Jimmy hated elevators. It wasn't that he hated small spaces or feared heights. Actually, the physical characteristics of elevators had always intrigued him. When he was a kid, every time the elevator doors swooshed shut, Jimmy would squeeze his eyes shut and imagine that he was actually in a teleportation device. He would wrap his mind around how he could get into a room, shut the door, and then open the door again to be somewhere else. It had to be magic. Jimmy loved to think of the elevator car hurtling wildly through time and space, only to announce its arrival with a polite ding.
One day, Jimmy's father insisted that Jimmy see how elevators actually worked. There was no such thing as teleportation. Jimmy's father had paid the doorman to open the elevator doors and let them peer down the shaft. See the pulleys? See the weights? The weights dropped, and the car rose. Jimmy had watched dutifully, and the next time he rode the elevator, the magic was gone. Gone were the inter-dimensional rides, and in its place were mechanics and pulleys and engineering. Grown-up things, his father agreed.
Jimmy rode elevators like everyone else ever since, and Jimmy hated it. He hated how elevator rides were simply forced intimacy. Standing inches away from a complete stranger in either that awkward heavy silence or that insincere small talk was excruciatingly uncomfortable. Jimmy didn't care if the Dodgers won or if it was fucking raining outside. Jimmy cared about making sure his employees were doing what he hired them to do. Jimmy spent what seemed like his entire day riding elevators up and down to each of his four offices, being a constant presence to ensure his business was running smoothly.
The highlight of Jimmy's days was when he got the elevator all to himself. He would jab the door close button repeatedly and urgently, urging the doors to slide shut before anyone else slipped inside. The worse thing was when the doors would just about shut, and a last minute asshole would stick his foot in the crack and fling them open again.
It happened today. Jimmy had almost gotten his silent, solitary elevator ride when the doors opened up again. The woman smiled at him with red lips pressed together almost apologetically, but the smile didn't reach her eyes. It was a perfunctorily stranger-to-stranger greeting with, he imagined, a dash of apology for running his ride.
Even though Jimmy decided he practically hated her, he allowed his eyes to wander underneath his dark sunglasses. She wore a seashell pink sundress, cinched in to show the curve from her waist to her hips. From his height, he could look directly down her dress at the tops her breasts encased in a hint of lace. The pearls around her neck matched the studs in her ears. She didn't have a ring on her finger, so Jimmy figured she was meeting her boyfriend for lunch at the restaurant on the top floor. She confirmed his prediction when she leaned forward and hit the button for ten.
She smelled like the flowers his gardener had planted by the new pool—a much better smell than the expensive shit his last girlfriend wore. Even though her presence irritated him by ruining his alone time, Jimmy the man could appreciate a good looking woman. As they ascended floor by floor in that awkward silence, Jimmy wondered if her bra matched her panties. She seemed like the kind of woman who cared about things like that. He had just gotten to the part where she was straddling his lap and pressing his face against her breasts when the elevator abruptly stopped and they were plunged in darkness. He felt her bump into him as if seeking protection, and then she was gone again. When the emergency lights flickered, she was in the corner, staring at him with huge dark eyes.
Jimmy felt his manly role of protector spark to life, and he spoke first. "It's going to be okay."
He hadn't expected her lower lip to tremble and her eyes to fill with tears. Shit. Shit. He wasn't equipped to dealing with hysterical woman. Why couldn't he have been by himself? He could have used the delay to work on something productive.
"Hey. Hey," he tried to sound gentle, but he ended up sounding like he was talking to his dog. Jimmy awkwardly patted her arm, watching her eyes go to the ceiling to prevent any tears from falling. She seemed embarrassed. "Don't worry. They know we're up here. The power must have just gone out. We'll get out in no time. Watch. It's okay." He was babbling, trying to make the fear leave her eyes. "See?" He leaned forward to hit the intercom, and his worst fears were confirmed. Help would come as soon as help could come. The other two elevators in the building held a pregnant woman and an elderly gentleman with a heart condition respectively, and their car was at the end of the list.
Apparently, no one understood the gravity of the situation. It wouldn't have been so bad to be stuck in an elevator with a beautiful woman. Hell, he had probably fantasized about this at some point. But, a beautiful crying woman was out of the question. The air felt tingly and uncomfortable with the thick emotions. Jimmy could feel the hives starting to form on his chin.
