(noun): a source of delight
The funeral director’s cheap cologne still
haunted Joy’s ashes as they sat untouched on the kitchen table. Reuben’s conflicting
emotions prevented him from touching the urn even after three days, having felt
relief that the grief over her death was more manageable than the grief she
brought him in life. Perhaps it was his guilt at this thought that prevented
him from sleeping and resulted in his already being awake when the bells on his
old-fashioned alarm clock signaled it was 7:15am.
Reuben found himself in a twilight of
awareness: half-asleep, half-awake, and uncertain of which one he should move toward.
He went to the bathroom and splashed water on his face but it didn’t help. Neither
did slapping his cheeks. He stared at himself in the mirror and noticed he
wasn’t alone: a ghostly version of Joy’s face materialized next to his.
“No matter what we went through, I always
loved you, Reuben,” Joy’s disembodied visage whispered.
He shut his eyes and covered his ears.
“I still love you.” The whispering was
louder and emanated from all around him.
Reuben screamed and shook his head so
hard that he collided with the towel bar and lost consciousness.
Reuben came to in his bed as his alarm
once again shouted that it was 7:15am. Despite how real the last few minutes
had felt he was content to accept that they were merely a dream. He repeated
the same routine and this time there was no Joy. Reuben threw on some clothes
and headed to the coffee shop around the corner with the hope that caffeine
would rouse him from his stupor.
The streets seemed quiet for a weekday
morning. Or was it a Sunday? There were few people out and even fewer delivery
drones. Reuben was never good with keeping track of the days, but now he had
completely lost track of time. He would normally rely on his phone to tell him such
trivial things as the day of the week, but it disappeared in the chaos that
ensued after Joy’s death.
“Medium roast? It’s an Ethiopian today,”
the barista asked the moment Reuben walked through the door. At least some
things were still normal.
“Yes, please,” Reuben said and went to
pull out his wallet.
“No, this one’s on me. So sorry for your
loss. Joy always brightened up my day when she came in,” the barista said with
On top of all of his other faults, this
guy was one of the few people that seemed able to resist Joy’s charms, giving
her the same grumpiness he served to everyone. Reuben was speechless at the
uncharacteristic compassion and accepted his coffee with a small nod of
His appreciation was short-lived, as he
took one sip of the coffee and almost spit it out. The only reason Reuben tolerated
the barista was because he could brew a proper cup of coffee. This cup, however,
was an insult to the great coffee culture of Ethiopia, and a far cry from the unforgettable
brew his friend’s wife once made for him in the traditional Ethiopian fashion. The
memory of that cup gave Reuben the sudden desire to hop on the subway to Abraham’s
house and coax Angelica into treating him to another mug of liquid bliss.
Any responsibilities Reuben had were out
of mind, so it was easy to give into his urge and he was soon seated in a mostly
empty train car. Despite the uncomfortable chair, he could no longer keep his
eyes open and drifted off. When Reuben opened his eyes a moment later, he was
back at the party the night Joy died.
“You know I’m afraid of heights,” Reuben
Joy was pulling his hand and giving him a
look that would have seduced him in his weaker days.
“But the view out here is amazing and
it’s so hot in there! Pretty please?”
“I’ll take one step. That’s it.”
He did as promised. She immediately went
over and rested on the railing that hit just above her hip.
“Be careful,” Reuben warned.
“Of what? Of this?” She leaned backward
over the railing with her long elegant frame, let her head dangle, and laughed.
“You have to try this! The drones look amazing!”
Reuben looked out beyond her at the
drone displays lighting up the sky, doing their delicately synched dances to
advertise everything from the latest food printer cartridges to virtual
“Come on, I’ll hold your hands,” Joy
smiled and extended her arms while her lips pouted.
The memory was playing back in his head
as if he were there again watching it unfold. Once more he was helpless to go
out onto the balcony, paralyzed by his fear.
“That’s not funny. I’m going back in.”
