The Space Where You Were by Nina Denison

crowd people-692005_1280It was like one of those dreams where you’re trying to reach someone in a crowd and you keep glimpsing the back of their head before they’re swallowed up by the thick humanity. The crowd is impermeable— you try elbowing your way through, but it closes in on you again and you find you haven’t advanced. You’re panicking. You have no voice.

It wasn’t a dream, though, and I didn’t need to use my elbows—I just couldn’t get to you. You kept disappearing around corners, into rooms, your shadow bending all over the wallpaper and slipping under doors that promptly shut in my face. The house was so dark, and nearly all of us were drunk, and everything was distorting for it—the drunkenness. You were on edge, and I was on a separate edge, dizzying down into a dangerous wanting.

I was angry about all of the people you had here. This was our place, yours and mine, and they were taking shots out of your grandmother’s favorite drinking glasses. They didn’t even know her. None of them had felt her wax-papery hands on theirs when she bent in to kiss them on the cheek, smelling like lavender and fireplace ash. They spilled into the rooms you’d wanted to keep empty—the formal living room with crystal ashtrays and dusty mahogany—and they laughed in my face when I told them to get out, this room is off limits. You opened our world up to the monsters we called friends.

But it wasn’t our world anymore. Not mine. I no longer had any claim to this place, to you. I still don’t know why we never turned on some lights.


Morgan was the one who knew about the party.

“His grandparents are out of town for a golf weekend or some boring thing,” she said into the mirror, turning her head side-to-side to choose from two little earrings. Her white-blonde hair was already ripening sunnier from summer’s first weeks of tennis and poolside naps. “It’s common courtesy for us to go.”

I was lying on her four-poster bed on top of a layer of laundry. Her room was a bizarre mash-up—antique furniture and slanted floors, iPad, iPhone, iThings everywhere, expensive clothes tossed about and hanging from the knobs of closet doors.

“There is no common courtesy regarding getting drunk in a basement,” I said to her ceiling. “Really, I don’t believe he’s even doing it. Leo doesn’t throw parties. He doesn’t even drink.”

“Not true,” she said. “He’s not a good kid anymore. We smoke together all the time when we’re both home from college.”

That was a wicked disappointment, you know—that you and Morgan were suddenly friends. Smoking buddies. In high school she hated you for taking up so much of me. She was insidious to us back then. I don’t need to remind you of the things she did to get between us.

“You’re the worst for this,” I said. “You can’t call me to hang out and then just spring this on me.” I sat up and threw my sandal at her back.

Shit!”—but I’d missed.

“You’re not hijacking this night. No. I’m not going there. I haven’t seen him since September, and it went very not well when I made him sleep on my floor.”

I hadn’t told her the whole story of that weekend. You were coming to my campus to hang out with Aaron, our high school buddy who’d ended up at the same college as me. Aaron had forgotten to tell you he’d be away Friday night for his soccer game. I couldn’t turn you away when you called me needing a place to sleep for the night. I don’t think I wanted to. It’s not like we were on bad terms. Still, you thought I was kidding when I told you to bring a sleeping bag. Starting college apart and without a clean break had wreaked havoc on us both, and I’d resolved to go into my second year free of you. I needed to climb out of the thorns that had grown up around us. I thought we’d agreed on this, but you showed up that weekend expecting a familiar bedfellow and you instead got linoleum.

The thing is, I wasn’t free of you yet. That was plain to me while I lay awake in my skinny dorm room bed that night, listening to you breathe, trying to be silent and still, and all I wanted was to get down on the cold floor and draw your arms around me like a blanket. To write down your dreams and read them back you to when you woke.

Morgan sighed massively.

“Diana, okay. I grant you it was a shady move and I personally would kill you if you pulled this on me,” she said. “If I told you about it you wouldn’t come, and I’m not going alone. Like you said, Leo never does anything cool. He’s usually boring as fuck. So. We either go and have some fun tonight, or we sit here and stare at each others’ ugly faces.”chair-558951_1280

I still remember you, early Sunday morning of that September weekend, knocking at my dorm room. You’d been out all night with Aaron at some party. I’d already said goodbye the night before, sent you off into the college-scented evening, wondering when I might see you again. Thinking the pain of this meant it was somehow for best.

But you’d left your wallet in my room. On purpose? In the morning, I knew you from your knock—quick quicker quicker quick—the four beats we’d used sneaking into each other’s boarding school bedrooms. I went to the door in my sleeping shorts, hair a little screwy, dreams fading like little fires dying out.

You were all wrong. Buttons of your shirt were mismatched and I didn’t see your usual white tee underneath. Then I saw the coin-sized bruise on your neck. Love bites. Your grandmother had once called me out with a knowing wink while I blushed and put a hand to my collar.

