Scenes from a Future Memory follows the young adult life of Claire Ashby, beginning with moments of her life as a college student in southeastern Virginia. However, rather than developing a linear plot, the story uses Claire's inner life - her passing thoughts, memories and dreams - to link to moments in past, future, and deeper elements of her present.
Claire lay back on their bed, staring at the sloppy paintbrush patterns on the ceiling, searching them for Patrick's face. She'd always been able to find it before, but now it was gone. It was so quiet since he had left - no more yelling or tears, no slammed doors, just the sound of her own tossing in bed, the crinkling of the sheets and slight squeak of the mattress springs. Loss and defeat hung in the air, mingling with the peace. There was something else there, now, the edge of an unseen cliff, or an unfathomable expanse of water. A sense of approach, of destiny and unalterable rotation.
Somewhere, Patrick was waiting and looking. For what? For her? No, not for her exactly, but for something that belonged to both of them. Mechanically, Claire began looking for it too. She wandered about the house, piling up notes, letters, to-do lists, receipts and all the other scraps of evidence he'd left behind. She began organizing them by date, hoping that by accounting for all the minutiae of their past life together, she could make sense of all the big things that had gone wrong.
After a few hours, there were eight different piles, but no answers. The food bill had decreased by about half in the last weeks. That made sense. She wondered how long she'd keep getting all his mail, and how much longer things would be addressed to both of them. He hadn't even given her a forwarding address. It was almost as if he had died - he had simply ceased to exist in any part of the world as she knew it. She picked up her wedding and engagement rings off the dresser, and put them back on, watching them settle back onto her fingers where they belonged. Then, she looked back at the piles of separation evidence, and took them back off, twirling them around her pinky finger.
She and Patrick had not spoken in a month, but she still felt bonded to him, through metal and rock. She felt no urge to hide, destroy or pawn the rings, but also felt that she shouldn't pretend to a relationship status that was in the process of being dismantled. Staring at them, she dumped them back and forth between her hands. Eventually, she took out a silver chain from her jewelry box, strung the rings on it, and clasped it on her neck. Naked hands socially signaled her single status, while the truth hung over her heart, bouncing slightly as she moved.
She wanted to know if he really, truly wished they had never met, or if he actually just wished they were incapable of hurting each other. Maybe she would invite him for coffee when he got back from Australia .
As the days wore on, the part of her that wanted to make things right grew stronger. Years of struggle weren't meant to be thrown away, but continued. What if they could simply get off to a fresh start? Reclaim a new experience as their own? She thought about Australia: the sun, the exotic animals, the reefs - the images that had been sold her of a place she'd never seen. "What if I went there, and followed the route we planned? I bet I could catch up with him. He'd be so surprised."
The tears came large and hot. She was alone in a rowboat, in the middle of the ocean, straining desperately, furiously at the oars. As she watched, an enormous catamaran sped away from her, efficiently increasing the distance between them with every glance. THe wake of the larger craft rocked her tiny boat and coated her with cold sea spray. As the water before her grew calm, desperation turned to defeat.
Just a few minutes before, all had been calm and joy. She and Patrick had been going about accomplishing their goal of an ocean rowing expedition. They had nothing with them but their oars, speeding lightly along the rolling surface without hunger or tiredness. The catamaran had crept up unnoticed behind them. As they looked up, expecting to see a cloud covering the sun, four men dropped into the rowboat. Two of them restrained Claire, while the other two seized Patrick, bound his hands and feet, stuffed his mouth with a rag and blindfolded him. Silently, they hoisted him to their companions above. Claire screamed her breath away, but no one, not even her beloved Patrick, showed any sign of response. As soon as Patrick was safely aboard the catamaran, the two men released Claire and nimbly leapt back onto their vessel. Claire cursed and vowed to catch them, but they went, taking Patrick with them.
Claire awoke with nausea and fever, and purchased a one-way ticket to Sydney, leaving that evening.
Patrick stood alone at the top of the sandstone cliffs looking out over the expanse of jewel green pacific ocean stretching away from him. If he were to draw a line from the point where he stood peering out from the New South Wales coastline, the line would span 7,000 miles across the pacific to Canela, Chile. The cliffs themselves were a testament to the millions of years of weathering that helped to shape it. Here and there, the exposed sandstone was eroded and hewn by the wind and salt air to make alien tunnels with tongues and ripples of rock that gave the impression a great wave had suddenly been turned to stone mid crash. All of this had given him respite of but a moment of enlightenment, like a buddhist koan or a word only remembered behind a shadowy veil of forgetfulness. Then the reality settled in as a massive wave tore away hungrily at the rocks and sands below him.
She isn't here. Claire is still in the house that used to be our home together.
He adjusted his sunglasses for several minutes while the inner darkness took form, sputtering and spewing as it tried to consume him from within. To share this upside-down-world with one person was his dream; and there is nothing more destructive to the human spirit than a dream which one knows can never come true. Finally, he gave up and turned from the scene to continue down the isolated trail he was following along the coast.
Patrick had convinced himself that he should take this trip as a chance to learn to be by himself again. It had been just over 3 months since his marriage to Claire had finally crumbled, and he had thought he was ready to move on. This would have been the perfect opportunity to rediscover what it meant to be alone; the inspiring vistas and grand sweep of nature were, he said to himself, perfect for emancipating him from the loneliness which robbed him of all his pleasures back in his real life.
But, as his friends had correctly warned, the distance only served to lengthen the shadows of his own isolation until they consumed everything he saw in muted greys. Instead of seeing Australia's vast colored beauty and all the unique flora and fauna which only exist there due to eons of tectonic isolation, Patrick saw the ever widening gap between himself and the only creature to which Australia would never play host. Even the inversion of seasons served to further illustrate that his separation from Claire could never be more complete than at this moment.
In front of him, the winding trail began to descend. Anticipating that it would continue to lower, as it had many times before, until the path widened into a beautiful and secluded beach, he began to run. The ocean was now his escape from the darkness. After a moment, he plunged into a small copse of alien trees that looked like giant ferns towering over his head, and then just as quickly he burst into the sun again as his shoes met the loose clean white sand of the 200 foot wide beach. Throwing his pack on the ground without care, he began to shed his his clothing as he bid the sun to come and burn away the darkness he so longed to be rid of. With one sock still on his foot he reached the water and continued on without his cares.
He stayed in the water treading like this for almost an hour. Alternately laughing and then crying as his thoughts escaped from him like compressed air. Finally, he returned to the sand and collapsed, exhausted, and the world merged with the crashing waves.
* * *
Patrick stood up slowly at first, as his eyes adjusted to the velvet dark as it swaddled him in the warmth of a summer evening. He peered out into the distance to find where the shore had retreated, but there was no shore, only more sand. Walking slowly at first into the wilderness of sand dunes where the Pacific once stood, he increased his pace as his mind grasped for the ocean like lungs starved for oxygen.
On and on he walked in the darkness. No stars hung above him except for a solemn moon hidden behind a thick veil of water vapor. Finally he came across a small stream and joined with it on the quest to find its terminus, all the while descending deeper into the crevice that formed the gap between the continents. Eventually, the stream shrank imperceptibly, and then it was a trickle-- and then it disappeared altogether.
Patrick continued walking along the same direction the stream had followed, looking for its rebirth...a spring or a pool where the water recollected before continuing its journey to the sea, but he found no sign of water again that night.
Finally, he came upon the ruins of an ancient city, covered in sand and dried seaweed. Inside the buildings he could hear the whispers of the dead inhabitants, going along their daily routines as though nothing were amiss. Occasionally, the mist obscuring the moon would thin enough for faint shadows to materialize for a few moments.
The city was as massive as it was dead, and Patrick did not belong there. Refusing, however, to turn back, he continued along as the ruins became fully formed buildings and the sand merged into cobbled streets of a lost civilization.
He continued on and on as the whispers grew louder and softer only to redouble their cacophony. Patrick's being was filled with dread--a sense of doom that chilled his bones. He shivered furiously as he trudged forward as quickly as he could.
Finally, the edge of the city.
It was if someone had drawn a line along the sand tangent to the road he was walking along; across this line no street and no building appeared, but to the north and the south the buildings stretched into the darkness with no apparent end. Pausing only briefly to observe this strange phenomenon, the cacophony of whispers turned into screams, and the moon burst fully from behind it's watery shroud. The shadows took form and Patrick was no longer invisible to the shades. They began to pursue him as he ran for the edge of the city.
Not daring to look behind, he didn't hesitate to leap off the edge of the road into a bed of smallish smooth pebbles. The whispers stopped instantly, the warmth returned, and the city slowly faded as the moon was once more overtaken by the mist. Patrick stood for some time as he tried to catch his breath. It was several moments until he saw the woman standing nearby, patiently.
She was beautiful.
"Where am I?" he asked her.
"There is no where," she answered.
"Am I dreaming?" he asked.
"You are not awake. You are not dreaming. You are not important. This is the dream. The dreaming."
"Will I ever see Claire again?"
"There is no 'ever'."
"What do you mean?"
"You are incapable of knowing because you do not belong here. You are in a where between wheres and a when between whens. I will guide you back to when and where."
"When and where what?"
"I will give you back to the world in which those words have meaning. There is another between the wheres and whens that you belong. I cannot take you, but you will find your way there soon enough on your own. You were pushed into this world by mistake."
The woman took his hand gently into her own. Patrick, with his guide, disappeared into the starless night. It was the only breeze that blew at the edge of the dark city.
* * *
The sun hung low in the sky and Patrick had a several miles of trail left before he would get to the site his German friend back at the hostel in Sydney had circled on his map.
Claire was exhausted, but it was finished. The scores were printed and bound, the recordings pressed to CDs and the musicians paid. The whole process took so much out of her. She had always envied those students for whom compositions seemed to come smoothly, for whom the next choice was always obvious. No piece of hers had ever existed before it was written; the music did not lie in wait in her head, anxious to escape and make sound in the world. For Claire, inspiration came in the form of tiny fragments which then required laborious gestation and coaxing, or in the shape of large overarching concepts for which every detail and relationship had to be created. She worked slowly, hunched over the piano for hours, trying out chords, gestures and rhythms, and keeping track of all her options, just in case some greater logic would reveal itself days from now. It wasn't that she lacked ideas or didn't know how to handle them, but that for her, the development of an idea was a painstaking process of elimination in which every possibility required a fair trial and every shade of expression deserved a chance. The result was a musical style of great personal expressivity, a style that had long since gone out of style among "serious" composers. Her pieces exhibited none of the hubris-driven ascetic restraint of other twenty-year-old composers. In fact, her propensity for rigorous self-examination of her own process tended to reveal the intensity of her emotional life. Through the long weeks of a larger piece's gestation, the ebb and flow of her days and nights was sure to creep in, even if the piece's original idea was one of austerity and even-handedness.
