The Vanishing Girl
The water in the shower is running hot and cold, which may be related to the problems they’re having on the Peninsula; but then again, maybe not. For a moment I let the thought fill my head that it’s us - the sudden break in my life (or should that be, our lives) - that’s causing a backlash of bad karma, hitting the gas supply, those gas problems then inflicting themselves upon me, like some kind of vicious cycle, a positive feedback loop of misery and torn emotions. And then I remember that I have somewhere to be, and get to the business of cleaning up.
Of course you’ve picked neutral territory. A little cafe down by the quay, on the way to Peninsula, but not quite there. We’d visited two or three times, back when the two of us meeting up for lunch was a pleasant thing. They served stuff we decided was closest to mussels, that they managed to dredge from the bay, in a broth seasoned with tomatoes and spices. It had a name, once.
The sun is half-way risen when I get onto the streetcar, chucking a few coins into the tray next to the driver and sitting down near the front. The street doesn’t start off crowded, but once we get past Bell Hill we’re fighting crowds going the other way, themselves trying to squeeze between us and the people who’ve taken up residence on the sidewalk: some playing instruments or singing, some holding signs, some just curled up and trying to sleep. Every so often the driver gives the bell a vigorous shake and the crowd clears a little, but soon enough they’re pressing back in around us, making the whole thing slower than I’d like.
Like me, the crowds have heard rumours that the fog over by North Valley’s starting to clear up, that maybe you can see some houses through the white. Everyone wants to be first to stake a claim, maybe to grab an entire house and make their fortune sub-letting to whoever comes next. It happens most months: someone tells someone else that the fog is lifting over in such-and-such place, and suddenly the city’s population sloshes to one side, like the water in a goldfish bowl when you give it a jerk, driven by greed and hope. This month, of course, it’s much worse.
When I get off the street-car, I can see the roof-tops of Peninsula: warehouse attics and apartment-tops and church steeples, the radio tower sticking up above like a poppy in grass. Do they look fainter than normal? I squint, but really - from this close - you can’t tell one way or the other.
I remember the last time I visited you. I always liked your house: the narrow staircase, covered in pale blue carpet; the crowded living-and-dining room with all its furniture; the sparse efficiency of space in the kitchen. There, I felt like I couldn’t help but view you up close, like an impressionist painting in reverse. In your house, I could never be more than five feet away from you without being out of sight.
That last time, we squeezed down the alleyway past the bakery on the ground floor (average bread, but a wonderful smell, wafting up to us in the morning. I thought it was the best thing ever, you, not so much. “The first thing I’m going to do when I get rich,” you said once, lying on the couch, “is buy that place, hire some big thug types, and have them take that baking oven apart brick by brick”)…past the bakery, followed each other up the stairs, trailing our hands along the faded wallpaper, and arranged ourselves in the living room, trying not to knock over any of the books or anything else.
I fidgeted. You went to make tea, and I could hear you moving about in the kitchen. I didn’t hear you put the kettle on, though - just the banging about of drawers. I’d had a bad feeling about the day when I got up, but I refused to entertain thoughts. I figured if I stayed sitting on the couch, nothing could happen.
“It’s starting,” you said from the kitchen.
“What is?” I asked, even though I knew what you’d meant.
“We’re drifting apart.”
Three days later, like a curse, the far end of the Peninsula took on a coating of light mist. People dismissed it as sea fog, rolling in off the ocean like it did every autumn in greater or lesser amounts. There were whispers, but there are always whispers.
The next day, it was still there, and the whispers became talk, then shouting, then a mass of people taking what they could and ferrying it inland. Did you have the same reaction I had? Did you spend those days watching everything that came out of your mouth, in case something else came true?
Now I see you from across the street, sitting in the window of the cafe, mid-morning light glancing off the window and overlaying you with half-transparent reflection, people, cars, bicycles passing right through you.
You look up when I come in, and immediately I feel like I’m on the back foot. There’s a checklist I run through - is my shirt tucked in? Does my hair look OK? I try not to react - adjusting your clothes makes you look guilty, and you don’t need any advantages. Regardless, you look me over once - “to make sure it’s you,” your eyes seem to say - and then you’re looking back down at the hat in your hand.
I haven’t had breakfast long enough ago to justify eating anything, but it’s too late in the morning for coffee, and I feel like juice is juvenile, so I order tea, even though I have no enthusiasm for it. The girl behind the counter - does she have a name? I can’t remember if I’d asked it at some point - tells me she’ll be over with it shortly, and I go sit down.
