This story was first published in Ariel Chart on September 7, 2022.
There was much more than that glass wall between us: society and the illusion of a good life. Every morning, for a year, I’d see her face. She’d stand behind the glass wall of my office and glance at me, her caramel-brown hair in a tight ponytail and her petite body in a drab white-and-black uniform. Coated with an inviting shed of red lipstick, her lips would part, exposing pearly teeth and carving dimples on her olive-skinned cheeks. Her smile rebelled against that drab corporate building. The dark mascara accentuating her large light-brown eyes made her face even more gorgeous. She’d then tilt her head to the side, stare at me briefly, and go about her job: mopping the long corridor flanked by rows of offices my fellow upper management occupied.
I loved our wordless interaction. I was a stranger to her, and to me, she was merely the lady behind the glass wall. My intrigue grew, however, and I developed that compelling desire to touch her, smell her, and make her mine. On a warm Athenian night, I threw myself on the bed next to Mariana, my oblivious wife of ten years. The thought of her rival’s smile swallowed me whole. There was no trace of shame in me. Married or not, I just adored those grinning lips.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. The faint sound of the clock assured me that I’d see her again soon. It was about eleven o’clock, and I guessed that Mariana had been asleep for an hour, at least. She looked after herself, got to sleep early, ate well, and exercised even better. An accomplished anesthesiologist at the age of thirty-six, she was fitter than most Greek women in their early twenties. Beginning right under her firm breasts, a line split her tight, flat abdomen, making her look like one of those bikini models you see in sports magazines. Her legs were long, slightly muscular, and utterly hairless after months of electrolysis. She lay on the right side of the bed with her back turned to me.
I still loved Mariana and adored her heart-shaped buttocks, but I was no longer in love with her. She dove headfirst into her career, and I surely did the same. Under the heavy weight of the daily grind, we started ignoring each other until we emotionally drifted apart. Our marriage became a lucrative business run by two good friends. Instead of two cars, we had four, and instead of an apartment, we had two. Hungry droves of Greeks dreamed of what Mariana and I took for granted. We were at the top of the system, but that did not give me true subsistence.
The system is clever, insidious, and utterly dehumanizing. It gradually turns you into some tax-paying vermin inhabiting a city of delusions about success, happiness, and satisfaction. The problem is that people quickly get used to the good life. Their paychecks get fatter, and so do their taxes and credit card debts. Then, they are in a hole, digging in the hope of coming out from the other end happy and satisfied. But you know what? Most of them eventually die in that hole, alone and hopeless.
That night, I was about to fall asleep next to Mariana again, yet a chasm yawned between us like never before. Emotional distance, however, never separated us physically. But that was it: only physically. We were like two mechanical animals, often having sex and creating amazing scenes. Every time she’d be about to come off, she’d grab my head and pull it towards her, moaning softly in my ear. When she panted onto the side of my neck, I knew she was done. After I, too, was done, I’d lie down and observe the dim light of the bedside lamp exposing the peach fuzz on her lower back. The whole scene would then strike me as unreal and purposeless, like the aftermath of a vicious battle. But it was still part of my emotionally unfulfilling life: wake up, go to the office, forge a smile here, feign an interest there, return home, eat, have sex to destress, sleep, and then repeat, repeat, and repeat.
The cleaning lady’s smile broke that vicious cycle, reminded me of my long-lost vitality, and made me realize that such life was unbearable. It was stable and comfortable, yet unbearable. Maybe the problem was its grounding in the mundane without any sense of transcendence. Nevertheless, I now know there are no sudden realizations—only admissions delayed by willing denial. Denial is helpful because it preserves the illusion of stability and balance, but inevitably the inconvenient truth will demand recognition. What you do with the budding realization is up to you. You either change and accept the ensuing bitter struggle or turn your face the other way and pretend that all is good.
In the depth of my slumber, I’d see the cleaning lady’s face peeking from behind that glass wall, her smile toothy and bright and her eyes wanton and animated. Then, I’d wake up consumed by curiosity and lust. What does she smell like? What does her skin feel like? I’d imagine myself on top of her, her legs wrapped around my waist and her tight genitals swallowing mine. Before coming off, she’d look me in the eye as though she wanted to communicate the incommunicable: love, that feeling with transcendental purpose. The illusion was powerful. It sustained me.
I finally decided to ask her out. I didn’t care about my colleagues ridiculing me or about losing that suffocating stability. I just wanted to be with the lady from behind the glass wall. My resolution was neither right nor wrong—unpredictable, perhaps.
Contrary to what con artists and motivational speakers would have you believe, there is neither order nor predictability in life. Such things belong to the physical laws of the universe. Life is erratic for humans, the walking, talking bags of flesh. Desires often go unfulfilled, and dreams rarely come true. Mine was stillborn: I didn’t see the cleaning lady at the office the next day. Anxiety swelled within me as my eyes gazed at the glass wall. An hour passed, then two, then three. I finally decided to act. “I want her,” the phrase spun like a broken record in my head. I knocked on the HR Assistant’s office door, “Good morning,” I said to the chubby lady as I opened it.
“Good morning,” she replied, smiling. There was a yellowish tint to her teeth, which heavy smokers usually have.
“I-I-I wanted to ask you about the lady who cleans our corridor, have y—”
“You too!” She lowered her chin and stared at me from above the oval glasses resting on the tip of her nose.
“What do you mean ‘you too’?”
“Come in, take a seat, and close the door.”
“Come in, please.” She pointed at the empty chair opposite her office.
“Why are you asking about her?”
“Nothing, really,” I mumbled.
“I wrote some notes on a piece of paper in the meeting room the other day, and I can’t find it. I apparently dropped it on my way back to my office.”
“Anything important on it?” She pushed her glasses up.
“No, not really. Just the names of some competing businesses to research later.”
“Okay.” She shook her head. “So, nothing’s missing from your office?”
“No. Why’re you asking?”
“Xenia Koutsaki, the lady you’re asking about, was fired yesterday. She’s caught trying to open the cash safe in the accounting office during the lunch break. When the security searched her locker, they found two cell phones and three laptops that had been reported missing.”
“Close your mouth. Your jaw’s about to drop.” She giggled like a hyena. “Such stuff happens. People steal. Why are you surprised?” She paused, took off her glasses, put them on the desk, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “It’s sad, though. She ruined her future. Who’d hire someone with a criminal record? As if it’s not hard enough already to find a job in Greece.” Her long hiss unnerved me. “They took her to the police station in Omonoia to be processed. She’ll be in a holding cell there for the next two weeks before the court. You’re lucky you don’t have to testify against her—”
“I-I sure am, I g-guess.”
“Unlike me! I had to go there twice to give my statement and file a complaint on behalf of the company. What a horrible place.”
I eyed that glass wall in my office, longing for Xenia’s beautiful smile. Like most of the good stuff one anticipates, it never came. I was waiting for Godot. I dreamed of the cleaning lady that night, and the one after, and the one after. The obsession was ceaseless, and I yearned for closure, for one last glimpse of that illusion.
When I arrived at the police station, the muffled voice of the mustached guard greeted me through the protective glass wall of his booth. “How can I help you, sir?”
“A visit. I want to visit—.” I put my hand on the back of my neck, looked up, and exhaled.
My eyes returned to him. “I-I’m just looking for the right word. A convict, I guess. I’d like to visit a convi—”
“Name of the arrestee and your ID, please.”
I slid my ID through the small opening. “Xenia Koutsaki.”
He looked at his watch and began filling out a form. “Purpose of visit.”
Purpose! Purpose! Chasing an illusion, I guess.
“Purpose, sir,” he repeated.
“Personal visit. She’s a friend.”
Before sliding my ID back to me, he wrote something down and gave me a carbon copy of the filled-out form. “Ok, ground floor. You go there, sir, get processed, and they’ll guide you to the visiting area.”
The processing was not as humiliating as I thought. They politely patted me down and told me to hand over my cell phone and take it back before leaving. The small visiting room had a single table in the middle with a chair on each side. The guard accompanying me told me to sit and left. I nodded and began observing my surroundings. The walls were recently painted with a sickly pale shade of white. A single lamp dangled from the ceiling like a hanged corpse, slightly moving when nearby doors were slammed shut. “What the hell am I doing here?” a voice thudded in my head.
“Sir, you’ve got 30 minutes for the visit,” the guard told me when he brought in Xenia.
