by Karissa Chen
We didn't know that Kai wasn't my match for a long time. You have to understand, I'd known her my entire life. My childhood memories are full with her presence: Kai beside me digging for clams, her scabby knees flecked with glittering sand; Kai on her tiptoes, peering at a caterpillar in a high leaf as we explored the jungles behind her house; Kai's tanned arms around my neck as we waded through the frigid waters of the ocean. From her early years as a small, tottering child trailing behind me, to the moment just after I pulled away from her sea-salted lips for the first time, I had always been able to look at her forehead, see the graphite colored mark that matched mine and feel certain.
My parents entered me into the match registry shortly after I was born like most parents on the island opt to do. For three years, they heard nothing although, as you know, this is normal for many boys. My father tells me that when I cried as an infant, my mother murmured my digits into my ears over and over again like a lullaby as she rocked me: 4 5 6 8 3 8. It was as if she were trying to comfort me with the surety of my future. Finally, shortly after my third birthday, the notice came.
Well, of course, it gave them pause when they realized who I'd been matched with. When my mother recounted the day to me, she would tell me that they'd read the name and immediately made the connection. We were so proud of you, they said. I never told them what I thought, which was that it was a ridiculous reaction to have since I'd done absolutely nothing to deserve their adulation, nothing except be born with the correct set of numbers imprinted on my skin.
After a few phone calls, it was agreed that Kai and I should meet. My parents dressed in nice clothes and put me in a starched white-collared shirt and brown corduroys before driving down to Kai's house. Perhaps you've heard of the house—the large estate was known to everybody on the North Side, which is where we lived, too, although my parents' modest cottage was no match for their tremendous plot. Her backyard was literally the jungle, and when we were in grade school, Kai and I would roam through the lush foliage and pretend we were in a different world.
I don't remember a lot from that day—the details I do know are from a combination of what my parents related to me later and from poring over the photograph my parents had taken on that day with Kai. It shows me holding a pink-swaddled Kai with an artificial smile pasted on my face, seated behind a white cake with purple frosting on the table that says Blessed Life to Jayce and Kai! Kai used to ask me questions about how the cake tasted or whether there were balloons, and I would make up answers to appease her, things like how the cake was a five-layer coconut chocolate cream, or that the balloons were made of shiny foil. Truthfully though, the only thing I really remember from that day is that my shirt was itchy and uncomfortable against my neck, and I wanted the pictures to be over so I could ask my mother to take it off. Of course, I never told Kai that. I let her think I remembered looking into her small sleeping face and immediately feeling an inexplicable kinship. She wanted to believe in the romance of the day, and later on, once we discovered the mistake, she needed it.
I know you probably think that it was a poor decision for our parents to allow us to grow up together the way we did. I've heard the arguments for keeping matches separate, that one of the key benefits of the match system is that children are able to become individuals free to focus on other interests without wasting time on relationships before they're ready. But our parents felt strongly about allowing us to share in each others' lives fully. I remember distinctly throwing a tantrum once when I was nine because Kai wanted to tag along with me and some of the boys from school to a game of baseball. At that time, the gap between my nine years and her six felt wide; she was a baby, and an annoying one at that. When I complained to my parents, they gently reminded me of the bigger picture. Why would you want to waste your time sharing these memories with anyone else but your match? they asked.
So of course we spent most of our time as a pair. I taught her how to swim, she showed me how to do cartwheels. I carved doll faces out of the hairy hollows of coconut shells, she helped me collect colored glass that washed up on the shore. I helped her memorize the multiplication table, she snuck out thick books from her mother's study that featured pastel maps of places we'd never heard of. We were dimly aware of the fact that many of our peers' parents had opted to wait until they were 20 to present them with their match as a coming-of-age gift, but to us, it didn't feel like anything but ordinary to have each other. In a way, I suppose we didn't recognize how lucky we were, and we probably took each other for granted. Our life together was a given, and so what else was there to discuss?
Well, wait, that's not entirely true either. Because there was that book. It was when Kai was about 12 or 13, right before everything changed. She'd come across it in her mother's study, a strangely masculine room with built-in shelves and heavy drapery that was filled with strange artifacts, things Kai was fascinated by. When her mother was out, she'd sneak in and try to make sense of the things inside. She found this book on one of the shelves, a thick volume with dusty pages and occasional drawings on thick bookplates. The story centered around a boy and a girl who meet at a party and instantly believe themselves to be each others' matches, despite being from a time before the match system existed. Unfortunately, it turned out that the couple's families were not too fond of each other, and, I suppose because there was no way to convince the families of their match without match marks, the romance ended in tragedy for the two.
It's so awful, Kai said after she'd told me the whole story.
I nodded, agreeing. Imagine a world where you aren't given proof of your match.
Not that, Kai said. It's so awful that the two of them were kept apart.
After that, Kai became obsessed with identifying evidence of our match, besides the matching numbers on our foreheads. She'd tally these items on her fingers. We both had slightly larger second toes. We both bit our fingernails when we were nervous. We both preferred sunsets to sunrises. We both had recurring dreams about transforming into fish. But beyond that, she found other parallels, things that seemed cosmic in their design: We were both born in the same month. Our fathers shared the same middle name. We were both products of second pregnancies from mothers who had miscarried before us. Had those children been born, they most certainly would have been born in the same month and year and would have (in Kai's estimation) been friends, ensuring we would have met. Our match was inevitable, she used to say. Although I nodded in agreement, I didn't quite understand her desire to pinpoint all this proof after the fact. It felt backwards, in the way it would if I were to search for evidence that my mother could really be called my mother by looking at whether or not she cooked me meals or tucked me in at night. Looking back now, though, I wonder if perhaps she'd already begun to notice the change, or if something in her gut had simply begun to twist, telling her what none of us had yet to find out.
She was 15 when I first saw it. It was after one of our quick dips in the ocean, although it was a gray afternoon, and now with damp cotton sticking to our skin, the wind felt cooler than it had earlier. Kai huddled near me as we sat on the flat rocks that jutted out from the shore, and though she told me she wasn't cold, I saw her body shivering. I reached out to pull her close to me, and she looked up. That's when I kissed her.
When I pulled away, her eyes were still closed, a few crystals of salt and sand caged between her fluttering lashes. I leaned in to press my lips against the first "8" on her forehead, but then stopped. The number was slightly fuzzy at the edges, almost as if it had been written in ink and ocean water had begun to wash it away. The blur was so slight that I thought perhaps it was my own vision at fault, a product of the wooziness I felt from the kiss. Yet in another few weeks, I noticed it again, and it seemed the gray was becoming even more faded, like a bruise slowly disappearing.
When I finally pointed it out to Kai, sure now that something was happening, her eyes turned fearful. I don't know what's going on, she said. She hesitated. Does this change anything for you?
Call me foolish, but I honestly didn't immediately understand what she meant by that question. We didn't even know what was happening. I worried that a disease was eating her from the inside out, first attacking the pigments in her mark, and would soon corrode the blue of her eyes, the pink of her cheeks. I wondered if in a few months, Kai would become albino, all colors having been devoured by this parasite.
It had never even crossed my mind that perhaps what was happening would negate our match. The disappearance of her "8" for a half-hearted "3" seemed a medical condition, not an existential one. And yet Kai's immediate diagnosis was that we'd been mismatched. It's strange, isn't it, how people come to conclusions just as easily based upon their greatest fears as they do based upon their greatest desires? When Kai finally spelled out what she meant by her question, I was taken aback. The idea that she was not my match was a foreign and disconcerting thought. Imagine being told what you thought was the sky your entire life might actually be the ocean, or that what you perceived to be the color green was actually what the rest of the world thought of as red—that's what it felt like to be told there was a possibility Kai was not my match.
So I comforted Kai the best I could. I told her she was wrong, that perhaps she was sick with a rare but non-life-threatening illness. That the diminishment of a single number didn't negate what we knew to be true. I invoked the parallels and patterns she had ticked off to me on so many occasions. See? I said, These things prove our match. Perhaps you'll argue that we clung to false pretenses, that we saw fate where there was merely coincidence. But isn't that what we do as humans? Carve out meaning where there is none?
For months, we managed to hide her disappearing "8" by filling in the other side with the burnt end of a matchstick. I'd help her draw the number, tracing the two half moons across her skin as she held still beneath me. It wasn't perfect, and the charcoal smeared easily if she sweated or rubbed her palm against her face by accident, but 14 months passed before her parents suspected anything. When they finally did, it changed everything.
I remember the phone ringing, my mother picking up. She said hello warmly, but in the next second a strange silence fell over her. My skin prickled, and immediately I knew. She signaled to my father, who looked at me cautiously before making his way over to the telephone. Together they listened in on the receiver. Thank you for letting us know, my father finally said. Yes. We'll be in touch.
As they replaced the phone in the cradle, I fought the urge to flee before they could turn their attention back onto me. Son, my father said, and I braced myself for what was coming. It appears there's been a mistake. They told me that Kai's parents would make special arrangements to have her re-registered, and that they, too, would be allowed to re-enter my number in the registry. They tried to make light of it. Somewhere out there is a girl who hasn't been matched yet and has been wondering why. Imagine her relief!
I couldn't say anything. I just nodded and then told them I was going for a walk along the beach. My mother looked ready to stop me, her face a mask of worry, but my father shook his head at her. I grabbed my jacket and strode out the door.
I found Kai out on the rocks on North Beach where we shared our first kiss. I stood a distance away and watched her before approaching. She looked so tiny, a speck of powder blue dotted along the massive dark stone. For a moment, I imagined a large wave crashing over her, engulfing her thin body and swallowing her into the sea. I pulled my jacket tighter around my torso, chilled, and then walked over to sit next to her. She had her arms wrapped around her legs, her face buried into her knees.
Go away, she said, not lifting her head.
It's cold out, I said.
You shouldn't be here. We're not matches.
Too cold for a swim, probably.
We're mistakes. It's official. We're mistakes. Or at least I am.
We could still go. The swim might warm us up.
You're wasting your time here. You should be out looking for your true match. She's probably waiting for you somewhere.
Stop it! Kai snapped her head up. Stop pretending like everything is the same, because it's not. It's never going to be the same again. So why don't you leave me alone so I can get myself ready for the other boy, the one who is going to make me happier than I could possibly ever imagine?
Kai— I started to say, but she cut me off again.
Go away! Go away and find your true match and forget about me! Go away so I can forget about you! How am I supposed to do that if you're here, if you don't leave me alone? She was hysterical at this point, railing at me as if I was the one who'd changed her mark, perhaps by kissing away her "8" over time.
I stayed quiet and didn't move. I knew Kai, knew her almost as well as I knew myself. When Kai pushed you away, she needed you to stay. She continued to rant for a few more seconds, but soon her words gave way to shuddering sobs. I stared out at the cloudy sea, at the occasional angry wave hitting the rocks and spitting on us. After awhile, she fell silent and then raised her head towards where I was looking. She lifted her hand to her forehead and began to rub back and forth in a gentle, rhythmic motion. Then finally, she spoke, this time her voice even, though tinged with weariness.
You know why they came up with the match system?
I knew. We all knew. We'd been told the way it was before, by our parents, by our schools. How people used to find matches on their own through a process of trial and error. How they spent so much time yearning for the wrong people, spending time with them, falling in love with them, and then at the end it wouldn't work out because they weren't perfect matches. How people would fight, cry, leave each other, hurt each other. All of this was terrible for society, they told us, created unpleasant neighbors and poor employees.
My grandpa used to say, Kai said, that the system saved lives. He said that it wasn't just that people with broken hearts didn't work hard, or got sick because they weren't taking care of themselves, or that they got into jealous fights. It was the worst of it, the fact that they sometimes killed other people or even themselves.She paused. Her fingers skimmed her skin, like they were soothing a gentle itch. Can you imagine? When I was little I just couldn't understand this.
My parents had never told me about such extreme cases when I was growing up. The old way had seemed strange and backward, but in the quaint way fairy tales did. And yet what Kai was saying seemed dark and morbid. I suppressed a shiver.
You know, they wanted to get rid of broken hearts decades and decades ago, but they just couldn't figure out how. It was only when my great-grandfather came along, when he started demonstrating his brilliance, that they gave him the impossible task. And he came up with the match system. A way of unlocking the secrets of fate so that we were born with the knowledge of who we were meant for. My grandpa was the first person he ever tried implementing the system in, did you know that? His own little unborn baby. My grandpa has a big "1" on his forehead. When I was small, I used to trace it with my finger. It seemed so special to me.
