Every day Miles went to work, sat at a cubicle from nine till five and then went home to expire somewhere in his apartment until the next day — a repeat of the first. Every day he woke up with the same feeling that there just wasn't much to life after all. He felt constricted, especially in all the spaces that he inhabited that only differed in size yet confined all the same. Miles was suffocating within all these spaces — spaces that seemed to capsize his ability to construct a better world for himself.
Every day once the sun set and he was at home in the den in his favorite armchair, one line ran through his head. This thought troubled Miles because it was so unlike his others. This one filled him with disbelief — that he could even think of something so incredulous worried him. Miles could be going insane for all he knew, and nobody would notice. He was afraid that if he'd only say something to disrupt this normalcy he was seeking, his secret would be out and he would be called the fraud that he was and everything would be taken away, even the job he hated and the life he so desperately wanted to be different.
The thought was: I could be great — and the thought ended there.
After that the doubt spread through him like poison, infecting his mind. Miles wouldn't be able to breathe because he felt contaminated. If he couldn't even get himself to get up in the mornings to go to work, each morning more than a struggle, how could he even have the thought of greatness? Even if the thought was a beacon of light each evening, the aftertaste of the bitterness was something that was even more potent.
But it was only after the conversation with the woman in the office that he was able to see.
He'd seen her around before but had never really noticed her. She had walked up to him as he was pouring new coffee into his mug. A thick red belt, glossy and bloody slashed across the middle of her waist was the highlight of her outfit — the rest of her paled in comparison to the redness of the belt.
"Why do you do that?" the woman whom he would later learn was named Kate, asked.
"Do what?" he asked.
"You sighed when you walked into the building. And you sighed when you sat down at your work station. You sighed when I saw you pouring that coffee," Kate said, taking a sugar package and adding it to the mug that she had brought over with her. He saw that she was drinking tea.
"I don't know of any other way," Miles said.
"You should know better. The key to success isn't a formula. It's in the attitude. And your attitude is all wrong."
Kate glanced down at the mug he had in his hands and said, "Why, you don't even like drinking coffee, do you?"
And with that, Kate quickly turned on her heels that were, too, a bright red, and marched off to some far corner of the building. He felt a rush of shame and tried following her with his eyes, but the cubicles were in his line of vision and she was gone before he knew it.
His coffee had grown cold and his hands were shaking so badly he nearly spilled it all over the floor. The strange encounter with the woman had startled him and the thought that he had to get back to work and how long the day would be made him almost sigh again but he stopped himself.
And in holding it in, he blossomed.
Before Miles moved out and got his own place, he had grown up in an old house that reminded him of a nursing home. His grandfather, who lived with Miles' family was a hideous man, hiding away in the dark corner of his room, sharing nothing of his face to the world. Miles' grandfather was hiding it in pride and shame. His grandfather listened to old recordings of Chinese opera as if he still had a claim to that world.
When Miles left the house, it was like a curtain of time separated him and what was inside his home. In books and in stories, Miles felt he could suffocate less. He noticed he could possibly be that prince who could be that two-faced devil who was good and evil with a switch of a thought. Miles was reinventing himself in these stories, stories filled with magic and another world, and he could care less about his whereabouts because, in reality, his mind was always elsewhere.
In writings and in reality, Miles dreamed about his grandfather's death. His grandfather was dying in Miles' dreams, shriveling into a condensed wash of smoke. His grandfather was no longer alive in Miles' eyes — just a bag of bones wandering around the house, a trailing thread from the older man's cigarettes covering the wasted color of his eyes.
His mother once told him a story about how his granddaddy nearly gave her away. Her aunt had liked the color of her hair. In the sun it blazed.
His mother's hair had been glossy and rich in a braid. His great aunt had snatched the tail of her hair as his mother was passing by and had said, "You're not a woman yet but someday you will be. And beauty is a betrayal in itself."
His mother's aunt took her crane and smacked her with it. It hissed in the air before his mother felt the burning across her back.
When he finally left the house after years and years of being like his grandfather and moved into a place of his own, he had, for some reason, felt stuck. It was like his grandfather's death, instead of freeing him, had undeniably cursed him.
Even during those years, Miles had collected little details in his notebooks. Details, like his mother being beaten every day when she was young, were recorded and hidden away in his journals. It was as if he somehow sensed years ahead that this was what he would be doing for the rest of his life — writing about things he was no longer a part of.
Back at the office, the hours seemed to stretch — minutes elongating themselves into the span of an hour, and an hour into days. Miles' thoughts seemed to stretch with them — causing him to feel their eternal bleakness. The papers on his desk were piling up, and Miles felt cramped inside his cubicle, the insides of him melting with feverish contempt at being constricted in all that small space.
He felt like he was back in his high school mathematics class again. He'd watch the long hand to the clock, slaving over each second that went by. He hated that class. Math reminded him of his mother, her small crabby hands worrying over the digits that would feed him, his pathetic father, and his dying grandfather. His mother's hands, working the pages of her accountant notebook, were, now, in knots because of her arthritis. The cold months were the worse when she could hardly hold her pencil upright, her fingers gnawing at the pages to get the numerals written down.