“What…” I started, drawing back from the door. Recoiling.

“Sorry, it’s early,” you said, nervous and soft but trying to hide none of it. Anyway, you were likely too hung-over to raise your voice above a whisper. It was the whole picture that disturbed me, not just the details but the entirety of this mess. I’d never seen you like this—so declaratively not mine. I shook my head at the shock.

“You were pretty clear,” you said. “About how things are now. God, you made me sleep on the floor, I mean—am I wrong?”

“I know I know I know,” I said quickly, quietly, “It’s just…”

My room was at the end of a hall, and the early sun coming up through the hall window was too much. I closed my eyes and held the door frame for balance.

“I’m not trying to get back at you. I’m trying to just… I don’t know. Diana. I don’t know how we’re supposed to be. Do you?”

Standing there, you looked so familiar and so grossly altered all at once. You were like a place I’d once known and revisited to find decaying, disappointing, not as beautiful or as good as I remembered. I turned away. I didn’t want to see it anymore.

“You left your wallet,” and giving it to you, I tried not to touch your hands. They weren’t the same. “Let’s not talk for a while, please.”

And I shut the door and crawled into my bed, shivered there until sunset seeped into the room.


There were several cars already in your driveway when Morgan and I crunched up the sloping gravel in her Range Rover. The chirping summer frogs welcomed us out of the air-conditioned car and into the thickness of the evening. It was hard to look at the house without seeing other things—our ghosts from a few summers ago, sitting on the front steps and watching the heat-lightening set the sky glowing. Your grandmother in her straw visor, bent at the waist, whispering to the tomato plants in her garden. The fireflies.

The wet grass and the oak leaves smelled like our best days.

I helped Morgan carry handles of vodka from the car—she was the first to twenty-one and thus the designated buyer—and we started toward the side door when it snapped open, Sophie flying out like a ruffled hen from a coop.

“Thank God the real booze is here,” she said, taking a bottle from me. She was as tall and thin as a model but awkward in her motions and most everything else.

“Hi. Hi.” She kissed each of us on the cheek and led us inside. “No one cool is here yet.”

That just meant Peter wasn’t here. Peter and Sophie had broken up right after we finished high school, but they continued to circle each other like vultures waiting for something not quite dead to die.

The smell of the house hit me with a shock. It was waxy wood paneling growing melty in the heat, dried herbs hanging in the kitchen windows, an essence of lavender. Images flashed like a video reel. I closed my eyes to watch.

“Everyone’s in the basement,” Sophie said, and we followed her past the formal living room into the sitting room, where she slid a section of paneling in the wall to reveal the staircase. I hated that she knew where it was.

We descended into the semi-darkness, into the thick smell of beer, and found our friends grouped around flimsy tables playing drinking games. I could tell from just the bump bump bump of the music that someone else had chosen it—it didn’t suit your rhythm.

Morgan and I set the bottles on a table and backed away. Everyone flocked to them like kids on a playground gathering for snack time.


It was Luke, a strange but beautiful creature we’d all at one point tried to turn straight. He kissed my cheek.

“Hey, old friend,” I said, squeezing his arm.

“I didn’t think you’d want to be here. Good for you. Let me get you a drink.” I watched as he poured vodka and sprite into a cup at a concerning ratio. I took it, just to have something to hold.

Good for you, me? Me and Leo, or…?”

I was shouting—the music was way too loud for a group this size, an effort to muffle the awkward quiet that had grown up like a weed between us all after some years apart. The beer pong players roared.

“I’m in for Aaron—let’s catch up after this game.”

Luke was a lot like a butterfly in that you felt divinely lucky when he landed on you, so you tried not to move. He flitted away too quickly, taking a place at the table.

I scanned the room. Morgan was talking with Sophie and Emma in a tight triangle. I started over there when a tall, human smirk blocked my path.

“Yikes,” he said. “You’re really here? Pretty bold.”

“Hello and goodbye, Collin,” I said, trying to walk past him.

“You’re not going to talk to me for five seconds?” He grabbed my wrist.

“I’m really not obligated to tolerate you anymore.” I peeled off his grip finger by finger.

“Fair. Yeah. Now that you’re not dating my best friend I guess I could be less of an asshole.”

“Logical.” My eyes darted beyond him. I didn’t want to ask anyone where you were, least of all him.

“He’s upstairs,” Collin said. “Getting more cups. Dude is such a nervous wreck. He’s not cut out for this kind of rebellion.”

“Wasn’t asking.”

“All right. Really though, Diana, I’m glad you’re here. I do want to say some things to you. Like… Sorry. And other things. I should have said them a while ago.”

Serious now. I was always thrown by his rare genuine moments. Or taken by them. They were like a dementia patient’s lucid flashes—sudden and fleeting, gone before you could read them for what they were trying to tell you.

