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[Story]

Annunciation

A photograph by Harry Gruyaert from his monograph Last Call, which was published in April by Thames & Hudson © The artist/Magnum Photos

[Story]

Annunciation

The first time she flies home for the holidays, Iris makes two friends. She is seated between a married couple, because the woman prefers the window and the man prefers the aisle, and they are the kind of people, she discovers quickly, with strong preferences. In general, Iris is the kind of person with mild preferences—preferences that can be painlessly ceded to someone else’s. When the woman clambers over her to use the bathroom, Iris presses her chin against her neck, closes her eyes, doesn’t mind at all.

She is eighteen, living half a country away from her parents. The college she attends is not large and not cheap. It doesn’t have a communications major or a business major or a football team. Her parents agree—and they agree on so little—that this is not their idea of an education.

While Iris is peeling back the foil on the various components of her dinner—lasagna, green beans, half a dozen mandarin orange segments swimming in liquid—the woman returns and announces she’s pregnant. She reaches across Iris’s lap, her sleeve dangling perilously close to an uncovered dish of chocolate mousse, and waves a plastic stick in front of her husband.

“The plus sign!” she says.

“Fuck yeah!” he says.

He covers her hand with his hand, so that they’re both holding the stick. Eventually, he lets go and she leans back in her seat. She beams blankly at the postcard-size screen in front of her, where a plane is making slow progress across a map.

“Congratulations,” Iris says politely, sawing the green beans in half with a plastic knife.

The husband and wife leave their aluminum-wrapped meals untouched. The husband has brought them both burritos from a famous restaurant in the city they have just departed. Iris has seen pictures of the burritos, because no one goes to the restaurant without taking pictures. In real life, they aren’t especially impressive—overstuffed and milky with sour cream. Black-bean juice dribbles down the wife’s hand.

They tell her they’ve been trying for months. They tell her they like ancient names.

“Theodora.”

“Cicero.”

They offer her guacamole.

“Are you sure you don’t want to sit together?”

Iris chews a tortilla chip as quietly as possible. She wonders if the crunching is really as loud as it sounds in her head.

“Honey,” the wife says, “you’re part of our moment.”

“Marcus,” the husband says, wiping salsa from the edge of his mouth. “Or just Aurelius.”

Iris’s mother is waiting at the airport. She’s wearing an elegant coat and boots with flower-stem heels, because she disapproves of people who travel in pajamas. The husband and wife tell Iris not to leave without saying goodbye, but she disappears while they’re waiting at baggage claim. She looks back once, while her mother walks ahead, the wheels of Iris’s suitcase clicking in time with her shoes, and she is surprised, seeing them standing together, that the woman is taller than the man. His arm is wrapped around her waist and she leans into him, her head resting gently on the top of his.

In the car, Iris tells her mother about the couple. She does not call them “my friends,” and this feels like losing something—like removing a pebble from her shoe, and missing the discomfort. To put the pebble back in would be crazy.

She mentions the baby just as a plane passes overhead, so close she can make out the wheels.

“What?” her mother says over the roaring.

Iris repeats herself.

“They should never have told you that.”

The car reaches the top of the ramp onto the highway. The traffic passes them in loud whooshes, and it seems impossible to Iris that they will be able to merge into the stream.

“They shouldn’t tell anyone for at least three months. That baby”—her mother says this in the voice she reserves for words she does not trust: the newspaper, the forecast, your father—“could be gone tomorrow.”

The car nears the end of the acceleration lane, and for a moment it seems they will have nowhere left to go. Then, suddenly—Iris can’t say how—they are part of the stream. In the mirror, another car has appeared at the top of the ramp, and then it too has slipped into the anonymous rush. They speed past unchanging scenery, cement and spindly trees and a blue tarp in the wind, and Iris feels certain that her mother’s words have killed the baby. The car changes lanes. Tomorrow the wife will wake up with a feeling she can’t describe, and the husband will tell her it’s nothing, it’s good, it’s all good, and Iris, of course, will never see them again.

When Iris is about to graduate from college, she dates a virgin. Exams are over, and no one has anything left to do except go to parties and throw things away. On the sidewalks, there are lamps without lampshades and posters without frames. Iris pushes her bed out the window because it doesn’t fit through the door in one piece. She and her friends start drinking in the middle of the day. By the afternoon they’re half asleep, surrounded by containers of crusted-over hummus and watermelon rinds—cheap ideas of being festive.

The virgin is a boy named Ben.

“But he’s rich,” her best friend says while they look at him across someone’s backyard.

Charlotte is Iris’s first best friend. They didn’t meet on the first day of school, like some best friends. There was a whole year that Iris endured alone. Charlotte, like Ben, is from New York, where she learned about music and alcohol and deciphering all the signs that money leaves behind. She is the one who told Iris to wear black and gray and white, or else autumnal colors, to drink vinegary brine after shots of vodka, to eat burgers and bagels and bacon—there was nothing, she said, as powerful as eating masculine foods with feminine grace—but to avoid dairy. To wear bras with lace and without flowers, to buy a vibrator, to be grateful, all in all, that she had never been fingered by a teenage boy.

The first kiss with Ben is too cinematic. The sprinklers on the lawn behind them come on the moment his lips touch hers.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she says.

“Like what?”

Their shoes are getting sprayed. Her socks are damp.

“Like we’re dancing in the moonlight.”

He seems a little wounded and this, somehow, is reassuring.

“Like this is meant to be.”

He closes his eyes for a few seconds and Iris can tell that he is hoping to be someone else—to look, at least, like someone else—by the time he opens them. She resists the urge to touch his hand, or the smooth skin above his hip.

When she meets Ben, Iris has had a lot of sex. Some of it is good and some of it is bad, and she has taught herself not to care too much about the difference. In general, not caring requires studiousness. She gives herself assignments: eat peanut butter straight from the jar; steal ChapStick from CVS. She has dropped acid and skipped class and let a boy lick circles around her asshole. There are dozens of tubes of ChapStick in her sock drawer now, and sometimes she takes them out just to look.

Iris tries to figure out the reason for Ben’s virginity, but can’t. He is handsome and nice enough. He has accepted most of the other intermediary vices that Iris has learned men like: drinking and smoking and enthusing about oral sex. For a few days, they kiss in places they will one day be nostalgic about. The library, the quad, the roof of the chapel, where no one is supposed to go and everyone does. She wonders why there isn’t a word for the anticipation of nostalgia.

“Do you think I’m cheesy?”

He shakes his head.

The night before graduation, they are naked on Iris’s bare mattress. She has already packed her sheets and thrown away her pillowcases, which were an embarrassing shade of yellow.

She closes her eyes when he comes, but when she opens them his face is still twisted in the shape of pain and pleasure mixed together. His mouth is open.

In the morning, they put on their gowns, and Iris can’t find her cap. Her mother will be in the crowd, and her father will not, and the only pictures she will be in are the ones taken by other people’s grandparents.

“Here, take mine,” Ben says.

If she had slept well, if she had eaten properly, if she hadn’t seen his face in its unknowing shape, she tells herself this wouldn’t have made her cry. He puts his arm around her. She looks at the thumbtack holes in the wall, the pieces of tape she gave up trying to peel away, instead of looking at him. When they say goodbye, what they say is, Congratulations.

Charlotte teaches her to laugh about it: Iris is pregnant.

“A one-night stand with a virgin,” she says. “The movie writes itself.”

They’re living together in Charlotte’s childhood bedroom, because they don’t have any plans or any money. Until Iris pays a library fee, she doesn’t even have a diploma.

“What’s the moral of the story?”

“Abstinence!”

