The Missing Year
The moment Emily Forster stepped into West Side Dry Cleaning on 79th Street, she knew something was different about the place. With its concrete floor and brick walls, the store was usually so dark that it was difficult to read a laundry ticket, but on this particular morning Emily was hit with a blaze of light shooting from behind the counter. An unfamiliar giant stood six feet four inches tall with a shock of wavy hair
so blond it appeared almost white. Remarkably, the man’s head illuminated the establishment like a miniature sun.
“Good morning to you,” the stranger said with a subtle accent. “How can I help?”
Momentarily flummoxed, Emily frantically tried to put a few words together while admiring the man’s fierce jaw, chiseled nose and hypnotic eyes as blue as the Aegean. It was a face that deserved to be carved on the side of a cliff, Mount Rushmore style. “Uh, well, I’m here to drop off these, uh, clothes,” she said as her heart thumped so powerfully she was afraid her blouse was moving. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“Yes, you never have,” he said with a laugh, revealing his perfectly straight, snow white teeth. “I’m helping out for a couple of weeks. Then I go back to Norway.”
“Oh, Norway,” she said with a warm, wide grin.
“You’ve been there?” he excitedly asked.
“Not exactly,” she admitted, instantly realizing how ridiculous that sounded. Either she’d been there or she hadn’t; there was no in between. “But I’ve seen so many pictures of the fjords that it feels like my second home. Land of the midnight sun.” She needed to change the subject, quickly. “Where’s Fritz? Or his wife?” she asked, as if the German owners of the dry cleaning outlet were close pals who invited her over for schweinebraten once a month.
“They’ll be in later this morning.”
“Ah.” Emily wiped an imaginary piece of lint from the sleeve of her camel hair jacket. She was glad she’d chosen that particular piece of apparel to wear over her sky blue silk blouse; the colors blended beautifully with her olive skin and auburn hair that was styled in an elegant up-do. “What brought you to America?” she asked.
“An internship,” he said with a touch of embarrassment. “Yah, still a student at twenty-two.”
“I’m still paying off my student loan at twenty-seven,” she said although she was twenty-eight (as if one year would make a difference in the way the Adonis regarded her). “I’ve been in New York nine years, so if you need someone to show you around the city, it would be my pleasure.” She was absolutely aghast that these words emerged from her mouth no more than ninety seconds after meeting the man. Never had she been so forward; she’d certainly never offered her services as a tour guide before, not even to her big sister Dawn who flew up from Savannah one freezing December, the day after their grandmother began her six month prison sentence.
“Would you really show me around?” Mathias asked, flattered.
“Sure,” she replied, rummaging through her beige Prada handbag. She took out a business card and handed it over.
“Emily Forster,” he said, reading the green lettering on the glossy card. “And my name is Mathias.”
“Mathias,” she repeated. “Beautiful.” Say it loud and it’s music playing, she thought to herself. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying. “Mathias.”
“It’s very common in Norway.”
Emily nodded, thinking there was nothing common about him. She accepted the fact that this was lust, love, devotion, submission, obsession, irrational worship and abnormal frenzy at first sight. All she could do was follow the instructions she was receiving from powers unknown.
“Let me give you a ticket,” Mathias said, referring to the reddish heap of clothing Emily had tossed on the counter. “Four blouses, one jacket,” he said. “Tomorrow after five?”
“And if you’re free tonight, we can meet in front at six.”
“I’m free,” she said in a carefree manner. “Six o’clock it is.” She stepped toward the door and shot him a quick, over-the-shoulder smile before disappearing into the crowded street.
The once-engaged southern gal was familiar with the longing and the pining of love. Luckily, the true colors of her ex-fiancé surfaced a week before the wedding, and Emily had the bruises to prove it. The phantom limb of this doomed relationship still hurt, but the experience taught her to proceed with caution. She was cautious with Vince, never allowing him to get all the way inside her heart. But her chemical response to Mathias decimated the very idea of caution. Not only was she ashamed that her feelings were based solely on looks, she was stunned by it. She’d never evinced the slightest attraction to the strapping jocks. In fact, a man’s physical appearance didn’t matter much (as long as he was presentable). Intelligence, compassion, and sense of humor registered higher on her Richter scale of romance. Nevertheless, she had to have this particular strapping jock; it was as simple as that.
The exhilaration of meeting him caused her heart to leap. She would’ve done a cartwheel if she’d known how. She would’ve tossed her hat in the air if she’d been wearing one. Emily realized that a kind of insanity had taken over, and she merely accepted the demented, unsound, unstable power he had over her.
