The Old Future

In the old future, Sandra waited until the very last moment and then she called Will. She sat at home, festering, the rotten anger building up inside her and heating her through until she burned with it. Everything in the house was infuriating. The art on the walls, the stack of unopened mail on the end table, the mug from his coffee that morning when he’d drunk it, scarfed down breakfast, and left. All without talking to her. Mornings had been hard lately. In the old future, things changed.

In the old future, he answered the phone. He said her name and his voice was soaked with relief. She let it bleed into her, holding the phone to her ear and sagging in the comfort where everything was okay. They both said they were sorry in a rush and laughed, words tumbling into each other, their voices woven on the phone connection, both their forgivenesses tightly spun in the air between the house and his work. He came home at once, didn’t even stop for the usual drink with Mike before he got on the train. She picked him up at the station instead of letting him take the bus. In the car he put his hand on her knee and even when they got out and walked into the house she could feel the heat pressed to her skin, the print of his hand still warming her.

In the old future they got into another argument in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do about dinner. Their voices, so recently entwined, knocked and hammered at one another again. Finally Sandra cried. She was so tired of hearing her own shrillness and seeing his face crumpled in frustration. She never cried, but now she did. He melted when she did. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, shoulders shaking, and he knelt in front of her. His fingers lit on her arms, tentative, pulling her to him. When she looked up there were tears on his face too. “It’ll be okay,” he said to her. “We’ll be okay. We don’t need to fight.” She cried harder from the torrent of wonder, just imagining that things would change. They would be okay.

In the old future, they skipped dinner. They clung to each other and undressed each other and dissolved into each other in the kitchen. They fell asleep on the floor and Will was almost late for work the next day. He kissed her before he left, leaning over while he pulled on yesterday’s pants, his lips holding hers. After he left she could still feel him on her. She spent the day in a daze. Long minutes passed while she stared at her cereal, or at the papers in front of her, or at the blank black screen of the television. Her whole body was lighter now. She nearly floated.

In the old future, Will came home and nearly crushed her in an embrace. They ate dinner in bed that night, flicking crumbs at each other. Laughing.

In the old future, everything was okay. They lived together and they loved each other. Maybe they had some children. Only sometimes did they have moments of passion, but they always forgave each other.

In the old future, Sandra called Will and he picked up the phone. Everything was okay. The old future might have been true until he didn’t answer.

In the new future, the one that is true now, Will did not pick up the phone. Maybe he saw her name appear on the screen and he clicked “Ignore” because he wanted more time to mull the fight over before they talked. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe he was already with Mike at the bar. In the new future, he went for a drink with his friend and then went home with Mike to sleep on his couch. He woke up in the morning and left for work. He was probably short of sleep from sleeping on the lumpy couch with snores drilling at his ears, and that’s why he didn’t look when he crossed the street toward the office. The driver of the car that hit him didn’t stop. They called Sandra from the hospital. She’d been angry that Will had never come home.

In the old future, everything could have been okay. The old future will always be okay, because it isn’t true. Sandra lives in the new future now.

Apart

I said goodbye to you without crying. I left what remained on the sidewalk there with you to be run over, stepped on and kicked aside. There wasn’t much left anyway.

Ours was a relationship that crumbled. We held it tight in our sweaty hands, clasped together, but it was seeping slowly through the cracks. We tried to catch it and let it pile again, make a shape, build on our palms. All it did was run over our skin. It was smooth as it dripped and slipped and slid away, it was soft and lovely, and then it was gone.

Perhaps, someday, we will find one again. A relationship, a life, something. We will never find those powdery remnants of love that was. Those are lost. Maybe someday we will find a new place, a new way, and it will be something too strong and solid to ever crack. It will never crumble. We will never have to grasp, frantic and falling, at one another to hold it together.

Brief Travels

When Arthur first saw her, she was distracted. Harried, confused, and more than a little stressed. Her face was shiny with sweat and her eyes darted from one side of the subway platform to another. She wasn’t beautiful. She was reasonable-looking, mostly. Her cheeks were a little too flat and her chin a little too weak, and her lips pressed together in a disapproving way, biting back some curse or another. Despite that, he knew something at once. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it was something deep and powerful that propelled him to her. He stepped forward from where he’d been standing, his hand twined with Leah’s.

The girl was Rachel, and she was unhappy. She hated to be lost. She was almost relieved when a strange man tapped her shoulder. It was crowded, people pressing up all beside her, but her eyes fixed easily on his face. It was a light, thin face that smiled easily, and her lips curved in answer. Her eyes flickered down, though, to the hand he held clasped in his. “Hey,” he said. “Can I help you?”

They lived in the same town. They had, anyway, before he moved to another city (San Francisco) and she went somewhere else (Boston) for school. Now they were in his place, and she was visiting just for a few days. They explained this to each other as they started up the subway steps to go the opposite direction. They were going to the same place. Of course, she thought.

