Photo Credit: Peter Szto, PhD
Special thanks to Molly Booth for generously helping another Mount Holyoke alum in need
Absence is the companion piece to another piece of short fiction I have been working on called Leaving that was posted on November 26th. These pieces offer parallel perspectives on the unraveling of the same relationship. This is told from Jake’s perspective.
This story includes a recommended soundtrack at the bottom of this page
The fact that she had moved out while he was out of town was painful enough.
What had stunned him was how thoroughly she had moved out. She had not only removed all traces that they had lived together for three years, she had erased almost all evidence that she had ever been in his life at all.
He had come home to an echoingly quiet house. The engagement ring he had given her, with his great grandmother’s diamond, was sitting neatly on a crisp white envelope in front of the framed picture of the two of them that she had given him as a present their first Christmas together. Her friend Vivian had taken it. It was a beautiful shot, black and white, un-posed, capturing a private moment between the two of them. Her head was tossed back in laughter and he was looking at her as if she was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He had always loved that photo, the contrast between his light hair blowing in the wind and her dark close cropped hair. That photo perfectly capturing how he had been feeling that day, how he still felt about her.
The note in the envelope had been carefully handwritten. Usually she did all of her writing on the computer and either emailed or printed her letters– her handwriting was so bad that she sometimes could not even read it herself. Once he actually thought she had wanted a goat from the supermarket, puzzling as she was a long-time vegetarian. They had laughed about it, never able to successfully decipher the word, assuming that whatever it was that she had wanted, they had clearly lived without it.
She had written him letters before. Passionate love letters when he was on the road, repentant apology letters when they had quarreled, painful disclosure letters when they first become involved where she articulated hard truths about herself that would die in her throat when she tried to say them out loud to him. Her letters were long stream-of-consciousness affairs that would wrap him in the spell of her language. These letters had left him completely unprepared for terseness of her goodbye note.
It is killing me to watch you– to watch us– self-destruct. I am tired of trying to fight this battle by myself. I can’t help you make peace with your demons if you don’t want me or my support. I’ve gone home.
I love you. I’m sorry.
Home, of course, meant America. 3,500 miles away. He was gobsmacked. Three years of their life dismissed in 49 efficient words.
He walked through his house, their house, with the note in his hand looking for evidence that her words had been a joke, a mistake even, that she was really up in their bed asleep with Graham, their gray and white cat, curled up against her. Instead he found almost every trace of her existence gone. Her clothes no longer hung on the right hand side of the wardrobe. Her underwear, irreverent cotton panties covered in Peanut characters, Star Wars logos and the Grinch, along with her bras, socks and vests, were gone from their dresser. He had always loved her underwear and socks. He had bought quite a few pairs for her himself when he had come across something that reminded him of her.
She had told him once that her quirky underwear and socks had been her rebellion against adulthood. He remembered how self-conscious she had been the first time they made love that she had been wearing a pair of Minion underwear from Target. His previous girlfriend had had an astounding collection of lacy, silky expensive lingerie that he was expected to treat with a reverence he usually reserved only for vintage guitars and his lover’s body. He actually found Rae’s unpretentious undergarments quite delightful, full of geeky charm. He liked that she didn’t mind them being thrown across the room and she had actually laughed that one time her panties had ended up hanging from the ceiling fan in a moment of overzealous enthusiasm on his part. They had left them up there for a few days until they could not put off laundry any longer.
Graham blinked sleepily at him from the center of the bed, where he had been peacefully napping alone, while Jake mechanically opened and shut each drawer, hoping that something, anything really, had been left behind.
The trainers, flip flops and clogs that she would thoughtlessly leave lying along the bedroom wall instead of inside the closet were gone. Her uni jumpers, her yoga pants, jeans, her ridiculously oversized sweaters, all gone. The nightstand next to her side of the bed had been stripped bare of the towering pile of books she planned to read, of her iPad, of the notebook and pen she kept there in case inspiration struck. Not even a tin of her favorite lip balm, which she usually bought in bulk when they visited the States, remained.
He went next into their bathroom. Her toothbrush was gone along with her shampoo, conditioner, the Doc Bonner’s soap she favored, her comb. There wasn’t even a single item of dirty clothes in the hamper. He found his clean clothes neatly folded in a basket on top of the dryer with the sheets they had been using. She hadn’t even left him an unwashed pillowcase that he could hold to his face for a breath of her scent. The sheets left behind smelled brightly of lemon scented laundry detergent, not Rae.
Her studio/office was simply bleak. All that remained was her empty desk, the desk chair, the armless chair she sat in when she played guitar and the oversized chair in the corner for visitors. He had sat in that chair many times, talking with her, listening to her play. She had never played any of her her original songs for him, she was always too self-conscious, but she would play other artist’s songs that she liked. He was allowed to read her other writing, but not in front of her. She couldn’t bear to be in the room to witness it. This had always puzzled him—he loved her writing, loved her voice as writer, would have enjoyed it even if he hadn’t been in love with her, even if he didn’t know the contexts, the inspirations, the back stories. He thought the room looked unbearably empty without her enormous gray cardigan on the back of her desk chair, without those silly furry bear claw slippers peeking out from underneath the desk.
He continued to walk around the house, room by room, to find the lonely, empty spaces where her things used to live. He could have marked the edges of the silhouettes of her missing items with the type of body tape used in crime dramas. He could picture the outlines of these missing objects as he roamed from room to room.
She had even cleaned the kitchen before she left. Clean dish towels hung in front of the sink. Every trace of her “rabbit food” was gone. He had teased her frequently about her diet. Now the nutritional yeast, the almond milk, the Earth Balance, the tofu, even the kale was gone from the icebox. The spices that she had bought that he had not cared for were gone. He couldn’t decide if she had been trying to be thoughtful or deliberately cruel.
The house suddenly felt to him like a house in Whoville after the Grinch had stolen their Christmas— it was barren and empty and sad. He hadn’t actually realized until this moment how much she had filled it up, brought color and energy to it. He eventually found himself sitting forlornly on the sofa, gutted, staring at the only photo of them that remained. This was when he finally admitted to himself, “Bloody hell, she’s really left me” and started to cry.