SUSAN L. LIN
A LIFETIME SPENT DOCUMENTING THE WORLD
On a warm night in September, six years after his wife’s disappearance, Colby Keiser made an irrevocable mistake: he turned on the television when he should’ve left it to collect dust. He unearthed a cache of old home videos from the top shelf of the kitchen pantry, and he pressed the button on his remote marked play. First, there was the salt-and-pepper static. Then, light from the T.V. box spilled forth, and the past opened up. Each of these events led to another, until the garnered momentum was so great that the inevitable could not be stopped. He had been searching for something else—boxes of jell-o mix that he remembered buying months ago, or maybe a mixing bowl and eggbeater combo set. He could hardly remember afterward.
He was curious; that was all. Actually, he wasn’t even curious. That wasn’t the right word. He was methodical. His lapse in judgment stemmed from his need to create an accurate inventory of the video footage in his library. Yes, that was it. His collection was a mess. He desperately needed to label his tapes with descriptions of what actually played out on screen, not with the vague notations and numbers that characterized his current method of organization. He couldn’t very well make any changes without re-watching the videos first. But once the film started rolling, he couldn’t stop backtracking. Rewinding and rewinding.
Before long, curiosity became routine and routine bordered on addiction. He’d put his son Danny to bed by nine o’clock at night. Then, he would sit on the couch in front of the T.V., the screen transforming into a windowpane, something he could look through and find—on the other side—events that had happened in another time. In particular, one short clip had been filmed during a cruise down the Bosphorus strait on his first weekend in Istanbul. The tapes were proof of that first summer in Turkey and its existence in the timeline. They were hard evidence that certain actions, reactions, and interactions had indeed taken place. He even found comfort in the fact that the camera had a memory that put his own to shame, its lens capturing images of objects that he hadn’t even noticed at the time: an anchored sailboat their ferry had passed along the way, the one with a plush triceratops that stared forlornly out the back window. Painted letters on the hull spelled out the vessel’s name: DINOZORLAR. Each frame went by so quickly that he thought he might’ve imagined it. He found the button on the remote with the two arrows that pointed in the wrong direction. Rewound it. Watched in slow-motion playback as the three-horned dinosaur regarded him from the other boat, its sad eyes begging for a rescue.
Medîya had been sitting on the other side of his ferry, also gazing out one of the windows. A plain lavender hijab covered her hair and—from his angle—partially obscured her face. Finally, her eyes left the window and looked straight into the camera. She noticed him for the first time. With a shaky hand, he zoomed in closer until her unusual face nearly filled the frame.
In the present, Colby paused the video there. That image embodied the state of their relationship before all that other shit had gone down. How far back did he have to reach in order to find a moment of pure happiness?
Rewind to: an island getaway spoiled by a disturbing game.
Rewind to: Danny’s birth and her subsequent depression.
Rewind to: a chance encounter on a cruise ship surrounded by a throng of vacationers and tourists.
Sure, even at that point they had both been mangled by past traumas. Perhaps any union between them had been doomed from the start, but he had never seen it that way. Maybe he had read too many books when he was a child, seen too many movies that ended with two happy people at the center of a circle wipe. He truly believed they could heal each other. But those were just hopes and wishes of the past now. In truth, he was embarrassed by his naïveté.
The girl captured by his camera was not so naïve. The right corner of her mouth curled up in a knowing half-smile. At eighteen years old, she had seen more self-destruction than people twice her age. Colby stared at the frozen image for a long time before he finally switched off the television. A long, brilliant streak of white remained at the center of the screen, but then it slowly faded away too.
Colby surveyed the room one last time before going to bed. On the table next to the phone, a meager stack of MISSING flyers remained, corners bent and yellowing with age. Medîya’s full name was written across the top, along with a number to call if anyone had any information regarding her whereabouts. A black-and-white photograph was printed in the center of the page, the background too dark and shiny with excess toner, her head of curls vanishing into it. Not much there but a pale face floating in a rectangle.
In the beginning, there had been more sightings than Colby dared hope for. People phoned in from all over the country, eager to help. They inserted her into the landscape of a diverse selection of locales. On any given day, she was seen standing on a crowded subway car, leaving a corner mart with a gallon of milk, and filling up the tank of a hot pink Hummer at a budget gas station. With each new message on his answering machine, something unfurled inside of him, like a banner on a scroll, then curled up tight when all of the claims amounted to nothing. Colby pursued all of the tips no matter how wild and unlikely they seemed, but they all seemed to lead him further and further away from the truth.
