He wants to stop thinking so he imagines her naked. He turns the steering wheel into the glide of his hand over her shoulder, fingertips over crushed velvet. Molds the residue of hydrocarbon into the scent of organic must of new life drifting from a spot inside her thigh, his palm over a forest of thin tendrils. Radio between stations, her breath in the sigh of tiny death. Tears in his eyes from the sting of ecstasy.
Red light. Foot down. Tires chirp. Cold hard gray afternoon.
It should rain on a day like this. Why does it threaten and never start?
"You don't..." he says. Realizes what he's thinking is getting out into the world. Says anyway, "You never..."
"What?" His passenger, his friend, his colleague, his lover.
"I was going to say something stupid."
"Are you okay?" she manages. This is a trial. This is talk that is work.
Green light. Forward.
He remembers, now, the radio. Fumbles. Stations burst into and out of reality. A whole world keeps running as if nothing of import ever happens to anyone. And then the switch. Off. Silence except for the engine rumble and the tire hiss against street, now wet as if on command.
It has to be late afternoon when people die. It has to rain. There has to be gloom.
"I'm sorry it had to be you. Wait. Not like that. I'm just sorry."
"Me too," he says, not thinking.
Tries to go back to a thought train, strong and engaging. This makes one time. The one time the thought of sex doesn't overpower the stream of real time. Real life can't be overcome. It wasn't supposed to mean anything.
"You know what he said to me?" It doesn't mean anything. Why must it be relived?
"He was supposed to be okay. The nurses told me he was doing better. That's why I stopped for some coffee before I came. Seriously. He was supposed to be okay today."
"He could actually talk. Did you know that? They took out the breathing tube and he could whisper. I was holding his hand."
"If I had known I would have been there."
Red light. Stop. Headlamps click on. Lights in his eyes, yellow white pools, glimmering raindrops on the windshield. Wipers flap from side to side leaving moonish streaks across his eyes.
"He was looking right at me. Eyes opened wide like he was finally awake. I could see he was trying to talk. He squeezed my hand: I could barely tell. I leaned in close."
"Jack, I'm so sorry I wasn't there."
"He said, 'My mind is full...'" Why must this be relived?
Now his nose stung and his eyes blurred and his chest moved inward on its own as if to expel life itself from his heart.
Her hand on his shoulder. Green light.
It wasn't supposed to be this hard. Green light. Car horn. Life moves as if you aren't here.
He manages, "Beautiful things," and realizes it doesn't fit.
Cars slide around him. This is trivial. Angry drivers waving gestures. Road rage. This is nothing. This meaningless stream of life happens whether or not people die.
Grief pulling him away from earth. Puts the car in park there at the intersection.
"He said his mind was full of beautiful things."
And now there's nothing but blackness and arms. Buries his head against her neck unable to speak, unable to think, questioning each breath.
There in the intersection, these two people.
She does not believe in ghosts which is why what he's holding scares her.
"What is this?" It came from the table beside the sofa. The one with the lamp. The flowerless one she just dusted moments ago. She's still holding the cloth and the spray.
She sees him walk toward it. Lift it. A large white bloom. Gorgeous and terrifying.
"I don't know." She says, "Where did you get it from?" because it has to be a trick. He's learned something.
"It should be in water if you want it to live," he says.
"I'll get a vase." She puts down the spray and dust cloth. Opens the cabinet. This is nice. He'll surprise her with the others. She should get a vase big enough. She takes down the big green one she saved from last time he bought her flowers. Months ago. No. Years. Anniversary. Last year? No. Before.
"I think this is an orchid," he says from behind her as she fills the vase. "Ho. One little flower's going to drown in there."
She says, "Oh." Empties the big one and takes out a bud vase that seems as cold as it is small.
When she turns he slides in the flower stem. Looks at her, confused.
