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“Ana,” Seth’s voice broke through the static. “I need to talk to you.” He squinted up at the white sunlight of early spring and tried to shake the metallic breath of the subway from his jacket. Seth hated the subway. He shuffled down the crowded sidewalk, clutching the cheap cell phone to his ear. “I don’t know what time it is there— I don’t know where you are.” Seth sighed and inhaled a waft of car exhaust. A disgruntled woman honked sharply at an idling Fresh Direct truck. Seth jumped, startled. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard from you…” he suddenly became very aware that he was talking to a piece of plastic pressed against his left ear. “Just call me when you get this.” He slammed the phone shut.
He continued fighting his way through the city streets. Doing anything in the city was somewhat of a fight for Seth. He had never outgrown the scrawniness of childhood and he slouched when he walked as if apologizing for his presence. He was easily startled, credulous, and hated crowds. He was exactly the kind of person most New Yorkers took advantage of.
Still smelling of the subway, he fitted his metal key into the metal lock. Every thing here was metal, from the geometric skyline of Manhattan to the skeletal streetlights. Seth thought of childhood summers and where the white sand met the wooden steps, so worn they felt like silk under his bare feet. He missed the pretty simplicity of his old life and it filled his insides with an unrelenting numbness. His old house in Rhode Island sat right on the beach and had bay windows that overlooked the surf.
In the cave-like living room of the tiny apartment he lived in now, Seth peeled leaves from the bottoms of his shoes. They floated into the trash and clung together like wet band-aids, settling on a heap of discarded Chinese food that he probably should have taken out yesterday. The phone rang. It was work. Seth was a bank proof operator—he poured over documents all day in a tiny cubicle and rarely had to deal with people. Seth was good with documents, not so good with people.
Seth didn’t answer. There was only one number that could make him pick up that phone. There was only one person he wanted to hear from.
As evening grew darker, Seth wandered into the equally cave-like bedroom and looked at the photos by his bedside. There were seven—each from a different continent and each like a knife to his gut. The same blue-eyed young woman stood smiling next to him in every frame. Seth smiled back, remembering his trip around the world.
“You’re doing what?” his mother had demanded when Seth told her his plan. She had been established in her favorite armchair, a cigarette dangling from her claw-like fingers. His mother used to be beautiful. Her red hair used to hang in tight ringlets around her face but now she wore it gathered on top of her head most of the time. She used to smile often but now clouds of cigarette smoke always veiled her face. She used to be terse and uncompromising when it came to everything Seth did—and she still was. But he invariably found himself sitting on that awful maroon couch across from her, desperate for approval.
“I’m leaving, Mom,” he’d explained, wringing his hands with excitement and leaning forward over her coffee table. She used to scold him for not standing up straight. She had always loathed his habit of slouching, which she said made him look feeble. The thing she didn’t understand was that Seth was feeble and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He ran a hand through his yellow hair, not quite as sparse then. “I’m going to go everywhere.”
“Everywhere?” she queried with a gravelly laugh. Then she huffed and rolled her eyes. “You’ve never even left the country.”
But he hadn’t needed her permission or even her confidence. He booked his first ticket that night: a one-way American Airlines flight to Paris. He packed his suitcase in his beige bedroom that had always looked more like a hotel room than anything else.
During takeoff he gripped the armrests with an excited ferocity and filled his lungs with stale synthetic oxygen. Adrenaline raced like electricity through his veins at the bestial rumble of the plane’s engine.
“Peanuts or pretzels?”
A flight attendant and her snack cart were balanced in the aisle next to him. Her eyes were steel blue around the pupils and lighter around the edges, foaming like the crests of waves.
“Peanuts or pretzels?”
Her eyes looked like the ocean.
“Peanuts or pretzels?”
Seth was vaguely aware of her questioning tone but too absorbed in her gaze to respond. She sat down a bag of peanuts on his tray table and moved on. Seth hit his head on the seat in front of him trying to keep her in sight.
After that, Seth’s spontaneous global adventure became something more akin to an all-out stalking of a certain flight attendant named Ana with eyes like the sea. He followed her to Italy from Paris and then to Guatemala and to Australia and Mexico and Thailand.
One morning, as Seth shuffled bleary eyed down the tight aisle of Flight 815 to Greece, a voice called out to him.
“Are you following me?” Seth turned and saw Ana standing in back of the plane, hands wrapped around the felt curtains. Seth didn’t say anything. “You’ve been on every single one of my flights in the past two weeks,” she prodded. “Usually people traveling around the world bother to stop and stay in a place for more than a few nights.”
