The Unbearably Slow Disappearance of Josh

Submitted into Contest #108 in response to: Write about a person or object vanishing into thin air.... view prompt

4 comments

Contemporary Drama Fiction

When I met Josh he was all in one piece. I know this sentence doesn’t make much sense to you right now, but bear with me. I barely believe it and I was witness to it. But where do we end up if we don’t trust our own experiences?

I met Josh in school. He was quite sociable, smart but, at the same time, an introvert. Maybe not exactly an introvert, but you could often find him staring at nothing in the middle of class or even when there was a group of us having a chat, he would just be in his own world. We were not really friends, but I liked Josh. He gave me good vibes. I was a very depressed teenager so any positivity was a boost for me.

It was at university, however, that I really started to know Josh. We weren’t in the same course, but we did study at the same university. I was into languages, because I had always wanted to see places and know different things, and people, etc.; he studied Arts, not that he drew or painted, it was more like History of Art. He said he had decided to study Arts because he was looking for something.

We hadn’t seen each other for a few months when one day I saw him on a bench in the park by my faculty. I waved at him and it took him a while to wave back. Knowing him, he had probably spaced out again. When I sat down next to him on the bench, and after the usual chitchat about what we had been doing in the last few months, I actually asked him:

‘Josh, I noticed in school you often spaced out. Even now, when you saw me, it took you a while to actually see or recognize me. Don’t take it the wrong way, but what do you see when you are like that?’

‘Oh, I had not noticed you had noticed. But yes, today I probably really gave it away. What do I see? Let’s see.’ He stopped at that and didn’t move for a while. He was staring straight ahead at something very far away, or so I thought, and I felt like my very question had triggered his spacing out. I started scratching my head and thinking about how to escape such an awkward situation when he finally said:

‘I did see you, in a way, but I didn’t recognize you. I mean, I saw you as a part of the park; you didn’t stand out but as a patch of blue and black and your shape. You popped in in my visual field, I remember that, so I know when you appeared, as a patch of colour, I mean. And your shape, it was so fascinating, especially when you waved, you became the wave. It was as if you had waved with your own body. I got curious and it was that curiosity that brought me to focus for an instant, and that’s when I recognized you and your gesture. So I thought about it and I waved back because that’s what you’d expect and because it felt good seeing you.’

I looked at him and then I said: ‘Oh, okay.’

He must have read me because he added: ‘I don’t know if that answered your question.’

‘Yes, I mean, thank you. I was just curious, that’s all.’ I don’t know why I was trying to justify myself. I felt as if I was covering for him, actually, as if he had to justify his answer. I don’t know why I felt that way. Or maybe I was trying to justify the fact that I didn’t understand much of what he had said.

We met a few times during our university years, we would grab lunch together or chat in the park about exams and stuff but we didn’t really become friends, we never met outside of the context of university. It was as if that was the only context in which our relationship made sense. But during the last year of university I did start paying more attention. One day I saw Josh on a bench (he never sat on the same one if he could avoid it), and I waved at him and went to sit with him. He didn’t wave back but he nodded with a smile. When I got close to him I realised that the sleeve of his shirt was empty. I blinked twice, because I thought for a moment it was an optical illusion like those that a certain pattern on textile can give you. But no, his arm was missing.

He had made room for me to sit on the side of the missing art, but I didn’t feel like it, so I motioned for me to sit on the other side. We spoke for a bit. He said he had started preparing his final dissertation already, I had barely even thought about it. He said it was about the space of emptiness in the paintings of Diego Velasquez.

‘Take Las Meninas, for example. Everyone keeps writing about reality and the illusion of the mirror, the relationship between the figures depicted, the complexity of the composition. What I am interested in, instead, is the space between those figures. I don’t know if you have the painting in mind, but all the characters actually touch on the canvas, but that’s the illusion of technique, isn’t it, our eyes experience distance between the characters, we know that they are on different spatial planes. So, I am studying the space between the characters, what divides the figures, what is that space we cannot see made of, and how can this be done in a 2D painting? And don’t think I am talking about perspective here. No, I want to know about that space, what is in the void between them.’

As usual when he went on like that I just nodded. But listening to him had at least distracted me from his arm. I realised this when he unfortunately decided to turn towards me to ask whether I had started to work on my own thesis and it was then that I saw his arm, or better, its absence. I have never had any problems asking questions, I have always considered it my only form of arrogance, that I could subjugate people with the power of my questions. I used questions all the time to assert myself when people started to annoy me. In this case, I was obviously just curious.

