Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this memory from my childhood, back before I knew everything that I now know. The first time it popped into my head a few months ago, I’d immediately registered it as a memory I hadn’t thought about in years, possibly since it happened, but now it seems like a day can’t go by without it stopping by to say ‘hello.’
I’d just turned seven. My parents had gotten me my first hover-bike and I was out in the field with my friend, Ansel, out behind the storage shed where our parents couldn’t find us so easily at that time of year, right before they brought the bots out for the harvest of all the double stacks. It was a great place for doing things that would have had us working along with the bots had our parents known what we were up to. We’d used to hide back there with only Ansel’s bike, taking turns, but we could both finally have fun. It was the greatest time of our young lives. It couldn’t get any better.
Ansel had just found out his soul date that morning. I’d found mine out a few weeks before, but his date was set a full year before mine. We didn’t really know what it had meant, but in the inevitable childhood jealousy that a friend would get to do something before I did, my mind had begun to race against the injustice of it all. Why did I have to wait so much longer? Why did I have to have a date set at all? Why did I need to be set up? Why did I have to be set up like my parents at all? The idea of a ‘soul mate’ was almost barbaric to me. I didn’t even like girls at the time. I’d yet to have my first crush. I’d yet to understand what being with someone else meant. I’d yet to understand anything but the unfairness of it all. That afternoon in the field with Ansel was surely the beginnings of my bias on the subject.
Ansel died two weeks later. He’d been grounded for doing something. I don’t even remember now, but his punishment was the one we dreaded, to go out at dawn with the bots for harvest, and he made a mistake and one thing led to another. He was crushed.
His date was set for six months ago, but obviously it wasn’t fulfilled. Not by him anyway.
It’s not something that a lot of people think about it seems, but what happens to those people? It’s another thing to add to my list of complaints. Do they get set up with a new soul mate? Are they shit out of luck just because their match was stupid or unlucky? It’s not something that’s taught; the information isn’t readily available. The only way to find out is to turn it into a career, and I’ll never be that curious. But that’s the underlying issue it seems to me. No one cares. They’re all just willing to go along with it. Everyone else is happy; why shouldn’t they be?
Well, twenty years later, I’m still questioning it.
I’ve got six months. Six more months until a date set for me as a child comes and goes, and it’s my choice whether or not I show up to meet the stranger I’m supposedly going to want to spend my life with. I fully expect to walk into a room and be attached to a brain washing machine. Why else will no one talk about what happens in the Soul Building for the meetings?
Bringing this up with my mom was the wrong move. I thought maybe she’d at least understand where I was coming from, but the more time I spend writing the old-fashioned way, the more she loves to say, “Derek, you’re becoming a boring recluse with your nose glued to that screen. How did I raise such a son?”
They still teach kids in school how to write by hand, and then proceed to judge anyone who actually likes doing it.
Me? I just upgraded this thing. So much memory I’ll never have to replace it. Knowing my luck, all of my fears these past twenty years will all be true and I’ll end up with some whiner like my mother who can’t understand my love for the written word. No one I know has ended up with someone they find annoying, so it’s dwindling down to me having that poor luck of the draw.
It’s all okay, though. When it turns out that the system doesn’t work for this skeptic, I’ll go down in history as one of the losers who’s left their mate to go off and see the world. That’s all I really want to do, anyway. See the world, write stories about the human culture outside of soul mates, learn about those who don’t fit in. I’ve recently done some research, and people weren’t always like this. They used to go out and find their soul mates all on their own. What happened to that?
Since my meeting is taking place in Cedar City, I’ll stay long enough to give it a shot. Chances are I’ve already met the girl, and I’ve never been overly impressed by any I’ve met. One night stands are the way to go as far as I’m concerned. Six months or the rest of my life, however long that may be, only time will tell.
◄ October 2347 ►
There are rumors that the meeting rooms are actually set up as sex rooms, swanky bed and all, just in case a new couple really hits it off. I don’t believe for a second that a government-run establishment would ever actually condone such activities on the premises of any of their properties, even the soul-matching service, but no one who knows better ever contradicts the rumor. It’s probably just to freak the singles out as much as possible, as if meeting a stranger who’s supposedly the end all be all for you isn’t already stressful enough.
