5. “Adulting”

The sky darkened. From a distance came a breeze, utterly devoid of life and cripplingly cold for a late summer afternoon. On instinctive cue, Matt responded by shriveling inward, head bowed down, shoulders huddled, and arms drawn home. From a distant vantage point, this caricature of a defeated man lurched onward, a colored blot amidst a sea of grayed-out waterworks.

Just moments later, he felt the first cool drop splattered on his forehead, dripping downward past the corner of his left eye and tracing along the contours of his cheekbones. Then another. And soon, the world appeared as though he was near-sighted again, incoherent and indistinctive. No Lasik procedure can adjust for undulating waves of rain carried windward towards his face.

A mere four blocks separated his house from the public transit line, though he must have taken 30 minutes by his count to arrive at his front door. There, eagerly waiting, his two huskies can be heard on the other side despite the drowning roars of wind and water. Matt hated rain; unlike some writer or poet with a romantic penchant for drama, nothing about a rainy day makes his life better. His two companions, Brutus and Orion, will need to be let out. They will inevitably trek mud back inside, their furs soaked, both of which demand cleaning after. After a 10-hour day of mindless paper-pushing, Matt would have liked to do more exciting things than mop his floors and towel-dry two unwilling manics.

Collapsing on his couch, still soaked, Matt cursed at himself for forgetting to check his mailbox. No matter though: anything inside will probably stay drier than a trip from the sidewalk to his doors. Indeed, Matt wanted nothing more than to sink into the leather cushions and let himself be transported into the next morning. He was hungry though. The dogs will be coming back inside soon too. His mother will be calling later to remind him of his sister’s graduation party in two weekends. Pushing himself upward, he tried to focus his attention and headed towards the bathroom towel, making note of the puddle left behind by his silhouette on the couch.

One would figure sleep finds easily the exhausted. Matt tethered to and fro, turning constantly to find a new comfortable position, much to his two huskies’ great annoyance. They have learned not to snuggle up to him directly at night anymore, unless he was already deep asleep. Once that happens, not even a fire alarm could draw him back to the waking world, a feat that one previous ex-girlfriend found both extremely cute and somewhat disturbing. Yet, by some miracle, he would wake to the alarm each morning.

This morning, he felt particularly unprepared for work, more so than most days at any rate. An icy, numbing cup of coffee helps, but today may require an extra cup, or a coffee extra strong, perhaps both. Budget meetings have a unique level of dullness about them that not even a normal day of paper-pushing can quite match. Matt eyed his colleague Julia with envy: somehow, she never seems perturbed by the utter boredom of numbers on a powerpoint deck hammered home by their boss’s boss’s boss. Julia even manages to smile and ask questions. This is probably why she is being groomed for higher-level management, while he and the other visibly miserable souls will keep on with their Sisyphean task of documentation.

Abandoning his station for the day, Matt looked forward to a night of fun, as much fun as adults are allowed to have on a weeknight anyways. Pizza, beer, and football — the holy trinity of the United States of America, to be experienced as a congregation believer in the holy temples known as bars dotted across the land. He knew precisely one other follower in the crowd, his cubicle neighbor and fellow Chicago Bears enthusiast Christopher. Neither of them were natives to the city, but they pledged their allegiance all the same. Tonight, the neighborhood boy Matt entrusted his dogs to will have to keep watch late, for Matt intended to stay out as long as he possibly could to make the next day of work flow more smoothly.

“Fancy seeing you two here.” Oh gosh, that sounded like Julia. There she was, a radiant smile in the dark and dim, the twinkling of her eyes unmistakable. Matt cannot seem to recall a time ever when Julia was not happy or at the very least content. Tired perhaps, slow to respond from sleepiness, but no, never a draining presence at the office. He liked her more than he would like to admit, but to be fair, who doesn’t like Julia.

“Matt, Chris, this is my fiancé.” Wow, what a handsome and gentle looking man. She deserved no less. Not that Matt was curious in the slightest, but he found his drunken eyes fixated upon the well-trimmed curvatures of her fiancé’s chin and cheeks, leading towards an abundance of short, dark curls. Some people are born five yards from touchdown. For his part, Matt’s got half a field to run.