The first of the pieces was a violin concerto, the first movement of which she had started in her second semester of college, shortly after meeting Geoff, with the energy of their mutual enthusiasm for life buzzing in her mind. The solo part was intended for the skilled hands of Su Yin, then first violinist of the college orchestra. However, one late April night an over-worked delivery truck driver took a left turn into the campus too fast and too hard, running over the driver's side corner of Su's car. The fresh pizzas sitting on the passenger seat were completely unharmed, but Su lost her left arm and was paralyzed from the waist down. After she was released from the hospital, she returned home to Korea, and Claire set aside the concerto, intending never to complete it out of respect for a fellow musician's tragedy. A year and a half after the accident, however, Claire received an email from Su. She was doing well, and had enrolled in a college in Seoul and had taken up the trumpet, which could be held well enough with one hand. She also encouraged Claire to complete the concerto, saying that though her own life as a musician had been irrevocably altered, it was not over, and suggesting that though the trajectory of the concerto would necessarily be different, it should still get the chance to exist.
Thus, the buoyant vivacity of the first movement, with its coloratura solo lines and motoric orchestral rotations, gave way to a second movement of tortured reminiscence and regret. The violin sawed away at dragging double stops, while an extended trumpet solo questioned the primacy of the violin's performance space and simultaneously mourned overshadowing it. Claire always knew that the trumpet solo's length, simplicity and sempre stridendo character was the weakest point of the entire piece, but once it was written, she was never able to alter it, for its role as an expression of personal grief, fear and the wrenching of a strange shade of victory from an astounding defeat.
The third and final movement of the concerto was written during the budding of her inexplicable but unnervingly strong feelings for Paul. As Claire struggled within herself to understand this attraction and the wild dreams and daydreams it gave her, the final movement of her concerto struggled to regain the buoyancy and levity of the first movement, which by then seemed so long ago, even though it had not yet ever been performed. The violin part seemed to drag a little, as she continually worried whether or not anyone she knew would be able to play it. In the end, it was the orchestral part that defied the skills of the student orchestra, with its hypnotic interlocking rhythms and abrupt changes in texture. And while Paul was certainly heavy on her mind these days, the expression of those feelings was primarily reserved for her song cycle.
Claire's cycle of 6 songs for high voice and piano, on some of the shorter poems of James Merrill, was a unique component of her compositional output in that it was written in a relatively compressed amount of time - a short four weeks just before the start of her senior year. Furthermore, it was her most private work, as she only showed it to her professor after having completed a full draft of all the songs. She listened to his suggestions, and used about a third of them. Though she had originally imagined the songs for a tenor, on her portfolio recording they were sung by Marie Black, who was not the school's "best" soprano by judgment of the faculty, but by far the most open-minded with regard to tackling new repertoire. For this reason, Claire felt comfortable working with Marie and was able to communicate with her regarding her vision for the pieces. Paul played the piano on that recording, though the significance of that act was lost upon him.
The last of the songs drew the greatest number of criticisms from her advisor, nearly all of which she rejected. Rebelliously spurning every indication toward restraint, she gave in to her personal inclination for songfulness, both in choice of poem and in a setting that drew heavily on the rapidly flowing, yet lyrically logical chromatic mediants of Strauss. The poem, "A Renewal," had been sitting hand-copied on a loose sheet of paper in her journal since shortly after the twilight on the lake with Paul, when he had held her while the world burned around them:
Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.
You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.
Debates over its anachronistic style aside, it was a good piece of music, and Claire helped Marie in finding all the lush Romanticism it contained. Paul however, she felt less comfortable coaching, and left to his own devices, he was unable to find the gateway to its sense of feeling and movement, and played it far too tightly. Though the song continued to exist in Claire's mind as a clear expression of her own conflicted desires, the recording that went out with her graduate school applications sounded like it was the song itself that was conflicted.
The "Cardinal Directions" for Pierrot plus percussion were by far her strongest, from an academic standpoint, and were the stronghold of her portfolio. It was over these pieces that she had labored for hours in close consultation with her advisor, striving for an innovative and creatively urgent usage of a well-traveled instrumentation scheme. Given her experience with the process of writing the violin concerto, she had a tendency to want to treat this smaller ensemble like an entire orchestra, which had the effect of flattening the texture. In an orchestral setting, this allows for the balancing and shifting of the various instrumental textures, but in the Pierrot context, starts to sound too much like a band with not enough players. Because of this challenge, these 4 pieces, a total of 15 minutes of music, provided the greatest single contribution to Claire's education as a composer. It was through them that she learned to hear closely into each instrument's individual sound, and weave those sounds together into an articulate and colorful timbral tapestry. Strangely, she was able to treat these pieces with a kind of emotional discipline that allowed them to celebrate her moments of inner logic and balance. To her advisor, the pieces were entirely abstract, but to those who knew her deeply, "North" expressed the Claire who meditated on the length of a winter's night; "South," the one who loved the bright day and those with her in it; "East," the one who longed for love as deep as her own, and "West," the one who would wander forever to find that love.
Claire's parents mightn't have thought that it was terribly unusual if their precocious daughter had come home one day speaking of an imaginary friend. She was an outsider at school: the other children all intuitively placed her in the "other" category and mostly stayed away from her. It wasn't that she was in any way antisocial. Every year when the first day of school started, Claire always did her very best to fit in and get along with all the other children, but again and again her efforts were met with rejection.
At the end of her first week of second grade, her parents had prepared themselves for a disappointed daughter's arrival. She came home beaming with excitement.
"I made a friend!" she exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear, the gap from her lost tooth showing just to the left of center.
"Her name is Alice,"
"Hello, dear child," said the woman standing like a tower over Claire's head. Claire opened her eyes and looked past the woman for a moment to watch the leaves shimmering green as they struggled to snuff out all the sunlight. After a moment, he looked back at the woman's face. Her eyes were green and they sparkled with mischief and mystery. She looked patient, as if she had spent all day waiting on that exact spot for a little girl to appear in the darkened forest.
On Claire's right hand side she could hear a quiet river or a small stream gurgling sleepily a little ways off. The woman waited patiently for her to get her bearings, and then met her gaze, unblinking for a few moments as Claire decided whether or not she was going to be afraid. The woman seemed seven feet tall, her strawberry colored hair fell wavily down to her back and she wore a simple dark green dress which complemented her eyes and the forest around them. Her features were refined, but a little severe to the little girl, as if she was seeing a wise old crone and a young carefree maiden occupying the same space with only the slightest flicker betraying the two extremes rather than their attractive median which stood before Claire.
"I am Alice. How did you come to this place?" she inquired with grace and patience, her gaze only just betraying the intense curiosity with which she examined the little girl. Claire scrambled to her feet, brushed the stray blades of grass and dead leaves off the front of her schoolgirl frock, and tried to brush her frizzy chestnut-colored hair back where it belonged under her black headband with the simple black bow on it.
"I don't-- I mean-- hello Ms. Alice, ma'am," responded Claire, remembering her manners. We musn't make a poor first impression, she thought to herself. "I am afraid I don't know how I came here, or where I am," she stated in her best impression of a British accent she could muster. She made an attempt to curtsy, but all the years of practicing in front of her stuffed animals at tea time had not adequately prepared her for this moment.
"Pity," responded Alice. The ends of her long hair seemed to, only slightly, lose a little of their curl. "You are human, though. That's clear enough."
"If you please, ma'am."
"Yes, I do please ma'am. You can stop pretending you are English, dear. You aren't fooling anyone. I, myself am not English, so you can stop projecting on me as well. Silly girls and your fairy stories."
"That's better. Now, then. Let's be friends. Tell me about yourself."
"Well, ma'am, I am Claire. I am in the Second Grade and I want to be an Astronaut when I grow up."
"Mmmhm, so does Andy in my class, but he's gross and he eats his own boogers. Jackie says she wants to be an Astronaut Nurse Policeman but I think she's just trying to copy everyone else so they will like her better."
"I see. I'm sorry to interrupt dear, but you're still projecting. You do have a strong will for someone so young, don't you," said Alice, with a little bit of a frown. Her eyebrows were now beginning to furrow with both concern and confusion.
"I'm sorry ma'am. I don't know what you mean," answered Claire, desperately wanting to impress Alice.
"Ah. I can see you're not even fully here anyway. Look at your hands: they are already beginning to fade away!"
"Oh no! What's wrong with me?" Claire cried out in alarm as she gazed through her hands at the rapidly darkening leaves above her.
"Come back when you are older, dear. We are friends now, you know," said Alice, with a smile and a small sigh.
"Yes, darling. My, but you are young for your first visit. Curiouser and curiouser. Well. Enjoy the rest of your day at school, Claire!"
And with that, the world went black as Claire lost her balance and fell backwards as she faded from Alice's sight with a popping noise like an old man cracking his knuckles.
"This is interesting," Alice remarked as she disappeared into a gust of wind without a sound.
The bare off-white walls, glowing under unshielded compact fluorescent lights. Posters torn down, crumpled in the recycling bin. Photos stacked on the desk, little loops of scotch tape still on their backs. Only the laptop and bedsheets still in their right place; everything else - semi-packed, desperately piled in the manner of someone who wants to leave, who must leave, but does not know how.
Claire lay stretched out under the sheets, her body grasping at a few hours of sleep in the wake of the chaos and intensity of the last weeks, and in the face of the coming weeks of transition. Graduation was over, and her sub-letter was moving in tomorrow; she had thought it best to cut ties with college immediately, in an attempt to make moving on active and decisive, rather than gradual and dragging. There was no point in lingering here. As if to drive the point home, her ID expired at the end of the month, at which point her no-longer-belonging would become official.
Beyond her door, there was a man waiting for her, to take her to the palace gardens at Linderhof, "because there are no cherry trees there."
"I know," she replied, "I have to get away from them. They are too much like home, and they are always dropping their flowers, trying to cover everything up."
She could see them now, rising up from the ground, blotting out the sky. A great sea of pink rolling across a dome that reached as far as the horizon. It smelled like fire and perfume.
They were in a castle, but it was not Linderhof - just a cheap, American imitation of mad King Ludwig's opulent excesses. Everything was made of plastic and covered with fake gold leaf and imitation pearl. In the throne room, a piano quintet was playing her piano concerto, and the lush orchestral palette she had always imagined came out in thin squeaks. A conductor was handing out the parts as they went along, and the musicians sight-read each phrase, often failing to transpose the parts that needed it.
The sound gradually grew into a cacophony all its own, with subtle shifts in texture from thin and raspy to full and coarse. It was the best of high modernism, all happening at once, as the interlocking palindromic rhthyms of Messiaen's religious fervor melded with the lush, vivacious flavor of an Ives symphony and the strenuous, guarded precision of Webern. It was a masterpiece of postmodern self-referentiality, and she knew that the moment Dawn Upshaw appeared and began singing, everyone in the room would burst into tears. Claire waited, anticipating every nuance.
