On the day that my girlfriend disappeared, we were walking along the fruits section of the grocery store looking for papaya. I didn’t care much for papaya, I thought there were prettier fruits like strawberries or pears or grapes – they were less heavy and required no peeling the skin with a knife and no cutting them to smaller pieces. Strawberries or pears or grapes you could just pop right into your mouth, I would tell her this over and over again, to which she would respond by pointing out that I never had to use the knife anyway because she was the one in charge when it comes to preparing food.
I guess I must have been lost in the mission to spot the papaya because I didn’t realize I was the one pushing the trolley – another thing she was usually in charge of. My job was to carry the shopping list and spot things. She would never let me do anything physical, chivalrous woman that she was. She always insisted that she be the one carrying the shopping bags, “you open the doors and lead the way,” she would say, not patronizingly, but in a tone that would make me believe as if opening doors and leading the way required just as much if not more effort than carrying heavy bags.
When I finally realized she was not there I figured she had gone to get milk and cereals. They were the only things left from the list that we hadn’t picked up yet. Like everything else in our relationship, we were methodical when it comes to grocery shopping. Toiletries would be the first things taken care of, and then packaged foods – after that, fresh produce. Sometimes we would indulge in snacks and cereals and even ice cream.
The grocery store wasn’t crowded, in fact, I hadn’t seen anyone else besides us, which was why we picked this time and place in the first place to conduct this monthly business. Every last Sunday of the month, 11 AM. The rest of the population were probably sleeping in or at church or were still on their way here, and by the time they arrived to do their shopping we would have been on our taxi ride home.
It was now 1 PM. How long could it possibly take to get milk and cereals? We had been planning to cook a big meal, or rather, she cooked while I helped do kitchen grunt work. Captain and co-captain, those were our roles, and ones that we played interchangeably. The kitchen was hers to rule, obviously. So was selecting which movies to watch. I would take care of travel plans and anything that required a set of tools. This was a system we both decided we were comfortable in.
Irritated, I pulled out my phone from my pocket. I did not put her on speed dial, since I memorized her number and most of the time her name was on top of my calls history anyway. This time, it wasn’t.
In fact, her name was not even on my Contacts list.
I punched in the numbers that I knew by heart and waited. The number you are calling cannot be found. Please check again the number you are calling.
Stupid goddamn provider. I tried again a few times, making sure that I had typed in the correct numbers, her number, but to no avail. The number you are calling cannot be found. Please check again the number you are calling, the operator lady told me in that annoying sing-song voice. No, she didn’t say that it was not active or out of coverage area, and she didn’t suggest me to please try again in a few minutes, but that my girlfriend’s number cannot be found.
I spent another half an hour scouring every aisle in the grocery store before I decided to go home. I had almost forgotten how it felt like to carry the shopping bags all the way to my flat, how it felt like to fumble with the elevator buttons and then searched the keys to open the door… I had almost forgotten how to perform simple tasks. It was at this moment that I realised that the bliss in sharing a life with someone else was not just about the romance, it was also, for the most part, the convenience of sharing burdens in half.
I entered our home and she was not there. I was half expecting she would greet me and told me how she somehow lost her phone and couldn’t reach me and so the logical thing to do was go home and wait. She would apologize, feeling so guilty as if she had done something horrible, and I would assure her that it was all right and told her that I was just glad she was fine. She was always predictably worried and I was always predictably assuring. Captain and co-captain.
But she wasn’t there… and so were her shoes. The shoes – our shoes, had been neatly stacked in a rack, mine on the left side and hers on the right. Now the rack was completely occupied on one side and completely empty on the other. My stomach sank.
The first thing I would usually do after a trip to the grocery store was, naturally, to store the stuff into the fridge. She would put all toiletries to the top shelf of our closet, and then she would proceed to fold the plastic bags. This time, I dropped the grocery bags to the floor – the fat papaya made a thudding sound, and walked over to the closet.
What used to be her section of the closet that was filled with her clothes, just like her section of the shoe rack that had been filled with her shoes, was now nothing but empty.
I met my girlfriend on a dating site. We never stopped feeling amused at the cliché. In fact, there was nothing extraordinary about how we met. It had been a dinner and a movie – classic date. Before there was a chance to develop meaningful conversation, we accidentally run into a mutual friend, who decided it would be a good idea to tag along with us – because why not? The mutual friend ended up dominating the conversation; it was safe to say the whole thing was a disaster.
But we didn’t give up. I had found her interesting, and by God, she was cute. I guess there must have been something she found interesting in me too as she agreed for a re-date immediately the next day.
What started as a textbook example of a disastrous date turned into something completely amazing. It wasn’t long before I felt as if I was talking with someone I had known all my life.
And now, it was as if she was never here. Even the pillow on her side of the bed had no trace of her scent – and she had a smell of vanilla and caramel. It was as if she intended to leave no trace at all, not her shoes and her clothes, and she wouldn’t even let me have her scent.
What else was there to say? She left, there was no doubt about it. I could be angry or I suppose I could question why she had to leave in the middle of the freaking Carrefour, or the fact that she had managed to take all of her belongings with her in less than two hours, or that she had left no explanation, no we-need-to-talk-it’s-not-you-it’s-me, and not even a letter – for God’s sake, and the woman loved writing letters.
