Prologue – Paris, 2385
It was ninety years ago that they parted.
Ninety years used to be a lifetime, he thought.
She said she would meet him beneath the oldest oak on The Island of La Grande Jatte, so the man found the tallest tree, spread out a blanket, removed his shoes, and waited.
The grass was cool between his toes. He raised his arm, relaxed his muscles, then laughed when gravity jerked it back to the blanket. He breathed in the potpourri of spring blossoms and rain. Real smells, he thought, then closed his eyes to focus his senses. There was a mechanical drone from the power plant in the east. Above his head, leaves brushed together like scraps of paper. The device on his arm created a rhythmic tick tick tick, and he knew they would finally share the same plane of time. (Was there anything more romantic?)
The man wondered if it would storm. He wondered if rain felt the same here as it did there. He wondered if it would be awkward when she arrived, if they would fall into their old rapport or find themselves scrambling to fill uncomfortable gaps. Would they hug? Would they kiss?
Would he call her “wife”?
When he opened his eyes, she was there, beautiful, framed by the river and painted with light from the morning sun. Her body was trapped at twenty-five. Her shoulders carried thin purple straps of a cotton dress. A sketchpad fit naturally in the crook of her arm. Her eyes were grey again.
“Is it really you?” the man asked (a cliché, but he had to be sure).
She glanced down, patted her waist, chest, and cheeks, then shrugged. “I think so.” She smiled again and joined him on the blanket. He remembered the times her hair was black, blond, red, or midnight blue; today it was as brown as the trunk of their tree.
The couple shared a picnic: white wine, strawberries, French baguettes with turkey, green apples, and Brie. Their usual rapport returned, slowly at first because the words felt like dust in their mouths. “’Dust’ is the only way to describe it,” she said and crinkled her nose.
When lunch was over, the woman brushed crumbs from her lap, opened her book, and sketched details from the island with a charcoal stick: the oak, the bench, the power plant on the hill… him. Despite her lavish drawings, she crumpled every page and tossed them in the basket. “It’s not right,” she said.
“It never was,” he replied, then touched the inside of her thigh.
The rain arrived an hour later and smothered the morning with a humid, grey blanket. The couple didn’t care. They huddled beneath the same tree, knees to their chests, catching droplets on their tongues and kissing to keep warm.
Night came sooner than the man expected and they marveled at the routine of here-and-now.
Her shoulder blades pressed against his chest. She pulled his arm around hers. “Do you ever think about ‘nothingness?’” she asked.
“I don’t think so.”
She squeezed his hand and snuggled deeper into his body. “Try it.”
“Close your eyes.”
“Are they closed?” She turned in his arms to make sure.
“Now imagine a place without life… without time or space or thoughts…”
“…a place without planets or stars…”
He nodded again.
The woman’s voice became a whisper. “No people. No God. Not even blackness.” She paused. “Do you feel anything?”
“I feel you.”
She sighed. “It works better under bedsheets… when everything’s quiet.”
“What’s supposed to happen?”
“When I think about it for long enough, I feel it. It’s like my mind can’t fathom the concept of nothingness, and for a split second, I die. Then my brain reminds me where I am.”
“You want that feeling tonight?”
The woman shook her head. “No. Tonight is nice.”
An hour later, the device on his wrist told him the day was almost done.
The man squeezed her tighter and ran his finger along the strap of her dress. In an age of endless memories, he used every ounce of his concentration—every molecule in his fingertip—to record the feeling of the tiny hairs on the woman’s bare back.
Relationships would ebb and flow like a lackadaisical tide—life would try to divert his attention with the promise of everything—but it wouldn’t matter. He would remember this day forever.
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