The Girl On The Other Side

Black Oak Tree

Photo: Jason Sturner

Assignment: A fantasy romance

The word “fantasy” has connotations when it comes to popular stories; elves, armour, capes, quests, maps, and places and names that are hard to pronounce. But, luckily it’s a pretty open-ended term, too. So, I decided to do a sort of W.P Kinsella meets Frank Capra style fantasy tale.

As for the romance part, I figure the engine of all romance stories hinges on the theme of choices; “which road should I take? What happens if I choose to embrace love? What happens if I don’t?” So, that theme made me think about another one that is equally compelling to me; meeting a version of oneself that chose a different road where love is concerned, and the things that they might want to say about the results.

***

On a quiet Sunday, I took a walk into the scruffy woods at the end of my street. I had inherited the house from my Dad who passed on a few years ago; a little post-war bungalow I’d grown up in. He’d loved my mother quietly and unassumingly. But, it was an intense love. They loved me too, their only child whom they had very late after a number of adventures together as a couple.

And when Mom passed away just after I finished school, I think he felt a level of loneliness and a sense of bereavement that he never really got over. Despite this sense of loss, I think he also felt a sense of gratitude for having experienced the kind of love that I think he knew that not everyone gets to have. I think he wanted that for me, too, although he never came out and said it. But, I’ve never really been the kind of guy to get a lot of female attention, or one to seek it. I prefer my books, the garden in the backyard, and walks in between the trees alone. For me, they’ve always been the safer bets. I’d leave the romance to Catherine and Heathcliffe, and maybe to the memory of my parents, too.

But, that decision was about to become way more complicated.

I slipped into the trees that Sunday. The path twisted around into a lush cluster of verdant shadows. The sun filtered through the leaves, and I could hear the applauding sound of the brook not far away. I walked onward, letting my brain ramble on about nothing, drifting from thoughts of my parents and the void they’d left inside me. I stopped and sat underneath my favourite tree, a beautiful black oak with the dip in the trunk that seemed made to fit to the contours of my leaning back, even now that I’ve grown up. It was perfect. I’d always called it the Magic Tree growing up. But, there was a plan to clear these woods to build condos, a development probably to be called something like “Black Oak Gardens”, or “Shady Oak Towers”, without any sense of irony. Pretty soon, I thought to myself, this tree and the area around it would be someone’s living room, or kitchen, or garage, with condos rising up and swallowing all of the greenery in the name of progress, or of a widening tax base for the city. My favourite tree would be a memory.

Then, I thought about her. How she popped into my head in that moment, I wasn’t sure. Maybe it was because I’d been thinking about all of the things I loved, but over which I felt I had no control.  Her name was Sydney, a temp in the office who’d started about a month ago. She was beautiful, and she had a musical laugh. That sounds like a cliche. But, it really was musical, I mean literally. She was talking to one of the salespeople in the hall once, and I heard it. It was like a melody. I think the first time I heard it, I really thought someone was singing to themselves. Then one day I looked over the edge of the divider of my cubicle, and this laugh was coming right out of the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She had straw-coloured hair, and bright green eyes. Her teeth were straight, except for one which was charmingly crooked. When I saw her, something happened to me.

I’m twenty-four, and I have never fallen in love with anyone who wasn’t on the screen, or in a book. For a while I really thought there was something wrong with me. I’d see friends and their girlfriends and boyfriends, and not feel the slightest twinge to have what they had. Romantic love was something I found in stories, not really in my own life, and not really expected. But, then I saw Sydney, with that musical laugh coming out of her in the track-lit hallway, and that was that. There was a rush of joy, and then of terror. What was I going to do about it?

“Hey, Ben!”

God, that voice is really familiar. It sounds like a member of my family. But, who? I stood up, and peered around the trunk of my favourite tree, to see who had spoken. And there on the path he stood.

It was me.

Well, it was a sort of cooler me, and just slightly older. He wasn’t wearing an eye-patch, or a long leather coat. He wasn’t carrying a sword, or any firearms. I mean that he just sort of stood there in a cooler, more self-assured way than I would have. But, it was definitely me.

I made a sound: whutta. I think I was trying to say something like “what are you doing here?” but, my brain stopped my mouth from saying the whole sentence. Because it was absurd. You can’t meet yourself. Right?

But, no one told Ben that. I mean the other Ben. Cool Ben.

He held up his hands and moved toward me slowly. He had an expression on his face that one might wear while approaching a frightened child meeting a strange uncle for the first time.

“Hi,” he said, tentatively.

“You’re …”

“Yes!” he seemed relieved that I was going to say it first. But, then he said it first anyway: “It’s true; I’m you. And you’re me. Sort of.”

