by Olivia Lowenberg
I leave a towel inked with sweat on the treadmill and go refill my water bottle. Heat today, heat tomorrow. Tonight, I will eat ice cream in the kitchen, bathed in the glow of the refrigerator. There will be no pictures of me, or of you.
Luke was famous once. Whenever I’m asked for comment now, this is what I turn to: the shadows Luke left on windows and doors. I remember the last time I saw his face: another shadow. We lay next to each other in the dark, awaiting the inevitable dawn. He had insomnia, he said, but in reverse: he could only sleep during the day. He got hungry, but I never saw him eat. It reminded me of the way I’d been in high school, when I would only eat a few carrots at a time. I wondered if he was afraid of eating, too.
When Luke disappeared, he left a box of his things on my doorstep. Sitting on top of old shirts and sweaty running shoes was a plastic fish with small wheels glued to the base. The fish had been one of his last gifts to me, although of course I didn’t know it then. Jessica called me later that week to see how I was doing. I hadn’t told her Luke was gone, and yet, somehow, she sensed it. She was his best friend; she also struggled with sleeping at night. Paradoxically, I thought, maybe that made her more alert.
“Yeah, he’s gone. I tried his cell but he’s not picking up. And he left a box of his stuff at my house.” A fruit fly buzzed past my ear, stubbornly holding on despite the hours I’d spent cleaning the kitchen that morning.
“Come over to my place,” Jessica said. “We’ll have some drinks, it’ll be a good distraction.”
“But he just vanished,” I said again, in case she didn’t understand.
“I know,” she said. “Come over.”
Jessica lived in a little subdivision about fifteen minutes from my house. She and Luke had lived together when they were both new in town, but both had told me, emphatically, that it had never been sexual between them. And yet it seemed that something lingered: whenever I went to her place I could always smell his cologne. It had a very distinct smell, like an expensive iron statue beginning to rust.
Jessica greeted me at the door. She held two bottles of wine and gave me a one-armed hug. Her husband, Freddy, was in the kitchen, looking sad. Freddy always looked sad. Jessica and I sat on the couch and I told her the story. I always knew to not expect Luke’s calls during the day, to wait until he woke up after dark, but even after it passed the hazy line towards sunset I still hadn’t heard from him. There was only a box of things on my front porch, things that had no meaning to either of us, except the plastic fish, which he’d once bought as a replacement after my real fish died. I didn’t tell Jessica about that. It felt like if I told her about the fish it would violate some code.
“I’m sorry,” Jessica said, when I’d finished telling her what happened. “That must have been scary.”
“I’m not scared,” I said firmly. I don’t scare easily. “I just don’t know where he is.”
“Let’s talk about something else for a while,” Jessica suggested. She told me about when she and Freddy first met, which I had never heard before. The story was a light in a quiet, empty room: it warmed me.
But Luke was gone, I thought on the drive home. I kept spinning around it. He was gone. I called my friend Megan. She always answered, day or night.
“Hang on,” Megan said. I could hear someone loading a dishwasher, so loudly they were almost making a show of it. Then Megan closed a door and it was quiet. “Is this about your missing boyfriend? I just saw him on TV.”
She sent me the video. The segment was short. Luke wore dark glasses. The interview had probably been filmed at night, probably at his request. I could picture a slender woman applying some powder so he wouldn’t look oily. I imagined her delicate wrists resting on his cheeks. Luke spoke about a movie he’d just finished filming. I was embarrassed, and angry, that he was there, drifting in front of a camera, instead of with me.
Jessica came to visit me the next day. Daylight did not suit her; it was like a dress in the wrong shade of blue. I imagined her checking her face in a compact mirror, asking Freddy if she had lipstick on her teeth. She wore a smile too wide for her features. She had a small dot of lipstick on one canine, but, when she smiled again, it disappeared.
She had another box of Luke’s things with her, and I smelled his cologne. A memory slammed into me, full of things I couldn’t name aloud. Jessica gave me a hug while I cried. Then I remembered the video and snapped out of it.
“Luke’s still alive,” I said, wiping my nose on my sleeve. “He did an interview about some movie he’s in.”
“Of course, he’s still alive,” Jessica said, following me into the house. “Luke’s not that easy to kill.”
I was suddenly very aware that I lived alone now, and that, despite my ongoing efforts, the kitchen was still a mess. If Jessica was judging me, she did a very good job of hiding it from her face. She set the box of Luke’s things on my dirty coffee table and gave me another hug.
“It’s going to be ok.”
“Why didn’t he just tell me he was leaving? Or that he was filming a movie?”
Jessica changed the subject. “Want to go through his things?”
Although she’d brought the box for me, most of the items Jessica had pulled together were from when she and Luke were roommates, and so the objects had memories I didn’t share. When I asked her why she’d brought the box, she said she was clearing out her house.
“Freddy and I are going through a rough patch,” she explained. “Thought it would be good to get rid of some things from when he wasn’t in the picture.”
“But you and Freddy seem like such a good fit.”
