Day 18: Confessions

“My car is in the shop this week. Can I have a seat here?” She asked, pointing at the seat that was opposite to me, and would most effectively block me in from escaping or looking anywhere other than her face, I noted.

Ashley sat, and for a minute just stared at me. I jostled the papers in my lap a little which prompted her to ask: “When did you start riding the bus?”

“Just this week,” I said. “Gives me a chance to get a little walk in before work, and it saves on gas if I’m just going to work and back.”

The half-truth came out so smoothly that it seemed as if I’d rehearsed it. It pushed us both back into the awkward waters of silence.

“You look nice,” I said, gesturing to her parka, and it was true that she did look good. She was wearing more makeup than when we’d been together, but it wasn’t overdone, and she’d cut her hair so that its floppy layers hung just so about her ears; framing her large, doll eyes.

“Thanks,” she mumbled. “So do you…is work going well?”

“Yeah, actually. It’s sorta growing on me. I had a good day,” I said.

Ashley smiled in a small way, and that’s when the awfulness of losing her took that opportunity to crash back into me. I missed her smile, and the way the parka fit her small body, and her floppy hair, and the way she would always ask about me before she ever said what was bothering her about herself. I felt the distance between us, now closed in in the physical realm but still vast and unnavigable in our hearts, and I wanted to feel close to her and ask her…ask her anything really. I’d ask her to come and fix her perpetually leaking toilet in her apartment if it meant I could get closer to her in a way that was so easy and assumed before.

But it was my stop now, and I needed to get off the bus if I wanted to get home before the walk home for me became one in the dark. Her bus stop wasn’t for another couple of stops. I made a move to stand, her eyes following me as I stood, but then I remembered that I was a free man, bound to nothing other than a 9 to 5 in insurance…and if I got home a little late, well I could afford to be sleepy at my desk tomorrow.

I sat back down, and said: “You know, if you don’t mind, I’ll see you to your stop. We can catch up that way.”

And we both smiled at that.

Ashley told me about how her job was letting her try a new position in their marketing department and how she was adjusting to that. She admitted that she’d actually had a fender bender with her car, and that was why it was in the shop. Texting and driving she said with averted eyes, but I didn’t scold her any further for her lapse in judgement. The awkwardness of us being former lovers and people who “knew one another’ only seemed to rear its head when we let it into the conversation, but it was mostly held back on a short leash. When Ashley’s stop came up, I walked her to the bus door, and grasped her hand briefly.

“Call me next week. My car should be fixed by then, and we’ll do lunch,” she said, and then slipped out the doors, and away from the tinted glass of the bus as the hulking monster of this public transportation lurched away.

I took the nearest seat, and watched as her form grew smaller and smaller. I’d have to stay on the bus for the full route to get back to my stop, but that was alright with me. It was a chance to relax and just zone out, I thought, bringing my papers out again to look over them. But then I paused, and considered if Ashley and I even having lunch together next week was a good idea.

She’d ended the relationship, and so by all rights she was the one who was in the position to permit reconciliation. But the break up was done with good reason I remembered all too well. Being a young fool, in a relationship with a girl for more than two years in what seemed more like a lifetime of fights, reconciliations, epiphanies, and sharing more human miasma than I’d shared with anyone outside my family, I’d been afraid of Ashley’s singular power over me and all indications of our relationship moving to the next step. And so I’d unconsciously looked for an out. Not in the adult means of discussing my reservations and admitting my shortcomings that I felt in no way qualified me to be a provider or even a more than temporary companion to this girl. No, I decided to go the most surefire way to get myself out of a tough grown-up decision, and allowed myself to be put in shady not-technically-wrong situations until it was inevitable that will power broke and I ended up cheating on her with another girl. It was not just a kiss and not just a few nude selfies sent back and forth, either. I went for full-on drunken sex in a public restroom with a barely legal teen who worked part-time at the Gap.

When I screw things up for myself, I certainly don’t do it halfway.

Ashley and I were supposed to go apartment shopping the next day, and at least I can say for myself that I’m not one to be able to keep a guilty secret. I’m not a master of timing either. As we were touring the master bedroom in one apartment, the rental property agent still in the living room, I told her in a rush that fell past my lips and rose up to smack her deftly in her shocked face, while cuckold horns grew out of her head in simultaneous hideousness of the situation. Ashley responded as best as one can when a stranger is in the next room and social cues sacred enough to merit consideration. She calmly went to the agent and said we would not be needing any joint living ventures, and then she went to her car and drove away, leaving me and the agent at the doorway to the duplex.

I had dropped by her apartment the next day in an attempt to have some sort of closure talk or sorts, but about 10 minutes in she was furiously sobbing, yelling alternately at me and then herself for crying, and all the while indicating a level of hate for me that would leave no room for salvaging of anything we’d had. It was just what I’d deserved. No, actually, she would have been well within her rights as jilted lover to throw a few punches or at least a few curses my way. Yet, Ashley was a better person than I was, and took the high road, simply leaving me with guilt and no one to blame but myself for the mess I’d made.

