I had grown, which was one of the only things I knew for certain about myself in the years since returning to Revere — but how I had grown, I was far less sure. As pretty as I had been the first time, it was a prettiness that belonged squarely to my twenties and was gone before I knew to mourn it. My body had dealt with the consequences of cancer and misery; every year I was streaked by new stretch marks; my weight was never consistent for long; but it was my face that had really changed, and yet it had never crossed my mind that Eleanna wouldn’t recognize me. Rather, I had only wondered if that face would still provoke feelings in her.
I was thinking about that, and variations on that theme, during the flight to Albany and on the shuttle to the college town where I was to give a keynote and where Eleanna would be on a panel about, as I had learned from the Revere Book Festival website, Loss and Grief in Memoir. The festival was in October, the same month that Eleanna’s memoir — Night’s End — had come out, with the publication date only a few days before. I’d schemed to receive a galley, and even though I sped through the book, reading the entire thing the day it arrived, certain images still bled into my dreams: not images from her grief, mind you, but images from her marriage, the tenderness of it.
I had a gin and tonic on the plane. I don’t normally have alcohol on airplanes, and with my illness it is best to not drink alcohol at all, but I made sure to drink a cup of water every time one was proffered by a passing flight attendant. A young couple in the row in front of me soothed their howling infant throughout the flight. The child didn’t stop until we were about to descend and started up again as soon as we tilted toward the ground. Meanwhile, I was occupying myself by reading a new essay by Eleanna in Vogue — one of those promotional essays that comes out around the debut of a new book, which may or may not have much to do with the content of the book itself. The essay’s first line was “I was twenty-four when I met Ramit, and my father had just died.”
I was reading the essay for the third time when the plane began to slide and bounce along the runway. The infant was still screaming. I slid the magazine into my large leather bag and looked out the window at the airport, which seemed familiar to me. Even the taxi that took me to Revere felt like a taxi I’d been in before, and the driver someone I’d met years before.
The festival had arranged for me a room in a bed-and-breakfast near the college, which meant that I was on high alert as soon as I opened the front door. It was a small literary festival, and although I doubted I could avoid Eleanna forever (as if I hadn’t come simply to see her), I was too exhausted from cross-country travel for such an immediate shock. But I was shown my room after not too long, and soon I was alone in the room, wondering why I’d made this terrible decision. I’d made it, of course, because I hadn’t seen Eleanna in ten years, and though I’d thought she would fade from my mind over time, I missed her as ferociously as I had when we first parted ways. I hadn’t been in a serious relationship since I’d met her at another, more long-ago book festival in Revere, when neither of us had yet published our first books — which is a vague way of saying that I may or may not have considered my brief relationship with her to have been “serious” — but either way, I hadn’t had a serious relationship with anyone since we’d stopped speaking to one another.
I unpacked my clothes and hung up my tasteful silk dresses. I skimmed the PDF of my itinerary that the festival had given me: my obligations were the keynote, a VIP cocktail party, and a small craft talk for the college’s writing students. Simple. I’d done this all a million times; I could do it in my sleep.
It was 6:30 p.m. I would have dinner somewhere nearby and get an early night’s rest. My keynote the next day would be at 10 a.m., delivered to whatever audience decided to be available at that time in the auditorium where I had once met Eleanna, but I’d given enough talks and speeches at that point to be unafraid of yet another one, and I’d practiced a few times at home to my dog, Miu, who had been so impressed by my deep thoughts that he’d yawned dramatically and went off in search of his ratty dog’s bed.
When Eleanna told me she loved me — this, despite her marriage — we’d only known one another for five days, the length of the book festival. Both of us had scammed passes from our respective MFA programs to go, and then we had met at — of course — the keynote, which was delivered by a 50-something white man with a reputation for fucking and dumping young women at the MFA program where he served as director. But we were too innocent to know about that then; we were only thrilled to be sharing the same airspace as that terrible man.
We sat next to one another because my friend at the festival refused to wake up so early, no matter who the speaker was, and Eleanna was alone because she had plenty of acquaintances but no actual friends. I barely noticed her as we sat through the man’s talk, which was about the folly of inspiration and the blood-sweat-tears of writerly pursuits, only worth it when one was willing to work for it. As he went on and on, I felt myself doubt my capacity to be a writer, and I was wrecked by the time we applauded and stood to leave. I heard the woman next to me gasp in alarm. I did not realize what had happened until I followed her horrified eyes to her padded, cloth-covered seat, now stained with, if not the sweat and tears of a writer, the blood of a menstruating one.
She immediately twisted to look at her skirt, which was maroon but not quite dark enough to hide the blot of blood on its seat. “Oh my God,” she said, and because I felt I had witnessed too much of her little drama to just leave, and because I didn’t have anywhere else to be, I said, “Let’s find a restroom. Here, borrow my sweater. Tie it around your waist,” and I thrust the navy wool at her. “But what about the chair?” she said, unable to stop looking. I said, “Forget the chair,” and grabbed her arm — the first time I ever touched Eleanna — so that I could lead her in the direction of a bathroom, wherever that might be.
Once in the bathroom, she lost some of her panic, and she immediately stripped off my sweater and her skirt at the sinks so that she was standing in her underwear. She handed me my sweater. With the lavender SoftSoap available on the washbasin, she scrubbed at the blood until it was gone, and then she wrung out the skirt before carrying it into the handicapped stall, where I presume she located a tampon in her purse and used it before emerging in a mostly wet skirt. I was, meanwhile, standing where she had left me.
