Every day I follow the same routine.
It’s not a compulsion, I just see no need to change it.
I wake at 7:30, am showered and dressed by 8, and I’ve eaten and left by 8:15am. I arrive at my job at 8:50 and work from 9 to 1, when I break for lunch. I eat in the break room and make small talk with my co-workers. At 2 I resume my work, taking a 3:30 tea break. I leave the office at 5:10 and am home at 6. My work isn’t rewarding, but it is steady and my co-workers are nice enough. At the end of each day I return to my home where I live alone, with no one to interrupt my preferred way of doing things.
This routine was followed precisely for years before I noticed that I was even doing it. One morning as I was leaving the house, I was struck by a feeling of absolute panic. It was as though my stomach was at once hollow and filled with immense weight.
It was 8:16 and I have never run faster in my life than I did to catch that bus.
As I sat, panting and shaking on the bus, I wondered why I had reacted that way. I didn’t know what I was afraid of. I checked my phone repeatedly. Missing this bus would mean that I would arrive at the office nine minutes later, still on time for work – so it wasn’t a practical concern. Others at my work arrived late and got by without trouble, giving a shrug and a smile for an excuse. I doubt anyone would even notice if I came in late as long as my job was done.
It was the routine, I thought. I was so in the habit of it following it that the slightest difference felt wrong. And of course it wouldn’t matter if I was a minute late! But, of course, I should just keep to my routine. After all, it’s easier to avoid the stress altogether. The only actual issue, as far as I could see, was that it annoyed me to see that the passenger who had boarded in front of me had taken my usual seat.
So from then on I kept to the routine. I woke, I went to work, I took lunch, and I went home at night to relax.
Then there was another hiccup.
I was working intently on a project with a strict deadline. My co-worker had gotten up to go to lunch, and I unthinkingly said I’d be there soon. When I finally looked up it was 1:55. I was again struck by absolute panic. I walked as quickly as I could without running to the break room.
My co-workers were cleaning up, preparing to go back to their desks. I doubt they’d noticed that I hadn’t been there. Someone in a grey jacket brushed past me as I walked to the fridge. My lunch was missing. It wasn’t in its usual place on the second shelf. I looked in the rest of the fridge, then at the table. It was all but cleared, my remaining co-workers washing up their cutlery and containers. On the drying rack beside the sink was my lunch-box. It had been cleaned and stacked neatly.
I should have been angry. I should have been indignant that someone had the audacity to steal my lunch, and to wash it as though it was theirs. It would be less insulting to have it thrown away – at least that would show some shame. Instead I felt absolute panic. Someone had deliberately upset my schedule.
I kept my calm demeanour and tried to rationalise. I decided to go back to work. I could wait until my tea break to find something to eat. And although my work was almost done, I felt as though there was nothing more important at this time than getting back to my desk by 2. I looked at my watch at 1:58. I did run this time.
On my way back to my desk I again brushed past the co-worker in the grey jacket. If they though anything of my demeanour, they showed no sign of it. They continued walking at a normal speed as I raced past them and slammed myself back into my seat at the desk. At once the panic lifted. I went back to my task and at 3:30 I took my tea break. I took no more time than usual, but I did take four biscuits.
No lunches were stolen again after that day. In the following weeks, I learned the theif’s pattern. Whoever took my lunch must have the same mealtime, for as long as I have gotten to the break room before 1:03, my lunch is there. And as long as I am back in my chair at 1:59, I don’t get hit by the panic.
But that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? To live a life so regimented?
On the first Monday of each month we have a staff meeting after work. It’s not mandatory and I have never attended. But I decide that today I will. It’ll be good for my career and my relationships with my co-workers, so there’s no reason for me to feel stressed or panicked about changing my routine.
At 5pm I shut off my computer and go to the meeting room. Through the window, I can hear the traffic passing. I hear my bus come and go. I am again hit by panic, but I grit my teeth and refuse to run to flag down the bus. I appear to listen intently to my manager, and I make inconsequential small talk with my co-workers. They know nothing about me, sticking to vague and inoffensive topics. My manager delegates tasks between the departments and I see on the list the jobs that will fall to me come Monday morning. They’re not assigned to me by name, but by my job title.
Before I leave, I go to the bathroom. I splash my face with cold water, unfortunately dampening the collar of my jacket and shirt. My black shirt doesn’t show much but the droplets show up dark on my grey jacket. I’ll wash it tonight anyway. I wear it almost every day and usually have to wash it by the end of the week anyway.
At 6 I leave the building to catch a bus. Not my bus. I sit in the same seat I would on my bus, but it isn’t my seat. I get off at my stop, darker than it should be. Later than I should. I walk fast, for the sake of some small part of me that believes that hurrying now will make up for being an hour late.
I will unlock my door and leave it open to let the breeze in. I will make dinner, likely something with tomatoes as I think they’ll go bad soon. I will call my mother while I’m cooking, and tell her about my weekend. Then I’ll watch TV and go to bed early.
I turn the corner to see my house. The lights are on.
I walk up the path. The door is open.
I step slowly through the threshold. The smell of cooking reaches me. It smells like a tomato dish. It’s my cooking.
From the kitchen, I can hear a voice. I can’t hear what’s being said, but from the tone it’s a pleasant phone all. As I get closer I can hear the voice. “I’d better go, mum. Dinner’s almost done and I don’t want to keep you”. It’s my voice.
I walk through the kitchen just as the person in the grey jacket walks past me, holding a steaming plate. They brush past me without the slightest indication they notice I’m here. I follow them. I follow my own footsteps in my own house to where the person in my grey jacket sits in my seat, and commences watching my TV. I vaguely notice they’re watching the show I watch on Monday nights. I watch as they eat in measured bites, disinterestedly watching TV.
As I watch, I realise that the panic has left me. I think since the moment I stepped through the threshold and realised it was someone else that was now in charge of the house, the weight was lifted.
I sit in the corner and watch myself watch TV. I don’t smile once. At one point I hear a sharp exhalation of air at a joke. I watch myself flip channels between ad breaks.
After the show ends I watch myself flips channels for twenty minutes before settling on a movie already halfway through its runtime.
I follow and watch them do the dishes, close the front door and go upstairs to bed exactly as I do. I go downstairs and leave through the front door. I leave it open this time, as I never have before.
Tomorrow, a person who looks exactly like me will wake at 7:30, be showered and dressed by 8, and will have eaten and left by 8:15. They will arrive at work at 8:50 and work from 9 until 1 and take a 3:30 tea break. They will leave the office and be home at 6.
I ran late, and I missed my routine. And now it will continue without me.
And it’s damn welcome to it.
I wrote this story a few months ago, and this is the second draft of it