Click. Next slide. Click. Instagram. Click. Damage control. I glanced at the teenager slouching at the edge of the room, wielding a presence that says “look at me.” He demands to be noticed, but acts like he can’t be seen. The very epitome of spoiled but bored. He managed to slander yet another highly regarded social media influencer. Well, as highly as a teenager can regard with that all too familiar absent look glazing over his eyes. This wasn’t the client I anticipated when my boss called me in to take on younger talent. Agent or not, young artist or not. Differences aside, we were both the kind of full spirits that were colorful wheels spinning so fast we danced the border between a magical blur and a blank space. We understood that in each other.
My smart watch hummed at my wrist, pulling me back to the beige and maroon meeting room where the PR team huddled up front. Symbols raced across the small LED square “Hey K, you’re not gonna be happy about this…” Already, the small pinpoint of tension that began between my brows crept outward, turning discomfort into ache. What’s the point? Three words crawled over my wrist, over my arm, around my chest painfully squeezing my heart. “…Kai’s with Marin.” Before I could register, I was already out of my chair, picking up my notes, and slipping out of the room. The kid exclaimed, but I knew no one would have dared to say a thing against a highly rated talent agent at the company.
Kai, taller than me, easygoing, dimple in his left cheek, Kai. Hazel eyed, understated adventurist, that I met at Roanne’s last year, Kai. Marin? The same Marin that became the dreaded ex-roommate, Marin? There was no way someone as bright as he was, could have ended up across a coffee cup with someone as wrong as her. He’s that guy you would walk into a party and see the crowd trickling in to surround him, unaware of the magnetic force that reeled them together. He’s that sable haired sorcerer that willed the attention of sleepy high school students to take a chance on learning the secrets of the universe, from a mere physics book. No, this could not happen. I would not let it happen. I needed to tell him how I felt.
Wait. That was it! How could I be so dense, I needed to tell him how I felt, I’d never said it out loud! That’s what he was waiting for! The desire to see this through burned in the pit of my stomach as I stalked to the elevators at the end of the marble hallway, suede heels clacking with certainty. 1…2…3…My God how long does it take for this thing to work?
“Kharin!” I whipped around ready with fighting words to find - no one there. Shaking it off, I stepped into the elevator. As the doors slid across, “Kharin!”
Just keep going. It won’t end this way; we won’t end this way, not when we didn’t even have the proper chance to get started. The elevator shuddered, and I braced a hand on a side panel taking in the reflected expression of my face. That was part of the problem; you’d never be able to tell there even was an expression without being told where to look for it. All of it sat in the brown burst in the deep blue hued green of my eyes. Wild eyes, hungry eyes, framed by hair that looked like smeared charcoal escaping in wisps of smoke from a haphazardly placed barrette. Another shudder and the elevator halted completely. No, it wasn’t the time. The fluorescent light overhead flickered. No. Darkness. I fumbled with my bag clutching at random items in vain hopes of finding my cellphone. Light, I need light, I need to find light. The sound of my hot breath quickly filled the stagnant air, when at last my trembling fingers traced a smooth rectangle.
“You in there! Don’t worry I’ve already called someone to come get you out!” A muted voice floated through the sheets of metal. I couldn’t even get a word to wrap around my gasping breath to respond. That I am still here, still present, still me. I gripped my phone and drew it out, the thundering in my chest beginning to resonate throughout my body. A dull thud sounded the floor. The phone I dropped. I fell to my hands and knees, sucking in air gulping in as much as I possibly could and reaching out feeling my way across the tiles. Inch by inch, by inch, just how big was this elevator?
Is that…grass I smelled? I paused to rub my eyes, adjusting to the darkness. Blink, grass. I saw grass and plants and a curbside and…my car. I’m outside? I’m outside. Hauling myself up I snatched my keys from where my bag upchucked its contents and on wobbly knees stumbled to my sedan. Blinking against the blazing of the afternoon sun, I drove familiar roads until I found his favorite - our favorite café. The café we went to almost every weekend. The café where he kissed me for the first time. The café where he turned the intrigued twinkle in his eye head on with my piercing inquisitive stare and said, “You have this way of looking at the world. When you let me in and see it with you, it’s…incredible, Reen.”
I looked away, my heart thrumming, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He chuckled, that dimple flashing just for me. “No, maybe not if I say it like that. What if I said…I like it? The same way I like you? Would you know what I’m talking about then?” I flicked my eyes at him then away again, perhaps fooling no one. I smiled into my coffee. It tasted almost sweet.
