Early on Saturday morning, Anne Greenidge lay in her new lover’s sleeping embrace, torn between the comfort of his arms and the more familiar comfort of her own insecurity. David must have felt her struggle, because he stirred and pulled her closer. His breath was warm and his lips were soft when he pressed them to her neck and spoke into her ear. She nuzzled closer, but she also wondered if he was even real. It was not a new sensation.
When Anne was in the fourth grade, her mother helped her bake cupcakes to share at school for her birthday. That morning she went to school early, riding in the front seat of her father’s car with the cupcakes on her lap, careful to hold them horizontally and wincing every time he went over a bump.
When the class came in after recess, the scent of chocolate buttercream floated on the air. Anne’s teacher, Mrs. Perno, led the class in singing “Happy Birthday,” then beckoned her up front to distribute her treats.
The box felt heavy and reassuring as she lifted it, but shock struck when she looked inside. The scent lingered still, but except for the little foil cups, the box was now empty.
Mrs. Perno looked over her shoulder into the box. “Anne, these are beautiful,” she said. “You didn’t even smear any frosting.” She smiled broadly as she turned to the class. “What do we all say to Anne?” she prompted.
“Thank you, Anne!” they boomed in unison.
Mrs. Perno reached in with her thumb and forefinger and drew out a crinkled silvery cup of nothingness and placed it on a napkin. “Did you bake these yourself, Anne?”
Anne nodded, terrified. Why could they see them, but she couldn’t? She held back tears as Mrs. Perno extracted more cups and began passing them out. She watched as her classmates jammed their hands to their mouths to bite into nothing but air.
But as she watched, smudges of frosting began to appear on cheeks and noses and golden-yellow crumbs dropped from jabbering lips to the worn carpet. The tears quivering in her eyes crystallized with shock.
“What’s wrong, Anne?” they asked. “Aren’t you going to eat a cupcake?”
Her hands shook as she lifted an empty foil cup to her lips, and in that brief moment, the cupcake was there again. She breathed in the butter and the sugar and the chocolate.
And then it was gone again.
Did I just—? She was confused, but she pretended to eat it, just like they did. Pretended to taste the chocolate and the cake. But all she tasted was her own salty tears.
David had rolled over and now he crackled in and out of existence, like a weak signal between two stations. If she squinted, she could discern ghosts of his shape in the past—hazy, dishwater-colored outlines of his movements—broken old mannequins seen through the filthy windows of a boarded-up store. His ghost was solid in some of the moments, barely there in others.
Her molecules were held together by a stronger force, but it wasn’t enough. Nothing around her was permanent. She was real, but was anything else? She shifted slightly and David solidified. She was his antenna. As long as she stayed in a position where she could keep him tuned in, he’d stay.
She glanced around the room and grimaced at the half-empty bottles on the nightstand. In the corner sat a mound of dirty clothes that had resisted her efforts to toss them into the hamper they now piled beside. Her mess was definitely there.
David snortled himself awake. He seemed confused for a moment, then he turned to look at her and smiled. “I was just having the craziest dream,” he said.
Slowly, she smiled back. “Tell me.”
“I was somewhere with you,” he said, still thinking. “There was a bird—a parakeet or something—but you couldn’t see it or hear it. It kept saying how beautiful you were. That’s all it would say, over and over. I was agreeing with it, but it kept saying it like it was an argument. You kept asking me who I was talking to and I told you, but you couldn’t see it and you were getting mad.”
Absentmindedly, he reached out to stroke her hair. “It might’ve been a parrot.”
She laughed and put her hand on his, but she lost reception and he blinked away. “Damnit,” she said. She twisted around a bit—turning this way and that—but couldn’t quite get him back.
Thinking that maybe she wasn’t polished enough to be an antenna, she got up and brushed her teeth and fixed her hair. She tried getting back into the same spot, but the impression she’d left in the mattress had already smoothed itself out and she couldn’t find it again. His was still there though.
When David didn’t reappear after a few minutes, she got up and opened the shades. She put her hand to the window and looked out. It was cloudy, but warm. She’d discovered a lovely farmer’s market the next neighborhood over and wanted to walk there, but the overcast and the humidity deterred her—the forecast promised rain by afternoon. She finally started to clean her room only to discover that the pile of clothes had somehow disappeared and the bottles from her nightstand had rematerialized in the trash bin.
Nothing had any permanence and it seemed like the harder she tried to get a grip on things, the worse it got. Frustrated, she called her mother and asked what would become of her.
