By Barbara Krasnoff
Sarah began to disappear when she was 15.
She had said something typically adolescent to piss her mother off, and her mother went off on an unexpectedly vicious rant. About how Sarah never listened to her, how her mother did her best to take care of Sarah and how much she had given up for her, and no, apologizing won’t help, it was too late for an apology. And on. And on.
As Sarah stood there, with no recourse but to listen to how bad she was, and knowing that absolutely nothing she could do would stop the deluge, she suddenly felt insubstantial, almost weightless. It was as though she had suddenly lost her skin and her bones and her organs; as though she could walk away and her mother — who still stood there, mouth open, eyes wide, furious beyond surcease — wouldn’t even notice she was gone.
The feeling only lasted a moment, and then she was back. Perhaps, Sarah thought as he stumbled through her abject apology, it was normal for adolescence. Sarah had done a lot of reading about the psychological and physical differences that teenagers experience. Perhaps, she thought, it was simply her hormones acting up under stress.
It wasn’t. She felt it on the day she asked her boyfriend to return some money he had lent her, and he asked her why she was being so selfish. She felt it on her honeymoon when her husband berated her for not paying more attention to him. And she felt it the day she brought him into the emergency room and the doctor scolded her for not bringing him in earlier and assured her that if the appendix ruptured, it would be her fault.
These moments were infrequent and forgettable; she could pretend they didn’t happen and continue with her life. But when Sarah turned 50, when menopause loomed, things changed. She began to fade so frequently, and so radically, that she couldn’t understand why nobody else noticed.
She had lost her job as an office manager, and was working at home, quietly copyediting legal documents for hours on end. After dinner, her husband would sit back in his livingroom chair and talk to her about his day at work, and who had done something stupid, and how it could have been done better. Sarah would sit and nod, and say “Uh-huh” and “Of course” and “You’re absolutely right!”
Occasionally, her mind wandered. She would wonder where an old friend had ended up, or muse about what would have happened if she’d gone to graduate school instead of marrying her husband. As a result, she’d miss a question, or respond with the wrong phrase at the wrong time.
The result was invariably catastrophic. Her husband would sit up, his voice would take on the note of hurt and betrayal that she dreaded, and he would accuse her of ignoring him. And when Sarah apologized, it was never enough. “You’re just saying that to appease me,” he’d growl, and there would follow another 15 minutes of recriminations and scolding.
As Sarah sat listening, she would invariably start to feel her skin grow as thin as rice paper until, under the steady barrage of words and guilt, it began to fall away, and with it her heart and lungs and bones. She’d look down and see the rough material of the couch through her lap; she’d feel her wedding ring falling through her hand and put her palm on the couch so that she wouldn’t lose it.
She wondered why her husband didn’t notice that she was fading. She thought, perhaps it was because he saw something different. Perhaps there was something there that took her place while Sarah herself faded away. A simulacrum of Sarah that drew his anger and scorn, and that apologized to whatever it was accused of in order to keep the peace. A thing that was no longer her.
But if it was no longer Sarah sitting there, where had she gone?
One Sunday morning, after Sarah had spent a half an hour on the phone with her mother (listening once again to how her mother had nobody left who cared anything about her), she came downstairs, poured herself a cup of coffee, and sat down in the living room. Her husband, impatient, scolded her for spending so much time on the phone. He then began a long, rambling story about some people he knew years ago and why they were wrong and he was right, but all she could think was, maybe if I went back and looked at some old photos. Maybe they could help me understand where I’ve gone.
She tried to remember where she had put her photos, and then remembered, oh, yes, she had stashed some of them in the top draw of her bed table. And suddenly realized she’d missed her cue, and that her husband was looking at her with that angry, offended look and saying, “If you’re not interested in what I’m saying, you’re free to say so,” even though she knew that wasn’t true.
The rant began. She sat and let it wash over her, wishing she were somewhere, anywhere else. So it was with a sense of enormous relief that she realized she was starting to fade again. And this time she didn’t try to hold onto herself, but allowed the process to continue, so that her clothes and her wedding ring fell away, and there was nothing left to see.
Slowly, carefully, Sarah got up and moved from the couch to the stairs. Usually, if she started to leave the room, her husband’s anger would intensify, but this time, he didn’t notice. He just kept staring and lecturing at her clothes as they lay on the couch. Sarah wondered what he saw.
She walked slowly up to the second floor bedroom, her husband’s voice slowly fading, and went over to the side table. But she was insubstantial and invisible, so when she tried to open the drawer in the side table, her hand passed through the handle.
Sarah pondered for another minute and then smiled. She knelt down, lowered her face down onto the top of the table and kept going, so that her face passed through the surface and she could see the first layer of photos that lay scattered in the drawer.
It was dark, and hard to see, but Sarah could just make out the photo that sat on top of the pile. It had been taken when she was 21 and about to graduate from college. She was sitting on a swing in the backyard of the ramshackle old house where she had lived with several friends during her senior year. She was smiling, her legs out in mid-swing, wearing the graduation cap she had picked up that morning. She was young, confident in herself and her future, anticipating adulthood and independence.
And she was completely corporeal.
Sarah stared at the photograph with her pale, invisible eyes. She remembered the movement of the swing, the hilarity and terror of the idea that she was actually no longer going to be in school but would be out in the world. And she recalled how she had felt a sudden rush of love for the old house, her roommate and her life, all of which was about to change, to become something new, different and, she had been sure, wonderful.
As her eyes got used to the darkness inside the drawer, Sarah began to realize that, with the years, the photo had itself become faded. The girl in the swing had lost most of her color, becoming a pale pinkish blur. Sarah’s past, like her current self, was quickly losing its hue, losing its form. Fading.
“Sarah,” came the voice from downstairs, “are you paying attention? Do you know how it makes me feel when you don’t pay attention to me when I’m trying to tell you something?”
Yes, Sarah thought, I do. And finally, gratefully, disappeared entirely.
About the Author
Barbara Krasnoff had short stories appear in a variety of print and online publications, including “Sabbath Wine,” which was published in the anthology Clockwork Phoenix 5 and was a finalist for the 2016 Nebula Award. Her mosaic novel The History of Soul 2065 was published by Mythic Delirium Books in June 2019. She earns her rent as Reviews Editor at The Verge.