|Jan/Feb 2002 fiction|
The night before my wife disappeared, she turned to me at twilight and said, "I have unruly thoughts." I hoped she was referring to me, and the fact that our three-year old daughter was sound asleep at an unusually early hour after a long afternoon garden party celebrating my parents' fiftieth anniversary. I moved toward my wife, Charlotte, and ran my hands down the back of her red party dress. I remember that she did not shiver and withdraw from my touch that night the way she had begun to do so often that summer.
But that last night in our home in Montreal in late August was different. Charlotte came to me willingly, right there on our patio, lifting her dress and climbing up on my lap. I don't remember that she smiled during any of this, but a man starved for affection could easily overlook that fact. She looked as beautiful to me as she did the night that I had first met her in Paris ten years earlier, even though for quite some time she had taken to changing her look every few months without explanation. She straddled me and kissed me with her full red lips, the one part of her body she had not yet tried to alter. She wore the same lipstick every single day, even when she was in her eating-nachos-for-breakfast phase. There were often lipstick tubes of the shade called Burnished Rose to be found in bathrooms and cars, and somehow this stability reassured me. She didn't say anything to me that last night as we made love--not a word, not the murmur of my name, Michael, not even a small sigh--but I looked in her eyes and she was right there for me.
No matter what everyone else says now, almost two years after her disappearance, no matter how often it is suggested to me that if my wife isn't dead she has to be crazy and it's not my fault, I believe that none of these things can possibly be true.
I make a living as a futurist, studying the past and predicting trends, but as often as I studied my own wife day by day, there was not a single moment when I could have imagined what was to come in my own life. Granted, she did call herself "Zelda" occasionally, but only in sandwich-shops and other places that ask for your first name so that they can call it out when your order is ready. "My name is Zelda," she would say in her deep, soft voice, without laughing, as though it were true. I would stand by her side and feel, not crazy, but younger, stronger, more capable in my own life because I was married to a woman with such spark and imagination. I never acted like a normal husband and asked her why she did this--perhaps it would have been a good idea to have done so.
Today there is a woman on Saint Catherine Street who looks nothing like Charlotte but yet could be. I have to check. It has become my favorite pastime, overtaking my previous passion for collecting antique maps. I consider what to say if I see my wife somewhere in my travels, contemplating trick questions in case she looks completely different and denies her identity. I couldn't explain this to the private detective I hired back in the beginning, but I can almost imagine what Charlotte is capable of if she doesn't want to be found. You need to use more imagination, Michael, she would say to me so often. The future has to have crystal trains and emerald rains and things that may never come true.
I think I would still know her words anywhere, but how can I identify someone who I could barely describe month to month even when I was living with her? She came into my life with long dark hair and a trim body. At one time or another she went through many colors: she became a redhead, a blond, then back to black and now who knows what; she went through body types: a buff athlete, a matronly looking woman carrying an extra twenty pounds, a skinny raver with a pierced navel. She was getting thinner and thinner when she disappeared. I think she was working toward some waif ideal. I never said much, because it was mildly entertaining, in an offbeat, unpredictable way.
I let the detective go after while, and then the police lost interest in the case. There are dozens of spouses who voluntarily vanish every day, they told me, and it's not illegal to leave your mate. Let us know if anything turns up. There will be nothing to let them know, of this I am sure. But I am also sure from my studies that there are patterns in people that do not change. If I can remember the things that were true about Charlotte, I can identify where she is going and when she will arrive.
The woman on Saint Catherine Street is about five foot seven, which is the right height, and her lips are painted a deep red. She is on rollerblades, wearing black shorts and a black sports bra, with her dark blond hair clipped short. I do not ask every woman with red lips if she is my wife, only certain ones, and I think it is a kind of energy, a magnetic life force, that compels me to check certain women. Up close, I can see that this woman is probably not more than twenty-five, but she does have a string of yellow dandelions woven through a single braid on the side of her face. I am not kind. I say the name of Charlotte's long-dead father, a name she never willingly used. I watch the eyes for a flicker of recognition or shock.
"Excuse me, miss? Did you ever know a dead soldier named Edward Granville?"
No shock, no interest beyond looking me up and down quickly to see if I might be anyone who matters. "Never heard of him," she says with a French accent, "sorry." Then she pauses and smiles at me, the way women smile at me now, because I am obviously a sad and confused man. I could keep talking to her, I could tell her my story and maybe she'd come home with me and keep me warm, but there are too many ways to be lonely with a complete stranger in your bed.
