My One and Only
My parents are not soul mates.
That means the tabloids aren't interested in photos of them. My father opens the door, and flashbulbs ignite the mist-thick air. The paparazzi hold their cameras high to snap pictures over his head. He is not a soul mate; they want shots of me.
Flashes ricochet around the room, lighting the planes of my mother's face. "Phil, shut the door."
Dad holds up his hands--a man surrendering comically to the barrage of light. He snatches a bag off the observation deck and hurries inside.
"What are you doing?"
Dad pulls an old hammer from the bag. He smiles, flips it in the air and presents the handle to me, "Don't be nervous, Heath. If you can't open her locket, just use this."
"You brought that thing?" Mom asks.
"The same hammer I used on your locket."
"Threatened to use," she corrects him. She's smiling slightly; that makes me smile. We both know Dad's just trying to lighten the mood.
Dad claps me on the shoulder. "I almost used this the night I proposed to your mother. I drove her up into the Smoky Mountains. Rented a cabin. Plied her with chocolate bonbons and Cabernet," Dad arches an eyebrow and glances at Mom. "She just happened to bring her sacred locket with her. Nana Rhodes kept that thing cloistered away for--what?--twenty-five years? This one weekend she decides to pull it out of the mothballs."
He winks, and a tinge of embarrassment tightens Mom's smile. We're not the only three people in the room, and she's usually a very private person. But she continues the story, "About two weekends before our trip, he asked about my ring size. And we had been dating for two years. I had a good idea what was coming."
"But my key didn't fit," Dad says bluntly. "This was just before Heartland--before they offered X-rays and started keeping track of grooves and teeth and wards and all that. My key only went in about an eighth of an inch; then it stopped dead. I went out to the car, grabbed that hammer and told your mother, 'I'm getting that lock open, one way or another!'"
He laughs. Mom seems embarrassed, or do I see hurt in her eyes as she thinks about the disappointment of that night? What did it feel like to fail at something so incredibly important? To suddenly discover that the person you love isn't your soul mate? Painful, maybe, but not devastating. Dad carried on with his proposal; Mom married him. I was born.
Mom says, "You don't need that hammer, Heath. You already know your key will fit. If it doesn't it'll be a bigger embarrassment for the Heartland technicians." She glances at Mr. Holtzer. "It's their guarantee, and their butts that are on the line."
Mom hands me a thick scrapbook. "I want you to give this to Darcy." I flip through the first few pages, moving from back to front. It is immaculately arranged: a lock of nearly colorless flax from my first haircut, an array of handprints and footprints in faded blue ink, a half-page form describing my physical attributes at birth. I was a thoroughly average newborn: six pounds, ten ounces; nineteen inches long. My sacred key was delivered normally, in the dextral position, its ossified chain wrapped in a clockwise spiral up my right arm. The next page of the album shows an impression of my sacred key in red wax, like the seal on a medieval envelope. I run my fingers over the wax, following the shape. My key has two fore-teeth, one back-tooth, and double helix of grooves winding up its stem with the organic symmetry of a nautilus shell.
She hugs me hard, and I nearly drop the album to squeeze her back. With her face hidden, I can feel her reserve begin to ease. She seems to melt a bit, and I hear her sniff.
"I think it's time, Heath," Dad says, and Mom breaks our embrace. Two tears roll from her eyes.
"It's okay," I tell her. "I'll be right back, it's not like..."
"I know. Go on. You're going to be so happy."
"Go get her, champ." Dad wraps his arms around her shoulders, and Mom turns her face. She's trying to hide her tears from Holtzer.
The stylist steps forward and straightens the creases in my shirt, wiping away the wrinkled impression of Mom's hug. She gently hustles me to the front door, where Holtzer is waiting. His smile almost seems genuine. "Looking sharp, Heath. You two are going to look great for the cameras. The all-American couple."
His voice dips to a sly mumble. "You sure you want to do this?"
I wonder if Heartland Incorporated realizes their Chief Marketing Officer has such a cynical view of their services. I look at my Mom; her face is pink, but dry. She dislikes Holtzer intensely; she doesn't realize how much they have in common. Both of them think today's spectacle is ridiculous. Both of them think this worldwide obsession with birthcharms--sacred keys, sacred lockets, Heartland's thousand-dollar matching fees, international registries, all of it--is archaic and unhealthy. The difference between them comes from how they've reached their conclusions.
