*Originally published in Juice Magazine, September 2011*
Most nights, when I came home, Nikki would be there. Usually, she’d be sitting on the couch in her underwear, looking through photographs. It was summertime, and the apartment would be roasting. But she never opened the windows. When I came through the door, I would head straight for the windows and open them, then go and sit down beside her.
“Do you like them?” she would ask.
“Yeah, they’re great,” I’d lie. Nikki considered herself a photographer. She took pictures of streets and train yards and people she liked. The pictures were not very good but she worked very hard at them, and I think sometimes that should be enough.
“Mhmm,” I would say, pointing at a photo, “especially this one. I mean, these came out great!”
Then she would smile and put the photos away. After that, if we were both feeling lazy and the fridge was running low, we’d order a pizza and I would go across the street to pick it up. When I came back, the apartment would be a little cooler and Nikki would be dressed and we would eat in front of the television. A little while after dinner, Nikki would ask:
“Do you think we’re stuck in a rut?”
I would think about it for a second. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I hope not. I don’t want for us to get boring.”
“Are you bored?”
“No…I worry about it though. I don’t want us to be bored, because then we’ll break up.”
“Well, we’re not stuck in a rut.”
“I know.” It would be quiet for a minute. Then, “Babe?”
“You’re not just saying that, right?”
“Of course not, no! Nooo, I love ya.”
“Really really. Same as I always have, since the day that I met you.”
Nikki would look down, wiggle her toes a little. “You always say that.”
“And I always mean it!” Then I’d wrap an arm around her and say, “I love you, Nikki. Okay? I love you I love you I love you, a whole whole lot.”
Nikki would smile. “Okay. I love you too. And you don’t think we’re stuck in a rut?”
“We’re not stuck in a rut.”
“I hope not,” she’d say, “sometimes I just worry.”
We had that conversation once, sometimes twice a week.
* * *
It hadn’t always been like this. I first met her at a noisy little bar on the east side of town. It was a birthday party in late November. She came in with another girl who looked familiar. The bar was dark and crowded, and I only caught glimpses of her at first. She was thin and very lovely, with curly brown hair and a deep, natural looking tan, as though she had been away for a while. At some point I saw her step outside onto the patio with a cigarette. I waited for a minute and a half – I wanted our meeting to look accidental – then joined her outside.
“Are you here for the party?” I asked, lighting up my cigarette.
I looked through the patio’s glass door and pointed to the table. “That one.” She leaned in towards the window, peering through. Her eyes were light brown and shaped like almonds.
“You mean Don’s?”
“Yeah,” I said. She nodded.
“So how do you know Don?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t, really. I came here with Laura, we work together at the Portsmouth.”
“You’re a barmaid?”
“We actually prefer ‘bartender’.”
“Sorry,” I said.
She laughed and shrugged. “I don’t mind. What about you?”
“Don and I took some classes together in university.”
“Yeah? What’d you take?”
It was a banal conversation, but I didn’t mind. It felt good to be alone with her. And then suddenly, I got very nervous – not because I was talking with a beautiful girl, but because I knew that soon she would ask me The Question. The Question was simple enough, but I always had a hard time answering it, and I knew that when I tried, her eyes would glaze over and our conversation would be over. Sure enough, a moment later, she asked me:
“So what do you do?”
“You mean for money?”
She nodded, yes. I took a long drag of my cigarette, now nearly finished. “Nothing special.”
“Oooh,” she drew her lips together, smirking, “how mysteriousof you.”
I laughed. “No, it’s not like that. It’s just boring, is all.”
“Well? Go ahead. Bore me.”
She nodded. I felt around my pockets for another cigarette, and pulled out my Pall Mall Reds.
“Could I bum one of those?” she asked. I handed her one, then pulled out another for myself.
“I work for a company that does document storage.”
“What’s that? Like, a warehouse?”
“Sort of.” I hoped that she would drop the subject. Instead she just stood there, waiting. Well, I thought, here goes:
“According to the law,” I started, “every business has to keep their personnel records for at least seven years after the date they were signed, or last updated. Contracts, written complaints, performance reviews, all that – anything you sign at work, anything with your name on it, they have to keep for seven years.”
“Well, in case you decide to sue them, or something like that.”
“Does that happen very often?”
I shook my head. “Not really, but that’s the law. Anyways, over seven years, those documents pile up, especially if you’re a big company with a lot of employees. And since most of those documents are about people who don’t even work there any more, most companies can’t be bothered holding onto them. So they pay people like us to do it for them. We hold on to all these old papers, and once they turn seven years old, we destroy them.”
“Yup. Shred ‘em.”
It was quiet for a moment. Then, she looked up at me. “You practice that, don’t you?”
“That whole thing, about your job. It sounds rehearsed.”
I shook my head. “No. Not really.”
“Maybe a little.”
She laughed. “I’m Nikki,” she said.
