Things to do on Twenty-Seventh Birthday:

1) Hit Louis Vuitton to get replacement foot for one that fell off tote

“Mmm, your skin’s soft as silk.”

2) If I leave straight from here I can afford a cab . . .

“Tell me what it feels like in there.”

3) But if I don’t go home first, it’ll be hours before I can check the mail

“Come on, baby, talk to me.”

4) Shit, say something: “Mmm, yeah. Feels . . . full . . . good . . .”

Brent’s climax hits abrupt and silent. Over his shoulder, through his bedroom window, Annette watches the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier inching its jerky rotation to nowhere. Brent’s body rests upon hers, restraining the movement of her neck, blocking her view of the kitschy, touristy merriment, only for a moment. Then he is up, shaking his skin free of her, heading for the shower.

5) There are some phones in Ghana. Go home first, check mail and answering machine . . .

Mid-step, Brent’s eyes trail to the window and back to her breasts, which, in repose, have perhaps already started to roll a bit more toward her armpits than they did at twenty-six. His eyebrows gather. “Well, now I know how necrophilia feels. Thanks. Look, I’m leaving straight from work tonight, so . . .”

“Can’t wait for another trip to the morgue?” Annette turns onto her side.

“Yeah, well, I hate to leave when I’ve got a stiff body right here at home . . .” He half-laughs. Then: “She’s making me go, you know. I don’t care how damned hot it is outside, the water will be freezing. You can’t swim in March—what’s the point?”

Annette sighs.

“Look, why don’t you go to the gym today, get your nails done or something?” He turns back toward the bathroom. “Get a good night’s rest. Cheer yourself up.”

As if she has another option. “Thanks for the advice.”

“This ain’t no charity service, lady,” he growls with false jocularity, disappearing behind the door. “I expect to get what I’m paying for.”

 

Morning mimosas could be the answer. She should have told Brent it was her birthday—then there would be the two of them here, maybe a blue Tiffany’s box tied with a billowy white bow, two plane tickets under her coffee saucer, roses on the breakfast table. Instead, there is only Annette lingering naked in Brent’s bed chiding herself for being a bad lay, and worse, pathetic. She rises, hoping the champagne from last night isn’t too flat to ruin the vibe she’s striving for. Sometimes, something like this—an image of herself in her mind as a nude, sexy, mimosa-drinking woman on a rich man’s leather sofa during business hours—is enough to replace whatever other ugly image has been dominant. She wishes Brent’s city apartment had fresh-cut orchids or a grand piano or something romantic, but those touches are no doubt reserved for the real home he shares with his wife in Lake Forest. Still, this clubby, masculine atmosphere might work, too, in a different, more torrid way. She pirouettes toward the fridge.

A window washer is looking right at her.

“Fuck!”

Annette staggers, half-falls back through the doorway separating Brent’s bedroom and living room, then, in a panic that somehow the window washer can still see her (though she can no longer see him), scoots on her bare ass into the bathroom where there are no windows, and throws on Brent’s robe. Cross-legged on the floor, heart pulsing in her ears, she listens as though the soundproof walls might give something away. Her watch is on the coffee table; she has no idea how long to wait, the duration of time it might take to clean such a gargantuan window and whether he was almost finished or had just begun. Her stomach growls impatiently. Brent has no food, though the mimosa would have calmed her hunger. She shouldn’t have jumped, shouldn’t have freaked out—should have strode right to the refrigerator and poured herself a drink, raised it toward him in a salute. Then she could have come back into the bedroom and gotten dressed and left like a woman entitled to be here, not like some perverted cat-burglar who takes to undressing in the homes of her victims and prancing about like a fool. Annette bursts into tears. It must be hypoglycemia. She has not eaten since half a tuna sandwich yesterday for lunch.

By the time she emerges, the tears have only made her feel silly. From the way she bolted, he probably guessed she’d run cowering to the bathroom to bawl like a baby. It doesn’t matter now anyway. The window washer is gone.

 

Every afternoon, the butterflies in her stomach are the same. The turning of her key in the rusty mailbox, the flutter rising up her esophagus as she sorts through envelopes, scanning for a foreign stamp. Every afternoon, so that part of her always thinks today cannot be the day—good things have to catch you unaware, you cannot be caught waiting for them. A watched pot never boils. Once, Annette forced herself not to check the mail for four days, certain that her self-deprivation would magically produce a reward, but it produced only more bills Brent had to help her with, a jury summons, a letter from the INS addressed to her grandmother who has been dead for twenty years and never lived in this apartment. The way her hands perspired when she finally allowed herself to check the mail—key slipping from her grasp like a slimy bar of soap—embarrassed her sufficiently, so that she resigned herself to indulging her daily fix of nausea and disappointment. Since Nicky has been in Ghana, the progression has been from frequent long letters to sporadic postcards. He has been gone two years. Even his mother has more sense than to spend every day expecting.

