Birds of America

by Lorrie Moore

Paperback, 291 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $14 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Birds of America
Author
Lorrie Moore

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

A best-selling collection of stories focusing on portrayals of the searching and the disaffected of modern-day America offers a trenchant combination of wit, empathy, and intelligence. Reprint. 100,000 first printing. NYT. PW.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Birds Of America

Birds of America


Picador USA

Copyright © 1999 Lorrie Moore
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312241224


Chapter One

WILLING

How can I live my life without committing an
act with a giant scissors?
—JOYCE CAROL OATES,
"An Interior Monologue"

In her last picture, the camera had lingered at the hip, thenaked hip, and even though it wasn't her hip, she acquired areputation for being willing.

    "You have the body," studio heads told her over lunch atChasen's.

    She looked away. "Habeas corpus," she said, not smiling.

    "Pardon me?" A hip that knew Latin. Christ.

    "Nothing," she said. They smiled at her and droppednames. Scorsese, Brando. Work was all playtime to them, playtimewith gel in their hair. At times, she felt bad that it wasn'ther hip. It should have been her hip. A mediocre picture, apicture queasy with pornography: these, she knew, eroticizedthe unavailable. The doctored and false. The stand-in. Unwittingly,she had participated. Let a hip come between. A false,unavailable, anonymous hip. She herself was true as a goddamndairy product; available as lunch whenever.

    But she was pushing forty.

    She began to linger in juice bars. Sit for entire afternoons inplaces called I Love Juicy or Orange-U-Sweet. She drank juiceand, outside, smoked a cigarette now and then. She'd beentaken seriously—once—she knew that. Projects were discussed:Nina. Portia. Mother Courage with makeup. Now herhands trembled too much, even drinking juice, especially drinkingjuice, a Vantage wobbling between her fingers like a compassdial. She was sent scripts in which she was supposed to saylines she would never say, not wear clothes she would never notwear. She began to get obscene phone calls, and postcardssigned, "Oh yeah, baby." Her boyfriend, a director with a growingreputation for expensive flops, a man who twice a weekglowered at her Fancy Sunburst guppy and told it to get a job,became a Catholic and went back to his wife.

    "Just when we were working out the bumps and chops androcks," she said. Then she wept.

    "I know," he said. "I know."

    And so she left Hollywood. Phoned her agent and apologized.Went home to Chicago, rented a room by the week at theDays Inn, drank sherry, and grew a little plump. She let her lifeget dull—dull, but with Hostess cakes. There were momentsbristling with deadness, when she looked out at her life andwent "What?" Or worse, feeling interrupted and tired,"Wha—?" It had taken on the shape of a terrible mistake. Shehadn't been given the proper tools to make a real life with, shedecided, that was it. She'd been given a can of gravy and a hairbrushand told, "There you go." She'd stood there for years,blinking and befuddled, brushing the can with the brush.

    Still, she was a minor movie star, once nominated for amajor award. Mail came to her indirectly. A notice. A bill. AThanksgiving card. But there was never a party, a dinner, anopening, an iced tea. One of the problems with people inChicago, she remembered, was that they were never lonely atthe same time. Their sadnesses occurred in isolation, lurchedand spazzed, sent them spinning fizzily back into empty,padded corners, disconnected and alone.

    She watched cable and ordered in a lot from a pizza place. Alife of obscurity and radical calm. She rented a piano and practicedscales. She invested in the stock market. She wrote downher dreams in the morning to locate clues as to what to trade.Disney, her dreams said once. St. Jude's Medical. She made alittle extra money. She got obsessed. The words cash cow nestled inthe side of her mouth like a cud. She tried to be original—not agood thing with stocks—and she began to lose. When a stockwent down, she bought more of it, to catch it on the way backup. She got confused. She took to staring out the window atLake Michigan, the rippled slate of it like a blackboard gonebad.

