There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled. There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled. You feel it, don’t you?
I am going to start at the beginning. Where else would any story start? Thing is, I’ve had many beginnings. We all do. Each one leads to the next in a tantalizing dance of circumstance and synchronicity. But this beginning? It was different. It was the deck of cards folding in on itself, forming a neat and purposeful pile. It was the leaf that drifted down from the sky into the perfect space between blades of grass. It was the beat of heart echoing tenderly, lacing itself between eons of silence.
It was the beginning that all the other beginnings were made for, and all those to come were molded from. It was the beginning that taught me that there is no stopping a soul determined to awaken through love. Until that night, I couldn’t hear its whispers. The world was just too loud. And, that particular night started the same way-born in muffled sound. It intertwined its song with a monotonous and melodious throbbing, sad and soft, that came from my headphones, my heart pumping surges of ache to its quiet rhythm.
The unevenness of the train tracks was made obvious through the not-so-subtle movements of my body, each sway jolting my tense muscles, its rattling steel mingling with my ricocheting thoughts. When I leaned my head back, water pooled beneath my lashes. My dark eyes were ominously awaiting the next phase of release.
Buildings and trees and traffic blurred by. Power lines dipped and arched as if they were in motion. Life’s canvas meshed and moved before me, undulating in an impressionist painting of the dusk winter sky, and allowing solace in its numbing and blearing beauty.
I couldn’t explain it then, but there was something. Something about what lay ahead that smelled like summer. Something hot and free and alive, while wading through the dead of winter. The future was being painted in real time and I drifted through it, lulled by trance-like visions and urged forward by the mysterious and gentle tug of magnetic pull, each moment delving deeper into the unknown.
I sat this way (drifting forward, swaying sideways, and sitting in place, all at once) until the train’s momentum began to slow, about an hour between its starting point and destination. With the change in momentum, the blurred view transformed rapidly into something with more structure; a city of sharp shapes and concrete contours. I could not maintain my trance amongst the distracting detail, so I lifted my head to look around the train car.
The passengers had begun to rouse themselves from their traveling inertia. They made their way toward the still-closed doors with strained postures. They threw bags over their shoulders, tapped their feet and squinted their eyes as if impatient glares would force time forward. I did not stir. I sat milking the last moments of forced respite. The songs in my ears became my metronome, beating to times graces as the train slowed at its own pace. Only when it gave its small and final lurch did I gather my things and make my way toward the platform, looking at the ground as I climbed the stairs.
Penn Station was bustling, as usual. The customarily diverse crowd of weekday commuters was even more-so a patchwork of myriad forms on that night, people running here and there on weekend excursions, alight with that certain sense of possibility that a Saturday evening brings. The air was electric for that reason. I felt it on my cheeks, but where it met me, it sizzled and died, its light escaping like a drop of cool water on a hot pan. None of that energy could permeate my shield, an armor encasing my body in something much denser, and wholly unyielding. Innate and effortless manners of being for everyone else, reflexive actions like smiling, laughing and breathing, were laborious for me. It had only been a week, but it was difficult to remember how these things ever flowed from me without force.
My Aunt Athena once told me that when a dog dies, they take a part of our soul with them. It’s not their fault. They are only trying to help. They are so good at holding our space for us while they are here, that our energy becomes a part of them. The problem, once they leave, isn’t actually our Swiss cheese soul. It’s the fact that we don’t know how to fill in the holes with anything other than sadness.
The night before, I slept by Amelia on the bathroom floor. She liked the cool of the tile and the hum of the pipes. She wasn’t gone. Not yet. But I already felt as full of holes as a decade old rag.
I swallowed around the lump in my throat. The musty heat that permeated the station made its way into my lungs and laid heavy in my chest. My exhaustion was palpable, the desire to sit down surpassing want and quickly approaching need. I pulled the headphones out of my ears and maneuvered through the sea of people, grazing shoulders as if I were trying to weave through raindrops. The waiting room in the train station was not where anyone wanted to be; not anyone native to New York, at least. We knew better. But, since one of the side effects of desperation is a shift in priorities, I made my way there without a second thought. There was a chair in the far corner. It looked grungy and overused, but it was the choice with the least populated surrounding space, so I placed my bag on my lap and let my shoulders fall, settling into the uncomfortable seat as comfortably as possible.