Charlotte’s diploma is already on the wall. Beside it, her parents have arranged her school pictures—thirteen years of them—from start to finish. Her bangs grow, her face narrows. Glasses appear and disappear. What Iris likes best is that Charlotte’s smile is never the same. She is tight-lipped, then open-mouthed. One year she fakes it, and the next year she frowns. She reveals her braces, neon rubber bands and clumps of spit. In the very last one, she wears lipstick the color of an open wound.

Charlotte has a long-distance boyfriend and a metal device in her uterus, both of which require certain stretches of the imagination.

“How can you be sure it’s working?” Iris asks.

Her parents leave her favorite foods in the fridge. Her cat scratches the door if she sleeps too late. It’s never been hard, she tells Iris, to trust what’s real.

“Oh no,” Charlotte says, because Iris is crying again.

“My mom doesn’t know what my favorite foods are.”

“You don’t have to laugh about it now.” Charlotte rubs Iris’s back. “We can laugh about it later.”

Ben texts her occasionally. Unpunctuated questions, late at night. What’s up. How’s life. She doesn’t respond, because the acceptable answers to these questions have nothing to do with her, or with anyone. Good or Okay or OK.

Iris makes herself stop crying, because she isn’t exactly sure what she’s crying about, and she has vowed, in this new phase of life, to be nothing if not precise.

I don’t even know what my favorite foods are.”

She pays back Charlotte’s parents for the abortion in installments, even though they insist she doesn’t have to. She applies for a job because the listing says it requires attention to detail. Mostly, she fixes errors in other people’s spreadsheets. When it’s time to order lunch for the office, Iris is the one to specify which condiments must go on the side, and who is allergic to avocados. Nine months after graduation, she texts Ben—Hey—even though she knows she shouldn’t. It would be embarrassing to tell Charlotte she’s been counting the months. Ben doesn’t respond for two days. By then, Iris has convinced herself he never will, which makes it possible—easy—to pretend that the text doesn’t really exist.

In May, her mother says she’s cleaning out the house. She wants the drains snaked, the windows clear enough to fool the birds. Iris’s bedroom will be the guest bedroom. The garage will be empty except for the car.

“You could come home,” she says, which is not quite an invitation. “You could help.”

Iris does not say that it’s been years since there were any guests in the house. She arrives with a half-empty suitcase. It sounds romantic to wear the same dress every day, like something from a movie without much dialogue. The dress is plain. Dark blue—almost black.

“You’re so pale,” her mother says. “Don’t wear such dark colors.”

The house is the only house Iris has ever lived in. It’s a small box on a street with other small boxes. There are only little differences between them, made to carry the significance of bigger ones. The shrubs are kempt or unkempt, the Christmas lights come down in January or stay up all year, the metal siding is white or gray or faded yellow. Custard, her mother calls it. Her mother believes that elegance is a state of mind.

“She has to believe it,” Iris texts Charlotte, who lives in California now.

The house is not exactly empty—the furniture is not gone, the walls are not bare—but there is something stale about it, like returning from a long trip, all the usual evidence of wear turned into something ominous: signs of life. Had the tile floor always been this cold?

Behind the house, there’s a pool with no water and big, prehistoric-seeming cracks along the bottom. Soon, her mother says, she’s going to fill the pool with cement. When Iris was a kid, she didn’t like the pool as much as she was supposed to. Her hair turned green and her fingertips shriveled. But she was good enough at pretending to enjoy it that now—her feet dangling into nothing, the sun burning the backs of her ears—it’s almost possible to believe she really had. She’s thirsty. Her skin will soon be pink, wounded. It seems, for a moment, like a religious thought: that light is also heat.

Iris calls until Charlotte picks up.

“Something happened with a man,” she says.

Her mother did not talk about romance directly. There had been a pediatrician and a personal-injury lawyer and a handful of men with big ideas. She never used the word “boyfriend.” She had sworn never to reveal their ideas.

“She said that?”

It’s barely noon in Los Angeles, but Charlotte is already in a crowd. There are restaurant sounds in the background. The kind of brunch that comes with cocktails.

