Four years in college is an eternity. A lot of growing happens in that space and the students I graduated were not the children who walked in the door four years before, once so uncertain about their places in the art world. These kids had metamorphosed into unique creatures, all their essential qualities distilled into adult form. For better or worse.
I wandered outside for a walk, feeling pensive. Coffee and the possibility of lunch drove me subconsciously to the Public Market. The spring air was a tonic, the sunlight refreshing after being in the studio for four solid hours, not to mention having been stymied by winter for six months. I walked slowly, stretching my back, deliberately not looking in the store windows or at my dreaded reflection in them, focusing instead on the architectural details of the buildings I passed, familiar as brothers.
Why are there mirrors everywhere? I asked myself. Reflections chased me like shades, apparitions in mid-air, shimmering with milky eyes and auric penumbra. I didn’t like to complain, but even inside the market, perusing cheeses, I was confronted with my own visage floating above the offerings, staring back, challenging my selection. “Really? The camembert?” she seemed to ask, disapprovingly. I shook my pale face, my wide brown eyes lonely, as I turned away from myself, again and again.
The market was quiet. Fewer people than usual awaited their freshly made sandwiches and skinny lattes. I glanced back at the cheese case, only to be reproached once more by my ghostly doppelgänger. “Not the camembert,” she reminded me. We shook our heads at each other and I turned away once more. I scanned the market’s offerings again, and that’s when I noticed a man staring at me. I was startled by this rare display of boldness. Who does that? I asked myself.
The stranger was my polar opposite; he was the embodiment of grace and effortless elegance, beauty and refinement. Fair hair, skin like porcelain, deep blue eyes that followed me with azure intensity, seeing through me like I was a reflection in a window overlooking the sea, rather than flesh—a memory, a ghost. What can he be seeing in me? I really wondered. All I could see was brown hair that used to curl and could no longer commit to the effort; bad skin, marked with years of struggle against my body’s own defenses; posture tainted by too many hours hunched over my potter’s wheel. Clay-spattered clothes. Insecurity gripped me harder and I folded my hands over my chest, a subconsciously protective habit. It’s just me, I thought, nothing to see here. Yet he stared.
Our eyes locked and he looked away, coy, for just a moment, perhaps so I could steal a better look at him, and I did. We were antitheses. Where I was dark, he was light. Where I was oppressive movement and a long lost wish for beauty, he was air and music. Lithe body, muscles taut beneath lavender oxford, statuesque features Michelangelo’s David would have envied, all enveloped in that effortless grace. He caught my gaze again, this time his expression more carnal, yearning. My breath hitched, my stomach clenched. Embarrassed, I glanced away, back to the cheese counter and to my own disapproving reflection. I have no idea how to deal with this.
He isn’t looking at you, I told myself. He must have been looking at someone else. I glanced furtively behind me: no one.
My heartbeat raced as he began to walk towards me. Closer and closer he came. He was quite tall, especially from this proximity. Unable to prevent myself, I looked up from beneath my dark lashes, as though in prayer, and his eyes held me frozen, in fear, in elation, in confusion, but I maintained his gaze. He really was looking at me.
Suddenly, I burned with anger as understanding bloomed: he was just toying with me. It must be a sick game he played with homely women—making them feel desirable and then leaving them to wonder how this beautiful man might have any interest whatsoever. I frowned involuntarily, fiercely, and it broke whatever spell he had woven. His expression hardened almost imperceptibly; looking slightly pained, he continued on.
He moved with his companion, a plain, rounded man who had been eclipsed entirely from my notice, towards the door. I watched them leave, my anger ebbing as suddenly as it had appeared, replaced by the desperate, familiar ache of lonely loss and dejection. He glanced back momentarily, met my eyes once more, this time a melancholy farewell. I couldn’t even muster a slight smile, not that it would have mattered on a face like mine.
I was left bereft of my appetite, the cheese counter now a desolate landscape, only my apparition lingering to scold me about another opportunity lost. I fled the market moments later, unexpected tears welling in my eyes, threatening to spill onto the sidewalk and flood the city before me. The May sunshine, so welcome twenty minutes ago, felt harsh on my flushed skin. I took a deep breath, full of diesel fumes from the bus that had just left, and wished for something, anything to distract me from the absurd sense of loss that had filled every crevice within me. A rebel tear streaked down my cheek and I laughed once, mirthlessly, at its audacity. Why should I mourn the loss of something so childish, a case of mistaken identity or some cruel game of hearts? But I could not shake the feeling that I had lost something deeply important. It was haunting.
