Rewritten September, 2005 to include details previously left out.
It was the last Thursday night of March, 1997. I had just flown into Orlando, Florida. I had no idea this would be the night my entire view of life would change. It was supposed to just be a whim. It was supposed to be a simple exploration of the possibility of moving to the city of Orlando.
Only two weeks earlier I had met Christine Lisl. She was the sister of my roommate's girlfriend and had come up to Worcester, Massachusetts for St. Patrick's Day. It was an annual thing with Christine and her siblings. They were of Irish and Finnish ancestry and when you are Irish in Worcester, you are pretty much required to drink to the point of near death every year on St. Patrick's Day weekend.
When she met me, Christine immediately dressed me down. Her sister's reports on me told her I was a selfish, womanizing creep. So, immediately after we were introduced, Christine looked me square in the eye and said, "Let's get one thing clear before this weekend. I will never, ever sleep with you."
Two mornings later, when we woke up in bed together, she was asking me to come and visit her in Orlando. I had told her part of my life's story and how I was supposed to go where there was no snow. She knew I had pondered the meaning of this and where it was supposed to lead me, so why not Orlando?
Go where there is no snow
You will know it when you see her
You will have no doubt and the sky will turn to gold
Those had been the final words spoken to me during my death experience on June 6, 1994, and they had repeated in dreams. In those dreams, a beautiful blonde woman had called to me, usually from within a cabin in the woods. Often the dream involved the two of us on a couch talking and getting very close when a man stormed in through the door and fired a shotgun at me. The dream usually ended with the flash of the shotgun blast in my eyes and then a sense of nothingness before returning to the waking world. It was a dream that haunted me almost every night for nearly three years. Even as I told myself it was nothing but a dream and nothing to take seriously, I could not escape it. I had to know what it meant. I had tried everything to escape the dream. I tried surrounding myself with women, I drank to excess, I did drugs to the point of complete exhaustion. The dream would not leave me.
"I just have the feeling I am supposed to lead you to Orlando," Christine Lisl told me in March of 1997. "I don't know why, but it is important."
Christine had problems reconciling her feeling that she needed to bring me to Orlando with the fact that she was falling in love with me. Part of her wanted us to be together in Orlando as a couple and live happily ever after. Part of her knew that would never be possible.
On my first night in Orlando, Christine took me out for dinner and drinks. I don't know why we chose to go to this particular Chili's, of all the restaurants and bars in Orlando, but it was where we went.
First, we went back to her apartment so I could change clothes, and since it was warm in Orlando, I left my leather jacket behind, with my wallet and keys in the pockets. This would leave us without money to pay the check at the end of the night, but oddly enough, the same jacket I forgot to bring to the restaurant that would become my church that first night, I would accidently leave behind on my last visit almost eight years later.
Just before the waitress arrived to greet us, I turned to Christine and inexplicably called her Tina, twice, in normal conversation. She hated being called "Tina" and had been called that by her older sisters for years when they were growing up. I wasn't doing it to be cute or irritating, it just came out that way. I was nervous, sweating and shaking and could not explain why, telling her I thought I might be getting sick.
And then the waitress arrived.
"Hello, I'm Tina and I'll be your server tonight."
I knocked a number of items off the table with a wild sweep of my arm when I turned to look at her. I was speechless. Tina was the woman from the dreams, the one who had beckoned to me, the one who had told me I would find her when I went to a place where there was no snow. There is no way to describe the impact of that moment on my life. I do not have the words for it.
That night, as I lay next to Christine in bed, I kept telling myself over and over again in my mind, "This is so fucked."
I never told Christine what had happened, as I did not really know how. I could see in her eyes the hopes and expectations she had of my arrival in Orlando and the beginning of a life together. As she went on about her plans and what possibilities there were for me in Florida, I barely heard a word. I could only think about Tina, and not in the way one thinks about desiring another person when they are with someone else. I had to know who she was and how she could possibly exist.
"Do you know that waitress?" Christine asked me later that night.
