I remember when she disappeared; I'd like to say I remember it well, but it wasn't very clear in the first place, so I feel that would be an inaccurate statement. It wasn't just a day or two, it took a while. I just don't know why more people didn't notice.
She came in October, just as the summer, Indian style that year, was finally fading. I forget where she came from in the first place, and why; I think that was just the trend she tended to follow. She seemed to be born upon the wind, constantly subject to its whims - or maybe the wind was subject to her's; the way memory blurs, it's impossible to prove either way. I'd likely doubt her existence in the first place, but she does appear in some old photos Sean dug up recently. The pictures are slightly fuzzy, and bathed in a golden light, probably due to their age – exactly the way I remember her. She was small, and pale, with a crooked little mischievous grin and dark eyes that kept smiling long after her mouth had become serious once more. Most of all, I remember her hair: a bright, golden red mass that fell all the way down her back in untamed waves.
When the weather turned cold, I remember standing on various back porches in the dead of the night, smoking out of love of addiction, and defiance of the temperature and our parents, who slept soundly inside. We put on our coats, and uttered many an "Oh, shit!" as we stepped out the door, and paid homage to the tobacco gods. She was no exception, although I never got the impression she was much of a smoker outside of those vaguely suspicious late night, back yard gatherings, and she was just as susceptible to shivering as the rest of us were. She always wore the same green and black Teva flip-flops, even when there was snow to walk through. She once told me a story at one of those parties, of living in Colorado as a small child and getting lost in the woods, and getting frostbite in her two littlest toes on her left foot. As a result, she always felt cold a little more painfully in them, a little more keenly. She related this almost like an explanation, but I could never quite figure out why.
I don't see most of those people anymore – some, I haven't more than talked to since we graduated and scattered to different colleges. I hear things about some of them, once in a while. Lana works for a major designer in New York, as she always said she would, and her name has started to pick up some attention. Jeremy went to NYU, claiming it wasn't to follow her, even though it was, but after a year he dropped out because he couldn't afford it. After that, I'm not so sure what happened to him. Others got married, and divorced, and moved to lowly populated states. They had kids and named them obscure names they were later hated for. Ellise went into the Peace Corps and disappeared into the jungles of Cambodia, and I haven't seen her since, although Raina apparently gets a crackly phone call occasionally. None of them managed to fade out of existence quite as effectively as Frances, though. When John died, as one person in every story seemingly always must, I almost expected her to turn up and pay her respects – she had been all but in love with him, after all. But of course, she didn't, and truthfully, I'm not really surprised. I'm not surprised John finally killed himself with all of those pills he was constantly taking for an escape, and I'm not surprised Frances didn't reappear. I don't even know if she's still alive herself, and if she is, I don't know if she's sorry.
From early November, one crisp night, I have one particular memory of sitting inside Joanie's, the 24-hour coffee shop we had a tendency to frequent when there was a lack of anywhere else to go. Daniel, who was in the awkward first stage of attempting to grow dreadlocks, was playing chess with Aaron, and losing, like always, because of his usual tactic: not thinking, just moving. It was something of a big table, and there were a few other people sitting around it, talking and drinking coffee, maybe watching the game that seemed to somehow never end. Frances was sitting across from Christopher, and they were having a discussion about something that didn't deserve half the heat they were putting into it – I think it was about Chaucer, but my memory might be faulty where that's concerned. Christopher kept shaking his head, and Frances just responded by amping up the passion. I could have sworn, with every turn of phrase, her hair simply got redder and redder, but that part's probably just my own imagination. I don't think anyone else was paying attention, except maybe Raina, who occasionally told her to sit down and not make a scene, but years later, I still remember the sparks that flew from her eyes like a film projection in my head, probably only hyperbolized with time. Like most other days of my life, I can't really remember how that one ended, but I feel as if I looked back up at some point later, and found her seat empty – like always, she had slipped out without a sound, and probably walked home alone, wearing the soles of her Teva's down to a paper thin layer.
Winter passed, and people seemed to become ghosts. I remember them, but they took on an almost transparent quality: pale, and never really there, even when they were standing right in front of me. Plans for the next year had to be made, colleges visited, scholarship essays written. The latter of these usually happened, like everything else in our lives of note, in the middle of the night. Sleep was never really caught up on, keeping our winter pallor at a constant gray to match the season. Boredom was still somehow achieved, and cured by more smoking, and even more pushing of our boundaries, an ironic juxtaposition to our relationships with each other, which usually consisted of distance-keeping text messages and IMs over AIM. A few of us caught seasonal depression, and only seemed to sink further into ourselves and away from everyone else. Daniel cut off his dreads, but never won a single game of chess.