Emily arrived at her desired destination and climbed the wide steps of the midtown office building. In the bustling lobby, she joined other well-dressed men and women on their way to work, clutching handbags, briefcases and Starbucks cups. Noticing a small snack bar, she darted over and bought a café au lait with skimmed milk, a banana, a blueberry muffin and a newspaper. With the environment in mind, she turned down the offer of a paper bag, choosing instead to carry the items in her bare hands. Then she hurried to the elevator which was ready for take-off but thoroughly packed.
An affable guy standing in front noticed her and said, “We can fit one more.” This invitation elicited an angry groan from someone in the back of the elevator car, but Emily squeezed in, enormously glad to see that the button for the seventh floor was already lit.
After opening on two, five and six, the imposing silver doors parted on floor number seven. Emily exited swiftly and headed down a carpeted, dimly-lit corridor leading to a large windowless room filled with rows of identical cubicles. She planted herself and her breakfast in the first cubicle of the third row and then removed the top of the Styrofoam cup. The steam of the café au lait escaped into the atmosphere, and its rich, aromatic scent pleased her.
Carrying her own coffee in a large ceramic mug, the bejeweled Ruth Moss was heading to a staff meeting when she stopped dead in her tracks a few feet from Emily’s cubicle. “Emily,” she said in her signature raspy voice, her eyes wide open with surprise.
“Hi, Ruth,” Emily replied.
“I can’t believe it. What are you doing here?”
Just then, Ruth noticed Jocelyn Herzog walking down the hallway flanked by two fawning assistants. “Jocelyn,” she called out, “come over for a sec. Look who’s here.”
With blonde highlights in her heavily sprayed black hair, Jocelyn approached, her manner haughty and proprietorial. “My God, Emily Forster,” she said in disbelief.
“Why is everyone so surprised to see me?” Emily asked.
“What, may I ask, are you doing here?” Jocelyn asked with the warmth of a glacier.
“I’m here to work,” she snapped.
“Is this some kind of joke?” Ruth inquired, looking around for a hidden camera as her silver bracelets jiggled around both wrists.
“You don’t work here anymore,” Jocelyn stated. “You were let go.”
“It’s been a year or so, honey,” Ruth added in a soft, concerned tone.
Motionless, Emily sat in a state of dull shock, allowing the outlandish words to sink in. “I was let go,” she muttered with disbelief. “Were you the one who let me go?”
“Yes. We had to cut back on staff,” Jocelyn explained. “Don’t you remember?”
“Cut back,” Emily repeated. “Of course. Yes, now I remember.” She didn’t remember, and she was beginning to feel dizzy and short of breath.
“You need to pick up your belongings and leave right now, before I call security.”
“Security? Don’t be silly.”
“Then stand up, please,” Jocelyn ordered, quietly but sternly. “I’ll walk you to the lobby.”
It was obvious she meant business. Emily reached for her handbag and muffin, opting to leave the coffee, newspaper and banana behind. Then she took a deep, mordant breath. “I guess I lost track of time,” she explained as she struggled up from her chair, a little wobbly, her forehead damp with sweat.
“You’re wearing your hair differently,” Ruth cheerfully remarked. “Very Audrey Hepburn.”
“Thanks,” Emily said.
“Mine’s gotten unmanageable,” Ruth confessed, running her fingers through it.
“Must you wear so many bracelets?” Jocelyn barked at her colleague. “They
bring on migraines.”
In tense silence, Jocelyn escorted Emily down the long carpeted corridor and into the empty elevator. When they reached the large, echoing lobby, the women marched
across the marble floor which, to Emily, seemed more expansive than it was on the way in. The gigantic door opened electronically. Emily took one final glance at her ex-boss before exiting into the sunlight of the April day.
Certain that her humiliation was obvious, Emily avoided eye contact with everyone on the street as she ambled north on Madison, still slightly dizzy. She couldn’t help wondering if her mind was deteriorating or simply playing tricks on her. Tricks had been played before, but they were fairly benign. She recalled placing her keys on the living room table, and when it came time to leave the apartment a few hours later, they weren’t there. She searched everywhere, to no avail. It wasn’t until she opened the refrigerator door that she found them nesting on top of an unopened tub of butter.
Then there was the Sunday afternoon she saw a photograph of herself on the back of a milk carton. She instantly called Vince on his cell phone, and he rushed home. When Emily reached for the carton to show Vince, it was the face of a missing a six-year-old boy that stared back at her.
