The walls were closing in on her. She looked around wildly, searching for something heavy to push back against them. But there was only blankness – an empty space that seemed to be rapidly disappearing.
Alishia closed her eyes and stood frozen to the ground. She took in a couple of deep breaths and opened her eyes again. The walls were back in their original place but the floor was moving now. At first, it moved farther away, then came back towards her, eventually losing all sense of direction and going round and round in circles.
She closed and opened her eyes again. The floor was back to sliding away from her. Wondering why she didn’t slip, Alishia looked down at her feet and found them melting into the floor.
She lifted one foot, then another. Repeating this slow deliberate action, she crossed the lobby and entered the elevator. Raising her forefinger with the broken nail, she pushed the button for the top floor. Peeling off the already fading nail paint from another fingernail, she waited patiently as the dark red digits on the overhead display panel changed.
The elevator whirred to a stop and opened the doors for Alicia to step out, cross the landing and, pushing the weathered wooden door open, exit onto the terrace. A whip of wind pried open her loosely knotted hair. She pulled her collar up and crossed her arms. Stepping across the water pipes, she walked into the warm Sun, soaking in the rays of cheer. With narrowed eyes that made her crow’s feet even more prominent, she breathed in the wintry breeze a couple of times. She walked to the edge and stared out at the city stretched out below her. Braving the cold, she raised a shivering finger in the air and lazily sketched the misty outlines of the skyscrapers. The breeze erased her designs and she stood back gazing at the miniscule windows in the distance. She wondered about all the people living on the other side of the windows. What were their lives like? How often did they smile? What did they eat for dinner last night? What were their favourite TV shows? Did they enjoy reading? Or painting? Did they have money problems too? Or were they struggling with broken relationships?
With a sigh she brushed away the questions she had no answers to. Alishia put her hands on the parapet and tried hoisting herself up. She landed back on her feet, tried again, and failed again. The wall was too high for her. She should have brought along a stool to step onto. Her fingers lightly scraped across the coarse concrete as myriad thoughts ran around in her head. She had enough time on her hands, she could afford to wait and try again a little while later. Try, try, try again… until you succeed.
She turned around to see the door swinging wildly in the breeze. With an elbow on the parapet, she stood leaning to one side, watching the indecisive door. It would close, then open wide again. Close. Open. Close. Open.
Alishia imagined people going through it every time it opened. Her grandfather’s ghost walked through first. She perked up at the sight of him but her face fell when he walked on without looking back at her. The door closed behind him, only to open again within a few minutes. Next, came the little girl from school – the one who had died from pneumonia in the seventh grade. Sporting a broad smile, she waved at Alishia. Before Alishia could return her enthusiastic greeting, the girl had turned around and disappeared through the door. Alishia waited until the door opened again to see who’d go in next.
Pierce Brosnan. ‘Bond, James Bond,’ he said, before stepping through. Alishia rolled her eyes and smiled to herself. Verma, Alishia Verma, she replied to the emptiness around her. ‘Architect. Mother of two. Unemployed and worthless.’ She spoke slowly to the whooshing wind.
‘Unemployed and worthless!’ the angry wind screamed back at her, repeating them until the echo died down to a whisper in her ears. She could feel the heat rising to her ears and covered them with her hands. It blocked the shameful accusations out.
She dropped her hands and looked up again when the door opened. This time she saw a young woman at the door, waiting to step onto the terrace. Why was she coming through from the wrong side of the door? Who was she? Squinting her eyes, she peered across the terrace.
Alishia took a good look at the woman as she stepped forward through the doorway and across those water pipes. Her soft curls fell around her high cheekbones, perfectly framing her small face. Her face was free of the fine lines that had started to appear on Alishia’s face recently. Her eyes were brighter but her perfectly blow-dried hair was darker. She wore a tight dress with leggings, a sharp contrast to her own current attire of a long sweater that was pulled down to cover her heavy hips, its sleeves stretched out well beyond their capacity. She looked down at the stained baggy pants and scraped off a dried piece of chapati dough. Alishia looked up at the young girl again.
How did she become from that to this? What was it that happened along the way for an ambitious, smart, and intelligent girl to become unemployed and worthless?
The wind again picked up the two words and whispered them in her ear. Unemployed. Worthless.
It said the words over and over again, garbling them up, until the two words became one. Eventually, Alishia could only hear the distorted version. Employed. Worthy. Alishia realized with a start. She was once that. She could become that again, couldn’t she? But where should she begin? Should she try and look like the girl who was standing in the doorway?
The young girl threw her head back and let out a soundless laugh. Look like me? You look so much better, my love.
Involuntarily, Alishia touched the loose grey strands – they were only a few but they were there. It reminded her of the salon appointment that was due. What colour should she go in for this time? Red, may be. She’d always wanted red.
Yes, red. With her red lips curved upwards, the younger woman nodded her approval.
Should she get a hair cut too? May be, a short bob, like she had in college? Whatever you like, the younger one mouthed and held her hand out. Alishia took the outstretched hand and let the invisible imaginary young woman lead her back towards where she had appeared from.
The younger Alishia merged into her older version as they walked away from the edge and stepped through the threshold. Never again would she entertain such thoughts, one said to the other. The door swung shut behind her.