Updated: Feb 28, 2021
By Sophie Paquette.
I only know Lou in the way we’ve all always known her. A breath against the backs of our necks, the swish of a skirt disappearing around the corner. When I hear about her, it’s through stories, kids who say they’ve seen it happen: one second she’s there, and then the next—well. You have to catch her in the dark, I’ve learned. That’s the trick. Under our school fluorescents and in the afternoon sun she’s nothing. Like the rest of us, opaque and impenetrable. But with the lights off, she’s everything. She’s gone.
I’m not sure which came first, Lou’s selective translucence or the way she passes in and out of our periphery. Something about Lou makes her hard to recall. If we were telling a story at lunch and wondering if she’d been in the room, we’d all try to conjure her image—was she wearing that sweater, the one with the hole in the shoulder where the bra strap peeks through? Had she knotted her hair in two loose braids, threading the strands as she watched the rest of us, silent? By the time we’d come to the conclusion that no, of course she wasn’t there, the story would’ve left us completely, and we’d talk about something else, filling empty air until the lunch bell rang.
It’s for this reason, I think, that I don’t realize Lou has been sitting behind me in class all year until the moment that I look through her.
We’re learning about Da Vinci in Art History. Mr. B shows us the anatomical illustrations first. He turns off the lights and clicks through projected slides—a woman’s cardiovascular system visible through her skin, the knifelike insides of a shoulder, each bone a blade and the muscles braided tightly. Mr. B tells us that Da Vinci dissected 20 dead bodies during his life. I want to write this down to tell Ronnie later, but I forgot my pen, and when I turn to ask for one, the seat behind me is empty.
I turn back around. To remember the dissection story, I spell it out on the roof of my mouth with my tongue—D-I-S-S-E-C-T-I-O-N—when something pokes my arm. I turn. The desk is still empty. In the dark, I have to squint before I see the pencil floating in the space a body should be, suspended as if by fishing line.
I never feel Lou’s fingers: I take the pencil and can tell she releases immediately. It isn’t until I run my thumb over the pencil’s end that I feel the thin incisions where she had gnawed and sucked. For the rest of class, I hardly listen. When Mr. B turns the lights back on, I twist to return Lou’s pencil but this time, her seat is actually empty. I look to the door and there she is, fully corporeal, filing into the hall with everyone else.
So I keep it. In the middle of my next class, I ask for a bathroom pass and sit in the stall, lights out, running my thumb along the ridges and imagining her teeth drawn to a point.
Ronnie brings me lunch in the library. We eat in the science book section and find anatomy diagrams. My favorite are the translucent pages, layered over a figure—each page peeled back reveals some deeper interior: skin, then muscle, organs, nerves, and finally, the skeleton. Ronnie says if I were any bone I’d be the clavicle. It’s the only long bone in the body that lies horizontally, and he finds that important. The clavicle is also the most-broken bone, but I don’t think he knows that.
Ronnie sets our trays down and folds his feet beneath his legs. Today, he brings me a bag of baby carrots and a juicebox. Lou is arranging books onto the shelves three rows down. Ronnie reads the Latin names to me. I like how his mouth sounds, working the tongue around dead words. “Os coxa,” he says.
I guess, “Tailbone?”
“Close.” He sticks the carrot between his teeth, leans across our trays and thumbs the hem of my shirt. “Hip,” he says, muffled through the carrot. I pull it from his lips and bite.
Lou lifts a book and turns it sideways, reading the call number along the spine. With her other hand, she pulls thread from a run in her tights. The fabric forks and splits, shoots a slit down her leg.
I touch my hand to the spot where Ronnie’s rests under my shirt, my hip pliant and ribbed with red teeth from my waistband. “My parents are gone tonight,” he says. “Will you come over?”
Lou reaches up to the top shelf. She extends like a slinky unstrung. I always ached for a body like hers. The clavicle might be the most-broken bone, but every space I enter feels like it is under threat of destruction. More accurate, maybe, would be the femur—biggest in the body. I decide Lou would be the fibula, slenderest of all long bones. The two of us, connected at the knee.
I flip through the anatomy book, peeling and replacing the skin. “What do you think about inviting Lou?”
Ronnie draws from his juicebox until it shrinks like a gut sucked in. “Lou, Lou?” I want to tell him I saw it today. We all collect Lou stories like novelty cards. Before this morning, the closest I’d come to witnessing her vanish was freshman year when, bored in math, I asked for a bathroom pass. When I reached the bathroom, my hand moved toward the lightswitch, and I heard a gasp. Something pushed past me through the door. When the lights came on, the bathroom was empty but for a running sink. I didn’t know much about Lou, then, but I knew enough to understand that if I turned around, I’d see her flats clicking down the hall, a pale ankle vanishing around the bend.
