He sat up as a panic exploded in
center of his stomach and spread from within, tingling the skin
across his back and making his shoulders curve forward. He fumbled
out of bed, his hand switching on the lamp and his feet momentarily
trapped in the sheets but kicking free. He rushed to the bedroom
On the top shelf, an open shoe box shifted into his hands and then
slipped, spilling pictures across his bare feet. He dropped to his
knees; shaking fingers hastily picking through the photos. His eyes
scanned them for details: her bottom row of teeth barely glimpsed
in a smile, the smooth stretch of her neck, pale arms with hints
of veins underneath, the barely noticeable specks of black in her
blue eyes. These images built upon each other and her body once
again formed, yet there were still so many pieces missing. He couldn’t
remember how tall she was. Nor her hair’s exact shade of brown.
The photos helped but became more and more insufficient.
And then there was her voice, so clear a minute ago in his dream,
but now just another drifting memory. Her slight southern drawl
– deliberately hidden but still emerging within certain words –
came easiest. He remembered a piece of conversation about a television
show. There was a single line from a poem she had read aloud for
their fifth anniversary. He could hear her sarcastic answer during
an argument. And there was the cascade of her giggle. But was that
all? The millions of words she had spoken to him were now whispers
of their original substance. Yet he knew that voice was somewhere
in this house. Echoes trapped within the corner of the bedroom ceiling.
The bureau positioned squarely between the two windows stood empty
but he was certain the drawers carried bits of her words. Their
closet was full of her sounds crammed together spanning years. Throughout
the house her words existed, were still breathing their last bits
of meaning, but inaccessible like the air surrounding, entering
him as he moved.
He let the photos slip from his hands and back to the floor as he
slumped against the closet door. In corner of the room bulging plastic
garbage bags sat in a pile. He moved – not wanting to but knowing
it could not be avoided – to the topmost bag and pulled out a piece
of clothing. It was a t-shirt. Pressed to his face it smelled of
dust, not her. He paused for a moment, listening to the soft compressed
sound of the cotton squeezed tightly in his fist, then quickly released
from his grasp. Wrapping his arms around the pile, his head sunk
into the crinkle of plastic and he cried. Relentless, memorized
tears. His senses imploded: the stickiness of the plastic against
his bare arms, the wetness on his cheeks, no other sound but the
staccato intake of his breath.
It was so easy to find a simple reward in complete surrender.
Yet even that could not last for her voice called out to him: “Alan.”
He did not open his eyes for he knew she wasn’t there. But her voice
lured him and … and then he felt a creeping sensation travel across
him like a large insect crawling up his back, that same sickening
feeling eighteen months old to this day.
He grabbed his clothes scattered from two days ago, and began getting
dressed without rising from the floor. The zipper was cold against
his skin. His t-shirt smelled of sweat. He knelt in the stark angled
lamp light and groped for his shoes under the bed. His hand touched
one sock. Then a book. Then a dish with crusted spaghetti stuck
to its surface. He hadn’t worn shoes in over a month and now he
had no idea where they were. Nor even why he had this sudden need
to find them.
Words clenched in his throat as he spoke: “Is this what you wanted?”
The was no one to answer and he began laughing softly, so softly
that it could have been mistaken for continued sobs.
But he felt it again, that certain dread, and knew he had to keep
Clinging to the edge of the mattress, he stood. Hesitating at the
closed bedroom door, he thought about the unplugged phone sitting
in the den and the unopened mail scattered across the kitchen table.
Closed doors hid other rooms and their contents but there was no
need to go there. That overwhelming sensation was leading him to
a single location, that same location which drew him that early
morning not so long ago.
As he exited the bedroom – as his bare foot soundlessly stepped
on the beige hallway carpet and the weight of his body shifted forward
– he froze. As he stared down the hallway, his heart surged in his
chest beating wildly. It was hard to accept but there it was nonetheless.
Bright yellow framed the closed bathroom door; the light was on
where there should have only been darkness.
A nausea enveloped him. He placed his palm flat on the wall so not
to fall and the coolness of the surface surprised him. He leaned
his forehead against it. As before, what was to happen had already
happened while he slept and to wait any longer was only to feed
this sickness. It would consume him as before with the sudden sense
of purging. He concentrated away from his fear, focusing on the
slight tickle of sweat coursing down his side. He allowed his breathing
to slow. It only took a minute, but he was ready and moved quickly
to the bathroom.
Without hesitation, he opened the door. He winced as the sudden
box of light flooded across him, but what he saw was not the indelible
horror: no dab of blood conspicuously alone at the base of the tub,
no envelope taped to the mirror, no small diamond pendant surrounded
by crimson, nor the lure of her pale lips still slightly wet. Instead,
Charmin and White Cloud filled the room.
Unraveled streams of white toilet paper piled three feet high on
the floor, framed against the sky-blue tile, twisted in a seamless,
endless weave. The solid blankness billowed. Light from the row
of bulbs surrounding the mirror echoed within the folds like permanent
flashes of lightning. Shades of pure whiteness deteriorated into
murky, subtle grays. Their perfumed scent drifted towards him and
his head tilted back breathing deeply; even if there had been an
opportunity to enter farther, there was no desire. The initial impact
of oneness now dissolved into a haphazard array of intricate details.
Like a bubble, one touch could alter everything.
Four lines of toilet paper ran together over the sink, collided
and lifted in a multi-helix towards the medicine cabinet. Their
strands doubled in the mirror, crested at the top of the cabinet
and then each line ended limply from the top of its arc in different
directions like a noiseless fountain.
