Love and Life and everything in-between
The Golden Gate Bridge when viewed from the air is a magnificent sight. It’s even more impressive at night. Ironically, this was one of the things on my list of “Things to do before I die”. It was actually one of the less crazy ideas, when compared with things like #22: Fly to the Moon, #38: Explore the Amazon jungle and find an undiscovered civilization, oh and my personal favorite, #2: Star in an action movie based on the events of my own life. I know that last one is a bit ridiculous, but hey, it was my bucket list. I bet you want to know what #1 is right? That’s too bad. Besides, for me, the bucket list has sort of lost its meaning now.
My name’s Mike. You don’t need to know my last name. In the whole scheme of things, last names really aren’t that important. Think about it...How many people actually tell someone their last name when they meet somebody new? Except for the wealthy businessmen and doctors, who proudly pronounce their full name and title every time they shake someone’s hand, proclaiming it loud enough for everyone in earshot to hear. But in the real world, if I walked up to you and said “hi,” odds are I’d say, “My name’s Mike,” not “Mike so-and-so”. Hopefully you get my point. The funny thing is, even if I wanted to tell you my name, I couldn’t. I can’t remember it anymore.
So, there’s one last thing I should get out of the way: I’m dead.
Maybe you already figured that out; maybe you hadn’t. No matter what, now you know. I’m not going to go into details or anything about what it’s like after you die. It’s too amazing to explain. Every second is like a whole new life being lived and there’s so much space that you forget what the second before was like. That’s why I can’t remember my name anymore. Once you’re dead, you only remember the things that really matter. The big milestones like birthdays, the first day of school, the day you move out, your first love, your wedding...well, I actually never made it to my wedding. In fact, I was never even engaged. I did fall in love though.
I was twenty-three. It was only eight months before I died. I was a full-time student at Sacramento State University. It was my last semester before I graduated. I was going to become a writer. Not exactly the most secure job in the world, but it was a start.
Five years in college had made me into a bookish guy. I didn’t wear glasses yet, although the eyesight did seem to be fading fast. Most people told me I looked like a librarian in disguise as what people called a “cool” guy.
It was the beginning of autumn, September 20th if I recall. It was unseasonably cool, and the wind rustled in the trees all around campus. The oak trees stayed green of course, but other trees on campus were beginning to change color. The squirrels, always a presence on campus, scampered up and down the trees or across the grass, spooked by the wind or a noisy passerby. It wasn’t yet cold enough for a long-sleeved shirt, but it didn’t hurt to throw on a sweat jacket in the morning.
It was a Monday morning, about 10:30, and I’d just gotten out of a class. I stopped by the cafeteria to catch a quick morning snack since I’d regrettably skipped breakfast. I was browsing the muffins when she walked up next to me.
She was about five inches shorter than I was. Her hair was light brown, with a touch of gold. Her face was heart-shaped and her lips came together in a thin smile that gave the impression that she was perpetually up to something. Her eyes seemed to change color according to her mood. Sometimes they looked like emeralds flecked with hazel, but when she was sad they turned as blue as the summer sky. There was something behind those eyes, a brilliance, an unwavering compassion that always seemed to draw me in. Of course, I hadn’t seen any of this yet, since all I could currently see was her profile from the side, but I’d learn to recognize all of these details as I spent more time with her.
I gave her a quick once-over instinctively. Let’s face it; we all do it when we meet somebody new. She was dressed in jeans and a green Sac State sweatshirt. I could just see a brown t-shirt peeking out from under her sweatshirt. Her backpack was just as ratty and tattered as mine. Her back was hunched over ever so slightly from the weight of the books and she looked hungry as she scanned the food.
Apparently she noticed me staring at her and looked up at me. I gave her a nervous smile, and then turned back to the food, trying to pretend that nothing had just happened. I reached out for the last lemon poppy seed muffin and heard a small sigh from beside me. Looking over, I saw her staring at the muffin longingly; my outstretched hand hovered over it.
I cleared my throat and said, “Do you want this? I can get something else.”
She looked at me again and said, “Oh no, that’s okay. You were here first.”
I couldn’t do it. Something told me to give it to her. Maybe a sense of chivalry, or maybe it was just me wanting to impress her. I grabbed the muffin and looked down at it. I turned it to see the price tag. It was $3.25. “You know,” I said, “I actually can’t buy it anyway. I’ve only got $2.50.” I lied. I had almost twenty bucks in my wallet.
I handed it to her and she took it gratefully. “Thanks,” she said with a smile. It seemed like she wanted to say more, but she turned away to find something to drink. Now that I had to pretend that I only had $2.50, I grabbed a chocolate chip cookie (not exactly the healthiest choice, but it was the cheapest thing there).
She was in front of me when we checked out. I wanted to strike up a conversation with her, but what was I going to say? When she turned to leave, I felt a sudden moment of desperation, as if an opportunity was slipping by. I grasped for something, anything, and saw that she had a coffee thermos stuffed in her backpack.
