THE VANISHING GIRL
The whole street's talking 'bout my white shirts looking so gray.
Saint Cecil once explained why hot dogs come in tens and buns come in eights. I don't remember the baker part of the explanation, but the hot dog part was that meat packers like things that come in pounds. But you have to search a bit for hot dogs that come ten to the pound now, and when you find them, they seem really puny. I took another look at my neatly paired packages, eight and eight, on the conveyor belt. Score a silver lining for the nation of size queens.
"Isn't technology wonderful?" asked the woman in line behind me.
"I'm sorry," I said, feeling that uncomfortable sensation in the pit of my stomach. (Please forgive me—I am unfamiliar with the customs of your planet. Alien Born To Human Parents, Lives Life Incognito! screams the headline of the Weekly World News across the belt from me. Except they wouldn't use a word like "incognito.") "I didn't realize I was talking out loud."
"You weren't," she said, gesturing me forward. My turn. "You should try the ones with cheese inside, they're better than they sound."
Things better than they sound, I thought, story of my life, or did I actually say it? But the cashier was hustling me along and by the time I was standing on the other side and turned around, holding my dumb-looking plastic grocery bag, the woman with the just-slept-in hair was already gone.
On Fridays I liked to pretend to have a life by making dinner that didn't unwrap or come out of a can. I'm not saying I cooked. I've never seen the point of cooking for one person. But a few quality tidbits from the local "we are a gourmet store, don't call us a delicatessen," maybe some nice arrangement on a plate, a glass or two of decent wine ... just to raise the mood a bit.
The woman with the hair going in all directions and the cola-colored eyes smiled from behind the counter and said, "What can I get you?"
"Well, not cheese-flavored hot dogs," I said. As soon as I said it I readied myself for the blank look, and the sinking stomach to follow. But (oh praise be!) the smile expanded and the corners of her eyes crinkled up. "Hello again. I didn't know you shopped here."
"I didn't know you worked here."
Maybe a two-second pause, not even two, a second and a half, but more than enough time for my thoughts to run in circles all over my brain, trampling ganglia right and left, until they stopped and gasped for breath and told my stomach to batten down and said (oh, brain, why hast thou forsaken me?) "I know this is unexpected, but would you like to have dinner this evening?"
Okay, stomach, fire at will. I am a moron.
"Why not?" she said.
I think I managed to get through the rest of the conversation pretty well, which is to say that I didn't have a heart attack, and if she realized I was stunned ... well, she did realize I was stunned but I think she thought it was funny. Which is okay. If you can't be sexy, be amusing.
Under the circumstances I figured it was probably better to dine in someone else's establishment—neutral ground—and so I found myself seated in a very pleasant mid-scale restaurant across from a woman whose hair already didn't strike me as especially out of place, it just seemed like that was what it did, and somehow on her it fit the general aesthetics of the package as it was.
Yes, she had a name. But it's less useful than you think. Leah.
Another silver lining (I'm good at those) is that, while a first date with a complete stranger may be uncomfortable and a bad idea in a billion ways, there is always something to talk about ... because you know nothing about each other. The tricky part is summarizing your life story in a way that won't bore the other person or reveal more than they really wanted to know, while at the same time figuring out what parts they do find interesting (by telepathy) and elaborating on those. It's as painful as a job interview, except the stakes are higher.
My method was usually (well, I say "usually," but the opportunity didn't arise much) to let the other person do most of the talking, but talking to her was ... not "odd," not "difficult," ... I don't have a word. I didn't think she was being evasive; it was just that every so often I would find that the conversation had changed shape around me and I thought that I was asking about one thing, but we were now actually talking about something else.
Still, it was great; in fact it was the kind of conversation that comes only once every seventeen years, like cicadas, where you order more wine and then you decide to have dessert and then you're lingering over coffee and you realize you've been at the table for more than two hours but you are enjoying the company so much that you've been looking for excuses not to push your chair back and stand up.