She tells me she's an instructor at McGill University, I tell her my name--nice to meet you Michael Augustine--I buy her a coffee, but I do not yet tell her anything interesting. She thinks predicting the future is fascinating, so I ask her my standard question of people I meet: "When you close your eyes and see the coming century, what one thing do you imagine will be new and different?" It's cheap research but good conversation. Very few people have the vision to consider the reality of a hundred-year span, but Charlotte always did. She knew history, she knew literature, she understood. She could make up something new and interesting every single day. There will be no marriage, she'd say. It's outdated. Only ten-year renewable contracts, but with lifetime commitments to children. She would tell me her strange dreams and then suggest that dreams were the future. There will be festivals that last an entire year, in which people dance and dream themselves into future rituals for their society. Do you know, Michael, that there is an Australian aboriginal tribe that does this? The Kunapipi festival goes on for thirty years, an entire generation. They perform a part of it each year and at the end they have determined their future lives for the next sixty years.
"I know who you are, Professor Augustine," the dandelion girl says after a long pause. "You're the professor whose wife disappeared into thin air. Everybody knows your story. I'm sorry."
Of course. Everybody feels sorry for me, everybody knows, hardly anyone ever mentions it anymore. I am fully aware that I am the pity-fuck of three cities where I work, here and abroad. My parents won't even speak Charlotte's name. As far as they're concerned, their granddaughter has no mother, and they tend to treat me like I'm not in the best of health.
This woman is definitely not Charlotte, but she is very alive. "I think," she says, smiling at the rise of her own imagination, smiling at me in that flirting way that so many women do, a smile that suggests that maybe she's the woman who can save me, "that in the future women will be in charge of the world. Men will have to wait for women to call them for dates, and maybe even dress in high heels for work."
I let her take me home after all. She is young, she is energetic and her flat is filled with flowers. She humors me by applying the fresh lipstick I request, and with her deep red lips she leaves her mark on my body as she tries so very hard to make me a happy man.
Charlotte holds a Master's degree in literature; she could recite long segments of Molly Bloom's sexual soliloquy by heart and often did late at night when I asked her to--yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes--she wrote travel articles for a living; she was kind; she catered to my every sexual whim for a very long time. She was surprised to become pregnant, surprised to be a mother, but she took to it after while. I could be practical, that's easy to come by. Charlotte could get right down on the floor and make up stories and imaginary games just like kids do. She could build with blocks and play with dolls for hours and actually enjoy it. But for a month after the birth she wouldn't name the baby, just like some native tribes do, she told me, they let the child grow into their own name.
Then one morning she said at breakfast, "I had a dream. We have to name her Layla. I met Eric Clapton once when I was a teenager and he kissed me." It wasn't quite like picking an old family name, but it was a nice name and I was relieved to have any name for our child. Layla Granville Augustine would have a bright future.
There were days when I would walk quietly out of my study, stand in the doorway of the bathroom and watch Charlotte and Layla cavort together in their bubble bath surrounded by plastic bath toys. Two beautiful nude female forms, one so tiny and one barely grown-up, playing together. I occasionally thought I should hire an artist to come draw a portrait of them exactly that way, and now I wish I had. Charlotte was a good mother, no matter what anyone else says, and in some ways she still is.
There are fifty-nine framed maps in my house, all of them valuable. It's possible that this is why Charlotte ever agreed to marry me. In my work, I teach, speak, consult and write about past and future trends for the public and for private companies. In order to be a successful futurist, I have to be an optimist--nobody wants to hear that the future is bleak. And in order to be an optimist and still live in this world, I have to focus on beauty and memory and a certain kind of history. The maps on my walls create a vision for anyone who enters my home, an illusion of security and the meaning of time and space, not unlike entering a church. The first time Charlotte entered the great room when I brought her back from Paris, she stopped and sat down cross-legged on the black carpet. She looked around at the room that contains nothing but a circular couch and walls lined with individually lit medieval maps, nodded in approval at me and whispered, "So many people lack their own brand of joy."
