Vox By Christina Dalcher: Book Review
I know, I know, you're over dystopian fiction. You wish they hadn't made another series of The Handmaid's Tale, you'd rather lose yourself in something happy...
BUT BUT BUT you can start your dystopian-fiction diet after this, because if you liked Atwood's novel and Naomi Alderman's The Power, I guarantee you will love this.
So, how many words do you think you speak a day?
I'll tell you: 16,000 on average.
Now, imagine a world in which you're only allowed to speak 100 a day.
If you're a woman, that is.
Set in a near-future America dominated by the conservative religious right, women have been driven back into the home and forced to wear bracelets that deliver electric shocks if they exceed their allotted 100 words.
Jean is one such woman – previously a neurolinguist, she's now a full-time homemaker and mother to her four children, three boys and one girl, aged six, who is also forced to wear the bracelet.
Until, that is, Jean is summoned back to work for a very special reason. Dalcher has described her own novel as "a call to pay attention".
We would be wise to take our heads out of the sand and listen.
Vox By Christina Dalcher: Book Extract
If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement, and that incompetent little shit Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them. But I wouldn’t argue. I wouldn’t say a thing.
I’ve become a woman of few words.
Tonight at supper, before I speak my final syllables of the day, Patrick reaches over and taps the silver-toned device around my left wrist. It’s a light touch, as if he were sharing the pain, or perhaps reminding me to stay quiet until the counter resets itself at midnight. This magic will happen while I sleep, and I’ll begin Tuesday with a virgin slate. My daughter, Sonia’s, counter will do the same.
My boys do not wear word counters.
Over dinner, they are all engaged in the usual chatter about school.
Sonia also attends school, although she never wastes words discussing her days. At supper, between bites of a simple stew I made from memory, Patrick questions her about her progress in home economics, physical fitness, and a new course titled Simple Accounting for Households. Is she obeying the teachers? Will she earn high marks this term? He knows exactly the type of questions to ask: closed-ended, requiring only a nod or a shake of the head.
I watch and listen, my nails carving half‐moons into the flesh of my palms. Sonia nods when appropriate, wrinkles her nose when my young twins, not understanding the importance of yes/no interrogatives and finite answer sets, ask their sister to tell them what the teachers are like, how the classes are, which subject she likes best. So many open-ended questions. I refuse to think they do understand, that they’re baiting her, teasing out words. But at eleven, they’re old enough to know. And they’ve seen what happens when we overuse words.
Sonia’s lips quiver as she looks from one brother to another, the pink of her tongue trembling on the edge of her teeth or the plump of her lower lip, a body part with a mind of its own, undulating. Steven, my eldest, extends a hand and touches his forefinger to her mouth.
I could tell them what they want to know: All men at the front of the classrooms now. One-way system. Teachers talk. Students listen. It would cost me sixteen words.
I have five left.
“How is her vocabulary?” Patrick asks, knocking his chin my way. He rephrases. “Is she learning?”
I shrug. By six, Sonia should have an army of ten thousand lexemes, individual troops that assemble and come to attention and obey the orders her small, still-plastic brain issues. Should have, if the three R’s weren’t now reduced to one: simple arithmetic. After all, one day my daughter will be expected to shop and to run a household, to be a devoted and dutiful wife. You need math for that, but not spelling. Not literature. Not a voice.
“You’re the cognitive linguist,” Patrick says, gathering empty plates, urging Steven to do the same.
In spite of my year of practice, the extra words leak out before I can stop them: “No. I’m. Not.”
Patrick watches the counter tick off another three entries. I feel the pressure of each on my pulse like an ominous drum. “That’s enough, Jean,” he says.
The boys exchange worried looks, the kind of worry that comes from knowing what occurs if the counter surpasses those three digits. One, zero, zero. This is when I say my last Monday word. To my daughter. The whispered “Goodnight” has barely escaped when Patrick’s eyes meet mine, pleading.
I scoop her up and carry her off to bed. She’s heavier now, almost too much girl to be hoisted up, and I need both arms.
Sonia smiles at me when I tuck her under the sheets. As usual, there’s no bedtime story, no exploring Dora, no Pooh and Piglet, no Peter Rabbit and his misadventures in Mr. McGregor’s lettuce patch. It’s frightening what she’s grown to accept as normal.
I hum her to sleep with a song about mockingbirds and billy goats, the verses still and quiet pictures in my mind’s eye.
Patrick watches from the door. His shoulders, once broad and strong, slump in a downward-facing V; his forehead is creased in matching lines. Everything about him seems to be pointing down.
In my bedroom, as on all other nights, I wrap myself in a quilt of invisible words, pretending to read, allowing my eyes to dance over imagined pages of Shakespeare. If I’m feeling fancy, my preferred text might be Dante in his original, static Italian. So little of Dante’s language has changed through the centuries, but tonight I find myself slogging through a forgotten lexicon. I wonder how the Italian women might fare with the new ways if our domestic efforts ever go international.
Perhaps they’ll talk more with their hands.
But the chances of our sickness moving overseas are slim. Before television became a federalized monopoly, before the counters went on our wrists, I saw newscasts. Al Jazeera, the BBC, Italy’s three RAI networks, and others used to occasionally broadcast talk shows. Patrick, Steven, and I watched them after the kids were in bed.
“Do we have to?” Steven groaned. He was slouched in his usual chair, one hand in a bowl of popcorn, the other texting on his phone.
I turned up the volume. “No. We don’t have to. But we can.” Who knew how much longer that would be true? Patrick was already talking about the cable privileges, how they were hanging on a frayed thread. “Not everyone gets this, Steven.” What I didn’t say was, Enjoy it while you can.
Except there wasn’t much to enjoy.
Every single show was the same. One after another, they laughed at us. Al Jazeera called us “the New Extremism.” I might have smiled if I hadn’t seen the truth in it. Britain’s political pundits shook their heads as if to say, Oh, those daffy Yanks. What are they doing now? The Italian experts, introduced by underdressed and overly made-up sexpots, shouted and pointed and laughed.
They laughed at us. They told us we needed to relax before we ended up wearing kerchiefs and long, shapeless skirts. On one of the Italian channels, a bawdy skit showed two men dressed as Puritans engaging in sodomy. Was this really how they saw the United States?
I don’t know. I haven’t been back since before Sonia was born, and there’s no chance of going now.
Our passports went before our words did.
I should clarify: some of our passports went.
I found this out through the most mundane of circumstances. In December, I realized Steven’s and the twins’ passports had expired, and I went online to download three renewal applications. Sonia, who’d never had any documentation other than her birth certificate and a booklet of vaccination records, needed a different form.
The boys’ renewals were easy, the same as Patrick’s and mine had always been. When I clicked the new‐passport‐application link, it took me to a page I hadn’t seen before, a single‐line questionnaire: Is the applicant male or female?
I glanced over at Sonia, playing with a set of colored blocks on the carpet in my makeshift home office, and checked the box marked female.
“Red!” she yelped, looking up at the screen.
“Yes, honey,” I said. “Red. Very good. Or?”
Without prompting, she went on. “Crimson! Cherry!”
“You got it, baby. Keep up the good work,” I said, patting her and tossing another set of blocks onto the carpet. “Try the blue ones now.”
Back at my computer, I realized Sonia was right the first time. The
screen was just red. Red as fucking blood.
