She was living far away. That was the first problem. It was a small town in
Maine, a few run-down brick buildings on the banks of a brown river. A road led
out of town one way through a tunnel of trees that opened up every once
in a while for a black-shuttered house or a convenience store. A road led the
other way, past a supermarket plaza and a women's prison, a branch of the state
university, then a few fast food restaurants, a Super 8 Motel, and then more
trees, nothing else for an hour into Canada.
All the cars had license plates with lobsters in the numbers, lobster plates,
the idea of some grade-school class. She wouldn't have gone on vacation there.
Maybe the falls were good but there wasn't any spring. Just the damp, run-down
buildings, the people, sour and knowing as chalk, and sometimes a tourist, who
passed through on the way to someplace better and could leave. People kept
threatening her with winter.
They thought of their lives as more terrible than life in the rest of the
country. She would read in the newspaper that a baby had been killed in a fire
in a trailer, a woman was mistaken for a deer and shot dead on her lawn, a man
had been sawn in half at the mill, and that logs had fallen from a paper company
truck, crushing and killing the mother and children riding inside.
She knew it was terrible. Still, she would insist to the other members of her
writing workshop (she was taking a class called "Write That Story!"),
there must be people somewhere who got through the day safely and led uneventful
lives, whose tragedies were more interior. She sat in a classroom with two women
with short hair and no makeup who had come up in the back-to-the-land movement,
a heavy girl who was writing horror, a retired insurance man who was also
writing horror, and a boy from the university who was writing a play about two
other boys on a couch. She looked at the nest of black hair in Vernon the
insurance man's ear, and at the sparkle of dust from the windows. Her eyes
watered from the sharp scent of floor wax. Outside the sun was slanting through
the trees. It felt like the world was ending and it had only just started.
Gradually, she stopped going to the class. No matter what she wrote, their
comments were always the same. They didn't know what the problem was; they saw
characters but no problem. She would see the people from time to time in the
supermarket or on the street, and they would ask about her writing the way you
would inquire about someone in delicate health.
"How's the writing going?" the person would say.
"It's going," the girl would reply, guardedly offhand. She felt
humiliated. She didn't want them to feel sorry for her. She wanted to feel sorry
"Well, that's great," the person would answer, her eyes glazing
Their voices were always full of smug sympathy. It made the girl angry
because she knew she was right. This was at a time when she was reading
furiously, before the ability of other writers to articulate her problems
overwhelmed her. To prove that she knew better, she would rave to the person
about a book she had read. The person would give her an appreciative, distracted
look, and then the girl would realize that nothing she could say about a book
could make it reflect on herself. She would smile wryly and twist a lock of her
thin hair, or play with the zipper on her huge coat until she could get away.
There were other people she didn't want to see.
She had to wear the coat because even though it was only October, she was
cold all the time. There was a housing shortage and she was renting a room from
a doctor and a psychologist who had escaped from the city. They cared about the
environment, so, although they liked her, they never gave her any heat. It
wasn't cruelty. They believed they were doing her a favor. She thought of the
way some missionaries had believed they were helping the people they burned.
They saw the girl as both the root and product of the solid-waste crisis and
made a point of watching what she bought.
"That looks like a cow pat," the man would say about her frozen
The woman, who was the psychologist, would hesitate. "It's . . .
interesting," she said when the girl pulled the foil off a TV dinner,
revealing pieces of ugly, shrunken chicken on a glistening tray.
Gradually, the girl stopped buying her favorite foods, which were all out of
packages and cans, and ate the meals they made from the vegetables in their
garden. Some meals they had were mostly zucchini and then they would even joke.
But her landlords were proud they could do important things for people and then
come home and grow food for themselves. The man would bring in huge, ugly
zucchini from the garden and display them like specimens by the sink. Once he
mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and said, "I had to tell a patient
he had four months to live today." Then he grinned and went back outside to
The girl often felt weak. What kept her going were cans of Coca-Cola. She
drank three or four a day to keep from getting dizzy, timing them carefully like
a drug. Her landlords drank water out of handmade pottery, but the soda didn't
bother them because the cans were recyclable. They saw it as a cute habit they
could retrain, like a dog jumping up on the couch, except that their dogs were
allowed on the couch.
