by Vivian Chan
Issue: Audeamus (Winter 2011)
He stands in front of the mirror, contemplating. His back is hunched now, no longer as straight and powerful as it had been when he was younger and bolder, when he believed the world rested on his fingertips. Yet he ignores the many wrinkles on his face and slowly, ever so slowly, raises a hand to touch the mirror reflection. Lingers.
And he covers his reflected face on the mirror, leaving only the eyes visible.
His eyes are hazel, bright and shining from behind the wire rim glasses he has worn since he turned thirty. They are flecked with gold and green, so much more colorful than he thinks any eyes have a right to be. His eyes are hazel, and he thinks that he has never found hazel to be a more beautiful and frustrating color than he has at this very moment.
“A year old,” he says finally, his breath fogging up the looking glass.
Hazel eyes blink back at him.
“No.” His gray head shakes. “Younger.”
The mirror stays silent and his knee aches.
Suddenly, he laughs. He has never felt older with his glasses and his hair and his aching knee and his hunched back and his eyes. His eyes.
He stands in front of the mirror, contemplating.
“What is her name?” he asks.
There is no reply.
He speaks no more for the rest of the day.
It becomes a simple business of going to the park every day, from early in the morning to late afternoon. He sits on a bench with a brown paper bag by his side. He eats lunch at noon on the dot, an easy meal of a sandwich and a piece of fruit, washed down with a bottle of water and the few pills that he takes every day.
He waits for three days, and his waiting pays off on the morning of the fourth day.
A young woman pushes a stroller down the pavement. She has a tired face and, from this distance, he cannot see her eyes. So instead, he glances down to what is sitting in the stroller. Warmth floods his entire body so rapidly that he is dazed for a few precious seconds.
The woman comes closer, the wheels of the stroller crunching on dead leaves.
He stands. Says, “Good morning.”
She spares him barely a second, mumbling “Good morning” before wheeling on. Her hair, long and dark, flies out behind her in the autumn wind as she passes by. Her stride hardly slows, but he isn’t deterred.
“Her eyes aren’t blue anymore.”
This time, she stops and turns around. Her knuckles are white against the stroller handle. He can see that her eyes are hazel too and he’s taken aback for a moment, thinking that maybe she is the one, but when he doesn’t feel anything besides a prickle of discomfort, he lets it pass. Not her.
“So it was you?” Her tone is accusatory, even hostile. He doesn’t blame her for this aggressive answer, but her animosity makes him give pause. It’s understandable, but he gets the vibe that she isn’t—motherly. Not motherly in a way that he had expected.
But he doesn’t remark on that. Instead, he says calmly, “You should understand. I’m connected to her.”
Something flickers across her face, but then her expression smoothes. “What do you want?” she asks, pulling the stroller closer to her body.
And this is when he smiles. “To spend time with her before I die.”
She starts; she hadn’t imagined such a response. Before she can reply, though, a soft cooing from the stroller interrupts her train of thought. With one last wary glance at the old man still standing benignly in the park, she turns the stroller around and bends down.
“Shh,” she whispers to the baby girl wrapped in blankets. “Shh, it’s okay. He’s right here.”
A third pair of hazel eyes gazes up at the old man still so far away.
The mother whispers, somewhat bitterly, “It’s all right, now. Your soul mate is here.”
“It’s Shelby,” he offers.
Jenine’s hazel eyes are wordless, but she says, “I thought that was a girl’s name.”
“It’s unisex,” Shelby shrugs. His glasses slip, and he discreetly adjusts them.
They’re sitting in a room with a crib lined with baby blue blankets, patterned with pink and yellow elephants. A stuffed giraffe sits in a corner, and Shelby and Jenine watch as the little girl crawls to the corner, pulls the giraffe toward her, and promptly sticks a horn tip into her mouth. Shelby sees a flash of teeth and asks Jenine, “Does she have a lot of teeth?”
“Only two,” Jenine replies.
The girl discards the giraffe and gropes her way to a set of yellow blocks. She grabs one, sits on her bottom, and promptly throws it against the wall.
“Corie!” Jenine springs to action and pulls her toddler away. Corie shrieks and waves fisted hands, nearly hitting her mother in the face.
But Shelby calls out softly, “Corie.” She quiets and gazes up at him with wide eyes. She sucks on her fist, docile as Jenine shifts and brings her into her lap. Jenine makes a motion of smoothing down her daughter’s overalls. When Corie reaches for Shelby, Jenine stops her. Glances up at Shelby.
