8 1/2 Hours
Maybe nearly dying doesn’t make everyone dig deep, but it did me. I hadn’t opened up to anyone in years. Yeah, I talked with my girlfriends some, but not like this. And yeah, sure, I opened up to my therapist too, but does that really count? A hundred and twenty dollars says it’s not the same.
I didn’t even know the guy I was pouring my heart out to. He got on the elevator around the twentieth floor and mumbled some sort of greeting. What do you say when you get on a fairly empty elevator? The most polite thing to do is probably to smile and then pretend like you have something better to be doing. I didn’t. My tears hadn’t quite dried from my last therapy session. My very last. My doctor had decided he needed to move to the country, so I needed to find someone else to help me sort out my bad scripts. No warning or anything. It was like an afterthought at the end of our session. “Oh, and by the way, I’m moving out to Culpepper, so I guess you should find someone else. I can give you some names.” And then he escorted me out of his 30th floor office and that was that.
I think I was fishing through my purse for the list of other therapists he gave me when the elevator screeched to a scary stop. The entire box shuttered as it came to a dead halt between two floors. My purse and its pathetic contents fell to the floor. And my stomach jumped up to where my heart was pounding.
“Um. What was that?” Before the stranger could answer me, a pop sounded from above us and the elevator swayed to one side and then fell. A three-second free fall can feel like pure, undiluted terror. Something caught ‘cause the fall slowed and lurched to a stop and the elevator leveled out. When I opened my eyes, my purse contents met my face. Somehow in those three seconds I’d become acquainted with the floor. Sitting up, I noticed the stranger gripping the metal bar that surrounded the elevator wall.
“You okay?” He managed to loosen his grip and reach out his hand to me. I grabbed a hold, and he pulled me to my feet. But as I stood, the elevator creaked and swayed. “Maybe we should try to stay very still,” he whispered.
I nodded and couldn’t think of any better way to be still than to huddle up on the floor, so I sunk to my knees. The stranger slid down next to me and scooted to lean against the dark wooded panel. As elevators go, this one looked like a manly, wooden office with lots of brass and two mirrored panels on either side, and the floor, which I was quickly becoming acquainted with looked like marble.
“What happened?” I knew he didn’t know, but maybe he was an elevator repair guy or a fireman or something.
“I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s good.” The numbered circular beacons for the floors were all dark, and the door to the little brass box where the phone was supposed to be hung on one hinge. “Do you have reception?” He lifted up his cell phone. Mine was somewhere with all my junk scattered on the floor. I hooked my purse with my foot and slid it to me along with all the stuff trapped under it. My phone didn’t have reception either. Stupid elevator.
There was a red alarm button under all the dark circles. “Should we push that?” The adrenalin pumped through me keeping the tears at bay. I’m a crier, so the fact that I hadn’t burst into tears yet meant something, especially since 15 minutes ago I’d been balling. Not crying actually scared me a little more. I even sounded steady when I talked. “Maybe it’s connected to some main source or something.”
“I don’t think so. Besides. . .” He reached his long arm over and pushed the silent button. “It’s dead.” Bad word choice, buddy.
The lights above flickered, but stayed on. I reached out and gathered the rest of my purse contents returning them to their home. “Want some gum?” He waved me off. I didn’t have anything to say, so I sat there looking at my chipped nail polish and noticing how old my hands were looking. Old hands like my mother’s. Twenty-eight felt like forty and past my prime. How did I end up here? Wasn’t I just in college dating the guy from that weird fraternity?
“Maybe we can pry it.” Good-looking, stranger guy had an open pocket knife in his hand and hungrily eyed the elevator doors.
“You think that’s a good idea?”
“It’s something.” Standing, he took two soft steps and slid the blade of his knife in the slivered opening between the doors. As they loosened a bit, he pried them open with his hands. The bottom part of the number 17 covered the otherwise bare gray wall about a foot away from the elevator. When he stuck his handsome head out the opening to look up and down, I cringed.
He made it safely back inside, and faced me with his glum news. “I guess we’re really stuck.” His palms pressed against the door panels, but they weren’t going back together. I didn’t say anything because nothing nice was coming to mind. He budged them a little, but the swaying feeling started back up, so he stopped. “Sorry,” he grunted. “I was hoping we’d be close to a floor, but it looks like we’re too far away to reach a doorway.”
I hugged my knees. “You think we’d hear people trying to get us out of here, but it’s been really quiet.”
“Maybe we should make some noise.”
I jumped as he started shouting for help. His voice commanded attention, surely someone would hear him. He glanced down at me, and I picked up his cue and started to scream too. When our voices faded in the empty corridor, my mind kept replaying them in my brain.
