I remember the first time you disappeared.
The sun crept through the blinds—you know, those blinds I said I’d replace for two years—and speckles of light beamed against the bed, across your back. I pulled up the sheets to get myself in a comfier position and wrapped my arms around you.
You let out a purr-like sigh. Whether or not you were awake, I didn’t know. As long as I had you in my grasp, that was all that mattered to me.
The fluff of the pillow against my ear. The blue light of the TV we forgot to turn off. The prickles of my legs against the back of your thigh. The yapping dog getting walked outside. Your heartbeat.
We got to sleep in, back then. No client jobs for you. No mason work for me. the two of us laying in bed at nine in the morning, sharing each other’s warmth. I held you with one hand resting over your breast, the other holding your belly.
You used to call me handsy when we first started going out. So touchy-feely and you loved every minute of it. It embarrassed me. I tried to hold back, to seem more suave and cool like butch girls are supposed to be. But by this point in our relationship, that was long gone. I just wanted to connect with you like honey on bread. To have that tactile essence of your amber skin rippling through my fingertips.
In your ear, a message: I want to stay like this with you forever, I whispered.
But then you disappeared. You fell out of my arms. Fell out of the bed. Fell out of my line of sight.
The bed lost half its weight, and I lost you.
The doctor had us sit down before he explained. The room was white. The lights were dim. My mouth was dry. He brought out charts and pictures and made firm eye contact, like he’d done this a thousand times before.
You gripped the sleeve of my t-shirt, holding on like it was your only tether to the world. I stared forward, determined not to let my eyes rest on you until I knew what was wrong.
The doctor explained in short. You had a disease. It was genetic, it was fatal. Fatal in a sense. That rare condition where a person begins to fade from reality.
It usually starts around adolescence. People pop out of existence, then a while later they appear again right where they left. At first it will be hours, then days, then weeks, until eventually they no longer come back. It varies from person to person, all except the end result.
Usually, they are gone before senior prom. But unlucky folk like you lived longer. Blissfully unaware of the fate that would soon fall over your shoulders and whisk you away to a different plane. Unlucky enough to have found a career, found a purpose, found me.
The disease runs in the family, he told us, and you have a family history. Your grandfather left during the war, your father when you were ten. The risk factors were high, but you were well-insured for precisely this event.
I broke my determination. I turned my head and looked into your frozen face. You hadn’t told me what happened to your father. You hadn’t mentioned it even once.
And yet when the doctor said how we should enjoy our time together and make plans for the worst, all those feelings disappeared from me. I didn’t care about spilled secrets. I cared about how much I loved you.
Your mother mistook me for a man.
It wasn’t until I spoke and greeted her with my voice that the gears turned and her mind registered her daughter’s girlfriend. A gulp and a gasp later, and her face turned cherry red.
You hadn’t told her about me.
She adjusted her glasses and straightened her posture and introduced herself as politely as she could. It was clear she wanted me to like her, to feel like she was more accepting than her initial remarks.
You looked so embarrassed. I can’t believe you, Mom, you told her. I tell you about her all the time, you said.
Whether or not that was the truth or a crafty bit of gaslighting, I didn’t know. But what mattered was that she was here, and we could sort out the issue of your disease.
You had disappeared twice already. The second time the day before when you were finishing up an illustration. We didn’t tell your mother about that one just yet. Instead, we went to a checkerboard-floor diner and had a family meal together. For old times’ sake, even if we’d just now met.
The live studio audience laughed and the late night host gave a goofy smile.
We watched this man a lot when we couldn’t get to sleep on time, but I never remembered which one he was. Jimmy Fallon? Jimmy Kimmel? Jimmy Corden? They were all the same to me, just white boys with grins and jokes.
That wasn’t the point of why we watched him. We watched him to have noise in the background while we joined together. That way, we wouldn’t have that silence that would leave us with our thoughts.
We sat on the couch together, and I held you close so I could rest my head on your shoulder. I sifted my hand through your frizzy hair and let it explore your being wherever it might lead.
There’s no part of you that really ends, I said. Your beauty stretches on beyond infinity.
You told me you had no idea what the hell that was supposed to mean. I assured you it didn’t mean you were putting on weight. That only made you more suspicious.
We laughed. Laughed a lot harder than the audience on the talk show.
Four days this time.
Three nights with dinner by myself. Four mornings where my first sight was anything but your pretty face.
The guys at work had started to tease me. I worked longer hours and went out for drinks more often. Must have finally been married, they joked. I laughed along as best I could. But back at home it was only me and the quiet hum of the A/C.
Sometimes I would just stare at the wall, just look at the pattern of the paint and try to make out pictures and faces. I tried to find you.
Eventually, you returned through the doorway, sporting a loose-fitting jacket and eyes brighter than I’d ever seen from you. You went on and on about the places you’d been, the sights you’d seen. I heard tales of the place you went when you disappeared this time, this new world with colors and sounds so vivid they were impossible to describe. There were people there, but they didn’t communicate with words or sounds. It was more like with abstractions. Where philosophies lived and breathed, whatever that meant.
It’s like telling a blind person about a Jackson Pollock, you said to me when I didn’t understand. Different dimensions. Reality is simply not enough.
But it’s not changed for the better, you added. You jumped into my arms and let the tears flow out of you. I love you so much, you said. I love you and I’ll never leave you.
I don’t know why you said that when we both knew how untrue it would turn out to be. But for the moment it won me over anyway.
I missed you.
