My first life went to prom on her own: no boyfriend, no date, just her, in a limousine full of other couples. Sometimes, when I look back at that inaugural lifetime, I can imagine her in that taffeta dress, bunching the fabric up on her legs because she is taking up too much room on her own. She is eighteen for the first time, that poor girl, so she feels some need to make it special: the taffeta is red, and she is smiling, though she isn’t sure she will be dancing with anyone by the end of the night. In the limo, she turned to a girl from class she once thought was a new soul too. Though they were both late to puberty in their current bodies, it turned out the other girl had acquired a boyfriend two weeks before prom. “We’d met already, sometime in my fifth lifetime,” she said, much older than she looked. “He was the elevator operator in my building, where I used to live as an old spinster, and it turned out he was harboring secret feelings for me since then. We met again in calculus. I hate calculus! It really is all in some divine plan.” Goaded by soulmate talk, everyone in the limo recounted their cosmic meet-cutes. One of boys, one hundred lives’ deep, met his sweetheart during the Song Dynasty, where he promised to always love her with a sword through his heart. He even got the girl to unbutton his shirt to show them all the lingering scar, now a star-shaped birthmark, which she used to identify him across all their lifetimes. As a new soul, my first life learned by the nature of others: you are no one but the person you are with. Best get to looking for that forever. In the lifetimes to come, my selves would wear red to parties. Red dress, at a friend’s wedding. Red string bikini, for spring break. Red, even when she went alone, as if someone might love her like stopping suddenly at a halting light. And then she took off that red, showing other souls her newest version of bareness, bodies deemed in-vogue at that time and never anything more, or less. She would even let the momentary lover bite her, maim her, hoping she could keep them as a wound and then a remembrance. With one such lover, their first time meeting in a new lifetime, she pulled her skirt up to her bare ass and showed him a bite mark on her right cheek. “From the time we were both passengers on the Titanic,” she said, hoping he’d recall. The lover, already naked and ready in bed, took one look at the mark and shrugged. “Right. Didn’t you bleed? I just hope me remembering doesn’t give you any wrong ideas. I thought we were just having fun.” “Of course we are.” This was not the first time she heard this. She no longer needed to practice the grin. (Sometimes, when she had the lovers bite her, breaking skin, her open mouth would contort into a smile, as if all one needs to bear anything is a gracious attitude.) She only wore red because a clairvoyant once told her to. My first life had been so worried about not having a prom date that she felt to consult a psychic, a week before prom. The woman said, “not to worry. Your person is out there. You will be wearing red when you meet them.” But she could not pinpoint the exact day, or year, or lifetime this would happen. There were no invisible red strings of fate, suddenly made crimson for her. All she had was the hope of it, and she would have to wear it to prom, through all those other lifetimes. And then those lifetimes poured into mine, the oldest. I crushed up all that color into a single pigment and wore it on my eyelids, on the way to another party again. This time I was a history teacher, chaperoning a giant bowl of punch against wayward liquor flasks. Another teacher tapped me on the shoulder. “You’re wearing black,” he said. “The first time I met you, you were wearing a poofy red dress, and a girl was unbuttoning my shirt in the limo.” It was the Song Dynasty boy, who’d plunged a sword into his chest. “A girl?” I asked him. “Why, wasn’t that girl your soulmate?” “I thought she was,” he said. “But my scar faded, and she couldn’t recognize me anymore. So now I’m here. It’s strange, being alone like this.” “Is it?” I asked. Alone, I went out there onto the floor, just like the first time I was alive. It was a last-ditch moment of courage, but I couldn’t dance. Move. I had put on my red dress and braved the orbit of couples, all because I’d seen their stars of love. I’d pierced through through their years, watching these binary stars, wishing upon them, all without knowing their real light or darkness up close. Who could know? And then I had burst, crying on the floor all alone, dreaming too hard of all those years still ahead. I called the Song boy over. He leaned his lonely head against my shoulder, his mouth close and eager enough to my ear to bite it. But I didn’t ask him to mark me. I didn’t need him to devote himself with another pierced heart. “Can’t we just dance?” I asked the Song boy, who looked at me, frowning. “But aren’t you afraid of being alone?” “No,” I said, which I wanted to mean never. Somewhere, a young star cooled into the color of memory. If love was coming, let it take light years if it had to. If there was love at all, let it come when the life was right.
Justine Teu is a writer from New York City. Her writing has appeared in the VIDA Review, Pigeon Pages, Menacing Hedge, and more, with forthcoming work in The Offing. Additionally, her work has received recognition from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and The Mendocino Writer’s Conference. Currently, she is pursuing an MFA in fiction at The New School. Find her at justineteu.com and on Twitter @justinecteu.