By: Jeremy John Parker
Annie was my wife or I was hers. We’d never quite sorted that out and it had become a running joke after we married—the second couple in the state. You may have seen us on the news, standing behind the guys who won the lawsuit. Our friends called it our fifteen minutes.
The last time Annie spoke to me was two days after her thirty-eighth birthday. That morning I asked her if she would stop, please just stop, while she was tying her running shoes. “I’m going” was the last thing she said to me. Annie loved to run. As long as I’d known her, she ran. And not little jaunts around the block, not puny 5Ks for charity, but full-blown marathons. If she missed a day, she felt off, like a misfiring cylinder. It could throw her into a funk for the whole day. She’d misremember words, misplace things. She’d walk into a room, unable to remember why she was there. If I interrupted that trance, if I asked, “What are you looking for?” she’d snap, vicious. But when she ran, she was a marvel, some amazing technology unveiled, something the world had never known. It would be tempting to compare her to a deer or a gazelle or a cheetah, some animal known for its speed and prowess, but that would be unfair, almost derogatory. Maybe—maybe gazelles could postulate the theory of relativity when they ran, but I can say with certainty that Annie was a genius when she ran.
She slammed the door without another word. “I’m going.” Such prophetic words, profound in retrospect. It was early December, but the weather was almost indistinguishable from October—dead leaves and chill. The night before, there had been flurries, so insignificant they weren’t mentioned in the forecast. They had all melted in the rising sun, though some had survived, huddled in the shadows of the trees or in a perfect line against the side of the house where the sun had yet to venture. Annie jogged down our street toward Swinson Avenue as a warm-up and then, turning south, began her sprint. The wind came in from the north that morning, and she preferred to fight against it at the end of her run instead of the beginning. I never understood that.
I’d never understood anything about her running, really. She explained it to me once, the obsession—her word, not mine—the first time we met. It sounded like mystical nonsense, but I went along with it. You meet someone, you want to keep talking to them, so you find yourself nodding at stuff you’d never imagined. Annie’s facial expressions, her gestures, her speech—all high A’s and hard O’s—even her freckles and brassy hair had this exaggerated intensity, like she was always on stage, and I wanted so badly to be her audience.
As soon as Annie got up to what she called “cruising speed,” she would have started to churn over the fight we’d just had. It was one of those long, drawn-out affairs that went on longer than it should have and sucked up everything it could into a swirling maelstrom that left deep gouges in our relationship. I’m sure Annie carefully examined each word, evaluated for evasions, half-truths, plausible deniability. Like a puzzle, she’d take the piece that was my cell phone’s complete lack of text messages, and she’d put it together with my excuse that “I delete all my messages right away” and my hesitant answer to her query of “Where were you last night?” and realize it didn’t quite fit with the piece in which I said, “Nowhere” to which she replied “Nowhere? You’ll have to take me there sometime. It sounds nice. Oh wait, you can’t—it’s not really a place, is it? Because it’s fucking nowhere!”
That’s when I pleaded for her to wait, but she wouldn’t. She laced up her shoes, pulling the laces like she was garroting someone—me, I imagine—and ran out the door.
The paramedics explained that they could determine exactly how long Annie’d been lying on the ground by the drop in her body temperature. Apparently, they have a whole formula for it, something about basal metabolic rate. Based on that, she had been on the ground for about an hour when they arrived. Likely stopping for a sip of water, Annie stood at the fountain, listened to her heart boom against her sternum, and came to the only logical conclusion—that I’d been with another woman the night before.
At that moment, an arteriovenous malformation had ruptured, spilling blood into the left hemisphere of her brain. Words may have still tasted like English on her tongue, but the meanings would have become unmoored. She may have had a headache; it may have started that morning. It could have ruptured hours earlier, in her sleep. Or it may have ruptured right there by the fountain. They couldn’t be sure. She may have felt particularly irritable, unable to concentrate, short of attention. Some strokes start small and leak; others are a sudden torrent. All the paramedics knew was that the willowy guy working the day shift at the Sunoco noticed her lying on the ground across the street, her bright red Nikes flashing like a beacon. He’d called 9-1-1, then dashed to her. She was unresponsive. He checked for a pulse and failed to find one. He sat with her, this woman he thought was a corpse, and held her hand for seventeen minutes until the paramedics arrived.
