Alice was everywhere, until she wasn’t. Just like at first, she was nowhere until she was. The absence of her before I knew she existed, was nothing. Now, the absence of her shrouds everything. Like a guest who never came to dinner; a stormy sky that didn’t deliver. Nothing can wash away the void where she used to be. This is what I’m thinking about the first time I take The Walk without her.
I met Alice at a dinner party, the raucous kind with wild guests, beautiful people glittering in late summer air on a second-floor balcony backlit by a September sky. We were all friends of Richard, and this was his brilliant attempt to make all the people I love come together. Or it was a lavish birthday party thrown for himself. You could never quite tell with Richard.
He was my hairdresser, but I was included among the people he loved the most, and so was Alice. From across the table, her eyes kept locking mine with interest: hers large and dark and layered with mischief. Her husband was older, serene. A balm to her boisterousness.
I know you from somewhere, she’d said, that night when there was both sweltering heat and a prelude of autumn in the air. We sipped deep, earthy Bordeaux and had the getting-to-know-you conversation. The what-do-you-do, are-you-married, do-you-have-kids variety.
A week later, on my morning run with Copper, I ran into Alice again and now we knew. This is where I see you! We both exclaimed it as we came into each other’s space on the trail, the wide, flat former track bed for trains. Copper panted at my side, not used to the interruption in our run. Alice was delighted. Although she didn’t run, I agreed to slow it to a power walk and changed direction, pulling a confused Copper along. The winds shifted: the weather and my life, simultaneously.
I had been passing Alice on the trail forever. Her Nordic ponytail, so blonde it was nearly white, had been in my peripheral vision for years. In the winter she was encapsulated in bright, good-quality warmth: red Patagonia outerwear and a multi-colored hat from another dimension, such was the insanity of its pattern. Her body was fit and lithe; ageless, from a lifetime of The Walk.
The Walk is so important, she’d tell me, but she didn’t have to tell me. I stopped running, and my knees responded with finally! For the love of God stop trying to break us, you aren’t young anymore! Alice, who I had flown by in summers before, barely noticing her, became my near daily companion and without the run, The Walk became essential. My knees, at age forty, were dissolving like broken concrete, but I still needed the exercise, and, as it turns out, the companionship.
We figured out that winter we’d been passing each other more places than the trail. We had circled each other forever, near collisions and missed encounters. Richard was the hub that had put us on the balcony that night, Richard who collected people like trophies, beautiful and successful ones. His Instagram had thousands of followers.
But he doesn’t really have friends, you know? Alice observed, and I agreed. Richard was a perpetuator of vanity posting and humble brags, king of the selfie with #nofilter. In person, you could see the ruddy undertones of his skin and his bleached hair wasn’t quite so effervescent. His need to be complimented was painfully obvious, like a giant cut that oozed blood and begged for stitches.
We discussed Richard at length, chiding ourselves for gossip but agreeing: what we talked about on The Walk, stayed on The Walk. It wasn’t only Richard. Soon, we discovered that we’d both worked in the same office building, for years. She: the owner of a tiny, liberal magazine. She had sat on comfy couches in jeans and sweaters drinking herbal tea and brainstorming how to get her writers to be better on the fourth floor. One level down, I had worn tailored suits in muted, professional colors—dove gray, classic black, the occasional cobalt blue. My hair was perfectly coifed (thanks to Richard) and I wore red lipstick and heels and traded stocks for rich people while advising them how to invest their life.
We must have seen each other a million times! I wracked my memory, trying find one in which Alice and I ride in the elevator together. I would have everything tightly in my leather bag, some feminized version of a briefcase, clasped with both hands in front of me, mentally running through the daily to-do list that forever plagued me. Alice would have been in leggings, a messenger bag slung over her body and a cardboard container with coffees for all her employees.
No memory came, but we could not get over how wild the universe was. We had shared that space for just under seven years, before Alice sold the magazine and retired and before I quit my job when I was faced with dragons to slay in the form of a mental breakdown.
But it wasn’t just work and Richard. We soon realized that we had both been at the wedding of Cassidy and Brian, who had also attended Richard’s party. Brian was a colleague of mine; I had known him for years. Cassidy was Alice’s neighbor before she married Brian. Both of us had frequently double-dated with them. Alice and the Zen husband who was placid like a golden retriever on tranquilizers. Me and David, before he died.
