How You Remember Her | Amy Reed

    San Antonio did not let you touch it. It was dry and sharp and hot. It was cheap furniture covered in plastic.
    Portland, Oregon was not Texas. That, you were sure of. The damp air held you in place, made you sticky. It wanted you to stay, made you so heavy with wet that you had no choice.
    She came from Maine, the most exotic place on earth.
    “My name is Willow,” she told you.
    “You look like a Willow,” you responded.
    “You don’t look like a Leslie,” she said as she took in your boyish haircut and soft face, your small blue eyes behind too-small glasses, your tense, dimpled mouth. You dressed like a miniature James Dean: jeans, white T-shirt and thin black jacket. You hid your breasts beneath a sports bra you outgrew years ago.
    You had never met anyone from Maine. “That’s because there’s not many of us,” she said. “And we don’t go anywhere.”  You did not know if they were all tall and thin with faces like sad angels. You did not ask her that.
    You told her this:  “My town’s claim to fame is we have one of the highest obesity rates in the country, the most Republicans, the most Christians, and the fewest bookstores.”  This was a list you had rehearsed before coming to college, sure it would impress people in this liberal enclave. You had rehearsed it in front of the mirror with different inflections and eyebrow raises. You decided finally that it would be best to perform it casually, as if you were not trying to make too much of a point. 
    She received your list with a shrug. “We have Republicans,” she said. “And lobster.”
    It did not take long for you to tell her about high school, about being beat up for doing nothing but looking the way you did and being two grades ahead. You told her about your car being spray-painted with “dyke,” about being so small that being butch meant nothing. Her face barely changed, only grew more still as you told her these things. She cupped her hand around the back of your neck and made you some tea and you felt warmer than you had in a very long time.
    She told you about living in a trailer with a man twenty-four years her senior. She told you about silence, about family that did not come looking when she ran away. She told you these things like she was telling you what she ate for breakfast, like it was something cold and tasteless like oatmeal or cornflakes. She seemed to want to tell you more, but she did not. She let you speak, and it was the sound of your own voice that made you love her.

    The world was in color, even at night, even when darkness was supposed to steal pigment. There was color the night she and you walked the train tracks for hours, when you snuck around the smoky warehouse illuminated blue, and dared each other to look inside the crates. They were all empty, and after the tenth one you should have lost your fear. But you saw monsters every time your eyes closed, red fangs bulging out of grey leather faces. Every shadow scared you and you jumped and squealed like a little girl at the sound of rats scurrying. She put her arms around you and laughed, “You’re not so tough,” and you were glad she knew that.
    There was color the night you jumped the fence of the Rhododendron Garden, when her pants snagged barbed wire and left her pale calf bare. The bushes rustled and you were not afraid. The air was heavy with mist, scented with flowers and trees and so many live things. The pond reflected tall evergreens and your faces, and you asked her where the ducks were. She said, “Sleeping,” as if she knew, and you believed her.
    There was color when she took off her shoes and threw them at you, chased you barefoot on gravel with her socks in her hands. You let her catch you and she shoved the socks in your face. The smell was warm, sweet like earth. You did not join her when she entered the water, when she hiked her ripped pants above her knees. She walked to the middle and dared you to join her. You remember her in a kind of spotlight, her yellow hair backlit and holy, her wide smile and white teeth so small and far away. She splashed and you loved her, but you did not go in.

	You remember studying for the Humanities final, sitting cross-legged on her unmade bed, books open and notes tangled between slept-in sheets, the sheets littered with strands of her downy blonde hair. The lights were off and you read by candles and Christmas tree lights, her room’s only decoration. You pretended to be remembering what happened three thousand years ago, but you were watching her serious, wet mouth. You wanted to kiss the wine-stained lips that kept talking about Hesiod, Herodotus, Plato, Thucydides. You wanted to kiss her but you didn’t, even though you knew she would kiss you back.
	She would not kiss you because she wanted you. She would do it with her eyes closed. She would do it because she wouldn’t want to hurt your feelings, because she wouldn’t want to lose her only friend. As little as she told you, you knew that much.

