I snapped awake at the sound of subdued screaming music spilling from the headphones of the teen who had just settled down on the seat next to me. I glanced over at her, and she flicked her gaze in my direction, as if daring me to say something. But I was preoccupied by the feeling that something was wrong. I shook off the disorientation and saw that I was several stops away from where I needed to be. As the subway train rolled to a stop, I leapt out of my seat and navigated my way to the doors. I was late to work, and on a day after I may have burned one bridge too many.
I had almost dozed off on the subway before, but I usually caught myself and stood up or fidgeted. I had never actually fallen asleep. I checked my bag for thievery and myself for signs of molestation. I’d been so tired lately. Everything was coming at me at once. Issues at work. A needy neighbor. A sweet sister who was slowly morphing into a bridezilla. And I’d been trying to handle it all, trying to suck it up and get things done, and ignoring one of the basic rules of being a responsible adult. Be selfish to be selfless. Take care of yourself first so you’re well enough to take care of others.
I felt the dried drool on the right side of my chin. I was still too groggy to feel mortified at the thought of people seeing me riding along with my mouth gaping open and my head tilted and bobbing.
I checked my watch and was amazed to see that it was only about ten minutes before I had to get in. It should have been later, but I wasn’t about to question a gift from the universe. If I was quick enough and caught the next train back, I might only be half an hour late instead of an hour. I could call in once I was on my way.
The train whooshed off and I glanced around. The platform looked familiar. It was my stop. I even recognized a few commuters I saw every day. One of them was speed-walking toward me with the usual giant cup of coffee in one hand. Roger was wearing the same tie he’d had on the day before that he’d gotten so many compliments on. The satin black tie with the dark red stylized rose motif. I momentarily forgot about the bizarre subway stop thing and shook my head as I waited for him to reach me.
“New favorite tie?” I said.
Roger gave me a confused frown as we walked up together. “I don’t know yet. Why, you don’t like it?”
“You know I do.”
Roger shook his head and started talking to me about the meeting we were having that morning. I hadn’t heard about any meeting, but when he described it, it sounded like the meeting we’d had the day before. When I told him so, Roger frowned in confused again, and started talking about the meeting. I tuned out as we walked up and out into an overcast day. That’s when I noted what I was wearing. That’s when I noticed how my bag felt heavier than it should have. I was wearing the exact same clothes I’d had on the day before. And when I got to my desk and opened my bag, I found my work laptop inside. But I clearly remember leaving it at work the night before. When I greeted colleagues, their responses were the same as every morning. That was hardly a clue. But when I went further into the first hour of the day, I found myself being able to predict what was going to happen. Sally from IT called at 8:13 to let me know she was swinging by to fix our printer. When I went to Roger’s desk to deliver some files to him for the meeting, his face was red. Before he told me why, I knew it was from having received a compliment on his tie from the woman he liked from the neighboring department. A crack of distant thunder sounded just after 8:30, portending the downpour that would be arriving within the next hour. The odd sensation of familiarity, of having experienced something before and simultaneously missing something important, crept over me. Déjà vu.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I must have been having a vivid dream. I pinched myself. I went to the restroom and—assuring no one else was in there—slapped myself. Finally, I risked washing away my make-up and splashed my face with cold water.
Nothing was working. I was still “awake” in my dream. The meeting that was to happen, that had already happened for me, was scheduled for 10:30. I should have been spending my time preparing for it, but I had a feeling that I knew how it would go. I was ready. I had to slip away to somewhere I could try something else to wake myself, somewhere I could try putting my head down and dozing off, in the hopes that when I woke, I would be in my bed at home.
The surplus housekeeping supplies room was the best place. There was a corner where I wouldn’t be noticed even if someone came in just to grab some paper towels or a broom. The corner was where all the unopened bottles of cleaning supplies were stored. I had never snuck away from my desk to do anything like what I was doing before. I moved a few cardboard boxes around so I could hide behind them. I tucked myself away in as comfortable a seated position as I could manage, leaning my head against some packages of clean towels, and I closed my eyes.
I drifted a bit, and my phone began to ring. I opened my eyes and found myself at work lying against towels and sitting on a box of toilet rolls. I glanced at my phone. It was Roger calling. The meeting was in fifteen minutes and he was wondering where the hell I was.
The meeting went just as I remembered. The presentations, the questions, the cup of water someone knocked over at the podium. My boss directed questions to me about our section’s status and progress. I tweaked my answers a bit based on some things I looked up after the meeting the first time. So as nervous as I was, I impressed, and so made my boss look good.
