From this bench near the boardwalk, I aim to separate what can be saved from what can’t and here it is again, this question of everything without a proper name. It’s like with those Magic Eye paintings, how the two of us would look and look, seeing nothing but a block of color, and then–there it is! Liz saw it first, like she did most things. She showed me: pull back, squint like a cat. Now that’s what I do, and the thing that I can’t unsee is her.

So I am trying to write a letter to my sister, finally.

“Dear Liz—”

 The fact that she’s been dead for two decades does not lessen my need to keep the communication going.  

Irv’s nearby, talking to someone between the fish and chips place and the surf shop. The pens are in my coat. I always carry extra, in case. “The grunion are running,” is one thing to tell, as they were when I first arrived. They come in late spring and early summer, with the full moon high tides and an influx of tourists and beach cruisers.

A woman resembling Liz crosses the boardwalk in front of where I am sitting, hair blowing across her face. “You!” I think, for the length of a caught breath. This happens more often than I will try to explain.

“How long has it been?” It takes some figuring to arrive at the realization that it’s been twenty years since I first parked the van at the end of a road above the Pacific I’d never seen, except in movies and postcards. I followed the sound of waves and ran down a dirt path to fall in the sand. It was Liz’s idea to get a van. She wanted to be like one of those people Didion wrote about, who followed the sunset through their windshield until they ran out of land. It was one of those things we were sure we were going to do someday, before either of us thought to number any reasons for doubting that someday was an actual time, and not past. 

The occasion for this letter? Start with the immediate. The van that was new after Liz’s funeral is acting up now. This is not a problem when Irv and I are asleep in it or when we eventually get it started, but it could be a very big problem someday. Irv scratches his beard when we’re waiting for the engine turnover to take. He offers ideas. 

“Starter circuit,” he says. “Possibly a connection. The alternator should be good. Battery should be good. Not the transmission, no. Could be an issue with the V-belt.”

I tell Irv let’s not worry about it for now.

“Want me to check the oil?” he offers. Irv has strong feelings about pulling his weight in a relationship, and he’s been out of sorts since the layoff. That was about two years ago.

I say yes, so he has something to do. 

“It’s a quart low,” he says, so now he has another thing to do. Mine is to write this letter.  Irv and I have an unspoken agreement that there are some things we’re not going to wonder about out loud. ‘Perfect timing,” Irv says, about the eviction, “It’s summer.” What he means is that we have a whole season for discovering the solution we can’t see yet. 

We left the van at the Park ’n Ride where we’ve been leaving it most afternoons. It’s the beginning of the season of staying at the beach as much as possible. 

“Thinking of you,” I write to Liz. It’s what people say when they are thinking many things. One of the grief counselors on TV in the aftermath said that the thing about managing tragedy is asking “Why not me?” instead of “Why me?” 

I was stuck on why her, but still I admired the way she had known to jump, given the circumstances.

Arms out, she leaped, and I stayed. I piled the newspaper headlines in a closet, until one day I couldn’t anymore. I left my job. “In the library, of all places,” Liz used to tease, and the man that had found me there never raised his voice when he was checking out Louis L’Amour paperbacks. This was in my other life when Liz knew me and I knew I was real. It was before the van, before I drove to the sunset, before I met Irv. This other man found me when Liz was still living. He wasn’t handsome but he seemed consistent. In a library, certain manners always are. Now I’m three-thousand miles west of the moment of impact, watching an orange sun drop toward a postcard horizon, and here comes Irv again, calling me back. 

Confession: I might roll my eyes when he does this while I’m trying to write a letter, but I like how Irv is always calling me back. I’m afraid that if he doesn’t and there’s no one left to see me, I may disappear. With Liz gone, it seems like I am often on the verge.

“Mare!” he says, “I was calling!” He wants me to meet Enzo again. He forgets that we did this introduction a few days ago. He gestures to the surf shop behind him.

I look up, keeping the woman that looks like Liz in my periphery.

Irv is sensitive about what he is always forgetting. I say, “Busy now,” and “Later, sure.”

Poor Irv, he needs it worse. What else do you do with a voice? In the end, does it matter who listens? I sometimes think that most of his talk is like tapping a cell wall at midnight, just to hear the answer of a tap back. 

