Chapter 9: Runaway Day
Est. Reading Time 14 minutes
After hour upon hour of walking, Almondine once again found herself in the heart of a city.
She found a bench, sat down with a happy sigh, and tilted her head upward to the towering trees dwarfed by the buildings beyond them. As the sun warmed her face Almondine felt someone looking at her.
"Hi," Almondine said.
A woman stood before her, seeming frozen midstride, coffee clutched tightly in one hand, briefcase stuck midswing in the other. She looked away. Then back at Almondine.
"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to stare," she said and began walking again.
"Is everything okay?" Almondine called out after her.
The woman slowed, stopped, and turned to return the few steps back toward Almondine.
"You looked so happy, sitting there in the sun. When I was looking at you I wasn't really looking at you anymore, I was looking at a memory. I was looking at me, back in college when I had time to sit on benches in the sun."
"You don't do that anymore?" Almondine asked.
"Not on a Tuesday." The woman looked like there was an invisible thread tugging her in the opposite direction, her body itching to keep moving forward though she longed to stay still, to keep talking to this girl who didn't have a permanent v crease of worry in between her eyes.
"Would you like to sit next to me?"
It was such a simple question. Albeit a slightly strange one as strangers didn't often invite such a thing and if they did it was perhaps, best ignored.
"I would like to," and the woman took a single step forward, still gripping her coffee like she expected a gale force wind to take it and her down the sidewalk to her obligatory destination. But with that first step her body stopped fighting and walked to the bench smoothly and with purpose.
She sat down on the bench, back straight, briefcase now on lap, coffee still a fixture of her hand. She turned and looked at Almondine. Almondine turned her face up to the sun and closed her eyes. She slouched down enough that her head rested on the back of the bench, her legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles.
The woman slouched a little. She looked over at Almondine again.
That had been her once, hadn't it? She had enjoyed the feeling of the sun on her face for the sheer wonderfulness of it. She had been able to allow her body to relax, not to simply give out, give up, from exhaustion at the end of the day when she collapsed into bed and slept a fitful four or five hours before beginning it all over again. She had once been this girl when still in pursuit of "the good life," the life in which she would be successful. And she had, to a large degree, achieved her dreams of success. But today she heard a quiet voice in her mind when she saw this girl on the bench, the quiet voice was her younger self asking if maybe she had given up too much of one thing to chase after another.
Almondine peeked at the woman out of the corner of her eye, face still turned toward the sun like a flower. The woman was trying to enjoy sitting on the bench, she could see that. She could see the effort she put into making it an enjoyable experience and it was difficult to watch.
"What do you do?" the woman asked.
"Do? To sit here? I stretch and then let everything settle where its most comfortable," Almondine answered, demonstrating as she turned her head towards the woman.
"No, what do you DO, you know, for work?"
"Oh. Well, at home I took care of my fruit and vegetable gardens, and my bees. And right now I'm working my way across the country," Almondine said with a thoughtful nod.
"Is it something for sales?" the woman asked, now semi-slumped on the bench, briefcase and coffee still in the serious perches.
"Sales? No, I'm not selling anything. If anything this is the most buying I've done in my life. No, I'm headed to California to meet my sister, who I've never met before."
The woman nodded and looked down at her coffee. She wondered if it might have been a mistake to sit down next to this girl. This girl who apparently had no career to speak of, and seemed to have personal family matters of the tawdry talk show variety. She glanced over at the girl again. The girl's long hair fell in a loose cascade over the back of the bench in a shade and rich quality that reminded her of the CEO's dark mahogany desk on the top floor of her office building.
"What's your name?" Almondine asked.
"Bethany Arbington," she said and quickly switched her coffee to her other hand and offered her hand to shake, it was a smooth movement, one she must have performed many times.
Bethany took Almondine's hand in a firm grip but before she could perform her customary sharp one, two, pump and release, her grip relaxed and she smelled the small cornfield next to her childhood home during the autumn, and watched her mother's feet dance up and down their stairs as she tried to teach Bethany the choreography from the movie with the little girl with round curls like hers.
