Vanishing Act

The three of them were sitting in a boat. When she closed her eyes, she could almost picture it. A man and a woman and a girl, in a green boat on the green water. Her mother had written that the water was an impossible color; she imagined the mint color of the Harmons’ Tupperware. But what did the boat look like? Was it green? How she wished her mother had described the boat!

The boat refused to settle upon the water. It was too buoyant, sliding along the mint surface like a raindrop on a pane of glass. It had no keel, no sail, no oars. And if they fell in, no lifejackets (at least she knew of none). The man and the woman, unaware, smiled at each other over the head of the girl. And the girl was holding on to both sides of the boat for dear life, holding it intact and upright on the tilting Tupperware-colored water.

She realized that not only had the boat been left out of the letter; after so long she could hardly trust her parents to resemble her memories of them. That was the great tragedy, the inconvenient unseaworthiness of memories and boats and letters, that events never remained themselves long enough for you to insert yourself into them. . . . The girl fell out of the boat into the green water.

Was it cold? She didn’t know.

#

Hildegard and Myron are spying on Hildy’s cousin, Jenny Rose. It is Thursday afternoon, October the fifth, 1970, and Jenny Rose is lying on her bed in the room she shares with Hildy. She hasn’t moved once in the fifteen minutes that Hildy and Myron have been watching her. Hildy can’t explain why she watches Jenny Rose: Jenny Rose never picks her nose or bursts into tears. She mostly lies on her bed with her eyes closed, but not asleep. She’s the same age as Hildy — ten — and an utter freak.

Myron says, “I think she’s dead,” and Hildy snorts.

“I can see her breathing,” she says, handing him the binoculars.

“Is she asleep, then?”

“I don’t think so,” Hildy says, considering. “I think she just turns herself off, like a TV or something.”

They are sitting in the gazebo that Hildy’s older brother James made in woodworking the year before. The gazebo is homely and ramshackle. The white paint has peeled away in strips, and bees float in the warm air above their heads. With the aid of a borrowed set of binoculars, Hildy and Myron can spy privately upon Jenny Rose upon her bed. Hildy picks at the paint and keeps an eye out for James as well, who considers the gazebo to be exclusively his.

#

The three of them sat in the boat on the water. They weren’t necessarily people, and it wasn’t necessarily a boat either. It could be three knots tied in her shoelace; three tubes of lipstick hidden in Hildy’s dresser; three pieces of fruit, three oranges in the blue bowl beside her bed.

What was important, what she yearned for, was the trinity, the triangle completed and without lack. She lay on the bed, imagining this: the three of them in the boat upon the water, oh! sweet to taste.

#

Jenny Rose is the most monosyllabic, monochromatic person Hildy has ever laid eyes on. She’s no-colored, like a glass of skim milk, or a piece of chewed string. Lank hair of indeterminate length, skin neither pale nor sunny, and washed-out no-color eyes. She’s neither tall nor short, fat or skinny. She smells weird, sad, electric, like rain on asphalt. Does she resemble her parents? Hildy isn’t sure, but Jenny Rose has nothing of Hildy’s family. Hildy’s mother is tall and glamorous with red hair. Hildy’s mother is a Presbyterian minister. Her father teaches at the university.

The Reverend Molly Harmon’s brother and sister-in-law have been missionaries in the Pacific since before Hildy and Jenny Rose were born. When Hildy was little, the adventures of her cousin were like an exotic and mysterious bedtime story. She used to wish she was Jenny Rose.

During the 1965 coup in Indonesia, Hildy’s aunt and uncle and Jenny Rose spent a few months in hiding and then a short time in prison, suspected of being Communist sympathizers. This is the way the rumors went: they were dead; they were hidden in Ubud in the house of a man named Nyoman; they were in prison in Jakarta; they had been released, they were safely in Singapore. Hildy always knew that Jenny Rose would be fine. Stories have happy endings. She still believes this.

Jenny Rose was in Singapore for the next four and a half years. When her parents went back to Indonesia, it was proposed that Jenny Rose would come to stay with the Harmons, in order to receive a secondary school education. Hildy helped her mother prepare for the arrival of her cousin. She went to the library and found a book on Indonesia. She went shopping with her mother for a second bed and a second desk, extra clothes, hangers, and sheets. The day before her cousin arrived, Hildy used a ruler, divided her own room into two equal halves.

Hildy hugged Jenny Rose at the airport, breathed her in, that strange hot and cold smell. She hauled Jenny Rose’s luggage to the car single-handedly. “What is Indonesia like?” she asked her cousin. “Hot,” Jenny Rose said. She closed her eyes, leaned her head against the back of the car, and for the next three weeks said nothing that required more than one syllable. So far, the most meaningful words her cousin has spoken to Hildy are these: “I think I wet the bed.”