Mom is a wedding photographer. Every warm-weather weekend, she documents brides and grooms pledging themselves to a person who is not their one true match. Candids. Portraits. Posed embraces. Ceremonial kisses. What kind of sadness does she capture in the crinkled edges of each smile? A soft shrug of surrender as the bride bunches her shoulders and embraces her loved ones. A moment of hesitation, a silent acknowledgment of defeat as the groom seals his vows. I'm sure, over time, all that ceremonial camouflage began to get to her. It's got to be lonely to know your soul mate was out there, and you never found him.
Holtzer, on the other hand, cherishes that lonesomeness. Dad's stunt with the hammer is an old gag. If Holtzer had handed me that hammer, I'm sure he would've taken the joke another way: 'Do you think your key is going to fit in that girl's locket? You're going to walk out there and fit yourself to her? For life? Use this hammer and smash your key. Make sure it never fits.'
I turn to give my parents a wave; then Holtzer is opening the door before I have moment to compose myself. He holds up his day planner, to shield my eyes from the sudden blaze of cameras. Two walls of attendants and well-wishers shift into place around me, and the lights and the buzz of the paparazzi are momentarily stifled. He taps me on the back: chest out, chin down. He's drilled that into me over the last few days. We are on a wide concrete platform, an observation deck set next to a magnificent waterfall: vertical cascade of white foam descending into a 60-foot gorge. The crowd has left a path to the bridge at the center edge of the deck. On the other end of the bridge, on the western side of the gorge, I see another observation deck and another crowd. My soul mate, Darcy Wright, is somewhere in that cluster of people. We've never actually met; she's essentially a stranger.
"You're a brave man," Holtzer whispers to me. All day, he's been treating me with facetious respect. Six days ago, he tried to talk me out of this meeting.
"Don't you feel trapped?" he asked me. "Just one girl for the rest of your life?"
"Isn't that a good thing?" I asked him.
"No! Men are supposed to be hunters, to spread our seed. Aren't you freaked out that that part of your brain might just shut off?"
I try to forget Holtzer's words. I push his doubt out of my mind. Instead, I focus on the lineup of faces before me. Doubt. Doubt. Do I feel doubt, or just more nervousness? My eyes settle on a heart-shaped face framed by blonde curls. Emily. She's the last person I need to see. Cousins, aunts and grade-school friends step forward to offer me hugs and handshakes; then it's Emily's turn. She gives me a bittersweet smile, and we hug. I can feel Holtzer's eyes on us.
"This is it," I say.
She shrugs, and I can't read what the gesture means. I can imagine Holtzer's voice. 'Don't you feel trapped?'
No girls had ever noticed me in school. Then the radiographers at Heartland found a match for my key. Someone leaked the story to the press, and suddenly I was famous. Teachers threw out their lesson plans so that my classmates could interview me: 'Are you excited? Nervous? Have you seen her? Is she pretty?' I became a one-in-a-million celebrity, a romantic lead in a real-life drama. Girls swarmed me in the halls, but once I knew Emily was interested in me, it was like all the other girls didn't exist. When I imagined my soul mate, she looked like Emily. Emily's hair is a hundred shades of yellow gold. The ends of her curls seem to float on the air; like the glowing filaments in lightbulbs. The shape of my key has me pledged--innately, karmically--to a girl from Oregon named Darcy Wright, but Emily Dunham was the first girl I fell in love with.
She nods at the velvet bag hanging from my neck. "Your key?"
"I never actually saw it. Remember?"
"All I saw was a swaddling of paper towels."
"And the paper turned all grey because my hands were sweating. I was sure my Mom was going to realize I'd smuggled it out of the house."
"I was freaking out, too."
"It was a dumb idea," I say and instantly regret it. "I mean it would've been really depressing when my key didn't fit your locket."
"That day I thought for sure it would. I thought the whole world was wrong."
I reach for the bag. "Do you want to see it now?"
She shivers my suggestion away. We've chatted too long; it's becoming unseemly. "Good luck, Heath."
I move forward through more quick greetings and hugs. My three best friends, Judd, Nick and Kyle, are waiting for me at the end of the crowd. They smirk at me, and I smirk back. They all look taller and somehow older in their tailored suits. I know that Darcy Wright is on the western deck with her own three escorts. This whole conceit, the opposing parties, the escorts, the rendezvous on 'middle ground,' all sprang from Holtzer's brainstorm to follow an ancient birthcharm ceremony from Ireland. Or maybe it was Wales. I don't remember exactly, but I know it was a region so small and isolated--such a small sliver of the global population--it's hard to imagine anyone ever finding their one true match within its borders. I glance behind me, but Holtzer has disappeared in the crowd. I see Emily again.
