James Tadd Adcox

They’d worked together in another city, a decade ago, a temp job in which they translated lists of words that needed to be removed from the Spanish-language version of the company’s website: tax-free, exempt, illegal, endangered. Their boss told them, with a concerned look, that most people burned out quickly, as the words piled up: children, prostitution, trophy. Neither seemed to mind, though. Perhaps there was something wrong with them, some subtle piece of empathy missing, some inability to turn from abstraction to the world? How does one render escort in Spanish? No use looking in the dictionary. Search out, instead, those sites where you find them advertised, trafficked: modelo acompañante. There.

They went on one date that had gone badly, meeting at a bar neither liked, singing karaoke, each trying to convince the other, against the odds, of their normalcy, their basic fun-ness. When they went to bed with each other that night, it was more from a sense of obligation to a certain idea of themselves, the possibility that each might somehow fit the other, rather than any particular lust. Now years later in this bookstore in this new city, a tap on the shoulder, head turned from browsing, new haircut, short and pink, a brightening and a calculation in the eyes. Crow’s feet or smile lines, light, not, as far as one could remember, previously there. One of them had just arrived, still mastering the bus system, still taking restaurant recommendations and getting turned around downtown. The other, the browser, had moved not long after the temp job ended. Both here for the night’s reading, ancient author, new book, brief signing. Both had read the reviews. No one, it seemed, was quite sure what to make of it. This was, it was generally supposed, the author’s final book.

Neither of them smoked, so the question—“Do you want to step outside?”—was an obvious gambit at best. In the alley behind the bookstore, breath humid in cold air, it was natural to press against each other for warmth, huddled first jokingly, exploratory, and then as if the world had pulled itself into focus. The soft rise of stomach, faint lines of arms, muscle against skin. Wrists and back pressed against brick, a pushing-against, a resistance, a reversal. The thought that there was another version of their lives in which years ago there’d been this instead of that tepid date. A breathy and errant thing in the conjunction between one and the other. They returned inside to catch the end of the reading, the author’s amused shake of the head at the first audience question. “I want you to have this,” browser said, placing a book in the other’s hand. It would have been wrong to have asked for a phone number, God forbid an email address. And yet, some small hope that when the book was opened, something of the browser would remain: a note, a secret, something slipped in unnoticed. Instead, a printing error: an image from another text, accidentally transferred onto the page. “Ghosting”: a chemical reaction that occurs between the fumes of drying ink on one press sheet and the opposite surface of another, difficult to predict, and therefore to prevent. The images so faint they can barely be made out. Then, over the next several days, sharpening, clarifying, as if rising beneath the words, a haunting, an alternate past, a separation between one life and another, just out of reach.

James Tadd Adcox is the author of a novel, Does Not Love, and a novella, Repetition. His work has appeared in Granta, n+1, and Barrelhouse Magazine, among other places.