We were a good year into The Walk before I talked about David. Before I told Alice the story of how we were together forever, pushing off marriage because we were focused on our careers. Someday, we’d said, passing like strangers in the night, as I left for work and he stumbled home from his life as an ER doctor.
On The Walk, one day, I break down so violently we have to stop. It’s been two years since David died. It’s been one year since I walked away from my job in an attempt to salvage myself. It’s been just under one year since I stopped running and started Walking with Alice. She doesn’t say anything, and even Copper lies down on the path. He’s a Vizsla, and he’s already pissed about not running anymore, but he’s the only one who has ever been born witness to this level of rawness.
Alice doesn’t say a word, and for this I fall in love with her. I have put up a wall between myself and every other well-meaning person in my life who has tried to compartmentalize my feelings, to attach names like grief or anger to the gaping hole in my life. As if the space where David lived could be defined. As if they could quantify what it meant to lose him.
After that day, Alice asks me only once about David, and its only his name. I tell her, and her eyes grow wide and she stops The Walk to tell me that she was married before the Zen husband. For a long time. And that one day he had a heart attack, as workaholic men do, and the ER doctor who tried to save him was named Dr. David Cross.
Was it him? she asks me, tears glistening like a lighthouse beacon, flavored with something far away. I nod, rapt with hunger to hear of the moment when Alice met David. She tells me how it went down. How very young the doctor seemed. How he also cried, blinked back tears, as he sat in the room with her, the one where they took people to tell them that their loved one didn’t make it.
David often came home with the broken heart of a man trying to meld science and God. So often, he laid his head on me, told me a story—a mother falling to her knees, a husband. A wife. I tried to extract the memory, so sure was I that he must have cried into my hair one dark morning about Alice. Must have told me about the beautiful blonde woman with the supple body that had fully expected her husband to make it.
My God, its like we were supposed to meet! Alice recovers from the brief trip back in time, to a place where darkness kept her isolated until the Zen husband materialized. It was like Dorothy arriving in Kansas when he did. It wasn’t home, not exactly, but everything was beautiful and colorful and magical again.
Most of The Walks were not so deep. Alice was older than me, a young septuagenarian. She was certain I’d fall in love again, so much so that she told me not to worry about it and to let her handle it. I laughed and indulged her, saying yes when she suggested we take The Walk into her neighborhood because there’s a very, very cute man who lives on the corner and I’ve already told him I have a hot stockbroker friend!
We did The Walk in all the seasons. Winter was Alice’s favorite, when the air was the cleanest and Copper shone like fire against the snow. Alice convinced me to let him loose, assuring me that once he was free, he would never leave. Her logic made no sense, and yet she was right. After nearly a decade of straining on his leash, Copper took a few laps and returns to us, contentedly sniffing along.
Summer was my favorite, with the sun that turned me golden for the first time in years, as I was no longer in an office for ten hours a day. I was circling a drain of my own imposing, a two-year mark in which carefully allocated funds would be used up, and I'd have to return to work. Alice said screw that and reminded me that I know how to make more money, that I’m the investment genius after all. I told her it’s not that simple, but I cannot help delighting in the way my hair has lightened and the way the day feels like forever when you’re outside to enjoy it.
We both love fall; after all, this is when we met for the first time on a conscious plane of existence. We commemorated two years of knowing each other one September morning, agreeing to abort The Walk in favor of breakfast. Alice said she'd pick me up, that she knew a great little diner off the beaten path. She took me to a place called The Bean, and I suppose I should've be shocked but I wasn't, not after all this time.
I love this place, she says to me. I used to get coffee almost every morning on my way to work.
Me too, I say, and inside she revealed her ulterior motive for bringing me here, to a place I haven’t once visited or come to since my self-imposed sabbatical.
Look, she whispered, as if we were detectives solving a crime. No, don’t be obvious! Look at the guy behind the counter!
I eyed the barista and rolled my eyes. While I agreed that he was adorable, I reminded Alice that I’m forty-two years old and the barista is a child, maybe twenty if that. Alice didn't care.
Age is just a number! Look at the Zen husband! He’s years older than me. It doesn’t matter! I’m telling you. Your soulmate is right around the corner, I can feel it.
Before I could say that David was my soulmate, she waved her hand as if brushing a fly off my shoulder. She pushed my coffee across the table towards me, she held the moment with her eyes and her secret smile. We have lots of soulmates, don’t you think? I gushed with gratitude inside, knowing what she wasn’t saying. This friendship, this life we’ve led alongside one another without even knowing about it, has undoubtedly been orchestrated by some type of higher power.