He lived in San Francisco with his girlfriend, Leah. Rachel smiled vaguely at Leah, and then turned her face back up to Arthur’s. He was telling her about his favorite place in San Francisco, but she only caught the last few words. She smiled at him anyway. When he talked excitedly like that, he had a sort of glow to him. He was lovely like that, caught up in his own words. She thought of this and looked at him, and tripped a bit on the concrete steps.

On the subway train they hardly talked at all. When they got out of the station, Rachel recognized the street. She could do that much, at least. It was only her second day there. She hastily typed her name into Arthur’s phone, and waved goodbye at the couple as they walked off, hand in hand, in the other direction. She got to her friend’s place and into bed without having to say another word. Once the covers were warm on her skin and she was sinking into sleep, she let herself be sad. She wouldn’t remember in the morning anyway.

The next day she didn’t hear from him until 10:38 that night, when she checked her email. She thought of him all day – of the light clear blue of his eyes, of the way he smiled at her as if he knew her. She was sure it wasn’t just her. He had noticed it too.

She emailed him back, and they made plans. The next morning they met up, Rachel and Arthur, and Leah as well of course. They wandered around the city all day. Rachel was grateful to have found someone willing to show her around. The friend hosting her worked all day, and was kind enough already. She was glad, too, to have found someone so friendly. Two someones so friendly, that is.

Arthur watched all the same television that she did. They talked happily about that for a while. They talked about their favorite foods. When she asked him his, he said, “I love fries that are just cooked, all warm and crispy with mayonnaise – the real kind, not in jars or anything. “

She grinned at him, her eyes bright, and said, “Mine is spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and grated cheese on top.” Nobody else was ever so specific – most people just said “pizza.” He patted her knee, in a casual friendly sort of way. Leah smiled tightly.

The rest of her time there passed like this. She left only two days later, anyway, early in the morning. The night before she left the three of them went to a bar together, an awkward triangle huddled around a corner with their feet curled around the legs of the bar stools and their eyes catching on each other’s gazes.

On the way back they found seats. Arthur sat pressed up against Rachel, the sides of their hips and legs meeting warm and solid against one another. On the other side his hand curled around Leah’s fingers. As they left, he put his foot squarely on a seam in the subway stairs, connecting the two halves with a faint dark line. He climbed the stairs putting a foot on one side and then stepping on the other side, leaning from one half to another until he reached the top and was covered in new night. He could see Rachel’s face as she turned to say goodbye. She hugged him, holding onto him for a moment too long, and then let go. He looked at her for a moment, her face smoky in the city lights and darkness, and then she turned to leave. He turned too, holding Leah’s hand and starting to walk in the direction of home.

Closed

Lee couldn’t open the box. It was small, the length of his index finger. The little strips of gleaming wood fit tightly together in neat stripes, and his hands looked round and awkward trying to pry open its smooth angles. Rachel was watching him, her pale eyes fixed on his face. They were icy blue in the sunlight, closed and blank. He never knew what she was thinking. The market around them was busy and loud, but his eyes were drawn to her amongst the chaos.

He handed the box to her. It fit into her small hands like it was the right size, as if they were made to go together. She put her fingers delicately on the corners and tugged, and the box slid right open. It was a little drawer with a dried flower inside, but Lee only got a glimpse of the sky-colored petals before she snapped it shut again.

When she handed the box back to him, her fingers brushed his palm. Rachel smiled into his face. He could feel the touch of her skin on his, even though her hand was no longer on his. Stop, he told himself. He was being very silly. This was the sort of thing that happened all the time. He was prone to closing his eyes when she nudged him, as if her movement shone on him like the sun on his face. He would let the warmth sink in, and then shake himself and keep on. And then tell himself he was being silly, probably, because when she touched him it didn’t look like she even noticed. Every graze or poke electrified him, but her face was always empty. Impassive.

There had been one time that he treasured, one moment of uncertainty. Lee folded his fingers around the edges of the box again and pulled, but nothing moved. Rachel was shifting now, impatient, and Lee glanced up at her and remembered that moment. They had been watching a movie, he thought, and he had looked over at her as she sat transfixed. The music onscreen was jumping and rising, and she’d turned to see him, the longing written on his face. For only a second, her expression had come undone and her eyes had opened wide, before she turned back to the screen and closed herself off to him again. For a breath, though, they had been looking clearly at one another.

Lee yanked on the box, frustrated. It wasn’t budging, and his enthusiasm was wavering. He passed the box over to Rachel again, hoping to watch how she opened it. She didn’t, though. She just placed it on the table again, between the Rubik’s cubes and the spinning tops. It looked small and innocuous there in the clutter of toys, but the light gleam of the wood still caught his eye. Rachel’s movement flashed in the corner of his vision, and he turned to follow her as she ducked back into the crowd.

He sighed at his own folly as he wove through the market, keeping his gaze on the blue of her sweater and started after her.

