by Sofie Riley
Before you died there was the class where we met in college and the months I was still dating Ethan, who was a boy, but wanted you, who were not. There was Peyton Cerelli’s 21st where we kissed, and the next day when I told Ethan we should see other people, and the salad he tossed out the dining hall window. There was the seven-hour date and the sleeping in my twin bed together and the tracing the outline of your hips until I knew it by touch alone. There was the meeting your parents, and the insisting to mine that we weren’t just friends. There was the dual graduation. There was the apartment in East Cleveland and your cat, Toby, who ran away and never came back. There was the me holding you all night and the you telling me that you never wanted kids because what if they ran away too? There was the insisting to my parents that we weren’t just roommates. There was the ring and the lake and the “I thought I was going to be the one to ask.” There was the rehearsal dinner at the Italian restaurant where my parents finally understood. There was the new apartment and the wondering why we were even doing the heteronormative marriage thing at all. There was the long night of discussing and arguing and discussing after you said you might want kids anyway. There was the lack of closure. There was Moira’s birthday party and the accident. There was the trip to the hospital, then the funeral parlor, then the Cuyahoga River. Then there was a year, in which I don’t remember much at all.
The first time you appeared, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom mirror. You came in behind me as you always had, closed the door as you always had, smiled with your whole face. I watched our reflections as you put your arms around my waist, but I didn’t feel your touch, your hands clasping in front of my belly. You said, “I’m going to miss you so much, baby.” Your voice was full of static, as though you were calling me from inside a tunnel. And once I finally turned to reach for you, you were gone, disappeared into the ether of my shower steam.
When I met Moira for brunch that Saturday, she only said, “Huh,” like I’d just told her I was lactose intolerant, then continued her bite of egg frittata.
“It’s weird, right?” I was ignoring my oatmeal, some kind of weird mush with cranberries that the menu had described as steel-cut.
“I’m going crazy, right?”
Moira chewed, staring off at a spot right above my head.
“Please tell me I’m going crazy,” I said. Somehow that seemed better than seeing you while sane.
Your parents and I had already scattered your ashes over the river. You used to say that’s what you wanted. I never knew if you were joking or not, whether you really wanted to be just another pollutant in the water. If I was hallucinating you, this was on me. And you had no right to burst back in on purpose, Em. After I’d already accepted you were gone.
“This time of year was always going to suck.” Moira took another bite, continued through a full mouth. “It makes sense that you would remember her now.”
“But it wasn’t a memory. She was there, like, there there.”
“I don’t know, Jules.” Moira washed her food down with orange juice. “Victorians used to pose their dead relatives in chairs and dress them up for portraits. Can you imagine?”
I didn’t admit to her that I could; Moira had never lost anyone, not really. It was all theoretical to her.
“Then there was this woman in Arkansas last year,” Moira went on. “She put her husband in a freezer for eleven months to keep his brain away from doctors.”
I said, “Jesus, fuck, Moira,” but something in me could relate to that. If you’ve got a freezer big enough and a reason paranoid enough, why not keep the person you love around for a while? Still, the biggest part of me, the part caught staring at my oatmeal and pineapple juice, needed to pretend I didn’t understand. Whether it was for Moira’s comfort or for my own is hard to say.
“I’m just saying. Grieving does weird things. I’m sure whatever is going on right now is super normal and above-board.”
For a few months after you died, I would stay up all night listening to wellness audiobooks badly translated from some eastern European language or another, as if they could teach me how not to feel like shit. I still remember one, a tin-can recording of a woman who clearly meant for her voice to sound like AI: “Take one hour for self is better than take six years for other.”
“If you see her again, say hi for me,” said Moira. But it was like you were there, hovering over my oatmeal, laughing at me for ordering something I was too prissy to enjoy.
You knew my morning routine well; it used to be ours, after all. Every day I wake up, stand, bend backwards until I can see the world inverse and feel my sternum crack, shuffle to the bathroom, shower, look up at the ceiling until I’m fully awake. Since you fell, I don’t have anyone to talk to when I’m in the water. So I play music and let that be my company. Then I wander to the mirror to wash my face, brush my hair, my teeth.