I took another steadying breath, ready to forgo lunch, coffee somehow forgotten. I turned to walk back to the studio, and there before me, standing not eight feet away and blocking my path, staring—this time unabashedly—his expression inscrutable, was the stranger. I was struck dumb, eyes wide, horrified that he could have observed my private moment of despair, and gratified at the same time that he wanted to.
The street scene before us blurred, leaving him in stark focus, a connection I could not explain pulling me towards him. Something within me yearned, tore at ancient restraints, begged with the fervor of a dying inmate to be set free, and I felt the snap within me as years of carefully constructed barriers crumbled to dust at my feet. I was naked; I was exposed to my core. And somehow, I didn’t care.
He stalked toward me as though caught in a gravitational field, driven by forces I could not see, yet strangely felt with my entire being. He stood before me, blue eyes like exotic seas, engaging my attention. His face was in perfect proportion; I wanted to draw him. The absurdity of this urge struck me as funny, but I remained rooted to the brick sidewalk, unable or unwilling to move, even slightly, for fear of shattering this strange spell again. For the first time in an age I was less aware of my own visage than I was of his, but I imagined that my expression was a mirror of his own, a mix of fear and wonder and an intangible attraction in the depths of my being.
When he spoke, the unfamiliarity of his voice startled me, for reasons I could not fathom. I noted apology in its tenor, yet curiosity was the overwhelming note. “I saw you in the market,” he said.
“Yes,” I returned, my voice clearer than I would have expected, “I noticed.”
He laughed a short, honest laugh. “I didn’t mean to stare at you.”
“Well, for not meaning to do something, you did a pretty good job of it.”
He paused, not sure if I was joking. I pitied him with an infinitesimal smile and mollified, he tentatively continued.
“I know we’ve never met, I’d remember, but I feel like I know you anyway. Like our quantum strings are tuned to the same pitch. That must sound crazy. I’m sorry.”
“What are quantum strings?”
“Physics. It’s my way of looking for answers.”
“Answers to what? I just assumed you were playing some game with me, making the ugly duckling feel like a swan for just a moment. Please, tell me the truth. Are you?”
I couldn’t help myself. I confronted him with my suspicion and immediately regretted it. His expression deflated a bit from hopeful to confused to sad. “No,” he replied softly. “I don’t play games with people. Besides, you aren’t ugly, you know.” He paused for a moment to inhale deeply, and my heart tugged as I assumed he was about to turn away. Instead, he asked, “Can we go somewhere and talk for a minute without blocking pedestrian traffic?”
I was suddenly aware of the fact that we were in the middle of a busy sidewalk in the lunch rush, waves of people streaming past on either side, parting as though we were simply a pair of lampposts. I laughed, finally allowing a genuine smile to bubble through my skepticism. “I’m from New York,” I explained. “I don’t go with strangers.”
His smile crinkled the corners of his eyes in relief and good humor. “Somewhere public.”
We looked around, searching the bustle for a private corner. “Longfellow Garden?” I offered. He smiled again, nodding slightly, and together we walked in silence towards the courtyard behind the museum across the street.
We passed through the open black iron gate; this minuscule, forgotten oasis in the city greeting us with an instant hush and emerald calm. The benches were all occupied on the upper level, so we descended well-manicured garden steps into the lower courtyard. We were engulfed by the scent of plants awakening from winter, protected from the cool breezes beyond the high brick walls. Leaves and flowers bent towards the sun as we found the last unoccupied bench. It was my favorite spot, at the rear of the garden, nestled in dappled sun, framed by an ivy-covered trellis.
He motioned gracefully for me to sit first, gallantly waiting for me to situate myself before he sat next to me. I angled toward him, my bent leg resting on the seat of the bench, marking my space, my ankle tucked under my other leg, which dangled just above the stone pavers. I noticed the bustle of the ants busy at their work, crawling inconspicuously along the mossy seams between rocks. I noticed the hum of bees searching for spring nectar. Everything was so intense, colors brighter than normal, sounds crisp, the sun bathing the scene in a Maxfield Parish sort of light—surreal, sensual and golden.
My companion breathed in, drawing my wayward attention back to him. I wanted to freeze the moment in time, to galvanize it in my memory so that I may return to it later, at will: his face was tense with unspoken thoughts, his sandy blonde hair refracting the sunlight, a thousand infinitesimal prisms casting rainbows into the uninspired atmosphere. Alas, my mind has never been so compliant; memories always pale in comparison to the true moments of beauty. I held on tightly, nevertheless.
“I don’t know where to begin,” he began.
