She’d only meant to ride the elevator down to collect the mail. Now she was trapped in it. Contained by sleek, unclimbable metal walls, a round chrome rail that raced around the space to nowhere, a dark touchscreen panel of buttonless buttons, and underneath her, the same grey-veined carrara marble floor that lined the lobby and had helped sell her on signing a lease. Now the panel was dark, the car dim, stuffy, unmoving, and nobody seemed to be hearing her shouts for help. People hardly died in elevator cars frozen between the twenty-first and twentieth floors of a downtown highrise. Twenty-one had flashed on the display before the panel went black. In fact, all had gone black for some terrifying minutes until a quartet of backup lights blinkered from the baseboard corners, casting a glow that might have been romantic if she weren’t alone. If the man she’d married weren’t out there somewhere, oblivious to her predicament. Her spine kissed the back wall, one vertebra at a time, uncountable and indistinguishable from its neighbors. Her panic had ebbed hours ago. Eight hours? Nine? An eternity ago, her yelling and flailing had melted into whimpering, resignation and waiting. No cameras were visible. If they were present but invisible, there was no man at their monitors. Why did people envision a man for that job but never a woman? She rented the apartment only a month ago because of her pending divorce. A new highrise with modern everything and steps from the lake. The thermostat could be adjusted from her phone, even while she was away at the office, in between serving The Idiot. Now that was a hard job. Thankless really. No one appreciated what an executive assistant had to deal with. Calling to arrange “lunches” with assorted women who could only be mistresses. Being asked for a “hot top-off” to a three-quarters-full cup of coffee, his hand thrust out like some robot who couldn’t bother to look up from his monitor, as if she herself were a robot and not someone with her own ambitions, her own intelligence. She knew his clients well enough to write the summary reports he read on flights overseas to seal the company’s multi-million dollar deals. She stayed behind, swiveled over the skyline behind his black monitor and imagined the power of his position like bubbles in a bottle. How delicious it would feel upon release. The readout panel inside the elevator was still dark. What if it had blipped to life between eye-blinks? Without electricity or the whisper of levering cables, a surprising vacuum of anti-sound filled the car and, at first, had caused her to think she’d gone deaf when the elevator groaned ominously to a halt. It was only after screaming and sobbing and beating her hands tender against the insulated doors, clamshell tight and bulletproof, that she realized, in fact, her voice was perfectly audible. While The Idiot was away, she Googled the women. Sometimes they were on his Facebook friends list, and it was only as a joke that she’d sent him a friend request in the first place, but he accepted. The women’s last names rose to the surface of the Internet search waters, and she saw for herself there was nothing special about these women. What made them special? Was the answer written in the way their eyes tracked with their smiles or didn’t, or whether their foreheads creased naturally or had that paralyzed over-injected look? His actual wife had a dented forehead and crow’s feet. That the woman did not use fillers was a marvel since her husband could afford such things and would certainly get one-hundred percent behind her desire to look desirable. Then he may not have felt forced to have “friends” with lunch benefits. Her own divorce was actually a divorce in the making. In the dim light, the white tan line where her ring had sat for five years was barely visible. Now the ring was tucked in the wooden box her still-husband had given her for their first anniversary, sitting inside on a purple velvet mound, waiting. As if she could decide for herself to put it back on her finger and reverse the past six months, an ordeal of conflicts and fights until they finally, exhausted, had agreed to separate for good. Things needed to change, but the direction of that change had turned unexpectedly. In the end, which of them had said the word? Here, inside her elevator coffin, correction, car, the word passed her lips. Divorce. A sledgehammer sound, heavy with failure. Upstairs stood her new deluxe studio apartment with electronic micro blinds, which raised and lowered by a right swipe on her phone, that proved a real divorce was on its way. The papers were still getting drawn up. Her lawyer would notice she was missing before her still-husband, who had once promised to love her until death. How had they achieved such distance? Even with therapy, the picture was in fragments. At least her skin was too young for wrinkles. She’d find someone new. After her rescue. The dumbest thing about this elevator, with its sleek design and marble flooring, which already bore two pancakes of darkened gum, was that the red HELP button, the lifeline of agoraphobics everywhere, didn’t work. She did not fear enclosed spaces, nor heights. She rode elevators all day long to and from her ante-office on the fiftieth floor, coming and going to fetch her boss a sandwich from the lobby cafe, or an afternoon latte from the basement bistro when he got tired of the acidic grind their company provided for free, and if he was trying to reduce his pernicious belly tire, a fruit smoothie from the stand next to the bistro. She would never tell him each smoothie packed more calories than a lunch-sized portion of fettucine alfredo. She was only paid to fetch and deliver. All those rides ridden, up and down, without thinking once about the emergency button, without ever considering that might be her last failed lifeline. That it couldn’t function without electricity was the most ridiculous notion in the world. Even her new oven turned on with two taps from her phone. The phone that lay upstairs in her deluxe studio apartment on the twenty-sixth floor, nestled in the front left quadrant of the mail basket, newly purchased and placed on the small foyer table, also just purchased. This was just a quick trip downstairs to check her