Sighing, he took off his sunglasses and slid to the ground—his back to the wall. Unbuttoning and rolling up his sleeves, he watched her lower herself on the ground across from him. She seemed unsure of how to sit on the ground and remain lady-like in a dress. She tugged on her skirt to cover her legs. After shifting several times, she folded her hands daintily in her lap. Jimmy tried to not snort at her antics. At least the woman had stopped crying. Her eyes were focused on her fingers. She did seem embarrassed.
Aw, what the hell. Might as well kill time. "I'm Jimmy," he began.
"Ellie," she responded. Her vowels were elongated, and the Southern twinge was nearly foreign out in LA. At least it wasn't the twangy drawl that sounded like nails on a chalkboard. Instead, her voice evoked refinement, and hot muggy afternoons on the porch of a mansion.
"What a day, huh?" God, he hated small talk. He wished they could have just sat in silence, but it was growing too heavy to remain quiet. He smiled to show that he wasn't a creepy pervert who was fantasizing about hooking up in an elevator.
She smiled her fake smile again. "At least it didn't crash."
"Elevators really don't crash anymore. They have a shit-load of safety measures like—" Her eyes started to glaze over in polite attention at the topic of elevator safety measures, and he trailed off. "Yeah. We'll be fine. Is your boyfriend going to be mad you're late?"
She blinked. Her lashes were long and black against her cheek. "My boyfriend," she repeated.
Jimmy shrugged. "Yeah. Your boyfriend. All dressed up in the middle of the day, going to the top floor. I'm assuming you're not meeting your girlfriends because you women always do this weird thing where you have to travel in packs. You would have waited for them to meet you in the lobby before all going up together." At least, that's what all his girlfriends always did. She smiled faintly, and he felt encouraged to keep going. "And, you're probably not meeting your parents because I get the feeling that they live in a columned house in Savannah, Georgia—sipping mint juleps."
"Charleston, South Carolina, actually. And it's whiskey."
"Okay. Your parents are in Charleston drinking whiskey. And, your purse is entirely too small to hold anything business related, so I doubt you're going to a business lunch. I'm assuming, then, that you got all beautiful this morning for your lunch date with your boyfriend." He ventured a peek at her. He was pleased to see her smiling and shaking her head. "What? I was wrong?" His lips curved into a grin. She had a nice smile.
She shook her head again. Her dark curls flopped against her shoulders. "Nothing. "
"I just…I find it amusing…"
"Huh?" Jimmy flashed white teeth at her.
"You're good at that."
"I don't know. Reading people?"
"So I was right."
"For the most part."
"Was I right about the boyfriend?"
"You were right about the women going everywhere in packs together. That part." They exchanged smiles. Jimmy felt the last big of his hostility and discomfort dissipate with the soft look in her eyes. "I'm going to tell you a secret." She leaned forward, her lips curving into a conspiratorial smile. Her neckline beckoned, but he kept his eyes firmly on hers. Mostly.
He grinned back. "Tell me a secret."
"Flattery does get people everywhere." Ellie stroked a glossy curl. "I got on this elevator stressed because I was running late. And then I got angry at the inconvenience of breaking down. And then I got annoyed at how you were so rude."
"I'm not rude!"
"Don't interrupt. See?" She sighed, as if he had proven her point. Then, she gestured to his hair. "Your inattention to grooming is irritating as well."
Jimmy swiped at his hair, silently cursing when he felt several strands sticking up. "Well—"
"Don't interrupt." She was grinning by now. "But, the minute you said I was beautiful, I started smiling like a fool."
"But are you still annoyed and irritated by me? Or should I tell you you're beautiful again?"
She laughed. "You're a rascal." The word caught him off guard. Who said things like that anymore? She was like a relic from the past—a woman plucked off the streets of Stepford and inserted into downtown Chicago. He stared at her until she looked back. "Do you have a tattoo?" The question caught him off guard as well.
"A few. Here's one." He rolled up his sleeve further until it showed just above the inside of his elbow.
She leaned closer. "What's the anchor stand for?"
"My grandfather. He was a Marine. He was one of my best friends."
"It's very nice." She ran a finger over the design, as if feeling to see if it was raised above the skin. Jimmy figured most people in Charleston society didn't have tattoos.
"Do you have any others?"
"I can't see it?"
"Well, you can, but your boyfriend probably wouldn't be too happy." Jimmy was trying to get her to admit who was waiting for her upstairs. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was an old friend, and she would pick up on his subtle hints and go out with him instead.
