There are three types of people in the world: (1) knowers (2) not-knowers and (3) knowers who can't stand the not-knowing. Lucy was the third type. In fact, her discomfort was such that any sort of not-knowing tended to prevail over all else, preventing her from achieving any measure of satisfaction. Ever since she was a little girl, she was blessed (or cursed; she was never quite sure) with the knowing. Everyone she'd ever met bore an inscription in careful black lettering—presumably from a cosmic pen of some sort—indicating precisely the role they would play in her life. Confidant, Friend, Defender, Enemy, etc. The mailman's label read Acquaintance, and the elderly man across the street bore a label that read Stranger. This was the way it had always been.
Lucy didn't know why the labels were there, or exactly what purpose they were meant to serve, but there were a few things of which she was certain: that nobody else could see the labels but her, that they were never wrong, and that they could usually be found in an obvious place, like a person's hands, face, or neck. In rare cases, she had to search, and would find the person's label on the underside of their chin, or behind their ear. This is why whenever she saw the boy without the label, her mind strained under the weight of not-knowing.
She was sitting in a café she'd been going to lately, chin nestled in palm, watching people pass by on the busy city street below. When she saw the boy she snatched up her novel and delved into it, completely engrossed, peeking up every so often to make sure she was properly hidden.
He tilted his head to the side. Lucy blinked at him. He was trying to read the cover of her novel, which, to her horror, she realized she'd been holding upside-down.
She righted the book.
"Fictions, by Borges," he read, apparently unaffected. He pulled up a chair beside her. "Any good?"
Lucy attempted a smile. "Very."
The encounter wasn't too bad so far, she decided, aside from the book thing. The boy wasn't actually bad looking, in fact, he was kind of cute. He had a lopsided smile and heavy eyebrows set high on his face, like everything was interesting. She considered sitting with him for awhile—she had nothing much else planned for that day anyway—and thought of all the things they might talk about. They were both students at The University, both studying journalism, and probably had other things in common as well. She could have asked him what had drawn him to journalism, what part of Ireland his accent was from, or commented on his hat, but she did none of these things. Instead, her eyes traveled along his face and dropped to his hands. Still no label. None.
"I'm sorry," she said shortly, springing up from her seat.
"Where are you going?"
She muttered something about an appointment and made for the door, squeezing past a couple. Glancing over her shoulder, Lucy saw that the boy had risen to his feet.
"What's your name?" he called.
She relented. "Lucy."
Lucy left the café. In the back of the cab, she thought back to the first time she and this boy had met: she'd been with her friends—who, thanks to the labels, she'd had the unique opportunity to hand-pick herself—sitting around a table that the host had reserved for them, laughing. As usual she people-watched, seeking out any interesting labels that milled around. Nearly all of the party-goers were students from The University, an assortment of characters dressed in black-tie.
Among a group of labels reading Stranger—people who, regardless of how hard Lucy tried, would never play a significant role in her life—she spotted a boy whose label read Lover. She straightened up in her seat. Although it was silly, it embarrassed her a little to have something so personal inscribed so blatantly on his forearm, but she knew the labels had no qualms about feelings. Lucy rose from her seat and headed toward the Lover, wading carefully through the crowd. She was trying to work out what her opening line would be when the boy without the label first appeared in her path.
He started talking: he'd seen her in several of his classes, he'd read her work, really quite impressive, he'd love to talk about it more sometime. Lucy smiled politely and scanned his face, neck, and hands, searching for any sort of inscription. Her heart began to pound. Who is this boy? Where is his label? Is it hidden? Why? She looked up and noticed that he was still taking to her.
"Excuse me," she said curtly, ducking away from him. Her gaze settled on the Lover, who, to her despair, now had his arm around someone else. At once, Lucy was disoriented, utterly lost in a sea of celebrants. She assured herself that the labels didn't lie: eventually they would be lovers, but it could be months, years, or even decades in the future. When she turned around to head back to her table, the boy without the label was nowhere in sight.
