Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Hint of Sandalwood

I found the tapes at the bottom of my closet, which was strange, since I had long ago upgraded to DVD some time ago. Four clean black boxes with white labels, each of them addressed to a different person. One was addressed to a well-known movie director; when I opened the box for this one, the director's home address, phone number and e-mail address were printed on the inside of the cover in very pretty handwriting that clearly wasn't mine. One was addressed to a man I had never heard of, but apparently he was a doctor of some sort, based in Boston. One was addressed "to my mother"; I opened the box to find a label with an address to a woman in San Francisco affixed to the inside cover.

The last box was blank on the outside. I opened the box to find a tape with no markings, but the inside of the box said only three words: "For my love."

I went out to the garage and hunted around in the stack of old electronic boxes that I kept for no apparent reason. For some reason, long ago I decided that tinkering with gadgets was what I was good at, so I always kept a small supply of old devices around to cannibalize and slap together into interesting configurations. I was reasonably certain that I had an old VCR among the old game systems and broken record players, and soon enough I found a small box that I had purchased cheaply from the local big box store. Finding the necessary cables to connect to the flat-screen TV in my living room, I returned to the house and hooked up the box.

Lifting the tape gingerly from its case, I wondered again if I somehow had stumbled across someone else's old memories, whether or not these tapes that I had found belonged to a former girlfriend who had left them in among my things and I had just never cleaned them out thoroughly. Yet, feeling the heft of the tape in my hands, somehow I knew that this tape was mine.

Inserting the tape into the old machine, I pushed PLAY and watched as the snowy screen resolved into the shape of a living room not unlike the one I was standing in now. There were differences, of course - for instance, the giant window showing the wide blue sea in the background - but it was still a nice looking living room all the same. Paintings and various pieces of art decorated the walls. A well-apportioned library sat off to one side. A matched pair of very nice French chairs was placed in the center of the room. And in one of the chairs sat the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, her hands folded in her lap, a fragile smile on her face.

"Hello, Anthony," she said in a rich, melodious voice, with an exotic accent I could not place. "My name is Anna, and even though you and I have never properly met, I am your wife."

I wondered if she could see my confused expression, because she next said, "Yes, I know this might be quite a shock to you. You weren't expecting to find these old tapes, but I put them there for you. You are probably wondering if this is some kind of elaborate joke that one of your friends is playing on you, but rest assured that such is not the case. I am – " and here she paused slightly, swallowing and struggling to continue, before she regained her composure and said, "was your wife for the past sixteen years."

Here again she paused, and I realized how close to breaking down she was, how she needed all of her strength to finish this strange message. She held up her hand, as if to tell someone off camera not to come further, and composed herself before she continued.

"You will not understand everything I am telling you, so please listen with an open mind. I don't even understand most of it, and I worked with you nearly all of your life. Nevertheless, in a little while, I will probably be gone, erased from all existence. I have run the calculations several times, and I am certain of this. Others have tried to achieve a solution to this problem that would enable this world to continue to exist, but they were unable to come up with a resolution. Like it or not, I am the reason for what's happened here, the key, if you will, to ending the curse that befell our world. And for the good of a world that will never remember that happened here, I made the choice to sacrifice myself. You argued against it, of course; you railed and carried on for days, but, in the end, there was nothing else that could be done."

Her eyes bored into mine and seemed to carry a world of pain and loss that I could not understand. I had never met this woman before, and here she was speaking of the two of us as if we had spent a whole life together. Surely this had to be some sort of joke, some foolishness that my friends Bret or Amy had decided to play on their resolutely bachelor pal. I contemplated turning off the machine and tossing the tape in the trash, but before I could reach for the controls, the woman on the tape spoke my name again.

"My love, you may not believe me, but I want you to wait for one moment longer and listen. You devised a way to keep my alive, if only in your memory; a way that would survive the changing of time and space itself. I'm not sure that I understand all of it - you were always so much better at such metaphysical things than I was, but all that it required is for you to watch the next few seconds of tape. If you still want to throw this away after the recording is done, then do so with my blessings, but please, please wait until the end."

Here, she nodded at the person off camera, and the snow briefly returned for a few seconds. Nothing but snow, really, and then the woman in the room returned to the screen.

"Thank you, my love. I know now that we will never again be apart. Farewell."

The screen went dark. The tape was done.

Strange, I thought. I considered pitching the tape and its companions in the trash, but decided to wait for a bit. I yawned and stretched for a bit, suddenly in dire need of a nap. I went to my bedroom and lay down on the bed. As I lay there in the few moments before I drifted off, I thought about the woman on the tape. She was very pretty; once I woke up, I would ask Bret about her (and this kind of joke could only have been perpetuated by Bret; he knew so many pretty girls in his line of work, and no doubt he got one to do this for his often-lonely best friend as a not-too-subtle message to "find some girl already and settle down") and get her phone number.

Then the room faded away into the shape of a pier overlooking the water. The beach seemed to stretch for miles in either direction, and I had never seen so clean a body of water or so white a sandy beach before in my life.

Anna was there, wearing a blue dress near the water, and strangely enough, I was there as well, laughing and holding her aloft, just two young people very much in love with all the time in the world. I knew where the beach was, and I remembered how many times we had visited this particular stretch of beach over the years. A Rottweiler puppy ran around us, happy as can be, barking and playing in the surf as the sun went down.