I scanned the crowd through the glass for his familiar build. I walked through the wide-open double doors, a sweeping invitation for those that wandered in search of caffeine. The honey-haired barista closest to the entrance looked up from the espresso machine, ponytail flipping, “Hello! We’ve still got some seating ind-”
“That’s okay, I’m just here looking for someone…” The fresh and heavy aroma of brewed coffee fueled my urgency. Turning around, I almost knocked over a middle-aged woman, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” I blurted.
She held fast to my forearm steadying herself, but her grip tightened and manicured nails pricked at my caramel skin, forcing me to meet her serious look, “This isn’t a good idea. And you know it, don’t you? You shouldn’t be here.”
Shouldn’t be here, what was she talking about? She brushed off her peach pencil skirt and walked on as though nothing had happened. Did I know her? Who was she? I was so distracted I didn’t even catch her face. I shook my head and brought myself back to the task at hand. I needed to tell him how I felt…if it wasn’t too late? No, I was going to do this. No going back.
I quickly surveyed the front room, and found no sign of him, or Marin. Her appalling cackle of a laugh would have made striking dissonance in this din of soft conversation. As I strode discreetly to the next room, I felt something tug at my blouse, yanking me back. Spinning around, I found again, nothing. “Howdy,” looking down, I noticed a 10-year old with a steady grip on my chiffon. Strange, they’re usually too intimidated to approach me.
“Can I help you with something, kid? Or find someone to help you? I’m kind of in the middle of something.” Exasperated I hunted for the adult that was watching over him.
“Look darlin’,” my eyes shot to his face, alarmed by that voice. Since when did green eyed little boys wearing Pokémon shirts and hot chocolate mustaches, sound like grandpas from the south? His diminutive stature and the timbre in his voice were a disorienting discrepancy. “Sometimes the universe done gives you a hint that you’re going down a road you best be avoidin’.” He blinked, ensnaring me in an empty look, as though he were speaking right through me at some entity I couldn’t detect. Releasing me he walked on, like Ms. Pencil Skirt, as though that didn’t just happen. I shuddered, the chill slipping down my spine. Shoving down the unsettlement instinctually bubbling up from within me, I moved on.
I scanned the first floor, then the second, when I heard him at last “Kharin!” The same as the elevator, it was his voice, Kai’s voice, calling me from a distance. I scrambled to catch where it came from, until I spotted him: On the balcony, howling in amusement at whatever…not Marin had said. Across from him, a slender arm gracefully reached up to gather tumbling locks of champagne over one shoulder, obscuring her face. But that didn’t matter, I would know her anywhere. Warm, glowing presence that reminded you of orange and brown autumn and steaming cider and fresh gooey cookies. My friend, Roanne. Heaving a deep sigh, I padded towards their table.
“Kai!” I called out hoping to catch his attention.
“Well the thing with Reen is…she’s not what I thought,” he said in rapt attention towards Roanne. What was that all about?
“What do you mean? I thought the both of you hit it off pretty well, especially the way she talks about you, really admires you.” Roanne responded melodiously. I had to say it now, something pulled at me, the urgency deepening. Kai was taking in a slow breath, eyebrows wrinkled in that way when he was about to say something, he wasn’t sure he wanted to out loud. I strode the remaining distance to their small table, forcing myself to stay rooted. Stay rooted within the sunshine, the lingering scent of germanium blossoms, the quiet breeze.
“Hey Roanne,” I greeted, and swiftly looking at Kai, “Can we talk? Right now? I have something I need to…” they weren’t even looking at me. No one was.
“I don’t know, I mean she can be fun, but she’s not the kind of fun that you could surprise with tickets for a bungee jumping class the day before and she would say yes. You know what I mean?” He cast an expectant look at Roanne’s gray gaze of indecision. He was asking her a question different than the one he voiced, and she was weighing options I couldn’t see. That speck of anxiety I pushed down upon seeing Roanne had come back with a vengeance. I made fists of my trembling hands, pushing myself to hold on, to not make an assumption, to try again.
“Both of you, hey! I need to borrow Kai for a minute,” I said, and the taut line of tension between my heart and stomach pulled further. I could tell the tone in my voice was growing unintentionally colder as my sight grew blurry. Could they not hear me? Am I not standing here, practically yelling? A handful of groups sitting nearby had begun to sneak looks at me shocked to suddenly find me there, a few of them openly gawking. Ignore them all, none of them matter, I had to keep telling myself. That was it. “Kai, I like you! I want you too, I know you!” The words were falling out of my mouth, the harshness, the desperation, all of it echoing in the air around me like some distant resonance.
“I know it was unexpected since we’d already known each other for so long, but do you really think she would be okay with this?” Roanne gestured between them. The trembling grew into creeping despair.