Today is the day. Clutching what looks like an actual birthday card, Annette’s heart surges violently forward, the rest of her taking a moment to catch up. She is almost angry: usually Nicky’s holiday greetings arrive weeks late—now she will never know when to calm down. Unable to wait until she reaches the privacy of her own apartment, she rips open the envelope in the foyer, ankle-deep in discarded coupon pages, flyers, and advertisements. Netty Baby! But after that, she—Annette—disappears amid: . . . we got them to donate some old computers and I’ve spent the better part of a month trying to sort them out, most were archaic. Is relegated to the role of blind spectator: I call our best student “Powder” because she’s always covered in dust lighter than her skin, but her father won’t let her come to school anymore since her mother had another baby and Powder has to take care of him while her parents work . . .

When Annette got dirty as a child, Nicky called her Pig Pen. Her dirt—Chicago dirt—was not imbued with the drama of Africa. Her absences from school were not because her working parents made her take care of the home, but because they were too busy to know or care where she went—and so she went with Nicky. Maybe she was never enough of a victim for him; all the time she was struggling to keep up, maybe she should have let herself fall so he could rescue her. Maybe then he would not have needed to go halfway around the world to feel important. Maybe then “archaic” would be written with irony—with an implicit wink, Remember when we would’ve called that a ten-dollar-word?—instead of carelessly, as though he had forgotten he was not addressing one of his Peace Corps buddies. Or maybe then they would just both be where they had always been: on drugs, in trouble, stagnant.

How can she explain to anyone—her mother, Brent, least of all Nicky in his campaign to save the world through the civilized means of computer training—that she wishes the brutal, crazy race toward death they once shared had never come to an end?

 

The window washer’s jaw seemed vaguely Czech, she realizes. Square and animalistic, like the author of that novel she tried to read once—not at all like the actor who’d starred in the film version, ethereal Daniel Day-Lewis. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She thinks it’s still hidden under a mattress in her parents’ home, like porn. Annette remembers a scene in the movie where Day-Lewis’s character, Tomas, a doctor by trade, is forced out of his practice by oppressive Communists and has to become a window washer to make a living. Tomas systematically beds the housewives inside the homes whose windows he cleans—including the wife (played by a flat-chested, pug-looking actress) of a high-ranking Communist official. The scene intrigued Annette even before having a window washer of her own to think about, because it showed a man in a chick role—without money or power—using sex the way women had to: as revenge, as an equalizer. Though if she remembers right, Tomas-the-Powerful-Doctor was a player to begin with (easy since every woman wants to fuck a doctor), so maybe she doesn’t get the point at all. Still, it makes her want to ask who ranks higher on the urban food chain: a financially dependent, poorly educated mistress of an influential married man, or a young, blue collar window washer, possibly of foreign descent, who has, regardless of other obvious social deficiencies, a dick?

She is not Brent’s wife; it is not her apartment; fucking her would offer, in the sad, bottom-line truth of it, no revenge on the alpha males of the world.

But her square-jawed, secret Tomas knows none of this.

 

Once upon a time, Annette and her cousin Nicky were partners in crime. He introduced her to every illicit thing she did; she dated the Mafioso wannabes he traveled with, snorted the coke he sold, hung out at the club where he bounced. Before that, when he was nothing but another punk in the hood, fourteen to her ten, she worshipped him; trailed around behind his fellow gangbangers until the scummier among them, who could not get fourteen-year-old girls to make out with them, would settle for French kissing Annette behind the shelter court in the playground, groping up her shirt for breasts that wouldn’t be there for three years.

She was prettier than other girls. It was her currency in the neighborhood, where being female or smart or ambitious didn’t count for much, could even be a liability. Guys liked her, and since she was an only child, Nicky was her stand-in brother, protector and pimp in one. He guarded her virginity ruthlessly at first—threatened to smack her around if she drank or got high with anyone but him. But by the time she started high school it was as though his mission was accomplished, and like a hippie dad overeager to relive his own youth, he hastily drew her into his fold as a full initiate. Her school acquaintances amused her with their adolescent antics. By then she was going out with Nicky’s best friend, a nineteen-year-old dealer; she got her coke for free. Even the sex didn’t seem to bother Nicky anymore—when her first lover tired of her, there were a string of others, all stamped with Nicky’s seal of approval, all in the club scene, all small-time aspiring gangsters in an era before The Sopranos made Guidos chic, all with a plethora of drugs and occasional free tickets to Vegas, all with hard, lean bodies and pissed-off pricks and a disgust for the female menstrual cycle that bordered on Hasidic.

In Nicky’s world, her closest girlfriends were the rotating parade of girls his friends fucked. Women existed only on the fringes. She was really the guys’ mascot; their team whore on a one-at-a-time basis. They trusted her, told her about the break-ins, the occasional shootings. She hid under the bed when somebody came trying to kill Nicky over a deal gone awry. It was a family.

“Blood is thicker than water,” Nicky always used to say. “You’re the only one I can talk to.” He was that cinematic breed: the soulful gang-leader. His hair, in a sea of Brillo-pad Italian-boy heads, fell into his eyes in loose locks. They made such a beautiful pair that, hair wet, in skimpy swimsuits on Oak Street Beach, people gawked. But out in society, in clothes that grew progressively more expensive the more Nicky sold, a certain gaud easily distinguished them from the righteous affluent, those whose establishment she and Nicky gladly skirted. Women averted their eyes; men tightened their grips on their wallets. Nowadays, even though it has come back in fashion, Annette refuses to wear gold.