“I don’t know what else to do.” He leaned against the mirrored side of the elevator. Two of him looked better than one. At least 6’2”, his blue eyes fit perfectly on his face. His jet black hair held the effects of his fingers running through it. His khaki pants, blue shirt, patterned tie and a grayish, blue sports coat reminded me I should try a little harder to look put together. My faded jeans and Virginia Tech sweatshirt did not give the impression I was looking for anything more than maybe where the next keg party might be. Of course, I can’t really pull off college student anymore. So now I just look sad wearing clothes that don’t fit my age group. What do people in my age group wear?
He slid back into his spot next to me with the same sigh the doctor gives the family right before he tells him there was nothing he could do. I had to grin. I could be dead in the next ten minutes, and I’ve spent the last three ogling some stranger and evaluating my wardrobe. Am I really this shallow?
Despite the fact that I hadn’t shared anything deep with another human being in years, I still liked to talk, and I wasn’t going to sit next to someone and not start up a conversation. “So you’re not a fireman or an elevator repair guy, are you?” That got him to smile, but not speak. He just shook his head. “How ‘bout a spy? Cause a good spy would know where the top door to the elevator is and could crawl up there and figure a way out of this.” I looked up, but there didn’t appear to be a door or anything at the top of our little prison.
“Nope,” he said. “I was actually up here interviewing for a lousy job.” Loosening his tie, he unbuttoned the top button of his pale blue oxford. The fresh smell of starch mixed with his cologne wafted over to me as he moved. “I don’t want to work here. I hate the city. But it’s all I could get.” He had a nice voice, deep and strong, but kind of sad sounding.
“Jobs are hard to find, especially in this economy.” Ugh. And now I’m going into chit chat mode. It’s like a reflex in me, and I hate it. Maybe I could at least try to be interesting. “So what kind of work do you do?”
He flashed his blue eyes up at me. They matched his shirt. “I used to be an architect. Now I’m gonna be somebody’s messenger boy.”
That was interesting. “Architecture too slow for ya?” He didn’t find me funny. I didn’t find me funny, so that’s really no shocker. My attempts at humor often fall flat. That doesn’t keep me from trying though. “At least now, you won’t be going back to the drawing table. You’ll be off to something new.” I was trying to be optimistic, but I’m pretty sure I was just sounding like an idiot. He smiled, though. A pity smile. “What’s your name?” There, that shouldn’t bring up any bad thoughts.
“Greg. And you?”
“Josie.” Now, I don’t know why I said Josie. My name’s Josephine, and everyone usually shortens it to ‘Jo’, but lately I’ve sort of thought I’d like to be a ‘Josie’. That sounds fun and alive and adventurous, and everything I’m not. So I just blurted it out. I wouldn’t see this guy again anyway.
His singing brought me back to surreality. “I know that everything, know that everything, know that everything, everything’s gonna be just fine,” he started his own mini-concert right there, complete with air guitar, closed eyes and a bobbing head. I had no idea what that had to do with me lying about my name. When he finished the chorus, he cleared his throat and put his guitar away. “Oh, sorry. It’s Blink-182, Josie.” Who was this guy? He read my face again. “Don’t listen to pop-punk much. You’re a country girl aren’t you?”
I would’ve nodded my head with pride, but the way he said “country” made it sound like something I shouldn’t be proud of. He didn’t look like a punk-rocker. Jacket, tie, dress pants, loafers, no noticeable piercings.
He interrupted my inspection with another question. “So, what’s your favorite movie?”
Now, this was chit chat I could get behind. “I love all the Nicholas Sparks movies and the books. Read ‘em all.” It was his turn to have a blank look in his eyes. “That’s okay. They’re more chic flicks anyway. . .I guess punk-rockers don’t go much for the softer side of things.” This time he showed his teeth when he smiled, and I think there was no pity in it at all.
We laughed a few times in those first hours of our imprisonment. I found out his all-time movie favorites (mostly stuff I’d never heard of), music preferences (also made me feel pretty ignorant) and favorite Facebook status lines. That was entertaining. He sees Facebook as a way to experiment with human behavior. I got a little defensive since I take it all very seriously.
He asked me some questions and for a complete stranger actually seemed curious about me. I probably rambled on more than I should have about my strange fascination with yoga. But he didn’t make fun of me or anything
As we got into the fourth hour, our chit chat died down. Greg kept checking his phone for service, but no change. And I started rummaging through my purse again. An old lipstick, some mini-candy bars, my wallet, a bunch of old receipts, gum, and my divorce papers. I should read over those again, but it really didn’t seem like a good time, so I took my phone out and started going through my old text messages. Some of those might come in handy if Wayne decided he wanted to play the martyr.
