By Katie Nickas
Can someone be with you in your dreams? That's what I’ve wondered since Steve died. It isn’t hard to imagine the possibility, what with his record collection and the autumn that sets in after he’s gone that makes me think I could exist as a ghost, fading in and out of dimensions and entering other portals. After work, I step out onto the street, where the damp fog wraps me in its cloak-like embrace and I feel at home, a strange sense of comfort and belonging. The fading summer molders in a box of chiaroscuro clouds. I wait for the dampness to touch my face, leaving tender imprints on my lips.
In the months that follow his death, I seek out both solitude and companionship. His sister Robin visits twice, first to help clean out his apartment and then to move his records, guitars and games out of storage. She has the same eyes as Steve, and looking at her is like peering at him. She mentions the same coping mechanisms as my therapist.
“Life is for the living,” she says as we are sifting through the items in his apartment. I nod soberly, studying the titles and tracks on the records that are stacked in his closet.
Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure.
Dark Horse by George Harrison.
The Beatles’ White Album.
The world feels obliterated.
Still, I can’t get the idea out of my head that he and I were once time-travelers in love. His presence is palpable, heard in the rhythms of songs that we listened to and glimpsed in the shadows cast on the wall of my bedroom by the light of the table lamp.
Lying under the covers on my left side, I watch the silhouettes flex against the gray pebbled texture, the noumena somehow present and apart. Since I began noticing these images, I've spotted a whole mix of people in them. There are old friends and long-lost loves, co-workers who wander the office hallways flirting and thinking that no one notices and grown-ups dining and clinking wine glasses and talking about art. Strangers mill through museums and bourses and random city locales, all in the space of my efficiency. I wonder if this is really a picture of heaven, my mind’s eye sharpened by the cut of death, giving me the clarity to glimpse the spirits of people who have made the journey through the holding pattern to the afterlife. It’s comforting to think of heaven as a sublime reflection or parallel of the earthly realm.
Though the figures are oblivious to my stare, I swear I’ve seen some of them break the fourth wall and beckon toward me. Reaching forward, my hands brush the accretion of plaster, trying to touch them, though I can’t.
“Monsters,” I whisper like a child.
I feel J.’s arms wrap around me from behind. J.’s been my companion since Steve died. Already, we’ve run the gamut from strangers to lovers, lovers to friends and back to strangers. We once achieved a 3-week stint without sex, though we didn’t talk the whole time, me a gray rock to his gaslighting. It took me a while to realize that I desired the ambiguity of the relationship because it neutralized the threat of commitment. Because my relationship with Steve ended so heartbreakingly, I can’t accept being in a meaningful relationship again.
J. sits up and starts to pull his pants and top back onto his naked body. My paramour is perfect—a leader—convinced that this planet is an archetype for any other. Running my hand across his back, I imagine I have long, painted fingernails like other women. He’d like that, I think. But he doesn’t like it when I talk about the shadows.
“Do you want to go to Velvet Taco?” I ask.
“I have to get my groceries. Velvet Taco’s too far out of the way.”
“It’s on the way back to your apartment.”
“I’m in a hurry, babe.”
Echoes of Steve fill the room, vibrating off its hard surfaces. I anticipate the sweet and melancholy syncopation, like the silken haptic of my phone when it rings on its charging port. J. and I are like social media users, ready to leave the platform or unfollow each other at any minute, but always opting to stay.
The afternoon light is muted so it’s cool in my apartment, but not damp. It’s damp outside.
After he leaves, I wander the neighborhood, strolling the courtyard plaza surrounding the church. I wish to hide my body, to take it places where it can slip between the interstices of reality, to become invisible. I walk up and down streets enjoying the crisp, dry air and crunch of leaves, but I can’t disappear like him. I’m addled with grief, and walking makes me more aware of the weight I bear. The city’s towering billboards measure time in years, a byzantine march into the future governed by a mosaic of ads: McRib season is back. Americana: We love to sell guns.
Robin calls on Friday to tell me that she’s picking out his grave on Saturday. She found a spot in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, next to where John Dillinger, the gangster and bank robber, is buried. There’d be a graveside ceremony on May 5 to stick him in the ground. It would be spring, so nicer weather. A party was planned for this weekend in his memory, hosted by the staff of the newspaper where he worked as the sports and music editor.
“I don’t know why they couldn’t just come to his celebration of life,” she balks. “Do you want to go?”
I say I would, but that I thought the visitation was the best way to pay tribute to him. It’s how I want to remember him. She asks how I’m doing. Ok, I say, given the circumstances. Only in passing do I mention the shadows, eliciting a heavy pause on her end.
“It’s good to grieve and reflect,” she finally responds.
An hour later, J. comes over and works his sleight of hand, the magician intimating the space that my body occupies between the bedspread and comforter, as if playing with the universe’s light and darkness, defying gravity.
He levels me with one of his seductive lines, revealing the sensuous personality that smolders beneath the brusque demeanor.
“Can I put it inside you, babe?”
He nuzzles my neck while the umbra wavers on my periphery. All the regulars are there. I spot my two naughty co-workers, the male telling the female the requisitions are in arrears, when she hears get your booty over here. Tonight, the shadows are throwing a party, their outlines morphing and dancing to oldies like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and some hazy cosmic jazz.
