A Love Story For The Ages
A Love Story For The Ages
Paul shuffled toward the ticket counter, maintaining his place in line. He gave a momentary acknowledgment to the idea that he could have gotten a first-class ticket, been able to avoid the line and have a roomier seat, but only for a brief instant, because really, he didn’t care. He didn’t care about much of anything now.
The bag at his feet didn’t contain a lot. Some basic toiletries, a change of clothes and two changes of underwear, his iPod — and the box containing his wife Moira’s ashes, which she’d wanted to have scattered in the sea off Hawaii. He’d do that. It was the last thing he could do for the woman he’d loved for years.
One of the two women.
The other was his best friend, at least by email, other than Moira. He and Angelina had dated some during their freshman year of college, decades earlier. They’d corresponded over the next couple of years while he was in the army, then lost touch with each other until a fortuitous reconnection via email a few years ago. Much too far apart to see each other, they remained long-distance friends and became very close over the years and across the miles.
She was gone now too, killed in an accident on the same day as he’d lost Moira. It had easily been the worst day of his life. His face was utterly expressionless, all of his anguish and despair securely bottled up inside. When he reached the counter, he produced his e-ticket and tucked the second copy, in case it was needed for his return trip, back into the pocket of his bag. He didn’t care if he came back; he had nothing to come back to, now. Nothing at all. The thought of returning to that empty house left him utterly unmoved. What was going to happen in the future was not even a question in his mind.
When boarding was finally announced, once again he took a place in line and shuffled along until he could finally claim his seat. He dug out his iPod and stowed his bag in the overhead compartment.
After the plane reached cruising altitude, he listened to one tune on the iPod, then put it away. One cup of coffee, then he reclined his seat a bit and dropped off.
Paul didn’t sleep well on airplanes. This time, his sleep was bothered by a dream in which Moira and Angelina were jumbled together.
Normally, sleep had been the only time in the last five days when he hadn’t been in pain. Not physical pain; for that, he could have taken something. No, this was a pain deep in his heart. A pain that made his very soul weep. Losses in combination so painful that he could not escape them in any waking moment. Despite his outward expression, he wasn’t unemotional. Quite the contrary. He felt these losses more deeply than he could ever remember feeling anything before. Pain throughout his being, but keeping it bottled up, contained and away from view was the only way he could avert a total meltdown.
Now, though, he couldn’t escape his pain even in his sleep.
A gentle hand shook his shoulder. “Sir, you need to put your tray table up for landing.” Paul’s eyelids opened momentarily and then slammed shut again. Tears were welling in his eyes and he refused to let them be seen. He fumbled his tray table up, out of the way, eyes still closed, and then turned his head so he could look out the window as he wiped them surreptitiously. Farmland to the side as far as the eye could see, while off in the distance ahead of the plane, a mountain range loomed blue-gray out of the haze. Everything looked so quiet and peaceful.
Suddenly his eyes widened. Land? Mountains? I’m on a non-stop flight from San Francisco to Honolulu! Ocean! Islands! More ocean! There’s no mountain range or farmland like that anywhere near Hawaii! What in the hell is going on? Where am I?
He closed his eyes for several moments, willing himself back to reality, then opened them again. Farmland and mountains, just as before. He pushed his head back into the headrest and stared, unseeing, at the bulkhead before him. This is crazy. Absolutely, totally crazy. I’m on my way to Hawaii. I got on the right plane. I put the carry-on with Moira’s ashes right above me. I know I did. The only things I should be seeing are either Oahu or open ocean. Maybe one of the other islands. That’s it!
Firmly, he stepped on his rising panic. Going off the deep end wouldn’t solve anything. Remain calm, don’t lose it. There’s got to be a rational explanation for this. Or at least some sort of explanation, even if it’s not rational.
