The Romance of Unconnected Lives
Matt and Jane were two strangers by proxy. They both lived in the same city, about twenty minutes by foot or ten minutes by car from each other. Depending on the traffic, they also lived twelve minutes by public transport away from each other, but that’s neither here nor there.
They were just two people in an overly populated city, going about their lives, completely oblivious to the existence of everyone else around them. They lived their own lives and had never really crossed paths aside from that fateful day.
It’s surprising really. Their lives should have crossed paths several times had their own rigidity of schedule and refusal for change not disallowed it.
When she could, which was more often than she thought, Jane would go to the gym. It was across the other side of town, but Jane liked it because it was the only gym nearby with a decent swimming pool. She would often run there via a rather convoluted route to ensure she ran for several miles, then swim for an indeterminate length of time before walking back the shortest way.
She never ran on the treadmills at the gym. She didn’t understand it. She couldn’t wrap her head around why people would use the treadmills when there was a perfectly good planet outside that they could run around. She would sometimes use the elliptical machines and sometimes the weights, but mostly she swam. Swimming was something she couldn’t do outside, at least not anywhere nearby.
No, Jane only went running outside and swimming in the gym. She had begun running when she was young, competing in various athletic events throughout her childhood. She gave it up during her early teenage years when the pressure from school and society told her to be more ‘normal’. Apparently, girls aren’t supposed to be athletic. She would get weird looks from the boys in her school when she beat them in both the sprints and the long-distance running. All the other girls were stopping sports and focusing on makeup and boys and fashion so she decided she probably should too.
Jane hated those years. Luckily, she had a teacher when she was fifteen who changed her mind, who told her it was ok to be a runner, to be athletic, to be better at sports than the boys in her school. Her teacher told her it was ok to be herself and if that meant running, then she should run.
So Jane began running again. She always wondered how good she would be if she’d never quit, and a part of her always regretted giving it up. But by this point her focus was equally on her mind as it was on her body, and her teacher’s advice also translated into her success in academics. She quickly became the driven person who would go on to run one of the most powerful and influential companies in the country, providing millions in funding for programs that would tackle the very issues Jane struggled with as a child.
Matt was unlike Jane in many ways, including his approach to the treadmill. For Matt, the treadmill was a lifesaver, quite literally. Matt’s mind was far too unpredictable to be let free out in public, and running was a way to let Matt’s mind run free. He often found when he was walking that he would forget where he was and become lost in his own mind. He would end up in places without knowing how he got there. If he were to ever add the speed of running into the equation, it would almost certainly produce disastrous effects.
That’s why Matt went to the gym. He almost exclusively ran, though he would try in every session to get some upper body exercise involved. His gym was only down the street from his house, and he would happily walk there most days, run on the treadmill, then walk back. It was on the treadmill that many of his ideas for novels were formed, where plot lines were developed. He enjoyed playing god to the worlds created in his mind.
If you knew Matt, or if you followed his schedule, you could figure out when he was writing and when he wasn’t. The treadmill never helped Matt when he wasn’t writing. It wasn’t a way to cure writer’s block like it was for some. When that was the case, he would go for walks, usually quite long walks. But when he was writing, when he was really into the swing of writing, he would go running at least once a day. He had to. It was his way of coping. So if you saw him out for a walk in the park, you could assume he was stuck on something. But if he were heading to the gym, walking at a rather brisk pace and dressed in gym attire, it would mean he was writing and needed the release that only the treadmill could offer him.
He had been told several times by Kyle that he should just buy his own treadmill, but Matt refused. He believed, rather half-heartedly, that the walk to the gym and back counted as social time, a way to avoid staying indoors all day, every day.
It was here at this gym that both Matt and Jane should have met on many occasions. It was one of the only places both Matt and Jane frequented. But given their differences regarding the treadmill and their different schedules (Matt didn’t have a nine to five job and would prefer to visit the gym during the morning hours) neither ran into each other.
There was one time when it came close. Jane actually ran past Matt as he headed back from the gym in the evening (he had a meeting to attend in the morning). But she was on the other side of the street and he had his music in, looking down at the floor, so it doesn’t really count.
