The Time Bomb

“If a clock could count down to the moment you meet your soul mate, would you want to know?”

4:59. Whoever designed this facet of the universe certainly didn’t take into consideration the possibility that we might not actually appreciate being warned about an enormous, life-changing crisis just five minutes before it happens.

Meeting someone you’ve harbored a long-time crush on online in normal circumstances is, naturally, stressful.

Meeting someone you’ve harbored a long-time crush on and having the timer on your wrist flare to life just five minutes before the fact is apocalyptic.

4:30. 4:29. 4:28. I stare dumbly at the timer on my wrist, watching the numbers fall away intractably. Denial lasts for all of a silent, futile wish for the countdown to stop, and then it’s straight into acceptance. It isn’t so much the calm receipt of impending doom as it is giving myself permission to tell the universe off for being a lousy, power-tripping di—

3:59. 3:58. 3:57. My face is too well-trained to show any hint of alarm but inside my head, all my synapses are going off like rogue firecrackers. One miscalculation – one wrong breath! – and I will implode.

3:05. 3:04. 3:03. This must be what holding a time bomb feels like.

2:30. My friends return from the cafeteria to find me frozen in my seat, straight-backed and stone-faced. I’ve been so erratic since I met your charming concentration of electrons on the Internet – grinning all day about a joke you made the previous night, other times sobbing then staring mutely into space in turn, et cetera – that yet another oddity of mood only mildly surprises them.

They ask what the matter is, and I smile but reveal nothing; my being secretive is something they are used to. They see more of me than anyone else is allowed to, but there are some things I keep selfishly to myself. Like the perplexing, affectionate things you call me in private messages, or the current countdown to Armageddon embedded in my skin.

If they sense that something is off, they smile but reveal nothing too.

2:00. In truth, I would have been up to my eyebrows in nerves whether or not these numbers appeared on my wrist at this moment. What if upon meeting me, you find I don’t measure up to whom I claim to be? In writing, it’s easier to be fascinating, when you have both the luxuries of time to compose brilliant answers and the absence of physical attributes getting in the way of your wit. It’s nothing like trying to dazzle another person in the flesh.

And I’m not just talking about me; what if upon finally meeting you I find you wanting? After months of building expectations like dream castles in the sky, if my own faulty engineering came crashing down around me, I would die. Metaphorically. Of disappointment. And of shame.

Or – 1:30 – what if it isn’t you? I could be jumping the gun again, like I’ve been doing recently, ever since I realized I couldn’t predict anything when it came to you? Ever since I started thinking that if every outcome was possible, what was stopping my wildest dreams from coming true?

Except maybe the equally possible outcome that they wouldn’t.

1:00. I didn’t know which would be worse.

0:30. I reach beneath my chair to ready the books you were going to collect from me – and stop myself.  As if I wasn’t already revolted with myself for even believing you could be the person meant for me, would I let you mistake me for some tragic maiden who had nothing else to do than wait around desperately for a man?

Perish the thought. I straighten back in my seat. 0:10.

0:05, 0:04, 0:03. My friends claim my attention again and I miss the last crucial seconds of my vigil. The timer goes off, but I don’t feel it or hear it (was I supposed to?). Instead the conversation breaks off abruptly and someone gestures to the door, where there, framed in the window, are you.

My eyes drop to my wrist. The timer reads 0:00.

◊◊◊◊

There is nowhere to go but forward.

I take my books – and my nerves – in hand, and walk out the door. I remember my friends are ogling us from behind me and you are waiting up ahead, and I drop my shoulders and hold my head a little higher. This makes you raise your eyebrows as you greet me for the first time, something casually teasing about how haughtily I walk. I don’t trust myself to reply and pull a face at you instead, as familiarly as if I’d known you forever.

I wonder if this is lack of pretension is how it’s supposed to feel, and I hope so because there is no way I can be dazzling now. Every high mental faculty is concentrating on not making an idiot out of myself in front of the guy who’s just been revealed to me as my Soulmate.

I search for any sign in your demeanor, any tell as to whether you’re aware of what you are to me. A chunky plastic watch in bright sunshine yellow sits on your wrist, completely obscuring your timer. My panic hikes to new levels.

