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Lightning Fieldby Dana Spiotta
Her hands are white and long and lithe. They make elusive, fleeting frames — flirtations of shapes, really — on anything they touch. Anything in the world. I would follow those hands out to the desert. I would. I would watch them
on the black leather curve of the steering wheel. I would watch them light a cigarette with the glowing car lighter after it made a low pop and smelled vaguely of burnt food. And I would watch them as she gestured when she spoke, as if she were weighing air or beckoning someone near. At times I notice her watching her own hands, admiring their white elegant angles and delicately draped bones. When I notice her watching her own hands, I look away, my eyes shy from shame.
"Mina," she says, and I like it when she says my name and leaves it there hanging, like a statement, or barks it, "Mina," like an order.
"Leave everything," she says. "The one thing you can't leave behind is the thing you absolutely must."
OK, OK, sure, but we take money. Lots and lots of it. Lorene's more than mine. And her car. But nothing else. Not a book or a change of clothes. Not a ring or a stocking or a journal or a fountain pen.
We lunch at a truck stop. Laminated menus with heart-healthy options. Pale coffee and everything smells like syrup.
"Look, sugar cubes," Lorene says, dropping one after the other into her coffee, letting each one balance on the spoon, then submerging it until it becomes saturated with the pale brown liquid.
"It reminds me of a commercial," I say.
"Yeah," Lorene says, "me too. Why do I keep doing this," she submerges the cube slowly and watches it absorb coffee, "why do I get such a kick out of this."
"I don't remember which, maybe not sugar," I say. "Maybe the cube is used as a demonstration."
"You mean an absorbency demonstration?" Lorene asks.
"Yes, exactly something almost like that. Absorbency."
"There were so many demonstration commercials. So visual, so scientific."
"Sugar cubes. I really like sugar cubes. Why'd they go and get rid of sugar cubes?" I say, all of a sudden extremely sad about it.
"Packets, perhaps, offer labels, small type, nutritional information, a higher ability to sanitize. Last longer. There's the anticipatory shaking gesture, loading the granules into one end of the envelope so it can be torn without spilling. Improved delivery system of loose granules versus cubes. Dissolves easier. Makes it easier to use more. Nefarious plot to destroy my body's ecosystem. Yeast- and microbe-feeding, inner-organ-caramelizing sugar," Lorene continues, stirring her coffee, pushing it back and taking another drag on her cigarette. "But it makes the coffee palatable, which in turn makes the cigarette enjoyable, which in fact makes the morning bearable."
The waitress is adjusting her stockings. She thinks no one is looking, and she pulls at the fabric of her skirt, nearly jumps with the pull. She reaches to the back of her knee, gets a handful of nylon, inches it up, a minor hike, then tries again, through the skirt, the little jump-hike.
"A perfect system. Airtight. No complaints," I say.
Still, I know that isn't it. No good reason to get rid of cubes. An object of unremarked-upon delight rendered less than what it was. It's what Michael would say, it's the sort of pleasing detail you never seem to notice until one day it's gone.
Lorene slips two fingers through the handle of her coffee cup and braces it against the fingertips of her other hand. She lifts the cup to her mouth, closes her eyes, and sips the hot, sugary liquid.
But maybe, just maybe, that's not it either. Maybe sugar cubes seem pleasing just because they're gone, and that kind of detail brings you pleasure only as a contemplated lost thing, the pleasing nature of it is realized only because of its absence.
One Month Before Leaving: The Cocktail Hour
The Cocktail Hour
Mina watched him, examining his profile at twenty paces. Mina watched him, half-shadowed, through a window, half-lit with the amazing dusk light, even, or especially, L.A. movie-fake dusk light that could be thrown by a switch in a soundstage. A fading soft pink light that made her long for soundtrack swells, the softness making her think she longed for every person she ever thought she should have loved a little more, but really it was only a scented-hanky kind of nostalgia, an antiques shop nostalgia, or, finally, a cable channel documentary-type nostalgia for people and places you never even knew, not a longing for home, but a longing for "home." Mina had a weakness for this kind of bungalow dusk melodrama. When the whole city caught her off guard she found an emotional attachment to its past and she read its ugliness as its charm. It was then she felt she had finally got it, that it was her place, fleetingly, if only because of the light and its fading glow.
He was part of that light, and she could not stop watching him in it. Through their window. From a distance. Not just that, but his unawareness of her watching.