“Give her time,” Hildy’s mother advised, putting the sheets into the washer. “She’s homesick.”

“How can she be homesick?” Hildy said. “She’s never lived in a single place for longer than a year.”

“You know what I mean,” said the Reverend Molly Harmon. “She misses her parents. She’s never been away from them before. How would you like it if I sent you to live on the other side of the world?”

“It wouldn’t turn me into a mute, stunted turnip-person,” Hildy said. But she thinks she understands. She read the library book. Who wouldn’t prefer the emerald jungles of Bali to the suburbs of Houston, the intricate glide and shadow jerk of wayang kulit puppets on a horn screen to the dollar matinee, nasi goreng to a McDonald’s hamburger?

Hildy and Myron come inside to make hot chocolate and play Ping-Pong. They go to Hildy and Jenny Rose’s room first, and Myron stands over Jenny Rose on her bed, trying to make conversation. “Hey, Sleeping Beauty, whatcha doing?” he says.

“Nothing.”

He tries again. “Would you like to play Ping-Pong with us?”

“No.” Her eyes don’t even open as she speaks.

There is a bowl of oranges on the night table. Myron picks one up and begins to peel it with his thumbnail.

Jenny Rose’s eyelids open, and she jackknifes into a sitting position. “Those are my oranges,” she says, louder than Hildy has ever heard her speak.

“Hey!” Myron says, backing up and cradling the orange in his palm. He is afraid of Jenny Rose, Hildy realizes. “It’s just an orange.

I’m hungry, I didn’t mean anything.”

Hildy intervenes. “There are more in the refrigerator,” she says diplomatically. “You can replace that one — if it’s such a big deal.”

“I wanted that one,” Jenny Rose says, more softly.

“What’s so special about that orange?” Myron says. Jenny Rose doesn’t say anything. Hildy stares at her, and Jenny Rose stares, without expression, at the orange in Myron’s hand. The front door bangs open, and James, the Reverend Harmon, and Dr. Orzibal are home.

Myron’s mother, Mercy Orzibal, is a professor of English and a close friend of the Harmons. She is divorced, and teaches night classes. Myron spends a lot of time at the Harmons under the harried attention of Hildy’s mother, known as the Reverend Mother.

This afternoon was a wedding, and the Reverend Mother is still in the white robes of a divine: the R.M. and Mercy Orzibal, in her sleeveless white dress, look like geese, or angels.

James is wearing black. James is almost seventeen years old and he hates his family. Which is all right. Hildy doesn’t care much for him. His face is sullen, but this is his usual expression. His hair is getting long. His hair is red like his mother’s hair. How Hildy wishes that she had red hair.

A cigarette dangles from the lips of the Reverend Mother. She’s reached an agreement with Hildy: two cigarettes on weekdays, four on Saturday, and none on Sunday. Hildy hates the smell, but loves the way that the afternoon light falters and falls thickly through the smoke around her mother’s beautiful face.

“Do we have any more oranges?” Hildy asks her mother. “Myron ate Jenny Rose’s.” There are several in the refrigerator, when Hildy looks. She picks out the one that is the most shriveled and puny. She tells herself that she feels sorry for this orange. Jenny Rose will take good care of it. The good oranges are for eating. Jenny Rose has followed Myron and Hildy, she stands just inside the doorway.

“Oh, Jenny!” says the Reverend Mother, as if surprised to find her niece here, in her kitchen. “How was your day, sweetheart?”

Jenny Rose says something inaudible as she takes the orange from Hildy. The R.M. has turned away already and is tapping her ash into the kitchen sink.

Hildy retrieves three more oranges out of the refrigerator. She juggles them, smacking them in her palms, tossing them up again. “Hey, look at me!” James rolls his eyes, the mothers and Myron applaud dutifully — Hildy looks, but Jenny Rose has left the room.

Hildy plays Ping-Pong in the basement every night with her father, uncrowned Ping-Pong champion of the world. He tells silly jokes as he serves, to make Hildy miss her return. “What’s brown and sticky?” he says. “A stick.”

When Hildy groans, he winks at her. “You can’t disguise it,” he says. “I know you think I’m the handsomest man in the world, the funniest man in the world, the smartest man in the whole world.”

“Yeah, right,” Hildy tells him. The sight of his white teeth across the table, floating in the mild, round pink expanse of his face, makes her sad for a moment, as if she is traveling a great distance away, leaving her father pinned down under the great weight of that distance. “You’re silly.” She spins the ball fast across the net.

“That’s what all the ladies tell me,” he says. “The silliest man in the world, that’s me.”