    "Sidra, what are you doing there?" shrieked her friendTommy long distance over the phone. "Where are you? You'reliving in some state that borders on North Dakota!" He was ascreenwriter in Santa Monica and once, a long time ago anddepressed on Ecstasy, they had slept together. He was gay, butthey had liked each other very much.

    "Maybe I'll get married," she said. She didn't mindChicago. She thought of it as a cross between London andQueens, with a dash of Cleveland.

    "Oh, please," he shrieked again. "What are you reallydoing?"

    "Listening to seashore and self-esteem tapes," she said. Sheblew air into the mouth of the phone.

    "Sounds like dust on the needle," he said. "Maybe youshould get the squawking crickets tape. Have you heard thesquawking crickets tape?"

    "I got a bad perm today," she said. "When I was onlyhalfway through with the rod part, the building the salon's inhad a blackout. There were men drilling out front who'd strucka cable."

    "How awful for you," he said. She could hear him tap hisfingers. He had made himself the make-believe author of amake-believe book of essays called One Man's Opinion, and whenhe was bored or inspired, he quoted from it. "I was once in arock band called Bad Perm," he said instead.

    "Get out." She laughed.

    His voice went hushed and worried. "What are you doingthere?" he asked again.


Her room was a corner room where a piano was allowed. It wasL-shaped, like a life veering off suddenly to become somethingelse. It had a couch and two maple dressers and was never asneat as she might have wanted. She always had the DO NOTDISTURB sign on when the maids came by, and so things got alittle out of hand. Wispy motes of dust and hair the size ofsmall heads bumped around in the corners. Smudge began todarken the moldings and cloud the mirrors. The bathroomfaucet dripped, and, too tired to phone anyone, she tied a stringaround the end of it, guiding the drip quietly into the drain, soit wouldn't bother her anymore. Her only plant, facing east inthe window, hung over the popcorn popper and dried to abrown crunch. On the ledge, a jack-o'-lantern she had carvedfor Halloween had rotted, melted, froze, and now looked like acollapsed basketball—one she might have been saving for sentimentalreasons, one from the big game! The man who broughther room service each morning—two poached eggs and a pot ofcoffee—reported her to the assistant manager, and she receiveda written warning slid under the door.

    On Fridays, she visited her parents in Elmhurst. It was stillhard for her father to look her in the eyes. He was seventy now.Ten years ago, he had gone to the first movie she had ever beenin, saw her remove her clothes and dive into a pool. The moviewas rated PG, but he never went to another one. Her motherwent to all of them and searched later for encouraging things tosay. Even something small. She refused to lie. "I liked the wayyou said the line about leaving home, your eyes wide and yourhands fussing with your dress buttons," she wrote. "That reddress was so becoming. You should wear bright colors!"

    "My father takes naps a lot when I visit," she said to Tommy.

    "Naps?"

    "I embarrass him. He thinks I'm a whore hippie. A hippiewhore."

    "That's ridiculous. As I said in One Man's Opinion, you're themost sexually conservative person I know."

    "Yeah, well."

    Her mother always greeted her warmly, puddle-eyed. Thesedays, she was reading thin paperback books by a man namedRobert Valleys, a man who said that after observing all the sufferingin the world—war, starvation, greed—he had discoveredthe cure: hugs.

    Hugs, hugs, hugs, hugs, hugs.

    Her mother believed him. She squeezed so long and hardthat Sidra, like an infant or a lover, became lost in the feel andsmell of her—her sweet, dry skin, the gray peach fuzz on herneck. "I'm so glad you left that den of iniquity," her mothersaid softly.

    But Sidra still got calls from the den. At night, sometimes,the director phoned from a phone booth, desiring to be forgivenas well as to direct. "I think of all the things you might bethinking, and I say, `Oh, Christ.' I mean, do you think thethings I sometimes think you do?"

    "Of course," said Sidra. "Of course I think those things."

    "Of course! Of course is a term that has no place inthis conversation!"

    When Tommy phoned, she often felt a pleasure so suddenand flooding, it startled her.

