Short Story: The Middle

No matter how early you arrive at an airport, your time there always seems spent in a hazy blur. You walk, or jog, alongside people you'll never see again. You sit beside and talk amongst others and never exchange names. It is the land of the temporary. There's a feeling you get, a sort of disorientation, within the confines of the airport. It's called a liminal space, where reality just feels off. There are others like it. Hotels late at night, parking garages, or rest stops along a highway with no sign of civilization in either direction. Liminal space is the space in between; it's in the middle of “here” and “there”.

So, there I stood, by the desk for my flight's gate in a sparse airport in the late evening. I felt out of breath from sprinting to the gate, fearing that my plane would take off without me, only to discover it'd been delayed another forty-five minutes. Gathering myself, I slunk to one of the nearest seats, sat down and pulled out my phone, trying to ignore that overwhelming sense of off-ness.

"You almost missed it," someone said. I looked up from my phone to see a man with bright red hair that was pulled back into a bun in the seats facing mine. He smirked as I returned a baffled stutter.

"I'm only teasing," he added.

"Oh, yeah, I...didn’t know it was delayed," I said sheepishly, my face growing warm. I feared my cheeks turning a shade of red that matched his hair.

"What's your name?" he asked, breaking rule #1 of airport etiquette.

"Miguel. Yours?" I said, following suit. My bashful warmth spread across my entire body.

He told me that his name was Elijah and, as fate would have it, we were both stopping in Eugene, Oregon. Elijah was going to be staying with his sister for the summer to help with her children while going through a divorce. He was a college student and took the summer off. I was returning home from Denver, Colorado, after the birth of my brother’s first child. A beginning and an end, while we coexisted in the middle.

I could hardly believe it when the announcement sounded for the arrival of our flight. Our conversation seemed to have lasted hours, yet it didn't last long enough. The plane unloaded, and then finally we boarded, shuffling down the chute like sheep and into the plane where sickeningly enthusiastic flight attendants waited to usher us in.

When everyone got to their seats, I peered around for Elijah's bright red hair only to discover he was half a dozen rows in front of me and, from the looks of it, there was an old woman already passed out against his shoulder. I was fortunate enough to be seated next to a confident looking man in a business suit, or so I thought until he spent the time from our take off to our subsequent landing attempting to get me to buy in to what I could only assume was a pyramid scheme.

Elijah and I met once more at the baggage claim. He was already standing in the sloppy circle of people also waiting for their luggage, all of whom were looking worn out from the long day of travel.

"You, uh, got a little drool on you," I said, gesturing to Elijah's shoulder as I walked up. He laughed and rolled his eyes dramatically, wiping at the spot with the sleeve of his sweater.

"I wish I could say that was the first time, but apparently I give off the 'please fall asleep on me' vibe," he replied, then went back to eyeing the belt for his bag amid twenty-some suitcases that all looked vaguely similar to one another.

It didn't take long before his suitcase finally made its way down the line. It was a bright green, hard-shell case with stickers scattered all over it. He pulled it from the belt, and it was obvious he wasn't a light packer with the force he had to put into dragging it off.

"So, I guess this is farewell," he said, pulling out the handle from the top of his suitcase.

"Yeah," I sighed, hesitant to speak my next words, "What do you, uh, think are the chances of us seeing each other again?" I visibly cringed at myself, feeling a mixture of surprise at my forwardness and mortified of opening myself up for rejection.

"Whatever they are, I hope they fall in our favor," Elijah said, "So, until next time?" I nodded with a silly grin on my face, then noticed my own suitcase coming down the line.

"Oh, I, uh-" I stammered, breaking away and went to the belt to gather my belongings. Unfortunately, by the time I had pulled my suitcase from the belt and looked back to Elijah, he was already gone. I took a minute to scold myself for not getting his number, then reluctantly made for the pickup area to catch a bus into town.

* * *

Dark, heavy clouds sprawled out over the entirety of the city of Eugene and the familiar scent of a fresh rainfall blew through the air. It was the early morning, almost a week after I'd returned from my trip. I sat at my desk in the living room of my small apartment nestled in a cozy neighborhood near downtown. Around me were the five, formerly-stray cats I'd taken in throughout the years. Yogurt and Stardust, the eldest two of the pack, laid on the only free space of my large desk, while Rainbow curled up in my lap, and Cleopatra and Jonathan slept on my feet.

Stardust stared me down with a look of judgment, as if she somehow knew I was scouring Facebook for anyone named Elijah who lived in Denver. I had come up empty and closed the browser in a huff of defeat, opting to finish the last few sips of my coffee and get ready for work at my boring office job for an insurance company.

Later that day, while I was logging in numbers, I caught myself thinking about him again. I felt like the stereotypical lovesick schoolboy pining away for the mysterious new kid. I guess, in a way, I was, but there was something peculiar about it. I had begun to see him, though it never was him. I’d see him walk across aisles in Target, late after I'd gotten off work when there were very few customers, or in the gas station when I would grab snacks to eat while binge-watching my newest show. Brief glimpses of that fiery red hair flashed in my peripheral vision but every time I'd turn to look, it was gone.

* * *

By the time the week was done, I'd practically forgotten about Elijah. And about his stupid, beautiful hair. And about his stupid, cute freckles. And his stupid, amazing bone structure. The exact moment I thought I'd purged every stupid thing about him from my brain was when I was walking through the doors of the laundromat I frequented. This was pretty convenient, because it was also the exact moment I finally laid eyes on him again. For real. In the flesh. Standing right in front of me. Doing his laundry. Looking stupid and beautiful just like I remembered. In the instinctive manner you do when someone walks in a room, he looked up to see me. His face broke slowly into a smile and I looked at him with my jaw agape.

"Miguel?" he said, and my stomach erupted in butterflies. He said my name.

"H-How..." I muttered, still not entirely sure that I wasn't dreaming.

"Small, er, world, huh?" he said, "I would've called, but..."

"Y-Yeah, same," I replied. Remembering that I was still in the doorway, I slung my bag of laundry back over my shoulder and walked over to Elijah.

"How's your sister doing?" I asked. I knew little of how to navigate small talk, but figured it was a good place to start. He let go a sigh of exasperation and told me about how she was having to hire a lawyer to fight for custody of their children, and how each night generally ended with he and his sister staying up far too late, drinking far too much wine. He asked of my brother and his newborn son, who were both doing fantastic and he was the happiest man alive, finally becoming a father.

It was weird how our initial awkwardness vanished once we got going. It felt so natural, talking to him. Like right there was where I was meant to be. The laundromat wasn't the middle anymore, between dirtied clothes and clean. It was the beginning of us, and the end of a search that, I think, was a lot longer than only those first few weeks of summer.

But then the beginning ended, with the buzz of a dryer. It was the end of a cycle, in many ways, and that meant he had to go, leaving me in the middle once more. He stuffed his pile of clothes into an old, plastic hamper that was cracked all throughout, and then he made to leave.

"So, same time next week?" he asked. My face must've lit up with laughter. He laughed a warm, soft laugh, that exposed his near perfect teeth. His eyes crinkled at the sides as he watched me form a coherent thought.

"I'd like that," I finally managed to say.

"Then it's a date," Elijah confirmed with a nod and a smile.

I had to look away, for I feared I'd explode with the anxious butterflies that continued to multiply deep down in the pit of my stomach. Then, once I'd looked away, I felt it silly to look back to watch him go, because that would be so clingy, but I was weak-willed and did so despite myself.

And he was already gone.

* * *

Elijah and I would go on to share our time spent in that laundromat for the following weeks. Each time he was already there when I arrived, each time he left me in the middle, and each time he'd part with those same words: "So, same time next week?"

Quickly, it became the thing I looked forward to most in my week. I even found myself telling my cats about our meetings as I drifted off to sleep. Stardust still thought me too much for her to deal with, still giving me those looks of judgment, only now from the pillow beside mine. Cleopatra, on the other hand, clung to every word. She was always the one who indulged me in idle gossip, but Rainbow and Yogurt were only there for butt scratches. And then there was Jonathan, who stayed up long into the night, causing a ruckus off in the living room. His nails clattered against the hardwood flooring, and every so often I'd hear him crash into something.

Elijah and I learned much about each other in those weeks of summer. He was going to school to become a veterinarian, knew enough Klingon to be embarrassed, liked pineapple on pizza, and had a collection of poems that he'd written daily since he was six. Each laundry day, I found myself falling deeper in love with him to a point I'd never thought possible before. And I poured my heart out to him. I told him things I never thought possible. That I was still afraid of the dark, was completely incapable of telling someone “no”, thought Santa was real well into my adolescence, and actually liked the Star Wars prequels.

It broke my heart, then, on a particularly rainy, Oregonian afternoon, when Elijah didn't speak those parting words at the doorway of the empty laundromat.

"Summer's over next week" he said, looking to me solemnly. "I'll be leaving for Denver tomorrow." It hit me like a bus. I'd known our time was temporary, but I think I'd willingly forgotten it. Like maybe if I wished for it enough, the day wouldn’t come.

I stood up from the old, wooden bench, and approached him, barely able to form words, "T-Tomorrow?"

"I've...I've got school to get back to," he said, looking down at his feet. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. Of course he had to leave, and I couldn't hold that against him, despite how I wanted to. These summer months were some of the best I’d ever had, and I wanted to be selfish.

"What do you think is the chance of us seeing each other again?" I asked, recalling the words from our departure at the airport all that time ago. It took everything I had to not choke up. Elijah managed a laugh, closed his eyes, and took a breath.

"Whatever they are, I hope they fall in our favor," he recited, wiping a tear from my eye. His hand radiated a warmth I wanted to cling to so desperately. I looked at him, my eyes undoubtedly bloodshot and teary, and then he kissed me. He took my face in his hands, and pressed his lips to mine. It was a passionate kiss, long in the making. I wanted to stay in that moment, but it undoubtedly had to end. He let go and his hands slid down to hold mine.

"I'm sorry, Miguel," he told me.

"No, I wanted you to do that," I insisted, oblivious to his true meaning. He laughed, a hearty laugh this time, and shook his head at me.

"That's...not what I meant," he said, then paused in thought. "You know those places, like this one here, where things feel kinda strange?" My confusion must've been apparent, because he continued.

"It's called a 'liminal space'," he told me, "A place in between places. Where their existence is more about where you'll be next or where you were before. Do you get what I mean?"

"Like an airport?" I asked, and he gave me a nod.

"Well, some of these spots, the liminal spaces, aren't just connecting two separate places. Some connect more than that," he told me, watching my confusion grow.

"Watch this," he said, letting go of one hand. He turned to face the doorway of the laundromat and held his hand through it. As his fingertips passed the threshold, they fragmented apart. They became like dust, drifting in the air. He went further, stepping away from me completely, and soon his entire hand and half of his forearm had done the same.

Instinctively, and once the initial shock subsided, I pulled his arm back into the building. I inspected his arm to determine the damage, but his arm was now whole again.

"Did that...really just happen?" I asked.

"Like I said: some connect more."

"So, you're-"

"Not from your world, no."

"Are you an alien?"

"No, not an alien," he chuckled, "Think...another dimension. Another reality."

"Woah."

"I know."

"You'd think twenty-some years of reading comics would prepare you for a thing like that," I said, still dumbfounded and processing everything at a moderate to low rate of speed. I had to take a step back, leaning against one of the dryers, to take it all in. It was a while before I could speak again.

"So, what does that mean?" I said, "For us?" It was then he became solemn once more.

"I don't rightly know. I learned about this as a boy and, while I haven't learned much since, I know that these places don't always connect the same two worlds. I suppose it's like the planets revolving around the sun; sometimes things just line up," he told me, returning his hands to my own. "Maybe next year they'll still be connected, or maybe they won't."

"But will you try?" I asked, "Next summer, will you come back?"

"Of course, I will," he said, and kissed me again. This time it was tender and brief.

“But tonight,” he continued, “We still have tonight.”

And so we did. We stayed there in that empty laundromat long into the night, long past the point where he and I could hardly hold our eyes up. He sat atop on of the dryers and I lied across them with my head in his lap. He ran his fingers through my thick, black hair as we soaked in each other’s company.

“You keep doing that, I’m bound to fall asleep,” I warned, with words interspersed by sleepy breaths.

“I wish we could be curled up on the couch instead of here,” he professed. The pain in his eyes was unbearable and twisted my stomach in knots.

“It’ll happen,” I told him. “One day. It’ll happen. I promise.” I reached up to wrap my hand over his.

“I want to believe that,” he said, “But I’ve not learned barely a thing from years of looking into all…this.”

“There’s always a way,” I said, “Even if I have to get bitten by a radioactive time traveler or something.”

“You know, you may be onto something there,” he laughed.

I sat up, noticing the sun had begun to rise over the rooftops and pine trees, then looked back to Elijah. “You have to leave soon, don’t you?” He lowered his head before speaking.

“Yes,” he admitted. “Gotta be to the airport in an hour.” He dropped his feet down and lowered himself onto the floor. It pained me to hear him say that, but it was obvious we couldn't stay in this middle forever.

Elijah went to his hamper, which looked sad as ever in its dilapidated state, and took it over to the entryway while I followed close behind.

He readjusted himself, flattened out the wrinkles in his shirt, took a deep breath in, and stepped backwards, now only a foot away from the door. Being the forward one for once, I pulled him into my embrace and kissed him. My knees went weak as he dragged his hands down my back and then back up along my sides until his hands met my face. If ever there were a kiss goodbye, this were it.

When he finally pulled away from me, we stepped back and grinned like sheepish schoolboys. It was a moment before either of us spoke.

“Well, this is goodbye, I guess,” I finally said.

“Not goodbye,” he corrected, “How about: until next time?"

"Until next time," I repeated, and then he took his final step through the doorway. His body broke into a billion tiny flecks as he went off to his own world. It was the end of our summer together but hopefully, if the odds turned out in our favor, we might have a beginning once more.

Andrew Olvera lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he works as a teacher for students with special needs. He is the co-founder of Lazy Adventurer Publishing and heads both of the press's magazines, Prismatica Magazine and Collective Realms Magazine as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.