By Kelly Sandoval
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Paula wakes, shaking, to the press of lips against her shoulder. She's been crying in her sleep again, chasing memories of Marcus. Dante is holding her. She can hear the patient rhythm of his breaths; her own gasping sobs slow to match him.
"Forever, forever, forever." He makes it a mantra, kissing the promise into her skin.
She has never really loved him.
"Well?" Dante asks, as he flicks on the garage light. "What do you think?"
There is a moment, as the bulb warms to life, when everything is shadow, and she can imagine safer surprises. A puppy. A new car. A loaded gun.
But no, there's the crib, just as she expected. As an object, it's beautiful. The wood is dark, highly polished, and carved with a pattern of oak leaves. He has worked hard on this. She's smelled it on him, sawdust and hope, for months. Ever since her last promotion, when they could finally afford the application fees.
She presses her open palm to her flat stomach and tries to imagine what it might feel like to have life flutter there.
She has always dreamed of a child. A daughter, actually, with impossible hair and dirty nails. For the past three years, since she and Dante bought the house, she's imagined her daughter with his crooked smile and her long eyelashes. And even still, Paula dreams her daughter with Marcus's bright, infectious laugh.
"Paula?" Dante sounds worried and more than a little hurt.
She's forgotten to act happy.
"I'm sorry." Her hands are shaking. She lets them drop to her sides. "It's just, there's still so much we need to do if we want to go through with this."
"We don't have to." He says it like it's easy. As if he hasn't spent four months making a crib for their imagined child. "I thought this was what we wanted."
She should never have told him she wanted kids. But the Family Stability Act is new, only a year since the president signed it. She remembers the speech. So many promises. No more crime, no more divorce, no more loneliness. Just limit co-parenting licenses to resonance-bonded couples and everything would be paradise.
She looks at Dante, the wounded hope in his expression. He is so convinced that he loves her. He's never had to know the difference.
"It's beautiful," she says. "You know me. Good things scare me."
"You just need more good things, that's all."
"You're my good thing," she says. And he smiles his lopsided smile.
Her fondness for him is her fondness for cool, clear water. She likes how she can't see herself in his eyes.
He leads her over to the crib, and she dutifully makes all the right admiring noises. He has poured himself into it, this symbol of a dream. She runs her fingers over smooth wood, spots spiders carved among the leaves, blinks to keep the tears from her eyes.
"There's the application fee, the psych exam, the reference letters." He's counting the to-do list off on his fingers. "Do you think I should ask my brother for a letter?
"Better not." She's can't help playing along. She's tried to tell him. She's explained that what they have is light and warmth and not at all like love. He still believes. He'll believe until he's given his list and she's not on it.
"You're right," he says. "And of course, I'll have to get scanned. Do you have to go again?"
She was scanned at fifteen. Her parents made the appointment as a birthday present. The technology was still new then, the idea still thrilling. Soul mates. Or resonance cohorts, as the scientists call them.
There had only been three names on the list they sent her. The scan was prohibitively expensive back then. Young, and still shy of the idea that she might have girl soul mates, Paula had only cared about the one boy listed. Marcus.
Dante had never been scanned. He'd never gotten a pony, either. So many extravagant, terrible gifts he'd missed out on.
"No," she says. "Cohorts never change. That's the point."
"Well," he says, finally sounding nervous. "Will you come with me at least?"
She takes his hand, lets him help her up. "Of course," she says. She will take what minutes she can with him. Perhaps, he'll stay. Living with her should be warning enough against this idea of soul mates.
He kisses her, and he tastes like wood and summer. "I'll make the appointment today."
Dante starts to fidget the moment they enter the waiting room. His nerves come out in the restless way he scans his phone, the way he squeezes her hand, the constant bouncing of his left knee. Paula strokes his fingers, ignoring her own anxieties in an attempt to soothe him. She had forgotten how much he hated hospitals.
The nurse who leads them back is large and soft spoken. He talks about the process with the measured cadences of someone who's said the same lines many times before. Paula catches his gaze darting between them, his slight frown, and wonders if it's that easy to tell what the test will say.
"And now, if you'll just fill these out, the doctor will be right with you."
Dante sits, still jittering, with his pen and his stack of forms. "Why is there a waiver?" he asks.
