Spinning. I am spinning. Not like my six-year-old son whirling, spinning for that moment when equilibrium flies away like fluff from a dandelion and he lurches sideways, goes down grinning. Not like a field full of tripping Dead fans, flailing and twirling, open palms to the sky, ready to receive anything. Not even like my own 4 a.m. mind, turning over worries as wide-ranging as the lack of storage in the kids’ room and the essay in need of a better ending.
No. This is an exercise class where we churn the pedals as hard as we can and still go nowhere. The shining flywheels on our stationary bikes are the only things actually spinning. Also, at the YMCA in Muncie, Indiana, where I spin at 8 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, it’s officially called “Y-cycling” because that other name is registered to the folks who make a particular brand of bikes—too bad—and our bikes are Keiser, which I think about more often than I should because it’s stamped in red on the back of each black vinyl seat, so when I’m looking at someone’s Lycra-clad keister, wiggling in an exercising sort of way above the seat, pumping out “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”or taking names on the fast flats during “Friday I’m in Love,” my comrade’s fanny is actually labeled Keiser, which is the sort of thing that makes me smile at 8 a.m. when I’ve had just the one cup of coffee and I’m starting to sweat out even that.
The room where we ride could not be more ugly. It’s on the top level of the Y and has a windowless, low-hanging drop ceiling made up of particle-board panels that look as if they were pressed in the heyday of asbestos. Because the evening instructor likes to conduct her class in semi-darkness with no overhead lights, she had the ceiling painted black and the rear wall a deep-bruise purple. I’m pretty sure this is what interior decorators would recommend if you were going for a kind of apocalyptic ambiance—foreshortened sky, the world pressing down on you—but I’ve heard the evening instructor say she just doesn’t like to ride with the lights on. She doesn’t like the way her skin looks, sweating, under the fluorescents. The remaining three walls are a dull nicotine yellow. Thirty bikes all face the small platform with the instructor’s bike, and the red kick bag that serves as a side table for her iPod. At 8 a.m., we ride under the humming ultraviolet rectangles cut into the low ceiling—our false sun. Two giant mirrors at the front of the room create the illusion that we are riding toward ourselves.
What if we could do that? I wonder some mornings. Pedal hard and arrive at ourselves? What would we do? What would we say?
I can imagine prettier places to ride, but I cannot imagine a nicer group of people. I’d say we’re an even mix of retired folks, stay-at-home moms, and professionals with weird schedules (professors, like me, and a few doctors and nurses); the morning class doesn’t attract college students. It’s too early, for one thing. We exchange pleasantries about the early hour and the weather as we prepare ourselves and our bikes for the ride. Cold enough for you this morning? Get the kids to school on time? Hey, are those new glasses, Jill?
Sometimes, when the friendly greetings kick in, I hear the Cheers song jingling in my head as I drape my rough Y-issued towel over the smooth black handles of the bike, twist the thick knobs and adjust the seat bar, trade out clogs for Velcroed cycling shoes, swing my leg over—always from the left, as if I’m still back in the West, mounting a horse—and clip into the pedals.
This is nice, I always think. I am grateful for this ugly room and its beautiful people. And if it weren’t for what happens when human beings strip off their outer layers, raise their butts in the air, and ride hard until their thighs burn and their brains warm and open to a place where the right song has the power to open a portal to another time, this might just be a sweet story about unexpected community in a small Midwestern city.
• • •
Our instructor is beautiful—sleek like a racehorse, blond and manicured but still natural in a Christie-Brinkley-Cover-Girl-clean kind of a way. Speaking of which, she has a soft spot for Billy Joel, too, but then, there’s no way to pin down Celeste’s eclectic musical tastes, which range from new country to hair band, Motown to speed metal, nineties grunge to contemporary Christian. One moment, we’ll be sprinting to the hip, urgent strains of a floppy-haired alternative dude, and the next, rolling upward in a slow climb, tension cranked up to eighteen or nineteen, pulled up by the dulcet crooning of a coffeehouse songstress, and then, I don’t know, John Denver or the Georgia Satellites, for heaven’s sake, will burst from the speakers, and we’ll go either Rocky Mountain high-iiigh or slap down sexual advances from another time and place, the retired teachers chiming in with grins and shouts—Don’t hand me no lines and keep your hands to yourself!
Whether Celeste engages this range because her tastes are really that wide or because she wants to make everyone happy—if only for a moment—I’m not sure, but I can attest that it’s always interesting in a mind-travel kind of way. My mother listened to John Denver when she layered sauce and lasagna noodles in the kitchen. My high school boyfriend sang along to the Satellites when he picked me up from school on Friday afternoons in his Jeep, spinning gravel through his tires as he sped out of the back lot, a beer already sweating in its aluminum between his thighs.
