Oscar folded the last of the clean towels, and stacked them by the front counter, then resumed his post behind the check-in computer. Through the entrance doors, he watched two men talking and laughing as they approached, and he cued up what he thought of as his most reliable smile and head nod.
“Evening, sirs, and welcome to the Midtown Gym,” Oscar said.
But neither man looked up as they walked past the counter. They already had their faces buried in their phones and were jamming in earbuds. They each grabbed a towel and flicked their membership keychain at the scanner, and then they were gone. Oscar stopped nodding and let his face relax. Some part of him wanted to believe that these guys must have had really important business to attend to on their phones, that this was the only reason they’d snubbed him, but having been treated in a similar fashion every day since starting at the gym, Oscar knew that it was more likely that he wasn’t important. He didn’t even register on their proverbial radar.
Oscar tried not to take it personally, reminding himself that he was from off-planet and he worked the front counter at a gym. Members wanted towels, not pleasantries. But it hurt to unwillingly be made invisible.
During the last twenty minutes of his shift, Oscar experienced the same snubbing twice more. As he clocked out and put on his coat, he felt like a balloon left hanging around a living room long after the party ended.
He crossed the footbridge adjoining the Midtown World Market–the gym was located in the basement–to its parking garage. When he got to his ’97 Hyundai Accent, he discovered that someone had backed into and cracked one of his tail lights. The red, plastic shards were still in a little pile on the ground. Oscar wondered if whoever did this even bothered to get out of their, had even tried to make it look like they were trying to do the right thing. Probably not. He didn’t want anyone to drive over the shards and blow a tire, so he stooped and gathered them into his hand, then placed them in his car’s cup holder.
At the exit he pushed his ticket into the reader, then got ready to pay his parking fees. An error message crawled across the screen in green digital font.
“What the hell does that mean?” Oscar asked himself.
A sonorous voice crackled through the speaker. “Are you okay down there?”
“Um,” Oscar began, but then stopped himself. This disembodied voice was referring to the ticket machine, of course, but what if she was asking after Oscar’s well being. Oscar opted for honesty. “No, I’m not okay, at all.”
“What’s wrong?” the voice asked.
“I don’t know, I’m getting this error message–“
“Not with the ticket. What’s wrong with you?”
Oscar flapped his hand at the speakerbox and scoffed. “You don’t care about all that.”
“That’s not true,” the voice said. “I care about everyone.”
“How can you care about everyone, when you don’t know everyone?”
“You’d be surprised at how many people I know. So go on and tell me what’s wrong. I got a long shift and could use the company.”
“Okay,” Oscar said, before crafting and delivering his litany of dire straits: he’d moved to earth two lunar cycles ago, and still had no friends; his rent was too expensive, and his job paid too little; there were very few establishments where he could find food native to his planet, and Earth food consistently gave him indigestion; whenever he chatted with his friends and family back home, they were quick to tell him how much a mistake he’d made; it seemed as though he were invisible to the entire neighborhood.
When Oscar finished, he waited for the speakerbox to respond. Even if she didn’t say anything, Oscar felt a little better. Scraping all the crap that had layered the inside of this head for the last two months.
The speakerbox offered a squawk of white noise, and then the voice broke through.
“That sounds terrible,” the voice said. “I mean I hear some pretty interesting stories in my line of work, but yours is rough.”
“Uh, thanks.” Oscar said. “So what do I do?”
“Eventually you might look for a new job. You could start getting out and about more. Go to different places too. Find something you like to do. You’re bound to find others who enjoy the same things. But the most important thing–“
“Oscar leaned toward the speakerbox. “Yes?”
“Allow yourself some grace. You’ve been on this planet for two months? It can take people years to be accepted and make friends in the Midwest.”
“They’re a tight-knit bunch.”
“What you’ve said makes sense, and I think I’d like to take your advice.”
“Good. Until you do, come by anytime you want to talk. I’m always around.”
“What’s your name?” Oscar asked.
“Thank you, Rita.”
“You’re welcome, Oscar. Have a good night.”
The ticket machine flashed, the error message disappeared, and the gate arm rose.
Oscar drove past the attendant booth, but couldn’t see anyone inside.
She must be taking a break, he thought. He was already looking forward to their next conversation.
He exited the parking garage, and maneuvered his car into the evening traffic flow, feeling like a hot air balloon hanging high over the land.