Énouement

/ˌāno͞oˈmäN/
noun
The bitter-sweetness of arriving at the future, seeing how things turned out, but not being able to tell your past self.

            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 discuss 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 video games, Jack nurtured the notion that he would finally have his destiny as the savior of the universe revealed to him. He would have faced eldritch horrors, if it had gotten his abhorrently traditional parents off his back about working in a corporate mailroom. Although knowing them, they would 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 sat on the couch across the room, only a few feet away from Jack, and 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, but she was compelled regardless. She studied the young man’s face, not for attraction, but longing. She supped on the sharp curve of his jawline with her stolen glances. 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.

            “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 will be 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. 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 and video games.”

            “That’s not…entirely…true,” 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. The couch and desk situated in such a way that occupants’ eyesight was drawn towards a fairly large television. The books, though? No errant volumes lying around, he had cleaned up for once, and put them all in the shelf in his room. 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.

            The girl leaned back and nibbled on her thumbnail, hiding a knowing smile. She had always loved the way confusion angled his eyes.

            “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 it.

            Jack’s head lowered, sending the redhead across the room a stern gaze from beyond a furrowed brow. The girl recognized that gaze, with those big brown eyes of his, and she smiled.

            “I know that look. You’re not upset, you’re confused.”

            Jack scoffed, looking away from her. She admired the curve of muscle in his neck as his head turned.

            “This is unfair,” he said.

            “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 of the joy.”

            “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 three girlfriends in his life; the first, an ill-conceived idea of love from freshman year that saw him too attached in the end; the second ended up being one of convenience, hesitation to talk about love, or really talk all, she had trouble communicating, but Jack didn’t; and the third, a much longer relationship, which ended in heartbreak and betrayal the likes of which Jack hoped he would never have to feel again. It was always them who 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. I’ll find somebody else.”

            The redhead’s 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 against the panic you built up yourself. 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 with pain? 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 be together, 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?”

            “I’m not ending it now, but I’m telling you what happens so you can handle it better.”

            “Is it really better, 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. This will save our relationship then?”

            “Yes.”

            “We won’t break up?”

            “No, I’ll still leave you.”

            Jack huffed.

            “Laws of the universe aren’t that 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 said some hurtful 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.”

            “You make it sound like I had a hand in this breakup, but you say you were the one that left me.”

            “It’s complicated.”

            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 really 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 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 things like…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.

            “Why the hell would I say that?”

            “I don’t know, Jacky,” the girl said, her voice wavering. “You were in pain.”

            “I…didn’t mean it,” Jack tried to say. It couldn’t have sounded any more insincere, despite how sincerely he felt.

            “Yes you did,” the redhead snapped. “You can’t say you didn’t. If there’s one thing I would hope changes, it’s that you’ll think about how hurtful those words can be. That you were so concerned about the pain of reality that you just dismissed the joy of our memories together, like they were nothing.”

            “If you’re so hurt by what I did, why not rethink leaving me? Then I won’t say anything hurtful. Instead of going back in time to talk to me, go find yourself and stop her from dumping me.”

            “It’s not just me, Jack. It was you, us. The way we were is what needs to change.”

            “But what’s the point, if you’ll still dump me in the end?”

            “Because then it won’t be nearly as painful for the both of us. You won’t shut me out.”

            “Then why dump me? Why don’t we work through it?”

            Jack’s mind was changing. He’d moved past the knee-jerk dismissal of the entire premise, as well as wanting to avoid the relationship altogether. Now he was trying to salvage it. He didn’t even know what he was fighting for, but saving it seemed important, like the right thing to do. She loved that about him, that good intentioned care.

            “We just can’t stay together Jack, we aren’t really in a position to negotiate it.”

            “Did you stop loving me?”

            “No, never. But I think that may have had something to do with how you took it, that there was no way around it.”

            “Well then if things change, how can you even be sure that our future together will even be what you want it to be?”

            “I don’t…”

            Jack was silent, his arms uncrossed and his hands dropped into his lap, holding each other.

            “…but I have to try,” the girl said. “I have to trust that this can make things better.”

            “And what part of you needs to change? This all sounds like a lot of heavy lifting on my end. Or is that because I’m here in the present and you’re Little Miss Future?”

            “This is me changing. I was so scared to speak up at the time, but here, now, this is all I can think to do. And maybe this is the perfect time to tell you, to prime you for it early, instead of trying to appeal to you when you’re already upset.”

            “What makes me now the perfect me to dump all this on?”

            “When things get too hard you always tried to avoid the pain, and you shut people out. Maybe we can nip this in the bud. If you knew how much that hurts other people, you can think twice about it. If you knew how much it would hurt me, when I needed you the most, needed you to be strong, you can stop yourself.”

