He looked up guiltily, caught with no way to hide it. He moved his feet nervously, shuffling like someone playing poker for the first time. There was nothing he could do.
He decided to bluff it out.
"Good morning! Isn't it such a nice day?" he said with false brightness. "I love being able to see the sky, it's so refreshing."
She nodded politely. He saw his opening in her nod, launched into a determined diatribe about the weather. Recently it had been so cold, wasn't it? The wet, the seeping chill. It was all just a little too much. He knew she wanted to break up his monologue right now, but he never stopped for breath. He left no room for her; he was airtight.
Finally, though, even he was beginning to get bored. And thirsty. He really needed water right now—or maybe a stronger drink. As he casted about for a way to keep talking, he could hear himself slowing down. Like a train pulling into its stop, everyone noticed—especially her.
"Why are you holding my mail?" she demanded of him without preamble. "I'm going to call the police. It's a federal crime."
"What!" he said, faking confusion. "What are you talking about? I only just picked up—Oh! I see." He handed the red envelope back to her. "I must have gotten confused. Sorry."
He hoped—no, he prayed—that she would not pursue the weak line of reasoning. That would hurt. To his immense relief, she accepted his apology, although she did not look entirely convinced.
"No problem…" she inspected the seal, making sure it was untouched, then stuffed it into her purse. "Well, I have to get going now."
She turned and left. At the sight of her back, the chokehold on his chest collapsed and he sucked in a lungful of air.
"By the way," she said, suddenly twisting around. He could not help but notice the elegant line she made, the turn of the spine down to the small of the back, and could not help noticing how well-dressed she was. She wore a crisp, businesslike blazer over a nice blue blouse and a pair of white pants, her black hair tucked in a tasteful bun. "I don't think we've met. I'm Elaine." She held out her hand.
He was aware of how underdressed he was compared to her. He was still in his pajamas, a pair of grey sweats and an old UC Davis shirt on. He felt like a mess standing next to her. He felt all dowdy and gross.
He unconsciously combed through his hair. And noticed how he had not showered yet. In fact, he usually did not rise this early. Typically, his day began around eleven, five hours away from the time right now. After that shot of life you got from the initial wake-up (which, surprisingly, lasted him until now), his eyelids were drooping again, He wondered, not for the first time, what possessed him to pick this particular time and this particular day to do this.
"I'm Brian. I'm sorry about before," he said, struck by a stroke of genius. He shook her hand vigorously. He had read somewhere that a confident handshake exuded energy and charm. "I don't wake up this early usually. It's super disorienting."
She eyed him. "What time do you usually wake up?" She did not extricate her hand from his grip.
"Umm, around eleven," he said. "Pretty far from now, I know," he replied, reading her widened eyes correctly.
"Why do you wake up that late?"
He flushed at her tone. "Well, it's—I'm—the thing is … Well, I guess the thing is that I don't really have a job right now." He made a face and watched her reaction. What would she say to this ill-dressed man she caught taking her mail basically say he was unemployed? He experienced a momentary quiver of shame.
"Sorry," she said, after an awkward silence. "I know that sounded rude. I can get a little rude sometimes. I don't mean to. But I do. And I understand. It's a tough job market right now."
Hearing her words jolted Brian back. He did not need to feel inferior to her; after all, he was not the one on trial here. Her judgment really pulled no weight in any aspect of his plan.
Brian could hear her thoughts right now: this guy, she must be thinking, must be one of those trust fund brats that pervaded the building. He had to admit, she did have a point. The building they were living in was one of the most expensive in the city, with the average asking price for a single-room apartment nearing a million dollars. Truly mind-boggling. It was unlikely that a recent college graduate—only a few months out of school!—could be able to afford a place like this without daddy writing the check.
He would come to that conclusion too, had he only had the facts she did. But he did not. Because he possessed more than the superficial veneer of information she saw.
He grinned at her, the very picture of charming.
"It's perfectly fine," he said. "You know life can't be all work and no play."
Brian could see that remark needled her, and he meant it to. He had heard about her. Elaine Parson, director of operations for PLT, workaholic. She worked a forty-hour week, he recalled, and had no social life, rarely leaving her apartment. That was why he was asked to move in.
