The Missing Self

In his eighteenth year, Ben’s self went missing. He didn’t realize for a long time. Perhaps, he realized later, it had been missing for years. One day he woke, stretched from his bed, and realized that it was gone. His shadow on the wall was motionless, crooked across the corner, somehow emptier than he thought it was.

His parents didn’t act like anything was different. They were sitting at the kitchen table. His mother bent over the newspaper sprawling on the table, and his dad was already making Ben a bowl of cereal. They always kept to their morning routine. His dad used to say that it kept them stable. Ben hadn’t understood it for a long time because he thought the word only had something to do with horses. He ate his cornflakes just like he did every day. They crunched in his mouth the same way. The tinny edge of his mother’s hum of interest still bit into his nerves just as they always did. He couldn’t explain why everything was different. It wasn’t even something that he could put into words. It was just that suddenly, with no warning, his self was gone. He barely knew what that meant, but he felt the gape in his chest where his self wasn’t.

School didn’t change. His teachers didn’t care if Ben had his self with him, or if he was conscious. He got through his classes and nodded through lunch just like always. High school was almost over, and nobody really noticed any of the seniors anyway. After school he caught up with Vanessa, his girlfriend. She always waited for him at the next corner. Her face held a worried sort of hope until she saw him. She was relieved he was there, every single day. He still marveled at that.

They held hands and walked down the street, bumping shoulders. Vanessa talked for a little while about her science teacher who was a jerk, and about her best friend, who was also a jerk. She asked him how his day was and then got anxious when he waited to answer. Finally, Ben said, “I don’t know, babe. Something’s weird today. I don’t know. I woke up feeling really funny, like I was all screwed up. I don’t know why though.”

She asked him a lot of questions, and he struggled to answer her. When it started to get dark he kissed her goodbye and went home. His parents talked about the news at dinner, and he thought dimly about how he would sort of miss tuning them out when he left next year. When he brushed his teeth, he stared at himself in the mirror and wondered what was missing. His eyes were the same brown eyes as always, but he didn’t recognize them. It was like he was looking at a photograph of somebody he didn’t know very well instead of his own reflection.

When he woke up in the morning, his self was still gone. The next morning, too. It came to feel like a little numb patch in his chest where the flesh had healed over until you could barely tell that anything was wrong. Ben was quiet normally, but he was silent now. His parents worried that he was having second thoughts about his future. Vanessa worried that she’d done something wrong. Ben worried that he’d never get his self back.

After a month of missing self, Ben’s grandfather slipped and fell. He was okay, but Ben’s mom freaked out. Both his parents left for a night, and Vanessa took the opportunity to come over and sleep in his bed. She stroked his skin and whispered to him, trying to get him to respond, but he didn’t know what she wanted. She clung to him, so he held her. In the morning when he woke next to her, he didn’t feel anything. His self was still gone and the middle of his chest was numb. He put some of his clothes in a duffel bag and wrote an email to his parents that he was going to go camping with his friend Trevor and they shouldn’t worry. He made breakfast for Vanessa.

His girlfriend came downstairs and kissed his neck. He gave her eggs and toast. They sat and ate, and finally Ben said, “I want to talk to you.” She knew enough to be afraid, and she looked at him with fear. He said, “I don’t think we should, I mean, can we? I want to, we should, break up be friends stop seeing each other.”

She started crying at once, and he got up from the table to grab his duffel bag. “Why?” she said. “What did I do?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I need to go find my self.” And he left.

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Drawing the Figure

It was hard to think of it as anything other than a naked person just sitting in the middle of the room. Then again, it was also hard to see it as that without getting caught up in the twisting curves of her body. Not in a sexy way, even, though it would have been easy to be just a kid about it, to snicker and save jokes up for later. Elaine wished that she didn’t want to make jokes at all, but possibly the urge to giggle would go away. The woman hunched as she took her robe off, and her shoulders were still trying to curve around to cover her body even as she was sitting nude in the midst of a bunch of staring strangers. Elaine felt a stab of empathy for the woman, uncomfortable as she looked despite most people’s seeming indifference. Everybody else was just measuring limbs with charcoal held up before them, squinting and sweeping confident strokes across their paper. Elaine picked up her pencil and held it to the paper, waiting for some idea of what to do. She watched the light cling to the woman’s hip and thigh, studied the shadow reaching down her waist, looked for a long time at the flow of her neck into her shoulder and the jut of her collarbone.