 

The facts: It was a Friday when the window washer first arrived (or rather, when she accidentally flashed him and noticed his existence—he had probably been at this job for some time). So, each Thursday night she makes certain to sleep at Brent’s, which is easier now that his wife and their three children are in South Haven for the summer, and Brent drives up from Friday night to Sunday morning. Thursday evenings he is desperate to see her, desperate to fuck her brains out, even though he admits he and his wife do have sex. “It’s easier than having to talk about why we never screw,” he says. Clearly no brains will be hitting the headboard in South Haven.

 

Annette sat, a tight coil beside Nicky’s sprawled-wide legs. He was purposefully bored, having only come as a favor to her, one he wasn’t intending to let her forget. Annette had read a review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and needed to see it. She nursed a fantasy of herself as the kind of girl who liked foreign films, but the prospect of getting anyone she knew to sit through subtitles was nonexistent, and this movie—in English, but with its European stars and director—seemed a possible compromise. “You’ll like it,” she’d begged Nicky. “It’s supposed to be sexy.” To which he replied, “I don’t need to go to the movies to get off.” He’d smuggled in more candy than they could eat, just to make a point.

This was the only cinema they’d ever visited together. Childhood movies they both loved—Grease, Saturday Night Fever—they’d seen separately, or on cable, getting high around the glow of somebody’s mother’s old TV. Yet he was here. It occurred to neither of them that she should go alone.

Nicky’s every squirm and twitch jarred her. She imagined him berating her in his head for not reading the part about the movie being three hours long. When the credits finally rolled, she felt numb with relief. The Unbearable Boredom of Being, Nicky called it, filing out of the theater with his arm around her, periodically knuckling her head like when they were kids. “Those chicks weren’t even hot,” he said. “One was old and the other had no tits. You put them to shame—why do you always wanna be somebody else?” It was the first time Annette ever felt embarrassed in front of Nicky, like he’d figured out something weak about her that she hadn’t even known herself.

Afterward, though, clips from the film began playing in her sexual fantasies. She went out and bought the novel, by a strange Czech dissident whose jacket photo looked aggressive, angry, potentially violent. In the book, the Tomas character was supposed to be a much older man than scrumptious Daniel Day-Lewis—probably near fifty. The author used simple words, but his train of thought was confusing, preoccupied with classical music and philosophies with which Annette was unfamiliar. While she could sense the same erotic current of the film swimming just beneath so many inaccessible ideas, she ultimately tossed the novel aside and allowed Day-Lewis and his voluptuous on-screen lover, Lena Olin of the sultry bowler hat, to claim space in her head again, dismissing the book on which their roles had been based as part of a giant heap of things in life entitled OVER MY HEAD.

Whenever they were bored and trying to figure out what to do, Nicky would quip, “Hey Netty, why don’t you pick out a movie for us to see,” and crack up. Sometimes she even scanned the paper for the dullest possible titles to throw his way deadpan—Babette’s Feast, The Belly of An Architect—he got a real kick out of that.

 

Every week, she waits. The trick is enticing Brent into remaining with her past 8:00 Friday mornings. She calculates that it was 10:15 the first time she saw the window washer, and she isn’t quite certain why Brent was running so late, or rather why he wanted to screw instead of walking out the door at his usual time. If only she hadn’t been so abysmal in bed that morning—damn Nicky, distracting her on her birthday—now there is probably no hope of getting Brent to sleep in again on a Friday morning so the window washer can watch them fuck. The first Thursday after the flashing, Annette is so desperate that she just turns off Brent’s alarm clock once he is asleep, although of course when he wakes, an hour late, he is frantic and rushing and would not touch her if he were off to spend a month in South Haven and his wife was the only woman in the town.

It turns out not to matter because the window washer does not show up anyway. The second week, Annette hits a grand slam by waking up and announcing she just had an orgasm in her sleep while dreaming about anal sex—that garners her so many points that she is even able to lure him out into the living room to do it on the floor only a foot away from the last window washer sighting. But again, the Czech-jawed boy does not arrive. The third week, Annette feels depressed and gives no effort at all; she refuses his advances at 7:00 since his timing is all wrong—no way can he last three hours. She claims she has to meet her mother at the hospital for an early morning colonoscopy Ma is afraid to have, and scurries out, then regrets not even being able to verify the window washer’s absence. So the fourth week, hope renews: once a month, that would make sense. Thursday night she stretches in the crook of Brent’s arm and says, “I never cook for you. I wish I could cook you breakfast tomorrow, before you leave for the weekend. Do you have any important meetings in the morning?”

Remarkably, the answer comes back, “Nothing I can’t change.”

The stage is set.

 

What she hopes: the window washer will imagine she’s in trouble. He will think Brent is exploiting her—even heroes in movies fall in love with whores if they belong to powerful men. Her Tomas will be an honest, hard-working, blue collar laborer. He will be the kind of man she would have met in her old neighborhood—the kind of man her mother met—if she had not spent so much time chasing Nicky’s drug-induced dreams of glamour and power and money. Nicky left her at the precipice between two worlds, where it was impossible anymore to be a normal neighborhood girl and get a job at the deli counter of Dominick’s and marry the night manager and buy a characterless new construction home in the cultural wasteland of the far southwest suburbs. But she could never be more either—never move among wives who summer in South Haven, or Gold Coast career women with their law degrees and androgynously beige Todd flats. She is a mistress out on the ledge of wealth and privilege, constantly in danger of falling, and she needs someone—a working class hero without a fear of heights—to throw her a rope. They could marry. She is only twenty-seven. She would bear him strong sons. Daughters are just too hard to raise.

