surviving

The first four weeks of this year have been a hellish rollercoaster. The last few weeks of 2021 went reasonably uneventfully, but then 2022 came roaring in, gnashing its teeth.

The first three weeks saw various staff members, across all departments, in and out of isolation because they either tested positive, or were a close contact to a positive case. Isolation rules of the time required seven days of isolation once a positive result is confirmed, and people could only return to work after two consecutive days of negative tests.

Having one person away for one day is usually ok. We can shuffle staff around, or find ways around it. We might stay back a little bit to finish up on work that would usually get done earlier, but it’s not so bad because we know it’s just one day. It’s a lot different when it’s multiple people across all departments, for at least seven days.

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part 6: foxtrot

Her phone vibrated again in her hand. He had sent another message to reassure her that there would be no flowers this time (he was actually in a meeting). She smiled despite her earlier discomfiture, and pocketed her phone as she stepped off the train.

Breathing in the cool morning air — today comprising the crisp scent of rain and the aroma of coffee, offset by the odour of car exhaust and stagnant water — she left the station and headed down the street amongst a sea of umbrellas and hunched shoulders. Lightning and thunder continued to stretch across the sky, peeking in around the skyscrapers in search of an audience. 

A roar of thunder followed her into the lobby of her building. She turned and watched the passing crowd, pelted by rain, eyes widened or brows furrowed, marching steadfastly on toward safety. She wanted to join their ranks. She imagined walking out, skipping work, following the rain clouds wherever they went, until they found the ocean and she could drift away.

Behind her, a man cleared his throat and excused himself. Blinking away her reverie, she turned to face the man, and promptly stepped into the puddle that her umbrella had created on the polished tile floor of the lobby. He offered to take her umbrella and put it in a bag. She apologised earnestly, and explained that she had been lost in thought. He nodded his understanding, and told her not to worry about it.

That was about the extent of their first conversation. It was a seemingly innocent meeting — unremarkable, commonplace and inconsequential. She didn’t give it a second thought. She didn’t give him a second thought.

But it would be followed, in coming weeks, by charming smiles, lingering eye contact and the accidental touching of hands that would all nourish it from a common shoot into a magnificent blossom. Their relationship would become a beautiful dance — he would lead, and she would follow, and the whole thing would feel effortless, like gliding on a cloud. She would be entranced, enthralled, besotted.

The sight of him — the very thought of him would delight her, and send shivers of excitement through her body. In him, she would find asymmetry, blemishes, imperfection. He would only ever be perfect in his love for her.

They would dance in the rain and marvel at storms together. He would soothe and quell her inner turmoil whenever it threatened to resurface, thrashing its head about and snapping its jaws. He would hold her, and impart a sense of strength, security and constancy. Together, they would fill the ravines and build bridges, and open their worlds to each other. There would be trust and acceptance between them.

But she did not realise any of this then — she could not have foreseen this future after that first meeting. Her life was fear, devastation, disappointment. It was a constant breaking and healing and breaking again. She was always stumbling through her steps, tripping on her own feet or that of her partner, always anticipating the fall.

He stole a glance in her direction as she stepped into the elevator. He watched the numbers on the wall tick up to 12, pause, and then count back down to G. He sighed, shook his head, and told himself he was being foolish.

part 5: echo

As the train pulled away from her penultimate stop, her phone buzzed in her bag. He had sent a reply: he hadn’t missed the train — he’d simply caught an earlier one, as there were errands he needed to take care of.

She stared at the message for a moment longer. She reread it. Something inside of her churned. This scenario felt all too familiar. 

Several weeks ago, on a morning much brighter than this one, he had sent her a message to forewarn her that he would not be on her train, as he had been required to head in early. He had then intercepted her, on the street between the station and their office, with a coffee, a small bouquet of camellias, and a proposal that they might go out for dinner one night.

She remembered looking between the coffee and the flowers, meeting his gaze for a second, and then reverting back to the flowers, unsure what to say.

He was too safe, too tranquil, and too perfect. He didn’t ignite anything within her. There was warmth but no spark, no fire. That’s what she had wanted to say. She didn’t remember exactly what she had said, but it wasn’t that. What she did remember was the way his smile wavered, the way his shoulders tensed and then slouched, and the way his pale blue eyes searched hers.

She remembered the whirlpool of emotion that had swelled up inside her. There was a strange ecstasy: her heart softened from the affection and adoration implicit in his proposal. Simultaneously, there was a flicker of unease that grew to irritation, and almost became something of repulsion. And, over all this, loomed the dark shadow of guilt.

