L’Appel du Vide – Rajiv Moté

L’Appel du Vide – Rajiv Moté

On Friday morning, the ambient heaviness in his boss’s tiny office threatened to bend Isaac double, and his ears ached from the pressure in the air. The dread hadn’t started with his boss’s unexpected meeting request, but coalesced around it, wrapping the 15-minute block on his calendar in layers of doubt and worry until it shone like a fat, anxious pearl. It had been gathering over weeks. Office doors that usually stayed open were shut. Hallways and corners sheltered low, furtive conversations; Isaac felt like he was interrupting conspiracies every time he walked to the restroom. The very air resisted movement, its weight dragging down shoulders and gazes. It felt like the air before a storm cracks open the sky.

His boss, from across the desk, began by telling him what Isaac already knew.

“As you know…”

A disappointing Q2. A gloomy forecast for Q3. Streamlining. Tightening belts. Pivoting. Reorganizing. Isaac waited as each term in the well-rehearsed speech pulled him in, spiraling closer to the actual point.

“We have to let you go.”

There. The dice showed their pips. The curtain pulled back. With the word “go,” Isaac was unmoored. First, figuratively, and then, a heartbeat later, literally. His boss was still talking while Isaac floated inches above his seat. He panicked for a moment, losing the leverage that came with gravity. Putting his feet back on the floor only pushed him up higher, until he was floating in the middle of the room. He began to tilt, and his arms and legs flailed for some kind of purchase. His boss’s eyes held polite sympathy. He asked if Isaac had any questions. Isaac shook his head. In his flailing, he found he could change his orientation and even propel himself by pushing against the thickened air.

“Your belongings will be shipped to your home,” his boss said, “so I’m going to ask that you leave the office now. This will be a difficult day here, and I’d appreciate if you helped minimize the distractions.”

Experimentally, Isaac tucked his knees into his chest and flapped his arms.

“Do you need some help with the door?”

Isaac executed a slow, controlled roll in mid-air. As he faced the door, upside down, he took the opportunity to turn the knob and open it. “No,” he said, keeping the emotion out of his voice. “I’m good.” With a kick of his legs, he floated out among the cubicles.

“I’m out of a job,” Isaac said, low enough for his own ears only, to confirm what his brain had only begun to process. He knew the danger of the ground falling out from under one’s feet, the sensation of endlessly falling. It had happened a lot in the neighborhood where he grew up. Folks with no plan and no place to go, floating down the street or hovering over the corner, their arms and legs windmilling to stay upright. A strong wind could blow them away. Gone. Mama wouldn’t have any of that from her boys. The moment he or his brother Ray started to rise an inch or two off the floor, she would pull them back down and stick their noses into a school book. Their mama said that the day their father walked out on them, he fell straight up into the air and probably burned himself to a crisp in the sun, good riddance to the man. Real men could be counted on to keep their feet on the ground.

Viewed from above, the rows of cubes looked small and orderly, the sense of sameness and pattern overwhelming people’s attempts to stamp them with individual personalities. His colleagues—ex-colleagues—glanced up as he passed over them, but no more than glanced, as if the strain of lifting their eyes above their screens were too great in this heavy air. There was envy in some of those glances. ‘Oh, this looks fun?’ Isaac thought. ‘See how fun it is when you can’t stand up.’

He drifted over his own cube. On the desk were the computer and phone, which belonged to the company. A stack of papers he’d someday hoped to sort. A tiny dead cactus in a pot. Pens, notepads, a mug, a water bottle—all with the company logo. Relics. He was swimming over the sunken ruins of his last seven-odd years. There was also a framed picture of Tonya and the girls, Janae and Krista, ages seven and five. Tonya crouched behind the two girls, her hands around their shoulders. He called them his inspiration, the reason he was here. All three smiled wide, brilliant smiles, polished to a gleam by his employer-subsidized dental insurance.

“Good morning, ladies,” he said, stretching his arm, reaching for the picture. All three beamed back. “I’ve got news. It’s… not so good.” Their big brown eyes were full of expectation. “But it’ll wait.”

Reaching far enough to strain his shoulder, he grasped the picture and traced the simulated grain of the fake wood frame with his fingertips. It was the only thing he managed to grab, but it was all he needed to take with him. He knew there were things down in the drawers too, but they were mostly what he put there without any intention of retrieving. Vendor swag, business cards, the employee handbook. He didn’t need any of it anymore. He had never needed it. It was strange—all those hours here, and so little to mark his time.

“Hey man,” Andre called to him on the way back from filling his coffee mug. “Moving up, I see.”

“Yeah,” Isaac said. “But not here.”