Sometimes, when I spin, I need to shake off the images that rise up with the change of song—remember what year it is, where I am, who loves me. I concentrate on tightening the muscles in my core, holding my back straight, keeping a slight bend in my elbows, wiping a drip of sweat from my blurring eye.
• • •
I want to give you this background, make sure you are clear on the setting, before I get to the part that’s harder to hear, almost impossible to believe—except I do believe it. There was a time when I wouldn’t have believed. There was a time when I would have said there are things that happen and things that don’t, and we know the difference. People die and go away, for example. People die and are gone.
I’m forty-four now, double fours, and I am telling you what I do know so that, together, we might push our fingers into the unknowable, dig about for the juiciest plum.
The plumbing of mysteries requires absolute clarity and utter chaos.
• • •
When I was nineteen years old, I went home with my best college friend, Diane, a friend who is still my best friend, for Thanksgiving. We arrived late at night, driving down from Oregon to California with her two little girls sleeping in the back, and everyone was in bed when we arrived. So, it wasn’t until Thanksgiving morning that I first saw her brother, Colin—whom I’d heard about, but not considered, not really, as I’d never really considered death or dying or the hereafter. Wearing cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, my bed-messed hair skewered in place with a pencil, I was ascending the spiral staircase, following the sound of voices and the smell of coffee. It doesn’t seem possible that I truly remember the quality of light in this first picture of Colin, but I feel as if I do. Thanksgiving morning, late November, but it was northern California, San Rafael, and later in the day we would take a hike with the dog across a sunny mountaintop, so maybe I’m not too far off when I tell you the light was golden, when I tell you that in my first vision of Colin he was gleaming, godlike. Too beautiful to be real.I remember what he was wearing, too: faded Levi’s. Nothing else. My god.
One bronzed arm arced across the squirming body of his four-year-old niece, Haley, who was all baby powder smell in soft pajamas, his lean muscles flexing and holding her up. The fingers of his other hand—long, guitar-playing fingers—curled around a coffee mug. Here was everything I wanted from a morning, posed at the top of the stairs.
I can’t speak to the love—like the golden light, that seems unfair to claim outright (although I’d like to do that and have it be true)—but the lust was immediate. Later, Colin and I would discuss how the attraction between us actually buzzed. Our lust made a sound. Maybe it was the element of surprise. Maybe it was two spinning spheres coming close enough to touch, locking in—a kind of Venn diagram of desire, with me and Colin at the intersection, drooling.
“Hi,” I said, loading the word with more sex than I intended.
“Hi,” he answered, bending his knees and lowering Haley’s feet toward the solid ground without unlocking the grip of his eyes from mine. His eyelashes were long, like a girl’s, his hair so dark it was almost black, everything about him disheveled. Everything about him asking to be taken back to bed.
I swallowed and licked my lips. “I’m Jill,” I said. Haley’s swinging feet gained purchase, and she trotted down the hall, toward kitchen noises. We were alone at the top of the stairs.
“I figured. I’m Colin.”
“Yeah. I figured. Diane told me about you. Sort of.”
“Yeah. Me too. I mean, she did too. Told me about you.” He paused. “Sort of. Umm. Coffee?”
“That’d be great.”
It was Thanksgiving Day 1988, only 8:30 a.m., and Colin and I were already feeling grateful. By midnight, Diane would hear a ruckus and think that somebody was spinning an unbalanced load in the washer. This wasn’t like me, and it wasn’t like Colin, either, this shameless leap into the sheets, his bed made up on the floor of his mother’s office and me in it, but we both seemed to know our time was set to expire, the sand in our hourglass was running.
Before the next Thanksgiving, Colin would be dead—killed at an intersection in Tillamook, Oregon, burned to dust and then taken home, scattered in the California hills where he’d raced with his dogs and learned to rope calves. Before I turned twenty-one, I would be a kind of widow, spinning.
• • •
I would need a thousand pages to clearly explain all that has gone down in the world’s spinning from the night Colin stepped off this earth and into the never-never and I stayed behind to build a life worthy of the way he had loved me. Before Colin, I’d been a girl on the edge of survival—smart but broken, ambitious but wounded, dancing along the dark edge of despair, hoping someone would notice—and then, like a miracle, someone did. I was only nineteen when we met, and Colin was just two years older. He loved me as no one before him ever had, with the kind of love that made me love myself.
By the time we locked eyes at the top of that spiral staircase, I’d been suffering from bulimia for seven years. Colin loved me into stopping—it seems impossible, but it’s true—and when he died, I thought, Why not go back? Slip off the wagon. What difference does it make now? But I heard Colin’s voice in my head—speaking sharply, for an angel, but also sadly, sensibly. He said, I don’t even have a body anymore, Jill. I was in the bathtub, watching my hands float like sea creatures in the water, wholly separate. I heard every word clearly, and I knew what he meant. I knew I had to take care of my body. He couldn’t do it, so I would.