 

If this were a film, the past three weeks would end up on the cutting-room floor. Jump from Scene 1: Annette sitting weeping on Brent’s bathroom floor, cowering in his robe after having been seen naked by (certainly, if it were Hollywood) a roguishly handsome, young, foreign window washer to Scene 2: Annette and Brent at dining room table, a distance from but still visible to the picture window where said washer first made his appearance. Brent’s back faces window, since that is the chair where Annette set his mimosa (and the view is commonplace to him); Annette, at his right, has eye on window. Washer appears—it is nearly 10:00 on the dot, like fucking clockwork; it is symbolism of some kind that the audience will be left to decipher later. Annette loosens Brent’s robe.

The washer is not alone this time. (Did he have a partner last time, too, and Annette was just in too much of a tizzy to notice?) He and the other man, also young, probably Mexican, halt laughing, stare as Annette, who has been serving breakfast in the nude, undoes her lover’s robe and sinks to her knees.

Head is a sure way to make certain a man has absolutely no desire to turn around and look out the window behind him.

This other guy, not at all good looking, with a shadow of pubescent acne, unnerves her, but she has come too far. He will be edited out for the movie’s release. No, he definitely wasn’t here last time; he couldn’t have been. Her window washer will remember her, remember what he saw last time. Will know this is for him.

Between Brent’s flapping robe and the fact that she must kneel directly in front of him if she means to keep his back fully to the window, Annette is unable to meet her window washer’s eyes.

 

Annette had just turned twenty-one the summer Nicky saved that woman.

The crime bosses with whom he was loosely affiliated were also heavily into construction, so since bouncing only took a few hours in the evenings, Nicky was a laborer by day. His buddies on the site mocked him when he shouted them over, “Look at that dude, shit, he’s gonna kill that woman!” “Yeah, it’s fucking Rear Window,” one of the older men scoffed, but Nicky was already racing for the lift. They hummed bars of the Superman theme song as he rode down to the ground, sped up God-only-remembered how many flights of stairs in the building across the way. Nobody followed him. Sure, several told the police later, “everyone” had seen “that spade smacking around his old lady,” but it looked like she was getting in his face pretty good—it didn’t look like anything serious. Nobody, Annette least of all, could guess how Nicky knew.

By the time he got there, the woman was unconscious. Though not yet showing, she was four months pregnant. Nicky ran right in through their unlocked door (“He wrestled the gun from that crazy sonofabitch’s hand,” said one of the witnesses at the construction site who’d watched it all through the apartment’s window), but the assault victim still miscarried. Nicky mourned the death of the child—the fetus. Publicly. On the news, over and over, while interviewed about his heroic rescue. On local talk shows, on NPR. On camera for Channel 7, he cried.

The baby-killer was strung out on crack, which he had not purchased from any of the numerous construction site dealers, having connections of his own. After that, Nicky wouldn’t touch drugs. Mere weed was repellent to him. He put in his time at the site, but he wouldn’t deal anymore. Even his ex-bosses approved. He was their resident hero, their local boy made good. They crowed when he joined the Army. His soldier’s patriotism would atone for all their sins.

 

All at once it is clear: the first Friday of every month, Brent’s building’s window washers clean his windows. Though their staff of cleaners may be quite large, her window washer is most frequently assigned to Brent’s windows—though not always. Once, two completely other men appeared outside, and Annette calmly walked into the bedroom, dressed, and went back to her own apartment to find her mailbox empty, then spent the day trying to find something clever to say to Nicky in a letter, but she suspected her grammar was faulty, her spelling childish, and that her life would depress him.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the Communist official’s wife opened her window and Tomas climbed right in, but the picture windows of Chicago high-rises do not open. In order to reach her, the washer would have to go past the doorman, through the lobby, up the elevator. She would have to mouth the apartment number through the glass—she imagines their hands meeting on opposite sides of the pane, like prisoners and their wives on visitation day.

Except that here, she is the prisoner, by choice, in a very expensive cage.

He probably thinks she is a prostitute. He must figure Brent for some kind of exhibitionist homosexual who pays a beautiful woman to come to his apartment and put on a show for the young hotties who do physical labor at his building. What woman, after all, would voluntarily spend the first Friday of every month performing sexual acts in front of a stranger outside the window—sometimes more than one stranger?

He probably thinks, on the mornings she has been unable to get Brent to stay put and put out (so she masturbates alone with her eyes clamped shut), that her john is lurking somewhere just out of eyesight, surveying his whore’s performance from the other side of the wall.

 

Nicky stood on her parents’ front porch waiting for her to come out and say good-bye. It was August then like now. She emerged with cotton stuffed between bare toes, nails glimmering with purple polish. He held out a can of MGD and Annette took a big swig, lipstick leaving a waxy lavender smudge. They stood swallowing hard like small town teens on a first date.

“They’ll make you cut your hair,” Annette said. His hair was not inordinately long. He stared at her, his expression vague, grasping.