I blurted out, “Do you want to get a coffee or something later?” What was I thinking? I said to myself. I hate coffee.
“Sure,” she said grinning, “Or you could just walk me to my next class.”
I was elated that she had even considered accepting my offer. I rushed to buy my pathetic cookie while she waited and I was so distracted that I left my change on the counter.
We walked across campus making small talk. I asked her what class she was going to and she told me it was an English class. “Hey,” I said when she told me what English class it was, “I’m in that class.”
“Wait a sec’,” she said with an amused expression. “Turn around.”
“What?” I asked confused.
“Just turn around,” she said with a laugh.
I turned and she said, “Now raise your hand like you’re trying to get the teacher’s attention.” I did so after which she laughed and said, “It is you! You’re the know-it-all in the front of my class. I recognize the back of your head. You’re in three of my classes.”
I turned back around, slightly embarrassed. After all, she had just called me a know-it-all. “How come I’ve never seen you before?”
“Well, you’re always in front, how could you? Besides, there are sixty other people in class with us. That’s not very good odds."
“And you’re in three of my classes?” I asked, still astonished that I’d never run into her before. She nodded her head and smiled.
We walked the rest of the way to class and sat together. I remember that before the class started, we both officially introduced ourselves to each other. The funny thing is, I can’t even remember her name. That sounds completely impossible, I know. Surely I would remember the name of the woman I fell in love with, but I don’t. Like I said earlier, It doesn’t matter. I don’t need her name. It’s not that important. All I really need is the memory of her love, the taste of her kiss, the warmth of her skin against mine. The image of her face in my mind is enough to bring back the memories that really matter. Of course I don’t really have a mind anymore to fill with memories. I’m not a material thing anymore. I’m more of an idea or a feeling, like love...
After that first class with her, it was time for lunch. I told her I’d buy and we ate at the cafeteria. As we walked to a table with our food, she said, “I thought you said you didn’t have any money earlier?”
“I didn’t,” I said quickly. It was amazing how nervous I was around her.
“Oh really?” she said raising an eyebrow. “Then how exactly did you just pay for both of us?”
Crap I thought to myself. I’d been busted.
She giggled and said, “So you thought you’d do the noble thing earlier with the muffin and make up an excuse to give it to me?”
“Yes,” I whispered in a small voice, embarrassed beyond belief.
“You shouldn’t try so hard to impress me. Just be yourself. You’ll be surprised by how far you get.”
“Yeah well the muffin thing still worked pretty well right?” I asked trying to deflect my embarrassment with humor.
She closed her eyes and shook her head with a sigh, then said, “Yes. I admit that as transparent of an attempt as it may have been, it did work.”
“Well at least I’ve got something going for me,” I said grinning.
Since we shared two more classes, we spent most of the afternoon together. There wasn’t much time to talk, but we still enjoyed each other’s company.
The next day, I didn’t see her, but she certainly was on my mind. As a matter of fact, it was hard not to think about her. I found it hard to wait for the day to end; my thoughts were too distracted.
Relief came the following day as her presence once again felt like an antidote to my madness. I was whole again. She calmed me and was a source of great comfort. She was a part of me that I hadn’t even known I needed. Only when she was gone was I aware of that missing piece.
We had our first date (a picnic just for the two of us) not long after, and from then on, our friendship blossomed into romance. We were nearly inseparable. I held in my heart a place that could be filled by no other. Without her I was only part of a person; a shadow.
I still remember how she felt in my arms. We were like two puzzle pieces that fit together. I remember sitting in my apartment, in a cozy seat beside the window, holding her close to me. I remember the feeling of her head on my shoulder, her breathing soft and shallow as she fell asleep. Her hands were so soft in mine and as the rain fell outside, the two of us spent the afternoon in each other’s warm embrace. There was no reason to ever move. I could have spent a thousand eternities in that one moment of contentment and ever-lasting bliss.
These are the things I still remember.
There’s something else though too. It’s the one memory I wish I could forget from the day that I died.
On a May evening, eight months after we met, I planned to propose to her. It was such a nerve-racking day leading up to that night. I still hadn’t even decided how I was going to propose. I’d already practiced it fifteen different ways, but none of them seemed to work. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t really something you could rehearse; I wouldn’t know how to do it until the moment arrived. I felt a little guilty about not asking her parents first, or at the very least, her father. I was old-fashioned that way so it was something I regretted. I’d never even met her parents. It would have been nice to confide in my own parents about my proposal, but they had died a long time ago. Sadly, no one knew what I was planning to do except me.
Tonight (of all nights) she was uncharacteristically late. We were planning on going out to dinner after she stopped at my place. I was toying with the idea of just proposing to her before we left for dinner. This was in part because I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d be able to drive her to the restaurant without getting in an accident because of my nerves. Even now, I was still nervous around her. She was so amazing that I wondered how I’d been lucky enough to meet her in the first place, and as if that wasn’t enough, she loved me. Sometimes it seemed impossible, then she’d kiss me and I’d be reminded of how real it was.
