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Before the End of All Things

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"You're mad," says Ophelia, sipping her latte and looking at Hamlet overtop four-hundred-dollar sunglasses, a gift from a man she does not love. The sun has just begun to set over the ocean, casting streaks of light over their caf table, but Ophelia tries not to read too much into that. Not everything is a metaphor.

Hamlet doesn't disagree, but she well knows he thinks he's the only sane one in a world grown increasingly mad, and some days she believes he might be right. But madman often think themselves sane, and long acquaintance is as blinding as it is illuminating,

"Was the non-fat really necessary?" he says finally, pushing artfully messy hair off his face. "You're not going to survive to get fat."

"It's what's expected of me," says Ophelia, sparing the cup a futile look of scorn. Is it worse to go through life not knowing what you are, or to know and still not do anything about it? "I'm a slave to the patriarchy."

"You could choose not to go for your little swim this time," says Hamlet, as if it were as easy as that. "You could buy a bus ticket to San Diego, take up macramé and never look back."

"I tried that thirty years ago," says Ophelia. "I still ended up in the ocean and you still got yourself killed in a barroom brawl."

He's a different Hamlet from thirty years ago, though, his thoughts and speeches less careful, and Ophelia hasn't missed the copy of Derrida's Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde in his pocket. Awareness of one's own imminent mortality is an increasingly troubling thing.

"I was thinking about heading out to New York," he says, "once I've finished my contract here and the company's cut me my check. I've got a sizeable nest egg saved up; I could leave this all behind."

"And do what?" she says. "And live a life of leisure? That's always worked out so well for you."

"You could come with me," he insists. "We wouldn't have to do anything at all. We could just be."

"A woman can never just be," recites Ophelia, the words coming to her lips with automatic precision. "She can't escape being an object under the male gaze. She's judged every moment she exists."

"Ophelia," says Hamlet, and moves to take her hands but she pulls them out of his reach. "It doesn't have to be like that."

"But it is," she says. "Women should have the choice to do whatever they want with themselves without being punished by society, but they don't, and that choice is an illusion. The world isn't like that. It never has been."

"You read too much."

"I've had a lot of time to read," says Ophelia. If he wants to make her quote all of The Beauty Myth, she can, and will, and a dozen other books he's never thought to pick up. "You're not the learned one anymore."

"Thoreau said 'the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation'."

"Thoreau was an idiot," says Ophelia, "and there's nothing quiet about our desperation. Knowing our past does not make us any less doomed to repeat it."

"Don't complain to me about choices if you're not willing to make them to begin with," says Hamlet with a fiery intensity that Ophelia will not admit she's missed. "I'm going to go to New York. What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to fly to the moon," she says, with another careful sip of her latte and a roll of her eyes. She thinks about the question, though, and about the choices that should have awaited her. A part of her wants to believe they still do. "I'm going north, to Portland," she decides after another moment passes. "I've always wanted to."

"We could do it, you know," says Hamlet. "When the valet brings my car around we could just get in it and leave."

"I could drop you at the airport, and put the top down on the highway all the way up. I want to feel the wind in my hair. I want to be that girl."

"I could drive you the whole way. We could stay over a night or two in Vegas, play the slots, see the shows. I could fly out of Portland International."

"Why stop there?" says Ophelia. "You could keep going, Seattle, Vancouver, Juneau. You can fly out of anywhere."

"We haven't had a road trip in a long time."

"Not since the Summer of Love," says Ophelia, the year they first came to San Francisco. The year she overdosed in a Haight-Ashbury bathtub. "Maybe it's a sign."

"The world awaits."

"It always has."

Ophelia's drink is almost gone now; the time is near. They lapse into a silence made comfortable by many years of acquaintance, by having played every role to one another it's possible to play, having been everything it's possible to be.

"How are you doing it this time?" she asks him finally.

"I don't know yet," he says, dropping all pretence of convertibles and Portland and New York. "It's not really my choice, is it?"

"You were the one telling me about choice," she says. "Even if it amounts to choosing whole milk over skim."

"We're in the endgame now," he says. "I wonder what would happen if I just took the week off to go fishing."

"You'd drown in the river and I'd fight your battles for you," she says, "and the story will still be told."

It's a truth that's not made less so by the sounding of his mobile phone, by the fact that he steps away from the table instead of answering her. To one who didn't hear the ring, it might well appear he's standing in the midst of a café talking to himself. This is how rumours get started.

"I've got to go," he tells her, the phone disappearing from whence it came. "Something's come up at the office."

"I know," she says, because it's about that time. "Maybe I'll see you later."

"Maybe you will," he says, and flashes her one last manic grin before taking off, around the corner and gone again.

But she knows he's going to be knifed in the boardroom in a couple of days, and she knows that when she finishes her latte she's going to go over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge, and maybe there are just some things that are meant to never change.