Hello Everybody: An Exclusive Story from Days of Awe by A.M. Homes
Her first book since the Women's Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven, Days of Awe is a blistering, sharp-eyed collection of short stories that look deep into the heart of twenty-first-century America. To mark the book's publication, we present 'Hello Everybody' an exclusive story from the collection, a tale of swimsuits, sun-scorched pools and the rot that lies beneath a perfect surface.
She hears his car grinding up the hill. At the edge of the driveway, the engine shudders, continuing on for a few seconds before falling silent. He buzzes the front gate; Esmeralda, the housekeeper, lets him in. The gate closes with a thick, metallic click.
“Where are you?” he calls out.
“I’m hiding!” Cheryl yells from the backyard.
He comes in through the pool gate.
“Shouldn’t that be locked?” she asks.
“I remembered the code,” he says.
“The pool boy’s code, one-two-three-four?”
He nods. “Some things never change.”
“Is that good or bad?” she wants to know.
“It’s difficult,” he says.
She is right where he left her - on a recliner by the edge of the water.
“You look pale,” she says, raising her sunglasses, squinting to examine him.
He looks down at his arms. “I’m regular,” he says.
“How can you see anything? Your glasses are so dark.”
“They’re for sailing,” he says. “You know, the reflection off the water.”
“They’re wraparound, like an old man with cataracts wears,” she says.
“Cadillacs,” he says. “I always used to wonder what was so bad about being old and having Cadillacs. I’m blind,” he says, taking the glasses off. “In the east the light is softer, gentler, more shadows. Here it’s klieg-bright, like living on a film set. And you?” he asks. “How are you?”
“Blind, too,” she says. “But only when I go indoors. When I go inside, everything is black and I crash into things.”
Walter sits on the recliner next to hers and puts the glasses on again.
“I’m glad you’re home,” she says, only just realizing how much she’s missed him. “Do you remember when we first met?”
“Yes,” he says. “I smiled at you, and you threw up.”
“Spit up,” she says. “When you’re four months old, it’s called spitting up. I didn’t throw up on you until much later.”
“And so the story goes,” he says.
“It was in a Music Together class,” she says.
He nods. “My mother has a theory that in twenty years a spaceship will land, the doors will open, the song ‘Hello Everybody’ will play, and our entire generation will march, without a second thought, onto the mother ship.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” she says. “So do you feel different? Was it the way you thought it would be?”
“The same and different,” he says. He has been away at school, and - although she didn’t realize until now - she felt thoroughly abandoned.
“I had my logo branded onto my butt,” she says, rolling over and pulling her pants down; her “monogram” is a deep scar on the curve of her ass. “You can touch it,” she says.
With his finger Walter traces her cursive initials. “Does it hurt?” he asks.
“No,” she says. The skin is surprisingly absent of sensation. She thought it would be more sensitive, but instead of feeling more she feels nothing. She pulls up her bathing suit and rolls over.
He sticks out his tongue - there’s a metal stud in the center; it wasn’t there in the fall when he left for school.
“Does that feel good?” she asks.
“I don’t know yet,” he says, grinning. “I was hoping you would tell me.”
She laughs. Her teeth are exceptionally white.
“Your smile is amazing,” he says.
“Oh,” she says, blushing, “I had a crushed-pearl polish last week.”
“Nice,” he says.
She cocks her head. “Are you wearing makeup?”
“A little,” he says. “It has a sunblock effect.” His acne is covered in thick pancake makeup, like the kind a television actor wears; his skin reads like a topographic map of adolescence. Twice a day he wraps his face in hot washcloths, drawing the hard, hot eruptions to a head. He thinks it’s horribly ironic that this should happen to a young man - like rubbing his face, literally, in the pus of puberty. He wrote a paper on it at school, “Acne as Expressed in Contemporary American Childhood.” They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. They are making their bodies their own - renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.
Neither siblings nor neighbors, they grew up together - each other’s witness and confidant. He was the first one to see her nose job, her breasts - both the original ones and the add-ons. She saw his chin even before he did, and his eyebrow piercing.
“How’s your head?” he asks.
“Medium,” she says. “Yours?
“Dented,” he says. “Transitions are hard.”
“Are you medicated?” she asks him.
“Moderate,” she says.
“It’s hard to be depressed out here,” he says. “It’s paradise.”
“The medication has to work twice as hard.” She pauses. “I keep wondering what analysis is like. Does anyone actually do it anymore?”
“Do you mean does anyone practice analysis or is anyone in analysis?”