"Things can happen, I guess. If you don't want to go through with it, I'll understand." She pats his arm, and reaches for her purse. Hoping.
"We have to," he says. "I can do this." He bends his head and starts scribbling his name.
The walls of the office are covered in posters about compatibility resonance, all done in bright, friendly colors. Paula can't help but read them as she waits. The illustration of two resonance fields forming a heart is particularly cloying. She skims the usual facts, a dozen or so per cohort, average age spread four years, geographic clumping and anomalies. There's even a poster on the Family Stability Act, which tells her the divorce rate among resonance matches is only 1.8%.
That's the argument that really sold them in Congress. No more children of broken homes. What a rallying cry.
"You okay?" Dante asks.
Paula forces herself to breathe evenly.
"I don't want you to be disappointed," she says. "It might not come out the way you expect."
He points at the poster with the heart-shaped resonance field. "Let's see, overwhelming euphoria, matched interests, and a sense of spiritual wholeness." He kisses her cheek. "We've got all the symptoms."
The doctor knocks then, ending the conversation. Like the nurse, she glances between them, and Paula catches the ghost of a frown before her professional smile settles into place. They sit quietly while she scans Dante's paperwork.
"Alright then, Mr. Reyes. Looks like you're all in order. We can take you back now."
"How long will it take?" Dante asks. His grip makes Paula's fingertips tingle.
"The scan only takes about twenty minutes." The doctor is brisk and calm. "Painless, I promise. Results take about two weeks. We'll mail them to you."
"Mail?" Paula asks.
"Government funding. If we don't keep the Post Office busy, who will?"
"Well, let's do this." Dante stands, still holding Paula's hand. "Can she come back with me?"
The doctor shakes her head. "Afraid not. The machine's pretty sensitive. A second resonance signature within fifty feet can throw off the results."
"I'll be waiting right here." Paula promises as she pulls her fingers free. He leaves her then.
Hell is a wall covered in pictures of smiling soul mates and none of them aware of what's coming. Where's the poster with the tombstone? Where are the razors, the bottles of pills, or three helpful tips on finding a good bridge to jump from? They're promising a love that never ends.
When Dante dies, she won't try to follow him. She'll cry at his favorite songs or when she smells fresh cut wood. But he'll leave an ache, not the festering sore that is still her memory of Marcus. It's better that way.
Or it would be, if it weren't for the law and Dante's foolish conviction. Will she lose him too, when all his pretty dreams crumble? She's braced herself for his death but never considered mere abandonment. According to the posters, 54% of unmatched marriages end in divorce.
Forever, he tells her, just like the posters.
A week after the appointment, Paula's mother drops by for her weekly visit. She's dressed for war-- a white sunhat with a profusion of plastic birds nesting among neon silk flowers. It could be worse. When she really wants a fight, she wears a cloche.
"Paula, love," she says, kissing Paula on each cheek as she breezes in. "Get your mother some wine, won't you?"
Paula hands her a glass, already waiting, and they settle in the living room, where her mother perches uncomfortably on the third hand sofa.
"What are we drinking?" Her mother asks, in a tone of practiced disapproval.
"Same thing as last week, Mother. We like it. It's cheap."
"And what's the point of your new fancy title and all those extra hours if you don't buy decent wine?" She picks the glass back up, takes another drink, makes the same face. She'll finish it, and take a second glass. She always does. "Speaking of, what's this I hear about you skipping Kati's birthday party?"
"It's at noon. I can't take off work to sing happy birthday to a two-year-old. As it is, I'm going to have to find time in a month or two when Alexa has the next one." Paula considers her own glass but knows better than to start drinking while her mother's present. They're good enough at fighting without the help.
"Is that what this is about?" Her mother's voice softens. "Darling, if having a child is that important to you, then you take Dante and find a nice place in Canada. I'll lend you the money. But don't take it out on your sister."
The words are well meant. Paula tries to remember that.
"He got scanned last week, actually." Lightly said, through gritted teeth.
Her mother looks down. Glances out the window. Her gaze finds dozens of places that aren't Paula, and it rests on each one. She doesn't speak.
"It was his idea," Paula says.