Somehow, Matt found his way to his bed later that night, where Orion and Brutus quickly flanked his sides. His world was fixed upon the ceiling fan; he, however, whirled and whirled, losing track of where the ground ended and his feet began. Flickering images of paper stacks raced across his peripheral vision, with Julia smiling as she dropped off an important file for him to look into. Somehow, his ex-girlfriend is working from Chris’s cubicle, her leer sharp and intense as she watched him interacted with Julia. Wait: do they even know each other? He wasn’t working here at the time when they broke up. Matt spent a few more minutes calming down his girlfriend before nothingness reigned and his peripherals darkened.

Trickles of sunlight settled on his face, gently warming the exposure to the frigid touch of night still lingering. Matt woke ahead of his alarm by roughly 45 minutes, his mouth parched and lips coarse as though he had journeyed through a desert in his sleep. He glanced at the clock warily, debating whether or not he could pass out again until his usual time to wake. Despite the appeal, Matt rose and waddled his way toward the kitchen to find water.

At least it’s finally Friday, he thought. From beyond his window, the early summer sun bathed all in its majestic orange hue. His neighbors will soon wake, his bus will start making trips to and fro, and the dogs will do their morning dances for food and attention. 40 more years of this to go, Matt mused to himself while gulping down a glass of water from the faucet tap. With that thought, he decided to return to bed for half an hour. 40 years of paperwork is a long time, after all; no point missing sleep for any sheet of paper.

4. “Background Searches”

Who could have known that googling your own name would raise so many questions? For Fiona Winfred Green, an otherwise routine journalism class assignment ended up being anything but ordinary.

The internet supposedly does not forget, much to the dismay of many preferring to forget their lesser moments. Fiona for example will always find her myspace’s profile picture of her and Cody, a junior high sweetheart of morally questionable nature (but he was sooo hot). She had abandoned the site with the rise of facebook and after breaking up with Cody. To her surprise upon attempting to delete it years later, the password was not Cody’s middle name combined with his jersey number.

Otherwise, Fiona was content that her online presence did not drastically differ from anyone her age. The assignment was to teach the students the importance of how information is retained in the modern day and age, and as future journalists a valuable source for developing leads. There will be many false leads, said the professor, but sometimes all you need is one clue, one seemingly innocuous connection to overcome a major hurdle in investigative research.

Going to the tenth page of her google search as required by the assignment, Fiona found several other Greens who bore her name. Adding her middle name to the search, however, removed all but 2 pages of search results. Youtube, Google+, facebook, etc., as she expected to find. Scanning the second page however revealed the existence of an alter-ego, exactly one other Fiona Winfred Green who apparently lived in Midland, Texas. Well, this is new, she thought — her name was not exactly common, especially her middle name, inspired by a Catholic saint which she knew little about. Only the default, faceless female picture of facebook greeted her upon clicking the search link. Aside from the location of this alter-Fiona, the only other tidbit available was her birth year, placing this Fiona in her 50s.

Fiona thus surmised that the profile likely belonged to some older woman out there who was unversed in the ways of the internet, given her lack of presence anywhere else. Filing away the incident as nothing more than a curios coincidence, she thought little more about her finding once the assignment was handed in. With Thanksgiving break in session, she packed a week’s worth of clothing and drove two hours home, where football, turkey, rabbling brothers, and loving parents awaited. Oh, not to mention also her long-distance boyfriend Steve, who is both physically appealing to her and morally upright (for the most part).

Passing the dinner rolls, Fiona casually mentioned her assignment when asked by her parents how her program is coming along. “So there’s a clone of me somewhere out there, with my middle name and everything,” she joked. Her parents asked for clarification. “Yeah, some older lady out in Texas with my exact name. She didn’t come up anywhere else though, so probably made that account to keep in contact with her family or something.”

Wholly attentive, her parents then exchanged a glance in silence, a look suggesting knowledge that should not exist. For her part, Fiona was too busy fighting with her younger brother for gravy to have noticed. The rest of dinner carried on, and her three brothers each took turns with their life updates. After helping her mother put the plates away, Fiona joined the others in the living room to wait out the creeping food coma.

Having spent most of the next three days with Steve, Fiona only arrived home to pack and made preparations for her return to classes on Monday. She found her parents waiting for her, a certain tenseness in their demeanor as though her grandmother had stopped by. Having abandoned Fiona’s mother after the birth of her eldest brother Joey out of wedlock, Grandmother eventually came around after several years when Dad proposed and was finally married to her mom. Their relationship understandably had never quite recovered. Still, her grandmother insisted that she make amends by being an active part of their lives, to which mother acquiesced at the urging of Fiona’s aunts and uncles, but only for the holidays.