The doctors explained to me that it had been a small rupture, but the extent of the damage wouldn’t be known until she regained consciousness after surgery. If she regained consciousness. She might have severe brain damage, cognitive deficiencies, amnesia. She may have to learn how to walk, to talk, to tie her shoes all over again. The amnesia was the tricky part. She may have simply lost the memories, but the stroke had been in the language center of the brain, so she could still have them, but merely lack the ability to describe them, her mind like a children’s book—all pictures, no words. The lead neurologist, Dr. Conrad, said it was like a televised football game. Try as they might, the players can’t hear the fans yelling on the other side of the TV.
I was still at home when I got the call that Annie was at St. Jude’s. I was in the middle of texting her—writing, deleting, wordsmithing—trying to find a way to arrange those magic characters in the right order because only the most perfect phrasing would conjure her back. But there was no way to write out what I wanted to say; there were no words that could convey what I needed them to mean. How could I explain my innocence in the face of the evidence? And what if the truth was more pathetic than the lie? My dad used to say that civilization went to shit once people could tell lies from a distance. He was a failed insurance salesman, so make of that what you will.
I had just set my phone down, deciding that I needed to speak to her in person, when the call came. I threw on my coat and ran for the door. “I’m coming.”
There was something about how Dr. Conrad described that disconnect between Annie’s memories and language that haunted me. I kept imagining her trapped like a ghost on the wrong side of the veil, trying desperately to communicate and cross over. I suppose that’s where the idea came from. Like a reverse exorcism, I’d help her to cross back. I’d give Annie her language back, her memories back. Because who are we without our memories? No one at all, really. A blank slate, cells on a slab, a bridge to nowhere. I would be the subtitles to Annie’s silent memories. I’d tell Annie every story she’d ever told me, so she could find herself and her way back to us.
And by us I mean her family. Annie and I didn’t have children, never adopted or anything, but her parents were still around. Not mine. My dad, the insurance guy, drank himself to death before Annie and I married. He was drinking himself to death long before I was born so it’s not exactly tragic, more a foregone conclusion. Like a story you already know the ending to before the second page. My mom was around when we got married, but she didn’t come. Her health was the excuse, but it was just as likely her religion that kept her away. Mom and Dad—Joyce and Frank—married late in life, had me late in life. They were late for everything. Frank was technically retired when I graduated from high school. I only say technically because you can’t really retire from unemployment, can you?
Annie’s parents were still with us, as they say. We never quite got along, never got comfortable with each other. And after the stroke, I had to see a lot of them. Her mother, Eileen, was an off-putting combination of mousy and saccharine. She’d wring her hands and smile incessantly, but it didn’t fit her face, as if she had ordered a cheap how-to-smile kit from a late-night infomercial. Eileen had a Ph.D. in library science and headed up the largest archive in the state. She seemed to know a little bit about everything, annoying the doctors because she didn’t quite know enough about any one thing to be helpful. Dr. Conrad would be telling us about what to expect or what rehabilitation treatment was next on the docket, and Eileen would pipe up in that authoritarian squeak of hers: “I just skimmed the most interesting article about how nimodipine can be used to counter the increased cellular calcium concentrations implicated in neuronal death. New England Journal of Medicine, I think. Is that an option for us?” Dr. Conrad explained that it was not an option for us. Something about how it was only for ischemia, which is when the cells are deprived of nutrients. Annie had the opposite; her brain cells had drowned in nutrient rich blood.
