His Almost Soon-to-be Wife
by Matt Messmer
He is walking back to his frat house from the cafeteria when he notices her approaching on the cement walk. Someone vague and unfamiliar. Say fifty feet away. There are only two of them out here, himself included, just a pair of students converging on the same specific spot of walkway. But, oh, how he loathes these situations, boy how they make him anxious. When he passes someone he knows loosely or speaks to only when drunk and has to make the awkward decision on whether or not to say hello or to remain silent. Or when he or she says hello and he says nothing back because he has already committed to saying nothing and then feels terrible afterward or when he himself says hello and gets shunned and vows never to offer any greeting to some half-stranger ever again.
Why does this happen to him now? he wonders, the space between them dwindling, forty-five feet, forty, thirty-five. It's mid-afternoon, April. The sun shines down on them like a spotlight, the area in between a stage. Why on this day in particular? After class and lifting weights and getting up at eight o'clock in the morning to read Shakespeare? His boxer shorts are riding up. He cut himself just below the chin while shaving this morning and there's a strange ache in his foot from last night's pick-up basketball game.
The approximate distance is now twenty-five feet, estimated time before contact fifteen seconds. He's close enough here to gather a description. If necessary, he could provide the authorities with an accurate sketch. 5'6" tall, 123 lbs. Brown hair streaked with red. Eyes like carefully polished green marbles. A silver ring hooked through her lip. Standard blue jeans. Converse sneakers. Something scribbled on them in black sharpie. Maybe a daily mantra or words of inspiration from a friend. "Live as if you'll die tomorrow, dream as if you'll live forever," or "Love is in the eye of the beholder."
He takes the time to make the standard judgments, to compile a dossier based on physical appearance. This girl could be a hippy, he thinks, with her dyed red hair and her piercings and her personalized footwear, maybe even an environmentalist, though that's pure speculation. Someone who makes a point to recycle, attends rallies in Harrisburg and Baltimore and even Washington.
And how easily she could judge him, too. He's wearing his grey Phi Sigma Kappa t-shirt and its awkwardly small size--shrunken in the wash--makes his tall, lanky frame look almost defined, just about sculpted. "Fine Brotherhood Since 1876," it reads, and he can hear her own criticisms as clearly as if they were playing from a loudspeaker suspended above his head. He bought his friends, he can hear her thinking. She knows his favorite activities are getting sloshed and going to pound town. That there is a secret handshake, a password, shot parties and sorority mixers with lewd themes like "golf pros and tennis hoes," or "anything but clothes."
There's just ten feet between them now and he wonders what he'll do when the moment arrives. He can stare down at his feet, pretend to study and interesting crack in the cement, or perhaps look past her into the distance as if there are far greater and more important things on the horizon or at the very best force a dumb smile. He wants to leap frog her, to disappear entirely, to lift off and fly away someplace safe. But he knows this is not possible. That, as always, he will turn his head away, climb down into his imaginary bomb shelter, bolt the door and hide out for the next five to ten seconds until this great and terrible whirlwind is beyond him. But why? When all he really wants to do is stop in front of her and explain exactly how he is feeling. "You know, I've been really anxious for the last twenty-five seconds and I'd like it to end. I mean, we're both human, after all. Do we always have to pretend like we don't exist?"
More than that. He wants to give her a firm hug and pat on the back, to run his fingers through the red streaks in her hair without her feeling obligated to cry out the words, "freak," or "pervert." Because who knows, really. They could hit it off, date for a few years, get married, have children, grow old, retire, get buried next to one another in a cemetery in France. There could be late night conversations in her apartment on Water Street. They're seniors, and after graduation they will skip off to Germany for the World Cup of soccer and join the Conga lines in the cobblestone streets amongst the Brazilians and Czechs and anyone from anywhere until they get lost. They could scuba dive in Fiji, skydive in New Zealand, hike though Wales, anything.
They're right up on each other, three feet counting down to two and the one, when he takes a single exaggerated breath, as if he's about to be submerged under water for an extended period of time. He feels his chest tighten, the pace of his heart quicken; he becomes uncomfortably aware of its beat. It's all so familiar. Yet the sentiment on this day seems oddly closer to regret than fear, and as she slips into his periphery he can't help but feel like he's saying goodbye to something, a photo album of their first apartment in Jersey City, or an old movie reel of a road trip to Canada--through British Columbia and Ontario and Quebec. This half minute has opened up so much, he thinks, already he feels like he has known her for years.
He contemplates saying something--a "how do you do?" or a "nice day out here," or a "gosh, you look familiar"--before shrugging the idea off entirely. Not today, he thinks, no need to push things at this moment in particular. He comes to this decision as a familiar sense of relief settles in, the last unimpeded stretch of walkway unfolding before him, the fraternity house rising up like a castle. There's plenty of day ahead of him, just think about the possibilities! Games of Halo 2 over the college network! Internet poker free-rolls while watching re-runs of Law and Order for hours at a time! There's always a next time, isn't there? It's a small school, he's bound to see her at least a dozen more times. He can do it differently next time, for sure, break all of the rules and bust the world wide open. In front of Glatfelter Hall or Mussleman Library. At Mama Ventura's or The Pub. He'll pull her aside and slip a dandelion behind her ear, brush the one stray strand of hair from her face. He'll sink to his knees and pop the question. Next time.
About the author:
Matt Messmer is a graduate of Gettysburg College. He waits tables at a diner in South Orange, NJ.