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More Stories by Paige Chomet:
The Airport
Connective Tissue
Fuck Him

Short Story
© 2002 Paige Chomet

I tried to tell Peter about the book on a Saturday morning. We'd taken a shower without noticing one another, silently handing soap back and forth and trading places under the water, forgetting our own bodies and forgetting one another's. Occasionally I'd look down at my wet, slippery, soft-snake shape, and think about just how good I
looked, so young and thin and sexy and pink, and think that Peter would think this too, if only his eyes worked right.

Oh, poor Peter. Poor, darling Peter. He has these perfect, wide, blue eyes, blue and cold and startling, pretty blue-ice eyes that make me want to suck on something chilly and dripping. Peter and his popsicle eyes. On the day we met he told me I was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen, and he cradled my face in his hands and
kissed me in a way that made me forget I had ever been kissed before, and he told me unflinchingly that he might just have to marry me. He stopped a passing stranger, a reluctant Korean tourist, and paid him five dollars to take our picture with his Polaroid camera, right in the middle of the street. Smiling his irresistable smile, with taxis honking all around us, he’d introduced me as his future bride. Just hearing the words changed me a little. I remember thinking how much I would like it if the photographer at my wedding used a Polaroid camera. Instant feedback. No waiting. Or maybe there'd be no photographer at all. Maybe there'd be Polaroid cameras in the center of every table, and we'd all be the photographers, and at the end of the night the floor would be littered with napkins and cake crumbs and a thousand blurry, fingerprinted photos. And then I thought, no, I could never talk my mother into this, and anything concerning my wedding would definitely require her approval.

I moved into Peter's apartment without moving out of my own. I bought a bright blue toothbrush to keep at his place and let it be the first artifact of my brand new life. At the beginning I would sometimes watch myself holding it, standing motionless in the
bathroom mirror, smiling my best Cheshire grin. I would imagine the toothbrush as a key in my hand and wonder what secrets of me it might unlock. But eventually the bristles splayed and the color dulled, so I tucked it away in the drawer where I keep love letters and ticket stubs.

It was right about then I bought the book. I use a dog-eared postcard I've recovered from the drawer, a silly thing I'd scribbled to mother and never sent, just after I came to the city, as a bookmark. Not that I ever actually need a bookmark or need to remember where I am. I never read any of the book. But it’s nice to have a bookmark in place, you know? I thought about using the Polaroid taken by the little Korean man, but that's more Peter's possession than mine and I don't want to risk losing it.

Peter always wanted to take a better picture of me. He said all the time he wanted a real portrait in crisp black and white with absolutely perfect lighting. He would come out of the bathroom, and there I'd be, naked and sprawled on his bed and he would stop in the doorway and frame me with his hands and say that he wanted a thousand photographs of me just like that. I would smile, and he would dive onto me, and we would both project a thousand pictures in each other’s minds with every touch.

That first Polaroid sits propped up on his dresser, an overly contrasted, poorly focused piece of memory. Except now only I can see me in that photo, and Peter, Peter sees only himself.

One day he came home to the apartment and I was sitting on his sofa, wearing his shirt, pointing my toes, paging through a mindless magazine. I said hello when I heard him walk in the door. He lifted his chin and asked where I was. I'm right here, on the sofa, I said, turning to find those pretty popsicle eyes. He looked right at my face, except I didn't feel beautiful to be seen by him, and I knew something was wrong. "Annie," he said, "I can't see you."

And after that day, he never saw me again.

I researched his sudden malady but found nothing. My mother had given me a very large medical reference manual when she found out I had moved in with a man, being suddenly struck with fear that she hadn't educated me properly in the way of personal upkeep and whatnot. I never read a page of it until Peter stopped being able to see me, and then I discovered that despite the book's claim to cover anything and everything a person would ever need, there wasn't a chapter or a subchapter or even a footnote about selective blindness.

(Mother called the next week and asked if I was using my reference guide and I told her cagily that Peter had used it for something or other. She started asking all sorts of questions. I said I needed to go to the grocery store and got off the phone.)

Peter could see everything except me. He could see his apartment, and he could see the city, he could see my clothes if they weren't on my body, and he could see my bright blue toothbrush. He could see his friends. He could see my friends, even the ones he didn't like. He could see my mother. But he couldn't see me. At first it made us very sad, him especially. But after a while we got used to it. I would hum a little when I came into the room so he'd know where I was and not run into me, and I stopped working in the kitchen whenever he was using knives. Every now and then he'd swing an arm unexpectedly and catch me off guard. I always told him not to worry, that it didn't leave a bruise. But it usually did, and I think he knew it.

