It was only much later, months after her boyfriend had vanished, that Ellie’s sense of him truly began to fall apart. So much so that as time went on she found she could no longer even bring herself to call him by his name. Not with her voice, not in writing. Not even in her thoughts. She could have a name: she was a real person. But he, who knew what he was, what he was capable of? Probably anything.

And yet, even as she came to realize the full extent of his betrayal, part of her still held back. Part of her remembered him fondly despite everything. Part of her still wanted to call him by a name – still wanted to call him by the name he had used with her: Rob. Short for Robert? she had once asked, and he had just shrugged. Of course it must be short for Robert, she had told herself at the time, what else would it be short for? But now she wondered.

And yet part of her still wanted to ignore the fact that, on more than one occasion, when he was tired, when he was distracted, he hadn’t answered to that name, to Rob, despite her repeating it, over and over, louder and louder. When she finally attracted his attention he would regard her in a way that her memory now thought of as furtive, as if caught.

Once you began to see the cracks in someone, what could you do but continue to see more and more cracks? What could you do but wonder why you hadn’t seen them sooner, and wonder too what cracks you hadn’t seen yet? But you had trained yourself well: even when you were seeing them, staring right at them, tracing them with the pad of your finger, another part of you was talking sternly and reasonably in your head, saying, No, that’s not what it looks like, Ellie. This is Rob we’re talking about. He’s the guy who loves you. He said so himself. Someone who loves you would never do something so terrible to you. No, no, no, there must be a logical explanation.

First there had been a photograph that he had left behind, that had slipped between the desk and the wall and that she found long after he was gone, when she was searching for some clue of what might have become of him. It was a new print of an old photograph: a towheaded boy standing between a man and a woman. Presumably, a son with his father and mother. A bright sky, pale, almost white, a bleached-out picket fence behind. A bit of peeling house, a sliver of scorched yard. It was him, in fact – or so he had told her when he first showed her the photograph, identifying himself as the boy by tapping the pale round face with his finger. And there was his mother, Margaret, and his father, Stanley. The Swensens. It was taken, he claimed, in Tooele, Utah. In the backyard of his boyhood home. His parents were good people, he had said, religious, faithful but not strident, and they had taught him the values he still held today. She had waited expectantly for him to tell her a story to illustrate this, and to explain what those values were, but as with so many other things he had left it at that. It lingered in the air, waiting for her to pluck it up, but she had simply let it hang.

Now he was gone, and he had left little behind beyond this photograph. She kept it and looked at it and looked at it, trying to understand what it wanted to tell her about her missing boyfriend’s family. She stared at it for a long time, until her eyes felt dry and raw in their sockets, but nothing came to her. So she wrote on the back in pencil the names of his parents, the names he had told her: Margaret, Stanley. Rob. The Swensens. As if that might help somehow.

When she could admit to herself that he wasn’t coming back, when she had looked enough times at the photograph, touched it enough that she had begun to ruin it, she decided to take action. The photograph gave her permission to do so, in a way. Its existence proved that she had known him, that she had not just imagined him, that he had been there, living in her house, living with her. So she found a Tooele, Utah phone book online and searched for a Margaret or a Stanley Swensen.

No hits.

Well, maybe they had moved, she thought, her throat suddenly dry. Sure, that was what must have happened.

But no, a part of her realized, their names should still come up, even if they’d moved: the directory database had former addresses too.

She shook her head, forced a laugh. Maybe she had gotten the name wrong. She tried ‘Swenson’ and ‘Svenson’ and ‘Swanson,’ without result.

Perhaps they had moved before the database started keeping records, she reasoned.

She tried still to search the photograph for clues, tried still to see his grown face in the face of the little boy, tried still to connect to him through it. But something had changed. Everything rang hollow now, just a little off.

She might have been able to live with that. In time, she might have forgotten. She would have gone on to other things, found a new boyfriend, continued her life.

But she took the photograph to work. She left it on her desk – not framed, that would have been too much, but casually tossed there, a kind of presence. There was something to be said for that: if the photograph was at work, she wouldn’t be tempted to look at it when she was at home, alone. But it also meant that it was with her nine hours a day, always ready to surprise her whenever she dropped her guard and glanced down.