“I got Enzo over here, we were talking and then I saw you and thought, you gotta meet him! I’m just about to tell him about the borderlands. I mean, he probably knows, but–”

Not long after we first met, Irv explained how local marine researchers had recently located a seep thousands of meters down, with methane-eating microbes and pink worms that look like tube socks. We were in a bar on Garnet on a quiet afternoon, watching the bikini-top beach cruiser crowd through the window. He wanted me to guess what else these researchers were going to do with the discovery. When I couldn’t, he told me.

The program was called Tree of Life. “Get this,” Irv explained, then and on regular occasions afterwards, “they wanna measure the relationships between what is living and what is extinct.” I am still trying to get this. I don’t yet, but with Irv around I’m less worried about forgetting to try to understand–anything, and possibly losing track of everything, including the place where I am supposed to be right now, the living survivor of a once-forever pair.

“Maybe later,” I tell Irv, because I don’t want to stop watching this woman who looks like Liz.

Now I am studying the difference between this woman at the railing and my sister as she was when we were in our twenties: her nose is longer than Liz’s, her chin more pronounced. Her skin is lighter. No one would ask this woman–at the railing now, looking out– “What are you?” There is something about her stillness that I recognize. Her visible body may be right in front of me, leaning on the wooden railing, looking at the water. But the rest of her is far away. I know that look. She’s either remembering, trying to make a decision, or doing her best to avoid either option.

“Whatever you say, Mare.” Irv has phrases he repeats. “It’s all good,” is another. He prefers expressions with no bearing.

Liz wasn’t alone when she jumped. Still, someone speaking of them afterwards said, “It’s surprising there weren’t more.”

I have tried, but I still can’t imagine that kind of surprise. Even when we were little with the bombs on TV and the stories about melting ice caps, hijackers, and car bombs, we knew. Here is end of the world, Hello! Most of us learn to stay, anyway. Once you commit like that, the smoke of a burning building doesn’t translate into, “Go.” Not necessarily, but Liz was different, and the stairs were blocked. 

Now comes the breeze, and the only stairs are leading to the sand, and has it really been twenty years? When I ran out of land for driving West, that’s when I got it, how Someday could be an old yellow Polaroid in disguise.

At some point, it is possible to adapt so well, that a living listener becomes the icing on the cake.

“—Or on the end of a spoon, if the cake never comes!” 

Liz loved old-timey expressions. “It’s the bee’s knees,” she would say, but what do I know about the knees of bees? I think if they were hacked off, mafioso-style, probably most of them would keep flying. They would just land and take off differently.

Talking is like that: you go on flying, with or without any knees for landing. “You just can’t carry pollen the same way,” Liz reminds.

And yet, here she is. 

She rests her wrists on the railing, staring out. There’s a hipster bar behind her, one of those blue-lit places with brush-bearded guys in flannel shirts and the clean-faced ones in form-fitting cotton-skin tees, and the girls with their forever legs on platforms, cheeks hanging from their shorts like they don’t know. Her dress is modest, fingertip length. It blows back and sideways, her curling hair with it. 

The thing about missing a face is that you keep on looking anyway. Images of the day replay in the aftermath, screen or no screen. Columns of black smoke pouring from columns of mirrored windows; it was a matter of time before suffocation or building collapse: one or the other. “Neither” was not an option.

It’s amazing that she is allowed to stand like that alone, even for a minute. It was hard to get near Liz once we got to high school. She was always surrounded.

“Who’s Liz?” 

I look to see if Irv is kidding me, because how can you share a place, or places, with someone for fifteen years and then, a few weeks after you downsize to a temporary arrangement in a van at the Park ’n Ride, they still don’t recognize the name of your dead twin sister? But this is how it is when you don’t have a habit of explaining, and no practice either, because you didn’t need one until it broke. 

“She’s the face,” I would say. When we would introduce ourselves as a pair, people would look back and forth like they were trying to figure out if the twin thing was a joke. Liz was the star of the show. I was the one who came with. But there we both were anyway, with all these other people that were her friends by point of origin and mine by association. I didn’t have to be anybody’s favorite. Liz would talk to me even when the others didn’t and that’s how I knew I was real.