“Either,” she says.
“I think you have to be older and have more of a history,” he says.
“You have to go five days a week. It becomes your life,” she says.
“I think I’d rather just lie here talking to myself.”
“It’s probably just as good,” he says.
“I went to see my mother’s psychiatrist,” she tells him.
He’s genuinely surprised. For years they discussed the fact that they thought the psychiatrist was out of his mind, based on “quotes” her mother repeated. They also suspected that her mother was having an affair with him. After so many years of hearing her mother say Dr. Felt says and According to Dr. Felt, “I needed to see for myself what it was all about. I thought I’d reached a point where I could handle it.” She takes a breath. “Honestly, I’m not sure what made me do it. It was more like a compulsion. I just had to see who he was.”
“Not good,” she says.
“In what way?”
“It was a really weird office, very not L.A., modern but old at the same time - there was a black leather sofa, Oriental rugs, weird African statues with big genitals, and it smelled funny.”
“A combination of meat, sweat, and sadness.”
“What was he like?”
“Overinflated,” she says. “I asked should I sit or lie down. He didn’t answer. So I simply took a seat. I couldn’t tell if he didn’t hear me or just didn’t want to say anything.
“Then he spun around in his chair, stared at me, and asked, ‘Do you want a boyfriend?’ ” She goes on to repeat the dialogue, imitating Dr. Felt.
“I said, ‘Yes.’
“‘You need to lose ten pounds,’ Dr. Felt said.
“‘Not that kind of boyfriend,’ I said.
“‘Maybe you’re gay,’ Dr. Felt said.
“'Maybe I’m normal. Maybe I want a boyfriend who likes me for who I am and not who you think I should be.’
“‘Gay,’ Felt said.
“‘Not,’ I said.
“‘It must be hard for your parents. You’re so defiant. Is there anything you enjoy?’
“‘The sky, the earth, the wind, the sea,’ I said, ‘and food. I love food.’
“‘Gay,’ Felt said.
“‘Isn’t it interesting? If a woman wants to be appreciated, accepted for who she is - you think that makes her gay? Why doesn’t it make her attractive to a man?’
“‘Men want women to look like people in a magazine. They want women to have tits and look good on their arm. They don’t want to be challenged, they don’t want to take care of you - for a man it’s all about them.’
“‘If that’s true, why does my father put up with my mother?’
“‘Don’t be naive,’ Felt said.
“‘The money is all hers.’
“‘Okay, then why does she put up with him?’
“‘Why do you think?’ Felt said, very shrinklike.
“‘Why do you think?’ I asked the shrink. ‘You’ve known her longer than I’ve been alive.’
“‘Is it that long?’ Felt asked me, suddenly vulnerable.
“‘Yes,’ I said.
“‘It’s very hard to leave a marriage,’ Felt said, snapping back into his shrink affect. ‘Especially when there are children involved.’
“‘Are you saying that it’s my fault that my parents are still married?
“‘Am I?’ Felt asked.
“‘Are you talking to me or to yourself?’ I asked him. He made a sour, patronizing face. I stood up. ‘And you need to lose at least twenty pounds. I don’t know what she sees in you,’ I said, and left.”
“Then what happened?” Walt asks.
“He billed my parents six hundred dollars for an extended consultation. I intercepted the bill, wrote ‘SCREW YOU’ on it, and mailed it back. Not a peep about it since,” she says. “I don’t mind feeling paralyzed. I think I’m used to it. In fact, I’m not even sure that what people would call paralyzed isn’t just normal for me. I don’t move a lot.”
“Unless you’re in a spin class,” Walter says.
“Yes, of course, in spin or yoga or dance, but when I’m not in a class, I’m very still.”
“Do you think this is where you’ll always be?” he asks.
“I don’t know how to be anywhere else.”
He glances at her thigh, as thin as someone’s arm. “Remember when they used to call you ‘Chunky’?”
“Like I could forget?”
“Was it after the candy bar?”
“Yep. The only good thing about my brother dying was no one ever called me Chunky again.”
“How does anyone recover from that?”
“You don’t,” she says. “You can go see his room if you want; it’s all still there like he’ll be home any moment.”
“Maybe your family should move,” he says.
“We all just walk faster past his door.”
“Anyone ever go in?”
“My father used to take naps in there, and Esmeralda feeds his fish.”
“The same fish?”
“I don’t know; I just know there are fish.”
“What about your grandparents?”
“We don’t talk to them anymore.”
“Wasn’t he with them when he died?”