‘Josh, what happened to your arm?’

He looked at me puzzled and then looked at his arm as if lost.

‘The other one, Josh, the one that is not there.’

‘Oh,’ he said with a smile. ‘It’s where I want it to be. I hope to join it soon.’

The next time I saw Josh it was at his graduation. He had messaged me to tell me about it and ask me whether I wanted to go and see him. I didn’t have anything better to do that day and even though I felt haunted by his missing arm and the idea that it might have gone somewhere else,  instead of where it was supposed to be, attached to Josh’s shoulder, I still went because I felt it was the right thing to do. When I entered the examination room Josh had already started defending his thesis in front of the commission of professors. He was a bit too technical on someone like me who barely remembers Las Meninas, but I wasn’t there to learn, after all. Towards the end, Josh said:

‘In conclusion, I wanted to explore the space that is not there, the void that is often ignored in art and in life. The void is the starting point of the painting as if it were the starting point of our very consciousness. It is a space I want very much to inhabit and, as I have tried to demonstrate, I believe I have made a major progress in this endeavour.’ He said a few more things, but I was feeling very sleepy and I couldn’t follow.

When he was done he stood up and it was then that I noticed the crutch next to him and a young woman on the other side helping him up. It was then that I realised that a leg of his trousers was hanging like clothes left to dry. His family and friends were all congratulating him.  Everyone was behaving as if everything was normal. How could they ignore the fact he was missing an arm and a leg? Somehow it felt wrong because it didn’t feel like he had lost them in an accident or from disease. They were probably both where he wanted them to be. That absence felt unbearable. It was not possible. I just couldn’t stand even the idea of it, let alone its reality. So I left.

I didn’t invite him to my graduation, but then a couple of months later he phoned me to ask me if I had graduated, etc. and if I wanted to meet him for lunch for old time’s sake so he could introduce me to his girlfriend. I made up some excuse and I thought that would be the end of it.

A few years later, I received an invitation to Josh’s wedding. I felt like I couldn’t refuse, so I went. At the ceremony Josh was on a wheelchair. I could only see the back of him. I was almost scared that he would turn around and see me. I was scared he would turn around and I would recognise him as Josh or was left of him. I felt like I would have been happier realizing I had come to the wrong wedding. When the ceremony ended though, his wife pushed his chair down the aisle and, as I had feared, Josh had now had no legs at all. During the drink reception Josh came to me and introduced me to his wife.

‘And this is Alicia, my wonderful wife.’ I nodded and smiled, recognising the young woman at his graduation, and congratulated the couple.

‘Oh,’ Alicia said. ‘I am so happy. Josh is such a great guy, he has this big goal and I hope to join him one day too, but it is so hard for me.’

‘Don’t say, that, dear, I don’t know how I would do without your support.’

I did think hard indeed pushing a wheelchair with only one arm. For some reason, Josh, didn’t have one of those electric ones. Guess he preferred to be pushed around, but who was I to judge. I stopped at that thought. I didn’t know why I was so bitter. After years of silence Josh had had the thought of inviting me to such an important event in his life and I should have been flattered. I was flattered when I received the invitation. But I just couldn’t stand the two of them being so happy while I felt so miserable and there was something evidently wrong and they were both ignoring it.

‘No, Josh, dear, I don’t think I am doing enough.’ And then she turned towards me and she was beaming: ‘Josh is going to a place I can only dream of, one piece at a time. It’s the place of the beginning of everything. It’s just so beautiful.’

The years passed, I got married somehow and I even had kids, but I didn’t get to travel after all. I was still a ‘damn miserable git’, as my wife loved to say. As time passed I would think now and then about Josh and whether he was still here in this world or had completely gone. But of course, I should have known, he had not yet disappeared from my life entirely. I received a phone call from the hospital where Josh had asked to see me.

The nurse that walked me to his room explained to me that he had a private room, as it was better for the other patients. She admitted it was hard even for her even though she had seen all sorts of stuff. I felt relieved that there were normal people left into this world. When I entered the room she quickly shut the door behind me.

And Josh was right in front of me. I couldn’t breathe. Josh was literally facing me as in he had only a face, only his head was left suspended in mid-air. There was no bed, nothing in that room. It was an empty room with a hanging head. I could not take it. I fell on my ass. Josh laughed.