He says, "It's nice. When did you get it?" Because they were both just in the TV room drinking coffee and reading the Sunday paper. Because there was no flower there when they put back their coffee cups and started their house cleaning chores. Because there was no flower there one moment earlier when she wiped the whitish haze from the end table and turned to clean the coffee table.
She shrugs. She knows him when he's confused like this. He'll either start a long stream of questions or give up. She hopes he gives up. Moves past him. Get out of that TV room. Something's wrong in there. Puts the vase with the flower on the dining room table.
"Wait," he says, following. "Where'd you get it from?"
"I thought you did," she says, hoping it's some kind of game he'll fess up to.
A wry smile. "What's up?"
"Should I look around some more?" he says. "This an egg hunt?"
That look of confusion again. Now worry.
He says, "I forgot your birthday..." then looks at the ceiling, calculating. It's almost worth keeping him in this state. but now she's past it. Flowers just appear. They do. It happens. Why question random beauty?
"Nope," she says.
"What am I missing?"
"Then, what gives?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Okay, if you're going to get mad at me, at least I have a right to know why."
She's mad because it wasn't him. She's mad because this life belongs to her and nobody has the right to play with it. She's mad because of what exists and what doesn't. There's a line. Never cross.
He puts his arms around her when she starts crying. He pulls her tight when she starts shaking.
He keeps saying, "What's wrong? What did I do?"
And she keeps saying, "I didn't put that flower there."
And nothing changes.
They have a friend who's big on this stuff. When she finds out about the flower she won't stop.
It's, "You've got to see a medium," and, "I know this guy who talks to dead people."
They shut her down. Invite her over a little less. Meet her for coffee only when one of them says, "We really should see Deanna. She's getting a complex."
Then Jack finds a picture of her as a couple. Orchid in her hair. Where did it come from? Who took it? She remembers being there with the flower, but never a photo. They weren't together long enough.
On the way to the medium Jack says, "When were you going to tell me?"
She says, "I didn't know it was going to be him in the hospital."
"But then you did."
She says, "I didn't know what to say," remembering exactly the way the floor fell from under her when she heard his name again after five years. Too soon, actually. Five years is nothing. She wishes it was ten. Twenty. She remembers the affair vividly and wishes it was faded so she could keep it from him. He'll read her face. It's over.
He purses his lips. Sets his jaw. Now something angry is going to come. She can feel it.
"Remind me why we're doing this?" he says.
"Because you want Deanna to shut up about ghosts."
"How serious was it? How come you never told me?"
"It was a relationship."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Why are you getting angry? I don't want you to be angry."
"I don't want me to be angry either," he says, "But you keep pulling shit like this."
"I keep pulling--what? What the hell do you want?" she hears herself say. Knows the answer. Maybe she can talk him out of it.
"How about a little truth?"
She takes a breath. Maybe this was always going to happen. Maybe it was unavoidable. But it was supposed to happen thirty years from now, when they were both old and mellow and all of it was so gray and faded it would hardly be recognizable as something at issue. She'll take one last shot.
"We agreed - no talking about anything that happened before we met. You're not supposed to bring it up."
"Well that's bullshit. It's not fine."
Jack says, "I held the man's hand when he died," and the words are a sharp and deliberate as the reality behind it.
She remembered his hands.
Jack's eyes, now red and glassy. "When were you going to say something?"
Never. She was never going to say anything. And she wouldn't have if the picture hadn't appeared. Where the hell did it come from?
"This is ridiculous. It was a summer fling. He was between deployments."
"You came with me to the hospital. What would have happened if he had got better?"
"Nothing," she said, meaning everything. Something. It was complicated. Difficult. It was never supposed to blow up. It couldn't.
"Did you tell him you would wait for him?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Don't give me that crap. Did you tell him you would wait for him to come back from Iraq? Simple question. Simple answer. One word."
There are lines that should never be crossed. Reality and dreams. War and peace. Prior loves. Truth or dare.
She could say anything and it wouldn't matter. Anything. It's not supposed to matter but she knows it will.
