Patrick Vicencio was an odd sort of man. He was the kind of man who wore wool sweaters and cardigans to walk across snow-laden beaches in the winter. Although his name sounded thoroughly Italian (or perhaps French), he was neither Italian nor French and both his parents were thoroughly American (and by “thoroughly American” I mean that his ancestry, if followed far enough in any direction, could be traced back across every known continental divide and country border in known modern history). He wasn’t remarkably handsome, for although at first sight he could seem the most beautiful man in the world, his face was not one typically remembered. He also had few friends at any given time, for he felt the ones he did have left him sooner or later and he was thereby inclined not to make friends too easily or too often.
He rode the train regularly, but today he was at the beach.
He pulled his brown cardigan tighter and pressed into the wind. There wasn’t any snow today, though certainly it was cold enough and cloudy enough for it to seem suspicious there wasn’t any, but he just watched the surf and walked on. There was a white foam that came and went almost with his breath, and so entranced by this was he that he barely had time to step to the side before walking into a tall woman with long black hair.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his hands catching her arms to keep her from falling to the side. Apparently she had been as deep in thought as he had been.
“I’m Patrick,” he said, letting her go.
“Ashanda,” she said lightly. Her dusk-colored skin was warm with a smile. “I–I have no idea why I didn’t see you.”
He shrugged. “It happens all the time, Ashanda.” He turned toward the ocean and breathed in as the surf rose toward them. “Beautiful weather, isn’t it?”
She stepped up beside him, shivering as she stuffed her hands into the pockets of her beige jacket. “No reason,” she said, quietly. “At least, none I remember now.”
He smiled again, still looking seaward. “Happens all the time, Ashanda.”
She chuckled. “And what brings you out today, Patrick? Seems an odd day for a stroll on the beach with no place to go?”
He looked at her, almost grinning. “Who said I had no place to go?”
She looked at him. “I–I don’t know.”
Again, he shrugged. “Happens–”
“All the time, Patrick?”
They started walking again, this time in the direction Ashanda had been traveling. Patrick didn’t mind, of course; as she had said, he had no place to go. At least, no place in particular he couldn’t wait to get to, at any rate. Life was funny like that, especially for Patrick.
The bell jingled when they pushed past the door and into the small tea house. Coffee shops, Ashanda said, were overrated. Or perhaps Patrick had said that? On occasion, he couldn’t tell. It seemed plausible either way.
They took a seat at one of the small tables, a wooden square inlaid with brown and blue mosaics. On the radio, softly shadowed by the low murmur of its patrons, was playing an instrumental tribute to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.”
A young girl dressed as a waitress walked up to them with two folded menus in her hands, which she passed to them with a perky smile and a quick introduction. Then she walked away to give them a moment to look it over.
“Have you been here before?” Patrick asked.
“Not before,” Ashanda said and laughed. “But I’ve heard the jasmine tea is delicious. Have you?”
“Yes,” he said, looking more at the menu than his guest, “I have heard the jasmine tea is delicious. I have not, however, been here before.”
She looked up, loosening her cardigan a bit. “You say it with such definity, Patrick.”
He shrugged and joined her gaze. “I’m baffled, by the concept, of having been anywhere before.” He looked around, motioning very subtly to the people around them–the young couple in the corner, the two men smiling at each other near the window, the baristas behind the counter and their waitress keeping an eye out for their summons–and then brought his smile back to Ashanda. “It’s like the saying you can’t step in the same river twice. It’s like saying you can never breathe the same breath again.”
Their waitress appeared again, asking if they were ready to order.
“Yes,” said Patrick as he passed his menu back, “I’ll have the jasmine tea.”
Ashanda smiled and did the same. “I’ll have the jasmine tea as well.”
Their waitress curtseyed, saying it’d be out in a few moments, and then left them to their own.
Ashanda unbuttoned her cardigan entirely and leaned on the table. “You’re a very interesting man, Patrick.”
He smiled. “Happens all the time.”
