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Lee was the daughter of his mother’s hairdresser. Jim had been hearing about, but not really listening to, the saga of her troubles for what must have been a couple of years now, as he drove his mother from her every-Saturday-morning appointment at the beauty salon in the old neighborhood.

He had been told, but had not really listened to, the story of the girl’s elaborate wedding (something had gone wrong), her move to Phoenix (some training program for her husband) and then to San Diego. A house, a baby. His mother leaned across the table at the diner in Little Neck where he took her for lunch every Saturday before he drove home to Hauppauge. She looked better than she had when he picked her up this morning, her hair newly dyed and stiffly “done.”

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

She said, “So she told her daughter, ‘If he hits you again, you pack up the baby’s things and come on home.’ ”

They pulled up to her building — a high-rise retirement condo his father had purchased three months before he died. “Any man who would raise his hand to his wife . . . ” his mother said. Jim leaned to unfasten her seat belt, helped her move her bad leg out from under the dashboard. “Good for Lee for leaving him,” his mother said.

She walked through the marble lobby with regal condescension, bowing sympathetically to the other widows, who did not happen to be on the arm of a handsome son. “She just married too young,” his mother said. “Like you and Arlene.”

Inside her apartment, the few pieces from his childhood home had by now lost their nostalgic sting. There was the familiar china cabinet, an upholstered stool, an Easter photo of Jim and his brother with their missing teeth and big ears. His mother said coyly, “Now she’s looking to talk to a lawyer.”

He was going through the mail for her. “Not me,” he said.

The scent of dinner was already rising from the meals-optional dining room downstairs. Something melancholy, always, about leaving her here alone after the day’s outing. Some relief, too, when he got back into his car at the end of the tedious afternoon. He kissed her cheek, cool and smooth. She was fair-skinned and strong-jawed, his mother. In those years — this was the late 1980s — she still looked good for her age.

“Take her out to dinner, at least,” his mother said as he closed the door on her. “She’s a beautiful girl.”

Lee’s skin was not so much perfect as perfectly stretched, the way a canvas is stretched. It was uneven in texture, marred and snagged here and there by moles and freckles and small scars, but seemed to fit so beautifully over her frame that it was hard to think of these things — even the long satiny scar from her C-section — as imperfections. Her breasts were lovely, but so too were her shoulders and knees, the smooth length of her shins.

The room, his room, was perhaps too bright, but when he reached up to turn off the bedside lamp, she said, “Oh, I can’t stay.”

He whispered, “I know.”

At the restaurant that evening, three guys from his firm had been drinking at the bar. In the men’s room one of them said, “Jesus Christ, Jim. She got staples in her navel?”

Arlene, his ex-wife, had been handsome, sure, and every other girl he’d gone out with had been some version of pretty, but he’d never been given to dating centerfolds. He couldn’t even say it had been a particular ambition. Although now, with the light only slightly dimmed and her white body stretched languidly against his dark sheets, her hand in her long blond hair, he couldn’t help but give an imaginary high five to his eleven-year-old self. Dream come true, my man.

Lee was saying, “If my kid wakes up and I’m not home.”

“I know,” he said again. A good son, he knew enough to appreciate a good mother.

Outside, in the narrow gravel driveway beside his house, she took his arm as they made their way to the car, unsteady in her high-heeled sandals. “It’s so dark out here,” she said. In her Queens accent — was he just hearing it? — it was dawk. “You’re really way out in the country.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, opening the car door for her. “And just forty-five minutes from Broadway.”

She looked up at him from the front seat. “Maybe with no traffic,” she said.

He shrugged and closed the door. He wasn’t going to hold the missed reference against her. It was George M. Cohan, for Christ’s sake.

When he got into the car she had the sun visor flipped down and was redoing her lipstick in the tiny illuminated mirror. “I don’t think I’ve dated a girl who lives with her parents since high school,” he said.

She put the lipstick into its cap, closed the mirror, flipped up the visor. She made a chuckling, sympathetic sound deep in her throat. “Oh, I know,” she said. “It’s bad.”

“No.” He started the engine. “It’s what you’ve got to do.”

“If it wasn’t for Kenny” — her son — “I’d be out of my parents’ place in a minute.” It wasn’t the first time tonight that she’d said this. “My mother’s driving me crazy.”

“It’s what you’ve got to do,” he said again.

His house, a clapboard cottage, was tucked into the end of a narrow cul-de-sac. There were no streetlights back here, although the water tower behind the house was theatrically floodlit, dotted with red signal lights and marked with graffiti: hearts and initials, the letters l-u-v. Arlene had found the place when they were both starting their first jobs.