“Fiona, we have something to tell you…” There was a seriousness in her father’s tone, a man who she otherwise knew growing up as a big goof and overly passionate about the Packers. Her mother held a steady gaze, though there was sadness in her eyes. Fiona hated that look on her mother, and upon sensing it, she too became gripped with melancholy. “We debated never bringing up, but you deserve to know. Remember how we told you that your mother’s older sister got up and left Wisconsin one day without a single word as to why? We think you might have found her…” An uncomfortably long pause, driving a sharp confused look upon Fiona’s curiosity. “…your real mother.”

3. “Date Night”

Gulp, gulp, gulp. The clock’s battery must have died just recently, its seconds-hand hovered frozen over the four. 1:42 o’clock — A.M. of course, for Jeremy did not finished his assignment for the day during normal work hours. Glancing down to his laptop’s clock, the real time was actually closer to 3:40 A.M. Working from home generally has a positive connotation, but in his world, it also means work doesn’t end until it’s done. Work-life balance sounds great in theory, except for him, the balance always seems tipped in favor of work.

Against his better judgment, Jeremy chugged the remainder of his coffee, even though he’s done working for the night. In just 5 hours, he must be awake and ready by his desk again. Sure, he could work half-asleep from his bedside had he wanted to; one of the few truly good benefit of working from home, a close second being drafted into “happy” hour. He never understood why drinking in a crowd was better than drinking by himself. It tended to cost a lot less drinking at home, and there are better ways to socialize than lament about work right after work ended.

Not this week though. Someday, he and many others before or after him will be able to convince a higher-up to consult them first before promising timelines that do not require 40 extra overtime hours to complete. Under such conditions, he would have felt justified working in his bed slacks. Still, Jeremy made sure to move himself to the desk, where his trusted coffee mug could be found. He could focus better sitting upright, or something resembling thereof. From there, he would work through the morning lull before ordering take-out when the local Chinese restaurant opens at 11 A.M. “Hello, it’s me again.” “Ah, good morning, Mr. Green. We’ll be there in 15 minutes.” Always cashew chicken, extra spicy. The only variation to each meal was the fortune inside those cookies.

Tonight will be complicated however. His girlfriend normally works a night shift on Fridays, but not this week. Since both led busy lives, Jennifer had wanted to share the good fortune. Not that Jeremy disliked spending time with her of course, quite the opposite in fact. Almost without fail, she would end up staying the night, which is great. And while Jeremy enjoy his girlfriend’s company far more than just about anyone else, he also obsessed over his projects, much to the annoyance of Jennifer during movie nights. “So what’d you think of the movie?” His slowness in responding and juggled stutters are usual signs that he was lost in his head searching for solutions to some project and not paying attention. To be fair, it was her fiftieth attempt at making him watch the Notebook, he was sure. To her defense, he still doesn’t know that Jack and Rose are the main characters of a different movie…

At quarter past 3 P.M., Jeremy decided that work was done. Tomorrow he thought, and Sunday too, will both be hell. But tonight at least, he decided that he was going to have fun and take Jennifer to the steak house they’ve both been meaning to try on the other side of downtown. He texted her to look nice and be at his place by 5 so they could go out for dinner. A wink emoticon in response seems rather promising. Reminded of his own need for refinement, Jeremy caught a whiff of his own scent and promptly headed for a shower.

Jennifer looked regal as an angel in her purplish short dress that night, and matching heels of modest height so as to not tower over Jeremy too much. In truth, she won his heart with her modesty. Despite having the looks that could have probably landed her a modeling contract or three, Jennifer did not appear to have such high regard for her own beauty. A chipped front tooth and braces throughout high school had all but shattered her confidence for smiling, a confidence which took the last 8 or so years to slowly rebuild. She maintained that Jeremy is only telling her he loved her smile to make her feel better. More than any other guy she’s dated though, she felt most comfortable smiling and laughing with him.

