I can’t remember if I was originally a man or a woman. All I know is that, for now, I’m a woman. I live in a modest two-bedroom house with my fiancé. He just proposed about a month ago at a state park. We don’t have any kids. Not that I’d be around long enough for that.
It’s Friday night, and I just got home from work. My normal routine includes walking into the bedroom, lying on the bed, kicking off my heels, and fiddling around with my phone for a while. I got as far as lying down when the headache started, and that means it’s almost time.
This isn’t your everyday storm’s-a-brewin’ headache. It’s also not a dealing-with-assholes-all-day headache. It’s even beyond a migraine. I’ve had chronic migraines in one of my bodies before. Trust me, I know a migraine. This is much worse. The pain is enough to make me come to terms with the fact that I’m dying. Except I don’t die. Or maybe I do.
I need to power through the pain as best I can so I can think about the part that comes after, the goodbye. I’ve made the mistake of just winging it in the past, and that turned out poorly. I know all along it’s coming eventually, so I try to plan ahead. But the reality is that no matter how much I prepare, it’s never easy. I wrote it all down once, but I don’t do that anymore, not after Gina found the note. As it all kicks into gear, I try to gather my thoughts in the middle of this hurricane spinning in the middle of my skull.
The headaches probably last only a few minutes, but they feel much longer. And that makes sense, as I’m acutely aware of every second that goes by. While my head is throbbing, I try to concentrate on that so I’ll remember what it’s like to deal with time passage on the micro level once it’s over. Every second counts for the goodbye, all thirteen of them. It’s always thirteen seconds.
“Sweetie?” I call out. But it comes out as only a whisper. I try again. Same result. I just lie there. My head’s about to burst now, and for the life of me, I can’t think of his name. It sounds awful, but the headache makes it difficult to keep track of who’s who. Maybe it’s Joshua? Or was that someone from a previous life? My inability to remember makes me feel worse than I already do.
I grit my teeth and force myself to a sitting position. “Baby?” I shout. My voice is shaky, but I think it was loud enough. After a moment, I hear a grunt from the living room. He’s watching the local news, his own after-work ritual. I flop back onto the bed, my energy expended. I can’t say anything else, at least not right now.
It’s the same question every time. Do I go with the emotional or practical goodbye? There are pros and cons to both. After having done this enough times, I generally lean toward practical so I don’t leave my loved one in a financial lurch. I try to take care of that beforehand as much as I can, but it’s just too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of it all. Even though I know it’s coming eventually, I just forget sometimes, and then time’s up, no real warning. Emotional goodbyes often require more time than I have. It’s best to cut to the chase.
My headache is almost gone, so I need to get out to the living room. I fumble around for a bedpost and brace an arm on it as I swing my legs around. I feel like I’m going to throw up, but I push myself off the bed anyway. I hobble down the hall and whack my thigh against an end table. A stack of coasters and a stray mug crash onto the floor, and Joshua (yes, it’s definitely Joshua) is off the sofa and running toward me.
“Mar, are you okay? What’s going on?” He’s shouting, and the genuine concern is evident in his voice. My heart sinks.
I open my mouth to start talking. My headache is still alive and dangerous, which means my timer hasn’t started yet. I’m dizzy and staring at the floor, but if I can say something, I’ll get a few extra moments added to the clock. But I can’t force any words out. This is going to be a close call.
Joshua is standing with his arm around me, holding me up. I look into his eyes, and they are wild with terror, confusion. Now my headache is completely gone. I look past him toward my arm over his shoulder so I can see my watch.
“I’ve got life insurance through work. You’re the beneficiary, but they won’t pay it out unless you call. Your friend I met at the cookout a few weeks ago—Ryan, I think?—he wanted me to cheat with him. Don’t trust him.”
“Don’t talk! I’ve got a bank account I never told you about so we wouldn’t waste the money. Account number is on checks in the back of the desk, and the PIN is the normal one. I lo—”
Everything goes dark.
I’m standing in line at a coffee shop. I look down. I’m wearing a suit and tie. Maybe I’m a man? I jam my hand into my pocket like I’m looking for something, which I am. Yes, definitely a man. I glance out the windows. I’m in a city. Not sure which one at the moment, but it will come to me.
“Here’s your usual, Mr. Crawford. Caramel latte, no cream.” The barista smiles at me. It’s not an everyday smile, possibly coy?
I smile back. Seems like a nice guy. Not sure if he’s too young for me, but I’ll remember more about my new self in the next few hours. I miss Joshua, and loving a person changes you, alters your chemistry. But I can’t go through my new life alone. I need to have a connection, even if it’s only for a little while.
I step outside and breathe in the cool morning air. Maybe next time I’m here, I’ll chat and get to know him. Maybe I’ll need to start practicing my next goodbye.
—Nathaniel W. Phillips (@EldritchNate) writes into the night and homebrews into the night, often at the same time. He lives, works, and dreams just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina.