A Complete Stranger

His eyes open. But that is all as he continues to lay still. Peaceful, knowing he has eternity to bask in this perfect nothing. Yet something is wrong, it twitches at the back of his brain, nagging him to remember. He chides it back with, nothing is wrong. All feels right, and the air around is filled with love and understanding if that’s an apt description.

Then with a sudden realization, he cries.

For the first time in his life, he knows God, knows a being, that for him, most of his life, was not supposed to exist. A being fought and killed over throughout human history, but that was never the intent. He realizes that God isn’t a person. He is everything. He is air, food, the ground, the universe, the feeling filling his mind like it’s being flushed of everything else.

He knows what comes next. He gets to witness the life he gave God. And knows at the end he will have an answer to what is bothering him in the paradise of his eternity.

Then he witnesses his birth. He sees the doctor and the nurses, his mother, the warmth and comfort and sustenance of her breast. It washes over him, and he stays there for an eternity, just being a baby, loved, and cared for, wanting for nothing.

Finally, he lets the whirlpool take him further. He isn’t sad to say goodbye to this moment of peace. He knows he can come back to it whenever he wants and releases himself into the excitement of learning to walk and stab his older brother with a fork and the rage as he gets stabs back.

He gets to play with Jerome day in and day out until he goes to school.

He’s alone with mom for a few years during the day.

It’s boring.

He lets the whirlpool take him past the alphabet and times tables and learning about fractions and Darwin also. All the while, inching uncomfortably closer to the black smudge that is his end. He dreads to witness it. He does not recall anything to hint at what it could be.

He stays for a while to enjoy his youth, his strength on the high school football team, running when it isn’t painful, he could run forever. He enjoys losing his virginity and winning prom king senior year. He enjoys getting accepted into college.

Then skips past the painful knee injury that ends his football career and provokes the question, what could have been. The answer is barred from him, those realities belong to their own versions of himself, and he is only privy to his story.

He skips past med school, his internship and the 24 hour days that still don’t make sense, but chooses to stay awhile and explore the Doctors Without Borders experience though. He got to go to Sudan and stare down the war chief once more and feel the exhilaration of winning his life back from the death squad by fixing the daughter-of-a-terrorist’s heart.

They celebrated him, and he fell in love with humanity.

Skipping past the long as hell flight that lands him in New York City, he revels in his new home and explores the busy streets again. Loving being back in America.

He loves this place again with its endless streets and possibilities. The sounds, smells, and faces, every day different and ever-changing.

He wins his dream job again and opens chests and makes hearts work. He extends potential, gives life and possibility. He lives his day to day life forgetting that there is more.

Then he sees her and knows immediately she is the missing part of his soul. Tall and graceful. Long legs, perfect stride. He chases after her on the Hudson River Greenway on the lower Westside. She is fast. He doesn’t think he can catch her but does. Then follows her and she doesn’t know it. He feels the need to talk to her, to know her, and then she stops, and they collide. She falls. He helps her to her feet, apologizes, and they meet eyes, and he knows she is his.

They date, and are inseparable.

She likes Florida.

He liked Alabama.

And even though they are perfect for one another:

They drink beer with friends and travel the world.

He asks her to marry him. She says, yes.

There’s more happiness than he ever thought possible.

There is a  sadness coming.

She is the dream he never knew and it came true. Choosing a best man was easy. He went with the guy who had been through it all with him, who bore the fork scars from their dining room wars.

His older brother says, yes, and throws the bachelor party, this is where things become confusing, then they end as he stumbles drunkenly through his front door to an empty apartment.

Nothing beyond the floor reaching up to dribble his head off.

There is nothing that follows. No wedding. Nothing but a choice to view his life again or accept it for what it was.

But each time when he realizes he doesn’t have any memories of his wedding, he can’t move past it.

He backs the review up and sees himself walk through my apartment door again and again.

And each time, nothing again and again, and still, it ends in blackness on the floor of his apartment.

Playing it over and over again and still witnessing the same nothing.

He is confused.

In this place of love, in this place of understanding, he remains confused and wonders if that means he should explore outside of his life viewing. In an attempt to change his current reality he does and basks in the perfection, the tangibility, the malleability, of the everything. He understands he could have anything he wants, but he wants her, but he senses she isn’t ready for him in her present.

There are no other people either and the confusion of his death weighs on him. He wants answers and in a place of everything, answers for this is the only thing missing.

Then he sees her.

She is short with black curly hair and ample flesh. She holds her shoulders like her very existence is an embarrassment.

She seems familiar, and he knows he should know her. She watches him, and as he approaches, flinches.

He feels the discomfort and doesn’t like it. It feels like they have business, but what business he is unsure, so replays his life again to look for her.

He runs through it, not expecting to, but spotting her time and time again.

In childhood, she is in every class photo standing near him, always looking.

He goes to Alabama, and she is there, serving food at the Dorm cafeteria.

He goes to the airport to leave for Sudan, and she is there watching him go through security, crying.

He gets back, and again she is there elated as if she thought his return a miracle.

She works in the cafeteria of the hospital he did his internship at, and he wonders how many meals she served him.

He goes back, and counts, and the answer could be thousands.

She is there in the peripheral of so many memories, and then finally, on the day things stopped, she is there in the bar watching also. Fat silent tears dripping into her untouched beer.

In the afterlife, he approaches her, and even in this place of love and understanding, she starts crying but not with happiness, more like a greasy hunger that will likely never be satisfied.

“Who are you?”

“I am the one who loved you enough to do what was required. I loved you, you have to understand that. And now I get to have you for eternity.”

He rejects this. Instead, he goes back to the beginning to view his life again, but instead of his mother, he finds himself with his murderer cooing down at him.

He screams, dropping out of his life-viewing, knowing he must accept the reality of his life to free himself of her.

But can’t and again watches his birth, tainting every moment he lived.

Published by Bryan Aiello

Raised on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Bryan served in the Army, graduated from the University of South Florida and now calls Brooklyn home. For more of his fiction and updates on his podcasts, follow him on Twitter: @bryaiello and Reddit: /u/voyage_of_roadkill.

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