Mirage

by Katie Schrier

 

You are afraid of water, tell me so on one of our drives; the long, winding kind with no destination, around the city, mountain ranges and suburban housing developments. You open up on our drives, the mobility propelling you to reveal more than you will when confined to a movie theater or restaurant. 

“Even in the shower?” I ask. I love listening to you speak when it is no longer of a conscious nature. Only then can I can slip behind your guarded exterior to learn you are fluent in French, in 1984 asked Santa Claus for a sheet of linoleum so you could break dance and recently had a dream we were living together with a fireplace in our bedroom. “Even in the shower,” you answer, fleetingly uninhibited. Combined with the fact that you sometimes forget to wear deodorant, this new revelation further explains why your black cashmere sweater and moss green oxford both carry a pungent scent that for some reason—perhaps because for so long I smelled it only from a distance—has become comforting.

And so we never take a bath together, unless you count the time I drink too much red wine and collapse in your bathroom, my body draped over the metal shower door track as I throw up over the side of your tub. You rinse the purple streaks from my hair and wipe my face with a towel that feels new before putting me to bed in a pair of your thermal underwear. My necklace gets strung over your doorknob like the tassels utilized in dorms to signify a romantic rendezvous between co-eds. I stir in the morning to your hand caressing my back; my skin clings to your touch. I forget the necklace when I creep out shortly after dawn only to later find it tacked to the wall near your computer where you spend most of your time. With only slight consideration of the hours I invested stringing the gleaming red and black baubles on tiger-tail wire I leave it there, wanting some piece of me to have some form of permanence in your life.

Initially I am drawn to you because of your shoes: beat up burgundy suede Converse All Stars, identical to mine. I gaze at them as you move down the aisle in Professor Willigan’s class, too nervous to search for your eyes. Your feet cross the floor with a sense of purpose that tells me your ideas are going to change the world. Even with a moderate case of acne you are the most beautiful person I have ever seen. Between my ears a whisper turns into a scream: he could be THE ONE! You have already identified your unofficial desk in the back row of the classroom and it is nowhere near my own. Instead you are impossibly positioned between two women who look like modern day versions of Ginger and Mary Ann, rescued from Gilligan’s Island and plunked down in Sociology 210. I envy their ability to chat with you so freely during the break while I sit at my desk with my nose in a Barbara Kingsolver novel, trying to garner up the courage to make eye contact with you in the parking lot after class.

The first thing I learn about you is the way you take your coffee: eight ounces of French Roast, which you order from me nearly two years later at the gritty coffee shop near the even grittier park in town. You place a weathered copy of Current Anthropology on the counter and fold your strong arms across your thin chest, and I know I’ve gone to a place in my heart from which I will never return. On your bicep is a tiny butterfly tattoo, rubbed on your skin by a girlfriend who has become “ex” in your mind before the temporary decal even has a chance to disappear. I keep my back to you as I fill your cup, trying to comprehend how a stranger ordering drip coffee can alter your life forever.

I continue to watch from a distance, seeing you at the bank, at the base of a ski slope, moving through intersections and jogging by my building. It is there that you catch me staring as I lug my garbage can to the curb. You slow your pace and cross the street to offer assistance, and for the first time it occurs to me that perhaps you have been watching too. Your mouth smiles as you point out your own apartment just two blocks away, but your gray-green eyes shroud an entire world.

It takes three seasons but one afternoon you approach me as I am grinding a bag of coffee beans for a customer to ask if I’d like to join you for dinner sometime. With a stinky black marker that is used to note special requests like nonfat or double shot on paper to-go cups I scrawl my phone number on a napkin. The nervous font resembles the work of a child. We go for Vietnamese food, for French toast and to the Zoo—all within 48 hours. We see independent films at the old theater in town and scale boulders in rattlesnake-infested canyons. We stand on my front porch kissing until my cheeks are sore from your stubble, our fingers linked like paper chains.

The realization that we grew up on opposite sides of Lake Washington leads us to consider the possibility that our lives may have intersected long ago. Struck by the unknown fortuity that fate could have been crafting ways for us to reunite ever since crossing paths at a Pizza and Pipes location back in the eighties, we try to make up for lost time: you by going back, sharing childhood pleasures and fears, me by lunging ahead—longing to get to the part where we end up together.

