The only fiction.
Zsa was kitty-corner from me in the booth, nursing a bowl of sweet-and-sour soup. All I could see was the thin meandering part in her hive of bleached curls: beneath, the spoon rising and falling to and from an invisible mouth. To the other side of her, Grandmother, staring with ill-disguised contempt at our waitress, who screamed in Chinese at the cook through the tiny oblong opening between the kitchen and the dining room. The waitress returned with champagne (for Mother) and a plate of fortune cookies.
"Take the cookie that points toward you," Mother instructed. "That's the one that's meant for you." Growing up in Hollywood Mother had gone out for Chinese every Saturday with Grandmother, but Zsa and I had never lived anywhere but Saline, Minnesota, where the closest thing to an ethnic restaurant was the Bailey's Chop House.
My cookie refused to shed its wrapper. Finally I had to tear the plastic open with my teeth, crushed the cookie, showered myself with tiny blonde shards, fished out the white slip from the broken cookie's elbow.
Mother insisted that we read our fortunes aloud and conclude with the phrase "in bed." Grandmother offered, "You will do great things. In bed." Zsa gritted her teeth. "You are a good friend in bed." "You better not be," Mother said. "Raquel?" "It's in Chinese," I lied. "I can't read it." She snatched it away from me. "What is this? This isn't a fortune." "What does it say?" asked Zsa. It was the first time she had spoken voluntarily since the plane had descended through the strata of dust-colored smog into the glittering panorama of LAX, when she had turned suddenly from the humid looking sunset to me and said, "This is the beginning of the end." "It says, Love is the only fiction." "What does that mean?" Grandmother asked. "That was written," Zsa said, "by one very bitter little Ghinese man." She laughed. Her eyes were suddenly full of life.
MOTHER SAVED HER fortune. She folded the slip into thirds, tucked it into her clutch and stopped off at a 7-Eleven to buy a lottery ticket. We waited in the car, watching her through the store's front window as she carefully smoothed out the fortune and copied down the numbers on the back with the expensive pen she carried around that she said had been a gift from her distant cousin, the former President Garter. She flirted for some time with the Iranian cashier, a bit of leaning on the counter and showing of bosom. She flipped open her compact and applied a tawny lip gloss, smacking her lips with elaborate relish. The Iranian was bedazzled. Finally, she gave a little wave goodbye and re-emerged with a triumphant smile and a Big Gulp. "I feel lucky," she said.
By the time we returned it was nearly midnight. Grandmother's apartment was cool and dark, the air conditioning unit humming gently in the kitchen window. Zsa and I unrolled our sleeping bags.
"Do you suppose I was adopted?" Zsa asked. "I don't look anything like Mother."
She looked exactly like her.
"I miss Teddy," Zsa said.
"Yeah," I said.
MY BEST BET was that just now Teddy was sitting at the same sports bar where he'd met Mother thirteen years before, his hands curled around a mug of beer. I knew well his expression, how the grooves in his forehead would deepen and smooth as he thought of us. He would be watching himself in the smoky glass behind the bar ("Mal, I'll have another"). In the men's room mirror, he would catch himself again: a hulking, shuffling bear of a man, his name hanging on him like a bad cliche: pissing numbly, zipping up, turning too fast, slamming into a waiter coming in. (Lo siento, he would murmur, minding awfully. He could say "I'm sorry" in five languages. He'd been in the Navy.) "One for the road," he'd tell Mal. "Call you a taxi?" "No, thanks for caring." His eyes, in the rearview mirror, tired now. Every day he looked more like his father, the worthless wife-beating drunk; he'd try scowling in the rearview, making that face, the don't-fuck-with-me face, the I'm-about-to-show-you-who's-boss face. The tires would skate over the ice, his gaze jerking back to the road, and the two roads hemming together, a neat sliver of adrenaline in his lungs as the steering wheel glides back and forth dreamily, the stick shift trembling under his palm as he downshifts to second. The tread catches, he breathes. Now, the driveway. Easy, coasting in. The car draws to a gentle stop; it knows where to rest, sighs as he cuts the ignition, releases him. The front walk, mysteriously cleared. A kindly neighbor, maybe one of the several who massed silently at their living room windows to watch the moving truck two weeks ago. Trees would have been a favor in that neighborhood, cloaked the curiosity, but ours was just like every neighborhood in Saline: pure concrete, all houses, an accidental patch of sky between the rooftops. Our eyes watch as he enters, finally, stoop-shouldered, from the foyer photo collage; his girls, he'd called us. I imagine our names drifting then across his mind like burning scraps of paper dissolving to wings of ash. The terrible glamour of us: Zsa, Raquel, Lana. So blonde, so done. What's the word? Bombshells.