“No, no, it’s okay,” Shelby assures, refusing to feel disappointed.
It doesn’t matter anyway. Jenine of all people should know that there’s a connection now, an exclusive connection that can’t be pushed aside. And he’s amazed, so amazed, that both mother and daughter have hazel eyes, but Jenine won’t let him hold Corie even though she should know.
And maybe she’s afraid, and maybe her motherly instincts are telling her that the entire situation is bad news, but Shelby knows she can’t do anything to stop him from seeing Corie.
And he can always play the “one foot in the grave” card.
To break the tension, he says lightly, “I thought Corie was a boy’s name.”
Jenine snorts despite herself, and Corie stares openly at Shelby, her mouth wet around her fist. She smiles a moment later, and drools.
He used to be so young.
Feeling young or old is a separate issue from your actual age. Shelby grasps this now, but he hadn’t grasped it then. The feeling and the age can influence each other, but they’re separate, completely separate, and he still feels young, but he used to feel even younger.
They called him Blue Eyes back in school. It didn’t mean anything special because that was what they called anyone with blue eyes. And a lot of people had blue eyes, all of them hopeful, terrified, anxious. All of them had been dreamers who could barely hold themselves together. They knew better than anyone that their eyes could turn brown any minute, any day.
And then they wouldn’t be called Blue Eyes, not anymore.
Shelby remembers sitting on the hood of an old Cadillac, leaning against it with his hands in his pockets. It had only been a few days after graduation, and he was trying to memorize the sight of his hometown. He had been watching a sunset and smelling the air, wanting to always remember this moment right now, when he knew little and wanted everything. The pinks and the golds and the violets of the sunset had been reflected on his blue, blue eyes, and goosebumps pebbled his arms because it was summer, but the evening was cool and quiet.
College, his mind had thrummed.
Because you meet people in college, a lot of people, and they would be different because Shelby had lived his entire life in a small town where people still called him Blue Eyes, and he was okay with that for now. His town was so small that he knew his soul mate wasn’t here, but his soul mate could be out there.
And yet, he couldn’t forget that his soul mate could die at any given time (and then, and then—). The world was too big and he was too insignificant; it wouldn’t work, couldn’t work. There had been girls in high school, several of them, but you could never care for someone with all of your heart because that—that was reserved for your soul mate, right?
At the time, he hadn’t considered that there are shades to it, so many different shades, and not all of them romantic. At the time, he hadn’t considered a lot of things.
That night, Shelby drove away in his Cadillac and never looked back at his hometown.
He meets a girl in college, a gentle girl with deer-like eyes and fluttery fingers. She dies five years after they marry.
There’s more in-between, the in-betweens that he has seen stray cats squeeze into, in-betweens in the red of her hair and in the crevices of the human mind. But mostly, he remembers his thoughts after she dies. If she had died with blue eyes, Shelby imagines her soul mate, looking into a mirror and touching the corner of his face. This person who wonders who his soul mate is, but won’t ever know because she’s dead, with only brown eyes to show for it.
But as it is, she dies with brown eyes, and the funeral is small and the casket smaller.
(Because he died first, Shelby thinks. He died first.)
Other things happen, too. His best friend from college commits suicide after his eyes turn brown. The first hazel-eyed person he meets is his coworker at his first job, a young man with a serious face and a shockingly dimpled smile. A car accident kills his parents and leaves him an empty house and enough grief to imbalance the world.
But still he visits his wife’s grave when he can and leaves flowers, usually blue tulips or blue carnations, because his wife used to call him Blue Eyes and though it was a term of endearment, it was a reminder that there was something more out there for him.
He almost forgets, years later, long after people have stopped calling him Blue Eyes because of his age.
But then he remembers.
He’s at the supermarket, examining cans of soup. He’s partial to tomato.
When he doesn’t answer right away, not knowing that he is being addressed, a few choice expletives are thrown his way.
Painstakingly, he shuffles around and blinks under the harsh lights. A boy is glaring at him, scarcely old enough to attend a high school dance. He has brown eyes. Shelby looks at his smooth cheeks and thin arms, and has to resist laughing at the dark expression on the boy’s face.
“Do you need something?” he asks, polite nonetheless.
The boy’s mouth twitches into an ugly grimace. “So you’ve met your soul mate, huh?”