It was on the desk beside her when, several months on, unexpectedly, she realized she was seeing the image not on her desk but on her computer screen. She had been browsing a website that sold stock images. She was looking for a family to use for an ad. And suddenly there it was, the photograph of the Swensens. Margaret, Stanley, Rob. A stock image. She looked from desk to screen and back again. They were exactly the same.

She felt something drain out of her. She left early, feigning illness. To her coworkers, she explained nothing of what had actually happened. She wouldn’t, she felt, know where to start. And she couldn’t help but think of this, of the way he had deceived her, as something that cast her in a bad light.

Besides, she still wasn’t quite sure how he had deceived her. Or why. Didn’t she have to know, didn’t she have to understand it herself, before she could begin to explain it to others?

And maybe, an increasingly smaller part of her insisted, there was still an explanation. It was a stock photo, but so what: that didn’t mean it wasn’t a photo of his family. They were real people, weren’t they? Maybe his family was the sort of representative American family of which stock photos were made.

But the putative name of the boy, according to the website, was Timothy, not Rob, the name of the family, the Jacksons.

And yet who was to say that that was their real name? Or, or, or maybe she was simply confused and he hadn’t presented the photo to her as his family, but had it for another reason. She turned the house over, looking for another family photo, for the so-called real family photo, but didn’t find it.

No, she had to admit, this was the photo. She was certain. Or almost certain. There was only the narrowest possibility that she might be wrong.

She called in sick, then called in sick again. Across a feverish forty-eight-hour period, in bed, with her laptop, she went through every source for stock images she could find until she found two more photographs that she was nearly almost certain she remembered him showing her. Were they really the same images? She had nothing to compare them to. No, no, no, she was exhausted, sleepless, maybe she was starting to see things that weren’t there. But another part of her was certain, yes, that they were the same photographs, that every image of his past that he’d offered her was a lie. That part of her no longer had any idea if he even had a past. Had he even been there at all, or had she just imagined him?

She lay in bed. She slept little. Her dreams were vague and troubling and kept waking her up. At times she felt like there was someone else there in the bed with her, but when she opened her eyes there never was.

In the end, still tired, she found she could no longer keep her eyes closed. She lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, her heart racing, wondering what she should do. No, there was nothing she could do – any step she took, she felt, would only make things worse. To do anything, to put any more energy into it, was to betray herself.

Yet the next day she went to his former workplace – or what he had claimed to be his former workplace: she found he had never worked there. At least not under his own name. Or, rather, not under the name ‘Rob’. But she would not stop, she would not be denied. She went from cubicle to cubicle describing him, was asked by a few worried faces if she had a photograph, but no, she didn’t have a photograph, and it was hard to explain why. She was, she realized, coming across as hysterical, a little anyway, was reaching the point where security would have to be called, but then someone suggested maybe she didn’t mean Rob but Tom? Who had left a while back?

She clung to that: Tom. It could be him. And now she had a name, Tom, and soon a full name, Tom Peeters, with two ‘ee’s and even an indication of where he was from: somewhere in Nebraska, a town with the unlikely name of Broken Bow. Maybe this was his real name, maybe now she finally had him.

But when she tried to trace the name on the internet she only found an obituary for a man ten years dead, a man who resembled her missing boyfriend not at all.

She could have fingerprints taken, she told herself. There probably were still some in the house. She could have someone go through the house and lift them from surfaces he had touched. But that seemed too much. Even to her, that was going too far – if the fingerprints came back without a match, that was not something she felt she could ever come back from.

So where did that leave her? She was no closer to knowing who he was, or why he had come into her life, or why – and this was more important – he had suddenly left. Was it something she had done? Had some other past caught up with him? Had he simply left because that was what he always did?

She remembered, suddenly, almost more vividly than she could bear, the moment they had met. She had been sitting on a bench, waiting for a bus, the 42, and he had sat down beside her. He had said something awkward, and she had responded casually, and slowly something had started to build. A few more hasty exchanges at the bus stop, then running into one another downtown near where they both worked. She couldn’t remember the details or, rather, now, after everything, she had given herself permission not to remember the details. But she couldn’t forget how it had felt. Lunch, a few dinners, and suddenly they were living together. He was living in her house, and she was making plans to spend her life with him. God, she had told a friend, had sent him to her. Had He? Or had she been targeted by him – by ‘Rob’ not God – for some reason?

The whole of their courtship had been wonderfully sweet. No, despite everything, despite all she had learned in the meantime, surely at least that was real. Surely he had meant it.

He couldn’t take that away from her.

Or maybe he could. She could not hate him fully, nor could she forgive him fully. Her only option was to try to forget him.

And yet, that was exactly what she found she could not possibly do.

What did he say just before he left me? she found herself wondering as she waited for the 42 to take her back to work, weeks later, once her sick leave was over, once she was trying to piece her life back together. Nothing significant. Nothing that later, in retrospect, seemed charged with meaning. He had said Good morning. Then he had taken a shower. Maybe he had said something about the breakfast she had made him, or maybe that had been the day before. Then he had left for work like any other day. But he hadn’t come back. Or, rather, he’d come back while she was at work and packed everything that belonged to him and left. Or someone had come and taken his things. Had something happened to him? Was he alive? Had he simply moved on to the next set of lies, to the next hapless girl he wanted to deceive?

So, what was real?

That was what she was left wondering. What, if anything, that he had said or done – what, if anything that they had shared – had been real?

What about the glass he had kept all the time they had been together, the ordinary blue smooth glass that he had claimed had belong to a former girlfriend who had committed suicide? What about the heartfelt story he had told her about that glass: who was to say that was true either? Maybe this girlfriend was still alive and well, and idly wondering what happened to the sixth glass in her set. What object had he, ‘Rob’, stolen from her, Ellie, that he would build a story up around for the next woman he fooled? Maybe there was no former girlfriend, at least not one attached to a glass. Maybe he had simply seen the glass in a thrift shop and thought, Ah, what story shall I build up around you?

But why tell her about the suicide, if it wasn’t true? What could he possibly gain by lying about that? Surely there were some things that had to be true, weren’t there?

No, she thought, he wasn’t human. There was something seriously wrong with him. She was better off without him. Much better off.

If he returned, part of her knew, she might have a very hard time not letting him back into her life. She would demand an explanation, of course, but then once she had it – no matter how implausible, no matter how superficial, no matter how irrational – she would accept it. There, floating above her in the dark, she conjured up the honesty of his face, the openness of his expression, the way his gaze welcomed her in and drew her to him. That was all she really had to put against everything that had collapsed, the lies and his absence. But it was something anyway, and something, late at night at least, that she couldn’t quite forget.

She lay in bed staring up into the dark, his imagined face slowly fading in and out, there and yet not, real and yet not, enough and yet not. What would it take, she wondered, to prevent her life from being an endless series of And yets? Was there anything that could stop it? Was there anything that could save her? And now that this had happened to her, how could she believe anything or anyone ever again? She didn’t want to be the kind of person who couldn’t trust someone, but she didn’t see any way around it. Not after this.

No, this was the end, she told herself. She could never be in a relationship again. She absolutely could not go on.

She lay there in the dark, letting it all sink in. That, she told herself, was the final word. There was nothing left.

And yet . . .

How many nights would she pass like this, nights where she would lie awake and suffering and wanting to die until the world outside finally lit palely up again and, not knowing what else to do, she would get up and muddle through her day, waiting for the hours to pass and the next night to come. How many more nights could she bear? They would come and go, she felt, and each time they did they would leave less of her behind, until finally there wouldn’t be anything left to speak of, of her, of Ellie, of ‘Ellie.’

And only then, she tried to console herself, will I understand him. I will have no name. I will move through the world without regard for anything around me. I will steal the names of the dead, she told herself. I will make stories and inflict them upon objects.

She lay in the dark not knowing whether to be terrified or elated. He mouth was dry, her heart racing.

And then, she continued grimly, I will be the one leaving rather than the one left.

 

Photo © Smannion

The Ethics of Photojournalism | Podcast
James Lasdun | Podcast