"How could I? This is the first time I've been to Orlando since I was a little kid and my parents took me to Disney World."
"She kept looking at you as if she knew you, and she completely ignored me all night."
That didn't help.
I would not see Tina again until late in November of 1997. I returned to New England and started making plans for the move. After I moved to Orlando in October of 1997, I could not find the Chili's we had been to. I went to three of them in the area near Christine's apartment and none of them were the right one, but for some reason we had gone to a restaurant that was nowhere near her house. When I finally found it, I was amazed that we had travelled so far just to go out for a drink and something to eat. It made no sense, with the proliferation of restaurants in Orlando, that we would drive twenty minutes to go out for a drink.
Then I remembered the dream. Sometimes I would ask the woman in the dream how I would find her. When I pushed her for more information outside of "Go where there is no snow," she simply told me, "We will all have the same name."
Meeting Tina had created a profound change in me. It may have been more profound than the changes I went through on the night I decided to take my own life. In the nearly three years between the night of my suicide and meeting Tina, my life had been guided by doubt. I gained self-confidence and strength the night of my death, but I gained faith the night I met Tina. It was impossible for me to reconcile my view of the world as rational and easily explained through reason after that night. A woman who called to me in a dream and told me to find her so that she could explain the reasons why I was still here in this place had just appeared in the waking world.
It was around Thanksgiving of 1997 that I found her again. I had been working a temporary job loading trucks to relocate the warehouses for Planet Hollywood. The route we took from the old warehouse to the new warehouse went right past the Chili's that was about to become my "church." We passed it numerous times before I realized that I was ignoring the obvious. There it was, and I had to go back. This was, essentially, why I was in Orlando, after all.
I remember it clearly. I pulled into the parking lot and stared at the building for almost a half hour before going in. I kept trying to talk myself out of it. This was crazy, and besides, what were the chances she would actually still be working there eight months later? It felt very strange going in, but I walked into the bar alone and sat down. I ordered a beer. I looked around, but did not see Tina anywhere. And then something strange started to happen.
I have often gone into bars by myself, had a couple beers and something to eat and moved along. There is a certain feeling you get in certain places when the waitresses figure you're a lonely guy and if they are nice to you then you'll tip well. This was something else. Almost immediately I felt as if I belonged there. Joy, the bartender, was talking to me like I was an old friend, and the waitress working in the lounge sat down next to me and told me her life story. I did not dare to ask about Tina and whether she still worked there, but I told them I was new to the city and they insisted I come back and talk with them again.
I returned several days later, and when I walked through the door everything seemed different. I decided to take a table in the lounge, and moments later, Tina appeared. She seemed nervous as she took my order, and when she came back with my drink, she sat down in the booth with me and started talking. She was in nursing school. She was stressed out. She wasn't sure she was going to make it. She went on and on with details, getting up when she had to deliver an order or take one, often having other customers snap at her for ignoring them. She kept coming back, sitting down and looking at me while she talked as if she expected me to say something profound.
It was several visits later when another waitress named Kayleigh asked me the question I kept wanting to ask Tina. "Who are you?"
I ended up going over my usual limit of beers and explaining what I could to Kayleigh, all while insisting there was no way I could walk into a bar and tell a waitress that I had died and was directed to find her in both my death experience and in dreams that went on night after night afterwards. She told me to look around, and so I did.
"You're not going to freak us out. We love having you here."
"You understand, but will she?" I asked, pointing to Tina.
"Most things go over her head, but sometimes I think that's because she wants them to. I'm never sure."
"So, what do I do?"
"Talk to her. I've got your back." Then she paused. "When did you say you died?"
"June 6, 1994."
"I want to show you something," she said before walking into the back room. When she returned, she had a plaque. On it was a dedication of the building stating that groundbreaking ceremonies began June 7, 1994. "Do you still think you're crazy?"
"I'm sure of it. That's the day it all started."
