Ask Birdie how she got here and she'll pretend she doesn't remember. "Honestly," she'll say, "it all blends together." She doesn't want to talk about the past. It's only cocktail talk but still everyone wants a story. That's Los Angeles for you. Everything's a pitch. Sell the beginning and give the end a twist.
The truth is rarely filmic. Lies are better. Once she told a director she was sleeping with, or who, more accurately, was sleeping with her: My whole family is dead. We were in a car accident together. My mother, father, and sister were killed and I am the only survivor. What did he say? "What an amazing story," which meant that he was sorry but also that it would make a great movie.
Semantics, anyway. There was never any car accident but still she has lost them all.
Ask Birdie how she got here and she will smile and laugh and look down into her glass. Two things she's good at: drinking and keeping secrets. In the melting ice cubes she sees the past.
At her agent's insistence her bio contains the basics: 1979, Powhatan, Virginia. Even that doesn't matter. Redmond changed it to 1983. "Whoever said thirty is the new twenty- two wasn't trying to get you work." Proof positive: no one really wants the truth.
What she omits besides her real age: her early filmography (though there were no cameras rolling) where she built her acting rv©sumv©.
The Hallelujah Days, 1979'Äì1986. The south side, the dusty bookshelves full of Bibles, the dim rooms, the pleases and thankyous, the do-as-I-says and just-you-waits. The chained dogs barking in the neighbor's yard. Mother lying for too long in her bedroom, day after day, in the dark.
Also: hand-me-downs, a cat named Sofia, a basement full of crickets, a bedroom with purple wallpaper. Her father coming and going on missionary trips to Places Where the Need Is Greater. Birdie's first Bible (it had a green cover and she drew hearts and flowers in the margins). Church five days a week and, on the other two, preaching in the park until it got dark. "Do you know the Truth?" she asks people as they pass. She offers the Truth in the form of a pamphlet with a full-color picture of Paradise printed on its cover.
(This is where Birdie feels compelled to tell the nonexistent interviewer: no, we weren't white trash, no, I wasn't beaten. You're screening the wrong movie. In this one, I watched the sky for signs that the End was coming and was therefore afraid of thunderstorms.)
More about her mother. When she slept, she wore a velvet sleep mask with a pair of open eyes painted on it. This reminded Birdie of God, of how He can see you when He is sleeping, if He even sleeps.
The Birth of Desire, July 25, 1987. Birdie awaits the birth of her sister at her Worldly (Presbyterian, which is the same as not believing anything, according to their pastor) grandmother's house while Mother and Father are at the hospital.
Her aunts (it is hard to believe those creatures were her mother's sisters) recline around the pool like goddesses, listening to a boom box, rubbing oil into their skin, smoking cigarettes, and sipping Tab. They dive into the pool and swim down to touch the bottom, their gold jewelry flashing like fish in the deep blue water. They give Birdie ice cream and take her photograph. They braid her hair and let her wear their sunglasses.
A magnolia tree leans high above them, dropping seedpods into the swimming pool as the breeze shifts. The pods fl oat for a moment and then sink through the water, pulled toward the black drain at the bottom of the pool. No one knows yet that Birdie's sister will not be born alive. If they knew what grief awaited her, the aunts would not talk about Birdie's mother as they do. Bitten by the spirit, one of them says, rubbing oil into her legs. Have you seen their house? another murmurs. Bitten by fleas is more like it. The aunts laugh. Birdie listens, treading water. Her body is cold but her face burns hot with rushing blood. She is thinking that whatever her mother is she must also be. We have a cat, she says suddenly and the aunts fall silent. Seedpods keep falling one by one into the water. That's where the fleas come from, she says. The aunts nod and look at each other and stub out their cigarettes. How did you get so smart? they say, pulling her out of the pool.
Their tan boyfriends arrive, wearing polo shirts, smiling broadly, smelling (she knows now) like Tanqueray. Chip, Tad, Henry. They flirt with her. You're only seven? Tad says. You look ten. The boyfriends fish pennies from their pockets and distribute them. Remember, they say. Don't tell your wish to anyone. Then they pitch the coins into the courtyard fountain.