They had two dogs, a ragged dachshund and a black and tan hound. The girl
usually liked animals, but she hated their dogs. They cleaned themselves
underneath the dinner table, beside her chair. They would follow her around and
beg. She could never eat anymore-she always felt like she had a sharp bone
caught in her throat. It bothered her that they knew this and waited for the
food from her plate.
After dinner they would all take turns washing dishes. There was a long list
of chores, from taking the vegetable peelings out to the compost heap to rinsing
out plastic bags for reuse to stacking wood for the wood stove. The woman liked
them all to be cooperative. It reminded her of being back in college and made
her feel less guilty about having money.
Because she was so cold, the girl tried to do dishes whenever she could. She
would turn the water on as hot as she could stand and slowly wash the pottery,
bending over the steam. It was the only way she could stay warm. They heated the
house only by the wood stove and unless you were right in front of it, it didn't
She had asked the woman if they could sometimes use the oil heat. The woman
had frowned at her, measuring the girl's needs against the limited supply of oil
pooling below the desert floor and oceans where seabirds were already
suffocating and drenched with tar.
"My gut tells me we shouldn't," she said.
She believed very strongly in her feelings and talked about them in a
disembodied way as if they had enormous power over her. The girl sometimes felt
like she was having a conversation with something deep inside the woman's body.
The house was very cold. She couldn't sleep at night, it was so cold. She lay
on her mattress, shivering, and tried not to listen to the music drifting out
over the river from the parties at the university. The students were always
playing the same song. It was about someone the singer couldn't live without.
Before, the girl would have thought it was moronic, but now her throat would
close up and she would start to cry.
After a while, in their bedroom by the wood stove, her landlords would begin
a sexless thumping that reminded her of the sound the man made when he beat the
black and tan dog for peeing on the floor. Now the dog was frightened. Every
time it saw the man, it peed. The man was sterile. The woman had told the girl
that her rent money was the exact price of the sperm for her infertility
treatments. She was always telling the girl things she didn't want to know. At
the time, the girl thought she was crazy to be so sensitive about that and the
cold, but the next spring, when it was all over, she found a pat of butter she
had saved in her coat from a restaurant, still hard and yellow as a coin.
All of this was a problem, but it wasn't what was wrong. What was wrong was
that far away at her old college, her boyfriend was falling in love. She had
made a horrible mistake. She had moved up there to show him she was independent
and secretly wait for him to finish his degree. He was older but their
situations were reversed. He was taking longer because he'd had trouble and she
had graduated early because her parents kept threatening not to pay. Like many
things, it had made sense at the time. His parents lived there; she thought that
she could see him when he came home over breaks. She hadn't realized that most
of life didn't take place over college breaks. That, more than anything else,
made her feel foolish. Now her boyfriend was falling in love with someone and
she had to see his mother at the store at least once a week.
To the girl, it was worse than not writing. Because it never changed
anything, she had begun to see writing as useless and silly. She thought of it
now the way she had thought about other girls practicing cartwheels when she was
When the girl had first met her boyfriend, he was sleeping all day and waking
up at night to drink a kind of drink made with bourbon and Crystal Lite. She had
dragged him out of bed every morning. Now he was fine and didn't want to
remember how he felt before.
She remembered how it had been when she was a lifeguard and had saved people
who were drowning. You would pull them out of the water, gasping and slippery
with suntan lotion. They could never look at you afterwards.
Her boyfriend's mother always said that he was doing well.
She couldn't tell anyone she had made such a terrible mistake. She couldn't
say the words "boyfriend" and "love" in the same sentence
without sounding frivolous and naive.
She would call her mother long-distance but her throat would close up.
"How is everything?" her mother would ask.
"Everything is fine," the girl would tell her.
"Everything is fine?" her mother said.