It’s so stressful, in fact, that I’m convinced I’ll never actually make it to the meeting; instead I’ll be glued to the floor in front of my closet for the rest of my days in my underwear because I couldn’t figure out what to wear. This isn’t me; I don’t get stuck on what to wear. But here I am. What are you supposed to wear to meet your soul mate? That’s too much pressure. I know of some girls who spent the entire year before finding the perfect outfit. I didn’t think I cared that much.
In the mean time, the clock keeps ticking by, and if I wait much longer, I won’t make it in time. I can’t be that person, I won’t be that person. I won’t be late for the most important meeting in my life. Supposedly the most important meeting of my life. I’m not convinced that it really is.
These thoughts aren’t helpful, though.
“My over-thinker is over-thinking again.”
I practically jump out of my skin as I turn to see my mom standing in my doorway.
“I don’t over-think things. Knock much?” I cross my arms and turn back to all of the hanging clothes. There was a time I might have cared about my mom seeing me in my underwear, but today it’s the furthest things from my mind.
“I did.” I hear her sit down on the end of my bed. In no way was I ready for whatever speech I was undoubtedly going to get. Then she continued, “Just wear something you’re comfortable in.”
Well, that was unexpected. Maybe even a little helpful.
“Yeah?” I ask, glancing over at her.
“Yeah. You only have to be you.”
Also helpful. And comforting, slightly. If it wasn’t the furthest thing from my worries, I’d be wondering who this woman who only looks like my mother is.
I’m not generally the kind of person to wear clothes I’m not comfortable in, but at my mom’s words my mind went immediately to my favorite black pants with silver lined holes and my white and black zip-up shirt with the collared top and sleeves. Comfortable and totally me.
“You’re going to wear that?” my mom asks after I’ve pulled them on. I just knew my mother couldn’t be that far away.
“Seriously? This is what I’m most comfortable in. That was your advice.”
“Yeah, but what about something with a little more color? Maybe your yellow skirt, at least? It contrasts nicely with your dark curls.”
“I’m more comfortable in pants, mom,” I reply, holding back a sigh I so desperately want to let out. I just have to remind myself that she’s not my biggest problem today. “Besides, at the end of the day, it shouldn’t really matter, right?”
“I don’t know, your father might have walked out on me if I was wearing what you’re wearing now,” she says, standing up and crossing her arms. I mirror her position. Two can play at that.
I seriously doubt that it was true, in any case. I can’t explain why my dad loves my mom, but he does. Maybe they perform some weird voodoo magic on everyone in secret. “It’s a good thing I’m not looking to meet someone like dad.”
Staying more confident than I feel is now something I need to do in front of my mother. Just great.
“You don’t get a say in who you meet,” she replies. Her famous glare is shot in my direction and then she stalks out.
“That’s the worst part to it, isn’t it?” I say, mostly to myself. And then, louder, “Why did you even try to bother helping?”
I don’t receive a response, and I didn’t expect one. My mother can be a bratty little snob when she wants to be.
Still not my biggest worry. I don’t think I got anything from my mother other than her long, dark, tight curly hair, and my daily taming nightmare. One look in the mirror is more than enough to make me want to give up. I’m sure I’d be fine as one of the aloners, the people the system doesn’t work for. I’m prepared for it to not work for me. I’ve always wondered what really happens to a lot of them…
There are more suicides in the news about aloners who decide that life isn’t worth it than any other kind of premature death, but I don’t think they all kill themselves. Do they?
No, not my problem. I’m not one of them. Not yet, anyway. Let me get through today, first. One day at a time.
I was three years old when my parents received the appointment notice for me, and a cancellation never came, so at least for the rest of today, it’s happening. Whatever ‘it’ really is.
If all else fails, I’ll just go back to hitting on people in bars and getting on with friends. It’s been working great for me so far.
