It was a brisk autumn day as the steel-gray Toyota Camry made its way down the busy street. The young woman in the driver’s seat glanced first to her side mirror to check the traffic behind her, then to the packed sidewalks lining the equally packed roads. New York, the bustling hub of the United States; to Anna, it was a noisy beast of industrialization, the sidewalks and roads constantly packed with cars, bikes and people. Although it wasn’t a bad place, Anna became overwhelmed at times. She had snagged a decent job working for the mailroom of a magazine in the busy metropolis. It wasn’t The New York Times, but it had enough subscribers to allow Anna to afford the rent in her tiny one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment while still leaving enough to eat and pay the bills. She even had a little left over to pay for car insurance. Anna flexed her fingers over the steering wheel. Her old V40 Toyota Camry had been with her since she graduated high school in 1998, although it wasn’t her main source of transportation. During the week when she worked, Anna preferred to take the bus or walk. On the weekends, she still preferred to walk. But her destination for the day was on the other side of the city, so walking was simply out of the question.
She briefly glanced away to check the time on her cell phone, which read 2:56pm. She sighed, relieved that she wasn’t late for the lunch/coffee date she had arranged with her friend Dirk. He was her coworker, but Dirk worked as an editor, sifting through articles and deciding which ones would be sent to the editor and chief’s desk for the final say, and which would get the axe. He was also, as he would sarcastically put it, a human spell-check app.
She parked her car in the last available spot in the tiny lot alongside the building, nearly cutting off another driver in the process. Anna climbed out of her Camry and stepped onto the sidewalk, choosing to ignore the angry beeping from the other driver as he whizzed by. She tucked a few strands of pale, blonde hair behind her ear, only for a gust of wind to blow it out of place a moment later. With an exasperated sigh, Anna headed for the entrance of the building. She pulled open one of the glass doors underneath the round sign that spelled “Starbucks” around the familiar two-tailed mermaid and stepped inside.
Her light gray eyes scanned the room for the familiar mop of curly brown hair among the patrons, adjusting to the slightly dimmed lighting. Anna hoped she hadn’t missed Dirk; she always liked their little “coffee dates,” even if it did result in whispered rumors behind their coworkers’ hands. It wasn’t as if the idea of actually being romantically involved with Dirk wasn’t appealing to Anna; Dirk was friendly and attractive enough, and she didn’t think of herself as ugly. There just seemed to be some unspoken boundary that Anna couldn’t cross. She wasn’t entirely sure if she wanted to cross it, either.
She was roused out of her thoughts when she finally caught sight of her coworker, sitting by a window that looked out over cars passing by outside. Anna calmly waved back when Dirk caught sight of her and looked up, smiled and beckoned her over. She slipped quietly into the chair across the small table, letting her bag slip off her shoulder to rest in her lap.
“Hey,” said Dirk, leaning forward on one arm. “How was the drive over?”
Anna shrugged in response. “Not too bad. And you?”
Dirk shrugged back, and Anna’s lips curled into a wry smile. She knew he was mimicking her on purpose.
“Well,” sighed Dirk, leaning back in his seat, “now that the whole party’s here, we can get our coffee.” He stood up, chair scrapping softly on the tiled floor. “You want your usual?”
Anna nodded, resting her head in her hand after Dirk left to order their drinks at the counter. She glanced around the coffee shop, taking in her surroundings: small clusters of people seated around tables similar to her own, some of them pushed together for the bigger groups, and in the corner of the shop was an enclosed fireplace with a few dark-colored upholstered chairs nearby. A few of the patrons were comfortably seated by the fireplace, sipping their coffee while reading or quietly typing away at their laptops. Anna turned to the wide window at her left, watching the cars rushing by and the crowds strolling on the sidewalks. As she watched, Anna thought about what sort of places they had to get to, what sort of people they were seeing, the things they were doing. She wondered, in the many times that she was on the other side of the glass, if people ever wondered the same for her as they watched her pass by? Did she give off the impression that she had a purpose, that she knew what she wanted to do with her time? Anna closed her eyes. Dirk returned to the table, setting a paper-and-Styrofoam cup by her hand. Feeling the warmth radiating from it, her eyes fluttered open.
