The Ways You Are Gone
Editor’s Choice Prize
Kami Westhoff’s work has appeared in such journals as Meridian, River City, Phoebe, Third Coast, and various online publications. She received her MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is a Lecturer Professor at Western Washington University.
I wait for you, because I said I would. I spend the hours I used to spend with you thinking about the ways you are gone. The length varies, as does the content. Mostly you are dead and slowly becoming food for insects. This comforts me because when this is not you, you are frozen in pieces—arm, ear, breast, leg. Sometimes you are alive but kept, and the things I imagine are things I’ve seen in movies—so horrific they are funny. Chainsaws, machetes, meat hooks, underground dens of torture. I think of these things when I am missing you least.
The worst thought of all is that you are you. Alive. Lungs and legs strong from years of running, beautiful from years of believing so. I don’t tell anyone this, but it’s what I most fear—that you are safe. Happy. Beginning things.
On the ninth of every month, I travel to where you were last known. It isn’t far, nothing to be impressed by. I walk the trail they say you walked and listen to the trees and the wind and the twigs cricking under my feet. I take it in. There must be clues. When the creek is high, I imagine you shivering beside the trashing current. When the air is water before it touches skin, you rearrange the rocks and create a pool of coolness. When the trees are fat with leaves and shocking with color, you climb them and wait. You wait.
Before I leave this place each month, I look again at the ground and the tree trunks and try to find signs of struggle or a message carved into bark. I kneel and run my fingers over any divot or ripping away of moss as I’ve seen people do on crime television. I lay temple to ground, close my eyes and try to hear sounds of you—the thin snore of allergy season, the hiccups you get when I tickle you. I think hard about the relationship between you and the dirt and the trees and the condition of this place in the solid cold February when your feet last left their print. But it is just a wooded patch of land that does each season because it knows how to. There is nothing to interpret or understand. No broken nail, no earring, not even a hair, nothing but things that belong to the forest.
On the eighth month I decided it was time to forget you, not as the person you were, but as the one you were going to be, and let you just be a person gone. I kept the memory of the road you drove away from our life on, the bottle of vodka on the driver’s seat and the bag packed with two week’s worth of underwear. I kept the dents in the snow that led us nowhere. I kept the trees but not you in them, watching for me, waiting for me to figure it out, because there is nothing to figure. You were you. We were us. But now you are just something that happened.
By the next month you were again the woman I was waiting to marry. Because I couldn’t think of a reason not to, I put your wedding dress in the backseat of my car before I drove to the place. I knew it was dramatic—there was no reason for me to think the dress would make you come back, or that the dress should mean it was harder for me to lose you than anyone else, but it was dramatic that you were gone: television interviews, rewards, desperate pleas to the world, psychics in frumpy pant suits.
When I got to the place there was family rooting for mushrooms. The children walked in slow stabs behind their father. When he knelt at the base of a tree, the children peeked over his shoulders while he carefully uncovered mushrooms from where I had knelt and crawled and slithered in search of even the tiniest piece of you. One child held a mushroom in his palms like a hairless kitten and giggled. I spread the picnic blanket over your dress and drove.
As I pulled into my driveway I decided to live our lives for the us. I’d age you, sicken you, get you over with. I gave our life one week.
Monday: You are pregnant at twenty-three—younger than we’d planned. There is enough of a hint of twins in your family that I give us a boy and a girl. Everyone speaks of your “glow,” but by the sixth month you are almost too massive to move. I watch your stomach during the night, pillow between your knees, but the babies don’t move when you’re sleeping. You are swollen and transparent, but still pretty. You give birth, a C-section, and I am relieved about the parts of you that are spared.
Tuesday: We are in our thirties. You are trim but worn, like some weight would fill out the places that are wrinkling in. You sleep naked now, in your thirties it’s time to be comfortable with your own damn body, you say. I pull back the sheet and stare while you sleep. There is hair in new places. Violet veins tangle under your skin. You shiver and I cover you.
Wednesday: You are fifty-five. I’m fifty-seven. You are even thinner than at thirty-five, wrinkles too deep to see their beginning. Margaret and Jack live in other states so you travel to see them often while I keep the books for small businesses. We know we sleep with other people. It’s what we both expect the other to do. When I can get away, we travel to places like Greece, Italy, and Argentina. We always return in love, mostly.
