Here is how it won’t happen:
I get to the airport early enough to park in one of the visitor lots. I walk through the parking garage and every time my foot hits the concrete the energy of it thrums up into my ribcage. I’m so happy to see him again that I don’t even notice how eerily empty the terminal is, flat grey sunlight glinting off the empty speckled tiles, until a cop shouts at me and waves her arms. I can’t make out what she’s saying, and I take a few steps towards her but she motions me back. Finally I am able to piece it together: Someone has a gun. There’s been a shooting. I won’t find out for sure that he’s dead until later, but somehow I already know.
Or the cop is shouting about a bomb, some suspicious package, stay back ma’am , and then the noise and the white heat and the fire, the space where his gate should have been a cindered hole.
This is also how it won’t happen: I’m standing waiting at the baggage claim when I feel arms reach around me from behind. I’m startled and twist away but it’s him, tired and almost imperceptibly older but so familiar that I am flooded with affection, a buoy in a warm sea. I hug him and he laughs a little and I say “What?” and he says “Nothing, just . . . ” and rests his forehead against mine and then he kisses me.
I imagined that one by accident. My mind wandered while I was on the subway and before I knew what I was doing, one of the ways he could have kissed me was gone. Not that he will, not that he’ll ever want to; I know that, I really do know. But I also know that if it happens, it won’t happen like that.
We met in the first quarter of my sophomore year of college, when I tripped on the steps of the biology building and barked my shin. I never zipped my backpack all the way, so books and keys and sunglasses gouted out like projectile vomit onto the concrete. People just stepped around me while I sniffled and bled and tried to shove tampons back into my bag. People always just step around me.
But then this absolute Adonis crouched down, actually lowered himself to my level, and asked if I was okay. I was still frantically picking up my stuff, so I guess I was rude. I said something like, “As if you care.” And he laughed.
I can’t pretend it’s enough to say “he laughed.” If you haven’t seen him, that doesn’t express what it’s like. Normal people laugh. He coruscates, all gleaming teeth like the Parthenon.
He picked up one of my books—it was If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. He said something like, “I love this one. Nobody I know has read it.” When he tells this story, he says I lit up with my love of the book; that I descanted a whole essay on its virtues, crouched bleeding on the steps. That he knew then we would be friends.
I don’t remember it that way. I remember hearing my own voice dimly echoing, paying only the barest attention to what it said. Inside I was spinning like a compass needle, calibrating, locking into my new orientation. I was picturing, for the first and second and third times, what it would be like to kiss him.
If I’d known how it worked back then, I could have—what? Stopped thinking about him? I tried that anyway. It didn’t work. But maybe I could have reined it in, if I’d realized in time.
It won’t happen this way: a call from his mother in the middle of the night, telling me his flight disappeared or dropped out of the sky. A car accident on the way to the airport, the attendant calling his name over and over on the loudspeaker before finally closing the doors. A sudden collapse in any part of the terminal. A sudden collapse of any part of the terminal. A virulent illness that sweeps through the cabin, so that the plane pulls into the gate like a ghost ship, a hearse with wings.
We almost kissed once, I think. We were studying in the downstairs lounge of my dorm, which was one of the few places I hadn’t played out our mad displays of passion in my mind. It was a charmless room with a fluorescent buzz and a snack machine—not exactly the stuff of romance. The nubby beige couches had undoubtedly been the site of undergraduate trysts, but it didn’t bear thinking about, not if you wanted to keep on sitting on them.
I was trying to figure out how to ask him what his beautiful graceful athletic friends thought about him spending time with me. I kept formulating sentences, but I couldn’t make them come out of my mouth. And then he said, “Hey, have you ever wanted . . . ” and we looked at each other and there was a pause so thick and laden I could feel it on my skin.
Immediately my imagination slipped into its worn-down grooves: picturing what his face would look like inches from mine, how the soft stubble on his cheek would shimmer in the light of the vending machine. I knew his face so well, but the details of how it looked up close—Were his lashes long? Were there tiny threads of gold in his hazel eyes?—and the circumstances under which it might come close to me had been the subject of feverish invention. I hadn’t pictured it happening in the lounge, on a grubby couch under antiseptic lights, but it was easy to transfer my obsessively detailed fantasies into this new setting.
And then he shook his head, and asked if I wanted some Cheez-Its, and stood up to get them. I sat on the couch in shock, feeling like a pot of melted wax starting to congeal.
