by Numaguchi Iku (沼口いく)
I sometimes wondered if I was making her up.
She existed in a haze, a sort of bubble that nothing could permeate. She was invisible, drifting through the world like a ghost as the rest of us moved at light speed around her. Alone. Forgotten.
I would notice her in the hallways at school, moving against the flow, but still unnoticed. She never moved with a purpose, but always in a definite direction. None of this wandering like everyone else did. I began to think, for a time, that she was a ghost, because she moved along exactly the same paths every day, without changing.
That is, until I saw her at the coffee shop.
I was getting off work, a part-time job at a small clothing store where I spent my time folding shirts. The sidewalk was crowded with people from all walks of life enjoying themselves on a Saturday. The weather wasn’t the greatest – it was cloudy and damp and cold – but the day held an odd air of beauty. I made my way along the walkway, dodging a group of rowdy boys chasing each other in some strange grown-up variation of tag, when something caught my eye.
There, sitting at an outdoor table at the coffee shop, was my ghost girl. She was bundled in a puffy down coat to ward against the cold, sipping something warm from a Styrofoam cup. A moderately-sized book was laid open on the table in front of her, and she would take little drinks as she read, turning the pages with a gloved hand.
I approached the table quietly, almost cautiously, and she looked up at me, confused.
“Is this seat taken?” I asked, gesturing to the chair across from where she sat. She was stunned for a moment, obviously not used to this type of human contact. After a long pause, she replied. “No,” she said simply, and I’d never thought a single sound could convey so much loneliness.
We sat there for a long time, saying nothing. She stared at her book, still as stone, and I could tell she wasn’t reading it anymore. She looked up, fixing her eyes on the tabletop.
“What do you want?” It was spoken softly, almost a whisper, though it sounded somehow rough and raspy as if she hardly ever used her voice. She sounded scared, and I wanted somehow to fix it. I opened my mouth, then realized I didn’t know, and closed it again. She tilted her head upward, but could not meet my eyes, instead settling for a region closer to my ear.
“Who are you?”
A couple days later, I saw her again, in the hallway. I walked up to her and apologized awkwardly for the coffee shop, saying I didn’t mean to harass her or anything. She nodded slowly, eyes focused on a point just above my ear, trying to figure out if I was a threat. I could see the barely-contained panic in her, and wished I could talk to her without her acting like a frightened animal.
I approached her several more times over the following month, until she became a tentative fixture in my life, something I’d look forward to seeing. She still treated me with an air of apprehension, but seemed to regard me as something of an acquaintance, and I could see her astonishment every time I stopped to chat. I would walk her to her classes sometimes, and she’d tell me little stories in her strange whisper of a voice, always looking at the floor or just above my ear, never meeting my eyes.
After school one Friday, we walked together for a while, talking idly, until we realized that I was following her home. It got awkward once we got to the door. She looked at the ground and coughed once, quietly, key frozen in front of the door knob, and I scrabbled an excuse before walking off, quickly, breaking into a run once she was out of sight.
A couple weeks later, we sat on a bench at a small park close to the school. The snow was melting, but she was still wearing her down vest.
“Winter’s almost over,” I said.
“It all blurs together after a while,” she replied, her whisper soft instead of rough. I tried to find the meaning, but couldn’t. I looked at her, trying to find it somewhere in her expression, but she was all blankness, looking at the snow as if watching it melt. She heard my pause, I think, and replied, “Seasons, I mean. They blur.” The rough whisper was back—the familiar one I’d found to be her normal conversation voice. “Once you’ve lived through them enough times, they cease to be important. To me at least.”
She trailed off then, and I had trouble getting her to talk much more. Lost in thought, I suppose.
We’d walk places together, she and I. Spring came, and everything became beautiful and lush and green. The air, while warm, still held a slight chill and she would take advantage of that chill to keep wearing her long-sleeved sweaters and soft vests. I began noticing things about her more; mannerisms, interests, what subjects to stay away from when we talked… and a strange type of beauty. She wasn’t what you’d call thin…more pleasantly rounded, filled-out. She wasn’t particularly tall either. Shorter than me, actually. This wasn’t much of a problem when we talked, as she rarely met my eyes in the first place. She never combed her hair, but it stayed presentable on its own. Dirty blond, straight hair, falling just past her chin. It was always a little frazzled, but she couldn’t be bothered to care. She never looked up that high.
As for her face…I thought it was gorgeous. She didn’t. She never wore makeup, and had a habit of biting her lips. I’d often see strange brown patches from where she’d bitten too much off and it’d scabbed over in that strange, soft way that lips do. For some reason, it didn’t bother me.
I told her she was pretty once. That spring break, we walked together through the town for the longest time. We stopped by shops, window shopping and making fun of the trendy, overpriced stores. I heard her laugh a couple times, a strange, breathy sort of noise that sounded more like a shudder than a normal laugh. Curious. We got something at the infamous coffee shop, joked about our first meeting, and sat down to enjoy ourselves with our drinks.
About an hour later, the sun was going down. Purples and oranges and pinks and reds all over the sky and the new green leaves, and us. She caught sight of herself in a window and pouted, blushing a bit, and looked at the ground. I noticed.