Andre nodded, his expression becoming interested. “So it’s begun, huh?” Andre had his ear to the company grapevine, and had guessed the reason behind the change in atmosphere. He called himself the Weatherman, because he knew which way the wind would blow.

Isaac nodded back, treading air. “You were right.” It was strange to look down on Andre, who was a head taller than him.

Andre sighed. “Okay. Well. I’m not going say sorry, I’m going to say congratulations. Onward and upward. Good luck with whatever’s next. And keep in touch, all right? Wherever you land, keep me in mind. I’ll bet this is not over yet.”

“Will do. Best of luck, man.” The thought of landing was bleak. It felt as unreachable as the junk in his desk drawer. With a kick, he propelled himself down a hallway and through the break room, toward the exit. He avoided conversation, ‘to minimize the distraction on this difficult day,’ but he smiled and waved to former colleagues as he passed above them. Somehow, the smiles came easily. The work, follow-ups, and replies he owed several of them just weren’t his problem anymore. There were nice reasons to lose touch with the ground too, at least for a while. First love could do it. Winning a scholarship. Getting the kind of job that had a real future. Isaac knew guys who came back from time served and didn’t touch the ground for weeks until the old drama of the neighborhood got its hooks back in. Maybe this was what freedom felt like. His thumb stroked the plastic picture frame. Maybe this was how his father felt when he disappeared into the sky.

He realized what he must look like, floating to the lobby doors, smiling like a fool. He put on a serious expression, the expression of a man who understood the gravity of his situation and was carefully considering his next move. But his feet didn’t quite touch the floor the way a man’s did when he was carrying around serious thoughts. He was literally buoyant.

Not trusting the physics of weightlessness in an elevator, he took the stairs down the 14 floors to the lobby. He drifted on his belly down the stairwell, like a skydiver before the parachute opens. With nobody watching, he allowed himself a laugh. He added some flourishes, rotating his body like a drill, corkscrewing down the spiral. In the privacy of the stairwell, he felt more like a superhero than a man who had just lost the means to support his family. Then he had an idea—a crazy one—and he reversed direction. With a kick off the railing, he rose, up past the 14th floor, up to the 25th, where he touched the carpet only long enough to open the door to the rooftop deck.

It was June, and the lawn chairs and enormous shade umbrellas were out. People on their breaks, enjoying the sun and the view, turned when Isaac floated out onto the deck. “Well good for you,” a woman said to him, and a young guy gave him a thumbs up. Maybe they thought he’d fallen in love. He hovered just above the high concrete railing and looked down. The wind was strong up here, but he wasn’t completely unanchored. The smiling family in the picture frame he held kept him from getting too carried away. Below, the cabs, buses, and trucks on Jackson Boulevard jockeyed for position among the lanes, and people walked along the sidewalks, jaywalking when the lights turned red. There was a hum below that Isaac always liked.

It had been a dream of Isaac’s to work downtown, amidst that bustle. That’s what he had grown up thinking success looked like. Success was a destination, and he’d made it, against the odds. He’d done what was needed. The next pieces of his life had fallen into place more easily than he could believe. He’d earned promotions, gotten married, had kids, and even bought a house in a nice neighborhood.

But he was embarrassed to realize he hadn’t given much thought to what made up the hours of daily life leading to that success. What occupied those hours was… hard to describe. He had a vague, jumbled impression of email, to-do lists, meetings, reports, whiteboards, spreadsheets, jargon, and coffee. It was a mire of busyness that spanned more than ten years and three companies, and every day he sank deeper. He didn’t want to be ungrateful, but he’d lost track of the ‘why.’ His daughter Janae once asked him what his work was for, and he realized he didn’t even know anymore.

Isaac glanced down at the framed photograph in his hands, and took a deep breath. It was heavier than it should have been, for wood-colored plastic. Soon, he’d have to deal with what would be next. He’d have to sell himself. The thought was heavier than the frame. But it didn’t have to be right now. Not just this moment. Surely he’d earned a little fun on the way back down. He pushed against the air, moving out over Jackson Boulevard, 25 floors below. Slowly, like a bead sinking in honey, he descended. He gave a few kicks to make sure he could regain height, but once he was satisfied, he allowed gravity to exert its weakened pull and just enjoyed the sensation of floating.

He’d explored downtown longer than the decade he worked here, but he’d never seen it like this. In the corners outside windows he saw big spiders in their webs, anchored against the wind. He passed pigeons roosting on ledges, and even a falcon, considering which of the pigeons to murder. He sank past windows of offices and conference rooms, and waved on the way down. Some waved back. Others did their best to ignore him.

“Isaac!” called a voice. “Hey, man, come down!”

Ten floors below, on the sidewalk outside his ex-building’s main lobby, Andre was calling up to him.

