Middle age endows its members with, amongst strands of grey, bushels of gifts. Most are neglected, others embraced, but none must go unnoticed. Years accumulate, begging the excavation of long-buried relics—memories tucked under blankets of time. Unlike meticulously dusted deposits of Jurassic carbon, the artifacts of days past have a tendency to uproot hurriedly from their beds of layered age and blindside their intended targets well before those souls might sense their approach.
By day, he answered phones. He answered customer questions. He answered to a man who answered to another who he’d never met. It was mediocre and monotonous and it didn’t match any of the language on the three diplomas tucked nicely in a folio and hidden in his bedroom closet, but it was a job. He didn’t have to bring it home with him, save for the times it’d stowaway, presenting itself as the phantom ringing of the office telephone lingering beneath the ding of the microwave oven bell or in the stale, calculated way he’d begun to address the people working at the gasoline station or the grocery store. Robots talking to robots. Is this what we’ve become or is this what we’ve always been? Such were his thoughts when he allowed himself time to ponder on the present.
The girls on the bus had their noses buried in their phones. The glow reflected from their unsmiling faces. He’d look back down to his non-glowing paperback. Each morning dittoed the previous.
One afternoon, just after returning to the cube from a colorless lunch break, he fielded an incoming call.
“Middleton?” he spoke as he verified the address of the caller.
How aptly reflexes can betray even the most guarded intellect. He’d not meant to speak the name of the town aloud! What’s in a name? Who first asked such a dim question? Why, in a name lies the key to unlock all the confined relics from the past, roaring from dormancy in numbers to drown the unsuspecting. With the annunciation of the town from the other end of the line came the involuntary image of crimpy brown hair pulling itself with the rhythm of the salty wind, which in turn lapped the shore, accompanying the frothy waves as they soaked into the sand. Never an evening passed where their figures were absent from the dusky shore.
Nickeled rings squeezed into his fingers as hers clenched, reacting to the frigid waves gracing her bare toes. In her other hand, a pair of worn black sneakers, those kind you slip on, dangled from a loose pointer and thumb grip.
Those words carved and then painted on a splintered wooded sign just visible from the sandy asphalt where they’d traverse from civilization to wilderness as the days dwindled. The days of youth, kindling a love no soul might dare forbid. In the soft corners of his heart, that place, those days, that summer—it remained, just as all lovers at some point in the glory of their coupled paradises wish for the magical power to freeze time. Time no more; age no more, just this moment.
Let’s live in this moment.
She’d agreed. She’d told him if they both shut their eyes tight and hold their breath and wish it so, that it would be. This moment will last forever. Not the fickle sort forever, either. I’m talking time loop. Superlative. Extreme.
Her words, clearer given his heightened sense of hearing with the others cut off, had lasted. As the shiny band of tape within a cassette holds its glossy sheen lest it is removed from its case, the sound of her forever speech on the beach as the sun was swallowed into the distant edge of ocean and played its loop with a clarity that often deceived his mind into perceiving them as happening in the same moment as his recollection. Remembered moments do not die; forever lies in the softest corners of the mind, those so often blocked off by the scoured and souring progression of events that lead to the end, to the breaking points and the final moments we spend with those we once so fiercely loved.
In their case, the moments leading to separation were slowly cauterized, the both of them cognizant of the painful stopping of blood flow to what had made this fleeting promise of a life together flourish. From each other they faded, slipping into the ether, as if a seasonal change in tide had inevitably lurked beneath the surface of that horizon. Kindred spirits, she’d called them in the sheltered middle of the summer, as if consecrating longevity. She’d moved away that fall, and before too long, so had he. Spirited each to their own spheres. The only forever was the constant rolling away from the other.
The place to which he’d not return. Its summers burned too fiercely. Its promise of love, of something that lasts for a lifetime, was pocked with deceit—a deceit too sweet to ignore, too loud to silence from his typically calm thoughts. He dared not return down the dunes to walk the edge of the waves. She remained there, untouched and preserved. Had he gone back to Juniper Beach, had he dared, he knew he’d only find her gaping absence. A hole, the reality of the illusion that kept his ever-stiffening heart limber.
A bare heart safely kept behind the blockade of indifference and defiance to the possibility of newfound love, the brand of heart pumping within his chest cavity, can only be broken by he who possesses it. And so, he’d not dared give it away again. Let them love, he’s think. Let them lose if it comes to that, referring to all who were not him.
I’m in love with the memory.
It’d make a sad tale to any whose hands hadn’t spent the summer sunsets clasping hers. Imagining a stranger’s scowl at what he’d made his life into did not faze him an iota.
“Middleton,” the voice on the other end of the line clarified.
“My apology. I heard you the first time,” he uttered, as if again he’d not meant to speak.
“If that’s the case, why request a second iterance?” The pitch was strained and scratchy, a recognizable femininity sewn into the edges like a cotton fringe.
Saucy, he thought.
“Well, it’s just,” he paused as if thumbing frantically through his mental dictionary to find the words best suited for the lie, only to see each page inkless and blank.
He bit his lip, hard. “I knew someone in Middleton once is all. Decades ago.”
Her breath pulling away from the receiver registered into his ear.
“In any case,” he spoke, hoping to reestablish the professionalism of the call. “What may I assist you with this afternoon?”
The breath came back out, held too long, he thought. Folded into it was an airy sigh. “You don’t happen to know how it is a fickle forever turns the most carefree spirits to stony, solitary souls, do you?”
He looked at the solid green square of light on his phone to ensure that this call was an actuality. Then he looked behind him, as if one of his coworkers, none of whom he ever acknowledged beyond an elevator chat, might have tapped into the line and his backstory and his thoughts and—of course they hadn’t.
“Middleton?” he whispered.
“Juniper Beachhead,” she breathed the words as if they were a swarm of mist grazing his freckled cheeks, taut with a smile, brought with the tepid sea breeze.
He pulled the phone from his ear in order to thwart the audibility of the noise made by his throat. Slowly, he pulled the portal to his crimpy-haired, barefoot, beach-combing companion back to his ear.
“Are you there?” she said before he could gather another paltry collection of words to offer.
“You went back to Middleton?” he said, trusting the voice on the other end belonged to his that which did his memories.
“Yes. I did. I don’t think I ever left.”
Neither had he! “Neither have I,” he said, smiling through the phone. For the first time in years, save for when deep within a memory, a genuine smile it was—a gift amongst the greys.