Despite having what most of us would think of as mostly cluelessness in dating intelligence, Jeremy knew enough about romance and flowers to have made the connection. He also knew that she loved lilies far more so than roses, a common first solution when guys are unsure. With an hour to go before Jennifer is to arrive at his place, Jeremy took a quick trip to pick up some more coffee grounds and a rainbow bouquet of assorted lilies. It’s not every Friday night that they would get to spend together, so why not make it all the more memorable, right?

Waiting at the door, he surprised Jennifer with the bouquet, and slightly bewildered at her seemingly over-the-top reaction. He’s bought her flowers before, he thought, and physical affection between them is commonplace. The tears though, those are new. Those usually occur after excessive alcohol is involved…but hey, guess she really liked the flowers. Excusing herself to do a quick touch-up, they soon left for the steakhouse.

The food tasted alright — steak spiced up as one would expect for the $$$ price tag, and inversely as small in proportion just to remind the consumer that you eat there for the experience and not the food. The couple, Jennifer mostly, recounted their experiences as a couple, including how they first met through a mutual group of friends and that she had to finally give him her number because he would have missed the hint completely otherwise. Jeremy’s recall of the story went differently, but he was okay letting her have this one. Sad as it was if he was forced to admit, his thoughts were still back at the desk, passively attempting to solve one of his coding bugs before he had called it quits.

The two opted for a stroll along the riverwalk downtown, the same path taken on their first official date. It was on that bench up ahead, she reminded him, where they shared their first kiss, a mischievous gleam now in her eyes as if suggesting to him to reenact the experience. They sat down, and she leaned in, nuzzled comfortably between the crevice of his head and right shoulder. For a few minutes, nothing was said between them, a silence disrupted only by the steps of other couples walking past. In his head, Jeremy believed he finally figured out the source of the bug. He kissed her forehead, which roused Jennifer to lift her head and gazed into his eyes.

“I’m so glad you remembered. Happy one year, babe!” Before the phrase was finished, she threw her arms around him in a most passionate embrace, digging herself into his neck and taking comfort in his scent. For his part, Jeremy had a second revelation that day, though he did at least hugged her back and whispered “I love you” before things got suspicious…

2. “The Dream”

Alyssa often dreamed of something more during her daily jog around the local park, some faraway place perhaps her feet will take her to. No one she knew will be there, a thought that simultaneously frightened and enthralled her. Rounding out the familiar trail that she’s visited for over a year now, Alyssa strode casually towards her car, took a big gulp of her smartwater, and absentmindedly drove until she arrived home.

No food awaited her ravaging stomach in the fridge, but she checked anyways. In truth, Alyssa has not cooked herself a meal in over a month now, and her various take-out ventures inevitably wound up in the trash only half-eaten. She’s promised to be more frugal, but leftovers never sounded appealing after a long day of client interactions at work. Nothing sounded appealing other than to run, and with the movement getting lost in thoughts of running away from it all.

Nobody of course knew of Alyssa’s flight of fancies, not even her best friend Liz who she had known since middle school. They never lacked for things to commiserate about of course, and words freely flowed between them nearly every Friday night, aided by an abundant flow of sauvignon. Liz’s boyfriend of four years still hasn’t proposed to her. Worse yet, he seems to show no signs of doing so. Alyssa had no patience for men at the moment, having recently broken up with a coworker. Totally not worth it, she admitted, somewhere between a sob and good riddance, bolstered with rosy cheeks and accompanied by slurred expressions of love for Liz and their eternal friendship.

Relationships aside, Alyssa had what most her age consider a good life. She finished her bachelor’s degree on time and with minimal debt. Her internship became her fulltime job, a sales lead consultant position with great upward mobility. Sure, she would have never thought that selling furniture and furniture accessories to be her career growing up, but mild interest has grown into a passion in its own right. She could afford to live by herself, an unassuming apartment unit on the eighth floor and a mere 20 minutes from her parents’ house. The local church fitted her perspective of Christ, a preacher of kindness, peace, and looking out for one’s neighbors and loved ones.

Despite all of that, despite her recent glowing performance review (overlooking the debacle of having to work with her now ex-boyfriend), despite her absolute repulsion towards the thought of ever moving more than 30 minutes away from her parents and familiar friends, Alyssa dreamed of running away. Where to, she has no idea, and why she wanted to was equally mysterious. She only knows that whenever she finds herself alone with her own thoughts, the impulse to move resurfaced.