She didn't take a dime from our joint accounts when she left, so I let the police assume foul play and work on hunting her down. I tried to imagine both the best and the worst, but when a woman crawls into bed with you at eleven p.m. and is not there when you wake up in the morning, it's hard to imagine much foul play. I assumed she was hiding somewhere, and I didn't even report her missing for almost two days. She often got up at two a.m. to dye or cut her hair, or to clean out her wardrobe, sometimes muttering to herself--is it beautiful? is it moral? is it true?--and then would come back to bed a different person. She didn't take a suitcase when she left and I can't tell if she took any of her clothes. I still haven't moved anything out of the closets. Layla often plays beneath her mother's clothes, sitting in the middle of the shoes. I only know that my wife went to bed next to me completely naked that night and in the morning there was nothing but space where she had been.
Charlotte often traveled, so it wasn't unusual for her to be gone. I didn't start making up stories for Layla for a couple of days. We had a good nanny and housekeeper, so having Charlotte gone was not that difficult in a practical way, only in spirit. "Layla," I told her on day three when there were no goodnight phone calls to her and she began to wonder, "Mama's had to go on a trip. She's in..." I paused, walking toward the four maps on Layla's bedroom wall and pointing at a region colored bright red, ready to make up anything. "She's in..." Layla was three years old and knew her maps by heart. "Wonderland!" she said in that precious little voice. I had pointed to the map of fictional lands on her wall and located her mother not too far from Alice and the White Rabbit.
We changed her location often--Charlotte got to travel to Narnia, to the Lion City of Africa and spent at least a month in Never Never Land. While she was there she did fantastic things, often saving people from misery and bringing grand presents for children. I was required to dig for imagination I didn't know I had every time I went to kiss my daughter goodnight.
We had Charlotte pinpointed as arriving in the Land of Fabled Flowers on the bedroom map the night that Layla showed me the first note. She pulled a postcard out from under her pillow and told me that she and the nanny had retrieved it from the mailbox that day. It was a photograph of a bright red hummingbird, flying across a body of water labeled as the Gulf of Mexico. It had a stamp, but no postmark, almost as though someone had walked by the house and dropped it off. Layla's name and our address was carefully printed on the back, and the message half of the postcard only had the word "HOPE" in bold print, circled by calligraphy that filled up all the rest of the white space.
It could have come from anyone.
Memory haunts me. I am in Paris. I am thirty-three, Charlotte is twenty-three and does not yet know that I exist. She stands chatting and laughing with her best friend, Marissa, in the gallery directly in front of the map I want to see. She wears a white sundress, her long black hair flowing to the middle of her back. I am tall, with my longish brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a tweed sportscoat. I like to think I am sophisticated and worldly, but I know in my heart that even with contact lenses women still think I'm a guy who reads too much, a man old before his time who wanders museums and art galleries because he has no other life. Charlotte Granville looks smart, she looks sexy, she looks available, and she becomes a part of my erotic vision of ancient Mesopotamia that looms behind her on the map. I am alone in Paris and unruly thoughts are not uncommon to me in my lonely nights.
I summon up all the charm I've ever imagined, introduce myself, and attempt to impress the girls with my knowledge of the map. We drink a lot of champagne. She comes back to my flat with her friend. They watch me light the candles, and as I start to pour some wine Charlotte says, "I came home with you because you look like a picture I have of my father from 1966." I turn to offer her a drink while I consider what to say, and she is standing up and slipping the white strap of her dress off of her shoulder. "You look like my father," she repeats, dropping the dress down to her ankles and stepping out of it, standing before me completely nude, offering herself as a gift.
There may be a proper etiquette for what to do when a woman you've known for three hours drops her dress on your floor while her girlfriend looks on, but I don't know what that might be. I laugh nervously. Marissa lounges back on my couch looking slightly bored and not at all amused. Marissa is tall with short black hair and not unattractive, but she does not hold my interest tonight.
"Your father?" I repeat, and Charlotte shrugs those small white shoulders and smiles innocently at me. I take her hand. There is nothing else to do. I lead her to my bed that is at least behind a screen, and I lay her down and begin to hear the poetry of my youth... somewhere I have never traveled, gladly beyond any experience.
At some point during the night I hear Marissa snoring on my couch; at some point during the night Charlotte reaches for me and calls me 'Daddy;' at that point I transform beyond my own recognition and I am inspired to perform in ways that I never thought possible.
A trend identified years later: in the morning, Charlotte is rational, charming and bright, and it is almost as though I was with a different woman last night. The chaperone on the couch is gone--"Don't worry about her," Charlotte says.