It’s a soothing interlude, like the thick fog. But it’s also difficult to concentrate on monogamy when all the folks I’ve known are throwing shade in my bedroom, their interplay reminiscent of how much I miss my erstwhile love.
Nonetheless, I climax, transforming from human to polychron and unfolding my wings to gallop across the universe. J. slides up behind me, and I turn my head to bury my nose in the spot where his neck meets his hairline, which always smells like fresh rain. I want to stay like this, immersing myself in his laundry detergent scent and not dwelling on anything deeper. Other than the handful of family and acquaintances who have contacted me in the last few weeks, there hasn’t been much of an outpouring of support for Steve. From an outside perspective, it makes sense. Life is a zoetrope, pulling its subjects through endless animation.
“It’s been a while since he died,” my mom rationalizes when I ask her about it. “People can’t always make it to funerals and viewings. They’ve got too many responsibilities.” It occurs to me that the earth, despite its bursting population, is still home to a finite number of people. I think of all of them roaming around, running errands, visiting family, making babies and scoping out great ambitions, though they’re bound to the same terrene from birth to death. That all of this continues while Steve is gone, that he will be gone forever and it doesn’t seem fair. How could people not have time to pay a visit to someone they’ll never talk to again?
My gut wrenches, telling me this is also part of grief.
On Saturday, J. brings a new saddle bag for my bike. He takes too long attaching it, and when it’s done, the fit is too precise, like I’m equipped for a century ride rather than my usual tool down to the corner store to buy condoms and M&Ms. My cargo looks like trafficking in broad daylight. Black licorice voodoo spell. I think of an instance a decade ago where I offered to give Steve a ride to his car in the rain, and how he was hesitant, unsure of why I was being so solicitous.
J. gives me the old up-and-down.
“Your ass looks pretty cute in those jeans,” he says. “It would look even cuter if you took them off.”
I watch his callipygian legs flex as he stands there, waiting for me to do something, to undress. I think of him walking around on those legs, and how he travels the earth even when he’s out of sight.
So much of my relationship with Steve was built on hopes of things unseen. It was like gazing constantly at a beacon on the horizon, anticipating the pending beam of light. That was our dimension.
In contrast, my relationship with J. is physical, defined by sharp lines and
angles. He notices me staring at the wall again.
“Will you cut that out, already? It’s morbid.”
As he admonishes me, I notice that something’s different about the panoply of figures spanning the plaster. Between the lively puppet shapes of roosters and rabbits thrown by a group of carefree children, I see Steve emerge, his arched profile crouched in his chair, quietly typing on the computer, while the other souls mingle and overlap around him. The next moment, his hands are clasped pensively between his knees, his head bowed in concentration, as he raises and lowers his hand to his mouth to draw on a cigarette.
Yes, I do think it’s morbid. But mordant thoughts allow one to come to terms with heartrending loss. When others can’t cope with someone coping with that grief, they blame the griever. What’s more, everyone had given me different advice on the best ways to cope. How was I to know which was right?
J. continues as if in lockstep.
“You don’t have to put yourself through the ringer. You spend too much time in this dingy apartment, dwelling on the past and the things that you can’t change. Steve’s gone. There’s no way to bring him back. You need to go out and enjoy the sunshine and be with people.”
I give him my half-attention, transfixed, meanwhile, on the new persona. I wonder if Steve has been there all along, and I didn’t notice. His arrival has made the boundary between the room’s dimensions and the flatland of the wall feels like an illusion—a barrier that, if I concentrated hard enough, could be swung around to the present, giving my anamnesis actual form.
I become convinced that I could bring Steve back, or that he could draw me into the place inhabited by the people on the wall, to join them in their camaraderie, even if it’s an illusion and they belong to some disparate universe where shapes intermingle with each other, but never connect. Even if the dream of uniting with them in heaven is false, and the visions are a side effect of my loneliness.
J. lowers his head gander-like. I hold onto him, enrapt in his warmth, appreciating the velvet skin of his hands as he massages my lower back, fingers slipping between the waistband of my jeans and underwear, his voice calling out the lyrics to his serenade, which sounds like a lost song:
Can I, babe?
When he leans me over my bike to make love, my brain conjures innocent snapshots of birds and bunnies, home movies of my mom mowing the lawn and cooking spaghetti while dad films her smiling for the camera, the wind buffeting the microphone, mom walking up to the lens as he tells her she’s too close.
I fall asleep to hypnotic blues, a pounding rhythm backed by chords that seem to want to serve as overtures to the next chapter of my life.
It’s rainy on Monday when Robin calls to tell me about the party, the humidity feeding a critical fog. It was weird as hell, she says. Only a couple of staff members were present, one of whom was pulling a side hustle to score free copy. The news business isn’t like the old days, we agree.
“I still can’t believe Steve’s gone,” I tell her. “It feels like he’s still around.” She offers me solace. More grief counseling.
“No one ever really goes away, you know.”
After we hang up, I sink into the settee, waiting for night to fall, waiting for the shadows.
About the Author
Katie Nickas writes literary fiction with atypical and futuristic themes. Her work has or will appear in magazines including Asymmetry, formercactus, Reflex Fiction, Sidereal Magazine, Ghost Parachute, and STORGY. Follow her on social media at the links below: