Emily Zasada's short stories are forthcoming or have appeared in a number of literary journals, including Your Impossible Voice, 2 Bridges Review, Spectrum Literary Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Penny, The Northern Virginia Review and Flock (formerly Fiction Fix). Originally from the Baltimore area, she now lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and son.
They’ve agreed to meet for lunch on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Since she was a child, Willa has believed the summer solstice is the one day of the year on which time slips loose of its tedious moorings. Something about how morning, afternoon and night seems to blend together, the usual cues to delineate each muffled by all that long endless light. She can feel it now, waiting at the restaurant for April: the way the moments hum carelessly, stretching on and on, freed from their normal constraints.
Willa is only there for a few minutes when she sees April through the glass. Just as she’d hoped but also feared, Willa’s younger self is trailing a few steps behind April with her hair impossibly shiny and holding that owl-shaped purse that she used to love—though it was somewhat childish even for a young woman. April is talking to the hostess and the hostess is pointing in Willa’s direction and then April’s gaze falls on Willa and Willa feels as if a spotlight has been pointed in her direction, a great flare of light, because April is smiling with a sharp confidence that is entirely new, or at least new in Willa’s understanding of April. And Willa can see other things as well, such as April’s expensive pink jacket and April’s expensive highlighted hair, but there’s no time to process any of this because now April is through the door and hugging her, Young Willa a few steps behind holding onto her owl-shaped purse and looking at older Willa over April’s shoulder.
I’ve missed you, April says, as they sit down at the table.
Me too, Willa says. It’s been too long.
Young Willa doesn’t say anything. She sits at the end of the table and grabs a piece of bread and eats it in little bites. Willa is uncertain about what to do, exactly. Certainly she’d expected this—after all, half the reason or, well, face it, maybe the entire reason she’d agreed to meet up with April was the possibility of coming face to face with her younger self—but now that it’s actually happening she doesn’t know how to negotiate such an encounter. Such as: does April even realize that Young Willa is there? Should Willa talk to her younger self directly, or would that be rude, considering she hasn’t seen April in fifteen years? Will the presence of Young Willa make it harder for Willa to talk to April? And: will Young Willa order an entree?
Well, I’ll just have to see how this goes, Willa thinks.
As they talk, Willa can see that April is taking everything in like a tourist, which she is in a sense; she’s in town for a conference. April’s gaze falls on the strip mall across the parking lot with all the neat rows of cars lined up obediently before it. April asks a few polite questions about the town and Willa answers, probably going into a bit too much detail about things like how there’s never enough parking at the grocery store or how the traffic on Wheelstone is always backed up in the morning because of the school buses. The truth is that Willa is in a mild panic; she can’t remember the exact name of April’s son, although she remembers that April’s daughter is Elizabeth because that was what April had always planned to name her daughter someday. Is he Aiden or Aaron or Adrian, Willa wonders. She wants to ask about him, feels like she should ask about him, but is trying to figure out how to get around using his actual name.
There’s another unspoken detail in this conversation that Willa is waiting to see if April will mention, and that’s April’s ex-husband. April hasn’t yet mentioned that her marriage is over, and Willa is wondering if she will. Willa only knows this detail because her sister Darcy is still in touch with April’s sister Anna, and Darcy told Willa only because she thought Willa and April were still in touch. Which they have been, sort of; they remember to click the Like button when one or the other has a birthday. An annual ritual Willa dislikes, although she can’t explain exactly why.
Yet in spite of all that, Willa thought that once they got together April would tell her about the divorce, because she and April used to tell one another everything. The longer they talk without April mentioning the fact that her marriage is over, the more hurt Willa feels.
Not to mention: young Willa’s presence is disconcerting. She’s not doing anything other than eating the free bread and watching a sparrow hopping around on the sidewalk, but, still.
Now April is talking about her job. It’s obvious that April is quite a bit more successful than Willa because of the way April talks about her job, passionate about it in ways that Willa simply cannot feel about her own job, and has, indeed, never felt about any job in her entire life. As April talks, Willa struggles to remember what April’s younger self was like. It’s a challenge, and it’s only every so often while April is talking that Willa thinks she sees a glimpse come flashing to the surface, like television in the era before cable when you had to tune in just right to get a glimpse of the image through the static, the static in this particular case being Present-day April with her glossy expensive highlighted hair and her expensive suit and the crisp manner she has when talking that sounds like someone else entirely, a stranger, someone Willa has never known.
Now Young Willa is pulling Willa’s old Walkman out of the owl purse and adjusting the headphones on her head. She presses the play button. Distantly, Willa hears David Bowie singing about Major Tom.