Reuben turned around and took a seat in a dark corner not far from the balcony.
Reuben started counting down from ten
and Joy emerged through the sliding doors right on cue when he hit zero. He
always knew exactly how long it would take for her to apologize after something
like that. Joy saw him in the corner and headed his direction, but something
was off. She stumbled and tripped in her high heels, falling straight into the
corner of a coffee table with her right temple. Joy was motionless on the floor
and Reuben began crying.
When he was done wiping the burning
tears from his eyes, Reuben found himself back in his bed and the alarm was informing
him it was still 7:15am. He hurled it across the room where it continued to
Uncontrollable laughter pushed out his
exhaustion. He had suffered from nightmares for most of his life, but this did
not feel like a dream and his nightmares had disappeared years ago with help
from Joy’s therapist, Dr. Santiago. After much prodding, he finally took her up
and visited him. Dr. Santiago helped calm Reuben’s nightmares after only a few
months and he hadn’t needed to visit him in over a year, but he was wondering
if he should call him now. He took a deep breath to try and clear his head, but
all he could smell was the stink of the cologne and it drew him from his
Reuben stared at the urn, wondering if
Joy was guilting him one last time for ignoring her. Reuben cleared a small
space on his bookshelf next to a framed picture of Joy kissing him on their
second date, a gift she gave him on their third date. She thought it was quaint
that he still enjoyed having framed pictures like these and made sure Reuben
knew how difficult it was—despite it really not being that hard—to find someone
that could still print a photo like that. He had a silly smile on his face in
the picture, amazed that such a beautiful woman would be interested in an
average guy like him. The first few months were wonderful and they saw each
other every day, but then a darker side of Joy emerged and Reuben knew why she
had been single for so long.
“Were you looking at her?” Joy asked.
“Yeah, she had a shirt on that my friend
made. I’ll have to let him know I saw one in the wild,” Reuben said.
“Am I not good enough for you anymore?”
“I’m serious. You shouldn’t need to look
at other women.”
“What? It’s not like that.”
She glared at him.
“Guys stare at you all the time and you
like it. Want me to tell them all to go to hell since you’re with me?”
“Yes, you should.”
“You can’t be serious. Look at you! Of
course people are going to check you out, you’re like a thousand feet tall in
those heels and gorgeous!” Reuben had never stated the obvious since he didn’t
want to feed her ego.
“I do this only for you and me.”
“Come on, get real. You love the
“So you want me to stop doing this?”
“Yes! If you don’t want people staring
at you!” Ironically, this line drew stares from anyone in earshot.
“You don’t really want me to do that.
Don’t say that.”
“Yes, I do.”
say that. You don’t tell me what to do. I tell you what to do or else you’ll
lose all of this and you’ll never
find anyone better than me.”
This was the first time she had been so
blunt. They had brought out the best in each other so far but now Reuben
realized that they could also bring out the worst.
“I guess I’ll find out.” Reuben walked
away without looking back. Joy didn’t even call after him.
They would get back together two weeks
later and repeat that cycle more times than Reuben wanted to remember.
Reuben sighed as he set the urn in its
place. The shelf felt empty, so he placed the first photo they had ever taken
together alongside it to complete the makeshift altar. It was from the night
they met at Abraham and Angelica’s wedding when they sat next to each other at
the “singles” table. It wasn’t until halfway through the evening that Reuben
found the courage to speak to Joy. He got out a few simple words before Joy
spoke nonstop for the next twenty minutes about how amazing the wedding was and
then dragged him to the dance floor despite his resistance.
Joy helped Reuben enjoy being at a
wedding for the first time in his life. When the time came for Reuben to leave,
he unwittingly said the most romantic thing to Joy: Thank you. Not “Can I have
your info?” or “What are you doing after this?” or “When can I see you again?”
but a heartfelt appreciation for spending her night to show him a good time.