Matt sat at his desk. It was quite a big wooden desk considering its main use was for writing. His little 2-in-1 laptop looked even smaller resting upon it. In the right corner of the desk was a magnetic hourglass which he thought was cool and a half-finished 5×5 Rubik’s Cube. He’d bought the cube in the hopes it would be something he could work on in his spare time, but he found it just stressed him out. The left side of the desk had a few random books that Matt enjoyed referencing from time to time. They were stacked flat, six high. The top one was A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert Burton. Two below it was Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. All the others had their spines facing away so Matt couldn’t see which was which without rearranging the pile.
On Matt’s laptop was a word document entitled Rex. It was this, the first few chapters of his Western, that he was staring at.
The chapters were terrible.
He hadn’t quite realised how difficult a genre this would be, and he was finding it rather a challenge. He had assumed the actual writing would be simple; a little shooting here, the damsel in distress there. Simple.
But actually putting the words together, making it seem like it was set on the dry plains of the American West, that was the difficult part. How many ways are there to say it was hot outside? And how many ways are there to describe red rocks and dirt?
Matt did however like the idea that had somewhat haphazardly developed from this Western. When he was a kid, Matt loved the cartoons where the dry desert would make the hero hallucinate and see a big town or a random car nearby. So he took this idea and turned what was originally a simple Western into a tale of uncertainty where the hero, Rex, found himself the carer and protector of Lady Marie. The novel began with Rex severely parched and approaching the town where he was to meet Marie.
But Rex, the experienced cowboy that he is, knows about the possibilities of hallucinations in the desert and doesn’t know if he should believe in the image of Marie. The plan was for him to spend the rest of the novel helping her along her way, but also trying to figure out if she’s real or not; because the fate of his life could depend on it.
Or something like that, the details hadn’t been ironed out. But what Matt currently had written down was genuinely terrible.
He picked up the Rubik’s Cube and began fiddling with it.
“That bad, huh?”
Matt jumped, dropping the cube on the ground. “How long have you been here?”
“About five minutes,” Kyle laughed.
“And you’ve just been watching me this whole time?”
“No. I walked in, called you, figured you were either dead or in here writing, used the bathroom, grabbed a beer from the fridge, made a sandwich, and walked in here. I’ve only been watching you for about a minute.”
“That’s really creepy.”
“I know. Just imagine if I were a crazy person.”
“You are a crazy person.”
“Well… yeah, fair enough. Oh, by the way, you need to buy more beer.”
“You’ve drunk all my beer?!”
“Oh, like you had a lot to begin with. You know, for a writer you have a pathetic alcohol collection.”
“Aren’t all writers supposed to be alcoholics? History certainly suggests so. Isn’t that why they call it ‘writer’s blood’?”
“They call whisky ‘writer’s blood’. Not alcohol in general.”
“TomAto, tomahto. You know, I even saw a wine called Writer’s Block?”
“Yeah, I’ve actually tried that. It’s good.”
“Did it help with writer’s block?”
“No, not really. Red wine just makes me tired. And I think it’s called that because it actually causes writer’s block.”
“Oh, really? That’s not a brilliant sales angle.”
“I think it’s ironic.”
“Ah. Well, anyway, how’s the writing going? I’m assuming bad considering I was able to break into your house without you even knowing. Talk to me.”
So Matt explained the situation. The hour-long conversation was full of intensity, suspense, building tension, and an ultimate resolution. It had all the qualities of a good novel; everything Rex seemed to be lacking.
After much deliberation, it was decided that Matt was to take a trip to the desert plains of New Mexico, where he could see the sights himself and feel the unbearable heat. When Matt protested, Kyle pointed out that he could easily afford it and things were calming down since his last book. There were no signings or other events scheduled in the next few months either. Matt could use a brief holiday, Kyle thought. No, this would be good for him.
“Good. We’ll figure out details later. Keep writing and trying to create the storyline. It sounds interesting but needs some serious work. If you keep at it for a month or so, then by the time you go to New Mexico you’ll be able to have a better idea of what you need to make it work, and what you should be looking for when you’re there.”
“Yeah I guess that makes sense,” Matt was always reluctant to do big trips like this.
“Don’t act like you won’t have fun. You get to go on holiday… for work. You have the best job.”
“You sure you won’t miss me too much?”
“Please, I’m gonna go on holiday myself. I hear good things about the Bahamas.”
You’re ridiculous, Matt thought as he turned towards the screen to continue his arm-wrestle with Rex. He hadn’t made as much progress as he wanted today and it stressed him out to not hit his daily word count.