My fault, of course. My stupid brain. He never would have loved me anyway, I think, but now he never will.
One thing I didn’t like about college, besides everyone except him, was the unsettling lack of routine. I like a bit of an agenda to my day; at the time I would have said “I like to know what’s coming,” though of course that’s laughable now. In school I did my best to stick to a schedule, but there were always disruptions: days I overslept, days there was some kind of impromptu dorm “icebreaker” meeting, days I was disastrously hungover from drinking in my room alone. When I got my first job—a headhunter contacted me out of the blue, after two jobs I thought were sure things had turned me down—I was pleased with the thought that my life might finally be predictable.
As it turned out, it was a good sort of job if you like routine. I was told we would have meetings every Monday and Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. and Friday at 3:00 p.m.. I made myself a color-coded chart of tasks to fill every hour. And then, I told myself, I would go home, and have a bath, and drink a glass of wine, and listen to a podcast. The work was not especially stimulating, and picturing that bath got me through the day. When my mind started to wander, it would wander there: picking out a bath bomb from the box my mom had sent me as a “congratulations on moving to New York” present, filling my too-small tub, hooking up the external speakers to my phone, pouring wine, and then sinking back into the warm water.
When I got home, I poured the wine and hooked up the speakers as planned, but the bath bomb I’d selected—that I’d so carefully imagined selecting—turned the water an unappealing khaki shade, and I had to drain it and start over. The next day I was out of wine. Then the external speakers broke.
I started planning a much simpler bath: just me and the tub, no accoutrements. When I got home, there had been a sewer emergency, and my apartment had no hot water.
And then I started putting it together, what had been going wrong all my life. Why I was always caught wrong-footed. Why things never went my way.
Nobody expects life to play out exactly as they imagined, at least nobody who isn’t rich and pretty. So it takes a while to recognize an ability like mine. But once you understand what you can do, you realize that this power, like any other, brings responsibilities.
I don’t want you thinking I’m a credulous person. A week of ruined baths alone wasn’t enough to convince me. Even when you lumped in everything else—the prom proposal that never came, the colleges I was supposed to get into, the friend who dropped me as soon as I planned our joint birthday party—it still could have been a coincidence. I knew that.
My first test was Friday meetings. They were late in the day, so I always saw my boss at some point beforehand. I’d take note of her outfit. Then I’d spend some time picturing the scene: walking into the room, sitting in my usual uncomfortable swivel chair, looking over to see my boss at the head of the table wearing whatever she was wearing that day. And then every time, every time, when we got to the meeting, her scarf would be gone. One time she’d even put on a different scarf. There were other changes—the time we had to switch to a different conference room, the time we had a fire alarm, the time she went home abruptly and wasn’t there at all. But even when the meeting went exactly as planned, her scarf would be wrong.
Then I started trying it with food. I’d go to a familiar restaurant, order a dish I’d had before, imagine it in detail, and wait for it to come out wrong: a swapped side dish, a new set of plates, a fancifully filleted carrot garnish it had never sported in the past. The evidence kept mounting. If I pictured a subway ride, there would be a service change: an F train suddenly appearing on a C track, an L getting stuck in a tunnel for twenty-five minutes, a G going one stop and then demanding everyone disembark. After a few tests I tried to stop envisioning my commute, for the good of everyone.
I didn’t mention any of this in our emails, of course. He’d always seemed a bit protective of me, and I think it was important to him to feel just a shade superior—which was absurd, since he’s so beautiful, but people don’t always make sense. Even though we got to be friends by talking about books, I think it bothered him a little that I was smart, and that I moved to New York first. I didn’t tell him about discovering my power because I didn’t want to make him feel bad.
But I also didn’t want him to know about my new mission.
It’s sheer luck that he didn’t get seriously hurt in college. I didn’t know how it worked back then. What a tragedy it would have been if he’d been hit by a car because I was focusing on imagining how he looked without a shirt on. Young men take so many risks. He was binge-drinking and road-tripping and playing violent sports and probably having unprotected sex—and I was in my room thinking about ways he could kiss me, making each one impossible one by one.
I don’t waste my time with that stuff anymore. I know we’ll never be together—even if I hadn’t made sure of that by thinking about it so often, it’s obvious as soon as you look at him and then look at me. He’ll wind up with someone golden and angular like he is, someone willowy and smooth. Someone who looks good on his arm, someone who makes beautiful babies. That’s not what I’m for. I know that now.
