The third time my brother disappears, I get the news from his wife, Rebecca. It is a Sunday evening when she calls and informs me that Michael has been missing all day. Sometimes Rebecca confides in me about her fears, the lack of passion apparent in the bedroom. She comes to me for reassurance, and I never turn her away.
"He must've left while I was asleep," she says. "Do you think I should call the police? I mean, what if there's been an accident? You wouldn't know anything, would you?"
"You have to calm down, Becca," I say. "I'm sure everything is all right. Did you try his office? His cell phone?"
She sniffles and clears her throat. "Yes, Sophie, I did. He didn't bring his phone or leave a note or anything. I'm sorry. He's never like this."
I imagine her on the other end, pulling at a turquoise or wine-red scarf coiled around her neck, and trying to regain her composure. Rebecca is never without her scarves. She works as an art teacher in an elementary school in Watertown. Sometimes she sells her own paintings at local galleries and coffee shops.
I ask her if she wants me to come over, but she declines my offer. She hates to be a burden, she says. When I hang up, I run a hot bath and wonder if she will call the police.
The first time Michael disappeared, he was twelve years old and we were still mourning the loss of our mother. She died within a year of fighting pancreatic cancer.
The second time Michael disappeared was on the day of our father's wedding to Cynthia, back home in Connecticut. The ceremony was delayed an hour, until it became obvious that my brother had stood up the family.
Rebecca calls an hour later and I am still soaking in the tub. Michael has come home, drunk and unresponsive. She asks what she should do. I tell her to let him sleep.
My bedroom closet houses a large assortment of babydoll nighties in silk and chiffon, and satin chemises trimmed in velvet and lace. I buy compulsively from catalogues and boutiques, adding to a collection I began when I was fourteen. On the days I see Michael, I like to place the babydolls on my bed and admire them. My favorite is a black negligee with sparkling black flowers embroidered at the bust. I wear it with black stilettos that lace at the ankle.
I don't wear the shoes when I fuck. I bring a man home and tell him to take me from behind; pin my hands against the sheet. I don't like to see his face. I want nothing beyond what he does to me in bed.
The lingerie feels like a cool rush of liquid spilled over my body. I pull the chair right up to the mirror for the best look. Sometimes I like to dance against the chair real slow, but usually staring will do just fine. I put on my makeup and my hair hangs in thick curls down my back.
I sit upright against the chair, take the silk rope from my kimono robe and wrap it from elbow to wrist. I squeeze the end of the rope carefully. The other hand holds a knife.
Michael had left for college when I did it the first time. I hated him for leaving me alone with our father, but by then I had my license and was never questioned over who I spent my weekends with.
When I start playing butcher, I like to watch it in the mirror, as if it's happening to someone else. I do it often enough so there are always traces left visible in the flesh. I imagine Michael standing behind me, seeing it all take place.
My brother calls the next day. He apologizes for any alarm Rebecca may have caused, and asks me to lunch at the Gardens on Newbury Street. Michael practices family law in downtown Boston, and sometimes confides in me about his cases. He wears expensive suits and his features are sharp and dark, like our mother.
We meet a few times a month for lunch or dinner—always his treat. These meetings are his way of keeping tabs on my life, though I don't mind them. Occasionally, he asks when I'm going to decide to finish college and, in his words, "start a life for myself." Michael does not think that tending bar at McCovy's Tavern is much of a livelihood. He says that I am going to regret wasting my life one day. I don't challenge his remarks, though sometimes I remind him that I'm twenty-six and confident in my decision-making skills.
After we are seated and grazing through the menu, I ask him what happened.
Michael shrugs. "I had to get away for the day. We have friends in the Berkshires. Rebecca and I have an understanding about these things. I don't know why she got so hysterical over it."
"She says you left no note," I say. "No fair warning."
Michael looks at me and sighs. "You mean she didn't tell you?"
"Tell me about what?" I ask.
"She's pregnant, Sophie," he says.
His words leave me a little breathless. "Michael, that's wonderful," I say.
"I'm surprised she didn't say anything to you," Michael says. "But she's only known for a few days."
He unfolds the cloth napkin beside his plate and spreads it on his lap. I watch his hands drop beneath the table to smooth out the creases.
"When did she tell you?" I ask.
"Friday. Friday night. She's been very emotional about it," he says.
The waiter comes to our table and we give him our order. When he leaves, I ask Michael if he is happy about the news.
"Of course I'm happy," he says, almost brusquely. "It's just a bit of a shock."
"Well, next time you want to escape, I hope you'll think to call me first," I say.
Michael says nothing, but smiles pleasantly, as if we have exchanged compliments.
I take Ilya home with me after work Monday night. He stays with me until closing, and we leave together, grasping for one another like old lovers. Ilya Komarov is one of my regulars at McCovy's. He comes in on weeknights and orders whiskey sours or double vodkas, depending on his mood. He is forty-two and has never been married.
Conversation is a fluid thing between us. Ilya still considers himself a transplant from Russia, though he has lived in this country for two decades, and retains a heavy accent. He builds kitchen cabinets and owns his own shop in Somerville. I enjoy hearing the stories of his life, his business, and the books he loves.
