Fiction by Elsa Pair
Your bed still has your dirty underwear on it. The planner on your desk is open to February, unaware that weeks and then months have gone by, and now it is almost Christmas. Both mirrors in your room are coated comfortably in dust, and when I wipe my finger through the film I only see myself. For a second I see your face, reflected in both mirrors, going on and on down the endless reflected tunnel. But it isn’t your face. It’s mine.
It’s been two months and I haven’t changed a thing. I haven’t been able to.
At work, they’ve been scheduling me mostly in the back. No one has said anything to me directly but I know it has to do with you. Or—it has to do with you in that it has to do with me. Or the other way around. I float around the back room and pack boxes and print shipping labels and am kept safely away from the customers.
When I ride the bus home, sometimes it’s dark enough that I can’t see the cars pass by on the road but I can see the bus’s interior lights reflected back at me, bright as stars. Beneath, I can see my face, so similar to your own and not nearly similar enough. Proximity to you used to feel suffocating, as if there wasn’t enough space for both of us. Now, the void in your absence is bottomless.
Monty is sitting on the porch when I get home, picking at the holes in his jeans. He stands up quickly when he sees me. “Hi, Nadia. I hope it’s okay that I stopped by.”
He lets me pass and I shuffle through my keys, thumbing past the kitschy peach keychain you bought me in Atlanta. “You can stop by whenever you want. Nico was as much yours as she was mine.” I don’t believe the words to be true, but I know it would have made you happy to hear me say it.
He follows me in, watching as I dump my bag on the floor and kick off my shoes. “If you’d be okay with it,” he says, “I’d like to take some of Nico’s things.”
I pause, curling my hand around the edge of the doorway. I’ve moved very little in your absence. You used to hate when I rustled around too much. The thought of Monty touching and taking your things feels wrong. But I know that isn’t fair.
“Of course,” I tell him. “You’re her fiancé, after all.”
You used to light up when he introduced you as his fiancé, saying you couldn’t wait for him to call you his wife. I wanted that, too—well, I wanted it since you wanted it.
I sit cross-legged on the couch and eat a sad snack of cheese cubes and watch as Monty putters around our collective mess of DVDs and books in the living room. He touches all the spines, wiping away any trace of your hands. I can’t begrudge him that. I also touch things just to feel where your hands have been.
He drifts to your bedroom and I follow, leaning against the door jamb. When you left, you’d been staying here less and less, spending most nights with Monty. I didn’t mind. You were still around enough that I didn’t feel your absence like a missing limb. Not like I do now.
“What are you looking for exactly?” I ask, watching Monty get dangerously close to disrupting the organized mess on your desk. “I might know where it is.”
Monty smiles at me, looking sheepish. “I’m not really looking for anything in particular. I just…” He raises his arms halfway and drops them back to his sides. “Miss being around her.”
On this, at least, we understand each other. I drift to your bed, careful to only sit on the very edge. “Is it hard,” I start and then stop, putting the words together in my head. “Is it hard to live in a place that has so little of her?”
Monty stops his fidgeting, his hands going still at his sides. I don’t know what he sees when he looks at your room. “Yes,” he answers. “But I think it would be harder to live here in this house and be surrounded by her at all times.” He sits down on your bed next to me. “I think it would be suffocating.”
Maybe he understands you less than I thought. “You love Nico.”
“I did,” he says, looking down at his hands. “But it must be stifling to live completely in her absence.”
He’s being gentle with his words, but I know what he’s getting at. Everyone—Mom and Dad, my boss at work, and now, apparently, Monty—think it’s unhealthy, the way I’ve stayed here with all your things. Mom and Dad want me to move up to St. Paul and be closer to them. They even offered to help me sell the house. But the thought of packing up all your things and leaving them behind makes me feel like I would be losing you all over again.
“I like being near her,” I tell him. He doesn’t say anything for a long time, and neither do I. We watch the sleepy road through your window, seeing cars and birds drift by. After a while it stops feeling like he’s an intruder and more like he’s been here all along.
“We should go see her, Nadia,” Monty says finally, taking my hand. “I think it’s time.”
“I don’t need to go see her.” I pull my hand away. “I don’t want to.”
Monty smooths his hands over his jeans. “I don’t think you mean that.”
He’s right. I don’t.
I let him stay the night, and he sleeps in the living room on the couch, closing the door to your bedroom behind him. I’m glad he didn’t ask to stay in your room, because I don’t know what my answer would have been. I have a hard time falling asleep, so sure that I can hear you and him talking through the walls, your voice rolling over the hardwood floors. Him being here has strengthened your presence somehow. Pulled you up out of the ground. Maybe you cling more to him than to me, and I’m the one trailing around like a phantom.
