Sixteen: Our gloved fingers intertwine as he steers me away from the ice patches in our path. The tinsel that shrouds the Christmas tree in the town square gives us a glittering wink as we take our cups of hot cocoa from the vendor with a grateful nod. We sit on the bench in front of Fancy’s Fudge, ignoring splinters digging into the backs of our puffy coats and the peeling green paint that bubbles beneath our jeans. We’re drunk off fumes of chocolate and pine, and from the spirit that lingers in the scene around us, laughing families window-shopping for last-minute gifts. We wave at the occasional classmate who passes by, all of us armed with the exhilarating knowledge that the next ten days will be free from math class and SAT prep and popularity hierarchies.
We slurp our last dregs. The restaurant across the street is illuminated with string lights and through the window we watch waitresses hand out salads and steaks like they're characters in a television rerun of a holiday classic. Albie’s arm hangs heavy over my shoulder as he tells me how hard it will be to spend the first Christmas without his father. It was his favorite holiday, he says. Albie hopes it will snow, wants to believe that each individual flake is a handcrafted talisman from his guardian both in life and from death. If the ground is blanketed in white, if it mirrors the clouds overhead, he can pretend for a moment that they are in the same place once again.
My voice shakes as I tell him how I miss my grandmother, how every Christmas morning I’d wake up to seven origami baku on my pillow she’d folded for my brothers and me the night before. Caught somewhere between an elephant and a bear, a tiger and a bull, their little Sharpie eyes individually dotted on, they gave me comfort even before I understood what they were. They eat your nightmares, Mabel, my grandmother said to me when I asked for the first time. We were kneeling in front of the fireplace, the flames warming our cheeks and licking the remnants of the wrapping paper that was deemed too ripped to use again next year. They will protect you from your most monstrous thoughts. They are the purveyors of wishes, the champions of dreams.
What will I do now, I whisper to Albie. Will my dreams still come true?
He looks into my eyes and my heart surges with a jolt I’ve never felt before and for the first time, he kisses me, and I know at least one dream has come true.
* * *
Twenty-two: I sit cross-legged on a naked wooden bench, the last of its green paint lying in shards in the grass underneath, along with the sandals I’ve kicked off. The air hangs in heavy curtains, the sun sears across my shoulders. Charles stands behind me and though I can’t see his face, I know he’s staring absentmindedly at the vacant shop window.
What are you thinking, I ask him. I’m only occasionally privy to his eternally running inner monologue. I thought he was brilliant that first night we spent together in the dark corner of our college bar, talking until 3 a.m. about Dostoevsky and chaos theory, but as the months have tumbled by I’ve found myself more irritated than awed by these pensive periods of silence.
I think dreams are evasive, he blurts out. I mean, this was someone’s life goal once, right? I swivel around. He points to the faded Fancy’s Fudge sign, crooked above the boarded-up door. The day they had to flip that “closed” sign for the last time was probably the worst of their life.
But the day they opened might have been their best one, I say. And maybe that’s a stronger feeling. Maybe it overrides the fact that they had to close. Because at least they got to open in the first place.
Charles slumps on the bench next to me, hands in pockets. He stares straight ahead. His faded blue T-shirt smells like lavender detergent and I feel a stir of an increasingly elusive affection toward him. But do dreams ever just feel pointless to you? The vastness of this world, the callousness of its people. You can work for years at one and it takes a moment for it to get demolished. It’s enough sometimes to make you a cynic. I never wanted to be that.
We graduated last month, photos of us grinning in billowing gowns and decorated mortar boards belying the uneasiness we feel about the years to come. We want careers and stability and a home and freedom and a family and it seems impossible to have all of these things at once.
I tell him about my grandmother’s origami army, the baku overlooking my dreams. As I got older, she filled in the details of the legend. That the creatures were made piecemeal by the gods from the leftover parts of ordinary animals. That their strange and grotesque appearance only served to help mankind, because the evil spirits that bestowed bad luck and health fled from them. And that you didn’t want to rely on the baku to devour every one of your nightmares, because they were prone to overcompensation, and they might end up eating your hopes and ambitions and desires as well. Like all forces of decency, the baku had their limits. Too much of a good thing can leave you empty, my grandmother warned me. And I don’t just mean that candy you’re eating.
It’s kind of a wonderful concept, isn’t it? I ask Charles. That you can’t fully appreciate the good things in life until you’ve experienced the bad ones. That something externally ugly is full of internal beauty.
He doesn’t reply. We stare straight ahead, our faces blank, two interpretations of the life awaiting us colliding in midair and piercing us with the shrapnel.
* * *
Thirty-four: This is the last day we will ever be together and though each passing minute is more painful than the last, we do not want them to end. We take our coffees to go and I want to laugh. My heart is breaking and I am doing something so routine as getting coffee.
We sit on the red bench in front of the coffee shop. A breeze lifts the ends of my hair and the verdant leaves rustle with the promise of a pleasant spring. The town square hosts a farmers’ market that draws hundreds. Elderly ladies compare heads of lettuce and a man toting a Chihuahua stops to pick up a bouquet of daisies. A child drops a donut, glances at his distracted mother before picking it up and biting into it. It would be easy to feel hopeful if I weren’t sagging under the weight of hopelessness.