• • •
Take off two, Celeste instructs. Take a breather, she says. Get some water. We do. We drink, we wipe sweat off our faces, and for the millionth time I wish I were the kind of person who brought her own fluffy towel from home and didn’t scratch at my forehead with the over-bleached and still dingy towels that have wiped the faces (and god knows what else) of so many other human bodies. For about five seconds, we listen to the sound of our collective breathing, the gulping of water, our stainless-steel bottles clanging back into the curves molded for them on the handlebar posts. Tom Petty starts crooning. She’s a good girl, loves her mama, loves Jesus and America, too. . . .
Okay. Breather over, Celeste says through her headset. Add three. We’re going up a big hill.
I stand up in my pedals and put my weight into my legs, wiggle my toes to make sure they’re not curling, flatten my feet. Proper alignment.
“Free Fallin’” came out in 1989, the summer before Colin died, the summer Colin took care of me. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine a world without him, but then, it never occurred to me to try. Why would I? I knew he would always be there.
We lived in Washington State, in a generic apartment complex close to Sea-Tac so that Colin could easily get to his nightly job, babysitting British advertising blimps parked on the airfield. Every hour, he checked the pressure and moved a lever up or down, and in between, he sat in a trailer in the diffused light of the giant, needy glowworms and played his guitar. Joe Satriani. Eric Clapton. Jimi Hendrix. And, that summer, Tom Petty. Crazy ’bout Elvis, loves horses and her boyfriend, too.
I’ve seen pictures of Colin on the airfield, gripping a long rope draped around his waist, the floating blimp as placid as a grazing manatee bobbing in the weeds, but I never visited him with his tethered charges, because I didn’t have airport clearance. Something about the fact that he was alone out there on the night shift, coupled with the weirdness of light-up marketing airships with their fluctuating gasses and temperaments, and, of course, the image of Colin out there with his guitar, sending his song out into all that silent midnight air, seemed so romantic.
Colin preferred to call the blimps dirigibles. Dirigible. Such a good word.
After Colin was gone, I was traveling through Central America, grieving hard, and I met this man, a merchant marine, much older—who knew? who cared? maybe thirty-five to my twenty—and the way he seduced me, if you could call it that, if there’s seduction involved in offering the ruined girl I was one night to pretend she wasn’t alone, was the image he spun for me of himself on deck at night, far out at sea, alone with all that shimmering blackness, playing his harmonica for the stars and the fishes. That was the picture I held in my mind when he took me back to his tiny room in the pension, a room just big enough for the bed, and tried to do what I couldn’t, in the end, let him finish. It was too sad. Too wrong. Free fallin’. The merchant marine and his harmonica couldn’t fix what was broken in me, and later we went to a bar to drink tequila, something involving the crashing down of the shot on the bar, and my glass broke, but I was too far gone to notice, and before my sailor friend could reach out his hand to stop me, I tilted the burning amber down my throat, glass shards and all.
• • •
In the early months after Colin died, I made a study of dreaming. I read books about lucid dreaming; set my alarm for odd hours, hoping to catch us together; counted the fingers on my hands in waking and dreaming, with an eye peeled for that extra digit or six; lulled myself to sleep muttering I will know I’m dreaming, I will know I’m dreaming. . . . It’s hard to explain how logical this was to me. If I could not be with Colin here in this earthly realm—this was the language I’d adopted—well, then, I would go to where he was.
I would find him.
I wouldn’t believe this if it hadn’t happened to me. I was half mad—or more—from grief. I could barely get up in the morning after remembering—Colin’s dead. I didn’t want to live in this world without him. I believed what I needed to believe, saw what I needed to see, in order to survive, but weird shit happened. For example, it became normal for Colin to inhabit electrical devices. For a few months, it felt as if the world had been rewired just for me. As I walked by streetlights, they would blink on and off. When I entered my house, the lamp in the living room would turn on by itself. Hello, sweetheart. Or there was the night I was awoken from sleep by a cat jumping onto my legs and exerting a warm and gentle pressure—I love you, the pressure said. I’m okay. There was no cat.
And yet, as the months wore on, despite the hours I spent on the floor with my back leaning against the cases in the New Age bookstore, reading about lucid dreaming, breathing in sandalwood, and watching the crystals flash and dance on the rug, I never quite got there. I never reunited with Colin in my dreams.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I developed to a point where Iknew I was dreaming whenI was dreaming, but Colin was never ready to cooperate; it seemed that he was not dreaming. (Approaching all this from the spiritual perspective, would everything be backward? Did Colin need a different handbook?) He would appear in my dreams, but even there, in what was supposed to be the deepest place of my imagination, a borderless land of possibility, he was always dead. Unreachable.