"I am only half-crazy ," she tells me right up front in Paris over late morning coffee, and if this is half-crazy then I am ready to be right there with her. She tells me the story of her life in one long monologue. I watch her red lips and believe every word that she says.
"Half-crazy," she says, "means I was diagnosed years ago with what they call "cyclothymia," a very minor and polite version of manic-depression. I call it baby bi-polar these days. Sometimes I do crazy and impulsive things, like last night, but I always come back sooner or later and I never actually harm anyone. My mother was probably the same, but people didn't know as much about it back then. I was born in San Francisco and my mother had a hard time there. After my father died in Vietnam, when I was a three year old kid, she jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge. But she survived--some people do, you know. Maybe it's luck, maybe fate. We moved to London to live with my aunt and everyone thought my mother would be ok, but she was hit by a bus and died when I was ten. My aunt sent me through school, and now I'm traveling and writing poetry."
She offers all of this as matter-of-fact history, so I hold her hand and say I'm sorry about her parents. It's possible I'm the most boring man on earth, but I give her my story next anyway--normal parents, two sisters, too much education, good work, an old Victorian house with a private walled garden inherited in Montreal and an urge to start living my real life. I can at least talk about the future to sound vaguely interesting, so I tell her one of my pet theories--that when scientists find the genetic marker for depression and other related 'psychological' diseases in the early twenty-first century, the concepts of 'sin' and 'evil' as we know them will disappear.
"There will be reasons for everything, Charlotte, there always are. People like Hitler, or even common criminals and murderers, will be medically diagnosed. We'll be able to scientifically say what was wrong with them, trace it back through their families, and know for a fact what caused their brand of evil. There aren't many "normal" people in the world, as far as I can tell. Perhaps everyone will be tested and diagnosed for mental illnesses as a child, and maybe inoculated, not unlike chicken pox. Can you imagine?"
"I don't know," she says quietly. "Maybe all the art would disappear. You know what they say--in darkness the true artist paints."
Most of the time I loved her moods. It didn't matter to me--she would get melancholic some days, and I would hold her tight until the tears disappeared. She would move to crazy laughter and brilliant sanity and do impulsive things on other days, and I adored every minute of it. She wrote ecstatic poetry and performed it for me in the wee hours of the morning. This was not a bad way to live. I often envied her.
I pried her away from Marissa and brought her home to Montreal with me. I have found a photograph in her closet of the three of us in Paris and I've hung it on the wall.. I look thrilled in the photo, Charlotte looks lost and Marissa looks like her usual unamused self. After we were married, Charlotte didn't think she wanted children and I didn't care, but it only took one impulsive night on a trip to San Francisco, no birth control, and the future changed again.
One night when Layla was still a baby, Charlotte woke up in the middle of the night and began to pace the house nude, pausing to write things down every now and then. I asked her why she was up at that hour. "Because, Michael," she said gently, as though I were a child who knew very little of how the world worked. "Because sometimes at three a.m. words begin to circle down, falling like snow, melting where they land, disappearing into the night."
She was so beautiful at that moment and I knew there was something I should do for her, but all I wanted was to take her back to bed and make hard, fast love to her. "Come back to bed, baby."
"Michael. I am inventing words. I keep lists. Nutaryuk is what the Eskimos say for fresh snow--aniu, qanuk, natquik, dozens of words for almost the same thing because it is so very important. Words matter. My favorite Eskimo word is qanisqineq--snow floating on water. I think I will invent a hundred words for hope," she whispered, "maybe one for hope falling gently, and then hope rising in the absence of words, hope against reason, and hope for fragile hearts."
Besides the picture with Marissa, I found twelve different pictures of Charlotte, had them framed and put them on the wall. "In the bathroom," insisted Layla, so she could splash in the bubbles and look at her missing mother at night, chattering to her all the time. This bath is on the third floor of our old house and I've made sure that nobody else sees it but myself and my daughter, as though it is unhealthy to have a shrine to the missing woman who changed your life. Layla has collected all of her mother's lipstick tubes and we use them as little submarines in the bathtub. We both feel safe in that room, and after she's cleaned up, Layla kisses one of her mama's pictures goodnight before she goes to bed. I do the same.
Late one night there is a phone call. It is after midnight during the blackthorn winter when it wakes me up. "I am disenchanted with dreams," the woman's voice says in French. "Please keep your eyes closed for me."
