She was absentmindedly pawing over the grass, ripping it out and tearing off the very tops. She left the pulled-out grass on the ground, letting some of it scatter over the blanket. It was kind of bothering me.
“Honey, weren’t you the one that said we needed this to look perfect?” I asked. We were on the top of a hill in the middle of the spring. The grass was so soft that we barely needed the blanket. Actually, we agreed that we didn’t actually need the blanket, but she had insisted that we needed this to look actually perfect. And it apparently wouldn’t be perfect without the blanket.
She looked down at what she was doing and laughed. “Oh. Oops! Bad habit, I guess. You’re right. From now on, this is going to be perfect.”
I smiled. “Yeah.”
“So, oh perfect boyfriend, what are you going to say to me?”
“Oh, dearest girlfriend, most wonderful of all girlfriends, you are the light of my life, the soul of my heart, the heart of my soul, the—what am I saying?”
She burst into laughter. “I honestly don’t know, but it was beautiful. I really, um, enjoy being the soul of your heart. Whatever that entails.”
We both considered that for a moment. “I don’t really want to think about that at all,” I admitted. “It sounds kind of weird, in retrospect.”
“Like most of the stuff you say?”
“Wow. That really hurt my heart,” I joked back. I fell onto my back and clutched my chest.
She enjoyed poking jibes at the people that she cared about. I had first noticed it a few months ago. I had pointed it out to her, and she had told me that it was just who she was, and that if I didn’t like it, I shouldn’t be with her. Then I had kissed her and assured her that I found it wonderful, just like everything else about her.
“Then I apologize.” She leaned over and kissed me. This wasn’t the first time that we had kissed, but this honestly felt like it was the most intense we had ever gotten. It did feel absolutely perfect, there on that hill in the sunshine, until my phone rang.
She pulled away from me. “Austin, did you forget to turn your phone off?” She had a hint of a smile on her face, as if she thought both that I was ridiculous and that the ridiculousness was endearing.
“Possibly,” I grimaced.
I put my hand in my back pocket. My phone wasn’t there.
The phone kept on ringing.
“I don’t have mine,” she said.
Then I woke up.
I hit the alarm clock and rolled over in bed. Gracie was there, pushing herself up. “Nice to see you awake,” she said.
The dull glow behind the dark curtains in our small Brooklyn apartment told me it was morning. But where was she? Where was that girl that I had been with? And why wasn’t I back on the hill?
Oh. It had all been a dream. That explained it. Still…it was a really weird one in its vivacity. And I had the weirdest feeling of disappointment now that I knew Gracie was here, next to me, instead of the girl in my dreams. Which didn’t make any sense, since I had never met that girl, and since Gracie was pretty awesome in almost every way.
“Thanks,” I replied, squinting and blinking the sleep out of my eyes. “Was the alarm clock on long?”
“Nah, but you kept tossing around,” Gracie told me. “Almost like you were having a nightmare.”
“Yeah, but I’m too amazing and manly to have nightmares.”
Gracie gave me a tight smile. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.”
“Just joking, Gracie.” I dragged myself out of bed, annoyed and angry at the morning. Me and Gracie both had trouble getting ourselves to wake up.
“Ugh, it’s too early in the morning for jokes.”
“But not too early for coffee, right?”
“You have spoken the truth.”
“I’ll put on a pot.”
I yanked on a pair of black pants and buttoned up a white shirt. I wasn’t going to complain about my job as an accountant at H&R Block, but in the middle of the summer, my office casual style clothing got a bit hot. Still groggy, I left Gracie getting dressed in our room and started a pot of instant coffee. Gracie and I both worshipped it in a style that some of our friends liked making fun of. I liked replying by telling said friends that for all the coffee we drank, Gracie and I still had a nice, steady life.
There was a tiny hallway between the room that Gracie and I slept in and our snug kitchen. I, unfortunately, had kept that hallway lined with boxes full of my things. All of the disorganization made me feel like I was really at home. I, a child born and raised in Rochester, Wisconsin, never really felt comfortable with all of the hustle and bustle of New York City. The clutter strewn around reminded me of the environment that I had grown up in. The only problem was making sure that I didn’t stub my toe on some box.
