illustration by Brianna Ashby

Into the Great Wide Open

The Vanishing (1988)

When my husband Zach leaves home for a weekend Aikido seminar or a job training or anywhere that involves me sleeping alone and him driving long distances, I think He could be dead right now and I wouldn’t even know it, at least not for a few minutes, or maybe even hours. It seems impossible that I could even think of him alive—think of telling him something or curse him for leaving his whiskey glass half full by the bed where I spill it—when he could be gone.

This isn’t anxiety or obsession. I don’t believe that he is dead when he leaves, and it doesn’t make me pace the floors, and I don’t call him in tears asking for reassurances that he is still alive right now, this minute. It’s not irrational, really, because it is technically possible, but it’s a kind of possibility we have all decided to live with.

Still, we are always surprised when it actually does happen—somebody goes on a cross-country trip, and you receive a call at night telling you that they are gone and you’ll need to come identify the body. What would life be like if I were aware of this possibility all of the time, even more than I already am?

Even presence can’t protect us from death. A person can die while we are watching them. I just typed this, and it strikes me as strange—I can be speaking to you one moment, then you might hold your throat or touch your temple or feel a weakness in your arm and fall over and then, gone, your words practically still in the air. You might read this page, my words in your head, puzzling over the meaning of all my run-on sentences, and then, suddenly, the words blur and you’re gone. I could be gone, too, before this sentence is finished.


In The Vanishing, two lovers drive their small, European car through France. They are from Denmark and speak a language that sounds harsh, like an older, alcoholic uncle of English. The woman, Saskia, has freckles and red hair. The man, Rex, looks like his name—hard edges of jaw and black hair and moods that flicker between petulant and cruel.

They drive through mountain passes, the rocks leaning in sheets away from the road. They enter a cut tunnel, dark, where their car stalls and lights dim. She says she can find the flashlight, just wait a minute for her to find the flashlight. He tells her they must go—they could die in the tunnel, no lights, cars whisking by.

Put yourself in his place. He’s afraid but doesn’t want her to know. She lingers for a touch, though the lane is narrow and the trucks roll through, their horns echoing, and he leaves her.

There is no time to talk about dreams.

This is not the vanishing of the title. When he comes back, he finds her outside the tunnel, the flashlight in her hands. The tunnel is only a small vanishing, a foreshadowing. Each frame of the movie contains it: how she slips from his peripherals, how he leaves her and does not turn when she calls for him. She’s constantly at the edge, about to exit, always waving with her body if not her hands.

The vanishing in this movie is like all absences. No matter how protracted, still sudden, still strange that in one moment we could speak and hold a hand still animated and then a moment later it’s gone or limp and sparkless. Some speak until the end, and some are walking and talking until the moment it hits them—something literal like a car or a bullet, or the metaphorical hit: a heart attack, a stroke, something sudden that bursts vein walls or blacks out entire segments of the brain.


Several years ago I took a bereavement class at the local Hospice. For our training on how to comfort the recently bereaved—on what to say and not to say, how to understand the normal cycles of grief as opposed to abnormal grief—we met in an idyllic Vermont town, one with an autumn festival and a white church at its center. We carpooled to the training, so I waited for a carpool to the second meeting at our usual spot. The driver was late, and I worried someone had forgotten me. I usually think that plans will go wrong, I’ll be forgotten, I’ll ruin the training. But they came, eventually.

We couldn’t reach the last member of the carpool, Ed, who was supposed to bring snacks for the meeting. He was tall and fluent in Tibetan and Sanskrit. He coughed into his purple scarf (he was just getting over a cold), and during the first meeting, as we introduced ourselves (all artists, social workers, or writers), he had said that hospice work made him think about being conscious at the moment of dying. I didn’t know what he meant then. I thought that sounded awful, being aware of your own death, your life being tugged away from you like a piece of fabric so slippery you can’t hang on to it.

The carpool that second day finally left without him. We called him and left messages on his cell phone, which rang and rang until he said leave a message in the same voice each time. When we drove past his home, the road behind his house was blocked off with police tape. We drove around it. Surely he’s fine, the woman driving said. The other one said she had a feeling in her stomach that she’d had before. Had there been a white car on the street? He drove a white car. And what about the tape? What about the police officer directing traffic away? We drove to the meeting anyway. People don’t die so close to home, not so early in the morning.