‘I am sorry. I must be an uncommon sight.’

‘It’s okay, just give me a second.’

‘Maybe you can ask a nurse for a chair.’

‘Nah, the floor is quite comfortable actually. Thank you.’

‘If you say so.’

‘Where is your wife? Was it Alicia, wasn’t it?’ I had said it just to start a conversation to be honest. Okay, that’s not true, I asked because I needed to regain control of the situation. I really didn’t want to be there.

‘Oh, we got divorced a couple of years ago? See? I am wearing no ring.’ And he laughed again. I would have been more scared if there had been a ring floating there. Somehow I preferred knowing he was disappearing rather than him turning invisible. And that laugh, it was not the laugh of crazy people. It was so genuine that I had to smile back.

‘It’s okay. She could not bear the fact that I was disappearing without her. I can only imagine what it means for a wife to see her husband go bit by bit and not being able to do the same.’

‘Well, she knew it from the beginning you were going, though.’ I couldn’t believe I had said that.

‘True, but she had always hoped that she would progress by sheer love. But love is never enough, is it? Are you married?’

‘Yes, actually. I don’t even know how. I have two kids and I teach in a school. I am doing okay.’

‘I am so happy for you.’ And I knew he meant it too. Why am I always such a miserable, bitter character?

‘Josh, why did you ask for me?’

‘Well, I guess I wanted to say goodbye. You were one of the first I mentioned my project to. I am finally reaching the void. When I am there I will finally see everything, but I won’t see you again, not in the same way. So I wanted to say bye and to thank you for your kind friendship. I know we were not close, but you were there when it mattered. I know you came to my graduation. I know why you left. I know you cannot stand the sight of me. So thank you for seeing me anyway.’

‘I am sorry, Josh. I just don’t understand. You are basically dying or whatever this is and you still look so happy. I don’t understand. How can you be so happy going like this?’

‘I see.’ And he was lost in space again. I almost laughed that he had spaced out. There was not much left of him, but that little was still good, old Josh. ‘In truth, I am happy. And I have always found difficult to explain. It’s something you can only really experience. But let’s try. You know you’re going to die one day, right?

‘Yes.’

‘There you go. If it makes it easier for you, this is my way and it was my choice. But it’s not a suicide. I am actually… I have always been in search of my true self, that’s what this is. I feel like I will soon discover the secret of life, the place I have always looked through. You have to try it to really understand.’

For a moment I thought my tongue too had actually disappeared because I could not talk. Then I felt the dryness in my mouth and I knew my tongue was there: it was only stuck. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t want to understand if understanding meant I would be someplace else.

‘Not much is left of my old self and no one understood why I would go this far. There’s only you with me in this room, see? I have been left alone, but I am content. I was never too attached to this life. Not that I am going to live another life. But who knows. If I come back somehow, I’ll make sure to drop you a text, and maybe we can go for lunch like old times.’

‘If you have a stomach by then.’ My wit had miraculously come back to me. ‘Josh, I am sorry. I have never been very open-minded I guess. Not enough maybe, I don’t know. I really liked you. And I will be sorry when you are gone.’

‘Thank you, it means a lot to me. I will be a bit everywhere even though I am not too sure, really. But I am glad I will maybe linger a little bit longer in your memories. You cannot really see or touch your memories, after all. They are a bit like me. They appear and then they are gone again.’

I smiled at his words because I felt strangely at peace now if not at ease. I had known this person for over two decades and I would miss him. I was ashamed at my own fear. We should have gone to the park one more time.

‘See?’ Josh said. ‘In the end we don’t need to understand each other to be friends.’ I never saw Josh again.

August 25, 2021 15:02

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4 comments

Noelle C. Lee
12:02 Sep 03, 2021

Not your ordinary story- have to reread to fully digest which indicates the depth of the story- Like a movie that you see multiple times taking in something new with each view. Thanks for sharing-

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Claudio Murgia
13:28 Sep 03, 2021

No, thanks to you for the kind words. I am trying to learn my own writing more deeply too.

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Alex B. Tomsett
23:08 Sep 01, 2021

This is really beautiful, I hope more people see it! Such strong emotion entwined with existential themes. I had a look at your other pieces in your bio, you're a really talented writer and I hope you get more exposure!

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Claudio Murgia
08:24 Sep 03, 2021

Thank you very much. Your comment means really a lot.

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