Please contact us at the number below. Alternatively, you can send us an e‐mail at applications.state.gov. Thank you!
I tried the number a dozen times before resorting to e-mail, and then I waited a dozen days before receiving a response. Or a sort of response. A week and a half later, the message in my in-box instructed me to visit my local passport application center.
“Help you, ma’am?” the clerk said when I showed up with Sonia’s birth certificate.
“You can if you do passport applications.” I shoved the paperwork through the slot in the plexiglass screen.
The clerk, who looked all of nineteen, snatched it up and told me to wait. “Oh,” he said, scurrying back to the window, “I’ll need your passport for a minute. Just to make a copy.”
Sonia’s passport would take a few weeks, I was told. What I was not told was that my passport had been invalidated.
I found that out much later. And Sonia never got her passport.
At the beginning, a few people managed to get out. Some crossed the border into Canada; others left on boats for Cuba, Mexico, the islands. It didn’t take long for the authorities to set up checkpoints, and the wall separating Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas from Mexico itself had already been built, so the egress stopped fairly quickly.
“We can’t have our citizens, our families, our mothers and fathers, fleeing,” the president said in one of his early addresses.
I still think we could have made it if it had been only Patrick and me. But with four kids, one who didn’t know enough not to bounce in her car seat and chirp “Canada!” to the border guards—no way.
So I’m not feeling fancy tonight, not after thinking about how easily they kept us prisoners in our own country, not after Patrick took me in his arms and told me to try not to dwell on what used to be.
Here’s what used to be: We used to stay up late talking. We used to linger in bed on weekend mornings, putting off chores and reading the Sunday paper. We used to have cocktail parties and dinner parties and summer barbecues when the weather turned. We used to play games—first, spades and bridge; later, when the boys were old enough to tell a six from a five, war and go fish.
As for me, on my own, I used to have girlfriends. “Hen parties,” Patrick called my nights out with the girls, but I know he didn’t mean it unkindly. It was just one of those things guys said. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
We used to have book clubs and coffee chats; we debated politics in wine bars, later in basements—our version of reading Lolita in Tehran. Patrick never seemed to mind my weekly escapes, although he’d joke about us sometimes, before there wasn’t anything left to joke about. We were, in his words, the voices that couldn’t be hushed.
Well. So much for the infallibility of Patrick.Next chapter
When it started, before any of us could see what the future held, there was one woman in particular, one of the louder sorts. Her name was Jackie Juarez.
I don’t want to think of Jackie, but all of a sudden, it’s a year and a half ago, not long after the inauguration, and I’m sitting in the den with the kids, hushing their laughter so Sonia doesn’t wake up.
The woman on the television is hysterical, Steven points out when he returns to the den with three bowls of ice cream.
Hysterical. I hate that word. “What?” I say.
“Women are crazy,” he continues. “It’s not like it’s news, Mom. You know that saying about hysterical women and fits of the mother.”
“What?” I say again. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Learned it in school today. Some dude named Cooke or something.” Steven hands out the dessert. “Crap. One bowl’s smaller. Mom, you want the smaller one or the bigger one?”
“Smaller.” I’d been fighting to keep the weight down ever since my last pregnancy.
He rolls his eyes.
“Yeah. Wait till your metabolism hits forty-something. And when did you start reading Crooke? I didn’t think Description of the Body of Man had made it into must-read high school fodder.” I scoop up the first of what looks like three mouse-sized bites of rocky road. “Even for AP Lit.”
“Try AP Religious Studies, Mom,” Steven says. “Anyway, Cooke, Crooke. What’s the diff?”
“An r, kiddo.” I turn back to the irate woman on the TV.
She’s been on before, ranting about pay inequity and impenetrable glass ceilings, always inserting plugs for her latest book. This one bears the uplifting, doomsday-preaching title of They Will Shut Us Up. Sub-title: What You Need to Know About the Patriarchy and Your Voice. On the cover, a series of dolls—everything from Kewpies to Barbies to Raggedy Anns—stares out in full Technicolor, each doll’s mouth photo-shopped with a ball gag.
“Creepy,” I say to Patrick.
“Over the top, don’t you think?” He looks, a bit too longingly, at my melting ice cream. “You gonna eat that?”
I hand him the bowl, not turning from the TV. Something about the ball gags bothers me—even more than a Raggedy Ann with a red ball strapped to her face should bother me. It’s the straps, I think. The black X with the bloodred center crossing out each doll’s face. They look like half-assed veils, obliterating every feature but the eyes. Maybe that’s the point.
Jackie Juarez is the author of this and a half dozen other books, all with similarly nails-on-chalkboard titles like Shut Up and Sit Down, Barefoot and Pregnant: What the Religious Right Wants You to Be, and Patrick and Steven’s favorite, The Walking Uterus. The artwork on that one is gruesome.
Now she’s screaming at the interviewer, who probably shouldn’t have said “Feminazi.” “You know what you get if you take the feminist out of Feminazi?” Jackie doesn’t wait for an answer. “Nazi. That’s what you get. You like that better?”
The interviewer is nonplussed.
Jackie ignores him and bores her mascaraed eyes, crazed eyes, into the camera so it seems she’s looking right at me. “You have no idea, ladies. No goddamned idea. We’re on a slippery slide to prehistory, girls. Think about it. Think about where you’ll be—where your daughters will be—when the courts turn back the clock. Think about words like ‘spousal permission’ and ‘paternal consent.’ Think about waking up one morning and finding you don’t have a voice in anything.” She pauses after each of these last few words, her teeth clenched.
Patrick kisses me goodnight. “Gotta be up at the butt crack of dawn, babe. Breakfast meeting with the big guy in you know where. ’Night.”
“She needs to pop a chill pill,” Steven says, still watching the screen. He’s now got a bag of Doritos on his lap and is crunching his way through them, five at a time, a reminder that adolescence isn’t all bad.
“Rocky road and Doritos, kiddo?” I say. “You’ll ruin your face.”
“Dessert of champions, Mom. Hey, can we watch something else? This chick is a real downer.”
“Sure.” I hand him the remote, and Jackie Juarez goes quiet, only to be replaced by a rerun of Duck Dynasty.
“Really, Steve?” I say, watching one bearded, camo-clad mountain man after another wax philosophical on the state of politics.
“Yeah. They’re a fucking riot.”
“They’re insane. And watch your language.”
“It’s just a joke, Mom. Jeez. There aren’t really people like that.”
“Ever been to Louisiana?” I take the bag of chips from him. “Your dad ate all my ice cream.”
“Mardi Gras two years ago. Mom, I’m starting to worry about your memory.”
“New Orleans isn’t Louisiana.”
Or maybe it is, I think. When you get down to it, what’s the difference between some backwater asshole’s advising men to marry teenage girls and a bunch of costumed drunks flinging beads to anyone who shows her tits on St. Charles Avenue?
Probably not much.
And here’s the country in five-minute sound bites: Jackie Juarez in her city suit and Bobbi Brown makeup preaching fear; the duck people preaching hate. Or maybe it’s the other way around. At least the duck people don’t stare out at me from the screen and make accusations.
Steven, now on his second can of Coke and second bowl of rocky road—an inaccurate picture, because he’s forgone the bowl and is spooning the last bits of ice cream directly from the container—announces he’s going to bed. “Test tomorrow in AP Religious Studies.”