…and so I had a problem with commitment, I admitted to myself, staring out the bus window now, having abandoned my attempts to read the legal jargon on my paperwork I had brought. And I almost always handled my own rejection of commitment to situations badly, I thought, as I remembered my inability to stay at any job more than about three years time, my hesitation in confirming my attendance to social gatherings, and half a dozen other examples of my fear of locking myself into situations where I figured I would fail sooner or later, and probably in a big way, anyway. Would this be something I would just come up against again and again in life, and find ways to run and duck away from?

And this is why the insurance work had come so easily to me today, I decided, because it absolutely didn’t matter. My commitment to the job was temporary, and I wasn’t in danger of harming anyone with life or death decisions. I was free to just be a cog in the machine, and no one got hurt. Maybe my work didn’t matter, but it was safe. There was some satisfaction in that. Right?

I let my mind chase the tail of these thoughts again and again on the bus loop back around to my house, and didn’t come up with any answers. I did note, stepping out into the dark from the bus, that the only thing I’d done today that had any actual bearing on my life, that gave me any inkling of happiness, was when I’d impulsively decided to stay on the bus and not get off just to walk home in the daylight, some pretext of safety because the streets were lit. I wouldn’t read into it too much, I told myself.

I didn’t get mugged as I walked to my shitty apartment, but my high that I’d gotten from a “good day’s work” at the insurance company was long gone, and I felt like I’d been beaten by my own thoughts of self-condemnation. I came in and rummaged the freezer, finding a frozen meal of pasta and cream sauce, which I threw into the microwave and punched the numbers for the cook time angrily into the interface of the machine.

I had changed into loose fitting workout pants, and the grey tanktop I favored when I was feeling under the weather when I took my cell phone out of my pocket and noticed I had a few missed calls and a new voice mail. The area code was familiar but I didn’t know the number. I pressed play on the voice mail button and held the phone up to my ear.

“This message is for Jorge Muertas. This is Nurse Jenny at Flagler Hospital. This message regards your mother, Ms. Eliana Muertas. If you could please give us a call back as soon as you get this, we need to fill you in on her condition. The number is…”

But my ears heard nothing after that, and my body was in a similar numbness. The microwave was screaming its announcement that my frozen dinner was perhaps less frozen. And I didn’t realize it until I took the phone away from my face, but I was crying.

In the jumble to run away from all the things that scared me today, I had forgotten to check on the person who had kept me safe all my life. I should have taken a moment to calm myself with a few steadying breaths, but I was shaking in such a panic that I knew nothing else to do but press the call back number on the voice mail feature, and listen to the phone ring on the other end.

The microwave continued to ding periodically to remind me that I was still human and had food waiting on me.

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Day 17: I can see the ending

When we were let in, I picked yet another one of the scones (peach), and we both decided that black coffee was the way to go today. We made for the table by our fireplace, in our cafe, to start our morning. I wondered if the baristas were discussing whether Dee and I were business associates or lovers. Our repeated presence, and secretive nature more likely than not had the rumor mill going.

I was still trying to figure out how the extension and all out rape of the system of time, by which I had governed my whole life, could be justified by Dee in the name of productivity. And when I sat down, the weight of that and all the rest of it hit me all at once. Dee sat across the table, pleasantly fluffing his newspaper out, and sipping lightly at his hot brew; just like he had done yesterday…and the day before, and probably every other day before he had called me to join the corps. There was a rising panic in my stomach that spread to my chest and vibrated at my fingertips in only the span of time it took Dee to finish reading the front page of the news.

This commitment I was making to join Dee in his daily work was more than just a job. This work would not end when I hit 65. There was no retirement. There was going to be no weekends. The job didn’t really ever have a quitting time. I was forever on call. I was forever bound to my duty, and I was forever expected to exist in a realm of duty rather than a realm of self-seeking as every other mortal was free to do. I was bound inextricably to this work and this routine of the morning scone, the distasteful chord cutting, and the forced digestion of all the fabric of other people’s lives. While other humans just got to be concerned with their own purpose in life, I had to try and evaluate the purpose for all human existence, and with less material of my own to find meaning in. The life that Dee assured me I could have outside of my dedication to the job, was seeming less and less possible. Had I lost the right to life by accepting the bond with Death?

I pushed back from the table, and my untouched breakfast, and shook my head at the whole of the thing. Dee pulled the paper away from his face, and set it on the table front as he looked to me to see what was the matter.

“Jorge?”

“I can’t do this, Dee,” I said again, but now there was a real feeling behind it that I would be giving up too much in taking this job, and I would not see what reward there was in it for me. It seemed like a selfish thought, but all the same I couldn’t banish it. I wanted to live, and I wanted to matter. I wanted to be seen always, and to not just disappear to the rest of the world when things that they couldn’t process happened. I didn’t want to see these things that mortals couldn’t see. I wanted the normalcy of the human lifespan and the mundane that went with it.

