Fall2009

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At Play

Essay

Outside the Box

By K.D. Effrain

To be prompt for my tango lesson, I left the office at 6 pm sharp. The summer light still made the city glow and would remain suspended among the high-rises for at least another few hours. Urbanites, whose cubicles likely resemble my own, covered the streets like ants in a directionless march. My march led me to an outdoor dance floor and venue for my evening's adventure.

Her name was Esmerelda, or so I recall. I don't remember her real name, but her imaginary one has sufficed until now. From our respective corners of the floor, we watched the imported experts give their tango lesson from the stage above us. They spoke in exaggerated Castilian accents as they compartmentalized their dance sequences and perspired into their tuxedo and blue ball gown. "One, two three, four. One, two three, four. Turn. Turn. Turn. Turn. And one, two, three... "

I work for a government agency whose name often extracts pause from people wondering "what I do." Jovial conversations often turn quickly to grave responses like "Well, that sounds like very difficult work" or "How did you get involved in that?" Luckily, those grave responses last only as long as it takes me to smile and gregariously offer a mood-saving lifeline like "I do it for the money."

I've been working in this world for nearly nine years. In the beginning, I feared that shaking hands with the people I work for might infect me with a deadly disease. But I soon learned to love them and distrust my supervisors instead. I've never been one to accept shattered paradigms graciously. Yet anyone who's had his heart broken can attest that paradigms will generate resentment if not tempered during their initial stages. I am neither resentful nor heartbroken. I am simply a person in a cubicle.

It was now our turn. In search of a partner, I waded into a middle-aged and confused audience. Most were with spouses. Esmerelda was alone. She carried herself like a young-looking fifty-five year old. She was roughly 5'2" in heels and had auburn hair with origins of grey roots. I asked her to dance. She looked less than amused.

She informed me that her partner had left the floor but would return shortly. With no desire to step on anyone's toes (pun acknowledged, and retrospectively intended), I smiled and kept walking. Yet, steps away from my next potential partner, I felt a tug on the back of my shirt. I turned to see no one, but when I looked down saw the same incendiary eyes that had told me to scram only moments prior. Esmerelda spoke little English, but enough to make her commands known.

Through what seemed like accented grunts, she informed me that we would share only one dance, and that my services would be no longer needed once her partner returned to the floor. The music began as if on cue, and she promptly mimicked our teacher's stance with her own imbalanced approximation. It was clear who was leading whom. The "one, two three, four" was the easy part. I stepped. She stepped. I stepped. She stepped. One sequence down. Second sequence underway. We were coasting.

Cubicle life is a patent exception to our parents' childrearing mantras. Didn't everyone's parents tell them not to sit too close to the television? Anyone who survived adolescence can remember being told that they spend too much time on the phone. And on any given weekend, who wasn't instructed to get off their seat, go outside and interact with others? Our parents inculcated these lessons upon us. We knew them to be truths because we had heard them so many times. And regardless of how infrequently we may have practiced these truths, their echoes were always faintly audible. So when did the rules change?

The "Turn. Turn. Turn. Turn" was where our 34-second affair began. My instructions were to stand still and guide my lady with both hands. In these turns, she would engage our imaginary audience with four two-step marches in front of her stationary partner. The turns took place between these marches, and necessitated a pivot point. My hands were positioned to guide her from her back and in front of her waist. Each hand exchanged roles with each turn, creating the pivot that enabled her turns. She turned. I felt a delicate weight enter my arm. It was familiar, yet alien; stationary, yet alive. Perplexed, I looked down and found my missing clue. Due to our height difference her chest was where the waist of an average sized woman would be. My arm was full of breasts.

In an effort to dodge Esmerelda's anticipated scorn, I tried to inch my arm away. No luck. Those gazungas had staked their claim and would only release my left arm once they had perched themselves atop my right. I turned her again. More boobs. I tried to outrun her D-cup death-grip, her busty bear trap, by extending my arm further in front of her. There was nowhere to go. I turned her again and awaited her reply. The violin serenaded the sky. She revealed nothing. I turned her one final time and accepted my fate. We were in love.

When the dance was over she left, taking a little piece of my heart with her. And though I may never remember her real name, I will never forget Esmerelda. For on that particular night, she was the one. She saved my life without even knowing it.

Although I relish the attention that people's imaginations offer my line of work, I silently disregard their praise. I do not change the world between.

9 am and 6pm, Monday through Friday. Instead, I become a robot during those hours. I wake. I shower. I board a train. I walk into a marble floored lobby and remind myself to appreciate the building aesthetics that house me every workday. I board an elevator and walk 2.5 minutes down three corridors until I reach the place where I've spent the most waking hours since my 29th birthday. My cubicle has a chair, a screen that, once upon a time, would have been far too close for my parents' liking, and a phone. I sit. I illuminate my screen. I pick up my phone and anticipate a day driven by the information these devices relay. My seat, my screen and my phone are now in command. They strive to invert my childhood truths with their own egocentric variations. But old habits die hard, and the echoes of my upbringing still speak through the mumbles of the air vent overlooking my desk.

It is what happens between the hours of 6pm until 9 the next morning that truly matters. I am a superhero between the hours. Released from my 5' by 5' purgatory, I emerge from the marble floored lobby and fasten my cape. I discard the soot of the bureaucratic fires extinguished that day and stoke my own for the night ahead. I rarely know whom I'll meet or where I'll sleep, or if I'll sleep at all. However, I am certain of one thing - I will save a life before the end of the night. I once doubted this statement, but experience yields acceptance and my skepticism has quieted. I save a life every night.

My own.

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