“You’ll be cool, Netty. You’ve got a job, a diploma—shit, your dad’s right inside that door eating dinner with your ma, not rotting in jail like my old man. You’ve got everything going for you, babe. You don’t need me.”

She’d scraped her wet toenail against the tiny rocks embedded in the cement of her front steps, ruined all her hard work. “I never said I did.”

“Yeah, see.” He punched her in the arm. “You’re tough.” Then, like he couldn’t make up his mind: “Don’t be that way.”

He was right. His control over her life had always been conceptual, not actual. Sweat drizzled the bones of her chest, bare above an old terrycloth tube top she’d had since eighth grade. He was right. No point in even bringing up the three abortions she’d had over the past seven years at his counsel, or the fact that only the first guy to knock her up even merited a punch, while the other two were in his inner circle, entitled to plant their seed even if they did not want to raise it. No point in asking why he’d never shed any tears for her dead children, his thick blood, even when Channel 7 panned in for a close-up of his dramatically rolling tear over the probably-brain-damaged product of junkie parents. Annette’s nose membranes were so abused they both knew hers would have been brain damaged, too.

He leaned in to kiss her cheek, some kid sister too young to care that he was heading off to college. She turned abruptly so he got her lips instead. He jerked back and she glowed, triumphant, but then his hand reached out just as quick, so fast she feared he might belt her. Instead his fingers grazed lightly, almost lazily over her collarbones, downward, wiping away perspiration. She jumped, bumped her hip against the door frame. He grinned, and all at once it was a smile of everything, a smile of I could’ve had you if I wanted to, a smile of See, I did the right thing there, too. She sensed he wanted her to be grateful somehow, for leaving her intact. She felt abject, insignificant, naked. Nothing like gratitude.

But he was backing down the stairs, hands spread between a wave, an apology, an offering. Her lips parted to speak: nothing else. His eyes were over her already, busy doing his bad-boy-poet thing, dreaming of the stars.

 

This is how a hero is fashioned: like everyone else who knew him, the Army was impressed by Nicky. With the earnestness of a new convert, he set about devouring every education they could offer. In the span of four year’s time, he finagled not only a GED, but a BA in computer science, then hurled with all his might toward the Peace Corps. To Ghana, where fellow aid workers muttered how he’d “gone native”—that he failed to exhibit the proper alarm when flies congregated on an open sore. He wrote these things in letters at first; he wanted to impress her, maybe. He preached of his determination to drag his corner of the third world into a technological age that, here in Chicago, still baffled Annette. Words like archaic rolled off his pen. He learned to see art in the dusty dirt powdering a young African girl’s night-black skin. He forgot the audience of his letters home, then forgot to write letters home altogether. He was home.

 

“Are you leaving early this morning?” she asks Brent when he slings his suit jacket over his arm: another man with a mission.

“Early for what?” he asks. “I was supposed to be at the office five minutes ago.”

She has no answer. She has long suspected he is secretly aware of her games with the window washer—that he allows himself to be detained in order to play along. But no, Brent is a shy man really. He once told her a story about going to a nude beach with friends and pleading with his wife not to take her suit off so that he would not be the only one who refused to undress. His wife laughed at him and flung her bikini off. Annette has seen photos of her (clothed) and she is overweight, very Tipper Gore. Brent has a nice body, swimmer’s shoulders and no spare tire to speak of. The story surprised her—made her wonder for the first time if his wife might have a lover, too. If she might not consider Brent any great loss.

She re-dresses in the lingerie she wore last night, it having spent only five minutes on her body before Brent peeled it off. Patiently, she reclines on the leather sofa—but it is only 8:15 and she will have a long wait. She stands and paces the room, restless in luxurious captivity, touching everything she passes, leaving her scent. Brent’s bookshelves bear titles too divergent to reflect the mind of a man she has never seen reading anything but the Wall Street Journal: from self-help for golfers to volumes on the Ming Dynasty to Stephen King to Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Although the city apartment is mostly his, perhaps some of these belong to his nudist wife. That she is utterly uncertain which—cannot differentiate her lover’s taste from that of a woman she has never met—saddens her only vaguely. Among the closely packed book spines, she recognizes the name of the same angry Czech who wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Has this always been here? It is a short story collection: Laughable Loves. A less imposing title, surely. She extracts it carefully, memorizing the books on either side, brings it back to the couch.

 

Annette’s course without Nicky was a smooth ascent among married men. From hostessing at ristoranti run by whichever of Nicky’s friends she was currently banging, to affairs with coke-loving options traders who frequented these establishments, and finally to the fortysomething head of a prestigious, privately-owned trading firm. Once she met Brent, being a “restaurant girl” didn’t fit anymore—didn’t leave her evenings free enough to accommodate a busy lover, made her too visible, exposed her to the eyes of too many men. Her breakfast of coke, snacks of speed, and bedtime milk-and-cookies of Flexiril compromised her looks, her ability to say the right thing at all times, so she quit cold: her own choice. She learned never to wear eyeliner on the inside of her lower eyelid—to wear just enough makeup to look like she doesn’t need makeup. To wear very high heels, but not too-tight clothes. She keeps her nails short and square.

