Anna and John clasp hands.
“We’re here to get tested,” she breathes.
A black woman sits behind the counter, her eyebrows uprooted in her own sorrows.
“Excuse me?” she asks. She didn’t hear; she takes out her white earbuds.
“We’re here to get tested.” John says.
“Fourth floor.” She doesn’t meet their eyes. They are young, full of dew, brimming with dread and desire.
They follow the signs, they tread the floor like they never have before. Anna wonders what used to lie beneath the cheap linoleum of the clinic, thousands of years ago, and she wonders if anyone has ever felt the way she does now. John glances at his expensive watch and is reminded that money can no longer bewitch him into thinking he is immortal. The spell has been broken. If they have it, they have it, and their whole lives will be over. The elevator pings open and pushes them out to the waiting room. More dewy eyes look up at them, they are all terrorized, deer caught in headlights. Most of them only have themselves to blame, but that ceases to matter once they are there.
Noiselessly, people slip in and out of the waiting room and are handed to the man in the white jacket and his slab-eyed nurse. Science is now your God, She holds your fate. Anything else you believed was true until now is a farce. Anna and John sit in silence, their fingers laced together, pale, quivering, their knuckles ashen. Soon they are ushered out of the waiting room and into another stark reality, and John is reminded of the movie they went to see the previous Saturday, and of the crumpled movie stub he has somewhere in his wallet, and how simple everything had seemed then.
They are tested and patted on the back by a routine that may have once been convincing but is now drab and dull, used up by death and illness and idle pretenses.
“Your results will be ready in five days, bring a valid photo ID. Please do not call us, we do not give the results over the phone or email. You must come here.”
They are ejected from the clinic and sent back into the streets where all has turned unfriendly and cold. They are helpless and alone, neither of them knows what to say, they are both so afraid of collapsing into tears and rendering the other one more hopeless. So they wander into a bookstore across the street, pick things up and pretend to be interested in them, all the while thinking of the life that lies ahead if they test positive. Shame, disappointment, pain, crushed dreams, and isolation are but a few of the things that come to mind. They are paralyzed, but they keep flipping through the books. John picks up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
“I’ve always wanted to read it.” He says to Anna. He is not usually afraid of speaking, at least not to her, but this is the first thing either of them has uttered since they entered the clinic what seems like eons ago. He can’t breathe, he is so afraid of her response. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything at all. His words sound hollow and childish, the book is imposing, and is a mere distraction from their hovering fates. Nothing can be worse than this uncertainty, John decides. Except perhaps the gnawing suspicion that Anna will leave him now…but she has no reason to do so. He looks up at her from the blurry letters he has been staring at in a stupor.
She does not look miserable and tear-sodden as he expected her to be. She cries during romantic comedies and animal shelter ads, but now she smiles back at John with an emanating radiance, with that warm glowing look one gives a child when he is pleased or lost in his innocence. John is taken aback.
“What?” He demands, almost spitefully.
“I always wanted to read Harry Potter. I never understood what the big deal was.” Anna says, gesticulating with a fat copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
John almost bursts into tears as he laughs at Anna. “I can’t believe after all this time you’re finally going to read them.”
She narrows her eyes playfully: “Hey, I’m not making any promises, I’m just going to try out this first one. I just don’t understand how something like this sells millions of copies but there are all these kids who haven’t read a word of Keats.”
“You little snob,” John says, letting his hand rest on the smoothest part of her hair, on the curve of her skull before it plunges down behind her long tresses.
“The only snob here is you, Mr. Rolex.” Anna replies.
She sticks out her tiny, pink tongue at him, and he delights in the contrast it makes against her dark blue sweater, a sweater which reminds him of their shared closet, high piled with moth-bitten sweaters and novels. John heads over to the register to pay for his book with a smile plastered on his face. After he signs the receipt, he notices Anna waving at him from outside and hurries to see what she’s up to – she’s got that look on her face, the one she wears when she’s found some excellently morbid Sylvia Plath quote. Or maybe it’s Bukowski? He never knows the difference, but he likes the look all the same. She’s always belting crazy quotes from the bathroom while he makes sandwiches in the kitchen. John dangles the plastic bag from his fingers and steps out of the bookstore to question his girl:
“What are you doing?”
“Let’s go to that diner down the block, the one we went to with your sister last week for brunch.”
Their hands intertwine and they weave their way through the six o’ clock human traffic. Anna usually scowls at the hustle and bustle of suited men and well-heeled women, jabbing their elbows into her white ribs, but she seems to have a secret behind her lace-lipped smile that protects her from the city’s disillusion.
Once they are seated at the diner, Anna whips out the Harry Potter book from her bag.
“Oh boy!” She cries, watching John’s awestruck reaction.
