The Romance of Unconnected Lives
As the year approached its last month, things changed in the city. What was simple advertising turned in November to incessant marketing. What was incessant marketing turned in December to a cacophonic assault on the senses.
What were ordinary streetlights turned into flashing, festive fairy lights. Various street festivals and fairs began popping up, featuring all manner of sugar-filled, deep-fried snacks and structurally questionable theme park rides. Shop windows transformed into differing displays of holly, tinsel, Christmas trees, and signs advertising a certain percentage off a selection of products, often with an exclamation mark to follow the percentage sign.
In short, Christmas was coming to the city.
Matt enjoyed the holiday season, which was surprising given his aversion to social gatherings or elation of any kind. But this was a season in which fond memories circulated around his head and the approaching 25th day of December brought with it a sense of happiness.
As a child, the holiday was never more than a simple gathering of family. An only child, Matt had enjoyed the chance to play with his relatives of similar ages and reconnect with people he hadn’t seen for a while. His family would take the three hour drive out from the city into the rolling countryside to his grandparents’ house. Here they would arrive on Christmas Eve, reunite, play games, and eat throughout the evening. His grandparents’ house was rather large – built in a place and time where and when space was no issue – and Matt and his parents would stay the night, waking up to the smell of his grandmother’s cooking and the promise of a present under the tree.
There was always only one present for each family member. This was put in place before Matt could remember so as to keep the focus on family and having fun together.
As Matt grew older, the tradition got simpler still. He was approaching the age in which his parents had had him, and he found himself making the journey – which, coincidentally, was three hours by train – to his parent’s house. His grandparents had passed away several years ago and his parents took on the mantle left behind. There would often be one or two other family friends there to enjoy the day with, usually those whose alternative would be spending Christmas alone. The more the merrier, thought Matt. More participants for the evenings gaming sessions.
This year, he knew, would be the same.
Matt awoke to the smell of a recently rained sky. He always left his window open – even during the colder months – and he knew upon waking that the air felt different. It had been cleared of its usual city pollutants and cooled considerably too.
Matt pulled the blanket up and curled himself into its warmth. He looked at his phone, 5:55am. Why is it he always woke slightly before his alarm? Now he was stuck in a sort of sleep limbo: he couldn’t wake up, but he also couldn’t remain asleep. He had to simply wait the five (four) minutes until the building hum of “Alarm number 2” gave him permission to rise from his slumber.
His waking up early to get a head start on the day was working. Over the last few weeks, Rex had developed considerably. It took a while to get going, as Matt’s body and mind were not used to an early rise, but progress was soon apparent and the novel was making headway. It wouldn’t be long now until the first draft was finished.
“Alarm Number 2” began to build. Matt rolled over and pressed the first button he could find to turn it off. Then he slowly rose until he was sitting on the side of his bed. Matt set three alarms each morning, each three minutes after the next, and refused to turn them off until it was clear he was actually out of bed.
He sat there blinking.
“Alarm Number 2” began its build again. What? Matt looked at the time. He had fallen asleep sitting up. Rising to avoid a repeat of the same situation, he unplugged his phone, put it into the pocket of his pyjama bottoms, and sauntered out of the room.
In the office, Matt’s laptop sat on the desk amidst the random clutter. Usually there was some sort of manner in a person’s clutter. Certain things could always be found in a certain place, even if that place wasn’t where the certain things were intended to be found. But Matt’s clutter often seemed to have no reason to it at all: keys would be placed on the fridge, wallets on the TV. Matt’s desk was often like this.
It was customary now that the days started with his alarm and Matt began each day – no matter how tired – writing on his laptop. He often found he got more work done this way and that he was exponentially more productive in the mornings.
He sat down at his desk, still blinking, though now at longer intervals. He flipped open his laptop, opened up the document entitled Rex, and began writing. It would often take him several paragraphs of writing and deleting before he got into his groove, but once he did he would sit there for a solid hour or two before deciding it was breakfast time.
After breakfast, a little more writing and then the gym. The more Matt wrote, the more he went to the gym, running on the treadmill for thirty to forty-five minutes at a time. Much of Rex’s fate was decided on this treadmill, the third from the right. Where would the showdown take place? Would Rex be outgunned? Would he be shot? How long between each gunfight? Should he finish the novel alive or as a martyr, heroically saving the damsel in the final moments? Three treadmills from the right, accompanied by its rhythmic whirring, the story was written.
Today was slightly different from most in that a rather exciting meeting with Kyle was on the books for the afternoon. When Matt arrived at the coffee shop, Kyle was already there.
“Give me the good news,” Matt said as he walked towards Kyle. The latter had a smile on his face.
“Were you really expecting anything else?”
“So we got it?!”
“We got it.”