The smile died on her lips, and she leaned back against the wall once more. Her features went carefully neutral. "Yes. I suppose he wouldn't be too pleased."
"Stop that, Ellie." Jimmy scooted closer, his knees inches away from hers. She pressed back against the wall—eyes flashing.
"Stop that southern trophy wife shit."
"Trophy wife?" Ellie's arms crossed under her chest. Jimmy looked for a moment, before continuing.
"Yeah. Like, the quiet suffering, God-forbid-I-show-my-true-emotions type. "
"Don't you pretend to know me."
"But I do." She glared. "Why did you cry earlier—"
"I didn't cry."
"Don't interrupt. That's rude," he mocked her drawl. She huffed at his tone. "You did cry. You weren't afraid of the elevator, were you?" Her jaw tightened. She looked away from him—towards the row of buttons. Eddie scooted closer until their knees touched. "Why did you cry, Ellie?" She was breathing hard through her nose. He looked down and watched her hands tremble. He liked making her react. He had an idea that not very many people got to see her lose her control.
"You don't know anything." The sudden vehemence in her voice made him start. He responded by shifting so that he was sitting next to her and not in front of her. Their elbows brushed, and she pulled her arm back like it had been burned, cradling it in her lap. She didn't move and get up, though.
Jimmy waited until her breathing returned to normal and continued in a conversational tone. "Do you have any tattoos?"
She was silent a moment before answering. "No."
"I don't know, Jimmy." Pause. "I would get one, though."
"Really?" Jimmy tried to keep his mind from wandering to where on her body and what it'd be. It didn't seem fair to be so lustful when they were already being so intimate. "So get one."
"Jimmy, I just can't."
"Well, my father would kill me."
"Ellie. Don't exaggerate."
"Okay. Not kill me. But, he'd be furious."
"How old are you, Ellie?"
"Like, twenty four, right?"
"Twenty three? Twenty two?" He waited until she nodded at the second number, slightly surprised. She was a lot younger than he thought, but then again, most people also thought he was older too—especially after they heard about his financial successes. Few twenty-five year olds owned their own businesses, let alone four different offices. Jimmy had been smart with the money his parents had lavished upon him as a teenager, saving and investing until he had a nice little nest egg for start-up costs. "So, you're twenty-two, and you don't want to get a tattoo because of your father?"
"Don't say it like that." Ellie's elbow returned to her side, just barely touching his own. He never would have thought that so brief and innocent a touch would be so intense. It was just their goddamn elbows.
Jimmy moved his briefcase to his lap and continued. "Doesn't your father realize you're an adult?"
A short, bitter sound escaped her mouth, and Jimmy realized it was a laugh. "I guess…I don't want to disappoint them."
Jimmy was starting to figure it out. "How involved are your parents in your life?"
Ellie shrugged, her arm rubbing against his. "They love me. That's all." Her voice was carefully neutral.
"I'm sure they do." He didn't have to try to sound gentle this time.
She idly traced the design on his arm. Her fingertips were icy fire on his skin. "I'm a disappointment."
"To your parents?" Jimmy couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. He had a hard time imaging this Stepford girl could disappoint anyone. She seemed so carefully subservient, like she was devoid of any personal will.
"My brother got married last year. He was my younger brother. They were embarrassed. It should have been me."
"You're twenty two, Ellie. It shouldn't have to be you."
"It should have me," she continued quickly like trying to brush off his words. "It didn't work out. My first fiancé and I." Her voice shook once, before she sighed and looked at the ceiling. "I heard about that for months."
Jimmy looked down to where her hand rested on his arm. Slowly, trying to not startle her, his fingers crept towards hers. "Did you want to be married, Ellie? To him?"
She didn't move her hand away. She was breathing hard again, trying to keep her voice from shaking. "My parents know what is best for me. I know I'll be happy in the end."
"But not now?" His hand covered hers.
"It's not important." Her voice was low and desperate.
"Your happiness should be important. If your parents love you, they'll be happy if you're happy."
Her hand was starting to tremble. He grabbed it before she snatched it away and threaded his fingers through hers. "I can't," she croaked.
Jimmy knew she wasn't talking about their interlocked grip. "You can."
"I can't." She was shaking her head. "Even you just saying that I should leave…it makes me sick with hope and fear. I could never do that to them."
"But you do it to yourself?"
"Your boyfriend is upstairs, isn't he?"
"Do you love him?"
