The alarm clock had rung for the seventh and last time. There was no way out, Joana had to get up now or she would be late. Not that this happened very often–on the contrary, in five years with the firm, she knew every single date that she was late or had to be absent, and she had a good excuse for all of them. Joana closed her eyes, thinking that after a few minutes, all the desire she felt to stay in bed would have passed and she would have found the strength to get up. It was 7:35 AM. Joana had fifteen minutes to get ready, brush her teeth, put a packet of instant coffee and some biscuits in her bag, feed the cat, and leave her apartment.
Every day, her mornings were the same. Joan had never liked mornings very much; she had never been bothered with working long night hours to meet deadlines, but waking up at sunrise from Monday to Friday was painful. She was in the habit of showering before bed and was content with a quick small breakfast in exchange for a few extra minutes of sleep.
She left the building where she lived and headed to work. The day had started well; her fuel tank was half-full and she wouldn’t have to stop to refuel. Traffic flowed without a hitch despite the amount of people on the road. On days like these, Joana did her best not to smile or show any sign of satisfaction. She believed that if she prematurely celebrated having a good day, unwanted surprises would come her way.
Arriving at work, everything seemed normal. Some colleagues were already there, even though there were still ten minutes before clock-in time, and others, like always, were still on their way. Joana normally used that time to prepare her coffee and eat her biscuits. It was a Monday, and every Monday, the first thing on her schedule was a general meeting. Every Monday, the way it went was always a surprise (it depended a lot on how the boss’s weekend went). She usually waited for one of her colleagues who followed him on social media to find out if she should prepare for the worst.
Joana had been avoiding using her cell phone as much as possible. She had just ended a three-year relationship, and social networks–or, rather, the lack of new messages on them–reminded her of him. The six months that followed after the breakup were filled with hours on social media, stalking her ex’s every step and watching every status update on WhatsApp. No, they didn’t delete each other from any of their platforms, and what in the beginning was a reason for hope became torture for Joana. She had many sleepless nights until her best friend, in a moment of weakness, finally stole her cell phone from her and ended the virtual friendship between the two on all possible platforms. The two hadn’t spoken again since that day, but her bond with her ex had been broken.
The meeting was about to start. Joana would not have time to find out what kind of meeting awaited her, but as she headed for that fateful event, she felt as if something were different. Her colleagues didn’t seem annoyed or anxious like every Monday. Instead, all around her there were smiles, confident gaits, and a certain relaxed atmosphere that wasn’t typically common around the office. When the boss finally came into view, she was sure something was wrong. Rodrigo, her boss, walked among his employees as if he were the most loved and respected boss in the entire universe. Joana shook her head–she must be imagining things. Maybe she needed more coffee to wake up. That was it! She was still sleepy.
The meeting room was small but comfortable. Everyone who needed to be there had already arrived and was seated with their calendars and notebooks, ready to start another week. Electronics were not allowed during the meeting, not even for notes. At first, the rule seemed quite arbitrary for any company that sought to be modern and innovative, but those like Joana who had been at the company since the beginning knew that the rule existed because people ended up using electronics for personal purposes and meetings always took longer than necessary. The only electronics in the room were a smartboard TV, which was rarely turned on, and Rodrigo’s laptop, in case he needed to do some quick research or have access to any company information.
Rodrigo didn’t take long to start the meeting. He turned on the TV, put it on the blackboard function, smiled, and asked his employees to help him with the agenda. It was the first time Joana had seen her boss start the meeting like that. She gazed down at her coffee cup, which was now half full, and began to believe that this would be a productive meeting, like the ones that occurred when Rodrigo was in a good mood.
As the meeting progressed, Joana was certain that this must have been one of the best weekends of her boss’s life, and, perhaps, of some of her colleagues’s lives as well. Many decisions were being made quickly and with a united front, pending issues that were always left for the next meeting were decided in a few minutes, something that never happened in part due to the boss, who narcissistically insisted on having the last word on everything, and and in part due to a small group who insisted on being contrary. But on that unusual Monday, everyone seemed willing to cooperate.