For the past two hours she had done the unthinkable, the violate: she walked. First through the Vista Del Mar neighborhood of old tiny 1920s bungalows, sort of Spanish Colonial with odd Moorish and Eastern flourishes, stuccoed and surrounded by palm trees, so arranged and moderne they seemed carved in Bakelite. Car-free, in summer ballet flats, the only one besides gardeners and children, Mina walked along curbs and looked through interior-lit windows, the fading dusk light affording anonymity, the TVs and stereos and nearly audible conversations providing a schizoid soundtrack — strange juxtapositions of familiar radio sounds with other people's lives at an audio glance. Sometimes just a name, spoken and unanswered, hung in the air, or whole arguments at high volume. She could pause and listen for hours to fragments of conversations about dinner or car keys or mail.
She had walked the long way from Max's apartment in the Hills, then headed down Gower past Sunset and Santa Monica. The streets had already thickened with homebound cars, five o'clock sliding into six o'clock, a special segue time that was once called, by someone, somewhere, the cocktail hour. People used to slip seamlessly from Hollywood General on Highland, from all the rattan and wickered bungalows on the Paramount lot over on Gower, to, where? Maybe the Cinegrill at the Roosevelt Hotel. To a padded banquette at the Dresden, around crescent-shaped tables seemingly designed for fourth-wall-theater staging, or an In a Lonely Place lonely stool at the bar at the Brown Derby, or Musso and Frank's. Or a dozen other bars, long gone, that used to line Gower and Hollywood. Gower's Gulch. Actors, extras — cowboys and gladiators. And all those suit-spectacled execs, in her mind all as young and three-buttoned and black-and-white as the photo of Irving Thalberg her father used to have in his study. It had that name, Gower's Gulch, back when it had a history, used to be called Gower's Gulch when cowboy-actor extras hung out, waiting in between calls at Paramount and Hollywood General. Mina's father told her (and where did he learn it, because it was well before his time, this ancient Hollywood history he seemed to know a priori and with detailed authority) they'd still be in costume, bursting into bars as if they were Wild West saloons, Max Factor'd pink plastic cowboys getting drunk, starting fights, feeling the difference between real bottles and breakaway glass. Mina walked past the corner minimall with its Western-style burnt-wood hanging sign. Gower's Gulch Convenience Center. Nice touch, and she wished, particularly when she passed the huge wrought-iron and adobe gates of the studio, that one teensy cowboy-actor bar had been salvaged, a secret perfect dive where she could have a drink that would afford her sanctuary, someplace simple and unself-conscious, a modest, sad dilapidated spot, an "establishment" offering mere refreshment and a minute of quiet solitary enjoyment — a real drink, away from the ubiquitous new and bright and sandblasted. A bar, her father would have said, where there is no shame in ordering a scotch. Where a person could smoke a cigarette unmolested. But there were none, and Mina instead wandered into the old Paramount studio store, where in a montage of lightning edits — color, hand, pocket, money, color, exit — she quickly bought an armful of expensive cosmetics. A teal eye powder. A tiny brush to apply it. A waxy-smelling lipstick in a blue red (Caput Mortuum) made for black-and-white photography. Translucent face powder, loose, of course, and the fluffy real-horsehair brush to apply it. A bottle of Red nail polish. A concealer stick, in Bisque #9, Medium Fair. She left quickly, buzzing with the secrets of the universe in her paper bag, followed by, within seconds, dire regret. She opened the bag, there on the sidewalk, out in the sunlight, and stared at the Red nail polish, all wrong, really, the polish — actually a Midwestern near-red, sort of weathered-barn colored — not what she wanted at all. She stood there, dismayed by her failure to even address the shelf of red nail polishes — the Original Real Red polish, so close to Raven Red and Scarlet Red but darker, oddly, than Carmine Crimson Red — how she avoided the issue altogether, just grabbing Red, not even Simple Red, and of course the polish would never be exchanged, but tossed in a drawer with thirty other nearly perfect unused colors, until it became old and its chemical components started to separate, all the colors finally turning into an umber-orangey rusty red topped with a pool of murky colorless oil. She would just have to wait until she could devote the time, until she felt up to determining which, finally, would be Rita Hayworth Red. She barely resisted the urge to toss the whole bag of cosmetic purchases and go back in, to do it right, microexamine the red polishes, head back in there and trial-and-error the whole row. Spend hours on it. But instead she ambled in a zigzag on the pavement, staggering vaguely away from the place, her head looking back while her body went forward, nearly stumbling into a young woman approaching her, unexpected and unnoticed, seemingly curb-sprung, touching her arm (touching her!) on the sidewalk.
"Excuse me, ma'am, may I have a second of your time?"