She was young and still had that spark, the vivacity that spiced up life. It was undeniable; Brian could sense that, in the glint of her eyes, even in the edge of her voice. He wondered why someone who had it all—looks, money, charm, intelligence—would become a shut-in.
Thinking that, Brian regained his composure. He might not be impeccably dressed or employed, but he had an important commodity—connections. It reminded him of a play he once watched, called "Six Degrees of Separation," the author's name he had forgotten a long time ago. It talked about how everyone knew someone who was friends with someone who married someone. That the President of the United States was only six people away from knowing a gondolier in essence, the play talked about how everyone in the world was connected.
But from the research about Elaine, it seemed she was this lone figure in the world, watching from on high, not one of the millions of tiny little blurs on the ground.
It must be scary, Brian thought, as they paid their farewells perfunctorily, to live by herself in such a big penthouse. So high, too. If not on the top floor, then one of the highest floors. It gave him a discomforting feeling, the image of himself standing in a huge marbled hall, cluttered with knickknacks and toys, from the latest flat-screen to the newest jacket from Givenchy. Yet there were no people, not even a hint of another human inhabiting the space. Honestly, the idea chilled him.
That was why he was here, he reminded himself. He was not here to enjoy a plushy party pad or to ogle the view. He was here to help.
ELAINE wondered why that strange young man was rifling through her personal correspondence. He was new, she was certain of it. Brian.
She didn't know what to make of him. Her assessment was that of a recent college grad using his parents' money to play grown-up. Waking up at eleven! She almost couldn't bear it. When she was his age, she worked two jobs, had to wake up before the sun to get to the bus that took her to her job. She worked her fingers to the bone, trying to collect enough for rent in a dingy dungeon of room she shared with six other girls.
It gratified her that she dressed better. But there was no purpose to dress up for fetching mail. And, she thought as she stepped into her car, his handshake certainly wasn't a slacker's. He had a surprisingly strong grip, she thought, rubbing her hand gently. A confident hand, one that certainly did not resemble the pudgy fish-grasp of the idlers she often interviewed.
She hoped that he wouldn't waste his potential. He was young, energetic (from his handshake, she could tell; she was a businesswomen, she knew these things), and handsome. Intelligent and charming, too, from the little conversation they had. She wanted only the best for him. After all, wasting would be a crime.
Her mind dwelled on him all day. At her office, sitting in her desk, she toyed with her mouse, distractedly clicking away.
The air itself seemed to be laced with a stimulant; the moment she stepped in the door, there was a strong scent of coffee and pollen. An odd combo, but one that Elaine liked. Strangely enough, it took her back to childhood.
She remembered how her parents took her to the park for picnics. They left early in the morning, probably around seven or eight. Their bags were packed—from jam and bread to ham to coffee to blankets to all sorts of desserts—and then they set off.
The corners of her mouth perked up a bit. She missed those days, when life was simpler, reduced to the all-important question of whether to put jam or peanut butter on her toast. Now, she had to deal with accounts payable and capital requirements and spreadsheets. Not exactly simple matters she could do while painting her nails.
She tapped at her keyboard impatiently, looked at the clock. It had only been two hours since she'd arrived. Yet in that stretch of time, she had accomplished basically nothing. No work was done. She glared at her computer fiercely. Why couldn't this Excel sheet type itself up? Annoyance tugged at her. It was a lovely day, with crisp skies that looked painted and sunlight filtered.
Her pale reflection on her flower vase grabbed her eye. Logically, Elaine recognized that it was probably the porcelain. But still, she looked like a ghost. An apparition whose life had been sucked out by work and overbearing ambition.
She was conflicted. A part of her—a very strong part—wanted to stand up and go outside, jump around on the grass. Another part—the one that reminded her to pay the bills, to clean the room—demanded she finish the spreadsheet and set up her appointments for tomorrow.
It hurt, this indecision. Elaine opened the window. A reasonable compromise, she thought; it let the breeze in so the room had some fresh air, and she could stay and finish her work.
