Online Exclusive

Black Box
I saw her up high, painting something gold on something white on the red-and-brown-and-black brick wall of a cafe. The gang tagging on the brick had been sandblasted away. Even though I was a couple of floors below on the sidewalk, I thought I recognized her from long ago when I, or we, lived in another country. But I heard she’d died—nothing confirmed, but I’d been told as much, and yet, what do you do with this but try to forget that the person is real, forget that they may still be moving through life.

            This brick building here, now, had once been an old factory. A large fire had brought it all down, and it remained gutted for a couple of decades. Homeless people sometimes slept there during the day, behind the plywood nailed over its lower windows. I was walking by a while back—before the renovations—and recall the setting sun was so unusual, like a golden beetle making its way down into the Pacific, when the plywood lifted and an iridescent pink mohawk appeared from the slash of dark matter in the empty space inside. A woman stepped onto the sidewalk and walked away. Down the block a smoke took hold of her body and her light substance faded against the other buildings and traffic, her color thinned to a desaturated, opaque human shape, and then to translucent light, like a halo, and then, down the block, she vanished altogether among the cars and sidewalk and street. It was hot that day, I recall, and at that moment a gust of trash blew across the sidewalk and startled me. It was the closest I’d seen to an animal all day.

            Now the plywood was gone and glass had been installed in the tall, wide sills so that you could pass and see the people drinking coffee inside. I hesitated to shout up at her. I looked so different now. And I’d thought she was dead. But also, I didn’t want to interrupt the middle of the stroke of her brush. That rising gold curve over a small window a second or third floor up.

            I’d heard she was dead from Carl. Hilary? Oh, wow. I’m sorry, he said. But then he wasn’t sure. He might have been confusing her with Jens who he’d heard had died, or Amanda, her twin Samantha, or Alice, or Bettina, all of whom had probably died, so he’d heard. We had known each other a few months, long enough, I guess, to feel something like love without learning enough about each other. This was in the Netherlands, as I’d lived in Rotterdam. But that whole brief time began the slow process of passing out of me and scattering when she and I parted, when she disappeared. That’s how it felt. Carl added that she might have drowned. An accident, still in Holland. But again, he really wasn’t sure.

            Maybe the afterlife is just your memories, a bunch of ghosts knotted together, holding together the false faith that you’re not actually just living the past right now in the present. And after you die you just step inside your own memories and float, both animated and hidden, with everyone else you ever knew.

            But how have you been, man? Carl had asked, sounding the same as he’d always sounded. And I hesitated, trying to breach so many years with some kind of summary, which I believe he mistook for some speechless breach instead. Maybe later he would tell people he’d heard from someone that I was dead.

            But, really, it was hard to see the woman up there and not believe it was Hilary. The day before, that commercial airliner had crashed somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean and they were searching still for bodies, searching too for the black box, which had memorized everything. The black box would someday be the only recollection of the circumstances, the memory of the life inside the cabin and the mathematical life of the engines and fuselage, and maybe the last things the pilots said and did, the math they spoke to air traffic controllers, or human sounds of logic finally shifting to regret, some expression of pure animal lament. And now I wished I had a black box of my own, with so much from my past, much wilder days, admittedly, locked up, locked away, or in a sense lost in the depths of the ocean. I mean, what I got from Carl is that sudden half-in, half-out sense that his uncertainty gave her memory odds I hadn’t thought about. Like people waiting to hear about loved ones, who’ve been given no solid indication. Maybe someday we could talk about old times, maybe we might even fuck around for old times’ sake. I recall that Carl walked away and I thought about how I would probably never see him again, also. He walked away like a shadow. I felt the impulse to shout something final at him, knowing the power he now had to spread lies about me.

            She was almost done painting the bright lamp of a lighthouse up there, as the brickwork arched around the window. The scaffolding descended the white turret of this lighthouse. Given the height of this building, the painting was close to the actual size of a lighthouse. A little door was painted around a ground-floor window behind whose glass two living, fashionable women sat with coffee in this cafe and talked with expressions of disbelief, and the interior behind them opened deeper, little candle blasts of light set the dark into a chiaroscuro effect. It was disorienting, like staring in Alice’s looking glass. I remembered just then in Germany a little public lawn. Maybe Munich, but no, I think it was north, in Hamburg or Berlin. The sun had just set, had just dropped away Germanically—without fanfare behind a forest or mountain range or some industrial clamor. Here in this city center the public park was just a modest triangle of grass with traffic running along each of the three sides. The park began to fill with white rabbits. I recall I just watched them gather like that as the sodium lights kicked on exactly alike in a platinum sheen and the rabbits, several dozen of them, glowed like white orbs on the platinum-green lawn of this small, triangular park.