The man who had brought her to the castle had taken a seat next to the conductor, taking everything in without a flinch. Geoff appeared in the doorway from the garden, carrying a bouquet of red and yellow roses from the garden. He had picked them by hand, ripping and tugging at each stalk until it broke or tore out at the roots, bringing clods of moist earth with them. His hands were caked with dirt and blood, and several thorns had embedded themselves in his palms. Stopping just inside the threshold, he wiped the sweat from his face with his free hand, leaving it streaked with dark red, earthy paste. He reached out toward Claire, silently offering her the flowers. It was a gesture of love, faith and patience.
The orchestra might still have been playing, or perhaps it had stopped, as Claire took in the sight before her. He seemed an awkward, gangly teenager again, like he was when they had first met, and he had picked her some wildflowers which wilted before they even got to her from being clutched so tightly in his sweaty hands. A maniacal laughter rose within her, an urge to ridicule and revile and rebuke that was beyond her control. She threw back her head and howled in revulsion, and the violins shrieked like hyenas. Geoff remained steadfast, holding the fragrant, dirty bouquet out in front of him. Claire couldn't stop laughing, and the spasm overtook her again and again. She wanted to hurt him, to shake his faith and break his patience. Reaching out, she took the flowers, tearing them from his hands and re-opening the wounds. She dropped them onto the floor, and began to step on them, the heavy soles of her boots crushing the blossoms and cracking the stems. Her laughter finally subsided, as she silently listened to the crunching mess. Geoff was staring at her, hard, and she refused to look at him.
"Goodbye, Claire," he said, and turned and walked back out into the garden.
One of the thorns had pierced the sole of her left boot and was slicing into her skin. It hurt, and with the pain came the awareness that Geoff was gone. She tried to call out after him, but suddenly could not remember his name. The wind howled, and it became winter.
The air was cold in a way she had never experienced before, as she huddled against a tree trunk next to the lake on campus. With her, she had a small bag of dried cherry blossoms, which she was eating to keep warm. Her fingers were stiff with cold as she reached into the bag again and again. The petals tasted like fire, and burned for a few minutes in her empty stomach with a heat that rushed momentarily to her head and distracted her from the loss of sensation in her hands and feet. Then, she could feel the petal cooling inside her, after which she lost sense of its presence, and ate another. She knew that she had to move, but there was no where to go; all the doors were locked and she had melted her ID card in the fire she had built a few weeks ago, for a few seconds of hot, toxic fumes.
Claire ate the last blossom, savoring its warm glow, but wishing she had saved it to remind her of Geoff, of Japan and all the other memories that were fleeing her frozen mind. The trees were dissolving in front of her, the great snow-laden branches cracking and falling down, and finally, she knew the sudden shock of a frozen tree trunk pinning her helpless, cold and hungry to the raw earth.
It seemed to Claire that tonight, there were fairies dancing in the treetops. As she stood leaning against the railing of the club house's second floor terrace, the manicured green lawns spread out like dark linen table cloths in front her. The fireflies had already risen from the blades of grass, from a veil of low lying evening fog. They collected near the tree trunks and rose up into the branches, heavy with green foliage, as they looked for lovers. The twinkling lights transported Claire away from the insipid dance music playing in the background. She was, for the moment, wherever magic lives in the lights at night: a small town's big summer bizarre, the electric light parades of her childhood, or beneath the lit scarlet lanterns strung between the cherry trees and drinking sake at Hanami.
But, the spell broke. She was back at someone else's alumni party, having been invited by some boy she didn't really like that much, hanging out with people she wasn't really friends with, all because it was something to do while she was back in her smallish town on the very fringes of East Coast Virginian suburbia. Where the hills begin to plunge and roll like a river as it reaches the fall line. Where the subdivisions give way to sprawling green pastures with horses and cows and the wind smells like life itself. She had wandered away from an endless succession of four-on-the-floor dance beats, the obnoxious commentary of the DJ and the screams of hysterical girls who "love this song". If Geoff were here, he would be making fun of all this and demanding they both straight go home to write their own dance music so that next time nobody could even claim they'd heard the song before.
Being back home for the summer was inspiring in its own way, when compared to the swamps of southeastern Virginia, but even the music that longed to escape from Claire's soul felt stifled by the oppressive heat and humidity of the evening. She probably should have found an appropriate internship to fill up the time between semesters, but tonight she didn't feel like she was missing out on anything. There was a sense of stillness in the air, and Claire felt at home in it. Eventually, even the fireflies grew exhausted of their glittered waltz in the trees and dimmed, so Claire meandered back inside to find another drink and her date for the evening.
* * *
Sometimes Geoff felt like his life was guided by an invisible hand. No, not guided. It was more like whatever path he chose was cleared for him. He was used to getting his way by now, but it still somehow came as a surprise, which had saved him from the acrid stench of self-entitlement. Being clever, moderately attractive and extremely witty had not served Geoff well in the end, however, because once the great party that is University had ended, he was completely lost. He was a dingy in an ocean of possibilities and everyone had set sail a long time earlier. Things might be better if he knew what he wanted, but even that seemed to have floated away some time ago while he was busy having a good time.
"Maybe it's because everyone moved away to new and great careers in new cities, and I went home," he said to Claire over the phone, "I spend all day being a clerk for some asshole congressman, and I'm never going to get a better job than this. There are thousands of fresh graduates from Harvard or Princeton waving around their fluffed up resumes and their daddy's fat donation checks who keep rushing right past me."
"Geoff, you still haven't told me what you want to do when you get wherever it is you're going," Claire asked from the other end.
"I don't know," said Geoff exacerbated, "I don't know!"
He continued, "I'm not even sure I want to be a politician. It just seemed interesting at the time."
"I seem to recall a conversation during sophomore year where you chastised me for choosing an impractical major like music instead of something more useful like Polysci," responded Claire, a with more than a hint of pleasure behind her voice.
"I know. I'm an idiot. You were right, but you're not helping. What do I do now?"
Geoff paused from pacing the floor of his nearly empty bedroom. There was nothing on the walls except for a print of an art deco absinthe advertisement he had up in his dorm room.
"Know yourself. You don't know what you want. Stick with the job, and do something that will help you work out what it is you really want from your life. Go swimming. Meditate. Do you still go to church?"
"No. Sunday mornings seem like the only time I have left to myself anymore. I don't want to go anywhere."
"Well then lock yourself in your bedroom for a few hours in the morning and really make an effort to think about what it is you want to do. Be by yourself for a while with no distractions and see what comes out."
"I want a family. I want to date someone who isn't crazy or already married or completely incompatible with me. I've managed to find great friends, but I can't seem to find anyone who wants to date me who is as cool as you."
Claire felt a shot run up and back down her spine, but she suppressed the pressure growing in her chest and pressed on.
"You're not going to find a good girl to date until you discover your heart, Geoffrey Stark."
She continued, "You've got one in a pretty glass display case for everyone to see and we all know it's a big fat lie you've constructed because you're too afraid to feel anything more than the warmth of a couple shots of whiskey on a Friday night."
"Ouch. Claire that's harsh."
"Sorry, but it's the the truth. You're not going to find out what you want from your career and you're sure as hell not going to find a good girlfriend until you've broken down those walls and let you discover yourself. Any woman with half a brain will steer clear of a man who hides himself behind a facade. It comes off as either juvenile or creepy. I'm really sorry for being so mean, but I want you to be happy, Geoff, and you're not going to cut it in the real world by just fudging and schmoozing your way through your whole life!"
"Grow up, Geoff! It's time to stop whining about how things aren't perfect for yourself and to do some soul searching."
Geoff hung up the phone on Claire. The sense of betrayal stung inside and he felt a rush of emotions welling up inside him. His anger towards Claire was more than enough to stem the tide, however. It was easier to be angry than it was to admit he failed himself.
The blinding sting of rejection has the power to strike even when we thought we had avoided getting our hopes up, and carefully curtailed the stalwart advance of legion dreams.
In between papers and piano practice, Claire had carefully woven herself into the edge's of Paul's social network, building off their spontaneous beach trip several weeks ago. Some of his friends she didn't care for, as she found them to be lacking in subtlety, but she was certain that Paul's radiant embrace was worth a few dozen mediocre college kids who preferred parties with exclusive guest lists.
Paul had invited her to a Saturday-evening gathering at his apartment, which he shared with a few other chemistry majors. She wasn't really sure how many people she would know there, but she took it as a good sign that she had been included in the email invitation. And though the invitation had indicated that she was free "to bring along a friend or two - just not an entourage," she had come to the conclusion that the initial social comfort that a friend would provide would get in the way of the closeness she perceived developing between herself and Paul.
She stood in front of the full-length mirror attached to the inside of her closet door, and mercilessly scrutinized her appearance. Having set aside her usual simplicity and practicality in matters of dress, she had added both a solid three inches to her height with a fantastic pair of heeled sandals borrowed from a girl across the hall, and a solid layer of lipstick and eyeliner. A frilly green tank top and dark, tight jeans complete the ensemble. She looked good, but if Geoff had seen her, he would have asked who she was trying to make fun of. Stuffing her room key, ID, lipstick and phone into a tiny purse, she grabbed a jacket and set off into the night, letting the door slam shut behind her.
Outside, the remains of the season's last tropical storm washed over the campus. Rivulets of unseasonably warm water ran down the street, unable to access the drains that had been clogged by the fallen leaves. The footing was treacherous, and there was no cutting across the quad as it entirely covered by the thin shiny film that the saturated ground refused to absorb; she would have to go the long way around.
Claire arrived at Paul's apartment soaked. Her small umbrella had been completely incapable of protecting her from the wind-driven rain, and the borrowed shoes were coated with mud and dead grass. She smoothed her hair as best she could, and knocked on the door. His roommate Ben answered it, the chatter of the other guests and the sound of a cork being pulled from a wine bottle issuing from behind him. He looked at her questioningly.
"Hey, I'm Claire...Paul invited me." She offered him her wet hand.
"Ben, nice to meet you." He shook her hand, then wiped his on his jeans. "C'mon in, let me see what Paul is up to."
She stepped inside, then back out to leave her distressed umbrella in the hall. Ben waited patiently, holding the door. Hopping back inside, she smiled at him appreciatively, and began to look about the room, unable to recognize anyone. Everyone else seemed magically dry, as if they hadn't been outside in the last two days.
"Paul!" Ben hollered. "Your friend is here!"
Claire heard his footsteps approaching, and inhaled deeply as her heart caught a little. His smooth, deep voice always caught her off guard.
"Hey, Claire! You're soaked. I should make you sit on a towel!" She reddened, too flustered to say anything. "I'm just kidding," he said, giving her a warm hug, "make yourself at home. Drinks are in the kitchen, what would you like?"