Annie’s father. His name was Steve, and he was the kind of man’s man that would shake your hand in a death grip while his glossy white chompers barked, “Steve. Name’s Steve, call me Steve.” He was a former Marine-turned-officer-turned-instructor-turned-professor with a steely crewcut so resolute you couldn’t help but imagine him coming out of the womb with that impervious hair. There were promotions and more promotions and then a teaching gig at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was retired now. Designed his own squirrel-proof birdhouses and whatnot in his workshop. To his credit, he did his best to treat me like a son-in-law, which—though not ideal—I considered a sort of victory.
Annie and I had decided to visit Steve and Eileen to announce our engagement. I was only half joking when I suggested that they could find out like everyone else when they received the save-the-date in the mail. I’d even argued for just the civil thing at the courthouse. Annie, me, a witness. Neither of us were religious, and we both managed to escape the fairytale princess wedding obsession. But Annie was really close with her family and wanted to do it proper. So I agreed we could announce our nuptials in person, but I put my foot down at asking her father for his permission, as amusing as she thought that would be.
Annie and Eileen had simultaneously declared their intention to go to bed when Steve looked at me with an air of taking out the garbage and said, “Come with me.” I had been afraid something like this was going to happen, and I followed as reluctantly as possible. I imagined some fatherly ritual going back to the time when daughters were sold off for a couple sheep. That I was being included in it was equal parts bewildering and preposterous. But it seemed important that I be—I don’t know—manly? And is it only manly because it’s done by men? As far as I know there’s no womanly equivalent; my mother never initiated me into womanly mysteries and my father certainly didn’t impart any deathbed wisdom. Is there a moment when mothers take their daughters aside or fathers take their future daughters-in-law aside, or whatever, and have these little one-on-ones? Mine never did.
I followed Steve to the unstained bar in his man-cave and sat down on a stool. He pulled two tumblers from under the bar and opened a crystal decanter. “Glenlivet, twenty-two years. I’ve had it since it was eighteen. Now it’s old enough to drink itself!” He poured a little into the tumblers and slid one to me. I’ve never been much of a whiskey person. I don’t know the difference between whiskey and bourbon and scotch, and I certainly didn’t know what was important about Glenlivet. From his tone, I assumed we were going for a drive in a Lamborghini. Steve held up his glass and I could see him wrestling for words. Eventually he decided on “To family.” Lifting the tumbler to my face, I took a sniff like I’d seen people do at wine tastings. That must not be a part of the whiskey ceremony, because it blazed through my sinuses and down into my throat. We chinked glasses and took sips. I mimicked his movements, drank as much as he did. The initial taste wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated; it was the strange dragon breath that came back up afterwards that made my eyes water. Letting out this extended fiery breath, I tried to drink back my own spit to cleanse my mouth, which made me gag. I hid it as well as I could.
“You’re marrying my daughter, so I guess…” I could see him wrestling for the right words, and it suddenly meant a lot to me that he thought the right words were important. “Eileen’s dad sat me down the same as this when we got engaged.” Steve took another sip and so did I. It was easier the second time. “I’m not going to give you the same speech. I don’t think I need to. Times are a bit different.” He looked uncomfortable for a moment, hesitation hidden behind his tumbler. “Obviously.”
I wanted to let him off easy, to let me off easy too, I suppose, so I held up my glass, grabbed his eye, and as cheerfully as possible said, “Obviously!” We both took long draughts which sent my head spinning, so I don’t know if it was the whiskey or embarrassment because Steve was red in the face when he set his glass down with a chuckle. He refilled our glasses, and we sat mostly in silence, and I didn’t have to hear the how-do-you-plan-to-provide-for-my-daughter speech or other intimidating questions with roots in an era when the daughter’s prosperity hinged on the prospects of her betrothed. Instead, I learned that bourbon is whiskey that is at least 51% corn and must be distilled in a charred oak barrel. Also, that scotch is just whiskey from Scotland.
Until Annie’s stroke, that was the longest conversation I’d had with the man.
I didn’t tell Annie that story, sitting there in the hospital, in those lulls between meals and blood draws and visits from her parents. She’d already heard that story; she’d heard while she was dressing and I was nursing my first whiskey hangover. She squinted and hugged herself, wiggling and smiling deep into the covers. “For him,” she said, “that’s a huge deal. You know how he is. He’s really trying.”
