Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Sonder (noun) is the realisation that every passerby is living a life equally as vivid and complex as your own. In other words, unlike books and movies, there is no such thing as a ‘main character’ in the real world. Write a story or a poem about someone experiencing sonder.
By Connie Phlipot
Lila stretched her arms over head, relishing the strength and agility awakening in her limbs. She bounded out of bed, catching herself before she slid on the rainbow-colored braid rug by her bed. Another brilliant day ahead of her. She had the best job in the department, tickets to the sold-out rock concert, maybe dinner at the newly opened gastropub in the trendy part of town. Thank goodness she wasn’t Herman, spending his days in insurance claims, then taking the number 10 bus to a bungalow in the suburbs and watching TV after a meal of potatoes and over-cooked meat.
The day went exactly as she had hoped. First she triumphed over the naysayers in the finance department in a contentious meeting on next year’s budget. After finishing a detailed brief on the year’s planned activities, she left the office a few minutes before the official quitting time. Feeling magnanimous, she waved to Herman on her way out. He smiled, then, she wasn’t sure, he winked at her. No, he must have a twitch. The concert was sublime. The kind of performance you want to continue for ever. Drinks and snacks in the gastropub that met all the expectations aroused by the Falter review. She collapsed into her bed, deliciously exhausted.
She didn’t wake until the alarm sounded. Usually she was stirring as soon as the sun peeped above the nearby hills. The sky throbbed with sullen grayness. No wonder she hadn’t woke up early. She couldn’t see the hills through the porridge-thick fog. Her limbs stiff, probably from sitting so long in hard seats at the concert, she shuffled toward the bathroom, then bumped into the dresser. Her cleaning lady must have moved the dresser. No, it was flush against the wall as usual, but it looked bulkier in this fog, not at all like her sleek Mission style chest of drawers. It just shows you how little attention one pays to details. She squinted into the dim light. Her grandmother’s stuffed chair had been replaced by a pile of striped pillows like you would find in a hookah parlor. Not that she had ever been in a hookah parlor, but she had seen pictures. Lila slid her feet into the hallway, cautiously, to avoid bumping into anything else. Her open space living room/kitchen combo was now a narrow galley kitchen and a small living room.
Where was she? Who was she?
A home office was off to her left. She rummaged through papers on the desk, searching for a clue to her identity. At the top of a tax return she read, “Herman Kogel.” Herman? She dashed into the bathroom, slipping on a Kilim rug she had never seen before, and looked in the mirror. She pushed an errant lock of gray hair behind her ear.
Wait a minute, her hair wasn’t greying. The fog was playing havoc with everything. She wiped moisture from the mirror and looked again. The head in front of her was topped by completely gray, short hair. Herman’s face gazed back at her. She smiled. Herman smiled back. She winked. He winked back as he had done the other day.
She scurried back into the bedroom and edged toward the bed. If she went back to sleep, this would be over and she would wake again after a sound sleep. But, no, she had to go to work. She had an important insurance claims to evaluate. Insurance claim? Didn’t she head the planning office?
Lila opened the closet door to a vast array of expensive-looking suits. She selected a natty grey-tweed made of high quality woolen fabric. It fitted her perfectly, much better tailored than the new off-the-rack clothes she prized so much. She picked out a tie from the copious collection on the tie rack — a blue-red-green fish pattern, like someone would wear in a Dr. Seuss tale. Why had she had never bought such a whimsical piece of clothing? It was really quite appealing.
But she needed coffee before going out into the world. A strange contraption with pressure valves and levers sat on the kitchen counter. She had no idea how to operate this device so unlike her simple pop-in-pod machine. And breakfast? She couldn’t find a single egg or slice of bread in the house. Only strange containers that looked like yogurt but were labelled in a language that she didn’t understand. Turkish? Greek? Caffeine deprived and hungry, she picked up her backpack — no, Herman’s leather briefcase — and walked outside.
A motorcycle was chained to the fence in front of the house. Was she supposed to ride this to work? She opted for the bus, happy to find the number 10 bus she had disparaged the other day. Her head was beginning to ache from the lack of caffeine. She would have to go down to the canteen and get a cup of watery American before she started to work on the insurance claims… no, on the strategic plan.
“Herm, old man. Chucking the bike today?” The bus driver grinned in a sly, knowing way.
“Hey, Herman. Bit late, today?” A colleague in the insurance division asked, with the same knowing smile the bus driver had flashed.
“Yes, had to take the bus today, forgot to put fuel in the old bike, “ she said in a soft, deep voice.
“No worries,” the colleague said. “You work so fast, you could come in at noon and still be done before the rest of us.”
Lila opened up the electronic file on her computer, somehow knowing Herman’s password, but the words on the screen were a blur of unknown phrases and acronyms. She took her smart phone into the bathroom and downloaded a guide to insurance terminology.
The case at the top of the pile was a complicated story of apparently false claims, involving a museum heist and a double murder. Lila read it several times, copiously noting inaccuracies and misstatements. Someone could write a novel from this fascinating stuff.
“Oh, Herman, I forgot to ask, did you get an answer from that book agent, yet?“ Another colleague leaned against Herman’s cubicle.
“Um, well, no. Still waiting.”
“Those agents, just don’t know what they’re missing. Real spell binder you’ve got on your hands.”
At 6:00 p.m. Lila’s eyes stung from looking at the screen and her hair was ruffled and damp from running her hand through it as she struggled to make sense of the claims.
“Time to knock if off, Herm. Let’s get at drink at the Tower Club.”
Tower Club. Wasn’t that the members-only place at the top of the Radio Tower?
“I think I’ll pass tonight. I”m tired.”
“Tired, you tired?” The colleague chuckled. “I suppose you have to rest up for your Cambodia trip next week, right?”
Cambodia? Lila had been excited to go to Italy on her next vacation.
At her — or Herman’s house — she put together some dinner out of the vegetables in his refrigerator that she didn’t know the names of while listening to an Afro-Carib LP. She hadn’t played an actual record since visiting her grandmother a decade ago. The sound was really sharp and clear. What had she been missing?
She collapsed onto Herman’s deliciously firm bed covering herself with satiny smooth sheets.
The sun splashed onto the covers over the edge of the hills. The sunlight accentuated the tarnish on the metal pulls and the pits in the cheap wood. Lila stepped onto the rag rug. It was really garish, wasn’t it? A day stretched in front of her of budgets and yearly plans. She would have to ask Herman what happened to that insurance claim. And where did he find those wonderful LPs?
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction. Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.
I really like this swapped-identity story, Connie. Fun to read and thought provoking. Many thanks for sharing.
Brilliant! I enjoyed hearing your description of this story at the Sunday session when you first came up with the idea and it’s definitely been worth the wait. Thanks for sharing.
Wow, nice story!
such an exciting read! Great story that portrayed the word Sonder <3
thanks for this lovely story Connie, its making me look at everyone around me with new eyes imagining what a 24 hour swop might involve.