Alice Sebold’s writing reveals a wintry mix of weirdness and haunting. This short story, written in 2004, is no different.
In 1988 she looked around and realized that all her best friends, those she had contemplated the indiscretions of youth with, were dead or dying. By 1998 this event that had changed the lives of everyone she’d known seemed like ancient history in the sunny place to which she had moved.
Initially, Los Angeles had been a lark. That was what she told herself when, three weeks after Jimmy Balast’s memorial service, she had agreed to ride cross country with his younger brother. Jimmy had already been old by everyone’s standards—nearly forty—when she’d met him after coming to New York to take classes at F.I.T.. By the time Jimmy died most of his peers were already dead, and the memorial service was conspicuous for the number of single women shoring up the last vestiges of their coolness and straight men who had used their good looks in trade for Jimmy’s professionally important nod./p>
Richard, Jimmy’s brother, was not a designer. He was a shy, inward turning academic who lived in Vermont and had been married until very recently to his college sweetheart.
After the memorial service she ended up near the door with him. She managed a few words about how incredible Jimmy had been when he interrupted her.
“Can you take me somewhere to get a drink?” he asked, “I’ve never been to New York before.”
In a bar that looked more like a diner—blond wood, brass fittings, plastic ferns—they sipped at bad martinis. She felt hot in her stylish black dress, cut and sewn the weekend before. She liked to joke that mourning dresses had become her specialty.
He talked heatedly about someone he expected her to know — a man named Foucault— then realized she knew nothing about him when she asked him to write his name down on a napkin. “I will look him up,” she said. “He sounds interesting.”
Then there had been silence. The Muzak appeared to have bells in it. Unusual for Muzak, and they were so regular in their appearance that she began to hear them inside her head.
“Do you live near here?” he asked.
“I live five stops down on the 6 and three over on the double L.”
“Oh,” he said.
It was clear to both of them that they had nothing to say to one another. He knew nothing of the man she knew who was also his brother. His version of Jimmy stopped at stories of how he had always insisted on turning the waistband of his flannel lined jeans down in high school — to show off the red plaid — or how he had begged their mother to send all the way to Sweden for a pair of clogs when he was thirteen. She was expected to laugh and acknowledge that he knew his brother when he clearly didn’t.
With the abatement of the bells, they were silent at the table. An offer of another round from a fresh carrot-topped waiter who could not have been too long in New York was deadly.
“Walk me to the subway,” she said.
And on the walk she spied the familiar street, as she knew many of her friends — now dead or too ill to consider it—had done for years.
“Just unzip,” she said.
She had grabbed his hand and led him quickly down a concrete stairwell outside the Home for the Blind. From where they stood she could see feet walking by above her head but the angle at which they could possibly see her—she imagined—would have to be so oblique that they wouldn’t gather much of what the moving object below street level was until they had walked on two or three paces. Then, she hoped, they wouldn’t be the type to turn around.
“What? Here?” he asked. Lightly horrified.
“Or leave,” she said, giving him the option.
He unzipped and with a little massage he was inside her and the raw silk of her mourning dress was becoming rawer where her back pressed against the concrete.
He made rather too much of it. It was the Home for the Blind, not the deaf, after all, and soon a janitor came out to bark them back to ground level. By that time he had come in what she later thought of as his usual farmboy riot, and she had learned that he was not suited to fucking in stairwells or toilet stalls. She had not come. She didn’t come a lot in those days, with friends dropping all around her like thin cavernous trees hollowed out of all previous pleasures.
But she said yes to the car trip across country because something in his farmboy riot way promised that if she were going to come, if she were going to escape, that it would only be with someone who was so far out of the milieu she had brought herself up to be a part of.
No matter how much noise he made or how wide he grinned in the silence that followed it, she never came. Not in any of the fourteen states they meandered through before they reached the Pacific.
To celebrate, she married him.
