I saw the poster on the morning after our fourth date, when I stumbled out of the bedroom to make a pot of coffee. Aimee was still sleeping, but I knew the sound of the wood creaking beneath my feet would wake her soon enough. The coffeemaker had just started to brew when the midmorning light led my eye to the black-framed picture of an ampersand hanging on the wall.
Any other day, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it, but Aimee had a way of making people think. She always liked to ask, “And then what?” when people told her a story, and she always expected some new twist — even if there wasn’t anything left to say.
“Well,” she told me the first time she prompted me, “make something up!”
“Then I’d be lying.”
Aimee shrugged. “Not necessarily. You could add another angle to the story. A different ending.”
She’d always been the creative type. More creative than me, anyway. She was always working on some crafty artwork or hobby. I’d like to think that’s why we didn’t work out in the end but, as Aimee would say, it isn’t right to give away the ending like that.
I was looking at that poster when she wandered around the corner after me. The floorboards didn’t betray her the way they did me. I didn’t know she was there until she wrapped her arms around my chest and rested her head on my shoulder.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Looking at your picture.”
She followed my eyes. “Oh. The ampersand.”
“You like it?”
“It’s very . . . you.”
She laughed. “You think so? I’ve always thought it was a little dull. I keep meaning to take it out of the frame and paint it, but I don’t want to damage it.”
“Is it important or something?”
Releasing me, she walked over to the cupboard, grabbed two mugs off the shelf, and turned toward the coffeepot. “It’s old. I’ve had it since high school. My mom gave it to me as a graduation gift. I took an acting class that year and kept ‘Yes, and-ing’ everyone.”
“Like you do now?”
“I do not.” She grinned as she gripped the coffeepot and filled the mugs. “I just know there’s always more to the story than what someone lets on. Everyone wants to live these carefully edited lives, but life doesn’t work that way. People don’t work that way. It’s always more complicated than that.”
“You should’ve been a journalist,” I said, taking the mug she handed to me.
“Maybe. I was never interested in that sort of thing, though. They want to know why a man killed his wife. I want to know about why his wife put the couch on the wrong side of the room or why he didn’t go to art school — because his paintings were beautiful.”
Her eyes glittered when she spoke, and I caught myself before they sucked me in. “Yeah,” she said. “They’re my fictional people, so yeah, the paintings were beautiful.”
“Am I?” She took a step closer. “After I’m ridiculous, what happens?”
I felt my heart quicken. “You mean right now?”
Aimee sipped at her mug, nodded. “That’s what your friends are going to ask you later, and you’re going to explain why you didn’t pick me up and carry me back to the bedroom. Unless that’s what you were going to do, I mean.”
I set the mug on the counter. So did she.
“How did you know?”
We dated for two years and lived together for six months before it all came crashing down. I think about her every day, all these years later. Aimee wouldn’t want me to.
It wasn’t her fault that the road was slicked over with black ice or that she fell and twisted her ankle. It wasn’t the driver’s fault that he didn’t see her until it was too late and went into an uncontrolled slide when he slammed on their brakes trying to stop in time.
It was just a streak of bad luck that I left my phone on the nightstand beside the bed — the one place where it never got good reception in that place — and that I didn’t get word about Aimee until her mother, who lived across town, started pounding on the apartment door.
If it were up to me, I wouldn’t think about those things at all. But it’s not. Never was.
What I can say is that, even years after she passed, Aimee helped me heal. At first, I thought it was her voice whispering in my ear. I’d check my phone when I received a text, thinking it was her. I’d hear her laugh in a crowd and spin around, expecting to feel her arms wrap around my chest as she’d done a thousand times during our years together.
All those things faded with time, but one thing never did.
I moved out of Aimee’s apartment exactly ten days after she died. Couldn’t stand to live there anymore. I was just leaving when her parents showed up to collect the rest of her things. Her mother flagged me down as I was getting into my car. She was carrying that ampersand poster in her hands.
“Here,” she told me when I’d climbed out of the car one last time. Tears streaked her cheek when she spoke. “Aimee would want you to have this.”
“I can’t,” I whispered. “You gave that to her.”
“It’s not about that. It’s about what happens next. Aimee will want to know the next time you see her.” She looked at me with a ferocity wrapped in desperation, a woman choosing to believe her own words because they were all she had left. “And you will see her again. We both will.”
I don’t know if those things are true. I never have. But I took the picture anyway and hung it on my wall. I see her every time I look at it — and I struggle to make sure that when I see Aimee again and she asks me what happened next, I don’t have to make anything up.