A Secret Freedom
the surprising benefits of stolen moments
I have a confession.
Now, don’t get too excited. It’s nothing salacious. You’ve probably done it yourself. More than once.
I lied. I told my boss, Basil, I’m sick today.
I’m not actually sick. Although, I guess it depends how you define sick. Can you tell I’m a lawyer? So eager to argue semantics.
I may not be physically unwell, but I’m certainly very sick of that stifling, soul-sucking, shades-of-grey swamp.
It turns out you can’t pay off student loans helping refugees, so I’ve ended up working with a different traumatized population. In family law I have a front row seat to slow motion train wrecks. And my grandmother wonders why I’m not married yet.
Basil loves it. For him it’s like chess. A battle of wits. For me, it’s a boulevard of broken dreams.
I may not be a lawyer for much longer if the stunt I’m about to pull goes south. I’m not a reckless person. But today I’m planning something reckless. But since I don’t love being a lawyer, that makes me a woman with nothing to lose. Well, almost nothing.
I’d rather not lose my job before I’ve saved enough for my self-funded sabbatical. After seven years I finally managed to work off my mountain of student debt. Now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of this indentured servitude. I figure another fifteen or twenty thousand should set me up nicely for a year of backpacking around Southeast Asia. Go find myself. Maybe find the meaning of life, while I’m at it. Maybe I don’t find anything. But all I know is I can’t say here much longer if I want to save my soul.
So, what’s this stunt I’m about to pull?
It started last summer. I snuck away from my desk to grab lunch from the local halal truck. In my hunger-induced haze I had forgotten my phone, so I was forced to notice the humans around me.
On a bench in front of me sat a woman my age. Looking over her shoulder I saw she was immersed in a sketchbook. A pang of jealousy punched me in the gut. Dripping with disdain a voice in my head erupted, “Wouldn’t it be nice if in the middle of a workday I could do something so self-indulgent! Some of us have to work to keep the world running. I bet her parents pay her rent.”
As if she sensed my gaze, she turned around and smiled.
Startled, I managed to stammer out, “That’s a lovely drawing. Is it part of a larger piece?”
“Oh, no. I just take ten minutes during my lunch break to make some scribbles. I find it keeps me sane. Do you draw?”
“I’m too busy.”
“I thought that too. But then I realized all you need are a few stolen moments.” With that she returned to her sketching.
And so, the seed was planted. I started stealing moments. I bought an inconspicuous little black notebook dedicated to my drawings. At first, I’m embarrassed to admit I brought it with me to the bathroom. It’s really the only legitimate refuge from my desk. But I kept coinciding with one of the interns crying her eyes out in the next stall and that quickly cramped my creativity.
I was scared to sit on a bench in the park across the street for fear someone would see me. So that’s how the idea was born. Disguise. [500 words]
At first, my disguises were pretty basic. They probably made me more noticeable rather than less. Dark sunglasses and my hair tucked up into a baseball cap. I looked like someone trying to hide.
Then, one day, Andrew from accounting passed by me in the exact moment when I’d taken off my sunglasses to clean them. My breath froze in my chest. He looked straight at me. But he showed no signs of recognition. My breath collapsed out of me. Safe.
We really are like horses with those blinders on. No time to notice anything peripheral to our path.
After that I got a bit more adventurous with my disguises. Some disguises are inspired by people I watched in the park. There’s something decadent and delicious about watching someone who doesn’t know they’re being watched. That sounds creepy. Maybe it is. But people are so fascinating. It’s astonishing how we can feel so unobserved in the most public of places. I especially love watching people when they’re waiting to meet someone. Their whole energy changes the moment the person arrives. I like the feeling that I’m seeing something which is generally invisible even to people themselves.
Other disguises are inspired by people I know. My ostentatious Aunt Lubna. Or my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Dalton, for instance. But my favorites are the disguises inspired by the stars of the silver screen. Images of Katherine, Ingrid, Rita, and Marlene are all that adorn my walls.
You may be surprised that my studio apartment is monochromatic, given how I complained about my colorless office. I could claim some minimalist moral high ground, but the truth is two-fold. First, I’m saving all extra money for my escape fund. But really, this muted palate becomes the backdrop, the Kansas to my own private Oz.
Here, let me show you. Come stand in front of this black lacquer wardrobe. Now, close your eyes. As I open the doors you feel a gentle whoosh of air on your face. When you open your eyes, you’re confronted with a cacophony of color cascading out before you. My cabinet of sartorial curiosities. Costume jewelry of all colors and combinations. Vintage clothing and exotic textiles. And, my crowning glory, my eclectic wig collection.
This is the only thing I will miss when I go walkabout. But then I’ll no longer have any need to disguise myself.
