by Yiu-On Li
Art by Yash Godiwala
Issue: Paracosm (Winter 2017)

They and I move with choreographed precision. Arms and legs sweep backwards and forwards, lungs expand and contract, and feet strike the concrete in perfect sync. The day is sunny and warm—good for a walk. Perhaps that is why there are so many people outside today.

Perhaps. An abnormality develops within the routine. My head and eyes swivel around, recording and processing the world presented before them. The glossy exteriors of the metropolitan buildings hazily refract the two appendages, along with the rest of the body to which they are attached to. They shimmer on the spotless surfaces, and the doors lie flush along the walls. Sometimes it seems like there are no entrances at all.

My gaze fixates on nothing but my destination, a coffee shop sandwiched between two high-rises. It is a small and unattractive shack among the glitzy skyscrapers, and does not seem like it would be very popular. It must be a mistake for anyone to want to meet in there, I think, until I see a steady stream of people filing through the doorway. So I resolve to do the same as them.

The coffee shop increases in size. Soon I find myself at the front door. I push through; a pungent odor pushes back. I lean on the doorway to steady myself, but find no support. Breaths become ragged, eyes become watered. The crowd pushes my limbs forward nevertheless.

It is dark and musty, and my senses are hardly able to distinguish one hazy figure from the next. There is nothing much of interest, save for a few people hobbling from here to there. Someone does catch my gaze, however; the interviewer, I presume.

My feet carry me to her table. “Hey! How are you today? Nice weather outside.” The interviewer greets me, cheerfully. My head bobs wordlessly. “You can call me Jane.”

A few basic pleasantries crawl out of my mouth while she rummages through her bag. A woman in what appears to be her mid-30s, she is dressed in a casual yet vibrant shirt and jeans. Her unusual attire ought to draw the attention of the people clad in murky business outfits, who seem to make up the majority of customers in the building. My expectation—indeed, my hope—is that such grave individuals will scorn her informality. They do not. But it would be wrong to judge either her or the patrons.

She looks up, folder in hand. “Your file here has a picture of you inside, which was why I could recognize you so quickly.” A quick laugh. “You’ve made quite a name for yourself, Mrs. Smith.”

A waiter grunts. “20% off on decaf today. Order?”

He disrupts my planned response to Jane and forces my mind to formulate a new one. After a few seconds, my better nature prevents me from ordering anything for concern of being rude. My meeting with Jane is an interview, after all.

Jane orders two decaffeinated drinks. “Helps me stay awake,” she explains, more to herself than to anyone else in particular. My ears ignore the counterintuitiveness of her assertion, and keep my mouth shut.

A general hush falls over the shop, or maybe the stuffiness of the building had simply deceived my senses of there being more talking earlier. With a start, I realize that most of the people here sit alone, and those who do not keep to themselves. It occurs to me that I must have been a curious sight, walking into the shop and joining another at a table with hardly any hesitation. But if they had been perturbed, they gave nothing away.

I turn back to Jane with renewed disinterest. Her straight posture begins to slump, then uprights itself almost immediately. She sighs, then counters with an empty laugh. She continues to flip through my folder, reading closely and, to an extent, feverishly. I am unsure why she had not looked through it in greater detail before arranging this interview, but once again, I have no right to judge.

Around me, patrons continue their idle chats with themselves. The dull innards of the shop remain static. The smell of coffee is as stifling as before; I struggle to keep from falling asleep.

I consider politely telling Jane that I should be on my way, that there is nothing of worth here, that I think it is unreasonable to meet in such a confined, decrepit, public space for an interview, and that everything they would ever need to know is in that folder. My mouth opens, my legs straighten, and—

“Let’s begin.” A smile. Folder in hand. Jane interrupts my thoughts.

I stare at her, bemused, halfway between sitting and standing. Air flows freely into my mouth. Panic, a brief moment of it, descends amidst an eternity of silence. I find myself devoid of all sense and can do nothing but look around, to perhaps glean something, anything, from the world that envelops and consumes me. Those glazed windows to my right reveal heads, tilted down and confined within their own thoughts. The baristas to my left mindlessly brew drinks, for those customers who see nothing yet think they do. Behind me is the steady, beating thrum of entering and exiting souls, and of course in front is Jane.

Jane. Who is she? What is she? She is everything, and I am nothing. The realization crumbles like sediment from my head and into my stomach, carving valleys into the mountains of callous ease I had erected over the decades.

I had broken from the colony of ants, and she knows as well as I.

“Interesting,” responds Jane with amusement. “You don’t get out much, do you?”

I shake my head without much incident, and sit back in my seat. Sweat creeps from my scalp, and an ever-quickening thumping from my chest breaks from the regularity of those marching feet. I notice it. It is indeed unusual; it’s been a long time since I felt this way.

The coffee shop is as bland as ever, and the smell still as thick. But I ignore it. I’m as alert as I’ve ever been, and happier, too, in spite of myself.

We sit in electrified stillness. Jane must be thinking, and I sense the nearing of the conclusion of the interview. She says the first few words, of acceptance or rejection I know not. Despite my apprehension, I inexplicably form a smile.

Perhaps it’s society attempting to right a wrong, or perhaps it’s the natural order of the cosmos. But at my peak of tranquility, when the world has finally accepted me, and when I accept the world, it disappoints.

I hear the words. “We’re sorry. We like what we see here, but you don’t meet our qualifications.” I see her brandishing the folder.

I protest. I beg. I demand. But it’s no use. Darkness constricts my senses. She leaves, swiftly moving past the entrance and the throng of entering people. I’m unsure whether she does so with reluctance or apathy, but I don’t really care anymore. What’s done is done.

I stand, alone. I lean on the table; it’s but a flimsy object, and I retract my hand. I almost trip.

The waiter returns. “Decaf. Enjoy.” He shoves me the two cups Jane had ordered before. He keeps them there for half a minute while I stare at them.

I look up. “Hope is a nice thing, isn’t it?” I say, halfheartedly to the waiter, with no expectation of reply. “But it always manages to disappoint.”

To my surprise, he does reply, even if it’s only with a slight shift in expression that can best be described as a grimace. He impatiently gestures to the cups with his head, seemingly treating the wasted seconds with disdain, but I can sense something within him yearning to break free.

I ambivalently take them, eventually, in each of my hands while the waiter disappears, and smell them with curiosity. I always drink the most caffeinated variants to stay awake during the day, and never decaf. But considering the events of the day, I might as well make an exception.

I pour, I taste, and I swallow. It’s utterly repulsive. I manage to keep my composure, but only just. I continue drinking nonetheless, and finish both cups.

“Disgusting,” I say to myself; yet my face stiffens, my body straightens, and I turn to the murky panes on the walls. The day has turned slightly overcast, as if discontent with my boldness; yet the change only increases my vigor.

In a frenzy, I cut my way through the oncoming horde to the entrance of the coffee shop, fighting each of its attempts to subdue me. But just as I stand at the door, ready to peer into reality, to live my freedom, to confront the world that has taken yet given me so much, I stop.

I reenter the darkness of the shop, and find the waiter from before serving another group of customers, wearing the same grim and gloomy expression.

I go up and put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey! How are you today? Nice weather outside.”

A photo of a coffee shop, with the left side in black and white and the right side in color.