The Quietest Place (New Short Story)
My smelly doggy bag was just one of the many things I came to regret about that night.
Another was the play.
It was a story about a man who travels to India on business and arranges for a prostitute to come to his room. She arrives looking very scared, all wrapped up in a sari. The actor who played the businessman was an old, white guy. A little on the pudgy side too. He gets freaked out when he begins to understand that the prostitute is no more than a child. Then, they spend the whole night talking—I can’t even remember about what—while the actress crawled around on the bed in a white tank top and white panties like little girls wear. There was a fair bit of “stage tussling” on the bed, which I think might have meant that they had sex. I really don’t know for sure. Maybe it’s a matter of interpretation.
I leaned over to my sister and whispered, “This is a bit uncomfy, huh?”
“Do you think?” she said stone-faced.
“Sorry, I didn’t know it would be like this…people are leaving.”
“When’s the intermission?” she asked.
I had to tell her that there wasn’t one.
A few minutes passed.
“D’you wanna go?” she asked. “Cause I’m okay either way.”
It was a small theatre. The seats were elevated, circling the stage. And we were near the front.
“I don’t think we can,” I whispered back.
The couple beside us got up and left. My sister looked at me questioningly.
“I don’t want to make them feel bad,” I said.
Her expression shifted. She was examining my face in a clinical way like a dermatologist might with a suspicious looking mole.
She sighed. “You’re a funny duck, my sister.”
We said nothing to each other for the rest of the performance, but every time someone else got up and left I knew what she was thinking.
The guy with the backpack down left.
Someone in the far back corner.
I couldn’t concentrate on the play what with all the quacking going on in my head.
We walked to the subway station when the play was over. Despite my efforts to stroke all our usual aches and pains with polite, non-invasive chatter, each caress came away with a handful of us that was slowly, hopelessly shedding away. I think that’s when I let go.
“When will you go?” she asked.
We were stuck, standing in the spot between the two sets of stairwells that led down to the trains. She was headed north; I was going south. We couldn’t seem to say good-bye. I think we both knew.
“Go?” I said.
“To the Canary Islands.”
Conversation had felt strained over dinner before the play. So, I’d talked about a trip to the Canary Islands that I wanted to take, which would never happen. We’d both ordered a pizza. It was way too much food for me, but my sister ploughed into hers like she hadn’t eaten in a month. Meat Lover’s Special. Just the year before she’d been a fierce vegetarian. I admired her efforts to take better care of herself, but eventually, her natural instincts always kicked in, and I watched as a clean year of no red meat turned into more or less a hunt.
I broke up with her that night; It was the last time I saw her.
“The beginning of July, I guess.”
Three years into our breakup, instead of the Canary Islands, I went hiking in California where I got lost in the Mojave Desert for twenty-three minutes. My guide was not impressed—pissed actually is what he was. I could tell that he knew I’d done it on purpose. But at least I know now that being alone in the middle of nowhere is not the same feeling as lonesomeness.
As I yammered on, she stood there examining my face again like she had in the theatre when she’d called me a “funny duck”. I wonder if she is still so careless with words? I knew she wasn’t interested in anything I was saying about the Canary Islands or otherwise. And yet, I couldn’t stop talking because I was afraid of what would happen when I did. In truth, I was already imagining her gone.
There would be no more worrying about her and trying to make up for things that were never in my power to fix…that were never my fault. No more being the understanding one. No more being the accepting one. The listening one. I was fed up of being her foil, which has always meant leaving parts of me tucked away in the back of a closet like a party dress with the tags still on.
I remember how she kept twirling a long strand of hair. And looking at me. Her hair was long back then. She’s cut it short now…from what I can tell on Facebook. She’s wiry too. She was always petite but has probably lost about fifteen pounds, which makes her nose and mouth too big for her pretty little face. It wasn’t that hard to get onto her Facebook page. She still befriends everyone—strangers—just like when she was younger. Sometimes, I think she knows I’m there, stalking her behind the face of a loveable cartoon character. Or maybe not…she has over five hundred friends. Her posts are sporadic.
Still, how does she find the will to narrate anything about her life when I’m not in it?
As I stood there, holding my doggy bag, and yammering on about the Canary Islands, I watched as tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over. But she simply flicked them away without any greeting. And I did the same. I ignored them. Instead, I just kept talking…and falling away from her. Instead of reaching my arms out to catch us as I always did, I looked on…entranced…to see what would happen if for once I simply did nothing. She was trying to hold back the tears so hard that a blue vein pulsed in her forehead where the trace of a tiny scar is still visible. When she was three, she’d been hit by a bicyclist. We’d been playing in the front yard and she ran out into the street chasing a cat. The man on the bike tried to swerve away, but she’d popped out from behind a parked car so he couldn’t see her coming until it was too late. The cat got away though without a nick. I think I was supposed to be keeping an eye on her. But tell me…someone…anyone…in what universe I ask does it make sense to saddle a six-year old with that kind of responsibility like my sister?
