It started in Paris, under the Eiffel Tower of all places. That red hair gleamed in the setting sun, barely tamed just like hers had been all those years ago. It was a coincidence, I thought at first. Had to be, right? But then I noticed the woman’s clothes—her favorite green striped sweater paired with faded bell bottoms. Now, I was no expert on women’s fashion, but I hadn’t seen green striped sweaters or bell bottoms making a comeback lately. It didn’t make any sense, but that didn’t stop me from following the woman along the streets of Paris, forgetting at the time how creepy that must’ve seemed to anyone who was paying attention.
I followed her to a café, where she sat flipping through a book, seemingly the only person not on a smartphone. I looked at her more closely, fiddling with the engagement ring that I now wore around my neck. Forty-seven years ago, I had given it to a woman who looked just like the woman in the café. It can’t be her, I tried to reason with myself, but reason seemed to fade in my mind like the sun faded over the scene outside the more I looked at her.
I reached for the fancy digital camera that my son had bought me for the trip. Maybe its super-megapixels and magical zoom features would catch something to prove to me that this was just some look-a-like. Wait, you’re going to pull out a camera and take a picture of a young lady just minding her own business? That doesn’t sound like a creepy old man at all. I laughed at the absurdity of it. I bet Lisa would have found it all amusing if she was here, watching me chase some poor doppelganger of hers through the streets of Paris. I left the café and headed back toward my hotel. For some reason, I turned back to see the woman behind me.
By the time I reached my hotel, night had completely fallen over Paris, and the red-haired woman had vanished. As I drifted off to sleep, I remembered my friend Martin’s party that summer of 1971 like it was yesterday. I had never been a big fan of parties, so I just shuffled around awkwardly until Martin’s girlfriend insisted I meet her roommate, the girl with a green striped sweater drinking a glass of rosé and rambling about her travels before starting college. We got to talking, and I could still hear myself stammer when I asked her if she wanted to go to dinner with me the following weekend. That night, I dreamed about the cool September night in the park when I first told her I loved her. She looked at me like a deer in headlights at first, but eventually said she loved me too. When I woke up, I thought she was there for a moment, but then that feeling dissipated and I was left on the rock hard hotel bed, alone.
It happened all throughout Europe—Barcelona, London, Rome. All the same woman with the green sweater that looked just like Lisa’s. If it happened again, I decided, I would abandon propriety and do my damndest to get a picture of this woman. I got my chance in Athens atop the Acropolis. Among the throngs of tourists all concentrating on their own photos of the monuments, no one noticed that my camera had a slightly different focus.
I caught her again on other continents, too. Istanbul, the Pyramids at Giza, the Great Wall of China. After a particularly long and confusing day in Tokyo, getting lost amidst the city noise and brightly-lit signs I had no hope of being able to read, I saw her again and did my best to discreetly snap another picture. As I lay in my hotel room that night, I zoomed in on them the best I could. At that point, I realized that these couldn’t be look-a-likes. I knew that face, had loved that face and the woman behind it for nearly half a century. Forty-five years ago, we were married. Three years ago, I buried her with a heavy heart and an unusual promise to keep.
When she first got diagnosed with breast cancer, she wondered if it was even worth doing all the treatment. The chemo would make her just as sick as the cancer, and she’d lived a good life, so why keep it going for no good reason? I wanted her to stay with me, even for just a little while longer. Maybe it was selfish of me, but I’d been with her for so long I wasn’t even sure how to live without her. She did eventually get chemo, but not because of me. Shortly after the diagnosis, we found out our daughter Maggie was pregnant, and seeing her first grandson after two granddaughters was worth going through the treatment.
Soon enough, she was in remission, and I thought she’d beat it for good. Until, of course, it came back and spread to the lymph nodes. The chemo would be even more aggressive than before, and the last round had left her weak and gaunt. But even so, I believed in the power of modern medicine, that she could get through it and be healthy again. She argued that she had lived fully and all that medicine and surgery was better spent on some young person who’d fallen ill before they’d even had a chance to experience life. Better to die with dignity than to keep chasing the big C bogeyman, she said. Reluctantly, I agreed, and we put her in hospice care to keep the pain at bay in her last months.
A few weeks before she passed, she handed me a list of places and a sealed envelope. The places, it turned out, were the very same places she had visited years ago when she traveled the world between high school and college. She’d hoped that we could revisit them together, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen now, so she wanted me to go and enjoy those places since I’d never gotten the chance to travel. As for the letter, she said she wanted me to open it, but not until I had reached Antarctica, the only continent she had never set foot on. Finally, she handed me her engagement ring, claiming that she could travel with me in spirit from the other side. I had always felt conflicted about the existence of God and angels and all that, but as I teared up that day, I wanted to believe that she was right.
In Tokyo, I grabbed the envelope that contained the precious letter. Maybe I should read it now, in case it gets lost or stolen. The thought was tempting, but I had to keep the letter sealed. Maybe I drank too much sometimes, maybe I’d taken my wife for granted a little too much before the cancer showed up, but I was not a man who went around breaking promises, and I didn’t intend to start now.
