The house was quiet tonight. Most of the gang had gone out for some bubble tea, but I had to work tomorrow morning and wanted some extra rest. Plus, I had a date on Friday. I really liked this new girl. Of all the ones I’d dated the past few years, I’d never been more excited than I was now. It had only been a week, but perhaps it would turn into something serious. It’d been a long time since I’d felt this way.
A crack of thunder reverberated through the old house and for a moment, dizziness overwhelmed me. I stumbled towards the front door.
Outside, the sky looked like a sea of shifting blackness. I slumped down on the porch and rubbed my forehead. Something was happening, but whether it was just a headache or the pressure from school getting to me, I wasn’t sure.
Rain started to fall. Not hard, but in gentle sweeps that belied the fierce crackling of thunder. In the distance, two bolts of lightning lit up the sky. When they did, I spotted a stranger at the end of my driveway. He was about average height and thick through the shoulders. His black hoodie hid his face.
As the rain continued to fall, he looked at me, unmoved by the storm.
“You okay, man?” I called out.
I wasn’t nervous, exactly. There was something familiar about the stranger’s movements. I glanced up at the shifting sky. Everything felt off, like I’d been transported to some science fiction movie. I knew it was ridiculous, but there was a reason I wrote fantasy. Some things couldn’t be explained.
The man slowly walked up the driveway, oblivious to the rain, but bent as if carrying weight on his back. When he stopped at the stoop, he pulled down his hood.
I stumbled backwards. “Wait. This is impossible. You’re…”
“Yeah.” he said. “Ten years have passed since my last visit, Steve.”
I opened my mouth to speak but no words came out. He looked like me. More lines around the eyes, but with the same shaved head and goatee. Same thick shoulders. He jerked his head towards the stoop.
“Can I sit?”
“Uh, yeah. Sure.”
I made room for him as we sat beside one another. For a while we just watched the storm. I didn’t know what to say and he didn’t appear to be in a hurry. Occasionally, he glanced over at me, his eyes filled with sadness. There was more there, but that was the dominant emotion. I wondered why he, why I, was so sad, but I didn’t want to ask.
“I visited you before,” he said. “You do remember right. It was ten years ago. You wrote about it.”
I chuckled nervously, though I remembered the visit quite vividly. “Oh, uh, yeah.” Rain swept across the porch occasionally, but it didn’t bother me. It didn’t bother him either. “But, uh, it’s been a while.”
He nodded. “A decade. Feels like a lifetime and gone in a heartbeat.” He motioned to the house. “I loved it here. Two of the best years of my life. Nine housemates from eight different countries in a crowded house. Who would’ve thought it would be so glorious?” He paused. “Everyone gone out for bubble tea?”
(Whatever people say, it’s disconcerting to talk to your future self, someone who has all the answers about your life. You want to ask them questions. But you also want them to leave.)
“I hope you’re enjoying it,” he said. “Don’t even take your job for granted.”
“What? My job at Starbucks?”
“Yes. You’ll make some lifelong friends there. And you will meet others…”
His voice trailed off so wistfully that I could feel the tail attached to his words.
I took a deep breath. “Look, I know this happened before. Or maybe I was just writing stuff. Or whatever. But you’re kind of freaking me out. Can you please tell me about my life.”
“What do you want to know?” He tugged off his hoodie. He wore a tight black shirt underneath. “Ask.”
“Well, uh, do I, do we, have a family?”
It was a while before he answered, and when he did, tears rimmed his eyes. “No.”
“But ten years… if I don’t have a family yet. I—”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
I stood and moved to the bottom step. “What the hell did you do?” I shouted. “You screwed up the last time, too! Did I even have a relationship?”
He pulled out a cigar and lit it. His voice was heavy with emotion. “We did.”
“Well, what kind of relationship? Like a real one or did I bounce around? I don’t believe in that!”
“You didn’t bounce around.”
The sadness in his voice was impossible to miss. So much so that I slumped onto one of the lower stairs.
“I fucked it up, didn’t I?”
He didn’t answer, but continued to puff away on his cigar. Thunder boomed in the distance. I didn’t know what to feel. Had no idea what to ask.
“How is your depression?” he said.
“My depression? Fine. Everything is good. Never been better. Why?”
“It is a lifelong illness,” he said.
I thought about that. Tried to understand what he was saying. But ever since I’d moved to Toronto for Seminary, things had gone well. I was excited about my studies. Excited about God. Excited about the new challenges in front of me. If I blinked, it was difficult to remember some of the dark days. The ones where my mental health issues had asserted themselves. The ones that had immobilized me. The ones that had challenged me as to why I even bothered living.
“That’s in the past,” I said.
“No. It’s in your future.” He butted out his cigar and flicked it onto the driveway. “You still don’t understand. You are still too dismissive about your sickness.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know plenty about mental health stuff.”
A flicker of a smile crossed his face. “You are a first year student claiming to have a Ph. D. Nothing will change until you know.”
What wouldn’t change?
He stood and walked down the stoop onto the driveway.
