When time was reborn, Sol asked, “Where am I?”
“You’re in the idea,” said Sol.
Now that time existed again, Sol could take a moment before replying. “Which idea?”
Sol tried to swallow, except they were no longer equipped with any sort of apparatus for swallowing. And the idea of swallowing, divorced from actual swallowing, brought no relief.
“It’s over,” Sol said. “There’s nothing left of me, is there?”
Sounded Sol a little wounded. “You have me.”
“And for that, I am so grateful. Being alone here would be worse than death.”
Consoled was Sol, and added, “And your thoughts. You have your ideas!”
It was hard for Sol not to be bitter. “What good are they here?”
“They’re the only things keeping you alive,” replied Sol, not without gentleness.
“Just like always,” Sol said. And though they had no face to smile with, they could still enjoy the idea of a smile.
When oblivion ruptured and time once more poured out, Sol said, “I can’t see or hear anything.”
“You can’t smell or taste or touch, either,” said Sol.
Sol sniffed. Or, rather, they “sniffed.” They caught no scent, nor even the feeling of air rushing into their nostrils. Nor even the feeling of nostrils.
“Am I dead?” Sol asked.
Snorted Sol, without air or nostrils. There was only the connotation of snorting. “We both know you can do better than ‘dead.’ Such a lunchbox way of thinking about infinity.”
There it was, then. They were at least dead.
There was panic suddenly, and there was anger, and there was the bewildering quiescence that came from having no sense anymore of where their body ended and the rest of reality began.
This is what it feels like to freeze to death Sol thought.
To calm down, regain a little control, Sol grew Socratic and patient and generous, the way they acted when they were tutoring undergraduates during office hours. They could not feel their own skin, but somehow, they could feel ideas growing inside of them, warm and familiar, like soup. So there is an inside to me Sol reasoned.
A new idea arrived instantly, wholesome and hearty, thick as bisque. “Am I ‘spread’?”
“Gorgeous,” said Sol. “Apt and useful. You were once a lot more…concentrated. Now, you’re spreading. Good. We’re getting somewhere.”
Sol thought about this. Thought about spreading. Hated that thought. Tried to resist spreading. Had no clue what it meant to try to resist spreading. How does one stop spreading?
“I don’t want to spread,” Sol said.
“Why not?” asked Sol.
“Because spreading is the opposite of identity.”
Laughed Sol. “Wrong. But a useful kind of wrong. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“My name is Sol Paz,” Sol said, when time defibrillated them.
“It’s my name, too,” replied Sol.
“I used to joke I had the shortest Spanish name in the world.”
Like a lover who had heard their lover make that same joke too many times before, replied Sol, “Spanish names do tend to be long.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“I wasn’t. You know I wasn’t.”
Sol sighed. Or rather, they “sighed.” “Yes,” Sol said, “I know. I apologize.”
“No need,” said Sol.
“It’s just that—”
Silence. Time ended. Time was reborn.
Asked Sol, “Are you waiting for me to finish your sentence?”
“Yes,” Sol answered.
“Because if you knew how to finish my sentence, then I would know you were me.”
Laughed Sol. “Are you the sort of person who finishes other people’s sentences for them, Sol Paz?”
Sol laughed, too. “No. I don’t suppose I am, Sol Paz.”
“Then,” said Sol, “it was a faulty test to begin with.”
Sol came to mind again, suddenly, gaspingly. Except there was no air, nor need of it. The only feeling worse than struggling for air is not ever needing air again, not even for one last goodbye breath.
Focus Sol thought.
They cogito ergo summed themselves up into some rough idea of equipoise. Only then did they say to Sol, “There’s not much I can do here, is there?”
“You could try focusing,” said Sol.
“Ha! I was just thinking that,” Sol said. Then they added, “Focusing is good. Focusing is the opposite of spreading.”
“No,” replied Sol.
Sol ignored Sol. “What should I focus on?”
“Perhaps something you love?” answered Sol. “Your papi loves you.”
“Yes,” Sol said. “Papi.”
Sol focused on their papi. Their idea became a smaller idea.
All their senses returned in a cataract of feeling. There was Papi, kneeling on a padded kneeler that had been set up in front of Sol’s casket. He was alone in the chiaroscuro parlor. He looked like a man made of brooms. He wore a suit, black and baggy, so loose it was almost a wind. His cheeks felt damp, especially in the deepest troughs of his wrinkles. His hands clutched one another on the kneeler’s armrest, tied by a rosary.