Patrick was on the train. The seats were red, there was hardly anyone else there, and the silver walls were broken only by the black windows. On most nights there was a little light coming in to welcome them, but tonight there was nothing. Not even the moon was bright enough to break inside.
Patrick breathed onto the window, leaving a circle of fog in his wake. He pressed his finger to the center and drew strange symbols in the white until it all warmed away. Then he did it all over again, and then once more for good measure.
“Is this seat taken?”
Patrick turned to his right and saw a young man hardly dressed for the weather looking at him. Patrick glanced to the right and the left–almost all the seats were empty–but so was the one next to him, so he shrugged and said it was empty.
“Thank you,” the boy said, taking the seat and rubbing his pale hands together. He sat hunched over, some locks of his blond hair falling over his eyes before he pushed them back. He was so cold even his breath came out cloudy.
“What’s your name?” the young man asked.
“Patrick,” he said. His eyes were to the window, but as mirror-like as the glass had become, he could still see his guest perfectly. He was looking up at him, studying the back of Patrick’s head.
“I’m Michael. Where are you going?”
Michael could’ve been seventeen, by Patrick’s most conservative guesses. He was still rubbing his hands together, blowing on them in an effort to warm them faster. He looked up and met Patrick’s gaze in the window, as if enunciating his question.
Patrick just shrugged.
“Me too,” Michael said. “I’m just glad to be out of the cold.”
Patrick looked back at him, his lips held to the side as he thought for a moment. “Give me your hands, Michael.”
Michael glanced at his hands, then up at Patrick, then finally obliged. Patrick took his hands lightly in his left, then with his right traced a sign and pressed the tip of his forefinger thrice into the back of Michael’s hand and let go.
Michael flexed his hands, his mouth hanging open as he looked at them. “They–they’re warm. What did you do to them?”
Patrick said nothing and looked through the window again. It was still as black as it had always been, however. He didn’t even shrug.
After a moment, Michael trembling, glancing back between Patrick and the window, he then pushed himself into Patrick’s side and just stayed there, his eyes closed.
Patrick smiled and let the train move on.
“You’re a very interesting man, Patrick,” Ashanda said, leaning on the table again. “We’ve met like this a dozen times already and I still can’t figure you out.” She lifted a finger with a smile and pressed it into his chest.
Patrick looked down at her for a moment, then looked up at their waitress when she came to deliver their jasmine tea. They hadn’t always gotten the same thing. Today was just a coincidence.
Ashanda lifted her tea cup, her spine straightening while the warmth flooded her from hand to hand and she breathed in a wisp of its frothy steam. Her cardigan was draped over the back of her chair and her arms were bare.
“The jasmine is heavenly,” Patrick said and took a small sip before placing it down again. “You were telling me about Tom.”
“Tom.” Ashanda scowled. “I really don’t know why I even mentioned him, Patrick. We’ve been having trouble since before I met you–I really don’t think talking about him now is going to do anything to help us.”
“Don’t tell me it happens all the time, Pat.” Ashanda set her cup down forcefully. A bit of the rim chipped off and clattered on the mosaics. “You say that all the time, Pat, but what does it mean? Has all of this happened before that you can act so nonchalant about it?”
He took a small sip of his jasmine and set it down again, turning the cup just a touch until the handle made a perfect square with the line between them.
Ashanda sat back and crossed her arms. She was stronger than she gave herself credit for, Patrick thought, but only adjusted his teacup to keep the square.
“Patrick,” Ashanda said, sitting up taller, “didn’t you tell me once you don’t believe in having been anywhere before? You can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t breathe the same breath again.”
“And here you insist it’s all been done before?”
Ashanda sighed, gripping the table and leaning so close to him he was almost astonished the table didn’t tilt on her. “I don’t get it, Patrick. How can you stand by them both? They’re opposites! It doesn’t make sense.”
He shrugged. “I do believe I said that you,” he put some emphasis there, “can’t step in the same river twice, that you,” again the emphasis, “can’t breathe the same breathe again. But I never said anything about someone else stepping in the same river or breathing the same breath.”
Ashanda sat back, smiling, shaking her head.
“Patrick, you are an interesting man.”
Morning came and the train stopped. Patrick waited, but Michael was still sleeping, so he moved the boy gently from his side, letting him fall back against the red seat as lightly as possible, and then stepped past him into the aisle. He made way for the end of the train and then breathed in the cold air as the doors opened and let him out into the world.
Patrick was hardly three yards from the station when Michael came running after him, calling for him to stop. He didn’t, but after Michael caught his breath, he was right beside Patrick again, shivering as the wind blew.
“So where you going?” Michael asked, still panting.
Patrick shrugged, but he slipped off his cardigan and handed it to Michael before smoothing the sweatshirt he had on underneath it.
“Thanks,” Michael said, “I really owe you one.”
They kept walking as the sun peeked over the horizon, through the car-less streets of the AM hours until they reached the ends of the city and the beginnings of the sea. Patrick led the way through the snow-covered sand toward the water’s edge. Michael hesitated to follow, but then rushed up to Patrick’s side again.
They stood there for some time as the sun rose higher from its slumber in the east. After about an hour had passed and the white orb floated just above the surface of the water, Patrick put his hand on Michael’s shoulder and the boy jumped.
“The ocean’s like a body of rivers,” Patrick said, meeting his eyes with Michael’s a moment before they both looked sunward again. “The currents form eddies and they follow trails. The waters in between are merely rivers who’ve tired of flowing and decided to stop.”
“You can’t step in the same river twice.”
Patrick looked down at Michael and tilted his head to the side, taking his hand away. “Who told you that?”
Michael shrugged. “I think I heard it in a movie once.”
Patrick sighed, shaking his head. “Rivers freeze, Michael, but the ocean never freezes.”
“What about at the poles? Don’t they freeze?”
“The ocean is rivers, Michael, and moving water won’t freeze.”
Michael shook his head. “You’re confusing me.”
“Where are you from, Patrick?”
Patrick smiled and pointed toward the sun. “Across the sea.”
“Like Africa?” Patrick said nothing, so Michael added, “The arctic?”
“Sideways can mean a lot of tings, Michael,” he said and moved his feet forward to let the edges of the white foam wash over his shoes.
“Isn’t it cold?” Michael asked.
Patrick looked down at Michael, tried to second-guess his guess of Michael’s age but came up the same. “Why don’t you join me?” He held out his hand for the boy.
“Are you crazy? I’ll get hypothermia!”
Patrick shrugged. “Will you join me?”
Michael looked around, saw no one else at the beach. Then he looked back at Patrick, hesitated a moment, and then took his hand and took a step into the water.
It was strangely warm. Patrick pulled him forward, leading him deeper into the churning waves, but he only got warmer as they pressed on. The water tried to push them back, but Patrick pushed it harder, and in a moment the water was lapping at their necks and Michael could barely hold his head above the water. Then Patrick let go.
Ashanda pushed past the door to the familiar jingle of the bells attached to it. She let her beige cardigan slide from her arms and then dropped it over her usual chair at her usual table and sat down.
The young man across from her looked up and brushed some blond hair out of his eyes. He looked familiar, in a way, but Ashanda wasn’t sure if they’d met before.
“Have we met before?”
The man looked at her sideways. Something about her did ring a bell, but he couldn’t recall a name. “I’m Michael,” he said.
“Ashanda.” The waitress came by and handed her a menu. She didn’t look at it, but set it down instead.
“I’ve heard the jasmine tea is good,” Michael said, folding the menu and putting it down as well. “Have you been here before?”
She looked around and noticed the young couple in a corner, the two men by the window, the baristas behind the counter and their waitress waiting for her summons. It all seemed so familiar, but she couldn’t place a bit of it.
“I think so,” she said, then shook her head, “but it must have been someplace else. What about you?”
He smiled. “All the time.”