I met her at the beginning of the end. My time in the country was winding down, and I wanted to explore all options before leaving; I had danced, and so I wanted to sing. My dream was to play the piano and sing simultaneously in an effortless concert—my favorite songs brought to life—but it seemed to make sense to do one first, especially since I believed myself not to be naturally gifted in these areas. I had a musical background in an instrument or two, but that hardly encompassed the nature of melody with both hands. And the songs I wanted to sing—well, they were emotional, with the tendency to unground and draw in on the basis of sadness. Plus, there was romance, and looking at her name on the digital page, I already knew there was a chance. When I had had my first fling with unrequited love and distant longing, it had been a similar thing: I could feel it through my eyes, even through distance, even online—as many of us sensitive to energy can. Her name was different from the traditional spelling, and her last name was an interesting variation on one I had known.
It made me wonder.
A part of me was desperate, wanting to do everything I had come to, so as to have no regrets. Another part wanted to be swept up, taken along and have the stars dance in my eyes. Prior to my visa application, I was limited in the study I could undertake, and that quota had been reached linguistically, from when I had begun learning Spanish, over my initially preferred German. I spent my nights dancing with strangers in the dark, and I felt eminently alive, twirling in their arms, crossing steps.
Now, with time and opportunity on my hands, I approached Ainsley, sending an email to her personal account, after it became clear that the school she taught through was not going to fit my scheduling needs. Ainsley was young, and her website showcased various performances, and pictures from around the world. Notable were the bold words that proclaimed achievement, and youth. I thought a bit about that. She had an agent, and I wondered if she would contact me directly, if at all. Within days, however, a reply was in my inbox:
“Obviously singing high notes sustainably is a lifelong practice but there no reason you can’t learn a few tips to take away. I am an opera singer, but there are lots of things in common between contemporary and classical. Because I teach at a regional school I’m away every other week. I looking forward to hearing from you.
If any of this interests you.”
She was detailed, and seemingly analytical yet uncertain; comprehensive even, but with the occasional lapse in thought and grammar. Her final line rang with insecurity. Do you care? Your opinion matters to me. I could read this because I was psychic, and often picked up on deeper feelings through my eyes.
I was eager to begin, given the approaching time constraint of travel and holiday, that I had been skirting around: I was to return home, to see my grandmother’s estate, now that she was no longer there. There were fond memories and many, many precious moments held within that space, and I wanted to be there at least one more time before it was sold. Hanging over me was the complicated, often tense, tug-of-war relationship with my parents—born of energetic cords, and sustained over distance and finance—made ever the more intense with my growing sensitivity.
There was no avoiding this meeting.
Against this backdrop, I replied to Ainsley’s email, suggesting an early, rather than late, beginning to our lessons. She hedged, saying she had teaching commitments at a school inland and would only be available in a fortnight. I agreed, offering to change the day if it meant an earlier date; being nervous, I sent her a list of songs to learn, knowing the pitch in them would require me to increase my range. My focus was on the music, and my reasons for learning, but already there was a curiosity: What was the lack of precision reflected in the missing commas in her emails? Why did she seem to pay this much attention to detail? It was not typical for the region, and a part of it reminded me, of me.
“Just want to make sure I’m still seeing you,” she texted.
I would travel reasonably far to get to the lessons, but time justified the duration. I got on the intercity train and realized I had been there three months ago, from when I had been heading up to see the area around where my teaching buddy, Yevgeny, lived. He had made the commute to each of our lessons at the beginning of the year, and his talk of train schedules, and drawing of the region, drew my attention, and ire, at the time. Nonetheless, six months later, I found myself heading upstate, far from the comforts of the city streets and back alleys that I loved, to see what he described: The views were astounding. There was a bridge across which, at the right time, during winter, there is a perfect sunset over water; there is beauty in the serenity of a clear, untouched lake, the majesty and naturalness of which, frightened me a little. On that day I had gotten off the train at her station, perhaps in the throes of destiny, not knowing it yet.
It is meant to be, she would later say.