“That’s a good beginning,” I quipped, quietly, just in case he was sensitive to sarcasm.
Smiling, he continued, “When I saw you today, I was trying to muster the courage to talk with you. I’ve seen you before, here and there. The bookstore, a coffee shop, but today I decided I needed to do more than watch you like some common stalker.”
He said this last word in jest, thankfully. The corner of my lip curled up involuntarily, urging him on.
“When you caught me staring at you, and you looked so hurt and angry, I lost my nerve. I left and regretted it immediately, so I waited outside. Watching your expression change from surprise to embarrassment to anger to sadness, I realize I caused you distress. I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok. I’m sensitive.” I smiled sardonically and rolled my eyes, my tone acidic.
“You are though, aren’t you?” he mused. “You use sarcasm to protect yourself. I get it.”
I blushed at the truth of this, knowing that my usual veil of acerbity wouldn’t hold with him. He looked towards the sky, his eyes reflecting the light and clouds and magnified by the duality of tones, they blazed with intensity. Rayleigh scattering, I thought distractedly. It’s why the sky is blue. Maybe that’s what makes his eyes seem so bright. The thought reminded me of his physics reference.
“What were you talking about when you said we were like strings?”
He chuckled a little and replied, “String theory. It’s the idea that everything is comprised of vibrating strings of energy at the quantum level. It felt like ours were vibrating at the same frequency. I am kind of into physics, I guess.”
“That’s cool,” I said, unable to add anything to the subject, now wondering why I had bothered to ask. I shifted on the bench, fidgeting my hands restlessly, unsure what to say next.
“Since I was a kid,” he mused, “I’ve had a recurring dream. It has stayed with me, haunting me, even into adulthood. It always leaves me with a feeling of such intense loss, because someone I loved left me alone. When I saw you for the first time, I felt like a moth drawn toward the light, like I had known you in that dream. I debated whether I’d ever even tell you any of this if we finally met; it sounds so crazy. I thought maybe I wouldn’t need to explain it—that we could just start from the unknown, like everybody else. Everything changed today. Somehow, it seemed wrong to start out with a lie. I don’t want to lie to you.”
“OK.” I sounded so dumb, my voice like a clubfoot, limping along, ungainly and slow. Dumb, however, is exactly how I felt. I was mystified. What is he talking about? Is he sane? He looks sane… Is he fucking with me? Is there a camera somewhere recording my reactions? I scanned the environment. Longfellow Garden was my idea, so it wasn’t that. Is he serious? He looks serious. I looked into his eyes and was drawn in. Before I could stop myself, I started speaking, like a tap left on a drip for so long that it finally overwhelms its gaskets and gushes forth, a torrent of words I didn’t recognize as my own, yet as I heard them spoken in my own voice, I knew that they were my truth.
“For a second, just now, I felt like I had no clue what you’re talking about. I thought maybe you were a little off balance or something. But... I don’t know. My life has always felt like fitting together lost puzzle pieces, wind-scattered to the ends of the globe. I keep searching inside and out. It’s overwhelming and pointless and feels desperate. I’ve settled into melancholy, I guess, a lament for my fruitless search for impossible pieces of the puzzle. I wish I could explain it better, but maybe I don’t need to. Is that sort of what you mean?” My eyes had been focused on his as I spoke. Now, I grew shy in the silence, overwhelmed with my own words, wondering at their inherent and poignant truth.
He was so engaged; he leaned forward, his eyes had softened when our gaze met again. He reached for my hand, an involuntary reflex, then he pulled back, unsure. I was thankful, for it all seemed too much to bear. I stirred as though ready to bolt back to the chaos of the street outside our garden, to leave behind this private, strange moment, like being thrust from a dream, but I couldn’t. I was held there by primal forces, well beyond my scope of understanding.
He sensed my uncertainty and eased back, leaning against the sun-warmed brick wall. We both breathed in the spring air again, restoring ourselves with its honest chill.
“Puzzle pieces. That’s such a good way to describe it. I am missing some integral pieces of my own puzzle. I think you might be one of them. An important one.”
His voice was so hushed. He waited for me to react.
“I hate mirrors,” I said too loudly. He laughed uncertainly at the non-sequitur. “No, really,” I continued. “I always assumed it was simply about my looks, but maybe it’s because every time I see myself, I only see what’s missing and not what’s actually there, a shattered image of self. I can’t see the whole picture because of all the missing pieces.”
“Maybe I can see all the things that you don’t see,” he replied softly.
“This is very weird,” I said finally, shaking my head slightly. I smiled, and I didn’t need to look at his face to know that he was smiling too.