“One berry mocha, for the young lady,” he said as he sat down, “and a Macchiato for me.” Anna saw that his expression was still as cheery as it had been when she arrived, but she caught the gentle falter when he examined her own features for a minute. “Hey, are you alright? You seem kinda quiet today.”
“Oh,” Anna remarked, sitting up straight. “No, no, I’m fine! Just thinking.”
Dirk nodded, removing the topper to his coffee. “What were you thinking about?”
“Oh, you know,” Anna replied airily, removing the topper on her own drink. “Things.”
“Things,” replied Dirk. She could hear the inquisitive tone in his voice, matching the arched brow on his face. “Like what? Or is it girl things?” The emphasis he put on “girl things” made Anna snort.
“No, nothing like that,” she said, waving her hand in a dismissive manner. “Just… I don’t know. Things.” Anna cupped her drink, watching the steam rise up from the warm liquid inside.
Dirk took an experimental sip of his drink, and judging by the slight flinch that rippled through his shoulders, Anna deduced that it was still too hot to drink. He cleared his throat before speaking. “Anything work related?”
Anna hummed, shaking her head until a thought occurred to her. “Not really…” she started, leaning slightly to the side. “But I did have a weird dream recently. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.”
She watched Dirk’s eyes light up with his interest, like glittering sapphires. “A weird dream?” he said, a grin spreading across his lips. “Are we talking Twilight Zone weird or Freudian weird?”
Anna rolled her eyes. “More like déjà vu weird.”
“Like a recurring dream?” Dirk’s enthusiasm was like a young boy’s, and Anna couldn’t help but smile fondly.
“No, but more like it felt like a place I go to often when I’m awake. Somewhere I recognized enough that I could tell where I was even when I was dreaming. It’s hard to explain.”
Anna observed Dirk take another experimental sip of his coffee. This time he put the cover back on in order to take a drink without the risk of spilling. As he set his cup down he replied, “Start at the beginning, then.”
She sighed, running her fingers through her thin hair thoughtfully. “I guess… I was in the mailroom. But instead of it being kind of brownish because of the mail slots and all, it was white. Everything was white.” Anna laid a hand on the table as she spoke. “The walls, the slots, the desks and chairs, the floor, the ceiling – everything was white.”
“Creepy.” Anna felt Dirk’s gaze focused on her, despite not looking at him as she spoke.
“Yeah, it was. So I was sitting at the desk, and I turned the computer on. Like usual, you know? But when I opened the browser, I started to hear this really faint buzzing sound. There was also people talking outside the walls, like there usually is, but with that buzzing, it was just… Grating. It got louder and louder the longer I sat there, and my head was starting to hurt, so I got up and tried to open the door—”
“Was it locked?” Dirk asked. Anna shot him a dry look in response. He grinned sheepishly, saying, “Sorry. Continue, please.”
“Yes, Sherlock, it was locked.” The slightly scornful tone dropped as she continued, her expression becoming serious. “I couldn’t open it no matter what I did. I banged on the door and everything, but it wouldn’t open. I remember I sank down to the floor, holding my head. The noise just got so loud, and I felt so miserable and trapped…”
Anna cautiously looked at Dirk as she finished, quietly studying his expression. Did he think that she was crazy, for either having such a dream or for sharing it with someone so easily? She felt that it wasn’t that bad of a dream, but something about it was disturbing to her…
There were a few moments of silence before Dirk finally responded. “It sounds to me like it means something about your job in the mailroom,” he said, taking another sip of his Macchiato. “But that’s just me. I mean, it did take place there…”
Anna blinked. His response had thrown her for a loop. Sure, she didn’t have the best job in the world, but no one was ever really happy with their job. If you have fun on your job, then it isn’t really a job, her mother had always told her. And Anna didn’t “have fun” working in the mailroom. It paid the bills and the insurance and enabled her to get by, though, so there was no reason for her to complain. She glanced up, and as her eyes met Dirk’s, Anna’s stomach twisted itself into knots. She hoped that it wasn’t present in her face.
