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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Vanishing Act

Of all the rituals that occur during a week in my downtown Manhattan co-op, the most unwavering happens on Saturday morning. After fetching The New York Times weekend sections from the mailroom, I brew a pot of coffee and spend the morning working on the crossword puzzle in the magazine. And I always use the same pen: a black retractable fountain pen with a red ruby heart at the base of the clip. My husband gave me one just like it 20 years ago. I’ve had to replace it twice, not because the pens were lost or stolen, but because they disappeared inside our apartment.

So have other items. A gold hoop vanished after it popped out of my earlobe, and I heard it fall on the bedroom floor. I got down on my knees and went over the wood planks in widening circles, first with my hands and finally with a brush to get into crevices. By the time the earring reappeared – years later and, inexplicably, in the back of my sock drawer – I had developed a feel for which vanished items could be found and which ones could not.

For example, my daughter’s retainer didn’t seem exotic enough to vanish. When it went missing, by way of testing my theory, I searched through drawers, shelves, book bags, and wastebaskets without success, then put on rubber gloves and went down to the trash room. After finding the garbage bags I’d brought down 18 hours earlier, I picked through the debris until I felt the retainer inside a balled-up tissue. While this messy victory wasn’t going to save us a trip to the dentist for a clean replacement, I was giddy for being right: some items get lost in my apartment and others, like gifts from my husband, get consumed by it.

Just a few weeks after my husband gave me the original crossword puzzle pen, it disappeared. Before leaving the apartment one day, I’d clipped the pen to the Sunday magazine and zipped it inside a small backpack. On the subway, I pulled out the puzzle, but the pen wasn’t attached. I rifled through the backpack and looked under and around my seat. When I returned home, after dumping out the contents and checking the backpack for holes, I was again on my hands and knees searching the bedroom floor. But the pen was gone.

A few days later, I walked over to the Fountain Pen Hospital, a beloved downtown institution. The shop had one more pen like mine in stock, so I bought it. But this time, I took steps to minimize the weird magic trick in my apartment. I used the pen only on weekends; I never took it out of the apartment; and I always put it back in my bedside stand on Sunday night.

The strategy worked for almost two decades. Then, last year, after my husband and older daughter left on a trip to Africa, I spent that first Saturday morning puttering around the apartment in my bathrobe. When I sat down to take a stab at the puzzle, the magazine was on the coffee table where I’d left it, but the pen was gone. And though I knew I wouldn’t get it back, I stripped off all of the living room slipcovers, flipped over all of the cushions, and moved the furniture away from the center of the room so I could inspect, and reinspect, the floor. At night I crawled around with a flashlight looking for a glimmer from my pen’s red heart. When my husband and daughter called to update me on their adventures, I tried to sound interested in their tale of diving with sharks, but all I wanted to do was scream, “My pen’s gone! Again!”

My younger daughter, who had stayed behind, made tea while I conducted yet another fruitless search, then she gently suggested getting a new pen. But I didn’t want a new pen. I wanted to know what happened to my old pen.

When my husband returned from his trip, I pre-empted his safari tales at the front door with a rapid-fire account of my missing pen. “Just buy another one,” he said reflexively.

“They don’t make that pen anymore,” I said. “And besides, I don’t care about the pen. I care that stuff just disappears.”

To prove that a new pen wouldn’t make me feel better, I went back to the Fountain Pen Hospital. A salesperson said that my pen had been off the market for more than a decade and suggested I contact a collector. Instead, I went on eBay – and there it was. New. Never used. Original box. Not cheap. No way I was going to click Buy It Now.

“Buy it now,” my husband begged. “Please.”

So I did, just for his sake. The package arrived on a Thursday. As advertised, the box and pen were brand new. The barrel and ruby, unlike mine, were unscratched and glimmering. And the nib was still sharp. As I tucked the shiny new pen into my nightstand, I began to wonder if the next thing to disappear would be my insistence that I cared about finding, not replacing, the pen.

On Saturday morning, my husband brought up the Times magazine from the mailroom and put a mug of coffee on the dining table. I came out of the bedroom, tentatively at first, with my new pen in hand. Without another thought, I inserted a blue ink cartridge and got to work on the puzzle.

Turns out some mysteries aren’t worth solving. When this pen disappears, as I have no doubt it will, I’ll save what’s left of my knees and go shopping for a new one. The apartment has its rituals. And I have mine.

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