Hold me, I would beg, showing him my hands, weeping, entreating him to see how I was broken and alone in a way that required his intervention, even if it was against the rules of the angels. I’m sorry, he’d say, looking sorry, and then, more brightly, You’re going to be okay. I’m okay. I can’t touch you. I don’t have a body.
But this is a dream, I’d protest. Wasn’t anything possible in a dream? Couldn’t two people separated by death come together in a dream?
Apparently not. Apparently, it was against the new rules. This alternately broke my heart and pissed me off. Please! I’d beg. I’m dreaming. Do you have to be dead everywhere?
• • •
Colin has been gone for twenty-four years now. I’m not a young woman anymore. I wouldn’t be caught dead—what a phrase, as if you can surprise these people—in cut-off jeans like the ones I was wearing on the morning we met, but I do still sometimes bind my long hair with a pencil, in a pinch. Also, and significantly, I’ve been married for eleven years to another love of my life—proving we’re not all limited to just one—and my husband, Mark, and I have our spinning six-year-old, Henry, and his ten-year-old sister, Ella. I am wildly in love with these people I get to live with, and I am so grateful—but I worry. Not but. And. And I worry. Having known how someone we love can be there, and then not be there—crash, poof, gone—I watch my beloveds carefully, even as I try not to make them afraid.
If Colin and I had married and started a family, as we planned, our oldest child would be twenty-two or twenty-three—which is to say, our oldest kid would be older than Colin was when he died. Which is to say, I am old enough to be mother to the young man Colin was when he died.
So, that’s who I waslast week when Colin—finally!—stepped down from wherever he has been, fully fleshed and pedal-stopping handsome, and paid me a visit.
• • •
If I’d known Colin was going to show up, I would have made a mental note of what was playing when he walked in: if I could remember the portal, would I be able to find it again? More to the point, perhaps, would I want to? Let’s say it was Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights.” He loved that song. We used to sing it in two parts. No. If Meatloaf had been playing when Colin strolled into my spinning class, I would have fallen off my stationary bicycle. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Celeste play Meatloaf.
No. I think it was “Come Sail Away,” that ubiquitous Styx song on every cycling instructor’s spin list. Yes. That was the song.
On the day Colin came to see me—walked in, on legs—my cycling buddies and I were riding nowhere up near the rooftop of the YMCA while an early March snowstorm blew outside, snowflakes spinning in unlovely whorls in the air above the frigid parking lot. It was the first day of spring break, and Mark and I were planning to drive south with the kids to spend a couple of nights in a Brown County cabin. I was worrying about the weather and the roads. Despite the storm outside, our purple room under the warehouse eaves was hot, hot, hot. The roaring swamp fans were blowing, and I was a sweating, shining writing professor in her mid-forties wearing a spiffy black yoga top and stretchy pants, trying to fend off gravity’s pull for a few more years. Styx was just about to take us from crooning ballad to driving guitars, and I was settling into my legs to get ready for the surge.
• • •
Because I was in the front row, riding straight into my own reflection, I saw the guy in the mirror only. I saw him stride in with long steps, long after class had started, and choose a bike two rows back, over my right shoulder. Watching the curve of his back as he bent over to adjust his bike, I felt a strange jolt of recognition. I tried to concentrate on Celeste—give me two more, two more numbers—and I pushed the lever forward with my thumb and rose up, pushing my weight and my power into my legs. The next time I looked up, the stranger was on the bike, and I could see his face—and his face was Colin’s face.
The stranger was not a stranger. He was Colin, and he was fewer than eight feet behind me, standing in his pedals. All the parts—olive skin, Roman nose, long dark lashes, deep brown eyes, thick brows, disheveled hair—but also: Colinness. Playful. Kind. A little cocky.
I gasped. Audibly. Right into the silence at the end of the song. Right into the next moment when I could not, did not, look away. I tried to look away because even in my shock I knew it was too weird. What would it appear I was doing? Ogling this hot guy young enough to be my son? How would I explain my dropped jaw and greedy eyes? And to whom?
But then the doppelgänger was pulling off his sweatshirt, and when he did, his T-shirt pulled up, too, and his torso was Colin’s, his chest was Colin’s, the long line between the deltoid and the triceps, curving around, a shadow, into the bulge of the bicep, was Colin’s. As a forty-four-year-old woman gawking at the body of my twenty-two-year-old lover, I was grateful for the trick of the mirror, the way in which the line of my sight would be obscured, because what I was doing was unseemly. What I was doing wasn’t right, but I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t look away. I can’t tell you whether I felt older than I ever have, or younger. What would I have done if this had happened twenty-four years ago, in the months of spinning grief after the accident? I don’t even have to ask that question. I would have leapt off my bike. Right then and there. I would have looked him in the eyes, no mirror in between, and said: You’re back. You came back. Thank God. I knew you wouldn’t leave me.