Maybe she just needs to travel more, Alyssa thought. So starting with the year before, Alyssa made time to visit some new location every few months or so. Los Angeles had amazing weather, even as snow piled upon streets all too cramped back home just 30 miles west of Chicago proper. Disney World allowed her to relive a part of her childhood. She even did a tour through several major cities in Europe. For all the talk of Paris being a crown jewel of culture and art, the inviting charm of Brussels left a lasting fondness in her heart.

Still, for all her worldly travel experiences (relative to her friends and family, for whom visiting Chicago during music festivals like Lollapalooza constituted a big annual trip), Alyssa could not sate the nagging unease at the depths of her core. Something is still missing. She went over the list of common culprits. Okay, so a relationship sounds great, but dating her ex didn’t really help assuage the internal anxiety. It might have in fact aggravated further. What else here…children. Alyssa adored children, and wanted to have at least two of her own someday. While the thought has slowly grown in intensity as she approached 26, it doesn’t seem to be the answer right now either.

What about pets then? She grew up in a household of three dogs, and Alyssa admitted that she misses spending the night at her ex’s place, if nothing else, for his German shepherd. At the thought of having her own dog or multiple dogs, she felt guilty. Despite her flexible schedule, Alyssa is rarely ever home, and dogs are a big commitment. She would also have to relocate, though that would hardly be a big deal. Upon further reflection though, dogs aren’t the answer either.

To dissect her thoughts further, Alyssa opted for the sushi restaurant just recently opened downtown. The dining area seemed small, a dozen tables at best with most fitting only two chairs facing one another. Despite its newness the place seemed rather empty, even for a working weeknight. Asking for a setup just for herself, the waiter motioned her towards a seat near the front, where patrons filled two nearby tables. From a side view, one head looked quite familiar. Is it…yes! “Frank!”

The two had met back in undergrad, an incidental partnership during one of her marketing courses. Frank subsequently headed for a trip abroad in Ireland, and as far as she’s kept up casually on social media, he had been living there the past four years. The two exchanged hugs and greetings, and upon discovering the other’s solitary visit for dinner, shared the table. Frank looked ever young through those four years, his hair the same jet solid black as they were encoded in her memories. For just a quarter second, Alyssa was reminded of her age, her golden strands slowly dulling towards the autumn leaves.

The two lost track of time, aided by an abundant flow of sake between their flimsy mastery of chopsticks picking at the assorted plate of colors topping rice. Tuna was her favorite, followed by the crunch of shrimp tempura. Frank, for his part, asked for extra orders of yellowtail. They laughed and ate as they once did to celebrate the project’s end. Perhaps Frank had liked her then, though he never said or directly hinted half as much.

“So what brought you back to the States?” Something to do with a business he was starting. Alyssa could retain little of the details as Frank gestured wildly between each bite and rattled words after each gulp faster than the time she took to eat her own sushi piece. He seemed quite energized by the prospect however, and his good mood soon became her own. “What about you? What have you been up to since graduation?” Furniture. She promised she would furnish his workspace at a premium discount. He repeated her words with jest behind his tone, his head a slight wobbling side-to-side as he spoke to indicate his feelings on the matter. Both laughed heartily.

That night, Alyssa went to bed a good hour sleepless as per usual. Her head still felt a slight dullness and a buzz. Tomorrow she will no doubt have to run an extra lap or so to make up for her splurge tonight, the thought of which fatigued her finally enough. For the first time in a while though, she did not feel the need to run away towards some nameless place. Clutching her blanket’s corner tightly, the world beyond her eyes blended unto dark.

1. “Need”

Zain never stood a chance today and he knew it. A beautiful day in fact, with just a couple sunlit hours left to go. The day was in fact slightly cold, where wind-stoked chills can stir discomforts for those idling on the bleachers. From that perspective, Zain had it easy even as he struggled to keep up with other players who moved past him seemingly twice as fast. Spotting a good opportunity at the right wing, he directed a long-range air pass, which sent the soccer ball sailing past the fullback’s head into the open space beyond.

Crkkk. Crkkk. This used to be easier, he muttered in his head, fingers massaging his left lower-back. From the line, the rookie winger bolted to where his pass landed, dribbling a few yards before crossing the ball towards Barker’s forehead near the center of the opposition box. A valiant heading attempt met by an equally valiant save, setting up a corner play. Taking a deep breath, Zain started jogging forward, doing his best to forget the recently healed fracture from preseason practice.