The tables had turned for Joy and she
was the one giving Reuben her information without him asking. The thought of seeing
Joy again hadn’t crossed Reuben’s mind, not because he didn’t want to, but
because he simply didn’t think it was a possibility. His friends always told
him that all he needed to do was relax and it turned out they were right. On
the other side, Joy was just happy to have someone listen to her without
pretense or ulterior motives, the charm of which is often underestimated.
Seeing the photo, however, didn’t bring
back fond memories of that night, but rather it reminded him that he had been
on his way to see Abraham and Angelica for a cup of coffee, albeit in what he
now knew was a dream. They had known Joy for about as long as they had known
him, so perhaps seeing them and talking about Joy would help him with his grief.
Reuben retraced his steps from his earlier dream—skipping the coffee shop, of
course—and found himself on a similar car, sitting in another hard seat, and fighting
to stay awake.
He looked around at the windows for ads
to keep him from dozing off, but there weren’t any. Each window was simply a
window with no translucent commercials trying to get him to part with his
Reuben stood up before he could fall
asleep again and decided to get off one stop early to walk to their apartment. He
avoided the escalator in favor of the stairs in the hopes it would help him
fight the tiredness that was coming over him once again. It didn’t work and
each step he took up the steps at the station made his legs feel heavier while
the light got dimmer. He was having trouble making out the world even though
his head remained clear. Reuben pushed on and as he reached the top step, the
world faded to black and he was falling slowly into a void. He landed on
something soft and opened his eyes.
He was back in bed and his alarm was
ringing, shouting that it was still 7:15am.
Reuben had remained conscious the entire
time. There was no break in what he saw. He was on the steps one moment,
falling the next, and now back in bed. If he had any certainty about being in reality
before, it was all gone.
He got up to see if the urn was where he
had left it or if he had just dreamt that. It was right where he expected it to
be on the shelf. As he was trying to figure out what it all meant, a noise that
he hadn’t heard in over a week startled him: his phone. It was coming from a kitchen
drawer. Of all people, Dr. Santiago was calling.
Reuben. I just wanted to check in and see how you’ve been holding up.”
“Not good, doc. I can’t sleep and it’s
been a hard three days. I keep hallucinating or dreaming or something. In all
honesty, I don’t know if I’m actually talking with you right now.” When he
first began his sessions, Reuben never would have been as open about his inner
workings like this, but Dr. Santiago had really helped him.
I’m glad I called. Do you want to come in right now? My 8am just cancelled but
I’m already in the office.”
Reuben agreed and walked the five
minutes it took to get to his office.
“Reuben, so glad you’ve come to see me.
Joy was such a special person and I know what she meant to you. She was a good
friend of mine as well.” Dr. Santiago welcomed Reuben into his office with a
“But you also know how complicated our
“Of course. Please, sit down, and tell
me what’s been going on.”
Dr. Santiago seemed to be his normal
self, and Reuben was still feeling clear. He hoped that this truly was reality
and that Dr. Santiago could help him. Reuben related everything he could
remember for the past few days, including his conflicted feelings about Joy’s
death and the details of everything he had experienced.
“The weird part is that I really felt
like I was seeing and hearing her. And you, also, Doc. You appeared in one of
my dreams. After I was hit by the car, I thought I was here in your office with
you and Joy, but I was strapped down. Did you ever do that to me?” Reuben
“No. I don’t believe in restraining my
patients. Perhaps it was your mind making a metaphor for how you’re feeling,”
Dr. Santiago replied after a pause.
“Maybe. But I’ve never had so many dreams
so close to each other, and definitely never so many that were so clear,
especially not since my nightmares stopped.”
“It’s normal to have dreams about a lost
lover and you can have difficulty telling reality from dreams when you’re experiencing
“It’s more than that. Everything has
been a blur since the moment she died, and even that feels like a dream. But seeing
her again, in the mirror and the replay of the night she died and after I
blacked out from pain, seemed so real,
as real as this seems right now.”
“How did you feel when you saw Joy in
“It felt like she was haunting me.