"You ready for this?" Judd shakes my hand. He is grinning, relishing the thought that he's going to be in magazines and news shows across the planet. He catches me looking at Emily. "It's time to move on from that, Heath. You've got a bigger fish to fry."
"I'm still amazed she ever liked me."
"Nothing hard to understand there," Judd says. "You're famous and unattainable. That's an irresistible combination."
Kyle adds helpfully, "Darcy's hotter anyway."
"Duh," Judd agrees. "She's famous too."
I stop just short of the bridge and wait for a cue to cross to the middle. Judd follows directly behind me; he plants his hands on my shoulders and brusquely massages away some imaginary tension. Mostly, I'm concentrating on not locking my knees and fainting, but a part of my mind is still thinking of Emily. I wonder what Holtzer (Judd, too) would think if they knew that I'm still a virgin. A part of me wanted to have sex with Emily, but when we were alone, the mood inevitably turned gloomy. There's a sadness in being with someone who's intrinsically 'secondary.' I don't have Judd's swagger, or Holtzer's cynicism. I couldn't overcome it.
I can see Darcy standing with her escorts at her end of the bridge. She's wearing a white and grey sundress; I can't tell if she's smiling. When do we move? There's no music to cue us; it might interfere with the long-range microphones. I hear the sparse jangle of birdcalls and the shush of water tumbling down the craggy cliff face. There's a renewed flutter of cameras. It's time.
The bridge is modern; its steel-and-polymer planks remind me of the white keys on a piano. Gravity pulls it into a subtle downward arc. There's nowhere to go but forward. I've seen Darcy's picture many times: in magazines, in Valentine and Christmas cards that our families have exchanged for the last two years. This will be the first time we've met each other, face-to-face. This will be the first time we've spoken to each other.
What is it like to truly fall in love at first sight? It's a bit like an out-of-body experience. I go lightheaded as I finally, truly see her face. My feet are far, far below me. I must be walking, but I'm not aware of taking steps. I'm floating toward her eyes. My body is dissipating, and she's taking me in. I offer her my hand, but there's no substance to it. My fingers are gone--just nerve-endings suspended in air. An electric tingling. Waiting for contact to close the circuit. To be complete.
Somehow, I grasp the mechanics to speak. "I'm Heath."
I speak. "I'm Darcy."
What is it like to truly fall in love at first sight? It's like being immersed in air that's thick and warm. It's like hurrying inside on a frigid Christmas day and being surrounded by the laughter of your family, the heat of the kitchen and the smell of sweet potato, cinnamon and plum pudding. Vanilla and thyme. It's peeling off your winter coat and feeling warmer when it's gone. You feel exhilaration against your skin, but there's a safe, blissful calm in your core.
It's all very shocking.
You crash through an intense shock, and your life flashes before your eyes. The faces of your loved ones, the key events of your life.
It's all brought you to this.
My memory is reeling, and I am moving backward. I am back at the edge of the bridge, waiting for a cue to start walking. My sister, Carey, is behind me. Both of our lives are changing, in this moment, before our eyes. If the old wives' tales are true, my (supposed) devotion to Heath Bennett is going to overwhelm every other interpersonal bond I've ever had. Or will ever have. This might be Carey's last moment as the closest person in my life. But right now Carey is not feeling particularly close to me. She's still trying to comprehend my confession.
My friend, Julie, asks me how I am feeling.
"I feel like a freak," I say. "Premiering at the freak show." My sacred locket is hanging heavy against my fluttering chest. It is as white as a tooth and as glossy as a river stone. The locket is vaguely heart-shaped, like a tiny pelvic bone. They say our birthcharms (and the chains attached to them) start out in the early fetal stages as vertebrae at the base of our spines. Bones, made from my insides and formed in my mother's womb. Its exposure to the open air makes me feel strangely naked.
Julie squints across the river. "He's cute, Darcy. He looks taller in person."
I follow her stare and see Heath, diminished by distance and obscured by the misty air. In pictures, he's always seemed amiable and handsome in a mild, expected sort of way. But there were times when I would start seething at the sight of him. 'Why him?' I would ask. 'Why couldn't it have been Gabriel?' Now, all of that anger has wilted away. There's a part of me that is yearning to cross the bridge, to see if I can find comfort through him. Already I can feel something. Was this the right thing all along? I realize that what I've done is going to deeply hurt this boy I barely know. It's going to embarrass him and his family. And I don't want that.
