t take a casual conversation as the first step toward, well, anything, really. It’s just a thing that happens. Shoulders falling as she sank into herself, Heather took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to expel the feeling with it, to force the moment to pass. The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing, she told herself. You sit there still to this day playing the waiting game, and for what? What are you waiting for, anyway? For this sudden realization that you are a real person? Where is that going to come from?
Heather wondered when exactly it was that she became the worst person in her life and if her inability to pinpoint a date meant that she’d always been.
The swirl of whipped cream sloshed over the rim of her cup as someone in line bumped a foot against her table. Heather stood to find some paper napkins, turned the corner at the end of the counter and ran into someone coming out of the washrooms.
“Sorry,” she said.
“You okay?” he said at the same time, and then Heather looked up and saw the stranger with his dark-eyed smile.
“I, uh–” Heather waved a hand in the direction of her table. The cup was gone and a small pond of brown hot chocolate had appeared under the barstool. “–lost my drink.”
“I think there’s a reason that seat was empty,” he said.
“Probably,” she agreed.
“I’m sure you can get another,” he said.
“It’s fine.” She wanted to go home, where failure and regret had the decency to be unambiguous. The buttons on his jacket began to blur.
“Hey,” he said. “Are you okay?”
A single breath shuddered through her and Heather knew she’d lost. She shouldn’t have been out here pretending to be anything other than what she was. She wanted to turn and run. She wanted to scream. She wanted to crawl back into her hole and never come out again. She wanted to stomp through puddles and feel the rain on her face. She wanted a hug. She wanted to send all the emails to all the people that she had promised herself she always would and never had. She wanted to explain exactly what had happened, somehow, and she wanted someone to tell her that it made sense.
She wanted to say something. Anything. To anyone.
“No,” said Heather. “I’m really not.”
[to be continued.]