The basement is Hildy’s favorite room in the whole house, now that Jenny Rose has taken over her bedroom. The walls are a cheerful yellow, and fat stripey plants in macrame hangers dangle from the ceiling like green and white snakes. Hildy lobs a Ping-Pong ball into the macrame holders — it takes more effort to retrieve these balls than it does to place them, and at night when Hildy watches television in the basement, the Ping-Pong balls glow with reflected TV light like tiny moons and satellites.

She lets her father beat her in the next game, and when he goes back upstairs, she ducks under the table. This is where Hildy sits whenever she needs to think. This is where she and Myron do their homework, cross-legged on the linoleum floor of their own personal cave. Myron is better at social studies, but Hildy is better at math. Hildy is better at spying on Jenny Rose. She shifts on the cold linoleum floor. She is better at hiding than her cousin. No one can spy on her under the table, although she can see anyone who comes into the basement.

She has learned to identify people from the waist down: brown corduroy would be her father; James and Myron wear blue jeans. Her mother’s feet are very small. The R.M. never wears shoes in the house, and her toenails are always red, like ten cherries in a row. Hildy doesn’t need to remember Jenny Rose’s legs or toes — she would know her cousin by the absolute stillness. Jenny Rose’s legs would suddenly appear above two noiseless feet, pale and otherworldly as two ghost trees. Hildy imagines jumping out from under the table, yelling “Boo!” Jenny Rose would have to see her then, but would she see Jenny Rose?

Last night at dinner, the R.M. set four places at the table, the blue plate for James, red for Hildy, orange for her husband, purple for herself. The R.M. likes routine, and her family accommodates. No one would ever eat off the wrong-colored plate — surely the food would not taste the same.

Hildy set a fifth place, yellow for Jenny Rose, while her mother was in the kitchen, and retrieved the fifth chair with the wobbly leg from her mother’s study. She did these things without saying anything: it seemed unthinkable to say anything to the R.M., who in any case, neither noticed her error nor saw that it had been corrected. At dinner, Jenny Rose did not speak — she hardly ate. No one spoke to her and it seemed to Hildy that no one even noticed her cousin.

She was as invisible as Hildy is now, under the green roof of the Ping-Pong table. She almost feels sorry for Jenny Rose.

Jenny Rose’s parents write her every week. Hildy knows this because Jenny Rose donates the stamps to Mr. Harmon’s stamp collection. Her father currently has eighteen stamps, neatly cut out of the airmail envelopes, lying on his desk in the basement.

As for the letters themselves, they are limp and wrinkled, like old pairs of cotillion gloves. They are skinny as feathers, and light, and Jenny Rose receives them indifferently. They disappear, and when the R.M. or Mr. Harmon asks, “How are your parents doing?” Jenny Rose says, “They’re fine,” and that’s that.

#

October 10th, 1970

Darling Jenny,

We have been staying in Ubud for three weeks now, visiting Nyoman’s church. Every night as we fall asleep the lizards tick off the minutes like pocket watches, and every morning Nyoman brings us pancakes with honey. Do you remember Nyoman? Do you remember the lizards, the length of your pinky? They are green and never blink, watching us watching them.

Nyoman asks how you are doing, so far away. He and his wife are having their second baby. They have asked us to be their child’s godparents, and to pick the baptismal name. Would you like the baby to have your name, Rose, if it is a girl?

It is sticky here, and we go for walks in the Monkey Forest, where the old woman sits with her bunches of bananas and her broom, swatting the monkeys away. Do you remember how they scream and fly up into the trees?

Aunt Molly wrote that you are quiet as a mouse, and I don’t blame you, in that noisy family!

Love you,

Mom and Dad

#

Hildy knocks on the door of her mother’s study. When she opens the door, she can see a cigarette, hastily stubbed out, still smoldering in the ashtray. “It’s only my second,” the R.M. says automatically.

Hildy shrugs. “I don’t care what you do,” she says. “I wanted to know if you’d take me to the library. I already asked Jenny Rose — she doesn’t need to go.”

The R.M.’s face is momentarily blank. Then she frowns and taps another cigarette out of the pack.

“Three,” she says. “I promise that’s it, okay? She’s so quiet, it’s easy to forget she’s here. Except for the wet sheets. I must be the worst guardian in the world — I got a call from one of Jenny Rose’s teachers yesterday, and when I put down the phone, it flew straight out of my head. She hasn’t turned in her assignments recently, and they’re worried that the work might be too much for her. Does she seem unhappy to you?”

Hildy shrugs. “I don’t know, I guess so. She never says anything.”

“I keep forgetting to write and ask your aunt and uncle if she wet the bed before,” the R.M. says. She waves her cigarette and a piece of ash floats down onto her desk. “Has Jenny Rose made any friends at school, besides you and Myron?”

