Gone in the Desert and Never Coming Home
"The Disappeared" by Andrew Porter, recommended by Kristopher Jansma
Introduction by Kristopher Jansma
Once, at a thrift store with a friend, I saw a used Scrabble game on sale for a dollar. I remarked that in every house in America there must be a box just like it, only nobody could remember where they’d gotten it. My friend took it to the register, paid his dollar, and handed it to me. “Now you’ll always remember,” he said.
I haven’t seen that friend in two decades now. He used to show up on my doorstep from time to time; now he’s an absence. We’ve disappeared from one another.
In “The Disappeared,” a man named Daniel has gone missing. He was last seen leaving for Joshua Tree to hike trails he’s hiked many times before. Only this time he has not come back. There’s no explanation, no trace. Is he playing a joke on everyone? Has he died? Did he kill himself?
Our narrator doesn’t know, but he agrees to help Daniel’s girlfriend pack up his things. The task won’t solve the mystery; it won’t uncover all the dark secrets Daniel left behind. But this is not a story about explanations; it is a story about how we pick around the edges of the great holes that suddenly open in the middle of our lives. How we pace the perimeter, and gaze inside those absences as much as we can bear.
On my bookshelf sits an old copy of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; I wonder if, among writerly types of a certain age, copies of that book aren’t dissimilar from the Scrabble game. Everyone’s got one, nobody knows exactly where it came from.
But I remember. I got mine twenty years ago, after first meeting Andrew Porter at a Summer Camp for Talented Youth. I was a Teaching Assistant for his class on personal essay writing for precocious seventh graders. I was 22, had just finished the first year of my MFA. Porter was unfailingly kind and generous in the classroom, and, among other things he told me I should read Denis Johnson, so I ran out and found a copy right away.
One of my duties that summer was to shepherd the seventh graders to breakfast early each morning; I always overslept. Panicked, late, I’d rush past the library at dawn to collect them. And each day I’d pass Andrew, sitting outside on a bench alone, staring hard at a single piece of paper. Carefully, he’d strike out a word and begin to read from the top.
It left a strong impression on me. Real writers did not oversleep. They rose before the rest, they sat thoughtfully, honoring the necessary words, disappearing the others.
The stories in The Disappeared are works of genius for precisely this reason. As you read, you’re bound to find yourself, like me, thinking of old paperbacks and Scrabble games, revisited by your own absences, marveling at Porter’s perfect sentences, and the world he creates for us, one in which we can’t help but be present.
– Kristopher Jansma
Author of Why We Came to the City
Gone in the Desert and Never Coming Home
The Disappeared by Andrew Porter
I have a photograph of Daniel on the last day I ever saw him. This would have been in 2005, just after we’d moved into our first house in San Antonio, our starter house, as my wife still refers to it now. In the picture, Daniel is standing next to me on our back deck, his arm draped loosely around my shoulder, his eyes glazed from all the wine we’d consumed earlier that day. It’s early evening in the picture, and summertime. You can see the flowering bougainvillea that’s cascading over the top of our back fence, and all of the little cacti that Tanya, my wife, had collected that year for her succulent garden. When I look at that picture now, I think as much about our old lives in that house as I do about Daniel. But of course the one obvious difference is that that house is still there, whereas Daniel isn’t.
When I first learned of Daniel’s disappearance, it was from his girlfriend at the time, Antoinette, who called me up one night shortly after Daniel had gone missing on the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail in Joshua Tree National Park. I hadn’t seen Daniel in quite some time, maybe seven months, which was unusual given our closeness. He was living in Austin at the time, and I knew that he’d been traveling a lot more in the past year or so, taking several trips up to Yellowstone and also to Alaska. I hadn’t known about his latest trip to Joshua Tree, though I knew he’d made several trips out there in the past. According to Antoinette, he’d actually gone out to Joshua Tree three times in the past six months, once with her and the other two times alone, and was even thinking about buying a second home out there, near Riverside. Antoinette explained all of this to me the night she called, a few weeks after the start of the fall semester, a balmy evening in late September when I was running a group critique for one of my advanced evening drawing classes.
