The Fading

by Justin Mulwee

Let me tell you about someone I used to know. Like many stories about real people, it doesn’t have a quite satisfying ending. That’s just the way it is; I warned you, so don’t complain. It’s all true though, top to bottom, without a whole lot of added romance. It concerns a girl you probably don’t know, but don’t be surprised if she sounds familiar—I’ve no doubt you know someone with the exact same demeanor. I’ll explain.

Every once in a while, I meet a girl who strikes me as an easy victim. It’s something in the way she walks or speaks or eats a sandwich. I always feel like keeping one eye on girls like that, for fear they might suddenly fall down a bottomless hole in the ground. Not that I could prevent such a disaster, but I would at least watch, like some National Geographic special you can’t turn off even though it makes you want to throw up. What really scares me about those girls is that I can spot them a mile away… and I’m a nice guy.

They’re everywhere. I once spotted one at the counter in a fast-food restaurant. She stood with her legs too close together. She held her money wrong. Her eyes were too clear, like she had never looked at anything ugly. I could have snatched that money from her hands and run out the door, and she’d never have expected it. She’d have thought I meant to borrow it. What an easy target, I thought while savoring the bacon in my sandwich. I just wish money was all people could steal from girls.

There was another one I knew for a day and a half. Andrea, I think it was. With her it was in the voice. She had that quiet, stifled way of speaking, which made her sound very far away. Her eyes were also very soft, and she looked at me with a bizarre measure of trust. This was by no means to my credit; I was merely a stranger who was kind to her in passing. Yet, she looked at me like I was the only person in the world—and as such, I don’t think it would have mattered much what sort of person I was.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those girls are smarter than I’m giving them credit for; I’ll never know. Occasionally, though, if I’m in the right place at the right time, I can actually watch it all play out. One girl sticks out to me the most. It was that first fall of college, and we were all tasting life without parents for the first time. We first met when she stepped into my morning English class, late and looking lost, and the seat next to me was empty. I would soon learn that she always looked a little lost.

May was her name. She had a pronounced nose and gentle green eyes, and was quite beautiful in a way that was warm and endearing. I say this only slightly out of personal fondness, but mostly as a simple fact. Her most becoming feature was her hair, which ran halfway down her back in long, golden waves. She had perfect skin except for the dark circles under her eyes, which made me wonder if she ever got any sleep. English was the first class of the day, and she often came looking like she had been up all night drowning kittens.

Every day she sat in that seat to my right, wearing the same thing: a light-colored turtleneck, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. She leaned forward in an absurd posture that suggested she was trying to give the professor her undivided attention, but not really succeeding. I think I’ve noticed this look before, on people who are trying hard to participate but are too distracted by the fact that they are falling apart.

Our professor had the slightly odd custom of trying to get her entire class to meditate first thing in the morning. She would put up some pithy quote about God on the projector screen, one of those little one-line nuggets that are far too simplistic to be right, let alone profound. She’d read it aloud in a very solemn voice, then dim the lights, at which point I found consciousness very difficult to maintain. I would generally just sit back and fight sleep. I remember that May, on the other hand, looked inordinately sincere during these moments. She would shut her eyes very tightly, like someone had just shined a bright light in them. She’d then put her face all the way down on the desk, so that her head was lost in a mass of blonde hair sprawling everywhere. That image remains the most vivid picture of May in my mind: pious, humble, and innocent, with her pale face pressed against the black desktop.

She was also unexpectedly intelligent. Her knowledge of history in particular was impressive. One day she started explaining to me the origins of the printing press and its effects on language and society, just because it was on her mind. It made me wonder what else she was hiding and how many IQ points were hidden by timid silence.

About half-way through the semester I started noticing changes in May, both inward and outward. There was of course a singular explanation: She had fallen in love. You see, when a girl is in love, she often undergoes some kind of metamorphosis in order to better suit her boyfriend, and one can usually tell what manner of man he might be by the sort of changes that occur. And so, the clues were thus: her makeup thickened and her clothes tightened. Leather miniskirts and heeled boots replaced jeans and tennis shoes. The change was awkward, a contrived sensuality she didn’t need. Whatever effect she intended by showcasing her body parts was overshadowed by what she was making far more explicit: the gaping hole where her self-respect belonged. In contrast to her bold new wardrobe, her voice shrunk and her head lowered. The absurdity was heartbreaking. May was the least seductive woman on earth.

She stopped talking about history, or about anything for that matter. One almost might have thought her tongue had been cut out. Though in reality she had only become a half-mute, having lost only the ability to say things voluntarily, and instead only spoke to answer questions—in other words, out of obedience. Even then she seemed almost caught off guard by it. For someone dressed for attention, she seemed awfully surprised when she got any. Her words somehow became small and shallow, like she was afraid of a real conversation for fear she might drown in it.

As far as I know, May had no real friends at the college. The one time I saw her genuinely look happy to see another human being was when her family came. I happened to be speaking with someone in the lobby of the very same dorm building where she lived when she came in with them. They were all very Dutch and very happy-looking, with several children that must have been her younger siblings. They looked like the Brady Bunch. She greeted them excitedly, then presented her boyfriend. He stood there awkwardly, shaking all their hands. I half-wondered what it must be like to be him at that moment. What makes one nervous when meeting a girl’s parents is the burden of proof. One must make the effort of showing that he is decent person that will treat their daughter with the utmost respect. Of course, things like that are not overly difficult to prove when they are true. That is, when you are merely put through the trouble of proving your identity, of going out of your way to show your true colors. I wonder what it must be like instead, meeting the parents knowing all the while that you have already treated the poor girl like meat. Every handshake would be like a backstabbing, every word of small talk a bold-faced lie. Whether he felt any of this none can say. As for me, it would have boiled my insides.

Aside from that one occasion, her new relationship was accompanied by a quiet gloom which descended upon her, in contrast to the warmth and excitement other girls displayed when they got their first college boyfriends. She never mentioned him, not even once. The only way one could tell she had a boyfriend was the fact that she spent nearly every waking moment outside of class within an arm’s length of a certain boy. That boy looked exceedingly serious at all times, not in a way that suggested maturity, but in a way that suggested he was too damaged to be light or free. His very presence screamed of a man in utter bondage to himself, as plain as if he were wearing chains. Instead of escaping his cage, it seemed he preferred to simply invite others in. But enough; this is really not about him. Suffice it to say that there are an inordinate number of people in the world who feel the need to conquer someone, and the easiest method by far is to find someone who is already defeated.

May’s defeat was evident most days, to some degree. Certain days, though, her wounds seemed very clear and fresh. I spotted her across the dining commons on one such day, quietly dying near the salad bar. “Are you okay?” I asked. She played with her baby carrots. The truth was plain enough on her face, but it’s polite to give a person the chance to deny it as a formality.

“I’m going to fail English.” The words spilled out of her mouth as if they had been under pressure. Her eyes grew wet. She pathetically explained that she didn’t turn in a big paper on time because she wasn’t done, but late papers were only half credit even though she already had the note cards, and she should have just turned in the incomplete work in the first place, or some such thing. I said I was sorry, the way people do so very awkwardly when they want to be sympathetic but are a mile away from understanding or feeling the same.

Our class soon ended, and I barely talked to her after that. I never really got it; why she failed, I mean. She was smart and the class was easy. She seemed like she always tried very hard to please the teacher, asking for the most insignificant clarifications on small assignments, then working on them for hours.

It wasn’t just her grades that declined. It seemed that her very life force drained out, siphoned away by her companion, who kept her close at all times. She obediently wore his invisible leash, and the longer they were together, the shorter that leash became. She was slowly absorbed, bit by bit, until she became a person-shaped nothing. When her personality had been revoked with finality, the news finally came: May was engaged. His ownership was complete.

She and her fiancé soon transferred to another college, but to be honest, I didn’t even notice. After our class together ended, I hadn’t seen much of May. Our school was just the size that you saw everyone, but not on the same day. Go a day without seeing someone and you’d think nothing of it, three days could be a coincidence, a week and you wonder if they’re sick, a month and you realize they are never coming back. And thus she and her new fiancé disappeared, and were long gone before I even wondered what had happened to either of them.

And that, dear reader, is the story as far as I know it. As for May, one might expect some final and tragic downfall, or some glorious redemption, but I don’t know if either of those happened or ever will. I may never see her again, but that’s okay. I’m sure that soon enough, I’ll meet a girl just like her.