Jessica Allen combs her long blond hair, careful to not draw too many of the brown highlights together as to create a patch of mismatched color. The antique mirror that sits upon her make-up bureau has begun to chip and fade in the corners, revealing the tan cork behind the glass and metal finish. It had been her great-grandmothers, bought through the Sears catalogue after years of saving vegetable profits from their tiny homestead.
The mirror was nothing special when it as new, just another mass-produced ware created just as the factories were becoming more common. Still technically ‘hand-made’, it was only through the care taken by her great-grandmother Patience and subsequent generations to follow that it was in as good as shape as it is now.
It is all she has by way of an heirloom. At least as far as she is aware.
She puts the brush away and gently drapes the blue velvet cover back over her reflection. She has done this every morning since she was thirteen, as her mother and grandmother had done before her. Jessica is tired, and her loose hanging hair face shows it. For a brief moment, as she turns away, the image on the mirror does not reflect the sad grimace on her face, but a smile and a tight braid. It is the kind of braid that serves well for heavy work on a farm.
She steps back for a moment and considers the blue velvet centerpiece to her life. Everything else she has ever owned has come and gone, to be replaced by newer, fancier, or more expensive things. She is a long way from the struggling farm girl, working to scrape together pennies to buy an item from a book of goods. Taken objectively, her life is pretty easy.
She has a good job, working as an advertising executive for a large marketing firm. She had a partner for many years, and the separation was amicable. She doesn’t turn down dates; so much as she is too busy to arrange them herself and blind dates aren’t exactly her thing. Being set up with a complete stranger by well-meaning friends or an impersonal dating service just seems desperate and weak to her. Intellectually she recognizes that it is a catch-22, she doesn’t look for people to date and won’t use the services to date so not having someone to date is a foregone conclusion and therefore using any other means to resolve it will, by default, seem desperate. Besides, she knows that the changes to her lifestyle dating would bring are probably not worth it.
Jessica puts on her pants suit and grabs her briefcase on the way out of the door. She refuses to carry a purse, too feminine, too expected, and most of all, too easy to lose track of. It isn’t like a briefcase and a purse can hold only certain objects, and one works as well as the other for what she needs.
She pauses at the door and taps the security code into in the keypad. Her neighborhood isn’t particularly dangerous, but it is a ritual she uses to remind herself that she has secured her home. Back in the old days, when they had keys for everything, she was always plagued by a nagging impression that she had forgotten to lock things up when she left. In truly neurotic fashion, this resulted in her leaving work, or a party, or a movie early just so she could get home quickly to check. She never once found it unlocked, but that didn’t seem to impact the next time it occurred.
So now she uses electronics for everything. She can check from her phone if she worries, which is usually enough that she doesn’t feel the need to. Strange how the mind works, she often thinks to herself.
In the driveway she considers taking her 2003 Lincoln Town Car to work, but decides to walk down to the subway station instead. Driving in the city was a knack she had picked up years ago, but it usually wasn’t worth it. Parking, gas, and dealing with traffic were rarely compensation for sense of freedom she felt with her own way to escape work. The subway was not a pleasant experience, but it was consistent, and it meant that she could read on the way in, only at the small cost of being on the lookout from gropers and the occasional drunk.
Emerging from the subway station downtown always felt a little like waking from a deep sleep. The sunlight bounced from the glass walls of the buildings and was eaten by the dreary colored crowds shuffling through the streets below. Grey skies, even in at the height of summer, formed layers of dreariness and blinding light and she finds herself blinking every time the escalator takes her past the threshold of the underground labyrinth.
Two blocks to her office building, another skyscraper carefully designed to look unique, just like every other structure in the downtown area. Every morning she nods to the security guard, a nice guy named Ralph who she seems to remember something about him being a former NFL player, but each morning it isn’t quite important enough for her to actually ask. He smiles, a big toothy grin, and then goes back to his magazine.
Jessica makes a concerted effort to follow the etiquette of elevator usage, and exits at the twentieth floor, careful not to make eye contact with anyone as she leaves. She has learned, through the years that nothing good can come from early morning acknowledgement. Most people, especially her age, are not morning people. They don’t want interaction and they resent being called upon to do so. Of the morning people, more than half were men, and men had an annoying habit of assuming anything more than passive aloofness was an invitation for romance. Of the women, many of them were threatened by her, trying to avoid her for some work reason, had heard some sort of rumor about her that they were sure is true, or had learned the same lessons Jessica had over the years. It boils down to a general policy of not saying anything to anyone in the morning, waiting instead to deal with things through the safety of e-mail and the conference phone in her office.
