We sat on a wooden bench, drinking tea and looking at the dark river. It was very hot; the woman I’d just met was sweating, and so was I, but it was impossible to acknowledge that fact. It seemed like a typical first date, full of polite questions and silences. Yet it wasn’t.
The personals ad she’d placed on-line was a list of her favorite authors. A strange mixture: Neruda, Paz, Murakami, Marquez. Exactly the same books I lived by, all the paperbacks I’d read on sleepy afternoons in India. I replied to her, and the emails started flying. At work, I set aside blueprints in order to write to her. We branched off into poetry. I sent her my favorite poems by William Carlos Williams, she introduced me to Sharon Olds. We were two people thirsty for literary conversation. Underlying it all was the unasked question- would we actually meet?
I was busy at work. She was just finishing law school. Six long weeks passed. I held my breath and told her what I had withheld: that I was already married. I had no business writing to her. My marriage was desperately unhappy, a complete mismatch, but I had a four-year old son, and wasn’t going anywhere. She didn’t flinch. This fact seemed unrelated to the conversation we were having, about books and stories and poems. It seemed inconceivable that our conversation—so far removed from real life—would end.
We decided to meet, once. Almost as though to get it over with. I’d imagined her to be a tall, blonde woman, wearing Birkenstocks, recently returned from the Peace Corps. (Where else would she have developed such a taste for Latin American authors?) She turned out to be an African-American woman with curly hair she wore severely pulled back. She’d imagined that I was tall and had a ponytail and wore dark clothes. I turned out to be short, with neatly parted hair and wore a pale cotton shirt.
So there we were on the park bench, afraid to look at each other. We sipped our too-hot teas and sweated and looked out into the darkness. It was soon time for us to go. We got up from the bench, our clothes sticking to our skins.
Outside the Harvard Bookstore we prepared to part, making the non-committal noises of people who are never going to see each other again. Misery mixed in with relief. Within a few minutes this poetic, literary woman was going to vanish into the bright lights of the bookstore. The kind of woman I’d been dreaming about my whole life. But that’s what it was: a dream.
Before she left, she opened her handbag and took out a small, plain looking pamphlet with a blue cover.
“Hey,” she said. “I almost forgot. I brought this for you. Have you read it? This one is pretty good. You can borrow it.”
I thanked her for the pamphlet, and read it on the train home. It was a magazine I’d never heard of before, with a single story in it. Something about a man whose job it is to imagine worst case scenarios. The story was so ingenious it made me laugh.
I had borrowed the pamphlet from her, so I had to return it. We met again, an easier meeting this time. The months passed, and we walked all over town, talking and talking. The heat dissipated, gave way to the crisp air of Fall, and we were still at it. Every month the small pamphlet with its single story arrived. She took them out of her handbag with a solemn air, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I carried them around, creased and crumpled, easily hidden, like the emotions that flowed between the two of us.
The One Storys kept coming each month, through the years that followed: the ghastly years of my divorce, a terrible sickness, years when we clung to each other. Then, like the imperceptible change of seasons, we were on the other side of it, married, living a life we hadn’t dared to dream of.
Now, when the story comes each month, we each read it separately. It’s only when we’re outside that one of us will say, “So what did you think…”, and we’re off, doing what we do best, walking and talking, talking, talking.