Shortly after our break up, I developed these terrible chest pains. They were especially awful whenever a holiday was coming on like Thanksgiving…Christmas. I didn’t know it could hurt so much to breathe. There was always this horrible panic as though a strong hand was holding me down under water.
“Lana, the EKG shows your heart is fine,” said the doctor, handing me a tissue.
How could it be?
“Are you okay?” she asked.
All I could do was nod. I was in tears.
“Would you like me to call someone for you?”
Yes, my sister, I wanted to say.
Can you call and tell her I miss her? Can you give her my new number?
Sometimes, I’m able to convince myself that’s why she never calls.
Of course! She doesn’t have my new number!
I’d lost my old number in a “system glitch” when I changed providers. I tried to get it back, but the company said there was nothing they could do. Once it got released into the system, it had immediately been reassigned to someone else.
One day, I dialled my old number.
A man answered.
“Is Lana there?” I said.
“Sorry, there’s no one here by that name.”
I’d completely disappeared.
I once thought that the desert was the quietest place I’d ever known. Until now. There is nothing quieter in this world than the place we create for ourselves when we abandon those we love and can’t find our way back because the light we need is not forgiveness for or from them, but from ourselves. For the letting go.
The thing is…we didn’t even fight that night at the station. The real fight came two months later over the phone. It was a blood bath. We dredged up every hurt and disappointment we’d ever felt or inflicted on the other. We both said things that we could never take back because, ultimately, they were true. Once we opened that bag, the snakes got out.
I mentioned the puzzle.
“That’s what you care about?” she wailed at me. “That fucking puzzle piece?”
That past December, I had bought a puzzle and had been putting it together slowly over the holidays. It was a Victorian Christmas village scene with a horse drawn carriage, a skating pond and carollers. It was so quaint—so perfect. It was just the right size too: a thousand hand-crafted, precision cut pieces, constructed with premium material. Each piece clicked sweetly into place. It sat on a large cork board on my dining table. Every time someone popped over, they were immediately drawn to it. Hey, a puzzle! they’d say. It became this cool thing to watch come together…everyone helping. On Christmas day, we were determined to finish it after dinner. Once the dishes and food were cleared away, we returned the puzzle to the table and refilled the wine glasses. When the last piece was set in place, a cheer erupted. A real cheer! Then, someone noticed that there was still a piece missing. But there were no pieces left on the table. We searched all over the house for it, down on our hands and knees, peeking under all the chairs and tables, scouring every corner. It was pretty funny actually. I tried not to get too fussed about it. Wasn’t it inevitable that pieces would get lost under all those careless hands? And yet, something about that one missing piece didn’t sit well with me. Why only one piece? How was it that more pieces weren’t missing?
Then, I knew.
She’d taken it.
It was her.
So. Clever. Her.
“You have it, don’t you?” I said.
She looked shocked, offended…amused. She denied it of course.
“Why are you accusing me?” she said. “It could have been anyone.”
Well. Didn’t they all think that was just the most brilliant, funny little trick. The rest of the evening was spent playing a new party game called, Guess Who Stole the Puzzle Piece. I’d planned on us all playing Monopoly.
As I stared across at my sister from the opposite train platform that night, I tried to tell myself that I could still stop whatever this was from happening. The small weight of my doggy bag in my hand was a sloppy, cold reminder of the beginning of the evening when things were normal—our version of normal.
It wasn’t too late.
All you have to do is go back up the stairs and down to her platform.
Go…there is still time. You can fix this.
Then, I heard a train coming far off in the tunnel.
A small signal then is all you need. A wave…blow her a kiss…anything! You’re a funny duck…do something to make her laugh for god’s sake!
But I just stood there, praying.
Please, let it be her train.
I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her standing on that platform alone.
It was never just about the one missing puzzle piece. It was about all the other pieces—the ones that we’d worked so hard to fit together—all our lives—and that she had sabotaged in one thoughtless moment. It was about us.
My train arrived a few moments after she was gone. As it was pulling into the station, a couple stumbled down the stairs behind me, laughing in each other’s arms. It was the actors from the play: the young Indian girl and the old white guy. We got onto the same train car together. I sat a few seats away from them—polishing off the pizza in my doggy bag—as they talked and laughed and petted one another.