The rain feels different, here in Boston. It comes suddenly and without warning, falling in quick showers out of a clear blue sky. When it passes, it passes complete, leaving nothing behind but a few token puddles and a brief respite from the day’s sweltering heat.
Back home, the rain announces its presence hours before it arrives. The air will thicken slowly, biding its time, forming an oppressive blanket that makes every breath a struggle. And when it comes, the rain blots out the world entire. Sight dissolves into a sheet of shimmering white as touch and sound are battered into submission by the crash of thunder and the relentless drumming of raindrops on skin. Only smell survives, reality shrunk into a solitary point of sensation. Ozone in your nostrils as lightning forks across the sky. The thick, putrid odor of rotting leaves in a gutter drain. The scent of petals torn loose from their arboreal bower, dancing a scattered swansong amidst the wind and storm.
Being in the rain is a special kind of loneliness quite unlike any other. There is a stillness in your soul made all the more delicious by the frenzy of nature around you. It becomes quite easy to imagine that only you are here, that all existence can be contained in one small space. For once in your life, you feel wholly in control. This small space of awareness is your universe and you are its sole inhabitant.
We are all islands, in that rain.
But occasionally, a specter will rise unbidden out of the rain – another human presence intruding on your moment of quiet reflection. You will each recoil from the sight of the other, then catch yourself as you recognize a fellow fugitive from the storm. You look away from the other, awkward, unwilling to acknowledge the existence of another and admit the fallacy of your solipsistic thoughts. And yet pretending that the other person isn’t there is even more uncomfortable than acknowledging a stranger’s existence. Eventually, someone opens their mouth to speak.
His name is Bryan and he has the lean, cropped look of someone fresh out of the army. He is a law student at the local university, and is still trying to teach his body to sleep in past five. He does not mind the rain, for he knows that when it passes he will be free to do as wishes and go where he wants. His day stretches out in front him, filled with the infinite possibilities of civilian life. He is happy as he waits for the rain to recede.
Her name is Eileen and for the last three years she has reading too much and learning too little. Now, she is unemployed, and thoroughly sick of rejection. She tells her mother that a degree in Literature sounded good at the time. She has seen Bryan before, when they found themselves on the same east-bound train. Their eyes had met as the train pulled up at her stop, and she had given the young soldier a quick, passing smile because she had liked the spark of laughter she saw in his eyes. Bryan had seen a thing of beauty, a slim, pretty girl with shoulder-length hair that turned a different shade of brown each time it caught the light. Her smile had stayed with him throughout his long ride to camp, and for the rest of the day he wore a faint reflection of it on the corners of his face.
They do not remember this. They will never remember, but some relic of that moment remains buried in the wilderness where our memories go when it is their time to die and give birth to dreams. And so they will talk, spurred by the unconscious knowledge that they have done this before, in the uncharted places of their hearts. They will laugh, flirt, and exchange numbers as they wait out the storm in a bus stop by the side of the road. They will meet again, and come to love the other with a strong and passionate desperation, convinced that the adolescent stutterings of their heart are a sign that they have found the one who will make their life complete. They are young, and on the cusp of life. For them, heartbreak will be a painful and all consuming thing.
Her name is Felicia and she worries for her daughter. She is fifty and she looks her age. The years have not been as kind to her as they have been to the women who were girls with her in school. She envies them, sometimes – their children are working now, blessed with stable jobs and bright futures. Her friends no longer carry on their faces the cares and burdens of being a parent, and talk of mahjong and grandchildren and the latest Korean shows. But all she can think of was her daughter and how her future still wavers uncertainly like a candle in the wind. She supposes that she only has herself to blame, for indulging her daughter when she was young. But it was hard when her husband left her and her heart was not yet toughened by years of loneliness. Felicia draws her hand across her brow and rests her plastic bag full of groceries on the seat beside her. She does not notice the new furrow between her eyes that refuses to recede when she unclenches her gaze. She is so very tired.