I was trying to figure out the best and most graceful way to ask, "What happens next?" in any of its infinite variations as I came back from the men's room. I had narrowed it down to two or three possibilities by the time I got back to the table, and realized that no one else was sitting at it. Her napkin was crumpled next to her plate. I was going to look to see if her purse was gone, but I realized I had no idea whether she'd had a purse in the first place.
I'll spare you the rest of that, including my humiliating attempts to ask someone to find out if she was in the women's room. Better just to jump to the next day, when I went back to the not-a-deli.
I don't know if I went because I felt like she owed me an apology, or if I went because I knew it had to have been some sort of accident, a weird misunderstanding, and I wasn't prepared to give up. Probably both; if I couldn't get the latter then I was damned well going to get the former.
The proprietor, a Zorba-looking gent on the far side of sixty, shook his head. "Maybe you mean Susan," he added, with a look that meant he didn't consider it likely. "My daughter. Susan!" A woman, young for her thirties, came out of a doorway in the back, wiping lunch from the corners of her mouth, looking completely unlike a Susan, and wearing too much eyeliner. There was an exchange in some other language. Susan was shaking her head. Then more non-English, faster and more agitated.
Susan said to me, "This woman, what did she look like?"
I tried to describe her (apart from the hair and the eyes, it was tricky). More agitation.
It felt like my cue. "Is there a problem?"
"My father thinks I work yesterday, you see," she said, "and I remind him that I go to shop for my cousin's wedding then. I told him that last week, but he forgets. He says he doesn't work yesterday either, because he thinks I am."
"Can you give me the name of the person who was here yesterday afternoon?" One of us didn't understand what I wanted, I thought.
Headshaking. It was me that didn't understand. "This shop, it is just us two," she said.
"So who was working here yesterday?"
She shrugged, and exchanged a bewildered look with her father.
It shook up my cosmology. It's not like I was wandering the streets calling her name forlornly, but the following Monday I tried to take notes with a coffee stirrer, and I'm sure that I'd have tried to stir the coffee with my pen if the meeting had lasted long enough.
For five days I paid even less attention than usual. Fortunately I had the sort of existence that doesn't require you to actually participate. Apart from the coffee stirrer, which was considered a good joke, no one noticed.
That Saturday I went to go shop for things I had no intention of buying and she was behind the counter at the record store, intact.
"Oh," she said when she saw me. "That's interesting."
For some reason—maybe because she wasn't remorseful, or upset, or much of anything except maybe a little surprised, although I don't know what that has to do with it—my brain made a jump. "You don't really work here either," I said.
"Today I do. But I—" The bell hung from the door jangled loudly and a massively pierced woman with a shaved head ran in, out of breath.
"Geez, Jimmy, I'm sorry, I just slept right through—" she caught herself, and looked around. "Huh." No one behind the counter. I'd looked at the door when the bell rang. She walked into the curtained-off rear of the store. "Jimmy?"
Jimmy's not here, lady.
I thought about smashing something but all it would have done was make me feel better for thirty seconds. So I just left.
My mother taught me that being seen drinking in public was barely acceptable under the best of circumstances, and definitely never before five p.m. It was only about two in the afternoon, so I went home and had gin in private. All it gave me was a wish not to sit in my apartment by myself and drink, and by the time the sun was setting I had hit the street, with no plan whatsoever about what would happen next, just an urge to be moving.
I don't wear a watch and I don't know how long I walked. But I did stop, and when I stopped I went into a bar or maybe it was a restaurant, and I don't remember whether I sat at a table or on a barstool, but I do remember the waitress-or-bartender saying "I was hoping you'd show up," and her hair was a staticky halo.
This time the rule was clear: No questions. Actually, we didn't talk much; we hurried. One of us had tremendous urgency because he wasn't sure how long he had. I can't speak for her reasons, because she didn't say what they were. But I wasn't the only one holding onto someone else's naked body for dear life, kissing skin as if trying to convince myself it was solid.
I listened to the shower for more than half an hour before I stood up and walked to the bathroom—slowly—to pull back the curtain and turn the water off.