Matt sat down, equal parts excited and relieved. Rex now had an end-date and Kyle was talking to publishers to see who was interested. Kyle’s ‘we got it’ meant not only was there interest, but there was a deal on the table.
“It gets better,” Kyle continued smiling. “I got a few of them in a bidding war.”
“Oh yeah.” He stood up to order the drinks. “This is what you pay me for. Want anything?” He was gesturing to the counter now.
“Just a tea, please.” Matt was happy. The stress of not knowing was suddenly lifted and he could focus exclusively on the writing. This was fantastic.
A minute later Kyle was back with the drinks. “There is one catch.”
“It’s not a bad thing. We’re fast-tracking your book. We want to capitalise on everything that’s happened and make sure your name stays strong. So they’re willing to work with us and bring up the timeline.”
“But this is a new style of work for you and they’re a little nervous. So that means you’re going to need to take a more hands-on approach.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well usually I’ve been the one working the marketing angle and sorting out all the details and you’ve been writing. Now we’re both working all the details. You’re going to have to take a greater level of control in your social media, in the marketing of your book. More interviews, more involvement. I know you aren’t the biggest fan of all that but it’s the best way forward.”
Matt paused for a moment. “Ok.”
“Ok, I’ll do it. It sounds like a really good idea and I need to take more control in that area of my work. I see no reason why it couldn’t be good for me.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear. And it will be. This is a brilliant way to get you back on track.”
“And – I haven’t done anything with this yet because I wanted to run it past you – but I’ve been approached by one of the universities here. There is a new program they’re doing which seeks to get already published authors to mentor young writers. They’re doing a pilot run which starts in the spring and they’ve asked if you would be interested. It doesn’t take much time and could be good for you.”
“You’ll do it?”
“I’ll think about it. It sounds interesting but I need more details.”
“Brilliant. I’ll reach out to them and find out all I can. Matt, this is good. I’m excited for your next book.”
Matt sat thinking. This could be good. He had a lot to learn about marketing but he enjoyed learning. Who knows?
“Speaking of which, how’s the writing going?” Kyle took another sip of his coffee and sat back.
“Ahead of schedule.”
“That’s what I like to hear. Now how’s the non-work-related writing going?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Matt, we talked about spending time each day writing about something random.”
“… yeah. I started doing that… and then I stopped.”
“Because I became busy with Rex.”
“I was writing a short story about a watch which spent most of its life in the drawer because it wasn’t as fancy as the other watches… but then I stopped.”
“How far did you get?”
“… three pages.”
Kyle paused for a moment. “How’s the daily schedule going?”
“Good. That’s what I like to hear. Keep working on it. And keep writing random stuff. You know you need to.”
Jane cared not for the Christmas season. She loved her family and the idea of the festivities, but the incessant commercialism that accompanied this time of year made Jane look on with dread as November and December rolled around.
Initially, Anette couldn’t tell why Jane didn’t like the season. Jane was the most philanthropic person she knew, so surely another reason to give gifts was nothing but a good thing. But she quickly learned that, for Jane, philanthropy – or charity – was done because it made sense. It made sense for more people to have more rather than a few have it all. It made sense to divvy up the wealth so that all of humankind could flourish. Jane was not under the illusion that opportunity comes to all, that hard work is all that was needed to build yourself up.
Perhaps the next great thinker, or the next great innovator, was growing up in a house with nothing, with no hope of paying for the cost of university, with no opportunity to acquire the capital needed to start the company that would someday save the world.
Maybe not, but maybe. And it was the maybe that made sense to Jane. That was why Jane changed the structure of the company to give more, that was why she herself gave more.
She did not give more because a certain cultural aspect linked to a certain day of the year told her to. Christmas simply didn’t make sense to her: that for one day people would gather to give gifts and then go back to the way their lives were, nothing changed, nothing altered.
Not to mention the stress and the greed and the people. So many people.
Over time, Anette got to see this side of Jane, the side that didn’t understand the concept of holidays. Over time Anette learnt that, for Jane, actions throughout the year meant more than actions on one particular day. Even birthdays or Mother’s Day and Father’s Day didn’t really process well with her. On one hand, she understood the setting aside of one day, but on the other she felt that the very need to set aside a day showed a flaw in the system. Had we become so engrossed in ourselves that we need to set aside days to acknowledge and appreciate other people?
Jane didn’t know, but it was something she thought of every time an occasion such as Christmas rolled around.
All this was thought during her morning preparation. The rhythm she had developed from going through her routine five, often six (and sometimes seven) days of the week brought with it a mental numbness that allowed her to think about anything and everything else. She tried not to think of work during these times, using instead her daily elevator ride to transition between life and work.
As she got ready this morning, her thoughts switched between these thoughts of Christmas, her plans for Christmas, and what her future held.
