Jack was still unsure as to why he let this strange girl into his house in the first place. She had said, rather calmly, that she had information about his future that she wanted to share with him. Perhaps it was her smile that did him in, those thin red lips carved out of paraffin skin. Or perhaps in his life engrossed in fiction from books, television, and gaming, Jack nurtured the notion that he would finally have his destiny as the savior of the universe revealed to him. He’d have faced eldritch horrors if it had gotten his abhorrently traditional Chinese parents off his back about working in a corporate mailroom. Although knowing them, they’d still think he could have done better. He could hear their hypothetical judgment, “Oh, saved the universe? Still no wife, though.”
The redheaded young woman sitting on the couch across the room, only a few feet away from Jack, gave him an uneasy smile. Fortunately, her baggy, green shirt hid her nervous tremors. She was still battling with herself over the idea of even coming here. Jack sat in his old leather chair, turned away from his computer desk. It squeaked in his uncomfortable fidgeting.
“I don’t understand how you can tell me something like this,” Jack said, turning to and fro in his chair.
“What’s not to understand?” the redhead asked. “It’s pretty simple.”
It really wasn’t, she thought.
“You kidding? I’ve been alive 25 years and I don’t even know you, and here you are telling me that you’re gonna break up with me.”
“Because we were together.”
Jack’s shoulders slumped at an angle. Instead of a grand future battling for the fate of the world, he got to hear about how he was going to get dumped in the future. Such is my life, Jack thought.
“You gonna tell me that I strike it rich, too? Give me some lottery numbers maybe?”
“Lottery?” the redhead giggled, Jack thought it was like bubbling champagne, intoxicating. “You’d just waste it all on books, games, and big bottles of aloe.”
That’s not…entirely…true. Poutine, too,” Jack’s snappy comeback fizzled out.
His gaze darted about the room, trying to figure out how she knew that? Shelves full of games, sure. Another full of books, as well. The couch and desk situated in such a way that occupants’ eyesight was drawn towards a fairly large television. The aloe, though? No empty bottles lying around, he had cleaned up for once. Perfect timing too, for the arrival of strange girls seemingly from the future. As Jack glanced around the room, so did the redhead, taking in the sparse basement suite with nostalgia.
“Ah yes…the poutine, your one true weakness,” the girl said. She leaned back and nibbled on her thumbnail, hiding a smile.
“So – when? How?” Jack prodded, there was just a small amount of him still holding out for some outlandish reasoning, or at least some way she would trip up and reveal it was all a joke.
“I can’t tell you that,” the girl shook her head slowly. “All you need to know is that we were together, and at some point…I’ll leave you.” It hurt her a little to even think about.
Jack’s head lowered, he sent the redhead across the room a stern gaze from beyond a furrowed brow. The girl recognized that gaze, and smiled.
“I know that look. You’re not upset, you’re confused.”
Jack scoffed. “This is unfair.”
“How so?”
“Why do you get to come in and ruin something that should be a good thing?” Jack threw his hands forward. How did she know so much about him, and he so little about her? Jack hated discussions where he couldn’t contribute equally.
The girl’s head tilted. “Is a good thing ruined just because it has to end…? Or, isn’t that what makes something worthwhile in the first place?”
Jack slouched, crossing his arms. The chair squeaked under the stress. “That’s something you can only say in hindsight. You have the benefit of knowing how it all turned out, but you’re placing all the pain on me, before I even get the chance to experience any happiness.”
“Hey, I hurt too. I felt the pain of leaving you just as you did.”
“You get the high, and I get the low,” Jack continued, interrupting the girl.
“Technically, we both break even either way. You get a high to erase your low, and…well…”
Jack’s shoulders sank. “Why should I even believe you?”
“You don’t have to believe it if you really don’t want to. It won’t change what will happen eventually, anyway.” The girl shrugged, pulling the sleeves of her sweater down over her hands. Her slender fingertips peeked out from the wrists, ending in perfectly rounded arrows. Jack couldn’t stop himself from thinking how cute it was.
Jack turned his gaze to the window to resist her allure. Two chickadees flew past, fluttering about one another as they did. Jack had only had two girlfriends in his life; the first, an ill-conceived idea of love from freshman that saw him too attached in the end; and the second, a much longer relationship, which ended in heartbreak the likes of which Jack hoped he would never have to feel again. It was always them, too. She always ended it, for some reason or another. He never had any decision in it, in what he would get to feel in the end. He would lose them, and his consolation prize was always heartache. This time, however, maybe he had the chance.
