There are ideas like viruses that are made of nothing. They get into the nothing of you that inhabits your head. The mind that lives in your brain.
Sometimes they fade away on drifting memory.
Sometimes, they don't.
I don't know what I think.
Is it true?
From somewhere you are, we were.
I want to believe you.
Tell me again.
Say it again.
Emilio's Bistro. Thursday, July 27th, 2002 Mid afternoon. Al fresco. You watch Jerry Linebarger sipping his chowder.
He's right. He's losing his hair.
He rubs a napkin across his lips.
"And you believed her?"
The light changes at the corner and a wolf pack of autos passes en masse, their engines and tires drowning you in the basso pink noise that obviates the need
A woman passes pushing a baby stroller, dragging a captive green balloon in the air above her. The baby sleeps.
A tiny brown bird lands at your feet. It takes a yellow white crumb of sourdough crust and flies away.
The sun burns nuclear above.
Auckland Airport. Departure lounge bar. Early evening. Remnants of the fourth margarita coat the bottom of a glass smudged in finger prints. Salt granules scattered across the dark wooden table top in front of you like stars in a void.
She has eyes so deep you're afraid to look into them for fear you'll fall. Even when you're looking somewhere else, you can feel her. Her heart beating. The engine of a furnace as old as the sun.
You came from there, too, she says.
She never looks away. Even when you stare at your hands, she's looking. Into you. Into your eyes.
She says, "You can tell whoever you want. They won't believe you. Besides, nothing happened. What are you going to tell them? Think about it. What are you going to say?"
From invisible overhead speakers, a voice echoes in the airport gate area:
"This is a preliminary boarding call for Qantas Airlines flight eleven for Los Angeles. All passengers travelling with small children, and those who need extra assistance..."
"I'm going to say this feels like a miracle. I feel like I've lived all my life for this moment. Like I'm finally alive. Like I'm connected to everything. Like, I could make money fall from the sky."
Beside you a patron gets up from the bar, answering the boarding call. As he reaches for his carry on bag, a cluster of coins falls from his hands. They hit the hard tile floor, ringing like flat bells.
One rolls to you, touches your shoe, and falls. Another touches hers.
She puts her hand to her mouth and giggles. Her eyes narrow and glisten in the dim light. And then she laughs and you remember it. That laugh.
Used to make you strong.
"Come on. You can't tell me you bought that line," says Linebarger.
The waiter brings you a coffee, him a small grappa. Jerry's drinking on his lunch hour, again.
The small brown cube descends below the black surface, leaving barely a ripple. Push the spoon around the thin white circumference.
Another bird. Another woman. Another stroller. Sleeping baby. Balloon.
This time blue.
The waiter at the table behind you: "Eleven dollars change..."
Feel it deep. A dark black void nobody can see. Feel it in your chest like it's turning to ice and you'll freeze in front of everyone. Nobody would believe it.
Christchurch Airport. Ticketing lounge. Early morning.
QZ--is that the code for Qantas? You keep forgetting. Flight number. Who cares? Maybe you can get on that earlier flight to Auckland. At least Auckland is a larger airport. They have a big duty free shopping section...
"Do you think I can get on the earlier flight to Auckland?" A voice from outside you.
Turn. Move your head, twenty degrees to the side, and she's standing there, holding her bags, staring at the screen with you. Talking to you. Why would she do that?
Conversation in airports is so inane. Sometimes, such a waste of energy.
You say, "I dunno. What flight are you on?" But you know she's on your flight.
She does too. She still has to say it. You wouldn't believe yourself, otherwise. "The one thirty. I really want to get out earlier. What about you?"
Why does she think you're on her flight? See the impossibly long queue to check in. Say, "The line looks long. Might have to wait it out here."
"I'm gonna try. I bet we make it," she says. She picks up her bag and gets behind an elderly couple. She turns back to you. "Come on. We'll make it. I bet you we do."
She takes her sunglasses off. Pulls out her ticket wallet and examines her documents.
Now you know who it is. It's her. Of course.
As you get in line behind her, you spy her airline ticket and see her name, but it's not familiar.