"But people call me Bets," she found herself saying, though no one had called her that in years. After her mother passed no one truncated her name to something smaller or friendlier. Perhaps she said it because of the momentary memory she just experienced, or maybe it was because for at least a few minutes she wanted to be that girl again.
"Very nice to meet you, Bets," Almondine said with a smile.
"It looked like you were hurrying to get somewhere, am I keeping you from getting to something important?" she asked.
"I'm always hurrying. I was hurrying to get to work, I prefer to arrive a few minutes early. Early is on time, on time is late," Bethany laughed a laugh that wasn't real and went on, "I'm a data analyst for Parker, Barron, and Mears. It's long hours but I've been promoted twice within the past three years and I'm hoping to be promoted again by the end of this year."
She nodded seriously as she concluded and she could feel the knot in her left shoulder and the tension in her neck flair up.
"How exciting," Almondine said.
Bethany looked at her for signs of mocking or insincerity because no one found her work or her life exciting but Almondine's eyes held a sparkle of interest.
"Thank you. It is... well, it is what it is, I guess. I didn't know how badly I missed taking the time to sit in the sun until I saw you doing it. And now I'm doing it, or trying to, and I can't help but feel like it's harder than it should be."
Almondine sat and pondered for a moment. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to not have such a simple action or inaction as it might be, not come easily to her. She'd never been without the time to do the things she wanted to do. And even if she had an activity in mind like planting a new flower bed, only to have the day turn black and rainy she would take up the activity the following day. Almondine felt the tension in this woman and felt a distinct lack of happiness indulged.
"What would you do today if you didn't go to work?" Almondine asked.
"If it were my day off, if it were a Saturday I would grocery shop, drop off and pick up dry cleaning, clean my apartment, and organize my outfits for the week ahead. If it were Sunday sometimes I get breakfast with an old friend from college who lives nearby. Though, I suppose it's been a few weeks since I did that.” Bethany did the mental count back and discovered it might be closer to months since she had breakfast with Mindy. "I'm often catching up on some of the research for work, making sure I'm prepared for the week to come."
Almondine thought that sounded kind of dreadful but couldn't imagine it would be polite to say so.
"But what if you didn't have to work today, as in Tuesday, as in you were absolved of all work obligations. What would you do?"
The only time Bethany had taken time off for work was three days to attend her mother's funeral and to find a way to stop bursting into tears throughout the day. She would have liked to stay home longer, but she worried someone would take her spot, earn the praise meant for her, and so she had returned as quickly as possible. And for what? younger Bethany asked with a quiet sigh.
"I'd go to the aquarium," Bethany blurted out.
When she had moved to the city to take her first job Bethany was excited not just by the variety of restaurants and interesting shops, but because it included an aquarium. On her second day in the city she had left her boxes, her half-unpacked life inside the close walls of her new apartment, and taken a bus down to the underwater worlds. There had been children and their afternoon minders whether they be parents or babysitters, and a few tourists, but on a Wednesday afternoon, it had been fairly quiet. It had been leisurely. She felt no guilt at standing at the otter display for almost twenty minutes straight. She had not felt hat she was being greedy in watching them play because there were always other glass partitions open for whomever wandered up next.
"The aquarium? Wow, what a wonderful answer. I've never been to an aquarium," Almondine said.
"The one here is spectacular. There's a domed section where the water is above and around you, you can see the fish and the plants almost as though you're swimming in there with them. And there are both sea otters and river otters. At the zoo near where I grew up they had a few river otters but the aquarium has these great big environments for both," Bethany said, picturing it all before her.
"Would you mind showing me where the aquarium is?" Almondine asked.
Bethany froze, then seemed to notice she was sitting on a bench instead of already at work, "No, I'm sorry, I have to go to work."
She began to stand up and in her minds eye she could see her hurried walk to work, getting into the building and riding up in a packed elevator with a group of people who all understood themselves to be more important than anyone else in the elevator, and once she got off on her floor she would laugh at Ernie's daily weak joke, and ignore the heavy perfume Winifred wore, and then tuck herself away behind her desk in a cramped world of paper stacks and never ending numbers.
