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.

Experience

She was always the smallest one of them. She was shortest, quietest, least interesting. Carmen was smarter, and fascinating. Annie was the loudest, and funniest too. Sarah was only a good listener – that label that somebody got by being quiet all the time and putting up with everybody else’s crap.

That was why, when they all went off to school, she was determined to change things. Her schedule filled with the strangest classes she could fine – “Neuroscience, the Beatles, and Psychadelic Drugs;” “Sexual Neuroses and Freud;” “Understanding Comic Book Art;” “The Chemistry of Cooking.” When they met at Thanksgiving, all back home for the holidays, she’d saved up stories about her courses and professors to tell them.

Annie’s hair was bright pink. Carmen had a nose piercing. Annie’s boyfriend played bass in a band. Carmen was dating girls now. Sarah barely managed to tell them the names of her classes before they turned to one another again, voices rising in excitement.

When Sarah got back to school, she knew things had to be different. She started cutting classes every once in a while. She hung out with different people so that she could go to their parties. She found a boyfriend, and then almost as quickly found a new one. She started sleeping more and eating less. This time, she was determined, she would have something important, interesting to say. They would have to listen to her.

A (modern) Cinderella

The air is damp and clean when she steps outside, balancing on the balls of her feet and making no sound at all. The sky is just changing from blue to black and it’s so dark and deep that it goes on forever, stars dangling so high they’re barely there at all. Ella closes the door slowly, inching it closer until the latch has clicked silently.

She doesn’t throw a second glance at her parents and brother, eating quietly in the dining room. Their heads are faintly visible through the curtain, bent over their food, not speaking. She tucks her chin down and dodges toward the street, where her friends are waiting.

They have big plans tonight. When she swings into the car and slams the door, Teddy pushes the gas so hard that the car screeches and zooms ahead. The car in the road – now behind them – jerks to a sudden stop, and they laugh. Ella nestles against Linnie, who puts an arm around her. The car is crowded, and they’re all pressed flesh to flesh, breathing like one big organism crammed into a car and panting for air. They’re all happy to see Ella, reaching to bump her shoulder or turning to smile at her. They asked earlier if she could come. If I can escape my parents, she said, my mom’s wicked strict lately. They all nodded, solemn, in sympathy. Now everyone is smiling.

When they get there the party’s already in full swing. The strobe light is flashing, the music thrumming deep in their throats, and a scattering of red plastic cups already abandoned on chairs and tables. Ella throws herself into the room, pulling her friends after her. They wave their arms, flail, spin, clasp hands and lean and fall in circles until they’re dizzy and breathless. Time stops existing.

The light catches the moments one at a time and fling them at her. Movements jerk through the air, dancers thrashing like they’re drowning. She has a twelve-o-clock curfew but she ignores it, until she thinks she might fall instead of dance more. Then she stays for only another half hour.

She walks home at four in the morning, creeping under the dull flat sky, slipping sideways through the front door and padding silently up the stairs to her room. The others were all splayed unconscious on chairs and carpets or too drunk for anything, jaws hanging open, staring at her stupidly, so nobody could drive her back. In her room she collapses, still in her heels and glittery top, sprawling on her bed with her hair spread across the mattress and dripping off the edge.

She’s so tired that she can feel each breath wheeze in and out of her, whooshing through her chest as though it’s trying to snuff out a flickering flame. She’s shriveled from the heat and left in the dying ashes now, burnt to a crisp.

Knitting 2.0

Claudia was late. Claudia was always late. They’d gotten used to it by now, but it still bothered Henry. He only came to this stupid knitting group so he could sit next to her, and when she hadn’t gotten there yet the chatter felt like it was filling his head til it was fit to explode. When she got there, he always rolled his eyes, but not so she could see. She apologized, profusely, for being so late. It was usually really only ten minutes or so. Still, she should have texted or something.

Tori liked Henry a lot. He was a silly, serious sort of boy – she thought this fondly, because really at nineteen that’s what he was, just a silly boy. But he was very serious about it. Of course she was nineteen too, but she didn’t think of that. Everyone knew that girls matured faster than boys. Anyway, being a silly boy he was head over heels in love with Claudia. That was alright. She liked him as a friend, of course. He was fun to hang out with, when they did spend time together. As friends. In any case, she liked to knit and she came every Thursday just for that. The conversation helped.

At that moment, for instance, Anna was telling everyone about some girl she’d met, and nobody was really listening. Claudia had launched into a full-blown description of her journey to the shop, and the obstacles she had met with on the way. To listen to her, Maggie thought, you’d think Claudia had to fight through hordes of monsters every day just to get to class. She distracted herself by imagining whether they’d be orcs or trolls. Probably both, she thought. Claudia would want a chance to show off all her talents, from axe-swinging to sword-slicing to whatever else. Not that Claudia actually could swing an axe. The picture in her head was ridiculous. But still, if they lived in a Tolkien-esque world with everyday dangers like that, you could be sure that Claudia would have several axes and everyone would know how good she was with them.

Lila usually ignored most of the conversation at the shop. Thursdays were nice for her, because she had class all day and then came to knit. It always seemed like it was extra stressful, running from one thing to the next and scrambling not to be late to Russian, but – well, actually, it was always stressful. But at the beginning of the day it seemed unthinkable that by 7 she’d have to have eaten dinner and gotten to the shop in the center of town. By the time she got there, though, and that annoying bell tinkled to signal her walking through the door, something was different. Something about sitting with a group of people made her calm, even if those people were all trying to talk at once. She never really listened. The sounds of their voices just made a soothing buzz in the background, so she could be alone with her stitches and her thoughts. Anyways, she knew they liked her there, quiet in the corner, and she liked them. At the very least she liked them as background noise.

The conversations always skipped over Becca. She tried to talk – to tell Lila her dress was pretty, or that she liked Claudia’s hair. Her voice got lost. Even the simplest comments she wanted to make, about hair or clothes or whatever. In the midst of that babble she couldn’t be loud enough to be heard. It was okay, usually. She would settle back into her chair and listen, laughing at the jokes – or the unintended funny – and smiling to herself. She just wished, sometimes, that she could make them laugh more. Now, she wanted to say that she wasn’t feeling well and was leaving early. Her throat had been sharp with pain all day, and it was distracting her from stockinette stitch. When she couldn’t concentrate on something like that she knew she had to go home and turn the lights out. She gathered up her things, stuffing the yarn into her backpack and spearing it with the needles. Once she stood up to leave they would all want to know why, and ask her to stay. That made her feel a little better.

Claudia was tired. She’d had such a long day – a long week, really. She didn’t want to go home to hear her mother’s disappointment, or to school where the words seemed to blur. She was tired of Henry’s longing gazes and Tori’s resentment. She was tired of everything, it seemed. At least when she was there, nothing existed but the sound of her friends and the movement of her hands. At the end of a long day it was a relief to think about nothing but cable stitches.