Leila [Short Story]

It wasn’t always this way.

Brides used to be absolutely glowing, caught on a thousand bits of film over a few short hours of a ceremony and reception. Fathers– and mothers– would bear them down the aisle, and husbands would bear them back into the world, kisses tasted and hands firmly grasped, as solid as beings can be.

That’s what Leila used to tell me anyway, her eyes gazing ravenously at my plate as she furiously sipped on her glass of water. Leila’s strength always lay in the fierceness of her will.

Our strengths are always too our weaknesses.

I met Leila on the rooftop of the chemistry building at college. She had snuck up there to avoid the throngs of people below and was irritated to find her space already occupied. Meeting her under such circumstances, I tried to be as friendly an offender as possible, but she just furrowed her brows and tilted her chin out a little to the left, how she does when her mind is already made up but the world will not oblige. I would come to read the frustrations of her heart through that chin tilt. But I said hello and how are you? and my name is Taylor, what’s yours? and she barely eked out some measure of courtesy in her brief replies. The conversation eventually drifted into the air and beat its wings and flew away and in the silence, we found our way to opposite corners of the roof, where we sat awkwardly sensing the presence of the other nearby, but stubbornly insisting we could still find our own solitude there.

Leila was brave every day of her life as far as I could tell. Don’t get me wrong– she had plenty of fears– but she was always trying to conquer them. She was terrified of telephones and would shut tight her eyes and inhale like a child at the edge of a swimming pool when the phone rang, but when she finally picked up the receiver and said “hello?” I don’t think any person but I could hear past her smile. Her acts of courage were small ones– she would walk up to stray dogs, ask directions without shame, inform professors they had offended her, and occasionally trespass on abandoned lots when she was trying to escape the obligations of her own kindness. Those are the things that I most remember.

When she told me that she was also planning to flicker at our wedding, I swallowed and nodded and assured her that I loved her no matter what but that she is her own person and should do what seems best to her. At this, she smiled and brought her face close to mine ’til I could count the two star-shaped freckles on the bridge of her nose and see the faint curl of her outermost eyelashes. Then she ran her fingers through the hair behind my ears, cupped her hands around my neck, gave me a kiss, and said sincerely, “Thank you.”

I asked her if she was scared and she looked at me curiously and didn’t answer. I always wondered what she was thinking. Maybe this was being brave.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had argued with her then, if I had said no and put my foot down and insisted that she stay solid. But I no longer had it in me. I had lost two women I loved before Leila because I had tried to argue with them about flickering. They had stomped away in the bitter fury of a woman who feels you are intentionally forcing her into the powerlessness of their own ugly shame. By Leila, I had learned my lesson that it is better to gamble on a loss you might not have to bear than to ensure a loss happens.

I’m not sure when flickering first came into fashion, but to women, it is considered the essence of beauty. Women are supposed to disappear over time, to let their hunger slowly eat them out of existence, and it is an honor and a demonstration of the power over her beauty when a woman is already flickering in and out of being on her most prized day: her wedding. And it is a spectacular thing, seeing a woman flicker. She is present, but as you blink, she vanishes briefly before your eyes, haunting you, tantalizing you, like a specter of light and glory that knows its own brevity and is willing to live in such a half-state of human existence in order to be divine.

When a woman is flickering, she is most revered by other women, and you can see in her face a sense of deep, abiding accomplishment for that; it calms her features and gives a sort of peaceful weariness the corners of her eyes and the tired smile she wears on her hungry lips. To flicker is to achieve the epitome of perfection. You exist, but you are also actively disappearing. This, Leila tells me, is what it is to be a woman. Men grow rounder and larger and fuller as the years weigh on their belts, but women begin to vanish in their own hunger. The glory of a woman is that she disappears before her beauty does, that her waistline is ever-shrinking, her weight becoming weightlessness, her very being becoming more of an idea than a physical reality.

I proposed to Leila when she was sitting in my lap on a bench in Grant Park. I remember the smell of her hair that day– a little smoky from the bar last night but also of rainy days and morning dew. She was laughing at something on her phone and showing it to me and her cheek was just close enough to kiss, and I could feel her weight on my lap, holding me down in the Chicago wind, so wonderfully solid, so perfectly there.

You should understand, we men don’t know what to do about the disappearances of our women. We’ve tried convincing women against trying to flicker, but — it’s so odd– it doesn’t work. They can’t seem to hear us, and we men look at each other in bewilderment as they keep on their conversations, ignoring us in a selective deafness that is nothing less than fantastical.

“You are beautiful! You are beautiful! You are beautiful as you are!” I remember screaming at a sleeping, hollowed-thin Leila one night. Or maybe I just imagined it. But she kept sleeping like a baby, unaware that my words were beating off a bewildering water-heavy wall of silence. I have never felt so powerless, but Leila always said that men should try to understand more how powerless women feel around men. I didn’t get it. So I told her I loved her instead, and kissed her again.

Of course, the danger of flickering is that it is addictive, and it is risky.

There are so many men like me who come to our wedding beds only to find our brides have vanished into their own last breaths, babies who have held their open arms to their mothers and suddenly the mom is nowhere to be found.

Mine was the worst I knew. I suppose Leila simply forgot to eat her allotted breakfast that morning– and a single mistake, when one is flickering– can be fatal. I found a neatly packed half-granola bar in her bag later. She was coming down the aisle toward me, and I couldn’t tell if I kept blinking because she was flickering an awful lot or because I couldn’t wait to hold her and my eyes were tearing up, but as she came closer and closer, I looked quickly over to the maid of honor to see if she shared my concern, but she was just in wide-eyed awe and I wanted to shake her and tell her that this cannot be what women were for! And I turned back just as her father passed her to me, our fingertips brushed, and the shadow of a smile crossed her face underneath her veil, but then it was gone along with every other part of her. All I my hands grasped was thin air. I was looking painfully eye to eye with a flower arrangement eight feet away, no bride to be seen.

When a flickering woman vanishes, that’s it. She cannot be brought back; that is the risk in flickering. She plays with life and death. Hunger is a statement of immortality, but I would have loved Leila in all her humanness if she had stayed.

The worst part of Leila’s vanishing was how inconclusive it felt. I felt cheated of an ending to our story, cheated of some rite of passage that goes with death and with life– cheated of my own widowerhood because we weren’t even allowed to say ‘I do’ and ‘I do’ and ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’ and I never got to kiss my bride.

When I realized what happened, I felt an overwhelming homesickness in my gut for her whole, solid self on top of me again. I gasped out my sudden grief, slowly crumpling to my knees at the altar. She had been home to me, and now she had been sliced out of existence and into thin air, whisked away like a single thread in a tornado.

Leila once told me that the strength we have exists in our spirits. I brush the fallen leaves off the etchings on her gravestone and sit back into the damp dark earth, crossing my legs underneath my knees. I clasp my solid fingers around each other and rest my hand into the net they create, closing my eyes, feeling my thumbs press into my temples and the pressure of my knuckles on my forehead.

No, Leila. The strength of our spirits deserves a home in our bodies too, I say to her softly. The words taste gritty, like the earth but full of bitter regret, and only the breeze answers.

I wonder if she thinks so too now. I wonder if she misses me. I wonder if she’d stay now.

I wonder.