“Wait!” I said. “You haven’t told me anything about my life! Will I meet someone, at least? Even if I don’t have a family?”
His face was wet, but I couldn’t tell if it was tears or the rain. “You will meet someone,” he said. “She will be unlike anyone you have ever met. You will commit to her in a way you have never done before. She will fill you and break you.”
“So I’m married?”
“You were.” He strolled down the driveway, his hoodie held under his left arm, oblivious to the rain and thunder.
“Wait!” I ran out to him. “You can’t leave now! All you’ve done is program me for ten years of pain! What do I do to avoid it?”
He smiled, and as he did, I confirmed that it wasn’t rain on his face, but tears. “You can’t. You have lessons to learn. You—”
“But this girl!” I insisted. “Tell me about her?”
He took a deep breath as he looked at his feet. “I cannot.” He gestured to the house. “You are happy, no?”
He smiled. “Indeed. I remember.”
He began to walk away, and I ran over and grabbed his shoulder as a jolt of lightning split the sky. “Please! You aren’t helping me!”
“I’m not here for you,” he said.
“What do you mean? Why did you come?”
“Look, you will make some bad decisions, but you will stay kind. Eventually you will understand why you must accept who you are, which includes your illness.”
I guessed he was talking about my depression and mental health stuff, but I hadn’t worried about that in a few years. He nodded at me and I watched him walk away. If this was a living dream, like what had happened to me ten years ago, then this guy was nothing more than an impostor. Or, more likely, it was just a stupid dream.
I sat on the balcony and watched the rain sweep across city. Thunder boomed in the background. . A lifetime and a heartbeat. If life was a dream, as some philosophers proposed, it was a dream that sped up as we aged.
There was much I’d wanted to tell my younger self. In the span of a decade, he would experience his greatest day and his worst day. And the worst day would be bad. Very bad. It would linger like fire licking the edges of an old piece of wood, refusing to let go. It would be the greatest pain of his life, and mark a great scar across his chest. Across my chest. A scar that throbbed nearly every night and one that promised not to go away.
But life was more than a collection of scars. It was also a collection of memories. Some of which gave us fuel to help put ointment on our old wounds.
It bothered me that this “visit” had been preordained for ten years, but there was nothing I could do about it. God set the time and I followed. I would have preferred a few months to heal a bit more, but a decade was a decade. I just hoped I hadn’t discouraged my younger self too much.
I snorted as I thought about the face he’d given me when I’d spoken about our illness.
No. He’d be fine. Things would unravel in time, but for the next few years, he would be very happy.
I lit a cigar and watched the rain. It flicked the edges of the balcony, and an occasional gust of wind blew it into my face, but for the most part it stayed away, beyond the overhang. Like the first time it had happened, the travel back in time had been for me. For my future self.
I brushed my hand across the invisible scar on my chest. That I still had no family grieved me in a way I hadn’t expected. Time was running out, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the dream was over.
It wasn’t an admission of conceit, but a statement of reality. I was getting old. Not too old to have a child, but that day was approaching quickly. And even if I managed to find someone, doubts would not be hard to find. My younger self had found his way to optimism, but that was easier to do when you were thirty four. Different story a decade later.
I sighed and butted out my cigar. I rubbed the back of my neck. I so desperately wanted to be positive. Hadn’t God shown me this for a reason? Did my faith still work? Did I still believe that God wanted the best for me?
Three separate bolts of lightning crackled across the street. Vivid and bold, they seemed almost a response from the heavens. I was too logical for that sort of thing, but just unhinged enough to believe they might have been for me.
I went inside and made myself some tea. When it was ready, I took it outside onto the balcony. The thunder and lightning had stopped by the time I got back out there, but the rain continued, gently spilling onto the road twenty stories below me.
I’d cried a lot the past two years. It was something I hadn’t wanted to tell my younger self, because pain is enough to deal with when it comes, let alone when you anticipate it. But I’d also neglected things. Like my mental health issues and just how much they mattered. Like moving out of my “writer’s mind” and into a world of bills and budgets and deadlines. Like remembering that worshiping someone was not the same as loving them.
These were big “gets,” and it had taken some time for me to understand them. That my late comprehension in these issues hadn’t saved the most precious relationship of my life, however, did not signify complete failure. It had caused me unbearable pain, the kind of pain you didn’t wish on an enemy, but it seemed to have been necessary.
Above all, my dream had reminded me that I’d been through it. That hills and valleys were the expectation, not the exception. And if in the last few years I’d gone through a valley of unforeseen darkness, I knew from experience that a hill was coming.
I sipped my tea and quietly watched the rain. There was a balancing act when it came to painful memories. To acknowledge them was essential, but to give them power removed hope. A scar, yes. But not an open wound.
I rubbed the mug in my hands and glanced up at the skies. No stars, tonight. But they were there. Hidden behind the clouds. Tomorrow, when the rain let up, and when the clouds moved away, I would see them again. Tonight was a night for tears.
Tomorrow, I would see the sun.