Back in her homeland in China, where his mother's hair was still in pigtails, her aunt would whip her hands out of jealousy. The aunt refused to bandage her torn fingers and her dried blood would end up caked around her fingers. Every summer the aunt would take her back to her village. And each summer would be the same. An island of torture.
It got so bad that his mother's hand would shake from fear while holding a pencil. She could barely carve the letters at school while small water spots spoiled the coarse writing paper. Her penmanship slowly got worse and worse until she could only write numbers.
His mother had loved Chinese calligraphy. She was still learning the alphabet but over time her teacher had to excuse her from practicing her writing. Soon she could only draw numbers and sometimes when that got too painful she practiced with a pen in her mouth. More often than not she would bite down too hard, and the ink would smear across her mouth and stain her teeth. Sometimes Miles could hear his mother rushing to the sink in the middle of the night to rinse her mouth. The thought of his mother running home after a long day of taunts and ridicule would stay in his mind long after she had finished brushing her teeth. The image of her young hands twisted around her mother's neck, shaking in fear and agony, was a constant reminder of his grandfather's cruelty.
Yet his grandfather had no remorse. He continued to send his only child to his eldest sister. The woman owned a rice plantation and she was the richest of the clan. His mother was the prettiest girl in the village, and she was also his grandfather's only child. But Miles' grandfather needed the money.
The woman from the office never came back but, instead, it seemed like a replacement sat in her office, biting into a Danish pastry the day he came back. Her hair piled on top of her head resembled the twisted shape of the bun, majestic-like, reminding him of royalty and sophistication. Smoke curled from the coffee cup filled to the brim, and the freshly brewed scent filled the air. He sniffed at it in disdain. He had never liked the taste, nor the aroma. It was something he was subjected to every morning but had never gotten used to. Each disgusting cup he managed to swallow was an entrance towards acceptance and normalcy.
She turned her head in time almost as if sensing his presence right away. Her face unlike the other woman's didn't seem important. He tried to remember where he'd seen her before but failed. Instead, he surrendered into the background, and watched her careful gestures, like that of a child. The telephone rang and she moved to answer it. He watched her gestures carefully, his memory lapsed and he was struck by the resemblance. Her face looked spacey without those dark-framed glasses. The touch, the drama was gone from her face. Left was a detached blankness. She blinked rapidly at him at first and he thought it was because she couldn't see but it appeared she was only thinking. This woman looked different from the one he had met at the break room, but it happened to be the same woman. Although her face, now looked like the soft opening of an oyster shell, she looked meaner. It was like the big horn-rimmed glasses had protected her somehow and now that her protection was gone she seemed more volatile in her self-defense.
"Didn't you use to wear glasses?" Miles asked.
"No, I wear contacts."
"You don't remember me?"
Her eyes flickered. "Oh," she said, and then her face was once more a block of ice. "Remind me one more time."
He watched as she took a sip from her mug, and remembered that she had drunk tea when they had first met.
"I don't think we were ever properly introduced," he said, taking the few steps from the doorway to her desk, stretching out his hand. "I'm Miles, BTW."
"BTW? Isn't that a phrase kids use nowadays?" she said, ignoring his hand. "By the way, I'm Kate."
"Your introduction wasn't necessary," Kate said. "I know who you are."
He looked up to see her face studying his. It was odd that Kate chose to mention this in such a public setting since it had always been an unspoken rule for the higher-ups to know who their employees were. Having it tossed to him like a random aside was jolting.
"Our company needed someone," she paused. "But after careful consideration, we selected someone else."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"You're…" She was frowning again. But Kate took that moment to check her watch, and then excusing herself for a meeting she was already late for, she stalked off without looking back.
Alone in her office, he felt innocuous and awkward. Like a big piece of untailored furniture unfit for the room. He left the office, closing the door silently behind him and rushed back to his work station, glad and yet unhappy to be back. He could still see the intent that was snuffed behind the mysterious woman's eyes — her eyes, cold and rimless as he remembered them.
Unable to sleep, he roamed his apartment until he made a stop outside on his balcony. The cold air daunted him for some reason. It was as if he had been sheltered inside for so long, the world outside made him into a farce whenever he managed to reenter it.
Suddenly he whirled around as if someone was watching him. He felt eyes, and they burnt coals into his back. He wanted to stare back at them. But then the feeling faded and he felt less pinned by their long, penetrating gaze.
It was a premonition of some sort, he felt. He did not know what. These feelings that came to him in the death of night frightened him. But then the image of his grandfather in his drunken daze whenever he had too much to drink surfaced, and the thought of those piercing eyes disappeared. Those long hours where his grandfather was hung over in a drunken stupor, a cross between a languid fool and a dirty old man, slinked over the armchair like he had the whole day all to himself — and it wouldn't even be mid-morning yet. His grandfather, who stole money from Miles and then had the courtesy to ask Miles to go with him to the grocery store to procure more liquor for his devouring thirst.