As I stood out on the balcony beside the studio where I teach, my worried students staring out at me through the glass window, Antoinette went over everything she knew: how Daniel had been missing for almost forty-eight hours, how the last contact she’d had with him directly was the morning of his last solo excursion, a phone call he’d made to her from his motel room in Yucca Valley, and how the search and rescue mission had so far turned up nothing, not even a footprint or a water bottle or an item of clothing from the trail he’d been hiking on. All they’d found was his Subaru, untouched, parked in the Cottonwood Visitor Center near the trailhead to the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail, his cell phone locked in the glove box. She then explained that the main reason she’d called me was because she knew I was one of Daniel’s closest friends, that he talked about me all the time, and that she thought I’d want to know. She also said that a group of his Austin friends as well as his family from Houston were getting together that weekend to share information and have a kind of prayer vigil. If I wanted to join them, she said, I was welcome.
The whole conversation was a lot to process, and I don’t remember very much else from that night, only that I went into the classroom and said something brief to my students about an unexpected emergency and then I drove toward my house, only I didn’t go there. Instead I went to a bar that Daniel and I used to go to back in college, whenever we were home on break, a Mexican place that served these two-dollar Tecates and Coronas and Buds. I sidled up next to a bunch of the older patrons at the bar and proceeded to get drunk by myself. Daniel was thirty-three years old at the time. He was a baby by most people’s standards. He still had all of his hair, still had a runner’s body, still looked effortlessly fit. He had made all of this money working for Dell the past few years, so much money that I’d often found myself shamefully envious of it, even bitter about it, all of his sudden wealth—his new house out in the Westlake Hills, his swimming pool, his personal trainer. But now all I could think about was how sad it was, how tragic it was, really, that he might never have a chance to spend even half of the money he’d made. I knew that Antoinette had wanted to make it sound better than it was, more hopeful, but I could tell that it was dire. It was dire or she’d never be calling me like this, in such a panic.
I’d told her that I still had a couple of classes I had to teach that week—classes I couldn’t really get out o—but that I’d be up over the weekend to help out and attend the vigil if he still hadn’t turned up. Then I’d hung up and went in to see my students and then off to the bar. But I never did make it up to Austin that weekend—I had a sudden commitment at school, an emergency involving a colleague of mine and a student—and by the time I did make it up there, the following week, there wasn’t much hope left and almost everyone who had been there before was gone, everyone except for Antoinette and Daniel’s family.
I don’t have many regrets in my life but I do regret never making it out to Daniel’s house that weekend. From everything I’ve since learned, it wouldn’t have made much difference—it was just a few of his friends, his family, and Antoinette, everyone coming together to share information and comfort each other, but still, I would have liked to have been there to be a part of it.
By then, of course, the search and rescue had been called off, and by then, of course, there wasn’t much hope, but Antoinette hadn’t told me any of that during our phone conversation (or in any of her subsequent emails). Months later, when I was helping her organize Daniel’s belongings, I told her that I wished she’d leveled with me sooner and that I wished she’d called me earlier. She paused then—we were standing out by the pool in Daniel’s backyard a few days after the funeral; I’d driven up that morning from San Antonio to help her out with the packing up of the house, a task that seemed like it might take several days—and she was standing now with her back to the pool. She said that he’d actually been missing for almost four days at the time she called me.
“Four days?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “But please don’t hate me.”
I looked over at the flowering plumbago at the far end of Daniel’s yard, the palm trees and the sagebrush. I thought of all the stupid stuff I’d been doing during that time Daniel was missing.
“You had a lot on your plate,” I said finally to Antoinette, touching her arm. “There’s no way of knowing the right thing to do in these situations.”
“His parents told me they wanted to keep it quiet.”
“I’m sure,” I said. “And you were trying to respect their wishes.”
“I was,” she said. “I felt I had to.”
“And you did.”