I finally told him about the book that Saturday morning, after our shower. In the steamy quiet, with the water turned off, I stood a moment shivering, and felt sorry for the silence. And responsible. And exhausted, because I should have told him about the book long before. I waited until we were both nearly dressed and then tried to explain. He listened intently, eyes lowered so as not to let me know he couldn't find me, taking an extra long time lacing his shoes. After I told the story, he remarked that he loved me very much, but that his life had gotten kind of off kilter since he'd met me. He turned on the television. He had nothing else to say. I wondered if he didn't believe me. If he could see my face, I think, he'd believe me. I wanted to leave the room so I could cry. I wondered if Peter would see my tears after they fell from my face, off my chin. I held my breath while I watched him watch the world he watched and wished he was watching me.

I bought the book on a whim at a cosy little bookstore that I've always liked a few blocks from Peter's apartment. It reminds me of a movie bookstore, all polished wood, more trendy than traditional, with Beethoven in the background, and mothers chatting over tables of New Fiction while over-dressed, messy-faced children tug at their jacket sleeves. I'd wandered to the store without meaning to and found the book on a high shelf with a tag taped on it that read "Recommended by: Stephen." I stood on my tiptoes and slid it from the shelf. "Love Poems for the Ill-Conceived and other spells for modernity." I thought this was clever. I opened its crisp cover and paged through it quickly. Well this might be fun, I thought. Something to distract on the subway. I wondered who Stephen was, and I wondered if he would like the look of me. I bought the book.

Since I have become Peter's invisible girlfriend, I am especially sensitive to any eyes cast my way. I never miss a glancer on the street or a starer on the bus. I try to discern if they're looking through me. I wonder if it isn't Peter, I wonder if I am maybe a little bit invisible to everyone. Maybe there's an entire category of people who can't see me. And maybe it's an expanding group. Maybe I am the disappearing girl. Seeing eyes these days pour into me and bore into me and make me hungry and make me hollow and I notice, always notice onlookers, never certain if I'm grateful for or frightened by their attention. And so I noticed the first man right away, that day that I bought the book.

He was wearing tortoise-shell glasses and a blue baseball cap with a leather brim. He carried a shopping bag from a gourmet food store. He was standing across the subway car. He was staring at me.

I wondered if he thought I was pretty. I wondered how my hair looked. Oh, oh, oh, it is so nice to be looked at. I stretched to see my reflection between heads in the window across from me, just to be sure what he saw.

I was busy watching myself in the window and didn't see him walking towards me. I heard him first. Heard him before I saw him.

"That's the book by Raymond Close, isn't it?" He asked.

"I'm sorry?" I said, startled, and still uncertain about the condition of my hair.

"Raymond Close. That's the book by Raymond Close, right?"

I realized I didn't know the author. I glanced at the cover discreetly; after all, I'm reading the book and should know the author, but I hadn't even checked at the store because I'd been busy wondering what Stephen would think of me if Stephen would have been watching. There's the name, Raymond Close, on the cover in white print. I was about to answer the stranger when I noticed the book in my hand was not the book from the store, was not the book I'd bought. But it was by Raymond Close. So I answered, because even if I'm confused, I hate to be rude.

"Yes, it's by Raymond Close."

"Why are you reading it?" he asked. He had brown eyes. I liked the way they looked. I liked the way he looked at me. Why am I reading it, why am I reading it? I wasn't sure that I was reading it. I wasn't even sure what it was.

"It caught my eye," I said.

"Oh. Oh." He nodded, and stared, and nodded and stared. "I knew him."

"Knew who?"

"I knew Raymond Close."

"Oh. Oh." I nodded, and stared, and nodded and stared.

The woman at my right got up at the next stop, so the man who knew Raymond Close sat down next to me and seemed, suddenly and tenderly, awkwardly. I didn't have to look up at him anymore; his eyes were now only a few inches from my face, and all I wanted was to ask him to tell me what he saw, tell me what you see. But I listened instead, and stared back, and felt his watching and his words wrap around me, reminding me that I exist.

We had six stops before his, he announced, and he asked permission to tell me his Raymond Close story. I tapped the cover of my book and nodded. My stranger went to school with Raymond Close, as it turned out. Raymond Close, who died a few years back. Raymond Close, who studied architecture and traveled in Eastern Europe before it was a fad to travel in Eastern Europe, and who only published one book but wrote at least a dozen, a dozen books he never wanted published, which he never tried to publish. Raymond Close, whom my stranger hadn't seen in ten years or more, but whom he thought of often. More often since he'd died. They used to sit on the rooftop of the studio art building in college late at night and smoke too many cigarettes, and once they were in love with the same woman, Christine Allegra, who now lives in Pittsburgh and keeps the books for her husband's consulting firm.

And what do I do? He asked. There was still one subway stop left, so now it was my turn. Do I live in the city, and how do I like it, and where am I from? I have beautiful skin, he said, and then felt embarrassed. I said thank you as though I didn't mind, and I didn't. I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to take his eyes home with me. I wanted to read Raymond Close's unpublished works. But his questions filled up all our time.

The stranger left the subway car. He didn't leave his name. He didn't leave his eyes. He didn't leave Raymond Close. I looked at the book again when he was gone. It was the book I had bought. The world was the same as before. I turned my eyes to my lap and tuned out the rattling of the train and sunk a bit deeper into my clothes.