“You got any bars?” Greg leaned over just as I found the one text message with the most colorful language peppered through it. “Oh, sorry,” he said as he backed off.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Do I explain that my crazy soon-to-be ex had a very small vocabulary of words that aren’t “R-rated”? But if I go into that, I would feel compelled to explain why I chose to marry someone who used the “f” word in our wedding vows. And it’s a very, long complicated story. And I’m kind of tired of telling it.
I snapped my phone shut and looked up. His blue eyes looked tired and strangely concerned. If I hadn’t looked at him, I would’ve dropped the whole thing, but instead I gave him a little bit of me. “That’s my soon-to-be ex. He felt very strongly about the location of the surround sound system. I guess he can figure that out on his own now.”
Greg halfway grinned. “Or maybe you should ask for it in the settlement.” That thought hadn’t occurred to me. I just wanted out. He must have read how I was considering his suggestion, ‘cause he followed up by telling me he was just kidding. “It’s better just to leave that stuff behind.”
“Have you been married?” He didn’t have a ring on, but he had to be in his 30’s. How many good-looking males make it to thirty something without having gotten married?
His grin turned serious. “No. I haven’t really been looking.” He fiddled with the leather cord tied around his wrist. It had been tucked up under his sleeve. A copper circle with a cross-shaped hole dangled from it. “Timing’s everything, you know.” The grin came back.
I wasn’t really sure what he meant, but I nodded while my mind filtered through appropriate questions I could ask to get more of his story. “Ever been close?”
“Not really. There was one girl, but it wasn’t the right time.”
“How did you know?”
“I’m not so good with this stuff. But Jesus knows all about timing, and he was pretty clear on it.”
It took me a good ten seconds to realize he wasn’t cursing. He was serious. I knew something was off. He’s a religious nut with commitment issues. Great. “So it wasn’t the right ‘time’.” I think making the quote signal with my fingers probably was crossing the acquaintance line, but maybe we crossed that when we moved from talking about movies to my love life. His eyes looked a little hurt, so I threw him a sorry and a shrug.
“It’s okay. I’m used to it.” He let me off the hook.
Time to change the subject. “How much longer do you think it will be til they get us out of here?”
Greg’s expression changed. There was a mixture of disbelief and reluctance in his eyes. “Josie, I don’t think anyone’s coming. At least not any time soon.”
“What?” My throat got dry quick.
“It’s after midnight. The building shuts down at 10 pm. My guess is that no one’s even noticed the elevator’s not working. As long as the other one kept running, there wouldn’t have been anything to make anyone curious. The only people in the building now are the security guard in the lobby and a few custodians. They’ll use the maintenance elevators. No one’s coming.”
There wasn’t an echo in our little box, but his words seemed to bounce around those paneled walls before they sank into my consciousness.
“Will anyone wonder where you are?” he asked, quieter than before.
I shook my head. I’d just moved into that stupid studio apartment. I hadn’t even given the address to my mom yet. No one. I had no one to wonder why I hadn’t come home. “You?”
“Nope.” He sounded too cheery. I wanted to hit him, but instead I hugged my purse and scooted into the corner. Stupid life. I have a stupid life. All I’ve done is make one bad decision after another, and now this is what I get. I’ll die in some freak elevator accident and everyone will say, “Figures. That girl, Josephine, couldn’t get anything right, not even pick the right elevator.” Who am I kidding? No one’s even going to notice if I die.
That’s what was on in my mind when I started to chatter, and by chatter, I mean ramble on and on. I think I even went back to first grade. Greg sat there, listened, occasionally asked a clarifying question and listened some more. He was better than my therapist, and he was starting to make me angry. I know that doesn’t make sense, but I was hating his “put together” demeanor.
He must have noticed cause he met my angry eyes with a half-smile. “What? Did I do something?”
“No,” I lied. He was being too perfect and nice. “I guess this blows that timing thing out of the water for ya.” I felt like picking a fight.
“You sure about that? I mean if life’s all about timing, then this sucks. This has bad timing written all over it.” He didn’t say anything, so I figured he knew I was right. “Religion’s only good until you’re stuck in a broken elevator. Then you need a repairman, not God.” He still didn’t say anything. It was going to be very hard to pick a fight with him, if he wasn’t going to talk. “I’m sorry,” I offered. Time to try a new tactic. “I just don’t get it. How does an intelligent, attractive, confident man find himself believing that stuff?”