"Don't worry," Julie says to me. "You look beautiful. It's going to go great."
I want to start crying again. No, this is going to be a disaster. And it's my fault.
Again, I am moving backward. Ten minutes back, and I am crying. I am surrounded by friends and family. Even though they're vaguely unsettled by my tears, I can tell that they're romanticizing the reasons behind them. They assume that anxiety has made me overly emotional, and they offer words of encouragement. If they knew the real reason I'm crying, they'd be horrified. Only Carey knows me well enough to suspect that something is seriously wrong. She leads me away from the crowd, through a salvo of camera flashes to shelter under an eave of the overlook bungalow. It's a spot where the cameras can't catch my face.
For the last two years, Carey's had to live in my shadow. She's been showered with relentless and undeserved pity since I became famous. 'Don't worry. You'll find your match, too!' She's been offered that silly condolence dozens of times, by people who have given up hope of finding their own soul mates. Among billions of unmatched people, I am in an extremely tiny minority. Should Carey be considered more tragic than every other unmatched person in the world, just because she's my sister? There's nothing pitiful about Carey. She has the strong, Pacific-blue eyes of my mother; her skin turns an immaculate bronze in the sun, where my skin turns scarlet and peels away. Even though Carey's thirty months younger, she's always been my pillar to lean on. She's keener and more resilient and more even-headed than I will ever be.
She asks, "What's going on?"
I am sobbing. "My locket isn't going to work."
"Of course it will."
"No," I clutch my piece of bone. I want to hide it; I want to throw it into the gorge.
"Darcy, the Heartland people have, like, triple-checked your locket specs with Heath's key. They X-rayed your lock just two weeks ago. It's going to work; they can't have been wrong this many times."
I squeeze my eyes tight and push out any moisture that might blur my vision. It will feel good to get the truth out. "I broke my locket on Tuesday. I used a hammer and drove a nail into the hole, and I heard something crack. I think I bent the wards inside."
I can see that Carey wants to grab me, or put a hand to her face. She wants to do something, but our guests are watching. "Why would you do that, Darcy? Why..." Her mouth snaps shut, and she knows answer. "Because of Gabriel."
"It was his idea, originally, but it's not..."
"Why would you let him convince you to... You're broken up! He's a jerk, Darcy. You've told me a million times you know he's a jerk."
"I didn't do it for Gabriel!" I stammer. "I did it for you. And for Mom and Mike. I did it for everybody. Heartland and the media want every woman in the world to think she can't be complete unless she can find the one key that fits her lock. They want people to be unhappy because it'll make them more money."
"Why does a locket have to represent failure? Of all people, why do you have to see it as this miserable thing? To billions of people, their birthcharms represents hope."
I shake my head; I don't know what to say. The sabotage plan seemed brilliant when Gabriel and I first devised it. I had a mission and a seemingly vital message. But the message already seems to have fallen flat, in just trying to explain it to my sister. Now we're surrounded by our loved ones, and they all seem genuinely, deeply happy for me. There is something happening today, and it's about more than just me. Or the stupid mechanics of a lock and key.
If we're really soul mates, we'll know it. We won't need to use our birthcharms. But everyone expects to see a key fit a locket. How could I explain that my locket isn't usable? Can I explain what Gabriel and I believe? Do I even still believe it?
"Can I have a moment?"
I am in the bungalow, and the event coordinator from Heartland is looming over me. She's anxious to open the door and lead me into the fray. I am not crying; that comes later.
"Sure," the coordinator says. Her name is Regan, and she's been very nice. I think she can tell that I am trying--and slowly failing--to maintain my composure. She steps away, and I pull a square of folded paper from the waistband of my dress. I need to read Gabriel's letter one more time.
In the days to come, some people are going to attempt to label you as a "criminal" and a "heathen" for what you've done. Ignore their attacks. If they reject your message, they reject it out of fear or small-mindedness or just plain cynical opportunism. The ignored majority will have a deep and resonant understanding of what you have done. To them, you will be a hero.
If you begin to doubt, think of men and women who are born gay. Think of the crippling uncertainty they feel when they are told they are innately defective because "a key can't poke a key" or "a lock don't fill a lock."
Think of the millions of children who are born into poverty (in these "United" States and around the globe) who are denied their "god" given right to "the pursuit of happiness" because they can't afford access to the data-hoards of companies like Heartland and its ilk.
