TEN YEARS FROM TODAY
by Jessica Maria Johnson
She noticed him swiping something off his dresser as they entered the room. She heard the quiet swoosh of the paper falling between his dresser and the bed. He looked back at her and smiled and she feigned ignorance.
Everybody has secrets.
Issue #101 soundtrack: Cassandra Jenkins "Up In Flames"
The small dorm room smelled of damp T-shirts. Personal-sized potato chip bags littered the floor, the garbage can, and its surroundings; silver slivers peeked out from beneath both beds. She chose the bed opposite to his own because it looked safer and a better place to sit and observe. She feared his bed might be the source of the wafts of mildew.
“Join me,” she invited. He was hesitant, but then he relaxed. “You said he was gone all weekend.”
Later, after she’d let him explore her mostly rigid body, he skipped off to the bathroom down the hall grinning. She wouldn’t have categorized herself as satisfied, but that rarely bothered her. She found Ryan nice and simple. They had gone on three successful dates and he had made her laugh. That was enough these days; she felt good across a from him in a restaurant.
As she rifled through a pile of clothes to find her underwear she caught a glimpse of photo paper under Ryan’s bed.
It was a small photo of him and a girl. She was not pretty, but they were smiling and their arms were around each other in the distant past.
No, not so distant.
He returned in the midst of her rapt stare, her lingering gaze set upon the girl’s thick hands, the athletic shoulders, the mass of curls framing her face. Later that night she would look at her own bony hands. She’d run them through the fine hair that hung limp to her shoulders.
“That’s my, that’s nothing. That’s my ex-girlfriend.”
She put it back on the ground where she’d found it.
“Sorry,” he said and sat down next to her. “We broke up during first semester, but that photo just stuck around, I guess. I don’t change my room much.”
“So, you started dating her in high school?”
He laughed and put his arm around her. A familiar gesture.
“Yes, we dated in high school for a few months. Chelsea was my only girlfriend. Like, ever.”
After that night, he mentioned the girl occasionally. There was no other girl for him to mention. She accepted this small blemish on his past, and she believed he sometimes brought up the topic of Chelsea to demonstrate how mature their own relationship was growing. He began to do it in front of their friends. Once on a blanket on the commons, he’d talk about a trip he took with his ex, and they’d all look at her as indirectly as possible. She smiled cold behind her sunglasses and never disclosed any clues to jealousy or complaint.
What she chose not to accept, or, what she could not understand, was his previous preference for someone so strapping. Chelsea looked like the kind of athletic that ran marathons, played on every sports team in high school, and had a gaggle of friends that helped straighten her thick curls whenever there was an occasion.
Ryan was lithe and skinny in the waist, more like her own thin frame. Chelsea’s body was a mass of musculature that looked both intimidating and admirable. Her fingers plumped around the knuckles in the only area that seemed untoned. Where she had sharp angles and hollows, Chelsea’s face was moon-like and decorated with a pair of voluminous lips. She tried to imagine them together intimately, but could not.
Perhaps he was a rare person who did not bother with stereotypical notions of beauty. Perhaps her personality shone especially bright. Perhaps his tastes had improved from seventeen to eighteen, when he went from a small-town high school to a city college where he became a somewhat popular campus radio DJ. Or perhaps he got something out of her none of the other girls in high school would give up.
A couple of months into dating, in the sweaty sheets of her own dorm bed, Ryan admitted that he was a virgin.
So, it wasn’t that.
She motioned for him to proceed; she didn’t want to say a word. Her mind milled on Chelsea while he began to treat the act like a ceremony. His eyes questioned, she continued to nod for him to continue. Since he hadn’t done this before, she climbed on him and stared out the window, smiling and remembering to let a moan escape every now and then. Afterwards, she tousled his hair through her fingers, as he squeezed the sharp point of her left hip. He was saying something about her body, but she wasn’t listening; she was considering the small success of having surpassed the previous relationship’s apex.
Her private reverie was interrupted by a silence; a sign that he had asked her a question. An invitation to the dining hall, which she declined. As he pulled on his pants he muttered something about her never being hungry, and asked in a louder voice if she would at least accompany him. She sighed and agreed.
For four years she counted her successes over Chelsea. She also pretended to mentally commiserate with her over Ryan’s faults. His clout grew and he started promoting for a local venue, where he spent many late nights. Where she used to control his attention with a simple look, now he looked away more often. He’d said a lot of things she chose to ignore when they argued. He’d thrown a bag of chips in her face once. The easy smiles he gave to some women made her seethe with the memory of how he’d been an untalented flirt with a disgusting dorm room freshman year. She wondered if he had treated Chelsea the same way.
In fact, sometimes she was envious of what must have been an endearingly simple relationship. Simplicity implied not many disagreements. Nothing was as good as it was when it was simple. Maybe it was a one-sided competition she made up, but she kept it to herself. She let her mind wander to it more and more often as Ryan had less and less time for her.