“I would think so, yeah. She’s practically unreadable, and you say she talks about me, but I’ve never seen that side of her,” he half-shrugged. “She can’t bring herself to say it the way I want to hear it, so she can’t possibly care enough,” he glanced around the balcony, at the potted flowers, at the small tables around them, at the glimmer of sunlight caught in Roanne’s earring. He was utterly avoiding her scrutiny, and his own impending guilt.
The honey-haired barista crept up to me touching my arm and whispered sympathetically, “Some things are not meant to be heard, Kharin. Leave while you can,” I shook her off and grasped Kai’s face, turning him gently towards me, the mask I was hiding behind crumbling as I wept.
“Please…” I begged him to look at me. “There’s always been too much to say and I never know how to say it. I thought you could see that, see me. All this time, I’ve wanted you too, why does that seem far away? Sitting here, talking about me like this?” His eyes widened in startled recognition, as though only now seeing me there, and leapt out of his chair. “Am I really that hard to see? You know me too, why are you pretending you don’t?”
I barely noticed as the barista retreated, and the conversation around us resumed in muted quality. Kai’s hand rose absentmindedly to the back his hair, confusion flickering across his face, “Reen, when the hell did you get here?” His look jumped around me trying to figure out if I arrived from thin air.
“Listen…I came here to finally tell you the way you wanted. I’m sorry it took me so long, but I just- I didn’t understand,” I said. He looked towards Roanne. She still sat across the table, vaguely looking in my direction squinting as though she couldn’t tell what he was seeing. What the hell was going on? Nothing was right, no one here seemed right.
“Roanne?” I whimpered as I blinked at her, trying to understand her role in this. No, no, no, this couldn’t be the story. I snapped my eyes shut. I didn’t want to be part of this scene anymore. This can’t be real. This isn’t the truth. Kai and Roanne? Everything in me simply deflated at the realization there wasn’t a damned thing I could do to change any of what was happening around me. I sank to my knees, exhausted.
Suddenly everything around me shuddered, a violent rumble stirring up from the floor. I looked up to see the elevator doors being pried apart. Elevator doors? There had to be some mistake, some spasm of magic or unreality that’s brought me back here. I was just in the sunlight, the café, the middle of breaking my own heart. Could I have truly imagined all of that? Faint light began to filter in through the chasm of the doors, and a strong hand appeared to me a few feet above my head. I reached for that hand through diminishing certainty, letting it be the thing that rooted me to this moment right now, right here as a fog began to overtake the edges of my vision.
I was pulled out of the standstill elevator onto the 3rd floor of the company’s shared office building. “Thank you,” I mumbled to the technician and swept past the people gathered on the side of the corridor.
I’m not sure, how I made it to the ground floor, to my car, then to my home. I woke up from slumbering in a vacant cloud standing in front of my door looking right through it and seeing nothing at all. The suede shoes were hanging on my fingertips. I didn’t recall taking them off.
“Kharin,” I mechanically turned half towards that voice, an automatic reaction with no personal input.
“What are you doing here? It’s too early to be off work already,” I muttered. Kai sighed and grasped my arms spinning me to fully face him.
“Reen, it’s 5 pm, you’ve been standing out here for a while, ba-“
“Don’t call me that,” I stepped out of his reach, arms crossing around myself, my own armor.
“At least that’s what it looked like when I drove up,” he shuffled, eyes shifting again, not wanting to meet mine. His hand rose only to drop again and he said, “Look, I don’t know where you ran off to after what you saw at the café. But there’re a few things I should tell you,” a faint glimmer of remorse.
“How you led me on for several months you mean?”
“Or tell me how you decided that I’m suddenly boring and Roanne, our mutual friend, is this fun new adventure?”
“Okay. Yes, I led you on for a few months, I’ll admit to that fault. I’m sorry about it but it happened and I can’t change that,” After that point I didn’t bother to respond. “You were new, and different, and cool…but after getting to know you a while, you were... Well, you were boring to put it bluntly.” My heart remained steady. The mask artfully reconstructed piece by piece. “You…are beautiful, but you weren’t the adventure I was looking for.” He said these words to me, a black hole swallowing all of them, as though they were an explanation that sufficed to sate the newborn hunger his deception created. “I don’t want to compromise in a way that I would live so apathetically.” He stopped finally, and waited a few minutes perhaps waiting for a response from me. Eventually he gave up, apologized, and left.
I’m not sure what happened in that elevator, but I’m certainly glad I wasn’t pouring my time into a bottomless vessel any longer. He was right after all, I’m not the adventure he was looking for. I’ll be the one he missed. A story better than he could know, because he never actually read it. What he saw wasn’t me, but a reflection of what he desired splashed across a spinning wheel of color he mistook for a blank canvas.