John walks onto the elevator after taking a deep breath. The smooth, steel teeth of the elevator clamp down around him. No escape, no control. The illusion of control exists but, once the button is pressed, the decision is final.
He is startled by a small girl. Blond hair is captive in pigtails. She wears a face of determination. The silence between them is dragging and sticky, humid. The elevator grunts and labors its way upwards. John watches her blurred reflection in the back of the elevator doors. He thinks she looks familiar until he knows she looks familiar. Anna, he thinks. She’s the same backwards as forwards. They make eye contact for a brief moment and the burn of memory sears him.
John is sitting with her at a diner. Northern New England. Pine trees salted with a hesitant snowfall. The sky gray and flat. Anna is watching the snow dance outside, sipping from a glass of prune juice.
Finger like a fairy, dragging the grease of French fries across the window. “I miss my mother on days like this.” The mismatched puzzle piece of adult purpose in a child’s meandering tone.
“Getting older is just getting used to missing people.” John, guised as a sage. “Everyone turns into memories eventually.”
“I guess that’s true.” Anna stares into the murky prune juice. “But speaking of mothers, John, I don’t think we can eat together anymore. Your mother doesn’t want us to.”
“Oh, think about it. A grown man in public with a person like me?”
“But what will you do?”
“There are always people who need someone like me,” Anna says brightly. “If you ever need me again, you’ll understand.” She gets her coat, faded fur and musty leather, and shrugs it onto her shoulders. The hood spills over her face until she disappears.
Anna stares back at him in the elevator. Blazing blue eyes, fierce in their attempt to stare past him. John blinks. She is beautiful. Lean, slight, pale. Pearl skin, like it has never seen the sun. Twenty-two, twenty-four. Thirty. People are only as old as they are told to feel.
She is electric. The silence of years crackles around them, sizzles like a thunderstorm. He hasn’t seen her since the day at the diner. She has become lightning, flashing and blinding him, then going dark.
“I think I’m in love with you.” John is talking to Anna as they walk out of a grocery store. Carts rattle like skeletons, burdened under brown bags of consumables.
Anna is gentle. “No, you’re not.”
“Ever since you left me at that diner…”
“We’ve both changed since then, John.”
The words splash the air, ripple with thoughts as they fade. “Love doesn’t age like people, Anna,” he says to her as they arrive at his car. “It has a lifetime of its own.”
Anna doesn’t look at him. She opens his trunk and slowly puts the brown bags into the car. Her back is hunched from the labor. She’s breathing and sweating, but John doesn’t help her. He needs her to know. “Anna?”
Anna wheezes, finishes unloading the groceries, closes the trunk. “You can love me, John, but don’t let it ruin your life. I can’t tell you what to feel.” She looks at him, beautiful, dusted with sunlight. “We have our own lives. We have to live those, too.”
He watches her leave him. Alone in cement desolation. Parking lot of shifting cars and families. All the same, none the same. “When will I see you again?” he calls.
“You know when,” she says to him. “Go home, John.”
John doesn’t remember where home is.
Silence in the elevator. Silence that takes your breath away, fills your lungs with ghosts. Anna’s blue eyes are wet with time. Her face is a healthy tan, changing like a leaf in middle age. John is the same. Always the same. Waiting for her. It has been years again, always years. What are years? He doesn’t know. Years in life are more than years in your head. Some people have the opposite problem.
So they argue. Anna isn’t as patient as she once was. “You have to learn to live without me! You can’t call me every time you have a problem.”
John stares at his dishwasher. Water pools on the floor below it. Powdered soap is sprinkled in the puddles, melting, leaving the faint scent of pine behind. “I didn’t know who else to call.” He closes his eyes to control his perception. Opens them to see Anna scrubbing the water away. The kitchen tiles glitter like eyes.
“But you can live on your own. There’s no reason to call me if something like this happens. Only call me for the serious things.” She forces a smile.
John nods, solemn. “Okay, Anna. I understand.”
She turns to go, but he is desperate. “Anna?”
“Do you remember when we first met?”
“Do you remember all the times that we’ve seen each other since?”
Anna pauses, furrowing her brow. “I can’t say that I do. Quite a few.” She laughs. “But I would never try to say that I have a perfect memory.”
No one has a perfect memory. If life is based on memory, how can we be sure that we exist when so much is forgotten?
Blue eyes like clouds. Anna is staring at him, wise, old, breathing heavy. Air like wax, curling under the heat of silence. The elevator has become thin and flimsy. Ancient. Newborn. Stops suddenly. Anna looks at him and smiles. Kindly wrinkles, cobwebs of life stretch across her face. Anna, the same backwards as forwards.
“Are you ready, John?” She holds out her arm. Delighted, he links his arm with hers and leads her delicately. The elevator doors open into white light. Into mystery, into time. A life in the mind, a life in the body, a life in the heart. Everyone ages differently.
Blaise Lucey is twenty-two years old, and is graduating from Bates College in May.