The first weird thing is that Caroline is slowly becoming invisible. No kidding. This is pretty new and she’s still kind of having trouble with it. The first time it happened she and this male Barista from the Starbucks were sitting in the biography section talking about Barthes. The Starbucks guy had a stupid-looking beard that ran from his chin to like almost his neck and he never took his apron off, not even on breaks. He was saying something about semiotics and Caroline was staring at his neck-beard and thinking Jesus Why Is It Always The Guys With The Hair and promising herself she would stay away from English majors from now on, after this one, like always. Only when he brushed his hand against hers in a totally ungraceful half-move he felt girl but saw carpet. Things got quiet. Whenever Caroline walks by the Starbucks now she does it fast, with her head down.
This isn’t a condition so much as a theme. It’s recursive. There have been all kinds of people who wake up one morning and find themselves unable to find themselves. Everyone knows this. It happens in nature, even. You’ve seen it. A book’s slow fade into an overcrowded shelf, a figure’s protracted dissolve away, into horizon. She isn’t pioneering anything. It’s happening from the outside in, by degrees. Sometimes she’ll pick up a pencil and just sit there, watching it hover off the tips of her fingers.
The other weird thing is that Patrick is 30. This is not the way things usually work, and Caroline, just out of high school, finds herself trying not to think about it too much. Patrick has a leather jacket with a bunch of pins on it, pinned up the left side. One of them has a picture of Spiderman on it, which is pretty dumb but Caroline’s willing to ignore it. He’s got a bunch of books out on the staff picks table because he’s worked there the longest, and he likes to lurk around the Fiction section, waiting to see if anybody picks his Picks. Caroline’s favourite book is On The Road, which they can’t actually put on the Staff Picks table because it’s the one kids always try to steal. English majors again, plaid-shirted ones with overgrown hair and pupils like dinnerplates. People avoid the table because of the way Patrick looks at them if they pick up the wrong book. Caroline is pretty sure he’s never read Consider The Lobster. She’s seen him eating ham sandwiches in the breakroom. Still, though, despite the jacket and the grad-school seriousness and okay maybe a little because of the jacket, whenever she sees him it feels like her wrists are lined with tiny magnets.
This thing happens where Patrick starts to feel like he’s always touching Caroline. He’s not. That would be creepy. Caroline is pretty, and that’s one of the reasons Patrick avoids her. He’s already a 30-year-old freelance copy editor who works evening shifts at Indigo. He hangs out at comic book stores. He knows his way around things. She has this lip piercing and usually he thinks lip piercings are ugly and dumb and juvenile but when she yawns he can feel something knock and ring in his sternum, all the way down his spine. A tiny mallet hitting tiny keys.
So okay, anyway, it’s that every time Patrick’s around her, like when she’s sorting knitting books in the Arts and Crafts section and Patrick walks by her and says Hey maybe a little softer than he would have liked to, ideally, and she says Hey back and her lower lip juts out a little and Patrick has to fake a yawn there’s this feeling like they’re already touching. Which is strange. And nice. And awful. Lately, Patrick’s been spending a lot of time in the Fiction section.
There’s a feeling that starts to build, like you’re standing on train tracks with your arms outstretched and your eyes closed. People ask if you’re losing weight. You buy long-sleeved shirts, scarves, hats, anything that outlines. You borrow your mother’s high heels. You start walking down busy streets through crowds of businessmen and students with their heads down, bumping into everyone on purpose. Walking the wrong way down one-way streets. Carhorns don’t sound like accusations anymore. When someone flips you off it means you’re alive.
Patrick begins to suspect his nerves are crossing themselves. When his hip collides with a table’s edge he can feel it in the roof of his mouth. Whenever he walks past her, always by accident, he could swear he feels his fingers catch some edge, the fabric of what would be her jeans if they were there, and his face gets all hot and she gives this tiny half-smile and the soles of his feet feel like someone’s pricking them with tiny needles. Work’s starting to wear on him. Caroline figures this makes sense – most people don’t even like to spend an hour in an Indigo, let alone a career or a quarter-life crisis. One day, before work, she’s tugging on her shoes in the parking lot and she sees him sitting in his car, hands flat on the dash like he’s praying, breathing hard, staring straight ahead at nothing.