Shelby gives a perfunctory nod, but his voice is uncertain. “Yes, I do.”
“I bet you two met in high school or college. I bet you’ve been married for years and years. I bet you do stupid soul mate things with her or something.”
“Or something.” Shelby raises an eyebrow and waits for the boy to get to the point.
“I hate people like you,” the boy bursts out. “I hate people like you. It’s not fair.”
And he runs away.
Shelby ponders the fairness of finding out that his soul mate is, in fact, not even out of diapers. It’s a funny thought, and he can’t stop himself from laughing this time.
He picks clam chowder and buys a bouquet of yellow and white roses.
“What’s that for?” Jenine asks suspiciously when he knocks on their door and presents the blooms, colorful and sweet-smelling.
“It feels right,” he says as a way of explaining.
To her credit, Jenine doesn’t prod for more answers and merely accepts the flowers with a sigh. Later, Corie manages to get her hands on a petal and chews on it with her gums and two lonely teeth. He watches Jenine fuss over the unperturbed toddler and grins when Jenine allows him to comb the dark golden strands. Corie sits on his knee and smiles up at him, clapping her hands together when he braids her hair. Is this what it’s like? he wonders.
“You’re good at this.” Jenine comments aloud. “You have grandkids?”
“Hm,” Jenine says, and she leaves it at that.
“Ma,” Corie is saying, “Ma-ma. Ma. Daaaaaaa.”
Shelby hums lightly in response. Corie twists in his lap, reaching for his glasses. He laughs. “No,” he admonishes gently. “No-no.”
She calms at his voice. Shelby holds the warm body and marvels at it all.
“She likes you.”
He looks up at Jenine as she enters the room. She sits next to them, but doesn’t reach for her daughter. Her face is unreadable.
Testing the waters, he replies, “Every girl needs a grandparent to spoil her.”
“But you’re not her grandparent.”
“I can be like one.” Shelby tilts his head. “A soul mate—”
“—can be a lot of things, I get it.”
“Really?” Light bounces off of Shelby’s glasses as he turns to Jenine, who is still sitting and watching. He thinks that maybe this has something to do with why her husband is never around. Even though he and Corie are fine as they are, maybe Jenine and her husband aren’t. “Because…if you hadn’t wanted it, your soul mate didn’t need to become your husband. You two could have been friends. Or soul siblings.”
Jenine’s mouth quirks. “Soul siblings?”
“Soul siblings,” Shelby repeats. “It’s not… You don’t have to marry your soul mate.”
Jenine considers him and then Corie. Her lips barely move as she admits, “My husband isn’t my soul mate.”
Corie gurgles contentedly and, absently, Shelby shifts so that she can see her mother. Jenine extends a finger and Corie grabs it, staring unflinchingly into her mother’s eyes.
“I didn’t…” Jenine clears her throat. “I married my husband before I met my soul mate.”
Shelby nods. Jenine sits back, allowing her finger to slip away from Corie who doesn’t seem to care as she turns and snuffles into Shelby’s front.
“It was on an overseas business trip. I wasn’t looking, but—”
“—there he was.”
“Yeah.” And there is just a trace of soft amazement in her words, just a hint. “Yeah. There he was.”
“What did he look like?”
“Dark,” she says immediately. “Dark everything. Tall.” A weighty pause. “Married.”
“Is that why you’re not with him?”
She shakes her head and keeps shaking it as she answers too quickly, “No. I mean yes. I mean, I don’t know. I left before we could say anything.” Slowly, she stills. “Then I had Corie, and I took maternity leave.”
He wonders if she fully understands what she has done, the brevity of her decision. But then he understands that she understands; how can she not? She had been lucky, blessed, fortunate, and she hadn’t known what to do.
And she must know—how can she not?—that she still has time to turn around, as long as her soul mate is alive.
“So is that why you’re letting me see Corie?” The age difference. His marriage, or lack thereof.
She says, “Because you knew exactly what you were doing. That’s why.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘exactly,’” Shelby muses. “I knew I didn’t have to be afraid.”
She tilts her head. “That you found her.”
And it’s true, or maybe it isn’t true. Some call it luck and some call it fate, but Shelby turns this thought over and over again in his head: Against all odds, I found you. So maybe luck started everything, but it wasn’t luck that brought us here.
Jenine’s hazel eyes meet his and then lower to the ground.
“Ma-ma,” Corie murmurs.