"Everything is fine," the girl said. She would put her fist in her
mouth and try to breathe.
"School is fine, work is fine?" her mother asked.
The girl would begin crying silently, angry at her mother for being so
stupid. Her mother would hear her and get confused. She had put the girl through
college on a combination of financial aid and tips from waitressing. Now she
expected her to be happy. "What is it?" she would ask. "What's
"Nothing," the girl would answer sharply. She believed in the power
of language. She didn't want her mother to make her say the words that would
make her boyfriend's love real.
"What's wrong?" her mother would finally shriek, her voice
frightened and breaking. The girl's aunt was dying of cancer and she didn't have
the patience. Every day she went to the hospital and watched her shrivel and
turn yellow like an unwatered plant.
The girl's father would settle things by hanging up the phone. He wouldn't
talk. He was always a morose, silent man. As the years went by, he believed more
and more in the power of action instead of words.
Afterwards, the girl would go and look out the windows of all the different
rooms of the house, trying to get a different angle on her life. She pressed her
face against the one in her bedroom and looked out on miles and miles of black
trees. She went into the bathroom, her landlords' bedroom, the kitchen, and the
spare bedroom her landlady was saving for the baby she was going to have after
her infertility treatments were done. Outside the man would be chopping wood and
the woman would be hanging out laundry or playing with their dogs. Steam curled
up from the smokestack of the paper mill across the river. The girl hated what
she saw. There was no quaint village like at her boyfriend's college, no art
openings, no readings by visiting Caribbean writers, no farm stands, no cocktail
parties, no libraries, just the paper mill, the grim state university, and more
trees. She had only herself to attract him. How could she compete?
She didn't think that she should have to suffer for her mistakes. She thought
her boyfriend should love her.
She called him two or three times a week and flirted with the freshmen on his
floor so they would go to his room and get him. Sometimes a girl with a sulky
voice answered the phone. Then she had to be careful. With girls you couldn't
flirt. She had to flatter the other girl and ask her about Italy, where she had
spent her junior year abroad. They got to the point where they talked about
books. The sulky girl offered opinions and she listened closely, trying to
figure out the other girl's relationship to her boyfriend. She was ashamed of
how mercenary she was, but she couldn't learn anything from him.
"What are you doing?" she would ask when she called.
He would say, "Eating."
He always said something objective and impersonal. He wouldn't get off the
phone but he wouldn't talk. She had the feeling that he was still making up his
mind and anything she said could be held against her.
It made her confused. She tried to remember him the way he was when they had
first met. She was walking in the woods with him and another girl. Her hands got
cold and he gave her his gloves and put on hers. She couldn't make her own heat
and her hands were cold again so he switched gloves again and gave her own
gloves back, warm from his hands. They kept walking like that, switching gloves.
He had been sweet and aimless, and hung around while she tried to study until
she thought she'd go nuts.
"I want us to be separate for a while," she had told him.
He had looked wounded and right away she had apologized. When she remembered
that look, she smacked her head. She waited until she heard a ringing. Then she
hit it again until it hurt.
She couldn't tell her boyfriend about her own life. She knew there was
something wrong with it. It was too cheap. She was substitute teaching to make
money. Each time she went into a class, to save herself, she had to predict
which student would cause the most trouble and throw that person out. Otherwise,
the class would gain momentum and go after her. She would sway in front of the
blackboard and they would bring her down like a deer.
Some administrator must have sensed the connection between eighth graders and
mobs. In all the schools where she was subbing, they were doing The Crucible,
which covered two time periods and obsessive love and fulfilled the curriculum
requirement for a play. The boys leered at the girls and pronounced the name of
the black slave Tituba until she was beyond normal exasperation and began to
laugh. That was when she felt the cheapest.
But it was the most beautiful fall anyone could remember. The sky was clear
and cold. The river glittered and the leaves glowed on the trees.