Now, it was too late for that. The Counting Crows kicked in. “Rain King.” Heaven and a black-winged bird.
• • •
Two weeks after Colin died, I felt the cat who wasn’t there leap onto my legs and tell me in Colin’s voice—which wasn’t spoken, but was clear and strong in my head—that I was loved. He was okay and I would be okay, Colin told me. I was wide awake and sitting up in bed and this is what I heard. Logically, of course, visits from angels make no earthly sense, but these moments are the closest I’ve come to knowing for sure that there’s more to this life than logic.
There’s love, for one thing. Does love make any sense?
• • •
Colin knew he was going to die. He didn’t tell me, but he told my mother in the month before the accident. I must have been off at class, and Colin was helping her split and stack the wood from a fallen tree in her backyard. After the accident, my mother told me about their conversation, how each time they’d passed each other with their arms loaded, he’d offered advice on how to take care of me. I was fragile then, and he wanted to make sure my mother knew how to handle the bulimia. He told her, You’ll have to be the one to help her when I’m gone. My mother was confused—where was he going?—but after Colin was killed, she told me she realized he was trying to tell her he wouldn’t be around much longer. Time was almost up.
Afterward, hearing my mother’s story, I was mad. Wouldn’t this have been good information for me to have as well? If he’d told me, couldn’t we have worked together to change the course of the future? How hard would it have been for him not to get in the van that night to run for pizza? Or just to have paused to tie his shoe before he climbed into the back? That’s all it would have taken. Twenty seconds, and this would be a different story. Twenty seconds this way or that, and I would not be riding a stationary bicycle in a stifling room in a city they call Middletown, U.S.A. I would not be worrying about the snow on the highway—or my children.
• • •
I can’t remember where we got the lucky rock or how this smooth chunk of hematite, surprisingly heavy, became part of Colin’s daily uniform, but I know it happened before the end of our first and last summer together because I remember him kissing me goodbye, extracting my promise that I’d be good to myself, and then patting his front right pocket to make sure his lucky rock was there before he got into the car and drove to the airfield. When he was home, Colin kept the shining, silver rock on the bureau next to his wallet, keys, and watch. After he fastened his belt, I’d often see him weigh the heft of the stone in his palm, stroke the curve of the rock’s underbelly, and then slip it in his pocket. Colin liked to have something to touch.
I had a matching lucky rock, but I didn’t carry mine. Now the stones are together in the closet in a box marked “Colin” with a sharpie. I sometimes wonder why Colin thought he needed extra luck. Maybe his death wasn’t the final stroke of bad luck. Maybe there are worse things than death.
Push into those legs, Celeste commands, scanning the room. Then her eyes land on mine. Push. Make those legs work. This should leave a mark.
• • •
When my daughter, Ella, was a toddler, she used to say Hold me. The pitch of her plea, and the way in which she rounded and pulled that first word, sliding down it to land on the “me,” was more Baptist preacher than two-year-old. She said it a lot. When I was leaving her somewhere, or picking her up from a place I’d left her. When she was scared by a bigger-than-usual dog or overwhelmed by a large crowd of people. When we stepped onto an elevator and the doors slid shut like a hungry maw. When she was nervous or angry or tired or lonely. Hold me, Mama! Hold me. And because we were both here on this earth, flesh-bound and hearts beating, I always did. I always did.
• • •
I got Colin’s hematite back from the man at the funeral home, a plastic man in a plastic suit, with motionless hair like the kind my kids snap off and on their LEGO minifigures. The white paper bag he put into my hands was flimsy, take-out-order cheap, and I remember its contents—His personal effects—more by touch than by sight, as if I’d gone blind.My shaking fingers fumbled around in the debris, dirt, and rough rocks, and found the hematite, smooth and warm. I pulled the stone from the bag and stared at it in my hand, my own sad face—whose face?—reflected back in the polished surface. A mirror of a rock.
In the fold of his wallet, the leather worn into a smooth shell by the tides of his body, there was a wad of cash, probably his per diem for the week, probably the stash he would have dug into that night if he and his workmates had made it to the pizza place for a late dinner. The money was still wet. Blood had soaked through the bend in the wallet, the crack, and drenched the money. I got some on my fingers, and heard someone screaming.
I did not recognize the shrieks as my own.