Her clothes were still on the floor. I didn't touch them until two days later. I think I was hoping they would pull her back. Weak bonds.
A week later she sat down, silently, across from me in a cafe where I'd gone to have a sandwich and try to clear my mind for the work I wasn't getting done.
"I've always had trouble with relationships," I said.
She stared at me, no reaction at all—until her mouth turned up. Then I couldn't keep my face straight any longer.
When we caught our breath, she said, "I keep running into you." Carefully. "That ... doesn't usually happen." She froze a moment, waiting. To see what would happen next.
"Is this a bad thing?" I asked.
"No! But I don't know whether it changes anything."
"What about you?" she asked. It wasn't a real question, it could have been standing in for one of a thousand questions. Her eyes were so perfectly unreadable.
I leaned over the table and pulled her toward me by the shoulders. Fortunately it was a small table.
She was the one who broke off the kiss. "You have to go back to work now?"
"I can say I was hit by a car—"
"Better not," she said, standing up. "I'll see you tonight. I mean—I hope I'll see you tonight."
I knew as soon as I looked in any other direction she would be gone, so I deliberately stared at the table for five seconds to get it over with. Then I stood up and tried to make myself think I was interested in anything else in the world.
"Tell me something," I said one night, when she hadn't gone yet.
"I don't know," she replied, her head on my shoulder.
"You don't know or you don't remember?"
"I don't know if I don't know or if I don't remember."
"I don't understand."
She got up to use the toilet. I'd developed a sense for when she'd go by then; I knew when she got up that was the end. For that night.
Sometimes she would leave in the middle of doing something else, making me wonder about all the things I couldn't ask. She had abandoned ten sets of clothes in my apartment. Sometimes she managed to get dressed. Sometimes she was even there in the morning. Sometimes we never made it as far as the apartment to begin with. I'd be distracted by a car horn or something and then I would be walking down the street alone.
Did she reappear sitting on a toilet in another apartment? Did the transition take a while—was it a blink and suddenly a different shower curtain, a different color of tile? Or was it a slow change in focus, like waking up with one world and then rubbing the sleep out of your eyes and having a different one form around you?
And then there was what was unspoken. With her the most interesting parts usually were. There was a message in her "I know." But I couldn't determine what it was yet.
One Sunday morning I woke up and she was lying next to me, breathing deeply. She didn't snore.
Mornings when she was still there—I always wake up with a full bladder, but the bed was also warm and she was there and she might not be there when I came back out. So it was always a war to see how long I could lie there and watch her before having to get up for the inevitable.
She'd been appearing pretty reliably for some days, so I didn't think about it too hard or wait too long before staggering off, eyes still blurry, to relieve myself. I came awake fully, suddenly, when I walked straight into the edge of a sink that shouldn't have been there.
I cleared my head and it didn't help. This wasn't my bathroom.
I stepped back out and—no, it wasn't my bedroom either, but more importantly, she had gotten up and was in front of a dresser, rummaging through the drawers. I hadn't made any noise (I really did need to go back in and piss, alien toilet or not) and when she did hear me, and spun around, she was actually startled. For a second and a half.
Then, inscrutable once more, she said, "I've been wondering if that would happen."
There were clothes in the room for both a man and a woman. There were tampons in the bathroom cabinet; there was a man's razor standing in a glass by the sink. It had been used at least once before. I wondered where they were, these people we were replacing. I wondered who they were. We had no IDs. She tells me that after a while it will stop bothering me. She is a lot more forthcoming about these things, now that we no longer have to worry about observation altering the quanta. At least not from our point of view. Which is relative. These days everything is relative.
I don't have any regrets. Thanks for asking.
The universe can't put us anywhere that needs special skills, and we are never too far from one another. So you're limited. But if you pass through your local mom-and-pop shop one day and you see two people behind the counter you've never seen there before, and one has hair standing up every which way and the other has a face like he's always about to wake up from a really good dream, say hi.
They won't be there tomorrow.
Copyright © 2006 by Douglas Todd. All rights reserved.
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