The Complex – Chapter II: Sarah

And so he sat there – with only a few minutes to spare – staring at the snow that continued to amass upon his windshield. By morning the car would be entirely encased, its bulk indistinguishable from the glacial surroundings. He quietly cursed himself for moving back from Chicago. For as bad as the weather was there, the Minnesotan climate would eventually kill him, or at least drive him out of the state once more. He thought about how political prisoners in Stalin’s Russia had often been sent to Siberian salt mines as punishment. Then, looking at the snow drifts that were spread across the complex’s grounds, not to mention the three-foot long icicles which clung to the buildings like fangs, he wondered if those wretched souls had perhaps gotten off easy.

The door groaned as he stumbled out of his car. Howling, a bone-chilling wind rushed against his face, leaving it smarting, as if it had been slapped by someone with serious upper body strength. Directly across from him he could see the light of the office window, marking the spot where he would spend the next 12 hours. The harsh, nearly fluorescent color of the square beckoned to him. But this wasn’t some comforting porch light calling him home; it was an ugly, otherworldly glow. He began moving towards it, as if in a stupefied trance. Trudging through the ankle-deep snow, wetness began seeping through his boots as if they weren’t there.

From the parking lot he could see a person’s head bobbing back and forth inside the office’s interior. It was his co-worker, Sarah, moving with her characteristic alacrity. The staff of the company was a motley crew, an eclectic band of hipsters, students, pseudo-retirees, and other marginalized types, like the island of misfit toys. Even though he knew that the job was largely a transitory one – with many of the workers on their way to being something else – he couldn’t imagine them functioning well in another work environment. But, as he reached the front door of the complex, and as he shook the snow from his apparently useless boots before tramping inside, he gloomily thought that he probably fit in well with the group.

The door’s lock was in dire need of replacement. It prompted him nightly to strain against its battered surface, grunting and groaning like a wounded hog. Tonight was no different. He grimaced and fiddled, arm muscles tensed from the effort. Finally was able to turn the key, but a gust of wind then kicked up behind him, forcing him to dig in his heels and wrench the door open with all his might.

“Open fucking sesame!” he cried bitterly into the darkness, which hung over him, utterly apathetic.

The interior of the building wasn’t any more inviting. In the hallways faded, unassuming wallpaper rose out of a pool of dirty, maroon carpet. In some spots the paper was ragged and torn. In others it had become weathered, curling away from the top and bottom of the wall like an ancient scroll. The light in the hallways was also inadequate, casting a shallow amber glow and failing to penetrate into the corners.

He could have dealt with the aesthetics however if it wasn’t for the smell, or smells which accompanied them. Burnt food, human body odor, garbage, and the pungent, inimitable aroma of weed were just a few of the smells which seemed to drift perpetually in the halls. It was an inescapable part of the complex.

The company he worked for provided in-home services to adults with developmental disabilities, and the staff office was actually located in an apartment where clients lived. He took a deep breath to steady himself as he walked towards the door where it was located, anticipating the stale, musky odor that typically permeated the space. Near the apartment’s door he noticed an especially large spot of discoloration on the carpet, which stretched horizontally across the floor, like an unprovoked shadow.

This wasn’t the first time he had seen something like this, and looking upwards he saw that familiar bubble embedded in the ceiling, with the distinctive twinkle of a water droplet ready to fall. Crossing over the discoloration he couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t his problem this time.

A few steps from the office space the apartment’s door opened and Sarah appeared in the hallway, dressed in a hodgepodge array of brightly colored winter-wear that exuded Minnesota pragmatism. It was substance over style, and the fabric of bright blue jacket looked unsurprisingly beaten and war-weary.

“Hey, I’ve gotta get going.”

He looked at his watch. 8:05. He thought about other nights where he had been a few minutes late. He remembered her aggravated look, and how she had hardly said a word as she had rushed past him, her long, tangled hair whipping and snapping in the air.

But he also remembered Nicola’s party last month, which had marked the first time where he had been with his co-workers outside of the complex. It hadn’t started snowing then. He remembered sitting outdoors with Sarah, looking at the black silhouettes of trees which rustled in the wind against a sky of cobalt. Her hand, her waist had felt good. And in kissing her he had left himself for a moment, escaping from a murky consciousness that often felt dark and uninviting.

“Here’s the phone,” she said, slapping a small flip phone into his chapped fingers. He pocketed it glumly, slipping it next to his freshly unwrapped smart phone. Her statement was appropriate. Here it was: the tool of his trade. His job basically began and ended with this flip phone. In fact, his only real obligation during the night shift was to make sure he answered it when it rang. What that required was punishing his body, making sure that he didn’t get a wink of sleep. The great irony was that he was there to respond to any emergencies the company’s clients might have during the night. Of course, the only time the phone had ever rang before was when he was at his most useless. But luckily, he had yet to encounter a real emergency, just bullshit.

One night early on he had thought there was something real happening. It was 3am when the phone had begun buzzing on the desk in the office. Bleary eyed and somnambulistic, he had stumbled to a client’s apartment after receiving the call, banging into the side of walls like a neighborhood wino. Desperately, he had tried to come to his senses by slapping his cheek ferociously; and after knocking at the client’s door he began jumping in place like a prizefighter, but it was ultimately unnecessary. The door had swung open to reveal a client named Edie – a small, petite, and bi-speckled Asian woman of about 25 years of age – who was doubled up in peals of laughter.