She sighed slightly, as she followed him toward the group around the kitchen table. "A glass of wine would be nice, white if you've got it." After getting her drink, he introduced her around. There were only about a dozen people, but she forgot every single name as soon as it was said; she only cared about one of them.
As a few more people straggled in, the group migrated to the living room, where there was more space for the entire group to sit. Claire manouvered herself so as to be able to sit next to Paul on the big sofa. It was meant for three, but a fourth person joined them, pressing Claire slightly into his side. He swung his arm up behind her along the back of the sofa, awaking in her the strong temptation to lean against his shoulder. She resisted the urge, for the moment.
The conversation continued, brisk, and increasingly fueled by the consumption of alcohol. Laughter grew louder and jokes cruder, and Claire found herself jostled closer and closer against Paul's warmth. His arm was still behind her on the sofa, and the touching of their bodies was natural and magnetic.
Around 11, there was another knock at the door. Ben started to get up from his seat on the beanbag chair in the corner.
"That must be Maddy," said Paul, standing up abruptly. "I'll get it." He strode over to the door, passing a strong hand through his floppy, collegiate, dirty blond hair, and opened it, ushering in a petite girl with a dark brown pixie cut, blue eyes and a small, sweet mouth, which he kissed lightly.
Claire's heart rate tripled: competition. "Maybe I saw wrong," she thought, "maybe it was just a kiss on the cheek."
"Sorry I'm late," Madeline chimed, her delicate Oxbridge accent cutting through the beer and raucous laughter.
Paul put his arm around her, turning to face the group. "Hey everyone, this is my girlfriend Maddy. Maddy, meet my roommates and friends."
Claire stared recklessly, stricken with feverish hopelessness. Maddy was adorable, and there was no way she could compete with a British girl. Then, she realized that there was no competition, Maddy was real, and Paul was just a friend. As the sweetheart in the black dress with tiny white dots circled the room, getting acquainted with everyone, Claire's jealous, proud brain went into overdrive. She had to know how, why, what happened. How did this work?
Suddenly, she was shaking Maddy's hand, staring at the mouth that had kissed Paul's. (It had, in fact, been a real kiss, she finally admitted to herself.) "Nice to meet you," she smiled innocently. "How did you and Paul meet? I had no idea he was seeing anyone." She tried to sound pleasantly surprised, like a good friend would.
Maddy laughed brightly. "Oh, we met while he was doing the Oxford program this past summer. I was already planning to spend this year here as an exchange student myself. So...here we are! It's worked out really nicely so far, I have to say."
"That's so cute. And Paul's graduating in the spring, so then he can just follow you back to England!"
Maddy laughed again, and rolled her eyes playfully. "We'll see."
Claire didn't even notice the awkward pause opening like a chasm between them, as she calculated the fact that this girl would be here, barring disasters too evil to wish for, until both she and Paul left college for good. Opportunity had been killed by charm, and none of her efforts had even been noticed.
The room took on a drab appearance, as the fluorescent lighting sallowed faces reddened by drinking, and every roll of laughter directed itself at her gullible, deflated hopes. She stared down into her half-empty glass of wine and tried to think of a reason to leave now, to go somewhere safe, with trees, water, books, music and all the things she knew and loved and loved her back.
Another hour dragged on, with Claire trying to join in the conversations with other clusters of people around the room, all the while watching Paul and Maddy delight each other as only the young and infatuated can. Around midnight, she said thank you and goodnight to Ben, and that she had a lot to do tomorrow, and slipped out the door.
As she sloshed through the quad carrying the shoes and her useless umbrella, the streetlamps grew blurry in the warm, salty rain, and with every heavy step a great, flooded chasm opened up in the sodden field behind her.
Claire sat at her favorite spot to languish in the only coffee shop on campus. This is not to say that her favorite spot was any one particular seat in the cafe. Rather, Claire made a point to know where the one liquid sunbeam warmed a particular spot during the any point of the day and always claimed it as her own. One of her friends sat across from her, ostensibly for a study session. Slowly stirring her vanilla soy chai latte—one sugar, she was noticeably absent from her own party of two.
"What's wrong, Claire," asked Geoff, carefully, "You seem so out of it today."
After a more than pregnant silence, Claire glanced up and looked at him.
"I said you're acting like you aren't even here."
"Well, where the hell are you, then?"
"...I had a dream last night," said Claire a little more mysteriously than Geoff was comfortable with.
"You always have weird dreams," offered Geoff, hopefully. Claire had a flair for weird dreams, but worst of all they almost always involved people she knew. Usually, they were neutral— vague as to the outcome or meaning of the dream— but they were almost always creepy, and sometimes downright haunting. Her body language and distance was not helping to put him at ease.
"This one is different. This one felt very different,"
"Was I in it?" Geoff gulped nervously.
"I think so...but you were different. There were a lot of people I knew but everyone was somehow intrinsically different than normal. But, I can't really put my finger on exactly why. That's not even the weird part. The weird part is that it felt real."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I mean none of my dreams, strictly speaking, ever have come true or anything, but it feels like for some reason I wasn't dreaming so much as I was taken somewhere and being ... shown. I wasn't really even in control of my body, everything sort of just happened to me like I was a soul shoved into someone else's shell."
"It was scary enough that when I woke up at three, I couldn't fall back to sleep so I got up and I wrote it all down. Don't read it here in front of me, but if you want you can borrow it and give it back to me later—But only if you promise not to say I'm insane or messed up or anything. I already know there must be something completely weird going on in my head to have these dreams, but I feel like if I don't share them I'll go crazy for real."
"OK, Gotcha," said Goeff, slowly reaching out to grab the pages Claire had ripped out of a journal. Morbid curiosity most certainly killed the cat.
"Anyway, thanks for snapping me out of it. I really need to get on with studying these Kanji flash cards for the quiz tomorrow."
"Cool. I need to get started translating these articles which Aoyama-sensei handed out in class today. She always picks the driest possible stories for us. I'm convinced that she wants to torture us with the inanity of a slow news day in Kyoto."
"At least you have good material to get you to sleep," chuckled Claire. I wish I had a chance to sleep so well tonight, she thought to herself, dimly.
"Oh, speaking of which, I wouldn't read that at night. Or while you're alone your apartment."
* * * * *
The darkness is crushing me. I can't see anything. I try to scream but there is not enough air. The ground feels soft but I can't seem to look down. I am being led by the hand but even though whoever is leading me is right in front of me I cannot see him. I cannot see my own hand.
My companion beckons me to look to the skies above me, and I comply. I didn't will my body to look, it just looked. I didn't hear anyone speak. Far, far above the darkness is crying out. I can't hear it, but, God, the screaming. It's as though the darkness was ripped from another universe against its will. It is horrible. There are no stars left in the sky, only infinite darkness. There are, however, thirty or forty objects floating, nearly fixed in their position, some thousands of feet above me. They are shaped like inverted glass tear drops. My guess is they are a hundred feet high and almost as wide at the bulge on top. Water has collected at the bottom, and above the water, towards the top, there is soil. Growing on top of the soil on the perimeter of the objects I can see the green of plants, but everything else is obscured from view.
I am bid to hurry. We are running. The ground is softer here, like we are running on sand. The darkness presses on me with heat. It is so hot. I didn't realize before. I still can't see my companion but I can see his blue tinged dark silhouette against the horizon, which, although seems pitch black on its own, is a slight brown against the darkness of the ground and the evil darkness of the sky directly overhead.
I don't want to run anymore, but I feel I so urgent. My chest burns and my eyes are watering. I can't will myself to slow down. Something is in front of us, but I cannot see it very well.
A light! I can see a speck of dirty light in front of us now! My companion is begging me to run faster. I must run faster toward the light. My companion has let go of me. But he implores I must keep running. I have a moment to look at his face, but I can't see well enough to make out who it is. As I continue running I do not hear but instead I sense a terrible sound like thunder. I steal a glance behind me automatically. With a shriek that pierces through my soul, a tendril of blackness is descending from the sky over my friend. He is silent, and then he is gone as the dark finger ascends back to the sky.
I have almost reached the light. It is so close; I can see it is partially obscured by a copse of trees. All of the trees are dead except for one. I am almost there, now.
It is a massive cherry tree, almost fifty feet tall. The light is from a lamp post next to it. But the lamp post is pulsing. Almost solid looking spheres of glowing blue-green light are emanating from the tip, expanding, and pushing away the consuming darkness above before they fade again. The cherry tree is dropping petals like a heavy snow shower. The rest of the dead trees were once also large cherry trees and form a circle around the last living specimen. They look like they've been tarred or burned.
The petals are raining down faster, now. They are blood red like a rose. One of them brushes against my face as it falls to the ground.
My face feels warm against the coldness of the petal. I touch my face where it was. Wet.
Looking beneath the tree, I can see bodies lying there, motionless. Most of them are completely covered in a winding-cloth of the red cherry blossoms, but I can see someone who is only partially covered. Approaching slowly, I can see who it is now. Geoffrey. Tree roots are growing into his skin. The tree pulses with his blood and the blood of everyone beneath it. I lean in closer to his dessicated face. I feel my chest tighten with grief.
He is speaking to me with thoughts through the time and space between us. He says, The darkness consumes everything. When one hundred quintillion blossoms have fallen, the world will end. There will be no more light and no more darkness. There will only be nothing. There will be us in the nothing. And then the nothing will itself be nothing because God wills it. Then, it will be nothing because we will sing the universe back into existence again.
I am filled with fear and with courage, and I lie down beside him. I take his cold hand in mine and the thin hair-like roots begin to grow out of the ground around me. Suddenly, I am aware of everyone connected to the tree. They are my loved ones; my friends and family. They are the good people I have encountered in my life. I know who each and every one of them are and the measure of their sacrifice to my life, even if I only encountered them for a moment. The glass vessels in the sky are the tears running down my face as I succumb to the elements and exhale for the final time on this earth.
The tree's bark darkens and black flames devour the base of its trunk as it drops its final blossoms, the lamp post light begins to dim and I am nothing. The malevolent darkness above has broken through.
There is nothing now except my name and the names of everyone I have loved.
And an explosion of time and song and color which awakens me.
The fields of May, exploding with color, had been mown down, and someone had taken the blossoms and piled them all together. A great mound, of every kind: Tiny lavender blossoms peeking out from among the tigerlillies, thorny rose stems stabbing the orchids, tulips pointing straight for the sky, irises, mums, and daisies all trying to outshine each other, and the wildflowers gathered by children and scrunched into hot handfuls resting on the grass. They were all there, smiling up at the warm blue arch of the sky, or out into their audience, whose dim eyes avoided their gaze.
