The Center

The dream hitched forward in time, one jagged action per second, like a film student’s first stop-motion piece. Each long step brought him closer to it, then farther away, then closer, framed by the people and the dully flashing lights: her ponytail, a swish of dyed dark red, like a burned rope swaying into focus. As he pushed through the rush hour crowds, the ponytail led him forward, the high ceilings and noise of the metro station fanning out. As he walked, all the bodies and objects and surfaces turned to rays, pointing toward that crimson hair.

He woke and slammed back into his narrow bed. The neighborhood was already waking up, with people starting to flow toward a train station or a stoplight. Every morning now was PS: Post-Sarah. Even his embarrassing dream was like something she would have joked about in her fake redneck voice. Ooh baby, you drawn to me, like I’m an arrow shot down to your heart! It had been two years since the break-up, but even now, alone, his face burned.

***

Years ago, when they laid in bed, applying for jobs side by side, he gravitated to the West Coast. He wanted to learn to surf, then learn to fish, and then learn to cook his fresh fish, and then impress Sarah with his freshly cooked fish. It didn’t matter that he’d never been to California, just that it wasn’t Gallatin, in which the only redeeming factor was Sarah, who liked his records and paid sincere compliments in insincere ways. Oooh, baby, you look finer ’n frog’s hair this morn! They mocked country music and college Greek culture, biding their time in weeks and months, hoping to get out of Tennessee together. Side by side on USAJOBS, they joked about getting a toilet someday, or buying shoes for the first time, laughing at how the city people might laugh at them.

She logged her applications in a spreadsheet, then asterisked the ones in the same city as his. Her list was filled with positions in Boston, New York, Washington, all those cold-weather cities that froze his thoughts. While he wanted the Pacific and sun-glazed days, she wanted snow and public transit and an upgrade to her consignment store gray suit. What do you see in those places, Sarah? You just rush around until you’re dead. She shook her head slowly, scrolling through her spreadsheet. The only answer she ever gave: But things happen there.

After the hour of job applications, they closed their laptops, Sarah pushing her face against his shoulder. He wrapped an arm around her soft, naked back and twined a strand of dark red hair around one finger.

This was the tradition. First, they worked in silence, each wearing one of his white undershirts, her hair twirled up with a pen; then, they drank greyhounds and discarded the shirts and read PostSecret, her leaning into him like an animal. They savored PostSecret — each confession inscribed onto a postcard like a death mask. It reminded him of tarot: turn over a card, or scroll down the page, and see a fortune unveiled, a positive omen or a condemnation. Sometimes he felt Sarah sigh, her chest caving down against his arm. The sad postcards made her turn her face down into his shoulder, nosing against his body.

You’re my pack, she whispered one morning as they read. Then she growled and slid a hand down his soft stomach and into his boxers and then they forgot about the postcards. They had no secrets.

***

Waiting for a train, he remembered the PS dream; he scanned the crowd for Sarah’s signature rusty hair color, swinging down her back.

He knew she had moved up here. Her brother sent an apologetic text a few months ago, warning that she would arrive in DC soon. She had only applied to those California jobs to try to stay together. She had been obsessed with Washington since eighth grade after a junior high civics class trip. She left the television on C-SPAN and set her browser homepage to Politico. Despite her wonk tendencies, he figured that she wouldn’t leave the South — she would have kids and maintain ties to her family, who were fourth-generation in Gallatin. Her mom had teased that when Sarah was packing for college, she dotted her Volunteers T-shirts with tears.

It was a only a matter of time before they ran into each other, at some networking event or 9:30 Club show. He had set his LinkedIn profile to enable anonymous views, then searched for Sarah. On the first page, there she was, hair a lighter red-blonde, but the green eyes still the same, steady like two points of light. He didn’t click on her profile; her name, photo, and job title at USPTO were too much. He slowly closed his laptop.

His mother had warned him; even though Washington felt like a world away from Gallatin, it wasn’t. It was just a big small town with the local news going national. Several of his classmates were in DC or Virginia, and they ran into each other at the Blackfinn for game watch parties, nodding casual hellos in Volunteers orange. Like him, they had come to Washington for a fresh start, so he wasn’t surprised that Sarah had grabbed an opportunity to come here, too, to enjoy her snows and traffic.

***

When he had gotten a job offer at the FDIC, Sarah sulked. She refused to talk to him until she had a job in Washington, too. But this lasted only until Sunday, when instead of applying for jobs together, they had slow, sticky sex, quietly drawing closer and closer to each other, their hearts hammering in their chests, until he looked down and saw a tear cresting over the curve of Sarah’s round cheek. Oh no, Sarah, honey… He wiped the tear with the pad of his thumb, brushing it into the soft short hairs by her ear. She threw her arms around his neck like a child, wrapping her legs around his thighs and pulling him down, hard, onto her. Though he was still inside her, it became comfort, not sex. He closed his eyes and whispered, I love you, I love you, holding her in his arms and stroking her hair until her breathing evened out and she loosened her grip on his neck. Sarah was quiet in the weeks that he packed his things. When he got the van, promising to call and to help her find a job, he knew it was over. He had stolen her dream, when all he had wanted was California. As he drove toward the interstate, it felt like it might snow.

***

A month after searching for her on LinkedIn and two years after his move, he was waiting in the lower belly of Metro Center and saw her, holding hands with a big guy in a Hokies sweatshirt. The long swish of hair was gone, bobbed at the nape of her neck. She leaned into his arm. Then the Orange train rumbled in, and they were gone.

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