The girl got some kind of parasite. Her landlady's dogs gave her something
that jumped all night and stabbed her like needles and not fleas. She would lie
on her mattress, trying to cover up the places on her body where she thought
they might crawl, but they would jump through her fingers. After a while she
would give up and weep. Outside her window the moon, whiter than she had ever
seen before, shone through the branches of the trees. She thought of her
boyfriend and the sulky girl and how she couldn't visit in time to stop them. He
had made her promise to wait until after midterm exams. And now she had fleas.
She raked her skin with her nails, then sat up and drank a Coke to calm herself
down. She liked drinking Coke because it made her feel more normal; it reminded
her of how normal life was supposed to be. She stayed up late watching long
commercials for starving children on TV. They were from an organization she had
once sent money to. The children's arms were thin brown twigs that waved weakly
at flies. "Do something," she said to them, angrily. She wanted them
to brush off the flies.
She was going broke buying poison lotion to get rid of her fleas. She drove
home from work with a case of Coke, a box of dog biscuits, and another bottle of
the kind of lotion that hadn't worked before. She had tried every kind of poison
there was without a prescription. She couldn't afford to go to a doctor. She had
asked her landlord for one and he had laughed. After a minute, she laughed also
and pretended it was a joke.
Her car bumped over rocks and scraped along the ground. The road was torn up
by plowing and frost heaves. The girl hated it because it was ruining her
suspension. If her car broke down, she wouldn't be able to leave. She winced
every time she hit a chunk of asphalt. Her landlords were proud of living on
such a bad road because it proved to people that they hadn't fled to the
suburbs. They had a pickup truck for hauling manure and a Jeep.
When she got to the house, she left the soda in the car and went up the steps
with the biscuits and the bottle of lotion. She waited until she could hear the
dogs panting on the other side of the door, then pushed it open and threw a
handful of biscuits as far as she could into the living room. Then she ran
upstairs to her room and slammed the door. She leaned against it and listened
while they fought over the biscuits and then bounded upstairs after her. She did
this every day. It had become a game to them but the girl was serious. They
would jump on her and give her more of whatever bugs they had given her before.
The hound would get excited and pee.
The little one left first. The black and tan dog stayed. She heard his
muffled whine and wanted to weep. Stupid goddamned dog, she whispered. She
waited until he went away and then stripped and put on the lotion. She struggled
to cover every inch of herself, her breasts, her armpits, the creases between
her rear end and thighs. She worried that there would be a place she missed and
the parasites would survive. Her flesh felt cold and rubbery, not her body
anymore but something she had to treat. There was a warning on the bottle that
said it caused tumors in laboratory animals. She looked at the dead whiteness of
her skin and thought of the lotion killing parasites and her own cells
indiscriminately. She thought of her aunt's ruined body. It was the big mystery
of her family that her aunt, who could have had anyone, had spent years being
married to a man who knocked out her teeth. She remembered sitting across the
table from her aunt and seeing her put her hand across her mouth and catch one
suddenly. The girl had said, "Why don't you leave?"
"It's not easy," her aunt said. She was a kind, beautiful woman,
but not very bright.
The girl had to clean everything. The label on the bottle said she was
supposed to vacuum all rugs and draperies and wash all her clothes. But she was
allowed to use the washing machine only at night, so they could save energy, and
then she'd have to wait until the next day so she could dry her clothes outside
on the line. She was frustrated by the knowledge of the washer and dryer,
gleaming and empty in the basement. Ranked number one in Consumer Reports,
the man had told her.
The woman had once left the water running in their bathroom when they went
away on a weekend trip. The girl had found it on a Sunday night when she went in
there to clean but that was a sin of omission. She rubbed her eyes and scratched
her neck so hard it began to bleed. I am living with a sect of fanatics, she
thought, but it didn't occur to her to go ahead and use the washer anyway.
She left her clothes in the basket and went downstairs to vacuum, which
didn't use as much energy and was allowed. Wheeling the vacuum cleaner out of
the closet, she glanced at the thermostat on the wall, the needle so low she
couldn't stand it anymore, and flicked the lever on for the heat. Then she
vacuumed, getting up whatever mites there were in the rug. The dogs watched from
the next room and stayed out of her way.