According to the local police, there was not much they could do without hard evidence of foul play. They offered up stories of other disappearances of loved ones and relatives of former co- workers and my brother-in-law’s best friend’s ex. “Be patient,” they added. “She may need time away, but there is a possibility she might come around. We’ve seen cases like this.” More anecdotes, more examples of what had happened in the past, to other people. Colby was convinced that they didn’t apply to him, to his situation. The investigators told him they knew how he was feeling, but there wasn’t much they could do. They grimaced: sympathetic, apologetic. They drank steaming black coffee from the rims of their ceramic mugs, fogging their sunglasses. “Nine times out of ten, when an adult vanishes like this,” they said, “it happens because they don’t want to be found.”
Colby considered this possibility. Medîya had left everything behind when she walked out the door that morning: wallet, ID, cell phone, a rather extensive collection of novelty eggcups, and a wardrobe full of clothing and floppy hats with wide brims. The only thing she’d neglected to leave was a note.
In the end, the pieces didn’t add up. He refused to believe that her actions were calculated. He convinced himself of that fact.
With the T.V. off and the screen no longer a window but a mirror—reflecting the living room (its couch, its light source) and the shadow of a man who could barely remember the last time he had lived inside it—Colby stood, legs numb with sleep. His hand crawled up the neck of the lamp and his fingers curled around the switch. The room went black.
Danny’s room was at the end of the hallway, a couple dozen paces away. Colby’s fingers traveled across the uneven terrain of the stucco walls as he navigated the darkened quarters of this maze he called a home. He thought of books printed in Braille. He thought of Mia, the blind girl he used to know: the whorls imprinted on the pads of her fingers, the half-moons of her bitten fingernails, the way her skin dipped into valleys between each knuckle of her closed fists. He thought of the years past.
The door was cracked open a few inches, as Colby knew it would be. From the hallway, he could see the clock on Danny’s nightstand and the illuminated numbers on its display. Almost eleven o’clock. Using only the tips of his fingers and thumb, Colby nudged the door further open. He winced when the hinges creaked in complaint, but the boy on the bed didn’t stir. Colby walked closer to the sleeping child and lingered there like a hovering spacecraft. Danny’s chest rose and fell with each deep breath. The hem of his shirt had ridden up along his torso, exposing smooth skin underneath. Colby reached out to pull the shirt back down, but his hands stopped mid-action. Turning his attention away, he wandered around the room for a few minutes. He examined the half-lit crayon scribbles taped to the walls, nearly tripping when his foot came in contact with something smooth and round.
There was a plastic Easter egg lying on the carpet.
He bent down to pick it up. Its color, baby blue. “Hey there, little guy.” His lips moved but he didn’t speak the words out loud. “What’re you doing so far from home?” The holiday was months away. A compact object, small and hard, rattled inside the hollow chamber when he shook the egg close to his ear. Colby was on the verge of prying the two shell-halves open when he thought better of it. He set the object down on Danny’s night table, intact. He tried balancing the egg so it stood upright, but after a few failed attempts, he let it fall to its side. It rocked back and forth several times before stabilizing. Again, he remembered the eggcups that Medîya had left behind, laying to waste in her over-sized closet. The night he found them, he scoured box after box until he was feverish with the acrid scent of cardboard. Each individual cup unique, housed in divided compartments as if they were champagne flutes reserved for only special occasions.
Now, Colby stepped near the bed once more and gazed at his son’s figure on the mattress. Danny’s eyelids fluttered with frenzied, enigmatic dreams. His body shifted in place and turned slightly to its side, his navel peeking out from behind his flannel sleepshirt. The temptation was too much this time. Just one more glimpse, Colby thought. I need to know. One more look and then he would return to rebuilding his life. He would stop asking questions that this universe had no answers to. The last part was a lie but no one else was around to hear it.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, to the bedroom. Careful not to make any noise, he knelt down on the carpeted floor next to the bed. He wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for when he brought his face to Danny’s stomach. His son’s bare flesh was warm against his forehead, like an overheated video camera, weary of a lifetime spent documenting the world. Colby listened for familiar, comforting sounds: the young boy’s heart ticking away, reliable as a brass pocket watch.
At this, the child’s father smiled, reassured. He squeezed one eye shut and with the other, he looked in. If you look into someone’s navel the right way, you can see his mother, Medîya had said once upon a time, brimming with vague stories about his own mother, personal accounts that he’d never been able to disprove.