On a street named “Top of the World Drive” you pull onto a dirt patch that is the beginnings of a four-car garage and we make footprints in the mud that will one day be someone’s living room. From this dark solitude perched above the bright city you tell me how during your first year of college a movie on the endangerment of bonobos made you cry, and in that moment you ditched the family legacy of advertising in favor of anthropology. Knowing you have the ability to commit your life to something you care about helps me feign patience when you sidestep the present and refer to the future only in terms of what movie we should see next. I cash in my wild oats for the simple pleasure of falling asleep holding your hand.

In the dusty library on campus you lose hours, wanting to know how women in a tribe in Tanzania choose their mates while evading the notion that I have chosen you. “Love is a manipulation of ‘survival of the fittest,’” you tell me during one of our drives, gripping the steering wheel with your bony knees in order to use two hands to count the number of times your father has cheated and the number of times your mother has stayed. At the end of the evening you keep one hand on the door handle and the other on the emergency break as we kiss goodnight.

In addition to your fear of water I learn you are also afraid of your ex-girlfriend: the one with clear skin and expensive cardigans, who drags the key to her BMW across the side of your station wagon and still leaves messages on your answering machine. The one whose size four cigarette pants you offer to lend me one morning after I’ve spent the night in a frumpy dress from Gap. We listen to the shrill sound of the phone as we sit at your kitchen table piecing together a puzzle of the continent of Africa. You are wondering why she continues to call, and I am wondering if our lives will ever fit together as neatly as the puzzle pieces representing Sierra Leone and Guinea do.

At any moment you could stop returning my calls, and for nearly a year, you do. I look for your stroll in the footsteps of others across bleak pavement and when I wonder how you are doing your faults slip through the cracks. I want to hate you for this, but it is too late: you have already hooked me with your regular use of words like discombobulated and circa, a homemade cassette tape of Neil Diamond’s greatest hits and the poetry magnets you surprised me with on a warm fall day. I disassemble the poems I had constructed for you on my refrigerator but I cling to the image of standing together in my dimly lit kitchen, the toes of our sneakers barely touching as your eyes scan the words, absorbing them.

When you do call again I let the pasta cook to the bottom of the pan, setting off both the smoke alarm and my roommate. You say my name like a question, in that deep, unapologetically mysterious voice that somehow erases any lapse of time. I ask you to help close the window that hangs open in my heart. You ask to return to limbo. Winding the phone cord around my fingers I watch as it starts to cut off my circulation. Because I have been numb since your foot last touched mine, I barter my heart for the potential of feeling again.

Without a compass we pick up where we left off, navigating a tangled web of complexity and contentment that has me convinced falling for you is the universe’s way of punishing me for something I may not have even done yet. We return to the old movie theater where you place your hand on my knee and I allow my fingers to spread out on your back like a map of our past. I steal glances at you in the dark, hoping if I stare at you for long enough you will stop seeming like a figment of my imagination. You seesaw between suggesting we should get a place at the new concrete-floored apartment building downtown to dropping the ecology class we have together for fear you can’t commit to an entire academic quarter with me. Like an anorexic who has learned to make do on fewer and fewer calories I compromise my intake, lowering my expectations to meet your systematic withdrawals. I am dog paddling in the deep end but you won’t come near the water.

On a wet and snowy Sunday I catch a 60 Minutes special on broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. I want you next to me, filling the commercial breaks with the kind of thought-provoking discussions about man vs. species that make me quiver at the idea of a lifetime of conversations with you. And then it occurs to me: maybe you are already watching. Perhaps you are spread out on your bed right now, long limbs that are scarred from years of skateboarding draped over the flannel sheets as you listen to Attenborough talk about how he writes his scripts as though anything is possible. Anything, Attenborough repeats; his face is passionate, committed, hinting that he’s referring to more than just getting shots of a killer whale hunting seals in Patagonia.

This is how I find myself knocking on your door four days short of Valentine’s Day, equipped with a fistful of rainbow-colored gerbera daisies and the wisdom that some words can’t be pieced together in a string of poetry magnets. I am ready to lift my own curtain and reveal that I want to live with you in a bug-ravaged tent in Mozambique and learn to speak Swahili—both of which have nothing to do with Charles Darwin. My knock goes unanswered, forcing me to leave the flowers on a mound of snow on your porch. I ride my bike home, sliding through the gray slush in a manner that only moments ago seemed decidedly romantic but is now clearly pathetic. Hours later you call with a disappointed “thank you.” I have complicated things. You have been selected to do research on a remote island off New Zealand for a year. The irony that you will spend 12 months entirely surrounded by water goes untouched.

