Monday, July 13, 2015

The Arbiter

Okay, so maybe posting this short story will help me finish it... be kind! 


I make my way towards the crowded subway station like a robot. Every Monday I start this journey again, I walk from my small apartment on the upper east side to the subway station. The commute to my middle class, low paying job is one of observation. With my earbuds in my ears I watch everyone as they pass me on their way to pay a debt that most will never see cease. It's routine, it's mundane... and I've always felt like I was made for more. My job as a photo editor for the city's newspaper keeps my routine in check. Either I'm editing photos of cute animals that saved a woman from a heart attack, or photos of the dangerous man caught in the wrong place in the wrong time. Every moment of this life is details.

As my feet hit the pavement of the stairs leading to my train I think that today could not be any different than any other Monday. I sometimes wonder if it will ever be different. I have imaginations of the train derailing somewhere down the line, not hurting a single person, but I get to call in and tell my boss that I won't be able to make it that day. Or I'll be the one to catch a lady being pick-pocketed and I can intervene, making good of a terrible situation. Maybe it's strange that I have such a vivid imagination at the age of 28.

Then I feel the hand on my shoulder. 

I turn to face a woman that I've never seen before, but she looks eerily familiar. She has long gray hair that holds her slender face like a picture frame, and blue eyes that are so deep you think you could fall into them.  Her face is lined with wrinkles in all the right places, laugh lines and those little brown spots on her cheek bones that suggest she climbed mountains and explored wildernesses. I take her all in. My eyes are trained to see the small details, and I find her's in an instant. 

"Hello." She says, smiling from ear to ear.

"Uh, hi..." My voice seems to stammer as I realize she is intentionally speaking to me. After imagining all the scenarios in my head to make my mundane an adventure, I never imagined a simple hello.

"I've seen you every day for almost a year now, and I thought that it was time for me to say hello to you. It took me a long time to find you, but I never could work up the courage until today to say hello." Her cheeks seem to illuminate as she speaks to me, and her strange blue eyes are like pools, deep and majestic and I'm certain that I've seen them before. Why is this so weird?

My mind can't seem to comprehend this. She's seen me almost every day for a year... and she was looking for me? The questions that flood my brain are unceasing. I have to speak to her, but all I can seem to do is stare. Speak Penny, speak!

"Oh yeah..." awkwardness floods my tone. "I take this train every day to my job off of 43rd, I'm surprised I've never seen you before." I try to match her level of creepiness, but it's just not working. This lady holds a special place of strangeness in the world. My self-preservation techniques are starting to kick in. 

"I like to watch everyone at the station, but I've never seen you before." Did I really just tell her that I'm a people watcher? I definitely matched her creepiness, but on a whole other level. "I write stories about them in my head... I pretend I know them."

Okay Penny, when I said speak I did not expect you to sound like you belong in an asylum. But her eyes never stop glowing and her smile still graces her face in the most beautiful way. 

She chuckles. "Oh, your vivid imagination has not changed one bit! I do the same thing, there is creativity that brings life in the imagination of one who has not out grown it."

Her statements confuse me. How in the world does this woman know me? And why does she look so familiar to me? Where has she been hiding that she sees me every day? The questions stop in my head abruptly as I realize that I have missed my train in this strange transaction. 

"Oh gosh, I'm sorry. I just missed my train, I'm going to be late for work!" I'm trying to sound panicked, but I secretly have been wishing for a moment like this. 

"Well, since you're going to be late... would you like to grab a cup of coffee with me?" Her inviting smile makes me want to skip work and just go. I don't know why but I want to know more about her. I want this to be my adventure. I want today to be my moment that something happens. Then without thinking I blurt out the words that would change my life, "Yeah, I would like that. By the way, my name is Penny."

"Penny, what a beautiful name! You can call me... Mrs. H." 

She had to think about that... what her name was. I don't understand it yet, but I'm going to figure her out. 

*          *          *          *          *

I grab my phone and call my boss and let them know that I just won't make it today. Something about trying to get to my train and not feeling well, so I missed it. Thinking back on it now, the conversation did not make sense at all. My boss quietly obliged to giving me the day off since I've never called in before. I felt a pang of guilt, but at the same time I have to know what this is all about. Plus, how dangerous could an old lady be?