She was completely wrong. The sharp, clean air, after the stale mustiness of machine filtered oxygen, was intoxicating. Headier than any alcohol she drank before, the fresh breeze wafting gently in caused the office to shrink. Now, her office, which once had been so spacious, was like a cell, trapping her inside.
Elaine helplessly clicked her mouse. She really, really needed fresh air. But the struggle was already decided when she stayed in her chair. She was not about to move again. Resignedly, she set her mind to work.
Surprisingly, she managed to do so for the rest of the day. During her lunch break, she walked outside, inhaling in, being rejuvenated by nature. Her mind was cleared; her spirit reenergized. Thank god for lunch breaks, she thought, her foot idly scruffing up dirt. She could not imagine one more minute in that hellhole. This must be how prisoners on Alcatraz felt.
She decided, if she ever ran into Brian again, she'd ask him how he did it. How he enjoyed life. Her stomach gave a little lurch at his mental image. It was weird, how he had sneaked himself into her psyche so quickly. She wondered why … did she have a little crush on him? Or was she just starved for company that she leapt at the first sane person she found?
Most of the people in her building were either too old to socialize with—nothing in common—or too frivolous, partying all day every day. It was hard for her to keep up; she just didn't have the energy after working forty-something hours a week to do that.
Now that she thought about it, Brian might be a partier too. He did wake up at eleven. But then, maybe she could use him to try, find a chance to unwind a bit. Who knew?
She decided to ring him up when she returned home.
THE first problem was how. She puzzled over it on the car, musing over the ways she could track Brian down over the hum of the engines.
His name might be in the directory—but then, there might be multiple Brians, and she wasn't about to knock on all the doors in the building to check their faces.
She could always talk to the doorman. He was the omnipresent Big Brother of the building: he knew the hijinks of every resident.
She didn't need to, it turned out. As the car pulled up the curb, she spotted Brian standing, rummaging through his bag. He was better dressed this time, in a more formal dress shirt and slacks.
"Hey! Elaine, right?" he said as he spotted her. "Did you just finish work?"
"Yeah," she said, wondering that the mysterious methods of fate. "And you?"
"Just got out of my internship," he said.
"Oh!" She tried to cover up the surprise in her tone. That could be considered rude. "I thought you said you weren't working..."
"Do you consider internships employment?" he said. "Because it's like in this weird gray area, so I don't really know. I mean, I get a useless stipend from it, but honestly, it's totally useless and I have to ask my parents for money."
He paused for breath, looked at her. "Sorry. I guess I just kind of went on a rant. It's kind of a bad habit. Anyways, how was your day?"
"I don't know, I worked? I mean, honestly, it's been the same for two years."
"But you like it, right? I don't want to pry, but it seems like it pays well." He gestured at the building. Up close, the building overshadowed the tallest trees by at least five stories. It was a giant behemoth of a building. Brian realized, instinctively, that you could get lost here for days and no one would notice.
"It's huge, isn't it?" Elaine said, following his gaze. "I've gotten lost once or twice. This was after about a month of living here too."
"Do you wanna go get a bite to eat?"
THEY had a good time. They found a small diner at the corner. Brian ordered hot chocolate and Elaine ordered a full meal, a cheeseburger and fries.
"I'm hungry," she said, to Brian's questioning gaze.
After, they went back to their respective apartments.
Elaine was enjoying this. She had made possibly her first friend in the building and she grinned.
Oddly enough, Brian was thinking about the day too. He was glad he took the job. He remembered that day.
He was standing on the stadium in a circle with his friends. It was after graduation, and they were all feeling emotion; graduation goggles, someone called it, and they all started crying. It was a brilliant day: the sun was out, there was no wind, everything was perfect.
Someone had come up to him, asked him if he wanted a job.
Of course, he took interest. Every college graduate needed cash. It got weirder when he heard the guy out.
Apparently, the man had a daughter living in some fancy apartment in the city. Apparently, she never left her apartment except for work. His job, the man explained, was to break her out of her.
All expenses paid living at a glitzy party pad, plus being given an eye-popping amount of money … who didn't want that?
He felt a little guilty, but it wasn't really taking advantage of her, was he? It wasn't like he tried to con her out of her money. He did genuinely like her.
Maybe he'll tell her tomorrow.