“Yep,” she says, adjusting her bathing suit.
“Imagine how they must feel?”
“He told them that he’d been bitten by a poisonous snake, and they said, ‘It’s just a bug bite, put a cold washcloth on it.’ And then he was dead.”
“How long has it been?” Walter asks.
“Almost three years,” she says.
“What about your other grandparents?”
“Moved to a gated community in Phoenix where there are signs that say ‘Watch Out for Walkers,’ with illustrations of bent-over old people pushing walkers with tennis-ball halves on the bottom across an intersection.”
“Do you visit them?”
“Not so much. They don’t recognize my mom; they tell her she reminds them of someone, they can’t remember who, and ask how long she’s been working there.”
“Do they know you?”
“They think I’m my mother’s sister who died years ago. ‘We’ve been so worried about you,’ they say. ‘Are you feeling all right? How is your health?’ I don’t know what to do, so I just pretend I’m her and I try and tell them about my sister, meaning my mother, and they look confused and ask, ‘Do we have another child? How odd that we don’t remember. . . .’ ” She pauses. “You know, I really always liked your grandmother. In my head I used to pretend she was my grandmother. Remember, we used to make cookies with her when we were little. She makes good cookies.”
“Very good cookies,” he says.
“We never had cookies in our house. My mother said they were ‘dangerous.’ ”
“Do you want to swim?” he asks.
“I don’t like getting wet,” she says.
“Since I got this haircut. If I get it wet, I have to redry it, and it’s really hard to make it look right. I have to hot-iron it. I should have gotten a Brazilian blowout.” She takes a breath and then blurts the things that have been most on her mind. “Are you seeing anyone at school?”
“It’s not that kind of place,” he says.
“What kind of a place is it?”
“All boys. What about a bike ride?”
“A real bike? Not like a spin bike at the gym?”
“A bike,” he says. “Like the ones that are in the garage just sitting there.”
She wrinkles her nose.
“I’m surprised you can still do that,” he says.
And she bursts into tears. “Am I even real?”
The light, the sun, the reflection off the dry sandy earth, the flagstone, the pool water - it’s all blindingly bright.
“It’s hard to know, isn’t it?” he says, gazing upward. “Look at the sky. Isn’t it amazing? So blue, so open.”
“My tears taste like sun lotion,” she says.
He stands up. “I have to take a leak.”
Going into the house is like passing through an air lock. There are newly installed thick plastic flaps over the screen door, like on the entry to the grocer’s meat locker, meant to minimize the loss of purified cool air, to keep what’s outside out.
Everything in the house is white, everything is new. Cheryl’s mother has an “allergy” to old things. She has a profound fear of things that are used, including antiques, vintage clothing, books. Everything has to be new and smell factory-fresh.
He uses the guest bathroom in the front hall and can’t help but notice open cans of Play-Doh purposely left on the top of the toilet tank.
The dog lies on the cool tile floor in the front hall, panting heavily. Her tail thumps as he approaches.
“Hey, Rug, how are you?” he asks, bending to say hello to the shaggy white dog. The dog’s name is simply Rug, because… well, she looks like a rug.
“A special rug,” Cheryl’s mother once said. “Nonshedding. Her fur is hair like a human’s, and so she needs to be groomed but not vacuumed.”
“Are you hot?” he asks the shaggy dog. “Do you need a hairdo? Is it time to get out from under?”
“Is that you?” Cheryl’s mother, Sylvia, asks. She is in the living room, laid out on the white sofa in her bathing suit - a one-piece in marine blue with a sarong loosely wrapped around her legs. The tan skin on her arms hangs a bit loose, as if the meat is missing and the sinew that remains has pulled slightly away from the bone.
“It’s me,” he says.
“I was thinking you’d be back soon. I can’t see with this pack on my eyes. How are you?”
“Good,” he says. “And you?”
“Fine,” she says. “Except I can’t see.”
“Seems to be going around,” he says. “I got special glasses from the doctor. Would you like to try them?”
She raises her arm, and he hands her his glasses. She slips them on over her ice pack.
“Oh, thank you, Walter, that helps.” She’s the only one who calls him Walter; everyone else calls him Walt or W.W.
“You might need to take the ice pack off,” he says.
“This is perfect for now - there was light leaking in - making matters worse. I had a little bit of an accident,” she says, and says nothing more.
“Can I get you anything?” he asks.
“Like what?” she asks.
“That would be lovely. What are you having?”
“I don’t know, maybe a Coke?”