Antoinette looked away then. I was trying to be supportive, understanding, but a part of me still resented her for not telling me sooner, and I could tell that she could sense this. Antoinette was from France originally and she’d been living in the States for almost three years, but I had no idea whether she’d been living here legally or not. I knew that she didn’t work, and I knew that she wasn’t in school for anything. From what I could tell she had met Daniel at a party a few years back and had been living with him ever since. Daniel rarely talked about her when we met up, which made me think they weren’t that serious, and when I’d asked him once if they were going to get married, he’d just laughed and said maybe, maybe not. Then he’d laughed again. “Antoinette,” he said. “She’s a piece of work, my friend. I love her to death, but she’s a piece of work.” That’s all he’d said, and again I’d taken this to mean they weren’t that close, but now it looked like Antoinette had basically assumed the role of his common-law wife. I would have assumed that she was in this partly for his money, that she hoped to be included in his will, or in the settlement of his estate, but according to her, Daniel had left almost everything in his will to his family—to his brothers and sisters, his parents. She didn’t seem bitter about this or disappointed at all, which made me think that she might have genuinely loved him.
“And you weren’t upset that he never included you?” I asked her. This was later that day, after we’d finished most of the living room and pantry. We were standing in Daniel’s kitchen now, sunlight filling the room, though it was nearly six.
“I told him I didn’t want to be included. If I was his wife, that would be one thing, but I wasn’t his wife.”
“And what did he say?”
“He tried to insist, but in the end he respected my wishes.”
I looked at her. She was putting bottles of wine into boxes and wrapping them with tape. It was early evening, and I could see the sun setting outside the window beside the pool.
“Besides,” she said. “I want to stay close to his family—it’s important to me—and I don’t want them ever questioning my motives for being with him.”
“Have they been up here a lot,” I said, “to help?”
“Only that one time,” she said. “Isn’t that bizarre? You’ve come here more than them.”
“Maybe they’re still in denial.”
She shrugged. “If it wasn’t for me, the house would just be sitting here, filled with his things.”
“And you’ve been staying here still?” It was an obvious question perhaps, but I realized then that I’d never asked it officially, that I had no idea whether she had moved out or not.
“Yes,” she said. “And it doesn’t make me sad, actually. I thought it would, but it doesn’t. If anything, it makes me feel closer to him. Sometimes I still sleep with his clothes.”
I looked out the window then and noticed a flock of birds, grackles maybe, flying over the backyard. The pool had started to collect leaves, and the grass hadn’t been cut in several weeks. Antoinette had explained to me earlier that she’d let the maintenance guys go, as she didn’t have the money to pay them anymore and didn’t feel comfortable asking Daniel’s family.
“Do you know where you’ll go next?” I said.
She looked up from the box she was taping. Then she stood up and grabbed one of the loose bottles on the counter and looked at it, then smiled. “Do you want to drink this?” she said, showing me the bottle. “It isn’t cheap.”
I pretended to study the label, though I knew almost nothing about wine. “I still have to find a place to stay tonight,” I said. “If we’re going to pack up the rest of this stuff tomorrow, I’ll need my rest.”
“You could stay here,” she said. “Out in the cabana house, or even on the couch if you’d like.”
I thought about this, and then I thought about Tanya back in San Antonio and what I’d tell her. Antoinette was a beautiful woman, and I knew what Tanya might think, even if it was the last thing on my own mind. I’d told Tanya earlier that I was coming up here for a couple of days to help Antoinette out, to help her as a kind of gesture of goodwill. I knew that it was something that Daniel would have wanted me to do, I said. She’d balked at the idea at first, but had finally relented.
Staying over at the house, though, wasn’t part of the deal.
“Let me think about it,” I said, but Antoinette was already getting out glasses by then, already pouring the wine.
“Are you hungry?” she said. “I could make us something to eat, too.”
In the last email I’d received from Daniel he’d written a lot about wanting to return to France, where he’d lived for a year after college, backpacking around with a bunch of our mutual friends, and how he still thought about that year as the happiest in his life. He also added that he thought that part of his attraction to Antoinette had to do with that, with the fact that she reminded him of that year and of that time in his life. She was very traditionally French, he’d written, though he didn’t explain what he meant by this. He also wrote that she reminded him of a girl he’d dated over there named Claire, but unlike Claire, he wrote, Antoinette was very kind, very loving. This was the closest he’d ever come to actually describing how he felt about Antoinette, but from what I could gather, or from what I had managed to piece together, it was complicated.