I had decided to tell Annie her own stories, stories she’d told me. And I didn’t want to get all schmaltzy with it either. I’d been to funerals and wakes where people only tell the good stuff about a person and leave out all the bad and it’s like poor fiction. There’s nothing more boring than an unconflicted hero or a villain who’s evil just to be evil. Your antagonist is a crap character until you can understand them as the protagonist in their own story. I didn’t want to be that for Annie, sugarcoating everything. Our strongest memories are often our worst ones, the bad ones, the shameful ones, the embarrassing ones. It’s why stories of breaking apart are more common than stories of coming together.
Eileen and Steve walked into Annie’s hospital room one afternoon while I was telling the story of her first day of school. Eileen had been telling Annie about kindergarten for over a year, about all the things she was going to learn, the new friends she’d make, all the fun games she’d play. But Annie wondered why her mom had never told her about the gardening she would be doing. When she got to school that day, after a little tear-filled good-bye to Mom, Annie couldn’t wait to see the garden. She’d built up this vision of fruit trees and corn stalks and vines that traipsed across the lawn sprouting zucchini and pumpkins. She imagined giant sunflowers smiling and singing while students laughed and pranced around with watering cans. It was part-Eden, part-Disney, and Annie couldn’t wait.
The kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Sweetums, who easily lived up to her moniker. Annie said she was round like a lollipop and bedecked with rings and necklaces and bracelets and earrings made of glass beads like bowls of hard candies. To start the day, Mrs. Sweetums had each student say their name to the class and their favorite thing. Annie joked it was like an A.A. meeting for five-year-olds. “Hi, my name is Annie and I’m addicted to Play-Doh.” After every introduction, the kids would chant, distractedly and out-of-sync, “It’s very nice to meet you, so-and-so.” It took forever, and Annie missed most of the kids’ names because she was craning her head to look out the windows, to catch a glimpse of the garden. Mrs. Sweetums showed everyone where their cubbies were, where they could find art supplies, where the books were, where the bathrooms were, where to put their coats, and on and on and on, and impatient Annie’d had just about enough when Mrs. Sweetums finally said they were free to go play.
Annie sprinted for the door to the playground, flung it open, and came to a dead stop. Wood chips and a swing set. A rusted set of monkey bars. A metal slide that was surely too hot in the late August sun. She ran back inside.
“Mrs. Sweetums, Mrs. Sweetums, where’s the garden?”
“What garden, sweetie?”
Annie’s eyes brimmed as she shouted, “The garden for the kids! Kinder-garden! Kinder-garden! The garden for the kids!”
Oh, how Annie cried when Mrs. Sweetums said there was no garden, that kindergarten was just a German word that meant school for children. At dinner, on our first date, she told me that story and she teared up even then, thinking about how upset it had made her. So upset that afterward she kicked a little boy for mixing the Play-Doh colors together, and when he cried about it, she called him a baby. She yelled that babies don’t cry, with her own tears staining her cheeks, and then she kicked him again. Mrs. Sweetums pulled her away and made her sit far from the other kids, in the hollow under the stairs with the extra chairs and workbooks.
“You were so mean!” I laughed as I said it, hoping to diffuse the tension and those awkward almost-tears. “That poor boy! Did you ever forgive the Germans for fooling you?”
Annie smiled and dabbed the corners of her eyes with a napkin. “You know, I never did. In high school, I took German, so their foul language could never fool me again. And you know what? Kindergarten literally translates to children’s garden. I was right.”
“That was why you took German? Because of kindergarten?”
“You should probably take that as a warning and run.”
“That you never forget and you never forgive and you can be diabolical to the point of cruelty in your retribution?”
Annie said, “Exactly,” and I’m pretty sure that’s when I fell in love.