The next time I saw you, I was staring at the wall, listening to some new group that I’d just seen reviewed well on some website, album cover a woman in yellow posed amid falling persimmons. Holding one to her eye as though staring through it.
When I went to the mirror to moisturize, you were already behind me in your dye-streaked bathrobe, sitting on the closed toilet lid. With my headphones in, I hadn’t realized the shower had been on for fifteen minutes.
I put my phone back on the counter. I had been about to text Moira back, who had just told me she had a friend she wanted me to meet: shes cute and an artist, get back out there girlieeeee!!! You looked up at me, your hair tousled. You hated the bangs you got right before you died, and now you had them forever.
“It’s so good you see you again.” You smiled through tears. I heard almost the same static as last time, but your voice cut through a little bit more, as though the dial was more finely-tuned.
I just stared, unsure whether to cry or smile or scream.
“Have you not seen me here yet?” There was worry in your voice, enough to worry me. “I have, just once,” I said, hesitating. “Don’t you remember?”
“No, I wouldn’t, but one more time is good. I can live with that. Well, so to speak.” You held your arms out to demonstrate your dead-ness and your robe opened a little, revealing the centerline of a body that had been so familiar to me. Tall navel, birthmark beneath your collarbone. I could have drawn you in steam.
“You’re really her, aren’t you?” I asked the mirror. “I mean, it’s really you.” “I’m really me,” you said. “Kind of fucked, right?”
I looked behind me, but you were only in the glass. I realized I didn’t know what to ask first. All I could think to say was, “But you’re in the river already.”
“I know. Time moves backwards for me now,” you said, answering four questions and begging ten more. “So the next time you see me will be the last time I saw you. I haven’t met any other dead people. I don’t know what happens after this or if everyone goes through it or what. I don’t know why you can only see me in this mirror. All I know is that I started at the end of everything and now I’m here. Hey.” You waved apologetically.
I felt a hotness in my cheeks, a heaving in my chest. I bent over the sink and sobbed. It must have been jarring, but you have to understand that you were gone, Em. I didn’t think I was ever going to see you again.
“I know. It’s a lot.” You attempted to put your hand on my heaving back, but it clipped through my shoulder in the mirror. I watched you try to simulate touch, holding your hand steady so that it looked like you were comforting me.
“It’s ok.” I pulled myself together slowly. Wiped my eyes with a towel, blew my nose into toilet paper. Flushed the snot-rag.
My phone buzzed again. Moira, emphatically: are you going to text her or what??? I gave the message a quick thumbs-up.
“Who’s that?” you asked.
“Just Moira.” I wiped the last of my tears with the back of my hand. “She’s trying to set me up with someone.”
“The tattoo artist?”
“I didn’t know she did tattoos. God, this is so weird. Is this ok? Should I text her?” Moira, again: soooo does 👍 mean yes?
You paused, thought it through with obvious difficulty. “It’s alright. I think it’s a lovely thing to do.”
“Ok,” I told you. “Ok, I will, then. Moira says hi, by the way.”
You began to fade, your limbs starting to go transparent. “Give her my love. If it’s not too icky. And Jules?”
I watched you consider something, but whatever you were weighing, you thought better of it. Just before you faded completely, you said, “I’m about to take a shower. You didn’t happen to leave any hot water, did you?”
I always said smoking would kill you, but I didn’t picture it happening the way it did. There’s nothing new I can say about how you died, nothing you don’t already know, but I can tell you about after. Some guy named Jason, the same one who lit your last cigarette, watched you lean too hard on the railing and fall off Moira’s 4th-floor balcony. He burst into the apartment, face livid, and I knew. Like the atmosphere was heavier without you in it. I remember realizing that the first thing anyone would want to know is how old you were.
You were twenty-nine.
