Equals | The New Engagement
Equals story art

Equals

By Casey Haymes

If Ty had anything to lose by protesting, he’d be elsewhere. Not climbing stairs out of the downtown bus terminal. Not aiming for the tallest building in sight: exposed steel beams and mirrored glass. The Willies are meeting at 8:45 in the elevator hallway on the seventy-second floor. Crowd the Willie’s corporate headquarters with uniforms, the protest email said. Confront the Suits with the smell of our grease vats! Ty’s full of team spirit, so he wears the blue polyester uniform. He’s changing his circumstances instead of just complaining. Getting a wage a family can live on. Following the leader, becoming a leader.

The morning sun warms his golden skin as he crosses the last street. The knot inside his stomach tightens, the same knot that makes him skip discounted lunch most days, for two months now. His mother regularly tries to convince him that attending church with her can heal the pain. He goes because when she’s proud of him her face does nothing but smile.

Women in suits crowd the sidewalk with the air of perfume. They wear conference nametags. Blond and red shiny hairdos passing by him. Ty runs a hand over his curls, moving forehead to neck. Hair tickles his palm and wrist. He stops walking and stares at the cheerleaders in suits, remembers being a star in high school. The days when the fancy girls gave him time.

The days when he was admired for throwing a football with precision and power. The days when they called him Ty “Cannon” Loxley. Even wrote it on his diploma, at Coach Geary’s insistence. His life in the apex. Now, none of these business women even glance at his face because they’re blinded by his fast food uniform.

It’s hot for November. His armpits drip sweat down his ribs. The fancy business women leave him alone with the shame of his choices. He is thirty-four and has never been in love. Other needs have taken precedence.

 

Inside the Willie’s lobby, someone holds a poster board sign that reads, Down with Oligarchy. Another sign reads, $15/hr 4 my blood, sweat, and cheers. Ty smells burger grease on the protesters’ uniforms, some tropical sunscreen too. A few Suits hover beside the heavily armed security team.

Ty gets in line for the elevator and is yanked backwards by someone grabbing his shoulder. He smells his dad’s cologne as he turns to find a homeless woman wearing a baggy, striped grey suit and a tie. Grass stains and mud on her pants. Her platinum blond hair is slicked back. She hands him a cracked touchscreen phone, motions for him to listen. Her face is shiny, she grins. He wants to tell her to leave, but playing along is the quickest way to part. He holds the phone a few inches from his ear, runs his thumb over the sharp cracks. There’s nobody on the other end of the line.

“I used to think I was taller than you,” she says in a pinched voice, as if someone’s talking to Ty through the phone. “I’m shorter now.”

He laughs uncomfortably and returns the phone. She stashes it inside her blazer. He notes that her pinstripes are inconsistent and limited to the front and the sleeves of the blazer. A trio of Suits stares at her, saying “Mrs. Windsor” and asking each other “What happened to Dana?” A young security guard waves the homeless woman over, but she walks backwards and leaves the building.

One of the elevators dings. Two Willies carry out an older woman wearing a hair net and a Willie’s uniform. They carry her to a paramedic van outside. “Go on!” a man behind Ty urges. Ty steps onto the elevator, grips the cool metal rail as his fellow protesters pack in. No Suits. The doors nearly shut when a woman’s hand intervenes. She wears a turquoise ring in the middle, has had a manicure recently. The elevator door opens. Ty recognizes her immediately but can’t remember her name. She wears a vest with a dress shirt and a loose tie. Looks like the woman in Annie Hall, but black. She hasn’t aged much in sixteen years, hasn’t changed her style. Back then, she organized the yearbook and protested the dress code. She asked him to prom, and he laughed and told her to “get in line.” Now, if he had room in the elevator to move he would kick himself hard. The woman getting on the elevator makes his heart forget his life.

More than five Willies separate her from him. There’s an overweight woman wearing pigtails and gaming on a tablet. The rest of the Willies listen to headphones and text. The ride is smooth. Ty cannot feel the lift. His fear of heights calms. The sight of the woman he knows subdues his stomach pain. The memories. Her hair used to be curly. Was her name Kim? No. Joy? He dreamt of her once, after dropping out of college. In the dream, she was about to receive an award for challenging class, gender, and race inequality with a book of true stories. She asked to hold his hand before going onstage, but he couldn’t move or speak.