An old-fashioned paper ticket wallet was sticking halfway out of the pocket on the bulkhead to his front. As he reached for it, his gaze fell on his arm. That’s not my arm! My arm has a big scab right there, purple marks all around it and a couple of good-sized scars! And I don’t wear a watch! He twisted the arm experimentally. The skin remained smooth instead of developing the crepe-paper pattern of ridges he’d gotten so familiar with in recent years.
Panic again tried to grow inside him. He struggled with it, refusing to let it take over. As sanity, or at least the appearance of sanity, finally prevailed, he tried to stretch out his legs, only to find that something was keeping them contained. He looked down to see a guitar case at his feet. Where did that come from? Can you even take one on an airplane any more? Anyway, I haven’t played the guitar in almost forty years! He ran his left thumb across the fingertips on that hand and felt the calluses.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. When that didn’t work, he tried again. Finally he opened his eyes and took a look at the boarding pass in the wallet. Froze.
If that slip of paper was to be believed, this flight was about to land at Stapleton Airport in Denver. In 1966! He was on his way to college again! He closed his eyes.
What the hell happened to Hawaii? And to my life? I’m about to hear a voice welcoming me to the Twilight Zone, bet on it. Although it sure would explain the farmland and mountains. But Stapleton’s gone! It’s condos, and shops, now, and ...
I’ve got sweat dripping down my arms and I absolutely want to panic. I will not! I’m not going to let myself go off the deep end. I’m too old for that. Well, my mind still is, anyway.
Motors whined as the plane’s flaps extended for the final approach. Paul let his memory range back over the last five days as he braced himself — not just for landing, but for whatever lay ahead.
Five days ago, he had awakened in the darkness of his wife’s sickroom to utter and complete silence. The long, drawn-out time of her slipping away had ended. Her spirit was finally free to soar, loosened from her failing body.
Her death meant other things had to be done, other processes had to be set in motion.
By the time Moira’s body had been taken from the house, the sun was well up in the east. More chores, more calls would be necessary, but they could wait until he had gotten some real sleep in his own bed.
Equipment had to be removed from the house, various rooms had to be cleaned. Some groceries were needed. Paul had been doing little except caring for Moira, never leaving the house, for well over a week. By the evening of the second day after her death, Paul had begun to think about eating, but he still couldn’t muster the interest to actually do so. He’d had nothing except coffee since the last day he had tried to offer Moira food. She hadn’t taken any of it. Neither had he.
On the third day, he took his first mug of coffee out onto the west-facing deck. In his favorite chair, looking at the Pacific Ocean in the distance, he at last made the effort to actually deal with his pain. If nothing else, his own life was still going on. He simply couldn’t continue giving in to the depression as he had been doing.
Presuming that the steady diet of nothing but coffee for days didn’t kill him first, there were still things that absolutely had to be done. The light on the answering machine was blinking steadily, as it had been since ... was it yesterday? Or the day before? He probably had a hundred or more emails waiting, too.
He pulled a pad over by the answering machine. Phone calls were probably more important. Emails could wait. Most of all, he needed a friend to talk to, someone who could help him deal with the grief and turmoil. There was one such friend, way across the country, and he’d email her as soon as he’d taken care of all the messages that had been waiting.
He and Angelina had settled into an email friendship years before. All those years of not being in touch, then almost as soon as she had emailed him on a whim, they grew closer than they had been way back when. Not frustrated lovers, not really. By now, simply important, close friends.
Actually, he could talk to her on the phone now. She’d invited him to once, years before, when they were still setting the boundaries for their relationship. He’d wanted to — but he also recognized that he wanted to hear her voice too much, so he had begged off. Now, he didn’t even have a phone number for her. He’d make sure to ask for it with the next email he sent. Maybe they could even see each other face-to-face now. That would go a long way toward easing his pain. No matter what else came — or didn’t come — of it.
She had been widowed two years ago. Misery, sympathy, tears, an electronic shoulder to cry on from a distance, advice — they all flowed back and forth across the miles. Both of them understood by then that what they were missing was not something that could be repaired, replaced, or regained now; they were both regretting choices made years before, choices unable to be undone. Right or wrong at the time, those choices had been made nevertheless. Time only flows one way. They could still be friends and were. He had been there for her. Now he was the one in need, and she was the one to whom he could turn.
