I was working out in my old college gym with my friend Eliza, surreptitiously glancing at the shapely backside she’d honed from running five miles a day. Hey, I’m only human.
“Want to go for a jog after this?” she said while powering through some bicep curls.
“I’m not much of a runner,” I said. “My knees always give me trouble afterwards. I’m more of a stair climber guy.”
“Oh c’mon. It’ll do you good.”
“Only if you take it easy on me.”
“I’ll go slow.”
Leaving the gym, we walked over to the track behind the dorms and started off with easy trot. “See?” Eliza said, “You’re doing it.” I grunted in reply, struggling to get my breath in tune with my pace. After several minutes, however, my body warmed up, my pace quickened, and suddenly our run turned from a torture into a pleasure.
“I can’t believe how much this place has changed,” I said, as we ran past the university’s sparkling new library and rec center. “They didn’t have this stuff when we were here.”
“What are you talking about?” Eliza said.
“Nothing,” I said, deciding to keep my observations to myself. I have found some of my contemporaries get upset when I remind them college was thirty-five years ago.
Glistening with sweat, we finished our run and headed back to the gym to retrieve our belongings. “You did two miles,” Eliza said. “Outstanding.”
“It seemed so much easier this time around.”
“You just had to get the sand out of your gears.”
“Thanks for taking it easy on me.”
Back in the gym, we each took turns drinking from the water fountain and enjoying the feel of the air conditioning drying the sweat off our bodies. Flooded with endorphins, I was feeling no pain and feeling very much alive. “We’ll have to do this on a regular basis,” Eliza said.
“Yes, we should.”
Then Eliza gave me a sly seductive smile. “I like working out with you.”
“And I with you.”
Eliza turned around and leaned down to take another drink from the fountain. Eying her youthful body, I felt my self-control finally slip. Placing a hand on her hip, I turned her around and drew her to me.
Looking up at me in surprise Eliza said. “You sure you want to do this?” Saying nothing, I put my arms around her and gave her a kiss. To my delight, she responded with gusto.
After what seemed like a delicious eternity a voice said, “Hey you two! Get a room will ya?” Giggling, we broke the kiss but still held each other tight. “That was nice,” Eliza said. “I’ve been waiting for you to do that like, forever.”
“I don’t know why I waited so long.”
“We’ll have to do this again too.”
“Soon. Very soon.”
“Well, now I’ve got to get to class,” Eliza said, gently disentangling from our embrace. “Professor Levitt hates when people are late.”
“Class?” I said, befuddled. I hadn’t been in a classroom in thirty-five years. Then, somewhere in the distance, a bell sounded.
“Oh,” Eliza said, her pretty brow furrowing. “I don’t have classes anymore Do I?”
Waking up with a start, I rolled over and looked at the alarm buzzing softly on my night table. 6:30 AM. Time to get my daughter up for school. Swinging my legs out of bed, I placed my feet firmly on the floor and then slowly levered myself up, listening as one of my knees produced an arthritic pop. Slipping on my bathrobe, I looked at my wife under the covers, watching as she slowly roused towards consciousness. “This is my wife,” I told myself. “I’ve been married for ten years.” Then I went into my daughter’s room and sat on her bed, gently placing my hand on her forehead. “This is my daughter. She’s nine years old.”
I woke Natalie up and then went into the bathroom. “This is my bathroom. This is my house,” I almost murmured aloud. “I’ve lived here eight years.” Then, business finished, I looked at my grey hair in the mirror. “I’m fifty-five years old and can’t run to save my life. I’m a stair climber kind of guy now.” Then, shaking my head, I said, “Goddamn that was over thirty five years ago.” Padding downstairs, I poured myself a cup of coffee from the pot I’d set to brew before I went to bed and waited for the caffeine to dissipate the cobwebs of unreal reality from my mind. That kiss happened exactly as I described – long ago when I was still a seminarian. Then, feeling tears sting my eyes, I said. “I’m still here. Eliza is dead.”
A couple of days ago, I was waxing nostalgic and wondering what had become of Eliza. We had a bit of a thing in college but, other than a brief Facebook reunion in 2011, we hadn’t spoken to each other since graduation. So, I Googled her name and to my shock, found myself staring at her obituary. Eliza died in 2020 at the age of fifty-two – just eleven days after she’d buried her mother. She never married or had children but, as I read the remembrances left by her family and friends, it was obvious she had been a well-loved person. “The one thing I’ll always remember about Eliza,” one of them wrote, “Was her jogging all over town and dancing with her at my wedding.” Tabbing over to her still active Facebook page, I looked at her picture timeline. Though she’d gotten older, she had still been pretty, kept her trim figure all her life, and had been active in our old university’s choir until just before she died.
It took some doing, but I found out why Eliza has died so young. Either just before or after her mother died, Eliza had been feeling unwell and went to the doctor – only to find out she had liver cancer that had metastasized throughout her body. There was nothing anyone could do and she declined with quick, but perhaps merciful, speed. Leaning on my kitchen counter, I pictured Eliza standing at her mom’s graveside, wondering if she knew that she’d be joining her so soon. “Cancer sucks,” I said, aloud.
Now fully awake, I began making my daughter’s breakfast, but I couldn’t shake the Eliza I saw in my dreams. If you’d asked me what she looked like before yesterday, I could give you a vague description of a pretty blonde with a face like a youthful Catherine Oxenburg. But in my nocturnal vision, Eliza had appeared exactly as she looked when she was twenty-years old. Amazing what details your unconscious mind remembers – and unsettling. It’s like journeying back in a time machine that you have no control over.
I knew the dream was my psyche processing the news of Eliza’s death. It’s no fun to hear someone you once cared for died so young. But I also remembered that kiss in the gym and the others that followed. I was in the seminary at the time and, last I checked, making out with co-eds wasn’t exactly encouraged by the clerical higher ups. By that time, however, I was already starting to doubt my vocation – which caused me no small amount of anxiety. But when I kissed Eliza that day, radiant possibilities blazed into existence and, for the first time, the thought of not becoming a priest suddenly didn’t seem as scary. It took a long time for me to leave the seminary but, looking back on it now, Eliza was the first of many steps on the long and winding path that led me to where I am today. To my wife and daughter.
No longer sad, I could still feel the lingering sensation of Eliza’s lips on mine –a gift delivered from Elysium’s heights. Perhaps being kissed by a ghost was Eliza’s way of telling me she was all right and that, no matter what life has in store for me, I will be all right too – that nothing is ever truly lost. Now I have to figure out if I should tell my wife about my dream.
She’ll probably understand.