In time, the blood dried, turning darker red, and eventually a kind of dirty black, and finally Colin’s money withered into something I could spend without the cashier thinking: Here is the blood-soaked money of a man far too young who died in a fiery crash. Diane and I took the wad in an envelope and bought lunch at Colin’s favorite restaurant, a place where he liked the soup and the fancy black-bottom pie. We meant it as a gesture of celebration, healthy grieving, but the toasted baguette stuck in my throat, the pie’s cream was too thick for swallowing.
In the bag, I also found the ring I’d given to him, silver, adorned with tiny bumps around the outside, too big for me to wear, so I slipped it onto my watchband. It wore divots into my wrist that I rubbed with my finger, a kind of Braille to read who we were before the accident, before all I had left to hold was a ring, a rock, and a bloody wallet.
• • •
When will I stop? It’s been twenty-four years. I am in what I’m hoping is the dead middle of an extraordinary and lucky life. I have written and written and written the story of our love, the sad tale of our loss. Enough is enough. What more is there to say? And then Colin steps out of the blowing spring snow and shows up in my spinning class. What is he doing here? Has he come to warn me? Am I supposed to warn him? And, if so, of what? Why now?
Don’t look, Jill. I command myself. Don’t look. But seriously: What am I supposed to do? What would you do if your long-dead lover showed up in your cycling class? I look.
And then things get silly. My spinning friends start singing along with Hall & Oates; particularly boisterous is the woman who brought us all tambourines to shake as we pedaled at Christmastime, hanging a chiming wooden ring on each bike like a gift. She’s a maaaaa-aneater! And her buddy, a woman who wears two terry cloth headbands, one around her forehead, Flashdance-style, and another one around her neck—a style all her own—joins in Whoa-oh here she comes, watch out, boy, she’ll chew you up!
A retired biology teacher a couple bikes down gets caught up in the fun. He belts out the chorus—She’s an anteater!—with all he has, apparently not thinking his misheard lyrics at all odd, that our boy should watch out for the approaching long-snouted anteater. It’s all so weird.
I look at Colin in the mirror, and there he is, pedaling away. He’s wearing a red New York Fitness shirt with the sleeves cut off at the top of the shoulders, just like the real Colin, my Colin, used to do to his workout shirts, and when he starts to sweat, riding hard behind me as if he can catch up, he grabs the front of his shirt and pulls it up to mop his face. Another gesture of Colin’s. A glimpse of flat stomach, hairless, a trickle of sweat.
What is Colin doing here? What has he come to tell me?
Because I’m seeing all of this in the mirror, everything behind me, and also because I’m feeling woozy from exertion, this new reality is wavering, undulating. I feel as if I’m looking back in time, back through memory to a place where Colin is alive and biking, alive and sweating. Like we’ve come here this morning to ride together. Like this is just a normal thing we do.
What is this feeling? Elation? Terror? Finally, after twenty-four years, Colin has defied the rules of angels, he’s come back, and I don’t know what to do.
Again, Celeste looks right at me. Has she noticed something wrong? Don’t slow it down, she challenges. For all I know, I’ve stopped pedaling altogether and I deserve a chastising from the teacher. Bring it up two more. And we all reach down and push the black levers forward with our palms. Strong legs, strong heart! My own heart feels weak, sick, and I would stop, but if I did, I would have to walk right past Colin’s doppelgänger to get out of the room, and if I did that, what would my face reveal?
Surely this is just a kid who came to the Y to get some exercise before class. I have never seen him here before, and although I don’t know it now, I will never see him again. He has come to the Y this one morning out of hundreds of mornings, and he will never come back. Never. That’s not the way real, living people with YMCA memberships use the Y. Real, living people with Y memberships come back to the Y, morning after morning, week after week.
But not Colin. He has come to ride with me just this single snowy day.
• • •
Between songs, I take a deep drink from my water bottle, let the cool steel of the lip ground me to this earth.
What is he doing here? Ridiculously, I feel as if this is something I could figure out: first, Colin would die, and then, twenty-four years later, he would reappear, in the flesh, breathing and sweating right behind me in a spinning class. What’s the appropriate response for me here?
Am I supposed to believe? Not believe? Am I supposed to study him, smile at him, talk to him—or duck my head and sneak out? Sexual attraction is not the right word for what I feel. No. What I am talking about is the complete obliteration of time.
This is not a Colin who’s been computer enhanced to age from the moment before impact in 1989 to 2014. This is Colin then, and if this is true and possible, as my every sense seems to be telling me it is, then who am I, and how old? My feelings for the man I’d loved in the restless, complete way of twenty-year-olds, and lost with the same intensity, were dug up and cracked open by Colin’s reappearance, a flung-open time capsule of impossibility spilling onto a Midwestern landscape that had felt solid—until this morning.