When he was finally able to get to his email, he scanned what had come in. Those from Moira’s friends could wait. So could the ones from almost everybody he knew. Mostly he was looking for one from Angelina.
But ... among all of the ones he’d expected, there was one other, from a name he didn’t immediately recognize. The sender was Paul McBride. Where did he know that name from? The subject was Angelina Ruddick. His heart raced and then skipped a beat. He opened that email first.
Mr. Grainger: You don’t know me, and you may not know my name, but I am the son of Angelina Carson McBride Ruddick, and I understand from my mother that you and she have been friends for many years. She asked me to contact you in the event that something happened to her. There is no easy way to say this, but I am very sorry to have to tell you that she was killed in an automobile accident two days ago.
The memory of his reaction to that message was still just as painful as it had been two days ago, yet he could not stop replaying it in his mind, keeping the wound open and fresh. There had been more to the message, but he had stopped reading right there. Automatically he had checked the date on the message as soon as he had read that deadly initial paragraph; it had been sent the day before. Two days before that made it the same day his wife had died. In one day, one much-too-short day, he had lost both of the women in his life.
Right then, something shriveled inside him. Today, five days after their deaths, it continued to weigh in his mind as though it were still now. After reading that paragraph, he had been immobile, unable to move. At the time, his heart continued to beat, unbidden, but only because the heartbreak could not still it. Only because his pain did not, could not, stop its inexorable metronome beat. Finally the tears had begun to flow.
Even now, he still felt the anguish, the hollow at the pit of his being that he had felt then as he eventually rose from the chair and stumbled to the bar. With exquisite clarity, he remembered pouring himself a stiff Scotch. He had drained the glass in one long, throat-searing swallow. When that failed to help, he poured another. Raised it to his lips before setting it down again, untasted. He then dropped to his knees, oblivious to the shock of landing on them. Slowly, tears falling freely, he bent over, ever so slowly, until his elbows were on the floor and his face was against the carpet. He had remained huddled there, shaking with the sobs and grief, tears flowing silently and soaking the carpet, until he was completely spent. Tears for Moira, for Angelina, for himself — did it really matter?
Now — he had been taking his wife on her last flight, the one he’d dreaded ever since she had fallen ill and it had finally become clear that no recovery was going to be in sight. There would be no last-minute miracle to restore her to health. When he’d boarded the plane, between the loss of his wife and Angelina, he had no idea how he was going to go on. Truth to tell, he had had no interest in doing so. This trip had been a duty to Moira. But now ...
That ticket, that unbelievable boarding pass. How could they be correct? If they were, that would mean ...
That would mean that this was almost fifty years in the past. His past. His earlier life. Doing it all over again — while remembering close to fifty years of what seemed now to be the future!
The whole idea was utterly ridiculous.
He raised his arm and looked at it again. Twisted it this way and that, watched the skin as it moved, flexed and remained smooth. Then he bent forward slightly and regarded the guitar case. The case that now lacked the Tolkien elvish script he’d had painted on it some time ... several months from now, actually. Straightening back up, he sat very, very still.
Am I dead? Did I just drift away in my sleep? If I’m dead and on my way to Boulder, then is that heaven or hell? Or is this even real? If it’s an afterlife, then it’s one I’ve already lived, which makes no sense. As for whether it’s heaven or hell, that probably depends on whether Angelina is here or not, doesn’t it? But — Jeez! Boulder as heaven? I can’t manage that. No way. Nor hell either, come to think of it.
His mind ran on, mostly in circles. If he was here now, then what had happened to the future him that was on a plane to Hawaii, that had his carry-on with Moira’s ashes? For that matter, what had happened to those ashes? What — Whoa. Either he was really here, in which case that hadn’t happened yet and the box of ashes, like the rest of his things from then, was off in some future Never-Never Land, or he wasn’t really here, in which case he was simply dreaming.