“Just some bubbly water for me, with a wedge,” she says.
“No, it bruises the bubbles. There’s a covered bowl of wedges in the small fridge under the sink,” she says. And then she adds as a complete non sequitur, “Soon they’ll be able to fix noses in utero.”
Walter brings her a glass of water, no ice, with a wedge of lime. Cheryl’s whole family, except her father, wears bathing suits all day, all the time, even at Christmas.
“They’re pool people,” Walter once told his mother. “They just want to go in and out.”
“It’s because they live so high up the hill,” his mother said. “You can walk around half naked in a place like that because no one can see you.”
“They don’t care if people see them.”
“Can you imagine if I wore my bathing suit all day?”
“No,” he said.
Cheryl used to say that the bathing suit was what kept her honest; in her bathing suit she could tell if she was getting fat right away, in ounces.
“And,” Sylvia, on the sofa, goes on to say, “did you know that the first use of liposuction was for women whose thighs pronate?”
“Pronate?” Walter says.
“Tip inward,” she says. “It’s a tricky business, you know. I’ve known of several women who had a poor outcome. Mrs. Lipmann lost a leg to a post-lipo infection.”
“Sounds bad,” he says.
“What about you, Walter?” the mother asks. “How was it in the East?” She asks this as though the East were the Far East, as though it were long ago and he’d ventured to an unexplored territory in the far reaches of Hong Kong or Shanghai.
“Good,” he says. “I saw the fall for the first time in my life. The leaves turned, the air got cooler, the wind blew - it was just the way they say it is in books.”
“I never liked it,” she says. “Everything dying and falling down, then the cold, cold days. I hate being cold.”
He nods, but she can’t see him. There is a silence.
“Are you still there?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says. “Just heading out.”
“Go forth,” she says, and he does.
He pushes back through the heavy plastic flaps and out onto the patio. The air outside, at least twenty degrees warmer and chock-full of microdebris, catches in his throat. He coughs and then takes a sip of his soda - the can is sweating.
“Did you see my mother?” Cheryl asks.
“Briefly,” he says. “She’s on the sofa.”
“Hard to tell,” he says. “I didn’t get a good look.”
“She tried to have the color of her eyes changed. It didn’t work, burned the corneas.”
“Is she really blind?”
“Temporarily blurry,” she says.
While Walter was gone, she’d dug her brother’s old G.I. Joes out of the pool house and has set them up in a noncombat tableau under her chair - she won’t go into his room, but she still likes to see his toys.
“The dog looks different,” Walter says, not noticing the G.I. Joe situation.
“She had surgery for fatty tumors. They aren’t dangerous, but they’re really unappealing.”
“Is that why she’s panting?”
“She’s recovering. Mom wants to keep her hair long until it’s all healed so we don’t have to look at it.”
“And the Play-Doh in the bathroom? Is it supposed to inspire you to ‘go’?”
Cheryl laughs. “She smelled some at a friend’s house whose grandchildren were visiting and fell in love with the aroma. And she thought yellow and brown were ‘funny’ for the bathroom. You should see what’s in her bedroom. She’s addicted.”
“And the fridge?” he asks.
“Too much pressure. She says we’re more ‘prepared-food’ people than cooks, so we gave Esmeralda the big one and got two small under-the-counter ones.”
“Your whole family is living out of a bar fridge?”
“Two bar fridges, plus I have one in my room that no one knows about. It’s in my closet.”
“Wow,” he teases. “I go away for a couple of months and everything changes.”
“You didn’t even mention the flaps,” she says, pointing to the door.
“It’s my favorite part,” he says. “Very vulval or grocer’s dairy case.”
“My idea,” she says. “I wanted to go green. What’s it like at your house?”
“Same as it ever was. You should come over sometime,” he says.
“I can’t,” she says.
“My mother likes you,” he says.
“You showed her a nude photograph of me.”
“I didn’t show her, she found it.”
“Whatever,” she says, annoyed. “I can’t go to your house.”
Cheryl slides off her lounger and crawls underneath to play with her brother’s old G.I. Joes.
“We used to call them G.I. Jokes,” Walter says.
“I gave them names, Tommy, Paul, and Pedro - the twins.” She holds up two dolls that are exactly the same.
“Remember when Abigail got her prescription for medical marijuana and we all went to the top of Doheny and sucked on those marijuana lollipops and watched the sun set?” he asks.
“That was a perfect day,” Cheryl says, definitively. “And remember when I used to lie in bed reading and eating pistachio nuts and I’d get the red dye all over the books, literal fingerprints on the pages?” She hides the G.I. Joes under the bushes by the pool.
