He cupped the hot chocolate in his hand and smelled deeply the
sweet aroma. He held the cup to his lips and sipped the sweet warmth,
letting it fill his mouth, his throat, his entire chest cavity, then
The morning had started early, out the door at just past five. The
sky had broken from stars, with pale blue and wisps of white clouds
dancing among the slowly appearing shades of orange. He had heard the
newspapers being delivered, the strange mix of "Vrooom" and
"Thwap" coming first close, then receding, then returning
and passing right by his driveway.
On the way to the airport he had left his window open, letting the
cool and moist air fill his lungs, letting the sound of crickets fill
his ears. It had been so still that morning that even directly
staring into the overhead trees in the greenbelt along his
subdivision exit, he could not detect even one leaf moving.
But that was nearly two hours ago, and the pale blue sky now laid
over a bed of soft white cottony clouds. At times the sunshine was
blinding, forcing his eyes to shut, letting hands, still gripping the
warm mug of chocolate be his only connection to the human world.
The chocolate was sweet and warm, in his hands, in his mouth,
in his very being, and it smelled so familiar. The taste on his
tongue, the sweet stickiness with the roof of his mouth, the
lightness in his head barely being able to keep conscious thought,
the tired aching feeling in his chest, and slowly he was back there,
transported across the 30 years and 2000 miles, drinking the
chocolate and holding the warm mug in his hands.
They had met in 9th grade, in May, when spring broke forth and
everybody and everything was lost in the fever. They had been in
science class together, forced outside that day to sketch flowers
from the beds alongside the gymnasium, the ones planted by the PTA
that faced the sun from early morning until it set at night. He had
been comfortable, drawing and identifying the stamen and pestles, and
she had been forced to do the same, seated beside him in the
happenstance arrangement of 9th grade advanced scientists, each with
a regulation clipboard on his lap.
The sun had been so bright that day, and so warm on his back as he
sketched. She had broken the silence. "You have a gift for
drawing" was all she said and "Thanks" was his only reply.
But his eyes had danced from his picture to hers, then back to the
beautiful flower, then without his nose betraying him, his eyes
danced over to her hair, sprinkled in sunlight, red but filled with
blue and green and amber and white, all from the warm spring sun.
That day he had waited, non-chalantly, and left for home accidentally
at the same moment as she. He held the door and it was her turn to
say "Thanks". They walked home alone together, each
avoiding their friends. He was the first to talk, not about school
but about spring. Her laugh was infectious, and her smile
irresistible. Somewhere along the way he was holding her books, and
talking about the sun and the flowers, and the smell of spring.
It was on their third day walking home that he brushed, then touched,
then held her hand. What marvelous spring, and memorable summer,
riding bikes together, reading books at the library, her coming over
for dinner with his parents, him returning the treat with hers.
But summer came and went and winter arrived, so cold and white
and blue. It was the day they had been tobogganing, covered from head
to toe in wet snow, freezing in every extreme. They had gone back to
his house, and his mom had made them hot chocolate, and they had made
a fire in the basement fireplace, the one that nobody used anymore.
They had changed into the dry clothes, him upstairs and her down, and
she had on small shorts and a giant sweatshirt. They both laughed at
her white socks but her legs had suddenly looked so smooth and silky.
They had sat on the old basement couch, and stoked the fire, and his
mom had brought down the hot chocolate in a thermos, with two empty
mugs. He had kissed his mom, and thanked her, and she had made her
secret signal to him, that he was to be the 'gentleman' that she had
lectured about now nearly five months ago. He had made his secret
He had set aside the second mug and poured the warm cocoa into only
one. Then he held in both hands and let her drink first, eyes staring
into eyes, noses only inches apart. He sipped seconds, and he saw
each freckle on her nose, and could still smell the gum that she had
been chewing all afternoon at the park. She drank third, and then
they both drank together, nearly spilling it on themselves and the
couch and silly shag rug that had sat in front of that fireplace
since the day he was brought home from the hospital.
They laid together on that rug, and tasted each other, the rich
flavor of chocolate, and the warmth of the drink, and the fire, each other.
"Please raise you seatbacks and return you cup",
transported him again, and his eyes slowly opened to see the smiling
face of the young flight attendant. Was she old enough to vote? Or
was he suddenly that old. She was smiling the smile of a morning
person, and he was smiling the smile of a man that was still fifteen
years old in his heart. Even if she had to move away that February,
when her dad got a job out of town. They had traded pictures, and
letters for a year or so, but was it her or him that was the first to
stop writing. The flight attendant wore small pearl earrings, wrapped
in gold, and her smile was both slow and natural. It was her turn to
say "Thanks", and his to shut his eyes but remain, this
time, squarely in his chair.
The airport was packed, with people going every direction,
each with purpose, but together with total randomness. It was like
the nonsense of ants in a hill, or bees in a hive. Everybody going
somewhere, everybody but him.