I had never heard her talk about her great-grandfather or grandfather. I knew, of course, who they were; everybody knew. But I'd never met either of them, and I'd never probed her about it. I thought for a long time it was because her family's accomplishments were a part of her history that she simply accepted, the same way I never gave much thought to my father's work as a furniture maker, or my mother's work as a nurse. But now I wondered if she never mentioned them for another reason, if they were a part of her she was hiding away because she still struggled to make sense of their significance.
Bright lines of pink were appearing on the skin right below Kai's scalp, marking the path her nails were making. The match system gives us happiness, she said.
I reached out and circled both of her wrists, drawing her hands towards me. Come here, I said.
I don't know. I don't know if I thought Kai was my match or if I thought she wasn't. I don't know what I believed at the time, and if you ask me to tell you definitively, it's all very murky. I knew only what I felt, which was that this was Kai, the girl I had known for 16 years, and I could not leave her.
Our parents tried their best to separate us. Kai's family took up (what they hoped to be temporary) residence in a modest house on the East Side of the island, which placed her at a different school, making it much harder for Kai and I to spend time together. Nonetheless, we made up extracurricular activities and imaginary friends and found ways to see each other at least once a week, usually by our beach. Looking back, I suppose it's naïve to believe our parents never knew, but I think they were hopeful that with enough time and distance and the appearance of our true matches, we would eventually tire of the inconvenience of these clandestine meetings.
The subject of that last factor became a source of endless anxiety for Kai.
Every day the mail comes, my stomach churns, she said. But maybe I have no match. Maybe it'll never come. That could happen, right?
She never asked me explicitly about my match notice—I think she was too scared to bring it up—but it was an unspoken expectation that I was to come to her with news of it if it ever arrived.
So, yes, I should have told her about the letter, which I'd intercepted away from my parents a mere three weeks after they had re-registered me. But every time I'd started to, I found I couldn't. When I'd held the envelope in my hands that day, it had seemed heavy with the burden of significance, like it might contain all the secrets of my destiny, and I felt simultaneously terrified and thrilled at the prospect of opening it. So instead, I'd hidden it beneath my mattress. I intended to eventually tear it into shreds and simply hope my match's family wouldn't manage to contact mine, but I was never able to bring myself to carry through such an extreme action. And every time I tried to tell Kai about the letter, I found the weight of all of that depressing my tongue, and I couldn't get the words out.
Finally though, when Kai was 17, she received hers. I saw the hesitation on her face when I met with her that afternoon, right before she blurted out the news. We sat at the edge of the surf, our shoes kicked off and our toes dipped into the frigid water. It was bright and sunny, deceivingly so on this cool day, and the ocean dappled with coins of light.
My parents aren't too happy, she said. He's the son of a fisherman who lives on the South Side.
Maybe they won't make you meet him then? I asked.
She shook her head. They believe in the match system too much. She scratched at her forehead absently. I pushed her fingers away. She closed them into a fist and pressed her hand under thigh. Actually, we're going to meet him on Saturday.
I don't want to go.
I'm going for a swim, I said, jumping up.
The water felt like a thousand cuts of ice.
That Saturday, I sat at home, restless. I tried to help my father apply varnish on some of the pieces he was working on, but my thoughts were elsewhere, and my father kept scolding me for small careless errors. Finally, after I'd made the same absent-minded mistake for the fourth time, he sighed and threw aside the rag he'd been holding.
Son, he said, crouching in front of me. There has never been a union on this island that hasn't been with a match since the system was implemented. Do you know why?
I stared at the intricate design my father had carved into the leg of the chair. It was a delicate pattern of interlocking vines that snaked up to the curving back.
It isn't that people haven't tried. Many people have tried. Many young, impulsive people such as yourself have rebelled against the system of matches, sure they were in love, positive they would disprove the numbers on their heads. But in the end, those relationships always end. And this is because deep down inside, they know they aren't each other's match. Anytime they fought, anytime they were unhappy, anytime something was difficult, the secret nagging doubt would creep in. That perhaps out there was the person that was better suited for them, a more ideal partner they'd given up for the sake of an imperfect love.
I said nothing.
One of you is bound to wonder at some point, and when that happens, the other person is going to be left behind, he added. And son, call me selfish, but I hope that the other person isn't you.
Kai didn't show up on time for our arranged meeting that week. This was actually not unusual—she was perpetually late to everything, including our meetings—but that day I was more anxious for obvious reasons, and so her tardiness agitated me more than it normally would. By the time she arrived, 20 minutes late, I was pacing, half furious, half worried, the possibility that she had instantly fallen in love with her match having crept into my head like a breeze that had worked itself into a tornado. When she came running up to me, breathless, her expression apologetic, I turned away and looked at the water. She stopped short when she realized I was upset at her.
How was it? I asked.
It was okay, she said, caution in her voice.
Did he live on a boat?
No. His father owns a boat, but the two of them live in a cottage nearby.
What's he like?
Can't we talk about something else?
I knew Kai too well. If she'd despised him, she would have told me immediately, would have come running to me with complaints and examples of how terrible he was. But her reluctance to talk about him meant that he hadn't been terrible by any means.
What's his name? I asked.
Mik, I repeated, trying his name on my lips. It was short, hard, disappeared into the void as soon as you mouthed the last consonant. I felt a small, petty satisfaction, thinking my name sounded more sophisticated.
Hey, let's dig for clams today, Kai said. We haven't done that in a long time.
I hated that she thought she could change the subject so easily. Maybe we should practice fishing, since you're going to be a fisherman's wife and all.
I'm not going to be a fisherman's wife!
He'll probably teach you to clean fish. And cook fish. And maybe even raise fish.
Stop it, Jayce. He was nice, that's all. I don't want to marry him.
Fine, I said.
Fine, she echoed, even though everything felt anything but.
Kai's parents took her to see Mik and his father every Saturday from then on. Over the course of weeks, I learned that he was not the uneducated, crude man I'd imagined, but was in fact, an intelligent boy who had consistently been at the top of his class. He was interested in ceramics and spent hours crafting pieces with his callused hands and presenting them to neighbors and friends as gifts. They'd become so popular that he thought about opening his own store to showcase both practical and aesthetic pieces. But he also had a love for fishing, one afternoon teaching Kai how to tie different knots with his long fingers, news which only made me picture their hands entangled together in surreal carpal twists. His father, who had raised him alone after his mother died in childbirth, had never registered him, first because he was caught up in grief, then because he couldn't bear the idea of losing his son to anyone, even a match. Therefore, it was only once Mik turned 20 that he was able to register himself.