The rest of the day went the way I remember it too, though I avoided a few mishaps. The biggest mishap being the confrontation I had with Vivian, who was put in charge of our work group a few months back, despite not knowing anything about our project. My frustration was months in the making, so I started it, and then later regretted it. This time around, I avoided her. And I avoided crashing into a man who was rushing into the lobby just as I was coming up from the basement elevator, carting up boxes of files that I was tasked with reviewing. When I checked later in the day, I a few documents were missing that should have been there according to the inventory log. Those documents were sensitive. I would get my hide tanned for losing them. But this time, I timed it so that the man blasted past me before I rolled the cart out.
With all the little changes I made to the day, it ended up turning from one of the worst days I’d had at work in years, to just a typical day. Despite the oddness of reliving the day, and the nagging feeling that the whole time I was dreaming, I left work feeling satisfied and content. I got onto the subway, tired but not as tired I remembered being the first time around.
I couldn’t remember when I could have dozed off, but I snapped awake at the sound of subdued screaming music spilling from the headphones of the teen who had just settled down on the seat next to me.
I was on the subway again. I missed the stop for work again. What happened to the night? I looked down at myself. My navy blue coat, dark blue slacks, black boots. I was wearing the same thing I’d worn yesterday. I rushed out onto the platform. I was at my stop. I checked my phone for the time and date. It was ten minutes before I had to be at work. It was the twenty-first of the month. Again.
I got a creeping feeling in my gut. I saw Roger rushing toward me. Huge coffee cup. Amazing tie. My skin began to flush. My heart began to thump. Something was wrong. I had lived this day already.
I asked Roger if he’d worn that tie before. He confirmed that he hadn’t and asked me what I thought about it. I gave him the thumbs up. He asked me what was wrong. He said I looked spooked.
The meeting. It was the same. The cup of water knocked over. I knew what was going to happen. I tried to wake myself again. I couldn’t. Maybe something had happened to me. Maybe I was in a coma. Or maybe I was really repeating the day.
I calmed myself and decided to try the kinds of things that I’d seen people do in movies and TV shows when they had to relive the same day over and over. I tried to do things differently, to prevent errors and mistakes. I didn’t just aim to prevent the blowout I’d had with Vivian and my losing those sensitive documents. I prevented or corrected every little wrong thing that I could remember happening that day. By the end of the day, I actually felt pretty good about everything.
I fell asleep on the subway on my way home. I woke to the sound of music, sound crackling through headphones. I took a few deep breaths and lived through the day again.
I tried again, fixing things, doing all the things that people say they’d do if they had to live a day over again. I made my boss look good at the meeting. This time, I didn’t just not confront Vivian, I invited her to lunch and made an effort to get to know her and be nice to her.
None of that worked to release me from the cycle of repeats. So on one cycle, I hid when Roger passed by. I ditched work all day. I started looking for a way out. I couldn’t leave. All modes of transportation brought me back to my office. I walked and even when I walked, I eventually ended up on the same street leading to my office. I abandoned work altogether and spent days—the same day over and over—at coffee shops emailing and calling experts in science, magic, metaphysics, to explain the phenomenon to me, and tell me how to get out of the loop. There was no help there. So I went back to visiting the office, clocking in for work. I thought about living out those self-righteous workplace fantasies about storming into a boss’s office, making an impassioned speech, quitting, and storming out. But I didn’t have any major issues with my boss, or my job, or most of the people in my department. It was funny though how much I could get away with. I spent a couple of hours one repeat cycle just standing by a window watching the rain and sipping coffee. It was quite relaxing. I spent many a repeat cycle visiting other floors and seeing what other people were up to.
Sometimes I tried to have fun with it. Other times I was serious about it. There was a tension that I kept feeling in the back of my mind. Quiet despair, it felt like. I think that’s what it was. If I knew it would end eventually, then I could freely enjoy myself. But much as it was interesting to live the same day many different ways, I didn’t want to stay that way indefinitely. I was keeping track of how many days were passing. A month passed. Then two.
No matter what I did or didn’t do, every time I woke up, it was the twenty-first of the month again. And again. And again. When would I wake from this dizzying dream?
I had lost count of the number of times I had repeated the day. I had tried everything I could have, short of committing horrendous crimes. I began to wonder about the most extreme ways to get myself out. I sat outside watching the same bus speed by. If I just walked in front of it… Or if I leapt from the roof. But every time I thought such thoughts, I felt sick to my stomach. My whole body shook, and my chest burst with a fear I had never felt before. I didn’t want to die. I wanted the exact opposite. I just wanted the day to end. I wanted to wake up to tomorrow.
