In the heart of downtown resided a single woman. She was successful in just about every way society measured it at the time. She had a well-intentioned heart, but it was engaged in perpetual battle with, and occasionally lost out to, the mass of logical frustration that was her mind. A smooth olive-medium complexion and an unfussed-over, flowing head of long, dark hair served as the veil obscuring the battles within her. This was the rough sketch of Ramona Swanson at age 36.
She lived alone, and spent much of her down time when she wasn't writing, playing an instrument, or playing the heart of a man, completely immersed in her own thoughts, just trying to navigate each day as it came and make the right choices - choices that were rooted in avoiding the disappointments, and recapturing the joys, that she had experienced in the past. When she encountered one of the many banal, low-stakes disappointments that life routinely throws at any of us, she told herself, If I can't learn from my past, at least I can say that I've crafted one worth escaping to.
Her self-enforced policy of optimism would not permit her to realize that the present was the emotional equivalent of a desert - and she surmised, with a bit of contemptuous amusement, that this was the case for many others sharing the first world portion of the planet with her in this speck of time. Technology seemed to co-opt people's interests these days. If you passed by any one person in a public place, there was an awfully good chance you'd find them with their gaze angled to about 30 degrees below what passersby would deem sociable, if not absorbed in one screen, then another - maybe in search of love, or in search of youth... ignoring those right in front of them, and never finding truth - and so it was that the people of many cities coexisted with each other, begrudgingly, in this game of mutual silent judgment.
She thought of herself as fairly self absorbed, so she wasn't surprised that the crawl space in the walnut hardwood floor of her closet had escaped her notice for so long. Almost two years she'd lived there when she noticed it one quiet evening in April. She shared 1000 square feet of space with her two rabbit companions, Tibs and Phineas, in an apartment overlooking the west-facing harbor, and would make great use of the added storage, for sure. She made a mental note to check out the new discovery as a later reward to herself for finishing up the laundry.
11:24PM. The last load - the blue denims - were in the rinse cycle. She'd been laying there for a while, waiting, enveloped in the freshly laundered warmth of the salmon pink bedspread, her legs reduced to mere platforms - for Tibs, the lion headed lady-bun of the apricot coat, and Phineas, the gorgeous blue-grey rex male with sapphire eyes - to take turns jumping on and off, in between her compulsory offerings of raisins to the chubby, beloved ungratefuls. They were a shrewd pair, just provide a steady supply of treats, and they'd play with her in bed all night. I wish I could be ok with striking up a deal like this with one of these guys.. She had this thought as her eyes were affixed to her preferred dating app, OKVenus. She set the app to prowl for men within a 50 mile radius, between the ages of 35 to 48.
The crop of men eager to be harvested by her that evening included an Israeli martial arts enthusiast who lived near the beach where all the drug dealers hang out, a 36 year old biotech engineer from France who asked her in the first message if she'd be interested to go sky-diving with him at any point, and a 43 year old author of dystopian fiction novellas who lived on a boat at the harbor downtown, about a quarter mile up the shore from her. The latter was very persistent in asking her about her sleep patterns, sleep positions, sleep wear, and other such peculiar, sleepy inquiries. She rightly supposed that his inquiries had more to do with the selfish satisfaction of some unusual proclivity, and less about any deeper interest in her. But all the same, it was an odd relief from the usual topics brought about by many of the other applicants, namely, a.) how her day was; or b.) what did she do all day at her job.
Half-engaged in the perfunctory chit-chatting, she remembered that she had had the crawl space to look forward to earlier. Tibs and Phineas were bereft of their jumping platforms as she sprang up to reclaim use of her legs. They peered at her indignantly, and she gave them a simpering smirk. "You mismatched fuzzy slippers can follow me in, - that is, if you're not too scared." They paused, before they decided to plop down with each other and retire for the evening, in a grumpy, cuddly mass of bunny love.
She pried open the latch of the door and grabbed a little biker's headlamp from the overhead shelf to wrap it around her left wrist before proceeding down the steps - 10 or so, altogether. At the bottom of the steps was a passageway, about six feet in length, that required her to crouch down.
