I woke up that morning in the mood for curry, so I ended up at the supermarket. I was pushing a shopping cart down the ethnic aisle, scanning the shelves of spices, when you appeared beside me. I didn’t have to turn to know you were staring. The side of my face burned with attention.
“Jenny.” My name fell easily from your mouth.
I looked over. I was the one staring then.
You didn’t look like anyone I would know. Thick, dark hair gathered in a single braid down your back. Smooth skin, warm and russet-brown.
“Do I know you?”
You laughed at the question. “Huh. I guess not.”
I stood there, blinking dumbly, holding a can of coconut milk that had suddenly gone heavy in my hand.
“Good luck with the curry,” you said, and disappeared around the corner into another aisle.
How did you know I was making curry? As I tossed the coconut milk into the cart, I realized the ingredients there must have made my intentions obvious. I’ve always been told I’m quite difficult to read. Blank-faced. Soulless. When I was a high school student in the suburbs of New Jersey, some years after Virginia Tech, people joked that I looked like I could be the shooter’s sister. Slant-eyed and silent as a semi-automatic emptied of ammo. Sometimes I would laugh too loud at their jokes, would parrot what they said to me for days after with a smile so no one could say I had been an odd girl, the lonely type, even though I was. You looked at me, though, like I was a pool of water clear enough to see down to the bottom. Our encounter lingered with me as I picked up chicken breast in the poultry aisle, as I bagged my items at the self-checkout counter, and as I rode the bus from the supermarket to the edge of town, near the train station, where I lived.
My apartment was a five-minute walk from the bus stop. It was still early enough in the afternoon for people to be out walking dogs and pushing toddlers down the street in large strollers. I caught the elevator as it opened on the first floor of my building. A twenty-something blonde woman with a small child slung to her chest greeted me. “Hi.” I nodded. I might have smiled. In general, I avoided talking with my neighbors, mostly young couples with whom I had nothing in common except maybe age. I got out on the fourth floor and hurried off with my grocery bags. Once I stepped inside my studio, the world outside ceased to concern me.
I lived alone then, but I still liked to cook meals for two. When I got home, I unloaded the groceries, washed my hands, and started on the curry. While not a technically difficult dish to make, there are several elements to curry. Amateurs think they can skip over steps in the recipe, swap out ingredients or abandon them altogether to taste, but when I want curry, I make curry, not something curry-ish.
I had oil crackling in a pan. I tossed some shredded chicken breast in a spice blend and set the slivers in the pan to cook. I tossed in diced onion, crushed ginger, garlic cloves that reminded me of pine nuts. Each thing landed with a surge of sound, a swell of fragrant steam. Once I folded the tomatoes and broth in, the hiss died out, the curry bubbling gently on the stove. Suddenly, I could hear someone knocking on the door. It sounded like they had knocked softly once or twice already. This time, they pounded, insistent.
I had never had a noise complaint or any trouble with my neighbors. Sometimes I wondered whether any of them had ever heard my voice through the walls, whether they’d made guesses about the kind of person I was that lived in the apartment next door.
I lowered the dial on the stove to a simmer and approached the door, my skin itching with a kind of thrill. Who could it be? Maybe a burglar who would force his way in once I cracked the door an inch, or else a drunken, irate neighbor who’d lash out at me with such vitriol, it would haunt me for years, the awful words he’d spew. I think everyone who’s lived alone has dreamed of such an incident to shake them out of their routine. To make life new and volatile again. When I opened the door, I wasn’t at all prepared to find you there behind it.
“Hi.” You unfolded your arms and offered me a small wave. “How’s the curry coming?”
Just as before, I was stunned silent. You looked so comfortable there in the hallway. You were wearing a loose green cardigan over a red turtleneck and dark jeans. If you’d said so, I would have believed you had simply come from down the hall. Was that how we knew each other? Had we greeted one another in passing, or else had one of those forgettable encounters in the elevator? What floor? Fourth, please. Oh. Me, too.
“It smells great in here,” you said. “Mind if I join?”