“Oops! Sorry! I just wanted to see what would happen if I called you!” she had chortled, stumbling backward on her bare feet.

Her breath had reeked of distilled spirits, and a quick look at the apartment pointed to their source. A large, plastic bottle of bottom shelf vodka stood erect and proud on a battered kitchen table.

“The phone is for emergencies. It’s an emergency cell phone,” he had mumbled, marble-mouthed. That night he was far too tired to be angry. But when he had looked closer at the nearly depleted bottle he added, “How much of that did you drink?”

“I don’t know,” Edie had said, chuckles and smile abating. The joke had apparently run its course. “It’s fine though.”

“You’re not supposed to be drinking.”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry, if anything happens I’ve got your number.”

The door had then been shut in his face.

_______________

“Meds are done,” Sarah said, walking past him towards the exit.

He turned along with her movement, his eyes following every step. Sarah was an inch or two shorter than he was, and of average build. It was difficult however to tell much about her body because he had never once seen her wear anything form fitting. He only knew how it felt, and that he wanted to feel it again.

“Sarah,” he called to her retreating back, which was hidden behind her massive, heavily insulated coat. Immediately, the old familiar feeling of blood pounding in his ears started up, and his hands began their typical, unconscious quiver. “Christ,” he thought, “This is like coming home.” He had never been good at taking a risk. His body seemed almost hardwired to ensure that anytime he put himself out there he was going to be as physically uncomfortable as possible.

He swallowed hard and tensed his abdomen, as if attempting to push his anxiety out through the back of himself. He had wanted to ask Sarah to do something since the party, but this was easier said than done. In his eyes she was haughty, worldly and a bit elitist. There was a coldness to her voice, a sharpness that he found intimidating. This had softened somewhat outside of Nicola’s house. Their conversation, fueled by liquor and hops, had been surprisingly fluid and natural, especially when he asked her about her future plans and her satchel of books, which he had seen her lug around the complex each time they passed each other during a shift change.

The expression on her face had changed immediately. The milky color of her skin became flushed and enlivened. Her thin, rather colorless lips – which were normally set and severe – softened in what looked like a mixture of surprise and excitement. Yet, it was her eyes that truly changed. They were perfect almond shaped eyes; yet their shapes were typically obscured by the surrounding skin, which looked puffy and swollen. When he had asked her about the future her eyes seemed to brighten and flash, as if someone had lit a fire behind them.

And then she was off, extolling the virtues of Heidegger and singing the praises of Arendt. He had tried to keep up, but it was obvious that he was out of his depth. At one point she had asked him if he understood some subtle particular of Kant’s Third Critique, which to him sounded like absolute gibberish. In response he utilized his signature move: self-deprecating humor, which since college had been his therapy and salvation.

“Nope,” he said, “Sarah, you have to know something; I’m not a smart man.”

He hadn’t known how such flippancy might play out with a woman like her, but it wasn’t like he could tell her the truth. It wasn’t like he could have said that his mind had wandered once she had gotten around to Schopenhauer’s theory of eternal recurrence. He couldn’t have fessed up that he had spent the last few minutes watching an adjacent anthill, marveling at its insectoid inhabitants, who scurried about frantically whenever he moved his foot.

It was a stupid joke; and yet Sarah, after blinking at him, had thrown her head back and let loose a bark of joyful laughter. He had thought before then that Sarah was pretty if somewhat plain, but at that moment he was enamored. The sullen glower and daunting intellectualism had fallen away. An inner burden, a whole level of emotional complexities that only she knew anything about, had suddenly seemed to dissipate. He remembered thinking that being with Sarah couldn’t be like the time with the girl in Chicago. But maybe it could be enough, at least for right now.

______________

“Do you, uh,” he began feebly, trying to find the right words to ask her out. He was complicating things again – analyzing instead of just acting. His outrageous pusillanimity continued to surprise him. When he was younger things had just been easier; they had just happened for him. Now everything seemed like so much damn work.

Sarah stood there in her coat, her bag looking like it was ready to split open, looking at him in disbelief. Her eyes flicked back and forth from him to her antiquated phone, which looked as if it had survived more than one accidental fall.

“Do you want to do something, sometime.”

“What?”

“Do you want to do something sometime, with me, not here?” he stuttered, sounding like he just been freshly lobotomized.

Before she even finished her sharp intake of breath he knew that he had his answer. He also knew it wasn’t the answer he wanted.

“No,” she said flatly. “I’m sorry.” And she truly looked it. Her preoccupied expression had changed into a strained grimace, as if she was suffering from a bad case of indigestion.

Then she left and he stood in the hallway alone, listening to the sound of water running through the ancient pipes of the complex. His irrational fear and anxiety had ravaged him, leaving him feeling deflated, hollow and even emptier than before. He walked over to the exit door that Sarah had disappeared through. Next to the wooden door there was a large, narrow window, which looked out at the parking lot, and which had become partially coated with a thin layer of ice. The lighting in the entryway was too poor to illuminate him properly, and his reflection stared back at him black and inscrutable. The image was even further distorted by the film of ice, which splintered his form into something amorphous and inhuman.

Near the edge of the window there was a small hole in the ice layer, which could provide someone with an unfettered view of the outside world. He bent down and peered through it, feeling the cold, unbearable frigidity of the outside on the tip of his nose. He could see Sarah’s embattled form just barely, as it trudged wearily through the snow covered lot past the shadowy rows of cars. Then it was gone, and all he could see was darkness.

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