Colby had tried the trick a few times before, each time more and more desperate for closure but never getting it, never seeing anything but a knot of puckered skin. That one night was different. As the years went on, he would never be able to explain the phenomenon in words, but one thing was certain: he did not see Danny’s mother inside that navel. What he saw was something else entirely. He would think about it for the rest of his life, especially in the early mornings as Danny grew older and stumbled bleary-eyed to the kitchen table to devour his breakfast, continued even when Danny was no longer Danny but a sulky teenager named Dan, and then eventually when he was neither Danny nor Dan but Daniel, a successful businessman in a tailored suit and tie. Even then, Colby would think about what he saw that night, what mysteries were hiding inside that boy’s tiny frame. His constant, poorly hidden scrutiny made Danny uncomfortable. Dad, stop staring, he would say, brushing his old man off with a scowl. And Colby would sputter, muttering about dilated pupils and pinhole cameras and unopened eggs. You’re so weird, the almost-grown Danny said between bites of buttered toast, though his words contained no malice: Sometimes I really worry about you.
But, none of that had happened yet.
Somehow Colby made it back to his own bedroom before midnight, stripping down to a wife beater and a pair of boxers before he stumbled into bed. Discarded clothing fell in a heap on the floor with the other rejects. The same sweaty socks from three days ago were still on his feet. All night long his face was buried in the pillow, a trail of drool escaping his lips in a serpentine river stain.
While he slept, his mind drifted. And with it, his body went, too: the queen-size mattress—which, in recent months, had begun to wilt on one side—broke free from the bed’s headboard and floated away like an emergency life raft, wandering the big blue sea, searching for survivors.
He still dreamt about the island, years after the returning ship had docked and his feet were planted firmly on the shore of the mainland. There, he settled back into his normal life more quickly than he had expected. Without proper documentation, memories of that weekend initially evaporated into the air like water from the ocean, but it didn’t take long for storm clouds to form again in masses: a harbinger of the day they would release the rains. He should’ve known then that the excess water would never find a place to drain. Twenty-two years old and all his underground sewer systems—all those empty spaces where we let our secret fears and prehistoric monsters collect—were already filled to near capacity.
In hindsight, it was a trip that never should’ve happened. He ached to think that he had been the one to propose it. But his decisions had been driven by basic logic, he reminded himself. They needed to get away, just the two of them. Whatever baggage Medîya still carried from her childhood—whatever vital parts had once been cut out, removed from her body and then replaced with foreign objects—the city air was now withering her resolve. Out here, her eccentricities multiplied. Two years after their marriage, her behavior was more inexplicable than ever.
Colby couldn’t say that he was surprised. All those bright lights, their unnatural shades reflected in pothole puddles and shop windows. All that artificial noise—choppers flying overhead, tires screeching on the pavement, bass pounding through car speakers— and the perpetual sirens of ambulances and fire trucks alike, the AWW-EE-AWW-EE-AWW-EEE-AWWWW racing past them, through the littered streets and into the early morning. Even he was beginning to lose it, dizziness sweeping over him every time he opened the door and stepped out of the apartment building.
That year, Colby’s spring break fell right before the spring equinox. Joking about prime locations to stage a horror film, they decided to drive up north and spend a few days at a log cabin on a remote island sparsely populated with vacationers. His sister Zooey was more than happy to watch her nephew for the duration of their getaway. I was beginning to think you were hiding the little guy from me, she said on the phone. Over the landline, Colby could almost see her lower lip fatten in a mock pout.
“Okay.” Medîya shrugged and agreed without protest when he described the plan. “But promise me one thing.”
“Anything.” In his mind, they were already gone, already there, their lives less splintered. In his mind, it was already days into the future and they were fine, they were great. He imagined them sitting on a porch swing overlooking the water. Her renewed smile captured in a photograph with the press of a button.
“No cameras,” Medîya said. Her mouth remained a thin, straight line. “If you want us to get away, if you want time alone, just you and me—then it must really be just you and me.”
That was not the request he was expecting, but if that’s what she wanted then he could leave the recording equipment behind. Of course. “Fine,” he said, brushing her hair back and kissing her temple. “Done.” His vision of the future rearranged itself. All was well again.
From the outside, their cabin looked deceptively small. When they entered, they were greeted by a fireplace and a fresh supply of wood, the kitchen to the left furnished with a stove and fridge, an enormous bed in separate room, and a full bathroom featuring impressive indoor plumbing. The showerhead nozzle was adjustable and had six distinct settings. The strength of the water pressure surprised them both. Indoors, the building was expansive. It seemed to defy the laws of physics.
