The first time he met her, she wore red stilettos and her hair in a ponytail. He said hello. She said not to worry, she was even more beautiful with her hair down. She was indifferent like that, letting everything enter and exit her life as it pleased.
It was winter, uncharacteristically freezing. It rained. The rain mixed with the ocean mixed with gray until her whole world was consumed by fog.
She’d been longing for an awakening. But she wore opaque glasses and she couldn’t change them out for new ones. She waited, waited, waited, but the whirl of ocean and salt seemed to permanently drown her senses, crowding her brain. Her blood was honey. It moved slowly, but she knew that it would taste sweet if she ever had the urge to taste what flooded her.
In the mornings he brought her coffee in bed. On the weekends he took her to Aspen or La Jolla or Monterey. In the winter they slept in his cold apartment. In the spring, she moved in. In the summer, she quit her job. He said it was ok, he would take care of her, why did she give so much of her time to a hobby?
She replied with a numbness that dominated her. She never vocalized the gnawing feeling of loss that circulated around the deepest pit in her stomach. She didn’t tell him that she loved her students. That she liked to get there an hour early to make sure each one had all of the toys and books and colors of crayons that he or she liked the best. At five, they were filled with so much life and curiosity, a hunger to touch and feel and experience everything.
And they made declarations. When I am old I will be an astronaut and I will touch the moon and the stars. When I am a grownup I will live in the sea like a mermaid and all of the fish will be my friends. When I am older I will be a doctor and save everyone who is sick. When I grow up I will climb to the top of the world and kiss the sky.
But she knew their eyes wouldn’t always be on fire. She knew that like her their conviction would wane. She had once been so sure, so hinged, so unwavering that she could walk into any storm and stay upright. But she knew, as with her, the mysterious force that drives everyone in youth would wake up one day, realize it was quite bored, and walk right out of her students’ lives. They would feel fragmented and vague, just as she did. They would long for a peephole into the past to see exactly the moment where everything got lost.
Letting him in had put a plug in the sinkhole. He blanketed her with his arms and a convincing sense of security. Occasionally, he opened the heavy drapes in his bedroom and let in a glowing illusion of happiness.
She wished, of course, that they wouldn’t fight every time he went through her phone or read her emails. The constant need for attention was a bit of a nuisance. But these are the prices we pay, small prices, it isn’t supposed to be easy. Love or whatever she felt for him was hard work, that’s what her mother always told her.
February came, and with it more rain. This time February started with a Thursday, a day which changed everything.
He took her to his favorite restaurant, the one with dim lights and a glass wall facing Ocean Boulevard. He was distracted by work and sent his food back to the kitchen. She could feel a hole burrowing in her chest and her skin getting warmer. Involuntarily, instinctually, her hand took the only action that seemed appropriate and pushed her water glass off the table.
It rained. The women at the next table spoke French. It rained. She wanted to go home.
He yelled all the way to his apartment. This wasn’t new to her. He always yelled. But it had never felt particularly wrong. He always knew how to cloud an issue with words.
But in that moment, it didn’t feel real. It felt like the future, as if she was being revealed a magical insight into her life five years from now. As if the girl listening to his yelling in the driver’s seat, his pounding on the steering wheel, his driving too fast down the 405 wasn’t happening now; it couldn’t be. She was still a kid. Eighteen and living in her parents’ perfectly cozy New Jersey cottage. She would wake up in ten minutes and be the girl from five years ago. With all this life still yet to live.
She saw the brake lights before him. They sped towards her until all she could see was red light. Finally, the sound of his yelling was interrupted by a thundering crash. When she finally got the courage to open her eyes and uncover her ears, he was driving away like it was nothing, cursing all the bad drivers in LA. She supposed that life was just a collection of calculated risks, controlled trauma, and near misses. She had squeezed her eyes shut so tight she had given herself a headache. Or maybe it was the anger in his voice that was sending that screwdriver between her eyes.
Her heart started to beat faster and the pit in her stomach that she had been ignoring reappeared and intensified. She had an overwhelming sense of futility. She realized the mundane repetition of every day stacked upon the last in a never-ending cycle of wake up, go to work, go to bed. And with it a growing anticipation—when will it begin? And lastly, accompanying them both, brutal and sharp, pure and unadulterated panic.
The car was suddenly too small to fit her exploding heart. Her back stuck with sweat to the seat and the seatbelt dug into her shoulder. It felt like if she kept forcing air through her lungs, it would only be a matter of time before she choked on her own breath. She wanted to change shape.
