Saturday, August 13, 2022

Matches

Madge used to make wishes on raindrops. Lev always said that you could see more raindrops on windows than stars in the night sky and while airplanes and city lights may try to trick you, raindrops were never anything except exactly what they were. Back when they were nine years old and his house was a sanctuary from the emptiness of her own home, they would spend hours wishing for impossible things—ice cream cones that tasted like any flavor they could think of, unicorns and giant robots whisking them away from their math homework, Madge’s father coming home from Singapore to celebrate her birthday. Their fingers would draw new constellations, follow raindrops as they slid across the glass like shooting stars, and let themselves believe that anything was possible even just for a while.

It would be easy, she thinks, to make such a wish now as she watches raindrops quiver on the taxi window. Madge could wish the past year and a half away, go back to a time before she and Lev broke up, before he told her he was getting married, before she ran away to an entirely different universe to escape him. Easy, yes, but certainly not true.

“New to the Red-Verse?” her taxi driver asks. He’s eyeing the blue web of veins spreading across her temple, a stain from the identity chip embedded in her skull as a child. A little impolite, if you ask her, so she makes a point of not looking at the driver’s maroon stain when she answers.

“Yeah, I’m here on an exchange program for grad students,” Madge says, then tells him the address of her dorm.

The taxi pulls away from the verseport and the rain is barely more than a drizzle, allowing Madge to see the Red-Verse in all its unspectacular glory. She isn’t sure what she was expecting from the Red-Verse. A lot of, well, red, maybe? Perhaps a burgundy sky? Fantastical beasts like aswang texting as they walk down the street? Instead, Madge is greeted with much of the same—unmoving traffic, men hanging off jeeps, and billboards advertising the latest teleserye. Anticlimactic, perhaps, but she should’ve known the terms Blue-Verse and Red-Verse are just as arbitrary as any other word. At least there’s comfort in feeling less like she’s meeting a stranger and more like she’s becoming reacquainted with a friend she hasn’t seen in a while.

When the taxi finally turns to her street, Madge spots a car parked in front of a laundromat. It’s off-white and old and completely ordinary, but it’s the same model as Lev’s car. It reminds her of the days she spent in the passenger’s seat, her thighs sticking to the faux leather seats and the radio switching stations almost every minute. She can almost hear Lev murmuring his nickname for her. If she closes her eyes, she can even—

“We’re here.”

—completely defeat the purpose of why she’s here by forcing memories of her universe on this one. She glances back at the car again and while it’s easy to admire the similarities, the differences are obvious when she lets herself look for them. Madge silently berates herself as she thanks the driver. She pays before getting out of the taxi to unload her luggage and pauses when she realizes it’s no longer raining. Smiling a little ruefully to herself, Madge thinks she might’ve welcomed the rain on her skin, let it wash away her hurt, cleanse her of memories and desires she should’ve left behind in the Blue-Verse. But then again if raindrops are never anything except exactly what they are, then the same must be true for the rain—it’s not a sign from God, not an easy way out, and it wouldn’t change the fact that for the first time in a long time, Madge is well and truly alone.

She stands outside of her dorm building longer than would probably be considered normal, taking in the place she’ll be living in for the next six months. The streets are named after foreign towns and counties, lending an air of sophistication that’s out of place among the barbed iron gates and crude graffiti. The whole area is a mishmash of the commercial and the residential and absolutely nothing like the quiet neighborhood she grew up in. She smiles.

It’s far from home, but for now it’s a place to call hers.

Madge dedicates her next few weeks to settling in. Her dorm is built like a shoebox and smells like one too, but she spends most of her time on campus anyway so she doesn’t mind. Classes keep her busy and she loses herself in her readings, trying to track all the ways this universe’s literary canon diverged from hers. On the few days when she finds herself with nothing to do, Madge goes for a walk and each trip reveals an eatery or a small store tucked between houses that she never noticed before. Sometimes she’ll wonder if her alternate self has walked down the same streets, asks herself what might have caught the other Madge’s eye. Her alternate is somewhere in Pasay, she thinks, but direct communication between alternates is heavily regulated until the age of 60—kind of like rewarding a life lived by revealing how life might’ve gone differently. When Madge was a kid, she thought the rule was stupid, but as she passes by a poster for an upcoming 3-day bridal fair, she thinks she might be better off not knowing after all. She’s haunted by enough almosts.

Still, Madge has grown used to having her days punctuated with reminders of Lev. She wears his absence like a bruise that never fully heals and some days she can’t take a single step without running into the fact that he’s no longer in her life. Echoes of old conversations repeat in her head like a bad refrain and she can’t shake the image of his eyes crinkling when he laughs. She’s known him for all but 7 years of her life, so she thinks it’s normal to miss him like a physical ache.

What isn’t normal, however, is seeing him sitting in the hallway on her way to class.