That first night started well, just as Colby had imagined. They sat by the fire and talked about trivial, inconsequential things. Medîya’s face relaxed, her whole body less tense the instant it hit the cushioned sofa. Together, they cooked spaghetti on the gas stove and watched in laughter as the water boiled away and those dry sticks loosened and expanded into a ridiculously absurd amount of pasta for two people. The massive aluminum vat sat on the table in between them, obscuring the lower halves of their faces and reflecting the room in grotesque, funhouse mirror distortions. Inside, the fat noodles were winding around one another like a nest of albino snakes, eggshell white in stark contrast to their sauce- streaked plates.
“I have an idea,” Medîya said as she set down the fork and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. The quilted paper came away a dark orange. “You like games, don’t you?”
As a matter of fact, Colby did not like games, never had, particularly not the kind of games that involved pretend murders committed with pretend weapons, by party guests named after a series of colors that clashed terribly when placed next to one another. “Actually—” he started to say, but Medîya reached around the gigantic silver container and grabbed both his hands in hers.
“We must go outside.” She glanced out the window. “Now! It’s perfect.”
The sky was jet black when they walked out the door, the kind of color that could only be squeezed directly out of a tube. Colby never thought he would encounter it in nature. He had the sudden urge to call up his painting instructor from freshman year—even though he had no idea what her number was or where she now lived—and drag her out here to look at it. See? he would say, it exists! It does. Maybe she was already looking up at it now—both of them seeing the same sky no matter the miles that separated them—and realizing how she had gotten it all wrong.
There were so many stars, grouped in clusters like a carefully plotted circuit of miniature light bulbs. He wasn’t used to seeing those either. Deep within the city, smog dimmed the sky. He craned his neck to look at the little pinpricks of light in wonder, failing to notice at first that Medîya was more interested in something far off in the distance, straight ahead of them. Finally, she tired of waiting for his attention to wander away from the sky.
“Stand facing that way,” Medîya instructed, pointing and then placing both hands around either of his arms to orient him in the right direction. “I’m going to stand here.” She turned around so that their backs were facing each other. Stray hairs grazed his bare neck and he felt the skin there rise in a field of small bumps. He was suddenly aware of how cold the night air was. He thought of Mia for the first time in a long time. He thought about how those bumps must feel to her, like a solid rectangle of black ink looks to other people: layer after layer of the same sentence written in one place until the underlying message was rendered illegible and meaningless, until the positive space had become the negative.
“What are you doing?”
“I am going to count to three,” she said in her matter-of-fact way. “When I say three, we are both going to start walking away from each other.”
“Why would we do that?” He wanted to turn around and look at her but he stayed in position.
She didn’t answer his question. “We are both going to keep walking until we can’t sense each other anymore—until we feel like we’re all alone.”
Still, he didn’t turn around, even though he was desperate to see her face. He shouldn’t have suggested this trip. The city wasn’t the problem after all. Even he had to admit it now. This is what time did to us, he thought. It severed our ties to all the things that made us whole. It left scars on our stomachs. It turned our former selves into afterthoughts, statements better left inside a set of parentheses. “This is crazy,” he protested, out loud. Warm breath wafted from his mouth in a thin cloud. “It’s dark and I’m cold. Aren’t you cold—?”
“One...” she started, ignoring him. Her shoulders brushed his back for a brief moment as she inhaled, exhaled. “Two...”
It hit him then—in the space between those two numbers—how isolated they really were out here. The silence stretched like a morsel of taffy caught between pinched fingers and clenched teeth. Pulled and pulled. Something was wrong. This whole night was wrong. He hoped she wouldn’t say it: the next number in the sequence, the final one. He hoped she would turn around and they would both laugh about it later, even into the future when they would be old and decrepit, skin hanging loose around their jaws and armpits. They would laugh about how she had him going for a few minutes there, how they had almost lost each other in the darkness that night, surrounded by the cold waves as they crashed on the shore. Almost, but didn’t. And now they had grown old together, still in love after all those years, after all the bumps and dips in the road that threatened to unseat them with an onslaught of orange, diamond-shaped warning signs.
“Three,” Medîya said. As soon as she uttered the word, his fantasy broke away. He heard the rubber soles of her shoes as they hit the dirt road and took her away from him and he felt himself pulling away from her, too.