When did sophomores start taking AP classes? And why isn’t he doing something useful, like biology or history? I ask him about both.
“The religious studies course is new. They offered it to everyone, even the frosh babies. I think they’re phasing it into the regular curriculum next year. Anyway,” he says from the kitchen, “that means no time for bio or history this year.”
“So what is it? Comparative theology? I guess I can tolerate that— even in a public school.”
He comes back into the den with a brownie. His nightcap. “Nah. More like, I don’t know, philosophy of Christianity. Anyway, ’night, Mom. Love ya.” He plants a kiss on my cheek and disappears down the hall.
I turn Jackie Juarez back on.
She was much prettier in person, and it’s impossible to know whether she’s gained weight since grad school or whether the camera has added its proverbial ten pounds. Underneath the professional makeup and hair jobs, Jackie looks tired, as if twenty years of anger have drawn themselves on her face, one line at a time.
I crunch another Dorito and lick the salty chemicals off my fingers before rolling up the bag and setting it out of reach.
Jackie stares at me with those cold eyes that haven’t changed, accusing.
I don’t need her accusations. I didn’t need them twenty years ago, and I don’t need them now, but I still remember the day they started. The day my friendship with Jackie started going south.
“You’re coming to the march, right, Jean?” Jackie stood, braless and makeupless, at the door to my room, where I lay sprawled among half the library’s neurolinguistics collection.
“For fuck’s sake, Jean, this is more important than some stupid aphasia study. How about you focus on the people who are still around?”
I looked at her, letting my head drop to the right in a silent question.
“Okay. Okay.” She threw up her hands. “They’re still around. Sorry. I’m just saying that what’s going on with the Supreme Court thing is, well, it’s now.” Jackie always called political situations— elections, nominations, confirmations, speeches, whatever—“things.” That court thing. That speech thing. That election thing. It drove me insane. You’d think a sociolinguist would take the time to work on her vocabulary every once in a while.
“Anyway,” she said, “I’m going out there. You can thank me later when the Senate confirms Grace Murray’s seat on the bench. The only female now, in case you’re interested.” She started in again on “those misogynistic fuckwits on the hearing committee two years ago.”
“Thanks, Jackie.” I couldn’t hide the smile in my voice.
She wasn’t smiling, though.
“Right.” I pushed a notebook aside and shoved my pencil through my ponytail. “Would you quit giving me shit? I mean, this neurosci class is killing me. It’s Professor Wu this term and she’s not taking any prisoners. Joe dropped. Mark dropped. Hannah dropped. Those two chicks from New Delhi, the ones who always go around arm in arm and have their butt imprints on next-door library carrels, dropped. It’s not like we’re sitting around trading anecdotes about angry husbands and sad wives and sharing our vision for how teenage text-talk is the wave of the future every Tuesday.”
Jackie picked up one of the borrowed library books from my bed and opened it, glanced at the title at the top of the page. “‘Etiology of Stroke in Patients with Wernicke’s Aphasia.’ Riveting, Jean.” She dropped it onto the comforter, and it landed with a dull thud.
“Fine. You stay here in your little lab bubble while the rest of us go.” Jackie picked up the text, scribbled two lines inside the back cover, and let it fall again. “Just in case you can find a spare minute to call your senators, Bubble Girl.”
“I like my bubble,” I said. “And that’s a library book.”
Jackie didn’t seem to give a shit whether she’d just tagged the Rosetta stone with a can of spray paint. “Yeah. Sure you do, you and the rest of the white feminists. I hope someone never comes along and pops it.” With that, she was out the door, a mountain of colored signs in her arms.
When our lease was up, Jackie said she didn’t want to renew. She and a few other women had decided on a place up in Adams Morgan.
“I like the vibe better there,” she told me. “Happy birthday, by the way. You’ll be a quarter of a century next year. Like Marilyn Monroe said, it makes a girl think. You stay cool, now. And think about what you need to do to stay free.”
The present she left was an assortment of related trifles, a themed gift pack. Enclosed inside bubble wrap was a bag of bubble gum, the kind with the idiotic cartoons inside each individually papered brick; a pink bottle of soap with a plastic wand attached to its cap; bathroom cleaner— you can guess which brand; a split of Californian sparkling wine; and a pack of twenty-five balloons.
That night, I drank the sparkling wine straight from the bottle and popped every bubble in the wrap. All the rest went into the garbage.
I never spoke to Jackie again. On nights like this, I wish I had. Maybe things—the election thing, the nomination thing, the confirmation thing, the executive order thing—wouldn’t have turned out the way they did.
Sometimes, I trace invisible letters on my palm. While Patrick and the boys talk with their tongues outside, I talk with my fingers. I scream and whine and curse about what, in Patrick’s words, “used to be.”
This is how things are now: We have allotments of one hundred words a day. My books, even the old copies of Julia Child and— here’s irony—the tattered red‐and‐white‐checked Better Homes and Gardens a friend decided would be a cute joke for a wedding gift, are locked in cupboards so Sonia can’t get at them. Which means I can’t get at them either. Patrick carries the keys around like a weight, and sometimes I think it’s the heaviness of this burden that makes him look older.
It’s the little stuff I miss most: jars of pens and pencils tucked into the corners of every room, notepads wedged in between cookbooks, the dry-erase shopping list on the wall next to the spice cabinet. Even my old refrigerator poetry magnets, the ones Steven used to concoct ridiculous Italo-English sentences with, laughing himself to pieces. Gone, gone, gone. Like my e-mail account.
Some of life’s little sillinesses remain the same. I still drive, hit the grocery store on Tuesdays and Fridays, shop for new dresses and handbags, get my hair done once a month down at Iannuzzi’s. Not that I’ve changed the cut—I’d need too many precious words to tell Stefano how much to take off here and how much to leave there. My leisure reading limits itself to billboards advertising the latest energy drink, ingredients lists on ketchup bottles, washing instructions on clothing tags: Do not bleach.
Riveting material, all of it.
Sundays, we take the kids to a movie and buy popcorn and soda, those little rectangular boxes of chocolates with the white nonpareils on top, the kind you find only in movie theaters, never in the shops. Sonia always laughs at the cartoons that play while the audience files in. The films are a distraction, the only time I hear female voices unconstrained and unlimited. Actresses are allowed a special dispensation while they’re on the job. Their lines, of course, are written by men.
During the first months, I did sneak a peek at a book now and again, scratch a quick note on the back of a cereal box or an egg carton, write a love note to Patrick in lipstick on our bathroom mirror. I had good reasons, very good ones—Don’t think about them, Jean; don’t think about the women you saw in the grocery store—to keep note writing inside the house. Then Sonia came in one morning, caught the lipsticked message she couldn’t read, and yelped, “Letters! Bad!”
I kept communication inside me from that point, only writing a few words to Patrick in the evenings after the kids were in bed, burning the paper scraps in a tin can. With Steven the way he is now, I don’t even risk that.
Patrick and the boys, out on the back porch close to my window, are swapping stories about school, politics, the news, while crickets buzz in the dark around our bungalow. They make so much noise, those boys and those crickets. Deafening.
All my words ricochet in my head as I listen, emerge from my throat in a heavy, meaningless sigh. And all I can think about are Jackie’s last words to me.
Think about what you need to do to stay free.
