When he stepped onto the elevator, the shocks of the thing built in 1978 let out a brief scream under Matèo’s weight. He sipped his iced coffee through a straw and pressed the button for the lobby. With the ding of initiation, he realized he was totally alone in this confined space—aside from the camera in the top corner of the elevator—and decided to start twisting his upper body slowly and whistle the melody to the beloved Christmas classic, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” while caressing the breast pocket of his stiff polyester shirt. It was July.
As the elevator started to move, Matèo made kissy faces in the reflection of the gold trim lining the wooden panels of the inside of the car and thought about how damn good looking he was and that if he wanted to, could hook up with any doctor, nurse, patient tech, patient, receptionist, cafeteria worker, environmental cleaning person, or security guard. So, what gives? Why the dating-app chats with over 80 total women and men that lead to nothing? He swung his ring of keys around on his index finger, rocking his hips to the beat in his head. Their loss, he thought. The elevator chimed as it reached the eighth floor.
Doors opened, doors closed. Nobody entered.***
Esme Cruz, charity care worker, turned over the deadbolt of the door to her fifth-floor office, then lowered herself behind her desk, holding a brown paper bag in one hand and a glossy pair of red rosary beads in her other. She was having a panic attack.***
Back in the elevator, Matèo Joseph received a call over the radio to stop messing around. “You’re on camera,” the captain said. “Stop dancing in the elevator.” He couldn’t help it. He loved to dance. It was something of an anomaly, a guy that big being able to move the way he did. Six-foot-six, three hundred pounds; when Matèo got moving it was felt by all those nearby. Once, in a dance club, he had taken out an entire row of VIP booths just from shuffling his feet and twirling to Donna Summer’s “On the Radio.” When he went to radio back the captain to say something like, “You’re just jealous, Cap,” his radio made a strange noise, that of a dying baby antelope having its torso gnawed at by the teeth of a full-grown baboon he had saw in a nature documentary. Ooh-wah. The battery had died. Just like the antelope. The elevator dinged at the seventh floor. Matèo kept dancing. His thoughts, moving at techno music levels of beats per minute.***
Soon after hyperventilating into the bag, clenching the rosary, and repeating the prayer in Spanish, her breathing settled, heart rate lowered, and her vision aligned with itself again. This was Esme’s third panic attack this week and she asked God why, why, why.
The wine, God said in her thoughts. The four glasses of New Zealand cabernet sauvignon a night.
Wine, a sin? She asked herself. Is such not your blood?
It was under a doctor’s orders, anyway, the wine. “Keeps the blood pressure down and keeps the mood up.”***
Matèo Joseph was really rocking now—heel tapping, arms shaking, head bopping; all that sugar sugar sugar flowing through him like electricity. Wah-hoo! Sixth floor, ding.***
Still crouching beneath her desk, Esme noticed the polished red panic button encased in its silver box and felt inclined to press it. When the uniformed officer had installed it, he had said, “In case of an emergency,” explaining that it triggers a silent alarm in the security console office and how an officer would be dispatched right away. During her first panic attack, she pressed it, thinking how nice it would be to be saved. But when the officer ran into her office with a confused expression on his face probably at seeing no signs of a threat or an emergency, just her, pale and breathing heavy behind her desk, she ended up feeling guilty. Internally, her body and mind were showing various signs of distress—racing thoughts, elevated heart rate, rapid breathing. But the officer must’ve not been able to tell from looking at her. A silent alarm, she had thought. That’s what panic was. She decided to not press the panic button this time from under her desk, and just let the feelings pass by.
As she packed her things into her purse to go home for the day—another late night after a day of some volatile patients—she briefly considered the panic attacks to be a symptom of other illnesses in her life. Maybe it wasn’t the wine. Things were rocky at home with her husband Paul; they were about to lose their section of the four-family home they rented from a gringo named Gerry.