We have just one last drive together, and you wait until we are careening down an icy canyon to muse, “I can’t believe I am giving up a year of my life to do this.” I hear I am giving up you to do this. An understanding that we are immanent passes between us. Your dashboard glows like a roller coaster in the dark and the sensation in my stomach is similar to hurtling down a steep track at Mach 3. You deposit me in front of my apartment without a kiss goodbye, hiding cowardly behind your magnificent smile. My own mouth is lined with sawdust so I resort to a lame shifting of my palm that is somewhere between the Miss America wave and the Vulcan salute from Star Trek. I linger on my porch in the cruelly frigid night listening to the ragged chug of your engine as you shift from first gear to second, and then third, before coming to a stop at your apartment.

Unlike the last time you went away, you now feel freed enough by your impending departure to not abandon your trips to the coffee shop. This means that each time you want a cup of java I have to slap on a buttery grin and stuff my feelings into my sneakers. I match your casual ability to inform me the Neil Diamond songbook we’d been eyeing at the bookstore is gone by mentioning I read a great essay on Jean-Michel Basquiat, and have made you a copy.

After midnight on a balmy evening in June we pull to a stop next to one another at the intersection to our street. Ours are the only two cars on the road. A massive summer thunderstorm has just swept in out of nowhere, sending purple streaks across the sky and rain the size of gumdrops onto our cars. Despite the pouring rain we make eye contact, and for that sliver of a moment we are the only two people on the planet. The streetlight flashes green and you turn right and I go left, eyeing you in my rearview mirror as you slice through the rain. I plead with your break lights to blink, to give me a heads up that you are flipping your car around in order to chase after me like they do in the movies. But you only slip further into the night until your lights fade to black. On a calendar I begin checking off the days, weeks and months until you will leave the state, country and continent. Only then will I know you aren’t coming back.

Twenty-four hours before your flight departs for the other side of the globe I walk into the coffee shop to find you seated at “our table.” The one we have shared so many times while discussing everything from ethnocentrism to peanut butter Rice Krispies treats. I ache at the sight of your disheveled green oxford, the sleeves rolled up carelessly, as if it has never occurred to you that your forearms are works of art. I regret not telling you this back when it would have been relevant. You glance up from your newspaper and smile at me as though we are strangers, as though your mouth has never covered mine—but your eyes don’t lie. You tell me your life is boxed up and ready to go; it makes me wonder about the fate of my beaded necklace, along with the Moosewood Cookbook, Edward Abbey paperback and other personal effects I left in your possession, foolishly thinking as long as you had them, you couldn’t dispose of me.

I play the part of someone who is unaffected but my heart is doing the Riverdance on my tongue. We make small talk about recent movies we’ve seen without each other before I break away just long enough to treat myself to a latte in a cup that looks more like a bowl. I am hoping we can both shed the invisible armor long enough for me to hear that you will never love me and for you to articulate why. Tomorrow we will be divided by weather patterns, tectonic plates and oceans; the only chance of fate ever connecting us again will be if 15 years from now an ATM cash machine at the Atlanta airport gives me a twenty that at some point you exchanged for rupees in Bombay. But right now I need an ending, the kind of brutal finish that will ensure I never look back. When I turn around you have vanished, but not before pushing in your chair. The vintage Formica table sits empty, unmarked by our history. No longer containing the mirage I have been chasing for years. I don’t even see your station wagon slip around the corner outside. Our story ends just the way you want it to: you hate goodbyes.


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Katie Schrier has been expressing herself through the written word since she was old enough to hold a pencil. She received her first writing award in the fourth grade and has continued to value writing as a therapeutic outlet, even as her writing instrument of choice progressed to a typewriter, and later, laptop computer. In 1998 Schrier earned a bachelor of arts degree in social and behavioral science and a minor in creative writing from the University of Utah. For more than a decade she has worked in the non-profit sector, spending much of that time raising funds and awareness for Children’s Miracle Network. She is currently the manager of public affairs for the University of Utah College of Nursing and in her free time enjoys working on her fiction manuscript, Survival of the Fittest.