“Reconnaissance mission,” she says to no one in particular.
“And on your sheets, and Esmeralda yelled at you and made you switch to the natural nuts?”
“I like the red ones better,” she says. “It’s not really dye. I think it’s just beet juice,” she says. “Or not.”
“Remember when we were younger and had such good imaginations?” he says.
“We didn’t worry what other people thought?” she asks.
“We made our own tattoos,” he says.
“Out of Elmer’s glue and Magic Markers,” she says.
“We spoke in other languages,” he says. And for a magical moment, they revert to speaking in accents, his a kind of Russian-Yiddish.
“Von day ve vill goh to zee place where I vas born. Et es so cold you vear a coat all year roundt, no von worries vhat you eat, no von ever sees your body. You vill lov it.”
She responds in faux French, “’Ow do you say en français? You and I will promenade off into the Siberian sunset.”
“Remember when we were kids,” he says, reverting to English, “your mother would drop us in Beverly Hills for pizza?”
“She didn’t like me to have pizza at home. It was too challenging for her - the scent was overwhelming, the temptation too great.”
“You would order pizza with pepperoni and sausage, and then when it came, you’d pick off the toppings.”
“I just liked the juice of the pepperoni,” she says, climbing back onto her lounge chair.
“The grease,” he says. “You liked the shiny pink grease.”
“Is it weird that I was conceived during one of the Iraq wars and my sister was conceived the night the space shuttle blew up?”
“Do you think your parents only have sex in times of national emergency?” he asks.
“I think they only have sex when they’re at a loss for words. Do you want to go to my room?” she asks, code for, Do you want to have sex?
“No,” he says, “I’m kind of post it these days.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m not over it, but I’m not into it. I’m trying to inhabit myself in a different way?”
“Gay?” she asks.
He doesn’t answer.
“You can tell me,” she says. “If there’s anyone you can tell, it’s me.”
“I just got back,” he says. “I need time to readjust.”
“He’s adopted,” she long ago told Abigail, in an effort to explain Walter to her sister.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Abigail said.
“Literally adopted,” she said. “Like his parents gave him up. I mean, does he look like a Walter to you? I think he’s more a Marc or an Adam.”
“That’s why he’s always at our house? Because he has the wrong name?”
“He’s at our house because he feels comfortable here. I’m his oldest friend in the world, and he thinks we’re fascinating, like specimens he can study. He wants to be a scientist.”
“He has no parents?”
“He has parents, but they’re too milk-and-cookies, always asking, ‘Do you need anything? Do you want to talk?’ He needs a reality check.”
“That’s why he comes here?”
“It’s not because I give you guys all the pot you want?” Abigail wanted to know.
“It’s not about bribing us,” she says. “We have a pool.”
“They don’t have a pool?”
“Are they poor?”
“I don’t think so. They’re just not pool people,” she says.
“I don’t get it,” Abigail said.
A large white cloud passes in front of the sun, and there’s a sudden drop in temperature. A cool breeze sweeps through, spinning tiny mini-tornadoes of loamy soil at the edge of the flagstone. Cheryl glances at her skin. “I’m covered in goose bumps.”
“Pilomotor reflex,” Walter says. “Same as what happens to a porcupine when its quills go up.” He says nothing about the fact that due to his heavy makeup he feels no breeze on his face. He feels nothing except the sensation of being painted over and, when the sun is high, melting.
“The weather is changing,” she says.
“Nothing stays perfect forever,” he says.
“You’re making me nervous,” she says. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to my room?”
“Okay, no biggie,” she says. “How about we go hang out in the dent?”
The “dent” is what she calls the den, the odd room between the living room and before the long hall that leads to the bedrooms. The dent spans the full width of the house and is divided by a central passageway - the road by which all must pass. On either side of the passage is a dent, a room without doors that has no specific purpose. And despite the fact that the room is neither here nor there, it is in fact the most casual and most used space in the house. On one side of the dent there is a giant television mounted on the wall, always turned on with the volume down, and on the other side are built-in bookcases and a desk. It’s the one “human” part of the house; there are family photos on the bookcases, all of them taken before Billy died, no photos from after. Walter isn’t sure whether there really have been no family photos taken or if it’s just too painful to put them up - family minus one.
“Is this a picture of you or your mom?” he asks.