With Eileen and Steve in the room, I didn’t tell Annie that part of the story, our first date story. I had tears in my eyes, Annie’s tears, as I finished the kindergarden story. Eileen thought I was crying for more mundane reasons. She gave me all the empty assurances that the doctors gave, that Annie would be fine, she’d come out of the coma, that she’d come back to us. Dr. Conrad assured us that the rupture was repaired and there was nothing to do but wait. So I waited. I told Annie stories. I watched daytime TV and felt guilty.
Annie’s ultimate conclusion to the where-was-I puzzle should never have been what it was, but there was a tragic logic to it. She and I hadn’t been talking. I’d been spending increasingly more time away from the house. Which was even more conspicuous since I was unemployed. But I’d stopped looking for work, had stopped sending out CVs and cloying cover letters. Instead, I’d started writing again.
I’d rented a cheap studio space above Sylvia’s, a low-rent Cuban restaurant downtown. I thought the name prophetic, like an omen—The Bell Jar was Annie’s and my favorite book when we were teenagers. I lugged in a wobbly IKEA desk, an uncomfortable chair, and frayed tartan couch and went to work. I’d decided to write a simple love story. Have it start off bad, during a turbulent time, but ultimately, they would triumph and their love would win out, transcendent. And so I wrote and struggled and rewrote in that cramped little space that smelled like hot mustard. I ate a lot of red beans and rice with choripán, and drank a lot of cheap Cuban cerveza.
But I didn’t want to tell Annie until I had something to show her. It had been such a long hiatus—almost ten years since my first novel—so I’d not told her about it. I saw myself handing her the manuscript and she’d read it and she’d understand, and everything would be good again. But I was embarrassed, so I said nothing. And one night I wrote late and fell asleep on the couch. The springs stabbed me in the back. And then it was morning and she thought I was cheating.
I felt as guilty as if I had been.
And now I’m filled with what-ifs. What if she hadn’t gone for a run just then? What if she’d been at home? I could have gotten her to the hospital sooner. What if she wasn’t upset? Would she have noticed the warning signs, the symptoms earlier? Even if I didn’t really betray her, the effects were the same. It was truth in her mind. If you get frightened in a dream, that fight-or-flight cocktail of hormones still gets deployed.
Physiologically, it’s just as real.
Annie had told me a story once while we were lying in bed. It couldn’t have been more than a week or two into our relationship. We were still in that stage when during every intimate moment we shared our childhood stories, the really important ones, possessed by that impulse that only seems to exist at the beginning of a relationship. As if we can weave our childhoods together, link our formative moments together. Make our first kisses each other’s kisses, make that first playground rejection happen on the same playground. Not literally, but thematically. As if bonding at the age of eighteen or twenty-two or thirty-five isn’t enough, we have to rewrite everything that happened before in the context of this new relationship.
Annie believed in soul mates, but not in the usual way. Annie said that when she was really young, maybe seven or eight, she was reading a book about Greek myths when an idea struck her. She ran through the house and asked her mom where all the big heroes were, like Hercules and Perseus. Eileen said that there weren’t any big heroes like that anymore, that heroes were smaller, like policemen and firefighters.
“Why are they smaller?” little Annie asked.
“Because the world is so much bigger and there are so many more people, so we need more of them.”
Annie went back to the little nook behind the stairs where she liked to read, a Lite-Brite shining orange on her book, and thought about small heroes in a big world. If people were more powerful and fewer before, and they were smaller but more numerous now, then they must be divided. Maybe back in the past, people had whole souls and with whole souls they could make big things happen. They could venture to the Underworld or complete ten Herculean tasks. But now, with so many people, God couldn’t give every person a whole soul. So he divided them up. At first, maybe souls were just split, so it was possible you could find your other half. But later, like the food supply on a ship lost and adrift, the rations kept getting smaller and smaller. And now, people only have the tiniest sliver of a soul. And to a seven-year-old little girl, this could be a crushing thought, but my Annie, she saw the bright side of it right away. She told me, as I then told her in the hospital with sunrise light glowing pink on her slack face, that she realized we have multitudes of soul mates, all over the world, so many people we’re connected to, so many people that are us. She said that everyone who shared the same soul was on the same team. “And if we want to do big things, we need our teams.”