When spring comes, Alice insists that she’s very close to figuring out who my new soulmate will be, and that she’ll be the one to introduce us. I’m telling you, this is happening!
I side-eye her, ash-colored hair trailing in the spring breeze that’s rousing all the pollen, the main reason Alice dislikes spring. She carries an inhaler and has tissues in her pocket even though I suggest we skip on days when the pollen count is high. I’ve started to believe that she’s correct and feel a bit excited for the future. I tack on another six months to my sabbatical.
The Walk has become a near daily staple. Alice has become the best friend I’ve ever had. Copper is settling into his geriatric-hood with ease, like a fresh sheet billowing over a bed. The dark parts of my life have feathered away into just strands, and I have spent gobs of money on a therapist but both he and I agree The Walk has been an even greater part of my healing. David can now exist in my mind with bittersweet nostalgia instead of shards of pain.
One day in late April, Alice collapses on The Walk.
It’s preposterous—Alice is healthy and we walk daily and she does yoga and Pilates and spin and takes an adult tap class—but there she is, lying on the packed dirt that is dry already from a spring where rain eludes us. Copper panics, and when he does, I know something is horribly wrong. I don’t know what to do—I don’t know CPR and other than her asthma, I don’t know what could be wrong. In the end, I dial 911, and the operator tries to guide me through resuscitation. My lips feel gummy against Alice’s; my hands feel as though they are crossing some boundary as they push heavily on her chest.
Come on, I say to her, and in my head, I’m already narrating the story we will tell, of how she collapsed, and I saved her. We will tell our friends at dinner and there will be some innocuous but easily fixable culprit: a heart valve that’s repaired perfectly, a piece of chewing gum that became lodged in her airway. Nothing that will change anything at all.
The story, it turns out, ends with Alice dying.
I go in the ambulance with Alice, a vaguely familiar hiker at the head of the trail offering to take Copper back home and deposit him into my fenced in yard. Copper’s eyes tell me it’s okay, that he will be safe with this stranger. In the waiting room of the ER, I dial the Zen husband, but I only get his voicemail. I leave him a message, keeping it breezy, because I’m still writing the fantasy in my head where she lives.
But she doesn’t. The doctor who comes out to tell me is astonishingly handsome. He looks like David if David had been allowed to age. I collapse into a primal howl, I seem to shake both of us, as if a widow and an ER doctor were new to death. Brain aneurysm, he tells me.
When I leave, he assures me the Zen husband is on his way and not to worry, he will handle it. But it doesn’t matter. Alice is gone. I Uber myself home, eternally grateful to find that Copper’s babysitter has done what I’ve asked and deposited him in my backyard. I collapse on my couch, wanting David. Wanting Alice. I have lived too much of my life without her and now, she dies? It’s not fair. I will never Walk without her, I vow.
Days later, I break the vow, because of Copper. Because I want to leave a note at the trailhead to thank the man who I trusted with Copper and my address and my gate code. Because Copper is a Vizsla, and he needs exercise. I am achingly aware of the empty space beside me, like a bubble that has popped. I would give anything to see Alice round the bend ahead, her familiar gait, one of her crazy hats and her wild blonde hair.
But she doesn’t, and when I get to the point where we usually turn around, I sit down and cry again. I can hear her, I swear I can, as if the wind rustling is really her and my magical thinking is really true. After awhile it calms down and everything is silent again. When I stand to turn back, the leash-less Copper bolts ahead to inspect a person who’s come around the bend. Again, for a half-second, I dream that its Alice.
It’s not Alice, but by some strange coincidence, it’s the man who took Copper home for me. Incredulously, I show him the note I was going to post, I pump his hand in thanks and when I touch him, I feel something pass between us, as if I’ve been here before. I can tell he feels it too. Copper pants beside us.
This might seem weird, the man says, but do you want to walk with me?
Okay, I say, and Copper takes off ahead of us.
Is your friend okay? He asks this with genuine concern, with kindness, and the jolt of remembrance nearly knocks me off-balance. I can hear Alice’s words: I’m going to find him for you, your next soulmate. I suddenly realize, without a doubt, that she’s fulfilled her promise. I have no logical reason for believing this, and yet, I do.
She didn’t make it, I breathe out, and I find myself telling the story of Alice and our parallel lives and explaining The Walk and how much I miss her—telling it all to this stranger. We start talking about our lives and we don’t stop for the entire Walk.
Up ahead, Copper runs free.