The quickly vibrating energy of my nerves clashed with the slowness of my lethargy, a dichotomy that pulled at my insides. Edgy restlessness, when paired with debilitating weariness, is a vexatious combination. I was sure I looked rather pitiful, hunched over and pale, red eyes glazed over, but I didn’t particularly care. I was sure no one else did either. My eyes found a single focus, the space where two walls met sharply with the ceiling above, hoping that I could stare at this space long enough for its to edges blur, its surrounding space to blacken into fuzzy periphery. But the more I tried to will it, the more elusive it became. Thought was taking precedence over numbness. Thought tends to be frustratingly more powerful than most things.
I wanted to get this meeting over with before it even began. My options consisted of a few choices in varying degrees of courtesy and consequence. I could, of course, turn around and go home. “I’m terribly sorry,” I’d say, “but because of a circumstance out of my control, I will not be able to keep our appointment this evening. My apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused.” And we would reschedule, or not. I could also stay, and go through the motions. Do my duty without any extra effort, answering questions concisely, being sure not to ask any of my own, and as quickly as possible, move on toward my own more pressing matters, regardless of the outcome. Or, I could stay and shove my shaky hands into the pockets of my jacket, attempting to feign my lack of stability with a mask of eagerness and vigor. This, I wasn’t sure I could pull off, however. My muscles were too tired to smile.
I let these options percolate as I stared at my chosen spot on the wall, fluctuating between choices as endurance waxed and waned. That unearthly pull that smelled like summer continued to tap me on the shoulder. It was so faint it was almost imperceptible, but it was persistent. I had shoved so many things into periphery that week. It was necessary, but still, it was true. Perhaps, this could not be one of those things.
I checked my phone.
Still no messages. We had never met. Not in person, anyway. He was important. I knew that, and not just because that’s what I was told (though that is what I was told), but by the way he presented himself. His emails were short, but sweet, painted with simple confidence and absolute knowledge of his craft. They were somewhat professional, but more so, unrestricted. The casual demeanor was a direct result of the nature of our dynamic, it would seem, being introduced through a mutual friend, even if it was for business purposes.
I met this mutual friend, Jason, at some party a few summers back. We were polar opposites, and maybe that’s the reason we got along. Where he was brash, intense, and loud, I was gentle, subtle, and reserved. No one understood the allure, but he was always a good friend to me. Truth is, we balanced each other out. Each of us needed a little bit of the other’s natural essence, and each of us saw that the other was far more multifaceted than we let out to the world.
“I have this friend,” he said one day, as I sat in the passenger seat of his red Ram truck, watching the highway. “He’s a great guy. Really talented. I wonder if he’s hiring.”
I had been searching for new work for a couple of months. Any leads were appreciated.
“I’ll throw him a message tonight,” he said.
I was intrigued, but not enough to get ahead of myself. I thanked him with sincerity. He flicked his right hand in the air and shook his head in a no big deal kind of way.
“You never know,” he said. “Maybe something good can come of it.”
I typed up an email that night for this great and talented stranger named Arun. I assumed the name was Aaron at first, but his email address altered my conjecture. They were totally different names, they just sounded the same. The email included my bare-boned resume, and, as graphic design was a recent career change for me, a portfolio that contained very little outside the realm of student work. I was nervous to send it to him. Embarrassed about my lack of experience. But fear of failure can have a funny way of holding us back from success, and I knew logically that I didn’t have much to lose. Except for pride, but that’s all relative anyway.
I added a short and sweet line of text thanking him for taking the time, took a deep breath, and sent it. He was gracious enough to respond that same evening, proposing we find a time to meet. A favor to Jason, I’m sure, but appreciated all the same.
With busy schedules and the upcoming holidays, our meeting took a while to come to fruition. I didn’t want to be pushy, but weeks had passed since our last correspondence, so I eventually sent him an email.
I’m sure you are very busy, I said, but I am still very interested in meeting with you, when the time is right.
I gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back for my bold move, which wasn’t as much bold as it was out of character, and waited. A short while later, Arun invited Jason and I to take a trip into the city the following Saturday night. We wouldn’t want this to be all business-y, he added, calming me with the casual nature of the invitation.
When the day of our meeting rolled around, however, the timing was dishearteningly awful.