An empty table at an outdoor café caught Emily’s eye and she immediately sat
down to catch her breath. She ordered a cup of chamomile tea.
A miniature bottle of ketchup sitting on Emily’s small round table was the cutest thing she’d ever seen. She covertly slipped it into her handbag, thinking she would display it on her kitchen cabinet. When the swarthy server named Sergio suddenly
appeared, she was struck with fear, certain he would accuse her of stealing. “Would you like anything else?” he inquired.
At first she thought he was asking if she’d like anything else to sneak into her purse. She found this offensive and not the least bit funny. Then she realized the man was just doing his job. “Uh, yes,” she said. “Can I have some honey for my tea? And maybe a piece of sourdough toast.”
“Of course,” he said in a deep voice. Emily breathed a sigh of relief. Within sixty seconds, a half dozen small packets of honey were delivered. “There you go,” Sergio said.
Emily reached for a packet of honey, tore it open and poured the contents into her cup. She grabbed three more and placed them in her handbag. Then she took a couple of packets of natural cane sugar and tossed them in her bag, too.
Heading home for a brief nap seemed like the best idea floating in Emily’s turbulent head. A taxi dropped her off in front of an old brick building on 84th Street where she took the exceedingly slow elevator to the tenth floor.
When she attempted to unlock the door, her key didn’t slide in. As she tinkered with it, the door swung open. A shaggy-haired guy in an unbuttoned white Oxford shirt and faded blue jeans, stood there barefoot. “I thought I heard someone,” Vince said.
“That was me,” Emily announced as she entered the cluttered apartment that smelled of coffee.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
She reached into her bag and pulled out the four inch bottle of ketchup. “Isn’t this the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen?” she asked.
“I can’t say that it is,” he admitted. “Probably not even in my top ten.”
“Oh it’s definitely in my top three.”
Vince peered at Emily, his face crumpled in stupefaction. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Yeah. Don’t you think it’s a little strange that you suddenly show up here?”
“Vince,” she earnestly said, “tell me what’s strange about it.”
“Are you high?”
“No, I’m not,” she assured him. “Just tell me why it’s strange.”
“Because you moved out last year,” he said. “You told me you couldn’t stand me anymore, remember?”
Ordinarily Emily would’ve laughed out loud, but in light of what had taken place at the office, she allowed the words to sink in. “Moved out last year,” she mumbled.
Her mind was reeling. Now she accepted the fact that something was wrong, wrong enough to warrant checking herself into a mental health facility. But she wouldn’t risk her date with Mathias; professional help would have to wait a day or two, she decided. “All right,” she calmly said. “If I moved out, where do I live now?”
“You found a place off Columbus,” Vince told her. “I wasn’t invited to the housewarming so I never saw it.”
“Sorry,” she said.
“Are you all right?”
“My brain’s a little fried, that’s all,” she explained.
“You actually thought you still lived here?” he asked with astonishment.
“I wasn’t thinking.”
“Maybe you need to see someone,” he suggested.
“I’m seeing someone at six o’clock,” she stated.
“Good. Do you want to lay down for a while?” he asked.
“No thanks. I can’t stand you anymore, remember?”
He chuckled. “I meant by yourself.”
“Oh, it’s all coming back,” Emily said, wandering toward the kitchen, stepping over a pile of magazines, a pair of Puma sneakers and an empty pizza box. “I was in this very kitchen, making one of your requested meals, and you were with some brunette in the building across the street.” She shook her arms as if ridding herself of the last drops of her life with him. “I see you haven’t done the dishes since I left.”
“It’s on my agenda for the summer,” he replied. “Still a vegan?”
“I was never a vegan,” Emily explained, returning to the living room. “I was a vegetarian.”
“Right. Hey, you see a pair of shoes anywhere?” he asked as he searched the room. Emily noticed a pair of black loafers jutting out from under the sofa, and she pointed. “Thanks,” Vince said, slipping his feet into them.
“Job interview,” he told her.
“Oh. Well, I won’t keep you,” Emily said. “Sorry to be a bother.” She picked up her handbag and headed toward the door, stepping over a black leather jacket. Vince followed as if he didn’t trust her. Halfway there, she stopped short and peered at her ex
with a pained expression. The moment in which they might have embraced for old time’s sake, passed. “Columbus Avenue near what cross street?” she asked him.
The sun, surrounded by billows of soft pink clouds, was just beginning to set, but the warmth of the day lingered. The tops of skyscrapers appeared golden in the fading light. Only two blocks from West Side Dry Cleaning, Emily’s heart began to race. The closer she got, the more euphoric she felt. She knew the moment she’d see Mathias, the massive problems of her unusual day would melt away.