Except for agreeing to live with the man from the library until shortly after Liz died, I moved only once, and it was out here, away from anyone who could ask me in her absence, how I was and far from anyone still capable of wondering if I could be the face. It wasn’t me on the speech team, the Homecoming Committee, the podium. 

What would be the point of starting now, making a whole other face? It’s easier to be in limbo. If there are species that can spend whole generations–eons, even–undiscovered, why not a single life? 

So, when Irv asks, I don’t try to get into it, and he tells me again how he was catching up with Enzo. I nod, and there goes Enzo, walking away from where they had been sharing his meal. 

Before Irv knew his proper name, we called Enzo “the scientist guy” because of his bird face with thick glasses and his habit of collecting samples and putting them in vials, which he keeps in the lunch cooler he always wears across his chest. He collects water, sand, and the amber earth from the cliff which is neither soil nor sand. I don’t know what else he keeps in there. Irv can talk an ear off, and Enzo can nod all day long, squinting at his specimens, and once when he replied that he worked at the institute, Irv said, “Of course!” like he knew–marine ecosystems, apparently. 

This explains all the pens in Enzo’s shirt. I’ve never seen anyone else with them. Once, I was on the beach near where he worked and by the way he fluttered his open hands over his shirt pockets, it was clear that he had lost his last one. He asked a pair of pocketbook girls walking past him, and they said, “A what?” until he had to repeat himself, miming the act of writing on a page. They made a face at each other and then at him, like he was asking for a blowtorch. 

I called out, “Do you need a pen?” holding one of mine up, and he looked in my direction, bird face squinting through his glasses, and then went back to checking his pockets again. That was when I knew I had gone from a person that people can recognize to something else. 

“I’ll be here, Irv,” I say, and he turns back to the picnic area where Enzo had been, but now Enzo is on the sand.

*****

There is something precarious about almost-Liz’s stillness, like a web between branches. She turns her head and now, another difference. Before that ocean, on an evening like this with the moonlight against the water, the grunion running and the flashlight children on the beach, chasing after them, Liz’s lips would have been parted slightly, in awe, smiling at everything like it was a secret she was keeping to herself. But there is a tightness in this woman’s face, her lips pursing in waves. I watch her jaw stiffen from twenty feet away, and she presses a fingertip to the outside corner of an eye. 

Species of distress have particular scents. What is the name of the scientist who named smell the direct conduit to memory? Here comes a familiar gut knot. I wait, scanning the crowd behind her. 

It takes about fifteen minutes to go from dusk to night. This I remember, from when I kept time.

“Hey Mare, you seen Enzo?”

I shake my head, still watching. For a guy with no credentials, Irv has an amazing amount of confidence. 

“I remembered something else I wanted to tell him. About the borderlands.” Now Irv, in my periphery, is waving his outstretched hand to the sea.

Irv actually knows a lot about some things. We used to both be reading all the time when we had books, before the libraries closed. 

“I mean,” Irv continued, as though I were Enzo, listening to him tell it for the first time, “We’re talking creatures no one has even seen before!” 

I had a little studio back then, around the time when we met in the bar on Garnet with our books. I kept a pot of basil on the porch and a strawberry plant hanging from a hook. No ocean view, but the smell of eucalyptus was everywhere. I couldn’t even name it then. 

That was Irv’s point. “I mean, they don’t even have names for these things yet!” And when they do, these things that almost no one else has ever seen, become real. 

“Okay,” I nod, and Irv goes. 

Then I see who is coming for her. He looms more than his height, but he is tall enough. Buzz cut, open jacket, a bit of a bulge at his waist, and something in his walk suggesting a fondness for replaying high school football moments and opinions in general. In the set of his jaw, I see the resolve of a predator about to move. The railing where she stands is about ten paces–no, twelve, from the perimeter of the bar. He does not run, and I recognize the look. Here is a man sensitive to public appearances. His neck pivots side to side, scanning north and south and then behind him. He reaches her, presses two fingers against the nerve just above the inside of her elbow. She flinches. He holds his fingers and the set of his jaw. No scene, nothing to see; I only do because I already know. Some men will never make a public scene. He leans in, talks low. The tone is not audible, but his face says: just wait until we get home. It’s not a coincidence to notice a woman in trouble like this. You have to live through this thing to see it. Once you’ve named it, it’s everywhere, whether or not anyone else is looking.

