“Hold the door, please,” I yelled, bumbling down the hall with a white box topped with my things—eight years’ worth of pictures, notepads, pens, hard candy, a light sweater I kept on the back of my chair, a dusty pair of running shoes, pictures of Michael and Grace, loose change, two stress balls, and a few other knickknacks I kept on my desk to get me through the day. “Thank you,” I said, walking through the glass door, headed towards the front of the building. The heels of my shoes rapped against the floor, revealing my disappointment, my panicked mind. I looked up one last time at the high-ceiling decorated with lights and crystals and down at the square, ceramic tiles newly polished and on through the guarded double-doors, where a man opened the door for me, smiled and said, “Have a good evening, ma’am.” The warm evening air hit my face, mingling for a moment with the cold air from inside. I paused, readjusted my purse sliding down my shoulder, tightened my grip on the box, and then started on my usual route home—two blocks south on McHenry Blvd, turn right on Stiletto Way, a left onto Carter Way up three blocks to Kite Street, 5959 Kite Street. I imagined this time would be different, the decision I had made at 1:37pm now heavy, crushing. My legs felt wobbly, my warms weak. McHenry Blvd. appeared long, busy, condemning. I knew I was moving, that my legs were taking steps forward, but the end of the block still felt far away. A warm tear slid down my face. I wiped it with my shoulder, but another one came, and then another.
Dammit,” I said under my breath, stopping to try to compose myself, but I was unraveling, past the point of pretend. I had to face the truth head on, agree to its terms. It was my last day at Klein & Klein—a father and son law office–not by choice, a compromise I made with upper management so that I might one day be employed again in the field.
“The evidence is here,” Bob Klein Sr. said, looking down at a stack of papers. “This is your signature?” he pointed to the bottom of a contract.
“And this one too?”
“I don’t know what else to say…you could be prosecuted for something like this,” he went on, rubbing the front of his head where only fuzz grew now. “Luckily, Bob Jr. caught this in time,” he swung his arm, waving the papers in my face. “And…I don’t think it was intentional…I just can’t have you working here after something like this,” he let out a long breath. “So what I’m willing to do…if you agree to leave today…is not put this little oversight in your file…that way should you decide to continue to your career, you’re not blacklisted.
I signed a confidentiality form and agreed to its terms, one of which was to not ever speak an ill word about Klein & Klein.
There in ink I promised.
“You can stay until the end of the day…so long as your departure is…”
“Yes, Mr. Klein, I will leave peacefully.” I wanted him out of my office. I wanted time to process what was happening, knowing there would never be enough time, that time would move on without me.
“Okay then,” he left, still shaking the stack of papers, all with my signature, documenting a grave error only people new to the business make.
I got to McHenry and Symphony and stood there at the crosswalk waiting for green. There were people in front of me, behind me, beside me. I felt closed in. The same people I stood next to everyday now felt imposing. We were not the same anymore, walking numbly from our twelfth-floor offices with our briefcases, going home for the evening where our families would get the watered-down version of us since our minds were still in the office strategizing, calculating, worrying about a caseload that never seemed to get smaller, only bigger. I turned around, squeezing through the crowd, my box my armor.
“Excuse me…excuse me,” I said until a path opened.
I walked down Monroe; it mirrored McHenry. On either side of me, people clustered, their steps in uniform. Friends and strangers moved steady, racing away from the office, homebound for a few hours of freedom before they return in herds wearing matching suits and ties, designer dresses and jewelry, hair combed and pressed flat with gel, parted, curled, edged. Poised and manicured, purposeful as the morning air tickles their faces. I felt empty as our shoulders bumped, a foreigner in this small world. I looked like them on the outside, but inside the meaning of life had morphed like an old polaroid. I swallowed building emotion, smiled at women in pencil skirts and running shoes. They smiled back in solidarity and then moved on with wide, intentional steps.
My pace slowed as I walked away from the crowd. I kept walking until there were no crowds, where people walked alone, not in clusters. Until tall buildings became rows of short buildings with flat rooftops and then small houses with small yards, small driveways, small windows. Families were arriving home, pulling into their short driveways in dented minivans, kids jumping out with bright-colored backpacks. The smell of dinner cooking in the oven seeped through their doors. Other children on bicycles rode up and down the street playing made up games they stopped long enough to review the rules and then start again with, if not the same enthusiasm, more. I thought about my Grace at piano practice, the teacher whacking her knuckles when she played the wrong key, forgot a note, or otherwise seemed disinterested in the music, its beauty. “It’s good for her to learn the right way to play,” I had told myself as tears slid down her face, her knuckles red, a little swollen.