She stared straight ahead. Her eyes were glimmering dangerously. Jimmy was mildly surprised he didn't care if those tears fell. The emotions in the room weren't uncomfortable; they felt like a warm blanket enveloping them both together. Her lips pressed together. Jimmy was overcome by the sudden urge to bring her lips to his. She shook her head once.
"I'm going to tell you a story, Ellie," his voice was hoarse. He just wanted to kiss her.
"Okay," she whispered.
"Once upon a time, there was a girl who was rather pretty and awfully bright. She met a man—a good, decent man—and she fell in love with him." Ellie had leaned into him. Her head dropped on his shoulder, making him tingle. Jimmy felt hypnotized by his own voice. "Her parents didn't approve. He was poor, and he had calloused, low-class hands. They introduced her to another man, a man they loved and told her she would grow to love as well. They told her if she left with the low-class man, they would never speak to her again. To make her family happy, she married the man her parents picked. The good man never saw her again." Ellie was very still by his side. She was clasping his hand with both of hers now. He kept talking. "The girl moved to a big house and a son that she loved very much. Her son's name was Jimmy. She thought she was very happy, but at night, she'd lie in bed and cry softly. In fact, she wasn't happy. She never grew to love him like they had reassured her. One day, when her son turned sixteen, she took him to lunch. She sat him down with tears in her eyes and told him she wasn't happy. That if one day he woke up and she was gone, not to worry or hate her. That she was sorry in advance." Jimmy trailed off as Ellie's shoulders began shaking silently. He tightened his grip on her fingers and swallowed hard. He had never told anyone this, and now he was in a broken elevator baring his soul.
"I'm so far gone," Ellie murmured into his shoulder between her tears. "I'm so sorry, Jimmy. My very first thought was that she was selfish. That she never should have told you that. That no one else should have ever known she was anything but happy."
"But I'm glad she told me, Ellie. I wish she had gone. She's still with my father today, and she's miserable. I don't want that for her." He looked at her. "I don't want that for you."
"I'm so far gone," she repeated in a small voice, and then in the same hypnotic voice he had employed earlier, she began talking. "I have a story too, only this one is about a girl. A girl who grew up with everything she ever could want. And even though this girl tried her best all the time, nothing she ever did was good enough. In school, if she got anything below a ninety-five, she was lazy and unintelligent. If she ever took more than one helping of food, she was fat and a glutton. If she wore anything form-fitting, she was a slut. Sometimes, while they lectured her, her stomach would get all tied up in knots. She'd get so sick that she'd have to go make herself throw up. It made her feel better. She would sometimes do it several times a day. And then, she met a man. A rather wonderful man who loved her very much. She never got knots in her stomach when he was with her. But, her parents found out and told her she could never see him again. He broke up with her when she wouldn't leave with him. Her parents were extremely disappointed, and they told her repeatedly." Ellie wasn't crying. Her voice was steady. "They told her it was because they loved her. That they wanted what was best for her. That they didn't want her to make the same mistakes they had made."
"Ellie," he began, unsure of what to say.
She lifted her chin to look at him. "My parents and my boyfriend are upstairs waiting for me. My brother called me this morning and told me that Beau is going to propose over lunch."
Jimmy felt his stomach constrict. "Don't do this, Ellie."
Now she was crying again, not delicately like before, but with huge fat tears rolling down her cheeks. "They'll never speak to me again, Jimmy. I'll never see my parents or my grandparents or my friends again. I've never worked a real job before. I don't have any money. My father's given me everything. My car. My apartment. My trust fund. All I have to do is be a good daughter. "
"Ellie, if they love you, they won't make you do this." Jimmy felt the desperation in his voice. "That's not a real life. Sitting quietly while you're screaming on the inside."
"Beau's crazy about me."
"Of course he is. You're a beautiful, amazing woman." She smiled through her tears. He smiled back. "Ellie, what do you want to do?"
"Now?" She blushed, and he tried to not think about why she was blushing.
"No. With your life. What do you want?"
She blinked rapidly. "I don't know." Then, she shook her head, a wry smile on her face. "I do know what my wedding colors are going to be. I've planned them since I was four. I know the color scheme for each room in the house my father is going to give me once I get married. I know how to keep a clean house, and I know how to iron dress shirts, and I know how to manage my time so that I'm setting dinner on the table at the exact moment my husband gets home." Jimmy disengaged his fingers from hers, and with a moment's hesitation, slid his arm around her. She leaned against him, her head cradled in his shoulder and sighed.