She almost didn't hear the woman when she pulled up in the Jeep. Her heart
pounded and she ran to shut off the heat.
The woman came up the back steps, brushing leaves off her coat. "It
doesn't feel so cold today," she told the girl. She put her purse down and
kissed the dogs.
"It's okay," the girl told her, winding up the cord of the vacuum.
She put it away and helped the woman go around to all the windows and seal them
up with pieces of Styrofoam the woman had bought to conserve heat. Then they
made dinner together and the man came home and the girl sat with them while they
After dinner, the man did the dishes. "No offense," he told the
girl, "but you chip the plates."
He and the woman looked at each other and smiled as if they had been
discussing this for a long time.
The girl felt mortified. She apologized and tried to think of the dirtiest
chores she could do to make up for it. She cleaned their bathroom and then came
back into the kitchen and took the vegetable scraps out to the compost heap. The
sky was heavy with stars. Mozart spilled out of the sealed windows of the house.
"You know what it feels like?" the woman told her. She had followed
the girl outside and stood on the porch. "It feels like all things are
possible." She glanced back toward the house, where the man was in his
favorite chair, reading his Sierra Club magazine.
"I'm going to visit my boyfriend soon," the girl said. She
sometimes forgot and thought of him as her only hope.
The woman said, "Oh." The girl had told her there was some sort of
trouble, but she hadn't been specific. She said, "Maybe in a few years this
will be just a bad memory."
"I want to have good memories," the girl said.
The woman smiled and the girl smiled too, even though she had been serious.
The next morning they were angry at her for turning on the heat. The man had
checked the level of oil in the tank and found out she had used it. For several
days she slunk around like one of the dogs.
Outside the colors got brighter and brighter. One night at dinner the woman
announced, "We're going to have a visitor." The man looked away,
embarrassed. From the way the woman sat there, smiling, the girl's first thought
was that the woman was going to have a baby. She felt guilty because she thought
the woman didn't deserve a baby. It turned out that a Guatemalan woman from a
war-torn village was coming to address their peace group through a translator.
She scanned the paper for jobs and places to live. She knew she should move
out, but she couldn't think of anything but putting on lotion and marking off
the days until the middle of the term on the calendar. It interfered with her
ability to understand things. She read an ad in the paper and thought it said,
"Serious Injuries Only." She got excited when she saw an ad for a
sensitive female teacher at the university and didn't realize until her landlord
explained that they wanted a woman for the medical students to practice
gynecological exams on. On a whim, she went once to her old writing class. She
slipped in quietly and sat in the back. One of the back-to-the-land women was
reading a beautiful story. "Any questions?" the teacher asked, looking
right at her. She looked down and, as soon as she could, slipped back away.
At school she looked blankly at the lesson plan of a teacher who had gone
away at the last minute to Florida. She had left a quotation for the students to
base an essay on. The girl read, "There is no greater threat to democracy
than that of a compact majority."
"What does 'compact' mean?" a boy asked. He had an open friendly
face and had probably been told by a teacher that there were no stupid
Another boy said, "Small, you idiot." He shook his head and
muttered and started writing. The rest of the class laughed and bent over their
The girl started writing, too. She always tried to be democratic and do the
assignments with them. She knew the definition of compact was wrong. She
hadn't remembered it until afterwards and then she was too embarrassed to tell
They were quiet for a while, then a girl said, "If it's small, how can
it be a majority?"
"Good question," the girl said. She felt queasy. She couldn't tell
them the definition without letting them know she had not understood it and
lied. She listened to the sighs of frustration and the first low whispering.
"You may talk quietly at your desks," she said.
They began to talk loudly. One boy sang the words to his favorite song,
"We got to pray just to make it today." He sang the backup too,
echoing himself like a falsetto speaker system.
"That's a rip-off of Prince," a girl told him.
They argued loudly and a male teacher opened the door and put his fingers to
his lips. Then, without saying anything, he shut it and went away.
"Why do you do this?" the singing boy asked her.
