Inside the Apple

"Inside the Apple" was selected by Leslie Jamison as the winner of the 2020 Louis Begley Fiction Prize.

The first night inside the apple, I kept thinking, This is very symbolic. Innocence, man, woman, snake, sin, youth, prosperity. Mouth of a pig, desk of a teacher. Archer’s bow sending bits in shattered little arcs across the sky.

I spent the first days walking around and taking in the globular Martian landscape, an imperfect and spreading white. Pallid walls like a Gothic temple all crumbled in on itself with decay, intricate but abject. And roomy, too, as far as I could tell. Once I walked all day as straight as I could and never hit the edge. Fortunately, it was never cold. The weather was gold and mushy.

After several days I had to admit that the experience of being inside the apple was, in fact, aggressively unsymbolic. If it was about anything, it was about what exactly it was like to be in my particular body inside this particular apple. The primordial encounter between girl and apple.

I got used to my hands being sticky all the time. I even got used to the smell. Most of the time, the droplets of moisture settled on the walls and with them the unabating sweetness, and I could forget about it for a little while. But I remember the first storm. All night lightning flooded the interior. I always found it surprising how light could penetrate the flesh. I could tell when it was night or day, even dusk. Water couldn’t get inside, of course, but throughout the night of that storm, molecules unsettled in the atmospheric shift and peeled from the walls. I woke to the taste of sugar, and despaired.

Strolling around one morning I saw a notice board. Only one note looked newly posted.


Followed by a series of arrows.

Was it a joke? I had no cash, but there was no reason to think I needed any.

I ignored the sign. My mind was on other things, in other places. Somewhere outside I had a girlfriend and I missed her. Annie. She played the saxophone. Sometimes she played so slow it hurt. That was how I met her. I heard her play at a concert at our high school in December. I found her standing in the empty hallway afterwards, under the sign that read ST. CLOUD EAST HIGH BUNDERSON MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM, with her saxophone propped on her hip. She was swabbing the inside with what looked like a giant Q-tip. I asked her to give me lessons. She taught at the guitar center downtown, usually for children. I didn’t know what would come of it then. But as soon as I showed up for the first lesson, I knew we would eventually, definitely, make out.

This was one of the visions of Annie that crossed my mind most in the apple: she sat cross-legged on a cushion in the corner of the practice room, eyes glued to a page of sheet music, using her thumb and index finger to play with her bottom lip. An exhale from her nostrils sent spirals of dust floating my way. The room was half-underground, but thick red curtains all around the perimeter foreclosed all possibility of natural light. I waited in the doorway until she looked up. When we did lung capacity exercises, she put her hand on my stomach to feel my diaphragm rise up and down, and I focused on making eye contact with smiling Janis Joplin on the Big Brother and The Holding Company poster across the room. I couldn’t breathe as deep as she wanted me to. Later, she texted me about a midnight showing of the Fifth Element in a classic sci-fi series running at the downtown movie theater. The only problem was that I already had movie plans with a boy named Elijah, who I’d been going to the movies with regularly since October. The week before, we had gone to see one about a secret prison where the FBI detained the riskiest domestic terrorists. While one man got his little finger twisted by a tong-like apparatus, Elijah reached over and held my hand.

I figured I could say yes to both plans, and go to the movies with Elijah first, and then have Annie pick me up from the Starbucks across the street right after to head to the other movie theater across town. But when the first movie ended up running late, and Annie had already texted me that she was pulled up outside Starbucks, I panicked and told Elijah to leave without me, I had to pee.

“Um, I can wait for you to get out of the bathroom,” he’d said, reasonably. I said ok and panicked a little more in the bathroom stall, berating myself for my shoddy improvisation and trying to hatch a new scheme. Eventually, I ran out of the bathroom, kissed Elijah on the cheek, and shouted “See you later!” as I sprinted down the stairwell and out the lobby door. In Annie’s car, I said “Let’s go!” and somehow she understood that she was meant to zoom off like a cab driver in a car chase.

On our way out of the movies afterwards, an old man told me and Annie, “You girls are a class act!” In the car, I grabbed her right hand, pressed it to my lips, and bit her on the wrist. Then she let me kind of gnaw on her hand the whole drive home. When we pulled into my driveway she said, “You’re a class act!” And I thought, I choose her, I choose her, forever.

I would have to end things with Elijah. Guilty about the movie theater incident, I had decided that the most sympathetic way to break the news to him was in a way that had nothing to do with him personally, so I told him that I had been raped last summer and couldn’t manage being in a relationship right now, especially with a man. This was partly true. I had been raped right at the end of that summer, by a coworker at the restaurant where I worked. It was in his car after a bunch of us got drunk in the lot out back where we set the empty milk crates and left boxed-up leftovers on top of the dumpster for homeless people. And it was true that I had been thinking about it almost all of the time since. Actually, I once tried to calculate how much I thought about it, and came up with two-fifths of the day. 

But my excuse was not true in that this all had very little to do with my actual experience of spending time with Elijah, who not only had never wronged me in any way I could think of, but also left me sweet and mysterious voicemails whenever he wanted to hang out, saying things like: “Hello. The Future Is Clear window washing service here, processing your request for our Easy Breezy Soap ‘n Squeegee storm window treatment. Hopefully this is the right number to reach you for scheduling that appointment. Please call me back. Soon.”

I explained the situation the next week in the movie theater lobby, right before we went in. I could feel him looking at me longingly through the whole movie. Afterward, he offered to give me space until I felt better. I had prepared for that. “No. It’s too much pressure on me. And it’s not fair for you either.” I told him, and sighed. Then he knew there was nothing else he could say. “I’m sorry,” I said. 

After all that, he didn’t really want to hang out with me anymore. I always felt bad about Elijah.

I never learned the saxophone, but Annie and I began spending most of our time together, mostly in my room. We had our space. My mother always got home late and my stepdad was an amateur entomologist who rarely left the basement, where he stored the corpses of one thousand arachnids. Annie said there were one thousand boys in my basement and together we could one day go boyfriend hunting. Even though she mostly played the blues and was a real musician, she liked classic Riot Grrrl stuff like Bikini Kill who never actually learned how to play their instruments. On the mattress on my bedroom floor we would make out for the length of entire albums. Once, during the fifth track of Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, we lay side by side, red cheeked and heaving.

“I just caught a boyfriend,” I said, pinching her on the stomach.

“I caught three,” she said. “Two of them are the rare kind.”

Piles built around us there on the floor. The books I kept stacked around my bed, the songs we played for one another, an arsenal of private scents and jokes. What we wanted to do in our lives, the shadow of that night in the restaurant parking lot, Annie’s own stash of horrors, too, we put those there. January came, April came. I began to feel that there was no worthwhile world beyond the perimeter of my bedroom walls. Even after she left for home I would lie there with a lethargy that pinioned me to the room’s center, listening to the birds outside the window. Sometimes she stayed. When sleep came to untether us from the heft of our bodies against the sheets, I sensed the outward expansion of the universe, and felt that we, a single entity adrift and clinging together with the ferocity of a pair of ragged spider monkeys, were precisely at its gravitational center.

One night, Annie stood up in her underwear to pencil a secret where shadows gathered in the corner of my room. I lived in a one story house, and we’d forgotten to shut the blinds. Carefully and without flinching, Annie pulled the blinds shut and returned to my side.

“Pssst. Noa. There was a man standing in the driveway across the street smoking a cigarette. He was looking our way,” she said.

“Really? Do you think he was watching us?”

She shrugged. “Maybe he was one of those French men whose wife divorced him. So now he’s wandering around the neighborhood smoking a cigarette and watching teenagers fuck.”

When put in such cinematic terms it didn’t bother me too much. After an initial wave of nausea receded I liked the idea of a movie person looking in through the window. We pretended to be celebrities. I crawled over to the window and tried to peek out through the bottom of the blind, but by that time the man was gone. “Come back,” Annie called from the mattress. “Come be famous.” Then she taught me the wave used by the Queen of England, which went, elbow, elbow, wrist wrist wrist.

Back then, it would have been impossible to imagine what each day was now like for me, tramping through the mush, all the time alone. Sometimes I would try to, during the short-lived amnesia of waking, before I first opened my eyes. I would try to think once again of the present as if it was still the vast future. I was always interrupted by sunlight. My eyelids were ill-designed, too thin to block the earliest flares of the day. The wedge between the past and the present was thick and opaque. The December I met Annie, I was thinking about where I’d be in one year. I wondered if I could get some job working in a national forest somewhere, a junior ranger with my own small cabin high up on a vista. I googled around to see how you become a groupie on a band’s tour. Maybe Annie and I would get an apartment together and  I would be a waitress trying to make art and she would be gigging and on nights she got home before me I’d hear her playing “Autumn in New York” through the walls as I turned the key in the lock. Or maybe I would just be boring and start college somewhere.

Now it was then and I was none of those things. I was inside the apple, and I just went around longing for Annie all the time. It seemed like life was going to be a long series of thinking about one thing nonstop until the next one took its place, and usually that thing would have to do with sex. I couldn’t rid my thoughts of the words “I miss you.” What I had learned about “I miss you” was that all at once it could sound like the start of a sentence and the end of a sentence and a placeholder for every plan that could never be made. It never did what you wanted it to, but you couldn’t stop thinking it. It rose up from your chest like a baking soda volcano, senseless, like pouring a pitcher of water onto the kitchen table.

After what felt like a month in the apple, I started having nightmares. In each one I was awakened in the middle of the night. In the purple blue-ish shadows I followed a mechanical whir, which grew louder as I moved towards the apple’s perimeter. Eventually there was no more than a membrane between me and the noise, and from so close it had lost its machine-like constancy. I understood at that point in the dream that the sound was the paring of a knife, going around under the control of a careful hand so the peel would not tear.

I stood and listened to the sound, alternatingly muffled and distant or so close I could feel the trembling of the hand. Each time, I awoke just before the paring was complete.

After many nights like this, I decided to find that sign again. I retraced my steps to the notice board where I had first seen it, and tore down the little piece of paper. I followed the first arrow, which pointed left and took me down what resembled a narrow, bleached out cobbled path. A little ways down I noticed a small red flag planted at my feet. I followed the next arrow, and there saw another flag. Near the end of the given directions, I descended over a small ridge, and saw a man and a woman hunched over together about twenty yards ahead, in front of an eclectic pile of belongings gathered like a nest. In the center sat a bunch of video equipment. They had yet to notice me. I called out hello.

The man mimed the adjustment of a pair of invisible glasses. He wore an expression of mock bewilderment. The woman stood and waved, seemingly undisturbed by my arrival.

“You’re offering work?” 

“You need it?” she said. She had a toughness.

“Not really.” I replied.

She smiled and asked me no follow up questions. I asked what the cameras were for.

“That’s our business. We make movies.”

“Here? And people watch them?”

“Folks on the internet pay to watch them. Don’t look so surprised. How do you suggest we find gainful employment inside an apple?”

“We have student loans.” The man spoke for the first time and gave a half shrug. 

Fair enough, I thought. By then it was getting dark, and the day had gone on long. I found a divot nearby to nestle into and went to sleep.

In the morning I found a note.


I made my way over once again, to where the man and woman had already begun the morning’s work. They sat facing each other, like they were dining at an imaginary table. The man waved his hands in a delighted fugue, his gestures big and sweeping, as if he was telling a story about an elephant. The woman placed a pretend cup to her lips and then burst into laughter, spewing out its contents, then wiping a happy tear from below her left eye. Behind them stretched a large green screen. In front of them a camera rolled.

I waited by their things until they finished. I found a still-hot kettle of water and a box of instant coffee packets and mixed myself a cup. That was the first hot drink I’d had since I’d entered the apple. Eventually, they came over and nodded good morning. Together we sipped instant coffee and had a chat. I learned that their names were Janine and John Jay. I asked what was going on with the green screen.

“That’s our niche. People send us photos and videos from inside their homes and we put them up there.” Janine said, making a little rectangular frame out of her thumbs and index fingers. “And then we do whatever they want us to do in there. Sometimes they want something freaky. But normally they just want us to act like we love each other. Makes them feel like it’s possible for their homes to be inhabited by love.”

“We’ve been needing another actor. Some people want more of a familial love. With just the two of us they feel there’s too much eros.” John Jay added.

Together the three of us tried running a scene. In it, we all watched TV, nuzzled together on a couch. A few minutes into the show, Janine stood and pretended to make ice cream sundaes for us in the kitchen. While she was gone, John Jay and I fought about who was taking up more of the blanket. When she returned with imaginary sundaes, both of us looked up with surprise, forgetting to care about the blanket. John Jay kissed Janine on the cheek, and she squeezed my shoulders.

“Noa, that was inspired,” John Jay said afterwards. 

“You’re a natural!” said Janine.

“Can I see the house we were in?”

“Yes.” John Jay gestured for me to come over and look at the computer monitor. In the living room of the small house was a green leather couch full of scratches and bubbles and rips. Behind it, on a white stucco wall, I saw a framed photograph of a little girl with a dog sitting on a porch. Beside that a narrow window, the glass warped with age.

So it went on that way. We made movies in the morning and I spent the nights sleeping nearby. In the afternoons, John Jay would go out on solitary walks. He liked to have the lay of the land, Janine told me one day. More than that, afternoons were when John Jay tended to grow forlorn, and when he was sad he was powerful. We had to earn his attention with delicacy and affection. Otherwise he set his mind elsewhere, gazed just past us, wouldn’t ask about our days, that kind of thing. Sometimes Janine would set off something inside John Jay, and he would sulk even through the following day. I sensed Janine liked having me there to pass those long, brittle afternoons. 

The most difficult movie we ever made was for a family in Sweden. It was an endurance piece. It was meant to go on for several days. We were told that the family was grieving. They had a fatally sick child. The whole operation was a careful dance of giving and withholding. I gave John Jay a tug on the earlobe while he washed all our pretend dishes. Janine gave me a kiss on the head. And in small acts of mutual protection, we withheld the true depth of our sadnesses. I cried sitting in the pretend driveway. Janine cried after John Jay and I had left the pretend room. It was the withholding, more than the giving, that proved our love.

I was folding make-believe laundry. It was the second day of our shoot. I picked up a father’s pajama pants. I picked up a child’s shorts and held them close to my chest. I glanced up and saw Janine and John Jay at each side of the round kitchen table. I could see John Jay was starting to get sloppy. He was way over the top, all weepy, moaning into Janine’s arms. She shot him a surreptitious look of warning, but he ignored it. “Cut,” she finally said.

I don’t know why, but I continued folding while they fought. 
 “That’s not what they want to see,” Janine said to John Jay. “Think about their needs. They get enough of that at home.”

“They want authenticity. You don’t respect passion. They want to see that their lives are inside of us.”

“Screw you, John Jay. I carry everybody inside of me. There is no animal on this goddamned earth dead or alive who I have ever known who I do not still carry.”

“And that does so much for the carried.” John Jay’s eyes went like slits, he was practically spitting. I suddenly felt a relentless longing for the chirping of birds. Not just that, but car engines on a four-lane road, the gruff exhaust of public buses, a saxophone player under a bridge, all those sounds you hear. Janine was hurt, I could see that. The two of them went on in harsh tones that stretched beyond the film and the day. I had pasted together enough snippets of their lives to figure out that John Jay had once left Janine. They’d lived all around Arizona before then. It was after he came back that they’d decided to enter the apple. 

That was sort of a last ditch effort, I suspected—a means to try again away from all the excess daily baggage of utility bills and shift managers and expired leftovers. They really wanted to make it work. It was strange, I thought, that although Janine and John Jay had chosen, more than once, to be together, though they were supposedly the only two people with authority over their own love, a mysterious force sometimes arrived at verdicts beyond their control.

I knew what that was like. There was one steamy July evening I was taking the bus over to Annie’s house on the west side, full of old factories and small shingled houses all under historical preservation. The inside of the bus was cool and dry, and I liked seeing that industrial part of town through the dirty window, and I was reading a really good book of stories. When the bus pulled up at the stop near Annie’s, I couldn’t stand up. The pleasure of staying on that bus outweighed the fact that I was supposed to meet Annie to head to our friend’s show by 8pm. Just one more stop, I thought. And then I’ll get a transfer pass and take the opposite route back. But when I got to the next stop, I couldn’t do it. I thought of seeing Annie, and found my mind shrouded in a curious ambivalence. I rode the bus for four more stops before I finished the story I was reading, and forced my legs to walk me to the exit. But looking up, I realized we were at the end of the line, where the bus turned around and went right back. I returned to my seat, waved apologetically to the driver, and rode back to Annie’s stop.

When she answered the door I told her what had happened, minus the strange feelings regarding her. She waved it off, and I knew she meant it. She was naturally tolerant of how other people were and the things they chose to do. When her sixteen-year-old brother had decided he wanted to move into his own apartment and work full time instead of doing tenth grade, she had helped him drive all his stuff across town and even assuaged her parents’ fears. She told me she could tell he’d thought about it for a long time. He decided to move back after seven months and re-enroll, and she’d helped him with that, too.

“We don’t have to go to the show if you’re not feeling up to it,” she told me. “They’re playing again next Friday anyway.” We stayed in and played Bananagrams. I’d carried an edginess in with me from the bus ride. I played ungenerously—sour if she won, contemptuous if I did. I tried to shake my hostility. I breathed deeply, I smiled. When I left that night we stood on her porch and she asked me if I felt okay. I said I didn’t know. When I glanced back from a little ways down the block, her gaze was still following me, her head tilted.

Eventually, Janine and John Jay and I finished the Swedish film. After watching them fight, I felt inexplicably close to them. I don’t know when it happened, but the three of us were one. Together we held rituals for the sick child. We switched between sorrow rituals and joy rituals, gracefully holding together the two incongruent extremes. I have to say, I gave the best performance of my career. 

Not long after, I explained to Janine about Annie. She frowned sympathetically.

“I remember the first time I was with John Jay. Actually, I don’t remember it at all. I was dead wasted. But he told me about it afterward. He said there was a moment he was about to pull away from me. And I didn’t let him. I grabbed him tight and told him, Stay with me! I thought that made me sound like a bit of a psycho.” She laughed. “But I knew he was telling me the truth, because my body kept repeating that same phrase whenever I was near him. Especially when he left me for a period. We were living in Phoenix at the time. I didn’t know where he had gone. He had friends in Reno, so I thought he could have headed up there. When he was gone, something inside me reached up—this was undeniable—to the north. I thought to myself, I’ll know I’ve stopped loving him on the day my body stops calling out those words.”

I thought I understood what she meant. She continued.

“That was all before we were in the apple. All I’m saying is, you could be with a lot of people and it could never be like that. So you better pay attention when it is like that.”

The last day I spent with Annie, it was late summer, and I couldn't see the future anymore. Whenever I tried to look in its direction I saw myself in my same old bedroom. I had come to feel this way over the course of many weeks, my doubts drifting in uncertainly until the constancy of their drifting resembled certainty. We lay on my mattress. Outside light rain hit metal slat roofs. Annie was wise to my angst. “Hi.” She squeezed my hand. “Are you having thoughts? Dreams? Desires?”  

The thought of trying to explain myself to her exhausted me. I looked around the room, cluttered with promises I was now unable to keep. I couldn’t stay there, but I couldn’t leave. I rolled away. I knew this rolling was a wicked act. I felt the snapping of a thread, something vital inside her heart. I had closed myself to her like a bureaucrat, nodding sympathetically as I watched her lips move on the other side of a lucite wall. She banged both hands on the surface and I played pre-recorded sound bites off a tape recorder in response. With nothing else left to do, she fell asleep.

While Annie lay sleeping, I wandered to the room’s corner and ran my finger over the walls. She had drawn a little apple there near the floor. I got on my hands and knees to look. She was very good at drawing. She was good at everything. I stared back at her to verify some information in her face, but I didn’t know what. She rustled. I looked again at the apple. I made a choice. I crawled inside. And I hadn’t been able to find my way out since.

I explained this to Janine, more or less.

“Oh honey. What did you do. Think about that. She woke up alone in your room. A foreign place. With you gone, it only belonged to her less.”

“I know. It was the room. Something changed in there. It all stopped making sense.”


“Yes. Correct. I regret it now. I miss her so much.” 

“You make a choice when you let love end.” She glared at me like it was her I had left alone in the room. She snubbed me for the rest of the afternoon, tidying up her belongings without asking my help. Just before dinnertime, she granted me her wordless pardon and waved me back over.

“Listen, you’re going to get out.”


“You get out the way you came in. Go to the edge of the apple, make a picture of your room, and climb back into it. John Jay will take you there.” 

In the morning, I put on a dress I had found among Janine’s things. It wasn’t formal, but it wasn’t casual either. It was like something you’d wear to a concert in a park.

“Looking real nice,” Janine said. John Jay barely glanced up. He was having a sullen bowl of oatmeal.

“Thanks. It makes me feel a little more— you know, I feel a little less— you know, a little more, a little less.” I resigned. Janine nodded. 

“Are you sure you don’t need me for the movies?” I asked. Mainly perfunctory.

“We’ll get on.”

“I’ll see you again someplace.” 

“Yes, someplace.” she said. Between us, we knew there were only two possible places.

The morning’s hike was long and then John Jay insisted we stop for lunch at the apple’s core. It was my first time there. We sat eating peanut butter sandwiches with m&ms squished inside, an odd favorite of John Jay’s, and washing them down with a thermos of black tea we passed between us. I tried to stay upbeat for the two of us but the morning was so gray, so broad and thin colored. All the colors had retreated underground. 

I guessed now was as good a time as any to ask a question that had troubled me for a while. 

“John Jay, why did you leave Janine?” 

“I came back, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but why’d you leave?”

“I suppose I left because I was finished. Or I thought I was at the time. People part ways. They’re meant to. You of all people know that. We were living in our place in Phoenix and I didn’t want to be living there anymore.” He paused. “Wait. Come here.” Hesitantly, I stood.

“Christ, don’t be nervous,” he said. He led me to a gap in the core’s sinews where you could slip inside, like entering the trunk of a hollow Redwood.

“Do you feel that.” he said, as we craned our necks to peer up, up, beyond sight. I had no idea what he was talking about. He ran his hand along a thick vertical seam. If I stared up with enough intention, I could see the bottom sides of the wet brown seeds suspended above.

“It’s hotter than the rest, see? It’s the generator of vital heat. The seed of being.” I pressed my palm to the wall. It didn’t feel especially warm. “Places like these men spend their whole lives and afterlives seeking. To be held inside this warm well-being. This little sun of this little world, it feeds and sustains you for as long as you remain inside it. When the last heat is depleted, you go searching again.” He spoke as if anticipating my assent, though my whole being revolted against his words. “You’re like me, seeking.”

“Shut up, John Jay. You sound nutso.”

“As seekers, we know ourselves to be lone bodies in mutiny. Bodies propelled against a great nothingness.”

“You’re not lone. You have Janine. I’m going. Let’s keep going.” I moved to duck out of the core, stepping carefully so as to set nothing off inside him. He continued gazing upwards. I packed up our lunch outside and waited for him to join me so we could continue our walk. 

When we finally arrived near the edge that evening, it was too dark and the day was too strained to carry out my leaving. We went to sleep and I dreamed once again of the knife. I was so close now that I could feel the wrist making minute adjustments to stay in the clinging space between peel and flesh. 

As I had done many times before, I stood where I dreamed and walked to the edge. I felt the wet ground under the soles of my feet. Only now I was sure the hand was benevolent. With each strip of the peel fallen away, cold air rushed in, striking my cheeks and offering new life. I would find Annie and we would love each other again and I would recover all of the possibilities for the future that lay stretched out in a million directions. My body brimmed with anticipation. I could barely wait for the knife to finish its work. I thought of nothing else. It was so, so close!

It had stormed through the night. When I woke in the morning, the air was so sweet I wanted to choke. I could feel something was wrong before I opened my eyes. I wandered in a haze. It wasn’t until I’d circled the area three times that the truth registered. John Jay was gone. Sure even, when I walked over to the great curved wall, I saw an unfamiliar room drawn in a rough sketch at the bottom. I felt very alone. I was very alone. I imagined him creeping out. Waking before dawn. Drawing his crude portrait on the apple’s wet interior, glancing over his shoulder every so often to make sure I was still asleep. Slipping out into a future somewhere in Arizona, likely, or maybe he’d chosen someplace else. I felt like a scorned child. That future was supposed to belong to me.

Should I follow him out? Could I? I tried moving toward the wall and froze with the anxiety of facing what I’d done outside. I tried walking away, back towards Janine, and felt pained, each step further offsetting the possible forward momentum of my life.

No, I couldn’t leave now, not yet. Janine would be all alone. I would have to find my way back and tell her what had happened. I was not like John Jay. I would stay with Janine. And someday soon, I would find another chance to leave. I turned resolutely away from the wall and began the walk.

Music. As I walked, I started to hear music echoing through the apple. It was faint, like when you pass by a house in the evening and hear the stereo wafting outside through the air conditioning vent. And familiar. As I got closer, I could tell it was a woman’s scratchy vocals, someone swaying with wilting eyelids at a warehouse show, someone I would have listened to before. Finally Janine entered my line of sight and I saw she had the green screen set up. The cameras were rolling. 

She was performing alone, leaning with her arms crossed against an imaginary desk or table or something, listening to the song. She was spaced out, smiling, looking totally contented. She picked up a book and flipped through it, then tossed it aside. She moved more gracefully than I ever could. She crawled over to the room’s center and lay down there, stretching her arms behind her head and staring up at the ceiling. I got a sinking feeling of familiarity in my gut.

Then she stared my way. I watched her watch me approach, without John Jay. At first she looked puzzled. She continued performing, propping herself up on her elbow so she could intermittently glance my way. As I walked closer, she searched my face for knowledge. I suddenly felt shamefully empty handed, like I should have been carrying something in my arms. In my head, I tried to craft the words to explain to her what had happened at the edge with John Jay, but I could see that she was already beginning to understand. Maybe she’d known it all along.

Her eyes made one final desperate scan across the horizon. She found nothing. In her face something shattered. I wanted to rush to her. Compelled by another force, I instead rushed to the monitor.

Yes. The room on the screen was my room. It was perfectly preserved, the books stacked exactly how I’d left them. The camera operator had a shaky hand, and panned across the room carefully, documenting every detail. Annie’s voice spoke, explaining her surroundings so that Janine could move convincingly within them. 

“Here, the light comes in and wakes you up early unless you remember to close the blinds. Here, you can sometimes hear birds outside, especially in the winter. Here are the CDs and here’s where you can play them.” 

Annie went on. There was so much to describe. The camera angle lowered, as if she was sitting down in a chair to rest. Her movements were hesitant, anemic. 

I looked up at Janine where she lay, her body now crumpled on my bedroom mattress. She groped around the space beside her and came up with nothing solid. I crawled in with her, wrapping my arms around her shoulders. We stayed there like that for a long time. I couldn’t tell you how long.

After Yehuda Amichai