Once in the kitchen, I poured out two bowls of Cheerios and took out some milk. The carton felt a little too light. I opened it and tried to pour some milk out into one of the bowls. It was empty. I almost felt like growling. It was too early in the morning to deal with disasters like milk deficiency.
The coffee was boiling. I poured out two generous cups, blew on mine for as long as I could manage, and took a gulp. It burned my mouth, but it was worth it. I could feel myself coming awake as the miracle mixture took effect.
Out in the hall, Gracie swore loudly and stumbled into the kitchen. She took a sip of her coffee, grimaced as she registered the heat, and blew on it. “Austin, one of your boxes will be the death of me. I get that you like having a bunch of random stuff lying around, but you seriously need to clean up.”
“I’ll get to it eventually,” I said. Yes. Eventually.
“Yeah, right,” Gracie muttered, picking up her coffee and taking a sip.
Well, that kind of hurt.
“Oh, thank god,” Gracie sighed, taking another swig. “What would I do without you, coffee?”
“Most likely sleep through the day,” I joked, glad that we were off the topic of my boxes.
“Maybe I should,” Gracie mused. “Would you mind paying the rent?”
“I can try. Unfortunately, I think that this apartment costs too much.”
“We could move to some small town. The rent is probably lower there. I could be the banker and you could be the radical bookstore owner.”
“No, Austin,” Gracie snapped, squeezing her eyes shut. “It’s still, like, 7 in the morning. I can’t take this right now.”
It crossed my mind that the girl in my dream would have gone along with the joke, but I shook that thought out of my head. That girl didn’t exist, and I would be crazy to start comparing her and Gracie. Gracie like joking, once it wasn’t the morning. Gracie was kind and beautiful and steady and I loved being with her, even if it meant taking the brunt of her anger after she woke up.
“Sorry. I’ll keep my jokes inside,” I promised.
Gracie’s eyes shot open. “Sorry, Austin. I didn’t mean it like that. Just, like, write them on a slip of paper or something, and then you can say them all when we get home.”
“Great. Here, have some cereal. Sorry, but there’s no milk left.”
“God, Austin, did you forget to throw out the old carton again?”
“I really need to take over the weekly inventory of our food.” Gracie grabbed her Cheerios and devouring them without any milk. She gulped down the rest of her coffee, poured herself another cup, and left. She had a job at a bookstore in Queens called Women and Children First. Her job started at 8:30, but the commute took a long time, and Gracie liked to be there slightly early. Her leaving was always my signal to get out of the apartment and get to my own job, which started at 8.
“I’ll get some milk on the way home,” I promised to the empty apartment.
Before going home, I stopped at the small market on Schermerhorn Street a few blocks away from our apartment. I was proud of myself for remembering.
“Anyone home?” I called out. Silence greeted me. I took off my shoes and forged deeper into our apartment. I put the milk in the fridge0 and threw out the old carton. The clock on the oven told me that it was 5:08. Gracie would be home around 6.
I took out my cell and called my dad. I tried to call my parents at least one time every week, and Thursday had become the de facto time, since my parents were both free.
As always, he picked up on the first ring. “Austin? What’s up?”
“Hey, Dad. I’m just calling to check in.”
“To check in? Well, I can assure you that neither I nor your mother have had heart attacks yet. We’re not that old, son.” My dad had taught me the fine art of joking, and he liked keeping in practice by poking fun at everything that I said. “Carol! Austin is calling!”
There was some thumping on the other end. “Austin? Is that you?”
“Well, how is everything?”
I told them that my job was fine, Gracie was great, and that I was still meeting with all of my friends. At their insistence, I went into greater detail on everything in my life. We talked for around an hour. In that time, Gracie came home, holding a gallon of milk. She put hers in the fridge.
She waited until I was off the phone, and then lightly punched me in the arm. “Who is this new man who buys milk for his girlfriend? I like him.”
“His name is Awesome.”
Gracie giggled. We finished up our evening by eating dinner, watching the news, and then quietly talking about our days until calling it a night and going to sleep.