Well, doing more than fuck all might have been a good place to start.Next chapter
None of this is Patrick’s fault. That’s what I tell myself tonight. He tried to speak up when the concept first bounced around the concave walls of a blue office in a white building on Pennsylvania Avenue. I know he did. The apology in his eyes is hard to miss, but speaking up has never been Patrick’s strong suit.
And Patrick wasn’t the man who showered votes on Sam Myers before the last election, the same man who promised even more votes the next time Myers ran. The man who, years ago, Jackie liked to call Saint Carl.
All the president had to do was listen, take instruction, and sign shit—a small price to pay for eight years as the most powerful man in the world. By the time he was elected, though, there wasn’t that much left to sign. Every devilish detail had already been seen to.
Somewhere along the line, what was known as the Bible Belt, that swath of Southern states where religion ruled, started expanding. It morphed from belt to corset, covering all but the country’s limbs—the democratic utopias of California, New England, the Pacific Northwest, DC, the southern jurisdictions of Texas and Florida—places so far on the blue end of the spectrum they seemed untouchable. But the corset turned into a full bodysuit, eventually reaching all the way to Hawaii.
And we never saw it coming.
Women like Jackie did. She even led a march of the ten-member Atheists for Anarchy group around campus, yelling out ludicrous prophecies like Alabama now, Vermont next! and Not your body—a PURE body! She didn’t give a shit that people laughed at her.
“You watch, Jeanie,” she told me. “Twenty-one women were in the Senate last year. Now we’ve got fifteen of our own in that fucking holy of holies.” She held up a hand and started ticking off fingers, one by one. “West Virginia. Not reelected. Tick. Iowa. Not reelected. Tick. North Dakota. Not reelected. Tick. Missouri, Minnesota, and Arkansas stepped down ‘for unknown reasons.’ Tick, tick, tick. That’s twenty-one percent down to fifteen percent representation in no time at all. And there’s word Nebraska and Wisconsin are leaning toward candidates with—and I quote—‘the country’s best interests in mind.’”
Before I could stop her, she ran the numbers for the House of Representatives. “Nineteen percent down to ten percent, and that’s only because of California, New York, and Florida.” Jackie paused to make sure I was still listening. “Texas? Gone. Ohio? Gone. All the Southern
states? Gone with the fucking wind, that’s what. And you think it’s some kind of blip? I mean, we’re gonna be back in the early nineties after the next midterms. Cut the representation in half again, and we’re headed
into the dark ages of 1970-something.”
“Honestly, Jacko. You’re getting hysterical about it.”
Her words flew at me like poisoned arrows. “Well, someone needs to be hysterical around here.”
The worst part of it all was that Jackie was wrong. We didn’t squeeze down from twenty percent female representation in Congress to five 32N percent. Over the next fifteen years, we squeezed down to almost nothing.
By this last election, we reached even that unthinkable goal, and Jackie’s prediction of being back in the early nineties seemed solid—if one was referring to the early 1890s. Congress had all the diversity of a bowl of vanilla ice cream, and the two women who still held cabinet positions were quickly replaced with men who, in Jackie’s words, “had the country’s best interests in mind.”
The Bible Belt had expanded and spread and grown into an iron maiden.
What it needed, though, was an iron fist, an enforcement arm. Again, Jackie seemed clairvoyant.
“You wait, Jeanie,” she said as we smoked cheap clove cigarettes out the single window of our apartment. She pointed to five neat lines of undergraduates marching in lockstep. “See those ROTC kids?”
“Yeah,” I said, exhaling smoke out the window, Lysol can at the ready in case our landlady showed up. “So?”
“Fifteen percent is some flavor of Baptist. Twenty percent, Catholic— the Roman variety. Almost another fifth says it’s nondenominational Christian—whatever that means.” She tried a few smoke rings, watching them dance out the window.
“So? That leaves what? Almost half doing the agnostic dance.”
Jackie laughed. “Have you run out of brain room, Jeanie? I haven’t even mentioned the LDS people or the Methodists or the Lutherans or the Tioga River Christian Conference.”
“The Tioga what? How many of them are there?”
“One. I think he’s in the air force.”
My turn to laugh now. I choked on a long draw of clove smoke, stubbed it, and sprayed myself with Lysol. “So not a big deal.”
“He isn’t. But the other ones, yeah. It’s a religion-heavy organization.” Jackie leaned out the window to get a better look. “And it’s mostly men. Conservative men who love their God and their country.” She sighed. “Women, not so much.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, leaving her to burn the other lung with a second cigarette. “They don’t hate women.”
“You, kiddo, need to get out more. Which states do you think have the highest enlistment rates? Hint: they ain’t in fucking New England. They’re good old boys.”
“So what?” I was exasperating her, and I knew it, but I couldn’t see the connection Jackie was trying to make.
“So they’re conservative, that’s what. Mostly white. Mostly straight.” Jackie stubbed out the half-smoked clove, wrapped it in a plastic baggie, and faced me, arms crossed. “Who do you think is angriest right now? In our country, I mean.”
I shrugged. “African Americans?”
She made a buzzing noise, a sort of you’re‐out‐but‐we’ve‐got‐some‐ lovely‐consolation‐prizes‐backstage kind of a sound. “Guess again.”
“No, you dope. The straight white dude. He’s angry as shit. He feels emasculated.”
“Of course he does.” Jackie pointed a purple fingernail at me. “You just wait. It’s gonna be a different world in a few years if we don’t do something to change it. Expanding Bible Belt, shit-ass representation in Congress, and a pack of power-hungry little boys who are tired of being told they gotta be more sensitive.” She laughed then, a wicked laugh that shook her whole body. “And don’t think they’ll all be men. The Becky Homeckies will be on their side.”
Jackie nodded at my sweats and bed-matted hair, at the pile of yesterday’s dishes in the sink, and finally at her own outfit. It was one of the more interesting fashion creations I’d seen on her in a while—paisley leggings, an oversized crocheted sweater that used to be beige but had now taken on the color of various other articles of clothing, and purple stiletto boots. “The Susie Homemakers. Those girls in matching skirts and sweaters and sensible shoes going for their Mrs. degrees. You think they like our sort? Think again.”
“Come on, Jackie,” I said.
“Just wait, Jeanie.”
So I did. Everything turned out pretty much as Jackie thought it would. And worse. They came at us from so many vectors, and so quietly, we never had the chance to assemble ranks.
One thing I learned from Jackie: you can’t protest what you don’t see coming.
I learned other things a year ago. I learned how difficult it is to write a letter to my congressman without a pen, or to mail a letter without a stamp. I learned how easy it is for the man at the office supply store to say, “I’m sorry, ma’am. I can’t sell you that,” or for the postal worker to shake his head when anyone without a Y chromosome asks for stamps. I learned how quickly a cell phone account can be canceled, and how efficient young enlisted men can be at installing cameras.
I learned that once a plan is in place, everything can happen overnight.
Patrick is feeling frisky tonight, even if I’m not. Either that, or he’s looking for stress relief before another day in another week at the job that’s keeping gas in the car and paying the kids’ dentist bills.
Even a topped-out government job never seems like enough, not now that I’m no longer working.
The lights on the porch go out, the boys tumble into their beds, and Patrick tumbles into ours.
“Love you, babe,” he says. His roaming hands tell me he’s not ready for sleep. Not yet. And it has been a while. A few months is my best guess. It might be longer than that.
So we get to business.