Before the lesson, I found myself checking electronically, to see that she had not confirmed the time. With growing unease, I sent an email, a text, and finally a voicemail when the phone went unanswered. She replied to none. I wondered if she had forgotten, changed her mind, or been scared off by the questions—of which there had been several. I like to analyze in depth and pinpoint with all possible accuracy, any and all scenarios that may occur in future events. And she was the same, giving me directions, instructions and clauses for eventualities: she had sent me a map, with the exact duration accounting for walking speed and preferred route, along with the unit number and vicinity. But then, she had mysteriously not replied to the lesson time, even on the day of.
An irrational fear gripped my mind, even as I made to keep it at bay: What if she had been in an accident? I knew that she drove long distances to the school, and there was a feeling and familiarity in how she told me about it:
“I’m the head of Vocals at the regional school and I’m there for the whole week. Sunday is my travelling day so I have a full day of driving ahead of me.
People tell me all sorts of things but you’d be surprised. Someone sang ‘Never Enough’. And it was a guy.”
She would copy my salutation and complimentary close, too. As if she wanted to match my degree of closeness. I sensed a yearning over distance. Like she wanted me to know where she was, to tell me about being away. It was personal. There is something there, I thought. I admired what seemed to be the dedication involved in making trips into the bush or regional area—because I thought she was passionate about teaching at the time. Rather than allow myself to care, I shook it off and returned to browsing the shelf of a provisions store.
A few minutes later, the phone rang.
Ainsley said my name. “Am I speaking with her?”
“Yes, is this the music teacher?” I interrupted when she started to speak, “So, I was trying to confirm today’s lesson.” I couldn’t quite hear the response. “Have I got the right number for you? Because I didn’t get a reply.”
“I was in a meeting,” she said, disconfirming my earlier fears. “I apologize for not returning your call.” There was a push in her tone, an attempt to keep the balance of conversation further than her feelings.
“You know, I wanted to confirm before I needed to leave.” I felt at ease expressing frustration, which was unusual.
She seemed to mull this over for a brief moment. “As I said, I was in a meeting. So are you coming? Not coming?”
I made a non-committal noise. “I’ll have to check the train schedule.”
“I’ll be driving.”
“Will you be able to text?”
She seemed to know that assent was required. “Yes.”
After hanging up, I walked the hallway to work off the anger and hurt that I felt. At times, I could pick up on other people’s feelings during an interaction, especially an argument or a heated discussion. I had definitely been feeling some anger, and whether or not I picked up on some of her hurt was not clear, because I often felt vulnerable after arguments, in any case. It was possible to arrive for a later lesson than we had initially planned, and so I decided. I texted her asking about forty-five minute lessons, and the reply was instant.
With some trepidation, I began searching for the right platform at the train station. At this time, I was always running late for something: I dashed and weaved around buses and traffic lights, always seeming to pull off the impossible of getting to a place in less time than was required. It unnerved me, and I knew that I was ungrounded, but I seemed to always be chasing after something, running against time as the hands ticked. The intercity trains departed from distant platforms, facing north-south in the evening sun, reflected on the solid brown floor. I consulted the viewing screen briefly, before jumping aboard as one was departing.
I worried about singing in front of her, that it would not be feasible given my tight muscles. I had specified that I wanted to sing high notes, and now I questioned whether it would be physically possible. At times, I would hold back from an argument or direct expression in order not to absorb energy and become tense, because that would deter from the performance I wanted. After awhile, I gave up on trying to clear my mind and the train tracks turned into trees.
Upon arrival, I found my way down a walkway and into a side lane that led directly to her address. The helter-skelter balance on a small sidewalk between schoolchildren and their chaperoning adults somehow felt fitting. There was a small road perhaps branching off a highway that I chose to dash across, and soon I was in the building. I attempted to find my way onto the correct floor, because she was with a student, and inexplicably ended up in the basement with another resident. He directed me to an intercom outside and I messaged to say I could not work the elevator. She did not reply, but after a few minutes I saw a small student with a music sheet in his hand, and I surmised that this was probably the one.
I’ll come get you, she communicated. In a few minutes, a young woman with unblemished, model-like skin in a professional gray dress entered the lobby. I knew it was her from among the crowd. She had a blond ponytail and looked every bit put-together. Ainsley carried herself apart from the other people in the elevator, the way you would think a star would. I noticed I had expectations.