Lee said, “And my father loves having Kenny around.” She laughed. “I don’t know about me.”

He was tired. The clock on the dashboard showed it was after three, a long day. “You can sleep if you want,” he said, meaning, of course: You can stop talking.

Softly, she said, “No, that’s okay. I’ll watch with you.”

He found the odd, archaic phrase somehow endearing. He was not yet certain if it worried or reassured him that she might be brighter than she looked.

Her parents’ house was in the middle of the block, in one of those abruptly dark and narrow Queens neighborhoods ringed by phosphorescent highways. As he turned her corner, he could see that every window of the house was lit.

She said, “Shit.” She was out of the car before he’d turned off the engine. He followed her across the narrow lawn to the flagstone path and then to the stoop, where her little boy had already appeared behind the glass door. He was in green camouflage pajamas. He was screaming, flailing his little arms. Her mother — his mother’s hairdresser — filled the hallway behind him. She was a stout blonde, well coiffed. In an instant, Lee was up the steps and inside. He saw her scoop up the kid, brush past the mother. He heard her say to the boy, shouting over his cries, “I’m here. I’m home,” even as the mother shook her fist in the air like a cartoon harridan. “Out whoring around,” the woman bellowed. “Out screwing around.”

The three disappeared into the living room. The ragged sound of their voices rose and fell. There was the gunshot echo of a slammed door. And then a sudden silence.

He stood for a moment, alone and foolish on the little path before the stoop. A few lightning bugs rose out of the hedges under the windows. The still, humid air, touched with exhaust, smelled like every summer night of his own childhood. He waited. There seemed to be nothing else to do. As he turned, he saw a figure in an identical but darkened doorway across the street, a large man, big-bellied and stoop-shouldered, shaped, in fact, like his father. For a moment, the resemblance lifted his heart. The man wore a white T-shirt and white boxers, both of which caught the blue streetlight. He was pushing open his own storm door. Jim moved across the lawn toward him, polite and attentive. The man’s head cleared the aluminum frame. Halfheartedly, as if he were only spitting out a seed, he yelled, “Shut up.” And closed the door.

Lee said when he called her — despite the madness, she remained, for the time being, the only one he wanted to call — that her mother was a nutcase.

Her mother’s major problem, Lee said, was frustration — “and no, not the sexual kind.” Her mother’s major problem, Lee told him when he saw her again, was that she wanted to be an actress, had even tried.

She had ushered at Broadway theaters, modeled a little, auditioned when she could, but mostly she sat at the counter in Nedick’s or Woolworths, or pretended to be waiting for someone on a street corner in Times Square, hoping to be discovered. “Which, of course,” Lee said with some satisfaction, “she never was.” She met Lee’s father at a dance in one of the smaller hotels, where she was working the coat check. He played accordion in a band and although he was, by day, a clerk at New York Life, seeing him on a stage must have sealed the deal. They got married, bought the house in Queens.

Throughout Lee’s childhood, her mother kept the television on all day long, even when no one was particularly watching it. It was like an open door. You never knew when some friend of her youth might appear. Her mother would suddenly stop whatever she was doing and walk slowly toward the TV. She’d stare at the screen for a few minutes — a soap opera, a new commercial, a game show with a pretty hostess — and then say hypnotically, “I know her.” Her was an actress she had met at a casting call or an audition, or in Chock Full o’Nuts. Lee’s mother would draw Lee closer to the set, tap a fingernail to the screen, “See, her, this one. I know her.”

Lee met her husband, now ex-husband, Ken, in high school. “First day, in fact.” He was dark-haired and, at sixteen, prematurely handsome, the kind of handsome that didn’t really last — “He got fat,” she said — but was nevertheless an astonishment to the adolescent crowd. The impact they made as a couple (“all this Barbie-and-Ken stuff ”) was achievement enough for her. If she had any ambition at all, it was just to keep his attention. They fought about it, she and her mother. Her mother wanted her to try out for the school play. Of course Lee didn’t want to. Her mother wanted her to be a cheerleader — “God, no.” Her mother signed her up for the Barbizon modeling school — “What are you, kidding me?” She begged her to apply for a job as a page at NBC — “I’m not going all the way in to Rockefeller Center.”