When I woke up, I was in the kitchen. I saw her there, and for a second, I couldn’t even remember her name. Then it came to me. Erin. Dark hair falling in waves over her face as we kissed. A musical laugh after I told her a joke. The way that she would obsessively clench her fists when she was bored.
“Hey, Erin,” I said, feeling overwhelmed by a sense of comfort. “What’s up?”
“That’s a weird question,” she said. “Considering that we saw each other like five minutes ago. But I’ll take it. I have been eating some delicious cereal. Without milk, because we have none.”
“I think I bought some today.”
“Really?” She looked confused. “Because I checked, and I don’t think that we have any. I think it’s awesome that you even considered buying some, though. I’m glad that you’re taking charge around the apartment.”
“Considering that you don’t,” I joked.
“You’ve wounded me! You’ve killed my soul! Wait, no, you’ve pointed out the truth. But, yes, Austin, I will always be happy about you cleaning up my messes.”
“I’m not sure how well that’s going to work out. I mean, when have I ever remembered to clean up? Ever?”
She kissed me. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve chosen the right man. Although we probably need to get a bigger apartment.”
I winced. “So…you want to spend more time away from me? That hurts, Erin!” I groaned dramatically. “Oh, the horror!”
“No!” Erin exclaimed. “I just mean that we’re going to need more room if we plan on fitting all of our boxes into wherever we live while still having room to move around. Either that, or we actually need to” she lowered her voice as if she was whispering something illlicit. “Unpack.”
“We might need to unpack. I mean, we don’t have the money to get a bigger apartment. I work at H&R block! And you work…”
I faltered. I couldn’t remember where Erin worked. But why? We had been dating for a long time. This was a nightmare! I should be able to remember.
“Yeah?” Erin asked. “Where do I work?”
My phone started ringing again. Beep! Beep! Beep!
“Austin, turn off the damn phone, and please tell me that you actually pay enough attention to me to know that I work—”
I woke up with a start. Beside me, Gracie was pushing herself up. It had been around 8 hours since we had gone to sleep…
That dream had freaked me out. I was sure that the girl in it tonight—Erin—had been the same one that I had seen last night. I had never met that girl before. I was pretty sure that dreams were about stuff that you had seen. Maybe she was in some kind of commercial? But that wasn’t the most disturbing part. The most disturbing part was that in my dreams, I was in love with her.
That made no sense! I had Gracie here. I had my stable life. So why—and how—was I having these dreams?
“John finally proposed to Marie,” Gracie told me a few mornings later.
John and Marie were two of our friends. They had been dating since college. They were great together, but the amount of time that they had been dating had made me assume that their relationship wasn’t going anywhere.
“That’s great!” I said. “I’m really happy for them.”
Gracie sipped her coffee. “Yeah. After Marie told me, I just stared at her and said, ‘about time.’”
“What are you implying, Austin?”
We left the house on that note. I didn’t like letting Gracie be mad at me throughout the entire day. Whereas I let arguments go very easily, if left to her own devices, Gracie could easily nurture a grudge against me that would last for several days.
Then I wondered: was Gracie implying that she wanted me to propose to her? We had been going out for about a year, so that would be pretty far-fetched. Still, it was in the back of my mind as I went to work and started taking calls from people who wanted tax returns.
I decided to pick up some much-needed cookies for dessert before going home. It was rush hour, and the trains were packed, so I got off the subway a stop early and tried to walk home. It wasn’t one of my smartest decisions, but I did find a 7-11 that looked like it would suit Gracie and my needs. I entered, appreciating the warmth of the small store and the stark cleanliness that it offered. A bell jingled as I closed the door behind me.
A flick of brown hair caught my eye.
It was her.
The girl in my dreams.
What the hell was—
Erin turned around and walked to the cashier. Trying to act natural, I meandered over to the counter, taking stock of all of the amazingly interesting things on the shelves such as fun-sized bags of Doritos and Asprin. I don’t think that anyone watching would have realized how anxious I was at the moment, although the beating of my heart and the sweatiness of my palms reminded me that what was going on was crazy, possibly hallucinatory, and definitely a cause for my freaking out. I was about to walk up to what was literally the girl of my dreams, the one who I was in love with while I was asleep, and possibly get some answers to all of my questions about weird, unexplainable night visions. And possibly I would finally get to know Erin in real life. Maybe she would be as perfect as she was in my dreams. Maybe this would evolve into something more! Maybe—
What the hell was I doing?