“Sort of?” I said, stepping back from him. It took me a few beats to discover that I was terrified.

“Yeah. But, don’t be scared. Something sent me here; not totally sure what. But, something, um, told me you’d be here.”

“Sent you? Told you I’d be here? What for?”

“To help you, I think. To help you do the thing you think you can’t do, but actually can.”

I let the silence stand for a couple of seconds. “And … what’s that?”

“Be happy, I think.”

“Happy?”

“Yeah. Look, I know this is weird, and you’re probably really freaked out right now. But, um. I really think you’re supposed to come with me.”

“Come with you?”

“Yeah. Back to the house.”

“My house?”

“No, my house. I mean, um. I can see the pronoun thing is going to mess us up. Let’s try this: my version of your house, in my version of your world. Does this make sense?”

“No. It absolutely doesn’t. But, let’s go anyway.”

He looked relieved. “Great. Look, I know this is weird …”

“Are we going to explode?” I asked.

“Pardon?”

“Are we going to explode or cancel each other out or cause the end of the world or anything? I mean, assuming that I’m not delirious, high, or insane, or all of those, it must mean that you’re the future me or something, right? In all of the stories I’ve read, that usually means some cataclysmic space/time continuum event type thing. ”

“Right. But, uh, no. I’m not the future you. Not exactly. Well, I’m an older you, I guess, by the looks of it. And I’m pretty sure that this is a space/time continuum event of some kind. I think. Just not, you know, the cataclysmic kind. That much I know. And I’m pretty sure that I’m more like the you next door, or the you in the apartment above, or the one below. I’m the you in another universe. ”

“Is that shirt you’re wearing less expensive in your universe? I looked at that shirt last week and was thinking of buying it. But, it was too expensive.”

“I remember that. And no, it wasn’t. Here’s the thing; you could have afforded it. But, you figured you didn’t deserve it. I know because I remember feeling a twinge of that very same feeling when I stood there looking at it on the rack. And then I said “to hell with it, I’m getting it”. And I did. It’s a favourite of mine, so that’s why I remember. I’ve been wearing it for years.”

He was right about what happened with the shirt that day.

“See. That kind of thing is the reason I think I’m supposed to try and help you. Look, um, we should talk. But, not here.”

“OK,” I said. “Let’s go back to the house. I mean, your house. I mean, our house. You know what I mean.”

***

We walked together through the trees on the path that I’d taken to get to my favourite spot by the Magic Tree. I had a lot of questions, and didn’t know where to begin asking them. I suppose the other Ben, or Cool Ben as I began to call him in my head probably felt just as weird about it. But, I also got the impression that he was just letting me settle in with all there was to process, which was a lot. It was kind of a sensitive thing for him to do; not to crowd me, and let me handle things at my own pace. I liked Cool Ben. I loved this guy, actually.

“Look, I, uh, have some questions,” I said eventually.

“Sure thing.” said Cool Ben.

“Most of them aren’t connected. I can’t quite connect anything right now.”

“That’s understandable. It’s pretty weird for me, too.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess that would make sense.”

“So; what’s on your mind?”

“Um. OK. Uh, am I stuck here now? Will I be able to get back to my own world? And will I lose any time? Like, you’re older, so…”

“Well, no. I don’t think you’ll lose any time. I don’t get the impression it works that way. And Yeah, I think you’ll be able to get back when you’re done. Although, I’m not sure what “done” means right now. Maybe that isn’t up to me.”

“OK. I have another one, and it’s kind of a biggie.”

“I’m ready.”

“Mum and Dad …”

“Uh. I’m sorry, Ben. They’re not here. Mum died just after …”

“… I finished school. And Dad died a couple of years after that.”

The weight of disappointment was unbelievable. And I was quiet for a minute. Cool Ben just waited.

“Some things are the same in this universe as they are in mine, I guess,” I said gravely.

“I guess some events are just too big,” said Cool Ben in the same tone of voice as mine.

He was feeling the weight too. I kept forgetting that we were the same person at heart. It got me to wondering how different we really were.

We walked into the sunlight from out of the trees onto my street. But, it wasn’t exactly my street. It was Cool Ben’s street. And it did look different; full of life, brighter, more joyful, and less controlled in a way I couldn’t quite describe. Instead of brown lawns, everyone seemed to have a rock garden out front, all decorated with tall, wild grasses and creeping vine and moss ground cover that seemed to shimmer with verdant life. The colors of each house were wonderfully vibrant too, and each one was different. Yet, they all seemed to fit. And another thing; there were kids everywhere, playing in the street; bikes, balls, scooters, rollerskates, and laughter. There wasn’t a car in sight. Their parents sat leisurely at tables and chairs in their front yards, drinking wine and beers, and eating cold salads in wooden bowls and cheese off of wooden cheese boards. There was music coming from somewhere too, filtering out of a radio somewhere that wasn’t too loud, but loud enough to be enjoyed by passersby. The music sounded kind of like something Al Green would sing. But, it wasn’t Al Green. It was a song that I’d swore I’d heard before, but couldn’t quite place it.