	The rains came and you spent hours in the student union, sitting on ratty couches next to the fake fireplace, listening to the rain pounding on windows, smoking cigarettes and ashing on the floor. Christmas came and neither of you went home. She gave you an aloe plant and said the sap heals everything. You named it “tree” and spent a drunken night making tin foil ornaments. The campus was empty and silent and yours, and you named it her garden.
	The rains lightened, school started, spring came, and Willow pinched your arm. “That guy is staring at you.”
	“What guy?”
	“Or girl. I can’t tell. Over there.”
	He was. She was. He was sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, long legs crossed and propped on a coffee table held together with duct tape. You felt your face burn and the rest of you shiver. 
	“He’s coming over here,” she said. “Damn, he’s tall.”  He was long and lanky but tough, wearing canvas pants covered in house paint. He had a slight limp and it was the sexiest thing you had ever seen.
	“Don’t stare,” you told her. “Look busy.”  Your chest was tight and your stomach jumped and it felt like high school should have felt.
	“I have to…do something,” she said with a forced giggle. You knew that there was nothing she had to do, that she was leaving because of something else, something that told her she had outstayed her welcome. 
	“Don’t go,” you said because you had to. You knew she heard you even though she pretended not to, and you were grateful for that. 
        Your future lover introduced himself. He sat in the seat Willow had emptied. She slipped out the door but you did not see her. All you saw was the man looking into you with eyes that said, “You’re mine,” and you wanted him to own you.
     You would not call Willow that night. You would not stop by her dorm room on the way to yours. The next day, she would not ask you about the man, but you would tell her because you had to tell someone and she was the only one to tell. She would listen without looking at you, with a face that was not like the face she had when you met. There was something rough surfacing around the corners of her eyes, her mouth. She would pretend it was still smooth, nod and say, “That’s wonderful.” You would pretend to believe she meant it.
	She never made a mistake with the pronouns. Not once. Not even at first. Even though she first knew you as Leslie, then Les, then it was summer and she disappeared, left you to make your first apartment a home, left an envelope with her share of an entire summer’s rent. She did not tell you where she got all the money, and you did not ask.
	She knocked on the door when she returned two months later, even though she had a key. She came back thinner and somehow different, translucent, and you were different, more solid, and when you hugged she seemed to absorb part of you for a split second, like she needed weight, and she kissed you on the cheek and said “I missed you, Alex. I like that: Alex.”  
	You looked more like yourself somehow. You had replaced your James Dean jacket with leather, your bleached white T-shirt with a faded second-hand one that hugged the new muscles on your arms. 
	“I’ve been working out,” you said.
	“It shows,” she told you. You had gained weight. You seemed to take up more space.
	You told her what you did that summer. You told her you were in love. 
        “His name is Crane,” you said.
        “Like Ichabod?”
        “No. Like the bird. Like the machine.” You did not look at her as you said this. Your eyes were glazed over. You only saw him. She smiled and looked at the blank wall behind you. She told you nothing of her travels. You did not ask.
    	School started, sophomore year, and you lived in the library. You slept at Crane’s house most nights. Willow lived somewhere else or in her room with the door closed to the apartment neither of you ever got around to filling, in her room with nothing more than a mattress on the floor, a rickety desk and hidden things you did not think about. 
        Sometimes you saw her on campus walking alone. Sometimes you said hello and walked with her for a while. You’d say, “How are you?”  She’d say, “Pretty good,” and neither of you said much more. Sometimes you would not say hello. Sometimes you would pretend not to see her. After a while, you did not have to pretend. After a while, she was not there.
        There were things you did not notice:  timid knocks on your door in the middle of the night when you were too deep in sleep to hear anything but Crane’s breath in your ear; the party you mentioned to her in passing, the words she wanted to hear as an invitation, the house full of strangers that sized her up before she even closed the door, the house she left without speaking, without knowing you were in the back room, without telling you she was ever there.

	Your sister got married at the end of September, the sister you loved despite how much you hated her. You flew home for the wedding with a pocket full of Valium despite the fact that you never did drugs.
	You were in Texas for less than twenty-four hours. Your parents met you at the airport and your father said, “What the hell are you wearing?”  He slammed the door and drove home. You stared at the back of his neck and waited for your mother to say something, waited for her to slice the silence with words that did not matter. She spoke of your sister’s dress, how beautiful she looked in it, how long her hair was now, and that made the air thicker.
	Your father retreated to the garage and you watched TV with your mother. In the morning, you put on your best suit and packed your bags. 
	Your father said, “Leslie, what the hell is wrong with you?” and you said, “My name is Alex now,” and he threw his cup of coffee across the room, the cup that said #1 Dad, the cup you got him for Father’s Day when you were still a girl.
	He said you were not his. Your mother sat at the counter crying, holding a whisk in her hand dripping with egg. You got your bag, walked a mile to the nearest pay phone, called a cab and went to the airport. No one tried to stop you. You ate all the Valium in your pocket and slept until Portland.
	When you returned, the house was silent. Crane was at work and you could not reach him. You heard breathing on the other side of the wall. She was not Crane, but she would do. You knocked lightly on her door and went in. Her body was still solid and that surprised you. You could see where she existed under the blankets. You crawled into her bed and waited for her to wake up. She opened her eyes and blinked to make sure she was not dreaming. It took only seconds for her to register your red puffy eyes, and she began to cry, and she wrapped you in the blanket with her and held you with her thin white arms, stroking your hair and saying, “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay,” even though it was not you crying. That is when you noticed that her body was not as solid as you first thought, that it was soft and porous. It absorbed you like a sponge, and that was good enough to calm you. She kissed your dimples, but you did not feel it. The morning sun stole through the window and warmed your skin. You fell asleep, with her holding you and saying, “Shhh,” even though you never made a sound.
	You woke up and knew that Crane’s shift had ended. Willow’s face was soft with a tinge of grey. She made no sound when she breathed and did not move when you got out of bed. You did not check to make sure she was still breathing. When she woke you were gone, the place in her bed cold and empty beside her, but you did not think of that as Crane took you into his arms and rocked you while you cried. 

