She’s Not There

yayoi-kusama_infinity-mirror-room_-1965

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Room

Well, here we are, folks. A story. A story that I’ve toyed with for weeks… um… make that months. I’m still not satisfied, and I think my patience has gotten the best of me again, because I have a feeling this story could be longer. But here it is. Probably some lingering grammatical stuff. Stuff that doesn’t line up. But it’s here.

I was reading a lot of Pynchon when I wrote this, which should be obvious. But I think it’s fun to experiment with voice, to write “in the style of.” Because ultimately it helps you settle into your own voice.

I wish I had more time. I truly do. I’m proud of my job, and the way I choose to spend my time (except when I glaze over on my iPhone for hours), but it seems like there’s so little time to write. But I’ll continue to carve it out, bit by bit.

Hope this one goes over well…

She’s Not There

The night Piper left, Mike had a dream. He was walking the rooms of a rough stone castle that was filled with red-flamed candelabras and black lilies, as if Old Scratch had read Architectural Digest and just gone to town on the place. He knew that he owned the castle, and that he wasn’t alone there. It smelled like the holy incense of Catholic Mass. The children’s chorus from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” played at increasing volume until he woke.

Mike didn’t dream at all really, and when he did it was the warped edge of an action movie where he kept trying to reload his gun but the bullets were made of fruit snacks or various root vegetables. He poured a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and, defying a rule of Saturday morning cereal etiquette, ate them in front of a black television screen. He was convinced that this new dream had something to do with her.

He met Piper through a co-worker at the magazine. He needed a roommate who would be comfortable living on a futon for at least a year while he saved up for this self-indulgent journalistic odyssey to Mongolia that he never ended up taking. She was, to this day, the only girl he found beautiful but had no desire to fuck. Her hair was down to her lower back, the kind that you would twist up and pull during some tantric patchouli-laced session. Every piece of clothing she owned was silky or flowy or billowy or any adjective that implied that a light breeze might blow her sideways. She was an equal-opportunity space cadet – vegan, power crystals, karma, astrology, Native American mysticism that spanned several tribes. She never had steady work but paid rent on time. He never heard her turn on the shower, but she always smelled clean.

Mike’s next door neighbor was a 70-year-old woman named Stephanie. She was tolerant of loud parties and barking dogs but today, as he walked past her in the hallway, she didn’t say a word and he felt the heat of her look as he headed towards the stairs. Piper had once given her a chunk of rosy healing quartz and a tea that was meant to treat sciatica. She had probably heard Piper move out the night before and assumed he’d done her wrong.

The park was a good place for him to sit and think about this brief and vaguely ominous dream, but he needed to get there early before the first wave of strollers landed on the playground. He took the dream and pulled it apart for analysis. Details were already fading, and he used a pocket notebook to scribble everything he remembered. Reporter habit. The dream could have been at any castle estate in any Eastern European Dracula nest, but there was a recalled detail – it housed a massive collection of vinyl.

Glancing up from his notebook, Mike saw a handful of mothers and nannies throwing him looks. He resembled a “suspicious character,” some junkie time traveler with an unkempt mustache, growing bald spot, and eyes that looked like they were put on this earth to stare in cold judgment. He couldn’t sit on a bench more than five minutes before whisper campaigns began and cops asked him to move along. He wanted to tell them that something like 95% of child abductions are perpetrated by a family member, but today his breath smelled like shit and he had bigger fish to fry.

Mike never visited bookstores, much less the ones that were off the beaten path and lacked a coffee bar. But he remembered this one on Grand that she took him to once because it had a whole aisle dedicated to assorted quackery – the occult, magic, faeries, dreams. She danced through the aisles and read aloud brief passages of at least a dozen books before she was silenced by a 600-page whopper called “Love in the Age of Aquarius,” which recalled the sexual history of twenty men and women between 1965 and 1979. She left it when she moved out and he had noticed it on top of the refrigerator that doubled as her private bookshelf.

The place looked exactly the same except for the person behind the register. It used to be an old man who looked like he was ready to pull a book of spells out from under the counter. But now it was a guy in his early 20s with wire spectacles who told Mike that books on his desired subject were moved to an aisle that did not get direct sunlight from the store window, to protect their crusty pages. Under “Dreams and Slumber,” there were a few books about how to get a better night’s sleep, what happens to your brain during slumber, and how to use math-magic to calculate a proper night’s rest. The title “Your Dreams A-Z” jumped out at him as straightforward, so he flipped through it. Under “House” he found a number of listings, including “House – unknown to dreamer. Represents loss, or being lost.” and “House, large. Represents wandering, searching, foreboding. A puzzle or maze.”

