Sheila is a complete gem. Sometimes, when she comes home from work, she puts her purse and keys on the counter and sighs, then asks me what I want for dinner. Doesn’t she ever take a break? She smiles if I say tacos and she smiles if I say, “Let’s order a pizza.” Though one of these dinners might require an inordinate amount of work, or that the other one might be more expensive, either way she keeps a positive spirit. I wish I could say the same for myself. I have no idea how she puts up with me.
One day I had made a mess cleaning car parts in the living room. It was too hot in the garage. She had been sleeping so I tried to be quiet, but when she came downstairs and saw what I had done, I suddenly realized that she might be angry. “What the hell are you doing?” I thought she would ask. She merely rubbed her eyes and laughed. “You’re cleaning car parts on the coffee table?”
That’s my Sheila.
Imagine my surprise when she went missing.
The house turned into a zone of dread. Around every corner I expected to see her glimmering smile, those pearly white teeth beaming from between her red lips. I expected to see her brown hair falling about her shoulders, her arms waving alongside her thick hips. She was always self-conscious about her hips and I always told her how foolish she was for being so. Her hips were perfect. So were her deep blue eyes and her easy cheekbones. She had a thing about what she called her “imperfections,” but I always loved the shape of her cheekbones, how they seemed kind of flat, because they made me think of her beauty. How she looked reflected who she was, beautiful in her luscious smile, beautiful in her utter unwillingness to be angry or disappointed with anything. She took life as it came. And then she was gone.
The police were a sorry bunch. They came to the house and acted interested, their roving eyes looking over pictures of her in her bathing suit from the time we went rafting. They were interested alright. When the detective arrived he wasn’t much better. Maybe he wasn’t sexually interested in my Sheila, but this fact was an attribute of his lack of interest in general. He asked a few questions, gave me his card, and told me they’d look into the matter.
My days turned into stretches of infinity and my nights became torture chambers of hell. I began eating fast food to avoid cooking and my fingernails had grown chewed to the bone. Sometimes I pounded an axe into a tree stump in the backyard, just to get the anger out; other times I drank myself into oblivion so that the morning after was always cause to get started again, praising the god of the hair of the dog that bit me. No matter what I did, Sheila didn’t come back.
Sheila was a complete gem. Now, she is nothing more than a ghost in my life, a memory of happy times to be cherished during the rainy days when I have nothing better to do than to wonder what happened to her. Sometimes I think she is more than a memory, because of the times when I think I see her moving out of the corner of my eye. I turn quickly so that I can catch a glimpse, only to realize it must have been an illusion; my wishful thinking.
I remember after her disappearance, that the bills that had piled up and I had to attend to them. I thought she had been standing right there, looking over me, because I could see her hips in her jeans. I was startled and my heart raced, like I knew I was about to get the hug I needed so bad, only to find the air was, indeed, just empty space.
After a while I realized I would have to move. The situation was becoming uneasy. I was seeing too many things that reminded me of her, so that I couldn’t get on with my life. The police continued to fail in their duties, the newspaper had lost interest, and though I had never given up, going so far as to question people around the town myself, I found that my own health had become endangered. That I moved deep north, I think Sheila would have approved.
Here I let the rain consume my life. I became who I wanted to be, avoiding people while doing my job, coming home alone to an apartment that didn’t possess the remnants of my lost love haunting me. I no longer thought I saw her, and when the rain marauded the windows, I only saw watery channels of fate cut their paths through the glass. Sometimes I touched it to see if I could feel the water flowing, only to feel the cold so that my imagination ran wild with thoughts of cold things. If Sheila had seen me doing this, she would know it was my way of grieving, my way of moving on.
What could the world expect me to do? I once saw a girl that I found attractive, but the rain falling around her made me think about what I had lost. Would anyone ever love me the way Sheila had? I might try to place expectations or ultimatums on the person, only to become disappointed, like when a mother realizes her son is not going to be successful. No, I would have to keep the shelves in my liquor cabinet stocked and I would have to work every day to make sure I could keep them stocked. I would have to mold the couch with my body and keep the television on, and if I wanted companionship, I would have to make sure she was only going to stay for as long as necessary, without conversation.
Whenever I heard the sirens outside I made myself think of the stars instead of Sheila, because I knew she had to be passed on by now. I couldn’t bear to think of her lifeless and cold, so I had to wonder if the stars could hear the events that occurred on Earth. If I saw children, when walking home from work, I had to think about the cruelty of the world that awaited them, instead of thinking about the children Sheila and I might’ve had together. When I saw the old men in their long coats heading to the liquor stores with their umbrellas, I had to embrace my future, that I would surely become one of them as the years pressed forward; because if I thought of Sheila and the smiles we would have shared into old age, I would become bitter and my mouth would churn with anger.