We talked for a bit longer and after that we went back inside. The band was noisy and terrible that night, and I didn’t get a chance to see Nikki again. A few weeks later I saw her at another friend’s party, and this time I managed to get her number. I got to know a lot about Nikki after that. I learned how she loves summer, but hates spring, and how her middle name is Catherine and she wishes that it wasn’t, and how she lost her virginity when she was fourteen and that she likes to smoke cigarettes from countries she’s never visited. She had been new back then, thrilling, and we were happy together.
Maybe she’s still happy. I don’t know.
* * *
My father got me the job, when I finished university and nothing else was coming up. I figured it would be short-term; that was two years ago. Most days, I didn’t mind it. Every morning I would come in, and there would be a freshly printed list of files sitting on my desk. The list showed all the files that were expiring that day, and where to find them. Most of my day was spent walking through the storage complex, with its endless rows and columns of tall gray filing cabinets, looking for files, tossing them in carts, and bringing them back to my desk. Then, I’d double check, make sure I had the right ones, and send them through the shredder. Mostly, I was paid for the things I didn’t do – I was valuable because I didn’t try to steal anything, or sell one company’s information to their competitors. It was mind-numbing work, sure, but it paid very well, and over two years I had come up with a few ways to kill the time. One thing I liked to do was read the names off my list, and try to imagine what kind of face that person had. I would read their names aloud as I walked.
“Terrence Updike, Borland Corp.” Terrence, I decided, was a stocky, round-faced man in his late thirties. He had a hooked nose that he broke as a child, flattening it to his face. Underneath his nose, the beginning of a moustache was sprouting. God, he was ugly. I moved down to the next name.
“Erin Krishner, Sierratech Industries.” Erin wore large, square-rimmed glasses to distract people from what was – in his opinion – a nose too large for his face. Other than that, he had no real distinguishing features, thin lips, and noticeable dandruff in the winter. Satisfied, I read the next name.
“Emily Vaughn, Digital Imagery.” I thought about this one. Emily Vaughn. That’s perfect. She would have sandy blonde hair, very straight, and her eyes would be blue. I figure that when she smiles (which is often) little creases form around her nose. Emily Vaughn. I liked that name. It had some poetry to it. I spent a long time working on the details of her face. When I was finished, she looked quite beautiful, and I wondered if I was just remembering someone I’d already met before. The feeling soon passed.
“Sylvia Mynarski, Atlear Group.” Now Sylvia, she…
* * *
A few days later I was deciding whether Janet Vickars’s chin should be pointed or squared when the name came back into my mind. Emily Vaughn. It kept coming back all afternoon and into the evening when I got home. Each time, I would see her face again, the face I had made for her. At least, I thought I had made it. Maybe I had seen her before – she was so familiar – but I couldn’t remember where. It was funny, and it nagged at me. I wanted to know for sure.
That night, I opened up my laptop and logged onto Facebook. In the search bar, I typed ‘Emily Vaughn’ and hit ‘ENTER’. The search came back with Emily’s, dozens of them. I clicked through the first few results – none of them looked like the girl I was thinking of. Where was it she worked? I mulled it over, trying to remember. Was it ‘image’? It had an ‘image’ in it. I searched again, this time typing ‘Emily Vaughn image’. And there she was, the very first hit.
This Emily looked very much as I had imagined her, except that her skin was fairer and her hair was a lighter shade of blonde. She wore a black dress in her profile picture, posing with some other girls. She was stunning, really. Her profile said she had worked for ‘Digital Imagery’ for a few years now. It was definitely the girl whose name I had seen on the file. But had I met her before?
I kept looking. She had hundreds of photos, and I spent a few minutes going through them. She was always smiling, always happy. I saw her on vacations, and at parties and at home with the family for Christmas. After the photos, I read her Bio, and her Favourite Movies, and her Hobbies and her Interests and her Favourite Music and Books. I soon realized that I couldn’t possibly have known her – she lived in the States and we had zero Mutual Friends. Still, after going through her profile, I felt like I knew more about her than I knew about Nikki after three months of seeing each other. She was much more open about her life.
I found my way back to Emily’s Wall, and began reading the messages there. Some were very long, but most were short. The most recent of them read:
“i went to see your parents today. i tried to cheer them up but they still miss you. we all do. you were a great friend and a truly amazing person and i hope i see you again someday. ily”
I scrolled down and read another. It read, “Emily, when God took you away, I was angry for a long time. I didn’t know why He could take someone like you away. Now that its been awhile Ive seen that He has a plan for us, and I know you looking down on us from up there. Rest in Peace.”
Another simply read, “Emily Sara Vaughn March 25 1982 – July 16 2004. RIP”. I read the posts for a long time. When I was done, I closed the laptop and tried to fall asleep. Nikki snored quietly beside me.
* * *
A few days went by, and Nikki was in the apartment again. The sun was just setting, and the apartment was baking. I ordered some Thai food for dinner and went to pick it up. When I left, Nikki was on the couch in a tank top, flipping through channels trying to find a movie we hadn’t already seen. When I came back, she was lying down with her eyes closed.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“No.” She sat up when she said it. The TV had been switched off. We ate dinner, saying very little. It was very quiet in the apartment. Sometimes an ambulance would blare past on the street below. At some point I turned on the TV, but it was still very quiet. Finally, Nikki spoke:
“Why do you lie to me about my pictures?”