I was never one to talk much while making love. Words seemed clumsy; sharp interruptions of a natural rhythm, a basic coupling. And forget about silly porn-style mantras: Give it to me. Here I come. Fuck me harder. Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby. They had a place in kitchen flirting or raunchy jokes with the girlfriends, but not in bed. Not with Patrick.
Still, there had been talk between us. Before and afterward. During. An I love you, six sounds, diphthongs and glides and liquids with only a single turbulent v, a soft consonant in so many ways, appropriate to the setting. Our names, whispered. Patrick. Jean.
Tonight, with the children in their beds and Patrick in me, his steady breathing close and heavy in my ear, my eyes shut to the glint of moon refracting off the dresser mirror, I consider what I’d prefer. Would I be happier if he shared my silence? Would it be easier? Or do I need my husband’s words to fill the gaps in the room and inside me?
He stops. “What’s wrong, babe?” There’s concern in his voice, but I think I hear a trace of otherness, a tone I never want to hear again. It sounds like pity.
I reach up, place both palms at against the sides of his face, and pull his mouth to mine. In the kiss, I talk to him, make assurances, spell out how every little thing is going to be all right. It’s a lie, but a fitting lie for the moment, and he doesn’t speak again.
Tonight, let it be all quiet. Full silence. A void.
I am now in two places at once. I am here, under Patrick, the weight of him suspended above my skin, part of him and also separate. I am in my other self, fumbling with my prom dress buttons in the back seat of Jimmy Reed’s Grand National, a sex car if there ever was one. I’m panting and laughing and high on spiked punch while Jimmy gropes and grabs. Then I’m singing in the glee club, cheering on our no-star football team, giving the valedictory address at college graduation, shouting obscenities at Patrick when he tells me to push and pant just one more time, babe, before the baby’s head crowns. I’m in a rented cottage, two months ago, lying beneath the body of a man I want desperately to see again, a man whose hands I still feel roaming over my flesh.
Lorenzo, I whisper inside my head, and kick the three delicious syllables away before they hurt too much.
My self is becoming more and more separate.
At times like this, I think about the other women. Dr. Claudia, for instance. Once, in her office, I asked whether gynecologists enjoyed sex more than the rest of us, or whether they got lost in the clinical nature of the act. Did they lie back and think, Oh, now my vagina is expanding and lengthening, now my clitoris is retracting into its hood, now the first third (but only the first third) of my vaginal walls are contracting at the rate of one pulse every eight-tenths of a second.
Dr. Claudia withdrew the speculum in one smooth move and said, “Actually, when I first started medical school, that’s exactly what I did. I couldn’t help it. Thank god my partner then was another med student; otherwise, I think he would have zipped up and walked out and left me
laughing hysterically under the sheets.” She tapped my knee and removed one foot, then the other, from the pink‐fuzz‐covered stirrups. “Now I just enjoy it. Like everyone else.”
While I’m thinking about Dr. Claudia and her shiny steel speculum, Patrick orgasms and collapses on me, kissing my ears and throat.
I wonder what the other women do. How they cope. Do they still find something to enjoy? Do they love their husbands in the same way? Do they hate them, just a little bit?Next chapter
The first time she screams, I think I’m dreaming. Patrick snores beside me; he’s always been one to sleep heavily, and his schedule for the past month has run him into the ground. So snore, snore, snore.
My sympathy has already expired. Let them work twelve-hour days to pick up the inevitable slack that canceling almost half of the workforce brought about. Let them bury themselves in paperwork and administrative nonsense and then limp home only to sleep like the dead and get up and do it all over again. What did they expect?
It isn’t Patrick’s fault. I know this in my heart and in my mind. With four kids, we need the income his job brings in. Still, I’m all dry on sympathy.
She screams again, not a wordless scream, but a blood-curdling waterfall of words.
Mommy, don’t let it get me don’t let it get me don’t let it get me don’t let it get me—
I’m out of the bed in a tumble of sheets and quilts, nightdress tangled around my legs. My shin slams into the hard corner of the bedside table, a bull’s-eye on my bone. This one will bleed, leave a scar, but I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about the scar I’ll own if I don’t make it to Sonia’s bedroom in time to quiet her.
The words continue pouring out, flying through the hall toward me like poisoned darts from a million hostile blowpipes. Each one stings; each one pierces my once-tough skin with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, driving directly to my gut. How many words has she said? Fifty? Sixty? More?
Now Patrick’s up, wide-eyed and pallid, a picture of some silver-screen hero fresh with fright on discovering the monster in the closet. I hear his footsteps quick behind me matching the thrum of blood pulsing through my veins, hear him yell, “Run, Jean! Run!” but I don’t turn around. Doors open as I fly past them, first Steve’s, then the twins’. Someone—maybe Patrick, maybe me—slaps on the hall light switch, and three blurred faces, pale as ghosts, appear in my peripheral vision. Of course, Sonia’s room would be the farthest from my own.
Mommy, please don’t let it get me don’t let it get me don’t—
Sam and Leo start crying. For the smallest of moments, I register a single thought: lousy mother. My boys are in distress, and I’m moving past them, uncaring and oblivious. I’ll worry about this damage later, if I’m in the condition to worry about anything.
Two steps into Sonia’s small room, I vault onto her bed, one hand searching for her mouth, clamping onto it. My free hand gropes under her sheets for the hard metal of the wrist counter.
Sonia moans through my palm, and I catch her nightstand clock out of the corner of my eye. Eleven thirty.
I have no words remaining, not for the next half hour.
“Patrick—,” I mouth when he switches the overhead light on. Four pairs of eyes stare at the scene on Sonia’s bed. It must look like violence, a grotesque sculpture—my writhing child, her nightgown translucent with sweat; me, lying sprawled on top of her, suffocating her cries and pinning her to the mattress. What a horrible tableau we must make. Infanticide in the flesh.
My counter glows 100 over Sonia’s mouth. I turn to Patrick, pleading mutely, knowing that if I speak, if the LED turns over to 101, she’ll share the inevitable shock.
Patrick joins me on the bed, pries my hand from Sonia, replaces it with his own. “Shh, baby girl. Shh. Daddy’s here. Daddy won’t let anything happen to you.”
Sam and Leo and Steve come into the room. They jostle for position and all of a sudden there’s no more room for me. Lousy mother becomes useless mother, two words ping-ponging in my head. Thanks, Patrick. Thanks, boys.
I don’t hate them. I tell myself I don’t hate them.
But sometimes I do.
I hate that the males in my family tell Sonia how pretty she is. I hate that they’re the ones who soothe her when she falls off her push-bike, that they make up stories to tell her about princesses and mermaids. I hate having to watch and listen.
It’s a trial reminding myself they’re not the ones who did this to me.
Sonia has quieted now; the immediate danger has passed. But I note as I slip backward out of her room that her brothers are careful not to touch her. Just in case she has another fit.
In the corner of the living room is our bar, a stout wooden trolley with its bottled assortment of liquid anesthetic. Clear vodka and gin, caramel scotch and bourbon, an inch of cobalt remaining in the curaçao bottle we bought years ago for a Polynesian-themed picnic. Tucked toward the back is what I’m looking for: grappa, also known as Italian moonshine. I pull it out along with a small stemmed glass and take both with me onto the back porch and wait for the clock to chime midnight.
