The Space Between Octobers
By Wendy Nikel
We always meet in October, though it takes me years to ask why. By that time, he’s already come and left a dozen times, never aging more than a day, though I do, year by drawn-out year.
“I don’t know how it works,” he says as our feet crush fire-red leaves beneath us, as he tucks my hand into the crook of his arm and presses it close to keep it warm. “Does it matter?”
This much I know: One day he is here. The next he is gone, and I’m left with another year without him.
I know this as well: He’s known me less than a fortnight. His love for me is still new, still unexpected and surprising and fresh. He’s a child with a new toy. A puppy with a bone. I worry his interest will wane.
I’ve known him for over a decade, and I’ve gone through all the stages of affection: from obsession to doubt, from disappointment to elation, from jealousy to anger to sorrow. I even tried to forget him once — a useless and heartbreaking endeavor. And so, I’ve hurried here to meet him again today, clinging to something that feels real, even in the months between.
We’d met in this park, amid the joggers and dog-walkers, among the red-leafed maples of the fall.
“I’m an actor,” he’d told me, which I’d known was a lie. His eyes are too honest; they give him away. Still, it took me some years — days, for him — to convince me that his history was real: that his “costume” was the clothing of his time.
Today, he wears a cravat the same shade as the autumn leaves, and I wonder if he did that on purpose. Were the leaves that same hue here last October? There’s so much that I don’t remember.
What I do remember: That first day, we spent on the park bench where his shadow had materialized beside mine. The book I’d been reading was forgotten when I’d looked up and seen him there.
“Is this your bench?” he’d asked, and I’d been so bewildered, I’d laughed.
“I’m pretty sure it belongs to the city.”
My city is a hundred years older than his, though he claims that at its core, it’s still the same: still full of wide-eyed optimists who want to make a difference, in whatever small matters they can. He sees it in my eyes, too, though my plans change so much while he’s gone — from one course of studies to another, and job after job after job, never quite finding where I fit. Yet rather than discourage him, my day-by-day (year-by-year) contradictions only seem to endear him more.
“I’m seeing you blossom in an instant,” he says as we skip rocks across the pond. “A time-lapse film of your life.”
He takes my left hand and runs his thumb along the finger where I’d once worn another man’s ring. No words are exchanged, but I know he remembers; for him, it was mere days ago when I told him whatever we had was over, and just one day later when I admitted I’d been wrong.
We order tea at the same café we always do, though its name has thrice changed in that time. We stare out the window at the children rushing past, and I know what he’ll ask before he says it.
“Have you thought about what I asked you?”
He doesn’t need to say more. I’ve been thinking about it for a year.
Leaves hop along the sidewalk, and I wonder at the age of the maples, if there are any whose arching branches he’d recognize from his time. I wonder if his autumn smells the same. If I’m the reason he’s here, and if I left, would he still come?
“I’ve thought about it.” I take his hand in mine.
“Does that mean that you’ll join me?”
“Come on,” I say when my lips won’t form the words I want. “We still have time left tonight.”
Sunset turns to starlight and he wraps his peacoat around me, which smells of comfort and lye. The hours tick down as we walk through the city. As I silently say goodbye.
We stand before the clocktower at midnight. It’s become a habit, to listen to the tolling as I watch him fade away. Tonight, though, he grips my hands as they ring out. My heart pounds in time with its clanging.
“Will you come?” he asks, an echo of last year’s plea. “If you can?”
It’d taken me a year to clean out my apartment. To work up the courage to quit my job.
“I’ll come. If I can.” It’s a guess, a hope, a superstition maybe, that I could cling to him and be brought along with him as he leaves. But I have to try. To give a fair shot to whatever we have — a shot uninterrupted by gaps. Unbroken by the months of a year. Unseparated by centuries.
I take a breath. The clock strikes twelve.
The final toll echoes in my head. Buses and SUVs rush by. My hands are suddenly cold and empty. I stand before the clocktower, alone.
In the morning, I’ll renew my apartment lease.
In the morning, I’ll call to beg for my old job.
In the morning, I’ll dry my tears and press onward. I’ll carry on, somehow, some way, across the space between Octobers.