By the time I reached my early twenties I knew I would end up living two lives: one for the world and another for myself. On the outside I projected a bright, responsible girl who enjoyed socializing and was generally likeable. On the inside I was a mess; I thought too much about everything; I over-prepared yet always felt under-prepared. My inner voice kept me company more than I felt comfortable admitting. Still, this worked for me. Kept me sane, sort of. I planned on riding this out until the end of my years. No surprise, that didn’t happen or I probably wouldn’t be writing this.
I met Jaime at a restaurant when I was fourteen. We wouldn’t meet again until much past our college years, but he would show me how the real me existed inside a shell, between the half everyone knew and the half I kept hidden. Neither of us could have known that when we first met. It wasn’t exactly a fairytale encounter.
“Oh, I didn’t see you,” he said after running into me in the hallway of an old restaurant. “I was just looking for the bathroom.”
“You really have to go, huh?” I blurted.
He looked so embarrassed, mumbling quick apologies.
We saw each other again on the way out, our parents walking ahead of us.
“Sorry again about earlier,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said, noticing his hunter green eyes.
His parents cut our conversation short, calling out to him. One quick wave later he disappeared.
“Audrey,” I heard my parents shouting as I stared at the red vehicle lights moving away from me. I turned around and hopped into my parents’ car thinking maybe green might also be one of my favorite colors.
Jaime doesn’t remember that evening. I know. We’ve never talked about it and by the time I realized why he looked so familiar I decided to keep the memory to myself. Fate kept him a secret from me for so long. I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of telling me, “I told you so.”
* * *
After the end of my sophomore year in high school my parents got into an accident. They literally drove off the road trying to avoid another crash that took place right before their eyes. My mother came home from the hospital that same day and said we would all go visit my father as soon as we woke the next morning. We got the call in the middle of the night. My younger brother and little sister never got to see him, but I did. His mutilated face just lay there, unmoving, ugly. I wanted to cry and yell. I wanted to say this isn’t fair, but that wasn’t me.
The outside me knew I needed to take care of mom first and then my brother and sister. I needed to remain strong for them. They could grieve while I kept it together for all of them. My grief would come later in the solitude of my bed, at night, while everyone slept, and I would make sure to fold it up and put it away when the sun rose. That’s how the inside me grew strong.
* * *
The visions started two weeks later. At first I thought they were nightmares; well, not exactly nightmares since I had them in the middle of the day with my eyes wide open, but they felt kind of like nightmare remnants. I blamed my ceaseless ruminations. God knows how many times I dreamt of my parents driving off the highway in the blue Subaru they purchased the previous winter. Even awake I imagined the barely-licensed high-schooler ahead of them crashing into some vague vehicle, my parents swerving out of the way, hitting the railing, and their little four-door flopping down the embankment. So when Myriam, my best friend's mom, came to offer her condolences, I did my best not to flinch. I told myself to keep it together, reminding myself that my parents’ passing had left a deep impression on me. Yet, no matter what I did, I couldn’t stop picturing Myriam’s pale face pressed between the driver’s seat of her car and the dashboard, the steering wheel sunk deep into her chest cavity.
At around the same time my siblings started experiencing night terrors. They would wake in the middle of the night screaming for dad. I would rush into their room, before mom woke, and shush them back to sleep. “It’s going to be okay,” I would say. “Dreams aren’t real.” Truthfully, I said that more for myself than for them. I never asked what they dreamt about. I just assumed we all felt the same things.
Barely two months later mom received a call from my best friend confirming my worst fears. Her mother died from blunt trauma. Myriam had stopped behind an eighteen-wheeler at a streetlight. The people in the SUV driving behind her hadn’t noticed the stalled cars ahead of them. They ran into her at full speed, wedging the front of her little coupe into the back of the semi. When my mother hung up the phone I felt a cold chill run up my neck and race across the back of my head. I even smelled the hot metal and burnt rubber that wells up after a car accident, though I was certain no one else could. Before my mother raised her tear-filled eyes to tell me what happened and hand me the phone, I already knew.
For an entire year I denied these events. When these visions of death sprang up, I wrestled them into the hidden parts of my mind. I told myself that everyone who suffers through a family death goes through this. I made excuses whenever I learned one of my forebodings came true. I blamed coincidence and probability so often I could barely tell the difference between them. It took a long time before I accepted the pattern.
Sometimes the images came when meeting a stranger, like the lady behind the counter at the sub shop down the street. Her nametag read Wilma. I kept staring at it, doing my best to avoid looking at her face. Part of her cheekbone protruded from a bloody gash. I knew it couldn’t be real. She kept smiling, acting like nothing was wrong, the bone moving with every twitch of her pudgy features.
Strangers like Wilma threw me off because I couldn’t always know when or if they died. To make matters more complicated sometimes the visions came to pass after just a few weeks, sometimes months, sometimes not at all. But by the time I reached my mid-twenties, I knew exactly how they worked and I was used to them. When I met someone who would die in an accident, I saw that person’s death, but I wouldn’t know when it would take place. When I met Jaime for the second time I breathed a sigh of relief as I looked into his eyes and saw nothing.
* * *
Our courtship had all of the romance of a children’s story, which explained why I hesitated for so long. At twenty-four I had a pretty good idea of what guys wanted. If they promised me the world from the beginning then I wondered where their insecurities lied and why they felt the need to trap me in a commitment. If they didn’t, then I wondered how long I’d last as the flavor of the month. Everyone else in between taught me about what I didn’t want in a husband. Jaime, on the other hand, taught me more about myself than I could ever learn about him. That’s how I knew he was the one.
His patient manner soothed me. Besides the visions, I still had nightmares. Jaime would wake up with me, turn on a soft light to ward away my fears, and curl strands of my hair between his thumb and index finger until I fell asleep again. Without fail I would sleep through the night—no more dark thoughts. The first night that happened I thought he’d ask me about my dark dreams. He didn’t. He never did. For that alone I would have loved him forever. Instead, Jaime would spend the following night telling me stories about his childhood, or his family, or some ridiculous adventure he’d want to take me on—anything to keep my own fears from drowning me.
I loved his stories, and when he wasn’t telling one, we were making new ones. We went on candy binges while streaming endless romantic comedies late into the night. Other times we’d go out with our friends and dance until our feet hurt. Every once in while we flew to an exotic city, find the highest rooftop bar, and sit there staring into each other’s eyes, smiling, giddy like teenage kids in love. Even when we argued I couldn’t help but love him. He never walked away, never disrespected me, only stood there asking for a moment while I did my best not to let his deep breaths and broad chest turn me on.
I always feared the moment the story would end. The first time it almost did was my fault. The second time was our daughter’s.
* * *