But at the moment, there wasn’t any kiss to reassure me. I was pacing in the living room, wondering where she was. She often told me I worried too much, but I couldn’t help it. I cared about her more than she’d ever know.
I decided to call her. I picked up the phone and dialed. However, the call never connected. There was a screeching tone in my ear, then a woman’s voice said, “We’re sorry, your call as dialed cannot be completed at this time. Please redial and try again.”
I looked at the phone with a confused expression on my face. I’d called her hundreds of times before and had never dialed wrong. I tried again. The same message played. How could her number suddenly be out of order? I called her at home thinking maybe she hadn’t left yet but that number was out of order too. Something wasn’t right. One number out of order was certainly possible, but two? That was too much to be a simple coincidence.
My thoughts started to wander in wild directions. Had she changed her number? Had I done something to push her away? What had I done?
The entire night seemed to be crumbling around me. I sat on the couch in stony silence, my eyes restlessly traveling from object to object in the room. They fell upon the book sitting on the coffee table. It was To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite book and also her favorite, one of the many things we had in common. It was impossible to count how many of our likes and dislikes we shared; we were practically twins. That’s what made it so odd that she would suddenly do this. It didn’t make sense. All I could do was wait.
I got up and walked to the desk on the other side of the room. There was a letter there that she had written to me. My eyes traveled across the page finding some comfort in this small token of her love. Without her here, the letter was the closest I could be to her.
Near the end of the letter, a word caught my eye. It was the word “awake”, but it wasn’t the word so much as the letter “k” that caught my attention. I had never noticed before, but apparently she wrote her cursive “k” almost exactly like mine. It was a little sloppy and looked more like an “h” than a “k”. I dug through my desk and found a short story that I was in the middle of outlining and compared the handwriting. In that moment my heart broke.
The handwriting was the exact same. Every single letter looked identical. There was the same rushed look to the writing (I had always written too fast) and even the ink was the same. As if that wasn’t enough, both pieces of paper had the same pattern of smeared ink where the back of my hand had rubbed over the semi-wet ink as I wrote.
My reality came crashing down into ruins. She didn’t exist. I’d written this letter and many others to myself. There was a cruel moment of realization as I connected the dots. This was why her numbers didn’t exist. I’d imagined every conversation I’d ever had with her. This explained why our interests were so similar. She was me. I had a sickening feeling as I realized bitterly that it also explained how I’d managed to meet such a perfect girl. I had created the perfect girl in order to fill a void.
My hands shook and the papers rattled in my fingers. I tore theme to shreds as my eyes burned with tears. It couldn’t be true I thought to myself.
Nothing is more cruel or painful than to face the reality of one’s own insanity. As frightening and terrifying as it can be, it is far more alienating to know that one’s own reality isn’t shared by the rest of the world.
I continued trying to tear the papers up into smaller pieces as though this would destroy the evidence of this horrible truth. I stood there trembling; the papers falling through my fingers like confetti. Then I sank to my knees and wept, as I curled myself into a ball. Despair filled me as I realized how alone I had been. The love that I had fabricated was nothing more than a lie. Nothing about the last eight months had been real.
After a long while, I stood up. Anger mixed with grief propelled my feet. I grabbed my keys and left. I drove for hours, not entirely sure where I was headed until I inexplicably found myself in San Francisco. By now the sun had set and the Golden Gate Bridge lit up the bay. I parked and decided to walk across the bridge; I knew that from here on, I wouldn’t need my car.
I traveled across as though I was a ghost. The cars drove by, oblivious to the one man who was walking across the bridge. Tears stung my eyes as I remembered the happy times we had spent together, the love we had shared, and the life that we had lived. All of it was a lie; nothing more than the fabrication of a madman.
When I felt that I had walked far enough, I stopped and turned to look out at the bay. I had always loved water, especially the ocean. It calmed me, just as she had. I felt a stab of pain.
As though pulled by a string, I lifted one leg over the railing, then followed with the other. Only my hands were keeping me on the bridge. The slightest lean forward would send me into the bay. I closed my eyes, picturing her smile and her kiss. I took a breath of the cool, salty air. This was it. I relaxed my fingers and tipped forward. I thought I heard a yell from far off. Perhaps it was my own conscience telling me to stop. How could I be sure what voice was real anymore? Besides it was far too late to turn back now. I felt my fingers leave the railing, momentum swinging me forward, then nothing.
That’s all I can remember. Now I’m here. Her love is all that remains in my memory. Even if it wasn’t real, it still stays with me. It’s odd though, for the first time, I feel aware again. It’s as if I can feel a body again. I feel warm as though I’m being hugged, as if there are arms wrapped around me almost—as if—they’re my arms. And there’s a figure—someone dressed in white. An angel perhaps? Maybe this is heaven? They’re saying something. I can’t make it out. What are they saying? Speak up! For God’s sake speak up! What is this place? Why are you holding me down?!
“Time to take your pills Michael.”