I check the mirror again, fully expecting to see the girl I once was. If I squint my eyes until the stars come, I can see her there, and then I feel another flash of fear. If Colin has come back to warn me, does that mean my babies are in danger?
Maybe we shouldn’t make the drive to Brown County. In the snow. With the kids. Mark and I were worried that the roads might be too bad to make the trip. Maybe Colin has come to tell me not to go, to warn me it’s not safe. The kids. Maybe all these years he’s been keeping his distance—he’s dead, after all—but also keeping watch. Just in case. Maybe today required intervention, and Colin decided to break the rules of angels.
We’re doing jumps. Up for eight, down for eight. My heart is racing and I feel hot. Too hot. I should stop, I think. I’m going to pass out. But that would give me away, so I don’t. I keep going.
Celeste pumps her thumb twice towards the ceiling. Add two more if you can. This is how you make change in your body. This shouldn’t be comfortable.
It isn’t. Not remotely. I add two.
I look up into the mirror and Colin is still there, pedaling hard, standing taller in the stirrups than anyone else in the class. I could swear that boy has a halo, a light on his head. What am I going to say to him? Maybe nothing. Probably nothing.
Don’t fight it, Celeste says. Ride it.
• • •
The last song is “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” or “Ticket to Ride” or “Blinded by the Light.” I can’t remember exactly, maybe because I can’t really hear. There’s a roar in my ears. I can hear my own blood pumping, spinning through my circulatory system, and it’s so loud, as if I’ve covered both ears with conch shells. I am deafened by the sonic ocean of my own wet body.
I know I have about three more minutes to look at him and decide what to do. How can he look so much like Colin and not be Colin? In German, doppelgänger means “double walker” or “double goer,” and this shadow self can be a harbinger of mortal danger—but Colin is already dead. It’s too late for all that now. I steal a look in the mirror. I want to catch his eye without looking like I’m trying to catch his eye. My heart burns with effort and a fresh stab of loss. Oh, Colin, I think. I love you. I’m sorry. But even as I feel sorry with all of my body, worked past the point of exhaustion, I don’t know why I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m sorry for.
Because I got to live a full life and he didn’t? Am I sorry because he saved me and I could not, did not, save him? Maybe I am sorry because if he has come back, if this is Colin, flesh and blood, come back to find me in Muncie, Indiana, I will not be able to love him like I did. Not in the same way.
With a jolt, I realize I have broken my promise. I am not waiting for Colin, as I always said I would be, no matter what. I have Mark and the kids.
Am I sorry because I wouldn’t know what I would be to him if he did come back? Would I make him up a room on the second floor with Henry and Ella? Make sure he finished his college degree? Would I be his mother? But Colin already has a mother who has been missing him just the way he is. She would take him back, and I . . . I don’t know.
I’m sorry, Colin.
• • •
I love to set a quarter spinning on a smooth table. The quarter is only a coin, twenty-five cents, something I could spend on twelve minutes of parking or a gumball, but when I balance it vertically with one finger and flick it hard on its edge with another, the quarter dervishes into a cyclonic blur, skidding across the table. Why is it so satisfying to watch this silver spinning? The quarter changes. While it spins, the quarter is not a quarter. Its borders disappear—but you can’t touch it. You want to. You want to touch it, to feel with your finger what it is to spin your way to transformation, but if you do, the quarter drops to the table, regains its ridged edges. Done. The quarter is once again a quarter.
And then there are the Sufis, whirling themselves to another spiritual plane altogether. I have seen these dervishes in videos, right palms up toward God, left palms down, grounding them to the earth, one leg—always the left—the stable pole of their whirling, centered like a ballerina in a jewelry box when the lid tips back, while the other scooter-kicks in a fast circle, around and around, the Sufi’s head canted toward his shoulder in ecstasy.
No. Too many distracting images—the jewelry box, the scooter. As usual, I am missing the point. Around and around and around go the Sufi dervishes, around and around, until their gowns fill with air and fly up in perfect circles, spinning away ego and desire, spinning closer and closer to God. Like my spinning quarter, losing boundaries. One. One with everything.
No matter how I try, how hard I pedal in the hot, ugly room, this is all so far beyond me, and yet I do see angels.
I check for Colin in the mirror. He is there.
• • •
I catch Colin watching me, but his look is glancing. I can’t read the expression in the mirror, and I try to imagine what I must look like from the back, dressed in elastic black, my waist pulled into a persistent hourglass above my hard-pedaling booty. I’m not twenty, but neither have I given up. Thus, the glancing look I intercept could be Colin, my own Colin, saying hello, or it could be the kid just trying to see what I look like from the front. The only way to find out what he’s thinking is to ask him after class, and I’m not going to do that—because I don’t know how.
Sixty seconds. You can do this. Give me everything you’ve got. Celeste tells me what I already know. Time is running out.
