Ground Zeno
-or-
How to Survive a Fall from the 92nd Floor of a Burning Building


Seann McCollum


Ah, look out there at that gorgeous blue sky, my love. It's the only thing I like about working up here; that sensation of being surrounded by sky. You know I almost didn't take this job when I realized what floors the offices were on. Luckily there was a vacant desk away from the windows; most people fight for a view, but not me. I've always been a little afraid of heights. I never thought I'd spend twelve years of my life this far up off the ground.

Twelve years? God, have I really been working here that long? It sure doesn't feel like it. I've seen so many people come and go through this office. I think the only one who's been here longer than me is Stan in Accounting. Speaking of Stan, I passed him on my way up here just a few minutes ago. He was stampeding downstairs with everyone else. “Where the hell are you going, Carol?” he screamed as he passed me in the stairwell. I just told him that I had to find you. I had to find you. He stopped and looked at me for a moment, but people started yelling at him to get a move on, so he just shook his head and continued on his way down.

To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have stayed here as long as I did if you hadn't gotten hired on. I'd pretty much had it with the company by the time you started… what was it, two years ago? I remember the first time I saw your hazel eyes that somehow glowed with warmth even beneath the pale dead glow of the fluorescent lights. It was a beautiful Tuesday morning, not unlike this one. I was sitting alone at the folding table in the break room (I love the break room: no windows, you know). An open box half filled with pink doughnut holes sat in front of me. Suddenly you appeared in the doorway. You had a confused look on your face.

“Is there, uh, coffee in here somewhere?” you asked.

My mouth was full of doughnut hole so I just pointed to the coffeemaker, percolating happily next to the sink. You looked around; I pointed to the coffeemaker by the sink.

“Coffee's over there”, I said, wiping a swatch of pink icing from the side of my mouth.

“Oh, right, duh,” you said, pouring yourself a paper cupful of weak coffee. “Is there any half and half?”

“Nah, just that fake powdery shit in the can.”

“Guess I'm having it black then. Mind if I join you?” I gestured to an empty folding chair.

“I'm Carol”, I said, sitting up a little straighter and brushing crumbs from my blouse. “This your first day?”

“No, I started last week, but I was in training until today. I'm Gary.”

“Nice to meet you, Gary… oh, shit, I've got to get back; my half hour's up!”

“See you out there.”

 

And I certainly did; I saw you out there every weekday. This was before they transferred you to this new office space, one floor up. You remember, our cubicles used to be right across the room from each other, and if I stood up, I could just see the top of your hair sticking up.

Anyways, I'd noticed that gold band on your finger and knew that you were off limits romantically. I kept my distance, but I always secretly enjoyed bumping into you in the mail room and from time to time we'd go out for lunch at Bennigan's with our co-workers, where we'd flirt across the table with each other over our Caesar salads and jalapeno poppers.

It was never just physical attraction, you know. We had so much in common: we both grew up in St. Paul, we both liked country music; we were both Geminis. And some people even said we kind of looked alike, though I never really saw the resemblance.

I loved that you were smarter than anyone else in the office, and so much better-read than I. Hell, you had that degree in the Classics, and even though you kept reminding me of how useless it was, I knew that you were secretly proud of being able to read Homer and those other guys in the original Greek. While everyone else was talking about last night's reality shows or the ball scores, you'd pull me aside and give me the updates on whatever crazy philosophical crap you were currently immersed in.

“Get a load of this,” you'd always begin before launching into what would inevitably turn into a sort of mini-lecture. I usually had trouble understanding but you'd try to explain it to me as simply as you could: “There was this one Greek philosopher who said that since in order to reach any point in space, you have to first travel half the distance it takes to get there, and to reach that halfway point you have to first travel halfway THERE, and so on and so on, and therefore you never really get anywhere, because you're only ever traveling half distances. It means that any motion all is completely impossible…”

I laughed.

“But that's ridiculous! That doesn't make any sense. If that were true, we'd never move at all. Nothing would. The entire world would be motionless. What good does it even do to think about that kind of shit?”

You just smiled that goofy smile of yours and shrugged.

“I don't know what good it really does, but I kinda like it. It's interesting to think in different ways, even if it's impractical.”

God it was adorable.

Everything was really fine until Christmas of last year. It seems like everyone has a story of that one holiday office party that gets a little out of control. Those things really are recipes for disaster: you take a roomful of horny, repressed coworkers, getting wasted at the company's expense, then stir in the natural stress of the holidays, and you've got a Molotov cocktail just waiting to be lit.

Do you remember how you kept looking at me from across the room? I told you afterwards that the moment our eyes met that night, I knew that finally, after all that time spent working with you and waiting for you, always hungry and never able to satisfy that craving, that now, at long last, you were mine. I crossed the room and took your hand, and you were drunk enough to follow as I led you into the janitor's closet.

You balked at first at the idea of a tryst in such a place, but once inside, you agreed that it was more than adequate, and with our faces buried deeply in one another's flesh, we could hardly smell the bleach emanating from the damp buckets at our feet.

We emerged a half hour later, your neck henna-ed with evidence of my voracious appetite. We ignored the knowing glances and winks from our inebriated coworkers. Maybe it was the combination of cleaning fumes and alcohol, but you were looking a little green. I escorted you gently but firmly to the washroom where, judging from the sounds I soon heard through the door, you became re-acquainted with your pigs in a blanket and spanokopita. You left soon after that; I called you a taxi and gave the driver a twenty to get you home.

The weekend passed. We didn't call one another. Once my hangover had weakened its grip on my skull a bit I did my best to stay busy to avoid thinking about the inevitable awkward Monday morning that loomed before us like an approaching tidal wave.