An older couple, maybe in their 80’s, sat in their front yard on a wooden swing swinging back and forth hand in hand just watching the day end, glad they still had each other. I tried to imagine Michael and I in the swing. I couldn’t. Instead I knew he’d turned his nose at the patches of crab grass. Our landscaper came once a week at Michael’s request to tame nature so that the yard always looked manicured. He didn’t want the neighbors to think we were slobs, or worse, poor. The sealed bills that arrived each month totaling amounts we might never be able to pay didn’t bother him. I tried to imagine Grace and I in that swing. “I don’t want to get dirty, mommy,” I heard her say. My sweet angel already afraid of life, living and disappointing were synonymous in her mind so she spent each day trying to avoid each, avoid us.
A man in blue overalls with wild hair and dirty hands waved from his doorway as I passed. Next door were six kids, two diapered and shirtless, both trying to get on a red tricycle; two digging holes in the yard with small shovels; and two older girls in cut-off shorts and navy-blue shirts, at least a size too small, jumping rope. Grace had never jumped rope or worn cut offs.
I kept walking until houses became small shops, small shops with their doors wide open, handwritten signs inviting passersby. My arms and fingers ached, the box slipping from my grip with each step. At the corner of 35th Street and Monroe I crossed. I put my box on the grass next to the stop sign, pushed my purse back onto my shoulder, grabbed Michael and Grace and left the rest. I decided to go inside a small coffee shop called Freedom, its daily specials written in chalk outside the door. It reminded me of Grace, how she loved chalk, how once our driveway was lined with hearts and flowers she’d drawn that I had been too busy to see, to really see.
“Where did you get this chalk?” I had asked her. “I don’t want you playing with this and marking the driveway,” I scolded. “Daddy will get mad.” And with the hose I erased her creations.
I stood in line behind a woman wearing army boots, a pleated yellow skirt, black t-shirt, and green camo jacket. She stood with her feet crossed at the ankle, a multi-colored knitted bag on her right shoulder. Her bright red mohawk reached for the low ceiling, its spikes sharp and stiff. I inched closer to her, inhaling Rosemary, starch, and hairspray. She ordered a chai tea and a chocolate Freedom muffin and then plopped down on the long couch. She pulled a black notebook from her bag and started writing.
“I’ll take a small coffee,” I said, my usual auto response. “No…make that a green tea, large.” I forced a smile at the barista.
“Large, green tea it is,” he said.
I took a seat in the corner at a small table so that I faced the woman on the couch. She paused from time to time waiting for the right words and then let them fall onto the page. Next to her was a man, his hair thin and white from age. He sipped his coffee and stared out the window at cars passing by, the occasional jogger. At the table next to mine was a young couple drinking mochas and sharing a lemon square. They smiled after each tart bite, let out a giddy laugh, and let their free hands travel up the other’s arm, stopping to offer a tickle, a rub, a pat. Across the room, behind the woman on the couch were two friends sipping iced coffees. They sat with their legs crossed leaning toward each other. Their conversation was cyclical–casual to endearing, serious to silly, back to casual. They erupted with laughter as if on cue, each offering her whole heart, love untethered. I thought about my friend Janice, how close we once were. But now I didn’t even know what state she lived. I had never met her children. And even if I knew her phone number, I wasn’t sure I could reach her.
“Chai tea and a Freedom muffin,” the barista said, handing a white cup and saucer to the woman on the couch. “Enjoy,” he smiled.
“Thank you,” she said, repositioning herself.
The tall barista with the short haircut sauntered over to my table with my green tea.
“Enjoy,” she said, her expression sympathetic.
I nodded and took a gulp. It was bitter but refreshing. I took another drink, then another, and another until the glass was half full. I looked down at the light green liquid and began to laugh: a big hearty, pain-filled, uncontrollable laugh. My eyes welled, tears jumping onto my cheeks, sliding down my chin, my neck. I kept laughing. My body shook, wild convulsions I welcomed.
Conversations stopped as all eyes found their way to my table. Concerned glances and awkward smiles stopped time. One brave soul, the woman on the couch, spoke.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I shook my head yes and smiled wide, showing my teeth like I was in a pageant.
“Are you sure?” this time her voice serious.
“Well…I got fired today,” I yelled, standing up. I walked towards her but stopped when her expression changed from concerned citizen to fearful patron. “I didn’t even like that job.” I started laughing again until laughing became crying and breath escaped. I fell to the floor, reaching for air, reaching for life.
“That sucks…but I guess it could be a good thing,” the woman’s face softened. She put her notebook down and walked to me. Her steps were hard, intentional. She put her hand on my arm and crouched next to me. “This could turn out to be a really good thing for you…now you’re free to do something else, something you like.”
Joy entered the back of my mind just out of reach, at the helm was Michael, his voice.
“You fucked up.”