At least I don’t even have to leave the city for my meeting. This one girl in school, Candace, was telling me during graduation that she’ll be leaving for her mutual meeting place six hours away across the country in a few weeks. Hopefully it’s worth it for her. I wonder what the furthest distance anyone has ever traveled for one of these meetings is…
I only have to take the train across town to downtown Cedar City, which brings into question whether or not I may already know that guy I’m going to meet. I’m not sure if knowing him would make me feel better, especially if I went to school with him. No one I’ve ever asked or talked to about their soul meeting date ever had the same date as me, but it’s not like I’ve asked everyone I’ve ever met, either. What I do know is that I’ve never met anyone I could see myself spending my life with. Maybe no one can see that, though.
Maybe the whole world is full of people in this big club who all know that love and soul mates is bullshit and they just decide to take their fate and play pranks on the sorry losers who aren’t in the club yet. Like Santa Claus.
Messing with my hair is only making things worse. It is what it is. I grab my purple peacoat and slip it on before leaving my room to accept whatever fate lies ahead of me. An added bonus in the vintage styling is that I might not have to hear more about what I chose to wear from my mother when I get home later, so long as I make sure she sees me before I leave.
It shouldn’t be a problem. Both of my parents are sitting at the table in the kitchen, hooked in to their video glasses and watching their various new programs. I walk past and leave before they can say anything, though I can feel both of their eyes following me.
“Good luck, Katia,” I’m still able to hear from my father as the door shuts behind me. It makes me smile a little.
The lift in our building brings me up to the train stop on the top floor. I’ve got a little less than an hour before my meeting time according to the clock next to the schedule screen. Beyond it through the clear barriers the brightness of the city welcomes me along with the crisp air of early fall. The train that’ll take me downtown near the soul building arrives in under fives minutes, but it feels more like five seconds.
I step on board behind a couple of couples also heading towards downtown and walk past them down the isle to the very back of the train. The back seats are surrounded by one large wrap-around window, which is why I love it. The only thing to obscure the view of the city are the thin jet streams that come from the underside of the train. In school I took some of my best photos from my spot there on the train.
I graduated two weeks ago. Life is moving so fast.
And yet, the city still looks the same as it always has. The train, and all the others like it, are like silver snakes flying over all of the glittering buildings in the sharp morning sun. Occasionally I can see the land outside the city where the farms are spread out and everything is flat, sometimes colorful, sometimes not. The lake on the northeast side of the city usually sparkles brighter than any of the buildings, clearly reflecting the color of the sky back at us all, the modified water keeping everything going smoothly.
The people on the train are always more colorful than the surrounding hues of gray of the city. Most sit in pairs, a lot couples traveling around and doing happy couple things, others just pairs of friends. Very few people ever travel around alone. I do it all the time, and it always makes me feel like everyone is watching me, looking at me funny, making whatever judgment they’re going to make. The key is to not care, which I usually don’t.
Today, however, I feel like they all know I’m on my way to my meeting. Each and every glance back in my direction is just another person to know exactly what’s going on in my life at this current moment. Why is this such a big deal? Almost embarrassing? What difference should it make? I’m just on my way to an important life moment. No big deal, and certainly no one else’s business.
I wonder if it’s because we’re all adults. Despite all of the history they love to shove down our throats in school, humans are still fundamentally judgmental creatures. If these meetings occurred when we were children, there’d be no one to judge, or no one to care, at least. We don’t care so much about those kinds of judgings like we do when we’re adults.
And why does it take so long for the meetings to occur anyway? They’re set when we’re so young, but they don’t happen until both parties are over the age of twenty. My birthday was a couple of days before graduation, so clearly we were waiting on me. Probably. Hopefully he’s not too old. But that begs the question: we could have had so much more time together, so why weren’t we allowed it? That’s if we even like each other. We’re supposed to, but it more feels like we’re being forced to. By the government, by society, by everything and everyone. It’s way too much pressure.
I’m jinxing the whole thing just by thinking about it. But how can I not think about it?
My thoughts continue to swirl around the drain that is my head until I realize the train has pulled into the downtown stop. The advantage of my strange wandering thoughts has been that they’ve masked my true nervousness. But now it’s washing over me. Every step I take, first off the train, and then onto the lift down to the street, and then onto the street itself, they all shock me. My whole body feels like it’s turning to jelly. My brain stops registering all of the people around me.