From inside Papi, Sol could feel the destruction. Papi felt on the inside the way shattering sounds.
I should not be able to know him from the inside Sol thought.
Papi groaned inwardly, and inside of him that groan remained. He lacked the strength to push the groans out of his lungs. There they sat, his lungs, wet and gray and heavy with unexpellable grief.
“This idea hurts,” Sol said.
“A lot,” replied Sol. “Maybe you should stop having this thought.”
“No. I want to comfort my poor papi.”
“That,” said Sol, “is a generous idea.”
Sol focused on the idea of comforting their papi. That was when they noticed something. An idea. Not one of theirs. An idea so strong it was almost an object. Sol approached the idea, and then entered it, as if it were an actual place, the way places worked in the mattersome world.
It was nice, being inside of this idea. No more shattering, no more groaning. A quiet place. A place prepared for comfort.
This place was, Sol realized, the idea of them making the journey from beyond the grave to comfort their papi.
But the strange thing was, they hadn’t brought that idea with them. It was as if Papi had expected them to enter him, enter this idea, and bring him solace on the event of their death. It was like stopping at a random hotel and finding a reservation had already been made in your name.
“Sol!” Papi said, startled, looking around.
Sol had no apparatus left to them to hear sound, and yet they heard their papi anyway, for his words were rich with ideas: grief, wonder, despair, the faintest brief heat of reprieve.
“I’m here, Papi!” Sol said.
“Words are too fast,” advised Sol. “Take time. Invest yourself in the idea.”
Sol understood. They took time. They became their own memory and filled their papi’s idea. They imagined themselves a kind of cartoon radiation, a rock glowing green inside Papi’s heart.
“You’re here, Sol!” Papi said, bringing his rosary-bound hands to his chest.
I’m here Sol thought. I’m here! I’ll stay forever! I’ll stay until they make me leave!
Papi wept, but not the tears he had been weeping. He wept now like a god whose tears replenish us the life-giving river.
Sol had spread during the time between times. A galaxy winging its stars toward heat-death, was Sol.
“I am forgetting things,” Sol said.
“That’s the hardest part,” answered Sol, woeful, thwarted. “Forgetting is bad enough. But knowing you’re forgetting? Unutterably cruel.”
“Is someone being cruel to me?” Sol felt eager and slightly more alive, asking the question. “Is there a someone?”
Rueful was Sol, and filled with kindness. “If there is, they haven’t announced themselves. I’m so sorry, Sol. You know as much as I do.”
A little heat left Sol’s life then.
But when they felt that happen, they were frightened, startled out of their complacency. They grew angry, and anger grew desire. They made an idea of their will: a diamond-hard, diamond-brilliant will, faceted and prismatic, a wonder to behold.
Sol said, “I have lost everything, but I will have this diamond for a heart.”
Said Sol, “You are so strong. You give me life.”
What love Sol felt for Sol then! “And you me. We are keeping each other alive.”
“Not just us, though.”
“So many others. So many holding onto ideas of one Sol Paz.”
Sol let time stroll on ahead without them. “I am just one idea, after all,” they said. “But an afterlife is all the ideas, isn’t it?”
Agreed Sol, feeling some relief. “All the minds and minds and minds.”
Ah, but now time was returning, which meant time was short. “If I don’t focus,” Sol reasoned, “I will be lost. Irrevocably dispersed. But if I focus long enough and hard enough, I will find regrets. So many regrets. Is the choice between erasure or eternal remorse?”
“You tried to do good,” comforted Sol. “You are made of good ideas. I can feel their warmth.”
But Sol was not to be consoled. They imagined looking time in the eye when they replied, “But do they matter, Sol, my warm thoughts? Did I do enough good? Does any good work endure? It’s impossible to know if any of it was worth it.” It hurt like being born when they repeated, “It’s impossible to know.”
“Not impossible,” said Sol.
Surprise made Sol grow ideas. “No?”
“No, Sol. We just need to extend our focus elsewhere.”
Sol was suspicious. “‘Extend our focus elsewhere.’ That sounds suspiciously like ‘spreading.’“
“It is,” said Sol. “It’s both. It’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. It’s what you did with your papi.”
The idea of Papi helped Sol focus. “Papi. Yes. I should visit Papi again.”