Experience

She was always the smallest one of them. She was shortest, quietest, least interesting. Carmen was smarter, and fascinating. Annie was the loudest, and funniest too. Sarah was only a good listener – that label that somebody got by being quiet all the time and putting up with everybody else’s crap.

That was why, when they all went off to school, she was determined to change things. Her schedule filled with the strangest classes she could fine – “Neuroscience, the Beatles, and Psychadelic Drugs;” “Sexual Neuroses and Freud;” “Understanding Comic Book Art;” “The Chemistry of Cooking.” When they met at Thanksgiving, all back home for the holidays, she’d saved up stories about her courses and professors to tell them.

Annie’s hair was bright pink. Carmen had a nose piercing. Annie’s boyfriend played bass in a band. Carmen was dating girls now. Sarah barely managed to tell them the names of her classes before they turned to one another again, voices rising in excitement.

When Sarah got back to school, she knew things had to be different. She started cutting classes every once in a while. She hung out with different people so that she could go to their parties. She found a boyfriend, and then almost as quickly found a new one. She started sleeping more and eating less. This time, she was determined, she would have something important, interesting to say. They would have to listen to her.

Romance

In her head, they’d met cute. They took the train together every day without realizing it, letting the occasional glance bob to the surface but mostly keeping their gaze sunk in their laps or books. It built a slow and lovely sense of anticipation, hovering in their throats, tasting of honey. After they’d been spinning smiles at one another across the aisle for a month, he’d slid into the seat next to her. They’d been inseparable ever since.

In real life, they’d met online. They’d exchanged a couple of messages over the dating site, and then they’d met for coffee at a shop neither had been to, nearly exactly equidistant between their places. They’d liked each other well enough, so they’d gone on another date a week later, and then another. Eventually they’d become part of each other without even realizing it, melting together until they looked up in surprise to see that they couldn’t part without tearing.

In her head, their relationship was dramatic. He brought her a dozen roses, and she took him to her favorite restaurant and wrote a note on his napkin while he wasn’t looking. When he turned and saw it, he swept her onto her feet and bent her back into a kiss, right there in the restaurant. They only stopped clinging to one another when they noticed a waitress, patiently tapping her foot and waiting to get past.

In real life, their relationship was comfortable. They watched football games on weekends, her head on his shoulder and the bowl of popcorn balanced between them, precarious and teetering but never quite falling. They went to a movie maybe once a month, sharing a large soda and a box of candy. They always slept touching, his arm splayed over her, facing the same direction.

In her head, their breakup was tragic. They’d been fighting for a month, maybe more. Their voices rose and plunged and sometimes they threw things. Plates shattered against the wall with a crash. Then he’d gotten a promotion, one in another city. He was going to take it, he told her. She was shocked. He knew she wouldn’t come with him. She felt as though they were torn apart, the twists of fate keeping them separated. They could have made it work, she knew it. If only he hadn’t been transferred, they could have had something perfect. When he was gone, she ached for him.

In real life – she glanced over at him, on the couch with the crossword, smiling to himself. In real life everything was just fine.

True Fictions

David wished that he could change things. He thought he could, sometimes. That’s what being creative is; writing is making a world happen with the imprint of ink on paper. In the little spidery lines where the black bleeds and snakes through the white, you can lean in close and see the beginning, the seeds of what is happening with each word.

There was a city, he wrote. He wrote and built its skyscrapers and its glistening towers, the windows that shimmered in the sun and the sunset that paled behind the neon glow of the stores and restaurants, cafes and tattoo parlors. With each letter he typed, it took shape, and the people began to stroll down the sidewalks. A couple, interlaced arms and somber clothes, ambled past him. A harried businesswoman skittered down the steps to the subway station on the corner. A tall man with a green mohawk and a glinting artillery laced through his face and ears slumped against a wall with a cigarette. At the end of the block, a sandwich board advertised “Free Booze!” in teetering chalk handwriting.

David looked down the street, and saw Mark saunting along on the sidewalk toward him. Mark was his main character; his fingers flashed across the paper, pen scratching, and Mark paused. He stood hesitating amongst the swarm of people and checked his watch, frowned, and then kept walking. David stayed still now, watching him, pen hanging in the air. So many things could happen now. Mark hadn’t heard from Trudy in a long time. Maybe he would do something with that.

Mark stopped again outside an alley as the pen scrawled. There was a mugger advancing on a teenaged girl, whose eyes fixed on Mark as he peered in.

David scribbled, then pressed his pen to the paper. A spot of black grew and widened under the point as he pondered. It could go in that direction, too. He looked at the girl, frozen with eyes round and frightened, and at Mark, leaning forward as if he were going to tip over. He wasn’t going to hear from Trudy again, David decided. That was in keeping with how he wrote, anyway. Early on, he had tried to write her into his stories. He had tried to write love as it was, as he experienced it, and he had tried to make her come alive with words. That was a long time ago. He never tried to write romance any longer. Everything else, he could paint and detail with words, but not love. It was just never very convincing.