There it is: the Soul Building. It’s probably the shortest building within the city limits at only five stories, and so plain. All concrete gray and windows. Not exactly a place that seemingly inspires love. The only adornments are the sign above the entrance reading ‘Department of Soul Matching’ and a temporary banner scrolling above it alerting everyone to the upcoming 100th anniversary for the department. Somewhere inside that building the man who’s my ‘soul mate’ could already be waiting.
Or he could be out here on the street right now. The thought brings all of the people around me rushing back into my senses. So many bright colors and so many eyes. Very few people wear colorless clothes, preferring a rainbow of hues, and it’s almost overwhelming me. And for ever color, there’s a set of eyes, and they really are all looking at me. They have to be; look at where I am. Standing outside the Soul Building by myself. There aren’t many other people who do this, and probably none who do it for any other reason. The good news is that I think I’m the only person by myself walking around out here. I don’t see other singles. Is that really good news, though? I don’t like surprises, and this one is being delayed just a bit longer. My feet are rooted to the spot. I have no idea how long I’ve been standing here.
Get it together, girl.
In with a deep breath, out with a deep breath; I can do this. I’m just meeting someone I may or may not like. I’m putting too much pressure on it. The world puts too much pressure on it. Before I can stop myself with more thoughts, I make my way inside the building.
I’ve never been inside before, as most people haven’t before their meeting, and I’m disappointed to see that it’s just as plain inside as outside. I was expecting some kind of allusion to the work they do, but all of the walls are the same brightly lit concrete gray as the outside. There are a few workers, distinguishable by their blood red uniforms, walking through the lobby by me, glancing and smiling knowingly. It’s a large room, too wide and tall for the small front desk, and it makes the entire walk there feel like a walk of shame.
“First one of the day…” I hear one of the employees, a guy maybe a few years older than me, whisper to his coworker as I walk by. Before I can decide whether or not to glare, the moment has passed. I still look back at them, though, watching them already getting on with their day.
“Don’t let them bother you, dear,” says one of the older women sitting behind the front desk. They must be twins, their rosy cheeks and short gray hair making them both look like they’re dressed for the holidays in their red uniforms. Everything I’m thinking must be showing on my face.
“I’m not,” I say anyway. “Katia Tremaine. Eleven o’clock meeting.” I can my idea on their screen. The clock on the wall behind them tells me that I’m only five minutes early. Where did the time go?
The one on the left stands and motions for me to follow her. There are two doors on either side of the desk, and we go through the left one. A narrow but equally bright hallway is on the other side, which I’m led down to a smaller room where another smaller woman sits at a smaller desk. I have to resist the urge to laugh at what I’ve immediately dubbed the miniature room. I almost feel like I’d laugh at anything at this point, I’m so tense.
“This is Katia, she’ll be going into meeting room one,” the front desk receptionist tells her coworker, who’s a whole head shorter than me when she stands up. She’s cute as she bounces up and smiles, turning to go down yet another hallway that looks identical to the one I just came from. Though, it proves to be different after I follow her first around one turn, then another.
“Do you guys ever get lost walking around here? Everything looks the same,” I say to her. The whole place is too quiet.
“Only on the first few days of working here,” she replies, but doesn’t elaborate. Her voice is squeakier than I expected it to be.
She stops outside of a gray door with a ‘one’ flashing on the display. She taps it and it stops flashing to become solid, and then the door slides open.
“So how does this all work?” I ask.
“Now, you just sit and wait. When you’re both here, the light on that wall will turn green, and then that door will open and you go right on through to meet your match. Congratulations on such a big day! Oh, and we ask: no sex in the meeting rooms, please.”
“I thought that was just a rumor. Um… Thanks?” I don’t really mean for it to come out as a question, but I’m not really sure what the appropriate response to that is. She just smiles and watches as I step through the door. She’s probably seen all kinds of people come through here; I doubt I’m the strangest one at least. And people really must try to get it on right after meeting, or otherwise there wouldn’t be a warning. Though she did almost forget it… The door closes behind me and I’m left alone.
