The first time you see her, she might as well have been a hallucination.
The gas station lights are buzzing faintly, neon bright after the dimness inside your car. You stand there blinking for a second, acclimating, while the doors whoosh shut behind you. What were you doing again? Oh yes, paying for gas. And coffee.
You make your way over to the coffee machine in the corner, passing between packs of crisps and pots of noodles. The machine has seen better days, scuffed in places, stained brown where drips and spills haven’t been wiped away properly. You don’t care. For a second, you stare blankly at the buttons before your brain catches up and lets you figure out how to operate them. The machine comes to life, rumbling and gurgling, and you watch the cup fill slowly. The hot liquid
your head full of cotton and mesmerized, lost in the sound.
You only notice your eyes have fallen shut when you hear a sudden beep from your right and your heart jump-starts in your chest. The rush of abrupt focus makes everything clearer for a moment, and you stare at the woman next to you, your heart-beat and the blood rushing in your ears drowning out the buzzing of the lights. You notice parts of her, like snapshots – random details in crisp lines and crystal-clearness that stand out almost brutally against a backdrop of blurry confusion.
The assortment of gold rings in her left ear.
The smear of last night’s kajal on her lids.
The loose thread in the scarf around her shoulders.
Her tired, tired eyes.
None of these things make sense to you, like puzzle pieces strewn on a living room carpet, only the faintest hint of a common picture. As she reaches into the microwave to take out a pot of noodles, you focus on one last detail.
chipped polish on her nails,
more rings than you can immediately count.
She looks at you, curiously, and then she is gone.
You stand there, blinking, while the doors whoosh closed once more. Your heart is calming down but with it comes the nausea of being woken abruptly. You feel woozy again, and when you glance down at the microwave, the display swims in and out of focus. The digital clock might be reading 3:05, or maybe 5:08. You can’t be sure.
You grab your coffee and head over to the till, the warmth seeping into your hand grounding you momentarily. The man behind the counter barely looks at you, simply mumbles your total and takes your cash. He looks almost as tired as you feel. While you walk back out to your car, you take a sip of your drink. It doesn’t necessarily make you feel more awake, but at least you feel slightly more alert. You know you probably shouldn’t drive like this, but you still have miles to go and there really isn’t much choice. You need to be home by morning.
Outside, it has started to snow. Probably not enough to make the drive that much more unsafe, but enough to coat everything in a fine layer. As you make your way across the parking lot, you watch your feet disturb the snow, the downy white so much like the covers on your bed, so soft, so heavy, you are so heavy…
You wake up in your bed twenty-one hours later, an empty coffee cup lying crumpled on the floor.
The first time is rarely the last time.
You are on a train, laptop out, barely a glance for the landscape rushing past. This last week you have been trying to finish this presentation, find the perfect polish, and your time is quickly running out. The trees outside the window go by as fast as the minutes ticking down to your destination, faster faster faster and you wish they’d just stop –
A woman sits down opposite you.
You look up.
She looks back.
You know that feeling when a thousand disjointed pieces suddenly reveal the edges along which they fit? When everything suddenly clicks? It’s a cliché, but it is also her smile.
You talk to her for what feels like hours, seconds, an indeterminate amount of time. It feels like you have known her your whole life, like a century wouldn’t be long enough to get to know her at all, like you have met her at a gas station in the middle of the night and forgot about her immediately afterwards. It is over before it even begins.
The train pulls into the station and between hoisting your bag down and getting stuck behind a stroller and too many kids, you lose sight of her. You look around, trying to get a glimpse of her hair, her scarf, anything. She is gone.
Your presentation isn’t perfect, but you pull it off anyways.
You are standing in front of a mirror.
No, you are swaying in front of a mirror.
You are leaning onto the sink in front of a mirror.
You are looking into the mirror and you are looking back out of the mirror and the lights around you are swimming and refracting and everything feels bright and unsteady and good.
The face in the mirror smiles back and the music pounds and you think that maybe you should slow down but who cares. Not you. You have looked into a thousand such mirrors, listening to a thousand such songs and so far, it’s never ended too badly. Time is a problem for tomorrow and so is your way home.
Behind your shoulder appears another face looking at you through the mirror and you feel like you should be surprised but instead you just feel inevitable.
She smiles at you.
You let yourself turn around, let the momentum sway you into her, let yourself smell her perfume and the potential crackling in the air and liquid fire in your veins and clouds in your head and –
– and this –
She might as well be a dream, or that last shot of vodka, but who cares? Certainly not you.
“Are you real?”
“Depends on what?”
“On where you are and how long you stay and who you are or aren’t or won’t be much longer. It depends on what you believe and whether you know what will happen. It depends on whether I want to be or not.”
“Will I see you again?”
But I hope so.”
You wake up in your bed, and you know you didn’t fall asleep there.
You meet her in airports, at street corners, at your nephew’s bar mitzvah. You get too drunk too often and spend too much time in grimy club bathrooms. You make it a habit to visit Quinceañeras, baptisms, citizenship ceremonies. At a very low point, when you haven’t seen her in weeks and can barely sleep, you go and loiter outside a fraternity while they initiate new members. The shame of your desperation evaporates when she smiles at you from the other side of the street.
You stay less, you leave more, you barely dare to slow down. Permanence has become your enemy.
When you watch the news, you contemplate what places are experiencing the most political upheaval. You find yourself looking for flights.
“This is no life for a person. You have to stop.”
“But I miss you so often. Why won’t you stay?”
“I’m not made to stay.”
“Well, I’m not made to leave.”
“One day you will be, and then we can leave together.”
“One day. But until then, stay.”
You find a place to stay. You make a home. You still leave sometimes, and when you do, she is there. It never feels like enough, but you know it has to be.
She holds your hand while you sign the adoption papers.
It is enough.
You are 93 years old and you are lying in bed.
You have been lying in bed for a while now, though most days you do not remember. It is not a bad place to be. Sometimes, people cry, and sometimes, people leave, but most days you are surrounded by laughter. Smiling women stop by your bedside, bringing food and gentle words. They are your daughter and your sister and the friend who lived next to your parents’ house when you were five. They touch the parchment-skin of your hands and kiss your fading hair. They are everyone you ever loved.
You are 93 years old and the sun is just setting, and your eyesight has been getting worse, but when the door opens and the light hits her hair just so, you smile. You have found her and forgotten her too many times to count. You know, this time will be the last.