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ON THE EVENING of her twin daughters’ tenth birthday, Jenna sat down to pen a letter to her old friend Pilar. Pilar was a bona fide movie star, frequently cast as the sidekick in Hallmark films featuring a red toboggan and a camel-coated idealist struggling to navigate the perils of modern-day romance. Jenna had watched her friend mature on screen and so felt they’d kept up with each other, though they hadn’t spoken since graduating from drama school a decade before.

Earlier that evening, Jenna and Ralph had tried to throw the twins the surprise ice-skating party they’d been planning for weeks. When it came time to leave the house, Daisy, the more outspoken of the girls, protested. “I don’t wanna go skating!” she cried, folding her arms and assuming her usual sulking spot on the couch.

Margaret, calibrating her own level of upset to her sister’s, joined in. “You’re ruining our birthday!”

Jenna dragged the girls to the rink anyway, believing that once they saw their friends gathered, they’d summon the necessary cheer. They didn’t. They pouted through the singing of “Happy Birthday” and the eating of pizza and cake. On the ride home, Daisy informed Jenna that she’d invited all the wrong people, and Jenna wondered how that could be, since she’d invited every child in their fifth-grade class.

“Girls,” Ralph said, with a stentorian solemnity that caused both daughters to sit up straighter in the backseat. “Thank your mother. She worked hard on today.”

The girls did as told, albeit mopingly. They adored their father, with his taciturn air that belied a hidden supply of scatological jokes and a talent for drawing Garfield cartoons. Their reverence seemed to Jenna to hold a rebuke of her, their mother, or of all mothers, whose idleness they simultaneously derided and cherished, for it meant her energies were entirely theirs to command.

Now they were tucked in bed. It was Ralph’s night to read to them. Jenna sat at the kitchen table, pen and paper before her. What did one say to a friend after so long? It was Pilar’s fault, this desert of silence between them. This lie was more palatable than the truth, which was that Jenna had always been envious of her friend and was convinced that if they spoke, the nail of bitterness would poke through the decorous glaze of her tone.

Even in drama school, when such jealousies were tacitly permitted—envy being its own breed of flattery—Jenna had maintained a chumminess toward Pilar, who’d by then already secured roles on not one but two teenage soaps. (“A dead ringer for a young Brigitte Bardot,” Redbook called her.) Jenna pretended these accomplishments didn’t bother her, that she was content granting her friend the spotlight. Yet she didn’t hesitate to join in when others inveighed against Pilar’s success, which they attributed to her mother, a former Playboy bunny who’d appeared in a handful of mawkish rom-coms. To Jenna, who viewed friendship through the lens of capitalism, there was nothing wrong with such duplicitousness. Relationships, she believed, were built not on loyalty but a system of material and emotional labor, wherein you paid a percentage of your valuable time and energy to receive a percentage of someone else’s in return. She was suspicious of anyone who claimed purer motives.

Her letter to Pilar was meandering. She mentioned she’d recently gone to the cinema to view Pilar’s latest, Beaches at Midnight. (She had not, in fact, seen the film. When Ralph proposed it for their date night, imitating the offhand way Jenna used to bring up Pilar every chance she got—“Don’t you want to see your famous friend?”—Jenna equivocated. She told him it was impossible for her to watch people act anymore; she became too consumed in the mechanics of their performances.) She did not tell Pilar that she’d been a devotee of all her films, even that one horse flick that won a Razzie. Each month, the pock-faced cashier at Blockbuster would ask if she wanted to try something other than the same four VHS tapes she’d already rented. None of the films were particularly great. She watched them both as a form of self-flagellation and consolation, each time repeating to herself the same old cliché: success could not be conflated with talent.

At the end of the letter, Jenna included a brief explanation of her Albuquerque return address: “I’m playing Nina in a production of The Seagull at a rep theater here.” She read the lie back to herself. Was it a stretch to cast herself as Nina, the young ingénue? Perhaps. She was, after all, closer to forty than nineteen. At this age, she’d be better suited to the role of Irina Arkadina, the aging starlet. But this was her fantasy, and there was no one to contradict her, so she kept the line as written.

