“You could eat off her floor,” Miriam often said in a half envious way, if Dora was present, and in a half mocking way when she was not. “I drove her home that day when her car wouldn’t start and honest to God, you’d think that floor had never been stepped on. I mean, it was like a mirror it was so shiny!” But what Miriam and her coworkers did not know was that Dora actually did eat off her floor.
Dora never ate out and never ate in front of others. At lunch time she politely refused her coworkers’ invitations to join them in the break room, instead going to her car, parked in a far corner of the lot. The Alton Insurance Company was located in one of five identical square, squat buildings sheathed in reflective glass, industrial sized ice cubes stuck in macadam, refusing to melt. There, in a parking spot impossibly far from the entrance to her building, Dora was certain she was sufficiently distant and safe from curious eyes. For years she had practiced invisibility (…children should be seen and not heard…), the art of being in a room and completely overlooked by everyone around her. But to Jack, a recent addition to the Alton staff, she was not invisible; she was a beacon, a beam of light silently offering him a way back.
Jack had noticed Dora from his first day at work, even before he’d been shown to his desk, a cubicle with a shared wall between them. The starched white blouses and navy skirts she wore every day intrigued him. Three quarter sleeves with tiny rounded collars, she wore the same style blouse daily and the skirts, always worsted wool, always navy blue, never varied from the slim A-line pattern, day in and day out, week after week. On occasion he had noticed her hands and marveled at the perfect roundness of each nail, always filed to a quarter inch long, ten pink half-moons foretelling the smoothly shaped nail on each finger. The precise bob of her magnificent chestnut hair was held back by a headband that matched her skirt. If he saw her outside, walking to or from her car, the sun revealed bits of auburn flashing outward from the crown of her head and Jack was entranced.
Once settled in her car and assured of privacy, Dora withdrew the twelve inch square of linoleum from the bag she kept under her front seat and, balancing it on her lap, spilled out the contents of her lunch. Picking the square up carefully, she lowered her head to the task with an ease that came of repeated practice. She began then to eat, working her tongue and teeth to pick up the bits of food from the flat, waxed surface. Only when the food was absolutely all gone (…we don’t eat food because we like it, we eat it because it’s what the Lord sent us…) did Dora begin to systematically lick the entire square of flooring clean. Starting at the corner of the tile resting on her right thumb, she used her tongue with the rhythmic movements of a cat, licking the length of the tile, bottom to top, right to left in long singular laps–a ritual evolved to bring her soul from blackest shame to a state of temporary redemption lasting only until she got home and the next ritualistic ablutions began.
At home she did not bother trying the precarious balance of food on a fixed size, tiltable square. Instead, in the privacy of her own kitchen she was free to follow the food where ever it went. A stew, a sandwich, meatloaf and potatoes, it did not matter; the floor was large in the spacious kitchen, so much like the one her grandmother had made her wash every day, twice on Sundays, extra penance against sins anticipated in the week ahead.
Though her pristine, tightly groomed exterior could seem forbidding to someone as shy as Jack, he found almost at once he was curiously drawn to her, and the proximity of their desks made the daily exchange of pleasantries increasingly easy for them both. The job at Alton was the first he’d tried since the hospitalization. Jack’s anxiety was acute; the sudden unexpected departure of Melanie left him feeling startled and naked. Never confident before, he was ashamed at having been left alone, without explanation, and could not dissuade himself from the thought that his failures as a boyfriend and lover had been thrown to the breeze, never to be grasped or understood, but blowing everywhere for all to see.
Slight of build and not particularly tall, Jack bore a pock marked face; his hair was combed straight across the top of his head so that, except for his long lashes and melancholy brown eyes, he appeared a somewhat forlorn, almost comic figure. His tentative smile gave the impression of one never quite certain whether or not he belongs in the room.
Prior to coming to Alton Insurance, Jack’s life had spun so wildly out of control even he was shocked by the suddenness of the collapse. From an early age he had been “uncomfortable in his skin,” as his parents had so often and loudly reminded him, and he took his place in the adult world only with great reluctance. Melanie had been his saving grace. His connection to her gave him a means to enter the adult world and believe he belonged. He did not have to travel through life alone, he was part of a couple and Melanie was, at first, happy to lead the way. Then one day, without a hint or warning she was gone. “Time to move on,” she’d written, to someone she didn’t “have to take care of.”