I must have stammered something like yes, but I couldn’t be sure I had said anything at all. You came in anyway, slid out of your shoes at the entrance, and headed straight for the cabinet where I kept the plates. You pulled two down, then opened the drawer beneath the sink where I kept the silverware and took out two spoons.
Everything in my apartment had originally come in a couple set: two green ceramic plates, two mugs, two glasses, two stainless steel forks, spoons, and knives. This was the first time since I’d moved in that I’d had a use for both items in each set. You found everything in its exact right place and set them up on the counter. I remembered the curry and basmati rice still cooking on the stove, gave each dish a couple stirs and shut off the heat.
“I’m sorry,” I said. My own voice sounded strange to me. “It seems like we’ve met before, but I can’t remember where.”
“No need to apologize,” you said. “We haven’t met.”
I looked over. You were sitting at a barstool, also one of a twin set. You smiled slightly, nodded toward the plates resting on the countertop and said, “I’m starving. Let’s eat first.”
You pushed the plates toward me. It was like there was nothing I could do but spoon matching pats of rice onto them from the pot, then pour the curry over. You went to the fridge and took out the pitcher of water to fill our glasses. I came around the counter and joined you at the other barstool. Despite the strangeness of the situation, it felt like we were regular dinner companions settling in for our latest shared meal.
I watched you take the first bite. You ate neatly, your pink tongue darting out to catch the excess sauce. You tore a paper towel from the roll and dabbed at the corners of your mouth to remove what your own hunger could not.
“Delicious,” you said, beaming, and a heaviness fell off me, allowing me to eat, too.
The apartment was quiet for a while except for the clink of our spoons against the plates, our satisfied hums when the flavor hit, the occasional sips of water. I was usually a slow eater, but before I realized it, I’d cleared my plate. You were still eating the curry, one measured spoonful at a time. I scraped all the little stray grains of rice to the edge of my plate for something to do. When you set your spoon down at last, I did the same. You settled back on the stool and turned toward me, the most perfect expression of contentment and calm on your face.
“I’m sure you want to know what I’m doing here,” you said.
I nodded. It wasn’t that I was afraid. We’d had a meal together, after all. And if I thought about it, you weren’t a complete stranger. We’d met in the supermarket. You’d called me by my name.
“It’s a bit of an odd story,” you said. “A long one, too.”
“That’s fine,” I replied. “Start from the beginning.”
“That’s the thing.” You took a sip of water and set the glass down again. “It’s hard to tell where the beginning is. There isn’t one beginning. So I don’t know where to start.”
“Do we know each other from high school? College?”
You shook your head.
“Where, then? I feel like I would remember you.” I couldn’t picture you alongside any of the plain, clean-cut kids I had gone to school with, the ones who’d gone on to be lawyers or investment bankers. You had a grace that felt easy, a limitless soul. Where would I have met someone like you? How would you have noticed me, picked me out from a crowd?
“Like I said, it’s a long story.”
“That’s fine,” I said again. “I want to hear it.”
You laughed, pointing to my mouth. “Cute. You do that, even now. That pout.”
You spoke to me like we were old friends. I felt even worse for not remembering you. But you didn’t seem to mind.
“Right now, I’m bridging the distance between us,” you said. You reached up and touched my face with your fingers. They were warm. I could feel your pulse, your hot blood thudding against my cheek. “Can you feel that? Even though we don’t know each other well right now, aren’t you curious? It feels inevitable, right? That we’ll become close?”
“Sort of,” I admitted. “But why?” There were so many people who lived in this building, in this town, in the world. “Why did you come here to see me?”
“The simplest way I can explain it,” you said, “is that I love you.”
A slow dread churned in my stomach.
“In the future,” you added quickly. “We don’t know each other now. But we’re going to meet, and one day, we’ll be together. Actually, maybe that’s the real beginning.”