Then his eyes saw her, among the crowd, and where was she going? With
the near mandatory black rolly bag, she wore back platform sandals
and loose shorts. Or was it a skirt? A blue denim vest covered a
smart white blouse and gold hoop earring peeked out from under her
rich and full auburn hair. And she was walking toward the train, then
onto baggage claim.
Definitely shorts ... no a skirt ... is that a hem? She stood across
from him in the nearly empty shuttle train and he tried to be
discreet in his now staring effort to discern this most confusing
situation. No hem, but .... when she finally turned around he saw the
inseam. Aha! Definitely shorts and the train door opened and she
passed by him, and he followed her onto baggage claim. Definitely
shorts, and the shoes were too tall.
With babies crying (at barely 9am) and people shoving him aside to
get luggage, he waited for his to stroll slowly passed on the
carousel. Old men, big men, nervous women, fidgety businessmen
(talking on cell phones) all lined up like baby robins waiting for
regurgitated worms. But it was his bag that came out first, and they
eventually cleared him a berth, when he followed his tradition of
hoisting his bag and swinging it out in a small half circle. People
dodged and scattered like pigeons in a churchyard as a 4 year old
runs and laughs out loud.
He walked to the rental car shuttle post as his bus was pulling up.
By now, the rushers and the fidgeters and the nervouses had fetched
their bags and beaten him to the waiting area. As he stood back, they
had lurched forward and made sure they were first onto the bus. He
had paused and made sure he was last.
He sat across from a woman, beautiful in her simplicity. A white
blouse and navy blue jacket. A small gold chain across her chest
accented her perfect tan, and she knew it. She wore black trousers
and black pumps and as she crossed her legs across the aisle, the
cuff raised and revealed a small gold ankle chain, accented the
perfect tan on her right ankle, and she knew it, and she knew he knew
it. And he just looked at her ankle and then closed his eyes, and
then looked again, and closed again.
"Preferred customers may exit the bus now, if you are
holding a contract, please stay on the bus for our second stop. This
stop is only for preferred customers."
Here we separated the fidgety businessmen (still on their cellphones)
from the nervous retirees, wearing polyester pants and spring
jackets, eyes protruding and huge from their eyeglass prescriptions.
He motioned to the perfect tan to go first, then hoisted his
regulation small black rolley bag and followed her down the bus
stairs to stare for his name on the display sign. How classy, just a
hint of jasmine.
The car was too small and the mirrors misadjusted, it must have been
shuttled out by somebody five foot two. It smelled of the sick sweet
fake strawberry that is used to mask the disgusting burnt tar smell
of old cigarettes. He knew the route to the client by heart, and the
car now drove itself. The station was quickly set to AM, to talk
radio, and a brassy pseudo-psychiatrist was telling a woman that her
husband was cheating on her and that she "had to decide".
He could never tell if callers like that really existed or were just
voice actors, reading from some soap opera script. Did people really
live lives like that?
The office was not quite in the worst part of town, and the
building had been renovated from its natural world war dingy
mismatched brick facade. The sign was definitely 50's, the glass
doors were definitely 70's, and the security system was definitely 90's.
The gravel lot always crinkled under his feet, and the dry dusty
smell of dirt kicked up by his own car filled his nose, then his
throat until he had to cough and sniffle. He clipped on his permanent
visitor badge, stopped to say good morning to Gloria, the 60-ish
receptionist with the new grandbaby picture on her desk. "A new
picture?", he asked, "Yes I brought it in on Friday"
then it was up the stairs and trough the maze of cubicles and past
the restrooms (smelling of sickly strawberry scent) and past the
kitchen (catching a cup of bleak coffee, with whitener) and to his
permanent temporary cubicle. His watch said 9:55 sharp, and he needed
to unpack again, repeating his Monday ritual and exactly the opposite
of his Thursday night.
He had booted the PC, checked for voicemail (none!) and connected to
the LAN, then E-mail, then the application. His dayplanner reminded
him of the 10:30 kick-off meeting, the one that happened every Monday
for the last 18 weeks like the 2:15 Thursday wrap up meetings.
Nothing every happened between Thursday afternoon and Monday morning,
and he was now nearly 80% done with the development, this week would
be special because of user review and signoffs, time with people!
At 10:25 he refilled his tepid coffee and readjusted it with
more whitener, then took his usual seat in conference room #5. Just
once he imagined sitting in a different seat, but it would definitely
be bad fung shui. Everybody entered, on schedule, 10:26 (Raji), 10:28
(Jim), 10:30 (Suzi), and 10:35 ('sorry I'm running late today', Ken
Short). After 20 minutes of deep discussion, they established that
nothing had happened since Thursday afternoon and that user review
and signoff would be that week. He returned to his permanent
temporary cubicle, and launched the editor, and picked up exactly
where he had been on Thursday at 2:00.