She glances between her watch and the line, which is hardly moving. You'll never make the plane at this rate. It takes you a few minutes to get to: "Look, sorry if this sounds stupid or like a come-on so I'm going to pre-apologize for forgetting. But, don't I know you?"
She squints at you and you see her for the first time, or the thousandth. Eyes you know you know. Her face, you've kissed. Long brown hair you've felt run through your fingers hundreds of times.
She's confused. "I thought you were--" and she says a name that's not you. "Oh god. I'm sorry. I don't usually do that. Just walk up to guys in airports. I'm sorry if it seemed like--"
"No problem," you say, comforted ever so slightly. And now you know her breath. First thing in the morning, as the sun rises. You know that she talks in her sleep. One syllable words. Giggles and squeaks.
You have to nudge her back to her side of the bed.
You've been looking at each other a bit too long.
"Are you two going to Auckland?" A voice to your side. A representative from Qantas. "We have just two more seats on the eleven o'clock flight. Let me have your tickets."
You both hand the woman your tickets. She calls over a porter who takes your luggage and issues you receipts. Escorts you past the line at security, waving at the checkers as you pass uninspected. You follow her past the queue of people waiting to hand in their boarding passes. You follow her to two unoccupied first-class seats.
As you sit, she hands you your boarding pass stubs, and wishes you a great flight. A flight attendant hands you a menu and a glass of orange juice.
When she leaves you say to the woman at your side: "You're a celebrity, right? That's why I think I know you. I've seen you in the movies. I apologize for not knowing your name. I must have seen you a hundred times. I feel like I know you."
The woman drinks her orange juice. As the coach passengers are boarding she says, "This is freaking weird. Did you have a first-class ticket?"
"They must think I'm with you. You know, I just got back from Antarctica so I'm probably bad with my manners. I'm so sorry for horning in on your privacy. I can go back to coach if you--"
She shakes her head and smiles.
She says: "Do you realize that we can do anything? Literally anything. Anything you think will happen. So only think good thoughts."
"I think I figured it out," she says, and hands the flight attendant her empty orange juice glass. "Why I know you, but I don't know you."
"You feel that way, too?"
"What do you want? Right now. Think of anything. Think of something really weird."
Where is this going? What the hell is happening? Why can't you stop yourself from saying, "A 73' Chevy Chevelle SS Sport with blowers on the hood, a MOMO steering wheel, and a big thrush sticker on the rear window."
When you finish she looks up. The flight attendant holds out a magazine. Road and Track. The car you described on the cover.
What the hell is happening?
Who the hell are you?
The woman turns back to you, grinning.
She says, "This is so cool."
Linebarger says, "It's open season on balloons around here. That's got to be the tenth mother with a kid and a balloon going by. They giving away something up the road?"
The waiter brings the bill. You reach for it but Jerry gets it first.
Says, "I had more than you. Let me get this."
"It's ok. Let's just split it."
"Sure?" he asks.
You open the black plastic billfold and reach into your pocket saying, "I got change."
You pull the bills and coins out you put there this morning. The numbers on the white and green paper, scribbled in haste, twenty-two, twenty two.
There are eleven hours to kill in Auckland. You check your luggage and get into a cab with her. From there to a hotel, where she's staying. Straight to the bar.
Where is this going?
She wants to talk. A lot. She's brought you practically into her bedroom, but she wants to talk.
But why? You know everything she's going to say.
You own the same car. The same television. Your apartments are the same one-bedroom, L-shaped floorplan, come into the living room, kitchen on the right, bathroom down the hall straight. Bedroom on the left.
Your beds are oriented so your head faces north, your feet south.
You both graduated with master's degrees. You in engineering, she in education.
You were born in the same year. The same month. The same day. Within hours.
You vacation in the same places, at the same time, but have never run into each other.
She lives in Hawaii. You in New Jersey.
Neither of you has ever married.
"You know why, don't you?" she asks, sipping a margarita through the stirrer.
Why bother playing coy?
"Because I've been waiting for you," you say, now realizing she's the most beautiful woman you've ever encountered, even though you know most of your friends would wonder what was wrong with you.
She feels the same.
"You know, this is going to sound weird, as if anything could be weirder than what's been happening--but I know what your favorite perfume is. I've been remembering smelling it."
