When I was young, my mother read me a story about a wicked little girl. She read it to me and my two sisters. We sat curled against her on the couch and she read from the book on her lap. The lamp shone on us and there was a blanket over us. The girl in the story was beautiful and cruel. Because her mother was poor, she sent her daughter to work for rich people, who spoiled and petted her. The rich people told her she had to visit her mother. But the girl felt she was too good and went merely to show herself. One day, the rich people sent her home with a loaf of bread for her mother. But when the little girl came to a muddy bog, rather than ruin her shoes, she threw down the bread and stepped on it. It sank into the bog and she sank with it. She sank into a world of demons and deformed creatures. Because she was beautiful, the demon queen made her into a statue as a gift for her great-grandson. The girl was covered in snakes and slime and surrounded by the hate of every creature trapped like she was. She was starving but couldn't eat the bread still welded to her feet. She could hear what people were saying about her; a boy passing by saw what had happened to her and told everyone, and they all said she deserved it. Even her mother said she deserved it. The girl couldn't move, but if she could have, she would've twisted with rage. "It isn't fair!" cried my mother, and her voice mocked the wicked girl.
Because I sat against my mother when she told this story, I did not hear it in words only. I felt it in her body. I felt a girl who wanted to be too beautiful. I felt a mother who wanted to love her. I felt a demon who wanted to torture her. I felt them mixed together so you couldn't tell them apart. The story scared me and I cried. My mother put her arms around me. "Wait," she said. "It's not over yet. She's going to be saved by the tears of an innocent girl. Like you." My mother kissed the top of my head and finished the story. And I forgot about it for a long time.
I open my eyes.
I can't sleep. When I try, I wake after two hours and then spend the rest of the night pulled around by feelings and thoughts. I usually sleep again at dawn and then wake at 7:30. When I wake, I'm mad at not sleeping, and that makes me mad at everything. My mind yells insults as my body walks itself around. Dream images rise up and crash down, huge, then gone, huge, gone. A little girl sinks down in the dark. Who is she? Gone.
I drink my coffee out of a heavy blue mug, watching the rain and listening to a fool on a radio show promote her book. I live right on the canal in San Rafael and I can look out on the water. There're too many boats on it and it's filthy with gas and garbage and maybe turds from the boats. Still, it's water, and once I saw a sea lion swimming toward town.
Every day, my neighbor Freddie leaps off his deck and into the canal for a swim. This disgusts my neighbor Bianca. "I asked him, 'Don't you know what's in there? Don't you know it's like swimming in a public toilet?'" Bianca is a sexy fifty-year-old, sexy even though she's lost her looks, mainly because of her big fat lips. "He doesn't care; he says he just takes a hot shower after." Bianca draws on her cigarette with her big lips. "Probably get typhoid." She blows out with a neat turn of her head; even her long ropy neck is sort of sexy. "I hate the sight of him flying through the air in that little Speedo, God!"
Sure enough, while I'm looking out the window, Freddie, all red and fleshy, with his stomach hanging down and his silver head tucked between his upstretched arms, vaults through the air and—wap!—hits the water like a bull roaring in the field. I can just see Bianca downstairs muttering "Shit!" and slamming the wall with her fist. He's a big fifty-something, with a huge jaw and muscles like lumps of raw meat just going to fat. His round eyes show one big emotion at a time: Joy. Anger. Pain. Fear. But his body is full of all those things happening at once, and that's what you see when he's swimming. He attacks the water with big pawing strokes, burying his face in it like he's trying to eat it out. Then he stops and treads water, his snorting head tossing and bobbing for a second before he turns and lies down in the water, like a kid, with total trust—ah!—face to the sky, regardless of the rain or turds.