The metal frames of the elevator ceiling rattle. The woman he knows stares straight at the elevator door paneling, the glossy wood finish. Her thick hair is pinned up, long neck fully exposed. Ty makes out the stern expression on her face. He has an urge to pass a note, wants to write: I was the dumbest guy in high school. Kids are cruel, but I was the cruelest. You are much better than I ever was. I couldn’t be sorrier. –Ty (the stupid Cannon).

It’s Jade. He remembers her name, feels salvation like he’s one of the elders at his mother’s church being born again and again.

* * *

From across the open dishwasher, Eric stares at Jade. His long eyelashes are wet from their last cry. He watches her empty the dishwasher without offering to help. The windows are open, it’s unseasonably hot. Their clothes are soaked in sweat. She wants him to leave; she doesn’t want to hurt him. Her back burns with pain, so she can’t help him move out.

The sun crests the city skyline. She scans the apartment: vintage record player, books crammed on shelves, and her father’s landscape paintings covering walls. Her home includes a loft and two bathrooms. She pays for everything her parents don’t cover. Eric welds their furniture. His chairs, tables, and bed frames win awards.

She’s going to manifest the end of Eric-and-Jade. There are so many easy things to say, civil ways to split, but this is what comes out: “I can’t love you anymore.”

His face contorts as if he’s holding a sneeze. He runs his hand through his spiky hair. “Can’t or don’t want to?”

“Eric, listen, I’m tired of fighting: you cheated or didn’t cheat. We haven’t had sex in four months. You hide your gallery friends from me. It’s either cheating or you’re ashamed or something worse...”

“Don’t.”

“I’m not.”

She was.

“You know I don’t believe in race,” he says. “The different colors of our skin are only consequences of ultra-violet—”

“Stop it.” She grinds her teeth, presses her full lips shut. In couples counseling, she looked into Eric’s eyes and promised she would trust him.

She opens her mouth and exhales. “Maybe you’ll hate me for ending it now. Totally acceptable, Eric. What’s unacceptable is the dishonesty and the distance growing between us. You have to go because I can’t look at you anymore.”

 

The cab driver slams the brakes at the end of an alley. Jade lunges forward and drops her phone. “This is it,” the driver says. “Too many people to drive more.” The cab is a hybrid. There is no motor noise. Jade looks at the Willie’s protesters in their cheery fast-food uniforms. She sighs, checks her phone, and dials her boss again. No answer.

 

Jade recognizes a man on the elevator. His name is Tyson, she thinks as she turns to face her reflection on the paneling. No, it’s Tyrone. He wore mini-dreads and had a ridiculous nickname in high school based on football glory. Unchecked ego. They called him Cannon. Now he’s wearing a Willie’s uniform.

Don’t go there, she thinks to herself while picking a hangnail. Just get yourself ready to bolt when the elevator door opens.

She glances at Tyrone’s reflection. He’s taller than the rest of the Willies. His preppy haircut makes him look friendly, despite the slouching. He’s staring at her. He recognizes her. Probably remembers her nickname: Crybaby Jade. She sobbed in algebra class after he rejected her. She had hoped too blindly for him to say yes to her prom invitation. She hated every ounce of her ache for North Valley High’s stud.

Only one floor has been chosen for this elevator ride. Her heartbeat’s erratic. She focuses on the breath entering and leaving her lungs. She curses her wild animal heart. She hates Tyrone. Hates herself. Hates the floors above and below.

The elevator door opens. She and a few Willies push past the two security officers and enter the crowded lobby. She stretches her neck to navigate to her office door. Blinds are pulled down. The crowd sings, “All we are saying is give fifteen a chance.” Repeating it. Some of the Willies have decorated their uniforms to emulate hippies. They look at her and see what they call a “Suit.” She doesn’t belong here. But the elevator can’t shut. The Willies have nowhere to go. She is stuck with them.

Tyrone catches her attention. He smiles, and she notices he never closed the gap in his teeth. She looks away. Afraid. She pushes through the crowd to her office door. Her code doesn’t work. She taps on the glass with her ring. “It’s Jade!”