Or maybe there were other possibilities (a padded room? Let’s hope not!), but — again he forcibly stopped himself. Unless he woke up and found he was still there, he had to figure he really was here. About to start college all over again. Or at least act that way.
Since he seemed to remember the intervening years, maybe he could avoid making some of the mistakes he’d made earlier, like flunking out and winding up in Vietnam. Like not having any idea what he was going to do with his life. Like marrying his first wife. Like not — like not making more of an effort that year with Angelina. She should be there, too.
She’s gone! A part of his mind wailed in denial of his hope. Firmly he stopped that line of thought. He’d have to assume that she was here, just as she had been. There was simply no bearable alternative. And perhaps this time ...
Boulder, Colorado. 1966. Was it really? It felt right, as far as Paul could be certain. As far as he could recall. Those were some old memories from his distant past. Well, they had been, anyway. Sure felt like the present, now. The resemblance was — no, resemblance wasn’t the right word if this really was his dim and distant past. Or should that be the dim and distant present? There ought to be a better word than resemblance, if only he could find it. The machines in the airport had looked like they had the right newspapers in them, not that he’d paid a lot of attention to them the first time around. He looked around the dormitory complex.
He had found a concrete bench on the east side of Kittredge Commons that commanded a view of the entire dormitory complex. He looked around, working at simply remembering everything what he was seeing. At least as a newly-arrived freshman, he wouldn’t be expected to be familiar with any of it. Paul could see all four of the dorms, each in glass and buff sandstone, surrounding the pair of ponds, although Arnett, the farther men’s dorm, was almost eclipsed by Andrews, the one to his immediate left, where he now lived. His gaze traveled slowly along the textured concrete walkway system around the complex. Several mallard ducks were paddling in the far pond, without a care in the world. They hadn’t just awakened almost fifty years in their past, had they? Two more nestled in the grass on the shore of the pond. For a moment, Paul envied them. No more worries than whether some student would approach them, no more concerns than food and weather. Such a simpler existence.
At some point, Paul realized that he was unconsciously, automatically, squinting against the brilliant Rocky Mountain light. The intense sunlight, which in his previous experience had been such a change from that in suburban New York where Paul had grown up, was an even greater change from coastal Oregon. For that matter, everything looked sharp and in focus compared to how his eyes had been just — Jeez! Just this morning! A bit of a wry smile that would have puzzled anyone watching crept across his face. I guess I don’t need glasses any more. Good thing, since they’re gone now, too. Everything looked just as it had when he last saw it in ... well, in May of next year. Oh, brother. If this is real, if this isn’t me already way around the bend, then the grammar alone is going to drive me crazy!
Firmly he took hold of himself. It’s way too easy to overthink this. Let’s assume it really is what it looks like. After all, if it isn’t really what it looks like, then I’m definitely a candidate for one of those jackets with the too-long sleeves that buckle in the back. Assuming I’m not in one already, that is. At some level, Paul could feel panic trying to build within him. He refused to let it. If it really is what it looks like, then I definitely have to act properly.
There’s another question. Or series of questions. Why? Why me, why now, why here?
Landing at Stapleton, retrieving his luggage and finding a way to get to Boulder — those had been comparatively easy. Significantly easier, in fact, than they had been originally, if only because age and experience had made him much more comfortable with the process of getting out of an airport and making his way to strange places, much less one that wasn’t a total unknown now. The utter lack of any sort of airport security made doing it so easy. In some ways, that, more than almost anything else, had been the critical bit of evidence of the reality of when he was. Where was simple, but when — that was the real stumbling block in his own belief.