"QUE?" ZSA SAYS.
"Nice to meet you," Alice says again.
"Por favor," Zsa continues, "donde esta la cuarta de las damas?" She has been picking up Spanish from the Latinos who operate the place she's been getting her tattoos done. She traces the tip of her finger around the swelling nimbus of a tiny Tinker Bell freshly stamped onto her bicep. A salamander twists blackly around her slender ankle; a miniature Elvis peeks out from behind her teal bra strap.
It is our second week in Los Angeles.
"Down the hall, second door on the right."
Grandmother sucks at the ice in her sweet tea, rolling a cube from one side of her mouth to the other, grinds it to water with her dentures. I squint into the green-tinged dimness of Alice's cavernous apartment. In doing so I will not have to look at Alice herself, a dwarf no taller than my shoulder whose very smallness makes my spine prickle with anxiety. I withdraw a puck-like block of cheese from the plastic tray on the coffee table, sink my teeth through the bland softness, chew, swallow, squint harder. "Is that Paul Newman with you?" I say, pointing at a photo on the wall.
"No other." Emboldened, I take a second look at her, full on. She perches on the edge of her wing chair, her feet propped on a small upholstered stool: silk blouse with a floppy tie, a pleated skirt, sensible shoes, flesh-colored pantyhose. Her chest protrudes in an irregular fashion, as if a fist were pushing out through her diaphragm up toward the chin. Her dark hair is perfectly coiffed.
"Alice was a movie star," Grandmother offers.
"I was a bit actress in a few movies." She waves a hand as if dismissing the importance of this. "It was interesting, and it helped pay the rent." I sit back, cross my legs at the knee, clenching my thighs together. I have to pee. Zsa still isn't back. A pall of silence hangs over us; I trace my finger over the flower in the upholstery of the dainty loveseat onto which I am crammed beside Grandmother. I want to hear about movie stars, sets and trailers, Hollywood gossip, but my tongue feels leaden, nay teeth icy. I push my finger into and out of the cushion as if investigating a ripe melon.
"Do you miss Minnesota?" Alice asks.
"Yes," I say, and the small syllable hangs in the air as if from a hook. Yesterday Zsa and I sunbathed, shopped, watched hookers work the cocktail hour, spotted Guy Ritchie at a French bistro--solo, drinking. The day before, cosmic bowling: Donna Summer's voice soaring in our ears, our toes pinched in our hard rented shoes. The pins flickered against the black mouth that swallowed them and spit up a fresh score on the big screen TVs that hovered above us like sentries. I had ten strikes, Zsa seven. High on victory, we stumbled out, our eyes cramping in the abrupt sun. I drove Grandmother's mauve Cadillac on freeways broad and flat as football fields, flanked by dirty corridors freckled with scrub and trash. The Hollywood hills burned: a careless cigarette, a trash fire gone wild. Hours languid, liquid, blindingly bright, suffused with possibility. Minnesota? I haven't thought of home in days, but abruptly I can smell the wind, clean, cool. The horizon: no mountains. Swept clean. My eyes smolder suddenly with a hot moisture.
"Excuse me," I say. As I pass Alice the muscles in my arms pull, a small hard lump of loathing in my throat.
"They're having a hard time," Grandmother says as I leave the room. "Such a change."
"Poor things," Alice clucks.
In the bathroom I squat on Alice's child-size toilet, the type found in preschools and day care centers, yank at the cushiony roll of toilet paper. I mash one fistful, then another, wasting, throw it down the toilet and flush, half hoping it will clog and overflow. But the plumbing is superb, evacuates half a roll without so much as a hiccup. I stand and watch the bowl smoothly refill, twisting a knot of hair around and around my finger until my scalp begins to hurt.
BACK AT GRANDMOTHER'S, Zsa shows off her stash: three romance novels, lifted from Alice's bedroom into Zsa's backpack. "She'll never miss them," Zsa says. "She's got hundreds, five whole bookshelves. Very naughty stuff." The novels are thick as textbooks, pages thinned and yellowed with age, brimming with tiny black type. They have titles like To Tempt a Gentleman and The Devil's Delilah. The covers are almost identical: a man and a woman embracing. She: flowing hair; great, heaving breasts, a scrap of a dress; he: bronzed, bare chested, anonymously handsome. They gaze raptly at one another. There is something jarring about these covers--so similar, so beautiful, so floridly pornographic. Handling them, I take care not to touch the characters' bodies, as if they might transmit a disease.