Anna has never stolen a thing in her life, except maybe a line or two from F. Scott.
“Anna!” John laughs again, looking over his shoulder at the diner’s entrance as if someone might be pursuing them.
A matronly woman places two menus in front of them and serves them coffee, hers milky and unbearably sweet, his black.
John thanks the waitress and opens up the menu, but before the poor woman can get away, Anna starts speaking with a six-year-old pout, the menu untouched on the table:
“I would like four cinnamon pancakes, scrambled eggs, hash browns, a side of bacon, and a chocolate milkshake, please. Thank you very much.”
John can’t contain his laughter. They must look like they just got high and traipsed over to the diner to satisfy their cravings.
The waitress nods, frowns a little, and asks John what he wants.
“Same as her,” he says.
And so they feast.
Once they have filled their bellies, they toss ones at the table and scramble to get out lest they not have paid enough—John’s idea this time. He’s starting to understand the game. They smoke their usual post-lunch cigarettes, John with his left hand, Anna with her right so that they can still interlace fingers. They walk home, listless, but there is nothing melancholy about their silence, it is merely contemplative. Anna steps on a few crunchy leaves; she only ever likes New York in the fall. John never likes it, he’s from Hades, Mississippi, and he misses lazy afternoons with sweaty beer bottles, wraparound porches, dim lights, and the low buzz of cicadas reassuring him that he’s home and that it’s all going to be alright. That’s what’s missing now, that promise.
“Let’s go to Hades,” he says suddenly to Anna.
She widens her gray eyes a little, tries to hide her surprise, then nods vehemently. They scamper home like conspiring siblings late for supper during summer holidays. The sun is already beginning to set, and its purple and blood-orange hues waft above the shadow of the day. They grab a few belongings, more than a few books, a wad of cash, and race off in Anna’s 1983 Chevrolet Impala into the dusk, southbound and in love.
John’s mother, Mrs. Harry Beechwood, greets them as the screen door flaps idly behind her. It is early morning now; they drove without stopping and made it to Hades in twenty hours, forty cigarettes, and seven coffees.
“Annabelle, honey, come here, you’ve gotten too skinny, you little thing. Who’s this tiny girl-child you brought home, Johnny? She used to have a butt!” Beth Beechwood swallows Anna with her rotund, aproned body, and soon they are inside, once again being ushered in, but this time so much better than the last.
“Let’s get you fed, you poor thing,” she mutters to Anna.
John smiles at his mother. Nothing ever changes in Hades.
Harry Beechwood sits at the table in the kitchen, reading the sports section. His bushy, slate-gray eyebrows rise as his eldest son and Anna come in. He stands.
“Have some of your mother’s biscuits, they’re fresh out of the oven. Still warm.” He says gruffly to John as he gives him a strong handshake. Anna gets a hug, and a “how are you, darlin’?” as she inhales the smell of the house, of a homemade meal, and of perfect stillness. She wants to stay there forever.
They haven’t eaten anything but a bag of overly salted sunflower seeds since their feast at the diner so they breathlessly devour Mrs. Beechwood’s rich, southern cooking. They sleep for hours in John’s room, untouched from his high school days in Hades. They awake and walk up and down the small town and go to the local ice cream parlor. John runs into an old friend, and they get invited to a sweaty-beer-bottled barbeque where they churn away the day. At night, they watch a football game, Mrs. B went to Auburn but Mr. B went to Ole Miss and there’s a lot of shouting going on, a few neighbors come over to join in on the fuss and John and Anna make their way to the front porch.
They haven’t spoken more than a few words in the past couple of hours, but they only have to glance over at the other’s dewy, young eyes to get a whiff of that unmoving, shared perfection.
“I don’t need anything else,” John says, desperately clawing at the moment, afraid that it will extinguish.
“Me neither.” She replies.
“Can we go kayaking tomorrow?” He asks. Anna nods.
“It doesn’t matter anymore.” She realizes.
“No, it doesn’t.”
They sway on the rocking chairs on the creaky front porch, watching the night turn into day, into night, into day, cigarette butts a-glowing, stomachs a-filling, flattening, filling again.
“You have to re-fill the air in your tire, John,” says Mr. B as he comes out to greet his neighbor, another Ole Miss fan toting a six-pack of Heineken and a bag of chips.
John went to homecoming with the man’s daughter and they exchange lively back-pats. She’s married with kids now (keep?). John lights another cigarette. Mr. B and the man disappear inside, and that warm glow, that liquid gold seeps into the house and into their strong, young hearts. Anna doesn’t know how long the glow will last but she knows it’ll last a little longer, a little better there. John gets his southern drawl back, Anna her -belle and her butt. The beer bottles lose their labels, the men their hair, the women their figures. Nothing ever changes in Hades—and they won’t have it any other way.