Turning the lights off and locking the door from the outside, she also thought maybe it was her job that was starting to get to her. She’d been a charity care officer for twenty-two years now, approving or denying thousands—if not millions—of people Medicaid or healthcare assistance; she felt like her job was a public service that she, an immigrant herself, was helping people get the medical attention they needed. And she was proud of that. Every patient she saw, for the most part, was so grateful to have the chance to come into this country and get some help. She knew what that was like, she had been there before—fresh off a small commuter jet from Colombia to Newark, walking down the tarmac for the first time to see what: smog, industrial smoke stacks, bright colored advertisements for Coca Cola, small law firms, Anheuser Busch, and the Marlboro Man on a white horse, hung above large factories littered with graffiti—it was the 80s, baby–with cracked two-tone windows, ones if she looked deeply into she would see a group of brown people, like her, sweating on the line of machinery hustling, hustling, hustling to turn out product after product. That was America to her and it was terrifying. But also, kind of exciting. She didn’t speak the language, but she knew a group of Latinas that found a community, a true slice of Colombia, in this small New Jersey town called Plainfield, where they had authentic panaderias, cafes, and boutiques like she never left Pereira.
So, she understood. She knew how hard it was to find a home in a new country, how opportunity for work, living, and health were mostly based on two things: luck and connections. Most of her patients had neither, so she didn’t mind fudging some numbers, signing some forms, making some extra phone calls for her fellow immigrants. But it was management that, due to pressure from their managers and their managers, and so on down the endless chain of boss’s bosses, started to lower a heel onto Esme’s department’s neck––budget cuts, audits, patient credit checks. It became harder and harder to help the immigrants, making her job more stressful, leaving her prone to feeling more tense by the time she got home, a tightness felt in a band around her head and a weight upon her shoulders, neck, and back. So to alleviate the tension, she would pour a little extra of that red wine, causing her to get buzzed and eventually drunk; drunk enough to argue with Paul over politics, identity, immigration and border control, and healthcare, and she would get this flushed feeling in her face from yelling her truth and Paul would say, “Calm down,” and she would say Callate la fucking boca, because she hadn’t been able to chill out since she left Colombia in 1978. And like the wine in her glass during a fresh pour, these thoughts would swirl and splash around her head, keeping her up at night in a cold sweat, quiet and still, but inside blaring and sounding off, the silent alarm of thoughts ringing and ringing.***
Down in the security office on the lower basement level, five floors below ground, security captain Wayne Shultz unbuttoned his pants in front of the twenty low resolution monitors that he was supposed to watch for the next two hours; his console operator called out for the night and his relief got in at ten. When opportunities like this—like privacy, alone time, no calls or codes to handle—present themselves, Wayne always thought it was best to take full advantage. He slipped his hand through the valley of his undone pants and under the waistband of his boxer shorts. Like a paid vacation. And with the more time he had to himself, the more perverse he tended to get.
Wayne Shultz was a retired state trooper, and now had no problem bossing around the young, twenty to thirty-year-old security team at St. Peter’s for a decent salary on top of what he collected off his pension. So, with this financial backing and his take-no-shit-from-anyone Libertarian attitude, Wayne worked the job with no regard, doing what he wanted, when he wanted.
What he wanted now, pants around his ankles while on Monitor Patrol, was to find something to give him something to focus on where he could grip himself like a bull rider and yank and twist and pull until the thing threw him off. So far, nothing. Just paunchy Matèo Joseph dancing in the elevator. He called to him on the radio and said cut the horse shit, that if he starts Code Blue-ing (a cardiopulmonary arrest) that he’ll leave him there to die.