The answers were not simple, but I was never sure what my questions were to begin with. Talking to Tina, I found that she had grown up in the same city I had. She came from Worcester, Massachusetts and had grown up in a neighborhood not far from where I had grown up. As teenagers we had both been fond of taking the Bryn Mawr bus to the Auburn Mall on weekends. There was only about a three or four year age difference between us, so it was entirely possible we had met before.
...and the sky will turn to gold
I was constantly looking for ways to discredit everything as meaning anything. I watched everyone and looked at everything, hoping somehow I would be reassured that I was insane and this was not somehow meaningful in a way I could not figure out. Then I noticed the address on the liquor license behind the bar.
Sand Lake Chili's
8002 Golden Sky Lane
Golden Sky Lane was the side street that ran alongside the restaurant. Even though the front door faced Sand Lake Road, which I assumed was its address, it was officially located on Golden Sky. After ten years of working for the post office as a mail carrier and having it hammered into my head that addresses are based on where the front entrance faced, I was once again speechless.
I told Kayleigh, who being very interested in the more mystical side of life, told me she wanted to try an experiment. She yelled down the bar to Tina, who was now working as a bartender. "Hey, Tina, you're the reason Keith is here." Tina's response came without any pause.
"I'm not the reason he's here.
He is here for someone else."
The off-handed way in which Tina gave her response made it appear as if she had not given any thought to her words and barely realized what she was saying. She never even looked at Kayleigh or myself when she responded. Days later she claimed no recollection of speaking those words.
I told her I needed to talk to her and asked her if I could take her to dinner. She agreed, but always skirted the issue when the concept of setting a date and time came up. Finally, unable to get into the details with her at the bar, I wrote the entire story and presented it to her. It isn't every day a guy hands you a two hundred page document to explain what you mean to him. Tina said she never read it. She said she left it on a shelf behind the bar and forgot about it and that it vanished.
I listened for months as Tina related her struggles with nursing school and her fear of failure. I tried to tell her inspirational stories and wrote them down on paper so she could read them when she was feeling frustrated. She told me she was involved with a guy but wasn't sure he was the right guy. Kayleigh later told me the guy in question was married and that Tina had not been his only mistress. The next time I saw Tina I confessed I was in love with her, but that she needed to know the whole story in order to understand what I meant. She told me I didn't mean what I was telling her, so I handed her the four dozen poems I had scribbled on napkins over the year that had passed since I first met her, all transcribed and typed on perfectly centered and formatted pages. I told her I needed to know why she had appeared to me in dreams and why I was sitting in this bar night after night trying to put a puzzle together.
"I just brought you here.
I'm not why you're here.
I did read your story, you know."
Time would pass and Tina would find a new boyfriend and tell me she had found happiness. She graduated nursing school and became a registered nurse. I wondered if I had anything to do with her success, but there was no way to be certain. She left Chili's to become a nurse and I would not see her again for almost two years.
Our last conversation was one I would remember, as time went by and I considered the time spent at Chili's with Tina and all the others to be the golden age of my life.
"I've decided to work with terminally ill patients."
"I hope that is a good thing," I told her.
"I was afraid of death for the longest time, and then I met you and somehow I stopped being afraid. I think this is what I was meant to do."
"Something else I wanted to tell you... I've started believing in God and I've started going back to church. I don't know if it means anything to you, but with everything that has happened since you came here, I have no other way to explain it all. Thank you."
I think I probably cried that night.
The next time I saw Tina would be on the day I went to see a friend in the hospital who was dying of leukemia. Walking onto the floor where his room was, I saw Tina sitting behind the desk filling out paperwork. I did not interrupt or acknowledge her, feeling it would be better to pretend I did not notice she was there. On the day the doctors told my friend's wife that there was nothing more they could do, Tina was behind the desk again. I walked away that day and looked at Tina, who looked up at me for an instant and then down again. I realized perhaps we were both angels who had a mission in this place we pretend is real and that our meeting had touched us both in ways we are incapable of fully comprehending. It may be better that way. Such may be the lesson of life and as long as the two of us continue to reflect our inate human nature, we will never understand.
At least in the present tense.