When they were younger—the age of loud bars and late nights and Sunday afternoon despair—they hardly had a chance to consider where their lives were going. The routines of childhood had given way, at some point after college, to the routines of adulthood, which is to say waking up at an earlier hour, thirty-minute lunches, bills due at certain times, the rare moment to run the vacuum cleaner or dust or clean out a closet. The routine sometimes included dates or romantic encounters, sometimes even a relationship. But those all fizzled eventually, leading to nothing except more Sunday afternoon despair, making them wonder: did I miss school the day they explained this?
No, it simply meant that more was on its way, more they couldn’t see.
For example, it meant climbing Kilimanjaro. “Are we almost there?” “I don’t know!” And then they were there, the altitude pounding in their heads.
It meant diving into the Mariana Trench. “What’s that?” “I don’t know!” As the giant milky creature with blind eyes swam by.
Not to mention the hot air balloon rides over the Australian outback, and snowshoeing in the Arctic Circle, and floating on a raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean under a slow sun on top of warm water, with the Maldives—not yet sunk—in comforting view.
And then there was holding the orphans and saving the dolphins and watching endangered birds and talking to the elderly to find out what they knew.
A certain amount of danger—the pipelines!—and the tongue-in-cheek signs, the front lines of the protests, gas in their eyes, near misses and almost-arrests, the books and pamphlets and the dire talks in a circle wondering how the human race got to where it did and what else could be done.
This, they were never going to learn in school either, whether they missed the day or not.
And when their lives approached the last quarter of a continuum of years that had peeled back like an onion skin, they finally sat down one day—without an immediate destination, without a pressing cause—and said, “What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” was the solemn answer.
Because what was there to think?
“I remember when I was living in London and you were roughing it in the desert in Chile,” She said to Her, as they sat looking over the orchard.
“The desert is a hard place to live.”
“And I kept going to this one rug store every day to look at rugs I didn’t want to buy, and couldn’t afford anyway.”
“A rug in the desert is a useful thing,” mused Her.
“And I couldn’t figure it out: why this place? I have other things I could be doing. I could volunteer somewhere, I could go to work and earn a living, I could look for a cheaper apartment, I could do any number of more useful, responsible things. But this rug shop just kept calling my name, and every day I’d go in and stand on a rug and look over all the mountains of rugs.”
“I never had a rug in the desert, of course.”
“And it bothered me. The colors—they were so loud, so hard to distinguish one from the other. All those variations of red and blue and green and orange. Rose. Mint. Sky blue. Apricot. Millions! They swirled together in front of my eyes, and I’d get so irritated. I wanted to yell: ‘Why the hell did you use all of these colors and patterns?! Why couldn’t you just pick one damn color and go with that?! Who needs this?'”
“An odd thing to be irritated about.”
“It is, isn’t it? But I was irritated. And the rug store owner came up to me one day and asked me if I was ever going to buy a rug, or if I was just going to stand there, on top of his merchandise, with a furious look on my face.”
“But not an odd thing for him to be irritated about.”
“And I ‘fessed up and explained my dilemma about the colors.”
“What did he say?”
“Well, he said this to me. He said that the rug is not meant to be looked at from the perspective of the individual colors, but that the rug is meant to be looked at as a whole. That all the colors in the pattern are meant to convey a bigger picture, so that when you look at the rug from a distance, it feels like a world, an entire universe encapsulated in the skillful rendering of woven thread.”
“And you know what else he said? He said that I could buy one at half price since I was his most faithful customer who had never bought anything.”
“And did you?”
“I didn’t. I wasn’t ready for one. I needed a cheaper apartment and a job first, remember?”
The sun was setting over the orchard and the last sounds of the birds at dusk echoed in the valley.
Her turned to She, put a hand on her arm. “You still have time to buy that rug.”
But they both knew it wasn’t about time. Not really, anyway. Because yet another thing they’d missed in school was how to recognize a path, and then actually take it.
Then She said, turning to Her, “What was going on in Chile back then?”
“Nothing. You were missing whole worlds in the rug store, and I was missing them in the sky above the salt flats.”
The sun had fallen, and the orchard was lavender-colored.
“So what do we do now?”
“I don’t know.”
Next week they were supposed to go on a ship that would deliver them to an island chain populated with reptiles and animals no one had seen except in a zoo, where the air smelled like the underside of a patch of grass, and the waves crashed against volcanic rocks, and they would don hiking shoes and scuba masks on alternate days, and explore every inch of this place the Earth had coughed up in a fit of expressive desire.
They had never married or had children or spent more than six months in any one place. They had looked all their lives. They had trekked in one way or another forever, which made all the stops along the way seem like deep breaths. They had remained friends, sometimes only in theory, sometimes in present, perfect communion. But they had never paused to consider the paths in seriousness, to remember those old Sunday afternoons, to ponder their choices. Because what was there to ponder?
“I think I’ll go back to London soon,” She said.
“I could use a rug in Chile, you know.”