The moonlight lay shattered on the cold hardwood floor of his bedroom. She realized suddenly that she was quite uncomfortable. The window was open, chilling her skin until she could feel shivers in her hair follicles. Laying between his cold rough sheets, she wondered. Was this all there was? A sad little apartment where clothes littered the floor and frozen pizza dominated the freezer. Where it was basketball night or poker night or football night or boys night every night. LA had always felt like home. But now this was home. And home smelled like a stale frat house. She wanted life back. The life that she had always wished for seemed to have escaped her. Somehow she’d let it fly away through a window she forgot she left open. She had feared so much a loveless life, she never even thought to fear a lifeless one.
It was infinity, give or take a minute before he finally said goodnight. She replied lips quivering as her ears followed the sounds of their voices drifting into the harrowing darkness.
She woke up before him the next morning, slipped out of bed and into her shoes, left what little she owned, drove straight to the airport. It only took an hour to find the perfect real estate listing: “Homey Cottage with Purple Door in Sitka, AK: For Sale by Owner”. It sounded as blissfully close to perfect as she could imagine.
The woman at the United desk said it would take eight hours on several flights to get there, and since it was so last minute, it would cost almost everything in her checking account. Book it, she said. The sounds and smells and heat of LA that were inexplicably amplified in this suffocating airport were closing in on her at an exponential speed. She had felt it on the taxi ride over, the world getting smaller and forcing everything she hated, everything that made her uncomfortable closer and closer to her until it was all she could taste and it took over her lungs. The sound of his yelling, his apologies, his breathing swirled and echoed through her head until every voice in the airport was his.
She commanded the voices to shut up.
Excuse me, said the United agent.
I’m sorry. She handed over her credit card with shaking fingers, shaking arms, shaking bones.
With each step through the airport, down the jet way, and onto the plane, she could see clearer. The details around her became instantly sharper, as if a new world was revealing itself to her, showing her the blue eyes of a baby in front of her, a man’s vibrant yellow tennis shoes to her right, the shine of the pilot’s watch near the cockpit.
As she settled into her seat, her imagination shifted to her destination. She could see more than a purple door now. She wondered who her neighbors would be and how long it would take to walk to the waterfront. Everything—paused right here and suspended in the air—seemed perfectly all right. That haunting feeling that she’d felt as she entered the airport was gone. She had left everything that weighed her down on the runway.
She caught herself looking at the woman beside her on the plane with envy. The 70 year old in her, that fully realized future self, wanted to be as well put together as her neighbor and was restlessly waiting for a chance to prove herself. She was desperate to grow up before anything changed, before the life she had recently planned for herself became contaminated with experience and circumstance. Desperate to make the choices and have the conversations and meet the people she was sure she would meet in her future before she forgot the details of her daydreams.
An announcement welcoming her to Alaska woke her from dreams of ice fishing. Everything spun as she made her way down the aisle—a beautiful blur of brand new sights and sounds and sensations.
Here it was, all of the tragedy and beauty of her whole life summed up in one terribly defining moment. She stepped off the plane with footsteps that sounded like finality. The lights on the ceiling of the jetway looked like hope. Standing on the curb, the expansive nothingness that seemed to stretch for days felt like freedom.
She told the taxi driver to take her to the ocean. She knew the sight of its choppy waves and bobbling sailboats would be all the proof she needed. Proof that she could mold and form this brand new landscape into home.
As the breeze of the cold ocean filled her lungs, she realized her mind was completely empty. The last twenty four hours had provoked such revelation that it seemed, if only for a moment that she had absolutely all of the universe’s secrets in the palm of her hand. Suddenly, she feared that she knew too much. She would never stand for ignorance, of course, but the dangers of philosophy and wisdom were becoming apparent to her now. Every existential crisis she had suffered or provoked seemed to yield the same conclusions, the same basic truths. What if there was nothing left to learn? What if the skies never opened up and flooded her consciousness with full-throttled eureka? What if she already knew that the key to life was happiness and the key to happiness was letting go, and that was all that was out there? What if the universe had accidentally fed her too much enlightenment at once?
But it didn’t matter anymore. She could live, blissful and clear-minded, in this little patch of sunshine forever. So she opened her eyes to the sunset and her throat to the mountain air and let the universe change her mind.
The ocean swirled around her once again as she walked down Main Street towards her newly christened home, but it sounded different than it did in LA—crisper, fresher, cleaner. A peaceful silence hung in the air. She heard her footsteps echo on her concrete driveway and the lock turning inside the door.
An icy breeze greeted her first. Then she saw him. Everything about him was cold: the smirk that greeted her at the door, the broad hands that grazed her back, the voice that said welcome home baby.