People waved to us – to Cool Ben, I guess – as we strolled by. They called him by his name, and he answered back using each of theirs. I wondered how he was going to explain my presence. His evil twin brother, maybe?

“Wow …”, I said looking around me at the street I knew so well, but didn’t know at all.

“Yup, it’s a cool street alright. I guess yours doesn’t look like this?”

“No. I mean, my street’s OK. But, all the kids play inside, I guess, if there are any.  I don’t actually know of any kids in my neighbourhood. And no one hangs out in their front yard unless they’re mowing the grass, or putting out the sprinklers. I never see anyone just sitting out in their neighbourhood, uh, together …”

“Huh.” said Cool Ben. Then, after a pause “Mowing the grass? Sprinklers? What’s the point of that? We live on the edge of a desert.”

“Well …”

“Here we are. Do you recognize the house?”

I didn’t. But, I did. Everything I liked about my house was in place in this version of it. It was still just the right size, and with a sloping roof, shady porch with a swing my Dad built, and a single half-moon picture window on one side that let the morning light into the living room. But, this was a hyper-cool version of it. Like the others, it was painted vibrantly on the outside in a kind of mural of purples, and cool blues. The front lawn wasn’t there. Instead, there was a simple rock garden in a style like all of the others on the street, with wildflowers of various shapes and colors sprouting in the center of it, along with a cast-iron bird-bath. The tree out front was a lovingly pruned black walnut, casting an expanse of cool shade to contrast the warm sunshine that filtered down. There was a table and chairs under a blue parasol out front, with a cold pitcher of something refreshing at one end of it. Pouring the pitcher into a tall glass was a woman in a straw sun hat, and a yellow sun dress. As we approached, she looked up and smiled showing an even row of white teeth, with one single crooked one catching a ray of sunshine.

“Hey, baby,” said Cool Ben. “You know this guy, right?”

It was her. It was Sydney.

She stood up, and somehow her smile became even more beautiful. I fell in love with her again. Cool Ben looked at me and smiled. He knew. Then, he looked at her. I think he fell in love with her again, too.

“It’s her …”  I said.

“Yeah, she’s something,” he said to me.

“I’m the best thing that ever happened to you, Brownfield.” she said to Cool Ben, extending her hand and gazing up at me with her green eyes, setting me alight inside.

“Uh, Ben Brownfield,” I said to her.

She laughed that musical laugh. It really was her. And she was at my house. Well, sort of at my house.

“Sydney Green. I’m pleased to meet you, Ben. I know this is weird …”

“Yeah, it is. It really is. You don’t seem that surprised or weirded out. Actually, neither of you do.”

Cool Ben laughed. “We, uh. We’ve been dreaming about this for a while. Like, literally dreaming it. We knew you would be where I found you today. Look, let us show you around the house. I’m sure you’re curious about what it looks like on the inside.”

They showed me around a stylish version of my house, and both of them filled me in on their story. Ben wrote travel and gardening books, and Sydney was his photographer, with a few clients of her own on the side. They’d published a bunch of books together, and had really made a go of it. They met at work seven years ago. It seemed that Cool Ben was a future me in a way, since in this world they’d been together a while. She had been temping while finishing off her Fine Arts degree. He’d been the head of marketing at the firm where I was copywriter in my world. Like me, he’d started in copywriting, but had moved up. It turned out that he didn’t really like management in the end. He preferred writing books. So, he wrote his first book on the side while still with the firm about his trip to India that he took during his last year of college. He shopped it around and got a publisher.

I’d never been to India, myself. But, I’d always wanted to go. And I’d always wanted to write a travel book too. I just never found the time.

Sydney had been to India too, and had taken lots of pictures when she was there. That’s how they connected. Ben had overheard her talking about India in the hallway to one of the sales guys, who (he thought) was trying to get in with her. And then, there she sat at lunch in the cafeteria alone reading a dogeared copy of The God of Small Things.

“When opportunity knocks, you answer,” said Cool Ben sitting next to Sydney.

“You interrupted a sophisticated, incredibly sexy and gifted woman reading a cool book. I was just at a good part when you blundered in, too. Not an auspicious start, Brownfield. ” She punched his arm playfully.

“Cut it out, Green. Look where it got you in the end. Now, you’re married to a living legend.”

“Never believe your own reviews, dude.” she said. They kissed.