The move to Albuquerque was meant to have been temporary. Ten years ago, Ralph was hired as an engineer at the Kirtland Air Force Base, conducting research on missile defense systems. Jenna agreed to come for the three-year span of his contract, though she hated New Mexico: the tarpaulin-stretched sky, the scabrous land. She dreamt of the day they’d purchase a multistory condo in Sherman Oaks or Montecito, the sort of chic-modern abode that would instantly draw attention were it on their block in Albuquerque. But after three years she became pregnant with the twins, and Ralph was offered a permanent position under Reagan’s “Star Wars” Defense Initiative. What was another few years? It wasn’t like she’d be auditioning while pregnant.

She put down her pen and refilled Wiley’s water dish. He was a handsome dog—people at the park always said so. After a glass of wine, she went to kiss the twins goodnight. She had snuck into their room the previous evening to deposit a balloon bouquet in the center of the carpet. The sight of the balloons gently swaying gratified her. She was a good mother. There was that, even if she sometimes worried she was merely approximating motherhood as a kind of character study. She kissed each girl on the forehead. Neither stirred.

In the bedroom Ralph lay reading a biography. “Did you know Churchill nearly drowned in a boating accident?” he asked.

“Nearly,” she repeated absently as she unclasped her necklace and set it atop the armoire. In the mirror she considered herself. She was still pretty, though traces of age had begun to creep in—her stomach showed signs of her pregnancy, and when she scrunched and released her forehead, the lines settled rather than dispersed.

“Do you think the girls enjoyed today?” she asked.

Ralph flipped over his book. “C’mere.”

He patted the comforter; pushed back, it resembled a receding field of snow. She went to him. The secret of this evening’s correspondence smoldered inside her. Maybe she could tell him about the letter, and they could laugh about the glitziness of others’ lives. With a swell of shame, she remembered that she had not written anything about a husband. Nor had she mentioned any daughters.

“What should we do for Christmas?” Ralph asked.

“It’s so far away.”

“The big guy’ll be sliding down the chimney before you know it.”

“What about Rico’s? Isn’t that where we went last year?”

“They shut down. I left the article on your nightstand.”

Jenna nodded, though she could recall no such article.

Ralph was a sensible, mannerly man, an Ayn Rand acolyte who believed that Reaganomics was the best thing to happen to this country since the abolition of slavery. He was tall as a cornstalk, though he walked with the hunched posture of one who anticipates being punched at any moment. When he and Jenna first got together, friends of hers reacted with incredulity. “But you’re an artist,” they scoffed, as if her dating a Libertarian were an act of hypocrisy. Or maybe they saw what she’d failed to, that wealth was seductive and she’d follow where it led.

Ralph often encouraged Jenna to get involved in community theater. Despondency washed over her at the mere thought. How could she stoop to appearing in church productions when she’d once harbored dreams of Broadway?

“If you enjoy it,” he said, “who cares?”

She did, though she couldn’t articulate why. She felt in some way like she’d be disappointing her former self if she settled for playing Miss Hannigan in a local production of Annie. Besides, she’d never been one to take up an avocation solely for private enjoyment. Other mothers at the school told her about their bring-your-own-bottle painting nights, their gossip sessions over canasta, their mornings at the Jazzercise studio, and it all sounded frankly a bit pathetic. The woman who started piano lessons at fifty would never be great, so what was the point?

After a series of hypnic jerks, Ralph safely enclosed himself in sleep. Jenna picked up his book and dog-eared his spot. She stayed vigilant in the darkness. Sometimes, late at night, a mysterious hum in the distance would call out to her—a sustained alien sound like the ringing of a crystal bowl. Tonight there was only the quiet of her house: Wiley snoring, the reliable dips and climbs of Ralph’s breath, a wind caressing the curtains.

In her dream that night, Jenna shrank to the size of a thimble and was traveling through the US postal system. Arms at her sides, she dived through a metal chute, landing in a soft bed of envelopes which a whistling mailman picked up and carried through a wrought-metal gate. Beyond loomed a beaux-arts mansion with an oversized door. A maid opened it. “Ms. Beauregard is upstairs,” she said, plucking Jenna from the basket.

The foyer was sherbet green, with brass accents and tapestried walls. Jenna turned her head, overstimulated by the empire chandelier, the antiqued mirrors, the Persian rug the size of a Great Lake. The maid shuttled Jenna up the grand staircase. On the second level, Pilar sat at a vanity in an emerald dress, powdering her face. She was ecstatic to see the miniature Jenna and took her in her fist, like a child clutching her doll.