    "God, I'm so glad it's you!"

    "You have no right to abandon American filmmaking thisway!" he would say affectionately, and she would laugh loudly,for minutes without stopping. She was starting to have twospeeds: Coma and Hysteria. Two meals: breakfast and popcorn.Two friends: Charlotte Peveril and Tommy. She could hear theclink of his bourbon glass. "You are too gifted a person to beliving in a state that borders on North Dakota."

    "Iowa."

    "Holy bejesus, it's worse than I thought. I'll bet they saythat there. I'll bet they say `Bejesus.'"

    "I live downtown. They don't say that here."

    "Are you anywhere near Champaign-Urbana?"

    "No."

    "I went there once. I thought from its name that it wouldbe a different kind of place. I kept saying to myself, `Champagne,urbah na, champagne, urbah na! Champagne! Urbana!'"He sighed. "It was just this thing in the middle of a field. Iwent to a Chinese restaurant there and ordered my entire dinnerwith extra MSG."

    "I'm in Chicago. It's not so bad."

    "Not so bad. There are no movie people there. Sidra, whatabout your acting talent?"

    "I have no acting talent."

    "Hello?"

    "You heard me."

    "I'm not sure. For a minute there, I thought maybe you hadthat dizziness thing again, that inner-ear imbalance."

    "Talent. I don't have talent. I have willingness. Whattalent?" As a kid, she had always told the raunchiest jokes. As anadult, she could rip open a bone and speak out of it. Simple,clear. There was never anything to stop her. Why was therenever anything to stop her? "I can stretch out the neck of asweater to point at a freckle on my shoulder. Anyone whodidn't get enough attention in nursery school can do that. Talentis something else."

    "Excuse me, okay? I'm only a screenwriter. But someone'sgot you thinking you went from serious actress to aging bimbo.That's ridiculous. You just have to weather things a little outhere. Besides. I think willing yourself to do a thing is brave,and the very essence of talent."

    Sidra looked at her hands, already chapped and honeycombedwith bad weather, bad soap, bad life. She needed to listento the crickets tape. "But I don't will myself," she said. "I'mjust already willing."


She began to go to blues bars at night. Sometimes she calledCharlotte Peveril, her one friend left from high school.

    "Siddy, how are you?" In Chicago, Sidra was thought of as ahillbilly name. But in L.A., people had thought it was beautifuland assumed she'd made it up.

    "I'm fine. Let's go get drunk and listen to music."

    Sometimes she just went by herself.

    "Don't I know you from the movies?" a man might ask atone of the breaks, smiling, leering in a twinkly way.

    "Maybe," she'd say, and he would look suddenly panickedand back away.

    One night, a handsome man in a poncho, a bad poncho—thoughwas there such a thing as a good poncho? asked Charlotte—satdown next to her with an extra glass of beer. "Youlook like you should be in the movies," he said. Sidra noddedwearily. "But I don't go to the movies. So if you were in themovies, I would never have gotten to set my eyes on you."

    She turned her gaze from his poncho to her sherry, thenback. Perhaps he had spent some time in Mexico or Peru."What do you do?"

    "I'm an auto mechanic." He looked at her carefully. "Myname's Walter. Walt." He pushed the second beer her way."The drinks here are okay as long as you don't ask them to mixanything. Just don't ask them to mix anything!"

    She picked it up and took a sip. There was something abouthim she liked: something earthy beneath the act. In L.A.,beneath the act you got nougat or Styrofoam. Or glass. Sidra'smouth was lined with sherry. Walt's lips shone with beer."What's the last movie you saw?" she asked him.

    "The last movie I saw. Let's see." He was thinking, but shecould tell he wasn't good at it. She watched with curiosity thefolded-in mouth, the tilted head: at last, a guy who didn't go tothe movies. His eyes rolled back like the casters on a clerk'schair, searching. "You know what I saw?"

    "No. What?" She was getting drunk.

