Short Story: Traces

Casey Dexter
8 min readOct 27, 2023

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I sat on the front porch just as the sun was setting. My feet were up on the glass coffee table, and I could see grains of sand stuck around my toes. The chimes that dangled from the neighbor’s patio swayed in the light breeze. Sipping on the Pimm’s my dad had mixed for me, I studied the houses lining our narrow street, admired the trimmed sidewalks, the sandy pathways that led down to the beach. I’d sat here many times, at all ages, all heights, all varying awkward stages of puberty and studied this exact block. Watching families pushing strollers, beach-bikers cruise as the sun set, toddlers holding sand shovels and pails, it normally felt like such peace.

I took a long pull of my drink and eyed a young couple, late twenties I guessed, walking hand in hand coming from the beach path. They were smiley, giggly, fingers deeply intertwined, walking perfectly in-step. I guessed they were fairly new. Less than a year in. They had that early, euphoric energy. I guessed they’d recently said “I love you” to each other. Probably somewhere kitschy like a Ferris wheel or someone else’s wedding. I guessed they already had a song that was “theirs.” I watched them stop and kiss in front of the Herman’s garden. Pimm’s to my own lips I rolled my eyes. I found their love loathsome and recognizing that other peoples’ relationships made me irritable then made me more irritable. I find bitterness to be an unbecoming quality, yet here I was sat arm in arm with it.

Succumbing to my dark companion, I continued to make assumptions about the couples’ inevitable life together: the traditional wedding with the fun flair of a “dessert table,” the perfunctory two bed two bath in the town he grew up in, the hypo-allergenic fluffy dog that would eventually be used to announce their pregnancy (in my head they put a shirt on the dog that says “big brother” but you can imagine what you wish). They would have an incredibly happy life together. I ruminated on the bits of cucumber left at the bottom of my glass until they were down to a pulp. I envied such normality. Their life path was so clear.

My friend Sam once described love to me as “a color she’d never seen.” I’m sure it’s pretty obvious, but I’ve never been in love. I’ve gotten scholarships, scored perfect test grades, earned promotions, traveled the world, run a marathon, been blessed by the Pope, maintained a consistent size 2 for my entire life, but I’ve never been in love. So, to many (most egregiously, suburban mothers) I am still “finding myself.”

I live alone in Los Angeles and one time my engaged friend, Lara, FaceTimed me to show off a potential rehearsal dinner dress. “I would show you the back,” she said, angling the camera in the mirror, “but I’m alone, so I can’t zip it up.”

I wondered how she thought I dressed myself in the morning.

In general, I have a lot of friends and would consider myself generally well-liked and kind. I do find happiness in their happiness. I just can’t relate to everyone who’s seeing the color, let’s call it “pur-quoise” or “yel-urple.” I’ve tried, trust me.

The wind blew my hair across my eyes. I carefully pulled the blonde strands back and sank deeper into the wicker chair. Normally I liked sitting out here at sunset. Sometimes I’d bring a book or a puzzle, other times Charlie would sit with me, and we’d just talk or nap. But even before the couple walked by, I felt vaguely sad. A hollow, emptiness that wasn’t big enough to be called depression, but didn’t go away with a good night’s sleep, had settled in just as I arrived here with my family. I felt somewhere between “on edge” and “in a funk.”

Despite years and years of me, Charlie, and Ethan piling into the backseat of our Highlander, smushed between towels and boogie boards, playing games to drown out whatever our parents were fighting about in the front seats, the beach felt less familiar. Less innocent. That last time I’d been here wasn’t with my family, it was early last autumn to meet up with Oliver.

We’d been seeing each other for a while before he invited me to his family’s timeshare in Avalon. I excitedly went (after sending all outfits for approval to Lara) and played house for the weekend with Oliver, all of it feeling very natural. Him cooking me bacon and eggs every morning, borrowing bikes from the garage to ride along the boardwalk, finishing the day at a winery or playing Mario Kart. The back of his house was along the bay, and we’d sit on his dock, sipping drinks and looking around, observing, taking it all in. I thought that was something special him and I had in common, we liked to take in the world around us.

The unlatching of the screen door knocked me out of my daydream. I heard a small bark and turned to see Rosie’s black fur rush towards me. “She was crying to sit with you,” Mom said before disappearing back inside just as Rosie hopped up on my lap and made a little circle. I moved my empty glass to avoid her wagging tail and pressed my cheek against her soft ear as she settled.

I closed my eyes, face still buried in Rosie’s fur. The wind picked up, growing louder. It was like I could hear the sound of Oliver’s laugh carried in the breeze. I opened one eye and quickly scanned the street, but he wasn’t there. I had a fear I’d run into him here, I suspected that was largely why I felt so unsettled. I imagined what would happen if I did see him coming down the street on his bike, a bottle of wine tucked into his sweatshirt pocket. I imagined he’d stop if he saw me on my porch. He’d probably make a big showing of riding without touching the handlebars, a devilish grin on his face, completely unaware of how much I had cried over him.