About a year after Sheila’s disappearance, I lay in my bed watching the television in my room. I had let the woman I was with that night stay, because she said she didn’t feel like leaving yet, didn’t feel like walking back out there in the rain. I didn’t care. She wasn’t a bad person. I actually let her talk to me, let her take shots of whiskey with me. I got the feeling like she wanted to sleep over, something I wasn’t going to complain about, however unorthodox it seemed. I saw her dim reflection in the Dori I had on my wall, the despair that seemed to rule her, a subtle despair that wore like the sordid jackets of soldiers when their tours of duty are nearly up; what sights she must have seen. She could have been twenty-five, and there was a skeptical edge about her, untrusting, neglected, so that her movements could have melded with the mournful sounds of a funeral dirge.
“Have you ever loved someone?” she asked.
The question was shocking. I felt the clouds hugging tight around the building. The distant rumble of thunder made me recognize the scent of weather as it drifted in from the open window. I turned my head and looked at her, wondering what was really on her mind.
“No,” I replied.
The steady pattering outside sounded like the thoughts that could have been going on in her mind. She took the bottle from the nightstand and took another drink, then lit a cigarette. Low like a fire in the night, the glow of the lamp made a silhouette of her from my point of view, a lost soul in the gloom.
“You’re lying,” she stated bluntly.
If her question had me stirred, her rejoinder was all the more jarring.
“You sit here doing nothing, watching TV and drinking, the dishes piled same as last time. Make no mistake, your life is as empty as mine, but I’ve got my excuse. What’s yours?”
I ignored her. Something about what she said had made me envision the end of the world, the great battles and the drama. I thought about Sheila, what she would think of my latest interest in company, and it made me feel agitated, like something in the water was floating away from reach, something that was important to me.
“Most of the men I’ve seen who do what you’re doing,” she continued, “have lost something or someone. Most of the time it’s someone.”
She got up from the bed and left the room. I let my eyes move from the closed-captioning flashing down the screen to her vanishing body, then back to the screen. When she reemerged in the doorway, as dark as it was, I imagined the essence of Sheila. It lasted half-a-second. The woman came and sat down on the bed with me again, took another shot, then laid down. I told her she could take a shower if she needed, and that if she wanted to, she could get under the covers to stay warm. We never made eye contact, but as I felt her lift the blanket and sheets, only to feel her get herself snug, I felt like I wanted to die.
I wanted to experience that permanent change in consciousness, the final freedom; a blast into the astral plane where desires and hopes are oceans of easiness and rest. I was desperate for an end to the loneliness that clung to my life like the tentacles of some slimy sea monster. All my frustrations seemed to hit me in that moment, and I wanted to fade away from memory, from the lives of anyone and everyone who had ever known me. Maybe Sheila was out there, on the other side. My life after death would be such a relief from the destitution that wracked my life.
Then I felt my leg twitch. A natural reflex that must’ve been caused by how long the day had been. All that standing at my job, it made my leg move so that my foot touched the foot of the woman in my bed. I wasn’t under the covers like she was, but I was startled from my dark reverie. I knew then I couldn’t die. Something about grazing her body had altered my thoughts. I had to keep going; Sheila would want that. Death couldn’t save me; my misery would have to continue.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but when I woke up the woman was gone. I let the coffee cook and I soaked myself in the shower, to prepare for another grueling day. I watched the news for a few minutes before I found myself walking through the wet morning, taking note that the rain had stopped. Traffic pelted my ears and the bus sounded like the usual gurgle of a prehistoric beast. By the end of the day it was raining again, and by the end of the week, the rain was still there as I headed to the liquor store to stock up. There I ran into the young woman who had asked me, if I had ever been in love.
She was standing there, wearing a scuffed up pair of high heels, her dark-brown, long and curly hair glossy wet from when she had to pull her umbrella away at times. Our eyes met and I could’ve sworn I saw Sheila’s look, the kind that said, “I’ve seen you in your darkest moments.” To me, this meant that there was an aspect of knowing each other I was trying to avoid, one that had formed from just two intermittent nights of interaction. She had such a tragic look about her though, her wide brown eyes peering into me. I had to say something.
“Anything I can get for you?”