She didn’t enjoy thinking about the future. When she was a child and people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she never knew. Nor did she have any inkling where she wanted to be in five or ten years, the other popular question to ask a child who cannot hope to grasp the concept of ten years.
Today the thoughts of her future had snuck their way subtly into her head, pouncing when she least expected it.
So is this what you want to be doing for the rest of your life?
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
The practice of taking things one day at a time was one that Jane resonated with greatly. She was a planner and she had dreams and visions for JRR Investments, but she didn’t enjoy living ten years in the future. Her dreams and visions affected the company now so as to continue to affect it in the years to come. The years to come would bring their own challenges and rewards which would be met in those years. Today she had to focus on today.
She changed thoughts and continued getting ready for the day.
Do you still want to be here when you’re sixty?
Hell yeah, was her initial response. Then she stopped to think. No. She still wanted to be in a similar position to where she was now – though the investment world was constantly changing and who knows what the future held – but she didn’t want to be here when she was sixty. She wanted to have created change, to be further along the road to betterment, not just her own, but her community’s as well.
And if she was really dreaming, she wanted to change the world, to do things that mattered on a global scale. If she were still here over thirty years later, having made little to no progress, she didn’t know what she would do.
Her thoughts, now focused, couldn’t be changed back. Ok, but how do we do this so we don’t wake up years from now and find ourselves here?
Her focus became hyperfocused. By now she was walking to work. It was cold in the morning, but Jane, lost in her mind, didn’t feel it. She was mapping out a plan, a way to ensure success. She didn’t necessarily know what she wanted, but she knew what she didn’t want, and that was enough. So often one can focus on what they think they want only to wind up holding what they didn’t want. It is better, Jane thought, to know what you don’t want and plan accordingly. That way it’s easier to aim for what you do want without risking losing it all.
Her mind was a strange place, though the mind of anyone driven and passionate about what they believe in is a strange place. It was these moments of questioning, these daunting glimpses into the future, that Jane needed in order to function at her highest capacity. She needed them to ensure she was on the right path, not just for her, but for her company. The potential for greatness was always there. Occasionally she needed refocusing to make sure she didn’t go off course.
By now she was at her office, a new fire in her heart and a new spring in her step. She was ready for whatever the day threw at her.
Her breathing slowed as the elevator approached floor fifteen.
Aside from Matts rather exciting news, today was, for all intents and purposes, nondescript. It was for both Matt and Jane as they went about their lives. Both were, in their own ways, getting further immersed into their own systems. They were finding what worked for them and they were running with it. For Matt, it was the early rising: the forcing of himself to sit by the laptop and write, even if he ended up writing nothing at all. For Jane, it was the disciplined weekend breaks: the introduction of what could only be described as a pseudo-social life.
The growing familiarity and routine allowed each of them to further increase their productivity in the day. As they dug further into their own lives, the lives of others disappeared around them. These were the beginning stages of the final chapter in the journey to normalcy. This intense focus, this mental isolation that each possessed, was a necessary step towards what they each craved: a balanced and fruitful life.
To Matt, that meant something others might consider isolated. But Matt was an introvert; he thrived on periods of temporary isolation. Too much was bad, and for now he needed the nagging voice of Kyle to get him out of the house and into the world around him. He needed the gym to ensure his body didn’t wither away while his mind flourished.
To Jane, that meant something others might consider too work intensive. But Jane loved her job and she was built for it. Long, busy days at the office agreed with her. Too much, however, was bad, and for now she needed the nagging voice of Anette to pull her out of her room with a view on floor fifteen and get her into the world around her. She loved meeting new people and socialising, and she needed that to ensure her mind stayed healthy. She needed the gym to counteract the long hours at the office and make sure her body didn’t wither away while her spirit flourished.
Days such as today were vital. They were the foundation of the life that both Matt and Jane needed. But they were also the days most quickly forgotten. Nothing of much note happened on days such as these and so, when telling their stories, these are the days omitted from the script.
There was, however, one interesting footnote in the activities of not today but a few days ago. Neither of the duo would have realised it and so neither would have assigned it to memory, but it was of interest.
It happened when Jane ran the annual city marathon. ‘Ran’ may not be entirely accurate. She ran and walked the marathon, though always running more than she thought she would.
It began as a tradition years ago when her company began sponsoring the marathon. For years she had told herself she was going to run the marathon, that she’d build up the courage the next year to do it. Then the next year rolled around, and she’d say the same thing.
But now that her company was sponsoring it, she decided it was high time to join in. The first year was, well, rather appalling. She had told herself she was a strong runner and was sure she could finish the race in under four hours, a figure she had heard was the average time it took to complete.
Five and a half hours later, she slugged across the finish line. That was embarrassing, she thought. Clearly she hadn’t been running as much as – or as long as – she thought. It was also embarrassing because someone somewhere knew she was running and she knew that, in the newspapers the next day, there would be a picture of her running and a small article to accompany it. Right, she thought, next year will be better.