Drinking isn’t something I do much of anymore. It’s too goddamned depressing to sip an icy gin and tonic and think about summer evenings when Patrick and I would sit shoulder to shoulder on our first apartment’s postage stamp of a balcony, talking about my research grants and qualifying papers, about his hellish hours as a resident at Georgetown University Hospital. Also, I’m afraid to get drunk, afraid I might develop too much Dutch courage and forget the rules. Or out them.
The first shot of grappa goes down like fire; the second is smoother, palliative. I’m on my third when the clock announces today’s end and a dull ping on my left wrist gives me another hundred words.
What will I do with them?
I slide back in through the screen door, pad over the living room rug, replace the bottle on the bar. Sonia is sitting up when I enter her room, a glass of milk in her hands, propped up by Patrick’s palm. The boys have returned to their own beds, and I sit next to Patrick.
“Everything’s all right, darling. Mommy’s here.”
Sonia smiles up at me.
But this isn’t how it happens.
I take my drink out on the lawn, past the roses Mrs. Ray chose with care and planted, out into the dark, sweet-smelling patch of grass where the lilacs bloom. They say you’re supposed to talk to plants to make them healthier; if that’s true, my garden is moribund. Tonight, though, I don’t give a rat’s ass about the lilacs or the roses or anything else. My mind’s on a different brand of creature.
“You fucking bastards!” I scream. And again.
A light flickers on in the Kings’ house, and the vertical blinds twitch and separate. I don’t give a damn. I don’t care if I wake up the entire subdivision, if they hear me all the way to Capitol Hill. I scream and scream and scream until my throat is dry. Then I take another swig from the grappa bottle, spilling some on my nightgown.
“Jean!” The voice comes from behind me, followed by the slam of a door. “Jean!”
“Fuck off,” I say. “Or I’ll keep talking.” Suddenly, I don’t care anymore about the shock or the pain. If I can keep screaming through it, keep up my anger, drown the sensation with booze and words, would the electricity continue to flow? Would it lay me out?
Probably not. They won’t kill us for the same reason they won’t sanction abortions. We’ve turned into necessary evils, objects to be fucked and not heard.
Patrick is yelling now. “Jean! Babe, stop. Please stop.”
Another light goes on in the Kings’ house. A door squeaks open. Footsteps. “What the hell’s going on out there, McClellan? People are trying to sleep.” It’s the husband, of course. Evan. Olivia is still peeking through the blinds at my midnight show.
“Fuck you, Evan,” I say.
Evan announces he’s calling the cops, although not quite so politely as all that. Then the light in Olivia’s window goes dark.
I hear screaming—some my own—then Patrick is on me, wrestling me down to the moist grass, pleading and cajoling, and I can taste tears on his lips when he kisses me quiet. My first thought is whether they teach men these techniques, whether there were pamphlets handed over to husbands and sons and fathers and brothers on the days we became shackled by these shiny steel bracelets. Then I decide they couldn’t possibly care that much.
“Let me go.” I’m in the grass, nightgown stuck to me like a snakeskin. It’s then I realize I’m hissing.
It’s also then I realize the pulses are closer together.
Patrick grasps my left wrist, checks the number. “You’re out, Jean.”
I try to wriggle away from him, an act as empty of hope as my heart. The grass is bitter in my mouth, until I realize I’m chewing on a mouthful of dirt. I know what Patrick’s doing; I know he’s set on absorbing the shock with me.
So I stay silent and let him lead me back inside as the wail of sirens grows louder.
Patrick can talk to them. I don’t have any words left.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Sonia’s blank stare as I walk her through the rain to the bus stop is the worst reproach, my punishment for last night’s grappa-soaked tirade in the backyard. Certainly worse than Officers So-and-So lecturing me on my disturbance of the neighborhood peace.
This is the first time I haven’t told her I love her before sending her off to school. I blow a kiss, and immediately regret it when she raises a tiny hand to her lips and starts to blow one back.
The black eye of a camera stares at me from the bus door.
They’re everywhere now, the cameras. In supermarkets and schools, hair salons and restaurants, waiting to catch any gesture that might be seen as sign language, even the most rudimentary form of nonverbal communication.
Because, after all, none of the crap they’ve hit us with has anything to do with speaking.
I think it was a month after the wrist counters went on that it happened. In the produce section of Safeway, of all places. I didn’t know the women, but I’d seen them shopping before. Like all the new mothers in the neighborhood, they traveled in pairs or packs, running errands in sync, ready to lend a hand if one of the babies had a meltdown in the checkout aisle. These two, though, they were close-knit, tight. It was that tightness, I understand now, that was the problem.
You can take a lot away from a person—money, job, intellectual stimulation, whatever. You can take her words, even, without changing the essence of her.
Take away camaraderie, though, and we’re talking about something different.
I watched them, these women, taking turns to ogle each other’s baby, pointing at their hearts and temples in a silent pidgin. I watched them finger spell next to a pyramid of oranges, laughing when they fucked up one of the letters they probably hadn’t signed since the sixth grade when they passed messages about Kevin or Tommy or Carlo. I watched them stare in horror as three uniformed men approached, I watched the pyramid of oranges tumble when the women tried to resist, and I watched them being led out of the automatic doors, them and their baby girls, each of the four with a wide metal cu on her wrist.
I haven’t inquired after them, of course. But I don’t have to. I’ve never seen those women or their babies since.
“Bye,” Sonia says, and hops onto the bus.
I walk back to the door, shake out the umbrella on the porch, and stand it to dry. The locked mailbox with its single slit of a mouth seems to grin at me. See what you’ve done, Jean?
Our postman’s truck stops at the corner and he gets out, swathed in one of those clear plastic raincoats the post office issues for inclement weather. He looks like he’s wearing a condom.
My friend Ann Marie and I used to laugh at the mailmen on rainy days, snickering at their shorts and silly pith helmets during summer, at their galoshes slurping through slush in the winter months. Mostly, we laughed at the plastic raincoats because they reminded us of the getups little old ladies wore. Still wear. Some things haven’t changed. Although we don’t have female postal workers anymore. I suppose that’s an enormous change.
“Morning, Mrs. McClellan,” he says, sloshing up the walk toward the house. “Lotsa mail today.”
I almost never see our mailman. He has a knack for coming when I’m out of the house running errands or inside taking a shower. Occasionally, if I’m in the kitchen, I’ll hear the dull metallic thud of the mailbox flap while I’m working my way through a second cup of coffee. I wonder if he plans his timing.
I answer him with a smile and hold my hand out, just to see what he’ll do.
“Sorry, ma’am. I gotta put the mail in the mailbox. Rules, you know.”
They do have these new rules, except if Patrick is around on Saturday mornings. Then our ever-rule-abiding mailman puts the letters in Patrick’s hand. Saves my husband the trouble of having to go hunt for the key, I guess.
I watch the mailbox swallow a stack of envelopes and clank its mouth shut.
“You have a nice day, now, Mrs. McClellan. If you can in this weather.”
The automatic reply catches in my throat with seconds to spare.
And then it happens: he blinks three times, each close of his eyes punctuated by an absurdly long pause, like a mechanical batting of lashes. “I have a wife, you know. And three girls.” This last emerges in a whisper as the mailman—What was his name? Mr. Powell? Mr. Ramsey? Mr. Banachee? I warm with embarrassment at not knowing even the name of this man who visits our house six days a week.
