I never felt like a real college girl until I met John my senior year. He and I stayed up all night talking and then ran around campus chalking pastel hearts and portraits of Václav Havel on the cement walkways. A manic fox with wavy brown hair, he could come to rest suddenly and eye me with a playful stillness that made me ache. He managed to be both clever and smart, lean as well as dimpled. When he touched my hand and made an observation about the geometry of my fingers and the just-discovered significance of something I’d said a week earlier, lust tightened all the muscles from my stomach down to my knees.
By winter senior year, John and I were spending every night together and the rest of the world seemed both insignificant and enchanted, a Smurf village at our feet. He was my first love. Spring found us standing on an ancient stone bridge, arms around each other and bodies glued from sternum to ankle, watching algae bloom underwater. We breathed in sync. I leaned into John’s shoulder and inhaled slowly. The gathering warmth seemed to well up from the center of the Earth, instead of the returning sun.
A year later, we barely saw each other. We had gone from inseparable to schedule-challenged. I’d enrolled at UVA Med and John studied law at Princeton. We figured we’d spend every weekend together, then it became every other weekend, and finally it was Christmas and John became “hello stranger.”
Things came to a head when I visited John the spring after graduation. I had somehow let two months go by without inhaling the bramble scent of John’s neck. He seemed a long-lost best friend. But after the first rush of seeing John again, the visit flew by and we barely had a moment to talk. Our whole weekend together consisted of law study sessions, games of tennis, and parties where everyone talked about law and tennis.
I confronted John on Sunday afternoon. “Maybe we should see other people,” I said, dying for John to contradict me. His room had no furnishings, save for a bed and a desk with a framed picture of me, looking fizzy and blonde.
“I wish we’d met later in life,” John said. “When we’d done all the heavy lifting and career shit. But I do know the kind of connection we have is unique. We may never see anything like it again. We owe it to ourselves to keep it together.” He wept and so did I, and then we kissed and soon we were naked on the bed together crying and kissing and I missed my train back to UVA.
I took a triumphant, blessing warmth back to UVA with me, and felt its heat death over the next few days. I believed everything John had said, and yet it wasn’t enough. We went back to brief emails and occasional phone calls. Our relationship wasn’t on the back burner, it was in a meat locker miles from the kitchen.
That frozen feeling in the midst of spring prodded my imagination just as I walked past the cryonics lab where my friend Maisie worked, in a boxy red brick converted tobacco warehouse. Inside, I tried to see where workers had hefted bales and rolled cigarettes. Now it was all plasterboard walls and purring machines.
The next thing I knew, I had talked to Maisie for a few hours. Maisie showed me equipment and introduced me to her boss and coworkers. I had already learned in med school that you could slow the body’s functions to a standstill using a combination of intravenous drugs and industrial coolants. Maisie spouted phrases like “metabolic coma” and “molasses-slow polymerase.” An idea took shape.
I called John a few days later. “Just think about it. You said it would have been better if we’d met later in life. This way we can. We’ll be like no other couple, as extraordinary in our courtship as our connection. No, hear me out. It’ll be at least seven years before we can pay attention to each other. And during that time, we each have to be able to relocate to a random location, like the President at Defcon Five. We both work in fields designed for single-achiever families. Well, this is the answer!” I finished my pitch, breathless. I knew John could easily shoot down my fairy-godmother solution.
Instead he considered carefully. Of course, being a law student, he asked about the legalities. I explained the cryo lab wasn’t officially part of the university, it was a private company that benefited from the university’s talent pool. The FDA had approved stage three cryo trials about five years earlier, and maybe a hundred people around the country were in suspension now. We would have to sign a stack of release forms the thickness of a Gideon Bible.
“So you’re sure this new technique is safe? No side effects?” John asked, and I offered reassurance. “So I slide into this overgrown lipstick tube for seven years. You keep me sitting in your room around all through med school and residency, like some kind of statue. Then when you finish residency, we turn the tables. I go out and conquer the universe, while you turn into the world’s lowest-maintenance girlfriend. Right? Then fourteen years from now, we’re both just seven years older and fully qualified to live where we want and do our jobs. It’s an audacious plan. No doubt about that.”
“You mean you’ll think about it?”
“I mean it reminds me of why I fell in love with you in the first place, Willa. Nobody else could have come up with such sensible lunacy. Let me get back to you.”
We each talked to our friends and families. Everyone made fun of my plan, but I sensed a tinge of envy at how bold and romantic it was.
“If I say yes, how do I know you’ll awaken me?” John asked a few days later.
“Because I’ll miss your conversation,” I laughed. “You’ll be a boring stiff.”
John said okay. A month or so later, he ate his favorite meal (fish tacos) and we had boisterous sex. Then he put on a white suit and black tie and we drove to the medical school, where Maisie and her boss Dr. Abbye did some last-minute tests on John and then put him on a slab, which slid inside a great silver shell.