Today my disguise needs to be perfect. I select the red wig with finger waves. A vintage trench coat and gold-tinted aviators complete the look. A bright red lip and plumping gloss give the impression of collagen injection. Perfect.
Why does my disguise need to be perfect? Because I’m going behind enemy lines. On a day when I’m supposed to be sick in bed, I’m going into the office to retrieve my little black notebook.
I’d say I left it there by mistake, but I know the irreverent part of me has been craving more brazen rebellion. So, yes. I could just use printer paper to do my sketches in the park, but something in me demands I draw only in my dedicated notebook.
The mirror shows me someone else. I wink at this woman and waltz out my door.
It’s February but unseasonably warm and bright. I inhale the freshness of spring. Everything is possible again.
It’s just a few blocks to the office. If you were working eighty-hour weeks you’d want to limit your commute too.
I stop and smile up at the window where my face should be. Oh, the delight of a little delinquency!
Gathering my gumption, I embody my Aunt Lubna and stride into the lobby.
When the elevator doors open, I fly past Hannah at the reception desk to frantically scan the street below.
“Excuse me. May I help you?” Hannah’s voice strains to stretch a layer of politeness over her annoyance.
“Habibti, I’m so sorry. It’s my husband. I thought he was following me. He can’t know I’m here.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes, Laila said Barnaby will see me at 11.”
“Did you mean Basil?”
“Oh, yes. Basil, that’s it. Laila said he’s the best. What do you think? Is there someone better I should be speaking to?”
“You’ll receive excellent support from anyone at our firm.” Hannah’s face is a shield. She doesn’t recognize me!
I lean forward conspiratorially. “I know you have to say that but come on, habibti. Just between us girls. Who’s the best?”
“Please, if you just wait here for a few minutes.” Hannah’s had enough.
I don’t wait. I follow a few paces behind her. Passing my colleagues, nobody looks up from their screens. This is easier than I thought. I can see my desk and my little black notebook sitting patiently, basking in a ray of sunshine like a cat taking a nap. I’m almost there.
Hannah turns around. Her eyes are daggers but her voice betrays only a tiny hint of frustration.
“I asked you to wait at reception.”
“I know, habibti, but I just wanted to take a picture of the view.” Despite her protestations I move in front of my unoccupied desk. I place my handbag on top of the notebook and start taking photos with my phone.
Hannah explains there’s confidential information and I’m not allowed to be here, but I just wave her away flippantly and, in the process, knock over my bag spilling its contents all over the desk.
“Look what you made me do! All I wanted was to take a picture to send to my son. Is that a crime? You’re treating me like I’m a criminal, like I’m here to steal your confidential information. Is this how you treat your clients?” That puts Hannah on the defensive. “Or is that just how you treat your Arab clients?” Going for the jugular.
As she tries to calm me down, I slip my little black notebook into my purse. Success.
“You can tell Barnaby that this meeting is cancelled.” With haughty flair I turn and strut out of the office. Once the elevator doors close, I can’t help doing a little victory dance. I can’t believe it!
In the park, I’m almost too excited to sit down. I find a bench and take out my precious notebook and my drawing pencils. I open to a fresh page. Who should I sketch?
I notice a man with a very interesting face. He looks like he’s waiting for someone and also trying to hide at the same time. I’m just finishing his portrait when the woman he’s been waiting for sits down on the other side of the bench. They don’t make eye contact. Strange. I start to sketch her.
She’s speaking but I can’t hear. The man’s face darkens. He’s agitated. She tries to explain, to pacify him. He surreptitiously scans right, then left. Startled, he sprints off uptown.
The woman flees into the trees.
Two plainclothes officers are running but there’s no chance they can catch the fugitives. They slow to a stop by the recently vacated bench.
Catching her breath and flashing her badge, the woman says, “I am Officer Alvarez, and this is Officer Jones. The two people who just fled are suspects in an ongoing investigation. If you can hear my voice, please do not leave before we have a chance to speak to you.”
I stand up and approach Officer Alvarez. I tell her I have something that might be helpful and show her my sketches.
She snatches my notebook. My heart clenches with a pang of separation anxiety.
“We’re going to need you to come down to the station.” My heart skips a beat. Surely, she’s misunderstood. Before I can protest that I had nothing to do with this, she’s left me to interrupt Officer Jones. His eyes widen when he sees my sketches. He stares at me.
They come towards me seemingly in slow motion.
“You drew this?”
“Yes, but I can explain. I don’t know those people. I swear—”
“You’re not in trouble. This is your lucky day.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a twenty-thousand-dollar reward for information about this man. With this likeness we have all we need.”
Twenty thousand dollars. My escape fund.
I can see it now. The look on Basil’s face when I give my notice.
Then me in Bali, a bikini, and my little black notebook.