After that first fight, Kai gave up trying to keep details of her meetings with Mik to herself. I don't know why I pressed—I hated hearing about him—but the need to know was a masochistic obsession I couldn't help. I pushed her for specifics, calling her out on her attempts to be vague. We began to fight more often, as I tried to poke around for evidence that she was falling for him. She struggled to hide her admiration for Mik, and when she'd slip and say something that I felt proved her hidden affection for him, I would point to it with twisted triumph, as if the justification of my fears made me the winner of some game. I knew all of this was alienating Kai. I could feel her shrinking away, as if she were reeling in a kite quietly, pulling it back from the sky into her chest. But even then I didn't stop.
Finally, after almost six months of this, Kai snapped at me.
What do you want? You want me to say that I feel something for Mik? Will that make you happy? Do you want me to marry him?
I just don't understand how you can feel nothing for him, I said. He's your match. You're meant to feel something for him, and the fact that you keep denying it means you're lying to me.
She grew silent, and I realized somehow I'd hit a nerve. For a moment I regretted my words and thought about apologizing, but then she said, You know, in a way, I wish I was lying. He's a good boy, smart and interesting, and he's very nice to me. Every time I'm over there, even though part of me is terrified one day I might feel something for him, another part of me hopes I will, just so I can deserve him. Just so I can feel like I'm not flawed, broken. He's my match, so shouldn't I feel something? Sometimes I feel bad that the match is so clearly right on his end, and yet I'm still sneaking around behind his back and coming here.
Perhaps I should have listened closer to the things she was telling me, but at that time, all I heard was her last sentence. Those words hit me in the throat. You feel bad for seeing me?
That's not what I mean.
You feel bad. Then why do you keep coming?
Forget it, Kai said, and she began to walk away from me.
No, I want to hear this. If you feel bad, if you like him so much, then why do you keep showing up? What's the point of all of this?
I don't know, she said. Maybe there is no point. Maybe we should just stop this. It'll never work anyway. The numbers say so.
She continued to widen the distance between us, towards the long road back to her side of the island. I know I should have gone after her then; this was like all the other times when she'd stalked off, asked me to leave her alone, but in that moment, doubt, which had been lingering quietly in the corner of my heart for the past few months, finally bloomed full-force. I watched her back, her brown hair swaying, until she went over the dune and disappeared.
For three weeks, we didn't speak. I did go to the beach at our regular time, but she didn't appear. In the beginning, I felt remorseful for what had transpired between us, and all I wanted was to make it right. After the second time she failed to show up though, I began to get angry. How dare she simply cast aside everything just like that? She was punishing me, I thought, for she knew I knew that in the ensuing time, she would still be meeting with Mik. I hated her for this, for her petty games, for her expectation that she could run away and I would come after her. Had it even occurred to her to come after me? It was in this state of wounded pride that I pulled the envelope from under my bed and opened it.
The letter read simply, announcing they had found my match, with a name and an address and phone number. Her name was Ava; she was 16 and lived on the East Side. I read the letter twice and then put it away. I told myself that I only wanted to know who she was, but then that night, I found myself lying in bed, trying to imagine her face, wondering if she was the type to push people away. For the next few days, as I seethed in annoyance at Kai, all of her faults, which previously had ranged from endearing to just tolerable, became huge, unforgivable flaws and also became the basis of my fantasies of Ava. Ava would not, I thought, chew her fingernails or interrupt my sentences or make me wait or sulk when things didn't go her way. Ava was probably graceful, delicate, more ladylike than Kai. Ava would say only what she meant and would always only mean the kindest sentiments.
On the third week, I left for the beach half an hour late, telling myself that I was only going to verify that Kai had indeed, stopped caring, and then I would, too. I would turn away and not return. I would contact Ava and finally, the rest of my life could begin. Except when I got to North Beach, Kai was already there, making a pit with the swirling of her foot. When she saw me, she went still.
Hi, she said.
Hi, I said back.
How are you?
Good, I said.
She nodded. Neither of us said anything for awhile. Then she said, I brought something for you.
I raised my eyebrows. You did?
She gestured towards the pit. It's in there. She paused, and then shoved her hands into her pockets. I was going to bury it if you didn't come.When I didn't move, she scrambled to her knees and reached into the hole. After a moment, she came out with an old woven sack and handed it to me. Here.
The bag was heavier than I expected. I turned it over onto my palm. Out fell a large piece of purple glass, dark enough that it was almost black in my hand, but, as I held it up to the sun and rotated it, shone a clear amethyst with swirls of green. It was smooth and rounded, the size of a small human heart.
I found it this past weekend, she said. Mik— She stopped short. I rubbed my thumb over the rounded edge of the glass. It was caught in one of the nets.
I closed my fingers around it and pressed my other hand over it. It's beautiful, I said, looking up at her. She smiled at me, and that was the closest we ever came to telling each other we forgave the other.
From then on, Kai's concerns about our future became filled with increasing urgency, as if she felt with each passing day, fate was closing in on her with no chance of escape. We could leave the island once she was 20, she said. That was only a little over two years away. Those maps in my mother's study, she said, maybe those are real places, places where matches don't matter, where no one will care that I have a three and you have an eight, where no one will think we'd be more perfect with somebody else. Once we're both of age, we can apply for leave, and we never have to come back.
I was dubious. I'd never heard of anyone who left the island, and even if they did, how did they get off? How did they know where to go?
My great-grandfather would know, she said. If anyone could get us off, it would be him.
Wouldn't he tell your parents?
Kai chewed on her lip. Maybe we just need to explain to him, maybe he'll understand. Maybe if I just tell him that the match got mixed up, that something happened and it's wrong... He'll fix the mistake. He'll be able to look at whatever it is he needs to look at, and maybe it'll prove the numbers are off. He'll be able to change it, maybe even make it so my numbers say the right thing and we won't even have to go anywhere. I know he'll help us. He's brilliant and good and kind. He'll want to make it right. I know he will.
We decided to go see him, out where he lived on the West Side, a house actually only a little bit from this facility we're sitting in now. Even though he was in his late 80s, he was in relatively good health, Kai said, owing to the luxuries his position offered him. Kai hadn't known him very well. When she was younger, she would visit once or twice a year with her parents and grandfather, and she said she recalled being frightened of him, in part because of his age and reputation, but also because he'd had no mark and she felt his head looked naked.