Mina felt the inexplicable but undeniable horror of an unseen stranger putting a hand on her bare skin, her forearm. She jerked her hand body-ward. At a sideways street-wary glance the woman seemed a beige sort of person, not brunette but simply brown haired, her whole body exuding a monochromatic nylon Nude- or Flesh-colored drugstore stocking shade (bagging and bunching at the bone-apparent knees and ankles). Her imprecise, maybe-young body was all forward leaning, both slender and awkward at once. The girl nevertheless held herself with a rigid, remarkable poise that must have required exuberant discipline. Her brownesque look was clean and groomed — it wasn't fashionable, but it at least required effort to produce, at least conveyed some self-attention. Mina continued walking — she didn't like being called ma'am. She didn't like looking at this girl, either.
"Please, ma'am, just one second," she said, and Mina again felt the girl's hand touch her arm. It made her jump, this aggressive yet barely there cool hand touch. Mina's body already transformed by adrenaline, she turned hard on the girl, fit to bark or even yell. It came that easily — her urban-accessed rage, huge reservoirs of hostility at the ready, induced by a touch or a wrongly chosen noun.
"What?" Mina said, and the sound of her own voice animated her. She felt the word shape itself in her mouth, the way her body almost shook on the stop of the t. She knew she would repeat the word, that she would enjoy hurling it at the girl, the huff of breath moving the w over the h. Only in a certain volume and intensity could you hear and feel the near hiss of the middle h. "What?" she said again, and the girl did not recoil or back off, but instead met her look and returned it.
"You feel anger. You feel fear. You jump when you are touched." The girl's eye contact did not waver. Mina made an audible inhale, looked away, and an audible exhale. These days, on the unwalked streets of this place, mere attention and description, mere articulated detail of attention passed for brilliant perception and near extrasensory abilities. People so unused to being addressed by strangers that simple exposition was wisdom. She sighed her boredom, shook her head, but exaggerated it.
"You have heard of St. John Solutions?" the girl asked, pamphlet-proffering, now losing the eye contact. The glinting, glossy pamphlets — vitamins, holistic therapies, meditation, massage therapy, aromatherapy, past-life therapy, empowerment workshops, colonic irrigation, self-actualization, life counseling. At St. John Spirit Gyms. Mina had of course seen them everywhere. Little sandblasted glass-fronted places, in plastic-colored blue and that franchise drywall white. Even Lorene now went to St. John Ataractic Asepsis Therapy twice a week. At her hairstylist's suggestion. Her hair and skin texture apparently indicated pathologies. Deep cosmetic pathologies which, evidently, were never merely cosmetic, but cosmological, in fact. Mina shook her head and started to walk away. The girl continued speaking.
"What you most want to run from is where you should go. Ask yourself the following questions: Do you feel anxiety about the decisions you have made in your life? Do you have difficulty sleeping? Do you have occasional vulvic itching? Do you feel fatigued? Has your skin lost its resiliency? Do you suffer from inability to concentrate? Do you crave sugar? Do you sometimes wonder if it's all worth it any longer?"
Mina, for the first time in ages, wished for a car, a rolling up of windows, a radio to blast.
"Do you feel a longing for home? Do you suffer from yeast overgrowth, chlamydia, urinary tract infections? Do you feel you're entitled to more? Do any of the following describe you — "
She walked quickly and heard the girl's voice gradually fade.
" — lonely. Full of rage. Hypervigilant. Bipolar. Bruise easily. Sensitive to household products. Addicted to television...alcohol...the Internet...prescription drugs...junk food...illicit drugs...shopping...OTC drugs...sex...plastic surgery...herbal dietary aids...psychotherapy...sleep...cigarettes...working out...caffeine...Visine...foods containing MSG...self-improvement therapies...foods containing aspartame...twelve-step programs...foods containing Olestra...thrill-seeking of any kind?"
Of course, the car radio was where this St. John guy lived (or flourished, an opportunistic fungus or virus sprouting great flora of new growth, the oxygen-deprived, exhaust-basted brain cells of all those traffic-ensnared captives waiting to be contaminated). But — Mina had to consider — maybe they had something. Maybe she had something. Candidiasis. Opportunistic microorganisms. Undistinguished vaginitis. Couldn't her illnesses at least be distinguished? She felt a longing for cures. It was part of the siege of local optimism. A belief that nothing is irrevocable, nothing couldn't be solved, answered, and quickly, too. It was the schizophrenics, or schizoforensics, of this utopia/dystopia place — things deeply, pathologically wrong, but instantly and infinitely remediable. She enjoyed this kind of self-obsessed hysteria as much as the next gal, but the aesthetics of it, the strip-mall franchises, the slogans, the girl's panty hose — how could Lorene, Lorene, even consider? Then there was the unfortunate thing about confidence men who truly believed what they said. The unbearable sadness of it not being true.
