Following is a sneak look at the title story from Elizabeth Cohen’s new collection The Hypothetical Girl, which will be released by Other Press on August 6, 2013. Cohen’s essay “True, Truer, Truest” appeared here at Bloom on July 19, 2013.
For some time now Emily has been vanishing.
It began with her edges. The outside ones; arms, legs, back, and so forth. They began to go all soft focus, as seen through unadjusted binoculars. Next to go were her feet. She would look down and half the time they were hardly there. Ghost feet. Then it was her eyes. They looked like sketches of eyes. Oh dear, she thought. And they were such nice eyes. Everyone had said so.
She was like those islands in the South Pacific that are covered entirely by the ocean at high tide. Or those stars that are sucked up on certain nights by shreds of cloud. Here and then gone. It was troubling to see whole pieces of herself blur.
“I guess some people die and some people just disappear,” she said to her therapist, June. She was seeing her twice a week now. “There is really not much you can do about it.”
Some days she felt just like her old self. Very there. But other days she was not much there at all. She could walk through a mall or crowded street and nobody so much as looked at her. She could say hello or nod to people and they didn’t even glance in her direction. I am almost gone now, she thought.
Naturally, you want to know how such a thing happens to someone. You are concerned that this could be something that could happen to you, and you would like to avoid such a fate. Was it something she ate? Drank? A peculiar bout of influenza or something contracted abroad, perhaps, when she went on that little tour of Micronesia with her friend Allison?
Could it have been the entire case of chicken-flavor ramen noodle soup she consumed last winter, after she broke up with Dane? God knows what they put in that stuff. She hadn’t left her apartment for weeks, subsisting on ramen noodle soup and nothing else. She did not answer her phone or e-mails or check her Facebook page. She just lay in bed, feeling her limbs sink down into the blankets like quicksand, and read the entire oeuvre of Henry James. Then she read most of Flaubert and a good deal too much Maupassant. She read in the dark, by the light of a small flashlight. Reading and sinking. Sinking and reading. She gobbled books like someone eating chocolate. Guiltily, naughtily. To the exclusion of all else.
Philosophical query: If a girl reads in a forest and nobody is there, is she really reading? Is she really there? Is there any point to such a girl?
“Mom?” she shouted, into her mother’s answering machine. “It’s me, Emily.”
No answer, despite the shouting.
She was trying to make a date to ask if she could store some things in her mother’s attic, as a precaution, in case she vanished entirely. But how can you make a date if you can’t even get someone on the phone? You can’t.
To be invisible is a special status, and not an altogether bad one, she decided. You can watch other people in a different way. You can stare at them. It isn’t rude if they can’t see you back. You can be a kind of very personal anthropologist. She watched a man in Central Park feed his girlfriend a cinnamon bun in the most sensual way, section by section, letting her tongue lick his fingers at the end of each bite. She was tasting him and the pastry. He was like a spice. She watched a nanny whack a well-dressed child over the head with a newspaper, hard, to punish him for taking off his coat. “You will catch pneumonia!” Whack whack.
This is why they have nannycams, Emily thought.
For a time she wrote about her vanishing on her blog, “Emily’s World”: “I am disappearing. It doesn’t hurt. It actually has no sensation at all.”
Her therapist was quite delusional. She insisted Emily was still totally visible, that this was some sort of psychotic episode she was having. “Why do you keep referring to yourself as the disappeared girl? This is very unhelpful to our progress here.”
“I am a realist,” Emily said. “I call ’em as I see ’em. Or as I don’t see ’em, apropros of the present scenario.”
“Could this be a reaction to the divorce proceedings?” June asked. “To the way Evan took all the money, your nicest things, wedding presents and such, sold them on ebay?”
“I could have stopped him.”
“But perhaps the way he treated you, so shabbily.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Emily said.
“Well, maybe it’s a reaction to that man you met online,” June suggested.
“The one who said you were . . .”
“Yes, that one. What was his name?”
“Well, that upset you, didn’t it?”
She had been mostly confused by Nick. She had met him on Matchmaker.com and they had chatted about six times so sweetly, so intently, before the phone call. “I think I miss you,” she had dared to say, when they finally spoke with actual voices. “Can one miss someone one has never met?”
“You can, but it is ridiculous,” Nick had replied. The next time she heard from him—and the last time—was when he texted her that sentence, the one to which her therapist June referred: “You are not an actual girl,” he wrote. “You are hypothetical.”
Yes, June may have hit the nail on the head. It was like a curse; he must have brought it on.