“May I ask your name?” His voice was as arresting as his eyes, a liquid melody, perfectly in tune, resonating deep within me. “I mean, we should formally introduce ourselves, right?”
I could have said anything. I mean, what is a name, after all, but something someone saddled us with before they even knew who we would become? I stopped that foolishness as soon as the thought formed in my mind, and I told him my name. “Elwyn Beatrice Derringer, believe it or not. I thought for a moment I could change my mind about that and start fresh as Jenny or Penny, but despite it’s being my name, it’s not mine to change. I really don’t know what my parents were thinking.”
“Elwyn. Do people call you Elwyn or do you go by Winne?” If his smile hadn’t been so disarming, I’d probably have hit him. Instead, I just groaned.
“Ugh. No, people call me Derrin. I’ve always sort of struggled with this whole name thing, like a skin that didn’t fit quite right. Same as the mirror, I guess.”
“I get it.”
“And you are?”
“James Finnian Dunbar, III, at your service.” He tilted his head in a mock bow, and I giggled as I reached to shake his outstretched hand.
Our skin came into contact for the first time and it was a lightning strike. As our grasp grew stronger, our hands became a bridge into places I could not fathom. I was sucked backwards out of time and place and self, images rushing past me like ribbons stretching into space, my stomach was wrenched and twisted and my head felt like it would implode. I caught glimpses of the rushing montage, images of life that cut into my flesh, incising me with the intensely personal physicality of their persistence. I was drowning in a raging torrent of memories, a turbulent river sucking me down, deeper, and as my last breath was raggedly exhaled I finally alighted on a stone bridge, the scene around me snapping into clarity and sudden stillness. I was prone, staring up at a star encrusted dome, my head cradled gently as a baby’s, a raindrop hit my cheek. It can’t be a raindrop, I told myself viscerally, for there was not a cloud in that peerless sky. Only infinity stretched on before me. It was then that I realized it was a teardrop, then another, warm and gentle, falling from a face poised above me, just out of my line of sight. I tilted back to see him, anguished, possessed with grief, dying as I died in his arms. Though the face was unfamiliar, I knew the eyes. They were James’ eyes.
Pain found me suddenly, intensely, searing through my flesh, tearing my soul from my body. I writhed and gasped as the schism overtook my being. Then, as I could bear no more, I was hurled back into Longfellow Garden, crouched on stone pavers, the ants still going on about their business, heedless of my distress. I was heaving and panting and viscerally so thankful that I hadn’t bought the camembert earlier, because I would have been revisiting it unpleasantly now.
James was kneeling on the ground next to me, holding me up with one arm across my heaving chest, the other on my back.
“Holy shit, I’m so sorry, Elwyn! Are you OK? Elwyn!” His words of comfort streamed forth, reassuring, apologizing, begging me to forgive him. Forgive what, I wondered, what is he talking about? Then, suddenly, I understood. It was his dream I fell into, as I died in his arms. But how could that be?
I scrambled to my feet, as ungainly as a newborn foal, grasping for a foothold in a reality I couldn’t be sure of anymore. I backed away, looking around wildly and found that the courtyard was deserted. We were alone and I needed to run. I barely heard his pleas for me to stay, to let him explain, begging me to tell him what I saw. His voice was a lonely echo in a mountain valley. I just needed to be as far away as possible, to mend this break with reality and proceed with my mundane life. Tears streamed down my face; I couldn’t catch my breath; I needed to run.
I looked at this beautiful man before me, the terrible aching sadness in his eyes, their azure depths liquid with unshed tears. I was so torn, as the adrenaline rampaged through my veins. I held his gaze, knowing viscerally that my expression was that of a fox in a forest fire. His voice filtered back to me through fathoms deep water, icy dark depths, I was sinking, still dying in the dream, unsure where the line between reality and that other world lay.
“Elwyn. It’s OK. I’m so sorry. It’s OK.”
The tears spilled like molten metal down my cheeks, searing my skin as they carved their path in my soul. “What was that?” I demanded, my voice finally surfacing from the deep. “What the hell was that?”
My voice was shaky and low, a mirror of the panic in my heart. My eyes searched his warily, no longer playful as they had been only minutes—or lifetimes—ago.
“Sit down, please, Elwyn. Please. Give me a chance. I didn’t mean to scare you. I didn’t know that would happen. I’m so sorry! God, I should have left you alone today. I should have let you live your life without the burden of these memories. I’m so sorry.” The grief in his eyes was a mirror of the man from the hallucination. It really was him. I knew it. It was us. But, that can’t be, I told myself. That’s insane. I shook my head to straighten my thoughts out, as though that would help.