“My mom when she was younger. She recently had all her childhood photos retouched so that everything is perfect - no snaggletooth, no cut on her cheek, no acne,” she says, and then abruptly stops. “Acne” is the word not to be spoken.
“Do you want to play a game?” she asks.
“I don’t know, one of the games we used to play, like Operation, Clue, Life, Monopoly, Twister?” While he’s thinking, she flips through glossy magazines, inhaling deeply from the perfume-scented pages. “I just love looking at pictures of food.”
Her father walks though the room in a bright pink golf shirt and bright green pants. He’s holding a hand mirror in front of him, staring at himself as he walks.
“Look at me,” he says, speaking to no one in particular. “I look miserable, my eyes are falling. Why didn’t anybody tell me? Why didn’t one of you say something? If your own family can’t tell you the truth, then who can?”
Her mother follows after him. “Use clear tape,” she says. “That’s what people do. There’s some in my medicine cabinet.”
As her mother walks through the dent, the channel on the television changes, the background music shifts, the lighting dims, Carole King begins to sing. It stays that way until she’s five feet out of the dent, heading down the hall toward the bedroom, and then a quiet mechanical voice, like a small frog, says, “Revert, revert,” and the television is back on the Weather Channel, the lighting brightens, and the unidentifiable but calming “earth sounds” music returns.
“What was that?” Walter asks.
“She’s wearing her sensor. It’s like a magic amulet around her neck. We all have them - the entertainment computer is programmed to adjust music, lighting, and temperature to the preset preferences of the sensor wearer.”
“What if you’re all in the room at once?”
“There’s a hierarchy of who tops who - oldest to youngest,” she says. “I personally never wear mine. Abigail once was so pissed at them that she reprogrammed hers and hid it in the bookcase. She turned the dent into a heavy-metal sound-and-light show. The only way to get it to stop was for one of my parents to remain in the room until the computer guy came - my father slept on the sofa for three days.”
“Do you think your family was always like this, or did something change?”
“I’m not sure what you mean?” she asks, confused.
He lets it drop.
Her mother is descended from a long line of goddesses - Emma Goldman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Janice Dickinson, all of them powerful, some of them elongated - supermodels. Her father is a second cousin twice removed to Twiggy. Abigail is a model as well; she has the unique ability to look totally spaced out but be focused enough to follow directions - she’s a natural. Malleable, pliable, Abigail wants to be seen but not as herself. She is forever putting on costumes, makeup, different personas, trying to find the right fit.
“You should be an actress,” people used to tell Abigail.
“You should be yourself,” Cheryl says.
“No idea how to do that,” Abigail confesses.
The mother comes back through, again the music, lighting, channel change. “Walter, will you join us for dinner - we’re going out to celebrate.”
“What are we celebrating?”
“Abigail completed her parole.”
“Great,” Walter says.
And the mother leaves the room - and the little voice announces, “Revert, revert,” and everything does.
“What was she on parole for?”
“Vomiting in public,” Cheryl says. “It turned out that it was food poisoning, bad sushi, but my parents were convinced it was bulimia. So they let the police press charges, and Abby had to go to a Scared Straight program for people with borderline disorders.”
“Is your mother still mad about our accident?”
She shakes her head no. “It just really frightened them. The timing was bad.”
“We were running an errand for her,” Walter says, defending himself. “Going to Costco to buy a hundred rolls of toilet paper. Who buys a hundred rolls of toilet paper?”
“She likes to be prepared.”
“We were almost home, climbing the canyon, my foot was on the gas. A dog crossed the road. I swerved,” he said. “I couldn’t bear to hit an animal.”
“I feel the same,” she says.
They rolled over and over and then BAM, loud crash, dust, black. Silence.
“Are you still there?”
“Yep,” she said.
“A dog crossed the road,” he said.
“I saw it.”
“Can you move?”
“Yes and no. What about you?”
“I can’t get out.”
“Are we going to burst into flames?” she asked.
“I hope not.”
“Do you have your phone?”
Sirens, the Jaws of Life, cervical collars, tape. They are surgically removed from the car.
“It’s a miracle,” his parents say. “They both had their seat belts on. They’re good kids.”
“Her face is ruined,” is the first thing her mother says when she sees her in the emergency room, still taped to the board.
“I didn’t say you were ruined, but your face is a mess. I’m calling Dr. Pecker, my plastic surgeon. If there’s anyone he’ll come in off the golf course for, it’s me.”
“Leave it,” she begged. “I’ll look like I’ve lived.”
“Plastic surgery is recommended,” the ER doctor said. “Better to fix it now while it’s fresh.”