“No, you don’t. Come on, we’re going out to eat. It is my job as your only friend to make sure you don’t die of a blood clot.”
“I read somewhere that you can develop a blood clot if you sit down for too long. So come on, we’re going out to eat.”
“I’ve only been here for a couple hours.”
“What time do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. 11. 12.”
“Yup. So get up. We’re going out to eat. You’re going to pretend you’re a normal human being.”
“But you just had a sandwich.”
“It was one sandwich, come on.”
Matt shut his laptop and stood up. There was plenty of food in the fridge, but Kyle had a point. Matt really needed to stretch his legs.
“So did you miss lunch, then?” Kyle was ahead of Matt and didn’t bother turning around when he asked.
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
They both got to the door and put on their jackets. Kyle opened the door and walked out, then he stood there as Matt exited the house and locked up behind him.
“Don’t you have a clock on your laptop?”
“Yeah, I just didn’t notice.”
“So you didn’t even stop writing to go on a walk?”
“No, I just wrote and then kept rereading what I had to try and figure out what it needed.”
“But don’t walks help with that? You always say they do.”
“No, walks help when I don’t know what to write. I knew what to write, it just sucked.”
“Alright then. Has anyone ever told you you’re weird?”
“You, all the time.”
“Well, glad someone is. Come on let’s go, I hear there’s a new Thai place just opened up a few blocks from here. Let’s give it a try.”
Jane sat at her desk. She wasn’t supposed to be working on the weekends, but this was big. Too big to wait until Monday. It required all her focus and attention.
“So what do you think?” Anette leaned over her shoulder, looking thoughtful and concerned.
“I don’t know. It’s a big risk. What if it doesn’t work?”
“You know what they say, carpe diem.”
“I don’t think anyone has said that for a hundred years.”
“Ok, well I just can’t bring myself to say YOLO.”
You know, You Only Live Once… never mind. What do you think of this then? We have to make a decision.”
“I know, I know. But this is a big deal. There’s a lot at stake.”
“A lot at stake?! We’re signing you up for archery lessons.”
“Yeah, well, what if I get shot with an arrow?”
“Then you’ll have a hell of an obituary.”
“Don’t ‘Anette!’ me. As long as you don’t paint a target on your chest and stand by a bundle of hay, you’ll be fine.”
“I guess. Why don’t I just take a cooking class or something?”
“I said that twenty minutes ago!”
“Don’t yell at me. It seemed boring at the time.”
“It’s still boring. You’ve just wussed out.”
“I have not wussed out!”
“Yes, you have. Look, they’re having a taster session in one hour. Let’s go down there and give it a try. Then if you don’t like it, you can sign up for your boring cooking class.”
“Alright. The cooking class would be helpful.”
“Yeah, you’re going to need a lot more than one class to help you out.”
Jane ignored that last comment and stood up, stretching her legs. “Should we just head over now? Grab a coffee or something nearby? It’s only a 15-minute walk away.”
“Yeah, that works.” Anette got up too.
Both ladies walked down to the ground floor of the squished-together terrace house. It was built thin and high, slotted alongside a dozen other identical houses running down the street. The only identifying factor was the number on the door and occasionally the design of the door itself.
Jane had bought the house when she became head of the investment firm. She bought it because it was simple, nondescript. She’d wanted a house that did the job but didn’t remind her of her position in life. When she was a kid she promised herself, like many kids do, that if she made lots of money she would give lots of it away. This simple, yet nice house was a constant reminder of her promise.
It was a promise she’d kept, mostly. Difficult to begin with, things got easier the more she tried to give away and the more she asked herself what she really needed. Her salary wasn’t high, she’d made sure of that. And whatever extra that didn’t go to tax, her savings account, or her everyday needs like food and mortgage went somewhere else. It wasn’t much, but she liked to think it was a start.
She’d read somewhere that the key to happiness isn’t stuff, it’s experiences. With that in mind she kept a separate account where a small amount of money was put each month to do fun things: things like a fancy dinner with the parents or with friends; things like that concert she’d always wanted to attend; things like archery lessons. The beauty was that the very presence of this account forced her to spend the money in it. So last month she and Anette went on a three-day camping trip where the days were spent hiking with guides and learning all about the various plants and animals there. It was completely outside her comfort zone and she never would have done it otherwise, but she loved it and loved that she did it. The Happiness Fund helped her do things like that.