Moira was beside herself, kept saying, “It’s my party, I’m so sorry, Jules, she died at my party,” kept saying it even in the hospital. By the time the doctors called time of death, she was saying, “No more birthdays for me, no more fucking birthdays, I’m so sorry.” Then, each time I saw her for the next six months it was just, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Jules.”
“I know,” I told her every time. “It’s not your fault.”
Then there was the river and the podcasts and the throwing myself into my work. I think I didn’t really face it all, Em, but what else was I supposed to do? It was all too big.
I texted the tattoo artist the evening after your second visit: Hey! Drew, right? Has Moira been bugging you about me, too? Drew waited a day to send me back: oh yeah lol. she basically wont shut up about you
Saturday, 6:52 PM
Right? It’s like, let me live my life ;P
Saturday, 7:45 PM
absolutely. so annoying
Sunday, 9:23 AM
Sunday, 6:25 PM
I’d like that :) When/where works for you?
Sunday, 10:50 AM
anyway, since she won’t seem to leave us alone…
do you want to get coffee or something? worst case, we can tell her it didn’t work out
Sunday, 6:30 PM
saturday? three-ish? blue sky brews?
Sunday, 6:32 PM
Sounds perfect. See you then!
You showed up Saturday at two-ish as I was getting ready. You looked fresher than last time, your voice stronger, your skin brighter. “You’re getting all fancy.” You sounded surprised-but-not, like you were dreading an answer you already knew.
“I’ve, um… I’ve got a date actually.” I couldn’t meet your eyes and was trying hard to keep my focus on digging an eyeshadow palette from deep in a drawer.
“Oh. That’s great, I’m so happy for you.”
I understand why you sounded devastated, Em. Really, I do. But part of me tensed at your sadness, wondered at the audacity you had to make me love you again.
“She’s a tattoo artist. From Lakewood.” “Ah. Nice.”
“It’s funny,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “You were actually the one who told me she was a tattoo artist. Last time you showed up. Or I guess next time for you.”
“I’m so sorry, Jules.” The concern in your voice was genuine, the remorse palpable. “For what?”
“I don’t really know how to say this. But next time you see me… I hadn’t really started doing the internal work I needed to yet and… I’m going to be a bit of a megabitch about it.”
And again, the refrain: you have no right, no right, you have no right.
“If I could change it, I would. You know, I’m not proud of it or anything. But I’ve already done it. So I’m sorry in advance.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.” You looked at me for a minute, teary-eyed and genuine. I didn’t want to feel the deep well that opened in my chest, but I couldn’t fight it. It was always beyond me how you could disarm me with a look. “It really is so good to be here with you,” you said. “After all this time.”
And I knew then that for you “all this time” was deeper than it was for me, that you had been through cosmic epochs and the death of the solar system just to be back in our mirror. I had gone through a year on Earth. I couldn’t imagine anything longer than that.
“I love you,” I said. You told me you loved me too and showed yourself through your version of the bathroom door before you could fade. I think you could tell how fraught it all was, but I don’t think you cared. We were together again, for a second. For you, that was enough.
Drew showed up in a sleeveless turtleneck and sunglasses. Buzzed head, jean bomber jacket slung over her shoulder, beatnik chic turtleneck.
“This seat taken?” Without waiting for an answer, she put her jacket on the back of the chair across from me, then sat in it. A tattoo of a pothos vine ran all the way down her left arm, shoulder to fingertip. “What are you drinking?”
“Latte.” I held up my mug to display it. “Wait, let me guess. Oatmilk?”
I nodded. “What else?” “Lavender. No, cinnamon.” “Maple.”
She feigned disappointment. “And you looked like a lavender gal and everything.”
I don’t know what else to tell you, Em; she was ubercool and painfully, eminently gay.
She showed me the tattoo on her shoulder blade (it was a cactus) and the one on her calf (it was a moth). She quoted Judith Butler and Aimee Mann. And when she broached the subject, she did so by asking how long it had been since I’d been on a date.