“I think you’re pretty.” It seemed to come out of nowhere, but the way she’d looked at herself in the window, she’d looked so…displeased. I forced a smile, and she bit her lip. We walked the rest of the way to the bus stop in silence.
She didn’t mention it after that.
School ended, and that summer our friendship blossomed. I had nothing else to do. I didn’t work during the summer, and all my other friends were on vacation elsewhere. We’d grown apart anyway, my friends and I, since I’d begun spending so much time with my ghost girl.
I knocked on her door one afternoon when my feet had carried me there seemingly of their own accord. Behind the lock, there was a lot of shuffling and thumping around, then fumbling at the door. I stood there awkwardly as she, presumably, stood on tiptoe and looked through the peephole, then opened the door a notch – as far as the chain would allow.
“It’s you…” came the whisper. I shifted weight to my other foot nervously.
“Yeah. Can I come in?”
“Sure.” The door closed momentarily, so she could remove the chain, and then opened. Oddly enough, she was hiding behind the door.
I stepped in tentatively, looking around for signs of chaos that could have been the source of the noise before. From behind me, she coughed faintly, and I turned around to find her scratching her head awkwardly and looking at the floor.
“I wasn’t expecting company…” She was in her underwear and a nightshirt. On the floor beside the couch, there was a half-full carton of vanilla ice cream and a spoon. Spatters of the ice cream showed a trail to the door. I gave her an inquisitive look. She laughed and bit her lip.
We sat, chatted, lounged the day away. She let me share her ice cream, and together we finished the carton.
I visited her several more times over the course of the summer. The third such occasion was a stormy, humid day. The power was out in my whole neighborhood, so I headed over to her house to visit. I never knew she was afraid of storms. After she let me in (with quite a lot of commotion and yelping from behind the door when I knocked), we sat huddled together on the couch, listening to the storm pounding roughly against the house. She made quiet little ‘meep’-ing noises and jumped at every clap of thunder, and she shivered when the hail started. I drew her closer and we hugged, staying that way until the storm was nothing more than a drizzle.
When I made to leave a few hours later, she wrapped her arms around my waist.
“Stay,” she said quietly. Her whisper was soft.
So I stayed.
I began to notice, over this summer, something growing between us. When we sat together on the floor in front of her couch, sharing stories and laughing. When she called me during storms to make the fear go away. Whenever I was around her, the warmth grew, somewhere in the middle ground between us. It pulled us closer. The world lit up—sounds and shapes and smells and colors, all more distinct. It suddenly felt great just to be alive.
I don’t remember what it was I said, all I remember is that she laughed. I mean, really laughed. Not a small, breathy shudder, but a full-blown laugh. Her voice was beautifully rich and low, and I was sad that I hadn’t heard it more often.
I noticed things about her then. New things. Things I’d never thought of. There was an undercurrent in the way we talked; conversations growing deeper, prying our shells open and intertwining the contents they found there. She shined, and when I was around her, I shined too.
This feeling between us was undefined, different, alien. It felt good and scary and comforting, all at once. As long as it remained unspoken, we could wallow in it, not having to deal with the consequences of it. But we wanted more. We wanted to be closer.
Our hugs grew longer, deeper. Something more in the way we touched. A tenderness grew somehow. We plunged together into a frightening sea of emotions, all of them new and strange.
We never talked about it. It simply was. And perhaps that’s the way it should be. Acknowledging our feelings would be boxing them up, naming them, making them something less than what they were.
We kissed. On the couch, on the floor under her kitchen table (that one made her giggle), in her closet, and once at the door when I left. We grew to enjoy kissing above most else we did together.
She said it softly, just loud enough for me to hear. It was autumn now, and school would be starting again soon. I hesitated, not knowing what to say, until I eventually choked out,
“I have to get away. I have demons here that I can’t get rid of unless I go away. Far away.” She said this looking at the floorboards, examining her toes against the old wood.
I took her hand and we sat together for a long time in silence.
Soft. It was all soft. And warm. Her hand in mine, fingers laced and lying softly on the coverlet . Soft, sweet kisses drawn from her lips. It was us, plain and simple, and there was nothing else in the world. My hand moved down from her cheek, caressing along her side, and tried to push up at her undershirt, but she took it in hers and drew it away.
She let go of my hand and traced the line of my leg, up over my hip and my belly, then down…further, just a little further…
Her fingers were unsure and fumbling, but they found what they needed to…explored, tried to get all the way inside. I nuzzled into her neck. She squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back.
My other hand moved between her legs, and she let me in. All soft panting noises and warm puffs of breath. We moved together, caressing and touching inside each other and filling the quiet room with sighs and the creaking of her old bed.
I almost thought I heard her mouth the words, “I’ll never forget you,” into the humid air. Almost.
She came with a hand tangled in my hair, clinging to me as if we would both disappear if she ever let go.
I saw her off at the train station with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, knowing we’d likely never see each other again. She looked at me, or at the space just above my left ear, bit her lip and smiled. And then she was gone. Onto the train, with nothing but a suitcase and memories. It was then that I realized…
I never learned her name.