    "It was this cartoon movie." Animation. She felt relieved.At least it wasn't one of those bad art films starring what's-her-name."A man is asleep, having a dream about a beautiful littlecountry full of little people." Walt sat back, looked around theroom, as if that were all.

    "And?" She was going to have to push and pull with thisguy.

    "`And?'" he repeated. He leaned forward again. "And oneday the people realize that they are only creatures in this man'sdream. Dream people! And if the man wakes up, they will nolonger exist!"

    Now she hoped he wouldn't go on. She had changed hermind a little.

    "So they all get together at a town meeting and devise aplan," he continued. Perhaps the band would be back soon."They will burst into the man's bedroom and bring him back toa padded, insulated room in the town—the town of his owndream—and there they will keep watch over him to make surehe stays asleep. And they do just that. Forever and ever, everyoneguarding him carefully, but apprehensively, making sure henever wakes up." He smiled. "I forget what the name of it was."

    "And he never wakes up."

    "Nope." He grinned at her. She liked him. She could tell hecould tell. He took a sip of his beer. He looked around the bar,then back at her. "Is this a great country or what?" he said.

    She smiled at him, with longing. "Where do you live," sheasked, "and how do I get there?"


"I met a man," she told Tommy on the phone. "His name isWalter."

    "A forced relationship. You're in a state of stress—you're ina syndrome, I can tell. You're going to force this romance. Whatdoes he do?"

    "Something with cars." She sighed. "I want to sleep withsomeone. When I'm sleeping with someone, I'm less obsessedwith the mail."

    "But perhaps you should just be alone, be by yourself for awhile."

    "Like you've ever been alone," said Sidra. "I mean, have youever been alone?"

    "I've been alone."

    "Yeah, and for how long?"

    "Hours," said Tommy. He sighed. "At least it felt likehours."

    "Right," she said, "so don't go lecturing me about innerresources."

    "Okay. So I sold the mineral rights to my body years ago,but, hey, at least I got good money for mine."

    "I got some money," said Sidra. "I got some."


Walter leaned her against his parked car. His mouth wasslightly lopsided, paisley-shaped, his lips anneloid and full, andhe kissed her hard. There was something numb and on hold inher. There were small dark pits of annihilation she discoveredin her heart, in the loosening fist of it, and she threw herselfinto them, falling. She went home with him, slept with him.She told him who she was. A minor movie star once nominatedfor a major award. She told him she lived at the Days Inn. Hehad been there once, to the top, for a drink. But he did not seemto know her name.

    "Never thought I'd sleep with a movie star," he did say."I suppose that's every man's dream." He laughed—lightly,nervously.

    "Just don't wake up," she said. Then she pulled the coversto her chin.

    "Or change the dream," he added seriously. "I mean, in themovie I saw, everything is fine until the sleeping guy begins todream about something else. I don't think he wills it or anything;it just happens."

    "You didn't tell me about that part."

    "That's right," he said. "You see, the guy starts dreamingabout flamingos and then all the little people turn into flamingosand fly away."

    "Really?" said Sidra.

    "I think it was flamingos. I'm not too expert with birds."

    "You're not?" She was trying to tease him, but it came outwrong, like a lizard with a little hat on.

    "To tell you the truth, I really don't think I ever saw a singlemovie you were in."

    "Good." She was drifting, indifferent, no longer payingattention.

    He hitched his arm behind his head, wrist to nape. Hischest heaved up and down. "I think I may of heard of you, though."

    Django Reinhardt was on the radio. She listened, carefully."Astonishing sounds came from that man's hands," Sidra murmured.

    Walter tried to kiss her, tried to get her attention back. Hewasn't that interested in music, though at times he tried to be."`Astonishing sounds'?" he said. "Like this?" He cupped hispalms together, making little pops and suction noises.

    "Yeah," she murmured. But she was elsewhere, letting adry wind sweep across the plain of her to sleep. "Like that."