Despite her protestations, her face was repaired; to the untrained eye, the damage is imperceptible.
“Will you come to dinner?” Cheryl asks Walter. “Abigail only eats foods that are ten calories or less, so it should be great.”
“It will be,” her mother says, chiming in from the other room. “We’re trying a new place. It’s called Micro-Macro. They serve tiny, designer-size macrobiotic bites.”
“Sure,” he says. He doesn’t know how to say no.
In the late afternoon, the air stagnates. It stops moving entirely and fills with dust. They go back and forth from the pool to the dent. There is no spot that’s truly comfortable.
“Hot out?” the mother asks from the sofa.
“Blistering,” Cheryl says.
“The view is diminished by the smog,” the mother says.
“Are the air filters working?” the father calls out from the other room. “I can’t breathe without the air filters.”
At four o’clock the mother extracts from the mini-fridge a frozen concoction her trainer makes and gives them each a shot glass full of it, and, oddly, they all feel better. They shower and dress for dinner. Cheryl puts a dress on over a bathing suit. “It’s how I live,” she says. “You can borrow a shirt.” She opens her closet to Walter, who is wearing jeans over his swimsuit and a T-shirt. “Shop,” she directs him.
He picks light blue gingham.
“Nice,” she says. “Very summery.”
In Los Angeles men wear a lot of pastels. In fact, they wear almost only pastels, or white or black - pastels go well with the setting, a hint of color, neither overwhelming nor negating.
Are my eyes open or closed?” Sylvia asks when they gather in the living room.
“I’m not sure,” Cheryl says. “Can you see?”
“Sort of,” the mother says.
“Can you drive like that?” Abigail asks.
“I think they’re more for being driven,” the mother says. “Do I look sultry?”
“You look swollen and like you’re sleepwalking,” Abigail says.
Sylvia turns, announcing to them all, “You know I named her Abigail after Abigail Van Buren - Dear
Abby - hoping that I would have a daughter who was a friend, a person I could share my troubles with. Apparently there was some confusion with my order, and instead I have this - a daughter whose middle name is trouble.”
“Should we go in one car or two?” the father asks.
“Two,” Abigail says. “That way no one straddles the hump.”
“Did you ever get a new car?” the mother asks Walter.
“A new old car,” Walter says.
“What kind is that?”
“Used,” Walter says. “Cheap.”
“Good on you,” the mother says. This is always what she says when she doesn’t know what else to say.
The children and adults divide into teams. Abigail takes the kids in her small Mercedes, and the father follows in his larger one.
“Is that a girl’s shirt?” Abigail asks Walter as they’re driving to the restaurant.
“What’s the problem?” Cheryl wants to know.
“The buttons go the wrong way,” Abigail says.
“What do you mean, the wrong way? They open and close - what else are buttons supposed to do?” Cheryl asks.
“On women’s shirts the buttons are on the left, and on men’s the buttons are on the right.”
“Never knew,” Walter said.
Abigail shrugs. “It’s cool. The shirt looks good. I just didn’t know if you knew. And I like your makeup. It looks good, too.”
“It’s not makeup,” Cheryl says. “It’s sunscreen.”
“Whatever, it looks nice. You’ve got such nice eyes, you could actually wear a little eyeliner.”
Walter says nothing.
They pull up to the restaurant, and a valet takes their cars, the maître d’ leads them to their table.
“Do you have a menu that lists the calories?” Abigail asks.
“We don’t, but if you tell me what your calorie limits are, I can speak to the chef and see what she suggests,” the waiter says.
“Ten calories,” Abigail says.
The waiter doesn’t blink. “Is that total or per item?”
“Per item,” the mother says.
“Got it,” the waiter says. “Let me see what the chef can do - any allergies?”
When the food arrives, the mother sends her plate back and asks the waiter to take half off. “It looks overwhelming. I want just enough, but not too much,” she says.
Abigail’s plate is beautiful - a menagerie of foams, pockets, juices, reductions, whips, mousses, and a small tower of dry ice smoking in the center.
“Bravo,” she says to the waiter.
Sylvia takes a taste of her no-cream creamed spinach, dabs the corners of her mouth with her napkin, and is instantly waving her arms, summoning the waiter.
“Uh-oh,” she says. “I think these napkins are part polyester. I have a profound polyester allergy. Are my lips puffy?”
“Don’t ask him that. He’s a waiter, not a doctor,” Abigail says, not even looking up from her phone and her food.
“Have you got any paper napkins?” the mother says.