WE BEGIN TO read Alice's novels at night after Mother and Grandmother are asleep. Mother, who has landed a job, improbably, at an insurance company as a file clerk, is in bed at nine every night after nursing her paper cuts at the kitchen table. Grandmother drops her dentures in a cup at eight. Deep into the night, in our sleeping bags, on our stomachs, pillows bunched under our chins, we take turns reading aloud in stage whispers. The beam of our pen lamps scopes across the page like tiny searchlights. He made her gasp with unexpected pleasure, Zsa reads, enunciating carefully. His mouth covered her bosom with kisses that betrayed the depth of his longing. But even in the throes of passion she could not forget what he had stolen from her father, and she was consumed with shame that she would abandon her loyalties for the sake of one night in Brett's arms. Zsa pants like a dog, lolling out her tongue, and crosses her eyes. I laugh. My head feels hollow, my mouth dry as leaves. Three apartments down is Alice in her bedroom, surrounded by her tower of romance novels. I feel it all too clearly, how cold her sheets must be, how she rubs her feet together for warmth, goose pimples rippling over her legs. Perhaps she reaches over, plucks a book from the shelf, opens to her favorite part of the story. Masturbates, or cries, or eats chocolates. As she reads she might slip over whole sentences, paragraphs, pages before realizing she has understood nothing. She comes to a phrase and balks, realizing she has lost context; the plot stares out at her baldly, accusatory. But one novel is so like another, how is it possible to read with full attention, as if this were a new story, raw and untold? Or to understand fully, she who has surely never had a lover? Someday Zsa and I will know disappointment and approximations; these stories will serve as our prelude. But for her they must stare at her like lost years, the defect that permanently cast her, never as heroine, but as punch line, stock midget of a dozen movies. In the full darkness of night the hundred spines retreat into shadows, assume a comforting presence, both authoritative and benign. They gaze down at her in her dreams, exuding a soft aura like reprieve.
IN A MONTH Zsa and I have tried all we can think of: gravity boots and Bikram yoga and thong underwear and swim-up bars, colonics and oxygen hits, and one day lolling on the sofa in the middle of the day. We acknowledge that we are bored.
"Let's get our belly buttons pierced," Zsa suggests. I touch my naval as if asking its permission. It has long been a source of embarrassment, this knot of puckered flesh, with its odd mutations, an assortment of skin tags and discolorations that Mother has never been able to explain. I have always avoided bikinis, midriff-baring tops, swathed my nakedness in a towel even in the company of Zsa and Mother. Maybe jewelry would save it.
"Damn it, we're out of cash," Zsa says, rummaging through her wallet. "We'll have to wait till Mother gets paid tomorrow." She huffs and pitches the wallet across the room; it smacks the wall and drops behind the entertainment center Mother's new boyfriend Ron built for us over the weekend, a behemoth that spans the entire west wall of the apartment and contains not only Grandmother's stereo and our collection of CDs but now videos, a VCR, a DVD player and a flat screen television the size of a kiddie pool. Ron, pale and goateed and eager to befriend us, hammered and stooped and drilled throughout a single Saturday afternoon before brushing his hands together and proudly proclaiming "Done." Mother rewarded him with a shower of ladylike applause and, when she thought we weren't looking, a long damp kiss, with tongue. Zsa and I muttered thanks.
I have still told no one that I call Teddy every night. Though it's midnight his time, though he doesn't answer until the twentieth ring or after. I never say anything on these calls, only crouch in the kitchen under the table, walled in by chair legs. And yet my whole being ticks like a watch toward this moment through our long Los Angeles afternoons. We are reinvented, I want to say. You wouldn't even know us. But I sit with my teeth locked, eyes closed through the long slow roll of the ringing on the other end and then the break like a sigh before his tentative "Hello," no longer a question after the first week but a statement. "Raq," he says next. "Go to bed, sweetheart." Every time, it burns me: how he's guessed, how he knows my breath, my silence so well: that I can be so transparent, even half a country away. It isn't me, I want to say. It isn't really me.