"What are we going to do, Ellie?"
"I don't know. I need someone to tell me." She laughed softly.
"Fine. Don't marry him."
She was quiet.
"Don't live your life hoping and wishing that you're happy one day."
The elevator lights turned on then, and the car started moving once more. "No," she whispered, and then clapped her hands over her mouth. The power must have come back on before the rescue crew had gotten to their elevator.
The desperation clawed at him, working its way up his throat. He couldn't breathe. The minute the elevator reached the top floor, she was going to leave. If just one conversation had made him this crazy about her, what would a lifetime together hold? He wanted to find out. Jimmy did the only thing he could think of doing and grabbed her chin and brought her lips to his.
They kissed with growing hopelessness. Jimmy's arm wrapped around her waist, and the other hand ran down her neck, and her hands were lost in his hair and down his back, and they couldn't breathe or think because all the while because they were transporting so fast and so crazy through these alternate realities, and he saw her in her apron making dinner, and he saw them tumbling together in bed, and he saw their kids laughing, and he saw her green Christmas sweater and how she loved the necklace he got her, and he saw her hands wrinkled and her hair gray and he still loved her as much and as hard as he did now, and the elevator was getting closer and closer to the top.
And then the elevator stopped, and there was a ding and the doors slid open to reveal the lobby of the restaurant. The maître d' was staring at them in shock, and Jimmy knew how this looked—tangled together and breathing hard and crying on the floor of the elevator. He got to his feet, and helped her up as well, and she avoided his eyes as she straightened out her skirt and ran her hands through her hair. Her lips were smeared with red lipstick.
Jimmy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Ellie." She wouldn't look at him, looking everywhere but at him with tears building in her eyes. She got off the elevator and he followed. "Ellie, don't leave. Don't go in there."
"What party are you meeting?" The man raised a snide eyebrow at them both, and Jimmy felt like throwing his briefcase at the man's head and telling him he practically owned the goddamn building and that he could have him fired.
"Boudreaux," she said softly as she stood shaking in front of the host stand.
"Ellie. Stop right now." Jimmy grabbed her arm.
Her dark eyes met his. "Jimmy, it's easier this way."
"It's not. Don't. Come with me." He said the last plea without thinking. It surprised him. He did want her to come with him. He wanted to save her. He wanted to take her to get a tattoo and then hold her the entire night. He wanted her to live happily ever after, and he wanted it to be with nobody but him.
"Eleanor? Why are you so late? Who on earth is this?" An older version of Ellie in a peach colored dress-suit emerged from the powder room to their left. Diamonds dripped from her ears and fingers.
"I'm sorry, the elevator—"
"How many times must we tell you? Never ruin apologies with excuses. Now come along." The woman's eyes swept Jimmy dismissively, taking in his rumpled black shirt and his messy dark hair and his tattoos and the three days of growth on his face, and then grabbed Ellie's arm.
Ellie's eyes met his in apologetic panic. "I'm sorry," she breathed and allowed herself to be led along by the claws squeezing her arm.
The reception area was quiet as Ellie and her mother disappeared into the dining room. The maître d coughed once.
Jimmy watched where she had disappeared, and then slowly, numbly, returned to the elevator. He felt embarrassed as tears threatened to fill his eyes. He never cried. At least he would have the elevator to himself on the way down. At least the universe would grant him that small concession.
And then, of course, the doors had almost closed and then flew open again. Jimmy looked up to murderously glare at whoever threatened his solitary ride.
"Show me your other tattoo." Ellie stared back at him. She was trembling.
"Show me your other tattoo. I want to see it." Jimmy was breathing hard. With fumbling fingers, he unbuttoned his dress shirt and peeled it off. She touched his upper back with soft fingers. "Isn't that a little cliché?"
"Carpe Diem? I got it after that day my mother talked to me. I don't think it's cliché at all, if it's really how you want to live your life. It means to live every day like it's your last. Well, with common sense of course. I'm not saying to go out and rob—"
"Jimmy, want to know why I cried? When the elevator first broke?"
He turned to face her. Her eyes were red, and her skin was blotchy, and her lipstick was smeared and ruined. He thought she was beautiful. "Why?"
"Because you told me it was going to be okay. That's all I wanted to hear for so long. That things were going to be okay." Her voice broke, and Jimmy wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her against him.
The elevator doors slid shut, and no one else ruined their ride.