She was nervous that first day we went to visit him, biting her fingernails to the quick as we sat on the bus and continuously asking questions to which I tried to respond with reassuring answers. When we finally arrived at his front door, she took several deep breaths before ringing the doorbell. We waited for minutes that stretched out into what felt like hours. Finally, a young man opened the door.
I'm sorry, the man told us when Kai informed him who she was. Dr. Coramor isn't feeling well and is unable to entertain any visitors.
I know who you are, Miss. But Dr. Coramor needs his rest.
We left disappointed, and I was slightly angry, but Kai, emboldened, declared we would try again, this time earlier, before the fatigue of the day had caught up with him.
When we went again the next week, though, we were told Dr. Coramor was at a meeting with officials, and the week after, we were told he was at work. We went every week for two months, but each time, we were turned away. Kai became increasingly frustrated, a look of perpetual panic beginning to take residence in her eyes.
Maybe he doesn't want to see me because I'm evidence of his failure, she said. Maybe I'm a disgrace.
But think about it. When have you ever heard of anyone whose mark changed? Or whose true match didn't work? And then for it to be one of his direct descendents...
Stop it, I told her. You're being silly. We'll just keep trying.
But another month went by with Dr. Coramor still absent, and Kai slid further and further into the perpetual grayness of her mood.
Mik has started to talk about marriage, she said to me one day, after we'd returned from yet another unsuccessful trip out to the West Side.He's counting the weeks until I'm of age. He wants an official announcement of intent to happen at least a year out, and he keeps bringing it up. I don't know what to tell him. She sounded tired when she said this, defeated. I looked at her carefully and realized that the childish brightness had long since vanished from her face. I felt a pang of guilt; I hadn't been able to protect her—if anything, I had contributed to this.
Maybe you should just marry him, I said.
What? She shook her head. Don't do this again, I thought we were done with this. I told you, I don't want to marry him, I have no intention, so if this is one of your—
No, I said, cutting her off. I just think... Maybe, really, this isn't meant to be.
What? she asked. She blinked a few times, the way she did before she cried.
Haven't you always said—haven't our parents always said—that the match system exists for a reason? It exists so that things don't have to be this hard. Look at how hard this, how tired you are, how much time we spend worrying, scheming, hiding. Maybe all of this proves that we're not matched. Because if we were, things wouldn't be so difficult.
Kai was silent. Tears had already begun forming in the corners of her eyes.
I think, years, maybe even months earlier, Kai would have argued with me, told me why I was wrong. But she was tired of fighting against the current I believe, and I think as much as she didn't want to let me go, part of her was probably relieved when I said what I did, as if I was finally giving her permission to give up, finally releasing her of the burden of choosing between what she thought to be true and what she felt to be true.
We met one last time, a week later. Although we never explicitly discussed it, we both intuitively knew neither of us wanted to talk about any of those things, not about matches, or Mik, or her great-grandfather, or the fact that we might never see each other again except in passing. Instead, we did all the things we used to do—we swam in the ocean, which was clear and temperate on that day, we built sand structures and scratched pictures into the shore, we dug for clams and collected bits of glass, we lay next to each other out on the rocks, letting the water seep beneath our backs while we told jokes and recalled past memories. Once the sun had set behind us and it grew cool, we got up and brushed the sand off each other's bodies. Our conversation had ebbed as daylight drained from the sky and now we were standing in front of each other in silence, our ears attuned to the rhythm of the sea. We walked up the sand bank, our palms clamped together like a closed clamshell. Finally, when we reached the road where we would walk in opposite directions, we turned and looked at each other, neither of us wanting to be the first to begin the goodbyes.
I almost forgot, I said, and although I was reluctant to do so, I let go of Kai's hand and reached into my bag, pulling out a mason jar. It was filled to the top with colored glass Kai and I had collected over the years. I unclasped the lid and poured the fragments we'd picked up that day on top, closed it tightly again, and then held it out to Kai.
She blinked a few times but then took the jar from me. She peered into it, turning it like a kaleidoscope. The sound of glass upon glass made a pleasant tinkle. You kept the purple one, she said, her voice small. I nodded. It sat on my shelf where once the jar had.
Well, I said.
Well, she said, though the word came out barely louder than a whisper.
I reached out and kissed her on the lips, the jar cocooned between us. Then I released her. She looked down at the jar, her hair hanging over her eyes. Even then she didn't want me to watch her cry. I felt a flash of irritation at the fact that she would hold on to her pride down to this last moment, but it was immediately replaced by sadness at the knowledge that I would never again feel this kind of annoyance that was reserved only for those closest to you.
Take care, I said. Be happy.
She nodded, her hair still a curtain over her face. Then she turned and fled, the glass in the jar shaking like a beautiful rattle. She didn't look back, but I watched her until I couldn't hear the jingle of the glass anymore, before slowly making my way home.
The next few months passed with a gray monotony. I didn't go to University like my parents hoped, instead staying at home to help my father with his furniture. I kept mostly to myself, although I scanned the news often. For a year, there was nothing, and then shortly after Kai's 19th birthday, it came over the radio while I was having breakfast with my parents: the great-granddaughter of Dr. Sebastian Coramor, father of the match system, had announced her intent to marry.
My parents watched me closely, but I gave no sign of having heard. I continued to cut into my sausage and brought it slowly and deliberately into my mouth. After I was finished with all of my food, I washed my plate, put on my jacket, and left the house.
I couldn't bear to stop at our beach, so instead I stayed on the main road, walking with only a dim awareness of my surroundings. The road was mostly empty except for a few buses going by. After awhile, I began to notice more shops and people around me. It was then that I realized I had traveled to the East Side.
You have to believe me when I tell you that I didn't do this on purpose. I hadn't gone with the intent to look for Kai; I didn't even know exactly where she lived. But now suddenly I was there, and I became conscious that she could be around the corner, that I could bump into her at any moment. The back of every girl's head began to look like hers, and I wove around people, trying to ascertain they were not her.