Sarah kept her eyes on the guy by the corner. He was looking at her too, but he wasn’t looking at her face. She felt the blood coloring her cheeks and tried not to wince. So there was a good-looking man staring intently at her naked body. He wasn’t exactly smiling about it. It was a strange and singular experience to have her body be the subject of such an academic way of looking. People had looked at her body in a lot of different ways in her life, and when somebody that handsome looked at her naked it was either with something approaching indifference, or with lust. She’d never felt that detached kind of interest before, and she didn’t think she liked it. Still, it was intriguing. Their job was sort of to find something beautiful in her as she just sat there, more or less, wasn’t it? She didn’t know anything beautiful about her own body most of the time, except for the times when she fit perfectly with somebody else, or the odd moments when the shape of her own face and body in the mirror after a shower startled her like that of a beautiful stranger.

The model was pretty, in a bland kind of way. She was sort of skinny but with a charming swell of the hips and belly, and her face was okay. That wasn’t the point though. Trent was trying to figure out how to draw her, and he was sort of stuck. He had an outline on his paper, her vague shape sketched in, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Was he going to color big blocks of shadow and streaks of highlight in white, or was he going to shade exhaustively until you could almost feel the slopes and hollows in the deepening of black? Maybe he should crosshatch. Maybe it should be very stylized. This was always his problem. He could see her as a person, as a girl, and then she was not very interesting. Trent wasn’t great with people. He didn’t know how to talk to girls unless they talked first, because then he could tell if they wanted to sleep with him or not. Either way it was easy from there. This girl would probably sleep with him. That wasn’t the point. The point was that he was looking at the naked body of this woman in front of him, a stranger, and he couldn’t figure out how best to draw it. As a girl her face was dull and her body predictable, but as art she was altogether too fascinating. The bumps and crevices of her body wanted his pencil to trace them. He had to carve out the shadows and round out the light shining on skin. The problem was that there was too much beauty in one body to put on a piece of paper. His pencil was still and the paper was full of possibilities.

Losing Light

The sun was singing on the bricks the last day of Malcolm Trench’s life. He had always liked to sit and watch as the sun went down. The day aged and the light yellowed until it faded and left altogether. Something in it enchanted him.

When he was younger, he had used to sit with Eva, his arm around her shoulder, and watch together as the sun went down. He worked odd hours as an engineer, so he was home around sunset. She was an accountant and she got out of work just after five, usually, so she would meet him at his apartment at six and they would sit in the living room by the big window. They used to just be friends, because she had been the younger sister of his childhood buddy. He had loved her forever. Even when they were friends she often came to his apartment to watch the sunlight disappear. There wasn’t a very good view from the living room window. The buildings leered at them, dirty windows and chipped paint, and they could barely see the sky. Instead they watched the sunlight shift colors, briefly making beauty skim the cracked and crumbling buildings. The white inside of the apartment cooled to eerie blue-gray as if the apartment was closing off to the rest of the world, dipped in shadow, and it was just them inside with the blue-gray walls around them.

One day Eva brought a pizza over and they ate and talked in low voices as the sun went down. She made a joke and he grinned. They were quiet for a moment. Malcolm remembered, later, how she looked then with the light cast in a glow down the line of her face and the hair curling free to her shoulders. She leaned forward, as if it was a casual calm motion and not one that sent shivers through him, and she pressed her mouth to his for the first time. Her lips were slippery with grease and soft. They didn’t notice the sun slip past the horizon or the dimming of the world to darkness.

After that Eva came over every evening and they watched the sunlight sidle away across the sky together until they were too distracted by the press of his arm on her back, the warmth of her thigh against his, and they scrambled and pushed at each other on the living room sofa. He could still remember what her sweat smelled like.

When she got pregnant he knew they had to get married. It was the right thing to do. She cried, tears trapped between her cheek and his shoulder, and he held her. They were too young, but they didn’t know that until later. They sat together, her with her growing belly, in his living room looking out the window. He rubbed her feet while the sun retreated. They got married in a courthouse ceremony. Malcolm’s mother came, and Eva’s parents sent them a letter of congratulations. The baby was born three months later. They named it Henry. Malcolm wanted to love the little red monkey as much as he loved his wife. He tried very hard.

Two years after they got married, he left. Perhaps she left. Probably neither of them really knows anymore. There wasn’t any reason to stay together any longer. Technically, they never got divorced. It comforted Malcolm for a while to know that there was still a piece of paper somewhere tying his name to hers. Eva sends him postcards sometimes with updates on Henry, who recently turned fourteen and has so far obstinately refused to discover girls. They both visited Malcolm last year. It was a short and awkward visit, except for the last night they were there. The three of them, the disjointed family, had sat in Malcolm’s new living room in the chairs he picked up for cheap down the street. There were two windows without curtains. The family sat with their dinners on their laps, waiting for the sun to go away. The light stretched thin and the shadows invaded. Henry was calm and quiet, not in the sullen teenage way he was growing into but in a peaceful way. Eva smiled unconvincingly at Malcolm and there was a kind of recognition in her smile. For one moment, they were together again in the onset of evening.