Claire's deep periwinkle dress drew her out of the crowd and into the flowers' bright embrace. The spring sun drew near to the earth, and her heart grew hot with directionless love, streaming forth in a strange joy that did not know regret. She began to sing.
How sweet the sound
That led me straight to you
Within your heart
I've laid my own
Which now I cannot retrieve.
'Twas life which showed
Me how to love
And love that held me fast
The joy of your embrace
The sadness in your eyes
Makes all, that will go with me.
The crowd of people and flowers watched her from both sides, as she rocked slightly side to side, swaying to the internal rhythm of her song, but did not stir or shift. A bluejay screeched raucously, and a few men cleared their throats. The only sounds were those of the earth.
In the garden, a passion-purple iris stretched out of the dull mud, frightfully ahead of its time, but vibrant with daring. Claire's dreamy gaze drifted out the window, resting briefly on its unexpected, radiant color, before shifting back to Patrick's face, eyebrows slightly raised in a gentle question.
"I never planted it - it just popped up out of nowhere and bloomed last week. It makes me think of you every time I see it." He paused, shyly. "With you, it is always springtime."
She smiled, and kissed him softly on the corner of his mouth. "You're so silly."
"But I mean it!"
"I know, that's the best part."
Their happy times were like every other couple's happy times. The future was warm with promise, and happiness waited behind every door, beckoning them forward. As Claire once said to Geoff,
"I don't think it would be possible for either of us to leave at this point, no matter what. It's like this thing has been set in motion, and as time passes, we just get closer, more caught up in each other. I don't believe in fate, but at the same time, I can't deny its effects...It's like when I saw you in the bamboo forest - I know it wasn't real, but is that really the point?"
Geoff had simply smiled. "I hope we're actually in Japan at the same time eventually."
The fall when Claire sent off her applications to graduate programs in composition ushered in a moment of hope and expectation like a perpetual intake of breath that hovered within their life like no other ever would. She had sought Patrick's approval for every note of her portfolio, trusting in his elaborate, critical taste in all things artistic, and for every sentence of the written portion of her application. Together, they made an infallible team, a generous feedback loop of sound and sentiment; she no longer felt that the goal was hers alone, but for both of them - for their life. The sharing of her music had generated a sharing of souls like that which she had only before experienced in dreams.
It was in those few sweet months of waiting that Patrick formally proposed to her - their joint sense of expectation sending them tumbling inevitably deeper into a mutual existence. It was an unusually warm day in late December, just after Christmas, and being a practical man, he'd bought the ring at a post-holiday sale, and took Claire for a walk among the bare trees in the hills of the Blue Ridge. On a mossy wooden bridge across some sweet but nameless creek, he had dropped to one knee, taken Claire's hands in his own, and said,
"I know I say this all the time, but I really do want to spend the rest of my life with you. You're an amazing, beautiful, talented girl, and I think that together, we could really be something. Will you marry me?"
Wordlessly, Claire bent down and kissed him, tears of joy and excitement rising in her eyes. She whispered, "I love you," and bid him rise. They stood on the bridge holding each other for a long time, while the afternoon sun slipped deeply into the West and the little creek babbled away on its long path to the sea.
Patrick tried to take a moment to breathe. His face burned hot, his breaths were short and quick. His head was swimming with half spun thoughts as the primeval, visceral anger burned inside him. Pacing furiously on the little patch of grass outside the apartment complex designed for tiny dogs and tiny chain smokers, he tried to calm himself enough to formulate one coherent synapse. He stopped. The suitcase he held in his hand dropped to the grass as the world around receded and its color was lost. Patrick descended into himself, consumed like a black hole by a hideous and dangerous thought.
What if this is the end?
His eyes became glossy with fresh tears. The anger was gone now, so quickly replaced with the panic of an idea that Patrick hadn't thought of once in the 10 years he'd been married to Claire.
What if it's over?
All of the fighting, and the hurt feelings. All of the make-ups. All of the joy and laugher. All of the love they fought for.
Using his overstuffed suitcase as a chair, Patrick sat down on it and cradled his face in palms of his hands. The orange-tinged early morning sunlight failed to give him comfort as his mind drifted helpless in the churning sea of his emotions. The rage had been comforting and yet part of it was also horrifying. He had learned, as many boys do from a very early age, not to cry. Not to feel. To be a man– men fix their problems. He'd tried to fix Claire and his relationship, and things had gotten worse. But, the rage helped him cover up the pain and fear. The rage was clean and not confusing. It quieted his mind, but it also controlled him.
Patrick recalled, as a child, his mother crying after his father had hit her during an argument. Images likes this, burned into his soul, were what protected him from repeating the same mistakes as his dad. There were what kept him in check, and reminded him that he had to face the uncomfortable emotions along with the anger. And in a beautiful way, being adrift in ones emotions felt so free. Like standing in the center of a magnificently formed hurricane. All the destruction swirling around him and at its center a horrible center of silence and the knowledge that no matter what happens all the suffering will not diminish for a long time yet.
How can I fix– stop it! Stop it! That bitch is so selfish, she thinks her pain is more important. It's all my fault. The things I did are what broke our marriage. Shit. Why do I even want this to work so badly? Why does it hurt so bad? Why did we let it get this bad before we noticed?
Normally Patrick thought about how he used to call his Mom when he was upset, but she had passed away 4 years ago early on a morning like this. She had always loved the sunrise. Patrick wasn't a morning person, and hardly ever got up to witness the world's rebirth, but his mother saw it almost every morning. As a child, he remembered climbing down the powder-blue carpet covered stairs and finding his mom writing in her journal and reading her bible.
"Quiet time is so important to have, Patrick," she would say, "The first thing you should do every morning is wake up and spend time alone with God."
She had always seemed to know herself so well. She always seemed to know the answers. And then one day, she didn't know all the answers anymore. The veil in the temple of naivety ripped in two, he took a greater leap into adulthood that day than before or since. Again at this very moment he felt as though a veil had been withdrawn from a part of his life. He was suddenly aware of all the dysfunction in his marriage at once, and his fear and anger were joined by a third emotion fighting for his attention: helplessness.
Geoff sat at a table in the open foyer of Shiga Dai. It was mid-afternoon, and darkness was already encroaching on the glass doors of the center. He faced the windows, and his feet felt cold even inside his thick slippers, as he watched a grey snow heavy with wetness accumulate weakly on the sidewalk outside. It was not enough snow to be charming, but more than enough to make the entire atmosphere raw and damp.
The kanji book in front of him drifted in and out of focus, as he fought to contain his thoughts to the present, to the situation before him, the long-sought dream made reality of being-in-Japan. As his hand traced each radical, he could feel Claire's hand curled inside his own, as when he had taught her to write the hiragana the semester before she formally took up Japanese. Her hand was warm and steady, and the comforting pleasure of her touch far surpassed her need for his physical assistance in writing. They still had 15 left to go when the book came back into focus, and he found that he had filled his workbook page with hiragana instead of kanji. He would have to find some white-out, or whatever they made in Japan that served the purpose of covering up mistaken writings.
Her absence hung over him like the heavy clouds that never lifted, a paradoxical presence too weak to spur him to action but strong enough to cast every activity, every task, every moment into a dank mist that obscured goals and dulled senses. His knowledge of Japan was itself a knowledge of her, but she was not in Japan, she was in Virginia, riding her bike down the right-hand side of the street, wearing shoes to class and eating with a fork. Or maybe not eating with a fork - she did like using chopsticks a lot.
Was that all they had right now? That they might both use chopsticks to eat their meals? She wasn't even awake right now, it was 3am back home.
He needed to forget, if only for this moment, for the next few weeks. He'd come a long way, and it would be foolish and immature to throw away his energy on what might as well be an imaginary friend. Claire was not here, but other people were. It was simple really, and they were probably perfectly good, friendly people with whom it would be fun to discover Japan.
The spring would be amazing. Suddenly, it would be April, and the sun would filter through the cherry blossoms as they floated down through the breeze, getting caught in Claire's hair. She would laugh and he would kiss her lightly on the cheek.
No, but surely some other girl would end up with cherry blossoms in her hair.
He tossed down his pencil in frustration. It was getting dark. He needed to turn a light on if he was going to get work done. The light would driver her image away; it would help him focus.
He glanced around, looking for a light switch. A movement from the hallway attracted his eye, gradually took shape.
A silhouette against the darkening windows, slender and strong, with softened edges in the fading light. Forgetting washed over him in a rush of heat.
"Konbanwa. Diana itashimasu," she said with a sly smile and a hint of ironic emphasis on the excessively polite ending of her introduction.
Keigo. She must be advanced. "Konbanwa. Watashiwa Geoffdesu," he stammered. Three years of Japanese, and that's the best he could do?
She giggled, and flicked on the light. "You're crazy, working in the dark like that." Black hair hung over her shoulders, perfectly, naturally straight, and her dark olive skin was smooth and full of the energy of her smile.
"Yea. I guess I am crazy." She approached, and stood over his shoulder.
"Hiragana! How cute!" She was laughing again, and she smelled like passion fruit shampoo.
"Yea, I'm actually in level 3, but I was..." He couldn't remember anymore.
"You were what..."
"Oh I don't know. Just playing around I guess, but now I've messed up the whole page."
"I can see that. You should probably take care of that. I'm off to Lawson's to get some beer; you should come by later - there's gonna be a little party in my room, 2nd on the left down the hall."
She pointed with her graceful right index finger. "Mattane! See you!"
Diana. He'd have to remember that. A party invitation - maybe things were beginning to take shape.
The days were getting longer, and wet, blustering wind promised to drive the winter away - eventually.
It was Saturday morning, and Geoff slept deeply as the sun rose over the newly thawed Biwako. Claire was with him, nestled in his arms under an overpass in Tokyo. They were lost.
She lifted her face to his. "Couldn't we just ask someone to give us directions back to the hotel? Or just the nearest station?"
"There's no point. No one knows where they are here."
"I know that I'm with you..."
"Maybe that's it. We can know who we're with, or where we are, but not both."
The bathroom door slammed, and Geoff started. He grasped at Claire's warmth, and found his arm draped across Diana's stomach. She sighed, rolled over toward him, and opened her eyes, dark and bright.
A small group of students had managed to quickly befriend the brand new president of the Shiga Dai study abroad program. Dr. Kennedy, having come from America, was a new neighbor in this town just like the students who had arrived with him for the spring semester. Thankful for the immediate connection with some of the students, he promised them a private tour of Kyoto- filled with history and cultural information along with the new sites and sounds of the ancient city. The first Saturday after their arrival, the group assembled early in the morning and rode their school-owned bicycles the almost mile long trip through the rice paddies to the Hikone JR train station.