Now he was really making me mad. “That Jesus stuff,” I fumed.
“The same way you find yourself believing what you believe,” he replied.
“I don’t believe anything.”
“Sure you do. Not believing is believing something. I say God exists and that we are eternal beings. You say he doesn’t and that this is all there is. Both take faith. You can’t prove I’m wrong, and I can’t prove you are.”
“So it’s all just some big guessing game then. What does it matter?”
“Well, if I’m wrong, I guess it doesn’t really matter, but if you’re wrong, it would be the difference between life and death.”
“What kind of God says ‘you didn’t believe in me even though I never showed myself and gave you no proof, so you have to go to hell forever?’ If that’s how he is, I might choose to go to hell.” I sounded like my mom. She quit going to church when she left my dad. Too many people were telling her how bad she was.
Greg stretched his legs out and got comfortable. “How do you know he hasn’t shown himself to you? Maybe he did, and you ignored him.”
“Is he the kind of God who can be ignored?”
He nodded and gave me that look like I’d just said something right. “That’s good I’ll have to think about that.” His eyes sparkled. “What would you need to see to make you believe?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah, you don’t, do you? But he knows what you need to see, what events will shed some light on your little world, and here you sit in an elevator with someone who believes Jesus is the son of the almighty God of the universe.”
“And there’s a connection? Or are we back to that bad timing thing? Cause from where I’m sitting, I’d rather be in here with a fireman than some religious nut.”
“But just think of it,” he sort of whispered and his face got all animated. “What if we did plummet to our deaths today, but before that you decided to believe. You said, ‘okay, I’ll give him a shot. I haven’t been able to do much with my life, so I’ll see what he can do.”
I got stuck on his estimation of me not having done much with my life. It’s one thing for me to rant about that, another for some stranger to throw it back at me. I wasn’t gonna let him try to sell me something I wasn’t looking for to begin with. “And then we die. Well, that’s just perfect. That’s a nice welcome to the family.”
“Yeah, and then we died, and you walked into heaven.” He paused, as if that would make some huge difference to me. “And Jesus would wrap his arms around you, hug you tightly, and tell you how much he loved you, and for the first time in your life, you’ll feel it. You’ll feel what it’s like to be completely loved, totally forgiven, and unconditionally accepted.” He wasn’t looking at me when he finished talking. It was clear from his face that he really believed this stuff. I didn’t want to interrupt his happy thought, but the question needed to be asked.
“And what happens if I die thinking he’s some fairy tale?”
“Well, then you’ll find out he wasn’t…”
I wanted to come back with something snappy, but nothing came to mind, and about two seconds later, we heard people yelling above us.
Greg scooted to the open doors and yelled up the shaft. “We’re down here. Somebody help us.”
We couldn’t make out what the men were saying. The next few minutes are a blur to me. You’d think I’d remember it, but it all kind of runs together. The sound of some machinery, the lights blinking, the horrible thump, and then the way the metal screeched as the side of the elevator hit the steel beam and took off for the bottom floor. That screech is the last thing I remember then everything went black. The screech and Greg’s arm coming around me as we smacked into the side wall.
* * * * *
My eyes opened just as the fireman strapped me to the stretcher.
“You’re going to be okay,” he assured me then turned away. His stubbly face was replaced by Wayne’s crazy eyes.
“You okay, babe?”
That made no sense. Was I in Hell?
“You’re going to need to follow the ambulance,” a paramedic instructed my soon-to-be ex. “You can meet us in the emergency room.” Wayne squeezed my hand and left, and the paramedic started pushing the stretcher out. “You’re lucky your husband alerted everyone. This could’ve been a lot worse.” He must’ve noticed my confusion, but didn’t have anything else to say.
“What about Greg?” My voice didn’t sound like me.
The medic set a bag of some solution next to my head. “You’re husband? I just told him to follow the ambulance.”
“No,” I grimaced. “The other guy.”
“What other guy?”
“The guy in the elevator. The guy that was with me.”
He gave me a strange look. “Sorry mam. There was nobody else in the elevator with you. You hit your head pretty hard.” And then he started shouting to his partner.
I don’t tell this story much. It’s weird and strange and makes people uncomfortable. And there’s a lot that I can’t explain. There’s more to it, too, like how Wayne knew I didn’t make it home that night and how we’ve been able to work through some of our stuff. I don’t really understand it all. And I’m not about to concede that timing is everything. But I will say that those eight and a half hours I spent in the elevator with some stranger named Greg changed my life forever. Some people say their life changed on a dime. For me it took a third of a day. I guess I’m slower than most, and I still don’t have it all figured out, but I’m better off than I was.