By C. Chandrawala
If I try to think back on how exactly the conversation started, I’m not sure that I could really recall it. I’m not even really sure that the beginning even matters altogether. The point was simply this: it was just another Tuesday morning at the office, and Kunal had just joined our team, and as I peeked out of my cubicle door to appraise him, I slowly took in a man who appeared, in the closest estimation that I could imagine, to be an older, male, version of myself.
It might have been the beat-up Converse shoes, paired hopefully with slacks and a loose-fitting shirt, or the expression of someone who sometimes saw more than they let on, or it might have just been something in his essence altogether; but the moment I laid eyes on him something in me saw quite clearly that the trajectory of my life would lead me to inhabit his shoes, his stance, his life. It was just a matter of passing time. Something about it was certain - in another lifetime, I was Kunal. And so naturally, I was curious as to who this man could be. I resolved to find out more about him, and though I was unsure of how to approach this investigation, it occurred to me that I owed it to myself to at least make some effort in that vein.
I walk over to him and he looks up, a bit surprised, but not dedicated enough to the emotion to show it. “Hi” he says, expectantly. “Hey!” I toss out cheerfully, “Welcome to the team!” “Thanks,” he says, reaching over to pull out a few black and white photos from a box on his desk. As he pins them to the worn grey flecked fabric wall of his cubicle, I introduce myself and ask about the photos. “Are you into photography too?” he asks. And so begins a lengthy conversation between he and I; photography, travel, society, life.
The conversation builds in a steady climb, and at every turn, I find my initial suspicion more and more true: fast-forwarding my current life by a few decades, Kunal is living in what feels like the inevitable outcome. He earns well, is married to a lovely spouse who also works a good job in the department. They have a sweet-natured dog and a beautiful comforting home. Together they visit their in-laws and go for walks in the crisp winter snow as the undisturbed ecosystem of Ottawa continues to hum aimlessly around them. Talking about life and society, our frustrations echo one another and even in this, our perceptions of life, people, and the world around us stand almost peculiarly in perfect parallel with one another. Here then before me lies a picture of my future, I think to myself. How lucky for me that I get the chance to peek into my future life, and see how well it sits on me like I am trying on a coat or a pair of gloves.
Lucky, yes. We may not all be granted a crystal ball into our futures, and yet on this perfectly ordinary Tuesday morning, here one was, meandering into my life. Though for some reason, I can’t help but note that though his life feels like the goal I have been intentionally and dedicatedly walking towards with every step I’ve taken over the past few years, I am surprised to find myself unsure of whether he is actually happy with his life. A nostalgic bittersweetness colours his memories, and when he speaks about his present, the timbre in his voice unknowingly strikes a confusing chord, somewhere between contentment and contempt.
Most worryingly, buried in the silences between each word, in every short pause between his sentences, lingers a scent of regret that no amount of complacency can seem to wash away. Buried deep within fine the lines that crease his forehead, I can almost see the words “But what if I had…” scribbled indelibly, from decades before. Rather than fading with time, the lines seemed to have formed around the words themselves, harvesting them, and slowly letting them spread and reach further across his mind with each new year that passed.
Startled by this insight, I shifted abruptly on my feet. “I should get back to my desk,” I say, hoping to exit the scene I felt I had stumbled into almost by mistake. Before my own “but what if I had”s started to bubble up to the surface. Before the lines on my own face started to crease in response. Before I felt the need to question what exactly I had been building toward for these past three years as I had put in hour upon hour, like bricks in a kiln, burning my own fingers shamelessly in my undisguised effort to “climb the corporate ladder.” “Sure,” he replied simply, turning without hesitation back to look at the photograph pinned reverently just to the right of his blinking computer screen.
As I turned to leave, searching my mind for a nice, light, easy-going note to leave on, I looked back over my shoulder. “Oh, by the way, I never even asked - which team did you work with before coming to join us here on the 18th floor?” He turned around, glancing up and to the right as though reading a CV invisibly streaming over my left shoulder. “Well just before this, I was actually with intergovernmental affairs for three years, just on the other side of the floor,” he started. “ And before that, I was on 17th with the policy team for a few years and operations before that. And before that...” I looked away, mentally noting the tasks waiting for me at my desk, as the list continued for another moment or two until I suddenly realized that his speech had rather abruptly slowed. “So yeah…” his voice trickled off, slowly, as realization coloured like a stain across the mask of indifference on his face. His eyes glazed over for a moment, and I realized he was quietly adding up the years. “I guess you could say I’ve spent the last 12 years moving 1 floor up and 6 cubicles over,” he said. Each word tumbling out more quietly than the last, till he ended almost in a whisper. He looked back at me. “One floor up and 6 cubicles over.”
And in that moment, I watched, as though from very far away, as a small piece of his soul crumpled and burned. If I had looked closely, I could have almost seen the ashes settling softly in the white soles of his shoes. But I was just a new colleague; just a cubicle neighbour; just another version of him, only a few decades earlier. And so instead, I averted my eyes. “Well, welcome to the team," I said. "I’m just over here if you need me.”
As I stepped delicately away, my head swam. One Floor up and Six Cubicles over. One Floor Up and Six Cubicles Over. One Floor Up And Six Cubicles Over. How long did it take, I wonder, for that to become the summary of one’s life? And how long would it be before I too sat there, accounting for years of my life by my floor number, or how close my cubicle was to a window. Was this what life was meant to be?
That night as my husband and I drove home, my husband noted that I was unusually quiet. “Everything okay?” he asked casually, before making the turn into the parking lot of the big box grocery store. “Should we pick up something quick for dinner?” Less than a year into our marriage, we had already established our routine. We had already started asking questions whose answers had been predefined. We had already stopped asking aloud, “but what if?” letting the question instead rest on the brows of our pre-creased foreheads. We already wore our routines like badges of honour: “Members of the Working Class;" “Double Income No Kids;” “On Track to make Executive in Three to Five Years;” So proud of the self-prescribed parameters we had set for our inevitable success.
But what if we didn’t?
“Everything okay?” My husband asked again, slight concern edging into his even voice. I turned to him as the car parked. “I can’t do it,” I said. "Do what?” His eyebrows arched. “One Floor Up and Six Cubicles over. Don’t you see? It doesn’t mean anything.” I started. “I can’t spend 12 years of my life to go one floor up and 6 cubicles over. I can’t even spend 5 years doing that. I don’t want to. There has to be more, right? There has to be more.” Over the next hour, we sat in the car. The grocery store lights dimmed and the lot emptied. I explained the story to him, relieved to see the same realization cross his face at the same crucial moment. “I can’t account for my life in how many floors up and how many cubicles over,” I ended, “there just has to be more. Promise me that there will be more.”
“There will be more,” he said, “we’ll make sure there is more. I promise.”
An ode to one's of TLP's favourite titans of indie Lit, The Mistry Pages are a series dedicated to the stories we tell each other over the last sips of a cup of tea, the ones you overhear while standing shoulder to shoulder on the train; while hanging yesterday's laundry in the balcony window; while mumbling to yourself as you trace patterns of chipped paint along the walls. They are stories of the lives happening all around us - big and small, chaotic and whimsical, the profound and the mundane, all rolled into one.
Stories, as the moth flies by. Clipped, short, uneven, interrupted, imperfect. Appearing and disappearing, sometimes mid-sentence. Overheard in passing, and filtered at last by that special, yellowed, dusty quality of light. The Mistry Pages are stories about the magic of everyday life.
Send in your submissions for the Mistry Pages at firstname.lastname@example.org