And finally, think of the dozens of Americans who (against all odds) have also found their soul mates in these last few years, but are judged "less than" by the media because their matches live in countries like China, Pakistan, or Indonesia, or because they themselves are "of color." Those couples are shuffled into the dark because they don't match our nation's "lily-white" standard of "all-American" beauty.
Where is the "hope" in these practices that infest America and the globe? Where is the "love?" Through your stand we can finally begin to demand these answers. Only then can we stop defining our lives by mere facets of bone and begin to define ourselves by true love, which is as intangible and all-encompassing as the air we breathe.
I love you and I know we will be together soon,
His words pass around me, shrill and overwhelming. There's no doubt that he has some good points, points that we've discussed over and over. But the problems are too nebulous and too huge. Our birthcharms are part of the human race. Since the days of cavemen, we've been trying to make them fit. How could I have been so arrogant to think that my actions could truly change the way people think?
Then I am speaking to Mom and my stepfather, Mike. I glance anxiously at the windows, even though the shades are drawn. I'm extremely nervous about being out among the paparazzi.
"Just breathe deep. It'll be over before you know it," Dad says. I call Mike 'Dad.' He moved in with us when I was six. I've seen my biological father two times since then.
I exhale, "I don't know. I still don't know."
"Don't know what, Honey? Do you want to cancel this?" Mom asks. "We'll walk away from this right now." She's speaking with false bravado; the three of us know I can't back out of the rendezvous now. We've signed contracts; the legal consequences would be backbreaking.
"Can he really be the one?"
"Sweetie. It's only natural to feel unsure."
"I keep thinking about Gabe."
Mom's face shifts from surprise to annoyance to resolve, "Well, I'm sure that Gabriel wasn't 'the one.'"
"I know. I know."
I don't know.
Mom puts a reassuring hand on Dad's shoulder as she begins to speak. "I never told you this, Darcy, but Gabriel always reminded me of your biological father."
I glance at Dad.
Mom continues, "I always thought he and I were meant for each other. We had known each other for three days when we decided to try our lock and key. Of course they didn't fit, and I was so angry. I nearly drove over my locket with my car. I wanted to smash it into smithereens."
"That's not such a strange reaction."
"I remember when we moved in together. Our mood was almost spiteful. It was us against the world. We were going to prove we were completely right for each other. We were into the same music, the same foods. Our politics were the same. We had the same fiery temperament. We were so similar our apartment was like an echo chamber. Somehow, it became stifling. Then, when we did have disagreements--about little things--they seemed ten-times bigger than they were."
Dad interjects, "Maybe that's why they say opposites attract."
"Remember where you wanted to take me on our first date, Mike?"
"To Slab & Sons BBQ. My favorite. I was too dumb to guess you might be a vegetarian."
"You should've seen how disappointed he was."
"I always imagined myself marrying a woman who could cook a mean pork loin," Dad shakes off his own joke. "But forget the 'opposites attract' argument. The big point is that there's more than one person in the world that can be right for you. There's not a lot, but there's definitely more than just one."
"I love Mike so much," Mom gives Dad a squeeze. "But I wasn't disappointed when our lock and key didn't fit. By then, I had a little more perspective. See, Honey? It's not matching your political views or matching your eating habits. It's not matching your lock and his key. Love is something beyond that. Something you can't put your finger on, even though you can feel it."
Dad says, "You know, you still have a choice, Darcy. Go meet this Heath kid. What's the harm in it? If you decide you don't want to be his girlfriend, there's no mighty law that says you have to."
I nod, but I imagine that my face looks a bit like a bullfrog's.
"You're scared." Mom groans sympathetically. She rubs my shoulder. "Can I tell you another thing? For--maybe--five years after I married Mike, I was terrified that I would bump into my soul mate. It's like he says, I was afraid that there would be this sudden, mighty law of attraction, and I would be drawn away from him," she grabs Mike with her free hand. "And I was terrified because I love him so much."
"But now you're not scared?"
"Now I'd like to see my soul mate. Honestly, I'm still curious. But I know that no man--soul mate or not--could take me from Mike. It's not possible."
Dad crooks his neck and smirks. "Why Mrs. Sawyer, I do believe that you've settled."
Mom puts out her hand, and Dad takes it, interlacing his fingers with hers.
"See?" Mom holds up their hands, bonded together. "We fit together pretty well, don't we?"
Soon I will begin to cry, but for now it's nice to watch my parents hold each other. They've lived a nominally imperfect life together. But they're perfectly happy.
My parents are perfectly in love.
My parents are not soul mates.