Even though he's big, Freddie's got the face of somebody who's been beat too many times, like his face is just out there to be beat. He's also got the face of somebody who, after the beating is done, gets up, says "Okay," and keeps trying to find something good to eat or drink or roll in. He likes to end stories by saying, "But they'd probably just tell you I'm an a-s-s-h-o-l-e," like, Oh well, what's on TV? That's the thing Bianca hates most, that beat-up but still leaping out into the turds for a swim quality. Especially the leaping: It's like a personal affront to her. But I like it. It reminds me of the sea lion, swimming into town with its perfect round head sticking up—even though the lion is gliding and Freddie is rough. It's like something similar put in different containers. Sometimes I want to say this to Bianca, to defend Freddie. But she won't listen. Besides, I understand why he disgusts her. She's a refined person, and I like refinement, too. I understand it as a point of view.
The writer on the radio is talking about her characters like they're real people: "When you look at it from her point of view, his behavior really is strange, because to her, they're just playing a sexy game, whereas for him it's—" She blooms out of the radio like a balloon with a face on it, smiling, wanting you to like her, vibrating with things to say. Turn on the radio, there's always somebody like her on somewhere. People rushing through their lives turn the dial looking for comfort, and the excited smiling words spill over them. I drink my coffee. The novelist's characters dance and preen. I drink my coffee. People from last night's dream stumble in dark rooms, screaming at one another, trying hard to do something I can't see. I finish my coffee. Water is seeping in and soaking the edge of the carpet. I don't know how this happens, I'm on the second floor.
It's time for me to go clean John's office. John is an old friend, and as a favor, he pays me to clean his office every week. Into my patchwork bag I pack the necessaries—aspirin, codeine, bottle of water—then I look for my umbrella. When I find it, I realize it's broken, and I curse before I remember the other one, the red one from New York that I never use. I got it at the Museum of Modern Art gift shop when I lived in Manhattan. It has four white cartoon sheep, plus one black one, printed on its edge, along with the name of the museum. The decoration is precious and proper, and it reminds me of Veronica Ross. She is someone from my old life. She loved anything precious and proper: small intricate toys, photographs in tiny decorated frames, quotes from Oscar Wilde. She loved MoMA and she loved New York. She wore shoulder pads, prissy loafers, and thin socks. She rolled her trouser cuffs in this crisp way. On her glass-topped coffee table, she had miniature ashtrays, gilt matchboxes, and expensive coasters decorated with smiling cats.
When I go out into the hallway, Rita is there in her housecoat and slippers, holding a little plate of fried chicken livers. She offers me some, says she made too many last night. They smell good, so I take one and eat it while I talk to Rita. She says that last week "that son of a bitch Robert" fired up the barbecue again, on the puny deck right under hers, sending up poisonous charcoal fumes, which, she has explained time and again, are terrible for her hepatitis.
"I knew he still had that grill out there, and sure enough, the sun came out and I heard him mobilize it. I heard the charcoal in the bag. I heard him slide the lid off. I sat down and I meditated. I asked for help. I asked, What is the most powerful force in the world? And the answer came to me: Water."
Rita has hepatitis C; so do I. We don't discuss it much; she doesn't remind me that codeine by the fistful is like dropping a bomb on my liver. I don't remind her that while charcoal smoke is not a problem, her fried-food diet is.
"I filled every pot, every pan, every jar, glass, and vase, and I set them all out on the edge of the deck. And as soon as he fired it up—"
"I did. I doused the grill, and when he cursed me out, I doused him. He just stood there a second, and then you know what? He laughed! He said, 'Rita, you are a pisser.' He liked it!"
We talk a minute more; I laugh and say good-bye, step outside onto the wooden stairs. I snap open the umbrella and remember the last time I visited Veronica. She served me brownies in pink wrapping paper, fancy cheese, and sliced fruit she was too sick to eat. I said, "I don't think you love yourself. You need to learn to love yourself."
Veronica was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "I think love is overrated. My parents loved me. And it didn't do any good."