Instead I tell Ronnie, “Let’s invite her. She’s always alone.”
He shapes a baby carrot with his teeth until it is pointy. “They don’t grow like this, you know,” he says. “As babies, I mean.”
“If I ask Lou, do you think she’ll say no?”
“Do what you want,” he says. For a second I think he’s mad but he looks at me, smiles. He bites into the carrot and it breaks easily. “My clavicle.”
Femur, I think, and stand. I bring the pencil with me, run my thumb along the bite marks until I reach her aisle. She looks at me but continues sorting books. I extend the pencil. “Keep it,” she says. “I have plenty.”
I’m not sure what I expected her to sound like, but her voice is deeper than I imagined. I feel big standing next to her, so I coax my voice to sound quieter, softer, willowy as a sheet pinned to a clothesline and turning in the breeze. “Would you like to have dinner with Ronnie and me tonight?”
Lou eyes me. She bites the inside of her cheek and I watch the skin dip inward. “Fine.”
I pull the book from her hand and scrawl his address into the front cover. “His house is easy to find, you just—”
“It’s right past the lake,” she says, eyes trained on the address before closing the book. “See you at 7,” then, peering over my shoulder at Ronnie, books still spread around his lap: “Tell him to shelve those when he’s done.”
I nod and turn. For the rest of lunch I don’t eat, just listen to Ronnie read the Latin and spell her name on the roof of my mouth with my tongue, over and over. L-O-U.
I get to Ronnie’s early. I move through the entire house, flicking every light switch, turning on each lamp. I even ignite the porchlight and watch a coven of moths hum against the bulb. “What are you doing?” Ronnie asks, over the stove and stirring pasta. I’ve never seen him this clearly.
“I want her to feel safe.”
He laughs. The steam bubbles up around his face. He digs into one of the kitchen drawers and pulls out a tiny flashlight, shining it. I squint and giggle. “Want this, too? Just in case she hits a shadow?”
“Shut up,” I say, but he throws the flashlight at me and I catch it. When he looks back down into the pasta, I slip the flashlight into my jacket pocket.
Lou arrives right at seven. We sit around Ronnie’s kitchen table and drink his mom’s red wine from mugs because he doesn’t want to wash the real glasses. Lou cuts her noodles into small pieces. Ronnie twirls his around his fork like hair, pulling each noodle all the way so we see how long and stringy it is, dripping red sauce. Lou is not impressed. She eats more than I expected her to and soon we’ve all finished.
When she leaves, it’s dusk. I crane my neck to watch her go. There is a moment between the door and her car where I’m sure she’s disappeared. But when the car starts, the headlights cast a glow over the driveway, and I see her through the windshield, twisting in her chair to look over her shoulder as she backs out.
Ronnie’s at the sink. “Jesus,” he says. “What a bore.” I sip my wine. I don’t really like wine but I love how it stains my lips a little darker, the natural flush it gives my cheeks.
“Maybe she’s shy.”
Ronnie snorts. He shuts off the sink and turns to me, sleeves rolled up his to elbow, hands shiny with suds. “Whatever. Just don’t complain again about her being lonely. I’d have more fun talking to the wall.”
I follow him to his room and draw the curtains. Ronnie wants to leave a light on but I turn them all off. I shut the door and move his dirty clothes beneath it like a draft-stopper. I find his bed by touch alone—feeling the edge of his dresser, tracing my toe along his rug until I reach the mattress, its hard pattern of springs. In the dark I imagine shedding my skin so some smaller body could kiss the surface. I am malleable in his hands, shapeless. He is invisible, all limb. He could be anybody.
The next day in Art History, Mr. B turns off the lights and shows us Michelangelo’s Pieta. He describes its strangeness, how big Mary is. If she stood, she’d be nearly seven feet tall—far larger than Jesus, curdled in her lap. Her body makes no sense. Mr. B explains the illusion of a form beneath the sculpted drapery, the clothes, as if the whole thing weren’t only stone.
I don’t turn. I think I feel her breath on the back of my neck, but it’s only the draft.
Ronnie lounges on my bed, absently flipping through one of my mom’s magazines. In my closet I dig until I find a sweater docile enough for my desires. With my teeth I locate a loose thread and ease a tear into the shoulder, fingering the hole until it yawns wide. I slip off my shirt and put on the sweater. In the mirror, I straighten and pull until it sits effortlessly, the strap of my bra peeking through the new hole.
I perch on the edge of my bed like a bird. Still the mattress whines. “Ronnie, will you?” I ask, and he flattens the magazine, sits up, and combs my hair with his fingers. He parts rats’ nests like he’s parting the tides and ties my hair in two loose braids, brushes them from the back of my neck. His hand loiters, and the other finds my thigh by reflex, a muscle memory in which my muscles are remembered by his skin. “Wait,” I say, and where his hand sits I try to pull a run in my tights, but the fabric adheres stubbornly. Ronnie helps me. Soon they rip, except the skin beneath is not revealed shyly, instead it swells through this new opening like rising dough. “How do I look?” I ask.
