City Canyons

By on Sep 13, 2011 in Cuttings, Fiction

No matter how closely I press against the window, I can’t see the street below. An enormous skyscraper blocks my view. Nor can I see the sky. All the buildings rise so high, spread so wide, that I can see only the other windows opposite, perhaps ten stories up and ten stories down.

On the other three sides it’s the same, the same view of steel and glass. Sometimes when I feel gloomy, I walk around my floor — the thirty-sixth floor in a tower of ninety stories — and try to find a corner where I can see the sky, but I haven’t found one yet. No one else seems to share my desire. When my co-workers leave their cubicles, it’s only to walk to a conference room, to the bathroom, or to the lunchroom. And the conference rooms are rarely used because most of our meetings are now held online. So they spend most of their time, as I do, staring at a computer screen.

I’ve met most everyone on my floor at our occasional staff meetings, so I can greet someone when we pass in the halls, though I don’t remember their names. They give brief smiles but never stop to talk. Once in a while there are women in the lunchroom, but they’re always talking in pairs; and when I smile, they look right through me and continue their conversation.

In the bathroom, I occasionally hear the men discuss their adventures. They seem intent on recounting the strange places (some of them public) where they’ve had sex. They’re all young — my age, in fact — but so different. I couldn’t do what they brag about doing. Perhaps it’s my upbringing. I was raised on a ranch in Idaho, and though my parents left the Mormon church when I was a child, they held onto many of the values. They didn’t drink or smoke or curse, and I don’t either.

My co-workers grew up in expensive suburbs of large Eastern cities and went to prestigious Ivy League schools. They take for granted their place in this big city. I wound up here by a fluke, the reward of a God-given talent for mathematics. When I was a senior at my local college, I published an encoding algorithm which increased data compression on the Internet by a factor of two. On the strength of my discovery, I was hired by a multi-national communications company.

I enjoy my work, really, and the salary is great — more than I could ever spend. But when work is finished and I go out into the city streets, I feel like a dogie lost in the Red Rock Canyon. The people walk so fast! Someone always steps on my heels, barks out “Sorry” and veers past me without a sideways glance. I’ve stopped looking anyone in the eye, because I keep getting hostile stares in return.

Lately, the isolation has been getting to me, and I find myself staring out the window a lot. Not that there’s much to see. The offices opposite look just like mine: rows of cubicles lined up in perfect symmetry. Occasionally, someone will rise up out of a cubicle, walk away from the window towards one of the central facilities. But the other day — well! Someone walked to the window and stared out. I was so surprised I stepped back and kept moving until I reached my cubicle.

I sat still for a few minutes. I wondered if there could be someone like me working in one of these offices, someone who got tired of seeing life through a small glowing screen and longed for more. I had retreated so fast that I hadn’t even noticed if it was a man or woman.

The next day I walked to the window just before noon. I saw someone in the same spot, five floors up and several windows to the left. This time I noticed a skirt and long hair. Definitely a woman. Her hair might be red, though it was hard to tell colors in the February gloom. At this time of year the sun never makes it into the canyon that divides our two skyscrapers.

I pushed my glasses up on my nose and tried to see more details of her face, then thought how rude that was. She had probably come to the window for a moment of private contemplation. I let my eyes drift over the facade of the building, though I was acutely aware of her in the upper left corner of my view. Just as I was about to go back to my cubicle, she raised one arm and passed her hand across the glass in a single wave. Before I could respond, she turned away.

I thought about the woman during the afternoon, while I tried to debug my code. If she liked looking out the window, perhaps she was someone I might find compatible, someone working in the city but not enamored of its values. Late in the afternoon, I looked out again, but the windows opposite were empty.

A day later I returned to my window just before noon. The woman stood in the same spot. Today her skirt was a different color; her hair was definitely red. As I stared at her, she described a half-circle with her hand, the same casual wave. Shivering a little, I raised my hand and imitated her gesture. I waited, my heart thumping loudly. Then she raised her arm again and pointed downward, waggling her finger.

She wanted to meet me! For a moment I was too flustered to answer; then I nodded. I realized she might not see that small gesture, so I also pointed downward, but she had already turned away. I knew she was descending to the plaza, a pedestrian mall with a coffee shop and a few stone benches where the smokers gathered. I returned to my cubicle, put my computer to sleep and clipped my cell phone to my belt.

On the elevator I thought about what to say. “Hi!” No, perhaps “Hello” was better; less casual, more respectful. “You like to stare out the window?” Too dumb, too blunt. How about, “I couldn’t help noticing…” That was better, putting myself out there a little. But noticing what? Your red hair? That you’re a woman? That you’re lonely just like me?

The glass door swung open automatically, and I stepped out into thin cold light. Across the cement expanse I saw a woman with auburn hair, regal in a long leather coat, walking purposefully in my direction. I started forward, slowly, still pondering what to say. Twenty feet in front of me, she threw her arms around a tall man and buried her face in his shoulder. I stopped short, and my mouth fell open. The man had thick, beautifully waved hair. He wore leather trousers and a bulky white roll-neck sweater.

My castles tumbled down. What had seemed possible high in the air, in a cubicle separated from earth and sky, now felt ridiculous. How could I hope to fit in?

I turned back to my building but couldn’t move my legs. I dreaded returning to my computer. A voice behind me said, “Hello.”

I turned again, to see a woman planted firmly in front of me. She wore cowboy boots and a duffel coat, her curly, carrot-red hair pulled back in a ponytail. A grin spread across her wide freckled face. “I couldn’t help noticing,” she began…

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Born in England but for many years a resident of California, Michael Wright has been an auto mechanic, a carpenter, a potter, a news reporter and a math teacher. Presently he lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and raises heirloom apples. His stories have appeared in diverse online and print publications, most recently in Writers on the Edge, The Sigurd Journal and Poor Mojo's Almanack.