mailbox. Why should she need a phone for that? It’s not as if she were one of those millennials who couldn’t live without it for five minutes. The agreement from her lawyer might be in her box, waiting to snuggle up alongside her phone on the foyer table until she worked up the courage to open the envelope. If she had tried harder, could the marriage have worked? If she’d been a better cook or enjoyed soccer more or worn her hair longer than she liked or agreed to refill his coffee instead of saying she got enough of serving men at work and he could do it himself since his hands weren’t broken. He knew where the coffeepot was. In fact, he picked their condo because of the kitchen and its counter nook ideal for the coffeemaker. Her still-husband had gotten mad. A harmless request, he called it. Well marrying him had seemed harmless. That was the moment it began to unravel. That was when, if she thought further on it, and thinking time was all she had, she’d started putting up layers, thin as tissue paper, that accumulated nonetheless. Not setting his dinner plate on the table first, walking the dog past the newspaper stand on Sunday instead of buying one for his beloved crossword, sitting at her desk and watching her phone screen awaken and ring while her hands rested in her lap and eight slow breaths passed until his call got kicked to voicemail. Any moment, the power might return. Or might never. Her still-husband had given her a watch last Christmas even though she was perfectly content to check the time on her phone. It had a quartz movement and a small diamond at the twelve mark. It sat upstairs in the wooden box next to her ring. Even without her watch or phone, too very long had clearly passed. A whole day? Two? Someone should have come. She allowed herself to pee in the opposite corner of her coffin, no, car, for fear her bladder would explode and compound her predicament, but as she squatted and held her panties a safe distance from the hot stream, an irrational fear took hold that she was being captured by some hidden camera. Ridiculous. This whole situation existed because there was no camera. Or because no man was manning it. She prayed, for the first time since she was seven and decided Jesus was just another baby like her brother and not someone who required special behavior on her part. What she wouldn’t give for a simple cup of water. A glorious, shiny, holy, wet cup. Food? Better to not think about it. How could someone feel thirst while holding so much pee? She wouldn’t drink it off the floor. BooBear might have if he were here, but he was with her still-husband in the duplex condo, where every room sported at least one pane of glass connecting the occupants to the outside. Even the bathroom and closets had glass blocks. Days by now. Eons. Eternity. In truth, her damn car could stay stuck forever and no one would care. The five other elevator shafts might still be pumping like arteries, shuttling cars filled with lives up and down between deluxe studios and jobs and bars and happy hours. Where was the heart of it all? What lay at the heart of anything? Ultimately, it came down to every man for himself. Every woman. And now, since all the other thoughts had been thought, she could be honest. This car was no lonelier than her marriage had been, still was, since it was technically unfinished. But the final turn, the plummet down, had occurred when she sat at his monitor and turned on the black screen. She’d forgotten her own laptop at work and wanted to replace her running shoes before the twenty-percent sale ended at midnight. His monitor had flickered to life, and there sat The Chat, its cursor blinking. That’s what she called it to her friends, like it was a movie or a series. Something that had happened to someone else. The Chat became the big laugh with colleagues when they met in the lobby bar after work for martinis and tapas. As if all of her marriage could be reduced to a joke over gin and five-dollar scallops. She would kill for one bite of patatas bravas right now. Or even a bacon-wrapped date, despite her fear of bacon nitrites, which her still-husband thought was silly. Everything causes cancer, he said, not enjoying life gives you cancer. And The Chat made it clear he was throwing his whole heart into remaining cancer-free forever. After she confronted him, he cried real tears and begged forgiveness. It was only one chat, he said. But she was her boss’s fix-everything and find-everything. In fact, without her The Idiot would not be able to do his job. Without her, he’d probably get fired. Only she knew he could not clear a paper jam from the color printer despite the step-by-step instructions illustrated on the machine’s display. Or that he didn’t know how to scan a document or locate the directory of files for last year’s record-breaking project. And so she discovered that The Chat was actually More Chats, which lived together in an archive of files from many dates, and she’d felt ill. That he saved the conversations sickened her worse than his engaging in them at all. Consciousness faded in and out. Or sleep. Or she was dying and wasn’t it all actually the same thing? Four and a half floors above her, inside the red leather attaché that her mother gifted her for getting the job, sat a thumb drive containing All The Chats, in case she might want to read them someday, far from now, when she was remarried and had a mini-me or two scampering around. By then her home wouldn’t be a loathsome studio but a house, with its own entrance and one sturdy flight of stairs to the outside world. She’d pour a glass of pinot and kick up her feet after closing a million-dollar deal, and her fingertips would brush the drive in the bottom of her bag. She’d fish it out for a laugh, slide it into her laptop and click the icon. On her screen the words would unspool, and somewhere between the lines would be the answer, the one still hidden from her.
Claudine Guertin-Ceric is a Chicago-based fiction writer. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her writing has also appeared in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Digital Americana, r.kv.r.y. and other journals. Follow her on Twitter at @guertinceric or see what she’s been working on at claudineguertinceric.com.