I’d been asking myself about the “how,” so I could figure out a way to get out of it. How did this happen to me? Was there a scientific explanation? Could I find someone who could help me get unstuck?
But I now began to ask myself “why.” Why was I trapped in today? Was it a punishment? Or was it a protection? Had some benevolent force trapped me in today? Would tomorrow be worse than today? Far worse? Would there be horrors that I couldn’t bear to face? Would something happen to me that was worse than anything I’d ever experienced before?
I thought back to the past few weeks, and I thought forward to what might happen in the coming days. I had just had a check-up. Maybe my doctor’s office would call with devastating news from my test results. Maybe what I was contemplating doing on purpose, being hit by a bus, would happen by accident. Maybe something horrible would happen at work. Maybe I was given the gift of reliving the day so I could see the signs and stop it. It sounded melodramatic, but in a way it made sense. I was an ordinary person being put into an extraordinary situation and it was up to me to decide if I wanted to sink or swim, if I wanted to fail humanity or rise to the occasion.
So on my next few repeats, I searched for clues at work. I watched. I investigated. I spied and I stole. I crept and I noted. Over the span of weeks, I covered the entire building. But I couldn’t see anything that stuck out. Or rather, there were so many things that stuck out as possible red flags. Disgruntled staff. Suspicious-looking maintenance guys. Smiling administrators who had access to everything. If there was something specific to find, I couldn’t find it. If there was something to find, then humanity, or at least my office, was doomed.
I had spent a good amount of time being angry, being resolved, being scared, and just crying. I had always found someplace private when I needed to break down, and the only one who seemed to notice, who asked if I was all right, was Roger. I told him the truth a few times. He had the expected reaction. He wanted to help me. He was ready to drop everything to help me.
But he didn’t believe me.
I wouldn’t let anyone see me have a good cry. I didn’t do it in public. I just needed to let it out sometimes, so I could get on with the business of figuring out how I could get the clock of my life ticking again.
I had just finished a day where I tried to get Roger to believe me, and where I spoke to a spiritualist about being stuck between worlds. When I heard the roar of that music, when I snapped awake and glanced at the teen who had just settled next to me for who knows how many dozens, maybe hundreds, of times, something else snapped in me as well. I started bawling. I didn’t get off at that stop, or the next, or the next. No one bothered me or comforted me, save for the same teen who’d woken me. She scrounged in her backpack and found a pack of tissues, which she handed to me. She didn’t look at me, but in the state I was in, the kindness of her gesture felt so profound, it only made me cry harder.
I rode the subway to the end of the line, and when I got off, I was, as expected, at my usual stop by work. By that time, I was breathing hard from having cried so hard. My face was streaked with layers upon layers of dried tears. And it felt swollen. I made my way up to the surface.
What’s worse, madness or death?
I wondered. But my heart felt calm and my mind still as I raised my hands to the air and pleaded with whatever forces there were in the universe to give me a sign, a clue, some guidance as to what I must do to save myself, and then to save others if that was my purpose. Many times I had spent the whole day outside of the office. I had options, though they were limited. I wasn’t able to take a cab to the airport. It always brought me back to the office. I wasn’t able to go home or go anywhere else that was longer than walking distance. But I did spend a day walking around looking in the shops and eating at restaurants in the area. I spent a day talking to random people, strangers, which was out of character for me. I spent a day just watching people. That was probably why I didn’t feel as if I were going crazy…yet.
I did that now. I spent the day outside. And when the rainstorm came, I let it fall on me. It was a chill rain, and I soon got cold and soaked. Even though it was obvious that I was letting myself get wet, a woman rushed over to me and covered me with her umbrella.
“It’s big enough for two,” she said, smiling. She was right. It was. And it was a gorgeous umbrella. It had some cosmic design on it, a star cluster or nebula.
I thanked her and repaid her kindness by getting out of the rain. Shivering I stopped by a pharmacy and picked up some socks and underwear. Then I started toward the laundromat that was nearby. I knew the surrounding area now, having explored it thoroughly. I tramped into the laundromat, chilled to the bone and miserable with cold. I had a plan, and I had all day to execute it. I would wash and dry my items a few at a time, so I could remain fully clothed, and by the end of a few hours, I should be warm and dry. The laundromat was connected to a countertop eatery. They had soup on the menu. I started my simple work. The laundromat owner had never seen me before though I had met her on several occasions. I knew her. I wasn’t surprised when she brought out a hair dryer and sent me into the bathroom to dry my hair.