Later that night, I received a call from Melissa, the woman running the training. Ed had been killed that morning. I said something stupid, then—Are you serious? She said yes, she was. He’d been hit by a car. He’d been hit by a drunk driver at eight in the morning, his body thrown from the passenger side of the car and into the street, where a woman (a nurse) had held him as he sputtered and bled and soon died. The driver of the car had kept going, her grandchild in the backseat late for school.

I think of that phone ringing in his pocket as his body was on the street, unable to respond. In that minute, still alive, and with the next call, not.


In The Vanishing, the lovers Rex and Saskia stop at a gas station, where she buys a frisbee and they sit in the grass under a tree. She gives Rex something and says from the girl who loves roses, especially in 8’s, which seems almost like a gesture of forgiveness for his behavior back at the tunnel, when he left her in the darkness.

I like how it sounds, though I don’t understand it: from the girl who loves roses, especially in 8’s.

She disappears. Rex cannot find her after asking the cashier and the men at the pumps, after bursting in on the manager who seems amused at the foreigner’s fear. Rex slams the car door so hard he shatters the window and curls up in the place where her body had been, to sleep.

He examines his polaroids. He can see her, a small blonde dot near a truck. That’s her, he tells the convenience store manager, that’s her, she was here. As if her presence in the picture means she must still be out there, somewhere.


Like the rest of us, villains plan. They test the sedative effects of chloroform with stopwatches. They test the echoes in the landscape, how loud a scream must be before it reaches the neighbor’s house. Their wives feel vaguely neglected though the sex is regular. The children think father has a mistress—he’s sometimes not quite here, and the car is always about to run out of gas.

The villain in The Vanishing is named Raymond Lemorne. He is careful. He keeps lists. He is not the kind of man who does anything on a whim, or out of stupid desire like the rest of us. He practices his lines to prepare, a nervous actor, and perfects the way that he’ll shut the car door behind his victims—not too loudly, not aggressively in a way that might scare them. He doesn’t want to scare anyone.


After three years, we meet Rex again, back in France with a new girlfriend. This new woman—dark where Saskia was light, grave and fully-dressed where Saskia was buoyant, with clothes that always seemed ready to slip off—says I’ve had enough of your sacred places.

Rex’s face now bears the hurt of an adolescent who’s received a blow that might lead to a future limp or slumped shoulders or a cringing face. He breathes through his nose in anger, like a cat does when you pull its tail or touch it where it doesn’t want to be touched. He cannot be relieved—though it’s curiosity, not grief, which seems tp move him now. He goes on television and says that he doesn’t want to hurt the person who took Saskia. He doesn’t want revenge.

He just wants to know what happened.


When a person dies, the first thing we say is how did it happen? Zach and I sometimes sit on the porch of our apartment building to eat dinner or smoke and not get the smell of cigars or my little chocolate cigarettes in the carpets or on our clothes or in nicotine blotches on the walls. I asked him why he thought people ask about the details of a person’s death. Why should it matter? Why do we want to know the details, the specifics, the day and the hour?

I was thinking about this because of Rex, three years after Saskia’s disappearance, and how he speaks directly into the camera on television to the man (he assumes it’s a man, as we all do) who has taken her. I just want to know what happened, he says. I don’t want to hurt you, and I won’t turn you in. All he wanted was to know, but how would knowing help?

We sat on our porch in dusk in late April, the streetlights coming on so slowly we hardly noticed until their orange light filled the new leaves and spilled out onto the street. I had a theory about why we need to know the details of death: because knowing details, knowing what happened and how and exactly when, gives us some feeling of control. That place of darkness in our head where death is can be filled with an image. But why? Why isn’t the sheer fact that the person is gone, inaccessible, no longer available in the way they were before, enough to make us stop trying to gather information? Knowing things can’t bring them back.

Zach had another theory. He said that people want to know the details as a matter of survival—if we understand the reasons why people have died, we can assess our ability to avoid their deaths. He mentioned Jeff Buckley, a honey-voiced, Keatsian singer-songwriter who died after jumping into the Mississippi River for a swim while drunk.

His answer surprised me. It had not occurred to me that there could be a practical reason for asking these questions. And I don’t believe it, at least not in all cases. I don’t believe that we are nearly as rational as we like to think. There we were, for example, smoking cigarettes after our family members had died from lung cancer, after we’d seen commercial after commercial giving the raw data to prove that cigarettes can kill you.