When Monday did come, the entire office was filled with a conspiratorial silence. People avoided making eye contact with one another; even the water cooler bubbled sadly to itself in the corner, not used to being thus abandoned. I kept glancing over at your cubicle all day, half out of fear and half out of anticipation, but you never showed up. Every time my phone rang I'd jump, but it was never you calling. By day's end I hadn't caught a single glimpse of you. I felt a twinge of relieved disappointment.

As I got into the elevator to leave, Stan in Accounting slipped in next to me and punched me on the shoulder like I was one of the boys.

"So, I guess Gary's better half wasn't too happy about your, you know, BEHAVIOR Friday night, heh heh!” he chuckled. “I hear the old lady wouldn't even let him come into work today! And didja hear about Mark and Cathy? Right on Big Ed's desk, can you believe it? Eh, whaddaya expect. Office parties, huh?"

The ride down to the ground floor seemed to take forever.

When the elevator doors finally slid open, I bolted out and made a beeline for my favorite bar where I downed one car bomb after another before heading back to my quiet Jackson Heights duplex.

 

The next day you were back at your cubicle, acting as if nothing had happened. I waited until after lunch before calling, not wanting to interrupt the work you were trying to catch up on.

There's no point in my retelling that conversation. I don't want to spend this remaining time dwelling on such unpleasantness, anyways. Everyone in the room heard when I slammed down the receiver and knocked my swivel chair over in my haste to get up. I grabbed my purse and left without even bothering to shut my computer down. Big Ed asked me just where the hell I thought I was going and I yelled “I'm taking a fucking half day!” and stormed out.

 

You remember how I started calling you: I admit I was a little out of control. I always called you on your cell phone, so I could be sure SHE wouldn't answer. "Please", I'd say to your voicemail, over and over; "I just want to talk to you, just once, then I promise I'll leave you alone. I can't sleep, I can't eat. I can't stop thinking about you. I know it's impossible, just... please, Gar; please just talk to me." I have to confess; it wasn't totally true. I was eating and sleeping just fine. But after having that one brief moment with you… well, I guess I wanted it to last forever.

I even started following you home on the subway; at a distance, of course. Luckily you always wore that stupid red Twins baseball cap so you were easy to spot even in a crowd. I'd watch you enter your building, knowing that she'd be up there waiting for you. I would feel an almost violent jealousy rise up in me as I stood there, staring up at your window until at last I would have to turn away. I felt like I was being torn in two.

After two long months of avoiding me, you finally called. It was late at night; you probably don't even remember it. You were pretty drunk.

“She didn't come home tonight”, you sobbed. “I don't know where she is. She's never been this late before.”

I didn't know what to say; I felt torn in two, caught between knowing you needed my sympathy even though I was nearly ecstatic. You sounded so miserable, so lost; suddenly all I wanted to do was help you.

I heard you out and consoled you, telling you all the things I thought you needed to hear. I listened as you collapsed into tears. I comforted you, told you it would be okay, that she was probably just running late or something; and most of all that I was there for you no matter what.

At the end of the conversation, you said "You know, I'm really sorry about... well, you know, all this… stuff between us. I guess I'm just confused is all. You've always been such a good friend to me, and I appreciate that." I got off the phone and went to bed happier than I'd been in a long, long time.

 

Of course, we both know what happened then: she showed up right after you hung up the phone; she'd been in a car accident on the expressway but thankfully no one was hurt. Thankfully.

We never really talked much after that, but I never forgot about you, my love. When they moved your department upstairs, it nearly demolished me. Suddenly not being able to glimpse you in your grey suit, rising up from behind the cloth-covered cubicle walls every day; knowing there was no chance of my bumping into you in the copy room anymore...

Every once in a while I'd give you a ring, and we'd chat for a few minutes before you'd get another call and would have to cut things short. Or I'd e-mail you little messages: in fact now that I'm up here, I can see, scorched but still pinned firmly to the burning remains of your cubicle, one of the little internet joke photos I forwarded to you just the other day. It's a play on that famous picture of a kitty hanging from a limb that you see on bulletin boards everywhere, with the encouraging slogan "Hang In There!" written in big cheery letters underneath; except in this version, someone has Photoshopped into the picture a hand with a saw cutting through the branch, so that you know that no matter how tightly that little pussy hangs in there, he's still gonna be in pretty bad shape in the end. Ah, that makes me laugh, even now, although under the circumstances, I guess it's not really funny…or maybe the situation makes it even funnier, I don't know.

The building's starting to shake, my dear; I guess it's time for me to go. Better to end this out there under that beautiful September sky than stuck here burning to death in this godforsaken place. Christ, I really have been here twelve years, haven't I? What was I thinking?

Let me kiss your hand one more time, my love. If I could move this pile of debris that's crushed you, I'd try to take you with me…I guess instead of yammering on like this I should have been looking around for your cell phone so I could call your wife, tell her what's happened…wait; it's probably in your pants pocket where you always kept it, and therefore suffered the same fate as the rest of your lower half…God, how I loved that half of you…I don't mean to laugh but you look so funny without it…shit, that's not funny, I must be losing it.

It's hard to stand up with all these tremors; this whole goddamn place feels like it's starting to collapse under its own weight. I know how it feels. At least I don't have to bother knocking out a window; the initial impact seems to have shattered them all. Thank God for small mercies, I guess. I'm going to have to close my eyes first, though; like I said, I never did like heights. Oh, look how far down that is…but God, that sky is so blue…

I'll be okay, my love. I'm a little dizzy but not really afraid. Besides, maybe that old Greek blowhard you liked so much is right. Maybe there really are an infinite number of halfway points I'll have to pass through on my way down, and if that's true, then I'll remain suspended in the air forever. If he's right, there's no way I can ever hit the ground.