by John Holleman
Although he doesn't know it yet, on January 14th, at 73 years of age, Andrew will rest eternally at his late wife's side. On March 4th, at 29 years, he and his wife will have their first child. On October 18th, when he is 26, they will be married in a small, quaint ceremony among family, and in just a few minutes, at the age of 24, he will meet his wife-to-be at this coffee shop after accidentally spilling coffee on her. I know these things because I am here to make sure he trips.
Such is the role of a Time Keeper: one untethered from time to ensure others' lives happen on schedule. Normally my assignments aren't so involved, and normally I would welcome a little extra involvement, but to be perfectly honest, this time I'm a little jealous. I'm here to connect two lives, while I'm alienated from connection. I'll be here for the next few minutes, oversee this happening, then jump off to another time, another person, another situation to preside over. I have been doing it as long as I can remember, and I will admit, it wears on me.
For now, though, I find a half-moment's solace in this crowded coffee shop, wrapped around my steaming mug. The smell of coffee hangs a little too thick in the air, but the stuffiness inside is much preferred to the bite of the chill outdoors. I resent the occasional obnoxious scream of the milk steamer which interrupts the otherwise relaxed atmosphere. Nobody else seems to notice it, though; every ounce of their attention is absorbed by their laptops or textbooks – my eyes alone dart around the room. It would take the accident I am here to arrange to break the ice.
Even in this room full of people, I couldn't feel more alone, being here to make sure two future lovers meet. I already know the conclusion of their story and it ends well; they are happy until their dying days. If only they knew what was about to transpire – they are about to meet that person they have been looking for their whole lives. I count down the seconds until things happen as everyone else lives in perpetual suspense. Ironic, then, that my name is conspicuously absent from my schedule book. The Author's cruel joke, maybe?
I probably won't ever know, but cue the bride-to-be – right on time. She's not nearly as cute as I had imagined; a little pudgy around the middle, and wearing slightly too much makeup. She's slouching a bit as if she isn't too confident; my schedule says she hasn't dated anybody in a while, so that probably has something to do with it. Apparently he will find her cute enough, though, since their timelines don't part after this.
My thoughts and emotions are so loud in my head, I swear everyone within ten feet must be able to hear. She has to be able to feel my eyes on her back; perhaps they could burn a hole through my novel instead. I hope she can't see my attention following her. The only empty table is right next to me.
She looks different sitting across from me; up closer, she has sad eyes, weary eyes. I know that look well: of one who has been alone too long, and has resigned herself to such a fate. I might as well trade places with her – I sure wish I could. If only I could only lean forward and tell her that this will all change in about two minutes I would; well, I might – if only someone would lean forward and whisper how long it might be for me. How cruel it is, with all the nuanced details I know about everyone, that I am resigned to watching them fumble through life while having all their answers, and none for myself. Crueler still: arranging happiness while my own is but a foreign concept. Making me set people up is like making a starving child serve dinner.
It just isn't fair. Why should I arrange love while I have yet to find it? I wonder, what if I didn't trip him? She already knows loneliness, and I can testify that it doesn't kill a person. We all learn to live with our circumstances, right? It is my choice, after all, to go through with my orders or not. Let the consequences fall as they may. What punishment I'd get for not enforcing the schedule cannot overpower the anguish of following through.
Andrew must have heard me because there he is walking through the door as if to protest. If only you knew the power I have over you: this next minute of your life will determine the rest. You were strangers yesterday, are strangers today, and could be strangers still tomorrow; you could go along with your day as you otherwise would and never know the difference. Maybe if she doesn't notice you, or you, her. Oh, but she has already. I recognize that look, that initial spark is in her eye. Don't look her way and this will all be just another unreturned smile.
He met her glance: connection. He is walking this way. Oh, brutal responsibility. I am here to keep the schedule. I am here burned by frigid loneliness. He approaches. Closer. Conflicted. My foot extends almost on its own. He trips. The mug goes flying. Yelps and arms flail. Apologies and napkins scramble. There's coffee everywhere.
What a mess. But such is love.
Well, I went through with it after all. I'll get up now, and quietly disappear, off to the next assignment. Knowing so much yet so little never gets any easier. These doubts and insecurities never fully go away. I know I'll kick and scream a while yet, but eventually, as always, I'll remember to trust that someone knows my schedule, and I don't need to worry – the Author writes what's best.