He began to realize, soon, that she did not respect him. A bugcould sense it. A doorknob could figure it out. She never quitetook him seriously. She would talk about films and film directors,then look at him and say, "Oh, never mind." She was partof some other world. A world she no longer liked.

    And now she was somewhere else. Another world she nolonger liked.

    But she was willing. Willing to give it a whirl. Once in awhile, though she tried not to, she asked him about children,about having children, about turning kith to kin. How did hefeel about all that? It seemed to her that if she were ever goingto have a life of children and lawn mowers and grass clippings,it would be best to have it with someone who was notdemeaned or trivialized by discussions of them. Did he likethose big fertilized lawns? How about a nice rock garden? Howdid he feel deep down about those combination storm windowswith the built-in screens?

    "Yeah, I like them all right," he said, and she would nodslyly and drink a little too much. She would try then not tothink too strenuously about her whole life. She would try to livelife one day at a time, like an alcoholic—drink, don't drink,drink. Perhaps she should take drugs.

    "I always thought someday I would have a little girl andname her after my grandmother." Sidra sighed, peered wistfullyinto her sherry.

    "What was your grandmother's name?"

    Sidra looked at his paisley mouth. "Grandma. Her namewas Grandma." Walter laughed in a honking sort of way. "Oh,thank you," murmured Sidra. "Thank you for laughing."

    Walter had a subscription to AutoWeek. He flipped throughit in bed. He also liked to read repair manuals for new cars,particularly the Toyotas. He knew a lot about control panels,light-up panels, side panels.

    "You're so obviously wrong for each other," said Charlotteover tapas at a tapas bar.

    "Hey, please," said Sidra. "I think my taste's a little subtlerthan that." The thing with tapas bars was that you just keptstuffing things into your mouth. "Obviously wrong is just thebeginning. That's where I always begin. At obviously wrong."In theory, she liked the idea of mismatched couples, the wranglingand retangling, like a comedy by Shakespeare.

    "I can't imagine you with someone like him. He's justnot special." Charlotte had met him only once. But she hadheard of him from a girlfriend of hers. He had slept around,she'd said. "Into the pudding" is how she phrased it, and therewere some boring stories. "Just don't let him humiliate you.Don't mistake a lack of sophistication for sweetness," sheadded.

    "I'm supposed to wait around for someone special, whileevery other girl in this town gets to have a life?"

    "I don't know, Sidra."

    It was true. Men could be with whomever they pleased. Butwomen had to date better, kinder, richer, and bright, bright,bright, or else people got embarrassed. It suggested sexualthings. "I'm a very average person," she said desperately, somehowdetecting that Charlotte already knew that, knew thedeep, dark, wildly obvious secret of that, and how it made Sidraslightly pathetic, unseemly—inferior, when you got right downto it. Charlotte studied Sidra's face, headlights caught in thestare of a deer. Guns don't kill people, thought Sidra fizzily.Deer kill people.

    "Maybe it's that we all used to envy you so much," Charlottesaid a little bitterly. "You were so talented. You got all thelead parts in the plays. You were everyone's dream of what theywanted."

    Sidra poked around at the appetizer in front of her, gardeningit like a patch of land. She was unequal to anyone's wistfulness.She had made too little of her life. Its loneliness shamedher like a crime. "Envy," said Sidra. "That's a lot like hate, isn'tit." But Charlotte didn't say anything. Probably she wantedSidra to change the subject. Sidra stuffed her mouth full of fetacheese and onions, and looked up. "Well, all I can say is, I'mglad to be back." A piece of feta dropped from her lips.

    Charlotte looked down at it and smiled. "I know what youmean," she said. She opened her mouth wide and let all the foodinside fall out onto the table.

    Charlotte could be funny like that. Sidra had forgotten thatabout her.