“Fine then, I just won’t be with you. I’ll see you with your red hair and impossibly gorgeous smile and then I won’t date you. I’m happy here with my games and my annoying parents across town.”
Oh silly boy, the redhead thought.
Her smile grew; Jack hadn’t thought it possible.
“You won’t do that,” she replied.
“And why not?”
“Because I know you. You can’t make snap decisions like that. You’ll weigh all the possibilities, have a little panic attack about how badly you could screw it up, then ultimately decide that you’ll do it anyway to prove that you’re a free spirit who takes risks. It was that silly level of introspection that allowed us to be together in the first place. If you had asked me out when we first met, I wouldn’t have been ready to date you. You wouldn’t have even been ready.”
Jack scowled again, this time trying his hardest to seem angry. The redhead retained her smile.
“Well, it’s time for change Red. I make this decision now – I won’t date you. You’re going to hurt me in the end, so why bother?”
The girl’s brow welled up, her ember-like bangs tickling the edge of her eyes. She was hurt, but quickly hid it by returning to a smile.
“Of course,” she mumbled. “So you’d rather ignore the happiness because you know it will end? You really think you can do that?”
“Why not? If the end result is me being miserable, I’ll just save myself the trouble.”
“Well you can’t – you and I will date, and it will make you the happiest you’ve ever been.”
“Then why are you taking that away from me?” Jack’s voice rose. “If it’s so good, then why are you hurting me, not only whenever you really end it, but here and now, before the fact?”
“Because in the end it will be for the best.”
“Is it really, though? What do we get out of this little thing here? What do you get?”
“Not anything grand, but…it’s something we…both need. It’s just…I need you to understand something, for the both of us.”
The screen of Jack’s computer blinked, switching from his desktop image to toasters flying through space. It was a replication of the screensaver from the first computer his father had brought home. After building his own computer, Jack wanted that same old screensaver. Memories of simpler times, before his parents became so concerned with his future, more so than he was. The redhead knew it as a symbol of Jack’s predilection to hang onto the past, something he lost along the way. Heartache would change that, over time.
“So, wait. If you tell me all of this, won’t you be changing the future or something, since I’ll know all these things about us?”
The girl’s right shoulder rose, and her head tilted to meet it for a moment. “There isn’t anything changing that would rupture the space/time continuum. And…whatever I tell you won’t be much of a surprise in the end.”
“Good to know the laws of the universe are so lax. So why tell me any of this at all, what’s the deal?”
“Because you need a reminder. Something to remind you of how happy you are…er…how happy you will be.”
“Wouldn’t the relationship be enough?” Jack cocked his head, his eyebrows lifting.
The girl paused, brushing the wrist of her sweater across the side of her face to push back thick locks of her hair. She opened her mouth, but it was a few more moments before she spoke.
“Near the end…you started to take it hard.”
“Surprise surprise, alert the laws of the universe.”
“You mentioned more than a few times that…it might have just been better if we had never met, or if we had done something differently. It hurt to hear you say those things, and at the time, I didn’t have the heart to tell you…” As the girl spoke, her smile faded. Her eyes drew down to the floor, her hands, still wrapped in the long sleeves of her sweater, cupping on her lap.
“Oh, but now is okay?”
“You were fragile then, and I wasn’t sure if telling you then would have helped, or made it worse,” her voice was softer than before. “I know the you, right now, can take it, despite how much you’re scowling at me. If I can tell you this, get you to see early on, maybe it’ll stick. Then it’ll be different, in a small way, but different for both of us. You won’t lose that part of you that I fell in love with, the part that made us work.”
Jack pondered, leaning back and forth repeatedly in his chair. She wanted something out of him. This visit wasn’t for him, it was for her. Or rather, the both of them sometime down the line. He’d come this far, let this girl waltz into his dinky basement suite, talking about how things would be later on. Maybe, he thought, it was time for a change: make a decision now for once, without letting the opportunity slip by like usual.
“Okay then, hit me: tell me what you couldn’t tell Future Me.”
Her gaze shot up to meet with Jack’s chocolate eyes, and her smile returned soon afterwards. She sniffed back what miniscule sadness was building up, her small button nose bouncing between two soft, freckled cheeks.