There’s a mirror on one wall of the room, and a big couch and a table with drinks on the opposite. In between them is a red light and another door. Everything is still that bright gray, except for the couch which is red. These two colors are quickly becoming annoying to me.
Do I get water for fear of getting a dry mouth, or do I not get water for fear of spilling it all over me? With all of the fidgeting I suddenly can’t stop myself from doing, I only settle for taking off my coat and hugging it to my chest as I collapse onto the couch. My foot starts tapping, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
Along with the sex room rumors, people say that whoever shows up for the meeting first is the is the person in the relationship to live the longest. I never actually planned on having sex with the guy I’m about to meet, anyway. At least not right away. I guess I’ve got my whole life ahead of me to see how long I live.
Jezrine falls into her seat. The tapping the Katia girl is making in her room is driving her crazy. She hates the ones who can’t stop making nervous movements. She’d been a nervous wreck for her own meeting, but hearing them from people day in and day out occasionally makes her want to beat her brains in. They watch the meetings occur, making observations and making sure that things run smoothly. Today’s her day for breaking up any overly sexual mates, and she’s not looking forward to it. There’s usually at least one couple she has to awkwardly interrupt. Some people have no problem going in and getting a couple to put their clothes on, make them head down the street to the hotel, but she’s not one of them.
The door to the room on the right slides open and the match walks in. He immediately begins pacing around his room. Looking down at the paperwork, she finds that his name is Derek. At least he’s quiet about it.
Lem snorts from his chair. “I’ve got ten says you’re definitely going to have to go in and break this couple up. Look at all that nervous energy.”
“Great couple to start the day with. I say they’re out of here in under five minutes,” she replies. She doesn’t really believe it, only doesn’t want to agree with anything Lem says. She knows that he finds it hilarious whenever she has to break a couple out of the throws of passion, especially when most of the people are bigger than she is.
“You’re on.” Lem smirks as he makes a note on his screen.
I’m not sure exactly how long it took me to pull out my clock, but I’ve been watching the seconds tick by for the last five and half minutes. If anything, it’s only making time move slower, but I don’t know what else to do. It’s possible that I’ll be waiting here for a lot longer. I hope not, but it’s possible. Isn’t that a great way to start things off?
A feeling inside of me suddenly makes me look up, maybe it’s impatience, and the light is still red. The same red as the couch I’m sitting on. It’s starting to mess with my vision. I’m about to glance back down when the light shifts to a soft green. A few seconds later the door slides open. I freeze, unable to stand up. In the silence, I can hear some footsteps from the room beyond.
Well, here goes nothing.
The strength to stand up comes from somewhere inside of me. I can't even imagine what I'm doing to my poor coat, I'm gripping it to me so tightly. I've never been this nervous in all of my life, and it's disconcerting.
It only takes three steps to reach the open doorway. An invisible push against my back keeps me moving forward through it.
He's tall. That's my first thought. He's at least half a foot taller than me, full head of dark hair, dark eyes, pronounced nose. He's taking me in just like I am him. The silence is killing me.
I glance away as his gaze becomes too much. This new room is just a bigger version of the room I just left, longer red couch and longer mirror, drink stand in the corner. Not much to look at. Stupid bed rumor. He still hasn't said anything.
He's wearing dark grays with a white stripe on his long sleeved shirt. In one hand he's gripping a light blue jacket too tightly. We're both nervous. Good, I'm not alone.
“Hi,” I say to break the quiet. His eyes are quiet, and he smiles a little.
“Hi.” His voice is a nice kind of deep. Possibly the best voice I’ve ever heard. It’s weird as the reservations I had about this meeting begin to fade away. I’m still not sure what to say, though. It’s like my brain has been replaced.
“Um… I’m Katia.” An introduction is a good place to start. Duh.
“Derek… I’m sorry to be blunt, but you’re beautiful,” he replies, taking a step closer.
“I like blunt.”
He looks around the room for the first time. “This place is really depressing.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Pretty soulless for a soul building.”