Lee hoped to get married right after graduation, but Ken insisted they wait till he started his career. Something in law enforcement was what he was after. For three years, while she worked unhappily in her mother’s hair salon, he applied to any number of places — NYPD, transit cops, state troopers, U.S. Marshals — and was thwarted again and again by hiring freezes or waiting lists or something misinterpreted or misrepresented in the physical trial or the intelligence exam. When he was finally accepted into the Border Patrol, they were left with only three months to plan a wedding.

“I don’t know if you know this,” she told Jim, laughing. Another dinner together. “But nobody plans a wedding in just three months on Long Island.”

Fourteen years ago, he and Arlene had a small wedding on a Friday night, in a church outside Rochester, and then dinner at a restaurant her parents had chosen. There was a nice lawn and some willows around a pond. They were both just out of college, both heading to law school in the fall. He couldn’t have said how long it took to plan.

“We got lucky with everything,” Lee said. A cancellation at the catering hall, an off-the-rack dress that fit her perfectly. A florist who totally backed down when Lee’s mother said, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, you’ve got three months’ notice, what, are you growing them from seeds?”

Her mother looked gorgeous on that day — pale-green silk, a rhinestone brooch in her frosted hair. But as it progressed, she also looked more and more as though someone had died. Because their pastor had been sweet enough, on such short notice, to squeeze them in between a noon and a three o’clock wedding, the custodian was still sweeping confetti from the steps when her mother arrived at the church, and there was a small group of strangers on the sidewalk outside, waiting for the next bride, when the ceremony ended. There were also six rooms in the catering hall, six wedding receptions going on at pretty much the same time, six brides in white and six various-size grooms sweeping in and out. During each slow dance at her wedding, the floor or the ceiling or the walls vibrated with the stomping and the shuffling of the crowds who were celebrating someone else’s wedding at the same time.

After the reception, back at the house, her mother walked into her room. Lee had already taken off her wedding gown and changed into her going-away clothes. She was just sitting in front of her mirror, combing out her hair. Downstairs, the remaining neighbors and relatives were gathered around the cold cuts and potato salad on the dining-room table. Her father had taken out his accordion and was sounding these deep notes. “So,” her mother said, talking to her daughter’s reflection — such a hairdresser thing to do — “that’s the end of it for you.”

It was a soap-opera moment. Lee was aware of this even as she turned in her little vanity chair, their eyes meeting, the accordion downstairs standing in for what, on Days of Our Lives, would have been a wavering organ. It was as if all those television hours that had flowed into the house over all those years had polluted the air so that now neither one of them could defuse the situation with a laugh or a shrug, or even a simple “knock it off,” but had to play out the scene in high melodrama.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” she asked her mother coolly, the brush poised in her hand.

Her mother said, “Now you and every other nobody who got married today can start your worthless little lives.”

Of course, they’d had this “Why is nothing I do good enough for you?” battle before, but all the stress of all the weeks of planning, all the stress of all her mother’s little gibes and jabs, not to mention Lee’s own nervousness about flying out tomorrow for the honeymoon in the Bahamas — her first flight — and then the trip to Phoenix, where Ken would begin his training — her first time living away from home — gave this particular blowup real legs. The brush broke easily against the edge of her dresser.

Before she knew it, she was on the stairs, screaming at her mother, who was leaning over the railing, screaming as well. “A nothing,” her mother was cawing. “A nobody.”

There were little pleated paper wedding bells hanging above the banister and Lee pulled down each one as she descended. The crowd around the dining-room table looked up in astonishment, Ken, the dope, open-mouthed among them. “You’re the one who’s a nothing,” Lee was screaming in return. “You are.”

“Throwing your whole life away,” her mother cried. “For what?” And then she raised her arm, drew it back as if to hurl the word. “To have sex!”

There was a gasp among the guests.

Lee paused on the small landing at the bottom of the stairs: a little stage raised just two steps above the dining room, a stage now littered with the crushed wedding bells. “You stupid asshole,” she said slowly. Had her mother been in the mood to notice, she would have been pleased to discover what a fine actress her daughter might have made. “Do you think I needed to get married to have sex?” And then paused, and then said, with impeccable clarity, impeccable timing. “I’ve been having sex since I was fifteen.”

She turned — there were a dozen pale faces, a thunderous silence — and regally descended.

“Let’s go,” she said to Ken, and took his hand, and led him through the living room, where she saw her father. He was trapped on the couch, the ponderous accordion on his lap and two fat cousins on either side of him, the coffee table, littered with paper plates and beer bottles, at his knees. Even with the shock and confusion on his face, it was easy to see that just moments before he had been happy.

“Sorry, Daddy,” she said. And gathered her new luggage, and shoved the damn things into her husband’s arms.

She didn’t call home until she and Ken were getting ready to leave Phoenix. She called on a Wednesday morning when she knew her mother would be at the salon. She’d planned to leave a message on the machine, saying only that they were moving to San Diego. “I thought you probably should know.” But her father answered on the second ring and there was such joy in his voice when he said, “Sweetheart, how are you?” that she immediately began to sob. It had been seven weeks since her wedding. Sitting on the edge of the pilly bedspread of their ratty rented bed, she held the receiver with one hand and wiped her eyes and her nose with the other. She said, “Oh, Daddy, I miss you.”

She told him she’d been miserable in Phoenix, hot and lonely. The dry air cracked her skin. The sun hurt her eyes. She found the broad flatness of the land sickening: what you might dream of with a migraine. And the distant hills only made her feel trapped, stuck on the wrong side of all the heaving and straining done by the damn glaciers everyone was always talking about. There were no delis or decent diners. When they went out to breakfast they had to go to a Howard Johnson’s. Ken was gone most of the day, tired when he returned. There was a pool at their complex, but it was so hot. (She knew she was whining.) The other wives weren’t friendly. They threw up hoots of laughter — confetti and party horns on New Year’s Eve — whenever she said cawfee or my Gawd or the number fowa — although she would never think of making fun of their twangs and their broad a’s, or their clothes, for that matter: shirtwaist dresses and madras shorts and cowboy boots and pigtails like some kind of Annie fucking Oakley. Pardon my French. (Now she had her father laughing.) “And don’t get me started on the men, Daddy. These belts. Big hunks of turquoise, like they think they’re pharaohs or something. And God forbid you tell anyone out here that turquoise looks like shit, like pieces of bathroom tile. And white pants, Daddy, with their tighty-whities showing. And fringe. Cowboy fringe straight off Howdy Doody. Daddy, on grown men.”

Now she was laughing, too, wiping the last tears from her cheeks.

“Sweetheart,” he said. “Your mother will be so glad you called.”

He took down her new address. “Oh, you’ll like San Diego much better,” he said. He had passed through there himself when he was in the Navy. She was a California girl for sure.

She mentioned some of her wedding and shower gifts, still back at the house. Once they were settled, maybe he could pack them up and send them. He said, “Your mother will be glad to.” And she couldn’t help herself. “Oh, yeah,” she said bitterly. “I’m sure.”

The conversation after that was pretty much ruined. She even forgot to ask him what he was doing home on a weekday morning.

Their first month in San Diego, a big box arrived. Sheet sets and some towels. An electric mixer, Tupperware, a waffle iron. Underneath it all there was a note from her mother. “I was afraid to send the really good things,” she wrote. “Maybe you can pick them up next time you’re back. Just call ahead so I can make sure not to be here.”

San Diego wasn’t much better, but she used the thought of her father as a young sailor walking through its streets as a way to feel less lonely. There was a picture at home above the china cabinet: her father in his sailor cap and shirt, clear-skinned and doe-eyed, so young that all his features seemed soft around the edges, unfinished.

They had an apartment in a nicer complex, one with more grass and tropical-looking trees. At night, the automatic sprinklers started up, striking the broad leaves of the plants with a sound that was both exotic and familiar. The sound of backyard sprinklers at home. The sound of raindrops on a palm roof, somewhere far away.

Ken put in long hours because there was so much to do. He told Lee it was “seepage” — the continuous flow of Mexicans across the border. In San Diego, she saw it for herself: young men and women walking, sometimes running, in the rough grass along the highway, or gathering in the still of the morning on street corners and in parking lots. They were in the lettuce or onion fields, their heads down. They looked out at you, dusky-eyed, identical somehow, from the backs of trucks. They tucked small parcels between their legs on the city buses, avoided eyes.

She rode the buses a lot in San Diego during that first year, before they could afford a second car. Ken had a thing about paying cash. No loans, no debt. He was no financial wizard, but his formula for success, handed down to him from his father, who, Ken loved to say, “raised six kids on a garbageman’s salary,” was simple: you earn what you can, you divvy it up carefully: rent, utilities, food. You put a little away. You wait until you can afford whatever else you need. You wait.

Among the very first things she came to hate about her husband was the way he pointed his finger at her when they were arguing about money, pointed his finger as if she were a child or a dog, and shouted, “You wait.”