	Your lover kissed your stomach at sunrise. His hand glided across your pelvis, your hips, your legs. You said, “I love you,” and he said, “Will you marry me?” and you laughed, and his kiss silenced you.
	There were moans from another room, grunts that tore the morning apart. You could hear the man’s voice but not hers. You kept waiting for it but it never came, as if she were dead, as if the man was making love to her dead body. Your body tensed and your lover stopped loving you. Crane said, “What’s wrong?” and you said, “Put on some music. Something loud.”  And he did, and you stopped worrying as you loved him.
	You fell asleep and awoke, heard her car drive away.
	You fell asleep and awoke, found the man, hairy and old and smelling like liquor, with bloodshot eyes and chapped lips asking you, “Where did Willow go?  Did she have class?”  It was Sunday. You said, “Yes.”
	The man was gone and Willow was gone, and you were glad to get rid of them. You fell asleep and awoke, decided you would never spend the night there again.

        This is how you remember her:
	First, an old-fashioned snapshot: tattered pastels and white teeth, posed mid-laughter. Then black and white: sharp, dramatic chiaroscuro, the long shadows of eyelashes. 
	Then a mistake in the developing process, something awry with the chemicals. Everything thrown into black, into shadow, into muddy reproductions of blocks and curves and dense space and not-space. No designation between matter and not-matter. No designation between her and black.
	Overcompensation, overexposure. All white and weightless, as if she fought for light but was consumed by it. You could not tell where she stopped and the world started, where the world gave pause and let her begin. It was unclear if either existed at all. She could have been only air, only fog, only unstable ether taking up space. 
        She had been there once. You know that. You know you had touched something that felt like skin and heard a voice that came from her mouth. But she lost substance so slowly you didn’t notice until she was gone. Her voice became a whisper and then silence. Little pieces of her broke off until nothing was left. This is how you remember her when she disappeared:  you knew she was gone, but couldn’t remember the last time you saw her.
	You think about her now because it is graduation and she is not here. You are wearing the silly cap and gown, and it makes scraping noises when you shift, as bad as nails on chalkboard. You are wearing your brand new suit beneath that gown, the brand new tie you found for a dollar: shiny black with little red hammers and sickles. You  smile when you remember Crane inspecting it, pulling it, laughing about Marxist polka dots.
	Willow would have done something like that, but only when she was still solid, still in color, before she disappeared, before she became her shoulder vanishing behind her bedroom door, before she became her back walking away. There was Willow, then pieces, then there was nothing at all, not even body parts, just rumors, just sounds of things breaking in her room, just grunts of strangers, pillow-muffled sobs, the tap-tap-tap of razor blade on mirror.
	The announcer is at the B’s. He says “Baxter” and it will be your turn soon. You sit between two people you do not know. They are talking around you about their plans, about their grad school applications, about their visiting families. You think of your mother sitting somewhere between those families, alone and small and already weeping. Crane is somewhere out there, somewhere with a bouquet of flowers, somewhere not by your mother. Your father did not come. He is back home in Texas, probably on the couch, probably watching the game, probably staring into his can of tasteless beer and trying not to think of you. Your father, who always wanted a son. Your father, who disowned you and your new name. 
	Willow left on a Tuesday after five days of not coming home. You did not know that. You had not been to the apartment in weeks. She did not leave a note. All that was left were pieces: her mattress, her desk, her books, her papers. All that was missing was what was left of her body and the things you had not seen in a very long time. 
	It has been more than two years since you spoke. Sometimes people say, “Anybody heard anything about Willow?” and everybody shakes their heads, and the subject is dropped. The last you heard was a rumor she moved to New York City. You cringed at the idea, imagined her eaten alive. Someone else said San Francisco. You could see her in San Francisco. You could see her standing at the foot of the ocean watching the waves crash against the naked shore, saddened that no one seemed to care, that the beach was flanked by an old highway and miles of identical silent houses.
	You still have a phone number she gave you, a phone number of somewhere in Maine. You think you will call her later. You will not.

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Contrary ® is a registered trademark of Contrary Magazine
The Figure of Authority | Thomas King
What Mary Did | Sarah Layden
Tithonus | C.E. Chaffin
Homecoming | Patrick Reichard
How You Remember Her | Amy Reed
The Night of the Iguana | Derek Pollard
Generations of Leaves | Taylor Graham
Three Poems | Patrick Loafman

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | summer 2007