Walter had found some of her old movies in the video-rentalplace. She had a key. She went over one night and discoveredhim asleep in front of Recluse with Roommate. It was about awoman named Rose who rarely went out, because when shedid, she was afraid of people. They seemed like alien life-forms—soulless,joyless, speaking asyntactically. Rose quicklybecame loosened from reality. Walter had it freeze-framed atthe funny part, where Rose phones the psych ward to have themcome take her away, but they refuse. She lay down next to himand tried to sleep, too, but began to cry a little. He stirred."What's wrong?" he asked.

    "Nothing. You fell asleep. Watching me."

    "I was tired," he said.

    "I guess so."

    "Let me kiss you. Let me find your panels." His eyes wereclosed. She could be anybody.

    "Did you like the beginning part of the movie?" This needin her was new. Frightening. It made her hair curl. When hadshe ever needed so much?

    "It was okay," he said.

* * *

"So what is this guy, a race-car driver?" asked Tommy.

    "No, he's a mechanic."

    "Ugh! Quit him like a music lesson!"

    "Like a music lesson? What is this, Similes from the MiddleClass? One Man's Opinion?" She was irritated.

    "Sidra. This is not right! You need to go out with someonereally smart for a change."

    "I've been out with smart. I've been out with someone whohad two Ph.D.'s. We spent all of our time in bed with the lighton, proofreading his vita." She sighed. "Every little thing he'dever done, every little, little, little. I mean, have you ever seen avita?"

    Tommy sighed, too. He had heard this story of Sidra'sbefore. "Yes," he said. "I thought Patti LuPone was great."

    "Besides," she said. "Who says he's not smart?"


The Japanese cars were the most interesting. Though theAmericans were getting sexier, trying to keep up with them.Those Japs!

    "Let's talk about my world," she said.

    "What world?"

    "Well, something I'm interested in. Something wherethere's something in it for me."

    "Okay." He turned and dimmed the lights, romantically."Got a stock tip for you," he said.

    She was horrified, dispirited, interested.

    He told her the name of a company somebody at workinvested in. AutVis.

    "What is it?"

    "I don't know. But some guy at work said buy this week.They're going to make some announcement. If I had money, I'dbuy."

    She bought, the very next morning. A thousand shares. Bythe afternoon, the stock had plummeted 10 percent; by the followingmorning, 50. She watched the ticker tape go by on thebottom of the TV news channel. She had become the majorstockholder. The major stockholder of a dying company! Soonthey were going to be calling her, wearily, to ask what shewanted done with the forklift.

"You're a neater eater than I am," Walter said to her over dinnerat the Palmer House.

    She looked at him darkly. "What the hell were you thinkingof, recommending that stock?" she asked. "How could yoube such an irresponsible idiot?" She saw it now, how their lifewould be together. She would yell; then he would yell. Hewould have an affair; then she would have an affair. And thenthey would be gone and gone, and they would live in that gone.

    "I got the name wrong," he said. "Sorry."

    "You what?"

    "It wasn't AutVis. It was AutDrive. I kept thinking it wasvis for vision."

    "`Vis for vision,'" she repeated.

    "I'm not that good with names," confessed Walter. "I dobetter with concepts."

    "`Concepts,'" she repeated as well.

    The concept of anger. The concept of bills. The concept offlightless, dodo love.

    Outside, there was a watery gust from the direction of thelake. "Chicago," said Walter. "The Windy City. Is this theWindy City or what?" He looked at her hopefully, which madeher despise him more.

    She shook her head. "I don't even know why we'retogether," she said. "I mean, why are we even together?"

    He looked at her hard. "I can't answer that for you," heyelled. He took two steps back, away from her. "You've got toanswer that for yourself!" And he hailed his own cab, got in, and rode away.

    She walked back to the Days Inn alone. She played scales soundlessly, on the tops of the piano keys, her thin-jointed fingers lifting and falling quietly like the tines of a music box or the legs of a spider. When she tired, she turned on the television, moved through the channels, and discovered an old movie she'd been in, a love story—murder mystery called Finishing Touches. It was the kind of performance she had become, briefly, known for: a patched-together intimacy with the audience, half cartoon, half revelation; a cross between shyness and derision. She had not given a damn back then, sort of like now, only then it had been a style, a way of being, not a diagnosisor demise.