Had he only been stunned by Melanie’s departure, Jack could have staggered a bit and regained his footing, brushed himself off and started anew. Instead, her leaving completely disconnected him. He shattered; he gasped and flailed and thrashed wildly through the nights trying each morning to get his bearings in a world he believed held no place for him.
He tried to hold on, to maintain his dignity so that no one would know he’d been destroyed. Dutifully he appeared at his job each day, appeared to perform routine tasks, disappeared to a storage closet or his car at brief, unanticipated intervals throughout the day where he took deep gasps of breath. Afterwards he reappeared, slightly reduced, moving vacantly to the end of each day. And running through it all like a low persistent bass was her name … Melanie … Melanie … Melanie. Every day and every night since she’d left had been suffused with her name pulsing through his brain, the maddening relentlessness of a heartbeat, heartbreak, heartbeat, heartbreak.
Jack was not sure when he began to shatter. The fissures were so tiny at first, like crackling on an antique piece of bone china, that he thought his suffering would, maybe, mature him. Instead each day the gaps between the cracks grew subtly wider. He could not recall, even now, how he ended up in a psych ER. Not speaking to anyone, not wanting his family notified, and repeatedly asking the staff if Melanie had come to see him yet. Later, when the fog cleared a bit, he learned he had walked off his job, telling his colleagues only that he had to leave, he was very sorry, but he just could not take the pain another minute longer. He got in his car, wrote a note to Melanie and, when the state trooper pulled him over, Jack explained he was “pretty sure” he was on his way to kill himself. Heartbeat, heartbreak, heartbeat, heartbreak.
Trying to start over at Alton had Jack feeling that he was in over his head; he’d known it from the minute he arrived at his first day of work. At the time, he’d decided to skip his meds—just for the first day or so, he promised himself—because he wanted to be sharp. Two weeks later he was still struggling—to get up on time, to remember his ID badge, to learn the policies and procedures, to keep all the names straight. There were so many people in the office and so many distractions: phones, voices, movements, no amount of sound absorbing baffles could stifle the cacophony. But…but…also there was Dora, a quiet, almost unnaturally calm presence; safe harbor from his private, turbulent, churning storm.
For her part, Dora never initiated conversation (…what kind of a girl starts up talking to men…) but in time Jack came to learn that Dora was always willing to answer any question he asked. Over the course of weeks, he grew gradually more comfortable, first at his desk, then in the breakroom, then with his coworkers at their cubicles, until, without really noticing how or when it happened, Jack was able to relax and concentrate on his work, going home each evening free of the terror which before had been a nightly visitor, and instead was able to start living in clarity and light. Each day saw his own shame and sense of failure recede.
Satisfied now that the tile was clean, Dora slipped it back into the brown bag and then underneath the seat of her car. A glimpse at her watch warned her she had taken too long; she’d be late back from lunch (…tardiness is disrespectful, you can’t be wastin’ other people’s time, who d’you think you are…). The elevator was notoriously slow; she opted for the stairs at the best she could manage of a graceful but speedy ascent (…a proper lady don’t run, why can’t you plan better…). Her stomach clenched and her lunch rode slightly higher in her throat as she hurried up the stairs. Reaching the third floor she pulled open the safety door, stepped into the corridor and, failing to see the “Wet Floor” sign, slipped spectacularly, extending her hand, bracing herself against the fast approaching floor. The snap was harsh, but the pain that shot up her arm was astounding. Tile over the concrete absorbed the impact of her tumble so that no one heard the thump, but her shriek was awarded with a thorough, though momentary, silence across the vast office configuration of cubicles as people half rose from their seats, swinging their heads about to locate the source of the wounded animal sounds.
For a moment Dora was stunned, and confused the pain in her wrist with the sharp crack of her grandmother’s broom handle across her back. (…for God’s sakes, a dog coulda cleaned a floor better with his tongue than you can with that damn mop…). And then there she was, back to the moment, and voices and movement and feet clamored all around her. She did not look up; she could not look up, her burning tears exacerbating her humiliation. Slowly she nodded, voiceless, as one person after the next asked, “Are you okay?” Then there was a hand on her upper arm and she was aware of a man’s voice, steady and calm, “Here now, just go slow, first to your knees…your wrist looks kind of swollen…steady, don’t get all the way up yet, just stay like this, I’m right here.”