He gives me poetry collections, mostly by Anna Akhmatova. Some nights when I can't sleep, I take his books in bed with me and hold them against my body. There are passages that haunt me. I read "Requiem," one of Ilya's favorites, and I see Akhmatova standing outside a prison camp in Leningrad waiting for her son, imprisoned because of his mother's poetry. I imagine her coming every day for seventeen years, to stand in the frigid winds among throngs of others, all waiting for signs of life from their beloved. I see Akhmatova in her proud, somber beauty, holding notes crumpled against her palm, and bread hidden in the folds of her sleeves—all for him, everything for him, her son, her blood.
As children, Michael and I were not allowed to see our mother during her final months. Our father thought we were too young to understand, though he often left us alone at home on the nights when he visited the hospital. My eight-year-old brother was instructed to take care of me. We stayed up late watching television, wondering when we would see our mother again.
At my apartment, I fix us drinks—Scotch with water—and Ilya tells me how his grandfather, his zayde, died.
"I was still a boy living in Lefortovo, the eastern district of Moscow, when it happened," Ilya says. "But I never forgot. No one was ever closer to me."
He says his zayde was born blind, but always impressed the family with his storytelling abilities. He was later diagnosed with a rare form of mouth cancer, and had his tongue removed. He died a few months after that.
"I stayed with him in the hospital till the end," Ilya says. "I would sit beside him and squeeze his hands. The man could only speak through touch."
I tell Ilya that my brother and I never saw our mother in her final days. "Our father thought it would be better if we were kept away. We were children then, but Michael never forgave him for it."
They haven't spoken to each other in seven years. My father still harbors his own grudge against Michael for not attending the wedding. I communicate with the man through polite emails, and he tells me about the trips he and Cynthia take—Nassau, Saratoga Springs, Paris, Venice. I speak to my stepmother on rare occasions, though she always sends me a fruit basket on my birthday. She is the only bride I know who wore a black suit on her wedding day.
Ilya leans in to kiss my neck and face, and I let him.
"That is sad about your brother," he says.
I move gently from the couch. "He's a happy man. He's going to be a father soon," I say.
I make my way to the bedroom and pull the clothing from my body. Ilya follows my lead, and when I face him, we are standing before one another naked.
"Beautiful girl," he whispers.
"You're drunk," I say and lean against the bed.
But then he is looking at me strangely and I see what it is that disturbs him. I fold my arms across my breasts. He sits beside me and stares at his feet.
I tell him how I want to be fucked. I show him how he should hold my hands and suggest the things I like my men to say. When I finish, he looks up at me and grabs my wrist, twists my arm around for both of us to see.
"What is this, Sophie?"
I pull away from him. "Don't. Don't you ever touch me like that."
He embraces me and traces the length of my spine with his fingertips.
"Maybe you should just leave," I say quietly.
He shakes his head and studies me with a kind of compassion that I find startling. "I'm sorry, Sophia. Let's just lie together."
In bed, he wraps his limbs around me and we do just that.
In the morning, Ilya is gone. I lie in bed longer than I should and think of Michael. I want to call and tell him about last night, but instead I phone Rebecca to congratulate her about the baby. She sounds distracted and tense.
"I took a sick day," she says. "I haven't been feeling myself lately."
"I can't imagine how overwhelmed you two must be," I say.
"I don't even think Michael wants to be a father," she says.
I laugh. "Of course he does. He has no choice now, anyway."
Rebecca does not laugh. "Even when he tells me he does, sometimes I think he's lying. He's so complex. Has he always been this way?"
"Complex is the right word for him," I say.
"I just want to make him happy. Do you think I make him happy?" she asks.
"Of course," I say.
"Does he ever mention me when you two are together? Does he ever bring me up in conversation?"
"Yes." He never talks about her unless I do.
"We should get some coffee sometime," Rebecca says, "I'm having a show at this gallery in Cambridge next month."
"I'll try to make it," I say.
Ilya comes into McCovy's that evening around closing time. I ignore him at first and continue to clean the bar. Soon he is close to me and says he wants to take me out to dinner Friday night. He wants to talk about things.
"I don't think that's a good idea," I say.
"Why not?" he asks.
"It's just not the way I do things," I say.
Ilya studies me carefully. "There's someone else," he says.
I shake my head; begin wiping down the countertop with a rag. "I just think it was a mistake."
He stands there, watching me. "One dinner," he says. "And then I'm out of your life forever. I'll never come into this bar again."
I smile at him. I know men or at least have known my fair share of them—a former boyfriend once threw a dish at my head; another used to slap my face during sex. Ilya is different.
"Well I'd be fired if the owner knew I was driving patrons away," I say.
"So Friday is a go then?" he asks.
I tell him he's lucky that I have the night off.
I imagine that Michael and I meet secretly sometimes, often unexpectedly. He calls me from Manhattan or Chicago while on business, and says he will pay for everything. All he wants is my company.