“…give fifteen a chance…”

As she dials the front office on her phone, she hears a few Willies commenting on her outfit, questioning her role and her presence.

She turns and sees Tyrone approaching. “Hey, Jade!” he calls. The rest of the Willies barge in to the lobby. The elevator door closes.

Reaching behind her back, she bangs on the glass with her ring. “Open up!”

“You one of them?” an overweight girl with headphones and a neck brace asks.

“One of who?” Jade says.

“Check the lady’s fancy uniform!” a wiry teenager yells.

“You’re Jade?” Tyrone asks. “Graduated North Valley?”

She bangs on the door. She can’t think of an option. Her nervous sweat smells like soy sauce.

“She ain’t gonna talk to you,” the neck brace girl tells Tyrone. “She’s one of them.” “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Jade yells, louder than she expected. Her throat stings. Her jaw clenches. The crowd stops singing. She has everyone’s attention. And then a gust of wind howls through the elevator shaft. The crowd listens. A young Willie snaps a photo of the elevator with his phone.

“Y’all are wasting your time being here,” Jade says.

The neck brace girl laughs, then stops and clasps her neck in pain. “You think we don’t deserve fifteen?” the teenager asks.

“Nobody’s listening up here.” Jade pushes her way through the warm bodies. She opens the door to the stairwell, which smells like a mechanic shop. She holds the door open while deciding where to go. The Willies throw insults. My choices aren’t choices, she thinks. She does not want to rendezvous at the boss’s house for an emergency meeting, sit around the pool at one of the outdoor dining tables, discussing people’s lives in terms of profit, pretending she holds any stakes, pretending they accept her. Willie’s will never let her out of marketing.

But her dad was so proud when she accepted the job offer. “My darling’s on her way to the top floor,” he said. Jade was proud too. Copywriting for this company meant everything, took everything.

“Jade,” Tyrone says behind her, rests his warm, heavy hand on her shoulder. She turns to face him, and her heart and hearing and everything else stops for two seconds.

* * *

Burck yells at Dana about not being heard. It’s the last of his energy for the night. He’s clutching tufts of his bushy gray hair. Dana stares out the window overlooking the pool, where the leaves are finally gathering. She watches his reflection. He is collapsed on the Persian rug, next to the stain his dog made last year. Dead retriever. Damaged man.

He raises his arm to request help standing. She ignores him. She saw something move outside, just before the sun set. It was near the back gate that opens onto the links. No detected movement since.

Burck pulls himself up using the walker with brakes and a seat. He moves to the bed, breathing heavy. “Dana.” She hears disdain inside his voice, inside her name. She knows he still hates her platinum blond hair, hates that she didn’t ask for his opinion beforehand. He was rarely difficult before the accident down the stairs, the brain damage, the haggard walk. She always considers his needs and his demands and listens to him protesting her hiring of a caregiver.

“I’m watching the sunset, dear.” She looks down at her hands clutching a manila folder.

Inside it is a report that details two options for responding to the Willie’s protest tomorrow. Subheadings include: True expenses of the branch workers; Threat to profit growth = threat to America; and Robots.

Through the bedroom window, Dana watches the silhouette of a young man enter the guesthouse door. Jason’s confident posture cannot be mistaken. He is what the branch workers somewhat affectionately refer to as a “Suit.” He pockets the key she gave him yesterday and turns the kitchen light on. One window glows in the backyard. The pool is a large, blue kidney bean.

“Honey,” Dana says to Burck, “I’m under a lot of—”

“I know,” he interrupts, scrunching up his face in pain. “Let’s go to bed.”

His reflection in the window overlaps her view of the backyard and distant cityscape. She turns and heads for the bedroom door. “I’ll be sleeping out there.”

“Of course.” He looks at his hands.

“Good night then.”

He nods. She stops and eyes his concave posture, his pale face, the squint of his right eye, just below the scar where his hair no longer grows. She leans over him, causing him to fall backwards on the bed. The light from the bedside lamp turns his eyes hazel green. Her skirt is tight. She halts. She traces the scar tissue with her finger. It’s smoother and warmer than the rest of his skin. His mouth opens slightly. His mustache and teeth are littered with bits of food. She remembers their second date beginning with a Laurie Anderson performance and ending at the Hilton. They didn’t sleep. He listened and understood her body. She was heard. He was a hero. She told him so. They married after she earned her PhD in psychology from Harvard, before she was asked to join her dad’s meetings.