On my walk home I stopped at the library so I could look up Raymond Close. I found that Raymond Close does not seem to exist. Or, at least, his one published manuscript was out of print and was no longer listed.

When I got to our building, I passed Peter on the stairwell. He was on his way out. I didn't say anything, because he seemed busy, and I didn't want to bother him.

That was the first day it happened with the book, three weeks ago. It happens every day now. On the weekends I ride the subway for hours, just so I can be looked at by all those seeing eyes. There was the woman wearing dark glasses who saw me reading her father's favorite novel. There was the young man with the green eyes who saw me reading the book he'd lost on the airplane after his best friend's funeral. There was the old lady with the bifocals and the tilting head who watched me reading the poetry she used to recite with her first lover while they shared a bottle of wine, and the charming man with the searing, focused stare whose beloved mistress had stolen the book I was reading in her hasty and unexplained exit. Late one Thursday night there was the nervous girl with dark circles half way up the bridge of her nose who saw me reading a book her mother had read to her every night before she drifted to sleep, only now the
girl couldn't ever get to sleep. I read several pages to her before her stop, which came too quickly. Just last week an accountant very near retirement saw me with a collection of art he wished he was wealthy enough to purchase as an investment. He smiled, and
whispered that he'd wanted to be an artist when he was a boy. He said maybe he would learn to paint when he had more time for such things, but then decided, no, he hadn't the talent. I almost gave him the book to keep. Yesterday there was the musty vagrant who caught me reading the last book he'd tried to crack before he dropped
out of school and moved to the Lower East Side to become a professional alcoholic. He told me I was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen, and said he might just have to marry me, and asked if I would come back to his apartment so that he could take my photograph. I gave him half of my left-over sandwich and two dollars in change and told him thank you. I always tell them thank you.

I've stopped trying to make Peter believe about the book. I haven't told him about the nervous girl, or the accountant who will never paint, or the latest proposal of marriage. He would probably try to listen, searching in the direction of my voice and missing my face. He would probably think I'm crazy. No, he'd probably be nonplused. And turn on the television. I would probably cry quietly without knowing why.

I walk into the bedroom, into his bedroom. He has a large mirror over his dresser. He cannot see my reflection any more. The first Polaroid is in one of his well organized drawers now, beneath the socks I've folded neatly for him. He's stopped talking about taking my photograph, and he's stopped framing me with his hands. He says he cannot always remember the look of my face or the arch of my spine or the curve of my stomach or the slope of my breasts. He says he's sorry. He says please don't leave me. He says, "I love you."

One day after we met, when his eyes weren't all blind to me and I hadn't yet become an invisible girl, he had taken off all my clothes and stood me in front of the mirror above his dresser. He stood
behind me, and I had taken off all his clothes, and he had his hands on my shoulders and his head turned neatly into my neck. It was night time, and we'd left one small light on in the corner of the
room, and the walls around us were glowing warm and dim. He took my face lightly in his hands. "Look," he said. "Look at how beautiful you are. Do you know how beautiful you are?" And he made me look even though I didn’t want to. And I cried because he was so dear. And there I was, tear streaked and naked and a little cold but nicely lit. "Look at how beautiful you are," he said again. I had never thought it before. With his hands on my neck and his body there behind me and his ice-eyes sparkling to look at me, and for wanting to see, and for wanting to see me seeing me, I thought to myself, "Yes. Look at how beautiful I am."

I look in the mirror and think I look tired and think I look worn and I wonder how I got here. I remember my special toothbrush, and I miss seeing it, so I grab it out of its drawer and drop it into the bag I always carry. It makes me happy. For a moment, I miss my mother and it makes me sad and I think maybe I want to call her up, but I think better of it. I put on a sweater and a pair of jeans. I brush my hair quickly. I make sure I've stopped crying.

When I walk into the living room again, Peter is watching television and paging through the day's newspaper. "Peter," I say, "I'm going out to run some errands."

He doesn't look up.

"Peter?" I say again.

He looks beautiful in the morning in his t-shirt and boxer briefs, with his hair a mess and his coffee cup well-guarded and his mind waking up to the world. I look at him and love him very much.

"I'm going out to run some errands," I say again, into the sun-shiny silence. He doesn't move. I blow him a kiss. I pick my book up off the cluttered table, and look at him over my shoulder and forget a little more how he looked when he looked at me.

I walk out the door and feel a rush of anticipation when I think of all the strangers' eyes waiting to invent me today. When I reach the tiled stairwell, my eyes catch a small child curled up in the corner of the hallway. Her slender arms are folded tidily over her head. Her arched back grows and shrinks with each shallow breath. Giggling echoes up the stairwell, and I imagine the girl is trying to win some long forgotten game of hide and seek. As I pass her chattering friends at the bottom of the stairs, I wear a particularly unreadable version of my Cheshire grin, not wanting to give the little girl's secret away.
© 2002 Paige Chomet

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