By Karlie Hall
You meet me in the rain. I share my red umbrella. You tell me you like the black polka dots. They remind you of ladybugs in a kinder season—a splash of warmth and dryness in the cold. We share a street and the space of a walk, and then you meet me for coffee in the shop across the way.
Cinnamon-dusted lips; a dot of whipped cream on your finger. A first kiss and a last kiss all at once. Don’t we all imagine our last first kiss? Even though it rarely turns out that way in the end, because a lifetime is a long time, after all. Cracked vinyl under my jeans and your elbows on the table, faces close, voices touching. I watch you leave and discover your number written on the napkin underneath my empty cup.
My book left open on your nightstand; your Beatles shirt in my closet. Your nosy neighbors smile and wave. My grandmother warns me not to let you get away. There’s an imprint of my bare feet on the dash of your truck and the takeout menu for Bello Italiano in my kitchen drawer.
I move into your little apartment over the laundromat. You present me with the key, and I hang it on my keychain, adding your life to mine—the key to my little red mustang; the key to the building where I work. Ramen noodles by candlelight. Laughter over Scrabble and Mad Men. Cheap beer and tents in the living room when we can’t afford to turn on the heat. We don’t have much, but we have love, and that’s enough for romantics and poets and fools. We fancy ourselves romantics, or perhaps poets in the right kind of light. Never fools. Not then.
Summer burns white-hot, all jasmine and bare skin and windows open at night. My ladybug umbrella sits unused beside the door because now we kiss in the rainy heat—clothes clinging to our bodies; rivers running down our faces like tears as we laugh. Real ladybugs dot the bushes and cling to our clothes.
It’s a sign, I say, a poet forever and all time.
We find real jobs and longer hours. For Sale sign on a fresh-cut lawn. Two stories and a little white picket fence. Sold. Fresh paint, hardwood floors, and daydreams.
Will you marry me? you ask.
When we finally move into the house, I add that key to the ring, too, but I keep it beside your old apartment key because I knew—or at least suspected—even then, that we had already lived the best days of our lives. We still find romance in our days, but it’s harder when there’s a baby on the way and a mortgage bill in the mailbox every month.
It takes years for the cracks to become chasms. A decade of dead leaves in the gutter. Thunderstorms and silent nights. Empty nest. Babies that I birthed, now men and women going out into a world that’s no longer kind. I forgot how much we gave them. Midnight hours and noisy evenings and early mornings—all those minutes, snapping back into our possession like rubber bands; unfamiliar time stretching into the void between us. Dinners eaten separately, takeout on the counter. Italian for you; sushi for me.
When you come to bed, I pretend to be asleep, and you don’t try to wake me. We fight about dirty dishes and your socks on the floor next to the hamper. Things you loved about me once—freckles on my hip, small worries in my head, the juice I buy that you don’t like—grate at you like my voice in the dark across the room. Easy come, easy go, like the leaves that were green last week, but now sweep across the yard like corpses. I walk alone underneath a red umbrella, and the black spots only remind me of dying things.
You meet me in the rain across from the lawyer’s office. We share the red umbrella, but we don’t look at each other. Dripping water, we climb the stairs. We share a pen. We undo ourselves in the silence with black marks on the paper. Two lives converged over a kindness between strangers and now diverge. We are strangers again. A lifetime lasts so much longer than you ever think it will, even as time flashes by in frames and moments. We were not romantic poets, but I can’t bear to think that we were fools.
We share coffee one last time in a different coffee shop, and then go our separate ways in the rain, the red umbrella left behind in a corner booth. Another kindness to another stranger I’ll never meet again.