I kept traveling through Asia and Australia, seeing the woman in every city. Was it a ghost? Could ghosts even show up in photographs? She looked just as solid as the other passerby, but I never got close enough to know for sure. I spent a few days relaxing in Hawaii before heading to Central and South America on my way down to Antarctica.
At Machu Picchu, my luck finally changed. I was with a tour group and noticed that she was in our group. This was my chance to finally try to talk to her and figure out if this was all just some crazy coincidence or what. I went up to her, trying to figure out what to say. Excuse me, you look just like my dead wife did forty some-odd years ago? I finally settled on asking her name.
“Excuse me, are you Lisa?” She furrowed her brow, just like Lisa always had when she was confused. Her mouth dropped open, and she seemed to say something back, but I couldn’t hear it, even though the night was quiet and she was right in front of me. I shrugged and tried to motion that I couldn’t hear her, but I didn’t know if she understood.
I repeated my question, asking if she was Lisa. She still seemed confused, but this time she reached out and grabbed my hand. It felt real, as real as it did on our first date, our wedding day, and those last days in hospice care. If she was a ghost, I didn’t think ghosts were supposed to feel that solid. Then the sun disappeared over the Andes, and she was gone.
A couple weeks later, as our cruise ship battled the rough waters between South America and Antarctica, I wondered exactly when would be the right time to open Lisa’s letter. Did I have to be on land, standing next to the penguins? It seemed somewhat impractical to carry the letter around, so I decided to finally open it in the cabin as we approached the Antarctic Peninsula.
The handwriting was shaky, as she’d had some trouble with tremors as a side effect of the pain medication. But still, seeing my wife’s script on the letter was too much for me. I teared up as I finally opened the envelope and read the letter.
My dearest Bill,
You think we met at Martin’s party that summer of 1971, but that’s only partially true. I actually first saw you two years earlier in a café in Paris. Yes, the older you that just went on this whirlwind trip. I never told you because I didn’t want you to think I was crazy or partied too hard or something.
I saw you again in Barcelona, near the dragon statue under the noon sun. It seemed like you were staring at me, but I didn’t pay much attention at first. After all, I had a lot of men staring at me back then. But then I saw you in London, Rome, Berlin. I remember admiring the Parthenon, then turning around to see you with a camera far fancier than the old film cameras we had back then. Man, do you remember having to wait for your pictures to develop and picking them up at the drug store? It’s so strange to think our grandkids might never have printed photos of themselves…only virtual, stored in that magic cloud Ricky keeps trying to explain to me.
I didn’t know what to make of all this. Was this man stalking me? How come I always felt this calming presence when he was around, as if God or something like that was telling me it was okay? I wondered if you were some odd sort of guardian angel. After all, I managed to make it all around the world as a woman traveling alone, and yet I felt safe the whole time.
At Machu Picchu, I heard you say my name for the first time. I didn’t know how you knew it, and I tried to ask where I knew you from, but it seemed like you couldn’t hear me. Strange, I thought guardian angels would have perfect hearing. I had this overwhelming urge to touch you, to see if you were real or just some strange hallucination. I felt your hand for just a moment, but then you disappeared.
When we first met two years later, you seemed rather familiar, though I didn’t make the connection at first. After all, you were thinner then and still had all that thick brown hair. But that day at the park when you first told me you loved me, the way you said my name brought me back to Machu Picchu. And I knew.
But I still had so many questions. Why was older-you traveling alone? Why could I hear him but he couldn’t hear me? For years I went to psychics and tarot readers and mediums, telling them what happened and seeing if they could explain it to me. Never got a straight answer out of any of the frauds.
I suppose I know now why you’re traveling alone—because I won’t be able to go with you. At least not present me, the one writing this letter. On the bright side, you can say I was with you in all those places for real, and not just “in spirit” or whatever. On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t mention this. I don’t want our children thinking you’re crazy and sending you to the looney bin.
If you actually followed my instructions, which would be a miracle in and of itself, then you’re in Antarctica, the one place I never made it to. I don’t know how I’ll be able to join you there. I can only hope there’s a way. Maybe I’ll reincarnate as a penguin and bite you. Or maybe I’ll haunt the boat. I guess I’ll have all eternity to think of something.
I imagine it’s been hard for you since I’ve been gone. I don’t know what’ll be worse, being alone on our anniversary or trying to cook for our grandkids and knowing you’ll never beat Grandma. I still don’t know how this magic actually works, but I hope it does.
Love forever and always,
As I read the letter, the necklace I was wearing suddenly grew warmer. I picked up the engagement ring and let the warming metal thaw my hands. As I reached the shore of Antarctica, the warmth spread throughout my body so I felt like a cup of hot cocoa on the continent of ice. All of a sudden, the ring disappeared from my hands, and I knew that Lisa had finally finished her journey.