The Builder’s Errors

They found her, or her body?

The voice on the phone had said something about peace, about closure.

Her body.

Then I thought, Where was she?

I set out to find out.

I collected everything of hers I could find: clothes and shoes, diaries, pictures, books, papers she’d written, notes, letters, emails, and all the recordings—her voicemail greeting, old videos, YouTube videos friends had made—everything. I drew up a life-size model and had it made, split down the middle and hinged, and put most of these things inside it, laid extra shoes by the feet, blouses and dresses beside her, turned the recordings into MP3 files which I downloaded onto her iPod, worked for months with a gnomish engineer to loop the videos on little screens which went into the face in lieu of eyes.

The dining room, the living room, her bedroom, the patio; in different moods I switched her to different rooms, but whenever I played the iPod I always put it on shuffle. For some reason hearing her sing Christmas carols outside always made me sad, though in the kitchen they caused me to smell the mulling spices and pour myself a glass of cold cider, while the sound of her snorting laugh as I stepped from the shower made me hard. Night or day, her giggles made me cry. All of it was good, I thought, all of it made me feel.

Still, none of that was her, not even at night when I lay down beside her and by chance she sang me a lullaby, the best of which had been recorded when she herself was young by her mother and played for me the first time I went to her house. Don’t let the beebugs bite, she sang, so softly it was just a whisper. Not even when I fixed her arms in an embrace. So when I heard of the fiction project, I thought I’d give it a try.

I wrote stories. They weren’t very good at first, takes on old fairy tales and books I’d read as a boy or she as a young girl, featuring her in one of the starring roles—the best one was as Little Red Riding Hood—but as they grew more sophisticated, I thought I saw glimpses of her now and again, running through the forest with bare dirty feet in warm twilight gloom, laughing as she splashed in the waves on a bright chilly day, angered at a friend, glaring at a retreating taxi’s tail lights on a wet, shiny city street. Still, that wasn’t enough. I made movies, but in every shot I saw the same thing: Not Her. Late one night I realized the problem; they were of her, not actually her. So I went back to the stories where I’d glimpsed her and filmed them, from her eyes. Better, but not enough. Video games? She’d loved those, so I tried those too. Nothing. Back to the stories then, but they no longer worked; whatever magic I’d once found seemed to have vanished, perhaps because I’d betrayed them.

I started burying things. A favorite blouse, the brown and red and yellow sweater her great-grandmother had knitted for her, two papers on which she received her worst grades ever. Months later I dug them up and found them dirty and ruined, beginning to decay, fabric frayed, her teacher’s red ink faded to brown; it didn’t help. I took the shoes she’d been unearthed in, scuffed and battered and sagging, and carved two square openings in the plaster wall beside the living room fireplace and put one in each and covered them with semi-transparent panels. You could see the shoes in outline but no detail, and the mystery of them invited you to look harder, to try and decipher exactly what was behind those imperfect windows. When I grew tired of the standing and staring in the enormous silence they engendered, I pried off one cover and put in the iPod and recovered it; when the battery died I left it in. I began haunting the library, where I read magazines and newspapers from the months before she died, trying to recapture my earlier mindset, to glory in upcoming movies that were already out on video, to speculate about the outcome of elections long over, to believe she was still alive, to lift or shift the dome I’d been living under.

Eventually I gave up and went through the usual modes of self-destruction: a lack of baths, poor nutrition, excessive drinking. My pores began to smell so much of bourbon that I could sniff my own forearms instead of pouring myself a drink. I quit that too.

I grew angry at the model, yelled at it, ignored it, and, a good hater, bit her once on the forearm, leaving teeth marks on the smooth plastic skin. I hid it then, inside a long cedar-smelling blanket chest, covering it with old costumes and heavy silver trays, as if afraid it would rise up of its own accord to haunt me. I knew I was burying it, I knew it wouldn’t work. That night, worried about its open eyes playing the endless loops of her, I opened the chest and uncovered her head and tied one of the Hermès ties she’d given me for an anniversary in an orange and white blindfold around those flickering eyes, and after that I was able to sleep. For weeks and weeks I had peaceful nights, though I was never able to say at any single point in any given day that I was happy, that I’d been released.

Then early one bright winter morning—snow, the city quiet, the trees freighted with thick cotton, all sounds muffled, not even footsteps or tire tracks marring that undulating emotive blanket—I sat down and began to write.

They found him, or his body?

The voice on the phone had said something about peace, about closure.

His body.

It was strange feeling my hips widen, my waist narrow, my chest swell, watching my hands transform, the fingers shortening and slimming, rounding from their original forms, the nails growing longer and more manicured, strange too to realize that my hair now fell halfway down my back, but of course the internal changes were more profound. My grief felt like a horizontal tear in my chest rather than a huge weighted bolus in my stomach, and instead of desiring to box it up, to keep it trapped and echoing inside the frail, tensed border of my skin, I wanted to ladle it out to all who passed. I sought scents, the timbre of his voice, the pressure of his warm callused palm on my lower back, tense from a bad day at work, the rasp of his unshaven cheek on my thigh humid from the bath, an internal hum that alerted me to his presence. I could go to the cemetery openly now, instead of furtively.

I looked up for him and when a flock of chattering starlings exploded from a tree like a black firework against the blueberry sky, I began to weep and sob. He was never coming back, and I realized how much and how forever I was going to miss him.  

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