“How’re things?” you ask, not looking up. You’re sewing the brim onto the hat where it’s starting to fray, methodical strokes, your arm pulling up back, inserting the thread, over and over.
“Oh,” I say, “you know, the usual.” I shift the chair slightly. “Managing.”
We sit there quietly, you absorbed in your stitching, me sitting there trying to look at anything but you. The waitress brings over the tea, sets it down, flashes us a smile. I nod to her and pick up the cup, more for something to do with my hands than for anything else.
“So,” I say, unsure of where to begin. Your rhythm stutters slightly, then picks up again. “How’s the Peninsula?”
“No different to usual,” you say calmly. “From over there, it’s you who’s drifting away from us.”
I wince. “Do they know when it’s going to happen?” I rotate the cup in my hands. “Or, uh. When it finishes happening.”
“No more than they ever do. They keep us updated: ‘We think it’ll take another week’, 'You have a fortnight at least’, 'Four days, that’s all we can guarantee’.” You shrug. “We’ll split when we split, and not before.”
There’s a moment of silence between us - just the noise of the tea cup in my hands, and your stitching, quiet noises that would get swallowed up were the sound of the cafe not gently muted. I keep on looking at the serving girl, trying to remember her name - or trying to see if she’s actually fading, like they say people go when they spend too much time in places that are drifting.
“So you’re not worried?” I ask.
You look up. “Worried? Peninsula’s the same as it always is. There’s no need to be worried about it.”
“Quieter than normal,” I say with a wry grin.
“I can’t help it if some people panic easily,” you say briskly. “Property prices have gone down. My landlord dropped the rent on my current place, and the business downstairs has shut up shop, and then everyone else in the building packed up and left. So I practically own the whole thing.”
“But you’re-” I start, almost wanting you to interrupt, wanting you to stop me saying it. You don’t. I try again. “But you’re not going to be coming over?”
“From Peninsula?” you ask. “From my new acquisition?”
“I’ve never felt the need to bow to the panic of the mob before,” you say, “and I don’t think I’m going to start now.”
I don’t know how to respond to that, so I don’t. Instead I sit there, while you focus again on your hat. The bell on the door jangles and a bevy of twenty-something-year-old students walk in wearing ratty, ill-fitting suits like they’re spun gold, talking enthusiastically amongst themselves. As they look over the menu I wonder who they are. The tall one, I think, he’s the ringleader, the one who tells them which bars are hip and fashionable right now. The shorter one, with curly black hair, he’s the joker, constantly cracking wise and hoping his friends will laugh. The third one - not the tallest, not the shortest, otherwise unremarkable, he’s the ideas guy, always coming up with crazy schemes. They’re from over Red Valley, all three of them flatting in a tiny walk-up place around the back of the green, a four-room joint where everything has to serve double-function. The ideas guy, he said they should go visit all the cafes down here by Peninsula before they’re gone, try the food, and even if it’s average at least they can say they were there right before it went. If any of them will remember where there is in a month’s time.
I could go over and ask them, see how close to the mark I am, but reality tends to be much more boring than the stories I make up. Maybe they come round here all the time. Maybe they’re from Peninsula proper, and in a month or so I’ll have forgotten all about them.
“So was that it?” you ask.
I blink, turning my attention back to the table. I’m still holding my tea-cup in my hands: it’s getting cold now.
“Is what it?” I ask.
“Is that what you came here for? To ask me if I was going to move to the mainland?”
“I-” I fiddle with the tea-cup. Now I’m not sure if I should drink it or not. I always hated cold tea.
You’re looking at me, mid-stitch, waiting for me to answer. Not letting me get out of this one.
“Yeah, pretty much,” I say.
You jam the needle into your hat. “Why?”
I put the tea-cup down.
If I were being charitable, I’d say that you just didn’t get angry as fast as I did. Although at the time, I think I told you that you deliberately did it, needling me so that I was always the one who started shouting first, or ended up storming off. Not that it happened that often. That afternoon was our fourth fight, with nothing really to distinguish it from the last three: no books thrown or hangings ripped or any really unforgivable things said.
I do remember storming down those stairs, coming out next to the bakery, seeing people looking out the window, and realising that most of what we’d said was probably pretty clear to the clientele downstairs.
Up until that point, I was almost hoping you’d follow me down the stairs, call in the reinforcements, so we could have round two in the alleyway. But the sight of families paused, brioches and pastries halfway to their mouths, eyes wide in shock or amusement or both - I couldn’t face that.
I fled back to my place, and the relative safety it offered.
“Is the mainland that bad?” I ask.
