The absence of Gerald Raphael was so beautiful, filled with the colors of a grey-green sea setting behind the vermillion of an afternoon sun, that his friends learned to appreciate the times he was not there more than those times when he was. Gerald, or Jerry, or Raph, was an okay guy. He was friendly in his appearance. He knew a few jokes, and knew how to tell them. He was handy with a hammer. He could recite lines of Eliot's Cat, though always pronounced the name el -LEE-ot as though it had two Ls. And Old Deuderonomy, possibly a leftover from some highschool childish joke he never forgot. He could discourse politics. 18th centry. Economic. Agrarian.
It was Patrique, whose real name was Patricia but she considered that far too plebian, that noticed first, a sunday afternoon. Gerald is not here, she said, and oh but it is beautiful. Her statement was met with general apathy to begin with, sounding merely meanspirited, but it wsa not long before Tobias lept up and pointed it out for the others. There it was. Aquamarine. Maroon. A hint of daylight yellow. A hint of green. A hint of the color summed up best by the aroma of rosemary.
Gerald came upon his friends in awe. Wondering why they would be staring at some point that was devoid of anything in particular. Wishing to join in. He had had a test in metaphysics that he felt was borderline pataphysical. He, too, was in awe. Awe seeks awe in the world. Only then can it keep going indefinitely.
He stepped right into that hole shaped like him but the exact opposite, blocked up all the light, and watched their faces drop. He only knew their reaction, not their reason, and dropped his own face to see so many of his good friends disappointed for him to show up. There were twenty or thirty of them, an extended network of several anagalous groups, contigently joined, who sat continuously on the lawn when there was nothing better to do, which was generally always as far as they were concerned. He did not ask why they were crestfallen. Had he asked, they would probably have not told. The may have asked him to leave if they had seen more, but not right then. They still considered him a friend, after all.
Hello, guys. Said Gerald. Hello, they returned. Intoned. A monochromatic pair of syllabes without any true vowel, as though the first rhyhmed the second. A dimeter of single, unstressed syllables. Then they began to small and chatter, again, already beginning to forget all but the sensation of Gerald's absence.
The next day they saw his absence again, as luck would have it. Gerald was getting one of the sub-groups a round of coffees. Three lattes. Four mochas. Six expressos. The hole was again wide open, alive in the way that Gerald was not. The colors poured out and delighted the corner of eyes, never being quite there when one looked too directly. This time they sang with restrained sound. Glorious. Faint. Intangible sound wrapped in a warm blanket of red and blue and every indefinite color possibly between. Those waiting forgot their coffee. They forgot Gerald. They only remembered that he was gone.
He was a friend who liked to do things for friends. When they began piling on simple, mundane tasks, he merely smiled to think they needed him. The sum of them was so small he never realized how much he meant when gone.
On the third day, Gerald was sent out to return library books. Carl, the youngest member of the sizable group of yard sitters, had checked out The Rise and Fall the day before, but proclaimed that Gibbons was not for him. It simply would not do. My history, said Carl, needs to avoid such tedium. On the fourth day, it was a watch that Cynthia had purchased from a second hand store earlier that morning. She felt it did not match her skin tone.
She says she can return it, said Gerald to the shop keep. No, no, no, said the shop keep, Only exchanges. No returns.
Gerald was gone for an hour, playing the part of a friend. And all his friends loved him for it, for he was gone and his absence was there. Those that had afternoon classes forgot them. Those that were supposed to be getting a quick afterthought lunch after studying through their planned lunch forgot to eat. They all merely experienced.
On the fifth day, the whole group was gone. It was a three day weekend centered around a feeble excuses for a holiday. On the sixth, still the weekend, this part being the actual holiday, it rained in the south part of town, where the river flows but not the north, which is choked by trees and at the foot of a small mountain. The north watched the lightning through their dry windows and leaves, but took no part in it. On the seventh, there was a sigh from a young girl across the street from Cynthia. She had lost her favorite toy. Cynthia, who had received no return for her watch, and never really wanted the return, helped the little girl look. For hours.
On the eigth day, the group was back, sitting around the school lawn and laughing at jokes only funny in the act of telling and hearing them told. Gerald, too. He was sick, though, and unable to run errands. He should not have been outside in the still damp grass, but he could not help it. His dorm room was too white and too blue, a melancholy mix reminscent of the worst sort of fog as embraced by some steadily glaring street light. Gerald stayed, no matter what, and could not be persuaded to leave.
Thus it continued for two weeks until Gerald got well. By this time, the group forgot the glory of his being gone, or had mostly convinced themselves they could live without it, and so contented themsevles with Gerald, arguably the lesser of his two selves, again. He told his jokes. He timed them right. He began growing a beard which came out scraggly and uneven and the wrong color. He shaved it off.
He laughed at the jokes of Shana and Tobias and Gladiolus, who hated her eponymous flower as can be expected, and Patrique. He had a crush on Cynthia's new blonde hair, though not really on her. After an afternoon proclaiming that it just wouldn't do, she traded it in for no hair at all, and the next day came back to red. Full circle.
Gerald lived and passed days by referring to other days. And all the group, sometimes swelling to the amount of fifty that spring as contingencies lined up, lived and passed their days referring to other days.
This continued, banal but assuredly alive, until the day that Gerald grew unexpectedly thirsty with a craving for grenadine. He left the group early to get himself something of the taste of fruit. That is when they saw it again, or in the case of the newcomers, for the first time. His being gone. Its beautiful look. Cynthia felt a tear on her cheek. Gladiolus held Tobias's hand. There was a tone of quiet being played sharp, a distance echo of stillness. The absence breathed. Delightedly.
He'll just come back, and bother it all, she said. Bother him, said another she.
Bother it all, someone was heard to say, though no one turned to see who.
And so the group schemed and schemed with a desperate, frantic speed. Their final plan grew up in minutes, on shaky legs as are all animals needing to stand too soon: go somewhere where Gerald is not, at all times. How will we stop him from following, asked one with a ginger voice. Three others agreed, sotto voce. Leave it to me, said Patrique. Leave it to us, another said.
Then, it started with a few brave souls. Five or six walked away from the hole, never looking back. Then another four. Then another five. Then some more.
Gerald came to the spot and found nothing but one empty soda can, a trampled stretch of grass fifty-three people wide, and a brief note in Patrique's too cramped handwriting explaining he had best not follow. The threat was simple, but undeniable. We will just leave again, the note said, and you will have to keep following until you tire.
He did not follow. He sighed, though anyone nearby might mistake it for one of contentment. He looked up to the north and to the lone mountain. He missed his mountain walks, but he was not in the mood for one that day. He simply went to his room, took out his favorite fontain pen, and doodled words in sloppy paragraphs and read his Eliot. He whistled and drank tea with milk and no sugar. A month later, he finished his papers early, turned them in,got up, packed, went to walk on the mountain again, and called the trails his home. That was that as far as Gerald Raphael was concerned, whom was never seen again on the campus or by anyone attached to the campus. Some who knew him, but only as a passing acquaintance, said he took up writing and moved off to larger cities somewhere. Some suggesed that he helps people who have lost their way in the trails. Some said that he was never there to begin with. They wonder if his absence was the real him, and that he was his absence missing, which it was most of the time.
Maybe he looked back at his past, one day, and realized he was gone. Maybe he fell in love with aquamarine.
The group, who dwindled late spring down to twenty, then made due with ten in early June, then were only five strong coming into summer, sat under a cedar tree west of campus for days. They never got to be absent of Gerald ever again, for his being gone in general meant he could never be gone specifically. He, like everyone, can not be absent from a place they will not be. No one is absent from the Moon, in other words, just not there. This is a wholly different thing. The five soon forget about his being gone altogether, never to remember that he was not there again, and summer's full face came. With it, there was a day of strangely cold rain on a warm wind. With it, grew the small pink flowers, hardy and weedlike and half dried perpetually. With it, a taste of salt on the air of the Eastern breeze.
They went down to the beach, waited for night to fall, and stared at the stars.