At the Bronx Zoo, Emily liked to go to the enclosure of the nocturnal animals, the “House of Darkness.” She liked to see how the lemurs could blend so artfully into the leaves of trees; the bats could fold themselves up like unneeded umbrellas hung deep in the bowels of a closet. Certain toads could slink down into the stones beside pools of water and become stones. It was interesting to see the way these creatures vanished. They made it very artful. They made it quite lovely.
Her own vanishing continued to be a stop-and-start thing. It did not involve folding up or blending into trees or dark. She was more like a drawing that was being erased.
“I shall miss you,” she said to the little bit of herself she could still see in the mirror in the morning. “You were nice to be. I especially enjoyed the way you looked in that red turtleneck from Saks.”
Since she had lost her job some months before, she wasn’t missed at work. She wasn’t missed by a child, as she had no child. Her mother, in the beginning of her eighth relationship, which would soon morph into her eighth marriage (she was certain), seemed to be on some sort of extended pre-marriage, pre-honeymoon vacation.
Her ex was completely incommunicado. He did not answer texts, e-mails, or phone calls. His inbox was always full. She had the sense they had communicated for the last time when he told her about his new girlfriend. She had forbidden him from seeing Emily, texting or speaking with her. Her sister, Sofia, was mad at her for some long-forgotten incident having something to do with an Albuquerque City Bond they jointly inherited from their father. True, Emily had misplaced it. But she was sure it would turn up someday. Of course, if she vanished before it did that could be a problem. For this reason she dared not contact Sofia. Calling her would be like purposefully dialing up an argument.
Then she had somehow lost her cell phone. Everyone’s numbers had been inside it. She could have tried to find them all, sent out some sort of frenetic e-mail to everyone she knew—Send numbers! Quick!—but it hardly seemed necessary if she was vanishing.
All of this had happened in winter, and by spring, when the first flowers tested the air with their bright fingertips, purple and clementine and ruby red, she was just a slip of a thing. Like cellophane.
She went out on her porch and sat on a small stool left there by the previous tenant. She looked all around at the ways things were coming into themselves. Then she felt something on her ankle. When she looked down she saw an ant crawling up to her calf. “Little ant, you are lost,” she said. She flicked it back to the known world.
For a time after that she became water. She was a pond, a stream, the gathered drops in the tub after a shower. It felt nice to be so cool and shiny. Then she became shadow. That had been nice also, to feel sewn to a heel, connected. But then she disconnected and came loose and dried up.
She had known the day would come. She walked by a store window and there it was, the absence of her presence. In the place where she should be were other people’s reflections: cars, women with strollers, couples holding hands, couples arguing, a mother and her daughter, two women who had to be sisters, admiring a lovely handbag. People not so different from the person she had been.
A man with a dog on a leash passed right through her and she reached out to pet it, right along its golden retriever–ish spine. For the longest time the dogs had sensed her, but this dog did not sniff or turn or register her at all.
She walked home quickly, feverishly, trying hard not to panic. She walked her invisible self up the stairs to her apartment and let her invisible self inside. The phone was ringing, but how can a vanished person answer a telephone? The only thing to do, the only responsible, sane, and viable option she could think of was to go to bed. Get into her bed and try to dream, dream of being and of things that are, of cotton candy and large spiral seashells, of brown spicy mustard and sketching her initials in cement when they poured the new patio at her parents’ house; dream of the time she broke her arm falling off the jungle gym.
Dream dream dream of pain, of objects, of cold, of heat, of Jell-O, of potato latkes, of really really nice shoes. Dream herself back to the world.
She swiftly brushed her invisible teeth. She tucked her invisible self into her bed. She shut her invisible eyes and tried hard to smell the soft and slightly lemony smell that had been the smell of herself. She tried to feel her toes against the clean sheets. She tried not to be recently departed. She shut her invisible eyes and looked into the invisible dark.
Somewhere in the distance she caught a glimpse of the girl she had been before she vanished and she thought she would like to send that girl a note, letter, an e-mail, or better, a telegraph:
Dear me. Stop. You were real.
Stop. You had a few laughs. Stop. It isn’t your fault. Stop.
Elizabeth Cohen is an assistant professor of English at Plattsburgh State University and the fiction editor of The Saranac Review. She is the author of four books of poetry, a memoir, The Family on Beartown Road and a book of short stories, The Hypothetical Girl. She lives in Plattsburgh, New York with her daughter Ava, their dog Samo, and way, way too many cats.