In a coffee shop near you or maybe in the town you grew up in, a young, pleasant-looking secretary on her lunch break takes small sips of a vanilla latte and stares out the window at the storefronts across the street. Probably named Molly, she sits in deep contemplation as she tries to decide whether or not to marry her boyfriend, perhaps named Jack. They have been together for three years.
Jack is exactly what she is looking for: kind, handsome, hard-working, and reassuringly predictable. He doesn’t say much, but Molly has never doubted that he genuinely loves her and is the perfect man to alter her tax filing status in all the right ways: joint filing, two dependants, another digit in the income column.
And yet there she sits, in as much turmoil as the girl next door has ever known, paralyzed in front of the decision she will soon have to make; she found the ring in Jack’s Carhart pocket last week. Faster than she expected, Molly has grown up, gotten a 2-year degree, a respectable job, a respectable life, and is now barrelling toward the next milestone: matrimony. It is time to either accept the future playing out before her (the Australian Shepherd, 20% down on a comfortable two-bedroom, Saturday morning little league practice) or bolt, to buy the Greyhound ticket to California instead of just daydreaming about it. There she will attend all of the right parties, sunbathe surrounded by palm trees, catch the attention of the next Cary Grant, and stand steadfastly by his side as he skyrockets to incomprehensible fame. Everyone will fawn over his alluring bride, the homegrown, American beauty in the pearls. Jack will remember her fondly, go on happily with someone else, the corner of his attractive mouth upturning ever so slightly with nostalgia when he catches her beaming visage on the TV. Molly is confident that both of these outcomes would make her happy, and, short of divine intervention, she just can’t imagine how to pick one to give up.
Across town, Jack is sweating in a pair of Levi’s while a red-faced, middle-aged woman stomps around in front of him. In the spaces for breath Deborah takes between tirades, Jack assures her that the electricity to her upper-class suburban home will be restored as soon as his employee in the bucket truck 20 feet over her head finishes repairing the power line. Deborah does not accept this. Her family practically runs this town. Her brother-in-law owns one of the most successful businesses in the area. She is a McKay, for God’s sake. Does he not know who her husband is? Jack does not. She would like to speak to a supervisor. He is the supervisor. She would like to speak to his supervisor.
At this moment, a volley of sparks shoots from the telephone pole like an errant firework. Jack starts, the woman shrieks, and Carl in the truck’s bucket has the fright of his life but is miraculously uninjured. It is the sign he has been looking for. Later, Carl will go home and tell his wife that he is finally ready to have a baby because life is short and no days are guaranteed. He does not tell her about the explosion.
Now the stomping, shrieking woman with the very important husband is not the only one without power. Half of the neighborhood has gone dark. One block over, self-proclaimed bohemian Lilah, watches in horror as Sylvia, her beloved golden retriever, terrified by the rattling boom of the exploding transformer, bounds through a sliding glass door, across the back yard, and leaps with profound agility over the privacy fence, out of sight. Lilah thinks as she tears toward the back gate that she will simply cease to live if she loses Sylvia.
As Lilah has aged, so too have her dreams of a whirlwind romance. All of her friends have found love. Her widowed mother has even remarried at 63, and the day Lilah stumbled upon her high school sweetheart’s wedding announcement in the paper, she did the only sensible thing she knew to do: she adopted a puppy. The same puppy who grew into a hyperactive, 60-pound dog that had just hurled herself over a 6-foot fence.
Lilah isn’t positive that love is in the cards for her. She doesn’t even know for sure if love exists, but she is confident that if something happens to Sylvia, she will not survive it. This is why, when she finally rounds the corner to see the oversized truck racing toward the panicking dog, Lilah passes out on the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, Louis is on his third assignment of the day, the basket affixed to his bicycle flush with red roses. Today is the first day in his three years delivering for the local florist shop that he has left for a delivery without his helmet. He doesn’t think it was on purpose, but he is sure there is something more to it than simple carelessness. He certainly doesn’t want to die; it’s just he can’t figure out what he is living for. So, if he had to guess, he’d wager that somewhere in his subconscious, he was tempting fate, goading the universe just to make something happen.