When she reached the other side, she was on all fours, and wearing a familiar bright-green dress with pink-flower print that she'd had back when she was in college. A charismatic and familiar voice spoke to her, as a hand extended down to help her up. "Are you alright, babe? That was a bit of a spill you just had," he said as he crouched down to offer her his hand. As she accepted his hand and stood up, he said "You looked quite good in that position.. if I were a lesser man, I wouldn't have helped you up, I would have gotten down there with you." He chuckled benevolently in an attempt to relieve them both of some of the awkwardness of her apparent fall, but misread the perplexed expression on her face as horrific embarrassment. The fact that a beautiful girl such as this, could give a hoot what he thought of her, and enough to be embarrassed, at that, charmed him to no end and gave him enough hope to disarm him toward her completely. He gave her an endearing smile. "Come on, Tigerlily," he wrapped her arm in his. He was a true gentleman, a gentleman with a jagged edge. "Don't you worry about a thing. I'll take care of you from here on."
She was of course perplexed, overwhelmed and bewildered by where she now found herself. But oddly enough, she wasn't startled, or frightened. She knew that this was real in some dimension outside of her own mind. Every facet of every single thing here belonged to her. She realized now that she had willed the crawl space into existence by continually reaching toward the past. The crawl space hadn't been there since she'd lived in the apartment at all, like she previously had thought. They said that the social isolation from the quarantine was tricking around with people's mental health. But as far as she was concerned, she was self aware enough to know that that simply wasn't the case here. This was her past, and this was real.
She could run her glitter-polished fingers through his wavy light brown hair. She could help him adjust his thick-rimmed tortoise-shell glasses when they slipped down the bridge of his nose about once every five seconds. The seductive self-effacement evoked by the slouch of his broad shoulders in his leather jacket never failed to make her tingle, even when they fought - and she remembered that their fights, over the course of the five months she'd had the pleasure of knowing him before he deployed to Iraq, had been large enough to quake the earth. Their love, even larger. He was her soul mate - and not that millennial version of soul mate, where you can have like a dozen of them over the course of a lifetime.. No, the boomer version of a soul mate - the one and only one you need in order to feel complete, before such a sentiment had fallen out of fashion.
He was a young man, but a man possessed of an iron will and strength of integrity. They met in an English 101 class they took for credit at the local community college. He was someone like her, from the get go, long before she adopted the identity of an urban-dwelling dilettante, and was only an academically overachieving misfit. This was the profile of him that Ramona had imprinted in her mind forever, of Travis Keane, a Lance Corporal in the Marines. He was killed in the Battle of An Nasiriyah on March 23rd, 2003, five months before his 21st birthday.
The crawl space had transported her to relive their first date. It was October 12th, 2002. Just as it had been the first time 18 years prior to this, he took her to dinner at a cozy Thai place uptown, and then they caught a movie at the local cinema down the road from her home. Ramona was a quick study and insofar as she knew this all was real, that she truly was living out her past experiences with him, she knew that she had to do everything within her power to see to it that he didn't deploy.. but he was so strong-willed! What could she do to stop him? It was only their first date, and she supposed that he probably didn't give her the least bit of serious thought, and thought about her only as deeply as the layer beneath her bra, at this point at least.
At the very front of the mostly empty movie theater was a sofa. They cuddled there, a pair of spoons, and there the littler spoon devised her plan.
They walked together down the street after the movie ended, and with his insecurity, common to all young lovers on a first date, he sensed in her an anxiety that he misread as disinterest and polite strained laughter at the sometimes crass jokes he'd learned from the other Marines. He attempted to draw her out and into a deeper conversation.
"How was the movie for you, Tigerlily?"
She missed his little nickname for her. She liked how even on the first date, and only knowing her for about a month prior to that night, that he wasn't too afraid of her to give her that name. The movie they'd seen was a story about a loner with anger issues finding love while being extorted by criminals.
"I enjoyed it, but it was a little implausible, the way he just kicked all the bad guys' butts at the end with no trouble - but the characters were complex and likable."
"Agree with you... mostly."
"About it being implausible." He looked into her eyes earnestly. "I would have no problem kicking anybody's butt for you. You're beautiful, and beautiful girls like you can make guys like me do some crazy shit."
"Well, you're also a Marine," she chuckled playfully.
"Yes, but it's not because I'm a Marine - it's because you're just special."
"How do you know I'm special? We've only been on one date."