“To say that…you would rather have never met me, or…that we should have done something differently, then our relationship wouldn’t be the same. It hurt to think you would rather have not known me, have just not experienced all the happiness and love in our relationship because of what was happening at the time. It hurt, you sounded like such a jerk, like you didn’t even care about the time we spent together.”
Jack was silent. He thought Future Jack was a moron. He had always prided himself on being sensitive to others, to being loving, empathetic – not pathetic.
“If there’s one thing I would hope changes, it’s that you’ll think about how hurtful those words are. And maybe…remember what the Buddha said?”
“Buddha. You know it by now, don’t you? You told it to me.”
“What are you…?”
“You know, right? When the Buddha was asked by some king about what could make him happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy. Remember?”
“You…what? You mean ‘this, too, shall pass’?”
“Yes. Think about it.”
Jack was silent, his arms uncrossed and his hands dropped into his lap, holding each other.
“You said it was something you always liked, and it helped you through some difficult times in the past. It helped us both get through. It gave us perspective in the end.”
“Still means that the happiness has to end.”
“Sure, but just the same, the hurt we experienced won’t last forever either. We’ll have to struggle through it, but we won’t be in pain forever.”
Jack nodded. “Just because something ends, doesn’t mean it wasn’t great while it lasted, yeah?” he said. He felt he had to make up for his future self’s total ignominy. As if his words now would have a more lasting effect for the redhead.
“All I ask, Jacky, is that you remember that phrase; take it to heart when we need it most. There was enough pain in the end that…I don’t want those words you say to add to it. It won’t be good for us.”
“I…I’ll try.” Jack slowly nodded.
The redhead took a deep breath, exhaling loudly. “Thank you, Jacky.”
“Uh…yeah.” Jack nodded again.
“Well, it’s about time for me to be going. I don’t have long before the intertemporal wormhole closes.”
“Seriously?” Jack’s head tilted.
“Of course not. I just really like saying ‘intertemporal’ and you never get enough chances.”
The young woman pushed herself off the couch. The cushions ever-so-slowly gave up the impression she left in them – Jack could sympathize. Jack shot up himself, the backs of his straightening legs shoving his chair away in his haste, knocking against the edge of his desk.
“Hey uh…can I ask…how we met? What we had in common?”
“Oh, uh…we met over our love of games, but was that any surprise?”
“I would’ve figured my parents had tried to pair me up with some family friends in the mainland or something.” Jack chuckled slightly. “I guess I’m glad you came along.”
The redhead chuckled.
“Well, they weren’t exactly pleased in the beginning, since I wasn’t Chinese. But they warmed up to me. We talked a lot about literature; mythology was big. You told me about the Greek ones, I told you about fairy tales.” The girl smiled, thinking back on their shared interests.
“That sounds…nice,” Jack said with a smile.
“Oh trust me, it is.” The girl giggled. “Anyway, time for me to go.”
The redhead walked slowly to the door, surreptitiously taking in the sight of the odds and ends in Jack’s apartment, her gaze gliding over them with a longing familiarity. For just a moment, her eyes hung on a small, tin model of a knight on an end table near the door. The orange plume sticking out of the knight’s helmet had yet to fade and wear like she had known it. She whispered “even back then, huh?” with a smirk.
“Hey, uh…when did I say that to you? The Buddha thing?” Jack asked.
The girl stopped with her hand on the doorknob. She opened the door, pulling it in and sliding back towards Jack. She turned.
“You told me just before I died.”
“And hey, if it’s any consolation – we’ll have plenty of time together, before you have to say goodbye.”
The redhead leaned in, kissing Jack on the cheek. Jack still in shock, she walked over the threshold, and closed the door behind her. She turned back, watching the young man through the door’s window. Jack rushed to the door, his fingers lightly touching the knob, but he stopped. He tried to memorize her features; her red hair became bleached by the warmth of the sun, her freckled face obscured by the bloom of the light and the shade it cast. All he could make out before she disappeared completely was her smile; blindingly perfect teeth between the softest, pinkest lips.
It was a smile he wouldn’t forget.
It was a smile he would anticipate for several years, and a smile he would revel in for nearly sixty-five more, even when the cancer slowly took her. However, instead of lamenting the pain, thinking of alternatives that would have helped him avoid it, Jack stayed strong. Jack stayed with her.