            She had told me she had painted signs for a living. She wasn’t Dutch, which surprised me because her English had by then caught a slight Dutch accent, simply from having spent so much time there. But back when she lived in LA, before she came out to the Netherlands, she told me she painted theatrical sets for the studios, signs for local events, murals. And the idea that we were somehow both back in LA years later had a kind of involute effect, as if something were churning and kicking up the floor of the sea. An LA being described to me from long ago—back before I’d even once been there—standing here now remembering this foreign body being described. LA, a satellite, a bit of conversation about her past, estranged from my own. But now the Netherlands was a satellite along with this Los Angeles sidewalk along Traction Avenue, and they were swarming some new nucleus, I thought, embodied in the shape of her figure above, eclipsing as I stood beneath her, set off at a slight distance on the sidewalk. It was too much. It was too much, and I recalled it was raining that day she told me about her past vocation as a painter in LA (there weren’t the same kinds of jobs regularly available in Rotterdam, and so she’d pulled income from translating, from site scouting for various events produced by a local company, et cetera). We were sitting in a little cafe by the window drinking coffee while a frozen rain slushed down on the colorful street, when she described all of this to me, I now recalled.

      And now, the moment I’m trying to describe to you, I left her up there, painting without shouting up, without checking. Instead, I walked down Traction, and as if I might turn to salt if I looked back, I looked back and saw that she had been watching me walking away, and I thought then that perhaps every single thought I’d just had had actually been hers—that we’d been together again just now, wondering the same things. I waved—it was like some involuntary gesture of my arm slowly lifting, but then she turned away. And I realized then, too, that this is exactly what I’d have done if she’d waved at me.

            We’d been off the northern coast in the Frisian Islands. Vacationing, a short enough drive and ferry, and not a particularly exotic vacation destination, but we were poor, and it was more than enough just to get away, really. There was a lighthouse there. The cramped interior of the lighthouse had risen with a spiral stairwell in the dark where a diffuse gray sun—sometimes you thought it was the only sun the Netherlands knew—pushed as if behind a skirt of linen into the small, round observatory windows up top. As we climbed she walked ahead of me, her thin arm holding the rail, her back and shoulders and bare legs rising and the slant of the back of her thighs, I recall this made me ache, as would the graceful slant of her neck behind her ear, her hair, her lips, a strand of hair caught in her mouth.

            Down Traction Avenue giant mural eyes watched me, painted by a different artist: the mural’s enormous face peered down from the western wall. I don’t know why I circled the building, the streets formed a triangle around the building, and I turned now on Almeda and on this shaded side of the street saw the other murals that had been painted. Then ahead at the tip of this triangle, I turned away—I could just barely see a couple bars of the scaffolding cresting the other side around the corner—and went back to my apartment. By then the sky was a kind of fuzzy green. At my apartment, I slept with the window open. When I woke, rain was falling like angels outside, the sky thundering down, a foreign breeze entering my room like some breath of every past storm you ever knew.


The rain continued through the night and the next day it rained even harder, but it didn’t stop me from walking back to the cafe. I passed through the center of the lighthouse. The quiet cafe shifted from the drilling of the rain just beyond as if pushing it away from my ears like a shift in pressure; and I felt something open in my head with the new dry light.

            I sat with a coffee that day and saw her sitting at a small table by the rain in the window, talking with this guy, a hipster with a long beard. She laughed and then he leaned over and embraced her and left the cafe. Though I wanted to talk to her, I couldn’t. I just wasn’t certain enough, and I worried that this uncertainty would confuse any conversation. I already felt somewhat creepy for even being here, and worried that this too might be the given impression.

            I had a couple of photographs of her, which I lost, and right then wanted to show her. As if to present some kind of identification. What I still had was a Polaroid she’d taken of me on which she had scratched little hearts in the borders as the instant film began to gel and its image rose up as if from some deeper zone of space. She’d held the camera up to her face, and as she pushed the shutter I couldn’t have imagined it would be the last time I’d ever see her again. But that’s how it was. It’s an unspectacular photo. Just a younger me, standing on a grassy slope with this lighthouse in the background. We’ve just come over from Harlingen on a ferry. We’ve just made love in a room not so far from this lighthouse, and from the water. I remember this because the bed, the mattress had almost tumbled onto the floor as we made love. You don’t see any of this in the photo, of course, or maybe you might if you looked long enough into my face there. As if sensing it registered in my expression, looking back at you, at her. A piece of wind has blown my hair across my face. Because she’d taken the picture it seems that she is somehow inside the frame. Her decision to press the shutter is there, her judgment, perspective, perhaps love. The photograph contains, even if out of frame, her body, her smile. Her face pressed against the camera, her eye gazing into the viewfinder.

