“I picked up the pants, noting with surprise not just that A. Cordova MH-314—her room number at Briarwood—had been printed along the inner waistband, but the legs still held her form. So did the top; cut in the boxy shape of surgical scrubs, the left sleeve still twisted around her elbow.”
In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (which is quoted in Messas’s M_SS_NG G_RL): “Let us see, Other Reader, if the book can succeed in drawing a true portrait of you, beginning with the frame and enclosing you from every side, establishing the outlines of your form.”
There’s a scene in my novel (I first wrote it two years ago) that keeps coming to mind:
I found Janelle in Elsie’s room, her body twisted into the exact shape Elsie’s always was in sleep, as though to fill the indentation that Elsie’s body had left in the mattress. Her mouth was slack, her lips curled out and moistened by steady breath. I watched her for a moment, and then shifted my focus to see myself in the dresser mirror beyond the bed. The father of a 17-year-old girl; how did that happen?
The father of a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old. I can’t count Elsie out so soon.
The dresser mirror was lined with photographs and images from magazines. Most pictures were of Elsie’s friends, duck-faced girls with the smooth, round faces of youth and inexperience, smeared in dark lipsticks and raccoon-eyes.
Two old Polaroids were tucked into the top of the frame, both the faded maroon of the late-1980s. One, a group shot of Molly and the girls that I had taken one Christmas morning when Elsie was still in diapers. Janelle and Elsie were dozing under the tree, surrounded by crumpled wrapping paper and brightly colored cardboard boxes. Molly sat beside them, hand on Elsie’s head (I could imagine the warmth of that sleeping head, the tiny heartbeat thrumming at her translucent temple), looking both amused and annoyed by the picture-taker.
The second image was from Easter, probably that same year. Elsie in a bright white Easter dress that Molly had made, standing on the stone side steps to the house. Elsie was still a shocking blonde then, I remembered, and the sunniness of the day, the whiteness of the image and the ineptitude of the photographer resulted in a highly overexposed image.
In the intervening twelve years, the Polaroid had faded such that I had to squint to see Elsie at all. Instead, it looked mostly like an image of the dark blue house with an Elsie-shaped absence in the middle.
* * *
I’ve started wondering: why is this the story I decided to tell? Why, when I did all that research on women and girls who disappeared or were kidnapped, did I give the narrative to those left behind rather than the woman herself? What part of me felt okay—strong, creative, even—making up a person just to enact her abuse? If I am her creator, is it possible I owe her more? (Or as her creator, am I simply outside the concepts of debt and morality? Is my only debt to the story itself? If that’s the answer, it would make me have to consider reversing myself on the ethics of Eurydice Messas’s book, which I’m unwilling to do. But I still just wonder: if Elsie had ever had a line of dialogue that wasn’t delivered from within a memory, if she’d ever appeared on the page, would I have had a harder time following through on my fate for her?)
The truth is, I don’t really know who Elsie Testa is because I’ve never let her tell me. Last month, I tried, as a writing exercise, to write an online dating profile for her, and I found that it was impossible: I had no idea who she actually was. I know her only as she’s filtered through the other characters’ guesswork, memories, after-the-fact cobbling. In my mind, she’s always been the outline in the mattress. Maybe it’s the Vicodin, maybe it’s the cabin fever, but I feel uneasy about this now.
In Redress, Elsie Testa disappears, and everyone who is changed by her absence has a theory, a version of her that they hold in their minds. Elsie is manipulative and cruel—
or she’s sexually reckless
or she’s damaged goods
or she’s insane or depressed
or she has some other secret, the shame of which made her disappearance inevitable.
All variations on a theme of shame. All at least a little true, to someone.
(Overlap the faded Polaroid photos of each version of Elsie and hold them up to the light. A collective outline emerges.)
Maybe I’m like all writers in that I’m interested in my own motives or urges here. (It’s all always about us somehow, isn’t it?) Did I create these possibilities to blunt the impact of her absence and her death? If Elsie Testa had been standing in those woods, I’m not sure which version of herself she might have been. If she would have been willing to forgive me. If, faced with her, I could have forgiven myself.