Our boss left fifteen minutes ago, and the most magical moment for my coworkers has come: they finally get to escape from our mind-numbing routine. Jacqueline’s computer has shut off when she slings her purse over her shoulder and looks down at me. I remain slumped in my chair, with my fingers poised over the keyboard.
“You are going to punish yourself by working overtime,” she guesses.
Through this workday I’ve struggled with my unraveling mind, and I only performed half as well as I used to. I should finish enough of the work that has piled up, so tomorrow I can return with a clear conscience and a renewed will to work hard, to be a decent human being, to stop eating poorly, to have a meaningful life. But I stand up from my seat and stretch my neck.
“Fuck it. I’m going home.”
“Fuck it, huh?” Jacqueline repeats as she smirks.
Once the three of us exit our office building together, I take a deep breath of cold air that feels like a glass of water in a parched stomach. The weight of the fatigue has settled over my shoulders, and my spine aches dully. Jacqueline and Jordi walk a bit further as I find myself staring at the slope that starts next to the opposite sidewalk, and that is occupied by vegetation that has grown profusely. I feel that the large clump of unkempt, moss green bushes is mocking me, the fool who will try to find an empty seat in a packed train so it will carry me to my dreary nest in my maggoty hometown.
Jacqueline has stopped next to her Audi, and she observes me as if to figure out why I’m spaced out. The setting sun is tinting her hair a rosy gold, casting shadows across her mature features. She’s surrounded by a soothing aura of light fitting for such an ethereal, nurturing woman.
“You look like an angel,” I blurt out.
Her face brightens up with a smile and a blush. I freeze. I look around to locate Jordi and bid him goodbye, mainly to detract weight from the dreamy voice with which I had complimented my female coworker, but the man has already disappeared.
Jacqueline steps closer. She has narrowed both her eyes and her shoulders as she buttons up her cardigan, giving her a cozy look.
“You are gonna have to walk all the way down to the Lugaritz station, right?”
“I’ll drive you to Amara if you want. Not any further, though. I want to get home too.”
I yearn to be inside Jacqueline, preferably headfirst, but sharing a confined space that belongs to her is an enticing start.
“I feel like I don’t have the right to ask you that,” I say controlling my tone, “but if you offer it, I can only thank you.”
“Great. No need to be that formal, Leire. And hey, check this out.”
She points at her fog grey Audi A4 Avant and presses a button on her key fob. A row of inclined bulbs lights up over the headlights, giving the car a futuristic touch. But I am used to my old, murderous car that I abandoned, so most vehicles would feel like a vast improvement.
“I’m thoroughly impressed,” I say.
Jacqueline giggles as she opens the driver’s door, then she gestures with a tilt of her head towards the passenger’s side. Before she regrets having invited me in, I hurry to the opposite door and I crouch into the car. Once both doors are closed, Jacqueline and I adjust our seatbelts. I slide my work bag onto my lap and I lean back against the foam pads of my seat. A strange warmth spreads throughout my body as if a swarm of bees was buzzing around inside me, making my heart flutter with excitement and anxiety.
The interior smells of leather and plastic, with just a hint of perfume. The metallic-looking dashboard is lighted with blue and yellow lines and curves, and it features a touch screen for plenty of the driver’s touching needs. I bet it provides a GPS system. I’ve always wanted to own a vehicle with one, but I never felt like I could afford it. How much did Jacqueline pay for this fancy ride, anyway?
As Jacqueline maneuvers out of the parking lot, I discover that a different screen behind the steering wheel displays the GPS system, and that a HUD on the windshield features a digital speedometer and a fuel gauge. How much did cars improve as I was sleepwalking my life away?
Jacqueline is circling the roundabout at the entrance of the business park when a feeling sinks in: I wish I was stuck in a time loop in which I did nothing else than sit on the passenger seat as this woman drove me around. Only I would know that we would never reach our destination.
We are speeding down the slope that this morning I had to trudge my way up.
“How about some music, huh?” Jacqueline asks.
After she presses a couple of buttons on the touch screen, the multimedia system plays one of those upbeat, popular songs that the radio station insists on replaying week after week, I guess because some executives are bribing them.
“I didn’t have enough with listening to your preferred music at the office,” I say jokingly, “so now these songs will have further opportunity to burrow into my brain.”