“Of course not.”

Charlotte knows all the right restaurants. She’s there to meet people who are there to meet famous people. It’s gauche, she says, to go straight for the top. Iris never says “gauche,” because she always forgets how it’s pronounced.

“How can you tell?”

“The messier her love life, the cleaner her house.”

“You’re being very fatalistic,” Charlotte says, sipping something loudly.

Iris lowers herself into the pool. The deep end, but only six or seven feet. Someone says Charlotte’s name, cajoling her. Then several people are saying her name, and she’s laughing. She has to go.

When Iris hangs up, the phone is covered in sweat. In the middle of the bright white pool, the sun is blinding. There are no leaves on the bottom, no dirt, no mold, no ghostly stains where rain has been. The cracks, when she looks closely, have been scrubbed clean.

Her mother calls from the house, and for a moment Iris feels like a child, hiding. She calls again and a dog barks somewhere in response. The pool is too bright and hot for hiding.

In the evening, they eat a well-balanced meal. Something green and something brown and chicken. Iris’s nose is already peeling. She considers the things she might reveal to her mother. The roommate who sold cocaine and cast spells; the astrologer who forecast marriage, or usury; the boy who stood above her bed, his eyes closed, still dreaming, and peed all over her sheets. She considers what sort of pro her mother is. Choice, life. The options almost make her laugh.

Instead she says, “Are you still dating the entrepreneur?”

Her mother slides a garnish to the edge of her plate. A cherry tomato—for color.

“No, he didn’t have his act together.”

Years ago, she explains, the man had donated his sperm. Back when they gave you cash and genetic testing didn’t exist. He’d moved around a lot. The sperm ended up in many different states. When he eventually settled down, he had a few wives and one daughter.

“They all lived in the same town,” Iris’s mother says. “He thought, if anything, that his world was getting too small.”

By the time she started dating him, the man was online; everyone was.

“And the kids just kept coming out of the woodwork.” She eats the last bite of chicken. The plate is empty, except for the tomato, still whole, which she will throw away.

“Then what?” Iris says. “Did he want to know the kids?”

Her mother places her knife and fork at four o’clock. “I didn’t want to know.”

On the last day of the month, Iris flies back—she doesn’t know, now, what flying home would mean. The woman between her and the window has a cheery ponytail and a brightly colored backpack. She could be a little older than Iris or a little younger. She starts to say something the moment Iris sits down. Iris puts her headphones on and smiles blankly. She tells herself she will keep her eyes closed for the entire flight, because this is a test that is both extreme and achievable. She sleeps on and off, and when she is awake, the image that comes to her, accusing her from the back of her eyelids, is of her mother on her hands and knees, scouring the bottom of the pool.

Iris lives in a room the size of her mattress, in an apartment that belongs to a married couple. She keeps her clothes in a closet in the living room, or lets them pile up on the bed, a stack of unironed dresses like a body beside her. The married couple is in a relationship with another married couple, who live down the street.

“You can ask any questions about how it works,” one of the wives says.

“You probably have a lot of questions,” the other wife says.

They look at her expectantly, which makes Iris’s mind go blank. She shrugs.

Sometimes the couples all assemble in the kitchen. They make elaborate dishes that involve a lot of waiting—slow-cooked meats, twice-risen loaves—or else require speed and perfect timing. Slabs of tuna still pink in the center, chocolate cake that’s half liquid inside.

“Who are they trying to impress?” Iris asks Charlotte, who is still on the other side of the country, whose friends, by now, are all semi-famous. Maybe Charlotte is semi-famous, too.

“I love chocolate lava cake.”

“Californians don’t eat dessert.”

“Maybe they’re just impressing themselves.”

