With a gravitational sense of exhaustion, Heather puts her machine to sleep and wheels herself back from the white desk in the grey cubical. She sits shut-eyed for a moment, feels crazed, resists an urge to slam her coffee mug through the black screen.
9:11 p.m. as her head rises above the partitions separating the other cubicles, most of which are still occupied with foreheads reflecting the shine of monitors. Maree is in the adjacent box and she doesn’t notice as Heather stares down at her. Maree’s eyes are bloodshot and her mousy hair frayed and dry from the air conditioning. Her face seems barely held together by thick makeup.
“You nearly done?” says Heather.
Maree starts a little and looks up with a horrible unchanged expression of emptiness, and then her eyes blink a few times, registering the human form.
“Oh.” She turns back to her screen. “Probably half an hour. An hour at most.”
“You don’t want to come out?”
Maree doesn’t bother saying no. She never comes out, and Heather only asks out of perverse routine. “I don’t know how you do it,” Maree says. “It’s all I can do to heat up some food when I get home and then flop into bed.”
“And then get up and come to work again.”
Maree shrugs. “Yeah.”
They look at each other in a silence of mutual incomprehension.
“What’s the point?” asks Heather.
Heather extends her chin over the partition and lowers her voice: “What’s the point of working in this fucking hellhole for thirteen hours and then going to sleep and doing it all again, and again and again and again?”
“Hellhole’s a bit dramatic.” Maree stares at Heather for a moment. “Anyway, the point is that if we put in the hours now, we get a leg up on the others and we’ll be set up for life.”
“Money-wise, yeah, but you’ll still spend your life working. Just with more responsibility. What do you need so much money for anyway?”
Maree shakes her head and turns back to her screen. “So quit, then. No one’s forcing you to be here.”
“Yeah, well.” She has no answer to that. “See you later.”
Maree raises a hand without turning.
Alone in the elevator, Heather wants to laugh hysterically at full volume, but only a miniaturised cackle escapes and is instantly absorbed by the soft material of the elevator walls. All the suppressed urges of the day have been compacted inside her like sedimentary layers, and she’s bursting now with latent energy. Her all-business charcoal skirt and plain white blouse feel tainted, as if they’ve absorbed the drudgery of the office hours, as if they stink of it. If only she could strip them off and throw them somewhere, and her underwear too. Clothed in what she’s desperate to escape. Disgusting. She tries to push it from her mind.
The elevator slows and stops and the doors open to the foyer and the night outside. Stepping onto the street, Heather tips back her head to open her lungs, and her eyes scan the towers which narrow into the light-sucking sky. They’re commercial buildings, insides all illuminated, people still working. On the lower levels, she sees some of the workers, in their skirts or ties, carrying a folder or a coffee past the window. Their offices look almost mood-lit, but it’s just the tinted glass; her own fluorescent floor looks the same from out here.
Down at street level, she watches a few people exiting their buildings and wonders about following someone. She stands a while, waiting for a subject. A tall man with a briefcase leaves the building across the road and she starts after him, skipping briskly to catch up as he rounds the street corner. She works on a guess of his character, but doesn’t really care. Just wants to be taken somewhere not of her choosing. Not just some sort of safe extension of herself.
The man descends into a subway and passes a half-conscious drunk woman without looking at her. Heather slows as she passes, has the urge to help her or slap her, but is bustled from behind by the urban herd. And she’s losing the man who has rounded another corner. At the platform, he’s waiting behind the yellow line, a swept-back head above the crowd. Heather moves in nearby and stands surrounded by bodies and their skin and hair and professional-wear until the train arrives with a deep whoosh. The crowd transfers like a fluid being poured from the platform to the train’s insides and the human odours and aromas mix in a nauseating way. At the fifth stop the man flows with the others off the train and Heather follows. She hasn’t been to this part of the city before.
Up at street level, the sights are striking. Neon and LED hypercontrast signs are everywhere in all colours, but their brightness seems trapped, and the pedestrians in the thoroughfare stay dim and shadowy. The tall man makes effortless good pace through the mall. His head and long torso bob smoothly with his strides, briefcase swaying, and oncomers veer mostly out of his path. Heather trails by ten paces, hustling and dodging. Different music pulses out of each shop and parlour they pass. Brittle pop crossfades into dark drum and bass, and back again. Sex shops and nightclubs and massage parlours and video arcades. And food vendors projecting heated smells that blend with a faint scent of garbage in the street air.
The tall man turns through an unlit doorway. He passes his briefcase over a counter and then descends a staircase. Hesitating out on the pavement, Heather scans the doorway for signage, but there’s only a street number. She goes into the desk, and puts her palms on it. Before she can say anything, a receptionist asks blandly how he can be of help.