He does it again, the eye thing, not before checking over my shoulder for the porch camera and lining himself up so I’m eclipsing its lens. Am I the sun or the moon? Probably Pluto, the un-planet.
And I recognize him. My mailman is the son of the woman who should have been the first human to get the anti-aphasia shot, Delilah Ray. It’s no wonder he was so worried about my fees last year, which would have amounted to exactly zero if I’d ever reached the trial stage of my Wernicke X‐5 serum; he can’t be pulling in much as a postal worker.
I liked the man. He had a sensitivity about him when he brought Delilah Ray in to see me, along with a child’s sense of wonder at the magic potion I proposed to inject into her brain. Family members of other patients had been awestruck, but this man was the only person who cried when I told him my projections, explained that if the trial went well, the old woman would speak her first coherent words after a year of post-stroke linguistic confusion. In this man’s eyes, I wasn’t simply another scientist or speech therapist in a long line of diagnosticians and do-gooders. I was a god who could bring back lost voices.
Now he looks at me questioningly, expectantly, so I do the only thing I can: I raise my left hand to my face, turning the counter outward.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
Before he leaves the porch to plod back to his mail truck, I close and open my eyes, three times, as he did.
“We’ll talk another time,” he says. It’s only a whisper. And then he goes.
Off to my right, a door slams, its tinny aluminum double tapping on the frame. Olivia King, hidden by a paisley umbrella, emerges from the shelter of her porch. The scarf around her head is plain pink silk, or polyester. It gives her the air of a grandmother, although Olivia is at least a decade younger than I am. She checks the skies, puts a hand out, and closes the umbrella.
She does not take off the scarf before stepping from the porch and folding herself into the front seat of her car. Weekday mornings are the only times Olivia drives anymore; if her church were closer, she’d walk.
In this moment, Olivia seems small, almost shrunken, a house mouse scuttling from one refuge to another, fearful of what might lie in wait along her trajectory. She’s what Jackie would have called a Kool-Aid head, content with her place in the hierarchy: God, man, woman. Olivia had drunk up the poison, every last drop.
My own repertoire of religious doctrine is shit, which is how I like it. But when Steven first came home with his reading from that AP course—an innocent-sounding title, Fundamentals of Modern Christian Philosophy, blazoned on the cover, innocuous blue lettering on a white background—I leafed through the book after dinner.
“Pretty lame, isn’t it?” Steven said on his second trip to the kitchen’s snack cabinet.
“They’re mainstreaming this next year? That’s what you said, right?” I asked. My eyes didn’t stray from the page, a chapter titled “In Search of a Natural Order in the Modern Family.” The chapter, like all the others, was preceded by a biblical quote; this one, from Corinthians, informed the reader that “The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”
Further along, chapter twenty-seven began with this nugget from the book of Titus: “Be teachers of good things; teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands.” The gist of the text was a call to arms of sorts, a reaching out to older generations of women.
There were chapters on feminism and its insidious deconstruction of Judeo-Christian values (as well as manhood), advice for men on their roles in husbanding and parenting, guidance for children on respecting their elders. Every page screamed extreme-right fundamentalism.
I slammed the book shut. “Tell me this isn’t the only required reading.”
“That’s the book,” Steven said after he downed a mason jar of milk and refilled it halfway.
“So the point of this class is, what? Highlighting the pitfalls of conservative Christianity?”
He stared at me blankly, as if I’d just asked the question in Greek. “I don’t know. The teacher’s cool. And she makes some good points. You know, like about how hard it is on kids when both their parents work, how we’ve gotten to this place where people forget about simple things.”
I put the milk back into the fridge. “How about you save some of this for your brothers’ breakfast? And what simple things?” A slide show played in my head: women gardening, women canning peaches, women embroidering pillowcases by candlelight. Shakers abstaining themselves out of existence.
“Like, well, gardening and cooking and stuff like that. Instead of running around working dumb jobs.”
“You think I should garden and cook more? You think the work I do is less important than—I don’t know—crafts?”
“Not you, Mom. Other women. The ones who just wanna get out of the house and have some kind of identity.” He picked up the book and kissed me goodnight. “Anyway, it’s just a stupid class.”
“I wish you’d drop it,” I said.
“No way, José. I need the AP credits for college.”
“Why? So you can major in modern Christian thought?”
“No. So I can get into college.”
And that was how they did it. Sneaking in a course here, a club there. Anything to lure kids with promises of increasing their competitiveness.
Such a simple thing, really.Next chapter
The president’s wife is next to him on the screen, a few steps back and to his right, her blond hair covered by a delicate mauve scarf that matches her dress and sets off her eyes.
I don’t know why I turn on the television. By the time I’ve reheated my coffee, the rain has started beating a steady, wet rhythm again, so I don’t much feel like going out. Also, it’s safer here at home, by myself. No temptation to speak.
She’s a beauty, the first lady. Almost a reincarnation of Jackie O, only fair and blue-eyed instead of dark. I remember her from before she married, when she decorated the pages of Vogue and Elle, almost always modeling low-cut and high‐cropped swimwear or lingerie, smiling out from the magazines as if to say, Go ahead. Touch me.
Now, watching her stand placidly behind her husband, I’m struck by the change. A metamorphosis, really. She appears shorter, but maybe that’s because of a footwear choice. The president is not very tall, and one supposes there’s an aesthetic issue at play, as if the photographers decided to even out their frames, smoothing the peaks and valleys of their subjects.
Who am I kidding?
She’s never smiling anymore, never wearing anything that falls less than three inches below her knees or that’s cut lower than just at the bottom of that concavity on her throat, the one I can never remember the name of. Supra-something notch. Her sleeves are unfailingly three-quarters length, like today, and the counter on her left wrist matches her dress exactly. It looks like a piece of antique jewelry, a gift from a great-grandmother.
The first lady is supposed to be our model, a pure woman, steadfast at her husband’s side in all things, at all times.
Of course, she’s at his side only during public events. When the cameras click off and the microphones are muted, Anna Myers, née Johansson, is promptly escorted back to her home by a trio of armed Secret Service agents. This is never filmed, but Patrick has been in attendance at more than one of the president’s appearances.
The trio stays with her night and day.
In other times, this constant supervision of the first lady would be accepted as routine security for her protection. The truth, however, is in Anna Myers’ blue eyes; they have the vacant, lusterless quality of a woman who now sees the world in shades of gray.
There was a girl in my dorm, five doors down on the left, who had Anna’s eyes. It seemed the muscles around them never moved, never contracted and stretched to match the smile she wore when we asked if she was okay, if she felt better this morning, if she wanted to talk. I remember when we found her body, eyes open and dull, like country wells or puddles of spilled coffee. If you want to know what depression looks like, all you need to do is look into a depressed person’s eyes.
Strange how I can remember the dead girl’s eyes but not her name.
Anna Myers lives in a prison with rose gardens and marble bathrooms and two-thousand-thread-count sheets on the bed. Patrick told me about her, after one of his visits as a favor to President Myers, about how the Secret Service men check Anna’s bathroom twice a day, how they search her bed for objects that might have migrated unseen from the kitchen, how they hold her prescription meds and dole out pills one at a time. There are no liquor bottles in Anna’s home, no locks on the doors except for those of the storage cupboard where the housekeeping supplies are. Nothing in her house is made of glass.
I switch the channel.