“Ha, yeah, it really is. The red is terrible. Do you want to get out of here?” I ask suddenly.
Lem pounds his fist on the desk. “Damn it.”
Jezrine touches a few buttons and the doors shut on the now empty rooms, lights flicking off and cutting off their view through the two-way mirrors.
The street outside the soulless Soul Building is just as busy as it was when I arrived almost an hour before — wow, it’s only been an hour — only now I’m not alone. Derek and I — it’s already ‘Derek’ and ‘I,’ I think I was given a lobotomy and I’m somehow totally okay with it — gain a few glances and a few smiles, but they’re all friendly and everyone else just goes on their way. I feel so much lighter than I did earlier.
“Is it bad to say you’re not what I was expecting?” he asks suddenly as we start walking down the street towards the row of restaurants.
“No, because you weren’t what I was expecting, either. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but definitely not you.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“I don’t know. I think so. You?”
“Yeah, I think it’s a good thing.”
“Good.” I shove my hands inside the pockets of my coat, really unsure of what to do with them. He does the same.
“I read this story awhile back, really old, part of a class in school I think,” he starts. I begin to wonder how old he is, with how he said that. He doesn’t look too much older than me. I can practically see the gears turning as he continues, “It was about this guy, before this whole soul-matching thing. He walks into a bar full of people, but his eyes lock instantly with this woman across the room. They see each other, and they just know, on some other level, that they’re meant to be with each other. No words, no help from anyone, they just know. This reminds me of that. And I don’t know what to do with it.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. The story sounds so strange, but I realize that I feel the same way, and I have no idea what it means for myself either.
“At the time that I read it, I wasn’t interested in any kind of relationship, even if some of my friends were experimenting, but I thought that when I was ready for one, if ever, that’s how I’d have wanted it to happen, not some planned meeting. But then I come here today, not really sure if I’m ready or not, but it’s just going to be how it’s going to be. It is what it is. And then in that stupid empty room, I felt like I was in the middle of that moment I always pictured. I’m sorry, that’s a lot, that’s weird to say so quickly. That’s weird, right? I sometimes say too much, I’m sorry.”
He pushes his hands further into his pockets, and I actually think I see a blush spreading across his face.
“I think you’re going to have to find that story for me to read sometime, Derek,” I say. The look on his face as he glances over suggests to me that he thinks I’m kidding, so I continue, “Because I think we just shared the same weird experience.”
He stops in his tracks, aggravating a couple who’d been walking behind us, but the only grumble and walk around us as I stop in front of him. Looking up at Derek is kind of a new experience; very few people are taller than me.
“I just… Is this weird? The whole meeting thing? Is this weird to you? So many people, it seems, just accept it for what it is, fate or science or whatever, but whatever it is, we don’t get a say. And I’m just getting heavier and heavier here, aren’t I?”
“A little bit. But I do agree. It feels weird that for the first time I don’t get to choose the person I’m going to be with, and even weirder that I’m I’m not exactly minding,” I say, trying my best to keep eye contact.
“You do get to choose, though. If you walked away right now, I wouldn’t blame you.”
“I probably wouldn’t blame me either, at least not at first. But I’m curious.” I turn and continue walking, fully expecting him to follow me. I think I’m still capable of flirting in my newfound state. It only takes a few seconds before he’s back at my side.
“Curious about what?”
“About the person science thinks is my soul mate or whatever. Aren’t you?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it quite like that, before,” he says.
“Such a man. And how did you think about it?”
“Yeah, that’d be nice. Good way to start things and such.”
“I was mostly worried I’d end up matched with someone by mistake, if anything. Someone I wasn’t meant to be with, and who I didn’t like,” he says.
“Has that ever even happened?”
“I don’t know, but there’s a first time for everything.”
“Well, you don’t know me very well, yet,” I reply.
“That’s true. Is here okay?” We’re outside a coffee and sandwich shop, the first restaurant on the street, and it’s already full of people for lunch. The front windows glint and glare in the sun. I haven’t decided yet if I’m hungry or not, since I spent the morning with my stomach in knots, a feeling that’s yet to go away.
