She spent most of the waking hours of her life in an office tower. It was obvious to her that this was not a real problem, that the people around her were also spending most of their lives in office towers, and that everybody else seemed fine with it.
She spent only ten minutes of her day everyday outside, the walk between her apartment and the subway station, five minutes in the morning after which she descended underground and remained there, subway station to tower lobby, tower lobby to elevator, elevator to sky, to being up in the sky but also trapped inside a grey-walled cubicle. She could see a piece of sky over the top of her cubicle wall and the sun glinted sometimes in a way that was the most flippant, the most torturous of teases. And then five minutes on the way home, dark by the time she emerged. This, too, she knew was not a problem, because the air was cold in the city she lived in and to be inside, indeed to be underground, was desirable. Shelter was a plea granted.
There were tall mirrors in the elevators of the office tower, and sometimes she looked in these mirrors in the middle of the day and was surprised by the normalcy. She looked like an office worker, wearing the right clothing for an office worker, with her hair done up and her shoes clean and her teeth brushed. What she felt like was something big and floating, something that took moving with a crane or the buoyancy of an ocean of salt to support. Something helpless and slow.
There was a boy who worked in the Starbucks in the lobby of the office tower. He had long hair and a nice, easy smile. She started to take trips down to the Starbucks on her breaks and moon around. She reached sailing plateaus of caffeine highs by the end of the day.
One week, she came in on a Sunday, and the boy was not there. Another boy handed her a cup of coffee instead, a boy with short hair and a sharp, too-big smile. It occurred to her that Starbucks had paid for this smile, that this boy and maybe all the boys were smiling at her because Starbucks had told them to.
She drank too much coffee that day anyways.
She could not sit on the subway home, and because it was late and the only other people in the carriage were too gone to care, she paced back and forth for the whole ride, long strides that made her legs feel real for the first time in weeks and she imagined the office tower being filled with water, with salty ocean water and then with monstrous animals that stared without seeing and bit with delight and she imagined them darting back and forth in the gloomy, empty space. Shreds of mangled whale floated past them.
From the author: “It looked to me like the shark and the whale in this picture were both trying to break free from the wall, but whereas the whale strains against it, the shark bites its way out. I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about what the inside of the office tower I work in would look like if it was hollowed out and made into an aquarium, or some kind of colossal sculpture gallery. Those images together became this piece of writing.”