Two weeks later, unfamiliar with the brutal engineering required to drive on the freeways of Los Angeles — a sort of instinctive severing of the rational fibers of the brain—he was slammed into by a large truck bearing flats of garlic. He did not die, which was the bad news. But he would never again force her in the same way to encounter her loneliness—the dick’s power-cord was severed—and this, she came to see, was the good news.
By 1998 she had sunspots and had given up draping anything other than stretchy jersey knits with the occasional sly employment of newer techno fabrics as hidden joists and darts. Her clothes had the insubstantial quality of having seemed pulled from the junk bins, right out of Pic n’Save or the 99 cent store. They were the exclusive fad of exclusive celebrities and her name, abbreviated to its first syllables, began to appear in the pages of larger style magazines, attending like a bright feather or a lustrous false jewel, the names of music stars that had appeared out of nowhere.
Richard was pulled out of the Canyon every so often to attend a social function. His ventilator and the noise it made both repelled and attracted clients to her business, and since he was unable to speak above a whisper, he smiled amiably as famous cleavage bent into his face to tell him how glad they were to meet him. This was the most ornate way to help him get off. The cheapest, and what occupied him day and night in a dark room in their house, was the porn he downloaded from the internet. Occasionally, when he was loneliest, he would ask her to come and join him and she would sit beside him and place her hand on the back of his neck— where he still had feeling—while he scrolled through a new favorite series of images he had gathered while she was out late at night in West Hollywood, ripping off the impromptu street fashions of the transvestites that clung to the boulevard with the same inevitability of recurring cancor sores.
Occasionally, she stripped for him. It was just the two of them and it was, besides the cleavages of the famous, the only live interaction he had with the female form. He had requests. He would ask her to turn certain ways and give her small tasks to perform on herself. Nothing that she really minded.
“Trim your pubic hair.”
“Bend over and paint your toe-nails red.”
“Face this way.”
After all, he couldn’t do anything about it, no matter how much he enjoyed watching her do the things he wanted. So it was something to do when she was bored or it was raining and even her muses out on Hollywood Blvd. would have sought cover or would be wearing hideous muffling layers that didn’t look good on anyone. The leg-warmer pants she had tried once had summarily bombed.
And quite regularly, without being summoned, she masturbated in front of him to the soft corrosive gasps of his trachy breathing.
At her studio one day, she got a call from Jimmy’s oldest friend, whom she had met once out on Long Island, where he lived alone. Her only real feeling about this man — Lionel — had been that God had spared him by making him too unattractive to ever get laid. He had spent fifteen years celibate by the time Jimmy introduced them and, in their world, that was his claim to fame. What he did for a living or what interests he had, she was never sure of.
“I’m calling because it may not matter, you may know all about it,” he said, “but I’ve been led to believe over time that you may not unless you are a lot less vain than when I knew you.”
“That mess is wrapped up in a load of insults,” she said. “The potential antecedents could take years to track.”
“Umm,” he said, his breath pushing heavily against the phone.
“What are you talking about?” she asked. It was then she felt the scissors, still in her right hand. Pinking shears, the kind she had ruined over and over years ago by going from fabric to food with them. “They are not meant to cut pasta!” she could recall Jimmy snapping at her.
“This reveals a lot about me, too,” he said.
She placed the pinking sheers down on top of the sunny-yellow one-ply jersey that was so cheap you could run it like hose just by flicking it with a nail.
“I saw you on the Internet.”
It took her a moment and then she realized he must not have been aware of her career before. That, celibate out on Long Island, he had only recently become educated somehow that this former friend of a mutual friend was a trendy designer who was considering a bid on a glass-fronted house near the coast.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “thanks.” She was calculating in her head why he was calling. How could her success help him? “I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to achieve.”
There was a pause. She felt his breath pushing against the receiver again.
“I’ve enjoyed it immensely.”
“What you’ve been able to achieve,” he said. His voice had lowered a register and seemed gruffer somehow. “Letting everything show like that. A total lack of self-consciousness. It’s very appealing.”
“Who have you seen?” she asked. She was walking across her studio. The sun had already slanted past the awning and down the slope outside. The sky she looked out on was violet—a loveliness she could never hope to capture and slap onto the singer she was working the yellow up for.