Isaac aimed himself and scooped at the air to descend faster. He stopped just short of the ground, hovering at eye level with Andre. He didn’t let his feet touch down, for fear that he wouldn’t rise again.

“They got me right after you,” Andre said. “My boss didn’t even put anything on the calendar. Complete drive-by. I hate being right all the time.”

“Well, you’re the Weatherman. I’m sorry. Or congratulations, if that’s how you feel. So it’s a bloodbath in there?” Isaac tried to sound sympathetic. Andre’s feet were firmly on the ground.

“Yeah. I’ve heard of half a dozen, personally, but it’s happening all through the company. I’m getting texts every fifteen minutes.”

“So, are you going to… take some time?” Isaac liked Andre, but he didn’t want to get pulled into the drama when he could be soaring among the buildings, examining mouldings and facades, and seeing everything from a new perspective. He’d earned this time to float free from the needs and expectations of others.

“That’s why I called you down. I was talking to Samir, and it turns out he has some connections through a cousin. How would you like to work for our top competitor?” Andre bounced his eyebrows like he’d said something delightful and wicked.

Isaac dropped a couple of inches before he caught himself. “Doing what?”

“The same thing! Only for about $10K more, is what I’m hearing. Samir says he’ll put in a word for both of us, but we have to move fast. Like you said, it was a bloodbath. We’ll have competition.”

Isaac felt gravity like a heavy cable reeling him back to earth. The picture frame in his hands was a lead weight. He kicked and waved his arms against the pull. It was all he could do to stay aloft.

“I get it, man,” Andre said. “You just got kicked in the junk by a place you gave—what—five years? Take some time. Give yourself a start date a couple of weeks out. But don’t give up on your passion because you got knocked down. You can’t pass this up.”

“Seven years.” Isaac’s toes brushed the concrete. Ten thousand dollars more. For whatever it was he did.

Their CEO had had a pep talk. ‘If you’re not passionate about what you do,’ he’d say, ‘then why are you even here?’ Isaac didn’t dare admit that in almost 12 years of professional life, he hadn’t found a passion. But he could navigate an office, speak the jargon, follow process, and do things that brought modest, but not insignificant, increases to his paycheck every year. Tonya, Janae, and Krista smiled up at him from the picture in his hands. Maybe he had a passion for providing for his family. Taking Samir’s job was the sensible thing to do. The safe thing. It was an unexpected lifeline in a sea of doubt. He ought to be grateful. It wasn’t as if he had any other plan.

But the sky above, between the tall buildings, was the watercolor blue of early summer. He might never see it from up high again.

“I’m going to pass.”

The words just came out, and before he could take them back, he felt a slack in the invisible cable tethering him. He pushed, and reclaimed a couple of inches of altitude. “I don’t want to do this anymore.” He was a head above Andre now. He caught a breeze.

“But what will you do, then?”

Isaac tried to think of an answer that sounded legitimate and responsible. Something that would describe a respectable place for him in the world as a contributor to his family, a provider for his kids. Something that wouldn’t reveal just how much he was adrift. You can take the kid out of the ‘hood…

“I have no idea,” he finally said. More slack. Andre craned his neck to look up at him. “But I can’t go back down there…”

Isaac rose like a party balloon with a cut string. As Andre became small and indistinguishable from the rest of the working crowd downtown, Isaac rode the wind, banking between buildings and circling landmarks laid out below him. At this height, the noise of the city was drowned out by the rush of air past his ears. Nobody could touch him here. Nobody could reach him. City blocks become patterns of multicolored geometry. Downtown became a cluster of tall buildings in a much larger city that hugged the lake, sprawling north, south, and west. And beyond it lay green, brown, and yellow rectangles of farms and prairie, crossed by ribbons of road and river, winding beyond sight even from this vantage. The world was vast. The world was very small.

Isaac shivered as he rose straight through a cumulus cloud. Breaking through to the top, he paused, momentarily blinded by the dazzling rainbow of diffracted sunlight, so bright the very air seemed to shine. Fluffy white islands drifted in the blue sky. He floated above a moderate-sized hill among dramatic cloud mountains, towers, and valleys, all shining white and pristine. The air was cold, but invigorating. He felt it entering and exiting his lungs, and his every sense felt sharp and alive.

Something whooshed past him with a cry of “Cannonball!” Isaac was horrified to see a person-shaped hole in the clouds beneath him. He let himself drop near the edge of the hole and peered down. Whoever had fallen was coming back up. He saw the red top of a knit winter hat rising toward him, with arms and legs below moving in a butterfly stroke. A shaggy-haired guy in a ski vest burst through the hole and let out a whoop.

“More like a belly flop, huh?” the man said as he rose alongside a fluffy plume of cloud.