I sat at the counter sipping French onion soup, reading a magazine I’d had in my (waterproof) bag for the better part of a year, washing and drying my clothes in batches. When everything was done, I stayed and ate and read. It had stopped raining, but there was an unrelenting chill to the air outside. I was warm inside the laundromat, and I felt free and content.
I had received no answers from the universe. But on the next repeat cycle, I decided to try the one thing I hadn’t tried before. I decided to live the day exactly as I remembered it happening the very first time, even though that meant I would end up at odds with a colleague whose help I needed. Even though it meant I would end up being reprimanded or written up for losing vital documents.
I had an advantage this time. I had gone through all the miserable stuff already. I was braced for it. I would ride it through. And I did ride through the misery. But there was something I wasn’t braced for.
I had been too distracted by all the things that had gone wrong, not just on that day, but on all the days before. I had been too distracted by all the balls I couldn’t quite juggle well enough to keep in the air. I had been too distracted by the confrontation with Vivian the first time around to appreciate a note of commendation that my boss had emailed to me about that morning meeting. I had forgotten all about it. I hadn’t sat down at my desk and checked my email for so many cycles. But I do remember the bad attitude I had about it the first time around. I remember scoffing at the email, dismissing it. I read my boss’s words carefully this time. I read them not with cynicism but sincerity. Her confidence in me swept away the doubts that I had about my work after that first round with Vivian, doubts I wasn’t willing to admit to myself.
Later that day, I had my second major bad moment, when I bumped into the stranger in the lobby and all my files went flying. I gathered them all up, just as I had the first time. I looked everywhere, just as I had the first time. I noted all the people who were helping me, just as I had the first time. I thought I had recovered everything. But that’s what I thought the first time. The man who bumped into me was supremely apologetic. The first time around, I had been irritated with him. This time I looked him in the eye and saw genuine regret there. I thanked him for stopping to help me even though he was in an obvious hurry. And with that last comment, I raised a brow. He laughed, gave an apologetic nod, and acknowledged the slight dig that my raised eyebrow hinted at. We shook hands, just as we had before. I knew our encounter would cost me, and yet I bore him no ill will. He seemed like a decent enough person. And maybe he was rushing because he too was having that kind of a day. I wanted to ask him more about himself. But I hadn’t done that the first time around. So I went on with my day.
The big negative moments had overshadowed everything else. But there were so many little things that went my way that day. I hadn’t noticed. I got onto the subway that night determined to do it again. To look for what else I missed during that first go around.
I dozed off.
I felt someone or something nudging me. I snapped awake and saw that a familiar passenger was shaking my arm gently, a man I’d started chatting with in recent weeks on my ride home. He knew what my stop was because his was the next one. He told me that I needed to wake up long enough to walk home. He wagged a finger at me and admonished me to have a good long sleep. He asked if I needed help getting home.
It was a familiar conversation, my complaining of being tired and his scolding me for not getting enough sleep. Familiar, and yet it felt fresh and different. I thanked him for waking me, got off the subway, and saw that I was at the stop closest to home. I couldn’t suppress the fluttering in my chest as I climbed up. I walked home in a daze. When I opened my front door and was greeting by yipping and jumping, I knelt down and gave my terrier, Rocket, kisses and nuzzles as if we’d been separated for months, years even. I’d never been gladder to see him. Nor he to see me, but then he acted that way every day.
The elderly couple who live next door were just getting home at the same time. I beamed at them. I hadn’t seen them in ages either, and they had never looked so beautiful. They laughed at me and joked with each other that I must have had a wonderful day to be so happy coming home from work in the middle of the week.
I closed the door behind me, leaned against it, and took a deep breath. Rocket waited for me to come inside and get him his dinner. I went about my evening. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about it. I wondered if the spell was now broken. But I didn’t dare hope it was. I understood now that there were things that were truly out of my control. I had a gut feeling that I would wake up to tomorrow. But if the subway took me back to yesterday, I would do what I told myself I would do. It was not an ordinary day. It was not an extraordinary day. But ordinary and extraordinary things happened on that day. And like discovering new wonders upon reading a book for the second (or third or fourth) time, I would discover new wonders in yesterday. I would find a way to move onward in my mind and heart, even if I could not move onward in time. I went to bed tired but content that night. My pillow had never felt so soft. My blankets never so snug and cozy.
When my alarm went off, I woke from a dreamless sleep. I picked up my phone and turned off the alarm. I glanced at the date. It was the twenty-second day of the month.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.