My street is all functional apartment buildings set back from the sidewalk. White plus a few black people live here. Two blocks down, it's semifunctional buildings and Mexicans. Turn the corner and it's warehouses, auto-body repair shops, and a bar with music coming out of it at 8:00 in the morning. Blunt, faceless buildings that are too much trouble to tear down. Grass and weeds and little bushes silently press up between the buildings and through every crack in the concrete. At the end of the street is a four-lane highway that you can walk along. Big businesses live here—car dealerships, computer stores, office retail—and things I can't identify, even though I walk by them almost every day, because the bigness makes me feel mute. The mute feeling isn't bad. It's like being a grain of dirt in the ground, with growth and death all around. A grain or a grass or a stone, a tiny thing that knows everything but can't say anything. It isn't just the bigness of the businesses. It's the highway, too, all the hundreds of cars roaring in the opposite direction I'm walking, the hundreds of heads blurrily showing through hundreds of windshields.
This happens sometimes when I walk along here; my focus slips and goes funny. I think it's something to do with walking at a slow pace against the speeding traffic, and today the rain blurs everything even more. It's like I get sucked out of normal life into a place where the order of things is changed; it's still my life and I recognize it, but the people and places in it are sliding around indiscriminately.
A fat white man pedals gravely past on a green bicycle, one hand guiding the bike, the other holding a small half-broken umbrella over his head. He examines me; there's a bolt of life from his hazel eyes and then he's gone.
A dream from last night: Someone is chasing me, and in order to reach safety, I have to run through my past and all the people in it. But the past is jumbled, not sequential, and all the people are mixed up. A nameless old woman who used to live next door is reaching out to me, her large brown eyes brimming with tenderness and tears—but my mother is lost in a crowd scene. My father is barely visible—I see him by himself in the shadows of the living room, dreamily eating a salted nut—while a loud demented stranger pops right up in my face, yelling about what I must do to save myself now.
Meanwhile, a middle-aged Mexican woman is kneeling on the sidewalk, patiently replacing the clothes that apparently spilled out when her big red suitcase broke open. She has no umbrella and her hair and clothes are plastered to her body. I stop and crouch, trying to help her. With an impersonal half glance, she shakes her head no. I straighten and pause and then stand there, holding my umbrella over both of us. She looks up, smiling; I'm invoking civility on this concrete strip between roaring and hugeness, and she appreciates it. Her smile is like an open door, and I enter for a second. She goes back to her nimble packing. She picks freshly wet little blouses, underwear, baby clothes, and socks up off the sidewalk. She retrieves a clear plastic bag of half-burned candles and a T-shirt that says 16 MAGAZINE! on it. She shakes out each thing and refolds it.
Toward the end, Veronica's shoulder pads used to get loose sometimes and wander down her arm or her back without her knowing it. Once I was sitting with her in a good restaurant when a man next to us said, "Excuse me, there's something moving on your back." His tone was light and aggressive, like it was him versus the fashionable nitwits. "Oh," said Veronica, also light. "Excuse me. It's just my prosthesis."
Sometimes I loved how she would make cracks like that. Other times it was just embarrassing. Once we were leaving a movie theater after seeing a pretentious movie. As we walked past a line of people waiting to see the other movie, Veronica said loudly, "They don't want to see anything challenging. They'd rather see Flashdance. Now me, if it's bizarre, I'm interested." There was a little strut to her walk and her voice was like a huge feather in a hat. She's not like that, I'd wanted to say to the ticket holders. If you knew her, you'd see.
But she was like that. She could be unbelievably obnoxious. In the locker room of the gym we both went to, she was always snapping at somebody for getting too close to her or brushing against her. "If you want me to move, just tell me, but please stop poking me in the bottom," she'd say to some openmouthed Suzy in a leotard. "Fist fucking went out years ago. Didn't you know that?"
The Mexican woman clicks her suitcase shut and stands with a little smile. My focus snaps back to normal, and the woman slips back into the raining hugeness. She smiles at me again as she turns to go, returning my civility with rain running down her face.
In the dream, it's like the strangers are delivering messages for more important people, who for some reason can't talk to me. Or that the people who are important by the normal rules—family, close friends—are accidental attachments, and that the apparent strangers are the true loved ones, hidden by the grotesque disguises of human life.