When Patrick and Caroline kiss for the first time, it’s quiet. They’re the only people there to work the closing shift, and she’s wearing a t-shirt. Her arms are too skinny. Patrick thinks of Nabokov and that plus the swampy late-night feeling in his chest plus the way her hands don’t feel make him trip over her left foot, impossibly, and then they’re staring.
“You always do that,” he says, regretting it the second it comes out of his mouth.
She doesn’t ask.
It’s easy to be in love like this. You meet at the corners of things. While Caroline stocks self-help books near the Staff Picks, Patrick walks by all chin-jutting serious and connects. Amazingly, nothing in the bookstore catches fire. Balletic is the word, he thinks. Sometimes he’ll stand in Reference and just watch her – the tiny, edgeless body receding into a Margaret Atwood-themed display. She fidgets a lot. From straight ahead it looks like she’s trying to work her way into the floor, the wall, like she’s trying to push herself out of one dimension into the next.
Caroline starts telling her mom that she’s sleeping over with work friends, which is technically not a lie. Patrick has a giant Einstein poster on his bedroom wall and a lot of thick-spined philosophy books on his shelf, but it’s okay because he doesn’t try to talk to her about any of it. He kisses with his hands pressed flat against her shoulderblades. The first time she comes over it’s raining, and she hums like a TV on mute. Patrick likes this.
Routines develop. When they go out, she plays with the zipper on his leather jacket. She’s learned to ignore or maybe like the Spiderman pin. He makes them dinner while she organizes the loose papers on his desk, caps his red pens, puts his emptied-out pocket change in little piles. At work they pretend not to know each other, and at the end of the day they spill out into the parking lot, still wearing their work clothes and laughing so hard they think they might die. One night Patrick makes the mistake of telling her he’s been stealing exactly one book a week since he started, and even though he’s pretty sure she’s joking when she bites his earlobe and whispers that she’s going to tell management, he lets her borrow whatever she wants to read. The first one she takes is Lolita, which sets off a growly feeling in Patrick’s stomach. He guesses this is his conscience, and does his best to ignore it. It shows in his face, and when Caroline notices it she laughs, hits him with the book, calls him a perv. He tries not to find this sexy, for obvious reasons.
Speaking of which: it starts to emerge that the secret things are the better ones. Just because you can’t see her hair, her hipbones, the crook of her elbow, doesn’t mean. You learn a new way to touch things. There’s always this moment when she’s standing there, sockless and smiling the day’s second hello, when he wants to say something but never does. It’s always with the lights off, always. Patrick doesn’t like this but he doesn’t question it either, which Caroline appreciates. It’s the only time she gets to feel like herself again, fully. Being learned. Sometimes she thinks it’s like he’s a cartographer, pacing out the borders of some foreign land so he can say it better, draw it the right way. She does not tell him this.
Sometimes, after, tracing figure eights in the air above her thighs, he swears he can see it happening. Like steam rising out of a teacup. Even when she’s not tired Caroline closes her eyes and wills herself into the bedsheets. She looks like she belongs; all folds and almost see-through in the dark. There’s a promise of something in all of this urgency, the messiness of it. Caroline wears legwarmers to work, still, and when she goes home she bolts straight up the stairs. Her mother slips notes under her door that say “I hardly see you anymore” and this, among other things, makes her want to cry. One night Patrick can’t help himself, murmurs something into her shoulder. She slows her breathing so it sounds like she’s asleep and he runs his fingers down her spine, reading the notches, braille-like. There’s no justice in this, being the girl who disappears. You need boys in leather jackets to describe your limits. There’s no grace.
“I was thinking I could buy a camera” is what Patrick says, and Caroline shuts her eyes tighter and presses her half a body into the mattress so hard the springs play a chord. Patrick isn’t stupid, so he exhales the rest of that idea and just lies there, watching her recede.