Surface Tension
A Short Story by Matthew Deschaine
Written using the suggestion "Clothing"
Originally featured on 04-25-2007
As part of our series "Things you can live without, but most people choose not to"

At 5:45 a.m. the alarm came to life, filling the room with the whine of country music. Grayson’s eyes snapped open. He had set the tuner to this station for its ability to torment him. “Fucking country,” he hissed, taking a wild swipe at the off-button. A second attempt sent the table’s contents, including the clock, skidding across the uncarpeted floor.

With the room now quiet, he lay awake, buzzing with stress. The night had been a disaster. Grayson had gone to bed several hours early to be fresh for the day. The strategy backfired; he had spent much of the night wrestling his sheets, choked by the feeling that his alarm would fail.

Rolling onto his side, he could see that the cord had stopped the clock in the center of the room. The red display created an arc of light, cutting the darkness in half and revealing the room’s few pieces of furniture. A heavy layer of dust coated the floor. There were areas, however, where the hardwood gleamed. The spots were geometrical and oddly placed: four equidistant squares against the far wall, a large circle near the kitchen entrance, and beneath the apartment’s only windows, a large rectangle of clean floor.

Grayson wished that the source of these strange outlines was a mystery. There was no mystery; his long-time girlfriend was gone, and with her most of the furniture. The dust was just the most visible sign of the malaise which had overtaken the girlfriend in the weeks leading to the break-up. Grayson had taken to calling Sara “the girlfriend” in recent days. It felt good to play this little game, but he still couldn’t bring himself to wipe her presence from the apartment.

This was going to change. He had gotten a new job, a good job, a job worthy of a business card. Today was his first day at Waxman & Sharp. That is why he had gone to bed early; that is why he had bought a beautiful new suit. “Ah, the suit,” Grayson said, peeling away the covers and swinging his feet to the floor.

There it was, cutting a human-like silhouette against the frame of the closet door. With some clever hanger work, Grayson had hung the jacket and pants in a full-length pose. As a final imaginative flourish, he inserted his shirt, knotted the tie and added his shoes and briefcase. The charcoal portrait was the last thing he saw before drifting off to sleep.

Walking towards it now, he recalled the great surge of confidence he felt during the final interview. People treated him differently when he wore that suit. They nodded courteously as he passed them on the street; it got him a better table at lunch and created a respectful ring of space for him on the elevator. The suit clarified what people could think of him; it had its own personality, and, in a way, it relieved him of his.

Grayson liked the idea of adding a new facet to his personality. The suit, the job, they would be a fresh canvass. “No, not that,” Grayson said, breaking the silence. The metaphor jabbed at an old wound. Waxman & Sharp was going to stifle his desire to write, to be creative. He wasn’t going to waste any more time poking around beneath the surface of things. What had that search produced: a diploma and a half, a stack of student loans, hundreds of pages of unappreciated poetry and prose…frustration. Running has hand the length of the lapel, Grayson was confident that these things were sealed in the past.

There was new light in the room. It reminded Grayson not to squander his early start. As he moved through his routine, he began to worry that a lack of sleep would cost him later in the day. A few drops of adrenaline entered his bloodstream. He didn’t feel tired. On the contrary, he was frantic with energy. “Maybe I should make a little coffee,” he thought. The caffeine would grow his anxiety, but the extra zip would be worth the risk. A quick look in the bathroom mirror sealed the decision.

The face in the mirror stared at him with eyes puffy, wild and wide. A jagged crack in the reflection completed the image of an exhausted driver. Grayson rushed to the kitchen and loaded the coffee-maker. As the machine gurgled in the background, he zigzagged between the bathroom and studio, getting dressed one layer at a time. His stomach nagged at him for breakfast. He ignored it. The suit would conceal the turmoil in his gut. Taking a final, satisfied glance in the mirror, Grayson made final trip to the kitchen, retrieved his coffee and was out the door.

Once outside, he prayed for good car karma. Lately, the symphony of ticks and screeches had grown more acute. The car had never failed him, but, rather than taking it into the shop, he had sunk his few extra dollars into the suit. To this point, the suit had been a better investment. The concave, rust-bitten bumper grinned at him as he approached. Would it start? Would it stay running? “We’ll know in a second,” he said, taking a deep first sip of coffee. It was a bad move. A torrent of coffee exploded from the narrow opening of the lid onto his hands and face. The splash of steaming liquid momentarily blinded him, but he reacted well, thrusting the cup away from his body. A buckshot of puddles formed at his feet. Placing the mug on the hood of the car, Grayson wiped his face and scanned his jacket for signs of damage. The pavement looked like a crime scene, but the suit had escaped unscathed.

“I should get rid of this god damn thing,” Grayson cursed as he slumped into the driver’s seat. The incident, however, took his mind off the car, and it wasn’t until the freeway that it occurred to him that he had dodged two bullets. He chided himself for being so careless. The rebuke was half-hearted; he was pleased with his reflexes, his good fortune. He turned the radio to a song that matched his swagger.