After Wayne ripped into Matèo, he clicked around the various screens in front of him, pulling up different cameras, controlling zoom and clarity with his mouse. A dumpster set against the back wall of the hospital had been ransacked by either raccoons or the local homeless gang known for expressing their collective views on late-stage capitalism in the form of fecal trash art. He zoomed in to see trails of a silhouetted stain on the wall, which he figured to be urination. He clicked over to the entry gates to the parking deck and saw a red Tesla leaving with the license plate “MGKHNDS” and knew it was driven by Dr. Nick Peters, resident physical therapist and racist piece of shit who had once muttered a slur under his breath when Wayne had handed him a parking violation. People hate to see a black man in a badge.
Wayne laughed in his chair, still touching himself, at knowing how much dirt he had on all the people who walked around this hospital like they were untouchable. Like, Esme Cruz, who he just saw leave her office with her tote bags, standing in the elevator waiting room, biting her fingernails. He was suspicious of her; she abused the panic button in her office and leaves him with no other options but to send a responding officer into her office; usually only Matèo Joseph since his shift is so understaffed. He found himself thinking after every code clear that came over the radio, what exactly is this woman doing? In his four years on the job, she had rung that panic alarm more than any other department, including the psych ward. The late nights, the panic alarms—he suspected that she was tapping the young Matèo Joseph.
Thinking of Esme, he went soft. Not his type, beautiful curvy Hispanic women—well, women at all. He’d much rather prefer things, the more inanimate the object the better. Wayne was particular like this—never married, just had the police force, and was never interested in human connection. This obsession started when he was a rookie, working the evidence room for N.B.P.D. (New Brunswick Police Department) and he found himself spending his nights looking at nothing but plastic bags filled with stories; and not just any story, juicy, crime-filled stories. Each piece of evidence, whether it be a bloody smashed TV remote where a woman had beat her husband to death with or a dull hatchet, rusted over with dried blood and dirt from a friend attacking his friend, showed how people, usually their true selves, can be embedded into objects. As he sat there, night after night in the evidence room watching over the bagged items, he found himself becoming aroused at imagining each person’s spirit stuck on them; over time, the objects would change and his attraction would, too. This internal discovery had led to a shift in his perception; he would see people differently, seeing them almost the way they would see objects—bland, manufactured. Eventually he lost sight of human beings entirely, and only saw the objects they carried—bags, phones, clothes, accessories, etc. Sometimes it was sharp metal objects that got him going, other times it was glass, or steel, or plastic tech-gadgets. On his past few nights on Monitor Patrol, it had been architecture that did it for him—well-lit corridors, the empty waiting room of the Mother’s and Children’s Pavilion with handcrafted wooden arm chairs, a marble plated mantle above a glassed-in fireplace, and a green spotted medallion carpet, things like that. That’s where he steadied the camera on Monitor 5 now. He was obsessive, not a creep. This desire, an itch; his toggling, the scratch.***
The elevator’s doors opened on the fifth floor. By then, Matèo was sweating from his temples and across his lower back; he decided to untuck his shirt. As he looked up, both hands forearm deep in his pants, Esme Cruz had stepped onto the elevator.
“Mrs. Cruz,” he said, shuffling. “Hi.”
“Oh, Matèo. Hi. What—” she said.
“I wasn’t doing anything weird,” he said.
“Seriously. Think what you want. I was untucking my shirt.”
The elevator dinged in response to Matèo double-tapping the lobby button; the doors didn’t close any faster.***
Oh shiny linoleum, Wayne Shultz thought, hand going berserk. It would seem, that this new atrium—the one in the West Wing with sculpted marble archways over each entrance and the gold-filled joints of stone-tiled planters filled with philodendrons, palms, and ficus trees—was doing the trick. But, just when Shultz was getting the tightening quiver of ascending release, he happened to glance over at Monitor 7 where he saw, of all people, Esme Cruz and Officer Matèo Joseph standing side by side in Elevator 3. What in the—He detached his hand from himself, only temporarily. These two, he thought, caught!***
In the elevator, the two of them remained quiet. Matèo’s fluttery sugar-hyper thoughts resembled some showtunes-like inspired blend of song and bird chirping, that if heard by anyone on the outside of his head would say, “Kid, maybe you should lie down.” From his pocket, he lifted out a cold can of XSTREAM Energy Drink, cracked it open, and let the snake hiss inside for a moment before he tasted its venom. That’s the stuff.