Confusion surfaced in her eyes when they fell upon me. “God, I didn’t take anything from you! You guys will make me responsible for everything that’s been missing from the company. I made a mistake. I’ve already confessed. Don’t accuse me of stealing more stu—”
“I’m not here to accuse you of anything. I want to talk to you, a friendly chat. That’s it.”
“So, you don’t want the visit?” the guard addressed her. “You don’t have to if you don’t want.”
She looked at him, then at me.
“Please sit. I swear. It’s just a friendly chat. I won’t even ask you about the theft. None of my business.” I pointed at the chair. “Please.”
Her shoulders dropped slightly, signaling cautious comfort. She accepted my offer. The guard stood by the door, staring at us like a vulture.
I sat across her, my eyes fixed on that illusion that had previously sustained me. Now there was no glass door, no makeup, and nothing to obfuscate the underwhelming ambiance of her presence. She seemed less mysterious and more miserable. Her lips now were chapped and lifeless and her eyes unanimated and barren. A repulsive layer of oil covered her caramel-brown hair, whose roots had already begun reverting to their original, dull dark brown color.
“So, why are you here?” she asked, defiantly staring at me.
Jesus Christ, what a shrill voice! “Nothing. I just wanted to talk to you.”
“About?” She breathed loudly through her pursed lips.
“I-I-I don’t know.”
“I never stole anything from you, you know. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Why?” I could feel my eyes widening.
She smiled, but the dimples I once adored were less visible without the blush and makeup. “Well, I kind of liked you.”
“Yes, kind of. You always wear expensive brands, and I often saw you arriving to work in a beautiful, expensive car.”
“What else could it be?”
I ran my fingers through my hair. “So, you’ve n-n-never wondered about what I sounded like, what I smelled like, or how my skin felt, or ho—”
Her voice cut through my sentence like a knife. “I am not sure what you mean. But if you’d ask me out on a date when I’m free again, I’d surely say yes. I don’t mind the ring on your finger. And why would I. I never refuse a free night out.”
Defeat hailed down on me. There is no point in getting to know this idiot. I looked at the guard, who was obsessively swiping up and down on his phone. “Sir,” I addressed him. “Sir, officer, sir.”
“Yes,” he finally replied, putting his phone in his pocket. “Done?”
“Yes, I’d like to leave, please,” I told him.
He approached Xenia and said in a monotone voice, “Miss, let’s go, please.
”With her eyes still sizing me up, she stood up. “One more thing, though.”
I got up. “Please.” I couldn’t help but feel a spark of hope within me. Maybe she’d say something redeeming.
“Do you have twenty euros on you?”
“Can you please put twenty euros in my commissary account?”
The spark diminished. “Yes, sure.”
“If you could put thirty, it would be better. Forty, even better. F—”
“I’ll put a hundred, a hundred fifty, two hundred. I’ll give you all the money I have. Isn’t life all about that? Money? Materialism? How much one can take from the other?”
Her eyes bulged at me. “Why did you get angry? I just wanted to say fifty, but if you can spare two hundred, I’m fine with that, too.”
My entire being flooded with contempt. Her voice had become even more irritating, like a fork scratching a plate. As I gazed at her, I could feel my nose curling and my neck muscle stiffening. A bitter sigh came out of my trembling lips. “Sir, I’d like to leave, please,” I reiterated my request to the guard. He nodded and called upon his colleague to accompany me out of the building. The man came and gestured for me to walk before him. I looked back and saw Xenia walking in humility as the other officer held onto her arm.
An officer at the reception counter gave me back my cell phone. When we arrived at the main gate, I asked my companion, “How long does it take to put money in someone’s commissary account?”
“You must fill out some forms, so about ten minutes.”
“She’s not worth it,” I said under my breath.
He smiled. “She’s not worth the money?”
“No, she’s not worth my time. Not anymore anyway.”
While heading back to my car, I looked at the clear, blue sky. It appeared surreal, like a cheerful painting on a grim prison cell wall. I sat at my desk back in the office, eyeballing that glass wall. Suddenly, a woman appeared behind the glass wall, her white legs shining against the short black skirt. Her long blond hair glided gracefully onto her back. She looked over her shoulder and smiled at me. I immediately knew I’d be fascinated with the new employee in a month, in six, enamored, and in twelve, disappointed.
“What the hell am I doing here?” the voice thudded in my head again.