Writing letters was her favorite thing to do, it was apparent by our second date. She would write me a letter whenever I was traveling out of town, slipping a postcard in my book or inside my suitcase – her postcards were always a welcome distraction. She wrote me letters after every fight, to apologize or to explain herself and then to reiterate that she loved me and that nothing mattered more to her than us. Birthdays and anniversaries were a no-brainer, and so were Big Dates. I had come to accept and love this particular habit of hers, and even suspected that she was more comfortable expressing herself in writing above else. I thought it was adorable.
But then she decided to leave me and not even a single letter for me.
I kept all of her letters and postcards in a shoebox on the top corner of the bookshelf. By the time I had reached it, I knew the shoebox was empty. She wouldn’t even leave me her letters, the letters she wrote for me, the letters who were technically mine since she gave them to me.
It was then that I started to cry.
I soon discovered that when your girlfriend walked out on you out of the blue, everything else pretty much stayed the same. I still had to wake up in the morning, still had house chores to do, and I was still being chased by deadlines. The only difference was that I had to do all these things alone, and I spent half my waking moment trying to convince myself that I could.
By the second week, however, not having someone to talk to was driving me crazy. I texted my best friend, Stella. “I need to see you.”
The coffee shop was packed but I spotted Stella right away. She was the kind of woman who stood out – tall, gorgeous, impeccably dressed, commanding respect. My girlfriend used to say she was “a typical alpha-female”, and I guess she was right.
When she saw me she stood up and reached for a hug. I realized it had been a while since I had physical contact with another human being, and I realized I needed just that. Stella and I were not the type of friends that would go out on drinks every week and then text each other to gossip every day. We both led busy lives – she with her demanding career and adventurous love life, and I with my mediocre job and fulfilling but monotonous relationship. But we had each other’s backs – we were each other’s emergency contact.
“You look like shit. What’s up with you?” I figured the typical alpha-female could not be bothered to waste time on pleasantries, and I couldn’t as well, but it wasn’t until I ordered a bottle of beer that I spoke up.
“So. She left.” That was all I said.
Stella reached over to grab my lighter and lit a cigarette. One drag, then another. “Okay. Go on.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. What I loved about Stella was, I could just as well told her that I turned straight and I met a guy I fell in love with and we were getting married, or I could just as well told her that I killed someone and she would have had the same exact response – lighting a cigarette and then okay, go on. And I was just the same if not worse. When she told me that she broke up her last serious relationship my first response was congratulations.
But this was exactly why she was my go-to person, and I hers. We were each other’s voice of reason, not voice of comfort.
So I told Stella everything from the beginning, how she left just like that, no explanations, no warning, and we had not even been fighting, everything had been going just fine. I was in the middle of telling Stella all this when she interrupted me.
“Wait. What was her name?”
What startled me was not the fact that my best friend did not know the name of the woman I had been in a relationship with, what startled me was the fact that I could not, for the life of me, remember her name.
“You know everything about me. Am I that predictable?” she would always say, and I was always proud of that. I knew exactly how much sugar to put in her tea – she liked hers sweet. I could tell what kind of day at work had it been by the way she kissed me when she came home. Yes, she was predictable. Tuesdays and Thursdays were our date nights out, and she would make reservations by phone the day before. She was the only person I knew in this city who actually made reservations by phone. On Saturdays she would have lunch with her friends or her family, but Sundays were reserved either for grocery shopping or a quality time just the two of us.
I knew all of these things about her, I knew her that much, and yet right now I could not recall even her name.
“Are you okay?” Stella had been waiting for an answer. Silly her, of course I was not okay. What was the name of my girlfriend again?
It was then that I realized something weird that happened at the grocery store that I had shrugged off. Her name was not on my Contacts list. When I called her number, the operator said that it could not be found. Not inactive, or was out of coverage area, but could not be found.
I just had to entertain the possibility, I just had to. Ignoring Stella, who was by now at her third cigarette, I pulled out my phone from my pocket.
Whenever we had the chance, we loved to go out of town and travel for a few days. It was our thing. It was never anything fancy, no staying at four-star hotels or anything like that, our travels were always modest. In fact, like any other budget traveler out there, we detested people who stayed at four-star hotels. We enjoyed the experiences, the surprises, the adventure, not luxuries. Our latest weekend escape was at a modest beach cottage off the coast of northern Belitung. The water in the bathroom had been dirty, and we pretended to be disgusted as we washed ourselves with it.
I pulled out my phone from my pocket and went straight to my Photos, and there they were, pictures of the Belitung beach, the breathtaking sunset, our run-down cottage, and the stray dog we had met there who had been a real sweetheart – we named her Lulu.
But there was no photo of her.
I remembered clearly how I giggled as she insisted we took a selfie of her kissing me on the beach.
“Come on, there’s no one here!”
“Don’t we look adorable?”
“I want it to be like a silhouette of us holding each other in the sunset”
“My smiles look awkward, why do I always look awkward when I smile?”
But there was none of those. It was as if I had completely imagined it in my head.
It was becoming more and more obvious that I had completely imagined her in my head.