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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 for them.

"Well, that's great," the person would answer, her eyes glazing over.

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 spinach soufflé.

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 hoe something.

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 work.

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 younger.

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 wrong?"

"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 ate.

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 questions.

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 notebooks.

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 them.

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 around.

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 her.

"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 about that?"

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 evil."

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 world.

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 to come.

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.

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