She’d also read somewhere that the key to happiness is to never have less money than you want or think you should have. She’d read that money could buy happiness, but only if you didn’t need money to buy happiness.
Anette and Jane walked down the road towards the coffee shop next to the gymnasium that hosted the archery lessons. She always got a little nervous and excited when she was doing new things like this. It was just archery, she would tell herself, right before she would imagine herself the next great archer, like Robin Hood, or Katniss, or the Green Arrow.
Stop it, Jane, she’d think, you’re getting ahead of yourself. It’s just archery. Ah, but it could be fun. It could also hurt. Am I even strong enough to pull back the bow? Wait, do you pull back the bow? No, you pull back the string which is attached to the bow, which you hold out in front of you to create the tension. Yeah. I got this. I could be a natural. I could be terrible, but I could be a natural.
“Just promise me one thing,” Anette broke the conversation in Jane’s mind.
“Just promise me you won’t get obsessed with this.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t get obsessed with stuff.”
“Oh really? Remember that time we went camping and learned about nature?”
“Yes. That was so fun.”
“Yeah, when you got home you bought how many books on plants and read nothing but that for a week?”
“I was on holiday! What’s wrong with reading?”
“Nothing. You just got a little intense.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“What’s the Latin name for lemon balm?”
“Melissa Officinalis. Wait, why’d you choose lemon balm? That’s random.”
“Because you wouldn’t shut up about how it’s ‘actually part of the mint family’.”
“Thanks. So just don’t get too excited about this? Robin Hood didn’t exist.”
“Wow, way to burst that bubble.”
Anette smiled and continued walking. She knew Jane well enough to know that, when she went silent, her brain went into overdrive and it wasn’t hard to calculate what Jane was thinking of. All she needed to do was follow the steps.
Anette was, for all intents and purposes, the kick-starter that made Jane do all these fun things. Anette knew about the Happiness Fund. There was a time when the Happiness Fund was actually just the ‘Fancy Dinner Fund’ and Anette went to most of those dinners. Then eventually she decided Jane was too comfortable and she signed them both up to go skydiving.
Jane said no. Anette said yes. Anette won and Jane could now tell people what it was like to jump out of a plane. She loved it so much, Anette was even able to persuade her to get certified to jump solo. It took several months, but Jane now had, somewhere in a drawer in her house, the paperwork allowing her to skydive by herself. Though to be fair, it had been so long she would need to retest to be able to solo jump again. But it was still pretty cool.
Plus, it meant Anette had all these random skills too because the two of them rarely did any event without the other. Anette even had her own happiness fund that she combined with Jane’s to do bigger and bolder things.
They walked slowly, talking about anything under the sun. At the coffee shop neither got coffee; Jane got a tea and Anette wasn’t feeling a drink so she ordered a brownie instead. By the time they looked at the time again there were only five minutes to go before the lesson, so they got up quickly and walked the three buildings’ distance to the gym.
It was a small introductory class. Archery must not be that popular in the big city, Jane thought. The gym itself had fitness rooms and courts with basketball hoops that could be lowered down during the hours of basketball but raised when the room was hired out for other reasons. It was the part-time basketball court that Jane and Anette found themselves in.
Across from them were targets, not made of hay as Jane thought they should be, but instead made of plastic frames with what looked like giant cork targets. The arrows weren’t like what Jane had seen in the movies either – they were carbon-fibre looking with dull ends… well, dull-ish. Jane presumed this was because actual arrows would scratch the floor and be a little dangerous.
“Alright. Everybody ready?” The instructor stood up and addressed the eight people there.
“Yes,” everyone responded with various levels of enthusiasm and confidence.
“Don’t worry. We aren’t going to start with the shooting. There’s a lot to go through before then. Do you each have a bow?”
Anette looked towards Jane. “This is so much fun!”
“Yeah,” Jane answered, somewhat less sure of herself than Anette. She was looking at her bow, realising that the plastic suction-cup bow and arrow she bought from the toy shop for her nephew three months prior was slightly less daunting than this thing she held in her hand.
“Just relax. This is exciting. New things!”
‘New things!’ was always what Anette would say when trying to get Jane to do something she didn’t want to do. Though usually those new things were related to safe, practical, necessary matters.