Lunch was a yogurt, out of the machine (ooooo, berry berry mix
this time) and more raunchy coffee. At 4:30 he was done, on schedule,
and started the 4:30 ritual, logging out of the editor, the
application, e-mail and the LAN. His bag was packed and he was past
the kitchen, through the cubicles, down the stairs and out though the
empty lobby at exactly 5. Crunched back through the parking lot, and
into his car just in time for the blinding May sunlight to force his
eyes shut. The car stank of cigarettes and strawberry, and concrete
gravel dust, and was boiling hot. He rolled down the windows and
started to drive only to have the air exchanged first for the sewage
smell of the small creek that ran along the parking lot, then for the
acrid refinery smells coming from the adjoining tank farm. At night,
in the winter, the perpetual flame was the deepest blue. At rush
hour, during late May, it was reason enough to roll up the windows
and hit the A/C to max.
It took almost six full minutes to steer the rental car 'across the
tracks' (now long abandoned) and up to the mall. The hotel was in the
out parcel, and a chain. A predictable place to stay in a predictable
world. The cookies were fresh and smelled wonderful, but he checked
in without them. The desk clerk was new. She was petite and Asian and
dressed in the blue blazer, and maroon bowtie, matching the outfit
worm by the normal attendant, the obese middle aged black woman with
the contagious smile and wonderful song in her voice. Today's clerk
was efficient, but did not recognize him. In less than a minute he
had his key. "Have you stayed with us before?" She asked
him, unaware of the incongruity of the question. "Yes, I know my
way" was his simple reply.
He was changed into bluejeans and polo shirt, and the air
conditioner was blasting and noisy as ever. The room was already
chilly and very dark with the curtains pulled tight. He had already
unpacked, had brushed his teeth and washed his face when he laid back
on the bed fully made and shut his eyes.
Why did he choose this life? Or did it choose him? Why did it have to
be so easy, and pay so well? Why did every project have to be in the
wrong end of a dumpy little town? These were life's mysteries that
could not be solved.
He picked up the newspaper from the box in the lobby and headed the
car to the restaurant around the circle, in the outparcel on the
opposite side of the mall. The music was always so loud, and everyone
one of the 26 television sets was pointed a different direction and
set to a different station. Baseball highlights were soundlessly
playing on the giant projection screen across the darkened room. But
he asked to be seated in the greenhouse area, lit with full sun, but
unfortunately facing the busy mall parking lot. He liked to be there
at this time of evening, as the sky turned first to brilliant orange
and then slowly to ever deepening shades of blue. He frantically did
the crossword puzzle (eleven minutes twenty a little slow but
it was a travel day), then the cryptogram, then the word jumble. What
do people see in the stupid "Scrabble" puzzle, he always
wondered, as once again he could get no word longer that dog/dogs and
eat/seat/sat/tea/teas. What a stupid puzzle.
His waitress was new, and probably 19 years old. She was
cherubic and pale, with moppish brown hair and a smile that came
easily and revealed painfully misaligned teeth. Her oversized and
striped hat made her look silly, but she was oblivious and happy and
both walked and talked with a song in her heart. The meal was
unmemorable, at the moment he ate it and hours later when he tried to
remember what it was that he had eaten. He left a generous tip, and
His car took him back around the mall circular drive back to his
hotel and the elevator took him back to his room. He had picked up an
apple from the bowl on the desk as he passed by, and placed it now on
the desk in his room. More often then not, there would be five
untouched apples sitting on his room desk when he checked out at the
The room was dark, and dank, and musty, but at least he was spared
the weeks old legacy of a cigarette smoker. From time to time he
would partake a cigar, unable to say he would 'enjoy' one, but
cigarette smoke was foreign, disgusting, and brought to him a week of
discomfort, starting in his sinuses and usually ending in a
full-blown headache on his flight home.
He fell on the bed fully clothed, and could feel the definite
sensation of his conscious mind shutting down, just like his PC at
the end of the day. His consciousness would first disassociate, like
a large room, shrinking down into a small cloud of thought surrounded
by total blackness. Eventually shrinking again to the size of a
coffee cup, then the size of a button, and then nothingness until
morning. WAIT! Still in his clothes he sat up and called down for his
wake up call, tossed his clothes on the 2nd double bed, then crashed
on the bed, lacking even the energy to pull back the shiny thin bedcover.
He was shivering, and tried to focus his eyes at the red digital
clock readout, 3:37. He rolled over and pulled back the covers,
crawling into them like a soldier crawls into a foxhole. And then the
telephone rang at 6:15 sharp. The light was already streaming in
through the window, barely slowed down by the shear curtains. The
room came equipped with heavy, thick, cave-darkening curtains, but he
always left them open just so the morning sunshine would blast him
into consciousness. There was no better way to start a day.