A few hours later, I had a new decoration for my apartment: a shiny chrome tube that stood against one wall, with a big window showing John’s face. John’s expression looked sardonic from some angles, mournful from others. He stood in the corner of my bedroom, casting a blue glow in the middle of the night. I got used to his presence there, only to have it startle me anew when I’d just gotten out of the shower or sat scratching myself in bed. I got used to explaining John to the lovers I brought home, but also to going to other people’s places instead. Once a month, I trimmed John’s beard and fingernails. When I went away on vacation, I got a friend to come in once a day and check on John, whose bio monitors never hinted at trouble. I compared him sometimes to the cadaver I dissected at school—inanimate but intimate. Except John had a world of potential the cadaver lacked.
As promised, I talked to John every day when I was around. I told him about my day, about my fears and minutiae—including things I never could have shared with an alert John. In the sleep-deprived miasma of residency, I lost track of when John was actually present. I saw him staring over my shoulder as I treated patients. I muttered to his specter in the break room where I bunked on call. His unweary watchfulness followed me everywhere. I sometimes forgot his name, after a thirty-six hour shift, but not his face.
Residency ended. I slept for a week and went to the beach for another week. I got a pedicure and read trashy novels. I caught up with old girlfriends. After a month the cryo lab started calling to ask when would I come in for John’s renaissance, to be followed a couple of weeks later by my entombment. I didn’t call back. Guilt started to jab at me.
“It’s not that I prefer him this way,” I confided to Maisie. “Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. I can’t remember the old John well enough any more. But once I wake John, I’ll have to take my turn. And now I’m not so sure I want to do that any more.” Maisie gently pointed out that John was a person who deserved to get on with his life, and in any case I could discuss the options with John once he could speak for himself.
I stared into John’s eyes as he came back to the world. I wanted his first sight to be my adoration. I did my hair and makeup, tried to look as much as the old Willa as possible. A smile developed on John’s face. Finally he said, “I need to pee.”
The doctors warned me John might be groggy or disoriented for a while. But an hour after he left that tube, he was focused. He sparked with energy. We went to dinner and he wolfed two entrées. “I had amazing dreams, full of flying shapes and voices,” he said. “They’re fading already, but I remember I had no body in them.” He fucked me three times that night, then got up and paced.
I’d forgotten how much fun John could be, like a mad scientist in the world’s biggest Radio Shack. He made me laugh and orgasm, and his scattered ideas kept me fascinated. It was only after a few hyperactive days that I started to worry.
“I feel fine.” His new beard twitched. “I’ve had plenty of rest. Now I want to have fun.” He went out clubbing, first with me, then without once it was clear I couldn’t keep up. He’d get home at three in the morning, sleep a few hours, then be up before me. I’d awaken to a mug of coffee held under my nose.
After a week, I worried a side effect of the freezing process had left John amped for good. If so, he figured it would wear off, but in any case he had another explanation. “We’re different ages now. I’m in my early twenties, you’re thirtyish. Those are different life stages. Remember how much you went out, how much wildness you burned off, when you were my age. That’s how I still am.”
I doubted I’d ever raced around as madly as John was doing. But it was clear we ran at different speeds. I started to avoid him.
Before I brought up the question of my freezing, I knew what John’s answer would be. I could do what I wanted, he couldn’t hold me to my side of the deal, but our relationship was over if I stayed awake. As we were now, we operated too differently to last together. “I can move anywhere now,” I pointed out. “I have much more flexibility. I can even work part time as a locum tenens, a substitute doctor.”
John gently said that wasn’t the point.
“I watched you sleep last night,” he told me. “You looked stunning. I imagine you haunting my rooms with loveliness. A flower always in bloom.”
Talking about it made me tired anyway. I felt half in suspension after a while, as the same arguments went around and around.
“I can’t believe you’re giving me an ultimatum,” I said.
“I can’t believe you’re trying to back out of our deal,” John said.
That’s as close as we got to fighting. We both had too much dignity to squall over something like this, or else we were both ashamed.
Finally, John seemed to realize he needed to woo me all over again. He slowed down. We drove to the beach and ate caviar naked with the waves foaming over our ankles. John looked into my eyes and pled the case for a love spanning decades. “We’ve come too far to give up, what we have is too precious.”
I sat in the bathtub and reminded herself that I had planned this role reversal, it wasn’t John turning the tables on me to be mean.
“I guess you’ll mellow out by the time I wake up,” I mused to John.
“I’ll be easy-going by then. And it goes by in no time. It feels now as though I barely closed my eyes.” He talked of awakening me with a kiss, like Sleeping Beauty.