The beach soon faded from view, and then we were in a kitchen, our kitchen, and I was cutting vegetables while she stirred a pot of brown stew on the stove, the fragrant aroma making our mouths water in anticipation. She wore one of my old t-shirts and her favorite pair of jeans; her hair smelled of sandalwood, and I marveled over the fact that I could pick out that scent over all the other smells contained there. She smiled at me and told me that to thank my mother for this recipe.

The kitchen faded away into a darkened room, and we were arguing about something. We both said words that cut deeply, even though neither of us wanted to give them voice. The tears that ran down her cheeks cut at my heart, and even though I tried not to say the things that hurt her, I did it anyway, feeling my foolish pride take control of my lips. She ran into the room and closed the door, and I could only feel anger and regret.

That room faded as well, and suddenly it was night and we were on our bed, and she was above me, and we moved together as one, and I never felt more alive than I did in that moment. Her hair fell everywhere and I could smell the sandalwood again over all of the other scents in the room, and I knew that there could be no greater thing in the entire universe that what we felt at that moment.

All too soon, that room faded into my lab (of course, it was my lab - who else could it have belonged to?) and I slammed my fist down on the table, sending various solutions flying briefly into the air, unwilling to entertain the facts that were staring back at me from the readout on the screen above my head. She was there again, holding me from behind, crying softly. I turned to hold her and swore that I would do everything I could to keep her alive, I would find a way somehow, all I needed was more time that I knew would not be forthcoming.

Then the lab faded to darkness, and she was there, waiting for me.

She smiled sadly, walking over to where I stood, and put her arms around me. We held each other for a long time before I spoke.

"What happened?"

She lifted her head from the crook of my neck (God, the way she did that fit so perfectly) and shook her head. "It doesn't matter anymore. Everything is back to normal now, and trying to bring me back will only cause you and everyone else untold pain."

Even though I was no longer that scientist that I had seen, I still said the words anyway. "I can still save you."

She put her slender fingers on my lips to shush me. "I know, my love. I know."

Those tears that could tear my heart apart more effectively than the sharpest of knives started to flow from her eyes, yet she never cried. She smiled again for me and said, "It's enough that you remember us and all the good times we had together. We had seventeen wonderful years, my love, and I would not trade one of them for anything. But you've been lonely for far too long in this world, and that's not right. You have always needed to move on from the pain, even if you never understood why you hurt. And that's why I'm here, now, in your mind, helping you to continue. Live your life, my love. It's time to wake up from the dream that was the two of us and live.

"Live for me."

I sat up in the bed, wide-awake in an instant. Dusk had begun to shroud the outside world in darkness. My bed, always a bit bigger than I would have liked, never felt emptier than it did in that moment. And for the first time in my life, I wept for my lost wife, for my lost world, for a world I could never have. I felt every bit of the pain that had stopped me from having a proper relationship with the few girls I had known in my life, and I did not stop crying until the oncoming darkness outside had rendered all black.

I got up and left the darkened bedroom, making my way to the living room, where the old VCR was still set up under the TV. I carefully ejected the tape and returned it to its case. Walking over to the study, I gingerly place the box in the bottom drawer towards the back, locking the drawer after I had closed it. I then spent the next few hours rummaging around for mailing supplies to send off the remaining tapes to their respective recipients.
I am not sure why I did so, but it felt like something that she would want me to do. With each of the letters, I enclosed a small note stating that I had instructions to mail the tape to them.

I dropped off the three boxes at the post office the next morning and tried not to think about them again.

Three weeks later, I received a phone call from San Francisco. An older man with a slight Eastern accent told me very pointedly never to contact his wife again, or he would call the police.

A few days later, I heard from my lawyer. He just finished a conversation with the director's people, who were adamant about making the tape he had received into a movie. He gave me a very large number and said that the director wanted to know if I had any more stories like these, as he was willing to pay for them. I told my lawyer to handle all negotiations and give himself a healthy percentage. I also told him not to bother me with calls like this anymore. The director went on change most of the story to his liking, making a boatload of money and winning several prestigious awards, although he was cagey in interviews as to who wrote the original story.

The next day, the doctor from Boston called to thank me. He was writing a paper on a possible universal cure for cancer, and said that the information that I had passed on to him had been invaluable. He wanted to give the scientist who came up with the research proper credit for providing the key to the cure, but the tape he received from her had been very explicit on that score: no credit whatsoever. He called to thank me profusely. I mumbled something and ended the conversation.

Soon thereafter, I sold the house and moved to Laguna Beach, California. The weather is very nice here year-round and the beach is visible from my window, even if the wildfires do make a fine haze now and again. I'm seeing a nice young woman named Beth, whom I met at the local animal shelter. We picked out a French bulldog she named Otto.

I don't mention the tape.

We don't have much in the new house; I sold or gave away most of the junk I had been collecting over the years. I do, however, have a very well apportioned library and a pair of matching leather chairs in the middle of the room, but those are mainly for show.

We usually spend our evenings watching the sun go down on the ocean. We sit snuggled together in a large swinging chair, a blanket over our legs, Otto safely ensconced on the rug by the door, and watch the people on the beach until the moon comes out.

And on those rare perfect evenings, if I'm fortunate, I catch a brief hint of sandalwood on the wind.

Submitted by Steven Perez, Thoughts From an Empty Head

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