Tree branches rustled in the wind and a foghorn sounded intermittently from across the bay. He heard two sets of footsteps: hers and his own. The latter remained the same volume while hers began to fade until he could no longer hear them. He stopped walking. That was when he realized she had never given further instructions. He didn’t know whether to turn around and look behind him. When was he supposed to walk back? Had she stopped too, or was she still walking away? He listened more closely for sounds: her voice calling out to him or approaching footsteps or her denim pant legs brushing against each other.
When he heard the foghorn again, he realized he had no idea how much time had passed. He turned and started back until he saw her standing in the same spot where they had started the exercise. He put his arms around her as soon as he was close enough to do so. “Medîya, thank God.” He held her tight. “Thank God.”
For a few seconds, she returned the embrace but soon her body relaxed against his. “We are not done,” she said, her hands pushing him away.
“Yes, we are.” He tried his best to sound firm, but even he could hear the way his voice wavered as it echoed inside his head. We are not done, she had said. One sentence, two different possible meanings. Which one was he responding to? “I’m going back inside,” he said, tone cautious.
“No.” Delicately, she placed his arms back at his sides. “There is one more thing.”
“What? What thing?”
“We are now facing each other,” she stated.
He couldn’t argue with that. “Yes, we are.”
“I am going to count to three,” Medîya repeated. “When I say three, we are going to start walking backwards, away from each other.” She looked up at him. “We will stop when we feel we can no longer sense the other’s presence, when we feel we are all alone.”
He searched her eyes for underlying meaning, any hint of where all this was coming from. But he came up empty. “Medîya, why are you doing this?”
“I just want you to understand, Cheese Man,” she said, and there was some sadness in her voice even though her lips curved upward in a smile. Cheese Man. He couldn’t remember the last time she had called him that. The first time though? He remembered the first time all too well. Details, Cheese Man. You’re always so concerned about details. She had patted him on the thigh as if he were a child. Maybe you should consider zooming out once in a while.
“Understand what?” These days, he was desperate to understand. Anything.
She shook her head. “One,” she began, still smiling. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips. They shimmered, dark pink, under the glow of the tenuous light.
When someone spent a lot of time in one place, it was easy for him to grow accustomed to the things that populated that domain, that world. So much so, that one day he would fail to notice these everyday objects at all. Colby looked at Medîya as she stood on the dimly lit path that night, really looked her, and realized for the first time what it meant to be blind. It was so easy to take something for granted when it was in front of you every day. Take a face, for instance. A human face could be broken down into individual features that were initially unrecognizable in isolation: lips and nostrils and tearducts that sometimes caught you by surprise when you focused on any one part, when you realized that once, long ago, you had pulled back to see the bigger picture and never again zoomed back in to examine the little pieces that fit together to make a whole.
“Two,” the woman in front of him said.
He saw so much of Danny in her. Their son was only a toddler but already Colby could tell that he would have her asymmetrical eyes and lazy, lopsided grin. He wondered what Danny was doing at that very moment, wondered if his aunt Zooey had put him to bed, wondered what stories she had told him before turning out the light.
“Three.” Medîya was no longer smiling when she took the first step back.
Now compelled to see this exercise through, Colby stepped backwards, following her lead. His eyes were locked with hers. As the space between them swelled, he was fully prepared for the whites to disappear. He was prepared for her start growing smaller and smaller as his periphery widened and the surrounding landscape grew broader and broader. He wasn’t prepared for her to fade so quickly against the forest of trees behind her, until all he saw were patches of darkness in front of him.
One moment, she was there. The next, she had vanished. No hint of color, not even a simple outline of the shape of her body remained.
When she had still been a few feet away—a sliver of life in his line of vision—he had forgotten the steady beat of his eardrums. He’d stopped listening to the island and its unique musical score. Now that he could no longer see, those instrumental sounds were obvious again: the foghorn, the rustling of foliage, the weight of his body carving footprints into the gravely path. He waited until the universe seemed to bottom out, like the orchestral pit at a concert hall, before he stopped walking. Feet tethered to the road, he waited again for her to make the first move and reappear.
“Medîya?” His voice was hoarse. “Medîya!” Still no answer.
In his dreams, he called her name again and again but her figure never materialized. She was gone.
Susan L. Lin is an MFA candidate at California College of the Arts, where she divides her time unequally between writing her dinosaur novel, making pop-up books, and eating free pie. Her novella Goodbye to the Ocean was a semi-finalist in the 2012 Gold Line Press chapbook competition, and an excerpt recently appeared in the Curbside Splendor anthology The Way We Sleep. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review.