Jacqueline laughs. The streets are darkening quick. Two mothers push their strollers as they leave the nearby playground.
“What, you don’t like my music?”
“It’s not fair to call it yours unless you’ve composed it or learned how to play it on an instrument. But anyway, do I really seem like the kind of person who would enjoy these rhythms, or lyrics?”
“I don’t like to prejudge. But you never stated that you hate the music I put on the radio.”
“Why, to start an argument? I could tolerate it enough, the same way a prisoner gets used to regular torture sessions.”
“I did buy this car, you know, so I’ll keep playing my music.”
“Hey, I will endure it, but I assure you, it’s the mindless joy of people who were driven crazy by a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome.”
Jacqueline taps me on the arm with the back of her hand.
“What kind of music do you listen to at your leisure, then?”
I scratch my nape, embarrassed.
“Usually sad songs about how depressing and disappointing life is, I guess.”
Jacqueline fixes her gaze on my face, but I pretend that I find the white, tower-like apartment buildings interesting.
“It’s such a shame that you aren’t happy,” she says.
“I do feel full of shame. But… why would I be happy?” I ask sullenly. “I mean, realistically. When I think about what’s out there that could produce such a fabled state in me, I can’t come up with anything.”
We leave behind the Lugaritz station as Jacqueline’s car ascends the adjoined, sloped road. A young woman walking her dog stands aside on the narrow sidewalk so a cyclist can pass by.
“There’s sex,” Jacqueline says casually.
“Sure,” I concede. “As long as you come across the right person. Otherwise you just add to the hill of humiliating memories.”
“Also good music and movies, and maybe a few drinks every once in a while to loosen things up and get to know someone better. Or just a nice dinner with friends. Not to mention a big, soft bed to fall asleep in. Traveling too, depending on the destination. But we are making idle talk, aren’t we?”
I seek Jacqueline’s gaze to figure out what she meant. She glances meaningfully at me, then she focuses on the road again. We are passing through an isolated road that connects the outskirts with downtown Donostia. A wall of tall trees on both sides of the road has blackened our surroundings further, except for the hazy orange cones coming from streetlights.
“What I mean,” Jacqueline adds, “is that we both know that some people are born with a smaller capacity for happiness than others due to their genes and similar accidents of fate. The truly cursed could own a mansion in a tropical island and spend their days lounging in the sun, but they’d still be miserable.”
I wouldn’t have expected those sentences to come out of my coworker’s mouth. I lean against the headrest as a sad smile plays across my lips.
“That’d be me. I’ve always known it, so I stew in my own misery by my lonesome.”
“Does that mean that we should give up and accept that our lives are destined for misery and unhappiness? Companionship and maybe love should help, at least a little.”
“If I told myself fantastical stories that I’d love to believe, I may end up getting married, raising a bunch of kids and enduring all the noise and mess and chaos that comes with them. I’d be feeding and cleaning up and disciplining and worrying and fighting and making up. Finally I’d have to decide whether to stay or to break up, but after you push out a couple of kids, unless the other person fucks you over, would you want to become a single mom?”
“I would have welcomed being any kind of mom.”
“I don’t know, Jacqueline,” I swallow a hot lump in my throat as an aching feeling settles in my guts. “I don’t want to bother you with my opinions, anyway. You are inconvenienced enough by having to drive me around.”
She had turned her face towards her window. We are passing through a winding tunnel with grimy, graffitied walls. Her hair, drawn back in a ponytail, glistens like polished ebony wood under candlelight.
I have bothered Jacqueline, that much I can tell. I’m used to rambling to myself, usually out loud, as long as nobody can hear me. I can’t contain the flood of words once someone gives me permission to speak, and I always end up freaking them out although they thought they wanted my input, so I’ll have to restrain myself.
We have exited the tunnel into one of those serene neighborhoods in the outskirts where the well-off settle in their nests, away from the hubbub of their fellow humans. The curved front of a tortilla brown apartment building peeps out from behind a rustic wall and a slope covered with motley trees. We have reentered Donostia, which means that my destination gets closer, and soon enough Jacqueline will tell me to get out of her car.
“I will get used to walking everywhere and taking the train to cover the distances that would kill me otherwise,” I say anxiously, “including ascending the slope to our business park. From tomorrow I’ll make the trip in the opposite direction so I can take the train at Lugaritz.”