Somehow, Zain played through the whole 90 minutes of that game, a tidy 2-2 finish that should have been a win. The head coach felt similarly, though he did not seem to be directing disappointment towards Zain’s way. Still, Zain felt responsible. His passing was quite admirable that game. His positioning on and off the ball would have equally satisfied any scout watching from the stands. Zain ran half-heartedly however, catching himself saving energy in such a way that his ego one year ago would have understood, two years ago felt sympathy for, and five years ago regarded as unthinkable.

The coach’s decision to start him on the backside of midfield no doubt took his 33-year-old physique into account. “You’re captain, Zain, of course you’re going to play. Don’t be silly.” Yes, captain. Role model and mentor too, the shining exemplar of dedicated service to the club. Adding to the list this year would be “uncle,” as the kids like to affectionately tease him during practice. “Look alive guys, Uncle’s back,” he heard one said the first day he returned after being sidelined by injury. For the first time in his career, Zain felt less like a player affecting the course of the game and more a passive witness at the center of the action.

He knew his day would come. All great players fear retirement even as they joyously anticipate respite from the daily drills and dribbles. Zain would hardly consider himself great, but he was at least good. Good enough at any rate to know that he would soon be testing his head coach’s dedication. Five years ago, a performance such as todays would have motivated a few extra plays during their next practice. Two days from now, Zain will be pushing himself just to keep up with the standard routine. Just the thought itself lit a defiant blaze in his eyes, but eyes do not dribble soccer balls.

A capacity crowd roared thunderously today, over 40,000 packed to watch the season opener versus their league archenemy. Zain has always reveled in excitement for such games where many other players cracked under the intensity. He lived for these moments, the do-or-die games that test the depths of one’s conviction. And Zain, for his part, was a true believer of the most devout and pious sort. He would stand out there, proud, alert, and stoic, radiating calmness to the rookies who look mid-ward for their captain’s guidance. He would also be there for the link-up passes, a steady banner for those forward to rally around. All these thoughts and more Zain fantasized while watching the game unfolded from his seat on the bench.

The coach hasn’t said much to him that day, or the couple days leading to the game — there was no need. They’ve worked together now for nine years, and had Zain insisted upon his seniority he no doubt would have been part of the starting lineup. He’s sat out from important games before of course. Today felt different though. Today he felt unneeded.

The players circled the head coach at the 45, clearly expressing his disappointment at the team’s inability to make plays. “Show me something else in the second half,” he pleaded, before disbanding the group rally whole and working his way through individuals, starting with the strikers up front. They were only down 0-1, but Zain can understand the frustration from the bench. Through balls falling short of their intended distance. Crosses deemed offsides, one of which was a clear goal from Barker. Zain did not hold ill will against the refs of course: nobody is near-sighted by choice.

Soon, the second half began, with his team in possession of the ball. Zain entertained a flight of fancy while watching the players get into position. Against their formation, switching into a 4-3-3 would probably work, he thought, noting where he felt passes should go with three strikers up front that would most likely lead to a couple goals being scored and rounding out the game. If I was a coach, I would do this and this…it dawned on Zain that coaching wouldn’t be so bad. If he had to watch instead of play, better to do it from the sidelines than the stands. With the clock and players running back and forth upon the field, Zain seriously contemplated for the first time what retirement would look like at the season’s end.

A particularly nasty tackle snapped him back into the cheers and jeers of the game. Although the challenge was deemed fair, his partner Hutchens needed help limping off the field. In the commotion of the pause, he heard his name being called from a few feet down left. His gaze in the direction found his head coach’s eyes, eyes probing his resolve. For a brief few seconds, nothing else was said — there was no need. Zain’s feet instinctively walked him towards the head coach, as he has been doing for the past nine years. “Think you can handle 30 minutes on the field?” There was a faintest smile there, as much as professionalism would allow when injury substitutions are involved. “Made it 60 on the bench so far, boss.” A playful smirk accompanied his response, though largely suppressed out of politeness for the situation.

For today at least, his team still needed Zain. With some light stretches and a couple deep breaths, their captain jogged briskly towards the middle of the field, greeted by rapturous cheers from the fans overhead. Retirement will have to wait.