The waiter returns with a large stack of paper napkins. “Gracias,” she says.
“You’re welcome,” the waiter says.
At dinner they are all on their devices. The only person they talk to is the waiter. Occasionally and without warning they will speak randomly and out of context.
“Dinitia got sideswiped by a trailer on the 110,” the mother says.
“Roger’s going under,” the father says, shaking his head.
“That’s what he says. ‘Film at eleven. The feds taking me out of the office in handcuffs.’ ”
“Poor Alice,” the mother says.
The father appears deeply shaken.
“Can you turn away from me while you’re talking, I can’t look right at you - your face tells me too much,” the mother says to the father. And they go back to their devices.
“You’re not tied to Roger, are you?” the mother asks. “I mean, financially bound.”
“No,” he says. “We’re just friends.”
“Mindy got the cover of Vogue, fucking amazing,” Abigail says.
“Language,” the mother says.
“It’s big - she’s American. Almost no American girls get the cover anymore.”
“Where do we go from here?” Cheryl asks Walter. “I don’t know if this is the whole world or just this place.”
“In what way?” Walter asks.
“Like, is this a place that only exists in this place and couldn’t exist anywhere else? Like a state of mind or a moment in time?”
“You may have to leave the country,” Walter says.
“Am I equipped?” Cheryl asks.
When they are done eating, the plates look much like they did when they were put before them. “Was everything satisfactory?”
“Delicious,” the mother says.
“Would you like us to wrap the leftovers?”
The plates are cleared, and the waiter returns with an enormous doggie bag - actually a shopping bag filled with food. “Dessert or coffee for anyone?”
“No room,” the mother says.
And the father takes the check.
As they wait for the valet to bring the cars, Abigail says, “Did you know that there’s a park in Los Angeles, a well-known place not far from here, where people go and leave their doggie bags? Because the fact is, most of the people who don’t finish their food really don’t want to take it home with them. Someone wrote an article about it - ‘Eating Well Without a Home.’ Every night hundreds of people leave doggie bags. You can just pull up, and someone will come right to your car and take the bag from you.”
“Someone like who?” the father says, counting out cash to tip the valet.
“Someone like a homeless person will come to the window of your car and take your doggie bag.”
“And your Cartier watch,” her mother says.
“I think you use the other hand,” the sister says.
“The wedding ring?”
“You could just feed it to the dog,” the father says.
“Oh, no, I would never feed this to Rug. She gets only raw food - raw chicken, pheasant, beef, and organic grains in patties that are in the freezer. I’ll give it to Esmeralda. She loves hand-me-downs.”
When they get home, it’s still light out. The adults go inside, Cheryl and Walter return to the pool, and Rug comes with them and lies on the flagstone at the edge of the water, dipping the toes of her front paws in. Cheryl pulls her dress off. He takes off the shirt and his pants. They are both as they were, as they have always been. The sky is charcoal, powdery black, reminding her of another day, another time.
Two goldfinches fly in and land on her knees. “Horatio and Ray, meet Walter,” she says, introducing them.
“How do you know they’re male?” Walter asks.
“Their markings,” she says. She tells the birds to play dead, and they both lie on their backs, feet up.
“Weird,” Walter says.
“I’ve been training them,” Cheryl says, giving Horatio and Ray each a sunflower seed; the birds hang around waiting for more. “They also like poppy-seed bagels and watercress sandwiches,” she says.
“So are they your new best friends?” Walter wants to know.
“Are you jealous?” she asks.
Annoyed, Walter stands.
“Okay, so tell me,” she says. “Where’s the exit sign?”
“It’s not like the freeway,” he says. “There are no signs, no ramps. You just have to decide for yourself when to take the leap.” And with that he plunges into the water. When he breaks the surface, she’s gone. Panicked, he climbs out, making wet footprints like dance steps on the flagstone, turning every which way, looking for her, frantically calling, “Cheryl, Cheryl!”
“What?” she finally says, punching her way back through the bushes with Rug, the dog, following her.
“I jumped in, and then you were gone. I thought you’d left me.”
“Someday I may go somewhere, but I’m not leaving you. Rug went after something, and I went after Rug,” she says.
“You’re bleeding,” he says, pointing to a scratch on her arm.
“I’m still hungry,” she says, licking the blood. “Want some?” She offers him her arm.
Walter takes Cheryl by the hand and jumps, pulling her into the pool. “No matter what anyone says, this is it,” he says.
“This is where we are,” she says.
“This is the life,” he says.