At some point, I reached the schoolhouse, and I stopped, knowing with certainty that Kai had been there at one time. I looked up at the windows and wondered which classroom had been hers, if she had sat at her desk and thought about me, if she might still be there now. A group of three girls bursting through the front door broke me out of my reverie. Their chatter was fast and excited, and I stepped out of their way. They passed by me without a second glance, engrossed in whatever gossip it was they were sharing, and I would have moved on, had I not heard one of the girls say, Oh, Ava, you should have seen Cyn's impression of him! It was the funniest thing I've ever seen.
I whipped around and scrutinized the girls. The one still talking was a curly-haired blond, which left one of the other two, both pretty girls with dark hair and olive complexions. One was wearing dark-framed glasses, and the other had a long braid that she was winding around her fingers. I squinted to try to catch sight of their marks, but by then they had walked too far, and I could only make out their profiles.
Maybe you'll argue it was reactionary—it probably was—but in that moment I felt a desperation to believe in the match system, to believe absolutely that the cosmic design of the Universe had been distilled into its science. I wanted more than anything to believe that this moment was fate intervening on my behalf, and that now, after this, I would only be happy.
Excuse me, I said. Which one of you is Ava?
All three girls turned, and then I saw it, clear and distinct across the forehead of the girl with the braid. My mark. Our mark.
My parents were overjoyed when I began to spend time with Ava. And to be sure, Ava was, and is, a wonderful girl. I grew to understand her own quirks and interests. She was far from the perfect girl I had dreamt of those weeks I was upset at Kai, but she was sweet, and she cared for me, and I tried to the best of my ability to be good and fair to her. She had no knowledge that I was in any way connected with Kai, and I didn't tell her.
A year went by, and soon we made our announcement of intent. A few months later, Kai married Mik and moved to the South Side. I spent that day alone by the beach, telling Ava I wanted some space to think my own thoughts. She didn't question me.
I think we all believed everything was going to be all right. I was comfortable, if not blissful, with Ava. Sometimes I caught a look of adoration in her eyes and I felt guilty, but this was nothing I could control. She was my match, and I assumed over time, our feelings for each other would balance out. It simply took time, I reasoned. Kai and I had had all our lives. Ava and I had only had a year.
It was a week before Ava's birthday. I'd slept in the workshop the night before, as I'd been doing for the weeks following Kai and Mik's wedding. I was working on an armoire I planned to give Ava as a gift through my sleepless nights, the methodical carving and sanding simultaneously keeping the image of Kai in Mik's arms at bay and assuaging my guilt at thinking of Kai at all. When I came back mid-day, tired and needing a shower, I found my parents seated at the kitchen table, talking quietly. I immediately knew something had happened by their sudden silence at my appearance; the air hung thick with the echo of words I had just missed.
Jayce, my father finally said, and in that moment, I recalled the seconds right before my parents told me Kai and I had been mismatched.
Mik had not been the one to find her, but one of his father's friends had. Sometime during the night, while Mik was asleep, she'd left the bed they shared, walked half the circumference of the island and into the ocean. In the early dawn, as the fishermen made their way out to sea, the friend had seen the body floating some hundred yards out from North Beach, her body broken from being dashed against the rocks all night. She had a jacket on over her nightclothes, and its weight dragged her halfway into the water, making it difficult to pull her out. When they finally lifted her overboard, the wet lining ripped, and a hoard of colored glass came tumbling out like uncovered treasure.
For three days I did nothing. I sealed myself off in my room, refused to talk to my parents, cut myself off from Ava. Of course I feel bad about that now—I'd never wanted to hurt her—but at the time I could not bear to see her, much less marry her. On the fourth day, I took a shower, shaved and got dressed. Then I went to Kai's funeral.
I hovered in the back as the proceedings happened, behind a crowd of people who were acquainted with the family but had probably never known Kai personally. I watched her parents scatter her ashes into the sea off of North Beach. In the back of my head, I allowed myself a bittersweet sense of satisfaction—Kai had wanted to die off these rocks, and although her body had been lifted from these shores, at least her parents knew enough to return her here. Next to Kai's parents was an old man who I knew to be her grandfather from the dark line of the "1" streaked down the middle of his forehead, a mark startling in its simplicity. Next to him was a man around my age bent over in grief who I knew immediately had to be Mik. Watching him sob so openly, I realized that he must really have loved Kai, perhaps even as much as I did. All my former animosity towards him melted away; we were now linked by an aching nobody else would comprehend.
An older man who I supposed was his father stood near Mik, a hand on his son's shoulder. Next to him sat a small man in a wheelchair who was noticeably shivering despite the quilt wrapped around him. There was something strange about that man, I thought, something different about him, aside from his age. It took me a moment to put my finger on it, but then I realized: he had no mark on his head.
Anger suddenly blanketed me, obliterating the abyss of grief that had been my only emotion for the past three days. When the ceremony ended, without thinking, I made my way towards him, my feet pounding through the sand. I realized people were parting for me, looking at me strangely, but I didn't care. As I drew near him, the young man who had answered the door for me and Kai all those times suddenly appeared to block my pathway.
Not you again, I said, seething at his complicity as gatekeeper. I curled my hand into a fist, imagining the feel of his bones vibrating against mine.
There was a cough, and then a soft voice said, It's all right, Des. Reluctantly, the young man stepped away, although he threw me a contemptuous look and continued to hover close by. Faced with the old man now, I started to feel uncertain of what to say.
Dr. Coramor. My name is— I started, but he cut me off.
I know who you are. His voice was much gentler than I would have imagined. I saw you from the window.
The window? You saw—
Those times you came with my great-granddaughter. You two were very persistent.
My anger, which I'd momentarily forgotten, boiled anew. You knew we came? Why didn't you answer the door? All those excuses that—I shot a look at Des—we were told. Kai—we—you—I sputtered, unable to articulate all the disappointment, all the frustration and heartbreak.
Dr. Coramor coughed and then shook his head. I thought I was doing the right thing. Now... now I don't know.
You don't know?
Her mother called and told me she thought Kai might try to contact me, and I... You have to understand, the whole system, the whole match system was at stake here. If she came to me with questions...
He coughed again, this time a hacking cough that seemed to rattle in his ribs. He spat into a small cloth and folded it into his pocket.
I wonder now if I've done more harm than good. It worked so well, for so long, and I always slept easy, thinking I'd done the best thing. You don't know what it was like before, without the system. People—
Save me the history, I said. We all know it. We've all been told.
He nodded. Right. Of course. We told everyone, spread it through the schools and society at large. Because it was true. Because it was important never to forget what the match system had done for us. You have to believe me. It was better this way.