“Maybe you should take some time off,” he said softly after Anna didn’t respond. She was too swept up in how concerned his eyes were. “You’ve been looking pretty exhausted lately.”
Anna took a deep breath, pressing her palm against her eyes. “I don’t know,” she replied. Anna was surprised at how thick her voice sounded, even though she was keeping her tone as quiet as she could to hide it. There was no need to cry in public, much less in front of Dirk. No, she wasn’t going to cry. Anna steeled herself, taking a few more deep breaths to calm the fluttering in her chest before she spoke again. “I mean, I can’t exactly take time off. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone.”
Or rather, she would get shot down for her request because she was at the bottom of the totem pole, so to speak. Anna decided against voicing that out loud, though.
“Are you sure you don’t have any vacation days left?” Dirk asked.
Anna thought it over for a moment. She had taken a few days off here and there, some for herself but most for when her parents wanted to see her. She also filled in for people on numerous occasions when she could have said no, so for as many days as she took off, Anna most likely worked about the same amount, if not a few days more.
- “I don’t know, Dirk. Even if I did—”
“Then what?” Dirk’s tone was filled with gentle laughter. “What’s stopping you, Anna?”
She looked back at her coffee, suddenly remembering that she had hardly taken a drink out of it. Anna chose that moment to take a huge gulp, only slightly surprised to find her tongue mildly burned.
Anna could tell that Dirk was disappointed as well, watching him sigh when she didn’t give him a proper answer. “I worry about you sometimes, Anna… You’re gonna work yourself to death one of these days.”
A lump formed in her throat at those words. “It’s not like I can take time off.”
“But you can.” Anna was caught off guard by Dirk’s words for a second time. “Anna, you can ask for time off! No one’s going to penalize you for it.”
Anna bit her lip for a moment, trying to find the right words to say. “I mean, I know I can, but I don’t want time off? It’s hard to explain.”
“So, what? Do you wanna quit?” Anna felt herself crumbling at the hints of Dirk’s exasperation in his voice. “That’s the impression I’m getting, at least.”
With a heavier sigh, Anna pressed her palm to her forehead, still struggling to find the right words. “No. I can’t quit my job at the mailroom, that’s what pays the bills.”
“Then what are you gonna do, Anna?”
Good question, she thought to herself.
They spent the rest of their meeting in tense silence. Anna couldn’t help but feel like it was her fault that things had turned out like they had.
Later that evening, as Anna was brushing her teeth before bed, Anna pondered over the question that Dirk had asked her earlier that afternoon: What are you going to do, Anna? She looked into her eyes reflected on her bathroom mirror. The surface was dotted with faint blots of dried toothpaste and smears of water droplets. Her reflection’s eyes stared back at her as Anna scrubbed away with her toothbrush, grey and stormy. Stormy… That was a good word to use to describe the color. It seemed to Anna like her eyes resembled the dark clouds that gathered before a storm, and at the moment, Anna felt like a storm was gathering over her whole life. She spat the foamy toothpaste-water-and-saliva mixture into the sink, turning the faucet on to rinse it down the drain. Anna double-checked her teeth in the mirror, running her tongue over them. Nothing caught in between. Satisfied, she rinsed her toothbrush off, put it away in its container by the sink, and shut the lights off.
As she meandered down the hallway to her bedroom, Anna continued to think over Dirk’s question. There were a number of things that she could do: ask for time off, ask for a promotion, or… quit. As she fell back onto her bed with a muffled thump, Anna mentally crossed the last option off. Quitting was simply out of the question. Even so, the idea was a little appealing. There were many days that Anna felt like she was stuck in a rut, that the events that happened from day to day began to run together. Each day was becoming indistinguishable from the next, and a whole week would pass by without Anna even realizing it.