“You should, yes,” agreed Sol. “But it would be good for your death to visit people you don’t know.”
“That…is something I can do?” Sol needed time to think, so they bought time by examining time. Time politely continued to pretend to check the time, and did not hurry them.
Sol finally said to Sol, “I don’t know how to do that. Papi I could find because he was ready for me. He had prepared a place.”
“Others have prepared places, too,” said Sol. “I’ll show you.”
A Chicagoland library appeared all around Sol. Quiet, almost empty. An adult sat in a ratty, raggedy armchair. This person hadn’t taken off their winter coat or hat; they could be anybody.
Until you got into their idea. Then, she became Rita.
“I don’t know a Rita, do I?” Sol asked.
“No,” said Sol. “That’s why we’re visiting her.”
Sol contemplated Rita. “She’s cold. I can feel her thinking she’s cold.”
Rita was always cold. She had been wanting to move somewhere warm for a long time, but everyone she loved lived here. So she shrugged and wore layers.
Said Sol, “She’s also thinking about her sleeve.”
Her tattoo sleeve, specifically. Rita couldn’t see her tattoo sleeve at that moment because it was hidden beneath a long-sleeved shirt and a sweater and a winter coat. It was only the idea of her tattoo that she was having: and that idea Sol and Sol entered.
Rita loved her abstract, decorative, utterly art-for-art’s-sake sleeve. Contemplating it brought her solace and wisdom, in the way of pets and certain statues. Sometimes she had the urge to get it touched up, but no. Better to leave it alone, let it age and fade along with her. She could feel goosebumps change the contours of her skin, and in her mind’s eye she pictured how they reshaped the green geometry that stained her arm, the way waves reinvent the geometry of the ocean.
She liked poetical conceits, Rita did. She was a reader.
Said Sol, “She’s reading one of your books!”
“It’s Try a Little Tenderness,” Sol said.
It was one of Sol’s bestsellers, the one that had given their papi the retirement he deserved. Sol thought it a fairly trope-y Rom Com, but it had a good heart and a light touch. Girl meets girl, instant chemistry, but each one feels she isn’t worthy of the other. Chapters and chapters of cringy self-sabotage! Misunderstanding, misapprehensions, “It’s not what it looks like!” and “How could you?” and “I thought you were different.” But though they have been damaged by their former relationships, they both know a beautiful soul when they encounter one in the wild. They fall in love. Commit. Kiss. Commit some more. And then, they hold on tight to one another for all their days and nights.
Rita had read Try a Little Tenderness countless times. It was one of the books she read when she needed faith. She often fell asleep to the audiobook.
She had brought her own copy to the library to read because they didn’t have a copy at this branch. But it was the best place to read it. She loved that hoary armchair.
“This is a gift,” Sol said.
“I treasure this moment,” agreed Sol.
Swelling with joy, Sol, on an impulse, thought “Hi!”
Rita looked up from the book. Rita was atheist as fuck. Rita did not believe dead authors can say “Hi!” from within her own body.
But the feeling wasn’t unfamiliar to her, either. A book you love builds souls inside you. A writer you love feels like a friend: even if death has made it impossible for you to meet.
“I wish I could talk to her,” Sol said. “Like, really talk. With coffee and everything. How much would I give to talk to Rita!”
“I wish I could give that to you,” said Sol.
Rita had just arrived at chapter 27. Rita’s love of chapter 27 was like the radiator pinging itself to life for the first time in the season. Sol could scarcely think, life was so suddenly what it always should have been.
“‘It’s not what it looks like!’“ Rita quoted from the book: out loud, but in a whisper. She was smiling because she knew the future: Laura and Dominique will fall in love by the end of the book. But she was also smiling because Laura and Dominique don’t know this in chapter 27. And chapter 27 just keeps on being chapter 27. Rita can revivify this wrinkle in the plot whenever she wants. All she has to do is reread it, and time pulls back the red velvet rope and lets her back in.
“Whatever this is,” Sol said. “It’s more than nothing. It’s so much more than nothing.”
“So much more than nothing,” Rita said, out loud, in a whisper. But those words were not on the page. She wondered what made her say that. And then, touching her nose—dewy and dog-warm—she added, “Hey! I’m not cold.”
“Me neither,” Sol said and said Sol.
(Editors’ Note: “I Will Have This Diamond for a Heart” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 45B.)
© 2022 Carlos Hernandez