And in my less cynical moments, I think that’s why we tell each other everything when we first get together, why we share our history. It’s not that we’re trying to manufacture some idealized past; it’s not even that we want our intimates with to understand us as deeply as
possible. It could be as simple as Annie’s vision: that we’re really the same person, we’re absolutely as close as possible, and it’s been so long since we’ve seen each other, we want to know—we need to know—what have we been doing all this time. I finally found you, piece of me, please tell me, what has happened to us? You see, it’s not storytelling; it’s remembering. It’s anamnesis and Annie was saying, Help me, help me to remember.
And I was trying to help her remember. I told stories almost constantly, trying desperately to remember. But how many conversations do you have with your wife or your husband or your kids, how many How are you? How was your day? conversations do we just let slip away, how many do we give short shrift, just going through the motions of listening?
I began to feel a sense of urgency, that I was telling these stories to a ticking clock. Dr. Conrad’s prognoses were diminuendo of optimism. He gave updates about rerouted blood flow and synaptic activity that meant nothing to me. He spoke of options. He, Eileen, and Steve had whispered conversations in the hallway. They tried to talk to me about Annie’s living will, about the legal definitions for minimal brain function. I didn’t want to hear that story. That wasn’t going to be Annie’s story. Annie had so many more stories. I told her the story of when she got mugged walking home from the observatory in college. Of when she stole twenty dollars from Steve’s wallet and bought candy to bribe kids for her third-grade student elections. Of when Eileen caught her masturbating in the bathtub when she was twelve. Of the time some woman broke three bones in Annie’s foot with a shopping cart two days before the New Haven 50-Mile Ultramarathon. Of the time she forgot to drain the water from the macaroni before she added the cheese.
St. Jude’s was a Catholic hospital, and once per day a nun came in and read the Bible aloud, believing the words of the Lord would guide Annie, one direction or the other, back toward the living or away toward the light of Heaven. I couldn’t see how that was any different from what I was doing. I told Annie’s story. The doctors told their story. The nun told her story. Annie’s story was the only one I cared about. For all the progress I could see, the doctor’s stories were as effective as the nun’s—nonsense.
Sometimes I would go for a walk when the nun came, sometimes I would zone out. One day, the nun was reading and said something that caught my ear. I asked her what she said and she startled like she’d forgotten I was in the room. “I’m sorry?” She grinned and squinted, milky blue eyes nestled in a bed of wrinkles.
I shifted in my chair. “I’m sorry, Sister, that last thing you read, that last sentence—what was it?”
She placed her hand on the passage and I could hear the susurrus of her fingers caressing those thin biblical pages. “It’s 2nd Peter 3:12—I look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.”
I sat back and the nun went on reading. I turned the quote over in my mind. It reminded me of what Annie had said the night I met her. We were at a reading at this feminist bookstore for the university’s annual literary festival. I don’t even remember who was reading, but the author was this tiny sprite of a poet who read in a jarring staccato while gesturing with one hand that bounced with each extended vowel, three fingers pinched like she was pointing a pencil toward God. I only listened for a few minutes before I decided to leave.
Annie was outside. I didn’t know her then, but I also didn’t know where I was going next and I stalled, putting on my jacket and checking my phone. She was with some other woman, and I eavesdropped while she talked about the marathon she was running the following weekend. I watched as she took deep drags from her Camel, the cherry growing brighter and brighter, roasting the freckles on her face.
I laughed at the irony of a marathon runner smoking. Annie immediately grasped the situation. “Something amuse you?” She blew her smoke right at me.
I put on my best smartass smile. “Do you smoke while you’re running? Or just when you’re training? Or do you have like a pit crew who—instead of handing you a water cup as you sprint past—blows smoke at you?”
