I hold my hands of ice in a cross over my right knee, my ankles wrapped around each other under the café table. The pink frou-frou of my dress clutching to the back of my calves and tangling around my ankles and long socks, the white delicacies adorning my underskirt intwined with the full-bodied fabric, and a simple hat atop my head with a single pale-yellow feather sticking out the top. My coiffed hair coiled beneath perfectly and my face not revealing a single stitch of emotion, buried so deep past my tight skin and open lips. A real-life doll, stuffed to realism and constructed of well met expectations. My wide, blinking eyes try to hide their surprise at the unfamiliar scenes passing around me, the bright yellow bumbling wagons filling the roads and the women in short skirts and even trousers. The hot smoke rising from the lips of men standing on their corners, their big black bags stiff and unwelcoming. The sun is hardly risen, but its rays are beating down against my layered dress and I feel with distaste the pricks of gooey sweat underneath the fabric. Knowing it will only get hotter, I feel distress rising in my anatomy and attempt to move the skirts in a manner that will conduct further airflow. I wish I had some sense of time for while it can’t have been more than an hour since I arrived, it has felt like several.
After some time of watching the same yellow buggies and the humans that enter and exit their compartments, a man finally approaches my table. I look up towards him, squinting against the hot sun he stands directly against, hopeful. Yet, by the first words that leave his mouth I know this stranger is not who I have been searching for. “Um…miss, we usually take orders inside, but can I grab you anything? Noticed you’ve been here awhile.” His every word sounds like a foreign language, and I meet his face with a gaze clouded by grey confusion.
“I would love a pitcher, if it wouldn’t trouble you,” I try to smile and perceive his lips are doing the same.
“Very well, miss.” He nods and moves back inside. I watch him fill a large pitcher with water and take a single glass off the shelf before reapproaching my table. He sets them both down and I motion for a second glass by pointing and putting up two fingers. He rushes back inside and brings the second out, setting it down gently.
“That will do, thank you,” I say, pouring the cool water in the glass, happy to quench my thirst.
“Of course.” I watch his final depart and feel a slight twinge of normality in this strange environment I have found myself. My heavy gown is accompanied by untoward self-consciousness as passers-by seem to take it as a topic of tantalizing conversation while it is their own style of dress that is inappropriate and would make a fine laughingstock back home. I sip my water and close my eyes against the bright sun until I hear, at last, a familiar voice.
“Claire? What are you doing here?”
I turn abruptly, the sound coming from behind my left shoulder. “I’ve been here hours! What took you so long?” I am met with a disagreeable silence, so I continue, “I got us a pitcher. Do you know it’s blasphemously hot here?”
“Dear God, please tell me you haven’t spoken to anyone.” At last, the chair across from me is pulled out and a strong, tall man takes his seat.
I cock my head to look at his dark eyes set in his strong face, high cheekbones and full lips contrasting his Grecian nose and tilted forehead. His dark curls I am used to seeing pull back are wild around his face and his proper attire of dress has been traded for a simple white shirt and hardly appropriate dark slacks. “Well, this is different,” I say with a huff, clearly communicating my disappointment. “You know, I’ve been waiting.”
“Claire, we need to get out of here now,” he says, his voice a hiss as he reaches over to tug on my arm, easing me to a standing position. He looks around frantically as I adjust my heavy skirts until they cascade past my feet and my bustle sits upright. “Good Lord. Wait here, I’ll call a cab.” He drops my hand and runs out towards the street, less crowded than earlier this morning.
“Wait!” I cry, attempting to move with him, but finding the sheer weight of my dress pinning me to the pavement, frustrated I reach my fully covered arm above my head to wave frantically. He glances past his shoulder to me before leaning into the window of the yellow buggy I’ve been watching all morning.
“Quick, Claire,” he calls, opening the door and holding it while I stumble through the street, receiving stranger stares than those I had suffered through seated waiting for him. He pushes me through the doors and moves me towards the far-right side, my gown overflowing to the middle seat and puffing out behind the driver’s chair.
“What is this strange contraption you’ve brought me to? Against my very will, if I do say so,” I turn to him as he slams the door and arranges himself among the pink and white skirts until he is his approximation of comfortable.
“Just buckle up, will ya? We’ll have this talk when we get there.”
“Get where!” I exclaim, “This whole day has been very overwhelming and I’m still not quite sure of the time.” I give him a knowing look and he nods and reaches for my hand that rests between us. As his grip fastens us together, I feel the distant pull on my heart relieve its tug and my tight chest hollow out again until I am breathing easily for the first time in hours, though it feels as if it has been weeks.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, giving my warming hand a well-deserved squeeze. “I am most glad to see you.” He takes my hand to his lips and kisses it between my third and fourth finger, bringing his dark eyes to meet my gaze as if to beg, ‘Forgive me, please.’