Later, he would apologise and say that it was silly and presumptuous of him, and that it was unfair of him to have put her in that position. She would apologise back to him, but she wouldn’t really understand what for. They were too polite, too cordial to each other. It was as if some wall — or perhaps a deep ravine — existed between them, such that they could stand so close to each other but never make true contact.

Afterwards, their relationship waxed and waned, just as the moon fills and empties of light. And just as the moon pulls the waves of the ocean, so, too, was he drawn toward her — inexplicably but undeniably. He advanced and retreated by increments. But she was always just out of his reach.

One day, there were rumours of another woman. She heard whispers from their colleagues. Although she laughed and rolled her eyes along with the rest of them, she couldn’t deny that a part of her felt jealous and even, perhaps, incensed by the news. When she questioned him about it, he was evasive, but he did admit that it was true. He left her with an odd sense of heartbreak at having lost something that was never really hers.

The chasm between them widened. The precipices on which they stood crumbled away slowly but neither turned to walk away. They only edged backward just enough to avoid falling into the ravine. They always kept each other within sight.

part 4: delta

As her train approached, she took a deep breath and readied her smile. A few months ago, a colleague of hers discovered that they both lived along the same train line. He soon became another of her constants on her morning commute, but instead of blank stares and averted gazes, he always greeted her with a smile and a nod as he said hello. She always returned the gesture. 

But, this morning, he was not there.

She walked down the carriage, discreetly searching the crowd for him. They always met in this carriage — it’d be too hard to find each other otherwise. But among the suits, the ironed shirts and horn-rimmed glasses, she could not find him. She considered moving to the next carriage to look for him, but the train was always much too crowded.

She sighed and pulled out her phone to send him a message, asking if he’d missed the train this morning.

In truth, there was a part of her that was relieved to not see him and to have been unable to find him. She put her phone away. Sometimes the company of others became suffocating to her; she grew claustrophobic. She needed regular bouts of solitude to reset her mind and her emotions. Although the train barely had enough breathing space, she didn’t feel claustrophobic at all.

Eventually, the train emerged into the downpour outside. The rain seemed to be making the clouds angrier and darker, as if each droplet were a spark fallen from a lantern deep within. Yet, the angrier and darker they became, the more sparks they lost. The world outside became a grey haze.

Rainy days always put her in a pensive mood. It was as if the world outside was reflecting her world within, inviting it to spill out and flow over the earth like a river breaching its banks. She always perceived an ironic safety in the sensory maelstrom created by wild weather.

A flash of lightning split the sky in two. It aroused murmurs of fear and excitement amongst those who witnessed it. A distant grumble of thunder followed a moment later, as if in response to the passengers’ quiet exclamations. She smiled at the sound. Deep within her, her soul answered with a low growl, a contented purr. The train once again submerged into the underground.

part 3: charlie

She looked over her shoulder at the opposite platform as an outbound train arrived. The passengers all had their heads bowed as if in prayer — prayer to their phones, e-readers and other gadgets, and, perhaps, also to books.

A neat grey coat caught her attention. A memory returned to her like a beacon emerging through fog.

No, she told herself, it couldn’t be him. The man she knew didn’t live here. 

He looked up as the train pulled away — maybe he had felt her gaze on him — and she saw with certainty that he wasn’t the man she knew. The grey coat from her memory belonged to a man with dark, almost black eyes. He was a man from her hometown.

She had a theory that those who appear happiest and most cheerful to those around them also often held the greatest sadness deep within them. She told him this theory. He looked at her quizzically but there was also something defensive in his eyes. They were at a cafe — the third date. She inhaled, exhaled, waiting for him to respond, wishing she hadn’t mentioned her theory.

He chuckled, picked up his coffee and took a sip. She relaxed.

They first met through a chain of mutual friends at a New Year’s Eve event. She already knew his story: full of alcoholism, failed suicide attempts and, lastly, reformation. At least, that’s what she’d been told.

Even then, his attire had been monochromatic. Grey was his colour of choice, he claimed, because he was too bashful to wear reds and greens and yellows. He couldn’t stand standing out. If he wore a coloured shirt, it was often accompanied by a grey coat.

He asked her if she already knew of his tumultuous past — if she’d heard all the rumours. It wasn’t so much a question as an assumption confirmed by the sympathy in her eyes. He told her the rumours were true. If they were the same rumours he’d heard, they were true. He smiled, and in his wry smile, and in his dark eyes, she saw not a kindred spirit but a kindred soul.