We still have cable, more than one hundred choices of sports, garden shows, cooking demos, home restoration, cartoons for the children, some movies. All the movies are PG—no horror, a smattering of light comedy, those four‐hour epics about Moses and Jesus. Then there are the other channels, but they’re all password protected, viewable only by the head of household and males over eighteen. No one needs much imagination to guess what kinds of shows are on these channels.
Today, I choose golf: pure boredom involving a metal stick and a ball.
When my coffee is cold and the leading player reaches the eighteenth hole, the doorbell rings. It’s an unusual occurrence during the day. I mean, what would be the point? The only people who aren’t out at work are women, and what would they do? Sit in silence and watch golf? Company only draws attention to what we no longer have.
I realize I’m still wearing my robe when I open the door and find Olivia, pink scarf knotted tightly around her head, not a shred or wisp of curl peeking out.
She checks me over, a slow, disapproving look from my neck to my feet, and holds out a nearly empty sack of sugar and a measuring cup.
I nod. If it weren’t still pissing rain, I’d let her wait on the porch while I take the cup into the kitchen and pour sugar into it. Instead, I motion for her to step inside, out of the wet.
Olivia follows me to the kitchen, and the stack of dirty breakfast dishes receives the same frown my bathrobe did at the front door. I’d like to slap her, or at least tell her what I think of her sanctimonious attitude. When I take the measuring cup from her hands, she grasps my wrist. Olivia’s hands are cold, moist from the rain.
I expect some sound, some uppity, self-righteous little “Hm,” but she says nothing, only regards my counter, its ceaseless blinking of the three-digit number.
She actually smiles, and the smile brings back a memory of another day, another unexpected doorbell ring, another request for a cup of sugar, a half-pint of milk, an egg.
“Mind if I sit a minute?” Olivia said two years ago, not waiting for a yes before she planted her ample bottom on the sofa in the den. I’d left the TV on, tuned to some talk show or another, while I waded through final exam blue books. Jackie Juarez was going head-to-head with three women, each of them dressed like a cross between Donna Reed and an Apollo-era astronaut’s wife.
“Oh, isn’t she something,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Which one?” I asked, holding out the Rubbermaid container of milk.
“The one in the red suit. The one who looks like Satan.”
Jackie was a bit over-the-top, even for Jackie. The red stood out like a suppurating sore amid the other three women, drab and dull in their pastel twinsets. Each wore a strand of pearls, high enough on the neck to look like a collar; Jackie’s chunk of pendant—an owl—dangled between her tits, pushed up by the miracle of modern underwire and padding.
“I know her,” I said. “Knew her. We were in grad school together.”
“Grad school,” Olivia repeated. “What did she do?”
Olivia snorted but didn’t ask me to explain before she turned back toward the quartet of women and the moderator.
As usual, Jackie was ranting. “You actually think women should obey their husbands? In the twenty-first century?”
The woman to her right, the one in the baby blue cardigan, smiled. It was the sort of smile a flustered kindergarten teacher might give to a child throwing a tantrum, a smile full of pity and understanding. You’ll grow out of it, the smile said. “Let me tell you a few things about the twenty-first century, dear,” Ms. Baby Blue Cardigan said. “We don’t know who men are or who women are anymore. Our children are growing up confused. The culture of family has broken down. We have increases in traffic, pollution, autism rates, drug use, single parents, obesity, consumer debt, female prison populations, school shootings, erectile dysfunction. That’s just to name a few.” She waved a stack of manila folders in front of Jackie as the other two seventies‐era Barbie dolls—Pure Women, they called themselves—nodded in somber agreement.
Jackie ignored the folders. “I suppose the next thing you’ll be telling us is that feminism is at fault for rape?”
“I’m glad you mentioned that, Miss Juarez,” Baby Blue Cardigan said.
“Whatever. Do you know how many incidents of violent rape were reported in 1960? In the United States.”
“It’s interesting you use the word ‘reported,’” Jackie began.
“Seventeen thousand. Give or take. We’re up to five times that number this year.”
Jackie rolled her eyes, and the other two Pure Women went in for the kill. They had the numbers. They had charts and surveys. One of them introduced a collection of simple pie charts—they must have been organized in advance, I thought—while Jackie fought for airtime.
On the sofa next to me, Olivia chewed her lower lip. “I had no idea,” she said.
“No idea about what?”
“These numbers.” She pointed to one of the charts, now being televised with a prepared voice-over of Baby Blue’s voice. She had moved on from rape and was reciting statistics on antidepressant usage. “Jeez. One in six? That’s awful.”
No one in the studio audience was paying attention to Jackie’s claims of skewed statistics, of the correlation-causation fallacy, of the fact that of course no one was taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in 1960, because they didn’t exist.
That was how it started. Three women with a stack of pie charts and people like Olivia.
It took forever to get Olivia out of the house, her and her goddamned cup of sugar. She probably didn’t even need it and only barged in to stick her nose around, see what I was up to. Olivia has become the
purest of Pure Women, always rocking on her porch with her abridged and annotated Bible, always covering up her curls, always smiling and bowing—actually bowing—to Evan when he pulls their Buick into the driveway.
Bibles are still allowed, if they’re the right kind.
Olivia’s is pink; Evan’s is blue. You never see them switch, never see the blue book in Olivia’s hands as she sits in the shade with her glass of sweet tea or drives off to services in their second car. It’s a compact, that car, much smaller than the one Evan takes to work.
By two o’clock, I almost wish Olivia were still here.
I take two packages of hamburger from the freezer and set them in a lean-to on the counter to defrost. There aren’t enough potatoes for all of us, let alone for three growing boys who seem to be hosting persistent tapeworms, so rice will have to do. Or I could make biscuits, if I can remember the proportions. Automatically, I turn to the bookshelf next to what used to be my desk in the kitchen and reach for the stained copy of Joy of Cooking as if I’m expecting it to be there. In its place, and in the place of all the other books, are a few photos of the kids, one of my parents, one of Patrick and me on our last vacation. Sam or Leo took that one, and I’m chopped in half, the right side of my face obscured by the
Popsicle-stick frame Sonia made in school. Apparently they still do crafts.
If I move the pictures, the shelf doesn’t look so abandoned, so I shuffle the frames around, stick the kitchen timer and scale in the empty spaces, and step back to admire this achievement of the day. With a little imagination, I can persuade myself I’ve just carved Mount Fucking Rushmore. Start the ticker-tape parade.
Mamma and Papà are now much more prominent than they were before this adventure in interior design. I’m not sure whether I want them to be. They call from Italy, or they Skype Patrick on the laptop he
keeps locked in his office, the one with the keystroke logger and the camera and a thousand other custom bells and whistles attached to it. Usually, this happens on Sundays when the kids are home from school and the time difference works out so that they can say hello to the entire family. It’s supposed to be joyous, but Mamma ends each call in tears or hands the phone off to Papà before she breaks down.
The kids would love biscuits, and I’m pulling on jeans and an old linen blouse, ready to risk a supermarket trip, when Patrick’s car roars up the street. I know it’s his—if there’s one skill I’ve honed to a point in the past year, it’s sound discrimination. Mustang, Corvette, Prius, Mini Cooper. You name the car, I know the sound.
What bugs me as I look out the blinds isn’t that Patrick’s home early, but that three black SUVs are in a line behind him. I’ve seen those vehicles before.
I’ve seen their insides, too.