Authors: Cathleen Schine
Tags: #Fiction, #General
LL RIGHTS RESERVED
O PART OF THIS BOOK MAY BE REPRODUCED IN ANY FORM OR BY ANY ELECTRONIC OR MECHANICAL MEANS, INCLUDING INFORMATION STORAGE AND RETRIEVAL SYSTEMS, WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER, EXCEPT BY A REVIEWER WHO MAY QUOTE BRIEF PASSAGES IN A REVIEW
The Evolution of Jane
The Love Letter
To the Birdhouse
Alice in Bed
otherless children have a hard time, but what about the rest of us? Elizabeth thought.
Motherless children have a hard time, when your mother is dead. . . .
She must have sung out loud because her mother, Greta, slapped her hand lightly and said, “That’s enough music.”
Elizabeth put her arms around her mother.
“Thank you for coming,” Greta whispered. “You’re a good daughter.” Tears appeared below the rims of Greta’s sunglasses and ran down her cheeks.
“Mom, she’ll be okay,” Elizabeth said. “Don’t cry. You’re a good daughter, too.”
Then Elizabeth began to cry. And wished she had sunglasses.
“It’s so fucking hot in here,” Greta said, patting Elizabeth’s back in an almost unconscious, ritualistic gesture of comfort. “Why do they have the heat on? They’ll make us all sick.” She turned to the doctor’s receptionist. “First, do no harm!” she said.
The receptionist, a middle-aged black woman with long, squared-off plastic fingernails, looked up.
“Maybe you’re having hot flashes,” Elizabeth said. She wiped sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. “Maybe we’re all having hot flashes.”
The clacking of the receptionist’s manicure on the computer keys resumed.
Elizabeth listened to the pitter-patter of plastic against plastic, the rhythm of work. Order. A peaceful resolve. One foot in front of the other. One fingernail in front of the other.
She imagined her grandmother’s skin. Her grandmother was so proud of her skin. It was white, as white as the shoulders of a heroine in a novel. It was soft and scented by Ponds cold cream. How many times had that cheek been presented to her to kiss? How many times had she seen it approaching, in the slow motion of a horror movie? Once, she ran away from the advancing cheek, and her grandmother cried. When Elizabeth got older, she loved to kiss her grandmother, loved the old-fashioned delicacy of her face. But as a child she’d sometimes felt suffocated by her grandmother’s cheek, by her strong, grasping fingers, by the demand. Elizabeth did not like demands. Unless it was she who made them.
“Poor Grandma,” she said. She shed a few tears. Then stopped herself. Then sniffed.
Her mother stood up. She took several tissues from a box on the receptionist’s desk. “Here.”
“Filthy tumor,” her grandmother had said when they’d found out. “Why couldn’t I have it on my goddamned ass?”
Elizabeth blew her nose. She wiped the back of her neck with another tissue. She sat in the waiting room, sweating, a dirty tissue in each hand.
Now, Lotte, shut up, Lotte said to herself. You son of a bitch, you’ve had a good life. And there’s life in the old mare, yet.
She adjusted her hat, patted her hair. Beautiful hair with a natural wave. The haircutter came to
now. Fifteen dollars, that was all, no charge for the house call. Of course, she gave him a big tip. He was a darling, and so devoted to her. Well, that’s just the kind of person I am, she thought.
Her daughter, Greta, was talking to the doctor. Handsome? Like a matinee idol. But such a waste on such a cold, cold fish. A top man, of course, world renowned, best in his field, with that flashlight, like a miner, on his forehead. Two assistants to go through before you could speak to him, and then he was abrupt, rude, let’s be frank, all they wanted was money. Butchers. Even so, this gorgeous stiff with a pole up his high-priced ass had stayed to talk to her, had laughed at her joke, had called her by her first name and told her she was as sharp as a tack.
“What about chemotherapy?” Greta was saying.
Greta wore ridiculous clothes for a grown woman. She wasn’t at all bad looking, and she’d never put that weight back on, God bless her. But Greta neglected herself. Lotte wondered how she, Lotte Franke, née Levinson, practically brought up in Levinson’s, her family’s department store, how she, an actress—a dancer, anyway, and on Broadway, don’t forget—how she had raised a daughter who could appear in public in such dreary clothes.
“You’re dressed for the rodeo,” Lotte said in the car on the way home.