Jacqueline sighs, then she brushes a thin strand of raven black hair behind her ear.
“Why? How long will it take them to repair your car?”
“Uh… Nobody will reanimate it, because it’s totaled.”
I witness Jacqueline’s shocked expression for the first time, but she’s forced to focus on the road again, because a long, downward slope heads straight into downtown Donostia. I read in her wide open eyes a silent question: “What did you do?” I can’t blame her. For years I yearned to crash my Renault Laguna into a wall at full speed, but then I wouldn’t have gotten to sit in Jacqueline’s car, so close that she’d only have to reach out to slide her warm fingertips down my thighs.
I wave a hand dismissively.
“My car was a piece of shit anyway.”
“Well, will the insurance pay for it?”
“It might if I had it,” I admit sheepishly.
Jacqueline admonishes me with a look that makes me feel like a misbehaving girl who could hardly wait to make it up to mommy.
I shift my weight in my seat as I swallow a nervous lump in my throat. A warm flush had burst in my abdomen, and it’s threatening to flow down to my groin.
“What can I say?” I ask in a raspy voice. “I’m merely a helpless child in many respects.”
Jacqueline reaches across the center console and takes hold of my left hand with her right one. Her skin is soft and smooth, with delicate veins that show through. At the end of her slender fingers, her nails are painted red with clear polish. Goosebumps rise on my covered arms as I face the concern in her blue eyes, that air of maternal affection. I need to take off my panties and fuck myself.
Jacqueline returns her right hand to the steering wheel.
“That’s your personality, but you are far more capable than you give yourself credit.”
My heart is beating faster, and I’m getting light-headed.
“I-I might also become a zombie before long, due to a mysterious disease of which nobody has heard but that it’s slowly killing me with a variety of symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting and diarrhea and uncontrollable fits of hysterical laughter and a burning sensation that feels like someone is stabbing me with a red hot poker from within my chest cavity up to my brain.”
“Sweetie, that doesn’t sound like you should strain yourself walking down to the Lugaritz station five days a week. I’ll keep driving you to Amara. I’m following my usual route anyway, and I enjoy talking to you.”
“Thank you. I don’t recall anyone ever saying that to me.”
A view of bunched up houses has filled most of the horizon in front of us, as far as the vegetation allows me to see. I dreaded reaching the Amara station because I doubted Jacqueline would offer me a ride again, and I wouldn’t muster up the courage to ask her. Was she joking, though? She can’t possibly enjoy spending time with me.
“I’m also worried about anyone walking around after sunset,” Jacqueline adds somberly, “with all the shit that’s going on.”
“You mean the rapid disintegration of this country, along with most of Europe?”
“I’m talking about the missing people, and the murders.”
I blink repeatedly in confusion, which makes her chuckle.
“C’mon, don’t tell me you didn’t know!” Jacqueline says.
“I refuse to follow the news. I already struggle to contain my nausea.”
She shakes her head and smiles at my reticence.
“Gist of it is, entire clans have been found massacred, and many other people have gone missing. I’m sure the police are pissed, because they look incompetent these days,” Jacqueline states matter-of-factly as we pick up speed by noise barriers plastered with stickers of trees and birds of prey, I guess to prevent stupid birds from cracking their skulls by flying headfirst into the barriers.
I suspect that this delicious woman is taking advantage of my innocence, but I’ll play along like a good little victim while she gets what she wants out of me.
“That sounds like a veritable murder spree. I would be fine though, as I doubt I belong to any clan, and I avoid trekking through the woods because I’m terrified of sasquatches. But you are right, I’m defenseless. You better let me park my ass on your passenger seat five days a week. I’ll pay for your diesel, or whatever sludge this Audi slugs.”
“Just pay me with your company, sweetie.”
“Oh, you are gonna make me cry.”
The car leaves behind a futuristic building with a facade made out of pastel-colored panels, as well a pristine white Zenit hotel. I recognize the tower of a church because I saw it from the train this morning, so in a short while I’ll have to extricate myself from Jacqueline.
“So, what do you do in the afternoons?” she asks.
“Oh, you know. Sometimes I imagine myself sitting at my coffee table and opening one of the board games that have gathered dust on my shelves, particularly those whose rules I’ve never learned.”
“You are into board games, then? You play them alone?”