He’s on his laptop, nodding his head along to music she can’t hear. She blinks, shakes her head, but he doesn’t disappear. She briefly considers the possibility that she’s gone insane or that her mind’s refusal to forget him has somehow conjured him into existence. She even selfishly lets herself believe that maybe, just maybe, Lev has come looking for her. But then he turns his head and she catches a glimpse of the maroon web of veins spreading across his temple. The color is so out of place on his skin that she drops the book she’s holding. The resounding bang is enough to draw the attention of the students around her. Madge determinedly does not look at Lev’s alternate to see if he’s one of them.

She doesn’t understand what he’s doing here, completely comfortable in the absolute last place she ever expected to find any version of Lev, who in her universe loves to read, but hates school and deadlines and pressure. It doesn’t matter, Madge tells herself even though it kind of does and the phrase seems to become less and less believable with every repetition. Her face is burning and she always sweats when she’s nervous, so she pushes her sleeves up and thinks she might become the first proven case of spontaneous combustion. She focuses all her attention on the trash can at the end of the hallway, so busy trying not to look at him that she promptly stumbles over another student’s outstretched feet. The student yelps out in pain and Madge mutters an apology even though she hardly thinks this is her fault. Last time she checked, hallways are supposed to be feet-free, not full of shins shuffling on the ground like bamboo in Tinikling.

When she looks away from the student, she sees Lev’s alternate staring at her in surprise. He’s yanked out his earphones and the faint notes of some upbeat pop song fill the air. “What happened to your Bach and your Tchaikov-something or other, hmmm? Guess you can’t be a pompous ass 24/7, after all,” she’d normally say, but she reminds herself that this isn’t her Lev and bites the words back. She can’t tell if his surprised look means wow this Blue girl is an actual human disaster or I can’t believe my best friend and/or ex’s alternate is so clumsy. She’s not inclined to find out, so she ducks her head and walks a little faster.

They bump into each other frequently after that. He’s walking down her home college’s hallway, hovering by a classroom door, or buying a snack from a vendor. If Madge was more of a sap, she’d think it’s fate or something equally ridiculous pulling them together, maybe even use some mildly accurate astronomy metaphor about them being planets caught in each other’s orbit, but she isn’t and never has been. So instead she goes for the more likely explanation that he’s a student here, maybe even in the same college as her, and that the campus is only so big.

Everyday becomes an exercise in avoidance. While Madge has been perfecting the technique of distracting herself and channeling her energy into productivity since they day her dad left to build himself a new family, she’s also beginning to learn the art ofchanging direction mid-step and scrolling through her phone to avoid accidental eye contact. The whole thing is as tiring as it is necessary and after successfully dodging Lev’s alternate for over a month, she’s almost ready to scream in frustration when she finds him slumped over herfavorite table in the library.

It’s one of the more secluded tables, out of earshot from the inane chatter of students who don’t understand the concept of silence. There’s enough space for her laptop and at least three open books. The breeze of the airconditioning doesn’t directly hit it, so she’s not too cold, and it’s not next to a window, so she doesn’t have to feel the heat of the sun on her arm either. It’s even next to an electrical socket. The table has unofficially been hers since she got here, but now he’s using it. Correction, he’s wasting it, probably drooling all over the sheet of yellow pad stuck to his cheek.

Madge is at that point in the week where she’s so tired that coffee doesn’t even wake her up anymore, just quickens her pulse and makes her twitchy, and right now she just wants to get started on her analysis of Blue-Verse Villa’s comma poems and the Red-Verse’s period poems. She’s also kind of tired of organizing her life around him, so before she can think too hard about it, she heads to the table and places her things down like she shares a table with Lev’s alternate all the time. He doesn’t even stir, so she plugs in her laptop and loses herself in her writing. She’s four pages in when he tries to get her attention and she raises a finger to forestall his words until she finishes her sentence. When Madge finally turns to him, he’s gaping at her and whatever sleep deprivation-fueled courage drove her here deserts her.

“Uh, hey! This is my table,” she says by way of explanation, then realizes how dumb she sounds. “Not my table, of course. I don’t own it. I just like working here. Hope I didn’t wake you up.” She doesn’t look at him as she speaks, just traces the vandalism carved into the wood and notes that the words on his yellow pad are in French.

“No, you didn’t wake me up.Sorry about that,” he says, even though Madge has no idea what he’s apologizing for. Lev—her Lev—has a habit of apologizing for everything, so perhaps this one does too. “It would be my fault if you did anyway. I mean, I’m hogging a whole table for a nap, after all. I should probably be waking up right about now anyway. I’ve got work to do and I’ve used up all my procrastination time.”

He speaks in a rush, some words stilted and some words blending together in a way that would’ve made him difficult to understand if Madge hadn’t spent years getting used to the way he speaks. Madge is hit with a wave of fondness that recedes into a steady ache of longing. She wants to ask if he knows her, or at least this universe’s version of her. She wants to know about his life and catalogue the differences between this Lev and her Lev, but the words crowd in her throat, knock against each other and render themselves incomprehensible.

