Where Did You Go, Ruby? | By Karen Gettert Shoemaker
We told ourselves that her bad habits explained how Ruby could disappear one day and not one of us noticed. She rushed in at least a half hour late for every meeting, if she came at all. She wasn’t exactly thoughtless and could hardly be accused of being disorganized; she simply operated on her own clock, lived in her own world.
Weeks of her absence went by with only an occasional shrug of irritation from one or another of us when she missed an appointment or a longstanding date. That’s so Ruby, we’d say, some with fondness and some with a tinge of anger in our voices. We’re not going to lie, the angry ones among us would think, good. She didn’t show up, again. We can quit this charade of friendship. We never knew what she was talking about half the time anyway. Ruby’s tendency to leap from metaphoric peak to metaphoric peak could leave a listener’s head a spin, there’s no denying that. Those of us who taught literature felt at home in her flights, but those of us who work with our hands or on our feet all day or night often grew impatient; we just wanted her to touch ground now and then.
Okay, we’ll admit it, there’s also no denying her lateness, her personality even, could get tiresome. It’s not as if only her time mattered, after all. Friendships have rules, or they should.
The fond ones among us though, those of us charmed by her flights into the uncharted stratosphere of the mind, we continued to wait for her even after she’d stood us up completely more than once. We grew accustomed to sitting alone in the corner booth of the coffee shop waiting longer even than Ruby’s clock required of us. We learned to make use of our waiting time; we took up new hobbies, learned new languages, had babies, or climbed mountains. We would continue to glance up with hope each time the door to the coffee shop opened or a car slowed down as if to pull into the parking lot. When we’d finally give up and head back to our own lives of errant teens and unpaid bills, we would often stand on the street a moment, waiting just a little longer. We felt her absence as a tear in the fabric of ourselves and we longed for the mending thread of her laughter, even when we had to wait and wait for her. We would recall her capacity to listen, like a compass. Without her to tell our deepest thoughts to we sometimes found ourselves uncertain about which way to turn.
How long before we started to wonder where she had gone? When did one and then another of us ask around to see if anyone had seen her lately? Who among us was the last to see her? Did she tell any one of us she was leaving? How long before the niggles of our curiosity become bubblings of concern?
Looking back, it’s hard to say what the time frame was for when we started asking until we started forgetting. Long enough, we now know, for the city to have built a park on the land where her home once stood. Time enough for trees to grow to full height, for perennial beds to bloom and thrive – always a bit behind the season, some noticed.
Some of us, the angry ones I mean, sometimes go there, to the park where she used to live, to wait for her, though we tell ourselves we’re just looking for fresh air. But we know, the honest ones among us, that something magic slipped out of our lives a long time ago and we don’t know how to get it back. Some of us claim to have seen her, not clearly, only in that sacred space in the corner of our eyes. We always turn to greet her, but of course we’re always too late to catch her.
About the Author:
Karen Gettert Shoemaker writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, book reviews, journal entries, and endless lists. Her most recent work, a reflection on the role of ordinary people during a pandemic, was published in the New York Times in 2020. Her novel, The Meaning of Names, was selected for the One Book One Nebraska statewide reading program in 2016 and the Omaha Reads community reading program in 2014. It was republished in China in 2020. Her award-winning short story collection, Night Sounds and Other Stories, was published in the US in 2002, and republished in the United Kingdom in 2006. Her work has been published in the London Times, Prairie Schooner, South Dakota Review, and included in a variety of anthologies of poetry and fiction.
She is the founder and director of Larksong Writers’ Place, a nonprofit organization offering independent writing workshops, manuscript consulting, and community-building for aspiring writers. She is also a writing mentor with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s MFA in Writing Program.