Has he simply not seen it?

Has he seen it and this is his way of being casual about it?

Has his timer even gone off for me, or not? 

It’s happened before. Sometimes, you’re bound to another soul not for romantic purposes. But I never envisioned a life where my reason for being born is to become someone’s second best.

I don’t want to be second best.

I want—

I want—

want.

The thought rises, primal and unbidden and sure. I want you. I want you to want me.

And the wanting opens a void deep and wide inside me, an abyss that stares me in the eye and demands to be filled. A tomorrow made up of this emptiness is unimaginable.

I pull myself out of it, back into the frenzy of the here and now. My brain unwraps you like a Christmas present it’s been waiting until July for and files information away eagerly. Nike lanyard: purple, my favorite color. Collar: askew, my fingers itch to reach up and straighten it. So tall: my heels do nothing past raising my gaze level with your shoulder. Nameplate: middle initial, L. Voice: forceful with the accent of your city, but warm with undercurrents of laughter.

I move upward to scrutinize your face and pause, because I. Can’t. Look. At. You.

I can’t look at you, because if I do, I will stare. You’re not ordinarily good-looking – you don’t have the kind of face people acknowledge as handsome then move on from without a second thought to scrutinize the rest of you. Yours is the kind that invites the audience to study you a little closer, to try and figure out why the hell is it that we can’t look away.

That I can’t look away.

I cast around for something else to focus on. I settle on the trilogy of books you’ve brought me, marveling at your slender, almost candle-like fingers as you disassemble the stack (I give up – even your hands are perfect). You explain the plot of each book, and half of me is immersed in the conversation, but the other half stands separate from the scene. That half is watching two people having an easy, intelligent exchange of ideas, and is fairly bursting with elation that we are those two people.

My earlier anxiety ebbs away slowly when I find you’re just as charming in the flesh, and the dream castles grow a few extra turrets.

◊◊◊◊

We’re standing side by side now, and as you talk, your elbow keeps bumping against mine. Granted, elbows have about a square inch surface area of skin, but right now every point on that inch is alive with the solid sensation of you. Longing jumps like an electrical charge from one nerve to the next. I need to keep feeling you are real and you are here, so I don’t move away, and like a pair of magnets attracted to each other, you brush against me again and again.

I don’t assume it’s anything more than accidental. But when you hand me back the books, your fingers touch mine, and they stay too long on my skin, tarry too long not to be deliberate. Seventeen years without a timer did not mean I grew up naïve; inside my head, flags go up and warning bells ring.

Touching elbows, lingering fingers. Such tiny gestures – almost nothing – make no sense, but the oddest suspicion comes over me like a shaft of sunlight, bright with logic and warm with intuition.

I’m almost certain I can see the void staring at you too.

Something flashes deep and deadly in my chest that’s more imperative than want and more compelling than longing, and my heart sinks when I identify the feeling as hope. Hope that maybe this ease, this perfection, this attraction could be meant for me; a surrender to the frighteningly vulnerable state of signing my own death warrant if I turn out to be mistaken. Want and longing are calls that could be denied, but hope is a choice, a conscious decision to take a risk.

Hope leaves you with no one else but yourself to blame.

I could fall into that void and never come back out for the rest of my life, and I would be doing it willingly. The maelstrom of emotions of the last ten minutes would go on forever. There would be blood and tears shed even if we ended up claiming the dream castle, and there would be no more sitting stone-faced and straight-backed and secretive for me ever again.

Whatever way the universe has tied me to you, I am in deep trouble. There could be a number on your wrist like mine, or there couldn’t. But right now, I know it doesn’t matter. For better or worse, I am going to see this through.

Just when I think I’m going to fly apart into a million pieces, it’s over. I hold your books close – my first tangible pieces of you – and tell you it was lovely to finally meet you. You give a courtly little wave goodbye, and when you lift your hand, the chunky yellow watch slips down your arm, exposing your wrist.

And I know, oh hell, I know, that I am in very deep trouble indeed. □

◊◊◊◊

“There are two most important days of your life:
the day you were born, and the day you discover whom you were born for.”
–Mark Twain

 

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