I once badly sprained my ankle in a stupid, absolutely avoidable accident. I had unintentionally turned a treadmill up to an impossible running pace and tried to jump off the back to avoid being spun off the belt. Instead, the treadmill sent me flying back into the wall and I landed on my ankle, my left foot twisted to the right, with the full force of my weight on the small knobby bone of my left ankle. In the moments right after the accident, as I limped myself out into the main floor of the gym looking for Zach to show him my enormous, swollen ankle, I played the scene on a loop, trying to locate the exact moment when I could have changed the outcome.

For weeks afterward, as I lay in bed and couldn’t move, I would replay the scene in my head. I’d imagine what might have happened if I had instead hit the enormous red “stop” button on the panel. Or what if I had jumped on the outside edges of the treadmill and turned down the speed manually?

Later, I realized why I was doing this: some part of me, some part beyond logic, believed that if I could isolate that exact moment and re-imagine it, I could somehow change the outcome.

But maybe it’s just me. Maybe Zach is right: we want to know the details because we want to learn, to catalogue that knowledge and use it to keep ourselves safe.


Towards the end of The Vanishing, I began to feel sick to my stomach. I wanted to know what had happened to Saskia, but I was also afraid to know.

I liked Saskia. Remember earlier, when the lovers’ car stalls in the unlit tunnel and she is afraid, and he is afraid, and they cannot figure out how to tell each other how afraid they are? So she takes the flashlight and holds it tight in her hands until he returns, which endeared me to her. I like her red hair and her freckles.

I want her back like Rex, and like Rex, I know she is gone and I really just want to know how she was killed and where her bones are and if she was afraid. But should a lover be curious? I don’t really know her. Would I be curious if a person who had killed Zach, let’s say, came to me and said he/she would explain it all if I’d come along? I can’t imagine going. But then again, I can’t imagine any of it.


Once, when Zach and I were driving up to Montreal for a short vacation after a long stretch of work—in late August, I think, when it was sweltering and sticky even as far north as Quebec—we passed an accident on a highway. It had just happened, perhaps a dozen or so cars before us, and we drove slowly as the traffic assumed shape and form and flowed around the accident.

The term rubbernecker assumes that the desire to see is a kind of sin, is for only the most prurient reasons—to see a real skull split, for example—but I looked because I had to: this woman had been alive minutes before, and now she was dead. She lay face down next to the highway guardrail. She was still. Her t-shirt had ridden up, revealing a roll of fat and her bra strap pinched into the flesh of her back. Her arms were spread out and covered in cuts. Her shoes were on. She was faced away from the road and the top of her head was covered in blood—just a mound of red soaked through her hair, or maybe where her hair had been. The way she was laid out on the ground made it clear she was dead (arms pinned and twisted, face in the pavement), but it wasn’t until I saw the blood that I knew it, and my stomach turned and I had to look away. I spent the rest of the trip trying not to think of it, wishing I hadn’t looked. I imagined how quickly it must have happened for her—a skidding off the road, her car door opening, her body hitting the ground. Did she die on impact?

When we got home, I looked up information about the accident. I googled the highway and accidents and found it—a woman, 45, had died on Highway 89 North, just south of the Canada/Vermont border. I searched for a week for more information, but there was never anything else. I wanted to know what the car was doing—was it speeding? Was there a domestic dispute (her husband had lived, according to the newspaper)? Had they been hit by another car? I wanted to know more, not because I was morbid but because seeing her had reminded me of how close we always are to suddenly being gone. If we had started out on our trip five minutes earlier, we might have passed the van and seen her alive, her arm hanging from the driver’s side window in the sun. The time difference seemed too small to fit a death into. It wasn’t like a hospital death, slow and gradual, first the person’s health going, then motion and finally speech. It was too sudden.


After I finished The Vanishing I wanted to immediately wash the feeling of the movie away. I was afraid of people and the thoughts in their head that aren’t visible from the outside, what people are capable of and how little we know of why. I went to the IMDB message boards to see if anyone else felt the same. I learned that the ending of the movie is famous, that the director never made a movie so good again, and that The Vanishing was re-made as an American film. The American film had a happy ending, though I can’t imagine how. A happy ending would make it a completely different movie, the message destroyed. But what is the message?

Rex would have been happier if he had let Saskia go—is that the message of the movie? Is needing to know what happened, beyond all reasonable doubt, the real villain here, as opposed to the quiet man with a simple haircut and a family waiting for him back at his summer villa?

Like cats, we are killed by our own curiosity. Or sickened when we look at the body facedown on the highway, afraid to ask how it happened and did they suffer and if it took long. But we ask anyway. We seem unable not to know when knowing is possible, and offered.