Yet here she is. She cannot understand The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She does not even have a job. Her apartment is a shithole because she spends all her money on the maintenance of beauty, and Brent will help—as they all have—but not so much that she might feel she has enough and want to leave. Not so much that someone better might mistake her for being in his league. Her haircut is more flattering now; her life has been prolonged by getting off drugs; a rendezvous in Paris with a lover who speaks French beats those old weekends in Vegas hands down—obviously. Annette knows that Nicky saved his own life when he saved a stranger from a man just like him.

But what is that woman doing now, with her miscarried pregnancy and husband in prison? Is she in Ghana, too? Or is she letting some other jag-off pistol-whip her, hoping he gets it right this time without some freak playing Superman barging in?

Why couldn’t Nicky have just let that stupid woman die?

 

This Doctor Havel, who stars in two stories, might as well be Tomas. The plots are different, but the same things happen here, really. It’s simple: Big-Brotherish political backdrops, women reluctantly experiencing sexual pleasure divorced from love, succumbing to freedom. Annette is reminded of Tomas’s wife, Teresa, and her adulterous jaunt with the architect who may or may not be a Communist spy. Kundera’s women are so often devastated that bodies have wills of their own—Annette feels for them even though the only man she has ever loved is the one she never fucked. Still, she recognizes herself here—a roving shame turned into language—and if she were forced to read a million books (imagine reading a million books!) and told none of the authors, she would know these words as Kundera’s. The restrained violence of his jaw and his personal demons are smeared all over the pages. This time, she finds herself scanning stories almost hoping to find musical bars transposed onto the page, obscure references to composers and philosophers of whom she’s never heard—she longs to greet her own confusion like running into an old friend after many years and recognizing his befuddling traits and viewpoints as familiar and comforting. Rage boils, obliterating her desire to reach into the pages and grab Kundera’s hand—if this writer who makes his living adopting masks cannot hide his own soul behind the words, then how then can Nicky, who had scarcely ever written more than his name before he left her? Did even the fingerprints on his Army gun become different than on the one he carried in Chicago? How can the boy she loved shield and remake his identity so completely as to shut her out?

 

Knocking, rap rap rap. Where is it coming from? Annette jerks, bolts upright from where she has been curled over her book, whips her neck around to survey the room. Then she sees him: the Mexican window washer thumping Brent’s window with his wiper—has he already tried his own stocky hand and found the thick glass muffled all sound? She looks up and meets his eyes square on. He smirks at her expectantly, raises his eyebrows in question: Where’s the show?

She lowers her head again, searches for words on the page, a soul to recognize.

But the noise continues. Staccato, persistent, so she stands. Outside the window, the boy grabs his crotch, motions down—she thinks at first he’s suggesting she grab her crotch, too—but no, he is pointing at the ground. Gestures his watch, holds up all five fingers spread wide and mouths five since her track record of behavior surely necessitates stupidity. Her feet move.

It takes only moments to dress and make her way through the lobby to the wall of hot wet air waiting outside. Once out in the open, she nearly scurries to hail a cab instead, then stops, marches to the side of the building where she has seen trucks pull up—where workmen sometimes congregate. In the distance, that monstrous Ferris wheel watches over the city from Navy Pier, the pier itself remade from merely the ship’s port of her childhood into a tourists’ amusement park full of bells, whistles, and glitz. Annette’s legs plant strong on the pavement, waiting, her blood simmering a witches’ brew of shame and hope.

Then he is there. Walking with a cluster of six other men: the men who share his days, mock his frailties. Men he may someday surprise by saving a woman he does not know from a danger that does not quite have a name. He walks as though one leg is slightly shorter than the other; his jeans are too big. His hair, dark brown, looks dusty, and Annette thinks: I could find poetry here, too. I could see like Nicky sees. They approach, so close she can almost feel the steam of their cluster. They are a tangle of accents, but everyone is speaking English. Relief floods her—he will understand. Then terror. Understand what? Why is she here? He moves on, cloistered in his herd of men.

Her secret Tomas has passed. She stands, decked out in her filmy Gucci dress, hair slicked back tight from her face and suddenly pinching her scalp. Among the men he was with, two others have seen her naked. She turns to leave.

Their bodies collide—Annette stumbles. Inches from her body, spewing apologetic murmurs for his clumsiness, is, finally, the Mexican. He looks at her and, like a character in a soap opera or Shakespeare, blinks hard as though she is unrecognizable to him under the disguise of her expensive clothing. Where is his crotch grabbing now?

“You’re awfully shy,” she drawls. She wants to scare him, to be a scary, inappropriate woman; she does not know why. “For somebody who’s seen me give my boyfriend head in his dining room.”

“Shi-it,” the boy drawls, laughing. Then: “At first I thought you couldn’t see us, but I hear you do that all the time, huh? Put on a show for Canji. Hey, I would, too, if I were fine like you—you look pretty good even in them clothes. We see some weird-ass shit in this line of work, lemme tell you, but ain’t half of it fine like you—”

“Canji—is that the other guy?” she bursts. “Good-looking, maybe Eastern European—”

“Damn straight, mama, he goes for your show every time. Personally, I think a person ought to share, but the boss man heard about you and he don’t like no trouble. Guess he wants to keep you from wolves like the rest of us.” He howls: “Ahhoouu!”