But the system made a mistake, I said. Kai. Her mark. She felt like a mistake, you know. A flaw. I'd thought about this over the past few days, turning it over in my mind, why Kai had done what she'd done. She wanted badly to believe. To be what her mark told her she was.
Dr. Coramor shook his head and looked at his hands in his lap. Poor child. I'm not sure what happened but had I known she was so tormented... I thought she would be like everyone else. She was so young. And the young believe, so feverishly, that I thought she would eventually come to believe as well. And yet now it seems I've made a terrible mistake...
He trailed off and looked up out to the horizon. I waited. Finally, his eyes still gazed beyond the sea, he began to speak again.
You know, I searched. Charged by the government to fix this societal problem, I searched and searched. I looked closely at the characteristics of blood, at the matchup of physiques, at dispositions and personalities. But I couldn't find a way to best determine a perfect match. I polled happy couples, those who were certain, and also unhappy couples. I looked at marriages that failed and marriages that survived. And I finally realized that the differences between what made a relationship successful and one unsuccessful depended on so many factors that it would be impossible to boil them all down to a single formula.
Dr. Coramor paused, and I could see his mind was in a memory, perhaps recalling those long nights conducting his research. I shivered.
I did the best I could for the marks, you know. They're not completely arbitrary. I'd say I've got it as close as eighty, perhaps even ninety percent. Complementary characteristics, people who are suited to each other. People who could be happy together.
My head began to throb. What he was saying circled the periphery of sense, and I struggled to capture the pieces and lock them into place.
Beyond that is impossible. I could never have definitively determined that two people are each other's one and only. No one could. No one can.
I was suddenly aware that I'd stopped breathing. Others had gathered around us, including Kai's parents who hovered close by, perhaps paralyzed and unable to intervene in what was happening, but also those who had lingered after the funeral. All listening to Dr. Coramor's every word.
But I didn't need to. All I had to do was create the marks. As long as two people believed, had been told absolutely, that they were each other's one hundred percent perfect match, then they never wavered from that belief.
He turned back to focus on me then, and I saw that his watery eyes, blue and clear like Kai's, were filled with what I can only tell you was regret.
The unions work because people are told they will. These are self-fulfilling prophecies.
With that, he gestured toward Des, who wheeled him away, leaving all of us stunned and silent behind him.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is my story. Do with it what you will. I have no comment whatsoever upon Dr. Coramor's guilt, of felony or murder or otherwise. I tire of these debates, of the arguments for and against the match system, of what harm it has done versus what good it has done. I don't wish to involve myself in any of the politics surrounding the fallout of Dr. Coramor's confession. Both sides have come to me, attempting to appeal to my emotions, wanting to sway me to their side and be their spokesperson. But I'm not interested. Perhaps Dr. Coramor's lies killed Kai, perhaps his lies are what brought us together; I don't know. None of this matters to me. What matters to me is that Kai is dead. That this island is devoid of her presence. This is something that nobody can change, regardless of what is decided.
And so I'm leaving. As soon as I exit this room, I will take my bags and climb aboard the ship whose passage the government has promised me in exchange for this unhappy story. I will sail away, riding upon seas where Kai stirs gently, and perhaps one day, after days, weeks, months, years, we will finally reach the shores of somewhere else, somewhere where numbers are only numbers, and matches are known only by the tremble of the heart when coincidence pushes open fate's door.
Originally appeared in Eclectica Magazine
A storm is coming and Luke’s made sure we have everything we’ll need: enough dry food to get through the week, a bathtub filled with tap water, flashlights, batteries, extra blankets. If it were up to me, it would be nothing but condoms and booze, but Wyoming Luke is serious about survival. He wants to board up the windows but I’ve asked him not to. I want to watch as third avenue becomes a small river, as coffee cups, plastic bags, and wayward umbrellas emerge from the canal and float like spirits down the street.
This isn’t the kind of affair where he tells me he loves me. He doesn’t buy me gifts, or promise to leave his wife. He doesn’t miss me when I’m not around, or pursue me when I don’t answer his texts. Wyoming Luke is with me because Hannah is visiting her sister in Arizona. He’s protecting us, but he wants to get back to her.
I am Luke’s first man. The night we met, he bought me a drink at a jazz club. He led me to his apartment, his callused hand on my back, his lips breathing the singer’s tune into my neck. Once we were at his place, I was bold enough to pull his clothes from his body, to remove his wedding band before slipping his finger into my mouth, but then he pushed me to my knees. He covered my mouth, pulled my hair, gripped my neck. He made sure I knew who was boss. Afterward, he held me through the night, pulling my cheek to his chest, entangling his legs with mine, at random moments kissing my neck or nibbling my ear.
In the morning, he told me not to call him. “My wife,” he said.
When I came to New York, I wanted a scrappy town, a place where bad things could happen. I wanted to live in a place where you were never too far from destruction. The brownstone behind my apartment has a back porch. Mannequins clutter its’ roof. I look at them every day. Six moldy torsos. A trash can full of heads. But it’s the limbs that interest me most. Here, an upturned foot. There, a knee bent at ninety degrees—all frozen as though photographed alive, in motion.
In some way, each mannequin manages to touch the one next to him. When I look at them, I think of vacation nights spent with my cousins as children—five of us crammed into one bed, determined not to fall asleep, though we eventually tired of each other and slept like death until the rancid smell of chitterlings woke us. We clambered from the bed, rubbing our eyes, covering our noses, running from Grandma’s house into the brightness of the Carolina sun.
I sit cross-legged in a chair and watch as Wyoming Luke plays solitaire by candlelight. His fingers expertly shuffle and pile the cards as he deals himself another hand.
“You wanna play?” he asks. Outside, the wind screams and the rain pounces. He doesn’t wait for me to answer before he starts playing again. I get up and go to the kitchen. I open a bottle of cabernet and pour one third of it into a freshly cleaned balloon glass. I hear Wyoming Luke in the living room every time he slaps the table as he places each card.
Through the window I watch the neon sign for the auto body repair shop that hangs across the street. It moves more violently than I’ve ever seen. I wonder if it will fall to the ground and shatter, sparks shooting from it, dying in the water that amasses in the streets, or if it will continue as before, hanging, slow-swinging, its’ movement sparse.
