Here is how it has been since you can’t remember when: the alarm goes off at precisely 5:45. Even before Happy Talk radio burrows into your consciousness, even before the birds start to stir in the dark, you know it’s time. You allow yourself one minute to set your resolve and then rise and walk across the cool wood floor to the bathroom.
You start the shower, letting it heat the room as you strip off your pajamas and hang them neatly on the hook. You have left yourself exactly forty-five minutes to shower, dress, and eat breakfast—not a moment more. Six minutes to soap and shampoo. Four minutes to rinse. Five minutes to dry your hair. Ten minutes to dress. Ten minutes to prepare your oatmeal. Another ten to eat it and tidy up. Your key is in the ignition at exactly 6:31.
You drive across the bridge, mindful of the speed limit: 55. You park in the same place every day: Slot 153. By the time you enter the station, your card is out. You swipe. You pass through. You put it away. You punch 153 into the computerized parking kiosk and feed in a dollar. The train arrives at 6:57.
You gravitate to the third seat on the right—bayside—and are annoyed if someone else sits there. Years ago, you noticed that the same people tended to be in the same car every day. But now, you rarely bother to check. Instead, you pull out your book. It seems like you have read this book a dozen times, and perhaps you have. Or perhaps you never finish it. North Berkeley, Berkeley, and Ashby whiz by before you glance up to see that you have once again emerged from the subterranean tunnel that passes beneath the city like a wormhole. At McArthur, you put the marker in the book and stow it in your bag. At 19th, you stand and make your way to the door.
“The doors are closing,” says the monotone female voice as you leave. “Please stand clear of the doors.”
You glide up the escalator. It’s four chilly blocks to your gleaming aluminum high-rise: you go left on Webster for one block and right on 20th for two.
You are always the only person on the elevator at this time of morning. “Twenty-third floor,” says a voice as the doors open.
At 7:30 exactly, you are seated at your desk booting up your computer. You are deeply immersed in your work by the time the others roll in at 8:30. They do not greet you, but then, you are not here to socialize.
You pride yourself on your steady efficiency; the fact is, you have not missed one day of work in 20 years. You do not waste time on office chitchat. When they drift out to lunch in twos and threes, you go to the refrigerator and warm up last night’s leftovers, which you have stored in two clear plastic containers with gray snap-on lids. In all this time, you have never ventured outside your building for lunch.
Your boss is three time zones away. Sometimes he includes you on group emails but otherwise doesn’t acknowledge you. You send him a report once a week but have no evidence that he reads it. You never speak up in the weekly conference calls and no one seems to notice. It matters not, as long as that auto-deposited paycheck continues to hit your account. At exactly 4:30 p.m., you shut down your computer and begin your commute in reverse.
If someone were to ask, are you happy, you would nod and say, “I am content. I like the lack of drama.” But here is the thing: No one bothers to ask.
It is a Wednesday, or maybe a Thursday—the day that your world starts to tilt.
A massive traffic snarl delays your commute, and you must park in a different slot. When you go to pay your parking fee, you have forgotten the new slot number and need to scurry back to the lot to check. By the time you return, you have missed your train.
The next train arrives 15 minutes later. It is jammed, and you must read your book standing, hanging onto a pole. At McArthur, a man in an aisle seat stands up. As he passes, you catch something in the way he carries himself, or maybe his scent. And then it hits: You know this man.
His hairline has receded and silvered. He is thicker about the waist. But it is John. You are sure of it. Forty years ago, you thought he was The One. You were already imagining your diaphanous white gown, the guest list, the lemony flavor of the three-tiered cake.
He wanted to sleep with you. You wanted to wait.
“I won’t beg,” he said, and then he stopped calling. You held onto hope until it ultimately withered and dried. And now, here he is, waiting for the doors to part, looking straight past you without recognition. You call out, “John! It’s me, Daphne!”
He turns as he steps onto the platform, and ever so briefly as the train whisks you away, you see the fleeting glint of acknowledgment.
No one notices when you walk in late for work for the first time in 20 years. You boot your computer and spend the first two hours of company time trying to track John down. He has not left much of a trail.
And then you find his obit. The picture –a younger, smiling John – erases all doubt. He loved bicycling and the great outdoors, was adored by all who knew him. He leaves behind a wife and two sisters. John has been dead for more than a month.
It’s a mistake, you think. You know what you saw. You start working your way through the phone book until finally a woman answers.
“Hello,” she says, and you hesitate, unsure where to start.
“I heard about John,” you tell her. “I’m so sorry.”
“Who is this?” she asks.
“I’m an old friend,” you say. “I just found out.”
“Who is this?” she asks again.
“Daphne,” you say. “I knew him…”
“Daphne Flores? Is this some kind of joke?” says the woman.
“Joke?” you say.
“I don’t know what kind of cruel hoax you’re trying to pull, but Daphne Flores is dead! Been dead since before I married John.”
You listen to the dial tone that follows the click. Dead? You touch yourself to see if it could possibly be true. Your fingers find nothing tactile. You rise and stumble down the row of cubicles. No one looks up, their faces absorbed in the blue glow of their monitors. Somewhere a telephone rings and rings.
You leave work unnoticed.
“First floor,” says the voice on the elevator, polite as always.
“Have a nice day,” you say.
You walk towards the station, shivering. If I were dead, you think, I wouldn’t feel cold. Would I? You notice your fellow commuters, hunched over books and personal devices, simultaneously present and absent. No one makes eye contact. No one flinches as you brush past.
“The doors are closing,” says the monotone voice as you leave. “Please stand clear of the doors.”
“Thank you for caring,” you respond.
You try to think of someone to call who can verify your existence. But you realize that you have not talked to anyone lately. You calculate how long it’s been, but the timing evades you, as if all your acquaintances had slipped into mist.
Could I have died without realizing it? you think.
Next morning, Happy Talk radio goes off at 5:45 as always. Now you take the time to apply lipstick and a little blush. You deviate from your usual gray suit and put on the blue dress that you bought a long time ago but never wore. As you cross the bridge, you marvel at the colors of the sunrise. You arrive at the station just in time for the 6:57 but wait for the next one instead. You sit where you can observe everyone on the train: the statuesque woman carefully layering on eyeliner the enraptured man behind her trying not to stare, the kid with the cornrows in a puffy orange Giants parka, the meticulously suited man in the turban. You search for John, but he is not among them.
“19th Street,” says the voice, and you stand to exit. But then you sit again.
“The doors are closing,” says the voice. “Please stand clear of the doors.”
You shut your eyes and listen to the rhythm of the train, the squeal of metal on metal as it rounds a corner. You will stay in your seat until the end of the line. And then? Who knows. By then you will be Elsewhere.