The Waiting Room

Submitted into Contest #49 in response to: Write a story that takes place in a waiting room.... view prompt

2 comments

General

Hey.

I add a chin nod to this greeting muffled behind my face mask and a thin smile she can’t see. No one can see. That’s our life now.

Yesterday, I’d watched videos of how to act in social-distancing and how to act in social settings of any sort. They had titles like ‘3 Ways to NOT Be a Jerk” and “Respect Personal Space” and “When and How to Use Personal Pronouns.” It had been so long since I’d been out of the house I wasn’t sure I remembered. But as I watched these flickering images of stilted settings memories returned. They’re pretty much like muscle memory, you have to warm them up if you haven’t used them in awhile. This morning I warmed them up in front of my phone’s camera until I felt I could adjust the settings, IRL and IRT, from ‘friendly’ to ‘respectful.’ I weighted that Hey and the invisible smile 70/30 towards ‘respectful.’ We may be here awhile.

Her chin nods. More of a facial tick. But eye contact flickers. Yes-no-yes-NO. Then she returns to her book laying open in her lap. ‘Hi.’ I think she said it, looking at her book. Maybe it was ‘mere intention.’ Yeah, no. 70/30 it’s wishful thinking she said it.

I wondered if she’d practiced beforehand too. If so, which videos had she watched? “Pepper Spray and How to Use It” or “How to Avoid Eye-Contact Without Waking the Beast.” I’d seen them, hadn’t watched them. So, I make the odds 70/30 in favor of she had practiced and her message was ‘Leave me alone.’

Cool. I don’t say it. I think it and smile at the phone I’m holding in my lap.

Hey. Look, we have something in common! We’re both reading something in our laps! I’m a Pisces. What sign are you?

It’s The Comedian. He’s awake in my head. He’s been awake since we, I, realized this visit was needed. This doesn’t bode well for this trip’s success. His wisdom had inspired so many teachers and principals to sit me in a corner or in detention hall after school. It’s the voice that’s inspired so many notes from them to my parents. It’s also the voice that’s inspired so many bosses to... discourage me from returning to work the next day.

By now I’ve learned. I don’t speak. I bite my lip to give my mouth something to do. I slip my right hand beneath my right leg so’s to make it more difficult to get up or turn towards her. The phone in my lap clatters to the floor slides across the 6 feet of safe space between my left sneakered foot and her right sandal’d one finally coming to a stop with one corner resting up on her little toe pedicured with a flower.

Looks like we got a bad one here, Johnny.

His witticism transforms me into a silent ventriloquist, on the outside not moving my lips but on the inside I’m yelling “ My name’s not Johnny. Sit down! Be quiet.” It’s our first round so The Comedian shrugs a ‘whatever’ at me.

The Comedian listens as I through my options. Initiate first contact, wait for her, speak or don’t speak. Smile, don’t. Mix and match. Any combination.

Don’t try this at home, kids.

Shut. Your. Mouth.

It’s your mouth... YOU shut it.

I must have growled or grunted - whined probably, said The Comedian.

I heard a soft rustle and the air around me shifted from ‘office air-conditioned icebox’ to a warm sunny morning. It lay across the side of my body closest to her. Lighter than a touch, more substance than a warm smile. Bury my remains in this shroud and I’m a happy man.

I could see from the shadow on the floor she’d turned towards me. At the waist only, her foot unmove and one corner of the phone still resting on her toe.

Now or never...

I chose never and stared at my hands.

Coward, The Comedian whispered. A kind voice, but still the word snapped me awake.

I rose up, turned towards her, mirroring (mimicing... I heard The Comedian say. ) her pose: feet forward, one hand on each thigh, turning at the waist. Smile. Eye contact.

Zzzing! A jolt of electricity zapped between us. Our heads snapped back a millimeter, a centimeter, the smallest measure but one so obvious. The current ran up our neck and onto our faces. We both smiled, a centimeter or millimeter, the smallest measure. But we saw it.

90/10 odds she saw it, too.

And like that, like an engineer dropped the big handled ‘Off’ switch, the current and the smile and the moment was gone. I knew it and looked at my shoes.

You blew it.

Shut up.

I glanced at the phone, saw she was glancing too. Now, we’re like two drug dealers facing each other in a darkened parking lot, unsure who goes first and what it means. All the scene needed was the whistle theme song from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Cliche’s man...

