Ethan didn’t believe in soulmates.
He thought there was no possible way that two people in the world could somehow be connected by some fictional magic. Separated perhaps by blue seas and fields of yellow-faced stars, never to meet. Yet, 73% of people imagined that someone out there, waiting to kiss their palms and smile.
That’s why, on an overcast Thursday morning in November, Ethan brought up the topic in his anthropology class.
His students, young with eyes that could fit through the loops of chain-link fences, disagreed completely with his opinion. The fact that their beliefs differed from his automatically deemed them untrustworthy in his book.
“Mr. Lockhart,” one of the girls started, sweeping her hand into the air with chipped green fingernails. “There are 7.8 billion people in the world. At least one of those people has to match with you like a puzzle piece.”
“That’s erotology,” Ethan waved a dismissive hand. “And science isn’t all childish games.” All they knew was young love, the quick, passionate type that only lasted a night.
A boy tucked hair behind his ears. “Sir. Only 0.01% of people find their soulmate, so you probably haven’t found yours.”
Big words dripped from their mouths and he didn’t know whether to be offended or impressed. Ethan tapped the whiteboard with his knuckles. He thought of Julie back home with her silvering hair and all those nights spent driving everywhere and nowhere at the same time. “Exactly. So the other 99.99% are going to wait around all their life and be very disappointed when their soulmates don’t show up.”
Right then, the classroom door flew open. It revealed a man with a long face and a sandy brown coat. He rubbed the stubbles on his chin and glanced around the room.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said, and Ethan shivered at the throaty sound of his voice. “I’m just wondering where room 49 is? I’m going to be substituting for Professor Howe tomorrow.”
Ethan gathered his hands in his pockets but didn’t smile. He wasn’t good with handling strangers and this brown-eyed one was no different. “Just down the hallway.”
“Thanks,” he replied, looking directly at him. The man’s eyes sparkled. “Anthropology is my favorite.” The door shut with a whisper.
The students stared at their professor and their professor stared at the spot where the man stood a few seconds ago. Ethan checked his watch and noticed it was almost the end of class. “Soulmates do not exist,” he repeated, trying to believe it himself.
He watched the hands on his little clock tick in all different directions while the students filed out the door. Once they were gone, he packed up his brown leather briefcase and leaned against the door frame of his room. Down the brick hallway he saw another classroom with the door slightly ajar.
He walked up to it, his shoes screeching against the floors, and peered through the glass on the window. The man was perched on his desk, one leg crossed carelessly over the other, letting his mind float out the window. Ethan felt like he couldn’t breathe. The man looked so peaceful. If only Ethan could experience such relaxation.
Anthropology was Ethan’s favorite too.
That night, over roast beef stew and baked carrots, his wife asked him about his day. She chewed with her mouth closed and her eyes open wide. He didn’t like how she chewed but that was that.
“Fine. The students are learning nothing in those other classes. They thought soulmates existed.”
Julie was silent. Her face reflected into her stew and she avoided his eyes. Spoons clanked against bowls and she gulped. “They always do.”
The next morning, he met this same man in the Teacher’s Lounge after he’d finished teaching. Ethan saw the man hunched over the espresso machine and pressed his lips together. The man rattled the machine, stepped back, and weaved his hands through his hair.
“Do you need help with that?” Ethan asked calmly.
The man turned his head and smiled when he saw him. “Anthropology.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Christopher Howe.”
Ethan nodded, sliding his fingers in between Christopher’s. His hand was smooth and cold like it was carved from marble. Ethan tried to pull away but the man held on a little longer. He thought of Julie and how she’d disapprove and his unhappiness of fifteen years. “Ethan Lockhart. Nice to meet you. Are you Lincoln Howe’s son?”
Now it was Christopher’s turn to nod. “You know him. He’s just got a little cold. Couldn’t teach with it, though.” He locked his fingers together and gazed at the espresso machine. “It’s stuck.”
Ethan chuckled softly and tapped a few buttons with the tip of his finger. He was surprised at first that Christopher sucked a laugh out of him. “It’s always stuck.”
The metal machine whirled to life a few seconds later. Christopher threw his head back and laughed. It was quick and full of tiny gasps. Old age had kissed both the men and they didn’t seem to care.
“Thank you, Ethan.”
“You’re welcome, Christopher.”
“Please, call me Chris.”
The cup tucked into the machine started to fill with dark espresso.
“Enjoy your coffee,” Ethan said, and flinched when the smell wafted up. He wasn’t a fan of coffee and its sour taste and the way it kept you controlled by a string. Kind of like a puppet.
Chris sighed, “Not for me, but for Dad. He likes this machine and he wanted me to bring some back to him.” He looked at Ethan and added, “I’m more of a tea drinker.”
Ethan reminded himself it was just a coincidence they both liked tea and both disliked coffee. He sat Chris down in one of the uncomfortable chairs in the Teacher’s Lounge and seated himself directly across. Ethan was curious about this man and wanted to know more.
The two of them talked for minutes more, wondering if hours were passing by like flocks of starlings in the summer. Asking questions and answering them. They covered the usual topics of family and friends and pets at first. But deeper into their time they discussed stars and constellations and other facts that made them happy. It became a quiet kind of happy with Chris, and Ethan loved it.
In the afternoon when the sun was circling high above, Chris realized he’d have to teach soon. Ethan reassured him that he’d be staying until after hours to finish up some paperwork. Chris smiled with little cracks by his eyes and wrinkles in his palms.
“Well, I’ll see you,” Chris said. “Let’s meet back here.” He stepped out of the Lounge and Ethan followed a few seconds later.
Goodbyes hurt. It felt like children tugging on his hair and knotting fingers into his shirt while Chris walked away, unharmed. If Julie walked away like that, not knowing that it was forever, he’d be happy and free.
But goodbyes didn’t usually hurt for Ethan. It’s like he was in a taxi in the rain, skidding along the street and watching colors blur. Things passed by his window, once there, and now gone. Like life and happiness. It was a taxi of today and a taxi of tomorrow but not of the past.
Ethan did not go back to his classroom to finish paperwork. Instead he marched in the other direction, out of the building and out of his mind. He drove home. He thought of how Chris would look, three hours later, sitting alone in a chair, legs crossed and mind already out the window, wondering if Ethan would show up.
That night, Ethan got into bed next to his sleeping wife. She stirred when he rustled the covers. He closed his eyes. She gripped his hand.
“How was your day, honey?” Julie asked, her voice breathy and quiet.
“It was fine. Sorry if I woke you,” Ethan said, twisting his hand out of hers and shoving it in a pocket of his pants.
Julie said nothing. She sat up and kissed Ethan’s forehead. Lightly and warmly. He smiled in the dark and felt guilty, somehow.
Ethan still didn’t believe in soulmates.