Thursday: You are seventy-five. Margaret is dead, breast cancer. Jack is fine, but fat and unpleasant. We have grandchildren who seem to tolerate you and fear me. Your C-section scar halves you now that you’ve finally put on weight. I said you’d always be beautiful to me, but I just find you old and finished. Though we haven’t talked about it in years, on your birthday I make you tell me again about when you went missing. Your story is always the same—you needed time away to figure things out. You were only gone a little while. Don’t I remember?
Friday: At eighty, I wake and the sheets are wet and I know you are dead. It had been a cold night, and I snuggled you lightly because you ached everywhere. Before you slept we both said, night, I love you. It should’ve meant something, but it was just what we always said before sleep. Your body finally looks soft. Not scary or sad or gross, just soft. It feels okay. Our life was fine.
Your parents invited me to dinner on your birthday. And though I wanted to stay home and celebrate—somewhere you are twenty-one and I promised we’d drink until dawn, I put on a shirt your mother gave me for Christmas and was ten minutes early. The food was nice enough—turkey, slaw, dinner rolls with real butter, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how you would have never wanted this meal on your birthday and how the things of you were now things in a box. There were pictures, of course, what kind of parents wouldn’t have those, but nothing else. I know I shouldn’t judge or assume a damn thing about their grief, but people say no parent should ever have to lose a child and they were slowly packing you into boxes to stack in the garage.
You’d be mad to know it, you’d say it was cruel, but I asked them if they thought you were dead after your mother clanked a plate of pumpkin pie, which you hate, in front of me. She held the whipped cream over my slice, set it down and said, “Don’t you?” They looked at me, both with the last bit of hope smeared over their faces as if my answer would decide your fate. Your family was one of surfaces. Never any problems because nobody ever shared a damned thing, yet this was the deepest I’d ever been with them, maybe the deepest they’d ever been at all and I felt a little like God. I thought of sharing the elaborate ways I’d imagined you dead, the things you hated about your father and the things your father hated about your mother.
“No,” I said. “I don’t.”
And it was the truth. But so was the fact that I wished you were, or would hurry up and be something other than gone.
I finished my pumpkin pie, said goodbye as though I planned to see them again, real soon, and they turned off the porch light before I got to my car. At first I thought it was rude, but decided they were just done and that felt good. I was tired of sharing despair with them.
On the walk to my car I wondered if telling the truth was ever the right thing to do. The psychic, Twila Omens, held item after item, books, sweaters, hats, gloves, shoes, even your toothbrush when your mother held it out to her and said “Please?” With some items she felt you. The feeling was electric, she said, and for a few seconds we all relaxed into our bodies thinking of the vital heat and color of electricity. But the feeling, she said, was retreating like a bright light dissolves behind the back of an eyelid.
Twila had apologized as she gathered her overcoat and mittens.
“I can’t imagine how hard it is for you,” she said, looking at me rather than your parents. “But I couldn’t just let you hope.”
When I got home I opened the wine we’d been saving for a time worth saving for. It was white, which I usually hate, but had tasted fine and sweet the day we’d slunk into the winery where we’d decided our ceremony would be, the dry Napa merlot and weather wringing out our energy. I baked chocolate chip cookies from a tube that popped when I twisted it. When the cookies were done I opened your gift I’d bought a couple of months earlier. I thought you would like it, but it was hard to say, because if you were alive you must be so different and if you were dead it would be so ridiculous. A miniature tea set, the saucers no bigger than a quarter, birds painted perched in tiny trees. I hated the clank of cup to saucer, though the size and detail was impressive. In the card I’d written, Happy 21st Birthday, Madeleine, because since you’d been gone I found it hard to think of you as a Maddy.
The expensive wine reminded me you went missing with a zero balance in our savings account. My money had gone to rent and the bills and fun, as arranged, as yours was to go into savings. That’s something I wouldn’t have known if you weren’t gone. There was money, you said, let’s get married, fly somewhere and stay. I’d imagined this sometimes before I slept. I figured we’d be happy wherever we went. We’d find work or live off the land, and though I had no idea how to survive like that, I pictured us being successful, being parents. And I guess I’d fall asleep and dream of these lives but something terrible would happen and I’d wake knowing I couldn’t just forget school, a career, family, friends. But there was no money. It was gone before you were. I never thought about it then, but now I wondered how I got tied up in so many things that weren’t you.
Terra called me the day after your birthday. She sounded surprised when I answered.
“We should get a drink or something, sometime,” she said after minutes of small and nothing talk.
Though she’d said it the way people do when they assume both parties understand neither really means it, I said, “How about tonight?”
I know she was just being kind to me because she was your best friend, but I showered, even though I already had, shaved, plucked between my eyebrows how you showed me, trimmed the hair on my chest and groin. We met at an Italian restaurant she suggested where you would’ve ordered a salad to avoid the carbohydrates. At dinner I laughed at her jokes because she wanted to think I was okay. She patted my hand. My nails were filed and smooth. I imagined sex with her as she decided on her meal. I imagined her lips in places yours hadn’t touched since our engagement. She decided on pasta, and though I am not violent, I imagined smashing my fists into her thighs, ass, ribs, just to feel the flesh of her.
On the drive home she talked about the last time she’d seen you as though it was new information. I wanted to say it was rude for her to talk about you on our date, but there was something on the road and I hit it.
Terra looked out the back window and exhaled.
“It’s okay. Just an opossum. Yuck. Such awful eyes.”
I pulled over to make sure and she was right. It wasn’t dead. It quivered a bit, hissed, stilled. Its eyes were black holes against the snow.
Terra stuck her head out the window and said she was freezing and needed to get home. I dropped her off and she hugged me hard.
“Maddy’ll come back. I know it.”
After the date I snuggled with Margaret. Though your parents took everything in from your dorm room, they asked me to keep her. We’re dog people, they said. With you gone, Margaret loves me more than anything. I call her Mags, though you’d be crazy to hear it. When I first met her I asked you what kind of name Margaret was for a cat, but you needed to think it was a beautiful name, as it was to be your daughter’s, after your grandmother, so you gave it to something beautiful.
I saw you alive a week after your birthday. You were in between a walk and a run as people are when they are in a hurry but don’t want to draw attention to themselves. Your hair was red and straight and long and you were wearing a flowing hippy skirt and a tank top, both were shades of your hair. When you finally looked at me I understood she wasn’t anything like you. She was older and heavier and more like a woman who had lived a lot more life than you. How long would I keep seeing bits of you in everyone else, in people I don’t know or that I hate, people you would hate that I saw you in? How long would it be before people would say You really should move on, and stop looking at me like I’ve buried or burned or chopped you into bits, though they all loved me before, loved us together, offered their services for our wedding, asked us how many kids we would have and when they could baby sit.
Because people asked about it, I often think of our last night together. There must have been something, people say, and they are right. There was something—normalcy. It was a weekend, so you were staying the night at my apartment. There was television, frozen pizza, a salad with blue cheese and walnuts, a shared bar of expensive chocolate after dinner. You went to bed first and were asleep when I joined you. You flopped away, moaned a little, and went back to sleep. I snuggled against you until there was sweat between us. You kissed me in the morning and said, I love you, Drive safely, It’s snowing, and you were gone.
Maybe you told me you were leaving in a hundred ways that night. The way you flipped through the stations and the one you decided on. The red peppers you chopped and arranged next to the shriveled pepperoni. The way you slapped at the snooze button only once.
I was surprised when Terra invited me to a BBQ for the loved ones of missing loved ones. I agreed to go because I figured it would look bad if I didn’t, but the more I thought about it the more I wanted to see what these people looked like. I wanted to know if they had lived their loved ones’ lives before killing them off then begging them back into life. Those sorts of thoughts must leave a smear like I see all over my face.
Though Terra offered to pick me up I drove alone because I lied about having places to be later. It was a BBQ, so I brought plain potato chips because people would eat them even though nobody ever bought them. Multi-colored ribbons were tied around the fat trunk of an oak tree. Maybe you would’ve said it was pretty. There was a white banner stretched between two trees. It read: NOT UNTIL THEYRE HOME, each letter a color of the rainbow. Many people wore t-shirts with iron-on pictures of their missing.
“Who’s your missing?” I turned to the hand on my shoulder and saw Marc.
He’d written his name in all caps on his nametag. The woman on his shirt was pretty even with the feathered hair and ruffled collar.
“My fiancée, Madeleine. I don’t have a shirt.”
“This is my fifth. Sarina’s been missing since ‘85. The faces wear out fast.”
“Girlfriend?” I asked.
Marc laughed. “Little sister. Good luck with your Madeleine.” He laughed again.
People chatted as though familiar, but stood away from each other. I felt sorry for them and I felt better than them. I helped myself to a hamburger and chips.
“Hello, Jack. I read about your Madeleine last winter. How are you?”
I nodded, bit into the burger, and waited for lower case Denise to ask me if there were any new leads as people did when I saw them at the store or school.
“Getting by,” I said.
Denise wasn’t wearing her loved one. I guessed a missing daughter because her voice fluttered like your mother’s.
“Get used to it. It doesn’t get any easier.”
I wanted to say, Thanks, Denise, for your comforting words, but my “loved one” will come back, so fuck off. But what did I know?
Denise joined a cluster of women. Though some of them were laughing, they all held themselves as if they were waiting for a gunshot.
Marc found me again.
“Found a burger, huh? Don’t mind Denise. She thinks she can say anything because hers was the worst. Alex was tortured. Her killer sent a letter with the details and photos but nothing about where the body is.”
“So she’s not really missing anymore, I guess, huh?”
Marc looked at me and shook his head. “They never come home.”
Marc walked away like someone who really wants their words to resonate and though I hated his dramatic nature I felt a little better. During the first few months you were gone, everyone had words of comfort and advice—“You’re in my prayers,” “She’s a strong girl. Try not to worry,” “Don’t give up hope.” Words as thin as the air they were spoken into.
I finished my burger and realized it was likely some of these people knew where their missing was. Maybe they were the ones that looked the most destroyed. I knew people suspected I had something to do with you. Why would a girl with everything pack a bag, cash her paycheck, drive into the middle of nowhere and disappear? Some nights I woke up sure they were right and that I’d simply blocked it out to protect myself. I saw you in my trunk, ashy arm pinned beneath the spare tire. I watched black and blue explode over your throat. Dreams are never literal, I told myself, though each time it took hours to convince myself it wasn’t me that made you gone.
I used the bathroom and got into my car. I’d tell Terra later it was just too hard to be there, but I almost had to laugh at the scene. Ribbons and t-shirts to bring back the dead, or even more ridiculous, the missing who didn’t want to be found. How could I tell which one you were? I promised to wait for you, but how do you keep a promise to someone who isn’t anywhere?
I stopped at the store for some beer. It was lit softly, nothing like the usual blaring glare. It was my first time in a real grocery store since you’d been gone. Of all the places we’d known together this was the one I imagined I would miss you most. You were everywhere. Life cereal. Red delicious. Double roll toilet paper you insisted on though it cost more. Pink razors, black beans, the red and yellow peppers I said we couldn’t afford. I’d avoided it because I feared the scene I might make by gathering all the things of you into a basket, dumping it over myself, holding the boxes and bags like they were the bits of you I loved most. Crying, of course, because people commented I hadn’t done much of it, yelling, blaming anyone who tried to console me because how could they ever have a fucking clue what I felt like?
But I didn’t make a scene. I bought beer and three cans of Fancy Feast for Mags, food you never would’ve let her eat, and made a joke about the combination to the checker.
At home, I slopped it onto a plate and set it on a foot stool so she wouldn’t have to strain her neck to eat. I’d read to do that somewhere. She looked at me, then at her all-natural-anti-hairball-weight-managing usual. I moved her close to the treat and pet her from head to tail.
“Go ahead. It’s okay.”
She looked at me again and sniffed the food and I heard the flutter of a purr. She bit into the food with quick deep breaths, waiting to be shooed away. She ate until she heard the deep gut sobbing and looked at the mess of me. It was the most gone you’d ever been.
“Sorry, Mags. Go ahead. Finish.”
I slid my hand over her fur. She lifted her back into the pet, turned toward the food, sniffed, and took another bite.