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What if you had never met me?" Sonia says. "What would your life be like?"
Sonia has been my best friend for only a few months, but already life without her is difficult to imagine. All I can muster is an image of myself alone in a room. "Boring," I say, and Sonia laughs.
We are lying on her four-poster bed, staring up at the pink canopy, our feet propped on the wall above her headboard. We are fourteen. When I turn my head to look at Sonia, her hair brushes against the side of my face.
"If you hadn't been standing in the right place in the parking lot," she says, "we might never have spoken."
"We have three classes together," I say.
"If you hadn't come into the gym that day, we might never have become friends."
"Maybe we were destined to be friends," I say. "Maybe we would've been assigned a group project."
She waves her hand in the air above us, dismissing this. "Every decision we make," she says, "affects the rest of our lives."
"Yeah, yeah," I say, because I've heard this from her a million times.
"For example," she says, "what if you had to choose between being my best friend forever and having the boy of your dreams?"
"I can't have both?"
"That's the game."
"Maybe you'd marry his brother and live next door."
She shakes her head, and the movement shakes the mattress. "You have to choose," she says.
Eight years from now I will abandon Sonia. I'll drive away from a gas station in West Texas, my eyes on the rearview mirror, where I'll see her running after my car, a shocked, desperate expression on her face. Here in Sonia's bedroom it's all still there before us, every decision between that moment and this.
Sonia rolls over onto her elbows so she can look me in the face. "Choose," she demands. "Choose."
In February of my thirtieth year, a letter came to the house where I was living, addressed to me in my own handwriting. I didn't notice it when it arrived. Though I was the one who went to the mailbox every morning at ten-thirty-five, five minutes after the mailman came, I'd stopped flipping through the mail a long time ago, as there was never anything in it for me. That morning I just dropped the stack on the kitchen table as usual and went to the counter to make bologna-and-American cheese sandwiches on white bread, favorite lunch of my employer, the historian Oliver Doucet.
Oliver liked to declare that all times exist simultaneously, and when he did I'd say, teasing, that he thought that only because all our days were exactly the same. I'd been living with him in this house, just outside the town square in Oxford, Mississippi, for nearly three years, and I'd long since adapted to his schedule—we ate lunch between ten-forty-five and eleven, dinner between four-thirty and five. Then we watched a black-and-white movie, and Oliver went to bed before nine. Most nights I stayed up with the television or a book, even though he exhorted me to go out. What he didn't know was that every so often I crept into his bedroom to make sure he was still breathing. When I went out I worried that his heart had stopped, as though by my presence alone I kept it going. In the mornings I was always relieved to find him sitting at the kitchen table, wearing the ridiculous velvet robe his daughter, Ruth, had given him, and drinking cup after cup of coffee, each with three dollops—he always called them dollops—of heavy whipping cream. Oliver was ninety-two to my twenty-nine. He was the one who liked to say, sometimes teasing, more often with solemn portent, that this was my thirtieth year.
The kitchen had been remodeled several times since the house was built—the last time in the eighties—but each time, Oliver had insisted that certain aspects of the previous versions be allowed to remain. With its dinette set, inoperable dumbwaiter, early-model microwave, and stone fireplace with a spit, the kitchen lent credence to Oliver's notion about the simultaneity of time. I was singing "They Can't Take That Away from Me"—we had watched Shall We Dance the night before—as I spread mayonnaise on slices of white bread. Standing at the counter, I had a view out the window of Oliver's lush flower garden. I felt pleased about the brightness in the room, as if my own happiness were the source of the light. There was no particular reason for me to be so happy. I was just grateful for my ordinary life. Lined up on the windowsill were figurines of chickens, awkward bodies and spindly feet rendered in wood, glass, cloisonne. Even the beautiful ones were ugly. But now I stopped what I was doing to study them, and felt a surge of awe at how intricate they were—the ruffled feathers, the grooves in the feet, the devotion that must have gone into the task of their making.