Now that Isaac looked, he saw more people among the cumulus formations. Another man, this one in a suit and tie flapping in the wind, leaped from the top of the plume, executing a swan dive into the cloud. Others swam in and out of the cottony fluff, or snoozed in the sunlight. One was drifting on her back, reading a hardcover book. The realization jolted Isaac like a Monday alarm at 5 A.M. This was a thing. People lived like this. He didn’t know whether to be astounded or furious.

Well he was here now. Isaac pushed off in pursuit of the shaggy man, spiraling up the plume. “Hey!” he called. “Hi!”

Shaggy paused, treading air for Isaac to catch up. “How’s it going?” he called back.

“I had no idea about all this,” Isaac said. “Is it… Is it always like this?”

Shaggy laughed. “New, huh?”

“I was laid off this morning.”

Shaggy grinned with genuine enthusiasm. “Congratulations! Nice to be free, isn’t it?”

Free? Isaac’s eyes darted around the shining landscape as he was seized by the wild terror that he would see his father here, kicking back on a cloud. He kicked to regain some height. “It’s something, alright.”

Shaggy, whose name was actually Greg, introduced him to some of the other plume-divers. Most were regulars, and knew each other. They had a friendly competition going. Greg explained that to get any real speed, you needed to think of something that attached you ‘to the world down there.’ Obligations. Responsibilities. Something that really pulled at you. You dove, and at the last moment, you released it. And back up you went. “You want to try?”

The sun was just above the cloud line in the west. He’d have to go home soon. Go home and tell his family what had happened, and what he meant to do about it.

“Why not?” Isaac said.

He hovered above the tip of the plume and then raised the picture of Tonya, Janae, and Krista to his eyes. He said their names. He felt a tug somewhere in his gut. And then, before he could decide how to dive, he dropped like a stone. Isaac screamed. He heard a thin shout from above, nearly drowned out by the wind. “Just let go!”

No. His fingers clamped down on the plastic picture frame as he plummeted. ‘No way in hell,’ he thought. He wasn’t like any of those people up playing in the clouds, privileged, without responsibilities, without a care in the world. He wasn’t like those people in his old neighborhood, weighed down but still drifting. And he wasn’t like his father. He had something besides himself to live and work for. He had a family. Something he’d die for.

‘A fat lot of good that’ll do us,’ Tonya would have said. He looked down at the picture. The girls were still smiling, but Tonya was looking right at him, arching one eyebrow the way she did when she was done tolerating nonsense. Sometimes she used that eyebrow when telling him what he already knew—but she decided he needed to hear again. Things like ‘If you don’t want to be your father, then make a different choice. Be there for us. Be there for you.’

Isaac’s fall slowed. She was right, of course. It wasn’t his family weighing him down. He’d chosen what kind of man he wanted to be long ago. But that choice had gotten tangled up in the other things he thought he had to do. The mire that had slowly sucked him lower for years. Well, he was out of the mire now. Cut loose. So what next?

He realized he was no longer falling. The world was laid out before him, but the faces of Janae and Krista in the frame held his eyes. They were older now than when the photograph was taken, and even in Krista he saw glimmers of the women they’d become. They were more confident than he had been at that age. They laughed easier. They didn’t live in fear of disappointing a parent who was embittered by loss, who never stopped working and never failed to remind her kids it was all for them. His kids were different. And he was different from his parents, either one.

He began to rise again. He rose, faster, and faster still. He wanted to fly. He needed to. He broke through the cloud plume and zoomed past Greg and the divers. He wasn’t slowing down. At a certain height, rising became indistinguishable from falling. The air turned cold, thin, and weightless. The further he rose from the Earth, the less pull it exerted. Already the curve of the western horizon glowed crimson as the speck where he lived and once worked, far below, passed into the shadow of early evening.

The unobstructed night sky yawned above. What had started as black with a few pinpricks of light became a luminous river of heavenly bodies, from dust to planets, all reflecting the starshine. At the very precipice of the celestial chasm, everything seemed to fall away but what he chose to hold on to, like the picture frame that tethered him to a home in a nice neighborhood far below. Isaac stopped to take it all in. The emptiness had a pull of its own. All that space, never to be filled. He could imagine surrendering to the illuminated infinity, as easy as falling. It was thrilling in the way looking out over any beckoning abyss thrilled, as long as you trusted your anchor.

Isaac stretched his arms and legs wide, as if to embrace it all. He felt the cracks and pops as he stretched his neck and arched his back. His heart pounded. Blood roared in his ears. Nerves fired and flared like the stars themselves. He filled a portion of that vast emptiness with himself. His entire body shook with the sweet, savage joy of coming alive.

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