“Charlotte!” he’d call.

My body would freeze, just for a moment. Eventually I’d come to and smooth my hair and straighten my posture. Hopefully I’d be wearing something effortless, like, I don’t know a low-cut summer dress or a push up bikini. Not that I needed to look good for him, but in my daydream, I’m allowed to look as good as I want.

“Oliver,” I’d managed to breathe. “Fancy seeing you here!” I’d forced a smile and a small laugh. I was not a “cool” girl, but I’d try.

Oliver would look the same. Thin yet handsome, blue-eyed, with the attentive stare of a luxury car salesmen. The kind that coerced you into believing you were meant for a car like this, that you and you alone deserved it.

“Wow, is this the dog you were going to get?” Oliver would ask, acknowledging the Spaniel puppy on my lap. “You actually got one!”

“Yes, meet Rosie,” I’d answered, thankful for the easy conversation target. Rosie would probably already be belly up in front of Oliver, eager for a pet. “She’s a real guard dog,” I’d joke, making a mental note to up her training. Thankfully she was my parents’ dog and not really my responsibility.

I’d watch him rub her belly and take a deep breath, waiting for what would be said next. There was a lot I wanted to hear, an apology, an explanation, but even in my fantasy I couldn’t picture that happening. There was enough said in the unsaid between us that I wasn’t looking for closure or anything. I never really liked the idea of closure, anyway. If someone’s stopped seeing you, it’s because they didn’t want to see you. Pretty simple to me. I imagined we’d talk about LA, how the indie band he managed was doing, the fact that he’d recently moved to Philadelphia and bought a house there (I saw that on Instagram). I’d pay the cost of a house to never live in Philly, but that’s just me. A city full of greasy cheesesteaks and sports fans that climb light poles.

Overall, I wasn’t really sure how to direct the rest of our made-up conversation. My daydream had no end. I had nothing that I was dying to say, it was just that Oliver had lived in my mind for so long, the act of being back in a place that we shared together allowed him to re-claim that brain space. I opened my eyes and rubbed Rosie’s head as I surveyed my street again. I wondered how it was possible that my mind could hold so much, even when my reality wasn’t demanding more.

I feel like it makes me sound crazy to admit that. To admit that there’s nothing I really have to discuss with Oliver, yet my mind can’t let go. It wasn’t like I was sending him drunk texts or writing letters I’d never mail. Sam told me she felt like this over guys from her past, too. I was happy she’d said that. I can’t imagine Charlie ever admitting that he thought about girls long after they’d left. I can’t imagine my brother even thinking about a girl if she wasn’t right in front of him. The way he tore through women in the city astonished me. Somehow his “nice guy who’s just busy” act seemed to work. I love him, but I hated that.

For my twenty-eight years on this earth, I have brain storage for men I’ll absolutely never see or speak to again. I carry the experiences of others in my repertoire. Every time I order Thai Green Curry, I get the sticky rice because Joe introduced me to it. I can thank Stephen for my Flywheel membership. I’ll never see him in spin class, but it’s become one of my favorite hobbies. Josh showed me Stone Street, Mark showed me extra dirty martinis. I can throw away pictures, give back sweatshirts, delete text threads, but there are parts of previous partners that have become who I am. It would be impossible to untrain my brain in association.

Later that week I went to Swirls with Ethan, Charlie, and Dad and remembered that Oliver liked blueberry ice cream. When our family played arcade games on the boardwalk, I remembered that Oliver was captain of his basketball team. I heard a Thundercat song and remembered how we’d jokingly danced in his kitchen, arms around each other’s waists. My mind couldn’t let go.

Honestly, I think the only real cure is to replace him with someone new. Unfortunately, no one good has come around in a while. The world was very much still in primary colors.

I laugh when I think about Ethan and his wife, Molly. They met in high school. They never dated other people. Never experienced heartbreak, a ghosting, a “nice to meet you but I don’t feel a spark” text. Never had to schlep through the apps or bring a pair of purse underwear just in case the date went well (Sam and I came up with that idea). What could their brains possibly hold? Did Ethan really just go for ice cream and enjoy the act of dessert without any intrusive thoughts? Could Molly just turn on the TV without fear of being triggered by a memory? Did they both just… live?

Sometimes I think I lose a little piece of resiliency every time love doesn’t work out. I’m jealous of Ethan and Molly in that way. But I also gain a silver of variety to my life. Something that wasn’t there before. Oliver will fade more and more. He will be replaced by new hobbies and foods and vacations. But all of those men, every last one, aren’t gone.

There are little traces left behind.

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Casey Dexter

Casey lives in London and works in publishing and entertainment. caseydexter.org