“What a disaster,” she said. “A fucking Judy Blume character.” She began to wash her hands. Finally I really looked at her: tall, with an auburn Louise Brooks bob; muddy green eyes; a pink, un-lipsticked mouth that turned up at the corners. She caught my eye in the mirror.
And that is the moment I think of when I think of how I met Ellie — not the shock of blood, or the wet skirt that clung to her legs, but our reflections in the mirror when she looked, and how our eyes met when she saw me looking.
I was standing idiotically in the overdecorated front room of the bed-and-breakfast, waiting for the owner to show up so that I could ask her about a place to eat, when the door opened and a compact, dark-haired man walked in. He had no bags and stood a few feet from the front door, looking around. I guessed he was in his early to mid-twenties.
“Where’s the owner?” he asked me.
“I don’t know. I was looking for her myself.”
He looked at me more closely, inspecting. Then he went through a side hall. I heard doors opening and closing. “Mom!” he shouted.
He came back into the front room before going up the stairs. The bed-and-breakfast had three stories, and he shouted for his mother on every one. He clattered back down and walked into the sitting room, where there was no one, and fell into one of the overstuffed velvet chairs.
It seemed like a good time to leave, as I didn’t want to spend any more time around this man, the owner’s son, than I had to. But as I approached the door, preparing to exit, he said, “Hold on a second.”
I turned. He was sitting more upright than I’d expected. “How long’ve you been staying here?” he asked.
“I just got here today.”
“Have you talked to the owner?”
“Only to check in.”
“How’d she seem to you?” he asked.
“Fine, I guess,” I said, though I honestly hadn’t been paying much attention to the owner, whose name I didn’t remember. I’d been thinking about Eleanna. Regardless, I added, “She might have been a little tired,” because I did remember that about her in that moment — she had seemed like someone who hadn’t slept well in a while.
“Huh,” the man said. There was a sourness to his voice that I didn’t like.
“Is there anywhere to eat around here?” I asked.
“There’s only one place to eat if you don’t have a car,” he said. “Taxis don’t like to come here unless you’re going to the airport. On the corner going that way, there’s a tavern. Reasonable fish and chips. Local beer on tap. It’s a two-minute walk.”
“Thanks,” I said. I could see through the pane of glass in the door that it had started to snow.
“If you just want something to eat, though,” he said, “I’m going to make something in the kitchen. You’re welcome to join me.”
I watched the snow come down. It was blowing sideways in the wind. I felt lonely, and the idea of heading out into the cold was not appealing. Being invited to eat a home-cooked meal sounded like a benediction under these circumstances — the nature of the food itself didn’t matter, only that it had been cooked by two hands for my sake. It was a greedy want, but I said yes and let him lead me into one of the side rooms, which was light green and gifted with decorative wainscoting and a Wedgewood stove. He began to fuss with the ingredients, and I leaned against the counter, performing insouciance where I felt none.
“Why are you in town?” he asked. He had eggs, red bell peppers, a hunk of cheese, a chef’s knife, and three Celtic stars tattooed near his right elbow that emerged halfway from his rolled-up sleeve, reminding me of all the terrible men I had known in the early ’00s with similar tattoos. Now he was making me uncomfortable again. I tried to decide whether I was uncomfortable enough to make up an excuse and leave. I told him that I was in town because of work, and he didn’t ask anything further. He began to make what seemed like an omelet. Without warning — without a flicker or a sudden, mechanical buzz — all the lights went out, and I screamed.
“Jesus,” he said. “Relax. It’s just a blackout.”
The burners were still flaming on the gas stove, suffusing the room with its warm glow. He continued to cook, sliding the omelets onto two plates. The room smelled good. My mouth watered in spite of myself.
“Hello?” It was another man’s voice and the creaking of the stairs. I could see this new man, elderly, standing in front of a white-haired woman. Both were in dark pajamas with white piping.
“Seems like there’s a party down here,” the woman said.
“I’m just making some food,” said the owner’s son.
More people began to come down the stairs, confused and bewildered and excited by the sudden darkness, which many guessed was caused by the snowstorm building strength outside. It seemed like a certainty that Eleanna would appear and that I would have to contend with her appearance. I was jazzed and anxious for this to happen. I had been waiting for years to see her again, and now it was going to happen — the blackout would draw her into the open, down into the kitchen, where we would act as though this was always meant to happen.
I tell this story not because Eleanna and I reunited but because I never saw her — not at that bed-and-breakfast, and not at the literary festival I had taken such great pains to attend. She was absent from the Loss and Grief in Memoir panel, with the empty seat like a black hole swallowing everything around it. I stood in the back of the room, waiting for her to show up late, waiting, waiting, until eventually the moderator of the panel announced that she was sorry but that Eleanna, due to a personal emergency, could not make it to the festival.
I did give my keynote. I had to, of course; I was being paid, and people were eager to hear what I had to say. I spoke into the microphone and heard my own voice sounding through the giant room. “Literature is a gift,” I said. “We must keep giving that gift.”
On the last day of the festival, I wandered through the book fair. I bought some books and postcards. I filled a tote bag. A pretty young woman approached me. She was in an MFA program, she told me, and she loved my work. She taught one of my stories to her undergraduates, she said. Shyly, she asked if we could take a selfie together. I watched my own face next to hers as she held the phone out at arm’s length, her own bright smile perfected from hundreds of selfies. My disappointment was obvious to myself, exuding from every pore. I didn’t recognize my own face on the rectangular screen. The one person who could recognize it was somewhere else, perhaps hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.
Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of the novel The Border of Paradise, was named by Granta one of the Best of Young American Novelists in 2017, and is the recipient of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for her forthcoming essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias. Her Twitter is @esmewang.