“It gets easier,” Dee said. “You’ve got to give it a try. Turning your back on your duties will send you right back to that boring little rut you had carved for yourself, and you’ll be subject to death at any time that fate dictates. Even worse, it’s going to allow the demons to show up at any time and place, with only me to fend them off, and take all the souls they can grab up from us. That means that you walking out now is damning countless people to a hell of emptiness. This is larger than you, and larger than me. It’s not something to pick up and drop at a whim. You are fate, and your fate is to be that force that drives the motion of the world.”

I paused and tried to take in his words, but the fear bubbled up in me again, and I saw Azazal’s sharp eyes in my memory, and heard his words about the worthlessness of working against the grain of existence.

I said: “I know you have good intentions in saying all this, and trying to take me on as an assistant. I’m honored. Truly. But I think that if I ever was an assistant to you, and able to do that job in the past…well, I’ve lost something that made me qualified or rather insane enough to go through with it. I can’t give up my own life for everyone else’s. I’m just not that guy,” I said, and I stood, turning away from Dee and heading for the door.

“You’re content with just letting Azazal have them all?” Dee shouted after me. “Your going to let him take them with no fight at all?”

I didn’t turn around, not even to check if anyone else in the cafe could hear this man yelling what probably seemed like crazy nonsense at me. I mumbled to myself: “Not my problem.” Because it wasn’t my problem. I didn’t have any kind of responsibility to figure out people’s purpose for them, and I didn’t have an obligation to take their life away from them; whether they were saints or scoundrels. I wasn’t any better judge of character than anyone else.

I wasn’t that much of a forward thinker either, and so I hadn’t considered that I wouldn’t have a ride home once I’d dropped the title of Death’s assistant and the benefits that went with it. When I exited the cafe, my first impulse was to head back home and try and recoup my thoughts. Yet, as I walked toward the bus stop to head in that direction, I realized the building where I had worked as an insurance agent was only a block away now. Since I had turned in my resignation to Dee, it actually made more sense to me to return to business as usual in my old life, I thought. No time like the present. I turned at the corner and crossed the street to get to the building.

I hadn’t been in the building in about a day and a half, but it felt like I’d been gone on a long vacation. Everything was so normal, and quiet in the morning hours, that it took on a strange quality that made me nervous, as though a swarm of locusts or something was going to fly around the corner at me if all stayed too still for much longer. I ignored my newfound paranoia to the typical jibe of reality, and took the elevator up to my floor and sought out my cubicle. My cellphone now read a time of 8 a.m., and so I was still early for my work shift by all accounts. I didn’t care one way or another. I sat down at the cubicle, strapped my headset on, and punched a line to take the next waiting caller. I greeted them with the most chipper, “Hello, my name is George!” that I think I’d ever mustered. The woman on the other line actually paused for a few beats to make sure I was a real voice and not an over-enthusiastic robot.

I took several other calls, laughing and bantering with the customers, and refusing any possibility of getting upset with their most banal requests or any level of condescension in their voice. An hour later, when all my co-workers began to arrive, a man who looked eerily similar to me hovered in the hallway, watching me at the cubicle, before hanging his head in resignation and disappearing down the hall and from existence all together it would appear if anyone was paying attention to him.

They weren’t.

Commitment, when done with a firm and true dedication, can provide fulfillment greater than any other when the object of your efforts reaches new levels; a payoff. Certainly, commitment to one area may result in a hindrance of freedom to other matters, and it’s going to require some legwork no matter how sweet the rewards of the initial dedication appear. This is why it scares many of us to give of one’s self so fully to a cause, especially if the future of the time vested in the efforts is unpredictable. The future is always unpredictable though, and commitment is always a risk laden and terrifying process on some kind of sliding scale. Because when you commit, you give of yourself pieces that aren’t so easily taken back. You become one with the entity that’s taking your time, love, skills, etc. Becoming one with two bodies is impossible says the rational mind, and then it flees. The fearful mind can doubt just about anything. The things that rely on a leap of faith stand no chance in this atmosphere. 

By the time I was on the bus home that day, I was exhausted from going at a non-stop pace all day, solving issues for irate customers and selling policies left and right. But I’d given it an effort I’d never given to the job, and it was a tired satisfaction I felt. I was settled back into the hard plastic of my bus seat, and was flipping through some paperwork that had been handed out this week that my doppelganger had supposedly read through and signed my name off on, when I felt a small tap on my shoulder.

I looked up, and in front of me stood a short, pale-skinned woman with floppy bleached blonde hair. It was my ex-girlfriend Ashley, standing there in the purple faux-fur lined parka I’d bought her last year. She didn’t look murderous or tearful, both things I’d seen in her eyes the last time we’d encountered one another, and so I took this for a good sign.

“Oh hello,” I said awkwardly. “You ride the bus?”