At the register Mike reached into his back pocket for his wallet and felt the skin of his fingertips snag on the denim. They were raw with tiny cuts, and a few nails were split like he’d been clawing at something.

“What? She just left!? Why?”

“Maybe she had these really deep feelings for me that she’d been hiding for two years and she just couldn’t handle the pain anymore.”

“Well obviously that’s not it.”

Mike decided to grab lunch with Lewis because he knew for a fact that he’d hooked up with Piper a few times, and thought maybe she’d had some revealing pillow talk.

“She called me yesterday morning so she could return a few of the movies she borrowed. I met her for like 10 seconds at First Crack and I asked her if she wanted to get coffee while she was there and she, you know, floated away how she does.”

“What movies did she borrow?”

“Uh, Breathless, The Last Picture Show, and – HA! Jesus – Rosemary’s Baby and The Witches of Eastwick.”

“Sounds about right.”

“I don’t know man, she was looking very Stevie Nicks yesterday. Out to lunch and kind of skipping down the street. Seemed happy though.”

Mike should have written Piper off as just another post-grad drifter who needed cheap rent. He’d had a few like her come in and out of his life through the years – the self-righteous who would publicly shame you for eating meat, but fell to pieces in bedroom shadows if you criticized their hemp sandals or found a glaring fallacy in their soapbox speeches. Fragile and indignant and fiery balls of sweet earth.

No, he wouldn’t have been so worried about her now if he hadn’t come home about half a dozen times in the past six months and found her sitting completely still at the kitchen table with her fists clenched. Her eyes were furious and focused on something he couldn’t see. Her nose ran, but she didn’t wipe it and it formed a quarter-size pool of snot on the placemat. After about an hour of this she’d spout off something so coherent and succinct about the state of society that he thought she’d swapped bodies with someone lucid. She quoted books he’d never even seen in her collection. She explained difficult concepts the way his best college professors had. After a few hours her face would mellow and she’d make them pancakes and coffee and talk about her impending trip to the farmers market like nothing had happened. There was something more to her, lurking behind mini bonsais and yards of rough linen.

There was that conversation they’d had, during one of her fits of clarity.

“Do you ever feel like you have so much ambition, but you don’t know what for? Like, you’re waiting for this great thing that’ll blow your mind and make you get off your ass and get to work? I feel like that’s waiting for me, you know?”

“I think you’d be really lucky to find something like that. I mean, I’ve been in journalism for ten years, and it’s my passion and I live and breathe it, but it doesn’t make a me a fucking dime and every day I think about all the other things I could be doing that are fulfilling, just because they mean I can grab a drink on Fridays and not have to count out pennies to buy it.”

“I’m close, Mike. I’m close to finding it.”

He couldn’t remember how the fight had started, sort of the way dreams never have beginnings. She’d known for weeks that he’d been assigned to go to New Mexico to interview a potential presidential candidate, but now she harassed him. Something about “selling out” to something or someone. He told her that her candles smelled like a funeral home, and she told him that he shouldn’t throw stones in his glass…CASTLE. She had said castle instead of house, and he’d mocked her right before she started packing. The seed of his dream.

He wished people still had address books. Emergency contacts written in longhand on scraps of paper and taped to walls. Every time he lost his phone he had the embarrassing task of asking for the numbers of his closest friends since he never kept back-ups. Which is to say that he had zero clue how to reach Piper. She didn’t use Facebook or Twitter or anything else, as far as he knew. Her cell phone was now disconnected. He struggled to remember the names of her friends who showed up in 30 minute shifts to smoke joints and rap about their guru du jour. He came up with Cymbeline because he remembered complimenting her name and recalled a gummy smile and frizzy auburn hair pulled into thick braided pigtails.

It didn’t take long to find the three Cymbelines who lived in the city and narrow it down to the girl who had a profile picture of Bjork cradling an oversized butterfly to her bare breast. He drafted a private message.

“Hey Cymbeline, its Mike, Piper’s roommate. She moved out the other night, but didn’t tell me where she was going. Do you know where she’s staying? Just want to make sure she’s OK. Thanks. Mike.”