“Ah, I’d like…” Heather’s eyes flick around for some kind of prompt.
“Are you a member, Ma’am? Members only, I’m sorry.”
“How do I become a member?”
“You need to be recommended by an existing member.”
Back outside, leaning on the rim of an empty water feature, Heather considers heading home, or maybe following someone else. She watches passersby, uninspired. Watches the door, with no idea how long she has to wait. The worst kind of waiting. The pressure inside her gets more consuming, like it’s constricting her lungs. She feels momentarily like crying, but not enough to cry. Then she feels bored and crazed again.
A man and a tiny dog approach from the right, the dog high-stepping out front as if it’s used to tripping over things. Claws clicking on the pavers. It pulls up next to Heather and bends into a defecatory arch, little back legs shuffling on tiptoe. Overriding an instinct to turn away, Heather watches the shit inch out like something being born, then drop to the pavement in a mound that glistens in the multicolour lights. The dog turns its bulbous bony head to Heather. She meets its bulging eyes until it finishes the task with a whole body shiver and looks up for instruction from its owner.
Having blankly avoided Heather’s eye, the round-faced man with the leash now struts off down the street without a glance, leaving the deposit to cool at Heather’s side. The rage and hate she feels toward the man takes her breath for a moment, and during this moment she can only stare, hot-eyed.
Then she shouts, “Hey, you!” at his departing back, but her voice barely pierces the ambient noise of the street, the voice so feeble and not even sounding like her own, and it makes her tremble and makes her want to tear something in half or stamp on the shit and send it spraying everywhere.
Just as she’s about to follow the fucker with the dog, the tall man exits the door across the way, and Heather steps out in front of him.
“Excuse me,” she says, “what is that place?”
He has hairs out of place, and sweat shines under his eyes and spots his shirt. His eyes go irritably over the top of Heather’s head at first, but then they flick down and up her body and they change cast.
“Why?” he says, in a deep, flat voice.
“I want to know.”
He smooths his hair back.
“Sorry, but who are you?”
“I work in the building, seen you around.” She hitches her bag’s strap further up her shoulder. “I saw you come out of there. Just interested.”
He examines her for a few seconds. His face is hard and sun-starved.
“They’re just dark rooms. No light at all, padded walls, soundproof.”
“What are they for?”
“Whatever you want.”
“What do you do in there?”
“Me? Depends. Sometimes nothing. Just sit in perfect silence, perfect darkness. Sometimes I yell as loud as I can. Punch the walls, headbutt them. Whatever I feel like.”
“Release. Safe release, I guess.”
Heather considers this, draws a length of hair behind her ear with a finger.
“But what’s the point, if you don’t affect anything? Doesn’t it make you feel even more impotent?”
“I never said I felt impotent.” The defensiveness raises an unintended sexual connotation, and they both look away.
Heather breaks the silence: “This fuckwit had his dog shit beside me and then walked off, just now, and I did nothing. I fucking do nothing in my life that does anything.”
The tall man shrugs, frowns at her with interest.
Heather looks over at the shit and then back again, stewing on an image of the round-faced man and his belly-out strut and tight trousers, feeling unbearable hate.
“Will you come with me to find the guy?”
“And do what?”
“I’m going to put his dog’s shit on him.”
A grin breaks across the man’s face, but he shakes his head.
“I’m headed home.”
Heather’s expression turns contemptuous. “Fucking hell, what’s —… You’re paying to sit in a dark room? This is real. And you don’t have to do anything, you can just watch. It’ll be something memorable. An actual experience.”
They stare silently for a moment.
“Where is this guy anyway? He’s probably long gone.”
“If we don’t find him, you can go home.”
Without waiting for a response she crouches to the stool, as if to an injured bird, and transfers it carefully to her palm — the moist components can be neither clutched nor rolled, but a delicate scooping motion collects most of them intact. The sight and feel and smell combine to disgust her extremely, but she holds her composure and stands with the excrement cupped before her stomach.
“Let’s go,” she says.
After a moment staring in repulsed fascination, the tall man nods and they set off. Heather looks in every establishment they pass, and she has to explain that the dog’s so small it could’ve been carried in with no troubles.
“Purple zip-up jacket thing and tight grey trousers, fat arse,” she says. “Puffy arrogant face that you want to just smash.”
The little cupped package gives her a faint sense of power: whether because of the smell or her holding it like a bomb, it draws attention from passersby, who swerve out of the way with swivelling revulsion. Heather’s fury begins feeling strong and good instead of helpless, and she is energised by the thought of the puffy face smeared brownly with her weapon. But of all the people, shadowy on the street and lit up in the shops and arcades, none have that putrid face. And soon the pedestrians thin out and the lights get colourless and sparse, and finally the street ends dimly at a broad canal. Heather scans left and right along the bank’s pathway without sight of the man and dog.