I ran my fingers through your hair and lathered the shampoo, but even in that moment I missed you.
There were no church bells ringing, no sound of sobs from family and friends, no garters floating through the air as they followed a certain destiny.
Just scribbling a signature on some papers and a nod of confirmation from a clerk across the desk.
We were wife and wife. Married after five and a half years living together.
It wasn’t a marriage of love. Not that there wasn’t love, and not that we hadn’t talked about it before. But this was not a choice we made. It was a necessity we had to take.
You needed to give me inheritance rights.
Somehow, I couldn’t find the energy to smile, even when I looked upon your beaming face.
We made love a lot more in these days. You would be gone for weeks, cast out into a new realm I could barely comprehend. Then you arrived back here in our world and nearly assaulted me with kisses every time.
I loved it.
I loved swooping you into my arms and rushing upstairs. I loved knocking over the small trash can by the bedside and throwing you down on the sheets. I loved looking on your body, fully open, just before we met and merged our skins, ebony and mahogany.
It was a long time ago that we first met. We worked at the same shop. You went to university for schooling, I went to the sea for fishing. We barely talked at first. But somehow, something happened, and we ended up in bed together. I can hardly remember what led to it except that you took the lead and I accepted with open arms.
The morning after we went to the riverside and drank beer together. We watched the sunrise and talked about our favorite brands of soap, the movies we hated the most. The conversations we had back then could last for hours, all about some of the most mundane topics. My version of a perfect relationship.
With that memory in mind, I ravished you.
I had tea with your mother.
This time you were gone for a month, and I had finally got around to attending that yoga class we always talked about. The guys at work had no end to the jokes about my wife whipping me into shape. They didn’t know about your disease, so I just laughed along.
Little did I know, though, but your mother went to that very same class. After she moved into town to be closer to you, she took an active life in the neighborhood. She volunteered at the food bank, hosted movie nights with the local moms, and had been trying to set up a mahjong tournament at the community center. I had no idea a Black woman would be so into a game like that, but her passion knew no bounds.
Everything about your mother impressed me. She reminded me of the way you were, your outgoing nature and the hobbies you always took up. Being around her was almost like being around you. So we became friends. And that was how I learned to enjoy tea.
She loved you, you know, your mother told me, head over heels for you. Never told me that you were a woman, she added, but I think she was better off with one anyway—men aren’t the brightest creatures on the planet. She gave a hearty laugh, but stopped when I failed to smile.
What’s the problem, honey, she asked me. And I wanted to tell her that she was referring to you with the past tense. She was talking about you as if you were already gone, and I was furious that she was somehow accepting that her own daughter would disappear into another realm and leave us both behind for good.
But I didn’t say that. I faked a happy face and we went on with our afternoon. It was fun.
You told me all about your latest trip, as you decided to start calling it. You learned the way of communication there and began to travel its rainbow-like expanse. You met other people like yourself who had been stricken with the same disease—others who had disappeared from our world. You finally reunited with your father.
For hours you went on in as much detail as could fill a novel about this place and your adventures that you couldn’t even fully describe with words. When I stammered, trying to explain how I didn’t understand, it was like you were upset with me. You had advanced to some new level and I was still a lowly being stuck in three dimensions.
That was alright. We still had some time together. You wanted to make it count for what it was worth. We were wife and wife, after all.
I tried to ignore it. I really did. But my mouth opened and said, why haven’t you asked me about my life? Am I that unimportant now?
We fought and you stormed out of the house and all of that dramatic nonsense that drained away a few hours later. All I can remember is that gulp, that realization that you genuinely had forgotten that I had an existence apart from being your spouse.
I wanted to tell you about my months without you. The blue marlin I caught a few weekends back. The new skyscraper we were building uptown. The mahjong tournament I placed fifth in. But you didn’t ask, because it wasn’t really important anymore.
And… I understood.
Will you really be okay without me? I asked you in the bath one night.
No, you answered immediately. Without you, I’m nothing. That’s why I’m such a jerk, you said, because I don’t want to see you moving on without me.
I’m not moving on, I said. I explained that all these hobbies I’ve taken up, all these friends I’ve made, it’s all been a diversion to keep from breaking down at the thought of never seeing you again. I explained that there was no one in this world I could love enough to replace you.
You said, I only told you those stories about my trips because I wanted you to feel like I wasn’t spending all my time just crying and sulking. But then you explained that it was all a sham. You learned to communicate with the people in that world, and you learned to navigate its planes, but most of your time was spent, well, crying and sulking. You wished you could be as strong as me. You wished that people could stop mourning you and just let you exist as a human being. It was breaking your heart every time you met a friend, every time you called your mother, and everyone treated it like a damn funeral.
Please, you begged me, don’t give up on me. Just love me.
And so that’s what I did. I just loved you.
It’s been three years since the last time I saw your face. Three years since you disappeared. My head was on your lap, and we were watching one of the Jimmies on TV.
Three years. Long after the point where the doctor told me you wouldn’t come back.
And, as far as I’m aware, you haven’t.
But… I don’t know.
I don’t think it’s that important. Loving you doesn’t mean denying that you’re gone. Loving you just means keeping your smile and your skin close to my heart.
Sometimes, when I’m lying awake in bed at night, I think I see your face peering out through the window, watching me like a guardian angel. And maybe you are. I know you would be the type to do something like that, and it makes me chuckle a little bit.
Wherever you are, I just hope you’re happy. Because as long as you’re living a happy life, I’ll have the strength to do the same.