John and I started to feel comfortable together again, once he slowed a little and I relaxed around him. I eased into our old rapport, trading jokes and kisses for hours. I remembered why we had wanted to do this in the first place. “You’re the love of my life,” I told John. “I never want to lose my faith that love defeats all obstacles, trumps all other cards.” We spent a whole day in bed, making love and talking about our future together.
Then we went back to the cryo lab together. I lay down on the sliding table and stared up at the nicotine-scarred ceiling.
“Hey.” John smiled down at me. I could tell he was fighting the urge to look around the room and focus on five things at once. He held one of my hands and Maisie held the other. (She didn’t work there anymore, but had come back for this.)
Then they let go of my hands as I rolled into the tube’s darkness and my mind filled with patterns. I remember a thousand years of stripes and plaids drifting past my eyes, an endless Abercrombie and Fitch catalog. John hadn’t prepared me for how boring it would be. My mind didn’t form a single complete thought during my time away from time. Instead I remember idea fragments and half-links of metonymic chains. I was used to living in my head most of the time, so it was like seeing my home burned down, fragments of possessions here and there.
John had promised the next clear image I saw would be his face looking down as I awoke. Instead I woke to Maisie, looking tired but not much older. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “John’s not here.”
I tried to form questions, but instead nonsense poured out.
“It’s only been three years or so,” Maisie said. “We lost touch with John and got worried. We went to his last known address and found an eviction notice on the door, spoiled food in the fridge . . . and you.”
Spoiled food. And me.
“I shudder to think what would have happened if his electricity had got cut off with you still in suspension,” Maisie added. “Catastrophic shutdown.”
Maisie daubed at my face with a tissue. I thought maybe they had applied some kind of fluid to my face to help the revival process. Then I realized I must be crying. I still felt as though everything was happening a long distance away.
“I’m sorry, maybe I should have waited to tell you the truth,” Maisie said. “But I knew you’d have questions when you woke and he wasn’t here.”
I nodded. I still felt unable to talk.
It took me a couple days before the world seemed the same place I remembered. Shadows kept startling me. Even after I felt more normal, I still feared things would dissolve or start to move too quickly or too slowly. I worried that everything was just an illusion. I wasn’t hyperactive like John had been, just terrified and unsteady.
I hunted John for a month, in between interviews for locum tenens positions. None of the law school buddies I’d met had kept up with him. His parents had an address that turned out to be a warehouse where John had slung car parts. Someone there had lived in a group house with John and a group of death rockers. Finally someone had heard John had moved to Maine.
It took a day to drive through dense woods, along single-lane highways lined by pumpkin stands and stores with names like The Brass Button. The roads frosted and snow spattered my windshield. It felt as though I were driving back into the frozen wasteland where John and I had spent so much of our young adulthood.
John’s new housemates seemed friendly and crunchy, not at all death rockerish, and they told me where to find the soap factory where John worked. I pictured John, still hyperactive, running five machines at once, possibly juggling at the same time. Instead, he stood in front of a conveyor belt, calmer than I’d ever seen him. His beard had spread out, but otherwise he looked the same. I watched him until his break.
“Remember those lavender and chamomile soaps you liked?” he asked me. “I make those. It’s much more socially beneficial than lawyering would have been.”
“Are you all right?” I asked. He led me across the street to a sandwich shop. It had the local newspaper and a menu with three choices.
He nodded. “I was a tad jumpy for a month after I defrosted. Then I returned to normal. If anything, everyone said I was more mature, considering I hadn’t aged.”
“I dropped out of law school. I guess you knew.” He shrugged and ordered a bacon roll and cocoa. I got some cookies. “It wasn’t some weird side effect of the freezing process, though. I just wasn’t cut out for law, it turned out. You know, I was just out of college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. Still don’t know. I partly went to law school because everyone expected me to do something high-powered. Including you. Especially you.”
“I didn’t care what you did, I just wanted—”
“You liked me because I was smart, right? And I didn’t want to disappoint. Remember how we used to talk about our future, our careers, all the time? We were going to be a doctor and a lawyer.”
I stood. “I can’t believe you’re trying to blame me! I almost died because of you!”
“Georgie didn’t take care of you? I sublet my place to him, and he promised to—”
“You promised to look after me. Not your friend. You. Why the fuck didn’t you just wake me after you dropped out of law school?”
“I didn’t want to explain to you what a waste it’d all been. I kept thinking if I had seven years, I could make a success at something before I had to face you. Because I knew you’d give me that look—the look you’re giving me right now. You should see it.”
There wasn’t much to say after that. On the long drive south, I dreamed up possible endings to my love story. Like a car crash in a New Hampshire snowdrift. Or maybe an irony-laden moment in which I went back to Maisie and had myself refrozen until John made good or someone invented a cure for fatal stupidity. But I already knew that my life was just going to carry on, at more or less the same pace as everybody else’s, until it one day coasted to a complete stop.