“Tell me,” I said slowly. “Tell me what the hell just happened.”
“I don’t know for sure, but I think you got sucked into my dream, somehow.”
“Tell me what your dream is.” I needed to know.
He hesitated, as though merely voicing the words carved fresh wounds into ancient scars. “I am on a bridge, London, I think, the sky is full of stars and,” he hesitated, his voice unsteady. “My wife, the love of my life, lies bleeding, dying in my arms. I cradle her, our eyes meet and the life slips out of her. My soul is torn in two and I awake.”
I shook my head, squeezing my eyes closed, expecting the corroboration, yet rejecting it at the same time. I buried my head in my hands. “How did you make me see it? Is it a trick? Tell me the truth.” I was deadly serious. I straightened up and turned accusingly toward him. My tone left no room for lies.
“I didn’t make you see anything. It’s not a trick. It’s…” He paused. “Oh, my God. How do I explain this without sounding insane? It’s our shared memory. From our past lives, I think. You died in my arms that night, Elwyn. I still don’t know how I’ve carried that memory with me for a hundred years or more. I don’t have any explanations. When I saw you again today, though, the sense of familiarity, of deep connection, overwhelmed me. I had to be near you again. I think it was love, Elwyn. Our love lasted through lifetimes of searching. And now we’re here. Together. Finally, together.”
“No. How can that be? It’s fucking crazy. It’s crazy and you know it. I’ve got to go. Now. Don’t.” I swatted his hand away as he reached for me, his eyes pleading. “This is insane and I need to… to…” I broke off as the tears started again. I looked at his heartbroken expression, his eyes bereft, and although I knew in the depths of my being that we were connected, I backed away. I knew that if I didn’t leave now, my break with reality would be irreparable. My expression mirrored his torture and all I could say was, “I’m sorry.”
I turned and ran up the stairs of the great poet’s garden, wondering viscerally what he would have written about this craziness, my heart ready to split apart at the seams. I ran like a wild animal, fighting for my own survival. I flew back through the doors of the college, not seeing anything before me, faces blurred. I locked myself in my office, I sat down against the oak door and I sobbed until my tears had traced all the rivers of the earth and back again to James. What have I done?
His face was before me, his eyes haunting me. The James from the dream was there with me, melding with his current form. I internalized his agony, as I left him in the garden, as I left him on the bridge. I longed to undo what I had done, but my rational mind raged against these impossible demands. How can it be? How is it possible?
I replayed the moment in the garden with James over and over, trying to make sense of the irrational. Then, as I visualized him, I realized something else about the scene. My bag was still on the bench. Everything was in that bag. My license with my address. My credit cards. My phone. My keys. My notebooks. My stomach lurched. I asked myself again, What have I done?
I finally got myself up off the floor, not daring to assess the damage to my visage in the mirror on my wall. I couldn’t imagine what a horror-show it would be, but nothing could be done about it. I stilled myself, breathed in. I stilled myself, breathed out. I stilled myself, I found my center, as flawed and fucked up as it was, and I focused my energy inwards, as the adrenaline rush began to ebb. What will I do now?
I glanced at the clock. I had class in fifteen minutes. I needed to be downstairs, in some semblance of sanity, ready to deal with my responsibilities. I headed to the lady’s room, splashed water on my flushed face, forced a smile to my features and walked back down to the front desk.
“Professor D.!” It was Jerry. His kind eyes looked concerned. “You OK?”
“Yes. I had a little scare earlier. I’m fine now.”
“Oh, is it because you lost your bag? Nice guy brought it in a minute ago.” Jerry lifted my bag out from behind the counter. I felt like he’d just handed me a winning lottery ticket.
I laughed and tears threatened again, despite my best effort to hide my emotion. I was so relieved. “Thank you,” I said shakily, taking the bag from Jerry’s outstretched hand. “Thank you so much.”
“All part of the job, Professor D., all part of the job.”
He smiled, knowing he had made me so happy. I headed to class, thankful that James had done the right thing. He hadn’t asked to see me, he hadn’t held my bag hostage. He just brought it back, expecting nothing in return. My heart clenched painfully at the knowledge that he had himself convinced that he cared about me. Maybe he actually did. Maybe he believed everything that we’d seen in our minds. Maybe I did too, but I just couldn’t face it. I stilled myself, I breathed in. With each step forward, my life began again, unrecognizable, un-chartable: a tiny fire within me had finally kindled, ready to burn bright as a supernova and consume everything in its path. I felt the ashes of my old life scatter in the wind.
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