Shhh... This is serious. We’re...

Adulting?

Yes. I mean no. I mean legally we’re adults,

You could buy her a glass of wine...

I don’t know how old she is... never mind.

I can see we’re wondering who goes first, trying to remember the rules we’d learned from our parents or friends ( not a dependable source for polite behavior) or movies we’d seen.

D’ya Google ‘first steps in a waiting room?’ The Comedian asks. Maybe, there’s a video of that, too.

Stop. No. Besides, we’re... leaning.

Leaning.

Leaning towards each other.

Like... the Tower of Pizza?

Pisa.

I said that. The Comedian never loses an argument. What about AA?

AA?

Alcoholics Anonymous. Yeah, they have a 12-step program... not hearing me laugh The Comedian rolls on... But if you’re already feeling romantic, there’s the Ta-y-n-g-o-o he sing-songed a bad imitation of Bob Seger...

Pipe it.

Our ‘debate’ could have continued for 5 minutes or 5 hours. At the bottom of The Well where we lived now they might last all day, a week, then disappear. One of us loses interest or falls asleep. We might go a week and not speak to each other, neither one inspired by the events way up, way outside, in The World as we’d begun to call that scene where people roamed, less now but they were still out there, walking around, hiding behind masks,waiting to jump you with a ‘Good morning’ or ‘Hows it going’ or ‘Scuse me’s and sorry’s, no-you-go-firsts.’ Some even knew his name and expected him to remember theirs, too.

‘Don’t remember that being part of the social CONTRACT, d’you?’

The Comedian doubled the volume and dollop’d a sneer on CONTRACT. I guess it was to differentiate it from DISTANCING which we’d silently agreed to never speak again. Still, verbal blunt force delivered the rare, pithy insight so’s I’d heard it. One of his best.

Top Ten, The Comedian had said then and I’d agreed.

Let’s be honest, I can’t speak for everyone ‘out there’ so I’ll speak for me and The Comedian. Somewhere in the 3rd month of this L-word (and no I mean ‘lockdown’), we, - well me first and then The Comedian - found ourselves nestled into our comfortable existence - that’s a fair use of the word here - down at the bottom of The Well.

It’s our own private gated community. Another Top Ten insight from The Comedian.

Our ‘security’ down here was better’n any CIA, NSA, Russian IRA... Chinese, Korean hacker group that doesn’t exist, nod-nod-wink-wink.

I’m not sure what made our ‘security’ so tight. Socially awkard? No, I was pretty glib before the Lockdown. These days, I’d need a running start like for today’s foray into the outside world. I studied how other people acted. I swilled two extra shots of espresso this morning and then hit the treadmill. Get the neurons firing, the endorphins and oxytocin and adrenals pumping with Ebo Taylor and Fela Kuti cranking in my headphone. Witty, funny. Charming was what my last girlfriend had said.

Yeah, your last girlfriend...

Shush. I’m telling a story... She was nice.

The hand I sat on tapped out the rhythms to Ebo Taylor’s “Sweeter Than Honey.”

No. See, our security was better’n their security, because y’know, ours was... well we’re the experts. We know all the ins and outs. Well, I do.

I know some, The Comedian piped up, sounding like a 7-year old sitting with teenagers talking about ways to score oxy.

Whatever. We, I, (side-eye glance at my internal roommate) knew the ins and outs, the rabbit holes and deer paths, and habits of my thinking, my routine, my favorite toothpaste...

... you don’t brush your teeth. 

I do, you don’t, I replied. Whatever. I know my favorite movies and songs. Friends, when I had ‘em. And I didn’t fight, didn’t protest. No, no. Hundred percent committed.

You volunteered...

Right. I volunteered. Like everybody else. We all went inside one day, drew the curtains and blinds half-closed. Upgraded our Netflix, HBO, Showtime... whatever.

At first it was fun, watch TV all day. Exercise a little. Read the news. Peep out the window if we heard someone walking past. Sirens in the distant. Like snow days when we’d been kids only now there’s no snow and I’m the parent.

Yeah, as if... The Comedian sneered.

The only time I answered the door, answer it now, is when some delivery service bangs the door and leaves groceries or takeout. And before I reach the door I can see a picture of my bank account getting smaller and smaller.

A few weeks, a month in, it was like living in perpetual twilight. A summer’s evening. Soft, ephemeral... dissolving. Self-medicating.

