Life wedged Vivian between a monumental breakdown in a law firm and an impromptu flight to Japan last time I saw her. I discovered a photograph of her in a discolored denim-clad starfish pose beneath a torii gate used as a bookmark for a porn magazine. Didn’t bother to focus on the two porn stars who my eyes skimmed over en route to the photograph but they mirrored her brunette bob to uncanny effect. She was accompanied by a quarter-cigarette and quite possibly the ache that comes with lying against concrete steps. And the back of the photograph had the words “you are my possession” scrawled on the back in faded ballpoint ink.
Vivian was a toucher of grass and a sponge of solar rays. She was a freewheeling spirit who squeezed herself in a law firm internship because there were no immediate childhood or adulthood aspirations. She didn't know law jargon but she knew the number of cracks in the sidewalk by best-kept-secret bars and how many cartwheels were allowed in front of a precinct before the cops grew frustrated. She counted each cautious step she made and sauntered everywhere in clothes that didn't ever experience an iron.
This was not someone who was anyone's possession. And then she could have written about someone else but who? She wasn't the type to possess someone either unless it was with her inescapable charm and grace.
The only other “possession” I could think of was-
The bitter air was thin and patience around the neighborhood was thinner. No one received updates on Vivian's whereabouts and brick houses up and down the suburbs existed in disgruntled silence. A donut shop owner shouted in the face of an officer over this missing person case and lost his teeth to an asphalt collision. The officers assured everyone “everything is being done to find Vivian and bring her back home” but their parking lot conversations spun a different tale. It was only fair I started my investigation at Possession, the bar her and I frequented in college and while we dated.
The last place I saw Vivian.
The grizzled bartender chuckled and marched from behind the bar to grip my hand. There wasn't a patron around without a drink and I knew it was a matter of time before he fixed me one.
“Royce, how have you been given these special circumstances?”
“There could be better times,” I shrugged at the bar and awaited a drink.
He mixed some whiskey-adjacent concoction with his back turned and slid it into my cupped hand.
I threw back the drink and coughed from what stung like chemical burn rather than alcohol. But Pierce snickered in spite of the dead-eyed patrons who knocked back drinks as if their spirit was drained. In spite of Vivian's disappearance.
“I saw her after Japan, Pierce,” I stated matter-of-factly and pounded my chest because of the burn.
“You and every lifeless mug in here,” he bellowed without eye contact on anything but an empty shot glass and a soaped dish rag.
“I mean I saw her here after Japan.”
Then Pierce's eyes darted up to mine as bloodshot as every sunset since Vivian was gone. Everyone else zeroed in on me and this wouldn't end well if I chased it to the end.
“I wasn't here at the time,” he grunted before he downed a whiskey. “But I doubt my regulars could vouch for you.”
The mounting tension whispered “enough, Royce. Get the hell out of dodge.”
I backed away from the bar and sprinted out. There wasn't a trace of Vivian in there regardless of the table dances and occasional free-drink banter. Save for her name carved into the bar. Easy to picture a punch-drunk 20-something immortalizing herself in some depressing blue-collar hangout spot. Easier than it was to picture her distant from me and everyone here in suburbia.
I clung harder to the parka in a town devoid of snow and wind but not that nagging chill. Some vacuous community college students popped wheelies in polo shirts and slacks yet no one cared aside from me. Vivian would have cared but her care was null as a missing persons case.
My sigh carried me into another “Possession”; a jazz bar with an exclamation mark in the neon sign and several boxers in separate baby grand piano-sized rings under ambient lighting. Everyone drank in sparkling suits and dresses and communicated in phony laughter, indistinct chatter about nothing I'm sure. The kind of place Vivian despised and could have been forced to experience before me. And the pianist craned his head over the crowd at me and called another in his place with a brisk jog toward the entrance.
“Royce, have you checked telephone poles and billboards for Vivian?”
“No, Dillon. Have you checked this photograph though?”
He scanned it and flipped it over with a heavy squint as if she was a foreign car. Or a miserable paycheck for a night's work.
“You are my possession.”
Dillon read the words the way a third-grade teacher reads words on a chalkboard to the class.
“There are three Possessions in this town- this one, the dive bar, the fragrance place.”
He handed me the photograph with a loose grip and I spared it from the ground.
“Sore after all these years because Vivian didn't choose you?” I slipped the photograph in my parka with a firm grin.
“I would hit you if I didn't have a sure thing here.”
The manager nodded toward the piano where the backup pianist was slumped over the keys. Dillon jabbed a finger in my face and rushed to shove the other pianist off. Word from Vivian was that finger got jabbed at her often and that was only their first date. I pushed out of the entrance and wasn't surprised if he threatened her or wanted to be her possession.
Not two blocks away was the fragrance store L’Posession which could be faux French. None of the employees inside appeared to know French aside from food and the occasional director or actress/actor. But one familiar face strutted toward me with a harsh phony French accent when I held up Vivian's photograph.
“Royce, you want to know if Vivian was here?”
“Back of the photograph, Anelle and drop the sad accent. You didn't get your associate’s to toss around an offensive French accent.”
She leaned harder into the accent and my teeth gritted by instinct. She could have mentioned if Vivian was here or not without this rough affected accent but Vivian's sister was prone to offend/annoy. It explained why they didn't speak in college and beyond. And it explained why she wouldn't take my search for Vivian seriously.
“Whatever do you mean, darling?” She dragged out her words and her idle co-workers chuckled on cue.
My shaky fingers balled into fists as I pivoted toward the door. Horrible Europop whined to life and boomed throughout the store when I felt Anelle’s warm fingers coil around mine.
“Searching for someone who doesn't want to be found is pointless, Royce,” she half-sighed and loosened her grip without an accent.
“What do you mean?”
“Vivian returned to Japan after her visit. She didn't give you or anyone else a heads-up because you would panic. Oh and she told me to give you this letter.”
She patted a folded letter in my hand and I wanted to squeeze Anelle. But the awkward moment would have run her makeup across my parka and embarrassed two people who wouldn't have interacted without a mutual connection to Vivian.
Her coworkers eyed me and she waved them off despite the clear discomfort between us.
“Leave and read the letter, Royce.”
She dove back into her false French accent and cackled with everyone else. And I trudged back out into an immediate shiver.
Time appeared to crawl ahead and gave me precious time to unfold Vivian's letter down the street.
“Royce, Japan is stunning and you would love it here too. That's why I had to hurry back. There are countless sights and cultural differences in food and language that I can't afford to sacrifice for some provincial-adjacent life. I would beg you to stay with me in a tiny apartment while I teach English during the day but who knows what you'll think. My kids adore me and ask about life stateside often. I don't know if I'll stay or return once my two-year trial period is done. Time will tell as cliché as it sounds. Don't know how to end this but pretend I do.
- Vivian xoxo”