Joana was feeling out of place. After all, it was the first time she had participated in a meeting that efficient and good-natured. It was exactly when she realized that she was behind the others that she heard her name. A mixture of despair and terror washed over Joana. Everyone was looking at her attentively, waiting for an answer that she didn’t have, and the only thing she could do was hope that nothing could ruin the boss’s good mood and be honest:
“I’m sorry Rodrigo, I still haven’t finished the report you asked me to do. I planned on finishing it this morning.” If Joana still believed in God, this would be one of the times when she would have said a short prayer while waiting for the boss’s response. She was sure that the entire team would hold her responsible for the fiasco at the end of the meeting and the boss’s bad mood that would last all week.
“No problem. Please forward the report to my email as soon as possible. If I am still in the office when you send it, drop by and see me so we can review the data together before forwarding it to others,” Rodrigo replied, segueing into the next item on the agenda without missing a beat.
Joana was still skeptical of that answer. She looked around and waited for the disapproving looks, but the few looks that still followed her did not judge her. Joana thought about if after all that she could smile in relief and give thanks for her good fortune that day, but there were still three hours until lunchtime and she didn’t want to jinx herself. She decided to hold back as much as possible.
The meeting ended with Rodrigo, still smiling, thanking everyone for their participation. Joana looked up, fearful. She feared the critical looks of her colleagues because she didn’t finish the report, but they didn’t come. She still waited a few moments before getting up to see which of her colleagues were waiting for the boss to leave to criticize everything that had happened in the meeting, but everyone was heading to their respective work areas and the only murmurs that were heard were optimistic for the week ahead.
Joana was beginning to suspect that something was very wrong. That’s when she looked at the digital clock that was in the meeting room
That was it: it was payday, a week with a full day off on Wednesday, and the end of the quarter, which meant performance bonuses. There was no reason to complain that day. Joana relaxed for a few seconds, but remembered that she needed to finish her report. There was no time to lose.
It was almost lunchtime when Joana finished her project. She went to Rodrigo’s office, but it was empty–he had probably gone to lunch. She placed the printed sheets on the table, punched out, and started her break.
Joana was a person who loved routine. She always woke up at the same time; her meals were always the same; she always frequented the same places; she had kept the same friends for over 10 years; she did the same things every day, every week, and every month at the same time, with the same people, and in the same way.
The restaurant was the same as every Monday: self-service with a wide variety of salads. (They had to make up for Sundays when everyone allowed themselves to overdo it). It was ten minutes away from her office and not usually very crowded, but you could see that the place had a loyal clientele during the week.
When Joana arrived at the restaurant, everything seemed to be coming up roses: her usual table was unoccupied, the specials of the day were among her favorites, and the waiter she considered to have the best service was working. She went to her usual table and asked for a tonic water. She liked to have lunch alone with no one else to talk to. She could use the time to watch an episode of one of her favorite shows. She also loved to eat undisturbed and the staff there already knew her tastes. As soon as her tonic water arrived, Joan put on her headphones and forgot about the world around her.
After finishing her lunch, she was about to get up and go to pay when she realized that her purse wasn’t on the chair next to her where she usually left it. She mentally retraced her steps and remembered that she had left the building shortly after stopping by Rodrigo’s office and that she had completely forgotten that she would need her purse.
A chill ran up her spine at not knowing how she was going to pay for her meal. It was one thing to be known by the employees, but it was another to ask to pay for lunch on credit. Her mother would never forgive her for that slip; in her opinion, there was nothing worse than failing your duty to others. Joana looked around despondently and saw cell phones on all the tables, including one in front of her, and remembered that technology had already advanced to the point that she could pay with her cell phone. This time, Joanna couldn’t contain her smile and, for the first time that day, she allowed herself to smile.
Joana hurried up to the cash register. There was a small line in front of her, which was a little unusual for this place. That’s when she started to realize to what was happening. At the counter, the owner of the establishment was explaining to the customer that the electronic system was down and no payment could be made via card or cell phone.