The reply came 15 minutes later.

“Hi Mike. I haven’t seen Piper in months – she stopped coming to my book club. Last I heard she was planning some retreat. If you do get in touch with her, tell her she owes me my copy of The Devil’s Detail.”

Mike made a mental note to look up the book later, and had started to type his response when he felt the sting of his fingertips splitting and the skin oozing from assorted tiny cuts. He had a brief vision of his polyester-stuffed effigy being sliced and diced by a smiling, jubilant Piper. His phone rang.

“Hey what time are you going to the airport tomorrow? Thought we could split a cab.”

Camille was the high-strung photographer for his New Mexico assignment. Mike had, for approximately three hours, forgotten that he had to go to Taos to interview and potentially expose a man who was fast becoming one of the unlikleist and most dangerous candidates for President of the United States. A small potatoes city councilman named Reggie Ramble who, through pure charisma (and some said the conjuring of some long-forgotten desert God), had charmed the anti-government set in the Southwestern United States and had his eyes set on other hospitable neighbors. His editor had chosen Mike for the interview because he looked like he was a sermon away from becoming a glazed-over sycophant. For once, Mike’s appearance worked in his favor.

“We gotta nail this guy, remember? We gotta go through the questions and set up my shot list and, oh my God there’s still so much to do, where the hell have you been lately? I feel like we’re not even close to prepared, but you know what I’m not the boss so maybe we just plan on watching his speech tonight, yeah?”

“Huh?”

“He’s doing one of his weekly addresses, but this time FOX News is going to carry it live. What rock are you crawling out from today?”

“Sorry Camille, it’s been a weird day.”

It was getting late, and he had to finish the packing he’d started the night before. He picked up a stew of dirty and clean clothes from the floor and made half-hearted attempts at folding and rolling pieces into the suitcase. The bathroom echoed as he pulled travel soaps from under the sink – it was all close to empty without Piper’s cleansers, oils, and….creams. He took a long look at his cracked hands. The day she moved in, he gave her the “mi casa es su casa” spiel which was really just an excuse to eat his roommate’s food without consequence. And since that first day, each time he dried off after a shower, he rubbed his hands with a hearty portion of her unscented Corn Silk body lotion, of which there seemed an endless supply. He laughed at himself for thinking his symptoms were anything but a lanolin deficiency. Then he pulled the bathroom cabinet out by its hinges and slapped the tile with his palms. There were things he would miss about her.

He screwed the cabinet back into place, rolled the suitcase to the door, and sank into his couch to watch Ramble ramble. The jolly candidate was standing at a podium, his mad scientist hair combed back. The bottom of the screen read “Breaking: Ramble Announcement,” and Mike sort of hoped he’d stay in the race for a while, if only for those headlines. The camera panned out to reveal Ramble’s newly-assembled campaign posse, and Mike’s heart fell to his stomach.

There, to his left, was Piper. Her long hair was glossy and, dare he say, bouncy? She wore a well-tailored olive suit with a conservative cream silk blouse underneath. The only marking of the true Piper was a pair of jade Buddha earrings that danced whenever she nodded her head in agreement.

“…and now I’d like to introduce Piper Hermann, who has just accepted the position of Campaign Manager. I have full confidence that her brilliant mind will help carry us to victory.”

Piper was beaming, not just a smile, but a sunbeam that cast a healthy glow on everyone around her. She was poised, and confident, beautiful, and now to Mike, certifiably insane.

Mike began a rapid overview of the past two years of his life. His mind began calling up files that had been sitting beneath an inch of dust. Under the influence of weed, or alcohol, or his own self-absorption, he’d never seen the goldenrod words “Suffolk Law” stamped in script on envelopes and letterhead that had been thrown in the trash. The incessant calls from nameless alumni associations that she’d complained about and tried in vain to cease. That period in which she was surrounded by heavy books and flashcards that he’d never bothered to ask about. An unopened letter from the Massachusetts State Bar.

No voodoo, no ritual sacrifice, no Freudian dream analysis. She was a lawyer. She was gone. Not to the Dark Side, exactly, but to a place parallel to the path usually chosen. She has the crooked tracks of an unknown animal on a straight trail. She’d found the sweet spot where ambition and instability intersect and become dance partners. He’d see her again.

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