How could I be sure that this girl was even Erin? Yes, she looked like a random girl I had been dreaming about, but that meant nothing! And furthermore, why was I thinking about the future Erin and I could have? Gracie and I were great together. I loved her. I needed to stop being crazy for once, and just settle down.
I turned and left the store.
“So, how was your day?” Gracie asked over spaghetti.
Why did she sound so accusatory? “Fine,” I replied.
“Anything exciting happen?”
Oh my god. She suspected something. Which was ridiculous, because nothing was happening! Okay, I needed to calm down. There was probably nothing weird in her tone. Probably…
“Nothing,” I said. I immediately flinched. I had sounded sort of angry. Which is not how I meant those words to come out of my mouth.
“Whoa there, tiger. What’s wrong?” Gracie asked.
“Ooo-kay, then,” Gracie said, giving an awkward smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
We didn’t do much talking for the rest of the night.
The next few weeks passed as normal. Mostly. Gracie managed to forgive me, and we continued as normal. We spent a lot of happy hours discussing movies and work, books and the meaning of life. We shared kisses and often more. John and Marie kept planning their wedding. Work was still pretty boring. Gracie was still bringing home books that she thought I should read.
Mostly normal—except for my dreams. I had a phone number now, something that I had seen while calling Erin from a light on Broadway to ask if she was seeing the sunset. I knew that Erin had an affinity for sour gummy worms, just like me. (Gracie liked Snickers more. I loved chocolate, but there was just something about gummy worms.) Erin’s eyes were also hazel. (Blue, blue, blue, Gracie’s eyes sparkled at me as we watched a movie together.) She laughed at all of my stupid jokes, and made even stupider ones in response.
Not to mention, I kept spotting Erin in random places. On the subway. Walking down the street. At the café Gracie and I frequented when we were too lazy to make our own coffee. Gracie even talked about a dark-haired girl who she had spent an hour discussing War and Peace with whose name started with an E, or something like that.
Then, on April 5th, a new girl showed up at work.
Her name was Erin Rosser.
Her hair was dark. Her eyes were hazel.
The moment she saw me, her eyes widened.
I’m pretty sure that mine did the same thing.
“Erin, this is Austin Downing,” said my coworker Jackson. “You’ll be a few desks away from each other.”
Erin nodded, gazing at me. I couldn’t tell whether she was angry, elated, or nothing at all. “Nice to meet you, Austin.” Her voice had a few barbs hidden in it. She definitely knew me from somewhere—but whether she was dreaming of me or not, I didn’t know.
“Same.” I made eye contact with her.
“Great!” exclaimed Jackson. “Well, um, mingle! Erin, Austin loves coffee. I think that you said you like it too? Anyway, I need to go.”
Jackson made his escape from the room. I wasn’t sure whether he could sense the awkwardness between me and Erin, or if he was just going to his natural socially awkward state.
I cleared my throat. “So, yeah, coffee. I like coffee.”
“I like coffee too.” Erin looked down.
Oh, boy. This was going nowhere, very quickly. I was finally in a room with this girl that I had been dreaming about, and I couldn’t even muster two words to get an explanation to why my life was being interrupted by this girl.
“You remind me of someone…” I started. Hopefully that would get us closer to the discussion of dreams.
“Cut the crap, Austin,” said Erin, suddenly going steely. “I respect the fact that you like coffee. It’s hard to be mad at a fellow coffee lover” here I let out a half-laugh “but I think that this will be easier if you admit that we’ve ended up in each other’s dreams. Somehow. Magically. So may I just say: what the hell?”
“Yes, you may,” I replied to her final question.
Erin looked slightly surprised. “Then I thank you, kind sir, for your permission. I give you express permission as a lady to ask the offending question as well.” By the time she had finished, she had put on a ridiculous accent that sounded like it came out of some kind of royal court.
“My dear lady! I could never ruin your—I mean, thine—ears like that. How uncouth!” For a second, I almost forgot that there was something weird and unexplainable going on with this girl here. For a second, we were just two friend joking around.