Joana felt guilty for even having smiled a few minutes ago. It was as if a mysterious force was attentively watching her every move, waiting for the moment when she would let herself be carried away by the day’s events and start to believe that she would have a good day only to bring everything crumbling down like a house of cards when she started to feel a sense of security.
The restaurant owner, contrary to expectations, didn’t seem concerned about the fact that customers couldn’t pay. Her solution was to hand out a restaurant card to each person who had no other form of payment available at the time and write down the amount each customer had to pay on the back. She even allowed them to return within seven days to make the payment, jotting down the person’s name and the amount in a notebook, in case someone forgot their card.
Joana couldn’t believe what she was hearing and how calm people were. She began to suspect that the person in front of her was someone who knew the owner and that’s why they were being treated differently. It was time to find out.
“Good afternoon! How will you be paying today?”
“QR code by cell phone.”
“Unfortunately our system is down, but if it’s not too much trouble I would like to give you our business card with today’s account value on the back and write it down in my notebook in case you lose or forget your card when you come back. You can stop by the restaurant any day during this week to pay. Is it okay with you if we do it that way?”
Joana was still having a hard time believing what was happening.
“Do you want to give me a card with the amount I have to pay and a whole week to return? How are you going to make sure I come back?”
“Why wouldn’t you come back?” the owner replied promptly, as if she had not understood the question.
Joana was speechless; she simply nodded her head. The restaurant owner gave her the card with her balance on the back, wrote it down in her notebook, smiled, and thanked her for understanding. Suddenly, everything seemed off kilter. She left the restaurant stunned, walking slowly and trying to process what had just happened to her. She had left a restaurant without paying, but the reason for her discomfort was not that she hadn’t paid or the solution found, but the words of the owner that still echoed in her mind: “Why wouldn’t you come back?”.
The trip back to work was slow. Joana did not get lost, as she had walked the same route so many times that she did it without thinking. A whirlwind of thoughts flooded her mind. It was hard to concentrate, to understand everything that had happened that morning, but she was sure of one thing: there was no better day to call her best friend and, after so many months, finally leave the past in the past.
She realized that she was a few feet from the building where she worked. She saw the small square where she so often spent her lunch break to avoid conversations with her co-workers. She slowly walked over and sat down on one of the benches. She needed to organize her ideas better–you had to be honest with yourself before being honest with your friends.
She couldn’t understand how, up until that moment, she hadn’t noticed how many times she had lied to herself and ended up doing the same to others. The real reason she was so angry with her friend was that she didn’t want to admit she was wrong. She knew she should distance herself from her ex, she knew following him on social media caused her to suffer, but sometimes it was so much easier to complain about the problem than to find solutions and move on. That unusual Monday, at a meeting where egos were pushed aside for problems to be resolved, where she was confident that no one had a reason to not do what was agreed, Joana realized that it was time to find solutions. It was time to leave behind the problems that did not allow her to continue forward and be honest with herself.
She closed his eyes, covered her face with her hands, and felt a peace unlike anything she had ever experienced. She was ready to start a new chapter in her life starting with that call. She opened his eyes, slowly removed her hands from her face and followed their every movement. She tried to look closely at every detail of her hands and found she was having a hard time doing it. She tried to fixate her gaze on her fingers, but it was in vain. She took a deep breath, turned her hand over, and tried to count her fingers, only to fail once again. It was then that it clicked.
It was a dream. She knew she was about to wake up when she failed to count her fingers. She began to regain consciousness slowly and she knew that there were but only a few seconds before she woke up. There was not much left to do but hope she remembered everything. Yes, she had dreamt all of it, but she wanted it to be the awakening of a new stage of her life. She had to remember it, to recognize that this atypical morning was not impossible, to allow herself to smile throughout the day, to remember to be honest with herself without having to ask yourself why she would. She needed to wake up and act. She had to call her friend and apologize.
Joana woke up and all she felt was the wind against her body. She couldn’t open her eyes, but she knew she was in free fall. It was too late: she had all the answers to her problems, but she lacked time. They say that before dying we see our life flash before our eyes. Joana saw into her imagined future and had just enough time to smile once more.
Proofreader/Translator Evelyn Jamila