            That day we left the lighthouse and walked, a long walk around, then found a coffee shop. It was the dark season, when the sun lived in the sky only briefly, where on the flat northern landscape of the earth a haze would bloom and only after a time did you realize it was just the sun pulling down the darkness it had been inching toward for hours. It jagged some people’s nerves—I know you know this, but perhaps you didn’t know of the other condition where your legs could develop a tremor, and orbs appeared frozen in photographs like little souls—the light accidentally passing through translucent jellyfish interiors. And then, this time I’m recalling to you, the light would be gone before you even knew it and time intensified, the passing minutes with someone else felt charged with something wordless and desperate, as if every single particle risked being taken for granted, which, of course, happens all the time. Though only when it’s too late, when retrospect is the only lens.

            Young love, the woman behind the counter said at that Frisian cafe. Her tone was stern but her smile seemed to have wanted us there, as if someday we would recall this time in our lives, recall this very place.

            For a time we lived together in a small, drafty space in a large squatting village—a former paint factory. We had a cast-iron stove shaped like a small piglet sitting upright. It was winter then. We had only gone up North into the Frisian Islands later, after the spring thaw. But that winter we tossed cardboard boxes and pieces of wood into the piglet to keep warm. We wrapped ourselves in blankets, it seemed, the whole winter—she was standing over me, had come over to my table now.

            You were watching me, she said.

            I saw you painting, I said. I just wanted to say how beautiful it is.

            Thank you, she said.

            Listen, I said. I don’t want to come off the wrong way. You look so much like someone I knew. A long time ago.

            She laughed a little.

            I know, I said. It’s too common, you’ve heard it before. But that’s maybe why you’ve noticed the way I’ve looked. That’s the only reason.

            I don’t know what to make of you, she said. My name’s Anna.

            Could I buy you a coffee? I said.

            She hesitated and why wouldn’t anyone. But then she said:

            Why don’t you tell me about her?

            And so I did, and did so for days after that. We began to meet, each morning around the same time. I described to her the lighthouse she’d painted, the rock clubs in Rotterdam and Amsterdam and Groningen we’d see shows at: Pavement, the Screaming Trees, Mudhoney. Each time, after a time, she’d finish her coffee and thank me, then get up and leave. It felt like a mutually consensual torture, though I can’t quite say why, beyond the fact that it was unclear—she insisted on this, I suppose—as to whether or not she was the person I recalled. I mean, she denied it. But then she’d linger. I know that part of this may simply be that she found me quietly insane and perhaps interesting—she seemed willing to take risks (which is precisely as I’d recalled her so many years before). She didn’t mind hearing new stories. And she’d tell me little things about herself:

            Sometimes I paint little jokes in the murals. Inside jokes, she said, and I recalled that she once told me this back in Rotterdam, that she painted little jokes into her murals. When I told her as much she only said, I don’t know what to make of you.

            Anna, I said.

            Yeah, Anna.


Several weeks passed like this, where we’d meet and talk and the conversation moved from what I could recall, to just her life and my life, as if we had met as strangers, which increasingly seemed true. I told her about all the savings I’d been spending off from a television commercial I’d been in, one that got a lot of play and had felt like a little miracle in my life. But that was about to run out, the money, and I needed to find something now, soon. She told me about her last boyfriend, a local musician, some kind of country and western crossover artist. He’d behaved badly, and eventually was physically abusive and she’d been living at a squat for the past couple of months. And even this recalled to me the past, those European squats I’d myself visited and slept in.


Parts of the commercial airliner were washing ashore in Tasmania, other fragments were located by watercraft pushing sonic waves into the ocean. But no black box had yet been recovered, nor had any of the bodies. The search continued, but the news faded until it was hard to find out anything about that story anymore.

            We began meeting sometimes in the afternoons, and then we had dinner out a couple of times, and then one night we met and talked for a time, and she asked if I wanted to come with her to her place.

            She called a car, and we took it to another industrial building. We entered through a door that looked like little more than some industrial fortification meant to permanently seal off a building from the outside world. Inside we walked through a long open hallway, and I could hear sound from other rooms along the way. We reached another doorway, and then inside a little alcove there was a ladder, which we climbed to another level, where there was a door, her door. We came in, and I saw things like a potbelly stove, though it was different from the one I recalled: and this would make sense, because why would she transport something that heavy overseas. It was the same with the rest of the room: this familiarity, though with nothing I recalled as exactly the same. We were mostly silent the rest of the time I was there. I searched the room for signs of the past. The smell of the air, a kind of smoky cinnamon that came from the potbelly stove recalled that time. But it was a different stove, as much as I hoped it could somehow prove something. And cinnamon is cinnamon, smoke is smoke. She went into a kitchen area, and my hand pressed into the place beside me where she’d been sitting. I felt the warmth of her body, as if this would somehow align with the reality of her presence, aligning too some memory of her warmth in the past with this present moment. Because, listen, memory will make you desperate like this. She brought out two beers from a small icebox. We drank, and had another, and another. I said:

            I want to show you something, and I reached in my back pocket and took out the Polaroid.