Mina was behind now, she would barely have time to get ready for work, she'd have to call Lorene from home and tell her she'd be late, again. She hurried along the long stretch past Hollywood Memorial Cemetery. Ask, go ahead (no one did) — Cecil B. De Mille and Jayne Mansfield were buried there, sure, but everybody knew that. But she knew Tyrone Power, Norma Talmadge, and Marion Davies. Clifton Webb (she used to know them all), Dabney Day, and Virginia Rappe. Famous dead people and people famous for being dead. It had amused and pleased Jack that she remembered these names. The more obscure, the more her father laughed. She knew, eventually, them all: Westwood Memorial (Marilyn, sure, but also Donna Reed, Natalie Wood, and Dorothy Stratten), Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills (Stan Laurel, Ernie Kovacs, George Raft, and Freddie Prinze), and Forest Lawn Glendale (Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, Alan Ladd, and Tom Mix). Mina still could recall all of the names, though none of that mattered now.
She liked, on these strolls from Max's, to dream up the most painful, most dread-inspiring phrase and try it out on her psyche.
Her father would never forgive her for being ordinary.
Pretty good. Something she might tell a therapist. If she had one. But no one had one anymore. People had prescriptions, which were much less time-consuming. Precisely because no one bothered with it, therapy appealed to Mina. Therapy. It had an old-fashioned, retro charm to it. She fantasized about it, her perfect audience of one, her pad-scribbling, attentive psychotherapist. Eyes full of dewy sympathy. The sympathetic nods. Brow-furrowed and lip-pursed listening to Mina's self-theories. The best phrases were just south of being true. And when she thought them, she felt she was shaking out blankets and pulling back curtains or stepping onto a scale. When she spoke them aloud, she became convinced they were dead-on, red-hot, epiphanic, life-changing revelations. Which was the problem, really. Assertions, of course, take on their own lives.
She would never forgive her father for being ordinary.
Pretty good. This is also what she knew about the confidence men. She could be one, too.
Mina passed the south edge of the expanded cemetery near Fountain. The cemetery was getting bigger all the time. In the future of Los Angeles, it would be just the fake adobe stores and the cemeteries. It was nearly seven. She had to finish this tour now.
Mina used to tell strangers about her father's death.
The extraordinary death of an extraordinary man, Jack Delano. The pills, barbiturates, and the drink, Jack Daniel's. The rope — a vintage sound cord, double knotted. Sometimes it was a shotgun in front of the photo of a smirking twenty-five-year-old Orson Welles. Wistfully she would add, what became of that photo — she wished someone, one of them, still had it. Nastier, the terry-cloth robe tossed aside, the final Pacific swim. People always believed what ridiculous stories she told of his death. Mina could drive these fears into sentences and then move onward, a veneer of calm. There were, in the weave the present made with the remembered past, telltale signs, warnings and intimations to be read, evident to the merest self-contemplation. And in the fleeting seconds before Mina's hand actually hit her forehead to rid herself, actually jar herself, of too intense a contemplation of regret and reproach, fissures of other possibilities engulfed her, the landscape of her alternative, other life glimpsed. She thought of a parallel universe, similar but smarter, mocking her in this one.
Perhaps because she worked in a restaurant, or maybe because of her own food obsessions, when the dinner hour came around, and she glimpsed kitchens through windows and heard loose segments of family dialogue, at once strange and familiar, she found she couldn't resist thought runs of them all. She first thought of him. Her brother. And Jack, her father. And even everyday David, husband of three years, through the pink dusk-lit window.
She imagined her brother eating something institutional and monotextured, perhaps laced with his resisted psychotropics, or at least an undertaste of hospital. Michael was in Alcatraz gray and grainy black-and-white, eating in mechanical gulps — although she'd never actually seen him eat that way, she couldn't help imagining it now. And for symmetry's sake, she tried to imagine a quick cut to Jack, the repressed fat barely kept at bay with diligent counting of caloric values, everything he ate meticulously low-fat and macrobiotic. Bragged about sourdough bread from two-hundred-year-old starter, perhaps Indian-touched in some way. Her husband, David, was of course strictly cardboard and plastic, the food already congealing on arrival. There was something so sad to her about eating alone, and something particularly unbearable about men eating alone. Maybe because only women actually preferred to eat alone, while such solitude made men vulnerable. Then Mina stopped, just shook her head slightly. It had become easier than she would have thought, this not thinking. Lately, her afternoons at Max's fixed that for her.