“Impressive vocabulary,” Erin said.
“You’ve hurt my soul!”
The emotions running through the room immediately changed. I had quipped a line that Erin and I used in my dreams—and that reminded me, this was a girl that I had met in a few insane, and by all rights impossible dreams. It made me feel awkward, and from the way Erin was looking at me, I could tell that she felt the same way. Suddenly I felt scared. How did I know that Erin didn’t understand what was going on? What if she was some kind of witch or demon taking time out of their incredibly busy schedule to mess up my life?
“We need to talk,” I said.
“Duh,” she replied. “Starbucks, after work?”
“Coffee…” I dragged out the word, and let out a sigh of pleasure afterwards. This had the intended effect: Erin laughed. She had a nice laugh. I had never heard it in person before, so that fact really hit me for the first time.
“How can I possibly resist?” Erin said. “Try to think of some theories for what’s going on. I’m going to have to ask the universe for a refund on life if we don’t figure this out.”
“I think that if we can’t figure out what’s going on, we need to go past demanding compensation from the universe. I think that we need to go to God, or something. Zeus. Osiris. Um, Brahma.” I mentally berated myself. My attempts at humor were seriously failing. I needed to get back to being my normal self.
“Whatever larger entity that’s out there,” Erin continued.
“Do you have a religion?”
“Deism. I’ll explain later.” Erin walked out the door, and then stopped. “Austin? You’re talking about the dreams, right?”
I laughed. “Yeah! What, you were worried that there was something else going on?”
“Careful what you say to me. I might tell the Starbucks barista to give you…decaf. Dun dun dun!”
She smiled and left.
A few minutes later, after my break was over and I was back at my desk, a few seats away from Erin. It was only then that I realized that I was kind of disappointed. I had wanted Erin to tell me that no, she didn’t know anything about dreams, she was just a long-lost relative of some kind. I honestly would have felt more secure with the assumption that I was crazy, rather than knowing that there was someone else out there who had been having crazy, unexplainable dreams about me.
I needed to call Gracie, I noted, to tell her that I might be home late.
“Get the mocha,” Erin said suddenly.
I looked at the display board. There were a lot of different mochas, but I didn’t care about that. I was originally planning on getting black coffee, like Gracie and I always did. Black coffee, a little sugar, sometimes a bit of milk or cream. Even the idea of trying another kind of coffee made me feel like I was betraying Gracie. Plus, mocha was kind of a girl’s drink.
“As amazingly amazing as that sounds, I’m probably just going to take regular coffee. And possibly some milk in it.”
“You like your coffee black?” Erin asked, raising her eyebrows at me. “That’s…interesting, I guess. You just have a particular affinity to the bitterness?”
“I get some sugar with it,” I smiled. “Gracie and I always get black coffee.”
“Who’s Gracie?” asked Erin.
“My girlfriend,” I supplied. I suddenly felt bad.
“Oh,” Erin said. “That’s…cool. I think I just…”
“Yeah. Yeah, I get it.” I understood what she was saying. Even though it was irrational, even though I had Gracie, somehow I felt like we were supposed to end up together.
“Yeah. Well, do you want to talk about what’s going on?”
Erin, as I discovered, bounced back from any disappointments easily. It actually reminded me of myself. I hated to keep grudges. And as we sat down at a small table together, and tasted a bit of each other’s coffee, I realized that I actually really liked the mocha.
“So, do you have any theories?” Erin asked.
“Really? I think it’s the magic of Atlantis.”
We both laughed. “Okay. Seriously,” Erin said. “I want to figure this out.”
“Okay. I haven’t really been thinking about it much, so my ideas about what’s going on encompass hallucination based off of taxi cab fumes and culminate in group therapy. I think you should start.”
“I do have an idea,” Erin nodded, biting her lip, “but it’s just as far-fetched as yours. It’s…” she trailed off. Her face was red. She obviously was nervous.
“At this point, I think all of our ideas are far-fetched,” I said. “Go on.”
“Soulmates,” Erin told me. She laughed. “See? Crazy! I mean, out of everything that’s going on, all I could come up with was soulmates!”
