I never really got to what I wanted to say, and in trying to get there I forgot what it was. So I keep this one here to read it and remember how chancy and elusive this whole thing can be.
The other day I was carrying a big cardboard box, and my messenger bag, and a gear bag to my office. I stopped at the elevator instead of taking the stairs.
There was a woman waiting there. I see her around the building once in a while. A few months back I’d been walking down from the third floor and she’d opened the door on two right as I got there and I’d stopped on the landing and said, “You better go ahead. I’m crawling.” I was coming off a 600-plus-mile week, and I’d raced the night before. I was the kind of tired that, occasionally, I felt like I had to concentrate to get my lungs to inflate. But she hadn’t understood the extent of the truth in my statement, or thought I was indulging in the kind of lame humor that passes for conversation in offices or something, and she’d gestured for me to keep going. I’d hobbled down two or three steps, holding onto the rail, and felt embarrassed. I could hear and kind of see and sense her back there, uncertain about how close or how distant of a position to me might seem weird, and I guessed as well that she was trying to figure out, now that she’d committed, if she could instead pass by without seeming rude.
I heard the door open above us, heard footsteps on the concrete floor, then a pause as someone must have been assessing the situation, then the clatter of dress-shoe soles hitting the steps. A guy, a normal guy gone a little doughy from an office job and middle age, blew past me like there were a hundred meters to go for points.
“I’m sorry,” I said over my shoulder to the woman. “I uh…” I didn’t know what the uh was. You can’t tell someone about a week like I’d had. It all comes out wrong. What you’re trying to say is never what gets heard.
I made my way down another few steps. The staircase echoed with a long shuffling that transitioned into a drop of each of my feet, and, between a silent wait, the crisp steps of hers. I couldn’t abide the difference between our gaits. Talking just to generate some other sound, I said, “I go slow on the steps anyway. I don’t get the people who race up and down them.”
What I meant was that I didn’t understand why people who seemed as if they got almost no exercise felt a need to attack steps. I’d noticed this in other places, not just at my office. The lazier that people appeared, the harder they seemed to feel they had to go up or down steps, at least when they weren’t alone. Meanwhile, some of the fittest, fastest, best racers I knew regarded steps with, at best, indolence. All of that is something else you ought not to just say to someone. I was relieved I had thought so little about what I was going to say that the statement came out not fully formed.
She did a speedy step or two and drew kind of even with the back of my shoulder, so that one of each of our feet was sharing a stair, and she said, “I know.”
I didn’t know what she knew—if she was saying she knew that I went slow, or that she knew I didn’t get the racers, or perhaps that she didn’t, either. She might even have been acknowledging that she knew something of all that might be contained in an uh; she wasn’t racing lean but neither was her carriage office-job-and-middle-age.
Then I figured this was not about racing or the uh or anything similar. It was just her opportunity to pass. I said, “Really. Go on ahead of me. Please.” And she did.
There’s a window on a landing halfway between two and one, and I stopped there that day and looked out of it until I heard the door open and slam shut as she left the staircase. Something about the incident seemed embarrassing, important, barely there but always there.
At the elevator, now, the woman said, “I don’t know why I’m taking the elevator.”
She sounded caught out, so much so that I almost said, “It’s okay.” I knew that would have a wrong thing to say but I didn’t know what was right, so I didn’t say anything. She was carrying a notebook and a pen. She said, “I was walking by, and the button to call it had already been hit so I just stopped.” I rearranged the box between my arm and my ribs. She said, “I don’t know why.”
I said, “The real bike racers, they always ride elevators. They don’t stand if they can sit, and they don’t sit if they can lie down.”
She said, “Oh,” and I thought she was nice to pretend that I had told her something relevant. We waited for the doors to open and listened to the gears and cables and shafts of the elevator going about their work. She said, “Aren’t you a racer? Don’t you race? I thought you did.”
“Not,” I said, “like—not really—I mean kind of I do but—uh—”
The doors slid apart and she stepped in and walked across and punched her button for two and mine for three and turned back toward me and I realized she assumed I was going to explain this uh.
I shifted around the weight of the box. The elevator jerked a little as it started rising, and I lifted and reset my right foot to keep from stumbling. I said, “I race like fat guys go down stairs.” She laughed. She thought I was joking.
The doors opened. She left. I looked out the gap the way I’d looked out the window that day, and I felt the same things, too. I am lousy at office small talk. It’s always getting too big for me. I waited for the door to close. I waited and I waited, and it seemed as if it never would.
Originally published in The Selection, June 1, 2012