Of course, Veronica had a lot of smart cracks stored up. She needed them. When she didn't have them, she was naked and everybody saw. Once when we were in a coffee shop, she tried to speak seriously to me. Her skin was gray with seriousness. Her whole eyeball looked stretched and tight; the white underpart was actually showing. She said, "I've just got to get off my fat ass and stop feeling sorry for myself." Her tough words didn't go with the look on her face. The waitress, a middle-aged black lady, gave her a sharp, quick glance that softened as she turned away. She could tell something by looking at Veronica, and I wondered what it was.
Veronica died of AIDS. She spent her last days alone. I wasn't with her. When she died, nobody was with her.
I'm feeling a little feverish already, but I don't want to take the aspirin on an empty stomach. I also don't want to deal with holding the umbrella while I get the aspirin out, put it back, get the water, unscrew it, squeeze the umbrella with one arm, the one that's killing me. . . .
I met Veronica twenty-five years ago, when I was a temporary employee doing word processing for an ad agency in Manhattan. I was twenty-one. She was a plump thirty-seven-year-old with bleached-blond hair. She wore tailored suits in mannish plaids with matching bow ties, bright red lipstick, false red fingernails, and mascara that gathered in intense beads on the ends of her eyelashes. Her loud voice was sensual and rigid at once, like plastic baubles put together in rococo shapes. It was deep but could quickly become shrill. You could hear her from across the room, calling everyone, even people she hated, "hon": "Excuse me, hon, but I'm very well acquainted with Jimmy Joyce and the use of the semicolon." She proofread like a cop with a nightstick. She carried an "office kit," which contained a red plastic ruler, assorted colored pens, Liquid Paper, Post-its, and a framed sign embroidered with the words STILL ANAL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS. She was, too. When I told her I had a weird tension that made my forehead feel like it was tightening and letting go over and over again, she said, "No, hon, that's your sphincter."
"The supervisor loves her because she's a total fucking fag hag," complained another proofreader. "That's why she's here all the time."
"I get a kick out of her myself," said a temping actress. "She's like Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings combined."
"My God, you're right," I said, so loudly and suddenly that the others stared. "That's exactly what she's like."
I cross a little footbridge spanning the canal and pass a giant drugstore that takes up the whole block. There's an employee standing outside, yelling at someone. "Hey you!" he yells. "I saw that! Come back here!" Then more uncertainly: "Hey! I said come back here!"
Hey you. Veronica sat in a doctor's office, singing, "We've got the horse right here; his name's Retrovir" to the tune of a big Guys and Dolls number. The receptionist smiled. I didn't.
Come back here. Veronica burst into laughter. "You're like a Persian cat, hon." She made primly crossed paws of her hands and ecstatic blanks of her eyes; she let her tongue peep from her mouth. She laughed again.
More employees come out of the store and watch the guy; he just keeps walking. It's obvious why. The police can't get there fast enough and these employees are not going to fight him, because he'd win. This animal reality is just dawning on the employees. It makes them laugh, like an animal shaking its head and trotting away, glad to be alive.
I pass the bus depot, where people are hanging out, even in the rain. I pass closed restaurants, Mexican and French. The knot of traffic at this intersection always seems a little festive, although I don't know why. The bus depot changes: Sometimes it's sad, sometimes just businesslike, sometimes seems like it's about to explode. John's office is in the next block. He shares it with another photographer, who mostly shoots pets. He seems to be better off than John, who sticks to people.
I let myself in and sit down behind John's desk for a cigarette. I know I should be grateful to John for letting me clean his office, but I'm not. I hate doing it. It depresses me and it tears up my arm, which was injured in a car accident and then ruined by a doctor. John shares a bathroom with the pet photographer, who has filthy habits, and I have to clean up for both of them. I used to know John; we used to be friends. Even now, he sometimes talks to me about his insecurities, or advises me on my problems—smoking, for example, and how terrible it is.