As Long As We Both Shall Live

I constantly worry that today will be the day; that I'll wake from slumber, or come home from work, and she'll be gone, her heart given out or her lungs collapsed from the blackened detritus of the tobacco. I always pause just before opening the door to the house, taking one deep breath before unlocking the deadbolt and turning the knob.

She lies on her back, on the bed that we placed in the living room years ago, so she could watch her movies. She always records the old movies on the TiVo: Humphrey Bogart, Richard Burton, Ava Gardener, Audrey Hepburn. She watches them and then deletes them, eager for the new batch of nostalgia to replace the old, cycling out like shifts at a convenience store.

I watch her for a moment. Her chest expands and contracts slowly; she's still breathing, still alive. I smile weakly at the affirmation.

She feels me watching her and opens her eyes. She says nothing.

"Hi," I say, offering her a smile. "Home again from the late night."

"I hate you," she whispers, gutturally. "The way you watch me. Your stupid face. So young and obnoxious. You have all the answers."

"Please don't say things like that," I plead softly. "You know that's not true."

"Every day you mock me with that face," she continues. "That stupid baby face that never changes. I hate it to death. I hate you to Hell. We were supposed to grow old together, but you never did. You cheated me of that."

"I never had a choice," I protest. "I didn't want things to be this way."

"I hate you," she resolves, and says no more. She fidgets in her bed, turning over to avoid pressing the sores.

I turn back to the door and go out, leaving her to sleep it off.

It's 6 AM; the coffeeshop is taking in its morning regulars. I wait in line with the others, my thoughts drifting far from this place, back to the day we met, back in 1964. Lyndon Johnson was president. The Beatles had made their first number one hit in the US, appearing on Ed Sullivan's show eight days later. Malcolm X had left the Nation of Islam. It was a very different world from today, and a very different world from the ones I had known before, but they're always the same worlds at the root of things. That was the truest horror of my continued existence over the centuries; watching these petty people fight the same fights over the same misplaced ideologies over and over.

She was only 25 then. She worked at IBM as a secretary; I was a programmer, having just finished work on the brand new System/360. We met at a coworker's home, who held an informal get-together among the staff to watch the premiere of "Shindig" on the ABC network. September 16. It was a Wednesday. Neither of us were particularly fond of the music, so we ended up retreating to the porch to smoke. We sat on the porch swing for hours, talking and laughing. I kissed her under the light of a moon that would not be visited by Man for another five years…

"What'll it be, honey?" titters the barista, snapping me from the stupor of nostalgia.

"Oh," I reply, "the usual, a Robitussin."

She looks at me queerly. "That's not one I see on the menu."

It dawns on my that the girl is new; I've never seen her before. "Ah," I say, "yes, it's a concoction of my own. Most of the regular staff knows it. Hibiscus tea, iced, with a shot of peppermint."

She purses her lower lip out in consideration. "May have to try that one!" she says, turning around to prepare the drink. I watch her body as she darts around the espresso machines and boilers. She's young, so young, and so fashionable, glammed up in pre-worn boyfriend jeans and hundred dollar ballet flats and a dorothy blouse. She's positively demure compared to the usual tramps they employ here. She's different, or at least wants to fool me into thinking she is.

She smiles as she brings me my drink. "That'll be two forty-six."

"I've got a free one saved up, it seems," I say, handing her my punchcard.

"So you do," she says, nodding and taking the voucher. "Thanks!"

I retreat to a table along the periphery, grabbing a newspaper on my way. I don't so much read the newspaper as run my eyes over the letters out of habit. I've seen all the news before. It's always the same, always a shell game to keep the ignorant masses distracted so the people running the show can collect their usual profits. "There's a sucker born every minute." Phineas Taylor Barnum. He got that phrase from me.

On the periphery of my sight someone approaches; it's the barista, having her first break of the morning while her coworker mans the register. She zeroes in on my table like a kamikaze pilot, carrying a clear plastic cup with red liquid and ice in it. "This is delicious," she says as she invites herself to sit down across from me, "but it does taste a bit like cough syrup."

"A tribute to the provisionality of perspective," I answer.

She cocks her head to one side, watching me. "You seem very… interesting."

"I promise you that I'm a very boring man."

She's not dissuaded. "What are you, about twenty-five?"

"Not since 1622," I reply. I still remember the day vividly; March 22, a Tuesday. The savage Indians attacked Wolstenholme Towne without warning, turning on us with our own tools and weapons. I myself was impaled with a pitchfork. I should have died where I lay. I didn't; I plucked the offending farming pick from my body, unscarred by the tines. I can still see the look of terror on the native's face that had run me through, as though confronted by one of his very gods. That was the day I stopped aging, stopped dying…

She titters as my reply, assuming it a joke. "A time traveler, then," she offers, "like that British guy in the phone booth?"

"Police box," I correct.

"Same difference. You're kind of nerdy, kind of weird. You live around here?"

"Just up the road," I say. "422 East Main."

"Wow," she says, impressed, "you live right on Main?"

"It suits me."

"I live just around the corner," she says. "71 Buckler Ave. Maybe I'll swing by sometime." There's a calculated twinkle in her eye, an invitation I've seen too many times to dismiss as wishful thinking. A social contract, an agreement, like looking at grass and allowing it to determine that it is green — but it's a ruse, for the greenness of the grass is dependent on that very moment, where you and the grass are together to agree that there is grass and it is green. Without you, the grass is not green. Without the grass, the grass is not green. Eventually, you will move on from that spot, that moment in space and time, and the grass will wither and die, and the lie that was the greenness of the grass will be exposed, no matter how long you carry its memory.

I look the girl's body over again; I see the raging fire of time burning away the beauty and creativity and good humor, leaving only rotten, stretchy leather over her osteoporotic skeleton. That's how she'll look in only forty years. Everything that makes her wonderful and joyous in this moment will decay. Memories will become misplaced like car keys and wallets, frivolous illusions of identity robbed from a dessicated husk. This moment will be lost in time — except to me, the forever man, but like wine it will sour to vinegar as the years grow long.

"I don't think that would be appropriate," I say, smiling politely. "You see, my wife is very particular about guests."

Her interest fades quite visibly. She offers an apologetic smirk. "Well," she says, "thanks for introducing me to this." She holds up the beverage in exhibition, and then quietly excuses herself from my table.

I fold the paper away, leaving it on the table as I exit the cafe. After the short walk, I will be home again, with my wife, the one I have promised monogamy to. I worry again that today will be the day, and I will have to begin the cycle of emotional dependency anew, lest live these eternal years in lonesomeness as a vestal eunuch.

It's never hard to remain faithful when waiting is the thing you do best.

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