“Well, that’s factually true but emotionally inaccurate,” Jessica said flatly. “We’re not really talking right now.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling awkward. I pulled a t-shirt from the box. It seemed like Luke had a lot of clothes; I was reminded of the towering stack of shirts from the first box, the one he’d left for me. All I had ever seen him wear was a simple black t-shirt and jeans – that is, when he had his clothes on.
Jessica laughed when she saw the shirt. “Luke bought that at this concert we went to once.”
checked the band name; it was one I didn’t recognize. Jessica yawned and
checked her watch. “Listen, I need to get some sleep. I’ll be awake tonight if
you need anything.” She kissed me on the cheek and left.
I called Megan. I didn’t want to be alone while I went through Luke’s things. Megan said she’d come when she was done with work, so I had three more hours by myself. My phone rang. I answered it, expecting Megan calling me back. It was Luke. I leaned into his voice, almost without realizing I was doing it. He was calling to apologize, he said, but it was better that we weren’t together anymore. He said he loved me. Then he hung up before I could respond. When Megan came over, she saw me collapsed on the floor and sat down next to me. She pulled me into a hug. It seemed like that was the only answer anyone had, even Jessica.
“Luke called me,” I said, and that was explanation enough, because Megan got a that-bastard look on her face.
“Maybe you should leave for a while,” she suggested. “Go to your mom’s place down in Opal.”
“My job –” I started, but Megan waved a hand.
“You don’t need to be gone for, like, two months. Just a few days, is what I’m saying. You’ve got a lot of memories here. Maybe you should let them go.”
It took some encouraging, but eventually Megan wore me down. I bought a bus ticket and left for Opal the next day. The daycare center was understanding when I told them I had to be away. My mom still lived in the two-bedroom house she and my dad built together twenty-five years ago. It was dark out when I got to Opal. I walked from the bus stop and made a left, then another right. For some reason I thought I would forget the way. My mother’s next-door neighbors, a young couple I didn’t recognize, stood on their porch, following me with their eyes. The woman applied lipstick and checked her reflection in a small mirror. I ducked my head and pulled the hood of my sweatshirt up higher.
I knocked, and, when Mom didn’t answer, I pulled the key from under the mat and went inside. Everything in the house was basically in the same position it was when I left for Jupiter Park a year and a half ago. Mom always said she would replace the wallpaper, but I could see that wouldn’t be happening any time soon. The peels and cracks were still there from when I was a kid tearing down the front hallway with a toy airplane in my hands.
“Honey?” Mom appeared from the kitchen. “Oh, Jesus, Hailey, you scared me. What are you doing home?”
I told her the very abridged version of the Luke-vanished story. She nodded. “Well, you can stay here for a while, but you do have a job, you know –”
“I know,” I interrupted. “I’ll only be here for a few days.”
Mom smiled and made me some hot chocolate. We sat in the kitchen for a while, talking about nothing. Her next-door neighbors stayed on their porch all night. I wondered what they were talking about, if they were speaking at all. I finally went to bed around dawn, and remembered that, wherever Luke was, he would be doing the same thing. It made me feel close to him even though he was gone. When I dreamed, I saw rows and rows of mirrors, but no reflections in them.
I spent the next three days helping my mother clean out her house. Dealing with objects and clothes that didn’t belong to Luke was calming. I felt ready to face his boxes again. Because my bus got back to Jupiter Park at midnight, Jessica offered to drive me home. Her car was messier than I thought it would be. There were greasy handprints on the windows, socks and underwear that curled in on themselves under the back seat, and tubes of lipstick that clattered against each other in the cup holder. I could tell that Jessica used her car well; many gasping and shuddering things had happened here. For some reason that made me think of dying animals.
Jessica glanced at me. “Everything ok?”
“Sure,” I lied. “Are you and Freddy doing better?”
“We’ve been married for a long time,” she said, and parked her car in front of my house. “We’ll get through it. Are you ready to deal with Luke’s stuff?”
I unlocked the door. The clock above the stove had burned out; I only felt the lateness of the hour by the darkness outside and Luke’s absence. Before I left, I had taken down all the pictures of us from my fridge. I stared at the blank spaces, imagining that he still existed on someone else’s fridge somewhere, his face turned up, smiling for the camera.
We spent the rest of the night sorting and folding. I pushed the plastic fish under my bed, watched it skitter jerkily along until it disappeared in the dark. I called the homeless shelter up in Hollow Hill to let them know I’d be coming by with some boxes the next day after work. It would be a four-hour round trip, but I relished the thought of being alone with my music turned up too loud as I rounded each curve on the highway.
Jessica left in the morning just as the sun was starting to rise. I locked the door behind her and sat on the floor, staring at the boxes, now grouped by category: jeans in one box, shoes in another. I was looking forward to being back at work, playing with the children, building houses and whole worlds out of blocks. I no longer had the feeling of being gripped by dog’s teeth, carried towards the night. I had somewhere I needed to be.
Olivia Lowenberg is a current master’s student at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society in Oslo, Norway. Her work has appeared in Argot Magazine, Cat on a Leash Review, The Zodiac Review, and elsewhere.