Tanya thought it was strange that he’d never invited us up there to meet her, that he’d kept their relationship a secret, but I never saw it that way. I knew that Daniel was a private person and that he tended to be protective of his relationships, especially if they were serious. I’d actually met Antoinette twice before, both times when she and Daniel were passing through town on their way out to Marfa, and this was the reason I had her number in my phone. On both occasions, Daniel had asked me to meet them privately. He loved Tanya, of course, but I think he sensed intuitively that she wouldn’t approve of Antoinette if they met, and I think he was probably right. Tanya had always been protective of Daniel. She looked over him in a sisterly way, especially since he’d started making money, and she’d always been suspicious of his girlfriends. She’d taken the news of his disappearance hard, probably as hard as me, and had been inconsolable for several weeks afterward, too sad to even come up for the funeral. I’d actually asked her to come up with me that weekend—to help out with the house—but she said she couldn’t. She said that she didn’t think she could ever step inside that house again. It was strange, but things had been tense between us the past few months, and I couldn’t say why. If anything, I would have thought that Daniel’s disappearance would have brought us closer together but it hadn’t. Tanya had taken off a few weeks from work—she had over a month’s worth of vacation time saved up and had figured this was as good a reason as any to use it—but I hadn’t actually seen her that much over the past month. She’d taken to running and working out in the mornings, and spent her evenings lying on the couch, binge-watching shows that I’d never heard of, or staring at her computer screen, trying to compose emails to people I didn’t know. On the few occasions when I’d suggested we do something—go out to dinner or maybe grab a drink—she’d said that she wasn’t really in the right state of mind to be in public right now. I’d asked her what she meant by this, but she hadn’t elaborated. I think on some level the two of us just handled grief differently. When something traumatic happened, my natural instinct was to talk about it, to get it all off my chest, whereas Tanya was much more introverted and reclusive. Her natural instinct was to put up a wall around herself, to cocoon herself inside a blanket on the couch and not talk to anyone. Still, we’d been distant with each other even before Daniel’s disappearance, and now I was worried that things were getting worse.
I’d asked her to come up with me that morning—had begged her really—but she’d adamantly refused. She claimed that it would simply be too painful for her, but I knew that it was more than that. I knew that she didn’t want to spend an hour and a half alone with me in the car. I knew that she didn’t want to have to meet Antoinette and talk to her. And I knew that she didn’t want to be around all of Daniel’s stuff and be reminded of what had happened.
“I’ll call you as soon as I get there,” I said to her as I stood in the doorway that morning. She was lying on the couch at the time, a blanket wrapped around her body. She’d spent the night there.
“I might be on a run,” she said.
“I’ll leave a message.”
“Call me tonight,” she said. “Before you go to sleep, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
But I hadn’t called her before I went to sleep. Antoinette and I had finished off the bottle of wine she’d opened and then we’d opened another. We might have had two or three bottles after that, I’m not sure, and then I went down to Daniel’s liquor cabinet in the basement and brought up several more bottles, all whiskeys. Antoinette had passed out by then on the living room couch, and so I sat down at the island in the middle of the kitchen and turned down the lights and proceeded to get drunk by myself. It had been a long time since I’d been on a bender like this, maybe five or six years, and I realized that my body had needed it. I ended up passing out on one of the chaise lounge chairs by the pool, and I must have tried to go into the water at one point, I think, because I was stripped down to my boxer shorts and holding a half- inflated raft when Antoinette discovered me the next morning around eight.
She was standing in a T-shirt and sweatpants, holding a package of frozen peas to her head.
“Do you want a glass of water?” she said. “Aspirin?”
“I’m actually okay,” I said, and I was. Surprisingly, I was not hung over at all.
“I’m going to go back to sleep for a little while, okay? Make yourself anything you want from the fridge. And wake me up if I sleep too long.”