With the road nearly empty, Grayson let his mind wander to the freshly painted parking-space awaiting him. He chuckled at the image of his elderly vehicle parked among the glossy BMWs, Jags and SUVs. The thought didn’t embarrass him. The ribbing he would take for it would give him the opportunity to let people know that he wouldn’t be driving it for long. He was humble. It would be a relief to own a new car. A nice vehicle, he convinced himself, wasn’t about status; it was about peace of mind.

The car, rejecting its new fate, began to vibrate violently and whine. Grayson snapped his attention back to the road. He had drifted into the breakdown lane and the grooved pavement was shouting a warning. Grateful the engine had not betrayed him, Grayson eased out of the breakdown lane and shifted into a higher gear. The stick shift was wet. The vehicle’s sudden fit had caused the mug to erupt. A stream of dark liquid dripped from the cup-holder onto the center console. A pool gathered beneath the emergency brake. With every slight vibration, the cup shed more of its contents. Grayson watched in horror as strings of agitated beads explored new parts of the dashboard and formed a puddle at his feet.

It was clear that something had to be done. There was a wad of napkins in the glove-box, but to reach across the seat he risked soiling his suit. “The suit,” he gasped, quickly scanning himself. Just above the knee, a constellation of bb-sized spots were visible. He touched the fabric, it was wet. The sleeve of his jacket and the cuff of his shirt were also tainted. A slow burn began at the base of his spine, spreading quickly to his extremities and flooding his throat: rage.

With no outlet for his fury, Grayson strangled the steering wheel, dedicating his entire body to the task. He jerked the wheel from left to right, crossing the center line several times. He stomped on the accelerator, and then the break. The car climbed to 90 mph, then limped forward at half that speed. As the strength drained from his hands, the rage evaporated. A sense of apathy rushed to fill the void. What could he do? Turn around? No, he would be late, and besides, this was his only suit. In the absence of a solution, terrible thoughts began to form:

“The sharp-eyed secretaries would sniff out his carelessness. Rumors would pollinate the office, spreading doubt. There would be whispers covered with smiles. The message would be clear: this guy is an imposter. And they would be right.”

With only a handful exits to go, Grayson counted the numbers down in despair. The changing landscape added to his sense of dread. Beyond the highway’s thin barrier of trees, he could see clusters of half-finished office parks. Sleeping cranes and bulldozers guarded the site, ready to fill the air with their snarls. Billboards advertizing futuristic companies cast long shadows; their goal of controlling time and space was darker still. The entire scene, though silent, crackled with ambition, surfaces ready to explode. “What have I gotten myself into?” Grayson glanced down at his pants, hoping the leprous spots had disappeared. No, the stains were still there, but they had faded a bit. A vein of hope cut through his anguish. A rush of dialogue followed:

“I never notice other people’s stains… people spill shit on themselves all the time… it’s just coffee… if someone asks, I’ll just say its coffee… fuck the secretaries…I’ll be in my office all day… don’t be such a little bitch.”

Don’t be such a little bitch!” He repeated the phrase a half-dozen times, spitting the words. The vulgarity was delicious; the hostility of the command, edifying. He would abuse himself so that no one else could. Grayson rubbed the damp spots on his thigh. They were drying out. He had overreacted.

Minutes later, he pulled off the highway and onto the crowded artery leading to his office. Merging with a swarm of cars, Grayson forced himself to focus on the mess ahead. A horn blasted in frustration. Several horns sounded in response. He checked the mirror to see if he was the target of attack. No, it was just the language of a traffic jam. A car cut him off, and then another. He jabbed the drivers with his horn and closed the space between he and the car in front of him. Feeling his confidence grow, he pressed his way through the herd, leaving the noise and congestion behind.

Making the final turn onto a long driveway, a multi-story black cylinder came into view. The building was an anomaly within a sea of squat steel and glass structures. He reveled in the building’s esoteric appearance. It was self-contained, silent, and precise: a finger-print against the sky.

A large sign with an impressive font stood sentry over a grid of shiny sedans and squares of grass. Entry was by invitation only. If you didn’t have a number you were out of place. Grayson pulled into slot 325, put the car in park and let the idea linger:

“He was invited and nothing could stop him; not a few spots of coffee; not a ruined night’s sleep —nothing.”

He glanced down at his pants: the stains were gone. He checked his sleeve: the marks had disappeared. A look in the mirror revealed a placid countenance. The only outward sign of stress was a deep horizontal line in his brow. He gently massaged the furrow, coaxing the muscles in his forehead to relax. With this final gesture, he was again a facade of confidence. Grayson then locked the car, straightened his tie and hurried to join a gathering queue of dark suits. At 7:59 a.m., he disappeared into their midst.

Read More By Matthew Deschaine

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