And it was, as was the year after that and so on and so forth. Each year Jane improved her time, and now she was running it at three and a half hours. The amount she walked had also diminished greatly.
This year was no different in terms of her improvement, though a – still very impressive – finish of three hours and twenty-five minutes wasn’t as much improvement as she would have hoped. She stopped her stopwatch as she crossed the bright blue banner of the finish line, half walking, half stumbling, as every exhausted runner does as they slow from a run to a walk.
The mass of finishers moved slowly past the cheering crowds who had come to support the runners on their successful finish, past a few photographers whose dwindling numbers showed that the majority of the famous runners had come and gone, and through a giant tent where a patient group of volunteers lined the opposite sides of the tables running parallel to the marathoners. Here the mass was given energy drinks, snacks, lunches, t-shirts, cookies, and more, all in little baggies with Jane’s company’s logo on it.
After that, more shuffling through places and being handed more bags of stuff. It seemed an age before Jane managed to meander her way through and go home, mentally ticking off another year’s marathon and wondering how much time she could shave off next year’s.
Matt did not run the marathon. Matt could not run the marathon. Though his jaunts to the gym were frequent and productive – especially now that he had created a routine that suited him and gained control of his schedule – he ran for no more than thirty minutes and never pushed himself to train harder or run further the next time. To him, a build-up of endurance was a gradual thing, and the thought of training for something as specific as a marathon was repellent.
For about fifteen years, Matt and his parents had a little tradition they would do every year the marathon rolled around. His parents, though they had now moved out to the country, would still sometimes come down to visit Matt during this time, and they would all partake in the tradition together.
This year they didn’t, but that was no matter. Matt would still partake.
So Matt woke up at six o’clock in the morning. It was a Sunday morning and, for many, it was a glorious morning of lying in. But Matt didn’t have a regular job and could therefore choose his weekend from whatever two days of the week tickled his fancy.
He chose Monday and Tuesday for no particular reason – except maybe that if he were for some strange reason to go out Saturday night he could get right back into the groove of things on Sunday and then rest and recover the next day. It wasn’t necessarily a scientific approach, but it worked for Matt.
So on this Sunday at six o’clock, Matt rolled out of bed as usual, wrote – though for just an hour this time – and ate breakfast. Instead of writing a little more and going to the gym, Matt showered, put on some jeans and a black shirt, and left the house. By the time he arrived at the finish line of the marathon, the initial batch of racers had begun. But it was a marathon, and Matt – as well as the mass of other volunteers – had plenty of time.
The area was already buzzing with activity when he arrived, and Matt slotted himself into the fray, making himself useful. He spent most of the day until three – his allocated finishing time – working in the giant tent just past the finish line. Here he would spend his time behind the wall of benches and volunteers who actually interacted with the runners. He enjoyed just assisting behind the scenes, stocking up food and drink, running from place to place to make sure everything was going well or to find so-and-so who ‘was supposed to be here’ or who ‘would know what to do’.
Between the hours of one and two, however, he was pulled into the line to switch with someone who for some reason needed to be somewhere else. Apparently, something had come up.
It was during this hour that Matt handed a lunch bag full of two sandwiches, an apple, and some crisps (the energy bars and other assorted snacks could be picked up later and dropped into the bag) to a rather exhausted lady about the same age as him, her hair tied back but frazzled somewhat from the 26.2 miles of running.
Had she been wearing a bold, yellow, one-sleeve, sheath satin gown with a small diamond brooch just above her right side, had she had her hair curled slightly and pulled back behind her ear on her left side so it flowed over her right shoulder, then perhaps – aside from being completely out of place at a marathon – perhaps Matt would have recognised her as the woman the mystery lady was talking to at the gala, the big boss at JRR Investments.
Had she looked directly at him and he directly at her instead of each giving each other the appropriate ‘here you go’, ‘thank you’ glance; had she been the only one there instead of just another being in the blur of exhausted faces that slumped past; then perhaps – aside from not needing nearly as many volunteers for a one-woman marathon – perhaps Matt would have looked twice, vaguely recognising her as someone he thought he knew but didn’t know why.
But of course, neither was she wearing her gala dress nor was she running alone, and Matt continued on with the day without giving her, or any of the other runners, a second thought.
To Jane too, Matt was insignificant. She was barely conscious after a three-and-a-half-hour run. Her mind was taken up with the duelling tasks of making sure she controlled her breathing and ensuring that she got food. She could not remember much of the herding through the tent, except that lots of people were there to hand her sustenance. No face passed the barrier from short to long-term memory. No volunteer stood out.
To each of the duo, the event was a good one, but unremarkable in any way other than it was an event in which each had partaken and in which each would probably partake next year.