“No,” you respond, “but it’s not home. I’d need to find a new job, and where would I live? It’s not like there’s a, a-” you gesture with your free hand, “a surplus of housing anywhere in the city right now.”
“Well,” I say, “I guess I could probably chuck something down in the lounge…”
You arch an eyebrow. “Usually,” you say, “the time to ask a girl to move in with you is before you break up with her.”
“What?” I say. “It’s not like that. It’s not about us.”
“No,” she interrupts. “It’s about you.”
I’m taken aback. “That’s not-”
“It’s always going to be about you. This isn’t about what I want, this is about you having kept me with you, even though we’re not together any more. It’s about you being able to see me and go, 'Look how well I did, there she is, this girl I used to be seeing, and now we’re doing so well.’ Well, that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m not your chess piece, to be moved around.”
“But what happens when the Peninsula splits off? You might…you will vanish!”
“I might. Or I might not. I might just go along living the same as I always have, everyone might, just not attached to the mainland.”
“Yes but, you don’t have any more proof that you’re not going to vanish from existence forever, except that you’re special.”
“Look, we’ve had places break off from the mainland before, you know it! And-”
“Name one,” you say, flatly.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? You never can. Sometimes it takes a couple of days, sometimes a week, but eventually they start to fade. The details, first - the name of the little pizza joint down an alleyway that you visit once a week, the inscription graffiti’d on the fence along the road - but then the faces of the people, then the names, then the fact that they even existed. Not just in your mind - in your books, in your photographs. And all you’re left with is a journal where the ink’s so faded you can’t read the names, or a photo where you’re shoved in the corner, with no one else featured in it, or a patch of the hills covered in fog that you look up at and wonder - wasn’t there a church there, once?
“For all we know, life goes on,” you say, filling the silence. “I want to see if it does. And that’s my choice.”
“What about me, then?” I ask. “What about us?”
“There is no more us,” you say gently. “We had a good time together, we did some fun things, and now it’s time for me to go my way and you to go yours. It would’ve happened, split or no split. And I’ll meet someone, and you’ll meet someone, and we’ll both go on our own dates and gaze into peoples’ eyes and fall in love over and over, and before you know it this-” you make a sweeping motion, encompassing you, me, the cafe, the students sitting down eating mussel broth and chattering amongst themselves, the waitress standing behind the bar cleaning glasses, even the people walking by outside, “-all this, will just be a dim memory.”
“So, what? We go our own ways, give in to fate? Slip from each others’ minds?”
“It’ll happen eventually anyway. It’s just going to be more rapid than it’d otherwise be.” I open my mouth, but you continue: “And it’s not worth uprooting either of our lives to keep a memory of that alive for a little longer. I’m sorry, but it’s not.”
The waitress continues cleaning. The students continue talking. The world keeps moving, but I can’t think of anything to say.
So I stand up and walk out.
I’m back on a streetcar before I let myself consider the fact that I probably won’t see you again. I tell myself I don’t care. I tell myself that I’ve burned that bridge, even though I know I could hop of the car, forge my way through that mass of people, find you again, apologise, make this right. Hell, I could even pack up my stuff and join you over there, starting afresh on a little spit of land with the true believers, the stick-in-the-mudders, the ones who won’t budge through hope or fear or bloody-mindedness, although I’m not sure which of those camps I’d fit into then.
But I don’t.
Five days later, you’re gone. Anyone who wanders into the fog along Dockside Road trying to reach the Peninsula wanders out again five minutes later, completely disoriented. It’s a lovely day, hinting at the long months ahead, but not even the energy of the late spring sun can burn off the fog that surrounds you now.
That evening I sit on the roof of my house, with a view down to the harbour, and I drink. It’s a somewhat sweet liqueur, a mix of wild-berries and cloves, that we purchased from a little place down Red Valley way - I can’t remember the name, but I’ve never been good with names, and if I really needed to I’m sure I could retrace my steps. I’m sitting with a glass in one hand, watching the sun go down, and thinking about not that much at all. I’ve brought a photo frame out here with me - it’s a view up a street in Red Valley, probably from the same day as we bought the liqueur. You’re standing in the middle of the street, basket in one arm, looking at me like you’re not sure what I’m even doing, taking a photo of you.
I know that at some point, the details will become blurred, like it’s been sitting in the sun too long. Maybe a month from now I’ll only have a vague memory why I took a photo of a street just down the hill from the green. And then one day the Red Valley will fill up with mist, and it’ll just be a piece of glossy white paper, to get chucked in the skip. But there’s plenty that’ll happen before that comes to pass, I figure.
I have to finish this bottle first.
One thing at a time.