Burck wipes her tears from his face. She stands and says nothing as she leaves their bedroom.

 

After sex, Jason won’t stop praising her age. He thinks his disbelief in the number is a compliment. Dana opens her eyes. Jason takes his cue to stop talking. She removes his hand from her breast and stands up.

“Wait,” he says.

She grabs the manila folder off the dresser, drops it on his lap.

He opens the folder, reads. She paces around the bed and tickles the goose bumps on her ribs with her fingertips, imagines her husband in bed upstairs. In her dreams of Burck, he was never alone in their home and never slipped and banged his head on a stair. In his dreams she is weak and happy and dedicated to him. She doesn’t know how to build anything except a family. There are two children. They are babies who look like both of them. In his dreams.

Jason closes the folder, scratches the side of his nostril.

“Choose one for me,” she says.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“Choose one.”

“Do I have to?”

The front door opens slowly. Burck waddles in, clutching a rusted shovel. Jason gets on his knees on the bed, holds his crotch. His other hand juts out like he’s praying for Burck. “Sir, I apologize, it’s totally what you think.”

Burck points the shovel at Jason. With the bed between Burck and herself, Dana looks for her skirt and blouse. There’s nothing under the bed. “Honey,” she says.

“Shut. It.” Burck loses his balance but recovers by leaning on the shovel as he would a cane.

“This is a mistake, Honey. We can make this better. We don’t have to limit ourselves to the limbic system.”

“Please stop talking.” He points the shovel at her. She feels all of the power lost and his bitterness for it. She grabs her cell phone from the nightstand and throws it at Burck, intentionally missing. It crashes on the floor. Burck lunges at Jason. She grabs her phone: the case fell off and the face is cracked. Her clothes have disappeared. She grabs Jason’s suit off the floor. “Be careful with him,” she says as she dresses.

The main house is locked. No open windows. Dana doesn’t have the keys with her; they never lock the doors. She calls her sister. The phone dies before anyone answers.

She hears Burck grunt inside the guesthouse, and the brass bedposts scraping tile. She knows Jason will only defend himself.

She leaves through the back gate. She runs across the fifth green. The grass is wet and cool and spongy. Two ravens cackle as they chase each other across her sky. She feels every leg muscle, every nerve in her lungs, every tear mapping her face. She falls and rolls sideways.

The young security guard insists on opening the door for Dana. Her desk is dust free. There’s an even distribution of hanging file folders in the bottom drawer. Her voicemail light blinks. Sixty-four messages. Jason was right: no response was the best response to the protest tomorrow. She would increase his salary if she wasn’t resigning.

After sending her final Willie’s email, she finds correction fluid in the nearest supply closet. It takes seven bottles to draw solid stripes down Jason’s blazer with the sponge applicator. She gets high and feels creative again. She falls asleep on the cold leather couch while waiting for the correction fluid to dry. She switches to her left side, and the squeaky leather wakes her.

From the seventy-second floor, she looks up as the sun crests the man-made horizon. Maybe it’ll snow this year, she thinks, and render my city neutral. She smiles at a memory of sitting in her mom’s lap, on the hood of a Chevy Bel Air that wasn’t working. Her dad paced behind them, crunching through grimy snow and cussing at various parts of his beloved car. Her sister clutched a flashlight and aimed it at night noises. Dana watched the sunrise with her mom, wrapped in a scratchy wool blanket. They were moving to a big city because her dad bought a franchise business there. They didn’t own anything more than clothes, albums, memories, and gambles. But her mom gave warmth. Her mom’s voice overpowered all other sounds, dissolved all worry inside Dana. Her little cheeks hurt from smiling about the vanishing dark. She could hear her mom’s raspy voice vibrating inside the lungs she was leaning against.

“Did you know we aren’t really looking at the sun right now, Dana Darling?” Her mom made Dana clap her fat kindergartener hands. “That sun right now is an illusion. You can see it, but it’s not really there.”

 

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