He surveys me. “Frankly, kind of weird.” He pulls on my braids, traces the end of my skirt. “What’s with all this anyway?”
I shrug. Ronnie leans in but I place a hand on his chest. “I’ll get the lights,” he says, already moving toward the switch.
“Leave them,” I say, and he watches me, surprised, before lying back, his body flattened and slight against the mattress. As I straddle him I find myself in the mirror beside my bed, and I’m there, I’m there, I’m there, and then I’m not.
When I drive home from Ronnie’s house the next night, I slow down at the lake. There’s a car parked up by the trees, almost imperceptible in the shadow. I kill my headlights, creep into the grass and park.
The lake is frozen-over, black and massive as a gaping mouth. I get out of the car and meet the water’s edge. Through the moon’s thin glow I see a puff of steam at the lake’s center: exhalation and dissipation in slow rhythm. Lou’s fogging breath.
I toe the lake. It groans beneath my foot, and I retreat. The water below churns, and I hear the distant calving of ice like I’m doomed to the end of a diving board, the earth bowing beneath my weight.
“Well?” Lou shouts. I didn’t realize she could see me. “Are you coming?”
I toe the ice again. “What if it breaks?” My voice doesn’t carry like hers.
Suddenly I hate that she’s watching me. It won’t. Of course she thinks that: she’s never had to consider her own tactility. Nothing could break beneath her. She’s more likely to be the one broken. I step onto the lake, tentatively, but make my way toward the center. Some parts of the ice are more translucent than others, the lake’s flora moving like veins. When I reach the middle, I ease my body onto the ice. I study her breath and line my head up where I think hers must be.
“Do you remember the bathroom?” I ask.
“During freshman year,” I say, “I went to the bathroom, once, during algebra, and the sink was running, which I thought was weird, and you were in there, but we hadn’t met, I’d only heard stories about the girl who disappeared when the lights went out—” I slow down. I turn my head and imagine her there. Our shared breath collects. “Do you remember me?”
Lou sighs. The sound is weirdly mundane, too familiar. “Look, I’m sure I was just taking a piss. The sink was running because I was washing my hands, probably.”
My palm is numb; I temper it softly with the other hand but feel nothing. “Close your eyes,” I say. I want us to be the same kind of blind.
“Are they closed? You can’t see me?”
I try to picture Lou from the library, lying beside me. Her braids and bra and tights shorn into thin ribbons. I could reach out and touch her. I could throw my jacket over her and watch a form emerge beneath the creases. I could undress her and she’d be naked, I wouldn’t even know. I could watch my own tongue spell words on the roof of her invisible palate. I could slip a finger between her lips and see teeth marks appear in the flesh, a new shape carved out by her wanting mouth. I could scalpel into her body, plumb her for organ and bone. Would she remain invisible beneath the skin? Or would the night lay her, finally, bare? The moon casts a ghoulish ripple in the space her body should be.
Something hard digs into my hip. I reach into my pocket and feel around the cold metal of Ronnie’s flashlight, stuffed in my jacket.
“Your eyes are still closed?” I ask.
I pull the flashlight out and shine it onto her. Lou gasps, barely—a puff of breath before her face appears, pale and suspended like a moon. Her eyes are wide. She’s looking right at me: she has been the entire time. She never closed them.
I drop the flashlight and stand. My steps are heavy, huge. I run down the lake—the ice creaks behind me and I picture it splintering. My apocalypse body fills the night. I imagine the lake splits and Lou falls in.
When Ronnie brings me lunch the next day, a different girl is shelving. He flips through anatomy diagrams and I find an old art book. I show him the image we looked at that morning in Art History: Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The self-portrait Michelangelo worked into the fresco, himself, seated on a rock, holding the empty husk of his own shed skin.
“You know,” I say, “Da Vinci dissected twenty bodies in his life. That’s how the anatomy drawings are so good.”
Ronnie tells me he thinks dissecting someone is the most intimate action. I lie down in the aisle and he traces the organs of my stomach with the tip of his finger. He names my bones. I don’t tell him I disagree—I think undressing someone is more intimate than dissecting them, and shining a light on them in the dark must be more invasive than both. I want to ask Ronnie where he thinks Lou is. Instead I imagine her floating at the bottom of the lake, some place so deep that no light ever cuts through. She exists in traces: an inch of skin lit by the silver glow of a minnow. Hair caught in a weed. The fish swim through her. She ebbs with the current, expands and swallows the entire body of water, huge, takes every space. She is so vast.