It was a frightening experience for all of them, as the open gutters yawned dangerously close to the edge of the road where they pedaled. Every passing car was uncomfortably close, and the ditch was even closer. Overhead, the sky was gray with winter clouds bursting at the seams. The nearby lake Biwa generated its own weather patterns. A constant wind buffeted them, numbed their fingers and faces with its subzero chill, and threatened to push them into harms way. Geoff was very happy to arrive at the outskirts of the city-- the storm drains were blessedly covered there, although the cars came more frequently and with lesser patience for the cyclists than before.
They locked their bikes in the public bike parking lots, paid the fee and took their claim tickets. Finding their way back into the train station, they each took turns buying their tickets to Kyoto Eki. Geoff's two years of prior Japanese instruction felt limp and useless. His first trip to the local konbini (/cone - bee - nee/, Japanese for 'convenience store') earlier in the week had showed him that he wasn't even able to understand the person manning the till as his change was quickly counted out loud. "Roppyakunijugoenniokaeshimasu. Arigatou gozaimasu!" Useless. Thankfully, he never had to worry about being cheated for money, as most Japanese people wouldn't have ever thought of taking something that wasn't theirs, and besides that, the register almost always had a readout with the total on it.
The travellers now had their tickets, and they ran down the stairs to the platform just as the train pulled to a meticulously measured position at the platform. The doors all opened precisely at the demarcated locations as indicated on the platform, and the alighting passengers rushed out of the portals with such efficiency and grace, Goeff had the impression of a flock of birds as it takes off from a field. The students crowded around the door and haphazardly made their way into the front carriage, which was nearly empty.
"Why isn't anyone sitting up here?" Geoff asked Dr. Kennedy.
"Because, in a train crash, everyone in the first cabin usually dies," came his ominous reply.
"Are you serious??"
"Not really. That's the local lore, anyway. I obviously take no stock in it or I wouldn't have directed you here. It's nice to have the extra room though, isn't it?"
"You just rode your bike with me to the train station, Geoff. Are you telling me that this is making you nervous after that death trap?" Diana said with more than a little snark.
Ego bruised, Geoff sheepishly admitted to Diana and Dr. Kennedy that he hadn't travelled by train before coming to Japan.
"This is the about the best it gets," said Dr. Kennedy, sagely.
"You can set your watches by them. People whip out their keitai and call the train company with complaints if the trains arrive more than a minute or two late during rush hour."
"You're kidding," Geoff replied.
* * * * *
Outside the bamboo forest, the wind moaned and beat the trees about as a Summer storm began to make its way into the city. Claire had found a side path that ran away from the Fushimi Inari Taisha, her soul purified by an endless procession of thousands of vermilion wooden gates which lined the trails up the mountainside to the temple. The path had meandered for 100 paces before plunging into a ancient bamboo grove. Inside here, the wind's wrath was silenced. The air here moved slowly and little else gave any indication of the approaching storm.
Claire tried and failed to wrap her hands around a single stalk of bamboo- looking up, the pillars of bamboo bore the weight of a canopy of midnight high above her. The sun had several hours yet to go before giving up its fight with the clouds to go sleep behind the mountains, but in here, the world was bathed with perpetual twilight. Claire listened intently for sounds of monstrous creatures crashing through the bamboo forest. She was certain a great Jabberwock waited in the darkness to gobble up wandering tourists. Instead, all she heard was the distant melancholy call of the ugurisu, the Japanese Nightingale. A second time, from further away, the call filtered softly through the green bamboo leaves.
"The first time I heard the call of the ugurisu, I was frightened," said Geoff, appearing out of the darkness of the path in front of Claire, "its song was so foreign to me. A symbol of everything I didn't understand about Japan when I first arrived here."
"Did you make a wish when you lift the stone, Claire?"
"Yes. I wished you were here with me."
"You could have had eternal life in the Eastern Paradise. But you wished to see me instead? Stupid."
"You told me to come here to this temple, and you wouldn't tell me why," Claire pleaded, "It's all too beautiful to experience this by myself."
"I asked you to come here because this is where I felt I needed you the most. Not when I got lost in the city. Not when I broke up with Diana. I found this bamboo forest the first weekend I was in Japan, and I sat down on the ground alone, and I sobbed... I would never share this place with anyone I loved. My family and my friends were thousands of miles from here and I was alone. But, then I knew if I sent you to this temple, you would find me here. And you did."
Geoff turned around to leave. As he walked away from Claire, he turned his head to the side a final time,
"I wished on the stone too."
"What did you wish for?"
"For your happiness."
March 21, 2007
I had a really good time with you Saturday. I've lived in DC all my life except for college, but somehow I never made it to the natural history museum. Thanks for showing me around. I guess sometimes we don't appreciate the good things that are right in front of us. (Especially old stuff that seems like it will always be there, like dinosaur bones :p)
You're one of those things that's always there, but I know that unlike those old fossils you could go off anywhere at a moment's notice. So I feel like I should let you know how much I care about you and that you've become an incredibly important part of my life. I don't know how you feel about me, but I think you're pretty great. And also pretty. And I'll keep thinking those things even if you don't see us every being more than friends. That said, I hope you'll let me take you on a real date.
No need to reply - I'll give you a call tomorrow.
July 25, 2007
I hope you're having fun in Peru. I'm so jealous that your work is paying you to see all the sights! I hope you haven't gotten any parasite or had any bad food-related experiences. I know you'll eat just about anything...but please make sure it's been cooked!!
Oh and send me some pics. With you in them! I don't want to just see stuff, no matter how great it is.
Some of my co-workers invited me out for a drink last weekend, and we spoke Japanese the whole time! I think they're getting more used to the fact that I make mistakes, but that that doesn't mean they need to switch over to English. I just wish I got to practice it a bit more, since I deal mostly with American ex-pats at the embassy.
Tokyo is amazing and I know this internship is a wonderful opportunity, but I miss you a lot and part of me can't wait to get back to Virginia and see you! I also haven't been able to work on my compositions at all this summer, so that's going to be a lot to take care of when I get back, if I'm going to apply to grad programs this fall.
I'm sending you a postcard - it should be there by the time you get back from Peru.
October 24, 2007
Work is boring. I was thinking we should take a trip together this weekend. Camping in West Virginia? It would only take us a couple of hours to get to a really nice campsite I used to go to with my Dad. You can see so many stars out there....I'll bring a constellation map and we can find them together! Just set the portfolio aside this weekend and carpe diem. Please?
March 10, 2008
I'm sorry about what I said about your compositions last night. I guess I just failed to understand exactly how much they meant to or for you, or just how badly you wanted to get into grad school. For some reason, I never expected you to take it so hard, which was foolish.
You have to remember though, that this is not a rejection handed down by the world at large, just an arbitrary decision made by a handful of academics for reasons that may not have even been aesthetic. Just because they didn't accept you into their program doesn't mean your music is bad. Plenty of people, including me, still believe in your talent.
Anyways, I love you and I know you have so much to offer the world besides music.
March 10, 2008
Saved 1:23 pm
I hate how you think your love can somehow make up for my failures.
But somehow, it's what I've got.
March 10. 2008
Hey Patrick - it's ok. I believe you meant well. I just also wanted to believe that I was good enough to actually become a composer, and now I have to come up with some other plan.
I'll see you tomorrow, and I'll try to be in a better mood.
She read the emails, one by one. Searching through twenty years of communicational sediment for some comprehension. Had their love somehow been not-love?
November 22, 2026
I am so angry and I can't believe we've let ourselves descend into such childish namecalling. It's stupid and immature and we both deserve better. The resentment is destroying me. I still love you very much and I want to try to work things out. I hate you and think you're a stupid ass why the hell did I marry you. I know we both believe in this and we have too much to just throw it away.
Claire glanced away from the screen and squinted into the mid-morning sun glaring through the window. The draft autosaved yet again. Patrick's dresser drawers hung yawning desperately, empty except for a few worn socks that had long since lost their match in the laundry.
Claire bit her lip as she walked slowly into her fourth-period class. She had forgotten to do the reading and short essay assigned the day before. The fluorescent lights on the classroom ceiling flickered with an off-white tinge. The rooms in her school had always felt a bit like jail cells, and Claire felt twice as trapped when she knew she was in trouble with a teacher. She wriggled anxiously as she settled into her seat, waiting for the arrival of the teacher and inevitable doom.
She watched in horror as the other girls, all clumped together on her side of the room, ceaselessly primped themselves in their compact mirrors and applied more and ever more lip gloss. Many of them had not yet learned the art of subtlety, and their faces were caked with makeup.
The boys on the other side seemed both transfixed and repulsed by the girls. They were stuck in a weak parody of a demilitarization zone, brought on by the onset of puberty and the last grasp of pre-pubescent boy culture. They could not acknowledge as a group that girls were interesting, despite the fact that the individual boys had all reached this conclusion.
None of this seemed to matter to Claire at the moment, however. It is not that Claire was a poor student– in fact, she was sometimes obsessed with her studies to a point that worried her parents. They would have been moved to intervene had she not also possessed excellent social skills. She certainly had plenty of friends both in and out of school. No, the reason she had forgotten to do her homework was the girl who came to visit her Social Studies class the day before.
Her name was Diana, and she was beautiful. A senior in highschool, her exotic dark complexion, smooth clear skin and long straight onyx-black hair made her the instant obsession of the boys of the class who were in the deepest circles of hormone overload hell. She had come from the local high-school to give a presentation on a diary written by a Japanese princess from over 1,000 years ago, Sei Shonagon. The Pillow Book.
At the bell's signal, the teacher introduced Diana, and she calmly began her presentation with a reading:
Words That Look Commonplace but That Become Impressive When Written in Chinese Characters:
A prickly water-lily
A Doctor of Literature
A Provisional Senior Steward in the Office of the Emperor's Household
Knotweed is a particularly striking example, since it is written with the characters for "tiger's stick." From the look on a tiger's face one would imagine that he could do without a stick.
Claire was utterly enthralled. Diana herself was half Japanese, and explained with care to the students that Japanese is a language written with characters, like Chinese. In fact, Japanese borrows one of its 3 "alphabets" from China. This borrowed alphabet is called "Kanji". She took some time to write a few of the words referenced on the chalkboard with the Chinese character version next to them.
The classroom was filled with rapt silence. (The boys hadn't heard the reading at all. They were too busy staring at Miss Diana. The girls were all wondering how she got her skin so clear and her hair so straight and shiny looking. They at least heard the part about the diary, or something.)
"Miss Diana," Claire raised her hand slowly,
"Yes, young lady?"
"Why doesn't she write about what's going on in her life like me and my friends do in our diaries?"
"She does, sometimes!" Diana laughed, "There's a several page long entry where she talks about having a battle with another princess to see whose servants can make the tallest snow mountain."
"Oh, so why does she also make lists?"
"Royalty didn't have a lot to do to keep them busy from day to day back in those days. I guess she made lists because they were a way for her to make the boring world around her a little more interesting. I think it's certainly interesting for us to read about, don't you?"