The city lights shimmered around us like distant galaxies, and the chill was worse than it needed to be.
“Get me a pack of cigarettes.”
When I came out of the store, I held the bag of liquor and my own umbrella in one hand, and tossed her the pack with the other. That was the end of it, or so I thought. I started walking down the street, but as soon as I got to the intersection, in preparation for a right turn towards home, I sensed something I wished I wouldn’t have. I turned around and through the murk of some pedestrians and the light rainfall, I saw the young woman walking along. She wasn’t looking in my direction; she was looking at something across the street. Whatever she was looking at, she didn’t look happy. But who was I to judge?
I felt guilt for some reason. I didn’t need to, the city was full of wandering people with nowhere to go, types who hated the notion that others pitied them. Where I came from, a place where Sheila and I could walk in the park by our house, the children of neighbors often playing in the sun, it wasn’t a place where desolation was commonplace. Now, I had done a good job of becoming zombified in my new surroundings; that is, until I allowed an independent element of that environment into my home. A force went to work that was beyond my control.
As the seconds passed I waited on purpose. It made me feel strange, but soon she was right there and it didn’t matter. Though I was asking, I essentially ordered her to eat with me at the diner. She didn’t object, nor did she express any disdain for the manner of my request. We sat there looking at each other and I felt the inevitable, as our coffee arrived, that I needed to know her name.
“Mandy,” was the reply.
I saw a small scar on the edge of her upper lip and wondered where it came from. They were burgundy brown lips, as though she had some sort of middle eastern blood in her, but I could’ve been way off on that one. I couldn’t believe how curly her hair was, how it made the rest of her body look slim. When I told her — that is, when I insisted — that she order something to eat, the rain picked up and began to thump against the cement outside. I looked at the marks on her leather jacket and wondered if the thing kept her warm enough, kept her dry enough.
“You’re more than welcome to stay over again,” I said, sipping my coffee. “If you want.”
“What makes you think I would want to do that?”
The way she responded, I could see how different she was from Sheila, how something about her life had made her biting, indifferent. Sheila would have never spoken to me like that: the way her life had unfolded, the years we spent together, she would have never ended up on the street. We were a team. Mandy was another story.
“Have it your way,” I replied.
Something about my answer made her expression change, as though she had anticipated a different rhetoric, some polemic on why she should accept my help. She must have known I was falling in love with her, and she might’ve even wanted such a thing, because she could have left right then and there.
When our food arrived she began eating in rather a hurry, and that’s why she’d stuck around. She was hungry. Our conversation wasn’t much because I didn’t know what to say to her, and she didn’t talk. She had when we were drinking that night, but she’d said things that wouldn’t have made good for sober discussion. As she brought her fork into the air, some people walked by, and I felt the hair on my neck tingle.
Sheila was in the diner. I saw her back, her flowing brown hair and her arms swinging along her thick hips. Mandy looked at me as though she thought I’d seen a ghost. I stopped eating. I was mystified, incapable of processing the situation. Sheila was right there, sitting with some strange man, laughing even. She had been missing from my life for over a year, a space of time filled with the worst nightmares a human being could possibly imagine; and now, without the slightest concern, she walked right by as if I was nothing to her. The sound of my fork hitting my dinner dish rang as I got up. Mandy watched as I went over to confront the matter, ready to unleash every drop of angst and despair, to release the tension of every wound up coil of depression the entirety of the year had locked away in my gut.
The woman turned and looked at me like I was some kind of a lunatic.
“I am so sorry,” I pleaded. I had walked right up to her and stared with the highest sense of impropriety. Sheila was merely a fleeting shadow, a mirage on the horizon that gets further away the closer one thinks they’re about to arrive.
“You okay?” Mandy asked, her mouth still chewing with vigor; her plate was almost empty.
I turned and looked through the window. The rain was coming down good.
At home I didn’t allow myself to chide Mandy for her haughtiness, the way she had replied to my invitation to stay the night. I was coming to understand her, what her personality was like. I don’t think she enjoyed being mean; I think she wanted somebody to love her. When she went to take her clothes off I had to inform her, I wouldn’t be thinking of her like that anymore. She reacted with an air of being rejected, picking up her purse and heading for the door. I put my hand on her shoulder and told her, that it didn’t mean I wanted her to leave.
After we shared some booze, I didn’t get under the covers like she did, like she had the previous time. My leg bumped into hers again, though, as I watched the television. Mandy had gone to sleep fast. That was the moment when I realized with brutalizing clarity, that Sheila was gone forever.