She made one good friend in San Diego. Karen was a brunette version of herself. She was another Border Patrol wife, from Boston, so she had her own trouble with people giving her a hard time about her accent. Karen had never gotten a driver’s license — were they the only two women in San Diego who couldn’t drive? — but they’d take the bus together, from Chula Vista up to La Jolla. Neither one of them cared for the San Diego beaches — Jones was nicer, Revere was nicer — but they liked the shopping malls with their palm trees and fountains and outdoor cafés.

Every once in a while, a bus they were riding would be boarded by the police, who would go straight to the Mexicans: middle-aged women in sneakers and blue jeans, girls in their teens, perhaps their daughters, wearing tank tops from Target, lots of men in dusty work boots. A boy, one time, maybe seventeen, high cheekbones and soft brown hair and those large, dark, liquid eyes that made her think of her father’s Navy photo. All of them standing patiently as the officers neared, shuffling quietly off the bus and into the waiting van.

Karen, who didn’t like black people (she said her younger brother was brain-damaged from a mugging in high school), was a raving liberal when it came to Mexicans.

“Yeah, who picks your strawberries?” she’d ask the bus driver when he murmured, “They’ll all be back tomorrow.” Or, “Who cleans your toilet?” to the lady who said, “Why don’t they stay where they belong?”

Once, when Lee was heavily pregnant (the one “you wait” her husband had been unable to enforce), Karen watched three placid migrants walk past with their parcels and their averted eyes and then looked directly at the cop who herded them. “Gestapo,” she hissed.

He stopped. He was broad and muscular. Around his bright blue eyes were the effects of a work-related sun squint. He looked at Karen and then he looked at Lee, saw which of the two it would be easier to address.

He pointed at Lee’s belly. “What language do you want your baby to speak?” he asked.

Everyone on the bus stared. Lee lowered her eyes.

After the cop had moved on, taking his catch off the bus, Karen shouted, “How about the language of the American dream? How about, ‘Give me your tired and your poor’?” She said it powa. “How about that language?”

Lee felt herself bristle at her only friend.

“Cut the shit,” she told her.

Later she apologized, blamed it on the hormones. But there was a rift.

When Ken took her to the hospital the night her contractions began, there were three Mexican women already in the labor rooms. All illegal, he guessed. What these women did, he told Lee — and the young OB nurse, coming in and out of the room, concurred — was hop in a car the minute their contractions started, get across the border, and then, heading north, stop at every emergency room they came to. If the birth was not imminent, they’d be turned away. But, no problemo, they’d just keep going north, sometimes well past L.A., until they were so far dilated that they had to be admitted.

Usually, the nurse added, this was the first time these women had been to a doctor, so there were often problems with the newborns and with the mothers. But what could anyone do? They were already in the hospital, they’d have to be treated. You couldn’t just send them home with jaundiced babies or infected varicose veins. Some of them got to stay for days, weeks even. Loving the service, the food, the clean sheets. And everybody knew they’d never pay for it.

Concentrating on her own roiling contractions, Lee made sympathetic sounds as these conversations took place above her bed: “awww” to the women being turned away, a cluck of the tongue to the jaundice and varicose veins, “poor things” at not being able to pay.

Ken rattled the plastic cup of ice chips in his hand. He looked down at her. “You feel sorry for these people?” he asked slowly. “You think we could just waltz out of here tomorrow saying, ‘Lo siento. No tengo dinero. Adiós’?”

She took a deep breath. She had begun to picture each contraction as an ugly giant, a monster, a huge, club-swinging ape. It would go off to a corner for a bit, its back turned to her, hulking, slow breathing, but then — she’d had nightmares like this as a child — it would stir, turn, make its way toward her. It was turning now.

Down the hall, one of the laboring Mexican women cried out, “Ay, ay, Madre de Dios,” and the nurse, watching the monitor at Lee’s bedside, absentmindedly mimicked her, singing softly to herself in a sweet, high voice that she was clearly vain about, “Ay ay ay ay, canta y no llores.”

Ken chuckled. He’d been flirting with this nurse for hours.

“I do,” Lee managed, just before the monster’s club caught her. “I do feel sorry for them.”

“No inhibitions,” the nurse was saying. “At least your wife sucks it up. American girls do.”

“I sort of hate you both,” Lee whispered.

“Maybe it’s time for the epidural,” said the perky nurse.

Ken’s talk of waltzing out tomorrow proved optimistic. Tomorrow had come and gone when the obstetrician leaned down to say through his surgical mask, “It’s time to get this baby out.”

There was no pain by then but the birth was roughshod. When they lifted little Kenny to show her, she was battling a sudden and ferocious case of nausea. She said, “Fine,” as if there were others to choose from but this one would do. Somewhere in the room Ken said, “Finally.”