When she stepped onto 79th Street, she was hoping to spot him halfway down the block, towering above everybody else. But the street was uncommonly crowded and choking on the fumes of taxi cabs, trucks, and clouds of hissing steam coming from underground. The geothermal experience of Rotorua, New Zealand right around the corner from Zabar’s.
Like walking against a fierce wind, Emily made her way through. Mathias wasn’t outside the dry cleaning shop, so she opened the heavy glass door and entered to see Fritz
standing behind the counter. “Can I help you?” he said in a thick German accent even though he’d been living in New York for thirty years.
“Yes, hello,” Emily responded. “I’m here to see Mathias.”
He peered at her blankly. “I don’t know.”
“The tall Norwegian guy who helped me this morning.”
Fritz seemed perplexed. “Maybe another dry cleaner?”
“Oh no,” she explained. “It was right here, in this exact spot.”
From behind the calm sea of plastic-covered clothing on wire hangers, Reinhilde appeared, displaying her messy mane of silver hair that suggested she’d just come in
from a windstorm. “She’s looking for Mathias,” Fritz told his grouchy wife.
“Mathias from Norway,” Emily said. “I spoke to him this morning, right here.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Reinhilde licked her top row of teeth and turned to Fritz. “You know Mathias,” she said. “Tall, blond hair.”
“Right!” Emily exclaimed. “He’s the one.”
“What do you need?” Reinhilde asked Emily.
“I’m supposed to meet him here. Can you get him for me please? I assume he’s in the back.”
“Oh he’s not in the back,” she said. “He’s in Oslo.”
The words hit Emily like the trunk of an angry elephant, and all the life began to drain from her. “We were supposed to meet here at six.”
“No,” Reinhilde said. “He went home last March or April.”
“That couldn’t be right,” Emily said with a nervous smile.
“It’s right,” Reinhilde said, licking her top row of teeth again.
“But he was here this morning,” Emily insisted. “He was right here and we were talking. I’m not leaving until you bring him out from the back,” she shouted.
“Not here,” Reinhilde firmly stated, putting an end to the conversation.
“Where…is…Mathias?” Emily insisted, gritting her teeth.
“Please leave premises or we call police,” Reinhilde threatened.
“I’m not leaving,” she said. “I need Mathias. We met right here this morning.”
Fritz moved to the phone located next to the cash register, and picked it up.
“No!” Emily nervously yelled. “No police. Put the phone down. I’ll go.”
With shaky limbs, she hobbled to the glass door. She tried to pull it open, but it was too heavy. Fritz saw her struggling, so he marched over to help.
Emily took a few steps on the noisy street, but she was so short of breath that she had to stop. As if her flesh and bones were crumbling, she descended to the ground and leaned against the glass. The world was quickly becoming a blur.
A gargantuan garbage truck huffed and puffed its way down the street. The moment it passed, Reinhilde appeared next to Emily. “You are blocking entrance. It is verboten for you to sit here.”
“Verboten,” Emily muttered. “Where are we – Bergen-Belsen?” She managed to lift herself off the sidewalk while Reinhilde stood her ground like a Gestapo officer. Luckily a taxi shuddered to a stop several feet away.
After checking her driver’s license, Emily managed to find her address. The ride was slow and bumpy but gave Emily time to think. She wondered if her brain had run out of storage space. She wondered if everyone in the city was playing a cruel practical joke on her. The Russian taxi driver dropped her off in front of a fire hydrant and pointed
to a brick building that looked vaguely familiar.
Thankfully her key worked. Tentatively, she stepped into the small, dark apartment.
She had friends. She had parents and a sister. She recognized them from the framed photographs that lined the mantle. After finding their phone numbers in a red leather-bound directory next to her bed, she grabbed her cell and dialed.
“Something’s happening to me,” she said to each of them. “My head, my memory. I’m afraid to go outside. I’m afraid of…just about everything.”
Within a few hours, her mother, father and sister were perched on the living room sofa like a row of birds atop a billboard. “You begged us to let you live on your own, remember?” the mother said.
“You thought you were well enough,” the father added.
“You’ve always been a little scatter-brained,” the sister told her.
They promised she would be taken to a place where professionals would treat her. They assured her that she would be all right. They told her not to worry.
In a thick haze, Emily nodded. There was nothing for her to do but believe them.
* * *
by Garrett Socol