Hildy shrugs again. She is mildly jealous, having to share her absent-minded mother with Jenny Rose. “No, I mean I’m not sure she wants any friends. Mostly she likes to be alone. Can you take me to the library?”

“Sweetie,” her mother says. “I would, but I have to finish the sermon for tomorrow. Ask your dad when he gets home.”

“OK,” Hildy says. She turns to leave.

“Will you keep an eye on your cousin?” the R.M. says, “I mean, on Jenny Rose? I’m a little concerned.”

“OK,” Hildy says again. “When is Dad coming home?”

“He should be here for dinner,” her mother says. But Mr. Harmon doesn’t come home for dinner. He doesn’t come home until Hildy is already in bed, hours after the library has closed.

She lies in bed and listens to her mother shout at him. She wonders if Jenny Rose is awake too.

So Hildy and Myron are watching Jenny Rose again, as she lies on her bed. They scoot their bare feet along the warm, dusty plank floor of the gazebo, taking turns peering through the binoculars.

“She hasn’t been turning in her homework?” Myron asks. “Then what does she do all the time?”

“That’s why we’re watching her,” Hildy says. “To find out.”

Myron lifts the binoculars. “Well, she’s lying on her bed. And she’s flipping the light switch on and off.”

They sit in silence for a while.

“Give me the binoculars,” Hildy demands. “How can she be turning off the light if she’s lying on the bed?”

But she is. The room is empty, except for Jenny Rose, who lies like a stone upon her flowered bedspread, her arms straight at her side. There are three oranges in the bowl beside the bed. The light flashes on and off, on and off. Myron and Hildy sit in the gazebo, the bared twigs of the oak tree scratching above their heads.

Myron stands up. “I have to go home,” he says.

“You’re afraid!” Hildy says. Her own arms are covered in goose pimples, but she glares at him anyway.

He shivers. “Your cousin is creepy.” Then he says, “At least I don’t have to share a room with her.”

Hildy isn’t afraid of Jenny Rose. She tells herself this over and over again. How can she be afraid of someone who still wets the bed?

#

It seems to Hildy that her parents fight more and more.

Their fights begin over James mostly, who refuses to apply to college. The R.M. is afraid that he will pick a low lottery number, or even volunteer, to spite his family. Mr. Harmon thinks that the war will be over soon, and James himself is closemouthed and noncommittal.

Hildy is watching the news down in the basement. The newscaster is listing names, and dates, and places that Hildy has never heard of. It seems to Hildy that the look on his face is familiar. He holds his hands open and empty on the desk in front of him, and his face is carefully blank, like Jenny Rose’s face. The newscaster looks as if he wishes he were somewhere else.

Hildy’s mother sits on the couch beside her, smoking. When Mr. Harmon comes downstairs, her nostrils flare but she doesn’t say anything.

“Do Jenny Rose’s parents miss her?” Hildy asks.

Her father stands behind her, tweaks her ear. “What made you think of that?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know, I just wondered why they didn’t take her with them.”

The R.M. expels a perfect smoke ring at the TV set. “I don’t know why they went back at all,” she says shortly. “After what happened, your uncle felt that Jenny Rose shouldn’t go back. They spent a week in a five-by-five jail cell with seven other missionaries, and Jenny Rose woke up screaming every night for two years afterwards. I don’t know why he wanted to go back at all, but then I guess in the long run, it wasn’t his child or his wife he was thinking about.”

She looks over Hildy’s head at her husband. “Was it?” she says.

#

November 26, 1970

Darling Jenny,

We passed a pleasant Thanksgiving, thinking of you in America, and making a pilgrimage ourselves. We are traveling across the islands now, to Flores, where the villagers have rarely heard a sermon, rarely even met people so pale and odd as ourselves.

We took a ferry from Bali to Lombok, where the fishermen hang glass lanterns from their boats at night. The lantern light reflects off the water and the fish lose direction and swim upwards towards the glow and the nets. It occurred to your father that there is a sermon in this, what do you think?

From the shore you can see the fleet of boats, moving back and forth like tiny needles sewing up the sea. We rode in one, the water an impossible green beneath us. From Lombok we took the ferry to Sumbawa, and your father was badly seasick. We made a friend on the ferry, a student coming home from the university in Java.

The three of us took the bus from one end of the island to Sumbawa at the other end, and as we passed through the villages, children would run alongside the bus, waving and calling out “Orang bulan bulan!”

We arrived on Flores this morning, and are thinking of you, so far away.

Love,

Mom and Dad

#

Hildy keeps an eye on Jenny Rose. She promised her mother she would. It isn’t spying anymore. It seems to her that Jenny Rose is slowly disappearing. Even her presences, at dinners, in class, are not truly presences. The chair where she sits at the dinner table is like the space at the back of the mouth, where a tooth has been removed, where the feeling of possessing a tooth still lingers. In class, the teachers never call on Jenny Rose.