He looked at Esme and compared the darks swirls of her under-eyes to the toe of his smeared boot, which he hasn’t polished in some time. She was standing there hunched, practically curling into herself. He knew her as the lady who cried wolf. Happened a few times, actually. The first time was him mid turkey, ham, and cheese sandwich in the Urology breakroom (they had cable TV) and the call squawking over his radio: “Brrrkaaaw panic alarm sounding in Office 511. Stat.” He replied mouth full, garbling, “Okay, Cpt. Chicken. Yessirree,” and sprinted into the nearest stairwell, down its taupe innards from floor nine to floor five, jogged to the office doors on the right—nope that way was 520-530—hightailed it to the other side of the wing, burst through the door of 511, huffing and wheezing and gurgling salvia to what? Nothing. This little old lady sitting behind her desk like a damn goose in the middle of the road, with squinty eyes, not saying anything, him just standing there idling in high gear unsure of what to do next.
Next thing he knew Esme was crying into his chest. He stood still, stoic, not saying a word. He felt that maybe words would have ruined the moment, so he let her cry until she was finished, then walked out without saying anything of it. The next day, she rang the silent alarm again and the same thing happened––they didn’t speak, she just came out from behind her desk, tears running down, and buried her head into his chest. That night he went home and posted about it to an online discussion forum with a subheading of /weirdthingsatwork. Comments ranged from, “Dude, she wants to phuuck,” to “That’s really sweet and special, actually,” which reminded Matèo that anytime he’s found himself living in these extremes––either fucking or something sweet––he somehow ruined it by either asking what is was and trying to label it.
When Esme had rung the button a third and fourth time, he had understood it as their thing, as in something to share; which was fine––like he thought, he could get with anyone in the hospital. This old lady needed a big guy like him to cry on and it filled him with a sense of pride that his large, wide body was doing some good in the world.
But for some reason, his sugar amped mind didn’t know how to react to her now, standing side by side in the elevator. Should he strike up a conversation? Ask her, Hey lady, why you crying so much? He figured that would ruin it, too, so he jittered a little bit more to the song in his head, Donna Summer’s “On the Radio.”***
The elevator shook. Esme, who was now facing the doors as to not make any more eye contact with Matèo—it was too strange to look at the boy—took comfort in knowing there was a huge bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon waiting for her at home. She believed that’s one thing the bible got wrong; the wine was the holy water. God forgive me, she thought. The elevator jumped again.
She wished Matèo wouldn’t move like that in here, big as he was, but she appreciated his energy and thought maybe that was the reason she was so drawn to him in her most vulnerable state, mid-panic attack. But now wasn’t the time. She imagined the pulley cables snapping like ligaments. That reminded her––one of her patients today, a sixty-two-year-old rugby coach from Great Britain who needed reconstructive surgery on his ACL. He was a UK citizen here to coach some travel football team and tore every major ligament in his knee stepping off a smart scooter; so, he ended up sitting at her desk in a boot, mad as hell. Mad at himself for ever getting on the thing, mad at America for allowing such an invention, but all that anger was taken out on her, like usual with her patients. He wanted the surgeries to be fully covered on America’s dime, which sometimes would be the case for immigrants here on a work Visa, but after she ran his income check she found that he had near seventy-five thousand U.S. dollars in the bank and had to deny him any Medicaid. He responded with a few foreign swear words before hocking a missile of spit across the desk, hitting her in the cheek. Her hand flew towards the panic button, but she stopped just short of punching it. By then, the Brit was already out the door, so she sat there feeling the warm thick worm slink down to her chin. Part of her felt like she deserved it; she felt guilty anytime she couldn’t help a patient.
