Your Outline on a Bicycle
It was dark and the light reflected, as it does, dully off the cement sidewalks. The wet air did not weigh itself down enough for drizzle, yet. You were there on a bicycle, in the light of the street lamp, and I turned my head to look again—at your long frame, book bag slung over a shoulder and pushed back, overgrown waves of hair moving in different directions as the pale brown strands turned black behind the next street lamp before you vanished completely into the waves of the stone walls.
I looked around the corner, counted off the bicycles that came toward me, and watched them change brown gold black between street lamps. Many tall young men with shoulder bags swung back and disheveled hair. But not you. I know your back. I know your shoulders and your thighs. I know how your hip delays the movement pressing suddenly to the front, cheating momentum, gliding at a deliberate syncopated pace. I know you, know you still now as you were then.
I turned again. I thought I might follow the bicycle through the medieval alleyways of Oxford, follow you on a bicycle––not the you that you are now, but the you that you were then, the you that I still remember, vaguely, from our time in this ancient place.
But I had somewhere to be.
I stood in place for a while, after your brief apparition. I had somewhere to go. I had been walking briskly, as one does when the afternoon prematurely turns into evening and into night too quickly, and the rain hovers, and you have the M3A to catch to make it up to North Parade on the Banbury Road in time for a dinner, a dinner with an acclaimed estimologist, expert in our field, rumored to be shortlisted for the Nobel Prize.
Few people I knew were still in town: colleagues from a present life that arranged the lecture. Only a very few from that time––the time when this was home, temporarily, as it is for everyone here, be it a year, four, or a century. A very few remained or returned to be a part of this place again. Them, I met in coffee shops and pubs, hair graying, wristwatches double-teaming cellphones, clothing upgraded, no longer the disheveled questioning people I had walked these streets with many years ago. They were strangers, acquaintances, the former student, the former friend; they scarcely resembled the faces in the picture that hangs in my office.
Despite the decade that had passed, the turns of the road still felt familiar. Mounting a bus I slipped coins into the slot, said “return please,” and chased the ticket out of the dispenser. I swung into place in the second row and looked out the window. Effortless. Muscular memory. Minimal thought involved. The hieroglyphics of the signage long deciphered.
On that rainy September evening in Oxford—where things appear, decontextualized, in that liminal time between shadows and darkness—again, I saw him, the you that we both have lost.
You were walking your bike towards the long line for the bus that was forming behind me, wet from head to toe; I was walking away from it.
“I just met a girl,” you said to me. Not the you that you are now, the you that you once were suddenly standing there in front of me, unaware of who I was.
“You did,” I answered.
“I did,” you said.
He, you, stood almost directly in front of me, shaded by the shadow of the bus and the waving awning and the wet sidewalk absorbing refracted light.
“I think I’m in love with her,” you said.
How did that you know to tell me? You, that you, knew to tell me, to confide in me, but you, that you, did not recognize her in me. Perhaps you were not you and she was not who I used to be, and timelines are not malleable from every direction. But you asked me if I believed in authenticity. And I answered yes. I answered.
You asked me, “Do you believe in authenticity?”
“Yes,” I answered you, answered the you that you were then standing right there in front of me, with the knowledge I have now.
I knew it was you. And I, the I that I am now, knew we were referring to two different definitions, different imaginations, different literary traditions. I had no way of knowing it then. You, the you that you were then, standing in front of me at the bus stop, had no way of knowing it now.
You had been reading Rilke, maybe Kierkegaard, phenomenologists whose names all seem to start with H, poetry by that guy whose first or last name or both is either Carlos or William or both, and the other one who does away with capitalization. I now know that you meant death: you meant “do you believe in dying, do you believe in embracing death, pursuing life as mortal and living the liminal.”
But I did not know it then.
Raindrops wormed down an oak tree and rebounded off pavement. I, the me that is me now, the me that has had a decade to read you as you read what you will have read, understood. And my heart collapsed in my chest for you—for your fragile being in that towering body with the broad shoulders and wide arms, standing so very tall. The pull, the sadness, the weight of the concrete ethereal.
My chest agonized for you, but the girl that you had just met, the girl that I remember being, would not understand all that, would smile, would take you at your word, unaware of the world you emerged from, would read accurately in your eyes that you promised to be true, would read the “true” in a light and joyful way, would not imagine the weight of that word “authenticity,” would one day be surprised at the struggle.
But that is many years from now for you and for her, and it is long past for me.
You looked at me and did not see the smallest speck of the me that I was then in this woman standing here talking to you. And I was relieved. Because this me would not have happened to you yet.
I saw you and I told you that you would be true. And he, you, said to me, “Yes.”
He, you, the you that you were then and the you that you are now, were, are, at his, at your, core, true.
I knew it was you and I envied that other me that would taste your lips again for the very first time. A million potential iterations in slightly different variations of me kissing you kissing me for the very first time. But that is how the universe unfurls in time: one point cannot see another. Rarely do our universes meet.
You turned around. You got back on that bicycle and cycled away from the street lamp and the lit-up signs, back into the darkened alley you had magically appeared from. Toward a girl you had just met. You never got onto the bus.
You melted into an outline of you—your hair, your shoulder bag, your bicycle. A memory of the you that you were then. Off to find me again. And again. ●
Stephanie A. Vega writes fiction, mostly. Originally from Paraguay, she moved to the United States to study Economics and International Relations. As an NSF Research Fellow she pursued graduate studies at Oxford University, UK, with fieldwork in Latin America. She now lives in Pittsburgh and is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Chatham University. Her fiction has been published in The Threepenny Review and The Normal School Online.