“Don’t!”

A striding rollerblader swerves away. Now a trio of blonde girls in shorts on electric bikes. Startled, they swerve in unison, look at me and then behind them, toward the woman and the man keeping her, but to them there is nothing to see.

I know how to read a sign. Stay on this bench and the movers will maul you. Besides, tell me: how often does a moment like this appear, with an invitation to act extended like an open hand? I may be forever waiting too long, but I know how to answer when I hear a knock.

There is only my backpack on me today. If I had more, she might be scared. The man beside her keeps talking. She nods slightly, turning her face. I know that look, like watching the imaginary film version of your own end, accepting but not seeing. There are things that can’t be looked at directly without injury. Eclipse is one; here’s another. But name it.

“No!”

I was nowhere near Liz when it happened. I was off Tuesdays, home alone. I was six months with this man from the library, and he had work. He had approached the circulation desk with his westerns, and I had ignored a sense of encountering a wolf.  No, I thought, then. “That is not what it is.” I called it by another name, which was nothing.

He offered his big hand, “the better to hold you with,” and I laughed. Later, in the heat of August, I wore long sleeves to cover the bruises on my arms, and the bracelet he had placed on my wrist made me think sometimes of the tagging devices that researchers put on birds and dolphins, to track them. Another month later, the birds were all gone.

About five years and a continent’s breadth from that season, I met Irv because it was better to be at a dive bar in the afternoon with my book and soft background noises than alone in my head, not able to tell where my head ended and real began. Irv always traveled with at least one book in his jacket pocket, and plenty to say. I found it comforting how the things Irv would notice were never strictly limited to the immediate environment. “The thing about the borderlands,” Irv would repeat, was how old they had to be, and still discovered this late. “They don’t even know yet,” he said, “what to do with any of it!” I didn’t either, so I didn’t mind the way Irv would repeat himself often, even early on. It wasn’t like the point of our talk was the sharing of information. It was more of a ritual, and the point was to stay in it.

The man by almost-Liz changes his tone, apologetic now. He tucks a loose hair behind her ear. Now the flat of his hand is on her lower back. “Just come home,” he is saying. Now her eyes are falling into the water, full moon glow over black ink, with everything beneath it out of sight. He only needs to get her home. 

He makes a motion like Wait and holds for some indication that she knows he means it. She nods slightly, pursing her lips again, back stiff. Even as he walks away, he is turning back to check. Heart in my ears now, I hold the air high in my lungs until he is out of sight.

I approach to stand beside her at the rail. There’s a moment when you get near enough to someone when they will either move away or acknowledge that you are there. She turns. 

“Listen,” I say, “I don’t know you. But I know how these things are.”

Now her eyes are in mine, and I have to lean against the rail for balance. I could fall over from the sudden impact of a look. A singular purpose magnifies my sense of time.  

“Eternity in an hour.”

“What?” she is saying–to me! 

I recover, ambulance siren in my ears.

“He is coming back,” I say. “Don’t be here.” Now it is me holding the look and I do not let go. I scream, “See this!” with these eyes and she is there for a moment in front of me, and hers are dark like wet stones. She holds them still as her chin turns down and then up. Now what?

“Look,” I tell her, and I point past the bench where I had been, to the single outdoor bathroom, near the fish ’n chips place by the picnic area. 

“You need to go now,” I tell her. “I will wait outside.” It locks from the inside. I know the woman who cleans them. We will keep her safe.

Her eyes hold.

“Do you hear me?” These days, I really cannot tell.

“It’s time,” I tell her, “Move.”

We move. “I know I don’t look like anyone,” I say, “that you know.” I am insisting that I don’t care, and that she can laugh and call me crazy later but from somewhere else.

“Just not in a building on fire,” I say. I do care, though.

“What?”

“Never mind.” I check the door. It is open. Her lips part slightly.

“Mare! Mare!” 

“Now,” I tell her, nodding slow. “Wait. I will stay.”

Irv is singing now. “Mar-eeeeeee-yah!”  What did he find over there? His eyes are very bright.

The woman goes in. I listen for the door lock. I check it and look behind us. I am afraid the man has been watching us this whole time. But I don’t see him. 