“Ainsley,” I called, seeing her walk past.
She came to a halt in front of me.
I said my name.
She raised a hand to shake.
I frantically moved my shopping bags to the other. Our palms met.
“So, tell me about you,” Ainsley instructed.
I found the air different once inside the elevator. “What kind of thing?”
“Why you want to learn singing.”
“Just for me.” There was a long silence. “Where are you from?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
“English,” I persisted. “Are you English?”
“No,” she said tonelessly. “I’m from here.”
I wanted to believe she had international experience because I did. It meant we could work on songs in different languages and over and above all the other candidates, she had seemed to be more global. But something was perhaps amiss. Secretly, I wanted to be taken around the world, easily and aimlessly, the way my parents once had—free to explore different cities, and learn new languages all without the burden of earning a living or wondering how I would get there. I yearned for an intellectual equal, someone beautiful, and able to challenge me. Something about you is familiar, I thought.
I was surprised when she opened the door to her apartment. Everything was clean and modern, if slightly bare, but more importantly I pondered where to put myself. I lingered in the hallway, waiting for her to enter and then I saw the piano across the room. She headed directly there, putting on black-rimmed glasses, which somehow made me think of the transition from model to ordinary person; I could see that she cared about image. I followed, deciding to put my shopping bags down near the sofa—there was a brief moment of invisible tension as I considered putting them on the seat and her eyes seemed to will me not to.
“I have one of your songs,” she announced. Her blond ponytail was darker than the photos. Ainsley took a tablet and sat down at the bench. “Why do you want to sing in foreign languages?”
There was so much I could say here. Because I can express myself better. Because I can feel clearly; I’m not embarrassed. Because I speak them and I want to hear the accent. I’ve been around the world, and it only makes sense. “Just ’cause.”
She looked at me, wanting more, eyes piercing without sharpness. “Why?”
“I can only help you with the ones I speak,” she said. “French, German.”
This caught my attention, and my heart sped up. They were the ones I wanted to learn next. “I don’t speak those.” After a pause. “Yet.” I grinned, smiling cheekily.
“Why don’t we start with English,” she said flatly.
I could see the lack of emotion, a sort of absence of feeling, and it puzzled me not to detect anything, unlike usual. This was someone who liked to keep their professionalism. And I liked it, because I was once like that.
She started to play the piano, scrolling along the tablet with the music.
“Oh,” I interrupted, smiling. “I need lyrics. You know, like at karaoke.”
“I can probably use this.” She took a computer from the dining table beside us and magnified some lines. It was a famous song, from a movie.
“I’m used to singing with the backing vocals,” I said, a bit sheepishly. “Like, it sings with me.”
“I can sing with you,” she stated pleasantly, matter-of-fact.
I noticed her finger and toenails were painted red. “Uh yeah.”
When we started singing, it was like I wasn’t alone. Though it’s dark / It feels like home. She was there with me. Bring me along / To your world. Through innocent expression and powerful definition, the pop song undulated through currents of emotion. It was about building a reality and making a future. I could feel her feelings stir, and there was a touch of the unexpected; the melody was evocative. From this moment on, the interaction shifted.
I could feel it in the air; I could hear it in the notes. I felt it in her.
A blank wall became expressive.
I asked which version of the song this was.
“The movie edition,” she answered.
Those were always higher. “That one’s harder for me—the pronunciation is less like mine.” I smiled a little. “The cover—she’s from the same place as me. I can always tell when someone’s from here. It doesn’t sound like the original.”
She sat there silently.
“Sorry,” I said preemptively.
“Where are you from?”
“Roundabout same place as she is.” I circled my fingers. “Farther north.”
“I knew you were.” She looked at me, emotion unreadable, certain, confident, but quietly reluctant. Hesitant to claim more knowledge.
It wasn’t my usually attuned senses that were accurate this time. “Yeah, ’cause I told you.”
“No,” she insisted, “I knew from talking on the phone. I know Hollywood, and your accent is different.”
We sang together again, with a feeling of freedom.
Then, the tablet with the music score died. As did the computer.
Every perfect façade has its cracks.
“I used to have a music stand,” she insisted, as if trying to convince herself. “Now it’s—somewhere else. You only wanted a forty-five minute lesson, right?”
