Kami Westhoff’s “The Ways You Are Gone” is a lyric meditation on the pain of a loss adulterated by unknowing. Our narrator’s fiancée has been missing for months. This seemingly happy twenty-year-old packed a bag, cashed her paycheck, drove into the middle of nowhere, and disappeared—and no one, including our narrator, Jack, can fathom why.
Because he misses her, or because he is trying to move on, or because it has become a compulsion, Jack constantly imagines what could have happened to Madeleine: dead and buried, dismembered and frozen in pieces, alive but tortured by kidnappers, alive and well. This final possibility is the most painful: “I don’t tell anyone this, but it’s what I most fear—that you are safe. Happy. Beginning things.” To think that his lover has been violently and irreparably torn away grieves Jack less than the idea that Madeleine is absent by choice.
Westhoff’s story demonstrates the ways in which people’s movement through time does not progress cleanly, linearly, but rather is oriented around, warped by, the presence or absence of those most loved. Through a birthday dinner for the missing Madeleine with her stoic parents, hours at home with the cat she left behind, a BBQ gathering for “the loved ones of missing loved ones,” Jack struggles to live with the knowledge that, despite the many ways he imagines Madeleine’s goneness, the specter of their future remains so long as he is uncertain what has really happened to her.
Westhoff’s prose is sharp and can be darkly comic, while sometimes it floats through Jack’s pain and unknowing with poetic gentleness. Reading her story tore at my heart, and with Jack’s voice in my head, I imagine I’ll find myself, this week, turning over in the night, reaching for my love’s warm body, his scent, the sound of his breathing as potent reassurance against all the painful ways he could be gone.
“The Ways You Are Gone” appeared in our Winter 2007 issue; it received an Editor’s Choice Prize in that year’s Raymond Carver short story contest.