Claire's mind exploded with ideas and questions and the desire to find out everything she could about Japan and the beautiful writing on the chalkboard. A princess 1,000 years ago kept a diary! She was so wrapped up in her daydream, that she completely missed the teacher giving them their assignment for the evening. She only noticed she hadn't taken down her assignment when she went to do her homework later that evening.
Now, Claire anxiously hoped that perhaps the teacher would be sick today, or that she wouldn't call on her to share what she had written. But that was just the thing. The teacher always called on Claire because Claire always did her homework. She was doomed.
The bell rang just as Mrs. Salvador closed the door behind her.
"I almost didn't make it!" she said to the class with a wink.
"Claire, let's start with you. What did you you write about for your list in the style of Sei Shonagon?"
Claire's face turned several shades of red into purple as she dove into her backpack frantically looking for her diary and tried not to burst out laughing with relief.
Things That Remind Me of the Dark Night Sky:
Diana's long black hair
Our big grandfather clock in the living room
Opening my eyes under the covers
Turning out the last lights in the basement
Chocolate pudding with white sprinkles
The ceiling of the school auditorium during a play
My dog, Pitch's, fur
The Shenandoah Caverns
A field full of lightning bugs
She had accidentally done the assignment last night in her diary for fun. Mrs. Salvador seemed pleased, offered a few suggestions on how to improve her list to match Sei Shonagon's style, and moved on to the next student.
The warm water of late August rolled up onto the sand, a little higher each time, each wave pushing the sun ever lower and to the right. Shadows grew long: the legs of the pier stretched slantwise across the wet sand, the bloated corpses of jellyfish yearned to return to the water and Paul's lithe figure now went out far beyond his own reach.
They had answered the ocean's call, the beckoning of the fading summer, and now the day itself was going.
Claire stood in the waves, facing the shore, letting the rising tide pummel her in the back of the head. Resolute, she listened to each wave's approach and tensed her muscles as it crested, broke, and smashed into her from above and behind. She had been there at least half an hour, and the response had become automatic, a reflex, and except while submerged, her eyes followed Paul mercilessly. She was obsessed by his movement - his walking, the swing of his arms, the pursing of his lips as he whistled - and believed that if she only watched him closely enough, she would see his thoughts as well. Fighting through the sun's glare, she glimpsed the slight tension in his brow and the undefinable opening and closing of his lips; perhaps he was speaking to himself, or merely breathing.
This day had been a rare opportunity, time spent with Paul away from everyone else, and away from the environment in which he seemed to know and be friends with everyone, and in which she was simply part of that everyone. She was indelibly sure, certain to the bottom of her soul, that this was the day on which Paul would realize that he loved her, and had loved her all along. That they were perfect for each other. And that he would be the only one to whom she would show her secret spot in the woods, that place where in her heart they had already watched the sun set hundreds of times together.
It had all come about so suddenly, this spontaneous trip to the beach before the start of the semester, much like their sudden, happenstance meeting during the last week of freshman year. She saw herself again, circling the practice rooms in the hopes of catching someone leaving, Chopin preludes, Beethoven sonatas and her own composition sketchbook in hand. She heard the latch on one of the doors opening, and rushed in that direction, hoping to snatch up the room before one of the other music majors on the prowl got there. But he was there, a step before her. She stopped short; his hand was already grasping the door handle. Looking down at her stack of books, she sighed in frustration, and started to step to the side to go around him, determined not to make eye contact with whomever the colossal tool was who had beaten her to the practice room.
"You're not going in?" She looked up blankly.
"I was just holding the door for you - you've got a lot of books there. I'm not practicing right now."
"Oh. Thanks. I guess." She stepped back and dodged into the room. "That's nice of you...I'll try to return the favor sometime!" But he had already let go of the door, which was swinging shut on the sound of his footsteps in the hall.
It was just like today, really. By all accounts, they were having a good time. They had brought sandwiches, which they split in half and shared so that each of them had half of two different sandwiches. They had been swimming, and he had chased her with a bucket that he pretended to try to empty over her head, while she squealed appreciatively at the attention. They had lain next to each other in the sand, each trying to get in a few more pages of pleasure reading before the semester began. But he always seemed to be one step ahead of her, just out of reach, like a fish too smooth too grasp. Or maybe she was just clumsy and oafish.
She had tried to open her eyes to him, to make them transparent, so that he could see the way she thought. But even as she thought her soul must lie bare to him, his own eyes showed no change, nor his smile any shift in intensity. She wanted to grab him and kiss him and tell him everything she cared about and how he made her care about those things even more, but more than that, she wanted him to want the same thing. She willed her own certainty to produce certainty in him.
Dusk was increasing.
"We should get going!" he shouted to her.
"Okay, but I want you to come stand in the waves with me one more time first!"
He jogged out into the surf. The tide was nearly high now. Together, they dove through a handful of waves, before he grabbed her hand and started pulling her up the beach.
"C'mon, we gotta go, it's getting dark!"
She grasped his hand tightly, oblivious to everything but the strong warmth of his touch. She wished it were miles to dry sand, or that he would hold on forever. They reached their pile of belongings, heaped up away from the rising tide, and stopped running. Their long shadows were fading into the darkness, and Paul's hand slipped away.
Geoff slept fitfully on the flight to Japan. Claire was supposed to be on this flight. They were supposed to be studying together in Japan this semester. Claire, however, had too many academic commitments, so she deferred her study abroad program to the summer instead of spring as they had planned.
They had planned it the year before. They would fly to Japan together. They would arrive in early January and celebrate Geoff's 21st birthday in March. It all seemed so exciting and so safe with Claire there to help him if they ever got into trouble. Now he was alone on his furthest trip from home and he was a little scared, even though he was 2 years ahead of her in Japanese. Serendipity had smiled on Geoff, however, and as the plane was beginning its final descent into Osaka's Kansai International, a fellow passenger noticed that he had the same type of visa and guessed they were heading for the same program.
"Hey there... Are you headed to Hikone, too?" she said, awkwardly.
"Yes! Sou desu, yo!" said Geoff, excited to have found someone
"Yokatta, ne! I thought I'd have to figure out how to get there all by myself!"
"I hadn't even thought that far ahead yet," Geoff admitted sheepishly.
They headed for the luggage claim together when the flight landed, and after they gathered all their luggage, they managed to find a handful of other students who were also headed for the Shiga University study abroad program as well.
The hour and a half long train ride to Hikone was quiet as it cut through the darkness. Most of the other students slept, their jet lag already having kicked in, but Geoff was too enthralled with all the foreign signs and symbols lit up in neon all around him. The director of the study abroad program was on the train and awake too, and from time to time they would quietly point out the more interesting signs or Geoff would ask him questions about some sign or symbol he had seen but hadn't understood.
After the traveling through Kyoto and it's major suburbs, the train passed into compact farmland surrounding dark little villages. The train drifted and leaned as if it was a swift yacht cutting through the ocean of black surrounding it in all directions. He was in the oceans of infinite space, and the vacuum pulled at the silver gilded train, trying to get at the precious air inside.
Gossamer threads began tracing lines across the faces of the windows as they began to give up their fight with the merciless and greedy darkness. The cracking noises in his carriage and the explosion of shattering glass in front of him heralded the end of his journey. He turned in a panic to Claire, who was next to him.
"I am not ready for this to happen, yet!" he screamed at her. The other passengers did not stir.
"I, too, will die alone here when I come this June," she replied.
Geoff opened his eyes and saw the falling rain transition gracefully into luscious and heavy flakes of snow as train arrived at the Minami Hikone train station. One more stop to go, and he would begin facing the unknown world outside the train without her.
The snow had already formed a white shroud over the whole city by the time they had exited the train station. Would she notice the invisible footprints he left for her as he walked through the city?
She was on an airplane, flying home from Kyoto. But home was New York, a vast unknown metropolis, instead of the rolling forests of west-central Virginia. She had been in Japan a long time, indefinitely it seemed, on some kind of educational mission. It was as if now that it was over, she had already forgotten it, and could not even tell its significance.
The flight wore on. Most passengers slept. The old Boeing creaked slightly in some turbulence, and the nearest TV screen was several rows in front of her, rolling endless credits for a film that never began or was always ending. The rows of seats seemed to shrink, and her leg muscles began cramping up. Reflexively, she twisted her body, in the hopes that rearrangement might give the illusion of spaciousness.
A woman's voice came over her headphones, soothing and firm, in beautiful, formal Japanese. Then, the gruff, curt voice of a man giving an English version.
"This plane will not be landing. New York has rejected us. We will simply continue flying until it is no longer possible to do so."
The passengers kept sleeping, or reading. Did no one else comprehend? That the rest of their lives was contained within this creaking, rocking passenger jet? There would be no New York, only a moment of weightlessness somewhere over the Rockies. She had to tell them, and make them understand the significance of the next 6 hours.
She stood up, climbed over the snoring salaryman next to her, knocking his 5 empty cans of Sapporo into the aisle. She began to shout,
"Minasan! Yoku kiite kudasai! Listen, everyone! This is the end of your life, you will never go to New York and the only thing left is whatever is in this plane with you until we all go down into the earth!"
No one looked up. She continued, screaming now,
"Naze wakaranaino? Why don't you understand? Listen! Look up! I am speaking your native language and you refuse it! I am trying to help you know your own life!"
Finally, a child in the back of the plane stood up on his seat.
"Baka gaijin," he said. "Stupid foreigner. Baka."
The plane stalled, dipped, descended. For a moment, Claire was weightless and free.
* * * *
Claire looked down at her left hand. The engagement ring was so bright and heavy. White gold with a blood red ruby - bold, passionate and not quite traditional. The feeling of it on her finger had not yet faded, and she was constantly aware of the way it encircled and held her, like his arms on the night he'd asked her to marry him on the mossy wooden bridge in the foothills of Appalachia, or the night she had wept with all her strength because she held in that same hand the last in a long string of rejection letters from every prestigious composition program in the country. Then she printed a copy of her portfolio and burned it, page by page, sobbing the whole time, on the back porch. She wasn't brave enough to delete the files from her computer, and the lingering fragments of every one of those pieces still haunted her. The violin concerto, the song cycle, and the set of pieces for Pierot ensemble plus percussion - their sounds all came to her and asked, "What about me was wrong?"
"I just was too expressive. I exposed my heart, my life, in those pieces. No one likes that shit now. I have no austerity or reservation."
She hadn't composed since then, and had thrown the energies of her passionate creativity into her relationship with Patrick, which was now as solid as gemstone on her finger.
Her phone buzzed, a text message. It was from Geoff. She hadn't heard from him in a while; he'd been married a couple of years already, to a mutual friend from college. She still thought about the brightness of his eyes when they used to talk face to face.