“That’s not my name, Irv.”

“I know Mare, I know, it’s all good.”

He is excited now, on the balls of his feet. His shoes are falling apart. “Where are your laces, Irv?”

“You know what tonight is, baby?”

“Grunion run?” I say back, like the thought just occurred. You have to do this with a man sometimes, so he can feel like he has a grip on something true. Especially Irv.

“That’s right!” Now he’s prime-time professor, corduroy and tweed, elbow patches.

“Dear Liz–“

The grunion were running when I got here–or in the first few months, anyway, when I left the first and last party I attended, on the patio of someone who knew someone who had a birthday. It took only one such event to realize that I didn’t have a heart for pretending to have a face. It was a few miles south of here, and I had walked past this spot, heading north barefoot, carrying my shoes until I saw the red lights of the power plant and then I found the road, and the way back. I had a little studio then. “My place,” I called it.

“Yah, and hey, did you see Enzo?”

“He went down that way a while ago,” and I point north along the sand.

“You waiting to go?” Irv asks me.

“Helping a friend,” I say. “Women’s issues.”

“I don’t even wanna know,” he says, and he is right.

“I’ll find you later,” I tell him, but we both know better.

“Okay baby, you’re the boss,” and now he walks away.

The buzz-cut man returns. He looks and looks again. His eyes widen, his back teeth gnawing disbelief. The pivot of his neck as he scans the boardwalk in every direction. The slow feet, surveilling a circle: bar behind him, bikes moving north, flashlights on the beach. You can see it: how he had considered her departure often, and then decided that she didn’t have it in her. He was almost right.  

He walks slowly south, paunch forward and chin up, to stand at the top of the access stairs, keeping watch. Then he turns back, sweeping his gaze from beach to bar. He squints at the flashlight children. The first grunion arrive; children squeal. In a few hours, silver fish bodies will cover the shoreline. The females will bury themselves two-thirds in the sand, and the males will circle around. 

“What happens after?” 

No one knows much more about the grunion. The surf pulls them back out. Most of the eggs are eaten. Survivors return to mate at the next full moon in summer.

Eventually I knock.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me,” I say. “He’s gone.”

She opens the door a crack, her wide eyes catching mine. She looks behind me and then both ways.

“Come quick,” I tell her, “Out of the light.” I lead her down the stairs, which are open now. Feet sink into the soft sand. She joins me in the shadow by the seawall.  

“Is your phone charged?” She will need to call for help.

“It’s off.”

“Leave it that way, for now.”

I see her questions. “Forget the other reasons,” I say. “Lay low awhile.” She will feel like she is nowhere, “But just wait. Block the calls until they stop.”

“What is your name?” I would have asked the same thing, a long time ago.

“You reminded me of my sister.” 

Pointing north, I tell her, “If you head that way, there’s an access staircase, then a parking lot.”

She’s still here, nodding and listening.

Does she have someplace to go where he isn’t? She does. 

Do I? Never mind.

“Are you okay?” I ask, like I don’t know what life does to the living.

She nods, but I see it. If she was, she wouldn’t still be here. Here’s the place for a hug, but no one does that anymore.

“Go,” and she goes.

She looks back once and I wave. I turn toward the water.

Shrieks from the children. The adults near them say, “Look! Here!”

“Look at all the things without names.” But naming and saying are different.

“Wait!”

She is almost out of sight when I start to run, and I have not done this in a long time. Have I ever? 

“Liz, how long’s it been?” and the answer is a memory-squeal because chase was our favorite game, and we were children. The thrill, between us, was only part running. The rest had to do with chasing our halved selves: Me, Not Me; Apart, Now Together Again. “Base!”

She is startled, stepping sideways. “Wait!” 

I hold my right hand up, and with the other on my knee, I lean over, catching breath. Steady now. “When I said to you hang on, I meant to this.” And I sweep my arms wide, head up. “Not the smoke where the floor is burning. It’s beautiful, seeing you–”

“Um.”

“–walk,” I mean.

She nods, scared deer look, then a nervous laugh.

“Okay.” Hand on her heart, she bows thanks.

There is so much more, but “Time’s up!” I bow back, raise my hand, and turn away.