"Of course." She sets her glass on the side table, next to a picture of Dante and Paula on their last trip to Mexico. Dante's grandmother stands between them, beaming.
"He made a crib," Paula says. "As a surprise."
Paula's mother picks up the picture, and her smile is warm. "You know I like Dante," she tells the picture. "He's been a gift. But you know what the scan's going to say."
"I know." It's not something she can force. She can't remake herself into the person he belongs with. She will never be his soul mate. It's why she chose him. "He believes it, though. He thinks he loves me."
Her mother sets the picture down, very carefully. "You know, your father and I have been married 35 years."
"Yes," Paula answers, puzzled.
"35 years. We've survived war, cancer, even children. He still brings me flowers every Sunday. He pretends to like my hats. I love your father." She tugs absently at her wedding ring, then settles it back into place. "But he's not my soul mate."
"Of course he is." Paula's seen the way her father brightens when her mother enters the room. Has heard the laugh her mother saves for him alone.
"No, darling. Love is something your father and I choose. You and Marcus, your sister and her wife, that's different. That's love as something you are." She shakes her head, her expression growing introspective. "I think we were wrong, to get you girls scanned so young. It was so new at the time, so exciting. True love. I wanted that for you."
"You didn't know how hard it'd be to lose."
"No. And we didn't know how hard it'd be to watch, either. You two, you ate each other up. There was nothing left for the rest of the world. You made no space in yourselves. Your sister's just as bad."
She remembers. Marcus had been brighter, more colorful, more real than everyone else. "That's love."
"That's addiction." Her mother takes her hand and her grip is soft and cool. "I know we almost lost you, after you lost him. But then you came alive. You made friends. You went out. You even let your mother come over for terrible wine."
It takes Paula a moment to process her mother's words. She pulls her hand away. "You're saying you're glad Marcus died?"
"Good lord, Paula! I'm saying you're not fifteen anymore. You don't need a storybook. Move to Canada. Or Mexico. You and Dante are happy. So be happy about it."
Paula stands. "I'll be at Kati's party," she promises. "But I have some work to get done, tonight."
"Darling." It's an objection, but her mother straightens her hat and walks to the door.
"Love is just a word, Paula. It means what you let it."
"Of course," she says. Her mother leaves, and Paula is left with silence.
She still has hours yet, before Dante returns. She cleans the wineglasses, straightens the pillows, puts the picture back on the side table. She picks up her e-reader, and then sets it down again. All stories are love stories.
The house is too quiet. Paula slips out to the garage, telling herself she'll drive somewhere louder. Instead, she sits beside the crib. She rests her forehead against the cool wood and imagines a future where their tiny garage is crowded with bikes and balls, the sporty Miata at the charging station replaced by a practical minivan. Mexico, said her Mother. Canada.
Maybe. The idea has its own wall of paperwork, tests, recommendation letters. Even if they succeed, they'll be starting over again. With soul mates, such a move would be possible. But nothing ties her to Dante but choice. She can see herself frustrated, angry, walking away.
It doesn't matter. He'll get his results soon. There are so many ways the world can break them. The idea hurts more than it should. He's supposed to be painless.
She thought she'd found stability. Now, in the dark, with the crib looming above her, her life feels built on sand. What good is any of it, if it can be ruined by a doctor's note?
Only 1.8% the poster said. It took two tons of metal to tear Marcus from her.
Paula's phone has an app that connects her directly to her cohort. She installed it years back, just after she and Dante started dating. Some of her cohort, her own clique of soul mates, likes to message back and forth, and when she's feeling reckless, she likes to watch them.
She logs in, and the app greets her with the familiar list of names. She knows it by heart. Marcus's name is gray. Hers is blue, for unavailable. Most the names are blue. They have had time to find each other. Two, though, are still green. Lucia, in Greece. Andrew, in Michigan. The two of them chat often, idle promises to cross continents and find each other.
Paula's dreamed of both of them. She's learned the Greek words for I love you and Can I visit. She's memorized the names of Andrew's four dogs.
She's written each of them dozens of messages. Almost sent them.
She clicks on Andrew's name and writes another.
The plane touches down in Detroit during a sobbing downpour, ruining Paula's plan to meet Andrew somewhere safe and open. She'd imagined a park, where no one would watch them or notice if she started to cry. Instead, they agree to meet at a cafe about twenty minutes from the airport.