We sat in the front yard. Neighbours walked by every so often, trailing kids behind them, waving and smiling on their way to the corner store for ice cream. A cicada started to sing in the heat of the day, and I sipped my lemonade which was spiked with rum.  I felt myself relax. They sat across from me on the same side of the table. They were in love. Anyone could see it, even if they weren’t making a show of it. It just seemed to flow out of them.

“So, how do I know that whatever it is I’m here to do is finished?” I said.

Sydney smiled. “I think that it’s up to you, Ben. I get the feeling that you can leave anytime you want to.”

“I’m not sure I do want to leave.” I said, only half-joking.

“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” said Cool Ben. “It is pretty great here, and we have a great life. But, this world is still a hard place for a lot of people. There may be things that are better about it than in your universe. But, crappy things happen here, too. And Sydney and I have a great marriage, but …”

“…Because I’m very patient,” she said, with a flash of that wonderful smile.

“… But, we still fight sometimes, and let each other down from time to time. We still have to work pretty hard at getting better with each other. This isn’t the ideal version of your life. It’s just a different version of it. That goes for everything you’ve seen in our world. I think it’s turned out the way it has based on choices that people in it have made, or maybe that they haven’t made; just like in your world. That’s my theory of all of this, anyway.”

“Choices. So, is this about me having the guts to go up and talk to my version of Sydney? Is that what this is about?”

“You mean are you being Charles Dickens-ed?” said Sydney.

“Yeah. I guess. Am I the Ebeneezer Scrooge of being painfully shy, withdrawn, and playing it safe?”

They both laughed at that. And I laughed too. But, I really wanted to know the answer.

“I don’t think so. I just think that this is a chance for you to come to believe that the things you want aren’t beyond your reach like you think they are. That’s it. OK. Let’s say you do work up the nerve to talk to your version of my bride, here …”

“I hate when you call me that, you goof …”

“… You love it, Green. Anyway, Ben. There’s no guarantee what’s going to happen. That’s not what this is about. Maybe when you go up and talk to her, you’ll catch her on a bad day. Or maybe one of the choices she’s made or not made on the day you work up the nerve to talk to her doesn’t move her to respond to you in that moment. You might still end up where we are now in some other set of moments. But, you might crash and burn too, like you’re afraid might happen. And maybe in some other universe next to this one, there’s a version of you and me who’s been smarting from that crashing and burning ever since, and living life without her.”

“And she without him,” added Sydney.

“But, I don’t think the end result is really the point here. Anyway, that’s what I think…”.

“That’s what we both think, Ben.”

“…And I think the rest is up to you, man.”

“And remember,” said Sydney, “Your version of Sydney isn’t living on some other planet. She’s on your planet. She’s not on the girl on other side of the barrier between one universe and another like we are. She’s going through some of the same stuff you are. She’s got flaws and worries, just like you do. Believe me. But, talk to her. Find out about her, and who she is. I’m just spitballin’ here. But, I get the feeling she really is as stupendously awesome as you think she is.”

“Or maybe she’s not,” added Cool Ben.

“Oh, Brownfield. Your mouth says no, but your eyes …” They laughed, and kissed again.

I looked at the two of them sitting across from me, smiling warmly back. It struck me then that their love was not a huge, Cecil B. DeMille sweeping romance full of drama and grand emotional vistas. It was more like love as a simple pleasure. Seeing them next to each other, their shoulders brushing against each other, I realized that they reminded me of Mom and Dad in their own sort of way. It was love as embodied by bringing someone a cup of coffee in the morning, or a spiked lemonade on a hot day. It was love like a brief-but-affectionate squeeze of a knee in a dark movie theatre. It was love like an in-joke that only two can really appreciate in exactly the same way. It was the love that is found in the warmth of a single hug that can melt a polar ice cap’s worth of worry and loneliness. In that moment, after hearing them banter and noticing all of the subtle gestures between two people who really know each other, I understood what it was all about. I understood that what they’d built was bigger than anything I’d ever read, or seen in a movie.

I was ready to go home.

“How do I go back?” I asked finally.

“Lean against the Magic Tree,” they both said in unison.

***

When I left, I hugged them both and I told them how much I appreciated what they’d done. They told me that I’d done it myself, and I suppose I had. I walked down that bright, joyful street, knowing that the cheerless, and mundane version of it awaited me. But, that was OK. Because I was taking the spirit of this version of the street with me. As I was about to walk into the trees at the end of the street, a little girl of about seven playing with a group of kids looked up at me. She had wavy brown hair and vibrantly green eyes.

“Hello Daddy!” She said.

I paused. “Hello.”

“Where are you going?”, she asked.

“For a walk. But, I’ll see you soon.”

“OK. I love you.” She said.

And without a pause I said “I love you, too.”

Then, I slipped into the trees again.

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