She turned around then and went back to the house, and I lay there for a while longer, staring up at the morning sky, which was bright and cloudless, thinking about Tanya and whether or not I should call her.
After a while, I went back inside and made myself some oatmeal with fruit, some wheat toast, a glass of orange juice. I thought about what had happened the night before, but most of it was murky. I remembered talking to Antoinette about Daniel, and then about her childhood in Lower Normandy in the northern part of France. I remembered her telling a story about her grandfather—or maybe it was an uncle— building a somewhat primitive piano from scratch, and another relative, maybe an aunt, working for the Royal Opera House in London as an archivist. She had a lot of strange stories, and the longer she talked the stranger they got. At one point she went into the living room and never came out. When I went in to check on her she was passed out, so I went down to the basement by myself in search of the booze.
Later that night, after I’d found myself a comfortable spot on the back deck, by the pool, I heard what I thought was Antoinette crying, wailing almost, like an animal. I remembered sitting there, wondering if I should turn around and go back in, check on her, but then I thought it might be embarrassing for both us, so I didn’t. Instead, I leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes. I closed my eyes and I listened.
Now I wondered if I’d done the right thing by not going in. Maybe she’d expected me to come in and comfort her, maybe she’d wondered where I was. I looked around the kitchen at the mess we’d made and then walked into the living room, where I found most of the packing supplies she’d bought: the bubble wrap and heavy- duty packaging tape, the newspapers and boxes, the scissors and labels, everything she thought we might need. I sat down on the couch and started to assemble one of the cardboard boxes from the pack on the floor. Upstairs, I knew that she was sleeping and probably would be for some time, so I started picking up various things—picture frames and ashtrays and table lamps—and wrapping them up in newspaper and then placing them in the box. After I finished one box, I moved on to another, and then another after that. Pretty soon I had half the room packed up. In the smaller boxes I’d placed all of the books and heavier items, in the larger boxes all of the fragile stuff. I realized that I was sweating now, that I was feeling a little light-headed.
By noon, when Antoinette finally came down, I had packed up almost the entire living room and most of Daniel’s study. I had lined up all of the boxes in the hallway and labeled the ones I could. Antoinette stared at everything I’d done and then smiled.
“I should have slept longer.” She laughed.
I was soaked in sweat by then, my shirt drenched. The only things I hadn’t packed up were the original pieces of art that Daniel had hung on his walls. Some of these pieces were very expensive, I knew, and others were deeply personal. I didn’t know if Antoinette had any plans for them. A few of the pieces were actually lithographs I had done in grad school and given to him, and one of the linocuts in his study was a print I’d made in college. It was a bit embarrassing to look at all of this old work, all of my juvenilia, as my wife, Tanya, would put it. It was tantamount to looking at an old photograph of yourself from high school and thinking, did I really used to wear my hair that way?
Still, it had always touched me that Daniel had chosen to display my work around his house, even if it was early work, embarrassing work. As Antoinette explained to me later that day, as we were working on the family room, it was one of the ways he stayed close to me. “That’s how he always explained it to me,” she said. “He’d look at one of your prints, and he’d feel that you were there. Even if you weren’t. Even if you were very far away.”
We were sitting on the floor in the family room, packing up DVDs into boxes, and seeing all of the titles—Le Circle Rouge, Delicatessen, Cléo from 5 to 7—felt a little like going back in time, like we were back in our old apartment on Seventh Street or the one we lived in later in Barton Springs. This was all before Austin changed, of course, back when it was still just a sleepy college town. People my age like to wax nostalgic about those days, the early nineties in Austin, like we’re talking about Paris in the twenties, or Berkeley in the sixties, but it really felt that way sometimes, and I think we were all very aware of the fact that we were living in a very special place at a very special time in that place’s history and that it probably wouldn’t last. And of course, it didn’t last. The Austin of today barely resembles the Austin of our youth, or of our college and grad school years, at least, but I try not to think about that now when I visit. I try not to think about what Daniel used to call “The Last Days of April,” a reference to some poem he’d once read, a poem by a poet whose name I no longer recall.