What wouldn't I do for this voice? She tells me an erotic story, she tells me how she is touching herself and she tells me to do the same. I do. In the morning I realize I was half asleep and it could have been anyone--maybe one of the women who think I'm so 'eligible,' or maybe a college girl on a prank. It might even have been a waking dream. Or, it could have simply been a wrong number.
There are angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity the song says, and perhaps it is true. It has always been possible that Charlotte is at the bottom of the lake, or that she left to follow her mother's footsteps toward a high bridge. But there are feelings that circle down around me at three a.m. and at those moments I can predict that this is not true.
I receive a message from Marissa, saying she is in Montreal and wants to meet me for lunch. I haven't seen her in almost eight years, although she and Charlotte kept in touch. I spoke to her several times after Charlotte disappeared. She knew nothing.
"The only thing I never told you, Michael," she says over lunch, "is that Charlotte did call me the week before she left. "'There is nothing I will miss from this century,' she told me, and I assumed she was just thinking about the future and the new millennium."
"Was she unhappy?"
Marissa laughs. "Who knows, with Charlotte? One day she would be, one day not, you know how she is. I don't know, Michael. I really don't know what happened--you knew she was crazy when you met her, you took your chances."
"Only half crazy. What's your best guess?" I stare at Marissa across the lunch table, the same way that I stare at all women these days. It occurs to me that if Marissa wasn't so tall, even she could be Charlotte in disguise.
"Maybe she had a whole new identity for all those looks she tried on, and you weren't paying attention. Or maybe she met someone else. A man. Or a woman. Who knows?"
Marissa raises her eyebrows and I can tell she's going to say something that gives her a certain amount of pleasure to say. "Surely you know that Charlotte and I were lovers before you took her away from me? We were going to travel around the world together. Then you stepped in."
"No, she never told me, Marissa. Never." What else didn't she tell me? Should I have somehow known this? "That first night in Paris, when you stayed--what was that all about?"
She shrugs. "You looked like her father, Michael. She told you that. What could I do? I didn't know you, so I stayed to protect her in some passive way. But you had money and stability, you looked like her father and you were dying to take care of her. I couldn't compete with any of that."
"I did take care of her. For ten years."
There is silence as we consider all the things that we don't know.
"But!" Marissa says with forced brightness to break the mood, "I brought pictures for you. I was cleaning out my studio, and found these. I thought you might want them, or maybe some day when Layla is grown up she might want them."
A large brown portfolio is handed across the table and I open it to find a dozen nude photographs of Charlotte, exactly as she was the year that I met her. She is soft, she is beautiful, she is alive.
"She was my model, you know. This set of photos I called the 'blue nudes.' She would never let me use them and I can't do anything with them now."
I knew nothing, only the apparent few things that Charlotte chose to tell me. I can not take my eyes off of the photographs. Everything in the background is some shade of blue, contrasting with Charlotte's white skin. She is laughing in one picture, her head tilted to the side, black wavy hair flowing down her shoulders on to her bare breasts and she is looking directly at the camera with a look of surprise. The look reaches right through me.
There are paths that a man can take to get where he wants to be. Not long after the lunch with Marissa, I send all of the nude photos of my young wife over to a friend to be blown up to wall-size posters. I hang them on the walls in the attic, away from prying eyes, away from sunlight, but not away from my drawings in the dark of night.
The blue backgrounds become like bodies of water--oceans of curtains, flowing rivers of chairs, inlets of softly draped blue velvet material. I begin with one picture, drawing my route up Charlotte's leg with my pen, up over her bent knee, carefully labeling it as the route to the St. Lawrence River. The mound of her right breast becomes Mt. Royal, her belly is the beginning of Dorchester Boulevard. I will map each place that I have been with Charlotte, one city meticulously drawn on each bare body. Paris, San Francisco, Montreal. London, Rome, Hong Kong. I will map our own house, our own garden. I will use light for each map as required, including candlelight for Paris. If I study a good map long enough, I can often determine the forces in place during its creation.
The future is mine. There will be more notes and calls and I am almost sure it will be her. There may be something I have forgotten to do. There are things I can say when I get another chance and I must determine what they are. She had something important to do, some place that required her presence, or maybe there was some place she simply could not be. Perhaps this new century will be a better place for her to be located. It is entirely possible that on any particular evening, Charlotte will walk up the driveway, check the mail, and when I come home I will find her upstairs in the bathtub with Layla.
The issue is one of time, and space. I will travel until I find her there.