Earlier this evening, Malcolm left work. His boss had finally handed out the Christmas bonuses, apologizing grudgingly that it had taken him all the way into the new year. Malcolm cashed the check and waited too long to tuck the money into his wallet. A teenager shoved into him and yanked a gun out of his shorts. Malcolm looked into the trembling barrel of the gun and the kid told him to hand over the money, now. Malcolm backed away, tried to look around. The teenager whipped the gun into Malcolm’s head. It bounced off his skull with a thud, and Malcolm collapsed back onto the bricks. The kid grabbed his wallet and took off without looking back.

When the gun hit Malcolm’s skull, a blood vessel burst in his brain. He died at once. The kid would probably have been horrified to know that. His name was Brian and he carried a gun without bullets because he wanted to look threatening but didn’t want to go to jail. He thought he had just knocked out the guy outside the ATM. He ran and congratulated himself on making so much easy money. Brian had a long and convoluted life that led him to this moment, that thud, and the pieces of his life fit together in interestingly intricate ways. However, this is not Brian’s story. It is Malcolm’s and it ends here, with the setting sun singing on the bricks.

Messy

Mashed potatoes were all over the ceiling and the boots were making the table muddy. She knew she should never have let Harry look after the kid. As Emma stood in the doorway of the kitchen, she watched a clump of potato detach and fall, with a wet thunk, to the floor. There was a scuffling sound in the hallway and Harry appeared with a spray bottle of cleaner, a sponge, and a dawning look of guilt.

She watched him approach without saying a word, her mouth tight, her fingernails engraving lines on her palms. Harry shuffled past her, into the kitchen, and applied himself to the table. She didn’t move as he scraped the mud off of the wood with a rag and then sprayed the table with surface cleaner. He scrubbed until the sponge had removed all the mud, and then it seemed to occur to him to take the boots off. He dropped them, and they thudded on the tiles. She signed at the spray of dirt from the soles.

“Mama, what is Daddy doing?” Great, Emma thought. Angie was up again. She turned and picked up her daughter.

“Don’t worry, baby, he’s just cleaning up the mess you two made. It’s okay. Go back to sleep, okay?” She bounced Angie on her hip, gently.

The child clung to her neck. “It’s dark in my room. I don’t want to sleep. I’m not tired.”

Emma disentangled her daughter and held her hand, pulling her down the hall. “I know. I’ll put the nightlight in, honey, but you’ve got to sleep. Can you try?”

Angie nodded. Her eyes were round and trusting. Her daughter’s face sent a wave of warmth through Emma, edged with irritation. She lifted Angie into bed and dragged the blanket over her, kissed her forehead, and plugged in the nightlight. Motherly duties dispensed with, she returned to the kitchen to check on her husband’s progress. He had found a mop and upended it to wash the ceiling. The stringy bits of the mop scraped against the ceiling, wiggling at the end of the handle, while Harry dodged the ends.

Emma walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. She had left the house so neat that morning when she’d left. She had known it wouldn’t stay that way. Harry had a magnetic power to him, a charisma that charmed grease and grime to creep shyly over surfaces. He persuaded everything to get a little crooked, just for him. He was very convincing about it. He liked things a bit messy.

Emma was neat, usually. She tidied and dusted. Harry used to tease her about her domestic tendencies, but she’d been hurt, despite the affection in his voice. He’d tugged at her apron and called her Mrs. Clean. She’d spritzed him with water and they’d ended up getting very messy. She smiled, remembering.

Now Harry had somehow managed to spread the mashed potato in a thin smear from the refrigerator to the space over the stove. Emma wondered if it would dry that way, making a bumpy crust on their kitchen ceiling. It had been a long day, and she couldn’t bring herself to care very much. She would fix it tomorrow. Sometimes it felt to her as if she spent more time cleaning up after her husband than she did after her child.

Harry paused in his efforts, his lips pursed and his gaze resting on her face. He propped the mop against the counter and leaned toward her. Emma’s husband put his dirty hands on her shoulders and he kissed her. She didn’t respond, didn’t move, for a moment. He was soft, but she was annoyed. Harry moved back and looked at her. “Hello,” he said. “I’m sorry, babe, long day.”

“Mine too,” she said, her tone forbidding.

“I know,” said Harry. “I’ll fix it.”

“The kitchen, or my day?”

He smiled, hopeful. “Both?” He held steady, looking at her, waiting for her reaction.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think you will.” His eyes flickered, and she could see him holding his smile in place.

“Okay,” he said. “I won’t. I will try anyway, though. Come here one second.”

“Okay.” This time she kissed him back, letting him pull her face to his.

They looked at each other, his shoulders hunched and her brow furrowed. A chunk of potato that had been awaiting its moment freed itself from the ceiling and fell with a splat to the tiles between them. They couldn’t help but laugh.