The end of the story is this. Driving west across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, I’m mesmerized not by the water but by the sky. The storm that was predicted has blown through, drenching the crowd at the Washington College fundraiser I just attended. The downpour forced us under a massive tent into a cacophony of voices, music, the smell of frying fish, damp grass, and wet rain gear.
But it has left the sky a moving masterpiece of violet, aqua, deep gray, and pure white cloud puffs. The artist is still at work on the canvas, applying understory whisps of spent storm blowing east like smoke. From the bridge, I can’t see the bay beneath me or either shore. I am driving through sky.
This afternoon, I discovered that a prayer I have always carried, let everyone I have ever cared for have been happy, has been at least in part, answered. So why, as I descend towards Sandy Point from the apex of the bridge, am I both grateful and wistful? Full and empty? Why is the longing I live to assuage so present?
In literature, we are in what is called the ‘falling action.” The part of the story that comes after the climax, when the conflict that has driven the narrative has been resolved. For the most part.
But every story starts with an inciting incident, and this is mine: My freshman-year boyfriend gets in touch decades after graduation to say he’s sending some old photos. The communication is brief, but Ray mentions a popular college fundraiser he’s been attending for years. “Come,” he says, and I say yes, so I won’t regret saying no. Saying no and wondering what you missed for the rest of your life is worse than saying yes and being sorry you did.
The drive to the event, a fish fry at a farm just feet from the Chester River, is as much like driving through a painting as the trip home will be. It is tender spring. I pass weathered gray barns with red doors, fields with new wheat a foot high.
I hope I look okay. I glance in the rearview mirror at a stoplight. It’s hard not to feel pressure when you’ve only got one shot and you were 22 at the point of last contact. Tomorrow I’ll probably look better because I won’t have tried so hard.
I park in a grassy field along with a hundred other alumni and approach the farmhouse. I don’t know a soul, but I recognize my hostess from Facebook. I introduce myself, and it turns out she knows Ray. “Let’s go find him,” she says.
He was tall, I say. Is he still tall? He had hair. I’m laughing now. Does he still have hair? I want to know what I’m looking for.
Still tall. Still has hair, she says. We search the tent, the beer line. I try his cell. Finally, he texts, “I’ve got a blue and white umbrella, and I’m near the wine station.”
I text back, “Look up. I think I’m looking right at you.” And the man, who is the boy I knew, looks up. We each leave the protection of cover to meet in the rainy middle.
We find seats in the tent eventually. He has piloted his own jet down from his home in New England. It’s a sleek, shiny machine. He shows me a photo of the gleaming plane with his wife smiling from the cockpit. “So that’s who you married,” I think, curious and charmed. He shows me a beautiful family photo. Two of his boys look like him.
We both love the work we do. I show him photos of my family, share my life in the broadest of strokes. I have 70% of the happiness I’d like, I say. I totally get that should be enough. He concurs, at least in part. Gives good advice I won’t take.
He leads me around introducing me to classmates with whom he’s stayed in touch. He uses my maiden name. It feels weird; the name has been gone a long time. I was in a hurry to jettison it.
Entangled. We are all, in terms of quantum physics, entangled. Because we were part of each other’s lives, we will always maintain a point of connection. But there is evidence that black holes disrupt that entanglement, the atoms of which we are made. As objects fall in, they are torn apart. The ejection of those cleaved atoms creates a ring of radiation, that encircling light that allows us to see the void.
Our history has slipped over the event horizon in an ineffable rush to oblivion, but who we are today is the light by which we see in this rain-dark tent. We ask the only questions that matter now, “Did the choices you made serve you? Would you do it all over again?”
“How do you remember me?”
Ray seems to be convinced he is remembered unkindly. “Tell me one happy memory you have of me,” he says, demanding proof this is not so.
“During freshman orientation, we were invited to the home of the head of the French department,” I say. “We were 18; he was French. He served us red wine, raw pepperoni, and sour cream. His children kept refilling our solo cups. I had never had alcohol before. I was suddenly violently ill. You put me in your car and drove me, semiconscious, back to my dorm. You carried me back to my room.”
He searches for the memory.
“Any time I wasn’t throwing up, I was telling you I loved you. ‘I love you,’ fueled by post-throw-up endorphins, means, ‘thank you for being kind.’ Does that count?”
He says, “I don’t remember the throwing up part.”
What more proof do you need that you were a good guy? I wonder. Then I realize he probably does remember. What more proof do you need that you’re a good guy now?
My sense is that Ray tows unidentified regrets or chronic uncertainties, but maybe that’s my own story. I don’t see why he thinks he needs forgiveness, yet I feel in need of it, too. Black holes are bottomless.
Joyce Carol Oates said, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” I could not disagree more here in the falling action. The first sentence can’t be written if you even think you know the last line. The future is in superposition, pure potential teased from the past on that event horizon. Surprise is the one true constant. We will all meet again and again in other stories, where love will outshine the entire galaxy of both spent and unborn stars.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.