It's been three days, and I can still feel her silken lips grazing on my neck.
Once, the passage of time would render that sensation dull and subdued. Once, the senses lorded over our interactions and made them finite. Once, feeling was fleeting.
Now, shadows grapple onto my skin, holding on for seconds or for days until something else takes their place. It's the same for everyone, everywhere. A curse for which we have only ourselves to blame.
Our eagerness to preserve the world as we knew it instead changed it forever.
It happened two years ago. I wasn't with her then. Alone in my apartment, I watched smiling faces on the news fracture and break down as scientific triumph turned to tragedy.
They told us the chemicals dusting the upper atmosphere were safe, that humanity's mother would once again nurture and sustain her children.
The truth was that we were managing, but some among us wanted more. There were fiscal and political profits to be made.
So they performed their experiment with the eyes of the world turned to the heavens.
We saw the purple mist fall from the sky and settle onto our cities and towns, covering the landscape, and then we felt it. All of it.
Where was she when it happened? In our time together, we rarely talked about that day. Most people don't.
My hand moves toward my neck. It doesn't get there.
Nowadays, everyone struggles to cut through waves of perception to reach the depths of memory. But I can still recall her soft face; the sound of her voice, whispering in my ear.
And her lips, ever-present on my neck.
It wasn't just touch that changed on the day the sky turned violet. Taste and smell also linger. In the cafe in which I sit, the aroma of coffee and pastries has grown stale and unpleasant.
I watch a man and a woman approach each other, both smiling. They mime a pair of kisses on the cheeks, careful to avoid direct touch.
The two of them then launch into a conversation in earnest before sitting down at the table across from me.
Again I reach for my neck, stopping myself just before making contact.
Her and I first crossed paths on vacation in Xi'an, six months after it happened. Locks of auburn hair were bright against the earthen faces of the clay soldiers there.
It was as if they were her immortal sentinels, and she was their empress. Our gazes met before long, and the rest was a fairytale, until it wasn't.
Humanity's generational mistake brought us together, I now realize. Political climates changed just as much as the physical. Nations put down their weapons. Politicians' bickering was silenced.
World powers became one in their race to reverse our species' transformation. For the first time in decades, borders opened and people traveled to unfamiliar places.
After we met, her and I wandered this new world. The chemicals had allowed nature to return in a frenzy. It was enchanting. We fell in love with the flora, the fauna, and with each other.
I try to touch my neck once more, and almost do. Part of me wants it to happen, to let my hand erase this final echo. I could leave it in the cafe and never look back.
But deep down I know it's futile. The memories will haunt me, just like her lips do now. I'll always think of the time we were in love, and I'll always wonder how I lost her.
The man and woman across from me are talking fast and laughing merrily. The way they watch each other is so familiar. I saw that look every day when her and I were first a couple.
But over time it faded from her eyes. By the end, I wasn't sure who was staring back at me.
My daydreaming is interrupted by a barista bringing me my espresso and a small mint. By now, the smell of coffee grounds has become so stagnant that I'm not sure I even want my drink anymore.
But a strong yawn reminds me just how tired I am. Sleep, already hard to come by these days, is nearly impossible now. I sigh to myself and take a sip.
I peer at the porcelain cup as I set it back on the table. There's a reflection in the dark liquid. It's murky, but discernable. I haven't seen it in a long time, I realize.
Or maybe I have, but not as profoundly as I needed to.
I spend a long time sitting in the cafe, slowly working through the espresso. The man and the woman eventually run out of things to discuss and leave together.
I'd been listening to them for hours, but I notice that I can't remember anything they talked about. My coffee grows cold as I tap my foot on the ground and thrum the table with my fingers.
I let out another sigh and, popping the mint in my mouth, again turn my gaze to the curious reflection.
A few minutes pass as the world becomes distant.
I place my hand on my neck, stand up, and leave the cafe.