She still hasn't heard his voice, and the anonymity of text leaves her feeling safe. There's no surge of emotion at his message, no want. She calls Dante during the cab ride, for the comfort of it. He is warm and incurious. He hopes her meeting goes well, and mutters a bit about inconsiderate bosses and their sudden demands. He says he loves her.
The cafe is almost empty, a barely lit, lurking sort of place, the tables set at careful distances. She's early, so she buys a glass of iced tea and settles in the corner. Andrew's picture showed a lean man with an impassive expression and short black hair. Studying it, Paula thought he looked like a mob enforcer. She liked his inapproachability.
Five minutes later, the door chimes. Andrew's put on weight since the picture, softening into pudgy warmth. He looks like the sort of man who bakes gourmet meals on the weekends and slips his dogs kitchen scraps while he cooks. The dizzy rush of want, the sudden click of the world settling into place, she expects those. What she's not prepared for is the light in his eyes, the way he swallows then swallows again, in helpless shock. She'd forgotten it would affect him too.
"Andrew." She steps out from the table, meaning to shake his hand.
The brush of fingertips isn't enough for either of them. When she lifts her head to kiss him, it isn't a choice. The warmth of his mouth and the nervous minty taste of him are not at all like Marcus. But still, she's reminded. It is the same want that pours between them, the desire to disappear in the shadow of a beloved, just to be that much closer.
There will be no long walks or conversation. They will make love all day in a hotel bed and only after they've exhausted the desperate grasping need to be consumed will they talk. There will be no trouble at all, being approved. Their daughter will have his gray eyes and her narrow smile.
"What is it?" he asks, holding her at arm's length. She's shaking hard, only her locked knees keeping her from collapsing. She meets his eyes, sees herself reflected and reflecting him. After she lost Marcus, she spent hours standing in front of the mirror, trying to find him in her eyes, where she'd always held him.
"Do you like kids?" she asks.
He looks puzzled. "Sure. I always figured I'd have a daughter."
It's what she thought he'd say. What he'd have to say, or how could they be as they are? She wants to kiss him until their flavors become so mingled she can't tell the difference.
"No," she says. She has to force her voice to rise. "No. Go to Greece. She'll love you, there."
"What?" He doesn't sound hurt yet. He doesn't believe her. "No, no. I've got you. I want you."
She wants Marcus. She wants a brown-skinned daughter with gray eyes and a wild laugh. She wants to get drunk on Andrew and still hold the cool clarity of Dante. She wants to disappear and she wants never again to have to go hunting herself in the memories of a before.
"You don't love me." The familiar, comfortable line.
She will leave only the narrowest of cracks in him. He would sort through her shards, if she allowed it, and put her back together in their shared image. But she has grown comfortable. Dante has sanded down the corners of her broken pieces. Shattered a second time, there would be nothing left of her but sand. She kisses him on the forehead, the way she would have kissed their gray-eyed daughter.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I can't."
And because their hearts are beating in a shared, wounded rhythm, he can't argue with her. She lifts his fingers to her lips, kisses each of his knuckles.
"Why?" he asks.
"I didn't mean to. I thought I had to try. I thought it might feel new. Safe. But love doesn't change." She nuzzles his palm and his fingers linger on her cheek.
"Let me give you a ride to the airport."
She shakes her head. "Give yourself a ride. Go to Greece. Or contact one of the couples, if you're comfortable sharing. It's worth it. You know that now."
"But not you?"
"Not me." She leaves her iced tea half-finished on the table, and he doesn't try to follow her out.
On the plane, she researches Mexico's immigration policy. She emails Dante's grandmother, mentions that she'd like to visit again.
Andrew has already emailed her. She deletes it, unread.
The results will come. Dante will cry, when he reads them. It is such a fantasy of his, the idea of loving her. But he'll stay. She lets herself believe that. They'll talk about Mexico. She'll study Spanish. Their daughter, of course, will speak it beautifully. And they'll be happy, there.
Perhaps, sometimes, he'll look at her and wonder what he's missing. She'll get emails from Andrew, and sometimes she'll read them. But they'll work through it.
He is the best thing she's never loved.