A piece was missing. It was a puzzle print of George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte laid out on their kitchen table.
I’ve never liked the pointillists, he said. I saw one in person once at the MOMA. The dots made the canvas look hairy. Creeped me out.
She crawled on the carpet, lifted the edge of the armchair, dropped it, and raised her hands in despair.
I don’t know where it went, she said.
In his dorm, he drank bourbon in front of his computer. He was working on a novel.
She said: you’re just trying to sublimate your desires by writing novels, you know.
She was a psych major.
He raised his eyebrows.
I’m trying to what now?
At the law firm’s holiday party, a woman named Lizbeth touched his arm, and he blushed.
They walked home in the snow, and he pretended his breath was cigarette smoke.
Did you hear the way she talked about Bob? Poor, sweet Bob. She asked. What a terrible woman.
He put down his fake cigarette.
Who are you talking about? What woman?
She held up the puzzle box and compared the complete to the incomplete picture. The missing piece was the face of a woman holding an umbrella and looking out over the water.
She put down the box and crawled underneath the table and ran her hands over the carpet.
He was lying on the sofa, his face in the crook of his arm. He sat up and reached for his glass of scotch.
Would you just forget about it already? It’s a mistake. The company fucked up. The piece is missing. It’s stuck on a piston somewhere in a puzzle cutting factory. Can’t you just let it go?
But it must be here somewhere, she answered.
The novel was about an unhappy couple and owed its style to Henry James, his favorite author.
Have you read his brother, William, she asked.
He looked up from his computer, the blue glare making crescent moons of his lenses. He wore the same style glasses as Heinrich Himmler. They looked like swimmer’s goggles to her. He swirled his bottle of bourbon and the ice cubes clinked.
Who? He asked. Your brother?
William James, she said, and she tried to remember something about the Principles of Psychology. He wrote about frogs, she said.
Frogs? He asked. Was he French?
But I don’t want kids, he said. There’s already too many people in the world.
She frowned theatrically, lower lip thrust childishly forward like a child denied an ice cream cone, and ran her fingers over his hairy chest.
Never? She asked.
No. I don’t think so.
Maybe you’ll change your mind when we’re older, she said.
She wondered: What was the woman looking at, out over the water, without her face?
She was staring out the kitchen window and listening to his voicemail.
Hi, you’ve reached James…
But she hadn’t reached James. That was the problem. Another lie. She looked out the window and waited for his headlights to flash through the fog.
What was she looking at?
Out across the water. Looking at frogs. At French frogs.
She picked up the puzzle box and turned it upside down, and little shreds of cardboard covered the floor. ‘Puzzle ash’ she called it.
Can you stand up, please? She asked.
Oh, for christsake. Would you just let it go already? It’s just a puzzle.
Just stand up. You might be laying on it.
He stood up. I’m going to bed, he said.
That woman, she said. And the way she kept touching your arm and giving you goggle eyes. And did you see she doesn’t even shave her legs?
Googley, he said. It’s googley eyes. Goggle eyes are for drunks. And she wasn’t flirting, if that’s what you’re getting at.
How do you know?
She’s a lesbian.
Who told you that?
Sweetie, every woman tells Bob they’re a lesbian.
His headlights flashed across the ceiling and woke her. She wiped a dribble of drool from her cheek. She’d been dreaming of Virginia Woolf at the ocean.
He crashed through the door, his suit jacket unbuttoned. He knocked over a broom in the front closet and shushed it where it fell.
James? Is that you?
Shit. Yeah, sorry, he slurred. I didn’t mean to wake you, go back to sleep.
I’ve been awake for hours, she said. Where have you been?
He didn’t answer. He slept in his jacket and smelled of cigarettes.
They were lying in bed, the street lamp outside frosting everything in the bedroom with a dim buttery glow. His back toward her. She wrapped her arms around him.
A lot of famous authors got rejections, she said. It doesn’t mean anything.
It’s alright. I’m just not a genius. And that’s okay. Whatever it is that makes a genius, I’m missing it. A big gaping hole. Everyone has to face their own mediocrity eventually. Some people only ever reach to q, and that’s okay. I’ll never reach z.
Hey, don’t talk about yourself that way. You can do it, I know you can. You’re brilliant.
My dad’s been bothering me about joining the firm lately. Maybe I really should just get my law degree and be done with it.
What do you mean you’re going to bed? Can’t you just help me look for a minute?
Oh my god, Ash, it’s just a puzzle. Would you let it go? It isn’t there. Okay? It’s fucking gone.
It’s got a woman’s face on it. Can’t you please just help me look?
The bedroom door slammed.
She crawled into the kitchen and pressed her cheek to the cold floor to look under the refrigerator.
Sublimate, he read aloud. A solid deposit of a substance which has sublimed. Well, that’s helpful.
No, it’s like, it’s like when you want one thing, but you find something else to replace it, you know?
Sublimate, he said. To change directly into a vapor when heated. Why, Miss Ashley, I do declare, are you saying I give you the vapors?
Oh my god, you’re such a dork.
But you love me, he said.
I do, she said. Against all odds.
Bob, she said into the telephone. Thank god you answered, I’ve called everyone and no one knows anything.
Calm down, Bob said. Breathe. Good. That’s it. Now tell me what’s going on.
He didn’t come home last night, and I don’t know where he is. Have you seen him?
Oh, uh. Not since he left the bar with… Listen, Ash, I don’t want to say too much. I don’t know if it’s my place.
She looked at her dim reflection in the kitchen window, her breath fogging the glass. She thought of Narcissus, his cherished puddle. The voice droned on on the other side.
With her? She echoed. Who her? What do you mean with her?
She looked in the curtains.
She checked on the bookshelf.
She unscrewed the light covers.
She even checked the mailbox.
She looked in the empty rooms of the house, tapped her fingers on the kitchen countertop, and voiced aloud to no one: If I were a missing piece, where would I be? Where would I be? Where on earth would I be?
Jeremy Decker is a writer from Colorado.