“No, one hour.”
She looked stymied, but didn’t waver.
I understood why the dress was gray—neutral tones.
“Wait,” she commanded, going into a bedroom that seemed to be hers. After some inaudible discussion with the other inhabitant, she emerged with an identical MacBook. “We’ll use this.” The offending tablet was plugged into a ground outlet above the carpet. After several beats. “I’ll see if I can remember the melody.” A few halting notes later, she couldn’t. “I knew this was going to happen,” she exclaimed, as if this were an excuse. “I had everything prepared.”
I was silent.
Suddenly the door she had gone into earlier burst open, and a skinny dark-haired young woman in a university hoodie emerged. She didn’t make eye contact. “Is that good for you, Ains?” she asked somewhat sharply, seeming to hang over me.
“It’ll be fine,” the music teacher replied, as if sensing the undercurrent. “It’s at eight percent.”
I wondered how that would be sufficient; I was also resentful of the interruption.
The roommate went to remove some other plug from a cooperating outlet and the moment of awkwardness passed. We were no longer a ménage à trois standing in the doorway.
Next lesson, her dress was red, like her mood, passionate, funny and unpredictable. In the elevator, she asked about my hobbies.
“I speak Spanish,” I revealed.
“Oh, I don’t learn at a school, just with native speakers.”
“That must be fun.”
“I’m not that good,” I said over my shoulder, in the hallway.
“You do what you can,” she seemed to disagree.
We went in the front door, and again I felt a sense of familiarity as she held it for me. It’s like we’ve done this before, I thought. Like coming home.
“Would you like me to open a window?” she asked. “It’s so muggy.”
I went to stand beside the piano.
“You know, I just got back today,” Ainsley said from her bedroom door. “After you, I left on Wednesday, and then I arrived this morning.”
“Seems you travel a lot.” I remembered about the regional school on weekends.
“Yeah I do.” Ainsley smiled, going into a room in the hallway and closing the doors.
I thought she looked kind of nerdy in her dark-rimmed glasses.
“I found you an audition version of the song.” There were papers in ninety-degree angles on her table. “It’s not as high. You know when you go for an audition, and the judges don’t want to hear lots of you singing?” She smiled broadly. “So you showcase the best parts of your voice.”
I laughed softly. “That’s funny.”
She looked at me, smiling. “Yeah.”
I sang the verse in the original key. Or tried to. “My voice gets really soft when I sing high notes.”
“We can work on that,” she replied encouragingly, hands prancing along the piano.
I used gestures to signal for when the page needed to be turned.
“Try to imagine you’re hitting the wall.” She pointed in front of us. “Your sound needs to reach it.”
I tried again. “How do you sing pieces you don’t feel?” I asked. “It’s harder to hit high notes.”
“That’s everyone,” she responded amiably. “And if not, you can always add it in.”
“Like, think about someone who makes you feel this way.”
I avoided her eyes.
“Try to open your jaw wider on high notes,” she suggested. “Imagine the sound can come out of a hole in your head—like a whale,” she added.
I gave it a try.
“You need to practice saying your words clearly. That’s why,” she reminded me, “you couldn’t identify my accent.”
I smiled, tongue-in-cheek. “Opera training.”
“I like to perfect things,” she told me. “Not everyone has natural talent in singing, it’s just about knowing how.”
I knew she was talking about herself. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist too,” I agreed.
“I think you’re doing really well.” Her eyes found mine.
“Yeah.” She seemed to hesitate. “My grandmother gave me my name.” Ainsley looked at me. “She’s dead now. It’s English, but I was born here.”
I was struck again by the similarities between us. “I believe you.”
After a beat. “How old are you?” she asked.
“Older than you.”
Ainsley was motionless. “Moving on,” she sang eventually, almost looking at me, flipping the page. “I think you like a challenge.”
“I like it,” she pronounced, ambiguity rife in the air.
Was she still talking about the song? I wondered.
“Would you like to book another lesson?”
I told her I wasn’t really good with dates. I tend to forget things.
“Then let’s look at a calendar,” she offered. I’ll remind you.