Mrs. H and I walk back up the steps of the station and out onto the street. This part of town seems empty as most have gone to work already, and I realize that I have never really been out on a week day. There is something so beautiful to this occupied ghost town. Have I really missed the simple pleasures in life? 

"Where do you want to go?" I ask casually as if talking to an old friend.

"There's a sweet place on the corner about two blocks down. I found it when I got here, and I go there frequently! It's a quaint little place really." 

I'm guessing she's not from the city, no one around here would ever use the word quaint. 

"Yeah, The Brewers House! I know that place, my husband and I go there sometimes to unwind after work." Suddenly I wonder if she has seen us, if she's been watching us there too. Does she know Matt? Has she been watching him too? Shudders go down my spine as I realize I am walking to a coffee shop with a complete stranger. Granted she has got to be pushing 65, but who knows what she's capable of. The voices of reason are attempting to rouse my newly deaf ears. 

I begin to imagine she has a team of men waiting out back of the coffee shop with a rusted up van waiting to kidnap me and drive me from New York to Mexico to be sold and never be seen again. My palms are sweaty and I have to wipe them off on my pants. She notices my gesture of nervousness and speaks calmly. "I haven't been in a city in a long time, well not since I came here to find you. My husband and I used to live in a city right after we got married, but we decided that just was not the life for us." 

Our small talk about simple details have brought us to the coffee shop before I could realize where we were. She holds the door open for me and we walk in together. As we pass the threshold I realize that she is the same height as me. Almost down the the tallest hair on our head. 

We find ourselves a seat in the back of the shop away from the voices of those who are already in deep conversation, or those who sit behind laptops working away. I envy those that get to work from home... I'd certainly be here every day. We sit at a small round table. The kind of table that is made for intimate dates or solo coffee excursions. I think she realizes that I'm feeling uncomfortable again because she begins to talk with that voice so full of wisdom. Soft and comforting, her words cut through me.

"Never grow old. It's not all it's cut out to be." The corners of her eyes curve downwards as I see the smile leave her for the first time since we met. "You know, it's so overwhelming that I finally get to talk to you. I've waited for so long. Mr. H was never sure if it would work, but I assured him that I'd find you. I had to find you."

The sweetness in her voice is the only thing that steadies me when she speaks strange mysteries like that. I want her to cut to the chase, why is she here?

"So, I have to ask you Mrs. H. Why exactly have you been watching me for a year? Where are you from? How do you know me?" My tone is starting to demand answers and I realize that I should probably apologize for coming off so crass, but I just can't seem to spit the words out.

"I understand how strange this all may seem. Let me tell you a little about myself. For the last 37 years I have been living in the mountains of Colorado with my husband. We packed up and moved after we realized that we just could not keep doing life in the city. Something always seemed to be missing to us. We tried hard to make it work in the city, but we were both so unhappy. We were dying for adventure. Our lives always seemed to cry out for more, and our marriage was paying for it."

The way she speaks draws me in. Her voice sounds so familiar, like someone I've know for years. Maybe I've dreamt of her, but this just seems so surreal. I breathe slow as she tells me more about her life with her husband and those beautiful mountains. My imagination paints a picture that seems almost too beautiful to behold. But it's not just the mountains that captivate me, it's the stories about her life with her husband and sweet kids. It seems to me that her life has been one that I've longed to live.

"I must be talking too much, I hardly know anything about you!" She excitedly awaits for my response.

"Oh, well... I mean, my life just isn't that interesting. Not like your's anyways." I suddenly feel the urge to make up some crazy story about my life to interest her. Something in her eyes demands honesty though.

"Right now it's just Matt and I. He works in computers and technology, and I work for a newspaper company editing photos. I am trained to make pictures look their very best. It's nothing special, but I like what I do." I look down at the table as I fumble for more words, but I realize that I'm just not that interesting.

"That sounds like a good life." Her eyes meet mine and I'm annoyed by the tone she gives me. What does she mean that's a "good" life!? It's a great life! 

I'm miserable! 

I'm bored with it.

She's right. Whatever she's implying, or what I think she's implying... she's right.

"You should really believe in Matt." Her words linger pregnant with intent. And I'm over the hiding, whatever it is she's keeping from me.