“I think it’s almost cocktail hour,” Antoinette was saying now. This was later that day, after we’d finished the family room—or at least most of it—and were now back in the kitchen, looking for something to eat. Antoinette had found a loaf of sourdough bread and some fresh tomatoes and I’d found about a half pound of Gruyère and some olive oil and garlic. Together we were able to piece together something resembling an open- faced bruschetta-slash-grilled cheese sandwich. We assembled what we had on a cookie sheet and slid it into the oven to broil.
“It might not look pretty,” she said. “But I bet it’ll taste good.” Then she turned around and went downstairs to find more wine.
When she came back up, a few minutes later, she was holding several bottles of red and my cell phone.
“You must have left it down there last night,” she said, handing me the phone. “It was beeping.”
And I realized then that I’d gone the entire day without looking at it. When I unlocked the screen, I saw that there were seven missed calls and four new messages, all from Tanya.
I told Antoinette I’d be back in a minute and then took the phone out to the backyard by the pool. It was hot out, easily a hundred degrees, and I immediately started sweating. I sat down on the cement deck next to the pool and dangled my feet in the water, but the water wasn’t even cold now. It was tepid, like bathwater.
When Tanya finally picked up, she sounded drowsy. Not angry, though. Just tired.
“I’ve been calling all day,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I could tell that something was wrong. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think it’s just the fact there was actually a funeral, you know?” She paused. “It’s like it’s actually final now.”
I said nothing.
“I just can’t stop thinking about him, I guess. It’s like my brain’s stuck in a loop, and I can’t shut it off.”
“Have you tried reading?” I said. “Watching TV?”
“You know how much stuff on TV is about death? You don’t realize it until someone you know dies, and then it’s like everywhere. You can’t find a single show that doesn’t remind you of the very thing you’re trying to forget.”
I didn’t know what to say to her. “I miss you,” I said finally.
“I miss you, too,” she said, and was quiet. “Maybe I just wanted to hear your voice.”
When I went back inside, I found Antoinette sitting at the island in the middle of the kitchen, blowing on one of our sandwich creations.
“They’re still hot,” she said, nodding to the other ones on the cookie sheet. “But they smell good.”
I sat down on the other side of the island and reached for the wine she’d opened.
“I didn’t know if you wanted red or white,” she said.
“Red’s fine,” I said, pouring myself a glass.
“This feels like a familiar scene,” she said, “doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “It just does.”
I looked at her. “Did you guys used to cook a lot?”
“Yes,” she said. “All the time. Daniel was a terrible cook, of course, but he enjoyed it so much I never had the heart to tell him.” She laughed. Then she looked out the window, where the sun was now setting, and I asked her to tell me about Daniel’s last few months, those last few months of his life when I hadn’t seen him.
“They were actually pretty peaceful,” she said, putting down her glass. “Kind of calm, actually. He traveled by himself out to Joshua Tree a few times, Big Bend, and when he came back he was always very relaxed about everything, you know, even work, which he usually never was.” She looked at me. “And that’s around the time he had the idea about buying another place out there, in Riverside. He was really getting into it, you know? Being out there for long stretches by himself.”
Antoinette picked up her glass and took a sip. “It’s strange, but sometimes I find myself still thinking it might be some type of joke, you know, like a trick he’s been playing on us. You know how he was always designing those elaborate tricks?”
“Yeah,” I said, “only what would be the point?”
“That’s the problem,” she said. “There isn’t one.”
She put down her glass and ran her finger along the counter. “And sometimes, you know—and I know this is crazy—but sometimes I still think he might show up or that someone might find him, you know?”
I nodded. “Me too,” I said.
“The human heart resists it, I think, on some level. The idea of someone just disappearing like that. It’s not a thing we can fully comprehend.”
I picked up the bruschetta and took a small bite. “Have you ever thought he might have wanted to do it intentionally?”
“Or end things.”
“Sure,” she said. “Of course. I’ve thought about it a lot. He was unhappy, you know. At work, especially. He talked about it sometimes. But he was never unhappy when he was out there.” She picked up her wineglass and took a sip, glanced out the window at the garden. “And then you talk to the police and they think it might have been foul play, but who in the world would have wanted to hurt him? He barely knew anybody, you know? He barely had any friends.” She looked at me. “It seems impossible.”