And I do. Of course I do. The butterflies in my stomach and the beating of my heart tell me as much and I reward his efforts with a smile. We stay in soft silence, his thumb moving around my hand the whole time we are trapped in the claustrophobic vehicle that finally arrives in front of a tall building stacked with wide, bright windows. He thanks the driver and rushes out his side to open my door and practically lift me to my feet. I drop to the muddy ground and exclaim with loathing as my petticoat soaks in the filth and sludge, which I know will dry and drag me down further.
“I’ll get you a change of clothes, promise,” he says and keeps my hand in his as we walk through the doorway. A tall, silver door greets our right and a desk with a short, bald man on our left. He presents a friendly wave followed by a look of curiosity and surprise, kinder than those I have grown accustomed to receiving by this point. “It’s a costume,” he says as he pounds the top button by the door.
“Ah, very accurate,” the man says with a smile.
Confused, I start to speak but he cuts me off with a gentle push into a small, well-lit room. “What…” I begin then trail off as he begins to hit a second button indicating three. As soon as the door shuts behind us, I feel a quick jolt as if I am moving upwards at an uncanny speed, yet before I can say another word of protest and bewilderment, he places his mouth over mine and kisses me as if it is the very first time again. I sigh into his lips and feel his inhale as I exhale, our bodies and our breaths merging until we are one. As quickly as our ride up has begun, it ends as the door dings charmingly and opens wide again.
“Hurry,” he says and guides me out once more, walking us down a narrow hall to the left until we reach door 303. He rustles with his free hand in his pocket and guides out a flat, white card, not unlike those I am used to presenting at dinner parties indicating predetermined seating arrangements. He presses it onto the black box the rests beside the door handle and it buzzes green, allowing him to pull the door open. I am greeted with a living room, decorated with pieces of unfamiliar art, which I consider myself to be somewhat of a connoisseur. There is a small, but dignified, kitchen and seating arrangement around a slight round table with a couple backless chairs against an apparent bar with a fruit bowl and a water pitcher resting on it. On the other side of the room, there is a long black soft and a soft red chair facing a large black portion of the wall, slightly raised.
I point towards it as he ushers me towards the couch, “What is that?”
He smiles and gives a simple laugh. “A television set. We’ll get to that. But first, anything I can get you?”
I shake my head as I sit down, pulling my skirts to the side to allow space for him to sit beside me. He fills a glass with water from another silver box on the wall before coming to sit by my side. “Okay, so,” he starts, “I’m sure you have your questions—”
“Please, I’ve been waiting for hours! Let me start,” I begin, but he quickly cuts me off.
“Ah, ah, ah. Mine will be simpler, then we won’t waste any time.”
“What time is there to waste?” I say smiling, “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yes, and while I am delighted to see you, I need to know how you got here and, for Christ’s sake—”
“Language!” I conduct a reproachful gasp at his offense.
“Right, right,” he nods and bowing his head, adds, “forgive me…why you came.”
I laugh out loud, a fully belly chuckle as I state what I imagine is the obvious, “To see you, of course. I simply couldn’t wait! And you had left in such a hurry and I needed to know all was right and that…” I swallow, “that I would see you again.” I turn my face to the ground as my cheeks turn ruby and my teeth move to bite my lower lift. The embarrassment seems unfitting for there is no reason to feel any and, of course, allow it to manifest in my expression. “When you left, and I repeat in quite a rush, you dropped your key so I opened your room to return it and…”
“You found the portal,” he says softly, his voice smooth and gentle. “And you entered it? Without any hesitation? Doesn’t sound like my Claire Fairbains.”
We share a laugh as I give my reply, “Well, there was some hesitation, but it isn’t like my Jack Charmer to leave without a long kiss goodbye and convincing promise to return.” I pause. “Which you were planning on making, weren’t you?” His uncanny silence begins to turn my butterflies to knots and my excitedly elevated heartbeat to one of anxiety. “Goodness,” I take my hand from his palm and use it to readjust my hat.
“Claire, give me a moment here,” he says, moving to place his hand above my knee, over my skirts. “I must first confess I am a time traveler.” My eyes must be bulging from my face as my mouth falls open, slack. “I’m from a city, a very famous city, called New York, which Britain has recently colonized in your time.”