“A first date? Oh, forever.” We had moved to the lawn near the art museum and sat with our legs stretched out on the spring grass in front of a driftwood sculpture of a horse. I was deflecting, trying desperately not to talk about you. She spider-walked her hand over to me and threaded her fingers through mine.
“Look, if this is too much, I get it.” “No, not at all,” I lied.
And later, evening, in the contemporary wing, both of us looking at a dual portrait, two sitters with harsh lighting and wild proportions, Drew whispered into my ear, “I think I like you a little bit.”
“I think I like you a little bit, too.” I could feel her breath on my collarbone, warm and summery.
“Your place or mine?” she asked.
I pretended to consider, like there was any part of me that would want to bring her into the space that you still enphantomed. “Yours.”
I miss you, Em. The traces of you. I miss seeing your brands of cereal in the cupboard, your clothes in the closet, smudges of your mascara on the bathroom counter. I miss using your shampoo sometimes, by accident, on purpose, somewhere in between. I miss your indent in the mattress. I miss the scent of the detergent you used on the sheets. It was floral. Lavender.
Do you remember Arthur and Lillian, across the hall from the apartment we lived in before this one? They had occupied their tiny part of the tenement structure since it went up in the ‘70s. The kind of ancient you could smell. You might not have noticed them as much, but I always took note. Marriage, you know: what we could have become.
I would see him sometimes, standing in the hall and waiting for Lillian to come back with groceries. He just did that. Leaned on his walker, listening to his Walkman or reading some Zane Grey paperback. I caught her in the elevator once, pushing a small cart full of produce. When I told her how sweet it was that Arthur still waited for her, she said, “Oh, he’s just a terrible nag.
Always asking me about something I’ve already gotten. That’s men, I guess.”
As I was opening our apartment door, I heard him ask if she’d gotten peaches. I still think about all the peaches I’ll forget. A surfeit of peaches, and you’ll never get to ask me about any of them.
The day after my date with Drew, I found one of your hair ties behind the bedside table. I held it up like an artifact against the ceiling light, and I loved you, and I missed you, and I resented you, and I loved you again.
There was a month. Then another. There was (sorry, Em) the best sex I could imagine under the circumstances. There was the waiting for hours next to my phone just for Drew to cancel plans. There was the her texting me at midnight and the me pretending to be nonchalant about it all when she turned up at my door. And there was the almost, for a minute, forgetting about you completely, and the shame and the relief.
I wasn’t expecting you the next time you showed up, at 2am on a Thursday night. Neither was Drew. After she screamed, I could feel the whole building shudder, and I imagined all of the neighbors waiting to call the police, bleary-eyed, fingers hovering above their phones. She burst through the bathroom door, clutching a hand towel.
“There’s… in the mirror…”
I sighed. This would have happened eventually, but I was two-and-a-half glasses of wine deep and too tipsy to be on edge about it. “I’ll handle it.”
When I went into the bathroom, your arms were crossed and you were sitting on the closed toilet lid. “Who was that?” you demanded, a mixture of angry and resigned.
“That was Drew. She’s a tattoo artist.”
“I’m sorry, are you two dating? Like, are you really doing this now?”
“I’m actually not sure what’s going on there. I think I’m a booty call, but for cuddling and picnics. And sex. Obviously.”
I don’t know why I said it like that, Em. Cheerful with a hint of venom, an ebullient snakebite. I knew it would hurt you, but the worst part of me didn’t care. You were there, and I was here, and I thought, perhaps drunkenly, that if I was cruel enough, you would stop showing up. Of course, you had already shown up again, despite what I said here.
“Alright,” you said. You pinched the bridge of your nose and sighed, which I’d seen you do so many times before. “Alright, alright, it’s been some time for you obviously––”
“A year. You’ve been gone for a year. Then a week. Then a few more. Then radio silence for two months. I have every right to move on.”
“I don’t want you to move on,” you shouted into the reflected bathroom. There were echoes but only through the mirror. You occupied your own world. And I watched from mine as you realized you had just asked something impossible. “I didn’t mean that.”
“I think you did. I really do.”
“I think I did, too.”
There was nothing for a while, neither of us willing to leave or able to break silence.
Then you told me, matter-of-fact, “Next time is the last time. For you, I mean. Then you can live your life.”
“Oh, baby.” My heart swelling beyond my control, my voice ready to break. “I was already living my life. Then you went and died on me.”
By the time I left the bathroom, Drew was dressed and sitting on the edge of the bed. “Hey,” she said, then took a long hit of her vape. I think she was trying to look nonchalant, but the vapor faltered on her exhale and she shivered.
“I really am sorry about that.”
“No, no, lots of people’s dead wives show up in mirrors, it’s all good.” I almost wanted to brighten everything, to ask if this had happened to her before. I thought better of it; she wasn’t joking to be funny. “Look, you can tell me if you’re not over her, I won’t be offended. Shit, I probably wouldn’t be over it either if I were in your position.”
“It’s not––” I started, but whatever I was trying to say stuck in my throat like a dry-swallowed pill. Not what? Not like that? Even if I’d wanted to, I doubt I could have convinced her to stay. She’d seen what she’d seen and knew what she saw.
Drew got up, grabbed her bag. “Hey, it’s alright. I’m a ricochet fuck anyway. You’ll forget all about me in a month.” There was no sadness about it, no wistful sigh or pettiness. As though it was something she’d learned to accept about herself. When she reached the door, she turned, regarded me, and said with complete sincerity: “I really hope you find peace, you know? Both of you.”
The last time I saw you wasn’t long enough. Two mornings after the Drew incident, I looked up from washing my hands to see you standing there, tearfully, hands cupped in front of your face.
“You can see me,” you stated, not question, but fact. “You can really see me.”
I won’t pretend to understand how you always did it, Em. How you took any anger I’d ever felt at you and collapsed it in on itself, showed it for the nothing it was. You were here, and so was I, and it was all that mattered. “I can really see you.”
Then you told me about the years you’d spent knocking things off of shelves to get my attention, the nights you’d lain next to me. You saw my life in fragments and smiled coyly when I asked you about them.
“There is one thing,” I said once I’d exhausted every other question you wouldn’t answer. “You told me once, after you… you know… that you started at the end of everything. What was that like? I mean, what even was it?”
You looked sort of pensieve then, as though you were staring very deeply at something very far away. “You’ll see. It’s not bad. It’s not bad at all.”
A few minutes later, you were gone, for good this time, faded into whatever past I had and whatever future you had left to see.
After I told her about Drew, Moira was supportive, unbothered, unsurprised. “You know how many tattoo artists there are in this city? We’ll find you another.”
I didn’t tell her any more about what happened with you, and she never asked. She must have known, on some level, that it had to go that way with Drew, that nothing would stick for a while with me. She kept trying, of course. What else was she supposed to do?
That was the year things started dropping from tables and counters and shelves and stands. Salt shakers. Books, sometimes. A glass, once, that shattered into pieces I kept finding for weeks. Always when I least expected it. I got another cat the next year, partly so I’d have some company, and partly so something else could bat objects around. I named him Tobytoo.
Still, there are lonely nights. There are the showers and the steamed mirrors and the patterns I wipe into them trying to see your face one last time. There are the evenings when I’m in bed with Tobytoo at my feet, and the rain is drumming on my windows, and the air smells like the ghost of a candle, and I’ll hear a fork clatter to the ground in the kitchen, and I’ll smile. There are the parts of me that know you’re still kicking around somewhere. There are the parts of me that hope you can find it in yourself to float on someday. And then there are the parts of me, the secret, small parts, that hope you never stop.
Sofie Riley is an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University. They write mostly speculative fiction, though they also dabble in horror. When they’re not writing, they enjoy taking their dog Zuko on walks, making music, and playing whatever video game they’ve recently become obsessed with. They hail from Cleveland, Ohio, and consider themselves a reluctant Ohio apologist.