Things I learned about you that night, even before we would officially meet: you had a pretty name. Ria Chauhan. You pronounced it for me, then watched my mouth mimic yours until I learned to say it right. Your dad was from North India, your mom was black from North Jersey, and you were curly-haired and ambiguously brown with a name and face that tripped up almost everyone you met. You were thirty. In the future you had come from, apparently, so was I. But in that moment, as we sat eating dinner at the barstools in my kitchen, I was twenty-five and hadn’t loved anyone in a long time. How would you change that? How would we meet? I had questions, but you smiled in lieu of answering and assured me it wouldn’t be long.
You still weren’t fully sure how all of it worked, you admitted. You couldn’t control the increments of time exactly, couldn’t think let’s go back to March 9, 1995, at 11:42 a.m. or take me to the 1920s and have it happen just so. The experience, you said, was essentially like recalling a memory, immersing yourself in the details of it, then stepping inside.
You told me you first discovered you could do this by accident. You had been thinking about a night earlier in the week, when the two of us had watched some foreign film on the TV in your living room. You’d remembered the way I’d smelled, milky and clean, and the exact scene that had been on the TV when you leaned down to kiss my head in your lap. Next thing you knew, you were there, in that moment again. It was like you had folded time in half and stepped right over the crease.
You’d practiced with recent memories, ones whose details you could trust, returning to moments earlier the same day—the coffee bubbling in the pot in the kitchen as the sun fell at a slant through the windows, the meal of buttered toast you’d stumbled into the kitchen yawning to eat with me, the kiss we’d shared briefly as I headed off for work. But you weren’t satisfied with only these small moments. Your curiosity, you said, drove you farther and farther into the past, until one day you discovered you could step into memories you yourself didn’t have, memories of mine I’d confided in you, the details of which you’d studied over and over to memorize until they blurred and overlapped with your own.
You’d wanted to know me before we met. That was how you’d found me. You’d simply entered the memory I would later share with you of cooking in my twenties. The supermarket runs, the couple sets of silverware and plates, the nights I ate alone in my apartment. Essentially, I’d led you to me. The me I would become had told you how to find me now.
“That’s stupid,” I said.
You didn’t disagree. “I told you it was an odd story.”
I considered this as I gathered our dishes to wash. I ran the water, watched the dish soap foam up in the sink as I scrubbed the plates clean, watched the flecks of rice and curry spiral down the drain.
“Thanks for dinner,” you said.
I cut the water off and flicked my hands dry, then wiped them on a dishtowel. “My pleasure,” I said. You stood up, and I walked you to the door.
“So when are we really going to meet?” I asked, watching you slide your feet into your shoes.
You leaned in, smelling like my apartment, and left a kiss on my cheek. You turned the knob and stepped out into the hall. “Any day now,” you said with an easy smile. “It’s only a matter of time.”
You appeared to me in the supermarket again the following week in the produce section. At some point—either when we’d had dinner the last time or sometime in the future, I couldn’t be sure—I must have told you about either my great love of basil or my tendency to make pasta at the start of the week, because as I approached the greens, there you were, already holding a bag of basil to toss into my shopping basket.
“Is this it?” I asked. “Are we meeting now? In the herbs section, of all places?”
You laughed at that. “Not yet,” you said. “I’m still future me.”
“Give me a hint,” I whined. “Will it happen soon?”
“It ruins the story if I tell you how it ends.”
“Wouldn’t our meeting be the start, though?” I reached then for garlic—four, five firm bulbs. “You can’t ruin a story by revealing how it begins.”
You hummed, thoughtful, but didn’t reply.
We circled around from the greens to the crates of vegetables and fruits. You picked up two mangoes and set them in my basket. I didn’t like mangoes, so I figured this was a new thing I was learning about you. I loved the sudden weight of the fruit, the space they took up alongside my simple greens.
“Let’s have coconut curry tonight,” you said, adding ginger root to the basket.
I wasn’t in the mood for curry. My mouth had been watering all afternoon with the thought of an herbal pasta, a creamy pesto on the side. But I didn’t want to eat alone. I wanted to have dinner with you. So I returned the sweet red tomato in my hand to its crate. You led me away. My basket tapped a quick and anxious rhythm against my thigh as I trailed you through the supermarket in search of shredded coconut and lime.
At home, I made the curry following your instructions and it turned out okay, sour and sweet shot through with the fresh mint and lime. We ate together at my counter again. Your eyes were closed almost the whole time, and you hummed as you ate, possessed, it seemed, by some memory.
Finally, you opened your eyes. “I’ll have to ask you to make this for me in the future,” you said.
“Do I cook for us often?” I couldn’t stop the question from spilling out. It’d been on my mind since the week before—this future me I couldn’t fathom. The fact that you, both a stranger to me and not, knew more about me than even I could know.
“Sometimes you do,” you said, “though we mostly do take-out these days.”
I knew I must have frowned, confused. It wasn’t impossible to imagine I might order take-out once every couple weeks. But I knew myself. I wouldn’t have done so more often than that. Still, the way you’d said it made it sound like it was an every other day sort of thing for me, for us, in the future. “Why?” I asked.
You nodded, swallowing a bite of curry. You took a long sip of water, set down the glass, then wiped your mouth with the corner of your napkin before you took another bite.
“What sort of work do we do?” I asked.
“You’re on a marketing and design team for some company in the city. I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but it keeps you up at night with lots of projects, lots of deadlines. You seem to like it, though.”
I smiled. “Really?” This was the sort of work I had been doing freelance for a year or so. To know that I would eventually land something more secure in the field loosened a knot of tension I hadn’t known was wound up so tight inside me. “And you?” I said. “What do you do?”
You looked back, distracted by something, perhaps some sound you’d heard outside, shouts or snatches of conversation dulled only slightly by the walls. “I’m an artist, too,” you finally said. “I paint murals.” At this, you flexed your fingers, as though stretching them to play a grand concerto.
“Would you show me your work sometime?” I asked. “I’d love to see it.”
You looked at me. Your eyes seemed sad, though I couldn’t understand why. “The future is so long,” you said. You stood and gathered your plate, your utensils. As you went around the counter to set the dishes in the sink, you told me, “We have plenty of time.”
I didn’t see you the week after that. I wondered if I’d scared you away with my questions. My need. I entertained the thought, too, that I’d dreamed you up. That seemed right. I’d imagined you, a lover who promised me I had a future worth running toward, right when it seemed I was caught in the routine of my present life, standing completely still.
On the first Saturday in May, I took the PATH to World Trade Center, then the E train headed for Queens. It had been about a month since I’d gone to see my mother. Had I told you about my mother? I can’t imagine I would have. She was in an assisted living facility in Flushing, her body curling into a fist as she aged. She’d moved in the summer after I finished undergrad in the city, and whenever I didn’t make it out to see her within a timeframe she deemed acceptable, she got angry and threatened to haunt me as a ghost when she died.
It took two hours to get there. The staff greeted me warmly as always and asked how school was going. It had been about two years since I’d dropped out of my graduate program one semester in, but I hadn’t wanted to disappoint the women at the home, so I hadn’t mentioned it. “It’s going well,” I said, as I did each time I visited. “I’m really liking my classes. The professors are great.”
One of the women cooed about how smart I was, and what a good daughter, while the other wrote my name on a visitor’s pass and stuck it to my shirt. I took the elevator up to my mother’s apartment on the seventh floor. These assisted living houses reminded me of college dorms—narrow hallways carpeted a dull gray, the off-white walls punctuated at intervals by each apartment’s steel doors. Depending on the time of day I made it out here, I might hear muffled TVs in some apartments, sweet voices or whooping laughter inside others. Outside my mother’s room, though, it was always quiet. Sometimes I stood outside with my ear pressed to the door for a while before I knocked, to see if I could make out even the sound of her slippered feet on the wood floors.
That day, I went ahead and knocked. My mother often took her time coming to the door. She liked to make me wait, perhaps to worry me. Sometimes, it worked, and I started to wonder: what if she’d fallen? What if her heart had stopped in the middle of the night? But she appeared in the doorway, as she always did, chiding me in Korean before I even stepped inside.
“Look at you, you gained so much weight. What are you eating?” She padded inside, not waiting for an answer.
I took my shoes off and set them neatly by the door. I followed my mother to the armchairs by the windows. Sunlight beamed into her room; she kept the drapes pulled aside so she could see out into the courtyard. My mother was a gossip, but a shut-in, too. I was the only one she had to tell about the things she saw from her window.
“There are two women who go out there every day and sit on that bench behind the fountain,” she began, leaning over in her seat to peer down. I sat in the chair opposite her. I couldn’t see anyone out there then, just pigeons strutting over grass.
“How have you been feeling, umma?” I asked. The last time I had come, the nurses told me she’d begun to have trouble in her joints. Her movements convulsed, her body stiff. She wouldn’t ask for help, but it was clear she was having more trouble walking than usual. When I’d asked her about it that time, she said the nurses were stupid and hardly trained, so what would they know? This time, she disregarded the question altogether.
“I thought I told you to stop wearing those kinds of clothes,” she said. “And put on some makeup. Why do you look like a son I don’t even have?”
I was wearing a plain blue sweater over a button-up and khaki pants. I started to note that each item had come from a women’s section somewhere, that in this century, in this country, women could dress like this, too, but she looked away from me again, uninterested. Her attention returned to the empty courtyard.
“Those women sit right there behind the fountain. They come out in the late afternoon, around dinner, and I see them whispering to each other.”
I tried to imagine these women. I hadn’t seen many of the other people who lived in the building. I only had my mother’s stories to rely on.
She turned to me suddenly. “Did you finish school yet?” she asked. “When are you going to find real work?”
I hadn’t told her I’d dropped out, either. She’d never considered design to be a real area of study, anyway. The problem was I still hadn’t managed to find full-time work. I was doing well enough as a freelancer, building websites for startups and entrepreneurs. But I’d wondered if that was more of a disgrace than having no work at all.
“What are their names?” I asked then. “The women who come out here.”
“How would I know? One of them has ridiculous hair, a perm, maybe. So curly, like dog fur. And the other one, her hair is so short, I thought she was a man. She dresses well, but that haircut is so awful. I can’t understand women like that.”
I touched my own hair. Long and stringy. My mother had often scolded me as a child for shying away from her hands, her scissors, her combs—all her efforts to groom me with curls, ribbons, and bangs. The memory lit a wick of anger inside me, and it burned. I brought my hands to my sides again and clenched them. I wanted to hit something. Make something else hurt.
“Did you know?” my mom went on. “One day, I was having dinner by this window. I’d made seaweed soup that day. It didn’t taste as good as I usually make it because, I told you, I’ve been cutting back on salt. Anyway, I was having seaweed soup, and when I looked up, those women were there, whispering on that bench. They were close, so close, and the next thing I knew, they were kissing! Right in the courtyard. Can you believe that? I’m telling you, I thought I would die.”
Hands still trembling, I rested them on the windowsill and leaned closer to the glass, trying to imagine the women as my mother had described. Half-hidden behind the fountain, holding each other’s hands. Secrets moving back and forth across the space between them until they finally closed that distance. I envied them. The flame of rage inside me stood taller and brushed hot against my lungs. My mother shivered as though a chill had passed through her. Suddenly, I thought of you.
I wanted to ask you: Is my mother there in the future with us too? Does she haunt me after all? Does the furniture rattle? Do the walls groan? Or is it quiet in the house we live in? Do we sleep right through the nights?
When I got home in the evening, I peeled off my outside clothes and slipped into the usual T-shirt and shorts I wore around the apartment. When I stepped out of the closet, you were sitting at one of my barstools, arms resting on the counter. You looked up like you’d been waiting. Not impatient or annoyed, but comfortable. Almost bored. “How was your day?” you asked.
“Exhausting. Can we put a movie on?”
We sat close on my futon, my computer open on the coffee table, whirring and sputtering in an effort to show us even the low-resolution frames of whatever action film you’d chosen for us to watch. I lay with my head on your lap. You ran your fingers through my hair. I laughed, nervous, each time you started over at my scalp. Ticklish or uneasy, I couldn’t be sure. You mentioned this was something you often liked to do. Something I allowed in the future. I closed my eyes and tried to believe you. It wasn’t hard to convince myself I wanted this feeling, or that someday I could.