“Send you a text,” she said. Then, looking at me, “I do that for everyone—some people,” she corrected herself, almost afraid of giving the wrong impression.
“I’m going away on holiday soon,” I told her. “That’s why I wanted to fit in as many lessons.”
“I’m traveling all next week,” she stated. “When are you going?”
“Where are you going?”
“I—traveling.” I want to tell you; I want someone to know. I’ve always wanted to share it. But how can I tell you about something I myself can’t explain? “I get sick on planes,” I said urgently, needing her to know. “It’s horrible.”
“Where,” she insisted, just as urgently.
The dam was beginning to break. I wondered if she could feel the struggle within me. “Home,” I said finally, tension coiling. The atmosphere was sticky with water droplets. “There are many books on the subject,” I said hurriedly, against the heavy, unshed precipitation of the sky, poised to fall, weighted in perfect balance, suspended in complete silence, pivotal in transition. “You can’t go home.”
The heavens waited. Ainsley didn’t answer.
She walked me to the entrance at the end of the lesson, watching from the door, hesitating a minute too long.
“Six,” she called suddenly, as I passed her. I want to make sure you get home.
I turned in surprise, feeling her eyes on me.
“The ground floor.” Don’t forget.
A week later, I got my visa. She waved at me enthusiastically from the elevator. Her white sleeveless shirt lay in stark contrast to a black skirt down to the ankles. I wondered if she had been at the school.
“How are you?” Ainsley had a broad smile on her face.
“OK.” I found the stuffiness of the elevator uncomfortable.
“What have you been doing?” she probed, always wanting more than my taciturn answers.
“Dance.” I could see her eyes light up.
Her interest was suddenly closer, as if she had taken a step nearer. “Which type?”
“Salsa. I’m more of a waltz person. But salsa is easier to find.”
“You told me that last time.”
“No, I didn’t.” You’re reading me.
“Okay, then it was because you said Spanish.” She wrung her hands.
I know you picked up on it. “Those two don’t go together.” I saw her obvious discomfort. “But you do hear Spanish when you dance salsa.”
“Where?” She slapped the elevator button, with traces of regional mannerisms.
“Just near me.” I didn’t want to give more away. But a part of me wondered what it would be like if we twirled.
An expression flashed across her face, and she looked poised to comment.
But the elevator had reached its stop.
There was something intimate about how we fit in the door. “I wasn’t here again today,” she said by my ear.
Something about me was irked by the sharing of her day. Another part liked to press her with questions, because I wanted to know her.
Once Ainsley had sat down, she began switching on the devices.
“They’re all Apple,” I remarked.
“Sorry.” Her apology was uncharacteristic, wanting to hold on to me. “Just turning everything on.” As if sensing my impatience, she went on, “I drove for six hours today. Since nine in the morning. It isn’t safe.” Her feelings were open, need dangled, lying on the precipice.
“But you can handle it,” I said, with surprising pride in her, ignoring the feeling. “I like pushing yourself to the limit.” You doing all you can.
“You like road accidents?” Her pain was obvious, but there was a reality I didn’t understand yet. Tell me you care what happens to me. That my feelings matter.
I couldn’t give her the concern she wanted. “I liked living on the edge,” I said instead, because it was simpler. “Knowing only you can handle whatever happens.”
She shook her head imperceptibly. We both knew it wasn’t the answer she needed from me. “You like living on the edge?”
“I used to.”
Ainsley swallowed visibly, feeling hurt from a distant place.
“I always wanted to be an astronaut or a pilot.” Now it was me spilling my guts, needing to be heard. I had this urge to tell her about me.
She held on to her feelings.
“But some things are not meant to be,” I said, knowing this put her off. It was a bit harsh, given all that had once been between us. “Don’t you like traveling? It must be exciting.”
“Sometimes it isn’t for me.”
“But you chose to be a singer. Why?” I want to know how you feel onstage. I’d like to watch from the crowd.
“Because I like singing.”
“Couldn’t you be a non-traveling singer?”
The clothes rack from the last time was gone. “I didn’t have that kind of voice.”
“So isn’t it exciting to go places and sing?”
“As I said, it isn’t always for my performance.”
I was oddly invested. “Then presumably there’s a choice.”