I nodded. “I’ve never thought that’s what it was.”
“Me neither,” she said. “Although the world is full of fucked-up people, right?”
“That’s true,” I said. “It definitely is.”
She looked at me then sipped her wine. “And if that’s what he chose, you know—the other—if he chose silence, then that’s fine. It’s his silence, and it’s a mystery and it’s not for us to understand. But I can tell you he was never unhappy when he was out there, in Joshua Tree.” She stared at me. “Never.”
We worked through the rest of the night, bringing the wine with us, as we moved from room to room, first finishing up the downstairs and the garage, and then moving upstairs to the guest room and the master bedroom. There was a sadness in the air as you got closer to the master bedroom, or at least it seemed that way to me, and I could tell that Antoinette was strangely protective of it, that she didn’t want me to see how she’d been keeping it up.
“I’ll do that room myself,” she said, as she saw me moving toward it with the vacuum.
“Okay,” I said. It must have been four in the morning by then, almost dawn, and we were both exhausted, our T-shirts clinging to our backs, our hands and forearms covered with scrapes. I sat down in the hallway outside the master bedroom and leaned against the wall, and Antoinette sat down beside me.
“There’s really not much left for you to help with,” she said. “I can do the rest myself tomorrow or Monday.”
“And Daniel’s parents are coming up Tuesday?”
She nodded. “But they don’t even know what he has here, and I doubt they have anywhere to put it.” She looked at me. “You know, you should take something. A photograph, a painting. They’ll never miss it.”
I nodded, and thought about what I’d take if I could. Daniel’s parents had lived in San Antonio when we were in college—he’d grown up there, like me—but now they lived in Houston. Before the funeral, I hadn’t seen them in probably seven or eight years, and they’d barely acknowledged me at the service. Still, I’d been strangely touched by his father’s speech. He’d always struck me as a hard-ass, a military type, but he spoke so eloquently about his son’s childhood, about that time when I hadn’t known him, and how sensitive Daniel had been back then. He finished by saying in a quiet, almost inaudible voice that nothing in his life had prepared him for the incomprehensible task of burying his own child. He looked down as he said this, his hands shaking, and something in my body shifted.
Antoinette was standing up now and walking toward the packing supplies at the end of the hall.
“I think I’m going to take a swim,” she said. “I can’t seem to cool down. Do you want to join me?”
She was already walking down the staircase as she said this, though, already disappearing from sight.
The pool that Daniel had installed several years ago when he purchased the house was an infinity style pool, one of those shapeless, modern designs that seems to have a vanishing edge, an edge that merges with the horizon, or the sky, and seems to create the effect of water without boundary. I’d only swum in this pool once or twice before, despite visiting his house many times, maybe because Daniel himself rarely used it. He was much more interested in hanging out by the pool, it always seemed, than actually getting in. As Tanya once put it, he seemed to have bought a pool for purely aesthetic reasons.
Still, it was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship—he’d hired an architect to design it—and after a day of sweating in the summer heat, of boxing up fragments of my friend’s life like they were pieces of a discarded puzzle, I felt ready for the coldness of the water, for the shock of it on my skin.
Antoinette was already floating around in the shallow end by the time I got down there. The pool itself was glowing blue, lit from below by underwater lights, and the sky above was filled with bright stars, and the air around us was very dry and still, making everything feel a little surreal. Antoinette had brought out a bottle of champagne from the kitchen, and as I took off my shorts and T-shirt, she floated over toward the side of the pool where she’d left it.
“After tonight I’m not going to drink anymore for like a month, okay?” She laughed then and grabbed the champagne and took a sip.
“You can hold me to that.”
“I will,” I said, and smiled at her as I slid in the water.
The water felt good on my skin, and for a moment my mind seemed to settle down, seemed to calm in a way it hadn’t in several days. I submerged my head underwater and then held my breath, and when I came back up, a few seconds later, Antoinette was gone.
