You met him at an art gallery. It was your own show, and you were standing in the corner drinking wine from a clear plastic cup, the edge of which was sharp against your lips. You held a paper plate with five almonds, a mozzarella and tomato crostini, and a mini chocolate cupcake carefully balanced in your other hand.
He was standing in front of your favorite piece. No one else was. Probably because the gallery owner told you it wasn’t the sort of work that would stop anyone. That out of all the work in your collection, it was the type that belonged in the back, where it would be found by the people who cared enough to wander there, whose interest would likely be piqued enough for them to enjoy it. It hurt to hang it up on the back wall and not up in the front where you wanted it.
But he hadn’t stopped at everything else. He had walked into the gallery minutes before, giving every painting a quick glance before settling on the one in front of which he was standing. He had been there for almost five minutes before you decided to walk up next to him.
He looked over upon seeing you approach and your heart stopped. He was the most beautiful person you had ever seen. His smile reached his eyes and you found yourself falling into them. You almost asked him if he would model for you.
You didn’t paint portraits.
“This one is beautiful,” he told you.
You smiled and took a sip of your wine. You didn’t need convincing that it was beautiful. That much you already knew. It was the one piece you were confident beyond belief about.
“What do you like about it?” you asked, jutting your chin up at the painting in question.
“The artist seems to have cared. You can see the brushstrokes. They’re more detailed than the others. Someone only spends that much time on something they really care about.”
That was when you fell in love with him. Thirty-three words. That was all it took.
Your first date was dinner after the gallery closed for the night and he dragged you out to his favorite burger joint because he said you deserved it after opening an exhibition. After wolfing down more than enough food and splitting a tub of fries, you spilled out onto the streets in a pile of laughter and joy and you’ll never forget the look on his face when you asked for his number.
Your second date was a night you’ll never forget. He had taken two days to contact you after the first night, and you had begun to worry you would never hear from him again, but he called you and said he wanted to meet you at 6pm the next day and to dress nicely. You showed up where he told you too and he was there with that goddamn smile.
He took you to a Chinese restaurant and said I’d take you somewhere nicer but I don’t think you’re that kind of woman . And you would have slapped any other guy in the face but he looked so earnest and he was right about you. It was like he could read you like a book. And when you laughed he’d sometimes stop laughing with you just to stare with a certain reverence that made you question what you did to deserve the sort of man who looked at you that way.
He took you past all the big theaters showing musicals and stopped at one tucked away with a modest set of doors but the grandest entry hall you had ever seen. You let him lead the way as he took you through the doors into the auditorium and you walked down the aisles to seats near the front.
You didn’t know what you had done to let him know you loved comedies, but he had picked out the perfect play. By the time it was over your stomach hurt from laughing so hard and your eyes held the watery ring around them from your tears. You hit the cool night air just as it started raining, and any other time you would have run for cover but with him and his smile next to you, you didn’t give a shit.
The aimless wandering that night was your favorite part. You were doubled over laughing as he told you the parts of the play he liked, and the parts he didn’t.
“She was a fucking genius and a poet, you know?” he said.
“What? Why?” you asked.
“She wrote a play about another fucking genius,” he said. “And despite it being the funniest shit ever made, it still had all those deep-ass lines. You know, like, ‘If you got one friend when you die then most people never have something like you.”
And he didn’t know why you started giggling until you calmed yourself enough to tell him what the real quote was in between fits of laughter. He had that look from earlier that night on his face. The one where it was like he didn’t even know you could see him. He gazed at you like he could see you. Not just on the surface, but underneath everything too. Like he could see every thought that went through your head and took the time to hold every one and appreciate it before letting it go.
He leaned down to kiss you and you tilted your head up to meet him and you wondered how you hadn’t kissed him before. Why you didn’t when you said goodbye your first night. Why you didn’t when you were getting to know him over a burger. Why you didn’t let him kiss you that first fucking moment when you fell in love, right there, after he told you about your own goddamn brush strokes.
You fell in love all over again the following weekend when he took you to his favorite spot in the park, a large grassy hill overlooking all the kids playing below and you spread out a blanket and ate sandwiches that he had put into little ziploc bags. You told him that he should have packed some wine and he said baby, we didn’t need any alcohol our first two dates and you flushed and told him about the wine you had at the gallery and he laughed.
“I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to walk up to you without it,” you protested when he jokingly expressed mild disappointment.
“If you hadn’t walked up, I probably would have shouted ‘where’s the fucking artist, I need to talk to her!’ by the end of the night,” he said, and you found yourself laughing again.
“Wouldn’t be the weirdest thing that’s happened at one of my exhibits,” you said.
You met him every morning before work to go out for coffee, even if it meant waking up an extra hour early because he’s a morning person. You had his coffee order memorized by the third day.
He invited you to his apartment one day and you found yourself laughing over home videos of him as a kid late into the night. When you said goodbye, your heart yearned to stay. To take one of his shirts and wear it as you curled up next to him in bed. Instead, you kissed him good night.
After dinner one evening, you brought him to your place and showed him the little studio you had in the most well-lit room. He spent almost an hour exploring it, asking you questions about every little thing, the brand of paints you liked best, the angle you preferred to set your easel, your favorite tools, your favorite color, and telling you how honored he was to be in the workplace of a genius.
You didn’t tell him he was the smartest person you had ever met.
You didn’t tell him that he was the genius out of the two of you. That he could talk about his work and you could listen for hours to his voice but not understand a single word he said. That he would talk like no one was listening and then say the most serious shit. The sort of thing that made you rethink life, and by the time you had escaped from your thoughts he was already on another topic, rambling about the multitudes of things he loved. He saw the beauty in everything.
How the hell could a man like him love you?
He was the sort of person you would hear about in movies. The type to never stop dreaming. Someone watching the two of you would think you both mad. He had his head in the clouds and you would watch from below in awe as if his brain was firing off fireworks, and then you would speak about anything and he would give you that smile and that goddamn look that drove you crazy.
Your entire life he was there, living his own life without ever having met you, and you often wondered how many times you had almost met. You lived in the same city, surely there must have been times. Hundreds if not thousands of moments in which your paths nearly crossed. Whether what kept you from meeting was a mere 3 feet of distance in a crowd or a mere 3 minutes of time and space in which one of you was running late or early to something along which way you would have found him.
But you were lucky to have met him when you did. Gotten to share the brief moments while they lasted. That was before the virus hit.
You were sitting on his kitchen counter, covered in acrylic paint he had bought at the grocery store as the two of you detailed messy renditions of Van Gogh’s work on his cabinet doors, and he had wrapped his dirty hands around your waist, leaving two purple handprints on your painting shirt, and pulled you into a kiss. And this one was different. It was deeper, searching for more. There was more heat and passion. Your whole relationship, months of it, had been slow and beautiful and intimate, but there were times where it was more like friendship then romance and neither of you minded as you walked along the fine line between the two, happy with the state of things as they were. But you had loved him since the first day and you didn’t mind the idea of, one day, collapsing naked and sweaty into bed with him instead of snuggling up against his side as he wrapped you in his arms like he usually did when you did decide to spend the night.
But that was for another day. You broke apart after minutes to return to your project. By the end of the night you were screwing the doors back in and he was admiring everything. If you were being honest, he was completely helpless when it came to handiwork. Couldn’t hammer a nail, tighten a screw, sand some wood, or even recreate a decent Starry Starry Night, but that didn’t matter. Because his kitchen looked vibrant and beautiful and the art reminded you of all the ideas you could see swirling in his head. The fucking genius.
The reports had started to come in by then, but it wasn’t until the following morning that you realized how serious everything had gotten. Schools announced that day that they were closing. He called to tell you he was working from home. You got the call that evening that you would be too.
A week later and you had met with him once, in the park. It was a long trek for both of you, living on opposite sides of the city. But the brief kisses, kind words, and soft touches on the waist, thighs, arms, neck, jaw, nose, back, anything ? Those were all worth it.
The following day you learned you couldn’t leave your neighborhood. You video-chatted with him in tears. If only you had let yourself follow the thoughts of moving in with him instead of stamping them out as soon as they started to take root in your head. If only you had let him spend the night one more time. So you wouldn’t be clinging to his fading smell on the t-shirt you stole from his closet.
It was like your whole world cut out when the strikes started. No internet. No cell service. No connection. The postal service was all but gone, and you had no way of connecting with him. Your only source of news was the newspaper, three times a week, delivered to your doorstep. And your neighbor who got it every day and would shout to you the important things.
You wished you had photos of him framed around the house.
Then when you did, the sight of him staring at you from every corner of your apartment was enough to drive you mad with longing that you took them all down.
When the government got the strikes under control, they started to introduce the plans for rolling out the internet services again. Things had become grim. You spent every night dreaming of him, but you were starting to forget his face. Did his nose curve that much? Were the creases around his eyes that deep? Was his shabby beard that full? Did he have dimples, or were you just making that up?
You would stare at the photos on your phone, desperately trying to commit him to memory. Remember how he looked when the man in the photo came to life in three dimensions. How did he walk? How did he wave his hands?
By that time, life was different. You didn’t make art anymore. What was once your life had been shoved into your studio room, the light turned off, and the tubes of paint left to dry up. Your apartment didn’t smell like clay and charcoal and linseed oil anymore. You didn’t have it in you to keep painting. You went to the grocery store once every fourteen days, grabbing produce and frozen goods, bottles of alcohol and some cleaning supplies before handing over your newly minted ration card to receive the staples. Rice, pasta, beans, eggs, flour, sugar, a couple bags of dried fruit, a bottle of milk. It wasn’t so bad when you lived on your own, but you felt bad for the mothers and fathers in line behind you, knowing that their children might be too picky to even eat the food they were lucky to get.
The introduction of connectivity services was a slow process. Neighborhood by neighborhood across the country so as not to overwhelm the systems. There were new rules. It was only to be used for three things: education, work, and essential communication between legal family members.
Your finger hovered over the call button next to his name hundreds of times, but you could never press it out of fear that someone would be watching or listening. You knew that when you walked the streets they were. It was likely the same for your phone now too.
One day in a drunken fit of anger and yearning and the craze of love, you deleted all the photos on your phone, hoping that maybe without them you could forget how much you missed him.
You tried to forget him. But every night you dreamt of his slowly warping face. You wondered if he was doing the same.
Sometimes you would watch the DVDs you had and try to replace his image in your head with the actors. Sometimes it would work and weeks would go by with only dreams of the movies. But it would always lose its effectiveness. Usually around the time that you remembered that he was probably your soulmate and you didn’t get enough time.
In every single one of the possibilities of your lives together that you daydreamed about for hours every day, there was never enough time. But this reality was the worst. You were sure of that.
You had read every book in your house. Read every poem you could get your hands on, even the ones you had risked your life for in searching them on the internet, carefully saving pdfs and screenshots and printing them out on the dwindling paper in your apartment. Words didn’t do the same thing they used to anymore. They didn’t bring joy and excitement and escape. You stopped reading them.
You talked with your neighbor for the first time in a month. It seemed that almost everyone had stopped reading books. You wondered if people stopped doing other things too.
The world before was starting to blur around the edges. You couldn’t remember if the path you liked to walk in the park had such an erratic course or if it was more subtle than you could remember. What did you like to do on the weekends? There was a place, a building, that you liked to go to. You couldn’t remember what it was called or what was inside, but you remember the feeling of standing there. The musty smell and the awe and the sensation that you were staring out at all of humanity. And you had no idea what the fuck it was.
You weren’t sure how much of the world before you had forgotten. But you couldn’t shake him from your memory. You wished you could.
When you weren’t working you were cooking or eating or sleeping. And when you weren’t doing that, it constituted the dangerous time where you didn’t have anything to do and nothing to interest you.
And every fucking thing you did, be that making pasta or lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling, made you think of him. You had loved him as you’d never loved anyone before. And you never told him. Did he even know that you loved him? Did he know that you knew he loved you back?
You would close your eyes and the only thing you were sure of in your mind’s image of him was that goddamn smile.