Trying to carry a large suitcase, a good-sized carry-on and a guitar case had been a bit of a challenge. Of course if I’d been choosing my luggage, knowing what I’ve learned over the years, this damn carry-on would have been a backpack. Leave me a free hand for the guitar. No such luck here. Happily, Stapleton was close to the city center, close enough that city buses ran through on their regular routes. Paul had managed to get his load outside and figured out where the buses stopped. Arranging everything so he could actually walk, once accomplished, was easily repeated. The bus dropped him at the station downtown where the Denver-Boulder buses started out, and stowing his luggage under the bus was routine at that point.
Once in Boulder, Paul had found that most of the few taxis in town were rendezvousing at the bus station this day. There were going to be plenty of fares with students coming in from all over, needing to get to wherever they were going to be living for the school year. He caught a ride to Kittredge with two other freshmen and wound up sitting in the back seat, hugging the guitar case upside-down and wedged in beside someone else’s suitcase. Nobody did much talking during the trip. That was fine with Paul. He wasn’t really in a chatty mood.
Checking in, finding his dorm room, stowing the guitar (with a quick glimpse inside the case first, just to make sure it was as he remembered it — it was), hanging up some clothes and arranging the rest — those had been simple. His roommate, just as before, had been pleasant, but Paul’s primary concern was elsewhere. By the time he was able to leave the dorm with a clear conscience, there was less than an hour until the dining hall began serving dinner. No time to go looking around.
Sitting on the bench where almost everyone coming up from the dorms would have to walk right past him, he had time to let his mind consider just what was going on. What the hell had happened? How had he slipped in time? For that matter, how had he managed to hold on to his memories? And why had it happened? Why had it happened to him?
He didn’t think he was going crazy. Had gone crazy. What does crazy feel like? How in hell would I know? The panic tried to move to the fore.
Firmly Paul stepped on it again. No matter what, acting sane couldn’t hurt. Might help. If nothing else, acting crazy definitely would not help, regardless of whether he had actually gone off the deep end or not.
His mind was still running around in circles, and he realized that he absolutely had to control it. Let’s be properly analytical here. What are the possibilities? One: I’m really here, it’s really 1966, and I’ve got the incredible golden chance to do it over again while remembering where I went wrong before. I get to do it right this time, or at least better. Not screw my life up so completely again.
Two: I’m not here, I’m somewhere else. Still on the plane? Still in bed at home, with Moira by my side? Someplace else that I don’t even know? Angrily he squeezed his eyes shut until they hurt, seeking the pain to help validate his consciousness. If I’m dreaming, I’m ready to wake up now. Nothing seemed to change. I’m waking up now, and when I look around, I’ll see the real world around me. Cautiously he opened his eyes. Nothing had changed there, either. Still Boulder. Still (presumably) 1966.
Why me? Why here, why now? How in hell can I answer that? I certainly can’t do it by rational analysis, because it just isn’t rational to begin with. I also can’t keep running around in mental circles like this.
Well, if I’m really here, what next? Obviously, classes. A major, probably a different one than before. And maybe ... dare I hope? Angelina? He looked out over the complex for several minutes, although he wasn’t really noticing anything. Do I know what I’m doing here? Obviously not! If I knew what I was doing here, I’d be a helluva lot more relaxed about all of this. At least I’m not as lost as I was the first time around. So keep on acting normally. That’s a workable choice no matter what’s going on, and face it, it’s loads better than doing something worse.
Normally! I’ve just been dumped almost fifty years in my past, my own past, with my memories, and there’s not one damn thing normal about that! Stay calm and at least pretend to be normal. Fake it until I make it. Better? I’m just one more run-of-the-mill new freshman. Yeah, right. I’m just your run-of-the-mill sixty-five-year-old teenager, about to start college. All over again. Lightly he banged his head a couple of times on the sandstone behind him. Just hard enough to hurt a little. Sort of like pinching himself. Nothing changed.
At least some of the groups and associations he remembered wouldn’t have formed yet, since the students had just arrived for the new school year. Freshmen had just barely met their new roommates, as he had. Older students probably wouldn’t all have touched base yet. But whether individually or in groups, soon enough all of the students living in Kittredge would be coming up the walk with nothing more than dinner on their minds.