His name is Daniel and he holds the world in his hands. His infant child, frightened by the unfamiliar crash of thunder, begins to bawl. The child is too young to know much about the word, but he knows enough to tell that the arms clumsily rocking him cannot give him the maternal comforts that instinct codes him to crave. He will not stop crying, and Daniel is afraid. He wishes that the rain would stop so his wife could come. The woman beside him turns to him and extends her arms in a kindly, weary gesture that he knows is an offer to help. His son is soothed by a mother’s touch and Daniel, grateful, gives the woman a smile. They sit around the void deck table and talk for a while about children and the pain and joy they bring. The rain stops and Daniel takes his leave. Later, he will realize that he has forgotten to ask for her name.
The man has no name and it does not matter because he is not made of mortal flesh. He sits under the flyover where he has made his home, watching the water roar through the gutter beneath his feet. A piece of chicken lies half-eaten on his lap, gathering flies. He pays it no mind because in the thunder and rain he hears the voices of angels affirming that he is one of their number. A gust of wind blows through his concrete home, scattering the packets of tissue paper that had been neatly stacked beside him. He forces himself to pick them up and keep them dry because even angels need to eat and from bitter experience he knows that no one will buy them once they have been soaked through by the rain. When the rain stops he will do as he always does and find the nearest apartment block and head straight for its roof. He will sit on the ledge, legs dangling into space, and think about this transient world and its hate and its ills and its pain. He will sit, teetering, waiting for the day for the voices in the rain to tell him that it is time, at last, for him to come home.
I tell you these stories because sometimes the islands we make for ourselves are part of a larger mainland that we may never see, where the rain that falls on you is the same rain that falls on me. Six months from now, Daniel will look at the resumé in front of him and pause, unsure. Then he will look up at the girl before him and the sight of her will make him think of a rainy day and a pair of kind and weary arms. And so, though he could not tell you why, he will offer her the job and watch her shoulders sag in relief.
Eileen, when she has thanked her new employer and left the room, will feel her shoulders squaring with an assuredness and a confidence that she had thought she had lost forever. She will pick her phone and before the familiar demons of fear and doubt can reassert their hold on her life she will punch in Bryan’s number for the last time and tell him that she is unhappy and he is unhappy and they should have made an end long ago. She will tell him that they need to stop using the other as a cipher for the things missing in their lives, that their love was true but it had gone and that in time they would forget. Though it pains them, they will both know that what she says is true.
Bryan will walk home that day because he is heavy and empty and wants to be alone with his thoughts. As he makes his way through an underpass, he will pass by a man slouched mutely by a wall with a hand full of tissue paper he holds out for sale. He will notice the man’s unwashed shirt and uncut nails and with the intuition of the broken-hearted he will see within him a grief far deeper than his own. So Bryan will put his own pain aside and cup the man’s calloused hands in his own and press a few precious bills into his palms. He will look into the man’s uncomprehending eyes and he will say things with his voice but in his eyes the man will see the real message and it is care and empathy and concern and three gentle words: Are you alright?
And something brittle and hard in the back of the man’s head will give way in the face of such simple humanity and suddenly he will know that no, he is not alright. The man will let Bryan take him to a shelter he knows, and they will clothe him and feed him and let him stay even when he asks for help. It will take a while and many sessions of counsel and relapse, but the man will learn to stop hearing voices in the rain. And when the voices finally go away he will remember a wife and daughter and a life he had before that rainy day when lighting tore his world apart and thunder whispered the left-hand name of God. He will forget that name. He will remember his own.
All of this will happen in six months time. But on this rainy day, Bryan and Eileen care nothing of the future. Their bus is here and they are running out of their shelter to hail it. They are cold and wet and rain is in their eyes but they are laughing because they are with each other and the rain that falls on him is the same rain that falls on her. They are running and they are laughing and that is all that matters in this world.