I called out to her, but she didn’t answer. Then I heard some rustling in the cabana house and a moment later she emerged with two foam rafts, which she carried over to the pool and slid into the water.
I climbed on top of one, and she climbed on top of the other, and then we both paddled out toward the middle of the pool where we turned over and lay on our backs.
Antoinette had brought along the champagne with her, and for a while neither of us spoke. We just passed the bottle back and forth and looked up at the stars and listened to our own breathing.
Finally, after we’d finished about half the bottle, she turned to me, almost in a conspiratorial way, and said, “You know, I never told either of them, Alan. I never told them that I called you.”
I looked at her.
“In case you were feeling guilty about it,” she said. “They never thought that you were coming up to help out that weekend, so they weren’t disappointed or anything. Nobody was. I just thought you should know.”
I nodded. I had been feeling guilty about this and probably would for some time, though I didn’t say that then. Instead, I just turned back toward the sky and took another sip of the champagne and then closed my eyes. In the distance, from somewhere inside the house, I could hear the faint sound of the music Antoinette had put on earlier, something light and ambient, something warm. I turned back to her.
“Can I ask you something?” I said finally.
“Did he ever talk about me in the past few months? Me or my wife?”
She nodded. “He talked about you guys all the time,” she said.
“But yes, especially in the past year.”
I took the champagne as she passed it to me and put it to my lips.
“And, of course, he worried about you guys, too.”
I looked at her. “About us staying together, you mean?”
“Yes.” She nodded. “I think he thought that the two of you should try to have children.” “Really?” I laughed.
“Yes,” she said and smiled.
I passed the bottle back to her and waited for her to take a sip. In the distance, I could see the sky lightening, the first hints of dawn on the horizon.
“And he probably told you about Tanya and him, right? Before she and I were dating?”
“Tanya always said that it was nothing, but I wonder.”
“I don’t think it was nothing,” Antoinette said and smiled. “But who knows?”
I shifted on the raft and looked at her. And I thought then for the first time that weekend about how beautiful she and Daniel had been as a couple, how beautiful they’d looked together those two times I’d seen them in San Antonio, at least, and then I thought for some reason about Daniel himself and how frightened he must have been had he in fact been lost on that trail, how impossible that must have been, having to accept the reality that he would never be found, that nobody out there was coming to get him.
I closed my eyes and let the water suspend me for a while, let myself float there, and then finally I looked back at Antoinette.
“You know,” I said after a moment. “You never answered the question I asked you yesterday.”
“About what you’re going to do after you leave here, after you pack up the house.”
She shrugged. “Well, maybe because I don’t know.” She looked out beyond the blur of the vanishing pool edge, where you could see the faint lights of distant cars on the interstate. It occurred to me then that I’d have to get on the road in a few hours, that I had morning classes to teach on Monday. I took the bottle as she passed it to me and took a long sip.
“I don’t think I’d want to be anywhere else, though, not right now.” She said this faintly, quietly, and then she reached over and squeezed my hand, just gently, and let it go.
I passed the bottle back to her, and then closed my eyes again. I could feel my body loosening now, everything going soft. I thought of Tanya back in San Antonio, and what I’d say to her when I returned, what would happen to us now. And I thought about Daniel and how profoundly I missed him already, how profoundly I missed his face, and how already it seemed impossible to imagine my life without him. My dear friend. My dear, dear friend, who had lucked out in so many other ways in his life and then been dealt this one bad hand. It seemed so unfair to me that he was not with us, that we were here, in his beautiful pool, and he was not.
I finally opened my eyes and turned back to Antoinette and saw that she was staring right at me. She wasn’t smiling at me, but she didn’t seem sad either. She was just staring at me, and I gathered that she was probably thinking what I was thinking, that we had just spent these two very strange days together, and that after I left we would probably never see each other again. There would be no reason for that to happen, after all, and yet for now, we still had about a half hour or so before that happened, a half hour or so to pretend, a half hour to float here on our backs in the darkness, in silence, but together, a half hour before the sun came up, and the darkness faded, and we would realize, with something like fear, that we had to leave.