The same voice was now directed away from her, “Can someone bring a chair over? Great, thanks; let’s see if we can wheel her to the desk.” And so the rescue mission proceeded, slowly, giving Dora time to compose herself so that when she was finally sitting up in a chair she could summon a bit of a smile. It was Jack kneeling before her now, his voice soft but steady.
“I don’t know a lot about these things, but I think we need to get you to a doctor.”
Dora nodded and bit her lip, feeling like a child who had committed some child’s crime, preparing for the consequence, “I can go after work, it’ll be fine…” But she knew it was not true and she didn’t know what to do about it. Some more voices across the way, tones audible, words indistinct, and then Jack was back. He seemed to have taken charge and Dora, having reverted to a helpless childlike state, could do no more than acquiesce.
Heated anguish closed the conversational part of her brain so that all she could say during the ride to the clinic was, “Thank you. I’m so sorry for the trouble, thank you,” multiple times and with variations on the theme. As they rode on together Jack felt his shyness peeling away; his opportunity to take a role, make a decision, care for someone, like water to a dying plant, brought new life to his heart and a new rhythm began to assert itself. He made certain to talk in a generic but friendly and general way, not asking any questions and being careful not to talk about himself. Hours later, with night well along and Dora exhausted from the day’s ordeal, he drove her home and walked her to her apartment door. With her keys in his hand he reached across the sling cradling her broken wrist, opened the door and said quickly said good night. He did not want to awkwardly prolong the parting; he did not dare to ask more of the moment.
He’d not gone half a block when he noticed her gloves lying between the console and the passenger side of the front seat. Turning a series of rights to round the block, Jack pulled up in front of Dora’s building. Not bothering to feed the meter, he hurried to the apartment and quickly gained the second floor. So deep in thought and exhaustion had Dora been, she hadn’t noticed the failure of the door to latch securely after Jack left. Now, preparing to eat her dinner, she’d not heard the quiet tap of his gloved hand against the door as it silently pushed open.
He stood at the door and watched her for a moment, unsure what he was seeing but knowing it was intimate and to speak now would be a sacrilege of some great magnitude. It was clear she was, as yet, unaware of his presence. He stood and watched her for a moment longer, absorbing the significance of what he was seeing. Her back to him as she knelt in the kitchen, one hand on the floor, the other, the bandaged wrist, slightly elevated as she leaned on her elbow there for support. He saw her tip forward picking up the bits of something with her teeth, much as a dog might gobble a morsel carelessly dropped to the floor.
An illumination struck Jack then; a sudden recognition in which Dora became known to him with the unexpected clarity one experiences upon waking to discover yesterday’s debilitating hangover is truly gone. In that instant Jack grew piercingly aware of a raw need to be freed from his own shame. He tapped lightly on the door frame, not wanting to startle her, but also aware that his presence was an intrusion of the greatest degree, a violation of the most sacred and scarred part of her wounded soul. He could have walked away. He should have silently excused himself, and he knew that, but he was incapable of leaving her now.
Softly he began, “I’m so sorry to…”
As he expected, his softest voice was too much and Dora startled, her body all at once rigid and wary, small and recoiled: a juxtaposition of poses, an animal caught in the hunter’s sights, a child caught at something very naughty.
Dora did not rise, did not get up from her awkward crouched feeding position, but only looked up at him, head turned slightly around, helplessness her unmasked face. What could she say? What could she do?
In her eyes Jack saw all he needed to see, enough to know this moment was irreversible, this pivotal point irretrievable. Unwavering in his gaze, but with gentleness wordlessly transmitted, he approached her, slowly, as one would a wounded animal found in a deep ravine. Her eyes told all at once her story. Her eyes begged for release. A glistening tear, then another, then a steady stream ran like melting ice down her cheeks and began to drip from her chin. Was she trembling?
“It’s okay, Dora,” he tried, his voice barely a whisper, “I understand, really.”
He moved closer then and sat down, slowly, slowly, beside her. The scattered elements of the sandwich that had been undone became his focus and carefully, precisely, he reassembled it. Her eyes watched him, round and fearful, tears continuing to speak what she could not, her shame so unspeakable.
“Here, let me help,” and with tenderness never previously known to her in the entire course of her life, Jack tore off a piece of the remade sandwich and slowly, softly, gently, put it into her mouth.
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