I would not have said anything. I would have kept walking across the street on my shaking knees, the world spinning around me like ripples in choppy water. I would have gently convinced myself it was a coincidence, that’s all. Some weird deja vu moment, maybe even a ripple in space or time. This kind of thing probably happens often enough that it’s not really a big deal.
I would have walked away without a word to him, just a curious, lingering stare that I’d try to hide behind my sunglasses, and only for as long as it took the crosswalk signal to turn green. I would have taken in his posture, the shape of him. That’s what I remember most clearly, and what first gave me goosebumps.
He’s not notably tall or short. He has remarkably square shoulders, but he carries himself with an ease that softens the line of them--a certain fluidity that I admire. He’s graceful. It sounds stupid. This could describe so many people. That’s what I told myself to quell the spinning feeling that filled my head.
The rest of him matched up, too--the black hair, combed to one side, the squint of his hazel eyes, the pointed chin.
Still, I would have let the city swallow him back up as I stepped in the humming street. I wouldn’t have let that ripple in space or time or whatever become a tsunami.
But he caught my eye when I looked at him, and waved. It was a small, almost secretive gesture, accompanied by a sheepish smile that I had seen before. It was in the one where I told him a joke--or I guess it seemed like a joke when I tried to remember it later in the morning, but in the dream I had taught him an important life skill: how to make a set of parentheses with his hands. Like, not with a pen or pencil, but by holding his two hands up, thumbs and middle fingers curved into little baskets to hold those extra, in between thoughts that needed their own space in a sentence, not part of the main idea, but still too important to ignore. We have finger quotes, why not hand parentheses?
He had appreciated the hand parentheses and left me with exactly that smile before I woke up. He had pretty good teeth, but not perfect. Like, one incisor broke free from the top line, like a little wave. Like, his teeth were not bad enough to quite need braces, so the imperfections just became part of the picture. But more than the anatomy of it, I remembered the openness and sincerity of that smile. It gets weirder. The thing that woke me up was the surprise I felt in the dream when I recognized his smile. I knew that smile like it was something that I saw every day, but it was refreshing, like I hadn’t seen it in ten years. That’s the feeling I was left with when I woke up. Both aching and satisfied.
That was what I felt again when he smiled at me there on the street corner with that open, happy smile like he was actually happy to see me. Like I was not just some stranger on her way to work.
The surprise must have showed on my face because his smile faded as he asked me, “Are you okay?” God, even the sound of his voice was familiar.
My feet felt heavy, glued to the pavement as I answered, “Fine.”
But he didn’t turn away to watch the final seconds tick down on the traffic signal when I looked away from him. I could feel his eyes on me still.
“Sure. You just seemed...upset,” he continued.
I whirled around to face him, my voice a cold whisper as I asked, “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
“No.” There, that smile again, and he shrugged his shoulders in his smooth, easy way. “At least, I don’t think so?”
It was a question, not a statement, hopeful like he was expecting I might reply Oh, yes, you were my server at the restaurant last week, or web’e stood at this corner together five days in the past month. Or I have no idea who you are, but I’ve seen you in my dreams for years.
Maybe that’s how dreams work. Maybe we just recreate the faces we’ve absorbed ambiently, unconsciously. Maybe I’d seen him around the city without ever noticing him. He was dressed for work--a blue checkered button=down shirt and khaki pants. He could work in my building for all I knew.
“I’ve probably seen you a hundred times,” I found myself saying out loud. My voice sounded distant, even to my own ears.
“That’s what I thought!” he said. “You look familiar.” He was still staring at me. I could feel my cheeks start to burn.
He kept a respectful distance, but I couldn’t help but think of long-ago nights in purple-tinted bars. You look familiar, guys would say over loud rock songs, leaning presumptuously close to my ear. I got that a lot. It was a popular pick-up line. I was already with Blake. I’d just lean away and say, calmly but firmly, Nope. I guess I just have one of those generic faces. It was enough to wither their advances.
This was different, but there on the street corner, out of habit or maybe out of self defense, I held up my left hand. “I’m married.”
My stomach flip-flopped when he answered, “Sorry, I knew that. I think.” His nose wrinkled. “Anyway, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m not hitting on you.”
The signal had changed and people were flowing past us like water over boulders.
“Then what are you doing?”
“I’m agreeing with you,” he said, his smile arching higher. “We’ve probably seen each other a hundred times.
For a while that seemed to satisfy him. “It’s nice to meet you this time.”
He extended his hand. The invitation to just reach out and touch him in the flesh tugged at my curiosity. I half expected to wake up before it happened.
His hand was wide and muscular, but his grip on mine was gentle. He cupped my hand between his, and held it for an uncomfortably long time, not in a threatening way, just like he was reluctant to let go. Like a dream you don’t want to end.
“I’m Keith,” he said.
I could feel my heartbeat in my throat as I said, “I’m married,” and broke the seal between our hands.
The light had changed to red again and a new trickle of people had begun to pool around us. I had nowhere to go.
“I know. It’s not like that,” he insisted.
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged, that easy, familiar gesture. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I’m sorry for intruding.”
He turned and focused on the traffic signal that counted down. 12, 11, 10, 9…
That could have been it. I could have walked ahead of him and never looked back. Only, he beat me to it.
In some of my dreams, I’m chasing him, trying to get his attention. We’re at a crowded party and I’m trying to make my way across the room to him. There’s something I need to tell him and can’t.
That’s the feeling I got when he stepped brusquely into the street. I took long steps to stay by his side.
“I’m Katherine.” I said. “You seem familiar too, and I know why. I mean, I know part of it, and I can’t let you get away until I figure out the rest of the story.”