The only thing Monty ends up taking from the house is one of your Northwestern hoodies, although I don’t know if it’s actually yours or if it had once been his but you had stolen it, as fiancés are wont to do. When I ask him if he’s sure there’s nothing else he wants, he says yes. He pulls it on over his head when we step out onto the porch, and when I finish locking up and look up, his eyes are tired and his hair is spiky from sleep and it’s almost as if he and I were you and him. If only my face were a little different.
“I’ll drive,” he says, lifting my bag and heading towards his car. “Well, I’ll drive first. You can take over after a couple hours.”
When he smiles, I smile back. Sometimes I practice in the mirror, seeing which expressions make me look the most like you. Our smiles are where we differ. I don’t have the little gap in my front teeth. But if I smile with my mouth closed, I’m the spitting image.
How strange it must be for Monty to have me in his passenger seat, you and yet not you, almost his fiancé but not quite. I’m sure he wishes I were you. When he’d pick you up in his car, what radio station did you listen to? Or did he put on a specific playlist? Would you sing along, his hand on your thigh? You fill the space in the car until I’m sure it will burst.
We travel a little over halfway, taking our time, and stop at a motel to sleep. The beige walls and worn sheets leave me feeling rootless and tired, my vision blurring into browns and grays. Monty sets his backpack down on one of the double beds and heads wordlessly into the little bathroom for a shower.
I lie back on the other bed, folding my hands over my stomach, legs pressed together. In the ground only a couple hours away, you are lying in the same pose. The quiet sound of the shower running lulls me into a groggy sleep.
I dream that you and I are underwater, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico off the shore of Galveston Island. Mom and Dad only took us once, for our eleventh birthday, but in my dream we’re older. Your hair bleeds sunlight, salt and sand filtering through, casting a halo above me. I see my reflection in the bubbles that come out of your mouth, your nose: something about my face in the reflection looks wrong, but the bubbles race to the surface of the water before I can pinpoint what it is.
You start to float to the surface—no, wait, I start to sink. You catch my hands to pull me up, towards the sun. Your mouth moves but the sound is lost in the water and the words are hidden behind more bubbles. My legs feel like lead. You pull, pull, pull. Soon, we will break the surface.
I wake up when Monty sits on the edge of my stiff motel mattress, the weight causing a dip. The light that sneaks in through the curtains is inky and full of starlight. I reach out blindly, seeing Monty through a watery haze, and my fingers land on the skin of his neck. “Monty?”
“Nico,” he says. Your name is clear as glass in the air, unmistakable. He leans over me, pushing my hair off my forehead. “Nico.”
His eyes are sleep-clouded and I don’t know if he sees you or if he sees me or if the distinction even matters at all, but when he leans down and kisses me, I don’t stop him. I don’t tell him I’m not you.
We wake up early. In the grimy bathroom mirror, I look fevered, my eyes bright. I wait for the shower water to run hot and think about how Monty had been next to me in bed when I woke up, both of us lying on our backs, side by side. Coffin neighbors.
When I come out of the bathroom, Monty has a to-go cup of coffee ready for me. His backpack is already slung over his shoulder. “Ready to go?”
He looks me in the eye when he says it. If he sees you, he doesn’t show it. I breathe out. “Yes.”
I have never enjoyed driving. It makes me anxious, having to sit still and focus. All throughout high school, you were the one with the license, driving us to school and then waiting around for hours while I finished up choir rehearsal or test prep. You never left me behind.
But I drive first this morning, speeding past miles and miles of cornfields, sailing smoothly over the flat terrain. Monty dozes in the passenger seat, his head tipped against the window. The sun is still rising, slowly spilling light across the sky. I think of how he kissed me last night and wonder if he will do it again.
Even though I hate driving, this is not the first time I have driven across Illinois for you. Going to Northwestern kept you close to home, but when I chose a small liberal arts college near Iowa, I felt your absence like a phantom limb. You made me a playlist timed to the length of my drive from my school to yours, filling it with pop and rock songs from our childhood. Between all your clubs and the nonstop coursework for your econometrics degree, you rarely had time to make the drive to me. But that was okay. I always made time for you.
If Monty’s car had a CD player, I would have dug up your playlist and brought it with us. I wish I had thought to copy it onto my phone. It doesn’t matter much, anyway. The distance this time is much farther.
Midday, we fly past a girl hitchhiking. I almost swerve into the ocean of corn.
“You’re okay,” Monty says once I have straightened his car out, my hands bruising the steering wheel. “Nadia. We’re okay.”
“We should go back.” I hazard a glance in the rearview mirror but we are moving forward and the girl is fading away and all I can see of her is the sheen of her golden hair.
Monty lets out a long breath, but he doesn’t seem annoyed with me. “We can’t,” he says. “Besides, she’s heading the other direction.”