    Perhaps she should have a baby.

    In the morning, she went to visit her parents in Elmhurst. For winter, they had plastic-wrapped their home—the wondows,the doors—so that it looked like a piece of avant-garde art. "Saves on heating bills," they said.

    They had taken to discussing her in front of her. "It was a movie, Don. It was a movie about adventure. Nudity can be art."

    "That's not how I saw it! That's not how I saw it at all!" saidher father, red-faced, leaving the room. Naptime.

    "How are you doing?" askec her mother, with what seemed like concern but was really an opening for something else. Shehad made tea.

    "I'm okay, really," said Sidra. Everything she said aboutherself now sounded like a lie. If she was bad it sounded like a lie; if she was fine—also a lie.

    Her mother fiddled with a spoon. "I was envious of you."Her mother sighed. "I was always so envious of you! My own daughter!" She was shrieking it, saying it softly at first and thenshrieking. It was exactly like Sidra's childhood: just when shethought life has become simple again, her mother gave her a new portion of the world to organize.

    "I have to go," said Sidra. She had only just gotten there, but she wanted to go. She didn't want to visit her parents anymore. She didn't want to look at their lives.

    She went back to the Days Inn and phoned Tommy. She andTommy understood each other. "I get you," he used to say. His childhood had been full of sisters. He'd spent large portions ofit drawing pictures of women in bathing suits—Miss Kenyafrom Nairobi!—and then asking one of the sisters to pick themost beautiful. If he disagreed, he asked another sister.

    The connection was bad, and suddenly she felt too tired."Darling, are you okay?" he said faintly.

    "I'm okay."

    "I think I'm hard of hearing," he said.

    "I think I'm hard of talking," she said. "I'll phone you tomorrow."

    She phoned Walter instead. "I need to see you," she said."Oh, really?" he said skeptically, and then added, with a sweetness he seemed to have plucked expertly from the air likea fly. "Is this a great country or what?"


She felt grateful to be with him again. "Let's never be apart,"she whispered, rubbing his stomach. He had the physical inclinations of a dog: he liked stomach, ears, excited greetings.

    "Fine by me," he said.

    "Tomorrow, let's go out to dinner somewhere really expensive. My treat."

    "Uh," said Walter, "tomorrow's no good."

    "Oh."

    "How about Sunday?"

    "What's wrong with tomorrow?"

    "I've got. Well, I've gotta work and I'll be tired, first of all."

    "What's second of all?"

    "I'm getting together with this woman I know."

    "Oh?"

    "It's no big deal. It's nothing. It's not a date or anything."

    "Who is she?"

    "Someone whose car I fixed. Loose mountings in theexhaust system. She wants to get together and talk about itsome more. She wants to know about catalytic converters. Youknow, women are afraid of getting taken advantage of."

    "Really!"

    "Yeah, well, so Sunday would be better."

    "Is she attractive?"

    Walter scrinched up his face and made a sound of unenthusiasm."Enh," he said, and placed his hand laterally in the air,rotating it up and down a little.

    Before he left in the morning, she said, "Just don't sleepwith her."

    "Sidra," he said, scolding her for lack of trust or forattempted supervision—she wasn't sure which.

    That night, he didn't come home. She phoned and phonedand then drank a six-pack and fell asleep. In the morning, shephoned again. Finally, at eleven o'clock, he answered.

    She hung up.

    At 11:30, her phone rang. "Hi," he said cheerfully. He wasin a good mood.

    "So where were you all night?" asked Sidra. This was whatshe had become. She felt shorter and squatter and badly coiffed.

    There was some silence. "What do you mean?" he saidcautiously.

    "You know what I mean."

    More silence. "Look, I didn't call this morning to get into aheavy conversation."

    "Well, then," said Sidra, "you certainly called the wrongnumber." She slammed down the phone.