            Oh, she said, her reaction a kind of contained gasp.

            How long ago was this?

            Ten, no, twelve years, I said.

            You look the same, she said, and she looked up at me and smiled, then looked back down. She held the photograph, and I recalled her holding the camera itself after she’d taken the photograph. Then I recalled her hand scratching little symbols around the developing borders with a pfenning.

            I stayed that night, and if there’s a point to my telling you this, it’s simply to mention that something had been crossed now. That all night my body seemed to roam around the uncertainty of whether or not she was who I’d once known. Anyone can change their given name. But there were the shapes and positions of our bodies, and these felt entirely familiar—but couldn’t they, just the same, among two strangers? Then, after, we slept holding each other until it was too warm and we peeled away and slept and when I woke the dark light was there in the room, and I rose and looked at her and saw the light and shadow of her face. She woke and her eyes moved into light, and her mouth seemed as if about to say something meaningful. But instead she just said, You’re going?

            Can I come back? I asked.


            She rose in the twilight, put something on and walked me to the door. I kissed her, and even here I seemed to be searching for whether or not this was okay, this was real and belonged in me: her eyes framed in her face in a soft glow, the rest of her in shadow. And I thought, you’re not her. But it didn’t matter so much now. And she smiled and then again even the smile felt like the past. I turned and climbed carefully down the ladder, scaled the long board, and passed through the hall of the house, then into the lofts. You are her, I thought. The walls smelled like incense and hash, coming from one of the sectioned-off rooms: someone was playing an old Chills tape, it was “Pink Frost”, which came and faded and then Massive Attack was playing, much quieter in another room, and then I was out in the blue LA morning, my breath just barely in front of me. I could hear the traffic on I-10 echoing like the sky. I took a bus, and as I got on someone was getting off and I sat in their seat and it felt warm again, and they were there and not there and I thought about how this happens a million times a day but we rarely acknowledge it.

            We began to see each other. We had each other’s phone numbers and would call and meet, and not once over the next few months did we discuss a past, a possible past. The present seemed to me to cut a palimpsest over all that. And then we were supposed to meet one night, at some restaurant I didn’t know much about. I went in and sat at the bar, which was red and the light of the room reflected off the mahogany. After an hour, I tried the number: her voice asked the caller to leave a message, and I did. I called later but hung up before the message came up. I was drunk now and it seemed best to leave the bar, and so I went back to my place and lay in bed and fell asleep, and when I woke it was morning and the night before had planted this feeling that nothing had happened, that feeling you have waking and need to wait for a dream to shake free. I took my walk to the cafe and I tried to call again, but there was just the message, her voice, the beep. I said, I’m sorry, into the phone. And as I said it, it felt like what I’d wanted to say for years now, as if I’d done something wrong, though I couldn’t recall or even imagine what it had been. As if, even so, those two words were enough to solve everything. As if those words could ever say what I’m trying to tell you here and now, of which I’m both not entirely sure, and certain all the same.

            And would you believe me if I told you I called her phone for a couple of days more, then a week, and then a while later found the phone was no longer in service, but by then I was hanging up before leaving any kind of message. I was just calling to hear the voice like some kind of ghost transmission.

            Later, I found her name in the paper, the name she’d used now. A car accident, she was crossing the street. It named the cemetery and where the memorial service was. But it was too late, the memorial and anything else had already happened.

            I’d been walking to the cafe as I had been every morning now. But today they had closed off Traction Avenue and I needed to cross around to the other side of the building, down Almeda’s sidewalk to get to the entrance. And so I walked, passing all the other murals painted on that northern wall. And then I stopped. There she was, above, against the wall. She’d painted herself on the side of the building holding a camera, smiling behind an old Polaroid Land Camera. There, in the background another lighthouse rising up, smaller than the mural on the other wall, the white sun muted against a blossoming gray painted on the brick. The sun as if behind a skirt of linen in a northern sky. And there, the searching, mournful smile of a boy’s face staring down, his eyes locked on me, watching.

David Ryan is the author of Animals in Motion: Stories (Roundabout Press), and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano: Bookmarked (Ig Publishing). His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Kenyon Review, The Harvard Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. A 2020 Artistic Excellence Fellow with the Connecticut Office of the Arts, he teaches in the writing programs of Sarah Lawrence College and New England College.