Only when Hildy looks through the binoculars, watching her cousin turn the bedroom light on and off without lifting a hand, does Jenny Rose seem solid. She is training her eyes to see Jenny Rose. Soon Hildy will be the only person who can see her.

No one else sees the way Jenny Rose’s clothes have grown too big, the way she is sealing up her eyes, her lips, her face, like a person shutting the door of a house to which they will not return. No one else seems to see Jenny Rose at all.

The R.M. worries about James, and Mr. Harmon worries about the news; they fight busily in their spare time, and who knows what James worries about? His bedroom door is always shut and his clothes have the sweet-sour reek of marijuana, a smell that Hildy recognizes from the far end of the school yard.

Jenny Rose doesn’t wet the bed anymore. At nine-thirty, she goes to the bathroom and then climbs into bed and waits for Hildy to turn out the light. Which is pretty silly, Hildy thinks, considering how Jenny Rose spends her afternoons. As she walks back to her bed in the darkness, she thinks of Jenny Rose lying on her bed, eyes open, mouth closed, like a dead person, and she thinks she would scream if the lights came back on. She refuses to be afraid of Jenny Rose. She wonders if her aunt and uncle are afraid of Jenny Rose.

#

This is a trick that her father taught her in the blackness of the prison cell, when she cried and cried and asked for light. He said, close your eyes and think about something good. From before. (What? she said.)

Are your eyes closed? (Yes.) Good. Now do you remember when we spent the night on the Dieng Plateau? (Yes.) It was cold, and when we walked outside, it was night and we were in the darkness, and the stars were there. Think about the stars.

(Light.)

In this darkness, like that other darkness which was full of the breathing of other people, she remembers the stars. There was no moon, and in the utter darkness the stars were like windows, hard bits of glass and glitter where the light poured through. What she remembers is not how far away they seemed, but how different they were from any other stars she had seen before, so bright-burning and close.

(Darkness.)

Do you remember the Southern Cross? (Yes.) Do you remember the birds? (Yes.) She had walked between her father and mother, passing under the bo trees, looking always upward at the stars. And the bo trees had risen upward, in a great beating of wings, nested birds waking and rising as she walked past. The sound of the breathing of the cell around her became the beautiful sound of the wings.

(Light.)

Do you remember the four hundred stone Buddhas of Borobodur, the seventy-two Buddhas that were calm within their bells, their cages? (Yes.) Be calm, Jenny Rose, my darling, be calm.

(Darkness.)

Do you remember the guard that gave you bubur ayam? (Yes.) Do you remember Nyoman? (Yes.) Do you remember us, Jenny Rose, remember us.

(Light.)

#

“What are you doing?” James says, coming upon Hildy in the gazebo.

She puts down the binoculars, and shrugs elaborately. “Just looking at things.”

James’s eyes narrow. “You better not be spying on me, you little brat.” He twists the flesh of her arm above the elbow, hard enough to leave a bruise.

“Why would I want to watch you?” Hildy yells at him. “You’re the most boring person I know! You’re more boring than she is.”

She means Jenny Rose, but James doesn’t understand. “You must be the most hopeless spy in the world, you little bitch. You wouldn’t even notice the end of the world. She’s going to kick him out of the house soon, and you probably won’t even notice that.”

“What?” Hildy says, stunned, but James stalks off. She doesn’t understand what James just said, but she knows that marijuana affects the brains of the people who use it. Poor James.

The lights in her bedroom flick on and off, on and off.

Light, darkness, light.

#

Myron and Hildy are in the basement. In between studying for biology, and cutting out articles for current events, they play desultory Ping-Pong. “Is your cousin a mutant?” Myron says. “Or is she just a mute ant?”

Hildy serves. “She can talk fine, she just doesn’t want to.”

“Huh. Just like she doesn’t bother to turn the lights on and off the way normal people do.” He misses again.

“She’s not that bad,” Hildy says.

“Yeah, sure. That’s why we spy on her all the time. I bet she’s really a communist spy and that’s why you have to keep an eye on her, spying on a spy. I bet her parents are spies, too.”

“She’s not a spy!” Hildy yells, and hits the ball so hard that it bounces off the wall. It’s moving much faster than it should. It whizzes straight for the back of Myron’s head, veering off at the last minute to smash into one of the spider plants.

The macrame plant holder swings faster and faster, loops up and drops like a bomb on the carpet. Untouched, the other macrame plant holders explode like tiny bombs, spilling dirt, spider plants, old Ping-Pong balls all over the basement floor.