After the aunts have left on their dates, after her grandmother is home, after dinner in the kitchen with the cook, after her bath, after everyone has gone to bed, Birdie wanders the endless hallways of the unfamiliar house. The still, deep swimming pool, the courtyard full of statues, the bubbling fountain, the heavy crystal ashtrays. The solarium full of gently nodding orchids. The wallpaper in the foyer, painted with scenes of rural life in China—men in pointed straw hats resting under a pagoda, leading a mule cart, fetching water. Room after room heavy with stillness, doors slightly ajar, shoes scattered on the carpets, dresses sprawled on empty beds, the air glinting with particles of face powder.
At the bottom of the courtyard fountain, she spies the coins they threw in to make wishes, even though she knows wishes are prayers to Satan for things too selfish to ask of God. Her penny flashes on the floor of the fountain as hard and shining and wicked as the wish that accompanied it. She remembers, with shame: to be someone else.
Saving Things, 1987'Äì1996. The house seems so empty, Mother says. And so she fills it slowly, with empty boxes and old newspapers and broken things. Everything is saved, just in case.
The rooms grow smaller, lined with what might be needed later—broom handles and catalogs and phone books and coat hangers—until there is no room for anyone, not even ghosts. This is all just trash, Birdie says, but Mother shakes her head. Dad sighs and rubs her shoulder. In this darkness he blends right into the wallpaper.
As the rooms grow smaller Birdie grows bigger. Soon it will be easy to believe that she is only a visitor.
Someone Else, 1993. Birdie stands in her bedroom, studying a picture she has torn from a fashion magazine: a girl with her hair in her eyes sprawled across an enormous bed, wearing peach satin underwear trimmed with bits of yellow tulle. A matching corset lies in shadow, discarded on the floor below her. A mirror on the wall above the bed reflects the girl's bare, luminous torso.
Birdie locks the door, consults the photograph again, and stands at her full- length mirror. She pushes her hair forward. Her hair isn't quite long enough but she gets the desired effect. She squints until she looks hungry and dissatisfied. She takes off her shirt, but the bra won't do; it is plain and white, like her. She removes it. She once read somewhere that breasts should look like pastries, good enough to eat. Hers are smallish cupcakes, but still she can see their appeal. They look untouched: soft white peaks.
She flips off the overhead light and focuses her gooseneck desk lamp on the floor in front of her mirror. Then she lies back across the floor, the pile of the rose-colored carpet soft against her back and the warmth of the lamplight on her eyelids and breasts. She looks over into the mirror. You have a secret, she tells herself, adjusting her expression until hanging there suddenly, with her hair in her eyes and the light washing away her features, is someone else, as lovely and remote as the girl in the photograph. The light from the desk lamp carves a line below her cheekbones and hangs shadows like moons beneath her breasts. Her pupils contract, turning small and bright and black. The light becomes a flashbulb, a spotlight, a light with a million eyes hidden behind it. The eyes watch her, waiting for her to do something.
Hi there, she whispers.
One Small Step, October 1996. They meet in a movie theater. She is alone and he spots her from across the auditorium. Then he moves, seat by seat, until he is right next to her. She pretends not to notice until he whispers into her ear, Wanna go somewhere? Yes, she says.
He drives her to the Blue Light. His name is Wes. He is twenty-one years old and from the other side of the river. He buys her a drink and she feels it immediately. She asks for another. It is like wading into a lake, its murky depths turning her slowly weightless. Soon enough, she is floating.
They leave the bar, stumbling out into the parking lot, and then walk for a little while until they reach an empty playground. There, they spin around on the whirligig and climb the monkey bars. They sit side by side on the swings, twisting them slowly so that the chains wind tight above them, pulling them up into the air. Then they let go and the chains unwind, spinning down like corkscrews and then flinging them to the ground. Wes kisses her there, his hands exploring her hair, her dress, her breasts. He is looking for the answer to the question he asks next: Want to come with me? She searches her brain for words but there is only one left.
A little while later they are at his apartment. A mirror hangs on his bedroom wall. She turns away from it. (The mirror has become like God, gazing back at her, always assessing. In certain lights, forgiving.)