He starts getting more tired, sitting down to rest more often, propping his feet up and mulling over the will that he recently edited. On the days when he can barely leave his bed, he considers calling the mortician and demanding an exact measurement for his casket—for fun, mostly. He’s never been picky about these sort of details.
Both Corie and Jenine notice his weariness, but they respond in drastically contrasting manners. Corie becomes distressed whenever he moves too far away, going as far as to scrunch her face and wail if he does not immediately return to her side. Jenine doesn’t say much, but her face is suddenly lined with shadows that Shelby had only noticed in passing before.
On one of the days he’s bedridden, he calls Jenine to let her know. It’s not the first time he’s done so, but it’s the first time that a man picks up.
“Ah,” Shelby stumbles. He’s never met Jenine’s husband—doesn’t even know his name—but he continues. “Is Jenine there?”
When the man doesn’t offer any more information, Shelby shrugs to himself, resigned. “Let her know that Shelby is feeling ill today,” he says gently.
Before the man can reply, Shelby hears Jenine’s voice. “Is that Shelby?”
“Jenine!” her husband hisses. “This is the old man you were talking about? Why the hell would you let someone like him see Corie?”
“Give me the phone—”
More sounds of scuffling and angry shouts. Shelby makes a snap decision and says clearly, “Jenine?”
“I’ll call back, okay? Don’t worry.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fine. Go.”
Jenine makes an incomprehensible sound over the phone. When Shelby presses, she says, “Corie’s been crying all day.”
“Oh, poor girl.” He tries to say more, but his fingers are trembling and he’s not sure if he can keep the conversation flowing for much longer.
“It’s just another tooth. It’s one of the top ones. Her third.”
Shelby mumbles something in reply and Jenine hangs up after one last farewell. Shelby lets the phone fall from his hands and pulls the covers up to his chin. Sinks back and sighs. Closes his eyes.
He doesn’t let himself think about how disappointed Corie will be. There is always tomorrow.
And she blinks her eyes open to see the mint green ceiling above her.
Corie doesn’t often remember her dreams and when she does, they’re usually far too bizarre and abstract for her to place any real value in them. She’s not much of a sentimentalist; she takes what comes her way and discards it if needed.
But there is one dream that occurs every now and then, and she likes going about her day holding that dream close to her, like a warm kitten curled in her lap.
It’s a Saturday, barely eight, but she swings out of bed anyway. She makes a quick stop to the bathroom before padding into the kitchen, where she can see the sunlight starting to stream through the windows. As expected, her mother is already in the kitchen, leaning against the counter with a mug in her hand.
Jenine raises an eyebrow at her daughter’s early entrance. “You’re up.”
Corie feels a flicker of irritation at the obvious statement, but her mother isn’t exactly known for her subtlety. “Where’s Dad?”
“Last minute business meeting.” Her mother lifts the cup and takes a single measured sip before lowering it again.
“Hope he’s late,” Corie mutters. “Bastard.”
Jenine sighs. “Don’t say that in front of me.”
Corie snorts and settles next to her mother, crossing her arms. The minutes tick by before she finally dares to say, “Tell me how you met him again.”
Her mother’s eyebrow quirks again. “Which him? Your father? My soul mate? Your soul mate?”
“Shelby,” Corie clarifies.
So Jenine talks and Corie listens because her mother doesn’t tell stories with the same format of facts and feelings and hypothetical what-ifs. She talks about eyes, about half-formed possibilities, about the world and how it keeps on turning no matter who is feeling what.
And Corie imagines that she can still remember an older man with glasses and a nice, if somewhat confused, smile. She imagines that he had held her as if she had been some precious thing to him, and she had been, hadn’t she? She imagines that she had howled as a baby when he had passed away because though she hadn’t seen or understood, she had felt. She imagines that she can feel her eyes turning brown; perhaps a prickling sensation, or a sudden slithering chill, or a bolt of fire behind the eyelids. She imagines that his love had been warm and that she had returned it despite being so, so young.
She imagines, but that’s all she allows herself to do. Perhaps these feelings had meant something to her once, but now, she feels nothing, not even when she looks at pictures Jenine had thought to take back then. It means nothing if he isn’t here with her right now.
His eyes stayed hazel when he died. Jenine doesn’t need to tell her that for her to know.
And now she looks at her mother and wonders if it would have been better if their positions have been reversed, even if the end had turned out to be the same either way.
You’re lucky, she thinks.
Identical brown gazes watch the sun rise.