Lilliana dreams that she is standing in a long line waiting for her turn to say goodbye. She places a kiss on a cold cheek and sheds a tear. A casket is closed and lowered into the ground. Suddenly she is shaken awake by an unknown force. Could it be true? She questioned his existence. In an instant, she could feel the hot salty tears run down her face. She called out into the night but knew that no one would answer her. The alarm clock beside her reads 3:00am and her heart, it aches. Suddenly a vision of his face flashes before her, so real, she can almost feel him there, as if he is embedded in her consciousness. Just like that, she gets up, and her hands begin typing zealously on her computer-keys, she finds and books the next flight leaving to Auckland, New Zealand.
Her first interaction with Simon was through the internet. Just some words exchanged online in an AOL chat room between two teenagers living on opposite hemispheres. He sent a photo of himself. He wasn’t terribly cute, but his personality intrigued her, so she sent a portrait in return. He called her pretty and told her she looked like Halle Berry because of her short pixie haircut. It felt odd to chat with a stranger at first, but this happened to be the most exciting thing to have occurred in all her 16 years of life.
Each afternoon, after school, she would turn on her Compaq computer and hope to find his screen name logged on so they could chat. After several weeks of emailing and chatting online regularly, they began to talk on the telephone. Simon could be found 18 hours ahead, in the future, while Lilly daydreamed in Eastern daylight time. She used her weekly allowance to purchase $5 phone cards at the Bodega so she could ring him.
They loved to hear each other’s voices on the other end of the telephone line, explaining their hobbies, and their likes and dislikes. They spent countless hours, revealing each other’s deepest secrets until they were utterly exhausted. Then they would do it all over again the next day. She spent nights dreaming about what life was like in New Zealand, and he spent days wondering what life was like in New York City. Both of their parents complained because they couldn’t understand that this is just what teenagers did. They were made for each other. Their love was creating an invisible thread that tied their destinies together forever, inseparable, even on opposite ends of the earth.
Inspired by his love for Lilly, Simon saved up as much money as he could, obtained a 4-month working visa, and without telling his parents, he bought a one-way ticket to America. Lilly was nervous as she sat quietly on the passenger’s side of her mother’s parked car at the airport. She anxiously waited for the moment to make eye contact with the boy with endearing big ears, bleached blonde hair, and wire-rimmed glasses. Lilly adjusted her hair, checked her teeth, and practiced her smile while watching the automatic doors. Suddenly she spotted him, wearing a striped sweater, baggy blue jeans with a beanie cap on his head. He was cuter than imagined. She only hoped that he would like her in return. She rushed out of the car and stormed towards him.
There she was, approaching him. She was taller than he had expected and much more beautiful than her photos. Her punk pixie-red hair, bright eyes, and honey skin made it easy for him to spot her in a crowd. He began to sweat profusely walking towards her. As he drew closer, he kept repeating a mantra in his head “Oh my god, she’s real, she’s really real.” He hugged her tight, kissed her cheek, and let out a sigh of relief. After nine months of communicating and planning on opposites sides of the planet, they finally met. She could touch his face, and as they embraced each other, she blurted, “You’re real! Holy shit.”
Simon rented a room in Greenpoint and got a job at a sandwich shop in lower Manhattan. After school, she would visit him at his new role, proud that he was assimilating to NYC. After his shift, he would take the subway with her uptown to the Bronx, where she lived. On weekends they spent time doing all the things young lovers do, exploring all that the city had to offer. In her city, there weren’t vast green fields of sheep, just eight billion people, magnificent skyscrapers and culture beyond their wildest dreams. Everything felt so perfect; at least at first.
One Friday night out, Lilly meets up with her classmate, Jason to dance the blues away at The Bank nightclub on the corner of Houston and Essex Street. Simon shows up outside the club in the rain to wait for her unannounced. He saw the pair exiting the club at 4:00am, while Lilly grinned from ear to ear and Jason’s arm around her shoulder. Simon instantly reacts and punches her classmate in the face. Jason rides the F train home with a black eye. After a long argument in the street, Lilly’s night ends in tears.
During the first week of spring, Lilly’s heart felt cold. It was Simon’s last day in America, and they were sitting together in Tower Records on E. 4th and Broadway. They were having trouble looking into each other’s eyes. His visa had run out, and so had their love. They both learned so much, but love was not enough to keep them together. Simon grabbed her hand and embraced her tightly as she cried into his chest. She knew it had to end, but it was hard to believe since they both had come this far. He looked into her deep brown eyes and told her “You gave me more to live for, more than you’ll ever know.” He gave her a reassuring smile, leaving her with the comfort of perhaps reuniting someday, a smile that would forever remain in her memory.
In the weeks that followed Simon’s departure, a vacant hole was left in Lilly’s heart. Then the darkness came; the Twin Towers fell, and each day became harder to face without him. She missed his laugh, his skin, his smell, but more than anything she missed his friendship. Simon rang Lilly one last time to thank her and to see if she was okay. If you listened carefully, you could hear the crack in their voices; the unbearable pain, of being 8,814 miles apart.
During her flight, Lilliana writes in her journal about what she will say to Simon when she sees him again, if she finds him that is. They lost touch so long ago. All she had left was a Christmas card he’d sent five years before with an address on the envelope. She was determined to go there and surprise him. She puts her headphones on, presses play on her iPod, and #1 Crush by Garbage begins to play.
“See your face in every place that I walk in,
hear your voice every time that I’m talking,
you will believe in me,
and I will never be ignored.”
Simon had once dedicated this song to her. She smirks at the lyrics, remembering her first teenage love. There are only four more hours left on the flight. The song comes to an end; she closes her eyes to rest.
She arrives by taxi to 296 Bucklands Beach Road. Lilliana can’t tell whether the pain in her chest is from too much excitement or fear of how much Simon may have changed. Her walk down the stone path of the front lawn feels as if she is walking on air into the unknown. She rings the doorbell and takes a deep breath as she waits.
A small woman with grey short hair answers the door. A look of familiarity sends relief down Lilly’s spine. Recognizing her from Simon’s old family photos, she knows it’s his mother, Martha.
“Lilly? Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me, Lilliana, I finally made it to Auckland. I know this is a big surprise, but I had to come, I need to see Simon, is he here?”
Martha asks Lilliana to come inside the house and sit down. She lights a cigarette and tears gently begin to roll down her face.
“There’s no easy way to tell you this… come; take my hand.” Martha leads her into the backyard garden where there is a newly planted tree with a sign that reads “Simon Altmark.”
Lilliana freezes and then drops to her knees, covers her face and wails into her hands. After taking a moment, Martha says, “I buried his ashes here, under this tree, on this very day, last year. I’m so sorry.”
She presents a bracelet to Lilliana and says, “You should have this. He gave it to me on the last day I saw him alive. Here, let me put it on for you.” As Martha pushes the bracelet around Lilliana’s wrist, it bursts, scattering the gemstones over Simon’s memorial.
The two women stroll in silence back into the house. Martha fills a teakettle with water and places it on the stove. She then turns on the home stereo and presses power. An old cassette tape from her homeland of Russia begins to play. It sounds like a romantic ballad. She turns to Lilliana with a sad smile and translates, “The man in this song, he is singing: I love you, I miss you, I’ll be with you forever.”