The look Annie gave me. I’d heard about hyperaggressive guys bearing down with predatory eyes, but I’d never seen them myself until that night. I felt alone and exposed, but also—I don’t know—special isn’t quite the right word— flattered, maybe? She took a last drag from her cigarette, snuffed out the cherry on a lamppost and put the butt in her pocket. She blew the smoke at me and said, “Name’s Annie. Let’s get out of here.”
We hit up a few places where she knew the bartenders. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. They were all places I’d been before, but with Annie it was different. Like the stand of trees behind your house you know so well because you spent your whole childhood playing in them, but then one day this brassy witch shows up and your little grove of trees is suddenly a Disney forest full of talking animals and sparkly fairies that smoke and drink vodka-cranberries. We talked and drank and joked. She wanted to be an astronomer. I wanted to be a writer. We laughed about how we’d never understand each other.
I doubt Annie was fine to drive, but she said she was, so I let her take us out of town. She said there was a place in a nature preserve overlooking an old quarry where you could see the stars. As we caromed through unlit country roads, Annie told me it would be a great night to see the Perseid meteor shower. They were a regular thing, every August like clockwork.
We parked and sat on the hood, leaning back against the windshield. It was silent but for our breath and the irregular tink of the engine cooling. The night was chilly and we huddled close. Annie put her fingers through mine and we watched meteors streak across the sky. Not a lot, not like fireworks, not regularly and not often, but just enough that you never bored of looking. The waiting became a game almost as fun as the reward.
I squeezed Annie’s hand and said, “Tell me about the stars.” And I sat there in St. Jude’s and I squeezed Annie’s hand and I said, “Let me tell you about the stars.” And I told her what she had told me.
“Funny,” she had said, “I was just thinking of the light from all those stars, which are just suns billions and billions of miles away. I was also thinking of how when a fast-moving car passes us, it’s a wonky blur. We can’t see it clearly. But, if you’re traveling the same speed as the car, it is perfectly clear. So, if we were to travel the same speed as light, light would become clear to us, right? The world we see, the ephemeral world, our everyday existence, is light blurring past us. So what would the world—and ourselves—what would we look like if we could see ourselves clearly for just a moment?
“Relativity tells us that as we approach the speed of light, time slows and—at the speed of light—time stops. If seeing the world clearly coincides with time stopping, time vanishing, wouldn’t that mean that true-true reality is the universe and ourselves without the effects of time? Time is light blurring past us.
“So there’s these shamans and mystery schools and whatnot whose traditions say that time can be overcome. Their rituals are supposed to allow the mind to transcend time, showing the initiate their souls, their true selves—which is what we are outside the constraints of time—just souls. It’s like these rituals propel consciousness to the speed of light, right? A human soul moving like a star through space.”
We sat in silence and I could tell she felt like she’d overshared, that she’d had the I’m-more-stoned-than-everybody-else moment. I turned to her and said, “Makes sense to me,” even though it didn’t, and then I kissed her.
And then I kissed her, there in St. Jude’s.
I like to think that in retelling that story, I understood what Annie had always been running toward. Maybe it wasn’t all nonsense. Instead of Annie pondering my alleged infidelity, I preferred to think that she was just running, blurring past the world, and that morning her consciousness finally caught up to the light, that time had stopped and she could see her soul clearly. And if she could see her soul, she could see my soul and all those little fragments of the one big soul she was a part of, her team. And that vision was so profound, so beautiful, so grand and expansive that it was too much for her mind and heart to hold, and she burst with the joy of that reunion. So when her body fell to the ground outside the Sunoco, it wasn’t a loss, but the ultimate boon. To me, she said, “I’m going,” but from the perspective of the soul she was returning to, she was saying, “I’m coming.”
Otherwise, why wouldn’t she come back to us?
Jeremy John Parker is a writer, book designer, and the fiction editor for Outlook Springs. A recipient of the 2015 Tom Williams Prize in Fiction, judged by Kevin Brockmeier, and a semifinalist for The Hudson Prize, his Pushcart Prize-nominated stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Normal School, CHEAP POP, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere.