A Right Angle to Here and Now
By Floris M. Kleijne
“What color are your M&Ms?”
The woman’s arrival might have gone unnoticed, but I happened to be staring over the low wall bordering the oval meadow, gazing through the slow snow of pale pink petals drifting from the cherry trees. I stand stunned into silent immobility, her question baffling me almost as much as her sudden appearance.
Did she just step through the Thin Place?
I reach for my phone to text Jake, and for the thousandth time, the realization rips through me.
Jake died five weeks ago, right there on that wall. We sat side by side, navigating our unthinkable goodbye, gazing at the trees as we reminisced for the last time: crossing the Serengeti together, sharing a riverside dinner in Kyoto, debating politics and morality and physics over beers here in Amsterdam. I knew he was dying, of course, but had been unprepared for him completing the process while squeezing my hand in familiar affection. His frail fingers clenched, then relaxed with a finality that left no room for doubt. I lowered him gently onto the grass, his face as empty in death as it had been astute in life.
The woman wears an expression neither empty nor astute, but urgent, almost panicked.
What was it she just asked me?
I’ve returned here every Sunday since Jake’s death. Part of me keeps hoping to see him ambling among the trees again, his hands folded behind him, his brown cap crooked on his bald pate. Even though I helped bear his casket into the crypt, his death remains an abstraction: as long as I don’t face the truth of his absence, he might still… be.
Jake would have nodded and smiled at the thought. In our endless talks, he had infected me with his belief in alternate realities, and in Thin Places, where the near-perfect congruence between adjacent universes would bring them within touching distance; where crossing over might require nothing more than turning in the right direction, stepping to one side. “This must be one of them,” he would muse. “A place this beautiful should exist across the multiverse, don’t you think?”
I never answered him, but I agreed. And the woman appeared in the most beautiful, otherworldly spot in the entire Japanese Gardens.
“Please, mister. Are they orange?”
She’s already looking around for someone else to ask, when my mouth utters,
Reluctantly, I tear my thoughts away from the memories of my old and oldest friend. She’s about my age, in her thirties, but I can’t place her accent, and the cut of her clothes is angled oddly, her hair half an inch from fashionable. Urgency burns in her eyes, her tense posture, the way her hand reaches out as if to shake my shoulder.
Jake would have known how to respond, with decisive kindness. He would have gently steered her to the low wall, sat her down, and answered her enigmatic query; maybe even escorted her to the nearby gas station to buy her a bag of the candy. He possessed effortless authority born of a lifetime of leadership, taking charge whenever people needed him to, even if they didn’t realize it themselves.
I am rudderless without him.
“The new ones,” she implores. “They came out the other week. Please, I have to know.”
She needs my help. I search my memory, but all I can recall is the campaign, and how stupid I thought it was to make such a fuss over a new color. To her, though, it seems a matter of life and death.
I want to answer her, reassure her.
For five weeks, I’ve drifted, casting about for handholds, scrambling for direction. Dozens of times a day I’ve grabbed my phone, only to remember at the last moment. Last night, I thumbed a desperate text, intended to tell him how much I needed his guidance right now. The irony made me vomit: I can’t handle Jake’s death without him.
He would have told me to move on. He would have expressed his belief in my strength, my ability to stand on my own two legs. He always laughed when I said I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him.
“You’ll be fine,” he insisted.
But I’m not.
“Please.” Her eyes question my face even as I frantically search my memory. How hard is it to remember a color? How easy should it be to take her by the arm and lead her? But I remain frozen, and her eyebrows sag, and she turns away with a sigh.
“Excuse me,” she calls out to a passing jogger, and the jogger is wearing a hideous lavender track suit, and suddenly my mind clears, and I blurt out,
“Purple! They’re purple!”
I step towards her, but she shouts, “Shit!”, and sprints back to the sun-drenched beauty of the Thin Place, raising a whirlwind of petals in her wake. As I run after her, she spins on the balls of her feet, and steps in an impossible direction.
For a second, I’m dumbfounded, wondering what reality she was trying to recover, and if the color of an M&M can be a butterfly, and the death of a friend a hurricane; wondering if following her example would be a flight… or a quest. Frozen in indecision, I ask myself what Jake would have done.
But then I realize: the question is what I want to do.
The answer comes easily.
I find the spot where her feet have flattened the grass, and setting my own feet in the same place I spin as she did, and aim my step at a right angle to here and now.
Jake loved the color orange.