“No luck,” says the tall man beside her. He smooths his hair. “What now?”
“You can go,” says Heather bitterly. She side-skips at the canal and tries to fling the shit into it, but centrifugal force sends the ungrippable fragments radiating into parabolic arcs of varying steepness, one being so steep that it ends on her own shoulder in the follow-through.
“For fuck’s sake!” she shrieks, and then, “Shut the fuck up!” to the tall man who is chuckling tightly with arms crossed.
She climbs down the embankment to wash her hands and the shoulder of her blouse. When she clambers back up, the man is still standing there, towering, thumbs in pockets now.
“What are you still doing here,” she says.
“Making sure you’re alright.”
“I’m fine. Go off home or wherever you were headed to.”
There’s a pause, a gormless hesitation. Heather knows what’s coming, and its obviousness is degrading before it even leaves his mouth.
“Want to come back to my place?”
There it is, she thinks. Pathetic. It’s an argument against free will, the way they’re led around by their dicks like that. Fucking animals.
“Oh, you want to fuck me now that I’ve got most of the dog shit off?” Before he can answer she cuts in: “Or was it the shit that turned you on?”
His cheeks harden. “Don’t be a bitch,” he says. “You asked me to come with you and I came.”
“And so that entitles you to a fuck, you reckon, does it?”
There’s a long silence while his mouth sags into a weak slant between menace and humiliation. “I just asked if you wanted to come back to mine. Like you asked me to come with you to find this fucking dog.” His eyes flick around and then fix hotly on hers. “And I said no, but you didn’t accept that. So here I am.”
Heather holds the glare, heartbeat in her eardrums, trying to sense in her periphery if there’s anyone around. There’s no one. Some nihilistic part of her wants him to attack so she can tear a piece out of his throat with her teeth. But she feels her smallness, too, her soft muscle tissue, the basic fragility of her woman’s body within the man’s hard-armed reach.
“Go home,” she says steadily. And she turns and walks and listens for footsteps behind her. But there’s only the heel-toe clacks of her own shoes, and the kaleidoscopic murmur of the city.
She’s back among the neon lights when she sees the man, the purple jacket, the spindly canine at the ankles. He’s faced at the window of a high-end headphone dealer, where each pair has its own pedestal. A sun-like rage powers her towards his back, and she blows a glob of spit onto the jacket, where it hangs and drools. The dog looks up at her boredly, but the man doesn’t react.
“You fuck!” she screams, and the man startles and turns his puffy face. She tries to spit at the face but she’s out of saliva. “You cunt!” she continues. “You watched your dog do a shit beside me and then walked off and left it there! You’re a fucking cunt, I hate you!”
At this, the man’s confusion turns to a smirk and he starts to laugh, glancing around at onlookers who are holding up their phones to film. Heather takes a deep breath and shrieks wordlessly at his face. The dog yaps excitedly into the noise-blizzard. When the shrieking continues at full force after a breath, and then another, the man’s laughter fades and his face turns sour.
“Shut up,” he shouts. “Shut your mouth!” He reaches for her and she slaps away his arm and kicks at him.
“Don’t touch me you disgusting fuck!”
“Shut up and get away from me then!”
“I was going to rub your dog’s shit all over your fucking face!”
As Heather barges out through the crowd of phone cameras that follow her like oblong eyes, she rues that last weak line and wishes she’d had the dog shit still. Her eyes are wet and she craves a weapon, but the only thing to do now is go home.
“You look tired,” Maree says when Heather trudges past her cubicle at 8:07 the next morning.
Headache, too. She’d ended up drinking whiskey in the bath to calm herself before bed.
“What’d you get up to?”
“Nothing much. I didn’t sleep well.”
Heather sets down at her desk and wakes the screen. Her documents are still open from yesterday, and the sight of them gives her a stress reaction like an all-body clench. And there’s a sense of soul-level allergy when the email program pings with an updated list of tasks, meaningless but complex and attention-demanding, piling on without rest. Heather forces a long, full breath. She stares at the computer with sick envy of its oblivious efficiency, its whirring labour with no awareness or pain at all, no nausea at the thirteen hours to come, or the days and years after that.
“I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” Heather says to Maree through the partition.
“Work. Life. I don’t know. I need to look into the options. There has to be other ways to live.” Only silence from the partition. “How hard would it be to survive on a tropical island with a few other people? Or a cabin in the forest? Maybe I could post an ad for companions.”
“Yeah, maybe,” says Maree’s dull voice. “Why don’t you do that.”