BY JONATHAN WICKREMASINGHE-KUHN
Phil took up his usual spot in the right-hand corner of the elevator, leaning against the railing. The crowd inside grew larger, but none of his colleagues were there, meaning another ride in silence. He had resigned himself to staring at the backs of heads he didn’t know, but right before the door closed, she stepped inside. He only caught a glimpse of her face before she turned toward the door, but it did not matter. He had already memorized it. Besides, her expression today was not particularly pleasant, full of intensity as she’d rushed to get on board. But Phil was just happy to share her company, even if it was along with a group of strangers.
Her name was Linda. Or maybe it was Laura. Lisa? Phil’s only clue was the monogrammed bag she sometimes carried. He also knew that her last name started with a “B,” but the possibilities were so endless that it was ridiculous to even venture a guess.
It had been raining the day he’d first noticed her, though he was almost certain he’d seen her before because she seemed vaguely familiar. She’d apparently fumbled with her cheap umbrella all the way across the lobby because she only got it closed upon stepping inside the elevator. Tiny droplets of water shined in her hair, and Phil watched with fascination as some held firmly in place while others slowly slipped down before plunging to their demise on her coat collar. A strand of her hair twisted playfully around her delicate ear, as if sharing a secret.
There was fear that someone would notice his staring, or worse, that she would feel his gaze and turn to confront him. But he suppressed this and continued studying what little of her face he could see. He closed out the rest of the world so completely that it took him by surprise when she stepped forward to exit when they had reached her floor. She turned down the hall and smiled, greeting a coworker, and that was all Phil needed to see.
He had not kept count of how many elevator rides they’d shared since then, not out of any self-respect to avoid becoming obsessive, but because it was too depressing to think about how much he looked forward to them. The current one was passing by too quickly. There were only three more stops before her floor.
A group of heavy-set men with strong aftershave exited, maneuvering around her. As she repositioned herself, she looked Phil’s way. Was that a smile? And if so, did it mean anything?
He contemplated moving slightly closer to her. Though he had no real reason to change positions, his movement would not be noticed in the shuffle. But by the time he had made his decision, the elevator was already moving again. The moment had passed. To act now would be too obvious. He sighed and leaned back against the wall.
He had searched valiantly for her name even though this would only make it harder to one day approach her. Speaking to a stranger was already a monumental task for Phil, but the added pressure of knowing her name when he should not and being afraid that he would accidentally reveal it would surely cripple him. Still, he had looked for it, the search being the only way to feel that he was making any progress.
There were three companies on the floor where she worked, and only one of them had pictures of its staff. He did not know if her position was picture-worthy, though in his mind it certainly was. Another company listed names, but there were no “LB”s among them. The last had an outdated website that was generally useless, and Phil convinced himself that she couldn’t work for such a place.
Two floors before hers, fate shined on Phil in the form of a Hungarian cleaning lady. She entered with her large cart, heading straight for Linda/Laura/Lisa. LB would either have to move to her right (away from Phil) or to her left (right next to him) in order to accommodate it. She chose the left, and as she stepped over, she accidentally brushed up against him.
“Sorry,” she said, offering an embarrassed smile. It was the first time he’d heard her speak.
A million words streamed through Phil’s brain, but only a few managed to string themselves into coherent phrases, and each one sounded dumber than the next. So before too much time had passed, he threw out a simple, “That’s okay.” She nodded and turned back to face the doors.
He’d gone down to her floor a few weeks ago, hoping that perhaps she worked in a visible area. It wasn’t much of a plan because he had no pretense for being there. She wasn’t anywhere in plain sight, and he wound up being grateful for this when, after looking around aimlessly for a few moments, a secretary asked if she could help him. If it had been her, he would have made a complete fool of himself. Instead, he was able to lie and claim that he was looking for his own office.
They finally reached her floor, and she left. Phil watched her go, following her until the last second, when the doors finally closed to send him up to eight hours of monotony. He’d never shared a ride with her on the way down, even though he had made up excuses to leave at different times. He thought it might be easier to speak to her after work, when he could go drink off the rejection right away.
Maybe this would be the day.