“Why, you, of course,” he said, his voice veering to a more regular pitch again.
“But I don’t model my own designs,” she said.
She heard his breath again. The rasp. And then the click of the receiver.
Her brain was cloudy and the violet sky seemed shut off from her. The call, first a garbled sign of her own incipient fame, had become something else. What had Lionel done again?
She remembered how Jimmy and she had met. An exhibit of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Table had come to F.I.T. They had ended up standing on either side of it, strangers, sickened by the size and variety of vulvas in the room.
She tried to put the call out of her mind. When her unpaid assistant arrived — an inconceivably pimply fashion-boy named Jedediah — she sent him out for cigarettes and told him to take his time. The violet sky turned to highway lights against black as she tore at the yellow fabric, making so many runs in the cloth that when it was worn two days later to the MTV awards, the young wanna-be who had commissioned it using her father’s money became somebody overnight. Her nipples were radiant, peeking indiscriminately out onto the stage whenever she giggled and they shifted inside the paltry cloth.
When Jedediah returned with her cigarettes, she sent him home. She sat in her studio running bolts of yellow and began to cry for Jimmy. She had never done this, she realized. She’d been so cried out by the time his turn came that she had only draped a dress and fucked his brother.
At home she found her husband asleep in his wheelchair. On the screen of his computer was the kind of image she couldn’t help but find beautiful. A black and white portrait from a series of the figure skater Katarina Witt. He had asked her to scan them onto his computer from the Playboy where they had first appeared. This way they became part of the library he could access himself. He could not turn the pages of a magazine but with a muscle in his chin he could flick through nations of porn.
Once he was asleep he was hard to rouse and useless anyway. In his paralysis she had almost forgotten the farmboy riot and the distinct feeling of loneliness afterwards. The accident had brought them closer together and so had the porn.
Tired, her eyes puffy from crying, she lit a cigarette and began to scroll through the images. She remembered going to buy the magazine, as she went to buy them all—it was not something you could ask a homecare-attendant to do—and how she had turned each page and held it up for her husband to see. He had whispered his approval and then asked her to do something, she couldn’t remember what it was specifically, but she remembered enjoying it — being suspended above the dark room where they both were, just long enough to forget it.
After Witt, she clicked through the ceaseless jpegs — of the tasteful Olympians that had succumbed to more money than they had ever made as jocks, supermodels past their prime, and long-in-the-tooth former senators’ mistresses — until she reached the ones that hurt. The ones where women had ball gags in their mouths and did things with their legs and arms that even the most plastic of ingenues—the ones she designed for—were unable to do. It was here where she began to feel excited.
Always a fan of her own designs, she used one hand to unsnap her bra and could feel the pinch easily through the blue jersey fabric. She scrolled further and let her cigarette burn itself out. Small moans escaped her as she watched two girls together—ignoring their ridiculous nails and hair. Fashionable porn was still criminally rare.
“Will you take my instruction?” she heard her husband’s voice whisper behind her.
“Not now,” she said. She was chasing a climax by scrolling down into the caverns of images where there was more and more pain, where the aesthetics of the women themselves didn’t matter anymore.
“For an image,” he said, “scroll down all the way and hold the arrow down.”
She did. It was like being alone in the house of your grandparents and discovering a secret drawer in a chest inside a room in which you weren’t allowed. A pop-up menu expanded to the side and on it, she saw her name in capitol letters.
She clicked on it. A small shot of her face in ecstasy multiplied across the screen. He had used it as an icon for all the short clips he’d filmed.
She was jarred but she wanted it. She leaned in and cruised.
“Where?” she said.
“Try out Sam.Trim.06.”
She clicked, dutifully.
And there she was, what — or a version of what — Lionel must have seen. What, she realized, as she absented herself from the room in a dark undulating crest and wave, the whole world must be somehow able to see.
She had done it. She wished she could have told Jimmy. She was a celebrity.