As he continued to watch, outwardly calm and inwardly highly agitated, he exercised all of the patience he’d learned in almost fifty more years of living than he’d had the first time around. Gradually students began to approach. He watched the girls and largely ignored the guys. None of them had really meant that much to him then, and he couldn’t imagine that was going to change. The girls, though — one here, one there. Then a couple of pairs, probably roommates, coming from Smith Hall, the closer girls’ dorm, talking quietly.
Paul spent a few moments considering the fashions. Demure dresses, skirts mostly above the knees but not that far, blouses, a few girls in jeans. Not all that many. No bare midriffs, no obviously braless girls. The weather, were it 2013, would certainly have brought out some of both, but not now. This was still the time when Paul couldn’t have gotten past the common rooms of the girls’ dorms. The girls in those dorms still got locked in at bedtime. Definitely not the world he remembered. Not the recent one, anyway.
A knot of girls coming up the walk from Buckingham. Several more singles, a number of couples. Then another knot of girls from Buckingham and he realized with a start that he knew them. Had dated a couple of them, before. Had been even more involved with one of them then. Oh, my God! That’s ...
He sat up straighter and opened his mouth to say something, but then, abruptly, he remembered that they didn’t know him from Adam at this point. He closed his mouth and slumped back against the stone wall behind him. They glanced at him as they passed, without recognition or any particular interest. He found that it hurt, at some level. Not a lot, but some. Definitely.
Some of the other students seemed familiar. As he saw them, his frustration and pain grew. There were people of both sexes who seemed familiar enough that he felt he should know them, but whom he hadn’t encountered at this point in the school year, whose names he couldn’t remember after close to fifty years. A few girls he knew he had dated once or twice, but hadn’t met yet this time around and until now, had forgotten as well. He would probably never get to know them now. Again, faces he knew but whose names he could not for the life of him recall.
Yet no matter where he looked, there was no head of bright, ash-blonde hair, loosely gathered into a lively, ever-mobile ponytail. Another stab of pain, and the heart-gripping fear that her death then meant she wouldn’t be here now. That probably wasn’t a rational thing to be thinking, but what about this was rational? Here it was 1966, and he was remembering almost fifty years of memories after this! If he was going crazy, was this how it would appear from the inside? Or was its sheer normalcy proof that it really was happening? Or — firmly he took hold of himself. Act as though it’s real, he told himself. Act calm, act rational. If it’s real, I have to. If it’s not real, well, I’ll worry about that later. No matter what’s going on, acting normally won’t make it any worse, after all. Okay? Just relax and ... and go with the flow. Whatever’s flowing.
Finally, the trip down memory lane, or whatever this was, especially coupled with the constant strain of restraining the persistent near-hysteria of his mental soundtrack, became too much. Paul had had enough. More than enough. He leaned his head back against the wall and, with eyes closed, quietly began to hum the tune he’d hardly stopped listening to for days, Angelina. Students walked by, unheeding. None of them could hear; the sound of his humming wouldn’t have been audible five feet away.
A never-forgotten voice murmured quietly in his ear. “‘You and I, one heart that beats for two. What could go wrong?’ It fits, doesn’t it? I used to think I’d hate that song before long. Then I got here and figured that I’d finally gotten completely away from it. Suddenly, at least from you, it’s the sweetest thing I could possibly hear.”
He turned his head to find her sitting beside him, intently watching his face from inches away. Just as he remembered her. His eyes widened; he was momentarily paralyzed. The same intensely blue eyes, the same — just as beautiful as he remembered. Maybe more — he felt his heart skip a beat.
Then a wave of cold ran down his spine before he collected himself. “You’re here.” Oh, that’s absolutely brilliant. Jeez, Grainger, couldn’t you come up with something better to say? Something memorable? Something ... immortal?
She smiled at him, and the effect was like the sudden warmth of a spring sunrise washing over him. “We’re both here, aren’t we?”
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