The couples always invite Iris for dinner and mostly she declines, even though she doesn’t have anywhere else to be. On those nights, she buys a liter of seltzer and a bag of sunflower seeds from the bodega on the corner. She walks around the city, sucking the salt off the seeds one by one, imagining the decadence of the kitchen. Oven heat, garlic air, sweat and butter, someone’s husband with someone else’s wife. She cracks the seeds with her teeth and spits. By the time Iris returns, the dishes are piled in the sink, the couples drunk. They say they’re happy to see her, which she doesn’t really believe. The dark wine, the melted candles, the runny chocolate. She slinks away to her room.

On New Year’s Eve, Charlotte comes home to see her parents. Iris imagines spending the night at their house. A dumb movie, champagne in coffee mugs, the school pictures smiling at them from the wall. Instead, Charlotte invites herself over for dinner. She wants to know everything about the couples. Who sleeps in which bed, who does the dishes, who argues, who touches whose shoulder, cheek, ass. These are not things Iris has wondered about, but she is embarrassed, suddenly, not to have the answers, her own life made small and incurious in the face of Charlotte’s questions.

“Of course,” the wife down the hall says. “The more the merrier.”

All afternoon, the couples prepare. Iris chops cilantro and watches. They start drinking early, the glasses put down and picked up without looking, the rims smudged with everyone’s lips. Soon they’re snapping at each other. The garlic should be crushed not chopped. The oranges should be blood not navel. The oil pops and sprays and burns someone’s wrist. Iris ranks the spouses in order of attractiveness. Or unattractiveness; their faces are too shiny. Then she guesses how Charlotte would rank them. When the door buzzes, the couples glare at each other.

“Who is that?” one husband accuses the other.

“It’s me,” Iris says. “I mean, it’s my friend.”

They remember. They smooth their aprons. (When, Iris wonders, is the right age to buy an apron?) Someone turns off the oven fan, and it’s quieter than it’s been all day. The oil crackles benignly.

Charlotte is wearing the perfect black dress. Both wives confirm this. They forbid her from helping, and bring her wine in a glass that is not a jar.

“So,” Charlotte says, the glass stem held delicately between her fingers, “how did you all meet?”

For a moment, the couples survey the girls from the other side of the counter. Iris resumes chopping, the rhythmic sound of metal on wood filling the silence before their answer arrives.

The week after Charlotte has sex with the married couples—she is already across the country, sending pictures of grapefruit from her backyard—Iris falls asleep on the train and wakes up in a neighborhood where old rich people live. All the apartment buildings have names and all the dogs have haircuts. On a street with a wide median, she stares at the map on her phone and swivels back and forth. The blue dot on the screen bobs uncertainly.

Iris walks with no particular goal in mind, crossing to the other side of the street whenever she reaches a red light, so that she never really stops moving, crisscrossing all the way down the city. Iris is imagining the very end of the journey—if she is gone long enough, if her feet hurt enough, if the light above her door is glowing warmly, if her mind is blank with exhaustion, surely it will feel like coming home—when she is stopped short on a corner by the sight of Ben in a suit.

He is standing on the other side of a restaurant window. The restaurant is crowded with people in gray suits and dark dresses, and there’s an old woman leaning against him, clutching him. He doesn’t see Iris right away, and when he does—his eyes wider, his face softer—what she feels most of all is guilt. He will wonder how long she’s been standing there. He will wonder if his hair is right, his tie straight. He will wonder if it’s ever really possible to be unwatched.

“Sorry,” she says, but there is a window between them.

When Ben raises his hand to wave, the woman gripping his suit jacket looks up. She isn’t as old as Iris thought, but her back is hunched and her skin is loose. Without breaking Iris’s gaze, she says something to Ben, releases his jacket, stands a little straighter. He hesitates, and she says it again. A command. For a few seconds, he disappears into the crowd of dark clothes, and then the door to the restaurant opens and he’s standing in front of Iris.

“So.”

The walk sign above him turns from white to orange. One last car speeds through the intersection.

“Someone died,” she says.

He nods. His grandmother.