"Okay, that's enough! You have to stop this little hinting game, you need to tell me who you are or I'm out!" My face goes hot with anger. I can't stand this any longer.

My hands are squeezing my coffee mug as I wait in anticipation the words that will leave her mouth, if it were not made of ceramic I would surely crush it. Her hands reach down for her purse and I'm on edge waiting with karate like hands. I don't know a lick of martial arts, but I'm certainly ready to pretend.

She lets out a belly laugh that brings strange peace. "Calm down! I know you don't know karate, and I know I've upset you and frightened you, I'm sorry." It's funny that she knows that about me. Her fragile worn hands bring out a wallet. She begins to rifle through it as I see her grab a few small items. An old coin and some photos. What in the world, is this woman out of her mind?

"Now, what I am about to show you is not to frighten you by any means. When I was your age I went through the exact same thing, so I know the fear that is racing through you right now." Her sweet words are falling over me in a strange way.

"It's sweet that you feel like you can identify with me, but until you prove to me who you are I don't believe you for a second." My tone still strikes angry. Fearful anger racks my body as I'm prepared for this lunatic to be on with it already.

Those hands worn with adventure slide the old worn coin across the table. I pick it up and my eyes have to adjust for a moment as I take in all of the information on the tiny keepsake. As soon as I pick up the coin I recognize it. My fingers turn it over and over again. I reach down for my wallet and remove the coin that I've had since I was a child. My grandfather gave it to me right before he passed away. It was an old WW2 Navy Coin. He was given the coin for his honorable service in the war. It was a one in a million item, or so he told me. 

Then it hits me.

I begin to shake as I look up at her and realize why I've known her. 

The coin is identical to mine. The same spots from years of wear, and not to mention her convincing hiding spot. As I turn the coins over I see the name that I was waiting to see. Bruce A Worthington II. This is impossible.  

She's me.

"I know you. I am you." The words slide gracefully from her mouth like they were practiced for years. 

This is insane. Either I had too much to drink last night, or I'm dreaming. Maybe I'm even in a coma somewhere and this is the life that I have imagined for myself to make everything more interesting. Leave it to me to make a coma interesting. 

She senses the sliver of doubt still present in my mind and slides me her driver's license. I pick up the Colorado state issued ID and see her name and date of birth. Everything matches. I have got to wake up.

"I know this seems strange, but it's true. When I met you last you were my age. It really took some convincing for me too, and she warned me that it would be more difficult with you. I suppose this has been going on for some time now." Her words still sit strangely smooth with me. I can't even begin to think of words to say to her. 

"Here are some photos I think you should see." She slides them face down to me, four photos in total.

The first picture I turn over is a man in his early 50's it seems. The photo is worn, but the smile on the man is one that I'm ever so familiar with. It's Matt. Even at that age he has a way of captivating me. The only strange thing is that the Matt that I know is in his late 20's too. I'm terrified to even turn over the last three. I have an odd feeling that these are lives I have yet to know.

The first one is a girl, and in the photo she looks to be around 17. Though I've never met her before I would recognize those eyes anywhere. Those deep blue pools reflect back at me and an ache shoots through my chest. She has Matt's forehead and chin. Her long beautiful hair covers her shoulders, and I know immediately that she is mine. 

I can't wait any longer, I turn over the last two at the same time. Each is a photo of a boy. One who looks to be 15 or so and the other around 12. My boys! I've seen them before in dreams that I have had, but they were never this old. I see the familiar twinkle in their eyes that I've seen a million times before when I've looked at Matt. It's such a joy to see them, but my heart beats hard at the ache I feel over them. Tears start to roll down my cheeks. 

"Matt and I have had trouble getting pregnant. I was certain we wouldn't have children at all." I haven't settled this whole situation yet, but something in me gives permission to be honest with this version of myself. I begin to shudder and shake my head. This is not real.

"I just... I don't believe it, I've been drugged... this isn't possible. Time travel is not real." I stammer my words as I push myself away from the table. 

"Pen, wait... don't go. I really need to talk to you. Things are not okay where you're at right now. You can't stay here. You have things to do." 

She's reeling me in again. Why is this happening? 

"You have to make a decision Pen, what's it going to be?" 

There she goes demanding something from me again.

"I can't... I just..."

My heart is pounding in my chest... I am demanding arbitration... from myself.

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