That’s what happens when you go a month without touching someone or seeing someone smile where you can see their lips curl up so high their mouth opens into a grin and maybe they laugh and say something you want to hear because you can hear every syllable. Even prisoners in solitary confinement will see a person’s face, might not be what they want to see but they can see eyes, lips, mouth, hear words.

I can’t remember the last time anyone ran a hand across my shoulders or, god forbid, we walked into a full body, head-to-toe embrace with arms and hands and breaths and deodorants and perfumes and wrapping each other up in a cocoon of oxytocin and positive brain chemicals that can only come from touching one human being to another...

Ain’t nobody gonna hug you now. Pew...!

I ignored The Comedian.

At first my friends... friends, yeah... ( their memories had been waiting at the evening sky’s horizon... just before they dropped away) we all made the effort to stay in touch. Some lasted longer. Beengie was the last one. He’d been making weekly calls until two weeks ago? Three. He’d closed his restaurant at The Lockdown and said ‘Fuck it’ and I expect he’d said the same thing to these weekly calls. Who knows. He hadn’t answered mine either.

One after another we all dropped off. They stopped or I stopped. And family... yeah, not much different now than it was then. 

She’s wait-i-i-i-ingggg.

What? Yeah. Okay.

My mind shifts gears like that old ’64 VW Beetle did in winter. The colder it got, the harder I had to push the gear shift and pray for the clutch to engage. On the coldest days and there were always 2 or 3, it would start but never move. I’m afraid a few more months of this Lockdown and everyday will be that cold. I’ll hear the phone ring or ping or ding, whatever the hell sound it makes. Can’t remember. I’ll look up, look around and wonder what that sound was. Or I’ll recognize it but not remember the person’s name or how to answer it or what to say or even if I want to say it.

Um, the phone...

The Comedian’s weird about courtesy. He calls them ‘the rules of the road.’ He’d tell me “you gotta obey the rules of the road with this one, Johnny.’ He’d taken to calling me Johnny. I’d taken to calling him an idiot, reminding Him ‘Um, hey, pal, do you see any roads in here? No? Well, then there are no RULES to follow. Okay? We’re kinda winging it here.’

He’d pout, leaving me alone.

But in that silence, that’s when I’d remember things like how and when to wave or shake hands. No one shakes hands now and it’s weird to wave at people on a Zoom call, so yeah the more things change the more they get worse. Amirite?

Hi. Is that your phone?

Her words, had to be hers the voice was... soft almost a caress, had dropped in The Well like a penny drops down a well, you wait and wait and then you hear it splash. And smile.

But down here, I think her words landed in a soft pile of muck. They landed and stuck and having forgotten ‘rules of the road’ like to have a conversation you have to reply... k.  This applies more so now that you’re sitting beside her, almost touching, almost violating the new rules of the road.

She’s wai-i-i-t-i-i-i-ngggg.

Maybe she lives in her own well and...

Maybe she’s the brave one.

Yeah, maybe she’s the brave one.

Maybe you should say something. The Comedian always pushing me into something.

Yeah, maybe I should say something.

Hi, yeah, I mean yes. That’s my phone. Um... 

I could hear The Comedian snickering.

It’s okay, she said. Her eyes crinkled and the edges of her mask crinkled and I could see she was smiling and I could feel my whole face pull up and back, all those muscles working to turn a frown upside down as my mom used to say.

She saw the smile.

Here, she said, I have some sanitizer. And she squirted a dollop on one palm, rub both palms together and asked “May I?”

Yes.

Say ‘thank you.’ (See? The Comedian knows those rules. He likes her. I like her.)

Thank you.

She hands me the phone. We’re careful not to touch, so careful we laugh. We LAUGH! The bells of St. Peter’s couldn’t sound sweeter or louder.

I’m Jillian, she said.

July 11, 2020 00:46

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

2 comments

Vivek Sehgal
05:52 Oct 12, 2020

It has been long time you have written, Reedsy needs more authors like you who can give better and more beautiful stories, these days many of the 'reeders' are in a haste to grab the top position in leaderboard, but the true literature lies here 😊😊😊

Reply

Show 0 replies
Batool Hussain
12:19 Jul 14, 2020

This is so good, buddy! The ending is...just wow! Keep up the good work;) Also, I like the last sentence in your bio 'That's enough.'

Reply

Show 0 replies
RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.