"Je reviens," she says. "And your favorite ice cream is--"
"Pistachio," you say, simultaneously.
"And you hate politicians and love war movies. You like the desert and hate the ocean. You like tall blonde women, even though you've never been able to get a date with one."
"You, yourself, being somewhat diminutive and brunette," you say. Then, "And you hate most sports but love bowling. You love to sail and you have your pilot's license."
"I let it lapse. Couldn't find the time to stay current," she says, ordering both of you another drink.
"So what is this? I mean, why?"
"It's exactly what you think, Rocco," she says. Of course she's going to call you that.
She reaches for her carry on bag and pulls out a wallet. Inside is an old folded photograph. 1940's World war II era. White lines cross the picture along the folds.
"My mom gave me this," she says.
A crowd of people cheer an arriving hospital ship. Bandaged troops disembark.
"That was when my grandfather came home," she says, pointing out the tiny head in the crowd of injured soldiers. Her grandmother, young and lithe, waves holding a handkerchief.
There's a circle on the picture. A woman in the crowd around the grandmother. She holds the handle of a pram. A balloon tied to the handle floats over her head.
"You didn't come home," she says.
Why bother saying, "What?"
She says, "You died on the ship on the way home from England. Remember?"
You tell her you don't.
And then you convince yourself.
"So what are you supposed do now?" Jerry says as you walk back to the car. You've taken the whole lunch hour with the story. He's hardly said a word.
He rants, "I mean, she's your frigging soul mate, for God's sake. Isn't that the new age term we're looking for? Look, stop whining. Why the hell don't you just get your ass to Hawaii and marry her? I mean--we're talking Hawaii, John. It's not like she lives in some god forsaken, back-ass-water village out in the bayou where you gotta dodge shotgun pellets and elope. She's a frigging university professor. If you want to believe you're a reincarnated husband and wife, just go marry her and be happy and stop your sick-ass sorry whining because if you don't shake this god-awful tiresome moreose mood--"
"Stuff is happening. All the time. I can't stop it."
"What stuff? Have you lost your mind? Johnny, nothing is happening. Everything is normal. It's you who are screwed up."
You step on a broken balloon and your heart freezes for a second. When you look up, you read the plate on a passing car. 1OHIO1, and go back to breathing.
"Now boarding rows thirty through fifty-seven..."
"I should probably get on the plane."
"You don't have to rush, you're in first class," she says. And now she's crying.
"Why am I doing this. Why the hell am I leaving you?"
You put a finger under her chin, lean in to kiss her like a breath that has to happen.
She pulls away, "That wouldn't be smart."
"Because this is it."
You say, feeling confused the way love makes thoughts turbulent, "As much as I understand, there's about twice as much I don't. Why don't you just come back with me? Or I'll come with you. I'll tear up these tickets and we'll go back to your room. Right now, I can't imagine how I can leave you."
She's crying so hard she can't answer. She buries her face in your chest, and you hold her, wondering how you could have got this far through life without her.
"But we can do anything, right? When we're together, the whole world bends the way we say. So I say let it be. Let it be that we're back again, married the way we have been, however many hundreds of times. Why can't that be?"
"But Rocco, does that really happen, ever, to anyone?"
She pushes away, gently out of your embrace.
This can't be real.
All of it is true, or none of it is.
"You said we could do anything--" Now you're pleading.
She backs away and you can't go after her.
You tell her you'll write. E-mail.
She shakes her head.
It can't be. Please.
"How will I know what's happening to you? How do I know you're okay? I can't just go back to my life and act like this never happened."
"But nothing happened. Think."
"Everything happened. My whole life just happened. You can't just leave."
She says, "You'll know about me the way we promised--I'll know you're fine. You'll send me your sign. You'll get mine."
"This is the final boarding call for Qantas flight eleven. Flight eleven to Los Angeles now boarding all rows."
"What sign--" You don't remember looking away, but suddenly she's not there.
Days go by. Weeks. Months.
Whisper to yourself over and over.
I love you.
I swear to God. I'll find you if it kills me. I don't care if it kills me."
But you know that you can't.
And she sends you her sign.
And you send her back yours.
And neither of you marries.
And you vacation in the same spots, at the same time.
And you never see each other again.
Love always, wherever you are.