I’m for keeping him safe.
This is my daily schedule:
I get up. I make coffee. While the coffee is brewing I spend ten minutes picturing ways he could die in a fire or terrorist attack. I eat a Luna bar.
In the shower, I picture ways he could die of disease. It used to be drowning, because of the poetic resonances, but there are really only so many ways a person can drown when they live in Ohio. I usually do one drowning, just to be on the safe side.
My commute takes forty-five minutes. On the way to work, I picture terrible things that could happen to my friends and family. I try to be thorough.
At work I have a rota: my parents, my sister, my cat, and you know who. I try to think about work for fifteen minutes, then death and disaster for two, then repeat.
On the way home, I picture terrible things that could happen to strangers. This is a lot more difficult to do accurately, and there’s no way I can cover everything, but it feels like a civic-minded thing to do. Most of the terrible things happen in New York, because that’s where I live now, and a lot of bad things happen here. Some still happen in Cleveland, which sounds less likely, but is that because fewer bad things happen in Cleveland or because I already thought of them all?
While making and eating dinner, I picture ways he could die in an accident. Then I watch TV and go to bed.
It’s become such a habit, watching him die, that sometimes I forget he’s a flesh and blood person. When he emailed to say he would be in town, it was disorienting for a moment, like a message from beyond the grave. We email and text, but I haven’t seen his face in years—not his real-life face, just the one in my head dying over and over every day.
He didn’t ask me to meet him at the airport, and I didn’t tell him I’d come—just in case I couldn’t stop imagining it and ended up with a subway disaster or a terrible flu. But he told me what flight he was on, and he said “I.” He didn’t say “we.”
I still devoted an entire weekend to envisioning him coming down the escalator by the baggage claim with every kind of woman I could dream up: blonde, dark, redheaded, soft older women, waxen-skinned coeds, tall and short, thin and curvy, every race and every kind of clothing. I even imagined beautiful men. The only woman I didn’t imagine was lumpy and rumpled, with rough skin and thick ankles: someone who looks like me. I don’t know if it would be better or worse, if that happened. In any event, it’s still possible.
These things are my fault:
My sister’s miscarriage. I should have thought about it every day.
The election. I don’t even want to talk about it. I never believed it would happen, so it did.
These things are not my fault:
Climate change. I don’t know how to picture that clearly, not on a global scale. I don’t think anyone does, which is sort of the problem, isn’t it?
Mass shootings. I can’t imagine a mass shooting everywhere . I can only stop the ones where I’m going, and the ones where someone I know is going, and only if I know we’re going there, and only if I can picture the place.
These things are really, really my fault:
The hurricane damage in Miami. I knew it was a risk. He was on a bus and I didn’t want it to crash, so I was following the route on Google Maps. By the time the trip was over, it was too late.
What happened during mom’s surgery. I fucked that up big time. The whole time I was imagining . . . well, none of your business. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Here is how it won’t happen: Exsanguination. Tertiary syphilis. Suicide by gun (pistol). Suicide by gun (rifle). Falling onto the tracks in most train stations on the 4/5/6, L, and 7 in Manhattan. Kuru. Autoerotic asphyxiation. Broken on the wheel. At home, of old age, with me. Shark. Pushed off a building. Various kinds of murder. Sucked into the intake of a jet.
I can picture hundreds of illnesses and accidents a day, but there are millions of ways to die. Someday he’ll meet a fate I didn’t think of, and that will be my fault, too.
But not today.
Today I got to the airport early enough to park in one of the visitor lots. I walked through the parking garage, and every time my foot hit the concrete the energy of it thrummed up into my ribcage. I’m so happy to see him again. I’m so happy to see him again.
The terminal isn’t empty. There’s no cop, no fire. There won’t be a shooting, and his plane won’t go down or explode. His taxi won’t crash. He won’t slip on the stairs and split his head. The passengers won’t all go into comas or vomit to death or lay eggs out of their mouths. I’ve seen it. I know.
I stand by the baggage claim with my back to the escalator, so I won’t ruin it by imagining him coming down. He won’t spontaneously combust, or be tackled by someone who thinks he’s a terrorist. He won’t have a heart attack on the plane, or in either airport, or in the cab.
I’ve pictured every disastrous future, except the one where he doesn’t come.