Paul fiddles with the cardboard sleeve around his cup. We have been everywhere together: the museum in which we met, a log cabin off the grid, a café in Luxembourg, the local grocery store, three national parks, my brother’s funeral. But we’ve never been here, inside a silence that threatens to shatter our composure. We have always been starting — adventures and conversations and the joint savings account. This landscape of stopping, the language of ending, it’s foreign to us.
Eventually I slide the ring off of my finger. It has been such a natural extension of me these past ten months that my hand tingles with the uncanny feeling of a phantom limb. I drop the ring into his palm and say, I guess this belongs to you now.
I’m terrified he will tell me to keep it, that its weight will be mine to carry around forever in a place other than the finger it was meant for, but instead Paul slides it into the pocket of his flannel shirt. Thank you, he says quietly.
Thank you for giving it to me, I say.
I’m sorry, he says again, and again I don’t respond, because the only response is it’s okay, and I don’t want to lie.
More than half of my life has gone by since I lost my grandmother, but I still think of her in moments like these, when I need guidance and the wise words of a person who loves me. A few Christmases ago, Paul started making origami baku to leave on my side of the bed, and though his folds and creases were not as precise as hers, the gesture of emulating our old tradition touched me. I think this is what I will miss about him the most, the feeling of family, the promise of unconditional love.
The boy with the donut breaks off a piece and shares it with his mother, who smiles and ruffles his hair. Maybe she’s aware it fell in the dirt or maybe she isn’t. Maybe such things are trivial when your child chooses to share something coveted with you. You’re sure, I ask Paul one last time, though I know it’s futile.
He is watching the boy and his mother too. I’m sure.
You can’t fully appreciate the good things in life until you’ve experienced the bad ones, I said to somebody on this bench long ago. And as Paul and I toss our coffee cups into the trash bin and walk in separate directions, all I can hope is that better things are to come.
* * *
Seventy-six: Amerie fell asleep two hours ago, even though all she has talked about for the past week is watching the ball drop. She and her Barbie doll are tucked underneath a fleece blanket in her stroller, her dark curls askew as usual.
Next to me, her mother checks her watch. Five to. What do you think, Mom? Do we wake her up? She peers into the stroller with a content smile. Her eyes radiate joy. It is, I imagine, the same expression I wore on my face the first time I laid eyes on her in the adoption agency’s office. I knew then that all of the choices I had made in my life had been guiding me to that one, the best one I’d ever make.
The town square is no Manhattan, but it’s certainly trying its best. A disco ball perches atop a 25-foot-tall pole, a volunteer manning a pulley waiting at the bottom for the countdown to midnight to begin. The children who are still awake run around playing a haphazard game of tag as their parents huddle on picnic blankets and share covert bottles of Champagne. Everyone holds the sins of their past year, waiting to release and atone for them when the clock strikes 12.
Huh, look at this, my daughter says to me, looking at the space on the bench between us. Initials and obscenities have been carved into the teal paint over the years, but my daughter points to an etching of an animal. Doesn’t that look like…?
It does. A chimera with the trunk of an elephant, four legs, a hybrid of a tiger and an ox. It’s imperfect, a rudimentary little drawing, but I know what it is. Over the decades it’s watched as I had my heart filled, broken, mended. Family lost and gained and created. A career hard-won and harder to leave. The purveyor of my wishes, the champion of my dreams. The devourer of those midnight thoughts that threatened to derail my ambition.
I don’t know who brought me this sign, or if it’s even a sign meant for me. Many things have come and gone from my life. But the souls I’ve connected with, the love that I’ve shared, that has always remained. And I like to think those small pieces of me I gave away to others have bloomed over the years into something beyond love or infatuation or passion: into an appreciative grace, a memento from a past era you stumble upon in the back of the closet one day and smile at.
The crowd cheers and the ball descends and Amerie watches in wonder through heavy eyelids in my daughter’s arms. I look around at my community and up in the midnight sky with its field of stars twinkling like that tinsel all those decades ago; my fingers trace the carving of the baku in this everlasting bench, the site of so many devastating and wonderful things, and I whisper, Thank you, thank you, thank you.
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Wow, loved this - very powerful imagery, and I particularly found the marking of time an effective device. I'm delighted to know about baku now, too. :) Thanks for a great read!
Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed it :)
A pensive story of life's ups and downs. One thing that struck me is, each time we revisit the narrator, her social situations have changed. Prior to the story she had a grandmother, but she died. Then we go through several relationships of varying intensities - but none of them last. Finally, we end up with an adopted daughter, and a grandchild. Presumably she keeps the last people in her life, but given her age this might be the last time they're together anyway. So there's something about the transience of life here, with some semi-perm...
"It was a gift she perhaps didn't realize the entire significance of, until she had her life to learn it." I love the way you phrased that! Thank you for the comments :)
This is lovely. You have deftly navigated a life into a short story, like you hit the most effective points that could represent the whole. The prose kept me engaged and the common thread throughout, the thing that kept the nightmares away was a powerful anchor. My favorite aspect is the way you left it - with ultimate gratitude. A really lovely read.
Thank you for your kind words, I really appreciate it!