“Yeah, I’m starving,” I say anyway. I was the one who asked for honesty, and here I am lying. And now I’m going to have to really eat something. Sometimes I really hate my big mouth, saying things I don’t really mean.
The doors slide open automatically for us. Derek sees a table in the back and I follow him through the maze of people and tables to it. I can’t help but to look him up and down as we go, and I’m not disappointed by what I’m seeing. Tall with lean muscles, and a nice ass. A part of me does hope that no one notices how forward I’m being, but the other part really doesn’t care. People always seem to get a pass on the day of their meeting for just about everything.
Another couple who’d been standing at another table nearby talking to the couples sitting there but hadn’t actually sat down with them wanted the same table that we did.
“Do you guys mind if we take it?” I ask right away. “We just met an hour ago.”
Their faces brighten immediately. The woman smiles widely up at her guy and then says, “It’s your meeting day? Of course, congratulations guys!”
They let us sit down and then wave as I hear the woman excitedly reminisce about their own meeting day. After weaving their way back through the tables to the one where they’d been talking to the couples before, they sit down there with them. I almost wonder why they hadn’t sat with them to begin with, but then I put them out of my mind. I’ve got more nervous matters sitting right in front of me.
“Well, that’s certainly a perk. I wonder what else we could get away with today,” I say as I pull up the menu display. Not a single thing looks good, but I order a coffee and a simple turkey sandwich anyway. Derek ends up ordering the same. His insides might be as jumbled as mine, then. I hope so. It’s not fair if this isn’t an even experience between us.
“Probably nothing special,” he finally replies.
“Depends on how adventurous you are.”
“Maybe just adventurous enough, though I’m just a simple farm boy,” he says. His fingers keep twitching and fidgeting with each other on top of the table. He notices when I do and quickly leans back and hides his hands in his lap. I’m not going to say anything about it, though. I don’t actually know what to say.
I think that’s the first time he’s said my name. I like the way he says it, a little more stress on the first part of my name than most people.
“A farm boy, huh?” I lean forward on the table and cross my arms tightly to keep from having the same fidget problem.
I’ve never gotten to know anyone so plainly and straightforward before. I’ve had friends who went on ‘practice’ dates with guys they were interested in hanging out with, but I never have. I never saw the point. It’s so much easier to get to know people organically, not sitting across a table and asking personal questions. It feels a lot like playing twenty questions as a kid, only more serious.
“Born and raised, though I’m a big disappointment to my parents by choosing to be a writer over a cultivator. What about you?”
Our coffees and sandwiches appear next to us on their hover tray, and we pull them off before I answer, “City girl, born and raised, though only a disappointment to my mother, and mostly because she doesn’t understand a single thing that runs through my head. Both of my parents work for ad agencies, though, so as a designer in graphics and photography, they can at least understand a little of that part of me, I guess. I start with my dad’s firm in a couple of weeks, and I figure I can do my own work on the side.”
“That’s certainly how I do it. So you live here in the city?” he asks. Now that his sandwich is in front of him, he doesn’t seem to be having any issues eating, so I’m just trying to match him so that I appear the same way. I can’t taste a single thing. If only there was a way to calm my brain down.
“Yeah, over on the east side. Do you still live on the farm?
“Yeah. I occasionally travel to write certain pieces, so it’s been easier. I’ve been wanting to move into the city for awhile. My mom convinced me to wait until after our meeting, though. She’s convinced that I’d move somewhere unsuitable for a woman.”
“Kind of sounds like our moms will get along,” I say.
“Maybe if they do, they’ll leave us alone.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?”
We both laugh, and it actually seems to dispel some of our nervousness. A little.
“There might be some home for us if we can both joke about our moms,” he says. I smile and nod, but I can’t think of anything to add. My head is empty of words.
We both become very focused on our sandwiches, our coffees basically forgotten, and I’m still matching him bite for bite. I hope he doesn’t notice, but I really can’t tell.
“I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to know so badly what someone else is thinking,” he says as he finishes his sandwich. What’s left of my sandwich is big enough that it probably wouldn’t look good to just shove it all in my mouth, even though that’s really what I want to do. The few extra seconds might have been nice.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I manage to say.
