So Jefferson lived alone, because no relationship was as good as his imagination. He did his work and collected his paycheck and went home, never expecting anything more. He carved his chess sets as if for royalty, but he never let them leave the hobby room where they were shielded from the light of reality. Then he allowed himself a few hours a week to indulge in thinking If Only.
Life wasn’t bad this way. Jefferson knew he wasn’t forgoing a dream when there was no chance it could happen anyway. He had read how much luck and connections mattered to success, and they just weren’t his forte. He was never going to be able to succeed in the way he imagined. So for a little while each day, while others watched television or read a book, he suspended disbelief to escape into his alternate world of Possibility.
Jefferson believed possibilities were tangible but just out of reach, like twinkling stars or secret gems, and always better and certainly more perfect than any achievable thing. That is, until she came along.
Lila was in every way larger, louder, and messier than Jefferson’s imaginings. She intruded. She would plop down next to him at the picnic table outside the office. “Whatcha thinkin’ about every day out here? You got a girlfriend?” She would simply ask such questions. “I’m gonna call you Jeff. Or better yet, Leo.” That’s what Lila did—she just took on the world and warped it to her liking.
Jefferson understood that in order to escape to alternate realities and return, one needed boundaries. But Lila had no boundaries. It was not only her body that lacked definition, but her personality overflowed into everyone she met. You could never go back, either; she was like a red sock in the white wash.
Jefferson tried to avoid her. It wasn’t that he didn’t like her; she certainly livened up the office. Plus she had so many ideas. But she didn’t seem to mind if they didn’t work out. She also didn’t seem to mind if they did work out, even if she didn’t get the credit. He couldn’t help asking her about it one day.
“The idea’s the thing, Leo. You can give them away, because there are always more where that one came from.”
He chewed on that statement for a long while. Ideas were possibilities, after all, and he was a big proponent of those. But were they really as plentiful as all that? If he let go of a dream he’d had for so long, would another just take its place? If so, didn’t that make all of them a little less special?
Another day he asked her: Didn’t she get attached to her ideas? “You mean pick favorites?” she had said. “Oh Leo. Ideas are like children. You love them all, but differently, and eventually they grow up and move on.”
That made him sad, so sad. His ideas never moved on. Real possibilities are poised on the edge of reality, but he had relegated his to no certain future, by keeping them in his mind, never intending them to live and be. He had carefully bred them to remain puppies and kittens forever.
With that one intrusive idea of Lila’s, the perfect balance Jefferson had worked so hard to achieve was thrown off kilter. Now, when Jefferson sat down to his Possibility time, he felt guilty. Every chess piece he carved was a child he was stifling, stunting. He couldn’t enjoy If Only like he used to. His dream had begun to sour.
Jefferson set his possibilities aside, promising that he’d come back to visit them soon. Then instead of a perfect evening of wine and roses with the dream date in his mind, he was roller-skating with Lila, her too-wide body spilling in a heap on the rink floor, her laughter like a waterspout, shooting up and spraying all within earshot, a wave on the ocean so big you had to ride it, run, or drown.
Jefferson told himself that this was nothing special, that he had always been open to new people and new things; he was just aware they would never be as bright and shiny as his imagination. But then he was driving Lila home after work. Then he was sitting beside Lila at the movies, her ample thighs spilling over to his seat, and he didn’t mind. Then he was cooking dinner for Lila at his apartment that few had ever seen.
Then she was in the hobby room with his carvings. “Hey, these are really good. Do you ever sell them? You could set up a card table at the beach or something.” His face burned with the suggestion, the cavalier way she could water down his glorious possibility. He would not share with her his aspiration to be commissioned by the royal family, a thought that seemed silly all of a sudden. Instead, he spewed a litany of reasons why it is practically impossible to live as a street vendor, how the effort and cost of marketing would take away carving time, and his reluctance to twist his hobby into something he had to do rather than the release that it was.
But his real reluctance was none of those things. It was that every start of one thing is an end to another. The breeze that blows through an open window will slam shut a door. Succeed or fail, everything you try is the end of a possibility. To chase your dreams is to exit the silver lining and enter gray reality.
When he finished, Lila stared at him, slack-jawed. “Creepers, Leo, I wasn’t suggesting you quit your day job. I’m talking about a website, a weekend now and then. Good grief.”
She had done it again. Jefferson’s possibility-dream began to change without his permission. He had wanted his carvings to be masterpieces, too beautiful to be touched. But that first Saturday at the beach, he found that every person who touched his art touched his heart. Many warmed yet some pierced, turning over kings and pawns alike, then walking away without them. That never happened in the possibility dream. Or at least it didn’t hurt so much.
He looked over at Lila. She was going to leave peanut butter smudges on the cupboard. She might hurt him. He might hurt her. She didn’t always understand. As long as he was with Lila, he wouldn’t be with the imaginary girl next door. The guy selling trinkets on the beach isn’t the one carving a castle for a king. But for the first time, his carvings meant something to someone. Jefferson meant something to someone. They were all growing and living.
He excused himself from the table and walked the length of the shore, blinking his tears back, though the dogs and families and sunbathers were oblivious to his mourning. He had given up so many possibilities in choosing this one life. He still wasn’t sure if it would be better than all the alternatives; he just knew it was right. It was real. Still, as Lila had said, his possibilities were his children, so he mourned their loss. He owed them that much.
When he was done and the sun was beginning to set, he went back to his table. He saw a little boy clutching one of his carvings, possibly a knight, although he couldn’t see for sure because the boy gripped it tightly in his hand, like he was holding a royal treasure. Lila was saying, “You take care of that now, won’t you? You’re holding my Jefferson’s possibilities.”
[This story was first published on Indies Unlimited.]