Some of the older people came back from college for winter break, mixing up the routine for a while, but they left again before we even knew it. Frances met John one night in Joanie's, and I watched from a few feet away as she looked him in the eyes for the first time, the way she did with everyone she ever talked to, and instantly lost herself. Not that John noticed – he was really too busy buying his escape, in the form of small, multi-colored pills from Daniel, to notice anything else. He knew, of course; he looked in the mirror at those chocolate-colored eyes girls were constantly dying over, ever day of his life. Knowing, and actually paying attention are two very different things, however, the distinction between which proved to be a gap John never quite bridged. Somehow, I had expected a sort of immunity from Frances where emotions of the more human kind were concerned, but of course, I was proved wrong.
At one point in February, right around both of their birthdays, John almost appeared to take actual notice of her. For those days, she seemed to bloom like her own mini version of spring – her eyes proved they were actually green, not brown, her skin seemed to glow, and was it possible that her hair was even richer, even brighter than before? John was always more of a shell than an actual person, however, and he ceased seeing Frances just as quickly, and just as easily, as he had seen her in the first place: that is to say, not at all. That euphemistic spring flitted back out of my vision very quickly, replaced again by dull horizons and tricky driving on icy roads.
Lana didn't get into the design school she wanted. Erin dropped out of college and moved back, Daniel got kicked out of his house, and Christine was hospitalized for an eating disorder. In truth, none of us were particularly shocked by any of these things. It might have had something to do with the desensitizing effect cold weather seems to have on people, but it turned out to be a bigger shock than anything else when Frances simply wore a pair of moccasins to a get-together in early March. "One of the straps on my sandals broke," was the only explanation we were offered. The next time I saw her after that, about three days later in Joanie's, she was wearing a new pair of flip-flops, blue this time. Or were they purple? Doesn't matter, anyway.
Somehow, in March, there seemed to be even less of Frances than before. She'd always been a bit more scattered than anyone else, but she seemed especially scarce that month. The college kids came back for spring break, and at one point, Lawrence asked, "Where's Francey lately? I feel like I haven't seen her at all this break." I remember thinking, if Lawrence doesn't know, no one will, which was certainly the truth of it. No one did.
In April, there she was again. Sort of, anyway. Her long, red hair, which we had all associated her with, was suddenly gone, replaced by shorter locks of a dull, light brown that made her skin look ashy. Even Lana hardly recognized her, and Lana always seemed to have keener observation skills than the rest of us. Suddenly, it was even more effortless for her to slip in and out unnoticed. It had always been easy for her to come and go without being detected, but with her hair gone, so also seemed to be people's attention. She'd also lost weight, I noticed, later. When a bunch of us took a trip up to Hunter Falls in late April, and she was standing there on the beach in her bathing suit, there hardly seemed to be anything to her. If she had turned sideways, she would have been lost from sight altogether.
The end of the year was a strange mix of events and feelings. Everyone was so caught up in their own experience, and weird combination of depression and exaltation, not very many comments were made when people started to drift off in their own directions. Frances was certainly one of them, as she had always threatened to be, but not the only one by a good stretch. I try and try to remember if she was even at prom, but I can't recall. I thought about asking her, but I never did. I don't even know if I gave her a last hug at graduation.
I have two memories of her, after that. The first, at the graduation party Jeremy threw, of Raina asking her if she would sing something – a question which actually received some attention, since it was rumored she had a beautiful voice. Aaron claimed to have walked in on her singing to herself in the bathroom at Daniel's, one night the winter before, and Lawrence, who was probably closest to her out of all of us, backed up this theory but never said how he knew. She refused, though. When I asked her why, she looked at me, straight in the eyes like always, and I noticed how much more gray her stare seemed to be suddenly, as if the deathly grip of winter, long since vanquished by warmer weather, had never quite let go of her. "I have nothing to sing," she said simply, a world of meaning I couldn't fathom behind her faded eyes.
The very last recollection is from senior week: those glorious, hot, sandy, six days we spent on the coast as the graduating class, celebrating our achievement and devastation. A group of us found a small cliff that stood above a deep, fairly still pool we could jump into. In my mind, there's one very strong image I can still recall sharply: her dull brown hair had grown out some, leaving about an inch of bright red roots at the top of her head, and the angles of her hips and shoulders stood out sharply against her black bikini as she made one perfect, beautifully straight dive into the water, like a small, sharp knife. There was no expression on her face, and hardly any ripples as she slipped into the water effortlessly, seamlessly.
I don't remember her traveling back with us, and maybe there were a few remarks on her absence that summer, but I don't recall them being made. In all fairness, though, there's a lot I don't remember. Every day, I seem to remember something new but forget more.
I don't really think any of us really achieved true happiness, but rather a more watered-down, bittersweet version, like the dregs of a cup of sweet tea after drinking most of it; poor John, the most miserable of all of us, felt so much he can't feel anything anymore. I haven't forgotten, yet. Has she? I guess there's no knowing. That's all there is; there isn't any more.