“Yes, so next year I’m quitting.” I want to tell you why; so you get my choices.
“That’s good, right?”
“I’m happy about it,” she insisted.
Both of us seemed to have exhausted our words. I looked out the window and saw a white building.
“This week has been really hectic,” she tried again. “And I know everyone always says that, but it really has.” I need you to understand. “It’s been two years. Driving back and forth. Every week.” I’m not sure I’ll make it.
“Don’t you like always being occupied?”
“It means I don’t have a life; I don’t have time to do the things I like.”
I wondered what her hobbies were. I saw the red-painted nails, and the absence of jewelry. And then, psychically, I understood.
I’m not taken. I don’t have someone in my life. Ainsley crossed her legs and held the tablet in front of her. “If someone comes in and walks across, that’s just my sister.”
I stared at her, surprised and uncomprehending. They looked so different.
“She’s going to go in there”—Ainsley pointed to a room—“and not come out. I thought I should tell you.” I don’t want you getting the wrong idea. We’re not together.
We finally began singing. It was hard to hit any of my high notes. Whenever I would go in to breathe and express, I could sense her feelings just there, like an impassable wall.
“You just need to let it all out,” she told me, a bit frustrated. “Connect the notes. Don’t keep stopping.” I know you’re holding back. Why?
“I’m aware.” If I open any further, I’ll touch your feelings.
She was taken aback. “We need to work on your high notes. I sing up here.” Ainsley pressed the sixth octave keys. Then she rose, and went to get something from her handbag over the couch.
I spoke, watching her bend over. “You know, there’s a difference between extraordinary and exceptional.” I’m psychic; I’ll never be normal.
She looked up. “I don’t want to go. Just like you don’t want to go home.” How? Tell me more. In the empty space, she waited. I want to know you again.
I saw her open vulnerability, felt her need, but I couldn’t respond. Not with the atmosphere between us. “It’s a long story. I’m not sure we have time to go into it.”
Her mouth opened and shut. She shook her head, eyes framed in black-rimmed glasses, in contrast to the lightness of her hair.
We tried singing an easier song, but something about it was odd. I couldn’t really get into key and it seemed she was playing slightly off.
“You wouldn’t believe, this song is done in so many majors,” she exclaimed.
I questioned whether she had ever been playing in the right one. “Do all singers play the piano?”
“I’m not much of a pianist,” she confided, wanting to share herself.
My heart warmed slightly.
“If you just practice these three, that should be plenty.”
“You sing, you dance, you speak Spanish,” she recalled, silencing the phone as it rang.
“Those don’t need practice.”
“No,” I interrupted a bit harshly. And, sharing more of myself for closure, “Every gift has a burden. With every challenge, comes a reward.” More than you know.
“If you could, would you do it all over, and be a clerk or a storeperson?”
“No.” She stood in one motion and a familiar wall went up. “I like my life. I’m not complaining. It’s just been hectic.”
The intercom buzzed then, and she answered it in genuinely warm, friendly tones, with none of the angst or hesitation involved in our interaction. The wall was still up.
I wondered if it was for them, or me.
The wind blew strongly downstairs, as it was apt to, this season. I contemplated the interaction as I walked. Something seemed to be wrong with the lessons. I knew she was focused on performing, and would never be fully prepared. At the same time, she cared in her own way, and something was just beginning. But it wouldn’t go further; on some level, I understood that there wasn’t enough attraction between us. I didn’t actually care about her, which puzzled me. Because at the same time, I felt her feelings, knew her pain, recognized her. And she got me, in a way that few did. There was a connection between us that transcended time. In my head, it was the perfect pairing. So what was wrong?
I decided to find out, coming to a stop while the leaves continued.
As I had done many times before, with eyes shut, I sought the past.
This is what I saw.
His eyes were contained in black-rimmed glasses, framing a face that was oval. He was average looking, nothing spectacular. Clothed in an old turtleneck sweater. He carried a cup of coffee in his hand, and came to sit at our dining table. “You don’t love me.”
I sat facing the kitchen, thinking what to say.
His hand massaged the mug. “I think I’ve known for awhile.” He stretched out his palms to me, and I took them. It was like he knew. There was so much sadness in his eyes, yet unfeeling, like a wall. “If you don’t want me, I’ll go.”