A storm is coming and I have everything I’ll need. If Wyoming Luke stopped playing card games, rested his long arms against the back of the couch, spread his legs and nodded at me, I’d be immediately in front of him, on my knees. Instead I drink my wine, and he plays on, the sound of the cards landing against the coffee table relentless in my ear.
Originally appeared in Bound Off.
Janice was on an airplane headed to a conference she didn’t want to attend. The woman next to her spilled a cup of wine on Janice’s lap and then, a few minutes later, turned her nearly empty bag of miniature pretzels inside out to get at the broken bits in the corners, showering Janice with salt and crumbs. Behind them, a child howled for an entire hour. Above, one baggage compartment door kept coming unlatched. A flight attendant shut it several times but it wouldn’t stick, so she moved the luggage to another compartment but the door kept flapping around as the plane trundled on.
About halfway through the flight, the seatbelt lights flashed on. The attendants whispered in a cluster at the back of the plane before buckling themselves into fold-out seats. A disembodied pilot’s voice brought warning of severe turbulence. Soon, the cabin went dark. A rush of air swept through the aisle.
In the end, the plane made a fiery crash landing in an icy field. Janice remained conscious throughout the entire event. About half of the passengers survived. Janice untethered herself from the wreckage, managed to find her suitcase, and emerged onto the ice where some of the uninjured survivors wandered aimlessly, their sooty faces contorted in disbelief. Emergency personnel arrived along with a television crew. As the unaffected loaded people onto stretchers and set up their cameras, Janice stood off to the side behind a pine tree. She realized this was her one chance to disappear entirely, without questioning or investigation. Everyone would assume she had been killed in the crash. A team of men hoisted large hoses up to the smoldering debris. Janice pulled a cigarette from her cape and walked into the snowy forest, dragging her suitcase behind her. She had always enjoyed the cold.
By Justine Champine
Myrtle had always been beautiful and fashionable but was blinded in a fox hunting accident at the age of thirty-five. Because of this, her husband divorced her, and Myrtle fell into a bitter depression. She woke up in the night, stricken by terror, with the thought of forgetting what a hummingbird looked like. She sustained a number of cuts and burns learning how to cook for herself without sight in an unfamiliar kitchen. Eventually, Myrtle learned braille and became a widely sought after narrator of audio books. Everyone loved her deep voice.
Her former husband caught wind of her success and invited her over to what was once also her home to have dinner with him and his new wife, whose voice was unbearably cheerful. Over dinner, the ex-husband lauded Myrtle’s fortitude. He claimed to have always known she would persevere. The food was terrible.
After the meal, Myrtle pretended to go to the wash room. Instead, she crept silently upstairs and into what was once her dressing room. On the vanity was a jewelry box. Myrtle emptied its entire contents into a secret pocket she’d sewn into her cape for this very purpose. Then she pretended to be exhausted, and showed herself out the front door. Thank you for your generosity, she shouted over her shoulder on the way out.
By Justine Champine
Matilda wandered away from the picnic in search of her glasses but soon found herself lost in an untended thicket of vines. Each direction she turned looked identical to the last. Beyond the vines she could see only the shapes of more vines, and strange fruited flowers climbing upward toward the sunlight. As she walked further into the swamp, the light grew weaker and the vines were all covered in moss. Matilda could still hear sounds of the picnic she’d left. It was a party thrown by her family to celebrate her 101st birthday, which was not actually for another week. Everyone spoke to her in a loud, painfully slow voice but she tolerated it because now, when she cleared her throat to say something, everyone went completely silent and listened with rapt attention. Sometimes she only meant to ask what time it was, though sometimes she did want to share some recollection from earlier in life and her children and their children gave her such thorough and unwavering audience Matilda was almost flustered by it. She thought about this as she ambled further into the thicket. Throughout her girlhood the law still barred women from owning property. She could remember making money as a teenager scrubbing cloth diapers on a washboard for wealthier families. As a woman, Matilda was unable to open a checking account without the consent of a husband she did not yet have. People began listening to her so intently only when she got so old as to be aspirational. They were always asking, What’s the secret to such a long life? She’d had to answer questions like this so many times she began to make things up. I start every morning with a shot of cold vodka, she’d explain, or A handstand every night before bed, for the circulation. Matilda reached a clearing in the vines and came upon a hole in the ground about as wide as a garbage can lid. She crouched down to peer over the edge and felt a vague suction pulling at her hands, like a weak vacuum. In the hole, she could see not only the glasses she’d gotten lost searching for, but also every item she’d misplaced over the last century of life. A gold wedding band, an innumerable collection of hair pins, a seal skin coat left on a train, many tax documents and pencils and sets of keys, an antiquated biology textbook, a purple suede glove with seed pearl buttons, bottles of medication. The hole was deep. She could hardly make out the bottom of it beneath all the lost things. Matilda plucked her glasses and a pack of cigarettes from the top of the pile and slowly made her way back to the picnic.
By the second day, Brunhilda had grown bored and had enormous regret over drinking the grenadine. She’d already polished all the stones in her jewelry box and re-read the books stacked on the nightstand and gave herself a manicure, then she pulled all the loose threads from her throw rug and from them wove another much smaller rug. That night, as she was falling asleep, she wished aloud for an end to the agonizing stomach cramps.
In the morning, the cramps had not subsided but there was a small, green creature at the side of her bed. It looked like a little child, but had tiny curled horns like a ram and could speak and walk like any grown person. Good morning, it said, I heard your wish. Brunhilda stared at the creature. I can fix you for a
small price, it continued. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and yawned. She still felt very ill from the spoiled grenadine. The creature pulled a scroll of paper from behind its back and extended it toward Brunhilda, you just have to sign here, it explained, pointing its slender little finger at a blank space toward the bottom. She read the contract over. What’s this about my first born? She asked. The creature shook its head, opened its mouth to say something, but Brunhilda crumpled up the contract and tossed it to the side. Get real, she told it. Fine, the creature continued, how about that bottle of nail polish on your nightstand? I’m very fond of the shade. Brunhilda sighed and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling, This color is discontinued, she groaned.
In the end, an agreement could not be reached and the little creature disappeared in a puff of smoke. Brunhilda recovered but lost all tolerance for the taste of grenadine.
The girl knocks on the wooden door frame. Dogs start barking, the shapes of them knocking against the curtains in the front window. The curtains are held together with safety pins to keep the cold out. Thick plastic covers the windows, taped with duct tape along the frames. Like every winter.Read More