April is asking Willa about her husband, Roger. Willa is avoiding looking at Young Willa as she manufactures pleasant lies about Roger and the sorts of things they are interested in. The truth is that they aren’t interested in many of the same things. For example, Willa likes the sort of shows and movies that are open ended and ambiguous and Roger likes documentaries because he finds fiction unsettling. Not that he’s ever said that, exactly, but Willa has known him long enough to tell. Even though Willa knows better, she will sometimes get so exasperated with Roger’s excruciatingly dull black and white view of the world that she will shout at him about how there is no such thing as truth in those documentaries, or, indeed, anywhere: instead there are camera angles and individual biases and soundtracks, not to mention the beliefs the script writers have had ingrained in them since childhood and the whims of the cutting room editors and whether or not the director has argued with the cinematographer and finally the opinions of people who funded the whole thing, the ones the money is coming from, who most likely get to have the biggest say of all. But Roger will just blink at her through his glasses and go back to watching whatever it is he’s watching, and Willa’s words are no different than the wind blowing through a distant forest. Then Willa will go upstairs to watch whatever it is she wants to watch or read whatever it is she wants to read, and Roger will finish watching his documentary, and later Roger will put on a new pair of latex gloves and wipe down the kitchen counters with bleach because that’s what his father did every night before he went to bed. And Willa will pause on the staircase on her way to lock the door and look at Roger in the kitchen with the light reflected in his glasses and wonder how any of this has happened—how she married a man like this, how she came to live in this dark little townhouse that looks out onto other dark little townhouses, how she gets up each day and goes to her office two miles away and sits in her cubicle that is almost identical to all the other cubicles throughout the building and has conversations with her coworkers in which everyone tries to put the best possible spin on their lives, show everything at the best angle, similarly to the way that documentaries or the news or pretty much everything else gets produced, and, in fact, similarly to the way Willa is portraying her life to April at this exact moment, and possibly similarly to how April has been portraying hers.
Finally, their salads arrive, and Willa is relieved; there’s a pause in the conversation. The sun is very bright and strong.
After a while, Willa sneaks a glance at Young Willa, expecting her to be looking in Willa’s direction with an expression on her face signaling, well, something—reproach, maybe, or judgment, or disappointment, or all of the above.
But Young Willa isn’t looking at Willa at all. She’s pulled her headphones off her head but left them around her neck, and taken all her makeup out of her owl shaped purse. The owl shaped purse is on the small side, and Willa is certain that all that makeup would never fit in there with the Walkman, but this is a minor detail she shrugs off, as she’s well aware that Young Willa’s very presence is a detail that doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Young Willa is twisting the bottom of a tube of lipstick so that the lipstick moves up in the tube and then down again. She appears to be preoccupied with this activity.
April is checking her phone again and Willa is surreptitiously watching Young Willa. When she looks at her she has this weird twisted feeling–a strange combination of soaring joy and crushing despair—but she looks at her anyway. She’s starting to wish that April weren’t there at all so she could talk directly to Young Willa. Although technically there is nothing stopping her; she could turn to her left and start a conversation with her younger self. Just to see what would happen.
Willa isn’t sure how such a conversation would go. But certainly it would go somewhere. After all, she really does have a lot to say, when she thinks about it. Quite a bit more than she’s had to say to April. Take the makeup in Young Willa’s purse, for example. How consumed Young Willa is with turning herself into someone else. How pleased she feels when she looks in the mirror after applying black eyeliner and mascara and sees someone different, someone who looks a little more like the other girls in school or like the girls in the magazines or the TV shows she watches. Certainly makeup isn’t the reason Willa is unhappy now, or why she and April can’t find much to say to one another. Yet there was a time in their lives in which they believed it was a key to another version of themselves, just like they believed other things were also keys—things like the boys they liked and the bands they listened to and the clothes they wore and the friends they chose and the words they used to describe themselves and other people and the world. They believed all those things were keys, and maybe they were or they weren’t, but maybe all that believing made it true, because when you thought about it each of those choices led to another version of themselves and then another version after that. As if each one unlocked a door to a long hallway with dozens of doors on either side, each door in turn opening into yet another long hallway with more doors. With so many doors and so many years of choosing, it was no wonder she and April couldn’t figure out how to make it back to the first door where they’d started.
You could throw all that crap away, she imagines herself telling Young Willa.
But she doesn’t.
Outside the restaurant Willa and April are saying goodbye, Young Willa still hovering a few steps behind April, her headphones back on her ears, still looking somewhat sullen and bored. The sun is in Willa’s eyes and reflecting off the glass front of the restaurant. They promise to keep in touch. April reaches out to hug Willa and Willa hugs her back.
At that moment, Willa knows—is certain—that she will never see April again.
How does she know this? She has no idea. Although when she glances sideways towards her reflection in the restaurant windows she sees a grayish shiver around it, like an aura, and Willa is sure this shiver is Old Willa, having somehow shown up as well, although the logistics are unclear. It’s a strange idea, but no stranger than Young Willa being here. For a moment, she even thinks she understands other things as well, things about the future that had never occurred to her. She will be right about some, wrong about others.
She clings to April a moment longer than she might have. She is terrified, in fact, to let her go.
But she does.
They smile politely, check one another’s contact information in their phones to make sure it’s up to date. They promise to keep in touch.
For a moment, pulling of out the parking lot, she thinks she sees Young Willa in her rearview mirror, still standing in front of the restaurant, holding the owl-shaped purse in her hand. From a distance, she looks impossibly young, younger than Willa ever remembers being in her life, and smaller as well, hardly more than a fragment of light under the sun. A slightly puzzled expression on her face as she watches Willa go. But when Willa cranes her head to look, no one is there.