By Benjamin Wexler
Everything was different. It took a few moments for this to sink in. Mike would have preferred to stay in the dream he was only just leaving, the one with the light and the light and the light curled around the curtain onto his face. Each eyelash shone.
His alarm pulsed on the dresser. How long had it been since he had overslept?
More importantly, what clothes did single men wear?
There had been signs leading up to it. A withdrawal. Mike hadn’t noticed it in her, but in himself. He would spend hours upon hours scrolling through Instagram, curling inwards.
He really ought to walk. The world didn’t stop when he lost someone. It was a normal day.
On the dappled sidewalk beneath a tunnel of oaks, he waited for the hat lady to turn the corner. She always walked with short, forceful steps, her clothes a palette of greys and beiges. She distinguished herself with a collection of colourful hats. They passed one another everyday, and Mike didn’t think he had seen the same hat once. Each one looked absolutely fey in the half-light.
He was still smiling at the thought when the fear of forgetting seized him. Sifting through his mind, he found plenty of good memories. Every memory with her was a good one in hindsight, so much so that they fused into a shapeless haze. The great memories had grown legs in the telling. There wasn’t much to hold onto there.
The hat lady hadn’t appeared yet, and he was almost at the end of the avenue. She might be sick, or away, or anything really, but Mike looked forward to their exchange of polite nods, so he slowed down. The block was still empty when he had to take his turn.
Turning onto the commercial street was like surfacing out of water. Cars honked, cafes chattered, drills hummed. By now, the bright orange cones were routine, and skirting them part of the trip. Still, none of the workers had familiar faces. He couldn’t even find the one whose mane escaped his cap in a golden halo.
You know what he missed? Not in the moment; there was nothing much to miss yet, only what he knew he would be missing. The future absence weighed on him. He missed the brief encounters with distant friends. Her good ones that he made an effort to get to know. He missed her acquaintances whose names he asked and forgot. In their eyes, he had just been her guy.
He supposed that now he’d stop existing for them.
The little walking man Mike was hurrying towards was replaced by a red hand which, proportionally, must have belonged to a giant. He waited anxiously at the corner, craning his neck to see across.
It didn’t look as if the siblings he usually passed were standing opposite, but they might be behind one of the adults. They were short, after all, although the girl seemed a little older than the boy, maybe ten years to his eight. He was certainly the one who reached for her hand as they crossed the street. They had shiny, well-groomed hair and dressed in matching uniforms. He wasn’t the only one who appreciated their careful presentation, and he often noticed pedestrians looking approvingly at the pair.
That happened on other days, of course. Today the people waiting in anticipation of a light change were faceless even as they stared at one another.
Mike started moving his legs again, dragging past block after block.
There was a couple on the bench where the old man usually sat, too preoccupied with one another to take an interest in the passing dog.
Someone slid by on a skateboard, but the cycling family never showed itself.
The lady who talked to a mysterious stranger on her phone didn’t either.
The man whose long legs and arms cast a spidery shadow was nowhere to be found.
It was bound to happen at some point, he insisted. Someone takes a wrong turn, someone’s on vacation, someone falls into a manhole and dies. It’s not even as if there weren’t any people around. Now that would have been weird. He just… didn’t recognize anyone.
Every house looked just as he remembered it.
He had met her in one of those houses, Mike recalled now, a more vivid memory than anything he had found up to that point. Which house, he wasn’t sure. They all shared basically the same brick front for about a five-block radius. Maybe if he got inside he would recognize it.
There was this ridiculous glowing fish tank, like you were six again and visiting the local aquarium. She was sitting on a sofa, red cup in hand. He took one more look at the gaping fish then strolled over, mostly because he thought she looked like this indie singer. Her music video aesthetic was dimly lit house parties.
He tried to keep walking, but each step was heavier than the last, and he finally stopped above a roaring highway.
The overpass was empty, missing every other person that had filled it at that time of day for a month, a year, a decade, since the dawn of time.
How long he stood planted on that overpass he could not be sure. It was a cool day, but the left side of his face scorched. His legs flowed into his feet flowed into the concrete flowed into the iron flowed into the arch.
He fell flat on his ass when he was bumped into. Apologizing profusely, the person offered to help him up.
The man who had bumped into him was the man who whistled to the music in his earbuds. Mike accepted the hand and it pulled him to his feet. His face was doing its best to express salvation words could not.
He was standing now, but still held his rescuer’s arm, staring.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” the man said.
Mike stood for another moment, thanked him, and kept walking.