"Cameron, my dear," Oliver said, and I jumped. I turned to see him standing in the doorway of the kitchen, one hand on his cane, one braced against the doorframe. He looked as though he'd been watching me for some time. Today seemed to be a dress-up day. He wore a crisp white shirt tucked into black pants. Unlike most old men, he wore his pants low, cinched tight with a belt that had a rodeo buckle.
"Happy Valentine's Day." I smiled at him. Minutes before, I'd noted the date on the kitchen calendar. In Oliver's house we tended to lose track of the days.
"Is it?" he said. "I had forgotten." He pushed off the doorframe and came into the room. He started to ease into his usual chair, then checked himself and withdrew a small hand mirror from the back of his waistband before he sat. He pulled a comb from his shirt pocket and held it out for me to take. His damp hair was tufted to one side of his head. Oliver was vain about these wisps of white hair, which he insisted be slicked back in an approximation of the pompadour he had worn in his youth. He could have combed it himself, but he liked for me to do it. Every morning after he showered and dressed he came into the kitchen for his styling.
While I worked, smoothing hair with the comb and my fingers, Oliver studied his features in the hand mirror. He liked to say that he had the face of a bird of prey, and though this made him sound more menacing than he really was, it was true—he had an eagle nose and bright, watchful eyes. As a young man he had been very handsome. Though his nose was aristocratic, almost haughty, his lips were full and soft. In old pictures he seemed to be thinking of a private joke.
Oliver inspected his hair with approval as I held the mirror. He grabbed my free hand and pressed it to his cheek. "Ah, youth," he said. "Am I not handsome?"
"You're terribly handsome," I said.
"The most handsome of all your beaux?"
"Of course." I kissed him on the forehead, his skin soft as well-worn cotton.
"In that case," he said, and slipped a ring onto the third finger of my left hand, "Happy Valentine's Day." He laughed at my surprise.
The ring was beautiful—gold, obviously antique, set with five small opals. He'd given me books before, some of them rare, but never a gift like this one. "Oliver—" I started, but he cut me off.
"It belonged to my aunt," he said. "Now we're engaged. Call off your other beaux."
"I love it," I said. "Thank you."
"You've been good to me." He held my gaze, his expression serious. He was rarely this earnest, and I felt a flush of gratitude mingled with embarrassment. Before I could speak again, he waved me away. "Don't get spoiled," he said. "Finish that lunch."
I went back to the counter, but instead of picking up the knife I stood there looking down at my hand, admiring the way the sunlight caught the opals in the ring.
Behind me Oliver was opening the mail. I heard the usual sounds of paper tearing, the skidding of envelopes across the table as he tossed them aside, and then a silence as he read. I assumed he'd gotten one of the many letters praising him or asking for a blurb or recommendation, letters he enjoyed but never answered. Sometimes I took pity on the senders and wrote them back, saying that Oliver was grateful for their kind words, that he'd be happy to comply with their request, if only he weren't so busy writing his memoirs. Oliver rolled his eyes at these carefully worded replies. "Lies, lies, all lies," he said.
Now he said, "This is interesting."
"What?" I turned to see him holding an envelope up toward the light, squinting in an attempt to make out what was inside.
"This is addressed to you," he said. "In your handwriting." He raised his eyebrows. "You seem to have written yourself a letter."
"That's odd." I crossed to the table and reached for the envelope, which he handed over with some reluctance. He was right—there were my name and his address, on the front in my own script. I thought I must have misaddressed a reply to one of his acolytes, switching the to and the from. But the return address had no name, just a street and an apartment number in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"Why would you write yourself a letter?" Oliver asked.
"I don't think I did."
"This is delightful," he said. "You have a secret identity. Hidden even from yourself. Maybe you're another person."
I rolled my eyes at this, but it did give me a strange feeling, to see my own name in my own handwriting like that, as though somewhere out there was indeed another me. Oliver pushed out a chair. "Sit down," he said. "For God's sake, open it."