As Louis speeds around the corner of a nondescript suburban street stewing on his ongoing existential crisis, he arrives around the bend to find utter chaos. A frenzied golden retriever falls from the sky, bounds directly in front of an oncoming truck, and a screaming woman hits the sidewalk in a flurry of long wavy hair and flowing sundress. Louis does not even notice the truck jerking away from the erratic dog until a headlight barely misses him. And with one instinctual pull on his handlebars, Louis is in the ditch tangled up with his Schwinn but largely unharmed. When he climbs back out, the truck is gone, and the dog is sitting next to the unconscious woman. With a quick glance for more cars, Louis sprints across the street.
His first thought as he approaches is how absolutely stunning the woman is; thick headscarf askew, auburn hair splayed across the concrete, light freckles standing out in the sun. His second thought is to hope that she isn’t dead. The dog licks his ear as he leans down to rouse the woman. After a few gentle, awkward nudges, she stirs, her green eyes fluttering.
“Sylvia!” she cries and begins frantically trying to peel herself from the sidewalk. The dog ecstatically tackles her in a maelstrom of fur and drool, knocking the woman back to the ground.
Disoriented, Lilah rearranges herself into a sitting position, at which point she notices Louis kneeling next to her, looking starry-eyed and confused.
“I’m sorry, I don’t really know what just happened. Did you catch my dog?” Lilah asks.
“No, no, I just managed not to get hit by a truck. I saw you pass out over here and wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Oh,” Lilah shakes her head as if to counteract the spinning going on inside of it. Louis clumsily assists her to her feet, unsure of what to say.
“Well,” Lilah grabs the panting dog by the collar, “thanks for checking on me.” She turns to leave, and terror grips Louis. If he was looking for some intervention from the universe, here it was, and he was letting her walk away and out of his world forever.
“Your dog’s name is Sylvia?” the words fly out of his mouth without direct permission from his brain.
Lilah turns back to him with a surprised smile. “Yeah. Sylvia Plath. And I’m Lilah.”
“Lilah.” It is the most dazzling name he has ever heard. “I’m Louis. Wait here one second, would you?” He jogs back across the street without waiting for an answer and returns with an armful of mangled roses. He offers them to Lilah with a shy smile.
“Can I walk you home, Lilah?”
And so Lilah carries the roses, Louis holds Sylvia’s collar, and the trio makes their way back through the alley, Louis’s Schwinn forgotten in the ditch.
Now miles away, the black Chevy Silverado heads into the downtown district. Having just nearly killed both a dog and a bike messenger, the balding driver is, naturally, rattled. Sweat rolls down the middle of his back as he attempts to order his racing thoughts. He does not know why he didn’t stay to help. Is it considered a hit and run even if you didn’t hit anything? It seemed that the truck had sped away on its own volition, feeding on his desperate need to believe that the pandemonium in his rearview mirror was not actually there and definitely was not his fault. He’s not a bad person; it was just instinct. Although, his thoughts continue with building hysterical fervor, what makes a person bad? He has, after all, just nearly murdered someone and didn’t bother to stop. And was he not on his way to legally decimate a person who he once loved? A person who he, if he is honest, hasn’t been able to stop loving completely? Was he ever a good person? Was this a higher power trying to get his attention before it was too late? No. No, surely God (who he is relatively sure exists) wouldn’t use a golden retriever to send messages to a tax auditor in the middle of a Tuesday. There-
He jumps as the phone clipped to his belt begins to vibrate and unhooks it with trembling hands.
A scathing woman’s voice floods into his ear canal, “Douglas, are you serious? As if today isn’t hard enough, you can’t even be bothered to show up on time? Of all the sorry-”
“I’m on my way. There was a dog. And a bike, and I-” Douglas stops. Is it possible that God does send golden retrievers on Tuesdays?
“I… don’t want… this. I don’t want it, Jeanine.”
“What do you mean? Don’t want what?” The words sound exasperated but mostly tired.
“Any of it. I don’t know how I got here.”
Jeanine’s voice is bitter, “Well, I’d say sleeping with the CPA could account for most of it, Doug.”
“I’m so sorry, Jeanine.”
A stunned silence reverberates through the phone as Jeanine processes the very first apology she has heard from her soon-to-be ex-husband in what she would estimate to be about 15 years.