Other passengers were boarding now, grumpy and drowsy and every one of them visibly regretting booking a ticket on this miserable 5 am flight. The captain turned on the seatbelt sign. Seth smiled slightly and nodded.
From then on, Seth didn’t have to stalk and he didn’t have to stay in cheap airport hotels. Going around the world was like taking a stroll down the block to Ana. She knew every nook and cranny.
When you live in the same place for your whole life, your brain plots you so fixedly in that one location that moving at all triggers an overwhelming sense of vertigo. Seth was having a very hard time contending with the fact that he was no longer on the salty east coast of North America. Everything was different. Now he was in Australia. Now Asia. Now Western Europe. Now the Virgin Islands. Ana had a looser interpretation of “here.” To Ana, around the world was only as far away as it took to get there.
“If you think about it,” she would say. “The Earth’s really only as big as you allow it to be.”
Seth would raise an eyebrow the way he always did when she talked about things he didn’t understand. Seth understood documents. Seth did not understand people.
Ana took her vacation in Thailand that summer and spent two whole weeks holding Seth’s hand, showing him why it was her favorite place in the world, and helping him understand just how much more there was to humanity than his mother’s maroon couch and his house by the shore.
“Close your eyes.”
Ana led him down a small cobblestone street, the sides of which curved slightly upwards into a smile and caused Seth to loose his footing. He could hear the rhythmic purring of crickets and he could taste the rawness of the evening.
“Voila!” She pulled away his hands and flung her arms wide so that they hung like the twiggy tentacles of winter branches in the summer air.
Behind her the sky had faded to a creamy purple with clusters of stars like snowflakes on the sidewalk. A tiny bay dozed below and the orange lights of small villages reflected in diagonal stripes across its rippling surface. Palm trees protruded among the tiny houses casting feathery shadows and the moon hung low in the sky, radiating pearly light.
But Seth’s eyes never got that far. All he could look at was Ana.
The same thing happened wherever she took him. For Seth it wasn’t about seeing the Taj Mahal or the pyramids or Big Ben. It was about seeing Ana at the Taj Mahal, Ana at the pyramids, Ana at Big Ben. Seth loved seeing the beauty of nature and the startling unfamiliarity of foreign places but he loved Ana even more and he loved listening to her stories.
Seth was gone four months and in that time he learned that along with looking like it, Anna’s eyes entertained the same moods as the ocean. When she was cheery they were lighter and soothing, when she was cross they grew grey and tumultuous, and when she was melancholy they foamed and hissed.
But he couldn’t afford to live the life of his dreams forever. On his trip around the world, Seth’s horizons broadened, but his savings dwindled. Eventually their dismal state forced him returned home for the first time in four months.
“Oh you’re back,” said his mother when she saw him. It seemed to Seth that she hadn’t moved once from the time he’d left her there four months since. His whole life had changed and here she was, still sitting in her armchair and still smoking.
Almost ten years later in his tiny apartment he looked at his framed photos and wondered where Ana was now— Chile or Vietnam or England?
Once she had been his whole life. Now he was lucky to get a strained email once in a while: Hey, Seth! Peru’s Great! Hope you’re well! She didn’t even sign them “love” anymore.
Seth missed her and her ocean eyes but he was stuck in the most densely populated splinter of land in America without either of them. He hated New York but living in his old house by the ocean had been unbearable. He would continually find himself staring out the window at the ceaseless waves. He would continually find himself thinking about Ana. He spent a few months floating, looking for a place to live where he could make money and avoid all reminders of the best time in his life.
New York wasn’t the cheapest place to live and it certainly wasn’t the most pleasant but Seth would have hated living anywhere. There is no escape from reminders of lost happiness. New York, he figured, is a big city. New York has lots of airports. Maybe someday Ana would write him a real email or even call and maybe someday she would come see him. But until then, Seth would spend his time with documents instead of people and drive himself crazy remembering.
A small seashell rested beside the photos on his nightstand. He’d taken it with him when he left home. He touched it fondly, turned off the light, and fell asleep.
That night Seth dreamt of the ocean as he often did. He saw the gradual ebb and flow of the tide, the sun’s orange reflection, the foaming crests of the waves. In Seth’s dream the waves seemed to watch him. He could feel their gaze.
A car alarm woke him at midnight.
He reached through the darkness to pick up his shell and held it to his ear. He didn’t hear anything.