In another lightning edit —
Max's jean-clad thigh pressed between her legs. Or just him saying yes in the lowest of voices in her ear. Just thinking about it made her press her thighs together as she walked, made her careless and even smile to herself. Something there, in his gaze as she moved on the bed. The way she felt it even with her eyes closed. Being watched. She could close her eyes now and feel it, an intoxicating glow of attention not so far off from how the world looked with her eyes closed, warm darkness somehow shot through with sunlight, somehow seeing by feeling, probability shot through with suspense and memory and a tiny bit of faith, even.
Past the cemetery, Gower lost its interest, and Mina could have moved more quickly, could have felt urgency, should have, but she refused.
The afternoon's tiny gestures, the taste of his fingertips, the seconds when they finished their drinks and his breathing changed, and she walked accordingly, meanderingly, kicking at gravel and feeling the edges of her shoes drag on the seams of the sidewalks. She looked at her feet as she walked — see the girl kick at the pavement. See her swing her arms.
When Mina had finally walked up the stone path to her house, she stopped at the point where she could look into David's office. His computer was on, as it almost always seemed to be. She stood there, as she had last night and the night before. It seemed she always ended up needing a bit more time, and the odd waiting and looking had become habit, even inevitable. She could spend her life in segues, commercial breaks, cigarette pauses, walks from, hallways to. She felt most herself hesitating before doorways and listening to the dial tone on her phone as she mustered the energy to call, or to hang up. These sideways, solitary moments when she could catch the world from the margins or at a glance. At the seams of things, or the awkward lulls the editor would leave out. She was convinced the truth of things could be glimpsed in these off-sides and in-between places. It was just these sorts of telling nonmoments that are most noticeably lacking in affairs. The incidentals that happen to couples when they move from one ordinary thing to the next, revealing the intimate ways people negotiate the world — pouring cereal, or addressing a letter, or the shape their mouth takes when they are on the phone with Mom. And any attempts to introduce them with Max seemed unbearably intrusive, a breach, a kind of rudeness. What's worse, she'd begun longing for them. An almost insatiable curiosity and desire for boring quotidian details of Max's life. She'd become even reluctant to leave him afterward, the horrible telltale thing — wanting to linger. She wanted to elongate her late afternoons at Max's, stay in bed until they felt nearly stuck together, until they spoke and revealed odd things to each other, stick around until a meal was suggested, or a back rub, or a bath — anything but separating and that lump of afternoon light that hit her when he closed the door behind her. Today she had stayed in the lull, couldn't help it, but in fact — and she knew this — the lingering and elongating tended to make things only sadder and weirder.
He complained of an arm falling asleep. Not complained, but said, "Honey, can I just shift my arm, can we just...yeah, much better," but it was not just repositioning, it was incremental separating. First it was the arm out from under her, then he had to go to the bathroom. Then she heard him pee. Next the move to the shower, and it was his not-so-subtle signal that the cuddle, bed part of their afternoon was over. And if Mina defiantly stayed in bed throughout the shower, as she had today, if she remained warm and quiet until he came out in a towel, he would act as though it did not bother him, in fact he would appear pathologically unbothered, severely without bother, and this would bother her and she would tell him to come here, as though she was longing to touch him, but it was really a battle of wills at this point, a war of trite longings.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" he asked. "Another cigarette? An apple? I just have to check my voice mail. It will only take a second."
Was this a sort of kindness? But it wasn't really the marginal, in-between, down-time realness that she missed, was it? The real thing — the thing she could not bear, the thing that betrayed the hidden quotes around words like love and passion — was his intensity undone, his ordinary glances, his loss of interest in looking at her. The steady slackening of desire, the dreadful slide to a quiet indifference. And his videotaping, which occurred with increasing frequency, somehow seeming to ridicule her need for his attention, to caricature it, but she still couldn't resist. It felt as if they were documenting their waning desire — precisely the opposite of the attention she really wanted. But it was a kind of attention, still. He was in a way right — there was no reason to stick around. She didn't love him, she wasn't really feeling affectionate. She just wanted — for as long as she could feel want — to put her mouth on his body every time she saw him, and she wanted him to see it in her face and let it hover in the space between them, making the air electric and the world myopic, making every ambiguity and doubt kaleidoscope to convey this desire, at this moment, in this place.
Mina continued to watch David through their window. He put his tea down, and his fingers moved on the keyboard again. She found this oddly erotic, his unknowing, her watching. She couldn't bring herself to go in, she wanted to continue watching. The way he never looked up, her husband, David. She waited in this interim space. Things seemed momentarily alien, they hinted at other readings, other interpretations.
Maybe her father used to watch her mother like this, when he left his girlfriend's apartment. Maybe he would watch her make dinner through the window, unable to move.
Copyright © 2001 by Dana Spiotta
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