Jason couldn’t come after all, and I was neck deep in life-circumstance of my own, doing whatever I could to help my best friend Amelia hold onto life. Arun expressed that he was happy to move forward with the plan, just the two of us, so it felt particularly irresponsible to cancel at the last minute. And more importantly, aside from courtesy, there was that particular something else there. The something that smelled of summer. The one that wouldn’t let me sink into avoidance. Showing up was the responsible thing to do, of course, but this push—this push came from somewhere much more instinctive. I was blind to its purpose, but I saw its essence like a light in the fog: muted, blurred, but particularly bright against the damp, night sky.
It was something I could not shake.
So, on that night, for that intangible reason, there I sat, on a sticky chair in a train station in Manhattan. I scanned the room for a screen that listed the outgoing train times in running color-coded lists, just in case, though I knew I wouldn’t leave. I knew I wouldn’t. I just hoped I could make it through the evening with some semblance of poise. That I could find it in myself to take my sadness and tuck it away for a while. Pretending takes a lot of strength.
I checked my phone again, pulling the screen down and letting it jump back up to load the new messages. Cell service in that corner of the station was not ideal. A few new emails showed up in my inbox. The most recent was from Arun, nearly ten minutes before.
I can meet you by Penn Station. En route...
Would he call me, I wondered? I lifted off the chair to put my phone in my back pocket, closed my purse, and got to my feet, shaking off the bleakness that had accumulated on my skin like dust. It would be over before I knew it. I had gotten through worse that week. We all had.
I made my way out toward the crowded station. The congestion was stifling, its stale heat washing over me heavy and hard. I breathed in and out a few times to steady myself, the air loaded with the stories of every passerby filling and then leaving my lungs. It was necessary, breathing consciously that way. The alternative consisted of holding my breath, and everyone else’s. And that was just too much to hold.
I stood up straighter, and in that moment, my phone vibrated against me. I reached into my jeans and lifted it from my pocket, staring at the screen for a moment that stretched out across many. If I were watching the scene unfold in a movie, I’d impatiently assume it irrational that the person on the other end hadn’t hung up yet. But just as time beats to its own drum in the movies, so it did then. I lifted my finger to answer, and it too passed through time that way, as if any sudden movement could shatter the air on the way there, breaking the moment into a million pieces.
It was Arun. He was late, and he was right on time.
“Hello, Selena,” he said.
Something hot rushed through me. I was still for a moment, and then I walked a few quick paces forward, awkwardly, as if the ground were scorching the soles of my feet. It was my name, but no one had ever said it that way before. I repeated it in my mind, but spoke his with my lips, returning the favor.
It rolled off my tongue like a practiced song. Something escaped from a crevice in my chest, like a few stray champagne bubbles making their way through the neck of the bottle. I swallowed hard.
“Are you still in Penn Station?” he asked.
My heart was in my ears, muting the sounds of the station, but I could still hear every word, every nuance of breath that came from him.
“I am,” I admitted, as if guilty of something. “Where would you like to meet?”
“Someplace with some more ambiance,” he said. “Or at least some quiet.”
There was something about his voice. It was the first time I’d heard it, and I noted its utter uniqueness. It was smooth and eloquent, with a simple sophistication that made it sound like he was from another time. It was soft and commanding. Quick-witted and serious. Penetrating and as light as air. It was this and it was that, all at once, and whatever was in between, I found myself instantly wanting to discover. What was this supposed and ridiculous clarity after only a few short words? Perhaps it was the lack of sleep. It all ran through my head so quickly between our words and I don’t know how it fit into such a small space.
“Come out on 7th avenue?” he asked. “Stay on the phone with me so I know who I’m looking for.”
“Great,” I said, “I’m on my way.”
We were quiet as we maneuvered toward our mutual destination.
That unique surge of energy lingered. It came as a surprise, considering minutes before my tank had all but run dry. But, there it was, percolating in my chest, and running both up and down my spine.
I got my bearings in space and looked toward a large stairway that opened up into the night air. I began to walk swiftly, one foot in front of the other, and with the momentum came enough vitality to send me climbing toward the mouth of the station. There was lightness in the air there, especially when compared to the stuffy, stale confines of the station. Crisp, fresh, still, and somehow quiet amongst a sea of tourists and car horns.
My phone was still clasped in my hand and resting on my ear, connecting me through the ethers to this mysterious stranger.
“I’m here,” I said.
“I’m mere feet away,” he said.
When I looked up, I could have sworn I heard the distinct sound of a click as the entire Universe aligned.