I sigh. I suspect that I should lie, but a suicidal instinct urges me to offer Jacqueline a peek into the abyss that my life has become. Maybe she can save me. Or maybe she can simply amuse herself until I totally lose it, jump off some roof and plunge to my death.
“I used to, years ago. Ever since I work as a programmer, by the time I get home I’m always so exhausted that I just lie around, usually on the couch or in bed, and browse the internet idly. Some days I pass out shortly after I allow myself to relax, and when I wake up, I cobble together some dinner, eat it as I watch YouTube videos, then I brush my teeth, masturbate and struggle to fall asleep.”
Jacqueline chuckles as she turns the steering wheel to circle one of the central roundabouts of the city, that features an appropriately wasteful fountain. My blood has frozen. Why do I allow myself to speak? Why do I feel that I should share private information, only to want to punch myself in the face an instant after I have revealed it?
“W-why, how do you spend your afternoons?” I ask in a thin voice.
Jacqueline purses her lips as she looks up.
“For example, I’m meeting someone in a couple of hours.”
“As in… a person?”
She covers her mouth as she laughs softly.
“Yes, Leire, a human being. What else would it be?”
“I don’t know,” I say wearily. “A horse, maybe.”
“A horse, huh? Are you a fan of horses?”
I shake my head.
“I fucking despise them. They are ugly and disgusting and they stink to the point that they shouldn’t exist on Earth anymore.”
A terrible suspicion makes my ears prick up. I check through the rearview mirror if an animal that might resemble an equine is attached to the backseat of the car, but it seems I’m safe for now.
“Okay…” Jacqueline says dubitatively. “So yeah, I usually go out.”
A droning noise is increasing in my ears as I feel my spine stiffening. A bus delays us, as well as the cars that were following us, because it needs to wait for another bus to drive out of a stop. I try to distract myself by looking out of the window, but we are close a four star hotel and to a couple dozen of strangers that are either sitting at the outside tables of a bar, or walking purposefully along the darkened sidewalk.
“I guess he’s an attractive guy,” I say in a monotone, “this person you are meeting tonight.”
“Uh-huh. He’s twenty four and works as an accountant at a law firm. He also has the body that befits someone rising in the ranks of semi-professional tennis.”
She’s driving through an intersection that passes by a decades-old palm tree. I recognize that wall that separates the sidewalk from the train tracks.
Jacqueline enjoys sex with many lovers who are willing to satisfy every one of her whims and fantasies. She’s a sexpot who knows exactly what she’s doing with that delectable body of hers. I bet that all of those men are well-adjusted and presentable, like the ones featured in the promotional videos that run in a loop on the screens of the train. I already knew this, so why do I feel this upsurge of anger that threatens to overwhelm my fragile sanity? Jacqueline hadn’t deceived me; if anything, she went out of her way to console me. She didn’t need to offer me a ride. Still, I’ve made the mistake of closing my eyes, and my mind is playing a vivid video of a tennis player ramming Jacqueline as she moans and begs him to fuck her harder. My mood has plummeted into somberness as if the sky had grown dark with clouds of doom.
Who would want to have anything to do with me? I don’t. Why would anyone ever find me attractive when all they can see when they look at my pale, skinny self is a freakish creature covered in thick layers of filth, who suffers from mental illnesses and social ineptitude, with no future prospects, no hope, all alone in this cold world, with a defective reality masking a shattered soul?
“Here we are. Look! We have a free parking spot and everything,” Jacqueline says as she pulls into a space reserved for taxis, in front of the Amara station. When she turns her head to bid me goodbye, her smile falls. “Are you crying?”
My throat has constricted. My heart pounds against the walls of my chest cavity, that feels like it’s caving in on itself due to an accumulation of pain that won’t let go of me no matter how much time passes.
“Just a couple of tears,” I mumble.
I’m tightening my right fist, because I don’t want to reach for the handle of the door with a trembling hand. Jacqueline cups my chin and turns my head towards her. I’m forced to stare into her cobalt blue eyes as she studies me inquisitively.
“You have a crush on me,” Jacqueline says calmly.
I keep myself from blinking as I fumble with the handle of my door. Once I set my feet on the asphalt, I nearly trip.
“I-I have to take this train.”
The thud of the door closing silences my coworker, who was moving her lips. I hurry into the crowded station.