What was he doing now, this boy? He was so strange, she thought. Constantly moving, tapping his oafish feet, shaking his massive hands. He must not have a care in the world. She glanced up at him from the sides of her eyes, thinking that maybe she should say something, but what?
Whatever it was about Matèo, maybe his size, Esme felt drawn to him in a way that she never was with Paul. With her husband, there was no communication, and she wondered if that stemmed from not speaking the same language when they first met. In the early days, most of their conversations were subtle looks and seductive gestures. It was all very sexy. Then she learned English, and that ruined everything. Eventually the only words they shared were bitter, condescending directives about money, politics, and the order of things. “Es, did you clean the floors? Do the laundry? The dishes? Es, iron my shirts. You spent HOW much on your hair?” This was why she drank; so, his voice was less sharp.
Maybe it was the innocence she saw in Matèo, who now was looking at her with his mouth ajar, that let her feel accepted by him; that he wouldn’t judge, ridicule, or turn her away—the way a child wouldn’t. And by leaning into him, she felt some sort of permission being transmitted into her that allowed her to feel free. When he held her in silence, she felt as if she were back home in Colombia as a young girl being touched by the strong wind that blew off the Otun River. Then she would spend her afternoons sitting near the bank and watching the men, one whom was her father, drop large nets into the river and feel the thick, heavy humidity all around her as if she was being held by it. She often missed that—home, itself now a lost feeling.
Matèo shifted his gaze back towards the front and started nodding his head. Esme felt the floor stutter and gripped her tote bags tightly. Soon she would be home and have to see Paul and wondered what he would say tonight to make her feel like an alien in her own home; a refugee constantly having to prove her worth to stay in his country.
As the elevator approached the first floor, thinking of Paul and her job, and trying to ignore a sense of longing for home, she felt her chest tighten, followed by a shockwave of a tingling sensation radiate through her nerves. The lights flickered, and the elevator shook before coming to a stop between the first and second floor. Esme felt stiff; her breathing began to increase. As Matèo hit a few buttons, touched his radio, and went back to tapping buttons, Esme thought she had caused the elevator to stop running, that somehow her anxiety had manifested into frayed wires, a control panel on the fritz, cables splitting and giving away.***
Standing up, leaning over the desk, Wayne was really in a sweat now; the heavy starched collar of his polyester shirt felt constrictive, chafing the back of his neck. He sighed at the beauty of the parking lot street light, innocent and laid out across the linoleum tile of the Mother’s and Children’s Pavilion. The blue glow of the monitors in the dim lit room was starting to mess with his eyes; they felt like small suns at high noon. As he pounded away at himself, he looked so intently at Monitor 5, of the geometric printed runway carper near the crystal glass sliding doors, he started to believe the souls of the objects were in the room with him, kissing his neck, whispering in his ear. Yes. You like that.***
I’ve really done it now, Matèo thought. Given his size, he was used to breaking things, knocking things over in the tight bodega aisles, sitting on remotes, phones, laptops, tablets, etc. but an elevator was a first. It was stuck.
He tried to remain calm; he was after all, security. He checked his radio—still dead. He tried tapping a few different buttons—doors open, floor one, floor two, doors closed. No response. It was a 1978 Dover Traction elevator with mint doors that had no inner telephone system, only an alarm bell that rang from pressing the button on the panel. Matèo pressed this a few times; the clanging alarm made Esme flinch, but it didn’t sound very loud, so Matèo was unconvinced that this would get anyone’s attention.
“We’re stuck,” he said.
“How stuck?” Esme asked. She had backed into the corner now and Matèo could tell by the catatonic state of her face, similar to the one he’d seen when she alerted the panic alarm, that she was freaked out. He felt like he needed to save her.