I arrive later in the night. He picks me up from the airport and we get drunk on gin and tonics at the hotel bar. At some point during the conversation, I roll up my sleeves to show him the underside of my wrists.
"Sophie," he says, "Sophie." He rubs the deep red lines in my skin with his thumbs.
I tell him it feels good; that I think of him when I do it. I confess everything, and afterward, he takes me up to his room where we collapse together on the single, queen-sized bed.
As children, we often slept together in the same bed because I was afraid of the dark. Michael was scared that I might pee myself, and kicked his feet away from me, pulling all the blankets with him. But sometimes we cuddled up against each other and slept.
Tonight, it's still possible that we might go right to sleep, innocent of the possibilities. But he sits up and caresses my arms. "Promise me you won't ever do this again," he says.
I say nothing and he begins to kiss my wrists. Then his hands rest on my hips and move slowly up my waist. "You're not eating enough," he says.
I pull him down beside me. Our noses touch. He kisses my face, but not my lips. He moves up along my body and buries his head in the space between my neck and shoulder. I place my arms around him and hold him tight.
The first time my brother disappeared, I was the only one to discover his absence. Our father was sleeping. For weeks after the funeral, he spent his nights drinking and falling asleep in front of the television. We were not allowed to disturb him. I slipped beneath the covers of Michael's bed and waited. I bit into his pillows to muffle my sobbing through the long, silent hours. I fell asleep and woke up when he returned. He pulled back the sheets and ordered me out. I said I wanted to stay with him, but he barked at me to go to my own room. Then he told me that if I stopped crying, he would tell me where he went. I stopped crying.
Michael calls me Friday evening. I am dressed in a slip, trying to put on eyeliner, when the phone begins to ring.
"Rebecca wants a divorce," he says.
"My God. Why?" I say.
"I don't know," he sighs, "I don't really understand any of it. She was in hysterics when I came home. I asked her what was wrong, and she said it was over."
"But she's pregnant. What about the baby?" I say.
"Let me come over," Michael says.
When he arrives, I'm in the kitchen, with a kettle of tea on the stove.
"Give me your coat," I say. He slips it off and I hang it on the rack by the door. I guide him to a seat at the kitchen table. "I made tea. How do you like yours?"
"Plain," he says, "I'm easy."
I bring two cups over and sit opposite him. For a moment we just stare at each other, and I'm shaking my head in sympathy.
"She said she had given it enough thought. Plenty of thought," he says.
"That doesn't make sense. All she used to talk about was how much she wanted things to work out between you two," I say.
Michael shook his head. "She said she realized that somehow it was all wrong with me. That I would never be a good father. That I wasn't even a good husband. She said she doesn't want me in the baby's life."
I watch Michael take a few sips. He bites the insides of his cheeks to stop his lips from trembling. The phone rings and I disconnect the cord from the wall.
"What can I do? Just tell me what you want," I say, sitting beside him.
"I want to disappear," he says to me. He reaches for my hands and squeezes them. I stand up from the table with my hands still clasped in his.
"Come with me," I say.
In my bedroom, I open the closet wide so he can see them hanging from their delicate straps. He pushes through, and the light catches the sequins of one, causing it to sparkle. "Jesus," he says, "what is all this?"
I tell him to choose the one he likes best.
He looks at me uncertainly, but continues to riffle through the closet. "Here." He draws one out; holds up the hanger by his fingertips.
I take it from him gently and place it on the bed. "Wait outside. Just for a moment."
"What are you doing?" he says.
"Please," I say.
When I open the door, I am wearing a satin babydoll with matching kimono robe and stiletto heels. He stands in the doorway, staring at me with a look I can't quite register. I move against him slowly, allowing the robe to slip off my shoulders.
"Sophie," he says. His fingertips brush against my cheekbone, and I kiss him, full and soft on the lips.
He takes a few steps backward and regards me with a look that says now I've seen everything. Then he turns and leaves my apartment. I wait ten full minutes for him to come back. When he doesn't, I return to my room, shutting the door behind me.
I don't bother to change. I sink into the chair, and begin to wrap the rope around my wrist.
The buzzer rings. I release my arm and pull the kimono over my body before leaving the room.
I press the button on the intercom. "Michael," I say.
"It's me," Ilya's voice says. "I tried calling."
I hesitate before responding; I have completely forgotten about our date.
"Ilya," I say. "I'm sorry, Ilya. Something awful has happened to Michael."
"It's O.K.," he says. "Let me in."
I press the buzzer and unlock my apartment door. As I curl against the couch, I remember Michael, twelve years old, telling me how he went looking for her, our mother, in the cemetery. I imagine him walking the dark, deserted streets, clutching his backpack tightly, until he reaches the graves. I see him wander through rows of headstones, unable to read the inscriptions for want of better moonlight. But somehow he finds her among the dead; something guides his steps straight to her. He sits up against her tombstone, waiting for her unearthly presence.
I hold myself, this tight knot of flesh and bone, and wonder what he saw.
Copyright © Olivia Kate Cerrone 2007.