“I’m not a good person,” Doug continues, “I am selfish. I’m stupid, and I’m… scared. I don’t even really know how to change. I just, I know that you deserve better. And I’d like to be better for you. Like we used to be. If you’ll let me, if you can…” He trails off because he knows she didn’t even owe it to him to let him get that far. If she were smart, she would tell him to shove it and demand that he show up to sign the papers so she can finally move on. But so far, she is quiet.
Jeanine knows that everyone will call her a fool. And maybe she is. But she had asked for a sign, prayed for God to make things right, begged for a do-over, for her life not to be falling down around her ears. And here it was. She doesn’t know why or how, but obviously, something has rearranged in the universe, and she can’t bring herself to walk away without at least finding out what it was.
Her mouth has gone dry with shock, and she licks her lips. “Why don’t we get some coffee and talk?”
Doug’s heart contracts so tightly he thinks he might be dying, but he is unconcerned. “Just wait outside the attorney’s office; I’ll pick you up.” He presses the gas pedal, forcing the cumbersome truck to move faster, remembers the dog and the bicyclist, and coaxes the speedometer back down. He would get to her soon enough.
Jeanine hangs up her phone, stares around the room for a moment in a wide-eyed stupor, lets out a bewildered giggle, and strides out of the fifth-floor conference room a bit off-balance. Her attorney, Ray Laybourne, still seated at the glass table, observes the bizarre debacle with a bemused smile. The ambitious young lawyer across from him waits about 45 seconds before huffing, gathering his things, and storming out, leaving behind him a trail of over-priced cologne and indignance. Ray can’t fault him. He imagines he was a bit like him when he first started making his way, although that’s been so long now, he can’t really be sure.
Lately, though, every time Ray sits at this table, he secretly hopes for this outcome, wills somebody to suddenly remember that they are in love and call the whole thing off. It rarely happens, but today it has. Today, somewhere along the line, the right pieces had moved, the right doors had opened, and two people get a second chance. Three people, if you count Ray, who recognizes this last perfect case as the sign he didn’t know he was waiting for. Tomorrow he will officially resign and begin looking at properties for his restaurant. Let the new batch of budding hot-shot attorneys stake their claim in the climbing divorce rate; Ray will be spending the rest of his days bringing people together around tables instead of laying out the paperwork on one as they splinter apart.
Back on the other side of town, Phyllis McKay fumes, pacing around her impeccably tidy den. This was Jim’s last chance, and Phyllis is not particularly surprised that he has squandered it. She has been dropping hints all week. She even felt at times that she was too heavy-handed, making it too easy for him, but of course, it all fell flat against his thick, stupid skull. Phyllis is sick of playing second-fiddle to worms and rubber frogs, tired of sacrificing her life on someone else’s dream only to have her birthdays, anniversaries, and Valentine’s days forgotten, and she has told Jim as much. Thirty years to the day of this neglect and Phyllis has officially boiled over. She thrusts her feet into her designer flip-flops and tromps out the door.
When Phyllis arrives at her husband’s precious store, Molly has just finished her latte and is debating getting another one to-go. Jack has been on her lately about drinking too much caffeine, but Molly is in knots about her life-altering decision and decides that extra coffee in crisis doesn’t count. She checks her watch and heads to the back of the line to order. She does not see Phyllis across the street gathering rocks.
Phyllis, who wasn’t positive of what she planned to do when she arrived to confront her husband, is suddenly certain when she loses a flip-flop in the gravel beds lining the sidewalk of the strip mall. By the time Molly makes it to the front of the coffee line, Phyllis has knocked out an E, both M’s, an H, two O’s, and the ampersand of the lighted sign above “James McKay’s Fishing & Outdoor.” She is still screaming and firing stones as Molly obliviously thanks the barista, picks up her to-go cup, and heads for the door.
It is about this time that James “Jim” McKay finally makes it past the barrage of rocks and insults to subdue his wife. He is fervently attempting to explain over the howled obscenities that he did not forget his wedding anniversary, and he cannot imagine where the two dozen red roses he ordered have gotten off to. The florist had confirmed that they sent them via bike messenger an hour before.
Molly, having just walked out of the coffee shop with her paper cup, is too stunned to notice the couple yelling over each other on a sidewalk littered with shards of red Plexiglas. Above the tumult unfolding at the outdoor shop across the street, the ruined sign now reads:
“Ja cK is i t”
Molly beams to herself, her decision made. She and Jack marry in the Spring.
May we all get the signs we are looking for.