Lines of tissue twirled in the folds of the clear plastic shower
curtain like funnels spiraling upwards. Reaching the top, they crisscrossed
and fell downwards both in front and back. A single trail of paper
shot up from the center pile on the floor and wrapped around the
shower rod in a repeating slant. At the end, it traveled back downward
to cut across the toilet (pausing only to wrap once around the handle)
and then dove into the pile. There was no beginning or end to it.
Simply a continual soft line. The ordered chaos was so like her.
Each wrap on the rod was exactly spaced. And…
...they were driving home from a
gala held by her architectural firm. Throughout the night his unanswered
attempts at conversation had stalled between them while she stood
in the corner of the ballroom and watched the huddled pockets sway
and merge. Her associates laughed and drank, often approaching for
quick conversation which she handled with an ease and coldness.
In the light of the chandeliers high above them, her irises were
barely discernible in a tight squint.
Finally, after most of the ballroom had long ago emptied and with
a short word from her, they headed home. He expected the long ride
to be filled with uncomfortable silence, but as they left the parking
lot and turned onto Poplar Avenue – the only car on the six-lane
road at two o’clock in the morning – her hand gently stroked the
back of his neck. He touched her wrist. Earlier that afternoon the
sun had slanted through a cloudless sky and cut an orange glow through
the air and now a hint of that orange, hours after the sun had disappeared
and the coldness of night began to take hold, still filtered through
the branches and hung over the road reflected on the soft red of
“No,” she said as he began to turn onto Highland and then to the
Beltway. “No. Take Walnut Grove.” So he did. Through the rich neighborhoods
with houses lit from all sides and then past his old high school;
they did not speak but enjoyed the steady melodic noise of the tires.
His right hand was nestled by both of hers. The road twisted a short
distance and then dipped into a small valley; there it cut through
the empty fields of the Penal Farm and ran straight for several
miles. A fog had settled into this area and suddenly there was just
whiteness surrounding them. He glanced over to say something but
her eyes were closed. The dashboard lights glowed her skin with
green and instead of speaking, he listened. She was humming. It
was so faint he could not complete the tune but watched as her head
swayed slightly. Turning on the high beams, he began going faster.
In a minute, the car was hitting eighty though the fog obscured
everything past the front hood; it was something he had done often
as a teenager and now that old excitement was welcomed. The roar
of the engine caused her to open her eyes.
“Stop,” she said softly.
Seeing the fear in her eyes, he apologized and the car slowed, but
she released his hand and repeated, “Stop,” but without any sense
of urgency. He took his foot off the gas and gradually glided the
car to a halt on the side of the road. “Come on,” she said and was
out the door. He followed, leaving the motor idling roughly with
headlights on. She grabbed his hands as they met in front of the
car and began dragging him into the fog. Whirling around she hugged
him, “It’s like walking in clouds.” Her black dress contrasted her
white shoulders and hugged her waist and hips as it trailed to her
ankles. The headlights fleetingly glinted off a small diamond on
a slender chain nestled in the crease of her breasts which rose
and fell with long breaths. She leaned towards him and they kissed
deeply. The tip of her nose brushed icily against his cheek as she
“You need your jacket,” he said, but she held him tightly not letting
“When I was about four or five,” she said, her lips close to his
ear, “a fog thicker than this dropped over our neighborhood. I sat
at my bedroom window so afraid. I thought it was swallowing everything,
making the world dissolve. My mother caught me crying. I thought
she would laugh when I told her why but she didn’t. She was quiet
for a moment, following my gaze outside, and then explained that
the fog was just the angels’ way of dancing on earth. They would
lower the clouds till they touched the ground and then all the angels
would run around laughing and singing. She opened the window then
and told me to listen. At first there was nothing, just the white
mist hiding our whole neighborhood. And then I heard them. Thin,
drifting voices in song.”
She kissed him quickly just as she finished her last word and spun
away letting her arms and hair twirl about her. Her feet were bare,
she must have left her shoes in the car, and she moved in circles
stopping suddenly between him and the headlights, creating only
her silhouette. Coming closer she whispered, “Dance with me,” and
so they did with her humming as the music.
“It’s nice to see you happy again,” he said.
She didn’t answer.
“I realize how much your firm has been a disappointment. And we
haven’t exactly been …” his voice stopped. He didn’t know how to
finish. “Well,” he said, needing to find a way to break through
the distance he felt separating them for days at a time, but her
fingers gently touched his lips. Her body pressed against his and
they could see puffs of breath steaming from their mouths and noses.
She began trembling.
“You’re cold,” he said. “Maybe we should get in the car.”
Her cheek was resting on his shoulder and he felt her head shake.
She pulled back so she could look at his face. “No. I need this
right now. I just need this one moment of not moving forward.”
His eyes narrowed as his head slightly tilted to the side, but before
his question sounded she reached up and sharply tweaked the tip
of his nose. She laughed with an excitement and ease he hadn’t heard
since they were in high school. Her arms wrapped around him; her
nails pressed through his jacket and shirt across his back.
“All these years and I still don’t understand you,” he said.
“Neither do I,” she answered in the midst of a sigh and…
…a single cardboard tube was balanced
atop the shower head.
“Nikki, I miss you,” he found himself saying with words faded from
overuse. His chest expanded as breath re-entered his body. A slight
smile curled his lips as her answer whispered true and solid in