“Does he?” Sweat stains must be visible. Now that is what the rich really should invent: clothing that under no circumstances shows moisture—that lets you truly look like a different breed. “So Canji’s supposed to protect me, huh?”

“Naw, man.” The boy cannot stop laughing—Annette is not sure whether she makes him nervous, or if he is simply giddy at his good fortune to be talking to the building’s stripper right out in broad daylight. Sing-song: “It ain’t like that—he-be-likin’-the-boys. He’d rather be watching, like, Broadway, eh? It’s an offense, for real, I’m telling you. I didn’t sign on for this kind of work thinking I’d have to be up on a ledge alone with a faggot. I’m scared for my life, if you know what I mean!”

Annette’s mouth has gone dry. “You’re lying,” she tries. “You’re telling me he’s gay because you know I like him.”

“Sheee-eet! Naw, I would not a-guessed that one, no ma’am. I ain’t shitting you, I swear on mi abuela’s soul, no bull. You can ask anyone. You want me to call one of the guys right now? Hey, I can do it, I got my cell—”

“That won’t be necessary.” Annette’s hand flutters to the gap in her suit jacket; the flesh stretched across her breastbones suddenly feels indecent. “I’ve got to go.”

“Hey, naw, don’t leave!” His voice, so loud—can the others hear him?—chases her through the tunnel of her own humiliation, her heels clicking on hot concrete. The air itself seems far away. She is heading the wrong way to best hail a cab.

“I’m no faggot!” the boy calls. “We don’t got no other faggots on our crew. If you’re lookin’ for a date, you look me up. My name’s Angel, remember, like I-will-be-your-Angel-of-Love. Uh-huh, girl, I’ll give you a real man, you come asking for me . . .”

Annette gathers the suit jacket tighter together until it skims her throat. Her heart, thrashing so loud in her ears, pounds like heavy running on the ground behind her—like the whole crew in hot pursuit. When she looks, though—once, twice—there is no one. She can no longer hear the boy’s voice, taunting. Inviting. She stands in the middle of Olive Park, in the shade of trees, the deceptive bliss of green sanctuary amid urban sprawl, body trembling. Is Canji really gay? And if it were a lie, then what? Did she expect him to arrive at her door with flowers, open the passenger’s door of his battered car, kiss her closed-mouthed at the drive-in and ask her father for her hand? What made her think she could go backward? What, exactly, made her think it would be less stifling this time around than when she and Nicky were so hot to court death just to get out?

A man can join the army. A man can save one woman and make up for the trail of female bodies strewn behind him, just like that. Presto change-o, instant hero, the world at his feet.

A woman can clamp her legs shut tight, declare No more, and watch herself become even more invisible—give up what little of the world she has.

Annette gropes through her Louis Vuitton tote for a tissue; her fingers brush her Tiffany’s keychain. Her mail key, Brent’s key, the key to an apartment she despises. Then: the slightly ragged paperback cover of Laughable Loves. She didn’t even realize, in her haste, that she’d taken it. Her fingers plunge deep inside the pages like into a bucket of ice or a Bible: some chilling relief. The sun scorches, a mere sliver of the heat of Ghana, this thin book under her hand a slim substitution for the redemption Nicky found under the African sky. There had to be a way he could have taken her with, like he planned when he was going to be a wise guy and shoot them to the moon. She was good enough to ruin, not good enough to save. But no, Nicky hadn’t ruined her fully either—he’d made sure she knew that, knew it was his choice. A hero would have let her believe in her own decency, her own importance—would have allowed her one small moment of triumph on that porch. OK, maybe she was merely beautiful, not entitled to transcendence, even in the anonymity of a movie theater, the pages of a book. But what more right had Nicky to the transformational, sun-parched, ugly beauty of this wide world than she?

“Hey!” she shouts out in the direction of the Mexican boy, though she can no longer see him. “Angel . . . !” He could have taught her Spanish. Something she would carry inside that nobody could take away. Light breeze answers. He was only a child. Besides, what would her end of the transaction have been but the same?

Annette’s tote is heavy. Holding her breath, she shoves the stolen book under a damp armpit, palms only the key to her apartment, and stuffs the tote and its remaining contents under a tree. Less an offering of peace than a sacrifice she prays will be miraculously ignited by the heat should she panic and rush back. Her wallet, spread open on top, should help in case the elements alone will not assist her. At last sucking air in, fast and thick, deliciously anonymous and far from dead, she slips out of her high-heeled mules, steps out of the comfort of shade, and begins to walk.

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GINA FRANGELLO is the fiction editor of The Nervous Breakdown. She is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (forthcoming from Algonquin in Feb 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is also the Sunday Editor at The Rumpus, and was the longtime editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, as well as the co-founder and executive editor of its book imprint, Other Voices Books (now an imprint of Dzanc Books). Her short stories have been published in many lit mags and anthologies, including A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and Fence, and her essays, journalism, reviews and interviews have appeared in such venues as the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and the Chicago Reader. In her nonexistent spare time, she runs a writing program out of Mexico, <a href="http://www.othervoicesqueretaro.com/" Other Voices Queretaro.