Anna’s eyes flew open. Was that what had been bothering her? She sat up in her bed, eyes fixed on the floral designs printed onto her comforter. Yes… It was dawning on her. That was what had been troubling her for a while: she was in a rut! The realization filled up her chest like warm water. How could she have not seen it sooner?
But now that she knew what the problem was, how was she going to solve it? Anna slumped back onto her bed, the uplifting feeling of realization quickly turning into heavy weighted doubt. She sighed slowly, eyes fluttering shut. Anna focused on the noises coming into her bedroom: the sounds of the other apartment tenants, scuffling about; talking that was muffled by the walls; the cars rushing by on the streets outside, faintly honking with humming motors. It reminded Anna of the din she had heard in her dream. This noise wasn’t too bad, though. Anna found it oddly soothing.
She yawned. It was a struggle as Anna glanced over to her bedside clock to check the time. The green numbers read 1:15am. It was Anna’s usual bedtime, but she had to be up at 6am to get to work by 7am. Anna had a bad habit of staying up late despite knowing it would make her tired the next day. Anna pulled the covers over her chest, settling into her bed for the night.
Since she had realized what the problem was, she reasoned, perhaps it would be easier to take action. Anna groggily thought of Dirk again as she drifted off to sleep. He was worried about her, as far as she could tell; maybe he would be willing to help her too, somehow.
As she was sorting through the morning mail the next day, Anna could feel her boredom increasing like a balloon in her chest. She felt it stronger that morning than she had ever felt it before while working. Seated at her desk, Anna sorted letter after letter by who it was addressed to; when she was finished, Anna would have the fulfilling task of taking the stacks of letters and slipping them into their designated shelved slots. On that day, however, the task seemed to last far longer than usual; Anna felt that with every letter she pulled out of the cart sitting beside her, a thousand more were added to the remaining pile. She felt like she had to do something, otherwise the mailroom would be Anna’s life forever.
Anna leaned back in her chair, groaning softly. She had decided, as she was getting dressed that morning, that this would be the day she would ask for a promotion. Anna didn’t mind where it would be, as long as she didn’t have to work in the mailroom any longer. She pinched the bridge of her nose, reminding herself that she had to look professional in front of her boss, not desperate.
A knock from the doorway caught Anna’s attention, her chair creaking quietly as she turned to see who it was. Dirk smiled back at her, leaning on the doorframe. “What’s up?” he asked brightly.
“Oh, you know,” Anna said, gesturing to her paper covered desk. “Drowning in postage, like usual.” Dirk’s chuckle brightened Anna up considerably. She sat up, bringing her hands into her lap. She called out to Dirk to get his attention. “Hey.”
When she caught his gaze, Anna’s nervousness increased tenfold. “I was thinking about what you said, when we met up yesterday,” she said, fidgeting for a moment as she gathered up her courage to continue speaking. “I think I’m gonna ask for a promotion.”
“Great!” Anna watched as Dirk stepped into the room, the glee on his face as bright as sunshine. “To be honest, I felt like you were wasting away in here. Don’t you have a degree?” he asked.
Anna nodded. “English major, minor in journalism. Almost ten years of schooling, only to end up sorting mail.” Her words jostled her memory. Anna stood up and gathered a stack of letters into her hands, taking them over to the slotted shelf that took up a third of the room. She jumped slightly when Dirk came to stand beside her a moment later, a stack of letters in his hand as well.
“I know this guy,” he said as Anna watched on in disbelief. “I looked over a lot of his articles last month.” When he turned to smile back at Anna, the calmness in his expression made her speechless. His next words made her blush: “I’d like to read something written by you some day.”
“D-don’t you have work to do?” she asked weakly. It was the best response Anna could muster at the moment. Dirk beamed and shrugged in response. How typical of him, Anna thought exasperatedly. In fear of making an idiot of herself even further, Anna turned her attention to retrieving another stack of letters from her desk.