“Spit it out already,” Liz would say. I walk slowly back through the soft sand near the seawall. The tide is coming up and the excitement of the flashlight children escalates between each crashing wave.

Between our games of chase, we watched the bombs on TV, and we dreamed the mushroom clouds. We sucked on grape popsicles before the television images of the children with swollen bellies and flies on their face. We cried while the mothers stared back, done with crying, and then we made a point not to look, thinking, “Don’t tell me again what I know.” But it was there, anyway, all along. We refused to name it.

Liz is nodding. “And that’s not the half of it,” she says. I’m listening. 

I am a long time, walking. I get back to the stairs and take some breaths before I start to climb. Eventually, I am here again, the fake-solid concrete beneath my feet. Someone is sleeping on the bench. I take off my pack and stand at the rail. I rest the pack between my feet and shiver against the new chill. My back is wet. 

The bar noise escalates. A large group behind me parts ways. Parents gather flashlight children in packs of two and three and six, and they walk more slowly now, back up the beach with their pails. 

“I’m waiting,” Liz says. “Say it already.”

I say it again, and now it is loud, my throat chafing against this current. But it’s nothing, just this cry I have been keeping.

Is this where I tell you how, all behind and in front of me–in the bar, along the beach, on the stairs, along this rail––people are suddenly looking? Is this where I reveal that the children are dropping their flashlights and the parents are picking them up, steering them away? I can’t; I am seeing none of this. There is seeing and then there is the sense of something closing in, and these are not the same.

“Good one, Mare!”

Finally, Liz laughs, and she’s looking at me full in the face. I tighten my grip on the rail.

“Mare,” she calls, “that’s the bee’s knees!”

“Liz!”

“Mare!” Irv is finding me.

“Liz!”

“Mare!”

Here’s where I get the impulse to move again. Whenever I stand at a railing like this, I imagine people at other edges, about to jump.

Now, another voice, the untextured tone of an official remaining calm as per protocol. 

“Ma’am?” 

Now these hands are waving between me and Liz. I wave them away, backhand first. You can be an invisible ancient, but then someone takes notice one day and says, “Hey! Tube sock!”

Not now, “Let me be!” 

Now it’s Irv’s, “Something, something.” 

Is this why fish move in schools? Here’s a question for Irv to ask Enzo when I get back. Irv’s voice is frantic now, almost a song, and I want to remember to say to him: here’s new material, get your guitar. Even though it’s rusting in the van, he will sing sometimes, and I want to hear it again. The hands keep coming now; I am surrounded.

“I’m not jumping!” It’s only a three-foot drop into soft sand from where I stand, and what do I need with a sprained ankle and everything else still here?

Something moves, though. I thought I knew it, but I couldn’t say, so the names, all along, were all wrong. She did not leave; she died. Not a joyful leap; terror. Not choice, it was the opposite of choosing. Not a single event; no terror is less than the culmination of many events yet to be named.

“Liz!”

It was not a burning building, but The Towers. It was not a building at all, but the sky itself, and us in it. Not my dead twin, my living face. 

She is gone.

“Ma’am, would you like to sit down?”

“I would like many things.”

“Name one! Name it!” Irv is saying this in his tag-you’re-it voice, but I am hearing what he does not say.

Say the word. I try. 

“Don’t let me–”

Sometimes, the only words you can find are not about anything. But how else do you reach with your only voice?

“Where are you?” 

Whose arms are here, waving in my face? When does a person find themselves among so many arms at one time? I let go of the railing, open my hands. I find one on each side of me and hold on. Eyes closing, head tipping back, I lean.

I fall into them. There is a moment when all these hands are there at the edge of the drop, catching my limbs, my back, the back of my head. Sometimes it’s impossible to find the borders of a body except with some help.

The polite official says, “Here, here.” 

Dear Liz, I’ll write, when this is done. Here I am.

 

END

 

Cover Art: June, by Despy Boutris

Stacey C. Johnson

Stacey C. Johnson writes and teaches in San Diego County. She is a graduate of the MFA program at San Diego State University. Her work appears in Oyster River Pages, Pacific Review, and Fiction International, as well as various other publications. You can find her at staceycjohnson.com and on Twitter @StaceCJohnson.

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