She was wheeled into recovery. Her lower half was still dead weight, but her upper half was suddenly shivering uncontrollably. A curtain divided the room and from the other side of it came the sound of another woman chattering in Spanish to a baby: soft lullabies and air kisses and lots of que linda. Ken appeared at the foot of her bed and then, looking to his right said, “Hey, Dave.” He walked across the room and disappeared behind the curtain. There was the sound of someone standing, the scrape of a chair, and perhaps the groan of leather. A second later, Ken reappeared with a huge police officer by his side, broad-shouldered and wide-hipped, the top of his square head a perfect, flat plain of beige stubble, the exact color of his uniform. He wore double, it seemed, the usual girdle of gun and cartridge belt, and his hat was crooked politely under his arm. Ken introduced him and for a moment Lee had the weird impression that this was the giant in her labor — unmasked now, like the wolf at curtain call in a children’s theater.

The nurses had bundled her in warm blankets, right up to her neck, but her teeth were still chattering. “Hey,” she said to the monster, weakly, as if to show there were no hard feelings.

Officer Dave looked at her sorrowfully, with real pity in his bulging gray eyes. “Oh, you poor kid,” he said. “You’ve had a time of it.” And then he put his hand on the piled blankets, gently patted the instep of her foot. Although she couldn’t feel a thing, she knew this was the kindest touch her long ordeal had earned her.

Later, when sensation returned to her lower body and she had slept a little, upstairs in a single room, Ken told her that the woman beside her in the recovery room had been from the prison. She was about to be deported when her labor began. Dave had been sent to guard her, he said. No sooner had they gotten her to the hospital than her baby popped out.

Saying this, her husband gave her an impatient, sidelong look. Later, whenever he talked about the way the seepage from Mexico unfairly used up American resources — jobs, medical care, education — she was certain that he was harboring in his heart the belief that they were using up all the easy labors as well. Leaving only C-sections for the native born. And wives who for a good six months after held their hands up like traffic cops to say, “You’re not putting me through that again.”

After Kenny was born Lee finally talked to her mother, and learned that her father was in the hospital, having his colon removed.

“No one told me?” she asked. “I’m your only child and you couldn’t call to tell me this?”

There was a pause. Her mother had her own pretty good sense of timing. “You’ve got your own life now,” she said. “Way out there.”

That was when Lee decided to end it. She was miserable. Her stomach was still huge and her milk ducts kept tying themselves up into painful knots. Little Kenny was red-faced and skinny. She felt, for the first time in her life, ugly. She wanted to be home. “Oh, Mommy,” she said. “This is Daddy we’re talking about now. Stop it.”

And her mother said softly, “All right.”

“Let me ask you this,” Lee said. She and Jim were on the couch in his family room. She had her legs curled up beneath her. It was long after midnight. There were moths pinging at the screens in the open windows. There was, ahead of him, the long drive back to Queens. “Do you feel at home way out here?”

She was looking at him earnestly, and he couldn’t decide if it was a dumb-blonde question out of some afternoon talk show or the precursor to something delightful and smart. He was coming to see that she was capable of both. “I live here,” he said. “Almost ten years now.” Five married, five alone. “Where else would I feel at home?”

She considered this, and then turned her head away. “I never felt at home in San Diego,” she said. “I felt lost.” She looked around the little room, which had been cheaply paneled when the house was built, sometime in the early Sixties. This was the one room he and Arlene hadn’t managed to renovate before the divorce. For a long time now it had been on his list of things to do: pull down the crappy wood, put up new drywall, paint. He suspected that it was some vague loneliness of his own that had kept him from it.

She said, “It’s really the only reason I slept with Dave.”

In the kitchen behind them the ice maker gave a little tumble, a tiny drumbeat, a small, frozen crash. A beetle popped at the screen. “The monster guy?” he said. “The cop?”

“Yeah,” she said, and blinked her big brown eyes, slowly, like a cartoon fawn. “Dave,” she said. “He felt sorry for me.” She touched a knuckle to her long lashes, sniffed, theatrically, he thought. It was easy to assume that a woman so conventionally beautiful was always, in some way, acting. “No one, my whole life, has ever felt sorry for me,” she said.

And then she waved her hand through the air, as if to dismiss all that she had recounted. “When Kenny found out, he hit me. Smack across the face. What else was I supposed to do? I came home.”

is the author of seven novels, the most recent of which is Someone.

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