He pulls her clothes away, dropping them like stepping- stones across the carpet. She lies back on the bedspread. It is like being packed into a suitcase or being sucked through a straw. It is like being smaller than any small thing, so small that she turns inside out and grows back again. So that she is herself, only reversed, like in the mirror. The same size, only flatter, smoother, calmer.
Let me take your picture, he says, lie back, and she does, across the rumpled bed. It is easy to say yes. She is only surface, the prospect of her own beauty flattening her thoughts and burying them deep beneath her, where they whisper back and forth in the dark. Whatever will come later, the die has been cast. The night is happening and she cannot take it back.
The camera loves you, he whispers, and she believes him. Other eyes are more reliable than her own, prone as hers are to seeking out imperfection. She hopes that God is like Wes—like the men who will come later—full of appreciation for her overall effect and less concerned with specifics.
She lies in that dim light for a while. She is skimming the surface of something, skipping like a pebble over still water. Enough velocity and she could go on like this forever. (But also, the movie camera would imply, with a slow turning away to the ceiling, then down past their bodies, the coverlet, the carpet, all accompanied by the sound of the ticking clock and the clicking shutter: she could sink like a stone.)
A Sin of Omission, 1997. She is preaching in the park with her mother when suddenly Wes is standing in front of her. Mother thrusts a pamphlet into his hand. Wes glances at Birdie, not recognizing her at first. Then there is the moment when his eyes slowly narrow, like a gear is turning inside him. He stares, comparing, she knows, this girl with the other one. She didn't tell him about this life, but doesn't everyone have two? There is the life you live for your parents and then the life for you.
He turns and walks away from them, glancing backward just once and then striding on, faster. It is not unusual for people to avoid them, passing quickly. What is unusual is Birdie falling to her knees, with her face in her hands.
There, there, Mother says, crouching over her, as distant from Birdie in that moment as she will ever be. Then she whispers the truest words she will ever speak: Not everyone wants the Truth.
Waiting, 1997'Äì1998. She saw Wes again only that time in the park. She never sees the photographs though for a while she waits for them. As she waits she cuts back vines from her windowpane, she drops coins into a mason jar, she smuggles newspapers from the hallway to the trash, clearing a path. As she waits, she screams at a camel cricket leaping over her foot, she screams from a dream of the Resurrection, bones moving in a grave, she screams on a sled that races down a snowy hillside. You frighten so easily, her parents say, her body jumping when the doorbell would ring. Yes, she says. Her head is full of secrets shifting like sand. She is waiting for the photographs to be delivered and opened and scattered across the kitchen table—her sins excavated, her tedious little life dismantled— maybe she even wishes for it, but they never arrive.
The Young Elder, 1998. Father has just returned from a missionary trip to southwest Virginia and has brought back with him a young elder named Judah Common. Her parents invite him to dinner.
Brother Common eats two helpings of everything and does not seem to have any judgments about the contents of the house. I see you recycle is all he says, smiling. He plays his guitar after dinner, several hymns as well as "Come On Baby Light My Fire," but he changes the words to "Come On Baby Change My Tire" to keep the content moral. Birdie can't help but think that either way the song is asking her to make his life easier.
Later her parents go into the kitchen to clean up from dinner leaving Birdie and Brother Common alone in the living room, with the door cracked, to talk.
What are your plans? he asks.
I don't know, she says. It all seems pretty complicated.
Even as she says the words, she realizes how stupid she sounds, how unprepared. She has spent her life so far waiting for an End, a judgment that would determine her worthiness for whatever followed, but the End just wouldn't arrive. She does not know what God thinks of her or what she thinks of herself, only that everything—life and death, goals and plans—seemed hopelessly theoretical, bound as it all was to the assumption that He could show up at any time and put an End to all of it.
Sometimes, says Brother Common, putting his hand on hers (a nice enough hand, a hand that is warm but not clammy, that is soft but still strong), it's not as complicated as you think. Sometimes an answer is provided.
An Answer Is Provided, 1999. They marry the following summer in the church. Birdie is relieved when on their wedding night Judah does not guess that there was ever another.
This time is different. A sunlit afternoon dissolves into a stormy evening and Judah heaves above her, as serious and gray-faced as the weather. Afterward he keeps sighing heavily as though he has run a long distance. He speaks abstractly about being yoked together. (A camera would study her eyes, defocused as she stares at the window, water sliding down the pane as Judah murmurs, as thunder rumbles. She is thinking of two oxen pulling a cart, persisting uphill through cold sheets of gray rain.)