    She spent the day trembling and sad. She felt like a crossbetween Anna Karenina and Amy Liverhaus, who used to shoutfrom the fourth-grade cloakroom, "I just don't feel appreciated."She walked over to Marshall Field's to buy new makeup."You're much more of a cream beige than an ivory," said theyoung woman working the cosmetics counter.

    But Sidra clutched at the ivory. "People are always tellingme that," she said, "and it makes me very cross."

    She phoned him later that night and he was there. "Weneed to talk," she said.

    "I want my key back," he said.

    "Look. Can you just come over here so that we can talk?"

    He arrived bearing flowers—white roses and irises. Theyseemed wilted and ironic; she leaned them against the wall in adry glass, no water.

    "All right, I admit it," he said. "I went out on a date. ButI'm not saying I slept with her."

    She could feel, suddenly, the promiscuity in him. It was aheat, a creature, a tenant twin. "I already know you slept withher."

    "How can you know that?"

    "Get a life! What am I, an idiot?" She glared at him andtried not to cry. She hadn't loved him enough and he had sensedit. She hadn't really loved him at all, not really.

    But she had liked him a lot!

    So it still seemed unfair. A bone in her opened up, gleamingand pale, and she held it to the light and spoke from it. "Iwant to know one thing." She paused, not really for effect, butit had one. "Did you have oral sex?"

    He looked stunned. "What kind of question is that? I don'thave to answer a question like that."

    "You don't have to answer a question like that. You don't haveany rights here!" she began to yell. She was dehydrated. "You'rethe one who did this. Now I want the truth. I just want toknow. Yes or no!"

    He threw his gloves across the room.

    "Yes or no," she said.

    He flung himself onto the couch, pounded the cushion withhis fist, placed an arm up over his eyes. "Yes or no," she repeated.

    He breathed deeply into his shirtsleeve.

    "Yes or no."

    "Yes," he said.

    She sat down on the piano bench. Something dark andcoagulated moved through her, up from the feet. Somethinglight and breathing fled through her head, the house of herplastic-wrapped and burned down to tar. She heard him give amoan, and some fleeing hope in her, surrounded but alive onthe roof, said perhaps he would beg her forgiveness. Promise tobe a new man. She might find him attractive as a new, beggingman. Though at some point, he would have to stop begging.He would just have to be normal. And then she would dislikehim again.

    He stayed on the sofa, did not move to comfort or be comforted,and the darkness in her cleaned her out, hollowed herlike acid or a wind.

    "I don't know what to do," she said, something palsied inher voice. She felt cheated of all the simple things—the radicalcalm of obscurity, of routine, of blah domestic bliss. "I don'twant to go back to L.A.," she said. She began to stroke thetops of the piano keys, pushing against one and finding itbroken—thudding and pitchless, shiny and mocking like anopened bone. She hated, hated her life. Perhaps she had alwayshated it.

    He sat up on the sofa, looked distraught and false—his facebadly arranged. He should practice in a mirror, she thought.He did not know how to break up with a movie actress. It wasboys' rules: don't break up with a movie actress. Not inChicago. If she left him, he would be better able toexplain it, to himself, in the future, to anyone who asked. His voice shiftedinto something meant to sound imploring. "I know" was whathe said, in a tone approximating hope, faith, some charity orother. "I know you might not want to."

    "For your own good," he was saying. "Might be willing..."he was saying. But she was already turning into somethingelse, a bird—a flamingo, a hawk, a flamingo-hawk—andwas flying up and away, toward the filmy pane of the window,then back again, circling, meanly, with a squint.

    He began, suddenly, to cry—loudly at first, with lots of ohs,then tiredly, as if from a deep sleep, his face buried in the ponchohe'd thrown over the couch arm, his body sinking into theplush of the cushions—a man held hostage by the anxious castof his dream.

    "What can I do?" he asked.

    But his dream had now changed, and she was gone, goneout the window, gone, gone.

Continues...