"Yes." It does.
He pounds his hands against the steering wheel. Curses. Pulls the car over to the side of the road and gets out, hand on the back of his head he paces circles in the dirt, cursing.
She gets out. She wants to touch him. If she can get to him, maybe he'll slow down. Cool off. Pull his thoughts back into his head.
"I'm sorry," she says.
"For what?" he glares at her. Says, "What the hell are you doing with me? What kind of jerk to you take me for?"
"It wasn't like that," she says. How can she make him see? What it was, was temporary. They both knew it. It was a fantasy. Something warm and wet for two lonely people who met, created a private legend, and went on with their lives with some great memories in the bank. And then he was there and injured and she wanted to hold him, caress him, nurse him back to health.
These things were random and without purpose. Chance meeting. What a surprise running into you -- what luck -- finding a twenty on the sidewalk. Each occurrence, an opportunity.
Good or bad. Truth or dare.
"You betrayed him. This is why we have a problem."
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't give me that. You betrayed him with me. You feel guilty, that's why you never... The asshole I am, thinking I'm doing something good because you get me to volunteer at the VA with the little free time I have and then this happens. Talking to him while he's on life support. I was supposed to be helping and instead -- I was the one there when he died. You planned it. Why have I been so blind?"
"No. I didn't. I couldn't have..."
He cuts her off, "And all the time he was thinking of you. Do you know what these guys go through over there? How they hang on to things to get them through? And I'm living with you and sleeping with you. What does that make me?"
She gets back in the car and waits. While he paces she sees the setting sun, a brilliant balloon balanced on the horizon's razor. It reminds her of summertime at her parent's house. Sipping ice tea and swatting at mosquitoes, listening to her elders gossip. Planning her birthday party with her mother. Her first kiss, stolen under the veranda.
Things have to go on. They will.
He's not planning to say goodbye. He's filled the trunk of his car. Drops his key on the television. Opens the door and locks it, plans to close it behind himself for the last time but then she's there in front of him, running into him. Coincidence. Bad timing. Fortune. Chance keeps happening.
Looking into his eyes she says, "Jack -- I'm dying inside. But I'm not going to apologize anymore. You don't -- you promised -- nothing before we met..."
"I can't get past it," he says.
"It's bad luck," she says. "It's just life. How can you give it up when you don't even know what it means? Don't you want to stay and find out?"
She touches his hand. Hooks a pinkie around his. He imagines her naked. Walks backward through the opened front door.
As she kisses him he feels something under his foot. Reaches down and picks up a letter that came through the mail slot. Hand written. He doesn't recognize the return address.
Opening it he reads, "Thank you."
She says, "What is it?" as he realizes what he's holding.
"It's from his family. They're thanking us for being with him when he passed."
"See, it can be a good thing. You were there."
They embrace, and as she presses her head against his chest a glimmer of sunlight catches his eye. Light from the window glances from his house key hanging on the ring in the kitchen.
In their bedroom his side of the closet is open as he left it, and though he clearly remembers taking them down and stuffing them in his car, his shirts are hanging where they usually are.
And the idea haunts him that he imagined all of it. That something so real could have been a daydream. That everything he learned in school, everything he professed to believe was based on a foundation of mud and gravel. No matter what promises were made, it could all change in a moment.
So sitting on their bed becomes lying on the bed. And lying becomes unbuttoning, touching becomes kissing.
She pushes away slightly, looks into his eyes and makes him remember what he saw when they first met. How much hope there was in her smile. Perhaps a future in it for them both.
She asks, "What are you thinking?" as she has hundreds of times before.
He leans backward onto his pillow and wonders what he thinks. Wonders about thinking and being. How what is real is what is thought, and what blessings came from the imaginary part of both of them. He closes his eyes. Imagines orchids and sunsets. Imagines that all the goodness in his life was absolutely true somewhere, and right there.
He says, "My mind is full of beautiful things."
And when he opens his eyes, everything is new.