I sat down. I opened it. Of course I hadn't written the letter, but I felt no less strange when I saw who had. The letter was from Sonia Gray. In high school we practiced until our handwriting was so similar even we couldn't tell it apart. This made it easy for me to do her math homework for her, and for us to sometimes leave our names off our math tests, so that I could claim hers, and she mine, because my math grade could survive the occasional fifty, while hers could not. We called this "falling on the fifty," and every time I did it I felt flushed with an exhilarated beneficence. Because I couldn't imagine why Sonia was writing to me now, nearly eight years after we'd parted, it did seem to me that all times existed at once, that she'd mailed the letter from someplace years ago. That was why our handwriting was still identical, neither of us having altered at all the elaborate girlish loops in our Ls and Ys.
"Well?" Oliver asked.
I ignored him, holding the letter away from his curious gaze.
I had a dream about you tonight, and now I can't sleep. I can't even remember exactly what the dream was about—there was something about snow cones, though you and I never ate snow cones together, that I can recall. We did eat a lot of those Oreo shakes from the Taco Box. And remember how we used to stir syrup into milk and make those vanilla wafer sandwiches with peanut butter? It all sounds ridiculously disgusting now.
I've been thinking about you ever since I got engaged. My first impulse afterward was to call you with the news. Isn't that odd? It was like I was a kid again, and we were planning our imaginary weddings, back when I was certain you'd be my maid of honor and I'd be yours. It took me a moment to remember we weren't friends anymore. Ever since, I keep having this feeling I'm forgetting to do something. I look at my list—I've called the caterer and talked to the florist—and it takes me a while to realize, because it's not on the list, that the only thing I haven't done is talk to you.
I have that middle-of-the-night strangeness, when it feels like you've fallen out of your normal life, and maybe that's why I'm writing to you now, as if we were friends like we used to be. Somewhere somebody's playing Madonna, her first album, I think it is. Why do they have that on at three in the morning? Isn't this traditionally a more melancholy time? Maybe they're trying to counteract melancholy. Maybe "Borderline" is the only thing between them and suicide.
You and I used to make up dance routines to Madonna songs. Remember the playroom at my house? All those boxes along the wall, full of childhood discards—an old dollhouse, the Ewok village, a box of stuffed animals loved into ruin. You and I dancing in the middle, doing what we thought were sexy moves. Don't you think that's symbolic? Loved into ruin. I just invented that phrase. I like it. On occasion I've felt like that's what's happened to me. Remember the sock monkey with no mouth? I hated that thing. The bottom half of its face was just a blank. I think my mother still has it in the house, probably to spite me. Remember when we were walking across campus to take a final exam and a bird fell dead at our feet? It wasn't some small brown finch, either, but a cardinal. A red splash. You poked it with a stick. It was truly dead. We were juniors in college but we held hands the rest of the way, we were that unnerved. Remember when we drove up to Sewanee to see that boy I was dating, I can't even remember his name now, and the three of us went skinny-dipping in the reservoir? It was so black, and the stars were everywhere, and the boy was stupid and kept splashing around, but you and I floated away on our backs, and you said that floating there and looking up at the sky was like not existing in the best possible way. I said we should make up a myth about two maidens and the water, but we never did. I guess it's a myth now anyway.
Maybe that's the point of this letter. Is it a myth? Is all of this a myth, what it was like when we were best friends? What I'm wondering now, in the middle of the night, is did those things actually happen? Sometimes without you to confirm these memories I feel like I've invented them. It's a little like being orphaned. That sounds really dramatic, I know, but since I'm a half-orphan I think it's okay for me to say it. There are things about my life that no one else has ever understood.
I wonder about your life now. Do you think about any of this, the myth of you and me? Do you wonder why we were friends, why we aren't anymore, why we made the choices we did? Do you wonder how things might be different if we hadn't? You were never as enamored of this kind of thinking as I was, but even you must admit that parting was a turning point in both our lives. For a while we were practically the same person, you and I.
I don't know what I want from you. I can imagine you dismissing this letter—I think that would be your first impulse, to consider it ridiculous of me to contact you after all this time, no matter what the reason, especially if the reason is this strange feeling I have that you should still be my maid of honor, that if you're not, some part of my past is erased, something left unfinished. I think this even though I know if you were it would be terribly upsetting to Suzette. So I don't know if I'll even send this, though I did track down your address.
I don't know how to sign this, so I'll just put my name.