What Was Expected, 2000. In the grocery store Birdie runs into Mr. Ogden, the drama teacher from her old high school. She had only taken his class for the one required semester but when she would read a monologue he would lean against the edge of his desk, dragging his index finger across his lip as he watched her. He would nod almost imperceptibly as she spoke, as though she were convincing him of something he hadn't previously considered. You have talent, he told her, and though she suspected he told everybody that, she had wanted to believe him.
Mr. Ogden smiles and approaches. What are you still doing here? he says. I figured the next time I saw you it would be in a movie.
Really? she says.
Yes, he says. We all want to be immortalized, but you . . . you have the face for it. You should be in Hollywood by now, doing us proud.
Oh, Mr. Ogden, she says. Soon enough.
He smiles. Yes, soon enough, he says. He surveys her body appreciatively. There is always a way for the young and lovely.
When she catches her reflection in the freezer doors, she must acknowledge that she had expected more of herself. She hovers like a ghost in the glass door, the rows of frozen vegetables inside more substantial than her own image. What was she doing spending her (young, lovely) life cooking dinner for a (hopelessly good, hopelessly serious) man who rarely laughs, who calls her Sister Common when they're at church, who undresses in the dark?
Place Your Bets, 2000. That night Judah sleeps beside her, no pain apparent in him, no unspoken fears or unanswered questions. His body rises and falls as he breathes. He is full of dinner and holy spirit. Yes, he is full and so he sleeps.
Birdie lies beside him, troubled by his peace. Dissatisfaction is what God wants of everyone, is it not, to find enough wrong with this world and one's stake in it to wager this life on the next one? The next life will be better, or at least that's the rumor, the life where everything comes together just as you hoped. And so, greedy for Paradise, you gamble your life. That's all this is: a wager. You agree to call it God's Will if you win and God's Plan if you lose.
Judah stirs. He opens his eyes enough to see that Birdie is still awake. What is it? he whispers, reaching for her. He is good. He is a good and faithful man who smells like the aftershave he wears only because she gave it to him.
Nothing, she says, in his arms. (In a movie of this moment, the camera would not move. No, the lens would remain on her face, waiting for her expression to betray something. Then she stirs. Her eyelids flutter as she closes her eyes, not to sleep but to dream.)
The Savings Add Up, 2001. She does not take the car or anything of value except her clothes (and only as many as will fit into one suitcase). She does take some money but only money that adheres to a specific formula. Whatever money she has saved by clipping coupons (she calculates a total of approximately $10 a week, when you include the double coupon amount she gets by shopping on Tuesdays) she takes with her. Eighty-seven weeks of marriage at ten dollars a week is $870.
That way she is only taking what she has earned, in a way, and when she leaves the slate will be clean. She will not owe anyone anything.
Going West and the Rest, 2001. In Powhatan, she leaves a letter that says:
To Judah and My Parents,
I don't know if you will be surprised to find this note. I am not surprised to be writing it, though I know it will hurt you and I hate to do that. But you have to know I have no other choice. I have been a liar and a hypocrite. I have tried to be a Believer, but I am not. Every day, I am full of doubt. I would rather be honest about my feelings in this life than lie to preserve an eternal hope I am unsure of. Let's hope God understands my decision. I'm sorry.
PS—Don't try to find me. I'm safe, but I'm going somewhere far away.
The bus ride to Los Angeles takes two days, seventeen hours, and five minutes. For the first day, she imagines that Judah is following her, that when the bus stops at a rest area he will be standing there stormy- faced, waiting to take her back. But by the morning of the second day, as serpentine mountain roads begin to flatten and give way to low flat stretches of highway, her escape begins to feel real. Nothing is familiar— the scenery, her fellow passengers, the gravity and speed of the bus as it rockets westward past little towns, sprawling lights, empty desert, road signs. Her face reflected back at her in the thick safety glass of the bus window appears ghostly and doubled. She glances back and forth between both sets of eyes and watches the reflections react—her fractured face bobs and shifts across the glass.