"Because it's an easy job," the friendly boy from before said.
"Because she needs the money," another girl told him. She had a
small, mean face and wore thick, blue eyeliner that made her eyes look deep-set
like she was wearing a mask and her real face was underneath.
The rest of the class looked at her.
"Because I need the money," she said. She tried to make it a joke,
twisting her mouth into a horrible grin.
"What did I tell you," the girl with the eyeliner said and turned
At home she didn't have the energy to throw the biscuits. The black and tan
dog cornered her by the stove and peed.
"Don't pee," she begged.
It stayed there, wagging its tail and making a small, gold puddle on the
kitchen floor. It bumped her hand with its nose so she would pat it and she
jerked back. The dog stood still. It seemed to flatten. Then it walked away
slowly, as if it were confused by something, past her landlords' bedroom, and
into the bathroom.
She set her bag down on the counter. The house was empty. There was a note on
the refrigerator from the woman saying she was out at the airport, picking up
the Guatemalan woman. The girl looked at the date on the note and realized that
midterms were over.
She thought she would have more energy and be glad, but she was tired and
frightened. She called her boyfriend and left a message with one of the freshmen
to say that she was coming.
"Does he know?" the boy asked doubtfully.
"He knows." She said it in the kind of teasing voice that women
threatened their husbands with on TV. She knew that if he checked, her boyfriend
would tell her not to come.
That night her landlords had a party. The woman put a small, homegrown
pumpkin on the porch and made refried beans. Gangly bearded men came with
unwashed children and sour women who liked to knit. The girl had planned to stay
in her room, but she went down to the party because they were using her TV. Her
landlords had borrowed someone else's VCR and were showing videos of Guatemala.
They didn't own either one on principle.
The girl drank Coke after Coke. She didn't want to go back up to her room and
be alone. She stayed at the party talking to people who showed no interest in
"The problem with going to a psychologist," she told one woman,
"is that the burden is on the person to cope. What if the environment is
crazy and the person is sane?"
The woman looped a strand of gray-brown yarn over her knitting needle and
gazed at her doubtfully. "Yes," she said, "but can you be sure
The girl couldn't be sure. She felt defeated. She went upstairs and packed
her clothes for the trip, all of them cleaned at the laundromat and bug-free.
Then she crawled under her blankets, also clean, and tried to sleep.
In the middle of the night, she got up to go to the bathroom. Coming out, she
passed the Guatemalan woman, who had been waiting her turn.
"You have to tell someone," the girl said. "These people are
The woman blinked at her. Her eyes were bright as a bird's. She shook her
head sadly, and the girl looked down, ashamed.
The next day the girl got up before it was light and drove down through the
miles of trees.
All day the sky was white. She didn't have any sense of time. At certain
hours the road was full of cars. At certain hours it was empty. She drank her
three Cokes when she got hungry and kept the radio on. She would hear
commercials for businesses and shopping centers and be amazed that there were
still people out there, living and working and buying things. In the early dusk
she watched the yellow lights go on in the windows of houses. She didn't know
how she had become so removed from everything that was good and human in the
When it started to snow, she flicked on her wipers and drove faster. It lined
the road like the white fur of an animal. She put her foot down on the
accelerator, thinking she could get through it, but the wheels of the car locked
and she started to slide.
The car took a long time to stop spinning. Finally, it slipped off the road
into a ditch. The girl sat there looking into the woods and waited for someone
After a while, she started the car and got back on the road.
She thought it was late, but when she arrived at the college, the students
were still playing music and there was a man delivering pizza. When she got out
of the car, she stumbled. She felt like she was still moving.
Her boyfriend wore jeans and a dark sweater. He looked like he had lost
weight. "You lost weight," he told her politely.
She couldn't believe she was there. She shook her head at him like she was
shaking snow out of her eyes.
They went out to a Mexican restaurant with a round-headed boy who wore
glasses and the sulky girl. The other boy talked about people she didn't know.