She always closes the door to her office for the first hour she is in the office. Every morning, someone is waiting for her to come in so they can ask a question about a project, present some issue, or generally get whatever they need done. By closing the door, people know that her ‘open-door’ policy is not available, which gives her time to check e-mail, eat a protein bar, and sip at a bottle of water with flared diet lemonade powder put in for taste. By the time she does open her door, there is always someone anxious to get her attention, and so her true work day begins.
In the evening it is the same process in reverse. About an hour before she goes home she closes her door to send out any last minute emails. She has learned over the years that any conversations that happen I the last hour of work are prone to being forgotten, misremembered, and often just upset people. So anything she needs to communicate, she does so through e-mail. It also means that no one comes up to her at the Nth hour expecting her to resolve a list of things before she leaves. The system works. Every once in a while she will have someone from above or below her who tries to fight it, but her response is always passive, patient, and aloof. Eventually they figure it out.
The elevator, the subway, the keypad, all the same, but from the different angle. She usually cooks her own dinner, from a recipe she researched the week before so she could find materials. She fancies herself a bit of an amateur chef, and if she had someone to check her work, they might agree. Each meal is a masterpiece in efficiency and flavors, and she does nothing else while she eats, savoring every bite.
By the end of dinner and dishes, it is time for bed. She puts on her pajamas, white silk, and sits down in front of the mirror. Gently she removes the blue velvet cover and folds it into a perfect 8 inch square. She brushes her hair; careful to separate the larger patches of brown from the more common blond hairs, and when she is done she replaces the velvet cover looking at it for a few minutes from across the room as she fades off to sleep.
Every once in a while, she has a particular dream that stands out from the normal ebb and flow of sleep. In it, she has more control over her own actions. She can feel wind on her skin and smell wildflowers blossoming on fields of growing grain. The golden sun tingles on her skin, providing heat but not burning her delicate freckles. She can feel a loose sun dress billow around her, touching her at intervals times to the flow of wheat stalks that stretch as far as she can see. Sometimes she turns around, and sees a hand-built house in the distance, surrounded by gardens of flowers and vegetables. A tall oak tree provides some shade for the house, and she can see a man working on the side, hammering a window pane or cutting firewood. She cannot quite make out any features other than dark hair and the build of a lumberjack.
Other times she turns west to see a roiling thundercloud off in the distance, slowly building and coming towards the farm. Lightning crackles inside the tempest and the clouds flash with anger as a sheet of water slowly consumes the far plains. When she sees this, she turns to run back to the house. She needs to warn the man there, but she always wakes up before she reaches the oak.
She doesn’t remember the dream when she opens her eyes. Even the fading memory of most dreams doesn’t happen, preventing her from preserving what she saw. It wasn’t a nightmare, nor was it the normally disjointed time and symbolism of other dreams. It doesn’t come often, but when it does she wakes feeling more rested and filled with a sense of inexplicable calm. The dream always ends a few minutes from her alarm, and she assumes that those rare days where she wakes up without the screeching shock of the accursed thing is why she feels so calm.
But that isn’t really why, and somewhere deep inside, she knows it.
Jessica takes the extra few minutes to brush her hair a few more strokes, careful not to break or split the ends, meticulous in the arrangement of the colors. As she gets older, she notices that some of the browns have turned paler, some of the blondes almost platinum, and even a few greys have appeared. It doesn’t bother her; she just arranges them with all the others and keeps them from bunching up.
She puts on a fresh pants suit and checks her briefcase, careful to put the suit from yesterday into the bag for the dry cleaners. Stepping outside, she pauses at the keypad and again in the moment of decision to drive or take the subway.
Life is predictable, safe, and relatively painless. She likes it this way, and only smiles softly at people who may question such a guarded existence. They could do whatever they want, she would think, and she could too.
Jessica Allen doesn’t smile. She doesn’t frown either. She just is. A single leaf on a quiet pond, she is unchanged by the occasional ripple of wind or drop of rain that might otherwise capsize a less stable person. That is exactly how she likes it.