He’s right—the girl is on the other side of the road, hoping to hitch a ride south, not north. Still, I want to whip Monty’s car around and go back and pick her up so that no harm will come to her because she’ll be with me.
“Here, pull over.” Monty stretches his arms out in front of him, his shoulder blades shifting beautifully. “It’s my turn to drive.”
I pull off onto the gravelly shoulder and step out into the bright daylight. The corn whistles in the breeze, growing high above my head. Monty touches my arm as we pass each other around the back of the car, brushing my hair back. My skin lights up, sending vibrant signals to my brain.
I settle into the shadow of his body in the passenger seat. He is solid and steady next to me, and I watch him from the corner of my eye, knowing all the while that he is counting down the minutes until we get to you.
We are the only two visitors at the cemetery in Woodstock, Illinois. As we get out of the car, I watch a group of schoolkids across the street, shrieking and jumping into piles of red-brown leaves.
“We could call your parents,” Monty offers after a moment, tucking his hands tight into his armpits. “We haven’t seen them in a while.”
He’s right. The last time I saw my parents was also the last time Monty did—at your funeral. His relationship with my parents always centered around you, of course, but maybe my relationship with them did, too. I haven’t seen them since you died. All of our conversations are about you, being away from your things, being closer to you.
I don’t respond to Monty and he seems fine with my apathy. We came this way for you and only you.
Your grave sits beside a black willow tree. Mom and Dad picked the plot because of the sprawling shade the tree provides, but I know how much you loved the sun, how the long, hot days in Galveston were your favorite part of our childhood. The marble of your tombstone is still smooth and bright. It is as if no time at all has passed since I saw it for the first time.
Monty starts to hang back as we get close, and I pause. “Is it hard for you? Being near her?”
He shakes his head. “Not any harder than it was to be in your house.” His voice hangs in the air until he speaks again. “She’s still everywhere. It’s been almost a year and I can’t get away from her.”
It’s such a cruel thing to say, so at odds with the warmth and comfort of Monty’s voice, but when I look at him I know he’s not saying it to be unkind. He’s slouched with his head tucked down, looking at everything but you. “You… want to get away from Nico?”
“No, that’s not what I—” He closes his eyes, bracing for an unforeseen impact. “Nadia, Nico and I weren’t going to get married.”
In the sunlight Monty’s skin is pale and washed-out. He doesn’t look well. I imagine I don’t look much better, floating across Illinois like a wayward wisp. “That’s not right,” I say, because it isn’t: of course Monty and Nico were going to get married. If I know anything about Monty at all, it’s that he loved my sister.
He runs a hand over his face, the hem of your sweatshirt riding up too high on his lean frame. “Things changed.”
Stunned, I wait for him to go on. When he doesn’t, I rock back on my heels, feeling the sturdiness of the earth beneath me, thinking that you must be pressing your ear against the other side of the dirt and listening in. “Oh.”
I knew your go-to passwords, your morning hygiene routine, the songs you sang in the shower. I could recognize you just by the sound of your laugh, even across a full-on house party. And yet somehow, in the midst of my knowing you, I did not know about any breakup, a glaring smudge on my otherwise perfect track record.
“We had a fight that night,” he says abruptly, then pauses to swallow, squinting up at the bleak sun. “She was all alone the night that she died.” His voice skitters and breaks on the last word and I feel a weight drop into my chest. For the breath of a moment, I imagine how it all must’ve gone down:
You, hurt and angry after a fight. You, determined to walk until all the anger bled out of the bottom of your feet. You, alone on the side of the abandoned rural road, eyes burning black in the headlights of the speeding truck.
I hadn’t known you’d died until after—I didn’t feel the loss of a phantom second heartbeat or feel an invisible tether snap. But once I knew, it was something I could never stop knowing, and your absence settled heavy in my belly, in the back of my skull. It thrums at the back of my neck as I stare at Monty, uncomprehending.
What I want to tell him is that if he is at fault, then I am equally to blame. He wasn’t with you that night, but where was I? At home in bed, probably asleep in a nap that stretched out too long, completely unaware that my roommate—my sister—the other half of me was no longer getting married, and was out on the street alone, about to die.
You know this already, but I want to tell you again—I’m sorry that I didn’t know. If I had known you were about to die with the certainty that I know you are here with us now, maybe it could have been different.
“I want you to know, Nadia,” Monty says into the quiet, “last night, when I kissed you—I wasn’t thinking about her. It wasn’t about her at all.”
He looks me in the eye as he says it. I think he’s lying to me, but it doesn’t matter.
Elsa Pair received her bachelor's degree in English and psychology from the University of Houston, where she served as poetry editor for Glass Mountain Magazine. Her work has been published in Glass Mountain, Defunkt Magazine, and Superfroot Magazine.