“Why, what do you mean?”
“You don’t like them.”
“Sure I do. Why, what is this?”
“Sarah texted me. She told me you said they’re no good.”
“When you were getting the pizza.”
“I didn’t see Sarah.”
“No! That’s when she texted me. She heard you say it last weekend.”
“I didn’t talk to Laura there.”
“You weren’t talking to her, you were talking to Alex.”
“Oh. Well I didn’t see her there,” I said absently. Nikki didn’t respond, she just stared out the window with her jaw clenched tight. “Which one is Laura again?”
“My friend, Laura. You’ve met her before.”
“…Is she blonde?”
“What?” I asked. Nikki had gotten up now. She was picking her clothes up off the floor.
“You heard what I said, I said…fuck…you! I introduce you to my friends, you talk to them, and then you don’t even remember them, ever. It’s like you’re trying to….I mean, why don’t you care?”
She put on her socks, then her shirt, and now she was wiggling into a pair of jeans. I thought it was funny, how the socks went on first. She kept on talking, snatching things up off the floor.
“…and they’re important to me. So, when you act like you don’t care about them, it’s like you’re saying that you don’t care about me. You know?”
I sat up on the couch. “How come you put your socks on before your pants?”
Nikki turned around. She had all of her clothes on now. “What?”
“Nothing, no. I just thought it was funny, how you put your socks on before anything else.”
Nikki looked at me for what felt like a long time. Then she said, “Go to Hell!” and walked out of the room. When she was gone, I stood up and put the rest of the Thai food in the fridge. Then, I sat down on the couch and checked my email. While I was there, I logged onto Facebook and changed my Relationship Status to Single. It was as simple as that.
* * *
JULY 16, 2004
MS. EMILY VAUGHN:
You are receiving this letter as a reminder re: our Company’s ‘Time Off Policies’. Employees are expected to notify their Supervisor(s) as soon as possible if, for any reason, they will be absent from work. In some cases, your Supervisor(s) may request a doctor’s note or other documentation to verify the reasons for absence.
This office’s records indicate that you have been absent from work, without properly notifying your Supervisor(s), on the following dates:
April 13, 2004
June 7, 2004
June 21, 2004
July 16, 2004
Unexplained absenteeism is detrimental to the Company and puts increased pressure on your co-workers to perform your duties while you are away. Please consider your co-workers in the future. Failure to do so will result in termination of your Employment Contract with the Company.
Human Resources, Digital Imagery
It was Friday afternoon. I looked down at my desk, at the stack of papers all turning seven years old that day. I read the letter again. Someone had struck the whole page through with a red marker, and at the bottom they had written “N/A,” and below that, “DECEASED.” I read the whole thing over again. It seemed very cruel, but nothing could be done. I fed the letter into the shredder beside my desk.
I didn’t want to go out that night. Don told me I should – he said it would help me get over Nikki, that I had been weird lately, distant. I told him no, thanks, but I’d really rather stay in. I opened a bottle of wine with dinner, and left it out when I was done. Late in the evening, it started to rain, and water came in through the open window. I was starting to feel better. I got up to shut the window, and opened another bottle.
It got to be pretty late. I was lying in bed, tired, but not sleepy. My laptop was sitting on the nightstand, and I sat up and laid it across my legs. I checked and re-checked my email. Then, I went to Emily’s profile. There was a button below her picture. It said ‘Send Emily a Message’. I clicked it, and began,
You don’t know me…we’ve never met in person. I wish that we had, though, even just once. I think we might have liked one another. I’m a lot like you. It feels weird saying that, but it’s true. We like the same things. We like the same bands. Your friends still post on your Wall, even though they know you won’t answer. I think you get more posts than me. I guess that says something. Anyways, sometimes, one of them will find an old picture of you, and put it online. They tag you in it, and people comment on your pictures. It’s like nothing is different. I think that shows how much they care about you. Well, that’s all I wanted to say. Take care.”
My legs were warm where the laptop had been sitting on them. I had felt strange at first, writing the thing, but reading it back to myself I began to feel pretty good about it. I pressed ‘Send’.
‘We’re sorry, something went wrong. Please try again later.’
‘OK,’ I clicked, then ‘Send’.
‘We’re sorry, something went wrong. Please try again later.’
‘Oh, Hell,’ I thought, and clicked ‘Refresh’. The browser took me back to my news feed, not to Emily’s profile like it was supposed to. I went back to the search bar, and typed ‘Emily Vaughn image’.
‘Sorry, no matches were found.’
I was starting to understand, though I didn’t want to admit it. I searched again.
‘Sorry, no matches were found.’
I tried again, and again and again. She would not come back to me. I looked at my watch. It was nine minutes past midnight. Emily had been dead now for seven years and one day. That meant that no one had accessed her account in seven years and one day. I understood perfectly well now. Emily had expired. I shut the laptop and got under the blankets, and for a long time I listened to the sounds of the city and the rain.