“I saw my mom today,” I said.
You hummed. “At the nursing home, right? How’d that go?”
“She makes me want to die.”
“Come on. You don’t mean that.”
“I do.” I opened my eyes. On the screen, a car was on fire. “One of us will have to die or disappear for the other one to be happy. I know that. I’ve always known that.”
“But you don’t know that,” you said. “You feel like that now, but you won’t even remember this feeling, this afternoon, a few years out.”
That didn’t seem possible. Then again, you were right. I had no way of knowing how things might turn out. Maybe what I liked about talking to you was the fact that you did know. Like a child who’s decided on a favorite story and wants to live in its world forever, I begged you for the details.
“Ria,” I said. I loved that—how it felt to say your name, to have another name to say. “In the future, which one of us pursues the other?”
“Pursue? There’s no pursuit.”
“There has to be.”
“Well, there isn’t. It’s not that sort of relationship.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Love is like a call and response. Someone acts, someone reacts. There’s always a pursuit.”
“We pursue each other,” you said. Your voice was hard. I sensed you didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“All right. Last question.” I pushed myself up to look at your face. Your gaze was fixed to the computer screen. I could see the movie mirrored in your eyes. “What is it that you like about me?” I asked. “In the future?”
You tipped your head back to look at the smoke detector blinking on the wall behind us. “I like how much you like me,” you said at last. You lowered your head to look me in the eyes. I couldn’t read your expression, but it sent a shudder rolling through me.
A few days later, I saw you on the train. My mother had fallen out of bed and bruised the right side of her body, so I’d gone out to Queens in the middle of the week to see her. She wasn’t in the mood to talk, not even to scold me or gossip. The whole time I was there, she sat mostly upright, her back cushioned by pillows, head turned toward the window.
On my way back on the E train, the doors opened at Lexington Avenue and a wave of people boarded. You narrowly beat a white woman to the seat beside me. You smiled like you’d pulled off a clever trick. I didn’t bother with hellos before I said, “Can I ask you something?” At your frown, I added, “I promise it’s not about the future.”
Your eyes roamed over my face, studying me. When you didn’t say anything, I just asked.
“What kinds of murals do you paint?”
Your expression softened. You almost laughed. “All kinds,” you said. “I can’t explain them. Sometimes I see something and I have to make it over with my own hands. I have to put my name on it. You’re an artist. You understand.”
I didn’t. Not really. I nodded anyway.
We fell quiet for another stop or two, the train displacing and replacing passengers at each interval. We were pulling away from the Port Authority when I voiced the other thought that had been weighing on my mind.
“I don’t know how much longer I can wait for us to really meet.”
You covered one of my hands with yours. As always, you were so warm. “It’ll be soon,” you told me. “The distance between us isn’t so wide now. We’ll cross over it soon.”
I tried to let your words assure me, but my fingers continued to stutter in my lap. We rode the train in silence for another several stops. As it neared World Trade Center, we both stood. When the doors opened, you got out first, vanishing into the crowd.
You didn’t appear the following day. A week passed, then a month, and I didn’t see you. I tried to call you but realized I’d never gotten your number. A search for you on social media yielded a handful of people with your name, but none of them were you.
I looked for you everywhere. In crowds exiting the train. In the names on the mailboxes in my apartment lobby. I didn’t see you on my grocery runs, didn’t catch a glimpse of you in passing on the streets. There was an afternoon I walked by the window of a fabric shop in the Garment District and doubled back, thinking I’d seen you, only to meet a ghostly pattern woven into a tapestry behind glass.
I’ve asked artists I’ve met in the city about you. No one can put a face to your name. I search for your murals in narrow alleys. I’ve trailed so many dark, swinging braids. All that moves me forward is knowing at some point between now and the end, you and I will have to meet. Each moment I’m alive, I can feel the distance closing.