“Que será, será,” her mother said.
To Anne’s ears, she sounded clearly distracted. It was annoying. “What do you mean by that?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” her mother asked back. “You need to learn to relax sometimes.”
Before she could respond, Anne was startled by the washing machine starting on its own. That had been happening a lot of late. She looked in the washer and discovered the clothes from her pile and her hamper. She was perplexed.
“Are you still there?” her mother asked.
“I don’t know,” Anne said. “Things keep happening. Nothing’s real. I think I’m going crazy.”
“Have you been taking your vitamins?”
“I don’t need vitamins, Mom,” she said. “I need real things. Real food, real life. I need something solid.” She touched her hair—the humidity was making it frizz already, so she started twisting it up. “And vitamins are artificial and your body can’t absorb what it needs from them.”
“Well then eat some vegetables,” her mother said. “Or go for a walk.”
She decided a walk might be a good idea, but not because her mother said so. She promised to call her back, then put on a tee shirt, some jeans and her favorite sneakers. She thought she looked cute in the mirror, but she didn’t want to be bothered, so she pulled on a baseball cap and hoped no one would notice.
At the market she picked up eggs and honey from a local farm, and let a baker woo her into buying a cupcake he swore would be the best she’d ever tasted. (It wasn’t).
She found some irises and anemones that would make a spectacular bouquet, and the guy selling them threw in a bunch of snapdragons too. She bought tomatoes and cucumbers to make the salad David liked, and some zucchini to grill. If he came back before they went bad, she’d make it for him.
It started raining while she walked home and she had a hard time keeping both herself and her bags under the umbrella.
A guy saw her struggling and came over. “You want some help?” he asked.
“No,” she answered reflexively. “I’m fine.”
He snorted and flickered in and out, but she could see the rain still flowing around a human shape where he’d stood. She dropped a bag and bent to get it, but the guy solidified and picked it back up before she could. He took another bag from her and repositioned them in her hands.
“Hold them like this, Freckles,” he said, smiling.
Freckles? She thought to herself. She laughed.
The guy shook his head playfully, then disappeared, muttering, into the rain.
When she got home she looked in the mirror again. She knew she had freckles, but she couldn’t recall anyone ever calling them out before. They seemed to get deeper and more intense as she studied herself.
David came back that night and they sat on the balcony in the dark and ate quietly.
“This salad is perfect,” David said.
“I didn’t even have to do anything,” she agreed. “The tomatoes are so good.”
He smiled. “Good ingredients; great chef.”
It started raining again, so they went back inside. David started putting the food away and she went into the bathroom to look at her freckles again.
David came in a few minutes later while she was still self-examining.
“See something you like?” he asked.
She smiled. Had her freckles gotten darker? “I’m so spotted,” she said with a touch of surprise.
“You just noticing that?” he asked, putting his arms around her. “I think they’re pretty.”
He’d faded so much that she barely heard the words, but that comment solidified him a little.
“And then your skin catches up to them and they disappear again.”
“And I like when you let your hair just be natural and fro it out.”
He put his nose in her hair as she tried to smooth it down.
“C’mon,” he said, stopping her hands. “We’re not going out tonight, can I enjoy it for a little while?”
He solidified more and she stood there with him, letting him kiss her and hold her and play in her hair.
“Much as I’d love to kiss you all day,” he eventually said, kissing her forehead, “my feet are cold. I’m gonna get some socks.”
She remembered she’d forgotten to put the laundry in the dryer. There were no clean socks. “I forgot to put the clothes in the dryer,” she called.
He didn’t answer. He’d disappeared again.
I shouldn’t have forgotten to dry them, she thought, but if I go do it now, he might come back. She went to see if the clothes smelled funny and needed rewashing or if she could just throw them in the dryer.
She walked into the living room and was shocked. David was sitting there wearing mismatched socks and scrolling through the channel guide on the TV.
She watched him for a second, waiting for him to disappear, but he didn’t. “Where’d you get those?” she asked, nodding at his feet.
“From the dryer.”
His voice was deeper than she remembered.
“But I forgot to put the clothes in the dryer,” she said.
“I put them in when you went to the market. I even folded them. And you know I hate folding.”
She noticed the basket of clothes and sat beside him on the couch. She looked at him with amazement.
“Love is a basket of folded laundry,” he said, turning to kiss her cheek.
The picture disappeared for a second, then came back. “Do you want to watch something else?” he asked.
Anne just smiled and shook her head.
“Good,” he said. “This is a marathon.”