“A few more days and she would have been one hundred.”

“I admire that.”

“Admire what?”

“Like, not bothering to reach the milestone.”

Ben laughs and she feels her body relax.

“You’ll have to come inside,” Ben says. “She insists.”

She is his aunt. They sit down at one of the empty tables, with an untouched bread basket and someone else’s purse.

“If you live long enough,” she tells Iris, “everyone thinks your mother is your sister.”

Ben hovers behind his aunt’s chair, but she waves him away.

“Some drinks,” she says, and he disappears in the direction of the bar.

The aunt looks at Iris intently. Her eyes are dark, her eyebrows gone. She kneads a pink packet of sugar, or fake sugar, between her thumb and index finger.

“He’s a good boy.”

Iris nods.

“Probably not a great boy.”

A few minutes go by, and Ben doesn’t come back from the bar. They wait in silence, or maybe Iris only thinks they’re waiting. Maybe he stopped to talk to his great-uncle or his great-great-uncle or maybe he decided to escape. She doesn’t hold it against him.

“When old people die, they only show you the young pictures,” the aunt says, gesturing around the room.

It’s true. There are black-and-white photographs taped to poster boards all over the restaurant. It reminds Iris of a science fair. The woman in the photographs has dark hair and pretty sundresses. She’s lying on a beach, leaning out a window, holding a baby to her chest.

“They’re beautiful pictures,” Iris says.

“I didn’t even know her then.” The aunt tilts the sugar back and forth. “Our biggest fight was about my wedding dress.”

Iris looks at her sympathetically, and she laughs.

“No, no. Why is fighting always bad?”

The aunt tells Iris that her wedding dress had long sleeves and a high neck. From the front, it was old-fashioned, even a little bit ugly. But the back was wide open, all the way down to her waist. Every inch of skin exposed. Her mother hated it.

“But it was my consolation prize.”

Outside, the sky is getting dark. Their reflections begin to appear in the window.

“My back looked good. A dancer’s posture.”

“Consolation for what?”

The aunt frowns at herself in the glass.

“The church was historic,” she says, as if she hasn’t heard Iris. “In one of those towns where everyone’s ancestors came on the Mayflower.

She stood at the back of the church and watched all the faces turn toward her. A dramatic pause, so that she could hear the rustling and breathing and throat clearing, and then the organs came to life all at once. She glided down the aisle. In front of her, the faces smiled and nodded, wiped tears or pretended to wipe tears, and behind her, gradually, one row after another, there was a wave of gasps.

“All that skin.” The aunt laughs again. “Back then, it was a shock.”

For a few seconds, Iris thinks the laughing will become uncontrollable. The sugar is leaking through the pink paper. Her body is a trembling bird. And then, suddenly, it’s still.

When they have been quiet for a while, Iris says it again:

“Consolation for what?”

The aunt dusts the sugar off her hands.

“Oh, you know.” She straightens up and looks Iris in the face. “The husband, the babies. All that.”

Ben appears behind the aunt, clutching three wineglasses in an awkward bouquet. She twists around to look at him. The crenellations of her spine press through the silk dress. Beneath her thinning hair, Iris can see pink scalp.

“I was married for fifty years,” she says, staring up at him. “Fifty on the dot.”

Ben smiles kindly, and Iris can’t tell if the aunt smiles back. The windows are nearly opaque now. She has to focus to see the shapes on the other side—the people walking through her reflection. Iris stands up abruptly, and the glasses in Ben’s hands clink.

“It’s a long walk home.”

“Oh,” he says, but he doesn’t really look surprised. “Okay.”

The aunt turns around. Her face is calm, her hands folded neatly in her lap.

“Don’t spill, Benjamin.”

He puts the wine down carefully. She bends over in her chair, her chin nearly touching the tablecloth, and blows. The sugar scatters.

is an editor at The New Yorker. Her story collection, Objects of Desire, will be published by Knopf.

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July 2020