It didn’t matter what Erin did to make her proposition seem absurd. With rising nausea, I realized that Erin’s suggestion of us being soulmates seemed right. It didn’t matter that I had Gracie. That single word that Erin had spoken overwhelmed me with a sense of home, of rightness, of happy nights and days together.
“Are you feeling this?” I asked Erin.
“Yes,” she said. Her voice cracked.
Erin stared at me for a few seconds. “Okay. Let’s go over this. We’ve been having dreams about each other. Now, by common science, dreams are based off of things that we’ve seen in our life—so no matter what mythology says, you cannot have prophetic dreams. I don’t think I’ve seen you before, oh, I don’t know, a month ago. And yet because of my dreams, I knew your eye color, your favorite movie and time of day, oh, and let’s not forget the phone number that I’ve been wondering whether to call for weeks! So there’s obviously something magical going on here! And I don’t know if I like it.”
She had risen into slight hysteria. I couldn’t blame her. A few people from around the Starbucks were staring at us.
Erin closed her eyes. “Do you want to take this outside?” she asked tightly.
We left the store and started walking down the street. “So, yes,” I continued the tangent, “something unexplainable is going on. And it’s making me actually face the fact that there might be something out there beyond science that’s trying to call the shots in life—or at least our lives. Because what is the explanation if not that? We’ve been having dreams—and not just dreams, visions! The moment you said ‘soulmates’ I felt, just, so good! And I have a steady girlfriend! Who I’ve been with for a year, and who I love! And as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t think that we’re having freak hallucinations or being controlled by aliens! So fine, soulmates. Well, great! Now what?!”
“We have the same favorite movie,” Erin pointed out.
What?! “Yes, we do,” I bluntly replied. “So what?”
“And you liked the mocha.”
I thought that I had an inkling of where Erin was going with this. “Sunset is our favorite time of day.”
Erin nodded. “Yeah. And we have the same sense of humor.”
“The same taste in books.”
“So we’re similar.”
“So you’re saying that since we’re similar, the Great Other Force or whatever decided that we were perfect together and sent us these dreams?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“I don’t.” But I didn’t want this idea to make sense. I wanted whatever was going on to be gas fume hallucinations, or us both accidentally getting high. But I knew—just inexplicably knew, despite how stupid that sounded—that this was the right theory.
“So what now?” Erin asked. “You have your Gracie. I have my boyfriend Tom, who I haven’t seen in six months because he had to take care of some stuff in Tennessee. We never talk again. We keep having weird dreams.”
Based off what we had already discussed, Erin was possibly my soulmate—the person who was perfect for me. And why wouldn’t she be? We were exactly the same. We like jokes and mocha. We both worked at H&R Block. We liked jump scares in horror movies but hated themes where spiritual things get the best of scientific humans. Living my life with her would be easier than anything.
“Do you really think that we are soulmates?” I asked Erin. “I mean, I understand that the Great Booga or whatever decreed it, but I want to hear what you think.”
“What do I think?” Erin repeated. “I think that we might be—god, I can’t believe that I’m saying this—soulmates, or whatever. Because you’re pretty much me, if I was a man. Although I think that male me might be slightly more attractive.”
“I think that when you have a soulmate, it means that you’ve met your perfect other half. But by that definition…”
“We’re not soulmates,” Erin finished.
“Because we’re the same. We’re not the opposite of each other.”
“All this soulmate stuff is such bullshit,” Erin said. “You meet someone who’s just like you or someone who is in no way like you—opposites attract, or whatever. Can you imagine how hellish it would be to live with someone like that? We would wallow in our own disorganized mess. Or maybe one of us would be disorganized and the other would constantly be screaming about cleanliness.”
“You’re saying you don’t like me? Erin, I’m hurt!” I joked.
“Alas, my dear Austin…yes, I do declare that I don’t want you to be my soulmate.”
We smiled at each other.
“I think that what we’ve already decided for ourselves is more important that what life decided for us.”
“Yeah.” Erin nodded. “So. I’ll see you around, Austin.”
We kept walking down the street.