Weeks passed, and the existence of her letter lapsed into Jenna’s subconscious. Autumn came. The sunflowers shriveled. She chaperoned the girls’ field trip to Taos Pueblo. The tour guide, a high school student who’d grown up on the reservation, brought them to an adobe column surrounded by crosses. A terrible massacre had taken place here a hundred years ago, he said, when American soldiers were sent to quell a revolt by Indian dissidents. The women and children of the pueblo were herded into the church for sanctuary, because no one believed the troops would bomb a church. It was a miscalculation; this column was all that remained.

Jenna turned toward the group of fifth graders. Her daughters had adopted identical expressions of uninterest. It was as if, on their tenth birthday, they’d boarded up their faces, as one might do before a storm. Before long, the reflections they met in the mirror would not correspond to the ones in their heads—the hips wider, the foreheads blemished with dots—and she supposed they would hold this against her too; she being the externalization of all their womanly aggravations.

For Halloween, the girls decided to be Siamese twins. Jenna went to the all-night mart to purchase an extra-large sweatshirt and pants. Pumpkins bulged in cardboard boxes outside the entryway. A cornucopia near the cash register overflowed with chestnuts and sprigs of sage. She browsed the magazine rack for photos of Pilar—a compulsion she detested. From the discount bin, she fished out the largest clothing articles she could find. The girls squeezed their scrawny bodies into the clothes and donned a sign that read: “I’m Stuck with Her.”

The following day, Jenna was seated at the kitchen table when Wiley began to bark, signaling the arrival of the mailman. At the bottom of the stack of bills and catalogs, she saw it. The handwritten address. Los Angeles. The envelope felt heavy as a cement block in her hands.

She sat down on the sofa opposite the kiva fireplace. Wiley sprawled at her feet, cocking his head in her direction. The reply was three pages long, in cramped cursive. Jenna scanned each page, seeking out indicia of rejection. Satisfied there was none, she permitted herself to read in earnest.

“Dearest Jenna,” it began.

Pilar had been delighted—“delighted!!”—to receive Jenna’s letter. She was sorry for not responding sooner; she’d been busy shooting, and there was so much press to do, plus her mother was staying over on account of money troubles, something about a Ponzi scheme, so there was that. Also, to tell the truth, she’d been unsure how to respond. She felt badly about how they’d left things that night in the stairwell before graduation, when she called Jenna boring. She hadn’t thought Jenna wanted to be friends after that. “I’m sorry,” Pilar wrote. “I was young then, and not very kind.”

She was glad to hear that Jenna was still acting, and in the theater, no less! Pilar would never forget that scene study Jenna had performed opposite Orson Pitrovsky, where she played a young Italian woman who sleeps with an American soldier for lucre. “Your tears—” Pilar wrote, “how they moved me! I knew then that you had it, whatever it is.”

Jenna read this sentence back several times. The glint of pride she gained from Pilar’s approbation was dulled by a suspicion that she was being condescended to. She wondered if Pilar somehow sensed that she’d lied about the Chekhov production. Perhaps this line of praise was meant as a taunt, a suggestion that even now Pilar recognized in Jenna a smarminess that no amount of posturing could disguise.

At the end, she signed off with a heart and the letters xoxo.

Jenna set the letter on the edge of the coffee table, feeling as giddy as if she had received the lead role in The Seagull. She remembered well that scene with Orson. Mr. Fromm, the acting coach, had instructed Jenna to come onstage with her emotional barometer at a ten. “Your character is devastated,” he said. He gestured to the wooden platform the class used as a bed. “When you enter the room, go there and sob.”

The first few rehearsals, Jenna affected the requisite emotion with little success. Each time she went backstage to work herself up, the knowledge that she was supposed to be crying obfuscated any genuine emotion. In the hallway, surrounded by painted flats, the saddest thing she could imagine was entering the classroom moments later only to have Mr. Fromm tell her she was hopeless. She could play at the emotion but not embody it—not the way Pilar did.

The first day of class, Mr. Fromm had told the group of aspiring actors that if there was anything else they could imagine doing, they should run and do that as fast as possible. Jenna felt a sinkhole open in her chest. No, there was nothing else. But how could it be that the only thing she wanted to do, she couldn’t do as well as others? It didn’t seem fair.