17 responses to “Slut Lullabies: “Secret Tomas””

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Gina,
    This is wonderful!
    I can’t wait to read you book!
    I want to know where Annette goes!
    I want to know what happens!

  2. Hey Irene–
    I’m sorry, you don’t actually find out anything else about Annette in the book. This is the whole story about her. My stories often tend to leave characters at a crossroads, where you don’t fully know how they “end up” but where it is clear something has changed and that their direction from this point out may be different from what has come before. But there are 10 stories in the book, and I hope you’ll like the rest of them too!
    Now here is the thing: I was supposed to have signed a copy for you, and left it with Lenore, yes? I didn’t do this! Lenore and I both forgot about it. LA was so crazy–it was such a TNB festival!–that Lenore and I hardly got to chat with one another. How can we rectify this, so you get your signed copy? I’m very happy to mail you one!

  3. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Hi Gina,

    Nice to have an excerpt gracing TNB. I bought a copy at the AWP reading and silly me should have begged you to sign it. My favorite story is “Attila the There”. I love the sense of transformation mixed into such small, incremental doses, and tied up with a fruitless yearning for redemption. The culture and character of Amsterdam, which you so aptly render, is the perfect backdrop. Having visited several times, Amsterdam is probably my third favorite place in the world, after Boulder and London (Calabar is in there somewhere, as well), largely because I so thoroughly relate to its people. I certainly share their unromantic utilitarianism and study in seizing happiness from every vicissitude. I suspect that for most people Camden is the object of ambivalent sympathy, but for me, it was definitely Roos, and I think it’s an advertisement of the story’s veracity that it works from either perspective.

  4. Thanks so much, Uche. I think “Attila” is one of my 2 favorite stories in the book, too. I love Amsterdam so much–and London! My whole next novel is set in London. Maybe we need to start a TNBLE London or Amsterdam . . . or have that TNB conference next year in a Euro city instead of in Las Vegas . . . and wow, I’m so sorry not to have had a chance to sign your book. Thanks so much for buying it.

  5. Greg Boose says:

    Such dynamic writing, Gina. And I love the formatting.

    Morning mimosas are always the answer, by the way.

  6. Yes, Greg, not sure about “always,” but I know they are sure as hell the answer to turning 42, and I plan to break ’em out tomorrow morning, that’s for sure . . .

    (Is that formatting comment you mocking me about having just learned to post things on the Fiction Section myself? Now I’m paranoid!)

  7. BRAVO! Great writing, great story, and CONGRATULATIONS on a great book!
    (By the way, I was called Pigpen as a child, too!)
    x!

    • That’s so hard to imagine, Jessica! You seem so clean now, ha!
      Yeah, my (female) cousin was called Pigpen when she was young. In all fairness, she did once lure me to a truck full of tar to play in, so I think it was well-earned!

      • A TRUCK FULL OF TAR? Holy moly!

        We were all Peanuts characters. My sister, the bossy one, was Lucy. I was pigpen because my room was such a disaster–you had to make a path through things in order to traverse the room. I didn’t have the stinky blanket and cloud of dust Pigpen had.

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    Love loved this line: “She would bear him strong sons. Daughters are just too hard to raise.”

    Strange and sad and elegant and wonderful.

  9. Marni, a friend of mine used to say that all the time. And oddly, she ended up with 3 sons and no daughters. Though I would venture to say she has not found them as easy to raise as all that. None of us get out of raising kids “easily.” Though it seems to be something mothers of sons have long told themselves . . . and yes, something very sad about that, for both women and men.

  10. Stacy Bierlein says:

    I love this story, remember when you were writing it, and admire how it evolved. Congratulations again my friend on your very fine and exemplary story collection.

  11. Thanks so much, girl! It was so outstanding to have a week of you in LA–I’m in serious withdrawal!

  12. […] In Long on September 20, 2010 at 7:35 am “Can’t wait for another trip to the morgue?” Annette turns onto her side. ▶ No Responses /* 0) { jQuery(‘#comments’).show(”, change_location()); […]

  13. stacy p. says:

    The first time I heard an excerpt from “Slut Lullabies” it was at a reading at The Book Cellar. “This is very new,” Frangello said just before she started to read her story about two American girls who decided to get into a car with a strange, drunken Greek man, whom they’d just met, each wearing nothing but a bikini. For ten minutes she went on about how scared the girls were, as they drove the twisting and turning roads to meet their fate. And then, finally, one of the girls heroically offers her body up to be raped to save the purity of her friend.

    Her writing is absolutely some of the worst writing I’ve ever read. I’m not joking. The fact that her name is suddenly everywhere just shows that, in Chicago, you don’t have to be a good writer, you just need a circle of friends to tell you you’re a good writer. And if enough people say it, it must be true.

    The fact that she was invited to be a featured reader at Columbia’s Story Week, not only knocks Columbia’s fiction department down a notch in credibility, it just proves that NOBODY has read her book.

    Let me be the first to say: The Emperor has no clothes!

    These are the fantasies of a middle aged woman and they belong in her Oprah prescribed diary, not out in the world.

    Don’t bother to read this book, just watch the awful youtube trailer. It’s all you need.

  14. Alanna says:

    I loved this story- did you piss Stacy off?? I’m guessing you’ve rejected a few of her stories.

    I will definitely be picking up your book.

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