The truth was Jane was excited; she was just nervous as well. She always got like this when doing something different. She enjoyed the new and different. But she also got nervous and quiet and slightly unsure when she was doing it.
“Cooking classes would have been ‘new things!’’ Jane mumbled as she got up and headed to the spot the instructor was directing her to.
The other truth was Jane overthought almost everything she did. She was excited, but the constant whirlings of her mind meant that excitement always competed with a sort of mellow anxiousness – not anxiety, just anxiousness – the combination of which translated itself into quiet anticipation and eagerness others might mistake for disinterest or apathy.
“Alright, facing the targets, I want you all to turn 90 degrees to your left and stand feet facing that wall, shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Good. This is your basic stance. Now, without pulling back on the string, raise your bow as if to fire at the target. Ok, yeah, we need to work on posture.”
The moment she started moving, started focusing, the quietly mixing combination disappeared and everything was fine, happy, interesting, fine. She was taking it all in now, learning this strange new activity (every new activity that she and Anette partook in was a strange new activity).
Anette was standing next to her trying to figure out this strange posture thing with the arms at certain degrees and the shoulders back. She looked at Jane. “How are you doing that? The moment I try to fix my shoulders, my arms drop, but when I raise my arms, my shoulders go out of place.”
“I don’t know, just do this.” Jane was one of those people that found most things easy. Not easy, she was just naturally inclined to a great many things. It really irritated Anette.
“Very nice,” the instructor smiled as he walked past. “Have you done this before?”
“Thank you. This is my first time.”
“Well, you might just be a natural. I’m impressed.” He continued walking down the line, talking to various people, helping those who were struggling.
“You might just be a natural,” Anette joked in her best male voice, which was just her voice dropped a couple of octaves.
“Shut up, I am a natural. You’re just jealous because you can’t get it.”
“You didn’t even want to do this.”
“I suggested we learn to cook, but no.”
“Fine, next time we take a cooking class. I’ll beat you at that.”
“You’ll beat me at cooking?”
“You know what? I like this. I think I’ll make this a weekly thing.”
“Humph,” Anette grumbled. “Fine, we’ll do this. But first opportunity I get, I’m shooting you with an arrow.”
“Hey, that’s violent!”
“No, look, the poster. They have special arrows that we can shoot each other with.”
On the inside of the door they walked through to get to the part-time basketball court was a flyer advertising archery tag. It looked like serious fun.
“Oh, definitely. You’re so going down.”
“I challenge you to a duel, ten paces, real old-school.”
“I don’t think archers duel.”
“I don’t care. We’re duelling. And I’m not going down – you’re going down.”
The mediocre smack talk continued off and on for the rest of the class. By the end, everyone was shooting at the targets. Nobody hit the target, except for one of the students who upon hitting the target made such a surprised noise that it was clear the shot was an accident and definitely not repeatable.
“That was so much fun! Thanks for persuading me to try that.”
The two ladies were walking down the street now. The afternoon had turned to evening since the start of the archery class, and with nothing to do and nowhere to be they both just headed in the direction for home. Life was beginning to grow around them with the appearance of more and more people heading out to enjoy the evening hours. The weather was cooling, but nothing an extra layer couldn’t solve. And the dry, crisp evening air was inviting.
“It was fun. I’m sure there was something wrong with my bow though. That must have been the reason I couldn’t hit the target.” Anette and Jane were walking arm in arm, leaning slightly into each other. It was at moments like this that Jane was grateful they were friends first, colleagues second, no matter how they met. It really helped make life easier.
“If that helps you sleep at night, sweetie.”
“It does,” Anette smiled and nudged Jane with her elbow. “Now, come on. Let’s eat. All this 15th century military training makes me hungry. There aren’t any knight-themed eateries around here, are there? I’m famished.”
“Fancy yourself a member of the round table, do you? After one archery lesson?”
“I think I do. Oh, I’ve heard of a great Thai place that just opened up. It’s across town.”
“How is Thai ‘knight-themed’?”
“Well, it’s not, but it sounds good and I could eat anything right now. What do you say?”
“Yeah, I’m not really feeling it. How about Chinese?”
“I love Chinese. There’s a great place just up the street.”
“You love all food.”
“This is true. I’m very adaptable that way.”