Hildy looks over and sees Jenny Rose standing on the bottom step. She’s come down the stairs as silently as a cat. Myron sees her too. She’s holding a postage stamp in her hand. “I’m sorry,” Myron says, his eyes wide and scared. “I didn’t mean it.”

Jenny Rose turns and walks up the stairs, still clutching the postage stamp. Her feet on the stairs make no sound and her legs are as white and thin as two ghosts.

Hildy collects lipsticks. She has two that her mother gave her, and a third that she found under the seat of her father’s car. One is a waxy red, so red that Hildy thinks it might taste like a candy apple. One is pink, and the one that she found in the car is so dark that when she puts it on, her mouth looks like a small fat plum. She practices saying sexy words, studying her reflection in the bathroom mirror, her mouth a glossy, bright O. Oh darling, she says. You’re the handsomest, you’re the funniest, you’re the smartest man I know. Give me a kiss, my darling.

She wants to tell Jenny Rose that if she — if Jenny Rose — wore lipstick, maybe people would notice her. Maybe people would fall in love with her, just as they will fall in love with Hildy. Hildy kisses her reflection; the mirror is smooth and cool as water. She keeps her eyes open, and she sees the mirror face, yearning and as close to her own face as possible, the slick cheek pressed against her own warm cheek.

In the mirror, she looks like Jenny Rose. Or maybe she has watched Jenny Rose for too long, and now Jenny Rose is all she can see. She leans her forehead against the mirror, suddenly dizzy.

Myron won’t come over to the Harmons’ house anymore. He goes to the Y instead, plays basketball, until his mother comes to pick him up. He avoids Hildy at school, and finally Hildy calls and explains that she needs him, that it’s an emergency.

They meet in the gazebo, of course. Myron won’t go inside the house, he says, even to pee.

“How are things?” Myron says.

“Fine,” Hildy says. They are formal as two ambassadors.

“I’m sorry I called your cousin a communist.”

“That’s okay. Look,” Hildy says. She presses the heel of her Ked against a loose board until the other end pops up. In the hollow there is a stack of white envelopes with square holes where the stamps have been cut out. She picks up the top one, dated July 19, 1970. “It’s her secret place. These are her letters.”

“I hope you didn’t read them,” Myron says. He sounds prim, as if he thinks they shouldn’t read other people’s letters, not even letters from spies.

“Of course I did,” she tells him. “And she’s not a spy. She just misses her parents.”

“Oh. Is that all?” he asks sarcastically.

Hildy remembers the cool surface of the mirror, the way it almost gave way against her forehead, like water. “She wants to go home. She’s going to disappear herself. She’s been practicing with the light switch, moving it up and down. She’s going to disappear herself back to Indonesia and her parents.”

“You’re kidding,” he says, but Hildy is sure. She knows this as plainly as if Jenny Rose had told her. The letters are a history of disappearance, reappearance, of travelling. It is what they don’t say that is important.

“Her parents always tell her how much they love her, they tell her the things that they’ve seen and done, and they ask her to be happy. But they never tell her they miss her, that they wish she was with them.”

“I wouldn’t miss her,” Myron says, interrupting. Hildy ignores him.

“They don’t tell her they miss her, because they know that she would come to them. She’s the most stubborn person I know. She’s still waiting for them to say it, to say she can come home.”

“You’re getting as weird as she is,” Myron says. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Hildy doesn’t say, Because you’re my best friend. She says, “Because you have terrible handwriting. You write like an adult.”

“So what?”

“I want you to help me steal her next letter. I want you to write like them, write that she can go home now. I can’t do it. What if she recognized my handwriting?”

“You want me to get rid of her for you?” Myron says.

“I think that if she doesn’t go home soon, she’ll get sick. She might even die. She never eats anything anymore.”

“So call the doctor.” Myron says, “No way. I can’t help you.”

But in the end he does. It is December, and the R.M. has canceled two conferences with Jenny Rose’s teachers, busy with her church duties. It doesn’t really matter. The teachers don’t notice Jenny Rose; they call on other students, check off her name at attendance without looking to see her. Hildy watches Jenny Rose, she looks away to see Myron watching her. He passes her a note in class on Tuesday. I can’t keep my eyes on her. How can you stand it? Hildy can barely decipher his handwriting, but she knows Jenny Rose will be able to read it. Jenny Rose can do anything.

This morning the R.M. almost walked right into Jenny Rose. Hildy was sitting at the breakfast table, eating cereal. She saw the whole thing. Jenny Rose opened the refrigerator door, picked out an orange, and then as she left the kitchen, the R.M. swerved into the room around her, as if Jenny Rose were an inconveniently placed piece of furniture.