A couple of years after that initial tryst, students on campus were transitioning from messages to profiles. Sometimes she looked her up. Typed her name into the blank white bar. Checked out where else she’d been—maybe they’d gone to the same places, maybe they liked the same things. Perhaps Chelsea also enjoyed a straight martini at the bar in the hotel high above the river with the city view, or the dank speakeasy by the highway where she liked to hide and watch. She studied the photos she found. She’d changed in the years since that photo, like Ryan, like everyone else.
They kept up pretenses for two weeks after she moved away. He decided to stay near the Atlantic after graduation. She wanted to test the waters further west. For two weeks they called and called and called each other. They missed each other. But she usually ended the phone calls when she could tell he was distracted doing something else. He never admitted it, but she could sometimes hear a mouse click or a magazine page rustle.
That pang of missing him started to wear off as she acclimated to the evergreens surrounding her, the marigold walls she painted her room, and the deep blue below her feet when she dangled her legs on the side of an ocean bluff. One night she forgot to call because she had spent the evening flirting with a man who had complimented the deep hollows of her clavicle. The next day she returned his missed calls and they broke up for the sake of their youth, she said.
Nearly thirty now, she sat at the bar with her chin in her right hand and a twenty in the other, waiting to get the sole bartender’s attention. It was a busy night, the room was packed, and many people were vying for drinks. She gazed down the dark mahogany bar, scanning the faces in the dim light.
No one she knew. No one looking for her. A woman and her boyfriend sidled up alongside. She had blond, curly hair emanating for many frizzed inches around her cherub face. When the woman turned to look for the bartender, there was a moment of recognition; familiarity. She couldn’t place it.
“Hi. I’ve been waiting a while,” she said to her. The woman nodded politely. She tried again, “Are you part of the theater troupe from earlier?”
The woman raised an eyebrow and said no.
“Sorry. You just look familiar and I saw a play tonight down the street. I’m here with the director.”
The woman nodded again. She turned to her boyfriend, clearly not wanting to talk to her, and resumed their conversation.
They continued to wait. She glanced at the woman in her peripheral. She noted her plain T-shirt and black running shorts. She was wearing flip-flops. The woman had underdressed for the bar, especially standing next to her own cocktail dress. Her impatience and boredom gnawed.
“Sorry to interrupt, but do we know each other?”
She thought she noticed the woman grimace as she stared forward at the bar. The woman turned to her and sighed.
“Yes, and no,” the woman said. She waited a beat and that’s when she realized. She looked at the woman’s hands. Thick, smooth. Slightly plump fingers. She was the girl in that picture a decade ago. She was the girl who she’d conjured up conversations with in her head. She was the girl who had been Ryan’s before her. She was—
“Yeah, so you know me, too,” she said.
“Ryan had a picture of you in his dorm room. That’s why you looked so familiar,” she paused, conceding only this coincidence. She had to prod. “But, how did you know me?”
“I’ve seen your picture online,” she sighed, looking down at the bar as the words escaped her.
The boyfriend burst into a laugh. “Isn’t that weird? The Internet!”
The women’s mouths became similar stiff lines at his nasal outburst.
“What’ll it be, ladies?” The bartender had finally arrived.
“I’ll just have a glass of the white,” she said and handed him money as Chelsea ordered two beers.
“I can’t believe I recognized you from that photo ten years ago,” she said in her oft-employed tone of feigned surprise.
“If this had happened twenty years ago you might have just been a figment of my imagination,” Chelsea said, thrusting a pointed finger between them. “You know, the girl Ryan dated after me. Now I feel like I almost know you.”
They stared at each other as the words hung between them.
“It’s not comforting,” Chelsea said. “I think I know you but part of it is just a figment of what I thought you would be like. I went from hating you to kind of admiring you. Wondering what you might be thinking.”
“What? Chelsea? What are you talking about?” The boyfriend was still there. She took her glass of wine that arrived and pulled away from the bar without another word.
Later that evening she saw Chelsea in the corner of the bar, her boyfriend talking to her without much reaction elicited as he went on and on. She raised a glass to Chelsea when she caught her eye, and they nodded to each other and smiled.
Jessica Maria Johnson works and writes in Los Angeles. She was born in Panama, but doesn't have a hometown. She is currently working on a novel. Jessica makes the best zoodles you'll ever try. Follow her on Twitter.
Ally White is a painter in Atlanta. She regularly shows work locally and nationally. Ally has a super power with which she flawlessly matches lipstick and blouses perfectly. View more of her work at allywhite.com.
Cassandra Jenkins lives and makes music in New York. She records solo and collaborates with others like Delicate Steve and Sam Owens (Celestial Shore). Cassandra is secretly an InDesign wizard. Find her work on Bandcamp and follow her on Twitter.