The buzzing flywheel right in front of my eyes is yet another steel gleam, another reflective surface in this hot box of a room that seems intent on showing me everything today. The wheel is the color of Colin’s lucky rock, but as flat and broad as a platter.
The song, whatever it is, stops. That’s it, Celeste says. You’re done. On time. She casts a huge, cover-girl smile around the circle of the ugly room so each of us feels as if she’s smiling at us alone. I’m so glad you were here this morning.
Yes, I think. But who, Celeste? Who was here this morning? Do you know him?
I go through the motions. I do a few shoulder rolls, stand up in the pedals to stretch out my calves, and then I unclip. The room stops whirring. Stands still.
We are done. On time.
• • •
I’m afraid I’ll cry. I feel a well of panic. I can’t let him go. What if it’s really him, and I don’t take my chance?
But if I speak to him, what do I say? Hey, this is going to sound really weird, but a million years ago I had a fiancé who looked exactly like you. Do I say also, right away, in that first flush of words, that Colin is dead? Is that too creepy? Does it even matter? Would it seem like I was trying to pick him up? Me, a black-clad cougar in a cycling class? Maybe I can just stand near him, stretching, waiting casually for the disinfectant bottle to spray down the bike, and say under my breath, but not, so if I am right, if it is true, he will hear me: Colin?
And if it isn’t Colin, if he hasn’t come here to tell me something, he will simply walk away, thinking me only mildly batty or even hearing my whispered words as the rush of the swamp fan, and if is Colin, well, then I’ll know that, too. If he hears his name, so gently spoken, and turns, finally looking me right in the eyes, a replay of that moment at the top of the spiral staircase twenty-five years ago, and answers, “Jill?”
Well. We will have broken through the barrier between this world and the next, right?
And then what? It is too late for me to go back.
All around me, my cycling buddies balance themselves on handlebars, pulling back their ankles to stretch their quadriceps. Christina folds the fluffy beach towel she carries from home. Butch plunks down on the floor and yanks back the Velcro on both cycling shoes in one swift movement, the ripping sound loud, a tiny rupturing of the space-time continuum. The dual-sweatband lady and the tambourine lady make plans to go for coffee.
I accept the damp rag and the bottle from Dale, smile, and spray down my bike, watching Colin out of the corner of my eye. He is stuffing his shoes into a black bag. The roaring in my ears has quieted, and now Eric Clapton’s voice comes through the speakers. Would you know my na-ame if I saw you in heaven?
Oh, for real? For real.
This is the last thing I hear as I watch Colin stride through the door. He is gone. I said nothing. I want to cry. But I don’t. I wipe down the seat. I pull the rag across the handlebars.
Think of all the stories we hold that we never speak, certainly not in a room full of companionable strangers, but also, just because we have learned so well how to hold them. Because that’s the way we do it. We contain our pain. Loss is something to be gotten through, and grief is on a schedule.
But what if we talked to each other? Really talked to each other? What if the heat and the music and the pounding of the blood in our hearts brought the stories spinning out of us? Maybe Dale, who was in the Air Force, saw his best buddy’s plane take a hit and spiral out of the sky before his eyes. Maybe Butch—a charming middle-aged bachelor in a do-rag—could tell us stories about growing up black in Middletown, U.S.A., that would change us forever. And maybe Christina, who goes regularly to visit her grandson in Chicago, lost a child to illness, a long, long time ago. When we come together in a room like this, the hot air swims with our unspoken stories.
What if we could hear them all at once?
Colin came to see me, and I let him leave.
Instead of crying, I reach toward Mike with the spray bottle, the now soaking rag, and I say, “See you later, Mike, have a great day.”
“You too, Jill. Be careful out there.”
• • •
By noon, the snow has stopped and the sun has emerged. The world transforms from menacing winter to bright spring day. Mark and I decide we will go. We pack our suitcase and the kids in the car and head south to the cabin.
I fold my toes in their warm socks under me and hold a paper cup of cappuccino to my lips. “The weirdest thing happened this morning in spinning class,” I say to Mark. “This guy who looked exactly like Colin came into the class. I mean exactly.”
“Like Colin then or Colin now?” Mark asks.
“Colin then,” I say. “Twenty-two-year-old Colin.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. I mean, I didn’t know what to do. I wondered, though, if he’d come to give me a message or something. Like maybe we shouldn’t make the trip today in the storm.”
Mark’s hands tighten on the steering wheel. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I just told you.”
“But we’re already in the car. We’re already driving. We’re not there yet.”
This is true. We are just half way to Brown County, but the snow has stopped, the sky has cleared, and the sun arcs across a shining blue sky with the smooth turning of the planet Earth.
Everything spinning. Everything.