Fiction from Kara Oakleaf
The Shadow Boyfriends
Vanessa is the first of the mothers to bring up her shadow boyfriend. You all watch the children from the park benches, eyes behind sunglasses and iced coffees in your hands, and she tells all of you how she still thinks of an ex, all these years later, how his memory follows her like a shadow, something shifting alongside her whenever she turns to look at it. She can’t stop pulling at that thread of a thought, how easily she could have ended up with him instead of her husband, what her life would look like now if he was still the one at her side.
You glance at each other, give noncommittal sighs and raise your coffees to your lips or turn to call across the park to one of the children who’s getting too close to the tree line where a family of foxes live, because none of you know what to say to such a confession. But later that evening, you all hear it—something faint under the sound of your own husband calling your name, the echo of different voice beneath his. How he used to say your name so quietly it might have just been a breath against your neck.
And the next night, a movement in the next room. The scent of him, that pine-sharp soap he used to use, hanging in the air, and you wonder if he’s always been there, a shadow always just outside the frame, ready to spill over into your reality.
Yes, you say to each other a few days later, when Vanessa apologizes for bringing it up. Yes, we all have one, too.
One from way back in high school or college. One who showed up at the lake house where you vacationed with your grandparents every summer, until the summer he didn’t. One who you never quite broke up with because maybe you hadn’t quite been together, so if you somehow found yourself in last moment you saw him, you might still lean your head against his shoulder and feel him turn to kiss you. One who first dated an old friend of yours, and so you never told a soul, everything between the two of you a secret, and now you can’t let go because there is no one else to hold onto those moments that were only yours and his.
All summer, while your children chase each other through backyard sprinklers or clamor up and down the slides or wander the edge of the trees looking for the foxes, you tell each other the stories of your shadow boyfriends, conjuring them into the air around you as you speak their names out loud for the first time in years.
They all have one-syllable names, these shadow boyfriends. Sounds that land like a punch. They’re Todd, Dan, Nick, Rob, Jack, Chris, but sometimes, you draw the sound out, your breath slowing over the vowel, or catch yourself whispering his full name. Nicholas. Christopher. And you can never tell if you’re trying to soften the blow, or if you only wanted to hold the sound of him on your tongue for a moment longer.
Some of you have a long string of old boyfriends, others just one or two, but you all have only one shadow. Most of the boys from your pasts have faded away: because some were not who you thought them to be, because some hurt you in ways that twisted your old feelings for them into something rotten and easy to abandon, and because some were perfectly nice boys who you could not bring yourselves to love in the first place. But the ones who’ve become shadows, the ones haunting each of you now, are the ones who, in another life, you might never have left. The ones who wanted to stay in your hometown when you could only imagine a life elsewhere, the ones here for only that one semester before returning to a home country, the ones who followed their own work across an ocean. It was only the world that pulled you apart, and so there is a piece of you that cannot stop loving him. And with these women, all of you crowded next to each other under the blazing sun of a playground years later, you can finally admit it to someone who understands.
When you walk home at the end of the day, each of you slipping into your own houses with your children, you try to close yourself off to the memory of him, to ignore the stories you’ve been telling all day, but still you feel that shadow alongside you, feel his hands on you again as your mind reels through that first night, that last night, that time at the lake, and you’re in your own house but the shadow is brushing up against you from a place where you are still with him, those moments still unfolding in a world just beyond your grasp.
He is seventeen and awkward when he first lays a hand on your knee. He is twenty-two and beautiful, even in his most threadbare t-shirts. He is twenty-eight and grieving, something broken down inside of him, but still in that brief window of time when he could have recovered, could have found his way back to you. You’re still waiting for what comes next, still so sure something comes next.
Vanessa’s shadow is in town for the week, visiting his mother. She saw him climb into his parents’ old Buick in the parking lot at the grocery store as she loaded her younger boy into the shopping cart, and when he drove past and saw her, stopping the car to roll down the window and say hello, decades of her life fell away. She was sixteen again and somehow as electrified as she’d been the first time he took her hand in his. Her eyes stare past you to some distant point across the playground when she tells you the story, over and over.
The rest of you see him at the park that weekend, out for a run while your children play. He raises his hand in a wave when he sees Vanessa, and every one of you waves back. He’s an ordinary man, but none of you can take your eyes off him. You turn as he jogs past the park, around the bend in the tress until he disappears around the corner, a shadow again, but you’d seen the reality, heard the footfalls on the pavement, his solid mass moving across the earth, and remembered how real they all are, how easy it would be to go to them, fall into step beside them as if you’d never been apart. The possibilities shimmering in the August heat.
And when you turn back to the playground, your children are gone. The swings still, the sun bouncing a blinding light off the slide. One of the children’s plastic water bottles toppled over and dripping a dark spot onto the pavement. All of you motionless, the silence shocking, and then it’s broken again by footsteps, Vanessa’s shadow returning, coming back up the path to the playground and jogging toward you.
“V?” he calls, and Vanessa turns toward him. “Hon, you ready to go? We’ve gotta get the girls to their practice.”
Vanessa blinks at him, confused for a moment, and then turns back to you, opens her mouth as if to say something, but the thought is already gone. Her husband slides an arm around her waist, and she shivers for a second, but then smiles up at him as he leads her away, both of them waving to you over their shoulders as they head back toward their house to get their daughters. And you realize none of you are sure why Vanessa had been here at the playground in the first place. Her girls are older, teenagers busy with soccer and marching band who haven’t played here in ages. You can’t make sense of it.
But the rest of your children. Where are your children?
The playground is silent for another moment, then suddenly, two of you run for the street, the rest dash across the lawn, and the children’s names are everywhere, all of you yelling for them at once in voices you barely recognize as your own. The empty park and all these screams.
And then the children emerge from the trees, spilling out into the open all at once. Scowls on their flushed faces.
“You scared it,” one of the oldest says accusingly, because they’d only been following one of the foxes, quieting their own voices and footsteps as they tracked it through the pines. You see the flash of red in the trees as it darts deeper into the forest, and then you all turn away and walk the children back toward the playground. Some of you look back over your shoulders at the trees, because something is still off. You’re certain you’re waiting for another boy to emerge, a child with freckles and pale red curls, but that can’t be right because you’re all holding onto your own children, everyone accounted for, and the image of that other boy is already turning to smoke, burning away under the late morning sun. And so you keep walking, clinging tight to your children’s hands—these small, sweaty, perfect hands—as you guide them away from the trees.
These children who for a moment had been erased from the world. Because what would become of them if the shadow boyfriends, if these other lives you’ve been playing out all summer, were real?
These children who can only be found on the path that led you away from him.
For the rest of the afternoon, no one mentions Vanessa, and no one tells another story about their shadow boyfriend. It’s only on the walk home that night that someone brings it up. ‘Maybe we should haunt them for a change,’ she jokes, and you all laugh before growing quiet again. All of you thinking the same thing.
From your own beds that night, the silent mounds of your husbands sleeping beside you, you dream yourselves rising from your bodies. It’s easy as breathing, and then you’re out of your houses, far from the rooms where you’ve felt them following you, flying through the night, and soon, you will find the shadows somewhere out there, in their own lives.
When you find them, you’ll pin them down, press their shoulders into their beds. They’ll look up at you with wonder and you’ll be the shadows this time. You’ll be the ghosts in the next room, you’ll crawl into the deepest corners of their minds and whisper their names. And when you are the shadows, you will always be able to find them where they are, to be with them in a place where they can never touch your children. And every time you go to them, you’ll remind yourself you can only stay for only a minute, only a sliver of time before you return home. But in those small moments when you haunt them, they will still be yours.
Kara Oakleaf’s work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Booth, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matchbook, and elsewhere, and has been selected for Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. She received her MFA at George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book festival. Find more of her work at karaoakleaf.com.