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A Quiet Man

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During the day I work a normal, boring retail job. It's nothing special but it pays the bills and I'm good at it. I just got a nice promotion, my bosses all respect me (though there are a few I suspect don't like me) and I'm making enough to get by. But it's boring. Incredibly boring. There are days where we get so few customers that I resort to counting my steps as I make my way in a long circle around my section. Today I walked 6,193 steps. So, despite being successful, I hate my job. That's why I have another one.

I've been called a prostitute by people who don't understand what it is I do; and even by a few of my clients. But I'm not. I never have sex with my clients, for the most part I don't even get close enough to touch them. They do pay to spend the night with me but what we do is much more mundane than prostitution. Usually we just talk. That's it. Sometimes I'll have a client that wants to play a board game or watch a movie but it all comes back to them wanting someone to talk to. A little companionship.

They're mostly middle aged men, sometimes women, generally they have a least a little success and a lot of money, they're workaholics and most of them have a pretty bad drinking problem and they are all incredibly lonely. The few that have families don't like going home to them because they have difficulty relating and the ones that don't have families desperately wish to start one. It can be a depressing job but I enjoy it. I feel like I'm really helping some of these people, and that's what I've always wanted to do. Help.

Most nights follow a basic pattern. The client and I will meet somewhere, usually a restaurant, we'll go back to their home or they'll book a hotel, they usually put on a movie, and then we'll talk. Sometimes I'll do all the talking, sometimes they will. Some of them want to scream and vent, some want to cry, some want to tell jokes, and no matter what I'll listen. The sessions last anywhere from 2 to 6 hours and by the end they all seem happier. Then they pay me, always cash, and go home.

It's an easy job and pretty lucrative so it's well worth the occasional weirdo. But there was one client that got to me, that really made me want to quit.

He contacted me in late December and I agreed to meet him on January 2. He wanted me to meet him at his apartment - a condition I don't readily agree to and which comes with a significant increase in price - and he wanted the session to last only two hours.

It was snowing when I arrived and the sun was just rising over the roofs of the large apartment complex he lived in. It was a fairly ritzy place, lots of modern art on the walls and two big fountains in front of the main office - both totally frozen. There was a doorman in the lobby of his building and I had to sign in. The doorman seemed slightly offput by my less-than expensive clothes but that sort of thing didn't bother me. The man's apartment was on the fourth floor so I took the elevator and the whole time I felt strange. Not scared, just strange.

When I reached the fourth floor I realized that the apartments were cold, like there was no heater and I wondered if the power was out. If so, the man probably wouldn't be in a good mood. I made my way down the corridor, noting how each door was totally identical but for the gold numbers. There were no sounds coming from behind any of those doors and I assumed everyone was out, probably working considering how expensive the apartments must have been. Looking back, I'm not so sure.

The man's door was already open and it stood out in all the unbroken color of the wall. Seeing the empty space where the door should be only increased my uneasiness. When I reached the room I knocked, despite the obvious sign of welcome. The door opened into a small hallway that fed into the main room. I couldn't see anything in there but there as a painting hanging at the end of the hall showing a greenish landscape at night. It was an unremarkable picture but for the tiny cottage at the bottom-right that gave a sense of scope.

I stepped into the hallway and made my way around the corner. I moved slowly, scared to break the seemingly intrinsic silence of the place, and when I came around I found my client. He was sitting at a small table in the middle of an otherwise empty room. The room was large, bigger than I would have thought. At the time it seemed too big but I think that it was just an illusion caused by the smallness of the table. I don't really know. I'm unsure of a lot of things from that day.

The man looked up at me. He didn't smile or wave, or really acknowledge me in any way other than that stare. He was as unremarkable as his single painting. Plain face, glasses, cropped hair and clothes that reminded me of a banker. He sat with his back straight and his hands laced on the table. His elbows rested on his thighs.

This is the part where I should have walked away, where to this day I can't explain my actions. Nothing was right about this scene. I've come up with a million logical explanations for why his apartment was empty, for why I can't remember there being any other doors in that apartment that might lead to a bedroom or a bathroom, and for why now whenever I think of that painting on the wall my body reacts as if it were something grotesque. But none of them feel true. They all sound like lies in my head. There was just something wrong with that place.

I had a knife with me - you can't be too careful - and for just a moment I had thought about bringing it out. But I didn't, instead I made my way to the table and took a seat across from the man. He didn't say anything and neither did I. We merely sat and stared at one another.

Think about how you sit for a moment. Are you still? Do you fidget? Do you twiddle your fingers and move your eyes around the room as though it's somehow changed in the last few seconds? I spend a lot of time sitting with people and watching them and I tell you that no one is still. Everybody loses patience, loses endurance, and moves. We aren't calm creatures, even when we rest.

This man did none of that. His posture was solid and irreducible. He was rigid, like a rock. I got the feeling then and I feel now that he could have sat that way all day, for several days, and never once moved. Seeing this, however, made me fidged more. I found myself unable to get comfortable for even a second at a time. I had to shift my body several times and I cracked my knuckles more than once. I was sweating, despite the cold and my heartbeat struck the inside of my chest with unusual clarity. And all through this the man seemed to be getting excited.

There was no change in his posture or in his face, nothing to really show that he was reacting at all, but I could feel it. His pleasure buzzed in my head and slowly choked me. It was like he was feeding off of it, growing despite staying the same. It was a surreal Hell of discomfort that was more terrible than the worst dream I've ever had.

Eventually, I don't know when, the man had laid money on the table. The sight of it came to me as if through a feverish haze. It was as though my body had been asleep, though my eyes were open, and had suddenly come awake and my senses were all taking time to come back. I stared at the thick wad of bills for several minutes before realizing what it meant.

I snatched it up and left without a word. The man hadn't moved and he still wore the same blank expression as when I had first seen him. I felt him watching me as I left but I didn't turn around and as I left I made sure to avoid looking at the painting. The door was still open and I didn't bother closing it. The corridor was still silent, all the doors still closed but now I felt that the rooms weren't empty. I felt things behind the doors, perhaps standing in the hallway or watching through the peep holes.

I didn't run. Not because I was brave but because I felt that if I ran I wouldn't be able to keep my balance. The hall was spinning and pulsating and it took all of my concentration just to push the button to call the elevator. I stepped inside and as the doors closed I caught one last glimpse of the looming shadow that was the man's open door.

In the lobby, the doorman had been replaced. This new one was much nicer, he greeted me as I signed out and even wished me good night as I left the building. Outside, the sun had gone down and a thick coat of snow had covered the world.

I don't know how long I was in that room. I don't want to know. But I threw the money away. I dug a hole in the snow and buried it. Hopefully when the snow melted it destroyed those bills. I didn't want it. I felt defiled. I shut my business down for awhile after that but it didn't last long. Since meeting with that man I've found that I long to listen to people. It's different now. I need to hear these people's stories, I need to feel their emotions. I feel less satisfied than before, less good about what I'm doing. I feel more like I'm using these people.

I feel defiled.

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