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Short Fiction: Vanishing Act
Jennifer remembered a time long ago shortly after her father vanished when her mother was weeping bitter tears of anger. She felt now somehow similar to how she felt then, though the circumstances were, at least by her estimation, more horrific by several orders of magnitude.
Twelve years ago, she married a man she fell in love with at college. His name was Richard and he had not swept her off of her feet in any sense. He had asked her out, and she agreed, and they sat across from each other in a booth at a diner and he talked and talked and she stared and stared. Richard went home that evening convinced that he had not impressed her. Nonetheless, he called her again a week later to the day and she agreed again to a date. They went to a considerably nicer place this time and Richard talked for a while as Jennifer replied only when necessary and again said next to nothing.
On their third date, Richard was sullen and somewhat quieter than normal. Halfway through their meal, convinced that the silence between them was of an awkward sort, he finally—with little provocation—blurted out: “Your life must be incredibly boring for you to keep going out on dates with me.”
She stared at him, expressionless.
He sighed, calmer now, and raised a single finger in the air to call the waitress’s attention so he could pay and leave.
“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked, her face as blank as empty paper.
“If I bore you this much, why even go out with me?”
A small grin pulled gently at the corner of her mouth. “I don’t think you’re boring,” she replied.
“Oh really?” he scoffed. He lowered his hand and folded it with the other on the table out in front of him. “Then how about this, you’re responsible for the conversation this evening. And . . . go.”
She told him everything she could think of about herself that was relevant and appropriate, stopping only to breathe. She reported the information to him like an objective journalist. She told him her father left, her mother cried a lot, her brother teased her, and her younger sister was an honor student. She told him that she was a misanthrope. She told him that her favorite color was white. She told him everything. All in all, she recited a well-organized autobiography that was all fact, with little emotion and no anecdotes and spoke for about ten minutes straight. She then fell silent and stared at him like a chess master waiting for him to evade check and blunder into certain failure.
He stared right back, still trying to absorb all the information she had just presented to him.
“I think we need to work on your interpersonal skills,” he teased with a grin, and she smiled. From that point on, it became Richard’s goal to make her smile and it became her goal to let him.
They were married two years later at a church that her mother claimed Jennifer used to attend, though she could hardly recall ever having been in a church. Nonetheless, the warm-hearted pastor claimed to have known her since she was “this big” (which might have explained her inability to remember him). Richard’s family came en masse to see the wedding, but on Jennifer’s side, only her mother and siblings showed up, which she had expected.
Their bridal party was the smallest tradition would allow; Richard’s brother played the part of best man and Jennifer’s sister was her maid of honor. Her mother walked her down the aisle—she was crying, of course. The pastor pronounced them married and they kissed, reveled with the guests until the late evening, drove away in a car with trailing cans, and went about their honeymoon business.
In the years following their marriage, Jennifer and Richard loved each other as best they could. Jennifer disliked romantic movies that trivialized the true difficulty of being in love; nothing they had built together was easy.
Shortly after their marriage, Richard found himself a job at a law firm while Jennifer combed the classifieds. He had told her and told her that she didn’t need to work, but Jennifer felt compelled to make her degree worthwhile. She always managed to get herself interviews—her résumé was immaculately organized—but she never got called back afterward. She would tell Richard, a faint cold frustration growing within her, and he would simply smile at her condescendingly. She finally found a job in retail with the high-school students and college kids. She diligently performed what work was given to her; she worked a register on her first day, but found herself stocking shelves and moving boxes from then onward.
Richard, meanwhile, absorbed himself with work. His ambition far outweighed any reservations he might have had about taking the biggest cases and biggest risks. He became slowly but surely obsessed with the macho idea of providing for her, of being her rock, her single source of sustenance and protection. Every time he came home from work beaming, announcing they were going to dinner so he could reveal that he had gotten a raise or a promotion, or—most recently—been made a partner, it would be her turn to smile condescendingly at him from across the table, letting him wrap himself in the lie that she would starve without him. But there was another consequence to her husband’s seemingly boundless climb to the top of the pile.
Richard was nearly constantly stressed about a case, about his boss, about his client, about something. He would often come home after work and spread confidential documents across the kitchen table. He was always very irritable—the tiniest and most insignificant issues would make him furious. They didn’t argue, he argued. She would stare at him blankly and not give him the satisfaction of knowing whether her feelings were hurt or not. She would extinguish the flames of his ego in the calm ocean of her passivity.
When Richard had become a partner, the youngest one on record at that, they finally left the tiny limbo of their apartment for a slice of suburban living. They had been married for seven hard-won years when they finally had a white picket fence and a baby on the way. He had worked tirelessly for this, for the quiet life in the suburbs with a normal nuclear family. But now, five years later, that dream was gone.
For she sat stalk still at the edge of the couch, unmoving, staring at the death that occupied the center of the room, still clutching the phone with white knuckles. Her face was wet, though the tears had simply escaped of their own accord; she hadn’t time to really process what was happening let alone cry about it.
Richard had been ranting about something and as he raved angrily about what she had done or not done, she reacted as she always did when he got like this—she sat silently, staring a hole through him, waiting for him to realize that he was acting like a fool and apologize. This tactic usually made him angrier, and then he would reach his breaking point and stop, stomp away, and then come back a few minutes later to make amends. This time he died. She wasn’t sure if it was a heart attack or an aneurism, but he most certainly had worked himself up to death.
She hadn’t checked him, but she knew. There was no mistaking it. He didn’t look human anymore; he looked as alive as the coffee table. She felt like she had been sitting there staring at his body for hours, but the clock claimed it had only been three minutes. She had already called 911, but she knew that it was futile.
“Mom,” she heard a voice in the doorway. “What’s wrong with Dad?”
She pried her eyes from the scene with monumental effort to see David standing in the hall in his pajamas, his eyes bleary with the beginnings of tears. He was staring wide-eyed at his father, or at least at his father’s corpse.
I should probably tell him he’s sleeping, Jennifer thought as she stood up and walked over to her son. She scooped him up in her arms, took him into the kitchen, and sat him on the counter. She retrieved the ice cream from the freezer, got two bowls, and distributed a few scoops into each. She handed one to David along with a spoon and began eating hers mechanically.
That’s what a good mother would do—say he’s sleeping. David sobbed quietly, staring at his bowl as a chorus of distant sirens came in quietly and steadily grew louder in an awful crescendo.
“Mom?” David prompted sullenly.
“Eat your ice cream.”
My Work Experience
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