In the backseat, Elizabeth laughed. “Grandma, have you ever seen a rodeo? I mean, how would you even know?”
“I’m wearing jeans, for heaven’s sake,” Greta said. “Not chaps.”
Lotte began to cry. “I don’t want a hole in my face.”
“Grandma, Grandma, they cover the hole,” Elizabeth said. She took Greta’s shoulder. “Don’t they?”
“Plastic surgery,” Greta said. “And they’re
Mother, just like everyone else on earth.”
“You see?” said Elizabeth. “Plastic surgery. Like a movie star.”
Elizabeth was a wonderful girl. Subdued, but chic. If she would just let her hair loose, instead of pulling it back like a librarian. “Beautiful, wavy . . .” Lotte said, clucking disapproval.
“We did go to a rodeo once,” Greta said. “Remember, Mother? Lake George? It was so hot Daddy drove in his boxer shorts?”
“My Morris,” Lotte said with a sigh. What a nightmare that trip was. And the filth! “
got real style,” she added, turning to Elizabeth. “That’s genetic.”
A little makeup would be nice, too, though. Spruce things up a bit. Too serious, these young people. Working so hard. They all looked haggard.
“If it’s so genetic, what the hell happened to me?” said Greta.
“You,” Lotte said. She raised her shoulders in a shrug. “For the rodeo, you’re not bad.” She suddenly lifted both her large, bony hands. She clasped them together as if in prayer. Her bracelets clattered. “What would I do without you?” she said. “Without you two? My family. My family . . .” She trailed off. Leaned her head back. She was so tired. They were going to cut up her face. She might as well take the pipe.
Her face. Her beautiful skin that everyone admired. All her life they had admired her soft, white skin. Never even a pimple. She sat up straighter, gazed down at her wedding ring, not the original simple band, but a thick tire of gold studded with diamonds. Now, stop your moping, Lotte.
Life can be delish with a sunny disposish. . . .
She ran the old song through her head, tried to smile. She’d done it at the Roxy. Or was it the Orpheum? She could hear the sound of her shoes on the stage, the chalky dust that rose like little clouds and settled on the black patent leather. A sunny disposish. But she was so tired. Couldn’t she just die and be done with it? It was about time, anyway. She was old. It would be so much easier. For Greta. For Elizabeth. For all of them.
“But I’m just not ready yet,” she said, only half to herself.
The 405 goes north and south, the 10 goes east and west. Elizabeth chanted these words in a silent singsong.
So, I take the 10. No, no. The 405. Take it through the pass that takes you over the hill and into the Valley to the 134, which turns into the 101. . . . There was something unnerving about driving somewhere new in L.A. Everyone kept a map in the car, even people who had lived their entire lives in the place. Elizabeth had not lived her entire life in Los Angeles. She had learned to drive on the North Shore of Long Island, where she had grown up. She still felt the ocean was placed all wrong in California. Go west, someone would say, but you couldn’t even follow the setting sun if the sun happened to be setting, because no one meant “west,” really. They meant toward the Pacific Ocean, and the shore jutted out in peninsulas or formed bays, or did whatever else it could think of to make “west” mean something that had absolutely nothing to do with the location of the long white beach and the crashing surf. When she had first started driving in L.A., she’d gotten herself a compass, but a compass was useless in this strange land.
“And the women!” her grandmother had said, when Elizabeth told her how strange L.A. felt. “With their
She squinted in the glare of the beautiful sun. Yellow flowers that looked like a child’s crayon drawing lined the freeway. She got off at the correct exit. She held the directions she had downloaded from the Internet and tried to follow them.
After 1/ 8 of a mile, turn left.
Continue for 1/ 3 mile. Take second right.
The instructions were overly detailed, confusing and uninteresting at the same time. That was the definition of a boring person. But Elizabeth was not bored. She was frantic. And how much was one-third of a mile added to one-eighth of a mile?
She arrived in plenty of time. But she was worn out, her underarms damp, her head throbbing. And she had to pee. She didn’t really understand why she was here. Why she had been summoned. She couldn’t compete with women who had
She found the correct gate on the third try. A uniformed man came out of a glass booth.
Elizabeth said, “Elizabeth Bernard for —”
“He’s expecting you,” said the attendant.
A concierge in a brass-buttoned blazer took her in a small elevator paneled with exotic wood to a large waiting room paneled with exotic wood.
“He’s expecting you,” said the receptionist at the first desk.
