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Life Lessons

The Disappearing Girl

1985: A lady racegoer has a nap during Royal Ascot at Ascot racecourse in Berkshire, England. Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport
Allsport

In 2005, when I was 24, I called my father’s mother from a bus stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to tell her that I had broken up with my boyfriend, which is not always a sad thing, but which was in this case. My grandmother had gotten quite deaf, and cellphones weren’t as good as they are now, and she couldn’t understand what I was saying. 

“What?” she said, “what?” 

Then she said, “What?” again. 

Eventually, audibly, she gave up. “Well, that’s nice,” she said.

My grandmother died in 2014. This year I finally did something I have been meaning to do for a long time, which is track down a short story I read at her house when I was a kid. Despite how much time I have spent thinking about this story over the years and the fact that tracking it down was more difficult than I had expected, finding it was not all that satisfying, except that I had wanted to do it and now I had. 

There were a lot of things I couldn’t remember about the context of the story and a certain number that I could. I remembered that it had appeared in a fashion magazine; I was moderately confident that the magazine was Mademoiselle, which hasn’t existed since 2001. I was pretty sure it was an issue from the 1940s, although I didn’t remember which year or month. I didn’t remember the author or the title. I remembered the plot perfectly, though. 

In the story, a young woman in college named Fanny feels herself to be fat and is unhappy about it. After reading a newspaper advice column, she develops the ability to walk (and swim, and play tennis) in her dreams and rapidly loses weight in real life. Eventually, she disappears entirely; a dorm-mate finds her mussed bed with nobody in it.

It is on its face a story about a woman losing weight. Weight is a topic on which we are so fucked up that I do not know how to write about it without replicating and spreading that fucked-up energy. It is like the T-1000: You think you are shredding it apart, but all you are doing is allowing it to re-form, closer now, on your side of the bars. It is obvious that we should not have opinions about other people’s weight, its causes, or its consequences, not just because those opinions are almost certainly wrong, but also because other people’s bodies are not our business. But like many of the things about which we are the most fucked up, the topic exerts its own force, making our best efforts at discussion just one more piece of our fucked-up weight obsession. 

So, told the way I’ve told it here, the story sounds like a cautionary tale with liberatory intent, a warning to women about the dangers of surrendering their appetites and disappearing from the face of the earth, but in my memory the bleak airlessness of it made it less a story than a mechanism for Fanny to disappear. It left me in the mood I associate with the middle of a depressive episode, when repopulating the world with chaos and hilarity and randomness feels like the hardest work anybody could be called upon to do. I was a depressed kid, worried all the time about the possibility of the world closing itself off to me; the story held the deep fascination of my worst fears coming true. 

When, in another context a few years ago, I learned that this kind of story had a name—the conte cruel— I resented it. I wasn’t thinking much about this particular story at the time, but the whole genre. I wanted brutality to be a failing instead of central to the story; I wanted to believe that if the story were told properly it could be made to end happily. I wanted that because it is sometimes hard for me to refuse to believe the whisper that says the smallest, saddest version of our lives is the real truth of the world.

Telling my grandmother about my breakup is a thing that happened—how it lands depends a lot on the facts about my grandmother that I surround it with. If I say that my grandmother had cats that she doted on and a devotion to organic cleaning products, and that I lived with her for the spring after I graduated college and that in the evening we drank beer together while I smoked cigarettes and that I cooked for us and learned to drive on her car and bought her jazz records and drove us out to the country to gawk at the farm where she grew up, it exists in one kind of world. If, on the other hand, I say that my grandmother was endlessly, obsessively, preoccupied with what people looked like and once told me that she hoped I never gained weight, or that for Christmas she gave a family member who had previously expressed hurt over not getting presents from her a complimentary planner from her bank, or that she told my father, who offered to take care of a hypothetical future cat in the event of her death, that he was not responsible enough to do so, it exists in another.

Everyone has relatives, and therefore nobody is surprised that all of these things are true. I loved my grandmother a lot; I also had terrible nightmares when I stayed with her as a child. My grandmother had in many ways a very good life, and yet it felt like her desires had narrowed themselves to what she actually had in front of her—that she had ruthlessly carved away any sense of the world’s possibilities.

It is probably not a coincidence that it was around the time of her death that I started thinking about finding the short story again. The entire world my grandmother carried with her was in the process of disappearing; it made me want to save the remaining shreds. The magazine was one that she had bought when she was a young woman, before she knew the shape that her life would take, and she had held onto it for 50 years; it was easy to imagine her looking at the advertisements, daydreaming a different self. 

I thought finding the story would be easy. I imagined, maybe, an internet community dedicated to the short stories of Mademoiselle, complete with exegeses. If such a community exists, I couldn’t find it. I bought a used collection of Mademoiselle short stories and didn’t find the one I wanted. I became, temporarily, a member of the UC Berkeley alumni association in order to gain access to Berkeley’s library, which is perfect. But it didn’t have Mademoiselle, not even in its digital collections. I went to my local public library, which I had not even thought of at first, so great was my fixation on the dream spaceship of the Berkeley main stacks. My local reference desk told me that the main branch had all the back issues of Mademoiselle on microfilm. They called the main branch to verify this. When they called they learned that although the catalog said that they had the magazine on microfilm, the actual microfilm itself was not where it was supposed to be. They took my phone number and told me they would call me if they found it. They did not call me.

Whenever I am trying to do something and it is more difficult than I expect it to be, I become convinced that the difficulty is the result of my failure to do the thing properly. Untaken paths hover in my peripheral vision, with blinking neon signs promising immediate success. The friction of trying, rather than just being a part of the way the world is, seems like the product of my own shortcomings. In this case, of course, it was true: If I had just hung on to the magazine in the first place I would not have been put to any trouble at all. It is not helpful to think about these things in these ways, but it was impossible to stop myself from doing so. I gave up the search for a couple of years.

This year I found the story. I had a week off work and in between going to see the local tourist traps, I wanted to get this matter resolved. The pandemic had slowed the world to where that didn’t seem like an impossible waste of time. I started at the main branch of my local library, which still showed Mademoiselle back issues in its catalog, but still, apparently, hadn’t found the physical objects. Instead, they gave me a link to the Internet Archive, where I couldn’t find it. Then they gave me the phone number for the San Francisco Public Library. San Francisco only had later back issues. The helpful man on the phone suggested that maybe Mademoiselle used to be Glamour. I was pretty sure he was wrong, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I acted as if I was entirely sure, though. San Francisco suggested I email the SFMOMA library. I emailed the SFMOMA library. They didn’t have it, but they gave me a link to WorldCat. WorldCat said the UC Davis library had it, but actually, Davis only had later issues. Sacramento State, a two-hour drive away, maybe had it. I called Sacramento State. They went into the stacks and verified that the microfilm was actually there. The next day I drove up. 

The story is called The Little Girl Who Wasn’t There. It appeared in the 1940 college issue of Mademoiselle, and it was written by Angela Wall, Barnard class of 1940. It features debonair black and white illustrations. I was a little let down to find that it wasn’t written by a famous person. If a famous person had written it, my fixation could have been evidence of my unimpeachable taste. Instead, maybe, the fixation was just the product of this being The Thing That I Had Remembered. It was an instantiation of the anthropic principle of old junk. Because so many of the other pieces of the world where I was a child reading on the floor of my grandmother’s farmhouse had gone from real life and were or would be going from my memory, I had concluded that this one, which remained, had to be important. We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.

The amount of effort I put into finding the story probably amounted, all told, to a couple of days of work, which is not that much, but which felt like a lot. I know now how it ended—in success!—but the doing felt hard and gross, pointless even if I found the story, more pointless still if I didn’t. And even once I got to Sacramento State, finding the story was not actually all that easy. I was given a visitor’s pass that entitled me to two hours on the microfilm machine. I was cocky; I remained cocky once I realized that I didn’t know how to work the microfilm machine and somebody had to come and show me how. I remained cocky, although also hungry and suffering from eye strain, for another hour and a half, at which point I realized I was running out of time. I went downstairs to see if I could get more time. I was told I could not, by a very pleasant woman behind the desk. This made me wish I had dressed more professionally for my visit; I thought she might have taken me more seriously then. I bought myself a large coffee and some kind of disgustingly sweet muffin; I glared at some undergrads who I thought were not using proper line etiquette. Then I remembered how joining the UC Berkeley alumni association gave me access to their library; I wondered if joining the Sacramento State alumni association would give me more time on the microfilm machine. I went to the alumni building. The woman in the alumni building told me that she had no idea if I could get extra library privileges that way, but that a) anybody could join the Sacramento State alumni association and b) it was free to join the Sacramento State alumni association. Armed with my alumni membership, I called the front desk of the library. The man I talked to seemed baffled about my alumni association membership. “We can give you more time,” he said. “We extend the hours all the time.” He turned out to be the man who had helped with the microfilm machine. I went back in. It was maybe 45 minutes after that that I found the story.

This kind of tedious detail is totally absent from the story itself, which imagines a world in which the friction of effort is entirely removed. The failure to even try to explain how Fanny’s dream-walking causes her to lose weight disconcerted and delighted me as a child, but it goes farther than that. Once Fanny loses the weight, all the things she wants—to be fair, it’s really only dates—come to her immediately. She doesn’t have to worry about getting new clothes or suffer through talking to people. She has a wonderful time on the one date she goes on, and is proclaimed unanimously the belle of the ball. Her only concern is whether or not the weight will come back.

It’s exactly this that makes the story so brutal, more brutal in the re-reading than I had even remembered. We don’t know anything about Fanny’s inner life before or after the weight loss except what she thinks about how she looks. She gets good grades, but that’s just presented as a natural result of her datelessness and free time. If she has friends, or siblings, or anybody that she loves, the story doesn’t tell us—it takes all of that away from her long before her physical disappearance. Anybody’s life, told this way, can be made an exercise in the mechanical working out of our saddest expectations.

A truism of writing is that details should only be included if they will matter to the reader, that just because something happened doesn’t make it important or even necessary. I believe in this, in the abstract; I struggle with it in the particular. What is the point of writing about my relationship with grandmother if I can’t preserve all of her, embed her into the page completely? What is the point of saying I went to the library at Sacramento State if I leave out the man who helped me figure out the microfilm machine or the muffin or the girls in line?

This is what I know about Angela Wall, Barnard, Class of 1940. That the first couple of years after college she worked for an advertising agency and then a newspaper. That she got married after that. That her husband, when he died in 1993, rated a big obituary in the Hartford Courant, but that Angela had been dead for 23 years by then. That she had two children, and that her daughter grew up to be a reporter, who also rated a big obituary in the Hartford Courant. That Angela was active in the Barnard Alumnae Association. That she died of breast cancer. I was not able to find anything else that she wrote. I could populate those facts out from my imagination in a whole variety of ways, but she would remain just as gone as she was before I went looking for her story.