“More or less.”
“I bet more,” he says and laughs.
“Probably. I’m finding it hard to gather my thoughts a little,” I say. Even as I say it my brain is racing to find something to add, not settling on one thing or another. Do I ask what his favorite color is? Favorite food? Maybe something that sounds less lame? A hobby? Something about his childhood?
“I think I should be offended. Not really?”
“I can be sometimes. Lessens with alcohol,” he says. Derek picks up his coffee and sips, but immediately pushes it away. I’m not going to bother trying mine.
“Maybe we’re in the wrong place, then.”
He smiles, and I really like that I’m able to make him smile.
“Right city, at least.”
“I’m not sure I get what you mean?”
“I don’t know. I’ve always felt a certain attachment to this city, even though I didn’t come regularly until after school. And you can find everything here. That’s true for a lot of places, but here, I don’t know. It’s all just got this certain feeling. I love it.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt that about any place, let alone Cedar City. Sure, it’s nice enough here, but it’s just a place. I want to travel the world, see everything there is to see. I don’t know that I could ever be attached to this city like that,” I say.
“Why not?” he asks.
“Maybe it’s a style thing. This city is too bright, too one note to me. If I were going to get attached to a place, it’d be older, with more character.”
“So you don’t want to live here?” he asks. He leans back, almost looks disappointed.
“I don’t know. I don’t not want to live here, but that’s the best I can do.”
“I can deal with that.”
“So do you want to see me again?” I ask. My head tilts to the side in question, still unsure of how he’ll answer. I think he does, but I just don’t know.
“Yeah, I do. Do you want to see me?”
His words are a relief I hadn’t realized I’d needed.
“Yeah, I do.”
He sits back, smiling, but thinking. Then suddenly, “What does it say about us that we came into this thinking things wouldn’t turn out okay?”
“That we’re impossible skeptics finally proved to be complete idiots, I think.”
Caola mindlessly strokes her husband’s shoulder; she hasn’t heard a word of their group’s conversation for about ten minutes. Her eyes haven’t left the new couple’s table. Four years before, she’d had a nervous lunch with Jax in this very restaurant, the place they’d come for lunch every year since to celebrate the anniversary. They usually ate alone, but fate would have it that they saw some friends and decided to say ‘hi’ before they sat down to their own lunch. She doesn’t mind having lunch with friends, though, not when the only open table had gone to a new couple.
“You’re too stuck in the past,” Jax whispers in her ear, bringing her back to their table.
“I just can’t stop thinking about how gloriously awkward that first date is. Not knowing a single thing about one another. They seem to be getting along well.”
“And it only gets better from there.” He leans over and kisses her cheek, making her giggle.
Derek walked with me back to the downtown train platform. My train arrived before his, and we promised to see each other tomorrow for a whole day of getting to know each other and fun, even if neither one of us really understands what that means for the other yet. Sitting here now, I can’t get my hands to stop shaking.
For a lifetime of moments leading up to one moment, I’d say that moment ended up not being too bad. Looking back, I don’t really know what it was that caused my lack of faith in the system, maybe just an unwillingness to hand over control to someone else — something else — but I just can’t see it anymore. My hands may be shaking, but there’s a smile plastered on my face. I poke my face, try to mold it into a different position, but my cheek muscles ache until they’re back in smiling position. The glances I’m still getting for being alone are different now, though it’s hard to focus on them now, anyway. Let them stare.
The city of course looks different in the afternoon sun with the change in lighting, but as I look out at it from my usual place at the back of the train, there’s something more subtle, too. Something has changed, which is ridiculous because I’ve looked at this city basically every day of my life, and I’d been on the train only that morning. Maybe a shift in color? Maybe I’m just noticing details I hadn’t bothered to take in before? My new mood could be changing things inside of me and I’d have no idea. Maybe I wouldn’t care one way or the other. Not anymore.
My foot starts twitching up and down. I put my clenched hands on my knee to make it stop.
I can’t wait for tomorrow. I can’t wait to see Derek again. I don’t even care that it’s a weird feeling.
What’s happening to me?