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The brick building of existential dread: A short story

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Senior Staff

MARCH 25, 2023

hen Naime was finished at work she went straight home. When she unlocked her door and walked in, she took off her shoes one by one, pushing each off with the heel of the other. She threw her keys into a small wooden bowl by the door as she did everyday. The keys jangled as they made contact with the cheap wood. The bowl was filled with scratches from its daily clash with the keys; it was clear Naime didn’t care much for it. The bowl was insignificant to her, one of those objects that just existed in the house without her noticing. 

But somewhere else in the house, inside a drawer somewhere, was another bowl, roughly the same size and design as the one near the door, yet much more significant in value. Naime was well aware of its existence and did everything she could to protect it from any damage. The bowl was wrapped in foam and put away in between layers of soft cloth in a drawer Naime barely opened. The bowl was too expensive, too delicate for everyday use, Naime thought. It belonged to another lifestyle, a fancier, richer lifestyle that Naime thought about everyday, yet found so far from the life she actually led. Thus the bowl, suffocated by protective layers and wanting use, was saved by Naime for an unknown occasion on an unknown day in the future. She could use it for a special guest, for example, to serve a special meal she had prepared for them. Or perhaps she could make it her new key-holding bowl when she moved to a new house, a luxurious house, prettier than this one and more deserving of a bowl of its quality. If her keys opened a house like that, then this bowl would be worth using to hold them.

Naime’s house was filled with objects waiting around for “another day.” A special day.

The bowl in the drawer was one of many objects in the house that was saved for the future. Naime’s house was filled with objects waiting around for “another day.” A special day. The bath bombs her friend had gifted her for her birthday, for instance, were locked in her bathroom cabinet for use on her big self-care day which never came. The big Dostoyevski classic she had bought to read “when she had more time” was waiting on her bookshelf for over two years; it was never quite the right time to begin such a special book. Naime was constantly surrounded with these special objects: objects that promised pleasure and comfort inside her otherwise dull, monochrome life.

John walked downstairs in his pajamas; his food had arrived. He had been feverish and struggling with a bad cough since noon. He was likely coming down with something that could cause him to miss work, a thought that terrified him more than the sickness itself. The nap-driven afternoon had made his hair messy, and little dalmatians spotted across his pajama bottoms. He walked quickly across the corridors and down the old stairway to avoid being seen by anyone in this state. He had a bad migraine and — he realized as he opened the door of the building and inhaled the cold air of the outside world — a mild sore throat too. He would have to miss work tomorrow. 

He grabbed the bag waiting on the floor outside and immediately shut the door. The cold air that had already snuck inside made him shiver. He held the bag up to eye-level and checked the receipt stapled on the handle — he had received the wrong order many times before, so he had made it a habit to double check before he opened anything. 

Five letters were printed at the top of the receipt, faded but readable: “John M.” He smiled. This was his package, filled with the food that he had ordered. Reassured, he started walking back up to his apartment. On his way up the stairs, he thought about those five letters printed on the receipt, and a feeling of disillusionment washed over him. They seemed to him so meaningless, so insignificant. Five letters that made up his identity, five letters that made a piece of paper his rather than somebody else’s. Looking at them he didn’t recognize himself, they didn’t feel familiar as he thought they would.

He felt a knot in his throat as he struggled to come to terms with his insignificance, his otherness from an outside perspective. The thought of his being being represented by nothing more than five letters among so many others —each representing another person— made him uncomfortable. He wanted to run to the restaurant and shout “This is me! I am John M, I am more than a name on a receipt. Recognize me!”

The thought of his being being represented by nothing more than five letters among so many others —each representing another person— made him uncomfortable.

But he knew nobody cared. Nobody ever cared about him. He was one of many, constantly surrounded by large groups of people. Yet he was utterly alone, reduced to a name of five letters, leading a pointless existence.

Feeling pathetic and unimportant, John carried his bag of tacos — which were already cold from being left outside — to his floor. As he entered his apartment, he heard muffled voices from the studio across the hall. It sounded like his neighbors were fighting — they always were. Distracted by their voices and a sudden fit of violent coughing that overtook him, he forgot to hold the door on his way in, and it slammed shut behind him with a loud thud. 

Jamie was startled by the sound of the slammed door.

Joyce was on the couch, knitting. She and Jamie were in the middle of a fight when the door slammed shut across the hall. 

“Maybe we were being too loud and they got angry,” she offered without taking her eyes off her knitting. “Sometimes when other people are being loud, I wanna slam things.”

She sounded indifferent. Her voice was calmer now, though her hands shook slightly from the adrenaline still rushing through her from the fight. Her eyes were glowing, prepared to well with tears at one more harsh word from Jamie. She had had enough. 

“We weren’t being that loud,” Jamie responded. They were. 

Jamie hated their neighbors. He hated them although he had never truly met any of them, never acknowledged their presence, not even by a nod or a faint smile when he passed them in the hall. But he didn’t have anything against his neighbors specifically. He hated everyone, neighbor or not, equally. He was a man that had a lot of hate in his heart, and not a lot of love — not because he wasn’t capable of love, no, but because all the hate and anger left no place for beautiful, delicate feelings to flourish. 

Joyce was not like Jamie. She did not enjoy all this fighting, all the hostility that filled their home. She had gotten used to it, though, over time. She had taught herself to accept this as normal, which helped her get through the day, but was perhaps the most harmful thing she could do to herself. Giving into the way of things, she had stopped asking for something better. She had forgotten that she deserved better, she had forgotten that better even existed

She had forgotten that she deserved better, she had forgotten that better even existed

Naime decided to have a glass of red with dinner. She looked through the bottles she had at home. An expensive wine Naime had bought from Napa Valley a year ago stared at her from the back of her cabinet where it had been carefully placed. For an entire year the wine had been awaiting celebration; yet, it seemed that even on days where Naime had something to celebrate — a birthday, a promotion, good news from friends — the occasion never felt big enough for her to open the wine. There was always the possibility of something more special happening, a better occasion for which to save the wine for. Hanging onto these unknown possibilities of future pleasure, Naime failed to allow herself pleasure in the present moment.

She reached for another bottle and poured herself a glass. 

She took off her itchy sweater and tight jeans —they had been torturing her all day— and threw them over a chair. She put on something more comfortable, reheated some leftover ramen from yesterday and climbed into bed. Filling her mouth with tangled noodles and wilted leaves of bok choy, she scrolled through her Netflix watch list. She couldn’t eat without having something to watch because she could not bear being alone with her thoughts. Every activity required some sort of digital media to go along with it: Audiobooks during her daily walks to work and back, productivity podcasts when she cooked or cleaned, and Netflix during dinner. The fast scroll on the screen reflected in her eyeballs as she scrutinized all her options without blinking.

She couldn’t eat without having something to watch because she could not bear being alone with her thoughts.

But her Netflix account, like her house, was filled with stuff saved for other occasions. Her to-watch list was flooded with great movies and shows which she was excited to watch. But she almost never did. Everytime she scrolled through the list she came up with excuses for why the time wasn’t right; a movie of 2+ hours was too long to watch during dinner, it required a fully-planned movie night. Popular releases or old classics were meant to be seen in groups, but inviting people over seemed like too much work. A long series required energy and a certain start-a-new-show kind of mindset which she did not have on days she felt tired. And she always felt tired.

She watched trailer after trailer, trying to decide on a movie or show for the night. Before she could make a decision, however, she realized her dinner was finished. She sighed and put away the dishes. It’s fine, she decided: she would watch a movie another day.

Taking the final sips of her wine she thought about how sad her life was. Nothing gives me pleasure, she considered. She hated her life, she hated her house. From the apartment next door came the sound of a man coughing —the walls in the building were extremely thin. His cough was violent and it sounded like he was about to throw up. Naime winced. She hated sick people.

At least I’m not coughing my soul out tonight, she said to herself as she went back into bed. 

Having suppressed his cough with hot tea and cough syrup, John sat down at his table. He took a bite of his taco but immediately felt nauseous. He was craving ramen, which would have been, he considered, a more suitable choice of meal considering his sore throat. He was starting to get an upset stomach too, but from what? It could have been the week-old chicken sandwich he had for lunch, he considered. It probably wasn’t a good idea to eat it today, but the weather had been too cold to go out for lunch and he didn’t want his boss to see him sneaking out for lunch. 

The thought of his boss made him sit straight in his bed. That was that, he realized, he absolutely could not go to work tomorrow. His entire body felt horrible. 

He took out his phone and opened his Slack. He scrolled through the countless channels in his company account: #funnymemes, #workhardplayhard, #financetalk… He tapped the channel called #general and the chat popped up. Pinned at the top was the company slogan: You define your own worth if you create your own work. Reading these words worsened his headache. He didn’t want people to think he was using his illness as an excuse to miss work. What he really wanted was to define his own worth in the best way possible. 

He typed, nervously:

John M: Hi team. It seems I am coming down with some sort of bug. I may have to miss work tomorrow, but I am doing my best to get some rest and recover soon, so that I can get back to work in no time and in better shape than ever! *flexed biceps emoji*

He watched his screen for minutes, staring at the same five letters that had seemed so alien to him on the food delivery bag. There they were again, existing digitally as representations of his words, signs that indicated to others that what was seen on the screen in fact belonged to him. They made up his identity, determined how others perceived him. Yet they seemed so hollow, so empty. 

Multiple people instantly reacted to his message with emojis or sympathetic phrases. The boss, however, did not reply. 

It was Team Building Day tomorrow. He would be the only one not present. Imagining countless scenarios of how his absence would be taken, while also waiting for the boss to react to his Slack message, John spent the entire night anxiously waiting for a miraculous recovery. It didn’t come.

At midnight, he accepted that he was sick, and that he needed to sleep if he wanted to get better. He walked up to the medicine cabinet, swallowed a bunch of pills to help with some of his symptoms, and then climbed into bed. His eyes got heavy as he thought about how much he hated himself for getting sick, how much he hated himself in general.

Jamie and Joyce had been roommates for over a year. They had found each other on an online forum for people looking for housing. Jamie was the one who made the initial posting. He had found an “affordable” place, but he was looking for a roommate to split the rent with. It wasn’t an appealing deal, though, because the apartment was designed for one person and even for one person the space was limited. Sharing the space with a stranger—let alone someone like Jamie —was no easy undertaking. But Joyce was new in town and desperate to find affordable housing. Jamie was her only choice, or so she thought. 

Since the first day they moved in together, Jamie and Joyce were fighting. They would fight over the smallest things, like if one of them sprayed a lot of perfume in the house, took too long in the shower, complained about the other’s sleeping patterns or accused them about being the source of “this controlling, inhospitable living environment,” as they often said.

At heart, they were both good people, deep down, whatever “good” implied. But they were miserable in each other’s presence. They were like inmates trapped inside a prison of their own making, forcing themselves to call it “home,” unwilling to take any action to save themselves from the anguish of being there. They had both accepted their condition as inevitable, permanent. There was nothing to be done.

At heart, they were both good people, deep down, whatever “good” implied. But they were miserable in each other’s presence.

Some days, when things got really bad Jamie would stay over at a friend’s house. But most days, their only option would be to try their best to avoid each other. They installed shower curtains in the middle of their room to separate their beds and would draw the curtains to pretend like they each had their own bedrooms. Though the curtains created some illusion of privacy, it was still possible to feel another presence in the room — and that they could not stand. 

Joyce didn’t have any friends to crash at, but on the bad days she would sometimes go into the bathroom and have a cigarette. Behind the comfort of the locked door she would blow the smoke outside from the little, half-opened window through which her head extended. The thought of going outside the building for a smoke wouldn’t even cross her mind. She was so used to thinking about the house as her prison cell that she had stopped considering any alternative. She was too tired to make changes in her life, too unmotivated to help herself feel better. 

Jamie was sitting at the kitchen counter, eating Nutella directly from the jar —an act that had been the source of their most recent fight. The Nutella was all they had in their kitchen. He was hungry, but too broke to get takeout. Oddly, he was feeling a really strong craving for some ramen that night. 

“If that guy really slammed the door to get back at us, I swear I’ll go over there right now,” he said, putting away the jar of half-eaten Nutella.

“What? Oh — the guy. Sure, go ahead.” Joyce was still knitting — a wool, burgundy scarf slowly taking shape between her hands. She knew Jamie wouldn’t actually go over there or do anything. He wasn’t the violent type. He was harsh with his words, and certainly an unlikeable character, but he would never actually harm anyone or anything. That she knew for sure. That was the only thing that kept her there, living with him. She was grateful for the bare minimum, and she didn’t even know it. 

“I would go ahead if I knew which apartment he lived in.”

Joyce was tired. “Yeah, you know I just said that. I don’t even think he cares about us, his door was probably just too heavy or he was carrying something. I don’t know, let’s just forget about it.”

Jaime was tired too. So they did forget about it. They didn’t speak again all night. The slammed door had somehow distracted them from their fight, and now, they were both too exhausted to continue. 

When they went to bed that night, they both cried. Hugging their legs in fetal position like a sad movie scene, they laid down at their respective sides of the shower curtain and mourned for the choices they made, for choices that failed to make, choices that could have led them to a better life. 

The sun rose over the new day, slowly waking up the city. A woman was walking her dog along the river, and an athlete was preparing for an upcoming marathon by running around the city. Their paths crossed in front of an old brick building, and they exchanged greetings. The building behind them stood tall, letting the sun heat up its surface and penetrate every room that had the blinds slightly open. Rays of light attacked every apartment as if attempting to dilute the sadness contained within the walls. It was a building of lost hopes, of impossible promises, of wasted moments. But nobody knew, and nobody would ever know, for the bricks concealed all its secrets. 

Contact Merve Ozdemir at 


MARCH 25, 2023