"Well, it was nice to meet you Bets, and thank you for the recommendation of the aquarium. I'll ask someone in the coffee shop for directions."
Almondine stood and swung her back pack over her shoulders.
"Wait, no, I'll take you," Bethany found herself saying. An inner voice was screaming, "No, no, NO" while the younger voice was sighing and saying "Thank you." She'd be a few minutes late. That would be fine. People were late all the time. She wasn't, but people were. She would walk this girl to the aquarium, wave goodbye, and arrive at work no more than an hour late. Forty five minutes if she hustled.
She smiled an automatic smile of graciousness at Almondine, nodded and began walking.
Her high heels struck the pavement with a sharp even beat. Despite the fact that without her heels she was likely only about an inch taller than Almondine, Almondine had to readjust her pace to keep up with Bethany. Almondine felt like she was on the verge of cantering like a horse but didn't want to ask Bethany to slow down. There was a silence now between them that made Bethany feel a little strange but she wasn't sure what to say. In her head her mind was battling back and forth about abandoning this plan all together or taking it even further and taking the whole day off. A "mental health day." It always sounded downright exotic when she talked to occasional friend who had taken a day not for dramatic life reasons but because she wanted to sleep in and get her nails painted, or to go to the movies alone. She could feel the itch to do the same blossom in her and it felt intoxicating and nauseating at the same time. Do it, don't do it, do it, don't do it circled around and around in her head and she could feel her chest get tight.
What is the matter with you? her younger self asked. "I don't know," she shouted back in her mind.
"Have you ever touched an otter?" Almondine asked.
Bethany's thoughts derailed, having forgotten the impetus of all this was a young woman with long shiny hair who was walking beside her.
"No, I haven't," she told Almondine.
"I haven't either. I wonder what they feel like. I touched the fur of a woodchuck once. After weeks of earning his trust we finally sat together one afternoon and he let me pet him. It wasn't what I was expecting. I think it's funny animals all have such different fur, different to suit the needs of the lifestyle, but humans all have the same kind of skin more or less. Though I suppose some a furrier than others."
Bethany wasn't sure if the girl was making some sort of comment for unification of the human race or was simply speaking out loud the series of thoughts that happened to come to her. Bethany was unlikely to do either and wasn't sure how to respond. She finally settled on saying, "I don't think they let you pet the otters at the aquarium."
"Pity," Almondine said, still walking quickly to match Bethany's pace.
They lapsed into a brief silence again. Bethany worried and Almondine looked around at the city as she flew through it.
And then Bethany pointed.
"There it is."
Almondine saw the front corner of the building and a big sea lion sculpture in front of it.
"Okay, well, enjoy," Bethany said and quickly turned away.
"Wait, you're not coming?" Almondine asked.
And there it was. The moment Bethany had been waiting for. The moment when she would finally need to choose if she was going to give in to the idea of taking a random, unplanned, unnecessary day off. Now someone asking her to do just that.
She decided to blow her queasy unease about missing work to smithereens and go to the aquarium. Afterward, once the girl had gone her own way she might stop by the bookstore on the way home and buy a book to read for the pleasure of doing so while she ate lunch on the balcony of her apartment that was rarely used, rarely even noticed. She felt a new sense of dangerous freedom and decided that for today she would enjoy it for all its worth.
"I... I will come with you," Bethany said, then held up a finger around her cool cup of coffee, gesturing for Almondine to wait a moment. Bethany walked over to a garbage can and dropped her coffee inside then reached into her bag for her phone. She called her assistant and said she was unable to come into work today for personal reasons, she cited two people to whom her assistant could go to for questions for the two biggest projects at the moment, and said she would be unavailable for contact for the rest of the day. She silenced her phone and dropped it back into her bag and spun back around to face Almondine.
"Alright, let's go," she said, speeding along toward the aquarium. Now that she was definitely going to enjoy the day out and about, outside of work, she wanted to get to it as quickly as possible.