The Problem with the Present

I don’t normally do this. In fact, as I stand on the corner of the busy intersection, I am appalled by my decision. I think about butterflies, the one wing flapping theory. Everything sounds like wings—the cars zooming by, the air disturbed by passing people, my own labored breathing.

A little green man lights up and I cross the street. I can already see my destination. I picked it especially, because I come here often, and I thought a familiar place would put me more at ease. Yet as I walk in, I realize the coffee shop is bursting with people. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea.

In the barely controlled hubbub of the shop I spy him sitting on a plushy green armchair. He looks up and oh god he’s smiling he’s actually excited to see me I don’t know what to do with my face.

“Waiting long?” I ask. Miraculously, I do not sound like a high-pitched bullfrog, as I’ve a tendency to do when especially nervous.

“Not long at all.” He has very straight teeth. I wonder how often he visits the dentist. “Want to sit down?”

No, this won’t do. It’s too crowded, too hot. I shake my head and force a smile. “Maybe we can get something to go? Take a walk in the park?”

“Sounds great.”

I try to fidget with my ring in line, then realize I’m not wearing it today. I fiddle with my fourth finger instead, turning nothing, rubbing the small pale line on my skin. When I have my order—I don’t even know what I ordered, but it’s hot against my palm—we walk towards the park.

It’s a sunny day, with only a slight breeze. We talk about the weather, naturally, and then about his struggles in medical school. I am a good listener, and nod and smile and “hmm” at the right times. We reach a secluded bench in the shade and I suggest we sit down.

“You seem nervous,” he says with sympathy.

Très bien.

“Is that French?”

Oui.”

He smiles. I smile. Damn it.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” I blurt. “How in books, foreign languages are always italicized. Why is that? In their own countries, they don’t italicize it. You’d think that someone would know it’s another language without the slant.”

He laughs and takes my hand. His is broad and warm. “That’s such a coincidence. I’m going to France to visit my brother in a few months.”

I swallow. Here we go. Big finish. Jazz hands. The single beat of a wing.

“I know you are,” I say quietly. “And you can’t go.”

He sits perfectly still a moment, then lets go of my hand. “What?”

“If you go to France, you’ll cross the street on August 14, at 3:03 pm, and be hit by a motorcycle. You’ll die.”

I expect him to stand, to yell, to laugh it off. But he does none of those things. He only sits there, and stares. His eyes are no longer smiling.

“Why would you tell me that?”

“Because,” I say, “if you go to France and die, then you’ll never finish medical school. You’ll never be an intern, or resident, or attending. You’ll never find the cure for a disease that’s about to rip apart countless families.” My eyes are watering, but I blink it away. “You’ll never cure my son.”

There is silence that is not silence, but a taut bubble around us, while the children laugh in the distance and indulgent parents chatter about the latest reality television shows. We stay still, he and I, until he stirs.

“What happens now?” He sounds frightened.

“You apologize to your brother, and cancel your ticket.” I stand; my legs are wobbly. “And you forget that you ever met me.”

He watches as I walk back towards the coffee shop, leaving my cooling paper mug on the bench. When he picks it up to throw it away, he turns, but I have already disappeared.

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4 thoughts on “The Problem with the Present

  1. Really like this. Nice writing.

  2. Debra W. says:

    cool story! i normally don’t go for present tense in fiction, but it was really appropriate here.

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