“Wait,” I said. “Didn’t we just say that we’d see each other around? Doesn’t one of us, like, have to turn around and walk in the opposite direction for dramatic effect?”
“If I see Steven Spielberg hiding somewhere, I’ll warn you. But my bus is in this direction, so fuck dramatic effect.”
“That sounds fine to me,” I replied. “Quick! Duck! I see some famous director!”
I was a little too loud on that one. A few people around us looked around quickly, and then glared at me or sent me some strange looks once they realized that there was no famous director.
When Erin got to her bus stop, I waved her goodbye and continued until getting to my subway station. It was 5:30. Gracie and I would get home at about the same time. I decided that I would make dinner for us, and maybe start cleaning the apartment.
“You read The Perks of Being a Wallflower?” Gracie asked, reading the title of one of the dusty books that I had kept in a box for around a year.
I dropped the books I was holding back in the box and moved over to Gracie. “Yeah. Reading it made me feel all sophisticated back in high school. And I actually liked it, so I had to take it with me when I moved out.”
“That’s pretty cool,” said Gracie. “We have a few copies of this at Women and Children’s. Not many people bother to read it anymore, though.”
In the kitchen, a timer beeped. “I’ll get that,” I said, and ran to the kitchen. On the stovetop was a pot of ravioli. I had already ruined one pot of pasta today by not putting in enough water, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. I strained out the water and unceremoniously dumped the ravioli on two plates. I then filled two bowls with salad and placed them on the table. “Dinner is served!” I called out.
Gracie entered. “Hark! What angel sings?”
“The dinner angel, my dear.”
I pulled out Gracie’s chair for her. She sat down. “My god, Austin. Making dinner? Unpacking for the first time in years? Pulling out my chair? What alien has possessed you?”
“That hurts my soul, Gracie!”
“Oh. Well, I’m sorry.”
“No problem.” I took my own seat and took a bite of salad. It wasn’t actually that bad. It was pretty hard to mess up salad, but I seemed to ruin any food that I touched.
“Seriously, Austin. What’s going on?” Gracie asked. “You’re acting so different. Just…what happened?”
How was I supposed to answer that? Just be like, oh Gracie, I met the literal girl of my dreams. We decided that the universe ordained that we were soulmates, be we decided to leave each other to our own relationships. Yeah, that’s totally normal.
“Gracie…let’s just say, you met this guy that you knew was your soulmate. But he wasn’t me. What would you do?”
“If this is a breakup talk, it’s a terrible one.”
“Luckily, it’s not. Please, just humor me for a few seconds.”
“Ha. Humor. Get it? Because you’re funny? Yeah, that wasn’t funny. But I don’t know, I guess it would depend on the guy. Soulmate is kind of a funny term, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I don’t think that soulmates truly exist,” I agreed.
“Hence you asking that question.”
“I cannot deny my weirdness.”
“Well,” Gracie started, looking hesitant, “I think that soulmates don’t exist. But I think that love does. Because soulmates are something that’s laid out for you, like, by fate or something. But love is something that you decide for yourself. And I love you. So I’d tell that mystery guy, no thanks.”
“I love you, Gracie.”
We kissed. Then Gracie broke our kiss and gave me a tender smile. “Austin, I think that this relationship is really working between us. But seriously, what’s up with you today?”
“Let’s watch the sunset. I think that my explanation might sound slightly more plausible…I don’t know, just out of this room.”
We trekked down the five flights of stairs and went outside. The sunset was pretty much over already, but there was still a small bit of glowing orange left over. I looked up. The sky was there, starry and high and magical. I loved sunsets, but Gracie loved the night more. She said that the night was the time when she really grasped the fact that as humans, we were tiny. Looking up, I did feel a bit of that magical insignificance.
Being outside wasn’t making the idea of telling Gracie my story any more appealing. I snorted. “Wow. I think we might want to do this inside.”
“Shut up and explain, my dear Austin.”
“It all started with a dream…”
High above us, the sky loomed, heavy with the promise of cosmic questions and answers, and the existence of something that would have allowed all of the dreams to happen. New York City at night wasn’t exactly the top of a hill at noon, but Gracie was still here with me. And that made everything feel as perfect as possible.