THIS TIME, I don’t remember how it started. We fight so often these days, over everything, anything really. An errant remark, a stray glance in the wrong direction, a hint of strange perfume on my shirtsleeve—any of these incendiaries, or any one of the array of others in the stockpile, might have triggered the explosion. Even though I should investigate, the thought of sifting through the wreckage, analyzing the damage, and trying to pinpoint the ignition source exhausts me. So I don’t. Everything went ka-BOOM. For now, knowing that much is enough. When the debris settles and the smoke abates, I slip on my wool coat and gloves, steal out of our cramped apartment, and venture into the crisp, clear evening. I breathe.
* * *
Fade in, to a quaint neighborhood coffeehouse, where I linger at one of the round tables by the wide storefront window, warm mug in hand, a makeshift ice rink, newly erected in the adjacent plaza, looming behind me through the dusty glass. I come here to unwind. Half a mile from the battlefront, I no longer hear the thunderous blasts, the frenzied screams, only the gentle burble of conversation, the faint clatter of dishes, and the occasional peals of a tiny brass bell mounted above the oaken doorway. After a beat or two, the chime rings again, cuing the entrance of an eerily beautiful wisp of a woman. She moves softly, like a wraith, floating across the parquet floor, past the conglomeration of tables and chairs, to the glossy blond wood counter beyond. My eyes can’t help but follow her, record her startling resemblance to X.
X, with her long, wavy hair, narrow brown eyes, and elfin features. X, with her sly, knowing smile, forever hinting at some wondrous, untold secret. X, who took extended drives along the river basin, Wayfarers on, top down, searching for the perfect sunset. X, who wrote poetry in her drafty attic apartment, often late into the cold, inky nights, antique lamp burning low, a pair of black cats curled by her slippered feet. X, who meandered though life, seldom choosing the straight path, yet winding up at the same destination as the rest of us, all the richer for the diversion. X, who stretched my awareness, made me consider the possibility of things like collective consciousness and paranormal phenomena, treat them as something more than a smug punch line. X, who vanished one spring day, without warning, like a dewdrop in the morning sun. X, who used to love me, said she did anyway. X, whose specter, even now, haunts me.
I take a sip of my coffee and pull the focus in tighter on the woman, X’s doppelganger, still tracking her as she totes a cup of steaming tea along the far wall, toward a canvas print of my favorite van Gogh painting (X’s too, a copy hung above her fireplace). When she hits her mark, appearing to stop casually to examine the piece—a brilliant nighttime rendering of a sidewalk café, its illuminated terrace and façade brushed in pale shades of yellow and green, crowned by a deep blue, star-studded sky—I find myself wishing I could freeze the frame, capture it somehow. But I can’t. She sets her mug on a nearby table and takes a seat, facing me in profile, and I watch, rapt, as she digs around in her red leather bag and unearths a thin paperback.
Curious, I zoom in closer on the book. When I recognize its monochrome, abstract-patterned cover, a shot of nostalgia rips through my chest, and my thoughts dissolve to a grainy flashback: a lazy, rainy afternoon, X and I lolling in her low platform bed, half-naked, her sleeping, me quietly perusing the artifacts on her rustic nightstand. There, between a crumpled pack of Marlboros and a half-empty vial of Adderall, I spot the familiar text—something, I believe, by Camus (X worshipped him, all the existentialists really)—atop a thick stack of unpaid bills and a peculiar brochure from some minuscule college in Wisconsin. Ignoring the rest, I pick up the novel, hesitating for only the briefest of moments before diving into its dog-eared pages, immersing myself in the story. And lying like this, under the hazy gray light from the dormer window, I’m content to let the simple sentences wash over me, not reading between the lines, oblivious to the dark subtext eddying beneath.
Feeling unsettled, I gulp down the last of my now-tepid drink and jump to the action outside. On the rink, under the harsh glare of floodlights, a mass of bodies revolves in a kaleidoscopic blur. A few speed by like comets, I see, but most struggle to find their groove on the slippery, unpredictable track beneath them. After a while, one of the skaters, a raven-haired girl decked out in a chic white coat and black leggings, suddenly breaks free from her orbit, veering off along an uncertain trajectory. The hurtling teenybopper, shrieking, desperate not to topple over, collides hard into another satellite—a ruddy-faced boy, slightly younger—launching him into a wall and sending her flailing to the ice. A pack of pubescent vixens scurries to tend the fallen starlet, and one of them shoots a nasty scowl at the boy, who slinks off the ice, limping, saying nothing.
I skip the dénouement of this stock melodrama and pan back to the woman, the dead ringer for X. I want to reach out to her, try to make a connection. Should I ask her to go skating, I wonder. Maybe she could help me chart a new course, cut a fresh line through the ice. Maybe we could help each other, I imagine, picturing the two of us linked arm in arm, pressing snugly against one another as we plot our way across the glistening surface. Even as I stand and put on my overcoat, I’m compelled to script this happy ending, this ever after, and an urge to play out the scene takes hold of me. Enjoying the book, I would ask. Oh, yes, I adore Camus, she would say, her lips curling up a bit. Then, her tone impish, won’t you join me?
I don’t, though. After a last wistful peek, my gaze cuts away from the woman who looks like X, to a close-up of the exit. Because she isn’t X, just an eidolon, the afterimage of an alluring, long-ago dream. And me, I’m too old, too tired to keep chasing ghosts. I’m going home, back to the gritty aftermath, back to the bombed-out remains, back to the raving madwoman barricaded in our bunker of a bedroom. Yes, I’m going home, this time.
J.D. Kotzman works in the health policy field and lives in the Washington, D.C., area with his girlfriend and two pugs, Grendel and Ginger. Previously, he has served as an editor and writer for several print and online news publications. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Inscape,Kentucky Review, Pidgeonholes, Slink Chunk Press, The Speculative Edge, Straylight, and the An Unlikely Companion collection (a project of Spark). Find more of his writing atamazon.com/author/jdkotzman.