His instinct was to shut his mouth out of fear that any more information would leak out, like about how he once saw a video of a guy who was stuck in this very same elevator car for a weekend before someone in engineering heard not the alarm bell, but him sobbing covered in his own feces. Or how Matèo, needed to shit really really bad, thanks to all of the sugar that had now hardened and sunk in his gut. He didn’t want to induce anymore panic in this poor woman. So, he sat down and tried to think. He listed his plans in his head as such:
A. Wave hands at the camera in the corner of the room until Captain Shultz or the console operator sees me.
- Stand on the inner guardrail, that was gold plated steel rather than solid gold, and try to pop through a ceiling tile like in an action movie. Climb the steel cables to the top floor where I would be greeted by several busty blonds and television cameras
- Take busty blondes back to my place and—
C. Try to pull apart the elevator doors, also seen in some action movies. But after my intense muscle flexing, mouth wide, yawping rage as I spread open the heavy doors to probably find a brick wall on the other side and then yell, pounding my chest like a barbarian until, out of fear and the energy of raw human emotion, the elevator would kick back on.
D. If that fails, see how limited I am, even as a 6’6’ 320-pound man.
E. Sit in the corner, tucking knees in arms, and cry, cry, cry.
F. Once found and freed from the elevator, change mode of behavior. Learn to see how precious life is—it’s not about busty blonds, becoming rich, XTREAM energy drinks, or dancing, dancing, dancing. There was something else. Maybe, possibly, human connection. Like what I silently feel with Esme. Seek that. Remain open to it, without naming or saying anything about it, but just feel it. A worthy pursuit for a hero.***
Wayne was cramping now, losing grip of himself, standing on the rolling chair with one foot on the desk in front of the monitors for balance and position. It had never taken Wayne Shultz this long to finish; if anything, he prided himself at being a record-speed finisher at anything he did.
If his eyes weren’t fixed on himself, now desperate to please just finish, he would have noticed in Monitor 7, Officer Matèo Joseph jumping up and down and swinging his arms at the camera, mouthing the words “Help.”
In this state of aggression and panic, he felt like a slave to his desires. Knees quivering and wrist scorching, he felt so weak and powerless, he began to cry. It was there, in weeping and stroking, that he looked up to see himself in the reflection of Monitor 5, which had now gone dark from inactivity, and felt completely filled with shame. For once, the objects had failed him. Calls filled the console, voices over the radio came in, there was even a banging on the door, but he could not let go until he was finished, even if that meant his heart seizing up. But just as his heartrate hit a spectacular, cardiopulmonary arresting rate, he glanced at Monitor 7 to see Matèo Joseph and Esme Cruz wrapped up in a loving embrace, causing him to let go of himself. There on the floor he wept, feeling as depthless as an object and longing to be held.***
I am not my thoughts, I am not my thoughts, I am not my thoughts, Esme had told herself in the elevator. She had saw that mantra on Facebook. She couldn’t really understand it, though. If she wasn’t her thoughts, then who was she? This aging body? With skin that has gotten so white over the years? Was she her ethnicity? Born and raised in Pereira, Colombia? Or was she American, her identity of the last three decades? When holding these ideas up to inspection, they felt like nothing, and wondered what it even meant to be from somewhere and how that makes you who you are. Was she Paul’s wife, his property? Was she an alcoholic? Could she be someone else? Her mind chased these questions around in a spiral that got tighter and faster the more she followed. Soon she felt so sunken into herself, she had no sense for the things happening around her; it all seemed muted and distant—Matèo jumping and flailing his arms, climbing up on the guard rail, punching the ceiling, jumping down, trying to rip open the doors, failing to the floor and resorting to curling up and crying into his hands. The marble ball of her anxieties slowly scraped around the inner track of her mind and felt like it descended so far down, she couldn’t even see it anymore. It seemed ridiculous to try to chase it. What she needed while being stuck suspended in this elevator car, she felt, was what she had needed to do a long time ago—return home. She knelt to Matèo’s level then helped him up without saying a word—that would ruin it—and then held him close, panic alarms sounding all around.