He worked with wood; outside the paned window were trees felled and cut. It was a forest on the outskirts of town. There was a car he took to jobs all over.
In our hands, it was like a psychic connection. I couldn’t debate what was obvious. I cooked but without effort, feeling. Always unprepared, never really excited.
He wasn’t the man of my dreams. I was bored. I should never have chosen him, but in those days, a woman wanted stability, and he worked tirelessly to provide a living. We had known each other since grade school. His world was the town, but mine wasn’t. I sought the horizons, not an everyday existence, and daily life bored me. I had all the freedom and leisure in the world. It just didn’t feel right.
We shouldn’t have been together.
I wasn’t the kind of person who could settle.
The ground was dark brown where the dry earth was wet, and there were footprints.
When he rose to leave, I should have called him back. But I didn’t care.
The telephone rang while I was stirring the pot. When I got to the scene, a fiery wreck consumed the overturned car, with the back windshield shattered open.
He was buckled into the driver’s seat, and our kid sat in the front.
His eyes beseeched me, willing me, asking as an open question. Do you care about me? There was begging in his gaze, but no reproach.
I was free to choose. I think he had gone through the country, driving to this spot, wanting a decision. I chose the child. It wasn’t because I loved him that much. I didn’t.
He knew my answer as the flames closed in.
At the funeral, his best friend came up to me wearing dark clothes. I knew this woman.
“We were just friends,” she informed me, insisting on it. “I was like a sister. He was always true to you.” Why didn’t you love him?
I didn’t like her.
And the pieces fit together.
I came back to the present life.
Her first words to me.
The reversal of circumstances.
Both of us had feared road accidents, as if one had already happened when the phone rang. She had left her emails with an open question, “if.” But Ainsley had also wanted me to care enough to say it, to choose her, even as a teacher in this lifetime. We had been together once, as lovers and family. In this life she had a sibling who was also in that one. I remembered she had asked my permission to go in her sister’s room that last time. Ainsley had tried to take care of me, protecting me, but we were always equal; and she had told me about her day, like the man returning. There was an attraction, but it was not forever. Her home had felt like mine.
Because it once was.
A few days later she sent an email I couldn’t decipher. “I’ve forgotten the lesson. Please remind me.” There was hidden feeling in those words. Is everything okay between us? Because I want to see you again. The formality in her language was like an apology. Like she knew my final glance in her corridor had been goodbye.
I gave her a dismissive reply, because I wanted to forget; I was looking for a life partner, and she wasn’t it—both of us had absolute standards and high expectations—and I couldn’t see us having a fling, as attractive as she was. So I went home and came back the next year, ready to move on. She sent me another email, from her school account. It was unlike her to use exclamation marks, and I knew the emotion was for show:
“I hope you had a great holiday season! I see you’ve registered for lessons with me, but I’ve taken a job at a music school in a different city. I’m excited about it! I’ll be moving in two months. I won’t be around this year, but I’m hoping to maybe do online lessons. If I see you…I can keep feeling this way.
Let me know if you have any questions.”
Privately, she sent me a text, though I had requested she not use my number while I was away:
“Dear (I saw my name),
I’ve just sent you an email. I won’t be at the school, but I can continue to do lessons at my home if you like what we have been working on. I know something’s wrong…but give me another chance?
Hope you had a great time at home. I care about you.
This was a lot closer to her emotional landscape, as I could read it intuitively. When I had watched her doing showreel performances prior to meeting, I had been surprised by how little affect seeped into even the most expressive notes. It was unusual for a singer not to emote.
I debated whether to answer, knowing there was nothing I could really tell her. I was set to begin a new chapter in life, and there wasn’t enough between us for me to consider moving.
I felt her sadness in the words, but she also knew I wasn’t satisfied with the lessons, and both would have been necessary for me to continue.
A month later, she sent another text:
“Just wanting to know if you got my email.”
I wanted to reply, but in the end I didn’t.
When the world got crazy with the pandemic, I hovered over my inbox again. I knew that her city was harder hit than mine, and I wanted to see that she was okay, just to make sure. But I couldn’t say anything, without starting things again between us.
I’ve known you.