He courageously mustered up his truth to her, and said, slightly faltering, "I can tell you're not only beautiful, and sweet, but you're the type of girl who's a little scrappy. You believe in all or nothing, you won't settle, and you'd risk everything for someone you care about," he shrugged his shoulders as he took her hand in his. "And I like that. I'm like that too, I think."
"I also can't put my finger on it, but you're like, this old soul, or something. You act like you're twice your age but you look like a baby." He hesitated at his words to her after it was already too late. "I hope that didn't come out wrong! You don't look old."
They paused on a bench in an unlocked rose garden, next to a library across the street from where she lived. They kissed each other not with the voracious lust typical of others their age, but with gentle tenderness and sensuality. They gazed at each other occasionally, their hearts overflowing with warmth, affection and hope. She relished being with him after all these years. She shed a couple of tears, which he half-correctly took to mean that she was falling in love with him for the very first time. After a few minutes, she continued...
"Travis, I know this is the most unromantic thing I could possibly talk about right now, but..."
He whispered back to her, his lips grazing her right ear. "Well, Ramona, you already tripped on the pavement tonight, and I'm still head over heels for you."
She kissed his cheek, and placed her hand over his in a motion that signaled that what she was about to say held more gravity than any of the previous topics of that evening.
"I have an idea, and I think you're going to really like it..."
She woke up the next morning, back to her apartment in the present day, and she rolled over to find that he had indeed returned with her, and gained some maturity of years, at that. Her rabbits were huddled in the corner of the bedroom. Of course, when she entered the crawl space last night, she had forgotten to tuck them in for the evening. A moot point now, I suppose, she thought to herself.
She was overjoyed, and cried profusely that morning in his arms. He was a late sleeper. She didn't kiss him, not too much, because she didn't want to scare him. "Who died, my dear?" he asked her, waking up to the dampness of tears on his right shoulder and chest. "No one," she said a little abruptly. "It's just hormones and stress at work." "Stress at work? Tutoring middle schoolers part-time?" The career girl of the pre-crawl space realm looked up at him with a baffled expression.
She realized now that she had a very long road ahead of her, in trying to piece together 18 years worth of missed memories of the life that they had built together. She would also cope with the loss of the past that she had built by herself from ages 18 to 36, that is, the only past she had ever known. For it was now relegated only to her mind, like the manuscript to an epic novel meeting its demise in a roaring flame. But the flame roared for a good cause... and as she smiled at him, running her fingers through his now only slightly-grayed hair, and she saw him smiling back, and she felt the warm embrace of his hairy chest and arms, and endured his seemingly endless array of dad jokes, she knew that the flame was worth it. It was worth 60 years of memories, as far as she was concerned.
Over the course of the subsequent days, she, in her own sly feminine ways, was able to piece together a mostly complete picture of the past 18 years she had missed out on. Mostly by having him reminisce about stories from their past, which he was always more than happy to do. Even in their early years together, she always told him that he had so many stories, that he would make somebody a really great grandpa one day. With her prophetically-assisted advice, he ended up founding one of the premier grocery delivery service apps in the country. Some things of her past remained, however. Firstly, they had chosen the same apartment in downtown, as a married couple, that she had chosen in the pre-crawl space realm, as a single person. She still adopted Tibs and Phineas from the local rabbit shelter back in 2016 as a bonded pair. She still finished her degree, but worked only part-time, tutoring math to students around the city, mostly because she loved children and relished her interactions with them, even the troubled ones. Other than that, her hobbies were much the same - writing, perpetually fumbling on the ukulele and piano, and singing. They played tennis at a local club on the weekends. They were 36, but acted like the oldest bickering married couple one could ever hope to run into on the elevator or in the corner store.
The crawl space was now a crawl space and nothing more, but she still couldn't bring herself to exploit it for anything utilitarian, much to his bemused dismay. He hemmed and hawed about it occasionally, but keeping that storage space empty was just one of his wife's many peculiar quirks, and she wasn't otherwise very demanding. So if it was that important to her, so be it. It ended up as something of a reminder for her to always leave some space. Space for what exactly? That all depended. In times of quarantine, she left space for the creation of vibrant inner worlds, for where was there to turn, in such times, but inward? In times of prosperity, she left space for giving, for despite holding steadfast to her conservatism, her heart told her that she was indebted to some greater intelligence for everything that had happened to lead her to this point. In times of love, she left space for courage - the courage to believe in love to its full extent, no matter how high the stakes.