            “It’s hard to be in pain.”

            “I know it is Jacky, but you can’t just distance yourself from the people who love you.”

            “Sounds more like you’re the one distancing yourself from me, so what would that matter?”

            “It’s very selfish, Jack. People are hurting, and you would slink away and avoid it.”

            “I don’t do that.”

            “Don’t you?”

            “Maybe I’ve played it safe all this time, not hanging out with people who will hurt me.”

            “You’ve been hurt in the past. Alyssa, Beth, Gracie.”

            Jack’s brow sharpened at the list of names.

            “And I got by well enough,” he said,

            “By ignoring it. That’s my point.”

            “Why would I want to dwell on that pain any more than I already did? Might as well get past it.”

            “You got past it, sure. It helped you move on when there was no other recourse. But there’s an unhealthy aspect to it that I don’t think you ever noticed.”

            “What’s unhealthy about getting past heartbreak?”

            “You’re shutting people out. I’m sure you told people not to worry about it back when you were dumped before, and you just moved on. It was easier for you to just forget about those relationships.”

            Jack shifted in his seat.

            “Do you even remember much about them?” the girl cocked her head.

            “I remember how they hurt me.”

            “And the good times?”

            “I…guess.”

            “What?”

            “They ruined the good memories we shared when they broke my heart!”

            “That’s the distance talking.”

            “What good is it to remember that? It’ll invariably lead to remembering they hurt me, sours the whole thing.”

            “When you shut people out, you’re even shutting out the memories of them. That’s why you feel it’s better to have never been in the relationship. That’s what you said to me. That’s what hurt me so much. Once you had a relationship that lasted, that old kneejerk reaction showed its flaws. Before you could just ignore it, but there was no ‘moving on’ from us.”

            “What do you mean? I thought you dumped me, how is there no moving on? Why can’t I just do what I’ve done before? What does it even matter?”

            “It matters because it affects you and me, it hurts you and me. You distance yourself from people when they’re the ones who will help you get through the pain. After a while, instead of working through any pain, you start to slink away at the first sign of trouble. Then you end up hurting people.”

            “So you want me to remember the good times?”

            “Not just the good times. Remember all of it; the good, the bad, everything in between. That all means something. You can’t just let go of that meaningful time, that’s where the happiness comes from.”

            “Still means that the happiness has to end.”

            “Sure, but just the same, the pain we experience won’t last forever either. We’ll have to struggle through it, but it won’t last.”

            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.

            A smile grew on the girl’s face.

            “This too, shall pass, huh?”

            “Exactly. All I ask, Jacky, is that you take that to heart when we need it most. There was enough pain in the end that…I don’t want you to shut me out. It won’t be good for either of 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.

            The girl saw the smirk pulling at the corner of his lips. That tiny smirk always made her weak in the knees.

            “Of course not. I just really like saying ‘intertemporal wormhole’ and you never get enough chances.”

            “But this is it? You’re satisfied?”

            “Yeah, I can feel it. I don’t need to be here anymore.” 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, but they warmed up to me. We talked a lot about literature; mythology was big. You told me about the Greek and Chinese 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 was.” 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.

            “Am I allowed to know?” Jack asked.

            “Know what?” she asked back.

            “Why we…”

            “Why I leave you?”

            “Yeah.”

            The girl stopped with her hand on the doorknob.

            “I don’t think it’s right for you to know, Jacky.”

            “We’ve come this far. Farther if you count our future.”

            “I always count our past. That’s what matters most.”

            “So…can I know…?”

            “If it’s any consolation – we’ll have plenty of time together, before you have to say goodbye.”

            “C’mon, it’s not like I’m asking for your name, just an intimate detail of a failed relationship.”

            “It didn’t fail.” She looked hurt.

            “Well?”

            The girl searched Jack’s face, taking in his eyes, crowned by concern, and his lips pursing ever so slightly. He was worn from the discussion, but could he truly handle it? Did he want to know because he truly wanted to, or because he was simply curious? She wondered if it would hurt him, but decided that she need not skirt the issue.

            “You really want to know why I left you?”

            Jack released a short hum, urging the answer. The girl opened the door, pulling it in and sliding back towards Jack. She turned.

            “Because…I died.”

            “What?”

            The redhead leaned in, kissing Jack on the cheek. It was her own small consolation, far too shallow and off-center of what she really wanted to do the moment she first saw him today. 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 reached out, pressing his fingertips to the glass as 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 fifty-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 like he promised. Jack embraced the time they shared, and stayed close to her.