Making me feel guilty. I was about to break up with her for the sixth time and
this was going to be it. I told you that just before she passed.”
“I have a very good memory.”
“It almost felt like she knew that I was
going to end it for good after all these years and she died just to spite me.
Joy always had to be in control.”
“Maybe she was just trying to make you a
Reuben didn’t know how to respond to
“Perhaps you’re feeling guilty because
you mistook some things she did as being negative and not positive like she
intended them,” Dr. Santiago clarified.
“I wanted to believe that for so long, Doc,
but you helped me understand that might not be true.” Reuben was confused. Dr.
Santiago had never spoken like that before in a session.
“Right now I just want to help you
understand your grief and feel better.”
“I want that, too, but I don’t even know
“Do you miss Joy?”
“Of course I do.”
“Did she make you happy?”
“She did for a long time, even with her
drama. She could make the world smile and I was her world. Then her name became
ironic as she was anything but joyful to me. I think I still love her in some
“Then perhaps you’re feeling guilty for
wanting to leave her and not getting any closure. Would you want her back?”
“I want her alive, but I don’t know if I
want her back.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?! You
still love her, right?”
Reuben was stunned into silence by the
outburst and his head began to spin.
“I don’t know!” Reuben shouted back.
“What an awful thing to say! She was
your lover! Your best friend!”
“But it was always about her. She got
everything at my expense. It wasn’t fair!”
“All she wanted was to make you happy.
I’ll ask again, do you want her back?”
Reuben’s delirium returned in an instant
and he had a hard time collecting his words.
“I don’t know…yes. Yes, I want her back.
I want my Joy back. That’s all I want. I want her back.” He was crying uncontrollably
and would have agreed to anything Dr. Santiago said.
“Is that good enough? He can’t take much
more,” Dr. Santiago spoke to the air and then disappeared.
The room faded into a white fog and Joy
emerged through it looking at him with a smile and crying. Dr. Santiago was next
to her, sweating and holding a virtual reality headset in one hand. It was similar
to the dream Reuben had where he was restrained in Dr. Santiago’s office.
“See, Reuben, honey, I needed you to see
that you can’t live without me. This was the only way. Do you understand now
that you can never leave me? We’re meant to be together,” Joy said.
Reuben turned his gaze to Dr. Santiago
and saw a look he recognized all too well. Joy had Dr. Santiago under her spell,
and he was willing to do anything to help her craft the world she wanted for
herself. It was the same look that stared back at Reuben in the mirror since
Joy had entered his life. She often talked about Dr. Santiago with disdain, always
mentioning how weak he was. She had used that to control him, just like she did
everyone. Reuben wondered if Dr. Santiago ever had any intentions of truly
helping him or if he was simply a puppet for Joy the whole time.
“Dr. Santiago. Why?” Reuben said hoarsely.
“It’s all for the best,” he replied and
patted Reuben’s hand.
Joy unscrewed the clamps to the cognitive
imaging machine strapped to Reuben’s head and gave him gentle kisses while Dr.
Santiago removed an IV from his arm. This, he knew, was reality. A living,
“It’s OK, Reuben, we’re together now.
We’ll never be apart again.” Joy climbed into the small stretcher and coddled
his shaking body.
His mind matched his convulsing corpse,
uncontrollably jumping between thoughts. He wanted to push Joy away, but found he
lacked all strength in body and mind. He looked with pleading eyes to Dr.
Santiago and received a comforting stare in return. Reuben submitted to the
only choice he had and let Joy back into his life.
Noah Levin has been working a day job as
a Professor of Philosophy for over a decade, but by night writes
philosophically inspired fiction. All of his works are, and will be, available
FOR FREE. He has published numerous academic articles, free textbooks, and
popular philosophy articles, and now just wants to see if people out there
enjoy reading his works as much as he does writing them. You can find his works
(and more) at: https://www.ngefarpress.com. Follow me on Twitter to hear news,
updates, and release information for future works: @NGEFarPress