One day she doesn’t come to work. The month is September, and we think nothing of it. Everyone takes a day off on occasion. But Monday turns into Tuesday which turns into Friday, and she still doesn’t show. Words spreads she’s sick, has some kind of flu, but she’ll be back soon. She’s often out sick, but she always comes back. The days turn into weeks, and rumor has it she calls early every morning leaving a message on the phone before anyone’s even in the office: She cannot come in. No reason why, she just can’t. We all wonder, “Where is she?”
Before I ever became an editor, before I became a reporter and before I even had any job out of college, there was someone I’ll call, for the sake of this story, Marge. I started out at the newspaper as a scared, confused intern with an English degree to my name and not much more. I had this passion for writing but wasn’t much good at it and meanwhile everyone telling me newspapers were dying. Great. My first day interning, I walked in the front door, and there she was at the place I would soon learn was her permanent post: the front office. Marge hurries out from behind her post at the receptionist desk and over to me, smiling, and starts talking. I’m relieved I don’t have to. She shows me the place to put the mail, where to sit, where to sign in and sign out. She’s one of the few people back then who said “Hi” to me when I came in and “Bye” to me when I left, each time genuinely enthusiastic. It made me—the scared, confused and utterly clueless intern—feel less invisible.
My last day interning, in May of 2009, I left the office for what I thought would be my last time. I walk past the other reporters and editors, a few of whom lift their heads up from their work long enough to inquire whether I was leaving for good and to wish me well on my endeavors—whatever they were—before snapping them back down. I carry with me the few awful clips I managed to produce and my purse slung over my shoulder. I pass Marge’s desk on my way to the front door, but she’s not there to fill it. The front office feels like a different place without her. “Where could she be?” I wonder. I continue walking but hesitate. I turn back. I grab a blank little notebook stacked on her desk and spare pen. I need to say goodbye. “Goodbye Marge,” I write. “Thanks for being so nice to me.” I sign, “Naomi.” I flip it around so it’s facing her direction for when she returns.
The weeks turn into months. September fades into October seamlessly except for that unanswered question: “Where’s Marge?” I—who am now an editor at the newspaper— walk often past her desk, and everything’s preserved: Her picture frame with her beloved puppy, Earnhardt in it; her pictures of NASCAR racers; her little trinkets and pens and notebooks; and her potted plant. Everything, but her. Every time I go to the mail room to check my mail box, I pass her empty chair, and I imagine her saying hello or goodbye to someone who once, not long ago, was the intern. Everyone’s tried calling her, but she doesn’t return calls. Two people even went to her house, but she doesn’t answer the knocking.
About a year prior to when she disappeared, she came to my desk with a little note in her hand, and tears in her eyes: “Remember this?” she asked. I looked at the note in her hand and saw the faded note I wrote to her before I left: “Thanks for being so nice to me.” She said, “I kept it all this time. It just meant so much to me.” I never imagined it’d mean so much, that she would have kept it for so long. “You were so sweet to do that,” she said. I looked at her, with her gray-colored skin—she smoked a lot—her body so thin you could see her bones and the thin, shapeless dresses she always wore and her wispy hair and her purple mascara, and I felt sad that most people, when they saw Marge, would only think of her outside. But I saw her inside.
Eventually a note got posted at the sign in sheet: “Marge wishes for people to stop calling her.” I was one of those people who tried calling, leaving futile voicemail messages. Marge worked at the newspaper for 30 years, which is why leaving so suddenly and unannounced is so strange and unexpected. Walking away from a chunk of your life without so much as a backward glance is, to many, unimaginable. Someone eventually cleaned out her desk, packing all her belongings into a cardboard box. She stopped leaving voicemail messages every morning.
We all have our theories: she had some kind of mental breakdown, that she got physically sick and a hundred other things. But, until anyone hears from her, they’ll remain just that: theories. A mystery. In the meantime, it feels to everyone who knew her—which was the entire company—like she died. To have a person in your life one day, a person you see every single day save Saturday and Sunday, and out the next, is hard to understand. Unlike death, where you go through rituals that helps you cope, there’s no closure to what happened with Marge. She’s just gone.
The company hired a pretty young receptionist, who looks the part far better than Marge did. But the new receptionist isn’t quite right. Every time I walk into the front office, I miss Marge and her barrage of friendly questions about where I was going and when I’d come back and her commentary on how Earnhardt was doing and a zillion other things. I miss her quick steps zinging back and forth through the office, stopping every few minutes to chat with people about the latest television shows she watched. I miss her telling me that I should write a book someday and that she’d be the first person to read it; she often came to my desk with tears streaming down her face—(she cried really, really easily)—after reading my latest column in the newspaper.
I don’t know how to say goodbye to her since she won’t return phone calls and apparently doesn’t want anyone to call anymore. People eventually stopped talking after a few months about how strange her disappearance was, and still is. There’s only so much one can talk about something before you have to just accept it and move on, letting it remain one of life’s weird mysteries. So I say my goodbye differently. I remember Marge by saying hello and goodbye to the interns who pass in and out of the office every spring and summer. I see in them the person I used to be: scared and near terrible and writing. I remember how I used to feel back then and how Marge made me feel—like I existed and, even more, that I was wanted.