As it would happen, he was the ambitious type, and Lucy's attempts to avoid him did little to dissuade. For a few months he left her alone: avoiding her in the halls at The University, pretending he hadn't seen her. Eventually he gave in and tapped her on the shoulder in the library. "You left this at the café," he said, handing her the copy of Fictions, by Borges.
He glanced down at the chair beside her and sat down almost instinctively. He was—needless to say—relieved when she didn't run away. Lucy asked him what had drawn him to journalism (a love for writing and an inherent need to know the 'whole' story), and what part of Ireland his accent was from (North). She even commented on his hat (very nice hat). The boy noticed that she never really looked at him. She was distracted, always looking at his hands or elsewhere. Keeping and holding her attention was a seemingly unwinnable battle. In reality, Lucy was rapt, but her eyes remained wanderers; she knew she didn't need to meet his gaze to see him.
He said his name was Leo.
Over the next month their activities consisted of drinking copious amounts of coffee, perusing used bookstores, and walking, hand-in-hand, through a park near his apartment. It was nothing like hers (cozy, big windows, close to The University yet reasonably-priced; she'd practically thrown her chequebook at the first label that'd read Landlord) but somehow she liked his better. Every day after classes ended, they would sit at his rickety dining table and eat one of his signature dishes: grilled cheese made in a pan, spaghetti or hamburgers, and when the hamburger buns were out, hamburger meat between two slices of whole wheat bread. Today, mercifully, it was grilled cheese.
Leo set down his sandwich.
"What's wrong?" Lucy asked. "You've hardly touched your cheese bread."
He pursed his lips. "Sometimes I feel like you're not sure. About this."
He frowned at her, unamused.
"What would you make you think that?" she asked.
"Whenever you look at me, you seem so uncertain."
Lucy said nothing. She couldn't deny that she took comfort in the labels. Without a label, she could never truly be sure who Leo was. She knew her best friend Dana would always be her Confidant, and she knew that the anonymous passerby she'd seen a week before would always be—at some point in the future—her Assailant. The labels gave her a sense of security. It was how she knew who to trust, and who to keep her distance from.
"You think too much," she said finally. "I think we need a vacation. Haven't you always wanted to take a road trip?"
Sitting in the driver's seat of his beat-up car with an arm dangling languidly out the window, Leo lengthened the distance between them and the city and imagined that he and Lucy were running away. He'd come to recognize that, at most times, theirs was a very no-nonsense kind of love, a clear kind of love, where their presence, coupled with the silence, was enough to fill any space they occupied. Other times, her green eyes would comb his body, unsettling him.
In the passenger seat, Lucy watched as the scenery transformed from urban sprawl and taxi cabs to lush forestry and tried not to think about anything.
Later, Leo stripped down to his swim trunks and waded into the ocean while Lucy stood some ways back, watching his body move against the skyline, utterly label-free. She loved him bitterly. With Leo, the not-knowing was always at the back of her mind, forcing her to imagine all nefarious roles he would eventually play in her life. For all she knew, he could be a Traitor, an Obstacle, a Competitor, or a Stranger. She never once considered that of all the people she'd met or would ever meet, Leo was the only person who would come close to understanding her.
Standing calf-deep in the water, he turned to face her. "Stop looking at me like that."
"I'm looking at you because I love you." At his expression, Lucy tried again. "I'm looking at you because I don't know if you'll hurt me."
"Is it enough that I tell you I love you? That I give you my word?"
She said nothing.
"Do you love me?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, and that seemed to be enough for him.
In a beach house he'd rented for the night, she searched every nook and cranny of his body, tracing the knobs of his spine and mapping his sand-coated skin into her memory. After he'd fallen asleep, she sat on the edge of the bed, the not-knowing lying stiffly between them. It wasn't yet dark, she realized. It wouldn't be hard to thumb a lift back to the city. So set was she in her intentions that she didn't see the small lettering etched onto the inside of Leo's cheek, despite that he slept open-mouthed, tongue-lolling.
She dressed and left.