An Empty Room Full of People

The snow danced merrily outside Kelly’s window as the wind blew it this way and that, sometimes making little twisters out of it, at others merely sweeping it across the flat roof. The window overlooked a part of the apartment complex that was inaccessible to the tenants, which was a shame, since it seemed to invite a picnic table and chairs during the summer months, and a beautiful place to stargaze and shiver during the winter.

Kelly, however, was insensible to all of this. Her eyes zoomed continually between the keyboard and the screen. Twenty-two years old, her fingers were round and pudgy and still unable to type easily. Kelly had often tried different methods of touch-typing, but she never got the hang of it. It wasn’t so bad, though, since her eyes had learned to move with almost supernatural speed between her typing fingers and the words forming in the blank white boxes on her screen.

Her world was not one of cold and heat, flesh and blood. She would claim differently, of course, for she could absolutely feel emotion, thought and true friendship flowing from the words on her screen. The people she interacted with lived all around the world, some as close as a few apartments away, and others as far as England or Japan. Kelly could see each of them in her mind’s eye, as well as the characters they portrayed online. She spoke to them daily, almost hourly, via the little white boxes that she filled with frantically typed words, chosen carefully so as to display her wit, her inner beauty, her true personality.

When a knock came at the door, Kelly called “It’s open!” without looking up. Two of her friends came in, friends who weren’t a part of her online world. She glanced at them and looked back down to refresh the page and see if there were responses to what she’d written yet. Yes! She grinned and began to read.

Her friends took her smile as directed at them and swooped towards her for an awkward hug. They had to struggle across the floor, strewn with dirty laundry, empty cereal boxes and soda bottles, to get to her, sitting cross-legged on her bed with her laptop perched securely on her knees. She put one large arm out to pat each hugger absent-mindedly on the back, but hardly listened as they began to describe the party they’d been at, how they’d missed her and why she should now come with them.

“Hm?” she asked, looking up with unfocused eyes.

Her friends repeated their questions, exchanging glances of exasperation. Kelly was always like this, they seemed to say to each other silently, and, as they’d expected on arrival, they left her in her small room without managing to draw her away from her computer. As they left, each of them saw her as being incredibly alone, a small mound of  a person sitting lonely on a single bed.

Kelly didn’t hear them close the door behind them. She felt surrounded by people, and she chuckled as she read a joke, almost hearing the laughter of people all around the world chiming along with her own.

A Mad Woman in Berlin

She leaned over the back to back metal benches and asked the pair of English tourists if they smoked tobacco. Her accent was thick, sometimes sounding German, and at others Russian, although her English was good. The man, glancing uneasily at his partner, answered that he did. When the woman asked if she could have some, he looked confused for a moment. His partner told the woman that they only had cigarettes. The woman nodded eagerly, and asked if she could have one. The man smiled politely and produced a pack of Camels. The woman asked for a light, and the man leaned over toward her and lit her cigarette, which she sucked on greedily. He then turned to his partner, and they both spoke for a while in another language.

The mad woman didn’t quite fit the stereotype of a homeless person, living on the streets. Her hair was a shock of grayish-brown and her skin looked almost healthy. She was somewhere between forty and fifty, but wore the age well on her face, which was elegantly lined, although her cheeks were still full and youthful. Her clothing was oddly fancy, or at least the top half was. She wore what looked like a light brown leather jacket and her handbag was of similar material and color. The mere fact that she had a handbag was strange. Her skinny legs were wrapped in tight pants in shades of brown, olive and black, like a military uniform made into fashionable jeans. The mix between the pants and the well-kept leather jacket were perhaps an indication of her madness. Still, she could have been an eccentric fashionista and nothing more.

Except, that is, for the fact that she was talking to herself loudly and was holding a pink carton of cheap wine.

“It is security, you see. I don’t trust a man, and security is inside me. You have to stay inside the clothes, inside the pants. The pants are protection, they protect me. But I am an attractive woman. If another man come near I go away. But if another woman approach me,” and here she sounded a little defensive, “then that is okay, I mean I am an attractive woman. A woman can look at a woman and appreciate her and I don’t mind if a woman looks at me.” She took a drink from her pink bottle, and the smell of wine washed over the English tourists as well as the others on the platform. Just then, the train arrive, and everyone boarded, including the mad woman.

She sat across from the English couple and fell silent for a time. When a fat man with a tiny dog boarded at the next station and sat next to her, she got up at once and moved into the narrow space between the Englishwoman and a bearded businessman. She started talking again. “It is like the jackets, do you know the jackets in London?” she turned to the businessman. It wasn’t clear whether he ignored her or nodded for she kept speaking almost at once. “There are nice jackets in London, long coats. Every person should have them, they are made of good fabric, of, what is it called… Not wool, it’s not wool. It’s not like the jeans. There are jeans that are made of denim, and they are the color of – the color of indigo. How do you say indigo in German?” she turned to the Englishwoman.

“I don’t speak German, I’m sorry,” the tourist said, shrugging and smiling, but drawing closer to her companion so as not to brush the woman’s jacket.

“That’s right, you’re not from here,” the mad woman dismissed her at once and continued speaking of fabrics and jackets in America as opposed to those in London. She got off at the next stop, still speaking to herself in a loud, coherent voice, as if she were having a conversation with someone else. The English tourists probably never saw her again, but there was no way they would forget this strange and lonely woman who chose them as smoking- and seat-companions on a short journey on the U-Bahn in Berlin.

2. Amanda

On this same late August evening, Amanda left the office of admissions at Valley University and made her way to Oakwood, the only dormitory left open during the summer break. She cursed herself for the umpteenth time for taking the summer job of shuffling paper and answering phones in the office. She had to admit, though, that it had been better at the beginning of the summer when the office was busy with the applications of transfer students. The phones had been ringing off the hook, there’d been lots of envelopes to open and sort through and her days, although tedious, had been full. The flurry of activity had ended by midsummer, though, and there weren’t any deadlines during August, so the only phone calls Amanda was getting in the office were the occasional prospective student or parent and some pranksters trying to make their own lazy summer days more interesting.

The campus was absolutely deserted, and as always the quiet and solitude depressed Amanda. It wasn’t that she was an overly social person – she wasn’t. In fact, she enjoyed being alone more often than not. But she liked being alone in the midst of life, and the quiet and emptiness around her made her feel like she was the only person living and breathing within a mile radius. There were the squirrels, of course, but at this evening hour they all seemed to be chasing each other around the trees, making the leaves rustle. Amanda couldn’t see them at it, so she always felt a sort of creepy feeling, as if there were ghosts whispering among the leaves.

She wasn’t, of course, the only person left on campus. There were others who worked at the various offices, as well as the ever-present cleaning staff and some eternal graduate students that haunted the library and the computer labs. It didn’t matter, though, that Amanda knew of the others’ presence. The walk across campus was still always unnerving after having spent freshmen year making the same walk while being surrounded by chattering multitudes.

Luckily, Oakwood wasn’t too far from the office of admissions, and Amanda pushed the door open into the front hall gratefully. The only dining hall still open during the summer was the one here, and at five o’clock, when Amanda got off from work every day, people were arriving from their various jobs and activities to make use of it for dinner. Entering Oakwood’s spacious front hall always made Amanda feel better, and she walked towards the not-so-alluring smell of cafeteria food, ears happily drinking up the chatter echoing around her.