MOTHER LIKES TO talk about the marriage when we are at the ocean. She gazes into that great blue horizon, particularly during sunset, having a cocktail, the water in its suggestion of eternity like a landscape confessional. She has a thousand theories. It was rebound, it was lust, it was economics, it was desperation. But above all, loneliness. There she was, a young widow with two babies. It was her first night out since the motorcycle accident that killed Daddy and she was drifting toward the jukebox. She wasn't looking for a man. She just wanted to hear their song. She sings it tenderly, off key, snapping her fingers, "Baby, I need your lovin' / Got to have all your lovin'...." Teddy was standing at the jukebox, blocking her way. Before she knew it, before she could even speak, he had chosen that song, that very song. What were the chances? When he saw her crying he asked her to dance. As they wheeled in their slow circle, her fingers knotted behind his neck: faces turned to watch them. It wasn't the kind of bar with a dance floor. It was the kind of bar with ten TVs, all tuned to ESPN, droning scores. But Mother and Teddy danced, through that song and the next and the next, and when it was done he said, "You're coming with me," just like in the movies.
IN THE END we decide to break into Mice's apartment, using the key Grandmother keeps on a hook in the kitchen. They have traded keys so that they can bring in the mail and the newspapers when the other goes away, or to check in if they haven't seen each other for awhile. At their age, Grandmother says, you can never be too careful. It takes me a minute to understand that she is implying accidents, a slip in the bathtub and a broken hip or some other thing. Grandmother has us now to look out for her, but as near as we can tell Grandmother is Alice's only friend. One trip over a power cord, a twisted ankle and she could end up lying on her own living room carpet, in her own excrement, praying for an intruder of any kind. Why haven't they moved to a retirement community? Zsa asks, lighting a cigarette. It's her newest vice. They could be roomies, she suggests. "Those places are death malls," Grandmother says. "Would you want to live with a bunch of blue-hairs? Besides, this building has rent control." Between her spasms of complaint about her arthritis and bad gums, her erratic driving and her fear of "the ethnics," she has these moments, usually in the mornings, after her third cup of syrupy coffee, when she is sufferable, when she will make a wisecrack or offer up some personal history, the only type available to us from a reliable narrator--that is, not Mother. "Your Daddy," she will say in such a mood, "was a low life and a fraud, but he loved your mother with all his soul, and for this much I forgive him everything. Even that motorcycle he put her on. Now bring me your sister's cigarette." She beckons to me, "your brush," and I place myself before her, staring at the wall while the bristles glide through my hair. I can sense her hands behind me in an invisible dance of love, a kind of flamenco with my hair. She will twine a strand around her forefinger, draw it before my eyes. "Like Rapunzel," she muses. "Fairy tale hair. You should model. What was she thinking when she was naming you? Better Veronica, as in Lake." "How could Mother have known she would turn out like she did?" Zsa asks. "Any idiot could have guessed you two would be blonde. Look at your gene pool, for God's sake." "Your mother has the sense of a flea, leaving that Teddy. Best thing that ever happened to her, and she didn't even have to work for it. So he sat on the couch. So he drank a few beers now and then. Better that than a mid-life crisis: fast cars and jailbait." She does not criticize Mother to her face: there is more of a silent shaking of the head, the impression of giving up before the inevitable, as before a force of nature.
SAMANTHA FOUND HERSELF kissing him, her fingers tangled in his hair, her whole body pressed against him, Zsa reads. She has elected a British accent. Where did she pick that up? Her tone is flawlessly clipped. She might have been raised in Kensington. Her creamy thighs rose to his waist as they tumbled backward into the pasture. She knew the soldiers might appear any moment but she no longer cared, so swept up was she on the crescendo of their lovemaking. "Dahling," she sighs. She tosses the book aside. She falls backward onto Alice's immaculate coverlet, tearing at her corset. "I simply cannot go on. It is too much! You must finish it for me. You must tell me how it all ends!"
It is late in the afternoon now. We have been in Alice's apartment for over an hour. The shelves have gaps in them, like missing teeth. Scanning the wall I can see we have taken too many, we have been greedy, she will notice. I rearrange them more loosely, but this is worse, now they lean on one another weakly, as if fatigued. "Put some back." "No," Zsa insists. Her mouth is pinched. "I want them all."
OF COURSE, WE are caught, as in all the bad storylines, but before this was much to be admired. The planning, the timing, the execution. Even when Alice surprises us by returning early, we are initially calm and cool, we keep our wits about us. We devise a complex lie in whispers as her footsteps materialize in the hall. It is only when she appears that we falter, foiled. We might have huddled together like little children lost in a carnival, clutching these books in our hands, or pushed past and run, or remembered the fire escape. But I fell back from myself and there was Zsa, with so much she has done to herself, her skin covered in pictures and punched with studs and thick with makeup: a moving, living mural next to my unaltered flesh, my storybook hair. Good witch, bad witch. And then everything is reversed. Even as Zsa puts her hand on Alice's shoulder to push her down I am the one who delivers the line: Don't say a word about us being here.