I narrow my eyes. “Alright…so what year have I found myself in?” After a moment, “This does ease the confusion, I must admit.” I give a laugh to try and ease the tension. “When we met, I would have never guessed.”
“Yes. I spent months preparing for the role.”
“Role?” My eyes narrow once more as he begins to unravel before me.
“Yes. Right now, it’s July 2019 as opposed to July 1762, and I was assigned a travel to Great Britain to…” He sighs, “Transport some very time sensitive information to my country, the United States, to help our government with a project that I wholeheartedly wish I could reveal. But I never would have expected I would have met someone…like you.” He pushes his hair from his eyes and adds, blushing, “I suppose our connection did play a role in extending my excursions, but the mission needed completion and the time portal needed to be shut down and rebooted effective immediately.”
“So, you left without a goodbye? Without the intention of ever seeing me again?” I feel tears welling in my eyes as he rolls his head backwards, pushing back his own. I hold my breath to keep the sob within my chest from bursting through my vocal chords. I am suddenly grateful for my years I spent practicing etiquette, though I never anticipated this would be its use. “I should have never come,” I say and start to stand up. “I’ll leave—immediately.” He moves his head to look into my eyes once again and a slow realization begins to creep over me like a shadow. “Oh,” my voice is not even a whisper, taught and cracking in my chest.
“Yeah.” He bends his head over now and fixes his eyes on his shoes he has not quite removed, despite the clean shoe rack that rests beside his door. “I don’t know why…I thought it would have been easier than explaining the whole mess I made for myself.” He stops, “For both of us.”
“Royal mess,” I scoff, my sorrow turning to bitter indignance as the words leave his lips, stinging my heart like lemon in an open sore. “And what now?”
“Well, that’s a good question. First thing, I need to contact my manager and see if we can reopen the portal to get you home.”
“Claire…” His voice is filled with tears, and, despite my anger, I can’t help feeling sorry for him too. “Why don’t you stay here for the night and I’ll have it sorted in the morning? Get you home right before you would have entered the portal so your family doesn’t worry and it will be as if nothing has changed.”
“Well, this is…unexpected. The whole thing is very…” My brain races, searching for another word but comes up empty. I say in a lower tone, “Unexpected.” He nods alongside my words.
We spend what we both know will be our final hours together in the living and bedroom of his apartment. He brings me a pair of plaid, soft pants and a long, grey top and soaks the bottom of my dress in his bathroom to clear the mud from its bottom. He opens a bottle of bright red wine and shows me the channels on his television, making me laugh and spill and fall into his arms and chest. We forget at several points that this is the end. The finale. We never say aloud when we remember, but I watch it on his face, a sudden darkness clouding his otherwise bright, clear eyes that I long to stay and swim in. He shows me his life—his real life—for the first time and I drink it in like the sweetest tea. I fall asleep with his hands beneath my shirt, wrapped around my waist, skin on skin echoing body heat and pure sex-love through the night. His lips rest on my neck when they cannot hang to my mouth. When he has fallen asleep, I whisper the words as quietly as I can, “I don’t know how I will ever forget you,” before tucking my chin to my chest and wetting his pillowcase with my silent tears, falling with the force of a thunderstorm.
“Good morning, Claire,” his voice serves as a bell charm, waking me up. “It’s ready, but we must hurry.”
“I had almost forgotten,” I murmur, still leaving my eyes softly closed.
“I know,” he whispers back, kissing the top of my ear gently. He rises and fetches my dress from the bathroom where it has dried out overnight. He helps me step into each separate portion and watches me replate my hair and fix my hat. “You are the most stunning creature I have ever had the pleasure of beholding.”
I smile weakly and he leads me towards his closet door. It swings open and the same swirling force field I had stepped through yesterday shines before me in purple and blue magnificence. “So, this is goodbye?” I say, looking into his eyes, my heartbreaking into shards so sharp they could break through my skin.
“Claire, and I mean this, I would give anything for it to not be.”
“Well, at least we got our goodbye,” I sigh, moving my face so our foreheads rest together.
“We deserve it,” he laughs.
“I hope your travels are successful and I hope,” I swallow deeply, “that maybe, someday, they will bring you back to me.”
“It is the only thing I long for,” he says and kisses my face intensely until his lips find their final resting place, pressed firmly against mine. I step back towards the portal, feeling its magnetic strength tugging on the fabric to my dress. “I love you, Claire.”
“And I love you.” We share the same forlorn smile as the cold rush of air pulls me back to my own time alongside these very last memories, the happiest that I will ever know.