Vera had always believed in true love.
As a child she had hugged her knees in delight when Disney characters’ outlines merged in a kiss amid confetti and swelling music; as a teenager she had watched transfixed as the heroine of a romantic comedy — any, ever romantic comedy — was swept off her feet to a moving score.
Once she had grown, and been past high school and college and was well into her third job, the endless serial of fleeting and failed potential had done very little to dissuade her from the wholehearted belief that she would find a happy ending. Not only did she know her happy ending was possible, but she was absolutely and completely and unshakably certain that her soulmate existed and would find her to give her this happily ever after. To a certain lucky few, the details of the future are confided. In Vera’s fortunate clairvoyance, the specifics of this soulmate were graciously provided. His name, she knew, would be William (she wasn’t sure of his surname, but felt instinctively that it began with “O”) and he would be just handsome enough to love forever.
The friends she had made had, for the most part, accepted this steadfast knowledge of Vera’s. They pretended to believe that William was made for her, in the world just for her. When other activities were sparse, her friends amused themselves by trying to dissuade Vera from waiting for William, or encouraged her to actively seek him out. Her friend Hugh was especially vehement in these arguments, and fruitlessly pursued them at a few too many opportunities. Vera’s refusal to abandon this hope was absolute, as was her reluctance to make a move to change her single state. She wouldn’t trawl through Internet results for what she knew of his name, put an ad in the paper or trust her future to a tawdry dating site. She simply knew, in the most fervent and resolute way, that William would find her, and there was no alternative.
On occasion a friend — and Hugh was the most frequent to do this as well — upset her in his insistent appeal to her reason. Especially at small gatherings in which Vera was conspicuously and unhappily alone, like her 35th birthday, Hugh tried to convince her to stop clinging to her dream. The party was small and intimate, as it was every year, in her tiny cramped apartment. She had cleared piles of clutter from the floor and briefly made the annual attempt to make her home inviting to anyone but herself. There were plates of food and bottles of champagne on the kitchen counter, music plugged into the corner and sliding quietly through the whitewashed rooms. Vera was clutching a glass of champagne, sitting curled into her customary chair, pulling the corners of her mouth down at Hugh’s passion. After an exchange of pointless bickering, he had started to thrown handfuls of his usual rhetoric at her — attacking her sanity in the most rational and methodical way he could manage.
He argued, “By sitting and waiting for him to come to you, you’re assuming that’s your fate. What if your fate is to find him by looking? Barring that, let’s assume you’re actually just delusional — no, all right” at her muted indignant protest, her resigned start from the chair, “What if you’ve gotten his name wrong, what if waiting for a William is keeping you from meeting your real soulmate? He could be right in front of you, and you’re so busy looking for somebody else that you don’t notice.” Hugh finished his tirade, a bit out of breath and pleased with himself.
Vera had folded her arms and curled up more tightly, knees drawn to her chest and arms clasped as if to ward off nonbelievers. “Yes, maybe I’m doing this wrong and maybe I don’t know what’s right. But —” and her eyes opened wide, she leaned forward to banish doubt from the skeptics, “I believe that I’m doing what’s right. People usually have no clue how to find love, and I know how exactly — I can’t doubt that.” Then she reverted to her practiced adage, “One must have faith.” She clasped her hands and repeated, “I have faith,” looking solemnly at Hugh over serenely folded fingers like a nun.
He threw his hands up, shook his head, frowned almost somberly at her, as he always did. After another minute sitting and searching for words, he gave up for the moment and left to refill his glass.
Hugh delivered the same diatribe on every one of her birthdays, and peppered the years filling the time between with similar invective. Every time Vera counted off another year of life without William, Hugh noted the absence of the man she knew should be in her life — and added to this observation most of his opinions of how exactly she was wasting it.
On her next birthday, he gave nearly the same speech to a newly 36-year-old Vera, more ardently than ever. He finished as cuttingly as he dared, with the remark “I tell you this every year, and every year, still no William. If you were going to spend your life with him you probably should have started when there was more of your life left to spend. He’d be here already if he was going to be here at all,” and Hugh spat with more force to dispel the misgiving reflected in her fragile face.
Vera bit her lip. She had just seen forty zoom closer from its far-off distant existence. The rest of her life felt suddenly short, and suddenly she couldn’t bear for it to be empty. She looked up at Hugh in bitter desperation, grabbed his hand, blinked with new tears. “You think I’m too old to find him? I missed my chance at love?”
“But you’re not even trying to find him —” Hugh started in again and noticed the shine of her eyes, and the bite of her fingernails into his palm. “Love isn’t a one-time shot,” he reasoned carefully, and then gave over to emotion, “But you’re not giving it more than one shot, one man out there who has to be the right one. Only one William. You haven’t met this man, but you’ve decided that there’s no other way to have love. There are other men. But for you there’s only one William, and so you’re missing all the chances you could’ve had.”
After this birthday party alone Vera cleaned up the litter of glasses, pistachio shells, and assorted debris of cheer absentminded and troubled. She doubted for the first time the divine providence of her William. She paced the nubby carpets of her bedroom, tossed in her sleep, and pulled at the knowledge of her soulmate until it frayed and loosened. Finally, after another day of twisting and cringing, she sat down at her round kitchen table, bare feet cold on the patterned linoleum, and rested her head on folded arms. She fell asleep there in her bare kitchen, dreamed of fairytale weddings and riding off to some mysterious, elusive happily ever after. She woke up with a cramp in her back and the marks of her knuckles red on her cheeks.
She met Hugh that day for lunch, with leftover slices of birthday cake, as was custom. Hugh tried to be glad that the crease in her forehead had smoothed, her shoulders slackened, her tranquil saintlike composure back in place. He asked what had made up her mind, gingerly.
She said, “Just, he will come. I know it.”