After every story he would say that they were basically nice people. The sulky
girl kept brushing her hair off her face with the back of her hand, and every
time she did her boyfriend's eyes would soften. The sulky girl looked a lot like
her except that she was smaller and more defined. The girl couldn't look at her.
She had to look away.
From the conversation the girl learned that the other girl had met someone
from her junior year in Italy who was treating her badly.
"But basically he's a nice person," the girl said. It slipped out
of her. She wanted to get at the other girl. She thought they would laugh, but
they didn't. She was doing it wrong. At this school they still taught golf so it
could help you meet people. The other boy frowned. Her boyfriend looked down.
She felt sick. She was still cold but she was sweating. She could taste the Coke
at the back of her throat.
Behind them an old man spilled his glass of milk and his wife nudged the
girl's shoulder. "Do you have a napkin?" she asked. The girl gave her
one. The waitress came over to take their order and began to help, also. The
girl jumped up. "I'll be right back," she said.
She squeezed by the line of people who were still waiting for a table and
stumbled into the ladies' room. Inside, she threw up. Coca-Cola flowed out of
her in dark acrid heaves. She didn't think she would ever drink it again.
She spent a long time rinsing out her mouth and then a woman came in and,
even though there were three empty stalls, seemed to expect her to leave. She
went back into the restaurant and stood by the telephones at the back door. She
couldn't call her boyfriend anymore. She started to dial her mother and then
even her landlady but stopped, embarrassed. There was nobody. In her whole life
there had been nobody. She was amazed that she hadn't known it until then.
She kept her hand on the phone so she would have an excuse to stay there. She
imagined her boyfriend and the other boy and girl sitting around the dorm later,
not talking about her. Behind her, the door kept opening and closing, sending
cold air down her back, and more people kept coming in. Two men and a woman
started to squeeze by her. They were older, but not old. The men wore suits and
the woman had on a blouse with a white ruffle around the neck. She tried to get
out of their way, but she was wedged against the phone. She thought they would
be annoyed, but one of the men looked at her and said, "Are you okay?"
She could have avoided crying if he hadn't asked her that. She shook her head
and then opened her mouth and felt the muscles rise in her neck. "My
boyfriend just broke up with me," she said. It came out in an ugly squeak,
frivolous and teenaged, the way she had always known it would sound.
The men and the woman looked at each other. She thought she could save
herself if she laughed but she was crying harder. Sobbing in a restaurant.
One of the men stepped forward and put his arms around her in a hug. It was
quick. One minute her face was squashed against his coat and then it was over.
He stepped back and the other man and woman looked at her worriedly. She nodded
to show them that she was okay. Then they went into the restaurant, and she
stayed there shaking. He was the first person who had touched her in months.
"It was like coming back from space," she would tell people later.
By that time it had become her story and she would tell it a lot. But she didn't
tell how she went back into the restaurant and forced herself to talk and smile
or how she asked her boyfriend to go to a motel with her, as if it could make a
difference, because that was the kind of girl she was. Or how she did it
dry-eyed, dry, until he cried. Until those were his tears, in her
hair, damp against her neck. Do you get it? she told herself. Do you get it?
As if it could make a difference.
There were some things she would not tell people about. She drove back north
the next day to pack up her things. And when she got there, a man had called
from where he had hit the black and tan dog after it had run away, and she went
with her landlady to get it. Her landlady's eyes were red but she was calm,
already calming herself down. She said she knew how it sounded but she was glad
that it wasn't the other dog.
It lay on a plank the man had taken off the back of his truck. Except
for a slight crookedness where its back had been broken, it looked asleep, the
dark skin stretched tightly across its ribs. It opened its eyes once, not seeing
her, and wagged its tail. This is too much, she told it. Then the thumping
stopped and it closed its eyes again. She had bent down and taken her end of the
plank, but she had not touched it; she had not covered the place where it would
have breathed. There were some things she would not tell people about. But
sometimes she would imagine how it would have felt, her hand on its side, the
skin below as tight as a man's skin across its ribs, her fingers spread across
them, a finger for each one.