I say, baby, isn’t it crazy
that we are born
only to die?
Oh, but lately,
I’ve been counting my stars
‘cos I will spend my whole life
It had just stopped raining when she stepped out for dinner. The streets were still gleaming from the storm, like the afterglow when an awful relative had just left. She was hung-over from last night’s dream, about a boy who loved her and couldn’t wait to be with her. She couldn’t wait to be with someone like that, too.
The sidewalks were seasoned with people who were—illegally—smoking. The secondhand smoke littered her lungs, reminding her of nights she welcomed the lure of dying. She hadn’t felt that way since her last breakup. The scent of independence had grown appealing; the love of self had become empowering.
Not to say she didn’t long to have someone again. There was nothing like the feeling of mutual excitement for another person, a connection that survived the days, weeks, months apart. If she could manage that without losing her sense of self, she was all set.
She walked into someone on the sidewalk. “Sorry!” she yelled, simultaneously with the other person. She shook herself back into the present.
The boy was dressed in a red plaid polo under a black hoodie. He looked familiar. Like someone fresh out of a recent dream.
“I’m so sorry, I was lost in thought.”
“It’s okay,” he chuckled awkwardly.
He rubbed the back of his neck. “I forgot you work around here.”
“Yeah! And you?”
“I just had dinner with a friend. You remember Anne.”
He hesitated. “Are you doing anything right now?”
Forty minutes later, and they were having coffee at midnight. She had met this boy exactly twice before, when her old workmate Anne brought him around. They say third time’s the charm, and she was testing the truism.
“I moved to another company just down the street,” she explained.
“Yeah, Anne mentioned.” He quickly added, “She mentioned in passing, I mean.”
She held back a laugh. Anne had expressly and unsubtly told tales of his crush on her from way before. Asking her out to coffee was no random act of kindness.
Neither was her saying yes.
“So, uh.” He coughed. “You still with your boyfriend?”
She shook her head. “We split in June this year. I just… I had moved on, you know?”
He squinted at the tall glass front of the café. “Funny, that’s what my ex said too.” He looked awkward for a second, and she understood.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it?” she said, prodding.
“No, it’s not like it still matters. It’s just… weird.”
Was he fishing, she wondered, if his past mattered to her one bit?
Because it did.
“So. I take it you’re back in school.”
“Yeah! Finally saved up enough. How’d you know?”
“Anne mentioned. You know. In passing,” she teased.
He laughed. “You wanna hear the story?”
“I’m a sucker for stories, if they’re good ones. Is this a good one?”
“I can make it good.”
It was just before 2 A.M. when they noticed the time. The awkwardness had long since melted and they had exchanged the ghosts of their past.
His mother had abandoned them, she learned, and his father spent his college fund on gambling.
“I worked about two years—” in the middle of which, she met him for the first time, she remembered, “—got a scholarship and saved up enough to move into a small studio apartment with three others.”
“How tough is it?”
“Independence always is, from any standpoint. The nights are wickedly haunted by what-ifs. But I wouldn’t trade any of it to go back.”
His then-girlfriend had been understanding for a while, but eventually left him because he was “holding her down.” His ambitions were inspiring, she’d said, but didn’t equal his reality, which was what she had to live in.
“We broke up in January.” Right before she met him for the second time, she realized, and just after she was diagnosed.
“And have you moved on?”
He looked at her closely, and they stepped into an easy quiet. She didn’t leave until the sky began showing off its pink edges.
On their sixth time out for coffee, he was about to finish university and was planning his move to pilot school.
He told her he’d wanted to be an architect as a teen. After everything, he believed that looking up at your children tall and grown-up was more rewarding than looking down and forever seeing them as your own.
“So why become a pilot?”
“As a pilot, you don’t create anything. You just… observe. And map your way through. You pick up stories along the way.” He focused on her seriously. “Sometimes you pick up treasure.”
He laughed, his voice wholeheartedly leaving his body. In a few months they had exchanged places: he was the teasing one and she the shy receiver. They were starkly different from way back when. This morning, she received a promotion at work and her doctor said they could begin lessening her medication.
“Sorry, I was—”
“—lost in thought, yeah I know,” he laughed again.
She inhaled the moment appreciatively.
Soon they both saved up enough to move into a one-bedroom apartment together. Slowly they invested in a microwave, a TV, a cat. Things like that.
One night he carefully caressed every scar she’d placed on her body in the past eight years.
“Do you ever still think what could have been?” she asked him softly.
“I’ve had no room to be haunted since you,” he said. “And you. Do I hold you down?”
She lay down next to him in reply.
The next day, her therapist declared her successfully free of Lexapro and Xanax forever, and she started saving for the Master’s degree she’d been putting off.
Anne came over for dinner and asked her about the storm. “It hasn’t rained since that night,” she assured, “and I haven’t needed to daydream in a while.”
Their friend smiled like she knew. She was the only one who always knew.
He graduated school to become a pilot, “the closest I can get to giving you the world,” he’d joked. She had laughed, but still tried to banish his insecurities with a kiss. He never brought this up until their vows ten years later. He said he loved her most at that moment.
When asked at the wedding how their story started, she replied poetically, “It started with a dream, a storm, and a truism.”
But nobody quite got what she meant.