“Mom,” Hildy said. The R.M. picked up Hildy’s cereal bowl to wash it, before Hildy was finished.

“What?” the R.M. said.

“I want to talk to you about Jenny Rose.”

“Your cousin?” said the R.M. “It was nice having her stay with us, wasn’t it?”

“Never mind,” Hildy said. She went to get ready for school.

#

The three of them sit in the boat. The water is green, the boat is green, she is surprised sometimes when she opens her eyes, that her skin isn’t green. Sometimes she is worried because her parents aren’t there. Sometimes there is another girl in the boat, bigger than her, always scowling. She wants to tell this girl not to scowl, but it’s better to ignore her, to concentrate on putting her parents back in the boat. Go away, she tells the girl silently, but that isn’t right. She’s the one who has to go away. What is the girl’s name? The girl refuses to sit still, she stands up and waves her arms and jumps around and can’t even see that she is in danger of falling into the water.

Go away, she thinks at the girl, I’m busy. I blew the roof off a prison once, I knocked the walls down, so I could look at the stars. Why can’t I make you go away? I can walk on water, can you? When I leave, I’m taking the boat with me, and then where will you be, silly girl?

#

Hildy loves her mother’s preaching voice, so strong and bell-clear. The R.M. and Hildy’s father fight all the time now; the R.M. stays in the kitchen until late at night, holding conversations in a whisper with Mercy Orzibal, Myron’s mother, over the phone. Hildy can’t hear what the R.M. is saying when she whispers, but she’s discovered that if she stands very quietly, just inside the kitchen door, she can make herself as invisible as Jenny Rose. It is just like hiding under the Ping-Pong table. No one can see her.

At night, when the R.M. screams at her husband, Hildy covers her ears with her hands. She sticks the pillow over her head. Lately Hildy never loses at Ping-Pong, although she tries to let her father win. The skin under her father’s eyes is baggy and too pink. Next week, he is going away to a conference on American literature.

The R.M. stands straight as a pin behind the pulpit, but this is what Hildy remembers: her mother sitting curled on the kitchen floor, the night before, cupping the phone to her ear, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Hildy waited for her mother to see her, standing in the doorway. The R.M. slammed the phone down on the hook. That bitch, she said, and sat sucking smoke in and looking at nothing at all.

Hildy’s father sits with the choir, listening attentively to his wife’s sermon. This is what Hildy remembers: at dinner, the spoon trembling in his hand as he lifted it to his mouth, his wife watching him. Hildy looked at her father, then at her mother, then at Jenny Rose who never seems to look at anything, whom no one else sees, except Hildy.

It is easier now, looking at Jenny Rose; Hildy finds it hard to look at anyone else for very long. Jenny Rose sits beside her on the wooden pew bench, her leg touching Hildy’s leg. Hildy knows that Jenny Rose is only holding herself upon the bench by great effort. It is like sitting beside a struck match that waits and refuses to ignite. Hildy knows that Jenny Rose is so strong now that if she wanted, she could raise the roof, turn the communion grape juice into wine, walk on water. How can the R.M. not see this, looking down from the pulpit at Hildy, her eyes never focusing on her niece, as if Jenny Rose has already gone? As if Jenny Rose was never there?

Even with her eyes closed for the benediction, Hildy can still see Jenny Rose. Jenny Rose’s eyes remain open, her hands are cupped and expectant: her leg trembles against Hildy’s leg. Or maybe it is Hildy’s leg that trembles, beneath the weight of her mother’s voice, her father’s terrible, pleading smile. For a moment she longs to be as invisible as Jenny Rose, to be such a traveler.

#

When the mail comes on Monday, there is a letter from Jenny Rose’s parents. Hildy extracts the letter from the pile. Myron watches, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He is not happy about being in the same house as Jenny Rose.

All weekend Myron has been practicing two short phrases, with the aid of one of the original letters. Hildy steams open the letter over the teakettle, while Myron watches. The light in Hildy’s bedroom flicks on, flicks off, flicks on again. Hildy can feel it pulling at her: for a moment, she feels as if she were tumbling down the spout, falling into the kettle. She might drown in the kettle water. It’s that deep. She’s gotten too small. She shakes her head, takes a breath.

They take the letter down to the basement, and sit under the Ping-Pong table while Hildy quickly scans it. Myron, who has gone to the trouble of collecting an assortment of pens, adds a postscript in black ballpoint. We miss you so much, darling Jenny. Please, please come home.

“It doesn’t match,” Myron says, handing the letter to Hildy. She folds it back into the envelope and glues the envelope shut again. It really doesn’t matter: Jenny Rose is ready to go. Hildy realizes that she wasn’t worried Jenny Rose would recognize her handwriting, it wasn’t because of that — Hildy just wants a witness, someone who will see what she has done, what Jenny Rose will do.