His grandfather's eyes were bad. Their blue liquid gaze, weak from cathartics, never really seeing, but lighting up at the sight of the burning liquid he, Miles, himself, vowed to never touch. And he, too, nearly blind when one unfortunate day, Miles had broken his glasses and had to go to the store upon his grandfather's summons. Unfortunately for Miles, the old man wanted to accompany him on this trip, having had a thirst for a particular brand of liquor that he had forgotten the name of.
The world that day was blurry and distant. They stumbled onto the hot cement, groping the air like the blind men they were. What was a fifteen-minute walk took nearly an hour. Arms outstretched the entire time; the blind leading the blind.
Death and desiccation stunk from his grandfather's very flesh even then. Alcohol was like his elixir, his balm for eternity. Looking back Miles never had a chance to bring over a friend to his house, because it was shame that filled his home. Shame that filled the hallways where his grandfather would walk past, his alcoholic breath steaming the air like a skunk would spray with a flash of its tail.
Miles looked deep into the night sky. The world was infinite, and sometimes he felt insignificant.
For a while, Miles kept up with the latest in development in regards to the stars and planets. He'd look up at the night sky and see a world apart from his. But once his eyes dropped to the city view underneath him, he could see that the universe was practically a reflection of itself. Like a pool of water, the city-lights mirrored the wide expanse of the heavenly spheres. The whole world was a reflection upon itself. He'd also done some things he learned to regret later on. He too would eventually whore the things he loved.
It was morning already, and Miles could barely register that fact. Inside the room, there was this oppressive heat tangent with fear and longing and old memories. Miles imagined his body to be emitting the scent of his past, the way his grandfather emitted the smell of alcohol from his own body.
The alarm sounded in the next room, and Miles pulled his tired body from off his bed and got ready for another day of work.
His desk was the neatest in the office. All the paperwork from the previous day was cleared up and put away, the pens were stacked up and put in a small plastic bin he placed on the edge of his desk, and everything was lined up militantly, the edges precisely pasted to the bottom of their predecessor.
Miles knew he had to get back to his paperwork but somehow he hesitated as if something within him was saying, 'Stop, take a moment and look around.' And he did, sensing without really looking at his co-workers milling around the office like ants, as they were getting ready for another day of routine.
The window facing the east filtered in the sunlight coming through the dull glass. A preamp of fresh light dusted the interior of the room, creating a steady ambiance of safety. Each desk was designed as a cubicle, making it more obvious that each person was an individual.
Miles walked to the break room to get his usual morning cup of coffee. A candid smell emitted from the coffee-maker he poured into his favorite mug, and Miles had the sudden desire to be somewhere else. Miles stared down at his coffee mug, his mouth unconsciously twisted into a grimace. Miles took his first sip, the smoky aroma filling him. He felt warmed by the coffee and proceeded to take the next and next sip until he felt awakened by the sugar.
The woman from the office came dancing in with her heels. She stopped right in front of him, like before. A mixture of recognition and disgust lined her face — two emotions that intermingled would taste like the freshly made brew in his hands. She peered at his face hidden deep within the mug as he took another sip to avoid her gaze.
"If you don't like it why do you do it?" She looked at him sharply, and the old Kate resurfaced. He felt like he was being revisited by an old friend.
The new Kate's plain face looked at him. He considered the question. She blinked, and in that instant, she couldn't have looked dumber.
He must've have taken his time because impatience was soon stark on her face. A child, he thought. A child whose every valid expression was apparent on her face.
"Well?" Kate asked. The toe of her heel was tapping. Its continuous slap against the surface of the tiles sounded frightening like glass being tapped and Miles wondered if she continued this, would she break the floor?
For a moment there he thought she was questioning his presence in the office, why he stayed in a job he hated. But after a moment's consideration, he looked down at his mug and realized the inquiry lied there.
"Because I have to," he lied.
Music danced in her eyes. He could see a flash of anger in them as if speaking through her eyes was a challenge. He struggled within himself, because in them he saw himself or what he could make of himself.
To his surprise, he took his coffee mug and dumped the remains into the sink. He uncurled his hands from the mug in midair and let the mug clatter onto the counter with a flourish. He was surprised at himself and he could see that she was too. A quizzical look was on her face. She took her own mug, brought it to her lips, and inhaled.
"I am pathetic," he said to the mirror, a tear staining the glass from the water he had splashed onto his face. He stared at his reflection, forgetting once again that the reflection he was staring at was his own. He had become a stranger even to himself. His ways had become foreign and disgusting to him. These days he felt like an uncommon fool — everything he did was wrong and unimportant.
Why am I here? What was I meant to do?
And then he felt it again. Of greatness. A piercing emotion that made him feel magnificently connected to the grand scheme of things. The orchestra he felt so excluded from was now something he was innately a part of. It was a feeling of total joy. Boundless and terrible. Terrible because he didn't know where it came from.
And there he found the answer. Change. That's what he needed. Change from the mundane flux of things. Something different. He was sick of all this. Miles felt like a dying old soul — such close proximity to death frightened him. He had turned thirty just a few months ago. Miles' mother had ordered him a cake. Only on those rare occasions did he allow her back into his life again. Her face that held that upside-down frown was inches away from him. Because of her cathartics, she always spoke close to his mouth which upset him for some reason.
Like a child who had to read lips again, at that moment he decided to quit his job.