But I really didn’t care. I downed the strong drink and handed him the empty cup.

“I have to pee.”

I jogged up the steps, quickly dizzy, and tugged down the hem of Morgan’s borrowed sundress, suddenly aware of how short it was. I heard a cabinet slam shut in the kitchen. My stomach writhed like a caught fish.

You’re the only person I know who can look like a totally different human being depending on the time of year or the state of your hair. Not just different, but entirely other—like a foreign doppelganger with the same eyes and jaw and hands but wearing a different self. When I saw you last, your skin was syrup colored and your hair was long, the waves golden from a summer lifeguarding. Now, after a year up north, you were paler, a little slighter, your hair cropped close to your head so that it looked almost brown. You were wearing the Royal City Band tee shirt I’d sent you from a concert a few years ago, and the green of the shirt made your eyes glow turquoise, even in the dim light. This might be my favorite anagram of you.

“No way,” you said, seeing me in the doorway, smiling hugely, and you swept me into a hug that lifted me off the ground.

“Hey, kid,” I said, hands on your neck, thumbs on your cheeks.

“I didn’t think you’d be here.”

Your hands around my arms were cautious and deliberate. We stood there a moment in the quiet, feeling a faint pulse in our feet radiating up from the bumping music bellow. Your face across from mine was the most natural thing in the world. I felt a familiar urge to close the space between us.

But it ended. You dropped your arms and stepped back.

“Hey, would you grab some small glasses to bring down? They’re—”

“I know where they are,” I said.

“I’m trying to keep everyone in the basement. Damage control. If Gram and Granddad figure out I’m not actually a saint it’ll break their hearts.”

“Yeah, anything. I can help with anything.”

“You’re the best.” You started back toward the basement.


Too quiet. Too late.

I wanted to ask for a just a minute, later. When you were calm. When you’d relaxed enough to have a drink, enjoy the buzzing sensation of getting away with something. We used to feel that all the time together.

But you went down into the sticky loudness where my words couldn’t reach you.

A firefly that had wandered in through an open door blinked like a tiny lighthouse, dotting across the room. It hit the window with an almost silent thump and fell down, dark.


Shots always seem like some kind of answer. Old friends back together? Shots for everyone. Peter never showed? Shots for Sophie.

balloon-250942_1280I’m trying to get a grip on you, but you keep slipping further away into this night.

Shot for me.

Shot for you, too, but I’ll take them both.

I was making small talk with Eric, the most boring kid in the world who was in love with Morgan once. Eric could’ve used a shot.

“Stealing her, sorry,” Morgan said, swooping in and pulling me away by the arm. “Sophie’s crying in the kitchen and maybe gonna puke. I was trying to talk to her but I’m not nice enough or drunk enough.”

“Going,” I said.

I found Sophie, not in the kitchen but crumpled in the cramped pantry.


She was hugging her knees and holding the neck of a wine bottle. I hadn’t seen any wine before now but I wasn’t going to ask where she found it. I settled down next to her on the floor.

“You haven’t heard from him?”

“It’s not that I expect him to tell me where he’s going to be and when,” she said. Hiccup. “We don’t do that anymore. But, like, that’s what sucks. We don’t do the easiest things we used to do. We don’t factor each other into our decisions and our plans and… hiccup… we just have to run into each other at shit like this, and when we do, everything feels kind of normal again. But it ends. Or it doesn’t happen. And then I end up on the fucking floor in the dark.”

She took an ugly drink from the bottle and offered it to me. I shook my head, then took it anyway just to keep her from it.

“I think it’s like this for all of us, Soph,” I said, grabbing her hand. Squeezing. “None of us know how to unwrap ourselves from around each other. The people who seem to know how are faking. All of them downstairs. Morgan, even. They care so much.”

She shook her head.

“Okay, maybe not exactly like you do about Peter, or like… or like other people do. About other people. But they’re here because they haven’t unwrapped themselves yet. We haven’t. We might never.”

She took the bottle back and drank. Red dripped from her chin onto her blouse, but I didn’t tell her because she already had enough to mourn.

“How is it possible that I’ve become a mess and you just get wiser,” she said.

“I’m a mess, too. I’m just shoved into a drawer.”

We sat quietly for a minute or two. Bump bump bump downstairs, cheerp cheerp cheerp from the peepers outside. Then Sophie stood up shakily, grabbing the shelves on her long and tall way up to standing.

“Hmm, okay. Okay. Let’s go down there with the other idiots.”

“I just need a minute,” I said. “Can you close the door?”

She didn’t ask why, didn’t need to. I closed my eyes. I felt like I was on one of those spinning teacup rides, only instead of fake porcelain I was surrounded by boxed rice and macaroni. I stayed there for a while, spinning, hoping you would come untangle me from myself.


Collin came instead.

“Um, hi. This is a weird place to hang out. Leo said there are chips in here.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “It’s too dark.” I stood, trying to leave. He blocked the door.

“Diana,” he said.

“Really, what?” Everything that night was just so important. “What are you going to apologize for? Because I don’t think you even know how. Everything is hilarious to you. I’m not an idiot. I don’t need to sit through another one of your goddamn monologues.”

“You’re right,” he said. “You always saw through my crap, but you didn’t see everything, Diana. You didn’t see the reason.”

And, I kid you not, he leaned in to kiss me.

I dissolved into wicked laughter before he got there.

“You’re fucking joking,” I said. He tried to look hurt. It was the funniest thing in the world.

“Collin! Collin. No. I’m sorry. I’m just not buying this. You’re a fucking riot.”

I left him there. I had to find you. You would find this hilarious, I knew it, but you would also be angry, maybe jealous. Who was Collin to try kissing me in your grandparents’ pantry? Collin was a perfect jerk, always. He’d spoiled our best moments, humiliating me whenever possible, rejoicing in our obstacles. He couldn’t even stand me. This apology or confession or whatever—it was a drunken performance, maybe his best. You would laugh, but you would also feel challenged. This would wake you up. It had to.

The halls in the house made a funhouse in reverse—instead of mirrors distorting with reflection, the walls distorted with absorption, with darkness, and the shadows mocked me like menacing clowns as I stumbled in search of you. Where was the living room? The sliding wall panel? I’d been in this house a thousand times, but all I could do to find my way was follow the bumping music and the throb of people. The house had a pulse and it beat like a sinister heart, pumping me through and through and through to you.

But I couldn’t get through.

Morgan found me, clutching the banister at the base of the staircase that led up to the second floor. I thought I heard someone call to me from up there, but it was just you—it was just you, years ago, calling to me to follow you up and into our private world. If I could just go after your phantom voice I knew would find you there.

“We’re leaving,” Morgan said. “Sophie’s trashed and I need to drive her home.”

Words were spinning around my tongue like tiny otters chasing their tails.

“Now?” It was all I could offer.

“Right now. Come on.”

I followed her out the front door of the house, leaving the bump bump bump of our people without a word. Sophie’s body shook with cries as Emma helped her into the back of the Range Rover. I got into the passenger seat and we tore out of the driveway. The gravel roared a protest.

A few streets away, we pulled up to Sophie’s long driveway.

“Stop here,” Sophie sniffled, “my parents will wake up if you go down.”

“Will you be okay?” Morgan asked, and Emma nodded, and the two of them cackled as Sophie nearly fell out of the car. Emma helped her stagger toward the dark house at the end of the drive. We left them.

The highway was nearly empty and everything was dark behind and ahead. I couldn’t see where we were going or where we’d just been, but it didn’t matter—I had no control.

“Morgan, slow down,” I said, or I think I said.

We were flying. We were about to launch into the air because gravity was broken and the tires were not even touching the road now I knew it—

My phone buzzed. Your name played on the screen. I fumbled to slide it open but I missed you. I called right back, and Collin’s voice answered.

“He just ran up to deal with a puker,” he said. “Try back later.” Bump bump bump and laughter and click.

I kept redialing, curled into the seat, clutching the door to keep from floating up and away. I would have taken even Collin’s answer now, any voice on the other end to pull me back into the space where you were.

Because I’d thought it was you who kept slipping away from me, but I was the one slipping—I was the one who’d let fly my string and now I floated up like a lost balloon too fast. There was no gravity now. Not on the road, not anywhere in this whole place.


This is what I would have kept:

The garden, a grid of jailbreak colors where grabby vines sought bare ankles, where impatient mouths bit off tastes that might else have grown.

That rabbit I loved, the one you shot with a pellet when your grandmother asked because she loved her tomatoes more.

Your grandmother, with crows’ feet quotation marks punctuating sentences of stories she’d saved in her eyes.

Her kitchen, where thick light seeped through yellowed panes and purple jars of the fruits she preserved.

Your room, only borrowed but somehow ours, where we made maps of uncharted dreams on the pages we kept.

Your hands, which took the pages I sent to you and set them down beneath floorboards, keeping proof of our fable.

Your dreams—the ones that spilled out of you too fast for me to collect, like beads slipping from a string I could never tie, but always tried to wear around my wrist despite it.


Nina Denison
Nina Denison is a native of Concord, Massachusetts, a town whose literary ghosts have gloriously haunted her since she was a child. Having graduated from Tufts University and the Columbia Publishing Course, she currently edits recipes for America’s Test Kitchen’s Special Issue magazines. Nina is a Pushcart nominee with work appearing in Canon, Pequod, Mouse Tales Press, and Redheaded Stepchild.
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