It was almost 6 o'clock, and Paula was still at work finishing her tasks before she could leave for the day. She was tired, and when she was finally able to log off her computer, she was grateful to grab her purse and head toward the elevators.
She collected her thoughts in the lobby, hit the elevator button and suddenly remembered the boxes she intended to take home that night. She paused.
"Can they wait?" she asked herself.
The elevator rang on her floor.
She looked at the light and wanted to leave the boxes for the next day, but turned back toward the hallway to retrieve them.
"I need to pack," she thought. "The kids will be with their father and it gives me an opportunity to pack his things."
Returning to the elevators and dwarfed by the height of the stack of boxes, she hit the button for the second time.
To her relief, the elevator came immediately and Paula hurried inside, only to be stopped one floor down.
"Crap," she thought.
A co-worker entered the elevator.
"Hey - you moving?" Janice asked brightly.
"No, Mike is."
Janice covered her mouth in shock.
"Oh, I didn't realize. I'm so sorry."
"It's okay, really. We've been going through this for a long time, and the emotion is gone — it's really okay."
"Look," said Janice, "I know we don't really know each other that well, but I do like you. You are such a great person, so nice all the time, and you don't deserve this."
Paula nodded and looked at Janice, then looked down at her boxes — to clue her in that she really wanted to get out of there.
"I'm sorry," Janice continued, "but just know that if you need anything — really, anything — call me and let me know."
Paula was relieved she was carrying the boxes, as she could feel a hug coming on. Instead, Janice reached out and lightly squeezed her arm.
"Call if you need anything," she repeated.
Paula forced a smile. It was tight. Although she liked Janice, she was tired of people asking about her — asking if she was okay, offering help. She was tired of the unsolicited advice from people she didn't know well, and for some reason this made her angry. Paula really just wanted to be left alone.
She shuddered a little and took a deep breath to remove the anxiety, then headed down toward the garage. With each step, she reclaimed her focus, concentrated on her mission and detached herself. Her job was to pack Mike's belongings and sort through the drawers and closets. It would be a lot of work, and she'd be busy all weekend.
She hurried past the guy asking for quarters, again glad that her hands were full, so she wouldn't have to fumble around her pockets or offer an excuse to say no.
She hurried past everyone, keeping her head down and moving swiftly with her boxes, the task at hand.
As she entered the garage and walked down to the third level where her car was parked, she fumbled to pull the keys from her coat pocket. Pointing them at the car, she unlocked the door. The lower level was empty, and she surveyed the area around her just to be safe.
She noticed a small, beat-up car parked next to hers. The car was not running, but a man sat still behind the steering wheel. His head was laid back on the headrest. As she walked closer, Paula noticed that the windows in the car were rolled down and she could hear the pop and fizz of a beer can.
Her pace slowed, and she again looked around the area. It was a tight squeeze in between her car and his, and she was nervous about opening the side door to put the boxes in. Cautiously, she opened the door, set the boxes on the floor and then got in her car.
As she closed the front door, Paula examined the man in the car. He was older, had an unshaven gray beard and graying hair. His eyes were closed. She could see a small cooler on the passenger seat of the man's car and a pair of shoes set neatly upon the dashboard.
She locked her doors and put the keys into the ignition. Again she looked over at the man in the car. In between his legs rested an aluminum can, and in his right hand he held a pack of cigarettes.
With her hands on her keys, Paula looked closely at the shoes neatly aligned in the middle of the dashboard. They were a good pair of shoes, probably the nicest thing about the car. She examined how they had been placed perfectly on the dashboard. They looked disturbingly out of place.
Paula began to worry — the shoes, she thought, and the windows rolled down in winter. The thought crossed her mind that he might hurt himself. His head was still against the rest, and his eyes were still closed.
She wanted to ask the man if he was okay, but she didn't, because she was afraid. What if he were a nut, were drunk, would yell at her and tell her to mind her own business? What if he had a gun?
The safest thing to do, Paula thought, would be to tell the attendant. Surely he would send security.
Then she thought of the bum who slept on the stairs in the parking garage. She remembered seeing him there when she worked night shift, sleeping at 11 p.m., with the smell of urine in the stairwells. Security left him alone. No one really seemed to care.
She again reached out to her keys and began to turn over the ignition.
Her mind flashed forward, to a possible news story about a man blowing his brains out in a downtown parking garage, isolated, and alone. No one cared.
She removed her hand from the keys and paused. She turned to look at the man in the car, and rolled down her window.
"Excuse me," she said.
The man turned to look at her.
"I'm sorry, but I just need to ask if you're okay. Is everything okay?"
A slow, small grin started on his face. "What?" he asked.
"Well, I was just looking at your shoes, and ..."
"No, no, I'm okay," he said, smiling broadly. "I've been on night shift, working construction, got here a little early and was trying to relax before I started."
He held up his right foot to show her his dirty construction boots. As he did this, he shifted in his seat to reveal the can that was in his lap. It was a Pepsi can.
Paula groaned and smiled back at him.
"Okay," she said as she laughed. "I'm sorry, I just needed to ask."
"That's quite all right," he said. "Thank you for caring. Really, thanks."
Paula smiled and nodded as she rolled up her window and backed out of her parking space.
After she paid the attendant and left the garage, she realized she was still smiling. She thought to herself how gracious that man had been. She thought about all the wrong impressions she harbored, that this guy was drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and ready to blow his brains out in a car.
"Yeah, he could have been a nut," Paula thought. "He also could have been ticked off at me and a real jerk about the whole thing. He could have acted like I did with Janice. But he didn't."
Paula wondered why it's so hard to approach people, to show concern — and why it's also hard to accept it.
As she drove home, even the deadlocked traffic didn't bother her as much as it ordinarily would have. A trucker drove up next to her and revved his engine until she finally became aware of the truck. She looked up to see two men in the cab grinning down and winking at her.
Traffic moved in her lane, she smiled back at them and waved. They gave her the thumbs up and she laughed.
Yesterday, she thought, "I would have flipped them off."