“I saw your father,” Myron says. “He was at my house last night.”

“He’s out of town,” Hildy says. “He went to a conference.”

“He stayed all night long,” Myron says. “I know because when I went to school this morning, he was hiding. In my mother’s bedroom.”

“You’re such a liar,” Hildy says. “My father is in Wisconsin. He called us from the hotel. How do you think he got from Wisconsin to your house? Do you think he flew?”

“You think Jenny Rose can fly,” Myron says. His face is very red.

“Get out of my house,” Hildy says. Her hand floats at her side, longing to slap him.

“I think you’re nuts,” Myron says. “Just like her.” And he leaves. His back is stiff with outrage.

Hildy rocks back and forth, sitting under the Ping-Pong table. She holds the letter in her hand as if it were a knife. She thinks about Jenny Rose, and what is going to happen.

Hildy is theatrical enough to want a bang at the end of all her labors. She wants to see Jenny Rose restored to herself. Hildy wants to see the mythical being that she is sure her cousin contains, like a water glass holding a whole ocean. She wants to see Jenny Rose’s eyes flash, hear her voice boom, see her fly up the chimney and disappear like smoke. After all, she owes Hildy something, Hildy who generously divided her room in half, Hildy who has arranged for Jenny Rose to go home.

No one is in the house now. James, two months away from his birthday, has gone to register for the draft. Her father is still in Wisconsin (Myron is such a liar!), and her mother is at the church. So after a while, Hildy brings the letter to Jenny Rose, gives it to her cousin, who is lying on her bed.

Hildy sits on her own bed and waits while Jenny Rose opens the letter. At first it seems that Hildy has miscalculated, that the post-script is not enough. Jenny Rose sits, her head bent over the letter. She doesn’t move or exclaim or do anything. Jenny Rose just sits and looks down at the letter in her lap.

Then Hildy sees how tightly Jenny Rose holds the letter. Jenny Rose looks up, and her face is beautiful with joy. Her eyes are green and hot. All around Jenny Rose the air is hot and bright. Hildy inhales the air, the buzzing rain and rusted metal smell of her cousin.

Jenny Rose stands up. The air seems to wrap around her like a garment. It sounds like swarms and swarms of invisible bees. Hildy’s hair raises on her scalp. All around them, drawers and cabinets dump their contents on the floor, while T-shirts whoosh up, slapping sleeves against the ceiling. Schoolbooks open and flap around the room like bats, and one by one the three oranges lift out of the blue bowl on the bedside table. They roll through the air, faster and faster, circling around Jenny Rose on her bed. Hildy ducks as tubes of lipstick knock open the bureau drawer, and dart towards her like little chrome-and-tangerine-, flamingo-and-ebony-colored bees. Everything is buzzing, humming, the room is full of bees.

And then –

“I’m making a mess,” Jenny Rose says. She tears the stamp from the envelope, gives it to Hildy. Only their two hands touch, but Hildy falls back on the bed — as if she has stuck her fingers into an electrical outlet — she flies backwards onto her bed.

Jenny Rose walks into the bathroom, and Hildy can see the bathtub full of water, the silly little boat (is that what she wanted?), the green water spilling over the lip of the tub and rushing over Jenny Rose’s feet. Be careful! Hildy thinks. The door slams shut. As Hildy catches her breath, the air in the room becomes thin, and her ears pop. The magic trick is over, the bathroom is empty: Jenny Rose has gone home. Hildy bursts into tears, sits on her bed and waits for her mother to come home. After a while, she begins to pick up her room.

This is the first and most mysterious of three vanishings. No one but Hildy seems to notice that Jenny Rose is gone. A few months later, James goes to Canada. He is dodging the draft. He tells no one he is going, and Hildy finds the brief, impersonal note. He is failing his senior classes, he is afraid, he loves them but they can’t help him. Please take care of his fish.

When Mr. Harmon moves out of the house, Hildy has resigned herself to this, that life is a series of sudden disappearances, leavetakings without the proper good-byes. Someday she too might vanish. Some days she looks forward to learning this trick.

What sustains her is the thought of the better place in which one arrives. This is the R.M.’s heaven; the Canada that James has escaped to; it is in the arms of Mercy Orzibal with her bright, glossy mouth, who tells Mr. Harmon how witty, how charming, how handsome he is. It is the green lake in the photograph Jenny Rose has sent Hildy from the island of Flores.

In the photograph Jenny Rose sits between her mother and father, in a funny little white boat with a painted red eye. On the back of the photograph is an enigmatic sentence. There is a smudge that could be a question mark; the punctuation is uncertain. Wish you were here.

Wish you were here?

Written by Kelly in: |

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