"Hey, Claire...hope things are good. Can I call you tonight? I just need to talk to someone."
Just before the sun creeps over the horizon, sailors far out to sea on their watch sometimes witness a brief ray of piercing emerald light. The lucky man who saw this light was changed from that moment. For, "He who has been fortunate enough once to behold it is enabled to see closely into his own heart and to know the innermost intentions of others."
Every morning, the green light came to Claire and spirited away all of her dreamed revelations. A faint sound like the crack of the whip was the only evidence of this injustice; as the bleach of reality faded her twilit memory to white again and again each morning.
Only the most lucid among the human race is gifted to recapture a hazy recollection of the enlightenment revealed to us each night: they are called, "heretics," or "madmen." They are called, "prophets". They are called, "oracles." Each who is able to remember the future must suffer the burden as he can. The future is heavy with unparalleled possibilities, and certainty is revealed as the illusion with which the past mocks us.
Our minds, like fractals—like the roots of ancient trees—" split and descend into darkness, only to give rise again into the tangible and real. This is the paradox of consciousness.
Claire slept, unaware of this malevolent and beautiful absolution as it swept over her in an instant. Hours later, she awakened, her mind in lockstep with the present as it marched on-wards: in seconds, minutes and hours.
Downstairs, in the old cape cod typical of the area that she shared with her cat and her 2 flatmates off-campus, Claire began to beat two eggs for her omelette breakfast. Salt and pepper, chedder cheese, chopped onions and finely diced ham added, she took a moment to reflect on the rest of her day. A fly buzzed around the stove heavily as though exhausted from a night of revelry. It paused for a moment next to the sink.
"Damn," Claire mumbled to herself as she crushed the fly with a deft swat from a dirty wooden spoon, "Bio exam after Composition." She hardly noticed the maggots as they wriggled to escape from the fly's ruptured abdomen. The mess wadded up in a paper towel, Claire threw it in the garbage pail, quickly wiped down the counter and folded over her omelette.
As she reviewed her notes while she ate, she couldn't avoid her minds' drift back to the conversation she'd had with Geoff the day before.
"I really like you, Claire," he said softly, with his arms wrapped around his knees in a warm and quiet corner of the dorm attic. Claire sat to his left in another of the faded red captain's chairs.
"It's like we never see each-other," replied Claire, adding, "it's not working any more."
"I know. I'm sorry— and I don't want to say goodbye,"
Hope was there, flickering, but she would not intervene this time.
"Is it really possible to still be friends? Or is that just a sad old cliche?"
Fate, Claire thought, is just a word to obscure the connections we all share like flimsy threads. She didn't believe in fate. She believed in relationships, and you can't throw away a beautiful connection because the romance didn't add up the way you hoped.
"I don't know," she lied.
Looking at her watch, Claire furiously thrust her plate and silverware on top of the mounting pile of dirty dishes and made a mad dash for the door as she snatched up her backpack. She sure as hell wasn't going to be late for Composition if she had to show up for Biology on-time.
Past imagination and before dreams rests a sanctuary of possible truths, each of which realized far exceeds the beauty of a sum of pure imaginings and the vividness of every dream combined. It was exactly here that he visited her - was there in the bed, warm and smelling of old spice, or seated at the desk poring over something dense and theoretical, probably some sort of formless modernist text, eyebrows furrowing with concentration and fingers drumming idly on the book's spine. Or as on this night, leading her gently along the path by the lake.
It was evening, perhaps early November, and darkness would come soon. The trees were on fire, and all the earth was dying. But only she could know the way each leaf sighed and let go and drifted into decay. Unless he, too, shared this knowing of cyclical mortality?
"I want to show you something," he said. She knew these woods far better than he, but she said nothing. Besides, everything was new because he was there, and holding her hand.
They walked in silence a few hundred feet, around a sharp bend as the shore rose higher and higher above the water. Eventually they reached a small clearing, where the edge of the earth jutted out at a sharp point over the water. Out of this point grew another of the ancient trees she loved so much. The erosion of the bank below it had caused it to slide from a normal vertical growing pattern into a more horizontal one, but the trunk was strong and healthy, branches pointing up to the fading light.
He took a step out onto the tree trunk, and she hesitated, but he did not let go of her hand.
"Don't worry, it's totally strong enough for the two of us." She took a tentative step forward, and then another. The trunk was wide, so balancing was easy, and as he had said it would, it held completely firm. They were clear of the earth, and the water was a good 10 feet below. He guided her around him so that she was in front of him, and the trunk began to grow narrow towards the tip.
They sat sat down straddling the tree, and he put his arms around her, holding her gently to him. The branches here were thin and nearly naked, casting long shadows on the water as a few of their last leaves struggled in the breeze.
"Is this what you wanted to show me?"
In front of them and to the left the autumn sun hung low on the horizon as the darkness flowed ever closer from behind, filling the gaps between the trees and overtaking the sky with a cool, thick twilight. The lake refracted with a dizzying glare, a bowl brimming with fire, so bright as to make it impossible to see the distant trees across the water bring rapidly consumed by the encroaching night. Everything was burning out - the sky, the trees, the silenced birds, the earth behind, the water beneath - the whole world a self-consuming blaze.
"Look." he said. "This is the world, and it's ours. Watch how it dies. Graceful and beautiful; it doesn't get ugly. And it's ok for us to watch it die, and to think that its dying is beautiful, and even to be a part of it." He paused. "I wonder if dying could ever be like that for us."
"The world has more faith in its rebirth than we do in ours."
"It's gotta be crazy, to just have faith like that. To just trust so much that the idea of 'if' never even occurs. "
"And yet one sunset followed by a sunrise is all the evidence we should need."
"It would be complete freedom. And that would be unbearable."
The fire was subsiding, followed by the ashen twilight and then darkness. Still he held her, and they were warm against the night, and their togetherness was not a thing of evidence or ifs or doubts or contingencies, just a realization beating with the slowness of a heart at rest.
Claire would see Paul in the morning, or perhaps in the afternoon, but he would not remember the way he had held her and shown her the world on the lake. He would be there, in his faded khaki shorts and sweatshirt, with his distant brown eyes that seemed unable to look at her for very long and the soft, dusty brown hair falling onto his forehead. He would take notes in Russian Literature in Translation class, with his right hand, pressing the pen a little too hard into the paper. He would tap his heel silently on the floor to a rhythm in his head, and raise his hand once or twice to contribute a comment.
When class was over, they would walk together until they awkwardly parted at the bottom of the hill by the path into the woods. They might talk about music, or what they had done last weekend, and it would be a struggle for her - their unbreakable apartness was incomprehensible and terrifying. She would never come so near to him as she had been that night.
Claire found herself sitting once again at her table with her book lazily clutched in her right hand to her side. Looking around quickly for the source of her interruption, she saw one of her classmates waving to her as they walked by on their way to class. Claire gave a perfunctory wave in return and gazed mournfully at the unopened Biology textbook in front of her on the table. She had more important things to deal with. Should Marianne have married Colonel Brandon? Was Eleanor right to sacrifice her future happiness with Edward when she found out his secret? Memorizing phylogenetic trees out of a Biology textbook–
"What rot," she muttered to herself.
How could learning such a thing ever be deemed useful? Claire was reminded of her mother's futile attempts at inspiring her to learn her family history.
"It's who you are," her mother had scolded, "These people are a part of you."
Claire whimsically imagined her mother as a chimp-like protohuman swinging from the edge of the porch roof of the coffee shop extending to an end a few yards in front of her. Claire sighed as she reached out for the biology text book on the table in front of her.
Later, as she walked slowly through the woods in the middle of campus on the way back to her dorm room, she paused to look at a old moss-covered oak tree by the side of the brick-lain path. Half of the tree's root's were exposed, the rain having washed away the dirt which covered them. In the darkness beneath the tree, Claire could just see the sparkling eyes of the strange creatures she was sure must inhabit such a place. Hundreds of students walked the path she was strolling along each day, she thought, probably none of them knew there was such a special tree next to them as they passed it by.
There are precious few places in the New World which feel truly old, most of them being natural wonders like the Grand Canyon or the Giant Sequoia forests of California. Even rarer are the man-made places which seem old, and Claire always found herself drawn to those places. It was the sense of peace and belonging that drew her there. She grew up seeing such places as the Colosseum in Rome, old cities and crumbling castles of Germany, and America seemed too new for her to be comfortable. New furniture looks good, but Claire liked those old dusty chairs that had been around for centuries which you could fall into like Alice going down the White Rabbit's hole.
That night, as she lay in bed staring at the darkness above her, wondering where the room ended and the sky began, she slowly drifted into the twilight just before one falls asleep that is rarely remembered. That is the time when our pasts come back to visit with us until the day we die and join them.
Emerging from a nominal winter that was more a conversational convention than a distinguishable season, the brightly blooming flowers seemed to shout, "We are here at last!" when in reality they could have been there all along. Where winter does not punish, spring often goes unnoticed.
A dull blue sky arched overhead and the air was damp, but there was no scent of rain.
Claire Ashby sat alone at a small round table on the terrace of the campus coffee shop, not drinking anything. Instead, she occupied herself with staring into a copy of Sense and Sensibility, wondering how she might summarize her own personality so concisely. Had she ever been anything, any attribute, purely and simply?
Suddenly she was 5 years old again, sitting on the counter next to the sink in her parents' bathroom, while her mother painted her nails for the first time. The chosen color was a shimmery hot pink. She admired the way her mother worked, as if she were a real artist, precisely painting over each tiny fingernail with the clumsy brush, leaving perfectly formed swaths of glossy color. She saw her little brother Ed toddle in. He was 2, and wanted everything she had in the way that younger siblings do. He shouted to have his nails painted too, and her mother tried to explain that pink nails were just for girls. He began to scream and bang his fists on the counter, and little Claire grew irritated with the interruption.
Mom quieted him by promising to paint "some" of his nails when she was finished with his sister's. From then, he hovered over her tiny hands, watching and breathing hot little toddler breaths upon her fingers. When Claire's nails were finished, Mom instructed her not to touch anything until they were dry, and began on Ed's. It was cute how he was fascinated by the little bright points of color at the tips of his fingers, and he insisted on having all of them painted.
When all the painting was finished, they compared hands.
"We match!" shouted Ed.
He was proud to be like her, and she knew it. And she was proud, because she was being imitated and it had been her idea first, and because it made them a team.
When Dad came home, they rushed as one to show him the pretty pink fingernails of that afternoon. He said they were "neat," and stared a little longer at Ed's nails than Claire's.
Later, after their baths, Claire noticed that her brother's nails were no longer painted, with only a few chips of color around the edges.
"Why did you get rid of the paint?"
"Dad made me."
"Nail polish is only for girls, and he doesn't want me to look like a girl."
It was true. She was a girl, and he was not. But she hadn't realized it until then.