Instead, Madge takes his words as a polite dismissal and starts gathering her things, but his hand darts out and stops just short of hers. “That wasn’t—I mean, you don’t have to leave. If you don’t want to, that is. There’s plenty of room, so we can share,” he says. She sneaks a glance at him and the way he looks at her with detached politeness almost hurts, but then the corner of his lips quirk up into a small smile. “This is your table, after all.”

She blinks in surprise and finds herself returning the smile despite the alarm bells going off in her head. Madge sits back down, pleasantly surprised to find that the way he’s facing her mostly hides his maroon stain, and tells herself that indulging in the illusion of Lev’s presence is temporary.

“I’m Lev,” he says.

“Madge.” She waits for him mishear her, for the same “Match? That’s so cool! Can I call you Matches?” he said when they met in elementary, but he just smiles and says she has a pretty name.

They don’t talk after that, not until she has to leave for class and they exchange a quiet goodbye. They don’t talk much the next time they end up sharing a table either. Or the time after that or the time after that. Sometimes he asks about her classes, so eventually she asks about his too. She learns he’s studying European languages, majoring in French, and when she asks why, his answer is every bit as pretentious as she expected.

“I wanted to read French symbolist poetry in their original language,” he admits.

It’s the first time she laughs in front of him.

He doesn’t take offense and somehow conversation starts to flow more easily between them, so easily that they have to leave the library because suddenly they’ve become the students who don’t understand the concept of silence and they end up having lunch together instead. Lev’s alternate talks a lot but says little, and it’s comforting to know some things never change. Madge isn’t so careless with her words.She considers them before she opens her mouth because it’s hard treating someone she knows better than herself like an almost stranger. Her efforts are rewarded with snippets of his life, casual mentions that remind her that this is not her Lev. This Lev doesn’t play guitar, doesn’t drink Mountain Dew with every meal, and doesn’t have an aversion to pineapple, but he still touches his nape when he’s feeling self-conscious, still snorts when he laughs a little too hard. It’s easier to admire the similarities.

They fall into a familiar rhythm quickly, maybe a little too quickly, but Madge can’t quite bring herself to care when she almost has everything she’s ever wanted. They sit under trees and argue about movies. They have dinner and he tells her about how he used to dream about taking on the world but found he could barely carry his own load. They watch people from a bench made for two and she whispers made-up backstories that leave them shaking with mirth. Sometimes they even share a beer as they admire the few stars visible in the city, murmuring everything and nothing with no one but the sky as witness.

This isn’t exactly the fresh start Madge had in mind, but maybe sometimes fresh starts look like second chances.

Madge considers telling him the truth of how she and her Lev fell apart, of how she always thought they were just too young and too dumb to understand the weight of commitment until they were crumbling, of how she assumed someday they’d find their way back to each other anyway. She considers telling him that he’s never going to be her Lev or maybe her Lev will never be him, that she’s certain whatever’s building between them could be every bit as deadly as a speeding car, but right now she just wants to close her eyes and bask in the rush so she doesn’t have to see them crash. Madge could’ve told him back when they were still strangers, but she reasoned that she didn’t need to. Now that she needs to, she realizes she can’t, not without admitting that she’s been lying by omission this entire time. Besides, holding her tongue is easier the first time he holds her hand.

He’s a little hesitant, keeping his grip loose just in case she decides to pull away. His hand is warm in hers and they don’t fit as if they were made for each other like couples in movies, but neither did she and her Lev. Madge twines their fingers together like she used to and she doesn’t understand why the action breaks her heart.

This should be perfect. The warmth of the grass through her jeans, the way their shadows stretch under the glow of the streetlight, and his thumb tapping the back of her hand—all of it should be perfect but it’s just…not. This close, she can see the faint scar on his lip from when he tripped in third grade and he still has the same mole on his cheek. His eyes are soft and his smile delicate and her Lev has looked at her like this a thousand times. Madge knows what she should feel. She knows that she doesn’t.

She can’t seem to look away from the maroon stain on his temple and she hates it—hates it more than anything she’s ever hated in her life because she’s almost in love, almost, and it’s not enough. Maybe if she just closes her eyes, maybe if she leans forward, maybe she can bridge the gap and they’ll be okay and—

“Matches, I—”

Wait, what? She pulls back from him just as the full force of his words hit her. “What did you just call me?”

He looks as startled as she feels, but he doesn’t look away. His face is pale and the stain has never been clearer. “Matches. I called you Matches,” he says.

Time stalls and any words she might’ve said fall into the cracks on the ground. Oh, she thinks. Oh, and the single syllable ricochets through her until everything hurts. There’s no hiding this time. No more running. Not for him and not for her. They can’t pretend to be anything except exactly what they are. The air is heavy and fragile, but there’s no anger, no betrayal, just a quiet sense of shared understanding. It’s still not enough.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Me too.”

There are no stars tonight, no sanctuary to run to. In the dark, the whole world is empty. A drop falls on her arm, then another and another. Madge starts to make an impossible wish, but then she tastes the salt on her lips and stops.She lets the tears trail down her skin, sliding like raindrops on glass. G

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