“He’ll be a few minutes late,” said a second receptionist.
“He apologizes,” said the first.
Maybe I can just have the meeting with these two, Elizabeth thought. They were both purposefully unglamorous, she noticed. She forgot about peeing. She sat in a chair and looked out the windows at a flowering tree. The waiting room was historic, she knew. The style of the studio boss who ruled here in the 1930s had been left intact. Towering silver doors etched with art deco designs. Crystal statuettes. Curving, undulating wood. Why am I here? she wondered again. I don’t belong here. I belong in a cramped office correcting papers about the Lacanian implications of
How to Marry a Millionaire.
The silver portals swung open.
“Come in!” said a man in a suit and tie, the first man in a suit and tie Elizabeth had seen in the week she’d been in L.A. He was waving her in, grinning, excited.
She followed Larry Volfmann down three steps into an office as soft as a thigh—carpeted, upholstered, and pillowed.
Larry Volfmann is a millionaire, she thought. What would be the Lacanian implications of marrying him?
“How’s your trip? You like L.A.? First time out here? Takes some getting used to . . .”
He talked so fast it was difficult for Elizabeth to convey that her parents had lived in L.A. for years, had moved there when she was in college.
“. . . started out as a bunch of Indian villages, then towns, now they’re all linked together, so, you know, it feels like it has no center because it actually has no center . . .”
Elizabeth wondered again what she was doing there, summoned before this great man. She had heard that all powerful men in Hollywood were short and was a little disappointed to see he was actually of average height. He didn’t have a tan, either. Or wear a baseball cap.
“Mr. Volfmann —”
“Larry . . .”
He handed her a bottle of water.
“Larry, it’s so good to meet you. I’m a little stunned, of course —”
“Happiness,” Larry said, interrupting. “Passion.” He waved a magazine at her. “Intoxication.” The magazine was
the issue with her article about
“Happiness, passion, intoxication. I like it!” He shrugged as if to say, I
happiness: sue me! “I like it,” he said again, tapping the page.
“Well, those are Flaubert’s words,” she said. She smiled, modestly, she hoped. “Not mine.”
And don’t think you can con me or co-opt me or impress me, either, just because I’m a dreary academic, just because I’m impressed that you somehow manage to read
I don’t read
Who has time to read anything? And you probably have even less time than I do, although I bet you don’t have to run home after work and make dinner and play with Brios and Duplos and Play-Doh. Maybe an assistant read it. No. What assistant would have the balls to recommend an academic article in a down-at-the-heels Jewish monthly? This has to have come from the eccentric boss himself.
“No,” Larry said. “Not Flaubert’s words.
Surprised, Elizabeth examined the eccentric boss himself. He looked a little like a boxer—the dog, not the athlete. Dark eyes, a bit jowly, but fierce. High-strung. And he was right. Happiness. Passion. Intoxication. They were Madame Bovary’s words, the words Emma Bovary read in books, over and over.
“The words her marriage failed to make her understand. They’re Emma’s soul, her quest, her destiny, her tragedy . . .” He was still waving the magazine around.
Elizabeth smiled. A man of business, as Larry Volfmann so clearly was, was discussing her humble article. As she smiled, her pleasure at being noticed by him transformed almost effortlessly into a warm sense of personal superiority. Okay. I get it, she thought. You’re smart, you’re serious. You went to college. You’re sensitive. You studied literature. But somehow, life took a funny turn and here you are, a man with a literary mind stuck doing action movies at Pole Star Pictures. The head of Pole Star Pictures, who earns more in one week than I earn in a year, but you haven’t given up your soul. . . . She continued to smile at him and nodded to convey thoughtful attention the way she had learned to do with ardent students. He tilted his head, as if he’d been petted. She wondered if he was muscular like Fritz, the boxer dog who lived on the third floor in her building in New York. He was a little bowlegged, she had noticed. Like Fritz. And, to be fair, he might make a lot of money and be driven in a limousine, but he was right. Emma Bovary was so fucking compelling. It didn’t matter how obvious one’s response was, how banal, how romantic, how innocent. All of that just somehow made Madame Bovary—so compelling in her own romantic, innocent banality—all the more compelling.
“‘The Way Madame Bovary Lives Now: Tragedy, Farce, and Cliché in the Age of Ikea,’” he read. “We’ll have to change the title, of course.”
She stared at him, speechless, until he began to laugh and she realized he was making a joke.