Conversation flowed easily, fluidly between them. She told him things that she’d never told anyone else before. They gave each other comfort, reassurance, compassion and understanding. The connection was undeniable. He held her hand and told her that he’d never let her go. She squeezed his hand in return, both believing it to be the only truth, and fearing that it was the one promise he could never keep.

Eventually, however, he began to fall. He relapsed. It started with a drink, followed by a lie — a lie as much to himself as it was to her. But he did not let her go. And she did not let him go; she tried to pull him back up.

Their relationship became as a leaf blown about by the wind — at once uplifted, soaring, and then suddenly spiralling downward, only to be buoyed again by a fresh current. Still, even as the highs and lows became more unpredictable and uncontrollable, they held on to each other.

But his grip was weakening. She could feel him slipping away.

One night, he told her that he needed space. He got in his car and drove away. She didn’t see him again until the next morning — on the morning news report: three dead, one critically injured in a tragic head-on collision.

She watched the outbound train depart and disappear into the tunnel. He didn’t live here — he didn’t live in this world anymore — but the memory of him still stung her eyes and made her breath catch in her throat.

Her devastation reminded her that she was human, that she was alive. She wished he could have held on.

part 2: bravo

He had been one of her constants. They’d met down at the opposite end of the platform, waiting for that 7:20 train. He always wore a long-sleeved dress shirt, even in those warmer months, and carried a dark brown, leather satchel. Sometimes he had coffee, sometimes not. Sometimes he wore a tie — plain and unpretentious — but often he went without. His posture gave the impression of confidence and self-assuredness, but there was something relaxed and casual about him. But these weren’t what caught her attention, what drew her to him. 

He was always reading. His eyes were always roving back and forth across page after page of classic and contemporary literature, glancing up only as the train approached. He would close his book and look about him, as if awaking from a dream, only long enough to board the train and take a seat. She could not decide if his eyes were green or grey — probably a vacillating mixture of both — but there was something in them that was soft, gentle, inviting, and they drew her in.

She, herself, always carried a book with her, but often preferred to watch the world around her, as constant as it was, and only read at her office cubicle during lunch breaks, or in bed at night. That summer, she was new — to the office, and to the city — and she was caught somewhere closer to fear than daring. She did not seek out the company of others.

Eventually, she could not bear the sight of him — she could not bear the yearning that he incited — but, rather than look away or move to another part of the platform, which would have been the logical thing to do, she pulled out her own book and turned her attention to its pages. She lost herself in other worlds and, more than once, almost missed that 7:20 train because she did not resurface in time.

One such morning, a Thursday at the end of summer, she arrived early at the station. Long before any of her constants had taken their seats on the benches that lined the platform, she was immersed in her novel. All light and sound, and time itself became immaterial.

Then, suddenly, she felt the warm touch of a hand on her shoulder. She flinched, and the hand was gone. She looked up. It was him.

She thought he’d said something: his lips moved. She stuttered out an apology, feeling as if everything were underwater. He smiled — a smile of effortless charisma — and gestured to the approaching train. He had noticed yesterday, as he took his seat on the train, that she hadn’t boarded; she had noticed too late, as the train closed its doors, readying to depart. She felt her face flush — partly from embarrassment, partly from the thought that he’d noticed her at all.

Later, alone, she would replay that moment — his words, his voice, his smile — over and over in her mind. And always those eyes that made her heart flutter. If they were captivating from afar, they were now all-consuming.

After that Thursday morning, he stopped reading. She continued to arrive early at the station. They started talking. From when they met at the station until she disembarked (he alighted at a stop further along), they talked, laughed and exchanged knowing glances.

Eventually, they met outside of the confines of the cement platform and the steel carriages. They ate together, walked together, and laughed together. They held hands. He held her and brought her closer. They shared stories, memories and dreams. The green of his eyes grew more intense, and she felt as if she were falling upwards into an endless canopy.

Her spirit was reignited. She felt as if her soul was lighter and yet full to bursting. She called home, and, in hushed conversations, told old friends of this man who made her feel like she could love this city just because he was in it.

But these feelings did not last very long.

Her mind grew suspicious. The anxiety inside her that feared all good things found its voice. At first, it was a whisper, a hiss. The voice questioned everything about him — his intentions, his honesty, his faithfulness. The fear became a quivering crescendo. She questioned herself and her own worthiness, and the very idea of reality.

She pulled away from him. Dazed and confused, yet also resigned to this end, he watched her leave. She resurfaced to where she could hear waves crashing against the shore, and where she could hear the shrill cry of seabirds. She breathed in deep lungfuls of air.

She could never love someone who was perfect.