"Why are you doing this to me?" Alice whimpers. She is on her hands and knees like a small dog.
"Freak," I say. "What are we doing to you?"
"Please don't hurt me," she whispers.
That's when Zsa begins to cry.
The day Mother collects $10,000 off her lottery ticket is the day we have our first appointment with the counselor. "Zsa I can understand, but you?" Mother and I sit in the car before the crooked-looking adobe building, staring together through the constellation of flattened bugs on the windshield. The backseat is stuffed with shopping bags from Rodeo Drive. She withdraws a lipstick from her purse and smoothes it on, left to right, top to bottom. She puckers her lips at her reflection, as if she'd like to kiss it. "You've always been the kindest child." She takes my chin and steers my face to hers. "You were very cruel to that poor woman. Do you know she refuses to leave her apartment? Do you know she's installed alarms?"
She walks me in, her hand resting on my neck. When I drift, her nails tighten, closing into the flesh. After we check in at the window, she withdraws her fingers, and when I touch the skin, there are grooves in the shape of half moons.
The counselor and I sit in wicker chairs, between us a bowl of potpourri lit by a tea candle. The sole window is cloaked in chintz. She speaks so softly I have to lean forward to hear her.
"You're lucky she didn't press charges," she whispers. "You know, you can get these books anywhere. Bookstores, libraries."
"Yes, that's true."
"But to steal them from an old woman ... a dwarf...."
I close my eyes.
"Who treasures them. And then. To threaten her."
"What are you feeling?" she says. It is like a chant, so soft and steady. What, what, what?
"Love," is what I say. "So much love."
MANY YEARS LATER, Mother and Teddy meet again, on a cruise ship: a fluke meeting. He is vacationing with a girlfriend; Mother is solo, fresh from her second divorce and her first face lift. The second they see one another, they know. It is as if someone has written it: the setting sun behind her, a great canopy of color bannering over the ocean: the glimmer of recognition through a frothing crowd. Can it be? That night they kiss. There are words with the other woman, a bad, loud breakup, many scenes over the course of the cruise that they cannot get out of, awkward run-ins. They achieve a sort of tawdry fame aboard the ship. At the wedding Mother and Teddy laugh and try to remember the girlfriend's name: the cruise had been her idea. They should thank her! Teddy has the grace to look mildly ashamed. All my fault, he says again and again. But I couldn't help it. I fall down before love.
Grandmother lifts her cheek when I bow to kiss her. It is the first I've seen her since the month we lived with her after the divorce. She is in a wheelchair now, smells dry and fragile as old paper. "I hear you're famous," she hisses. The Alzheimer's has chewed holes in her brain. She has me mixed up with Zsa, who stands drinking a Cosmopolitan at the other end of the room, a man at each elbow. Grandmother has forgotten Alice. I tell her, no, I'm nobody. It's my sister who was discovered. I only look like her. I point and give titles, just the films Grandmother might recognize, but her eyes are empty cups. "So, you," she says. "Who are you?"
BY THE TIME he toasts Mother Teddy is drunk on bad champagne. The years have not been kind to him: a thick wattle beneath the chin, a paunch about the middle. His body strains at the tuxedo, the very one he wore when they married twenty-five years ago. And she wears the same dress. They dieted together for weeks--strained tomatoes and grapefruit juice, Slim-Fast shakes--sucked in their tummies as they fastened one another's buttons: We did it! Mother woke me up at six a.m. with the victory call. We're IN! Now Teddy rises, all eyes upon him.
"There were many bad years without my girls," he says. "We were like planets out of orbit, drifting through space. And one day, the sun came back into my life, and our centers of gravity were restored. Lana, Zsa, Raq," he lifts his glass, and the bubbles spiral wildly, as if boiling. "It took thirteen long years, but it was worth it." I find myself looking for Zsa, and when I find her she is squinting at a message on her Blackberry. There is a small clearing around her, the reverential open space offered celebrity, but on the periphery of it, no one notices her anymore. They are listening to Teddy, weeping openly. "Kiss, kiss!" they call. Mother and Teddy beam weakly, but kiss.