To her inability to cry, she discovered a solution later that week when nursing a chest cold: a drop of mentholated ointment discreetly dabbed in the corner of her eye. Instantly, her gaze burned. Any guilt she might have felt over stooping to such means was swiftly abated by Mr. Fromm’s praise. “You see?” he said, angling to face the class. “That’s what this is all about: real emotion. Brava, brava.”

Jenna never admitted to anyone what she’d done. Not because she was ashamed, but because that single moment of praise, unwarranted though it may have been, stood unparalleled as the greatest achievement of her short-lived career.


The following Saturday, Jenna wrote back to Pilar while the girls were outside with Ralph, kicking a soccer ball across the gravel. The day was sunny but crisp, the sky a saturated blue. She could see her family through the window, small against the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. The twins’ tight curls had begun to frizz with the first intimations of puberty. Every few minutes one of them would press her exuberant face to the window to ensure that Jenna was still watching.

In her reply, Jenna wrote that Pilar was not to worry; she bore no ill will toward her oldest friend. She briefly referenced Ralph—(“Remember that dorky man who asked me out for drinks one night at Toby’s? Well, funny story…”)—but not the twins. She sensed that Pilar decried women who fulfilled society’s expectations. Besides, what would she say—that she loved her daughters but didn’t always like them very much? They were obscene girls, who giggled at farts and burps, who tore out each other’s hair and left scratches along each other’s arms like feral kittens. And what else: that they’d robbed her of any chance she might’ve had at an acting career, so she resented them, though it wasn’t their fault?

She concluded by adding that the Chekhov production had closed the previous evening, and also that Pilar was right: theater wasn’t for everyone. Oh, but she didn’t begrudge those who pursued the silver screen instead. “Theater is a thankless job,” she wrote. “Eight shows a week on an Equity contract. Yet I love it, so…”

She may have embellished a bit, but all that she’d said felt true enough. Truer than the truth, at least. Jenna had a husband, twin daughters, a dog! Every day, the same tiresome routine. Dinners to be made. Dishes to be scrubbed. She imagined her life like a fitted sheet that kept popping loose from its corner. Sure, she might have exchanged the sheet, but she’d gotten so used to tugging it back into place that it no longer occurred to her there could be any other way. The putting in place had become her life, and at some point her yen to achieve had been supplanted with one simply to sustain.

By the time she and Ralph retreated to the bedroom that evening, Jenna had positioned her reply to Pilar atop her dressing table. She pictured it like a chunk of gold gleaming cartoonishly across the room. She left it unfolded, so Ralph might read it. The self-destructive part of her wished he would; the self-destructive part wanted him to discover everything and rise to anger, as if Pilar were her secret lover. A string of vulgarities unraveled in her mind. Yes, I am her lover, she imagined saying. I lick her pussy and do to her a whole host of dirty things you once did to me.

Ralph rolled over and kissed her. They went hurriedly through the motions—her pulling at his drawstring, him tugging up her nightgown, thumping himself against her thigh to show her his excitement, like Wiley with a bone. With the girls slumbering one room over, their movements took on a thrilling urgency. Jenna was more performative than usual, punctuating each thrust with the sort of demonstrative moan she hadn’t emitted in years. She shut her eyes and imagined she and Ralph were on a stage, with Pilar as their sole audience.

Afterward, cleaning himself at the sink, Ralph said it was the best sex they’d ever had, no really, ever, and Jenna asked if he was being facetious. Naked in the eerie bathroom light, they began to rock together in place, like teens at school dance. She asked him if he’d ever heard that hum, the one late at night, and he smoothed back her hair and said, gently, that he had no idea what she was talking about.


Jenna and Pilar began exchanging letters with greater frequency. Pilar wrote about the South African director with “the most wraparound smile” whom she’d been seeing—(“We’re planning a trip to the Lake District early next year—you should come!!”)—and Jenna about her invented career as a regional theater star.

Daily, she began to consider her experiences through the prism of Pilar’s gaze. When walking through the house, her eyes were drawn to the hole in the bathroom door where a towel hook once hung, the exposed corners of baseboard that Wiley had chewed. It was as if a magician had waved a wand over the coloring book of her pleasure center, leaching every page of its pigment. You were happy here once, she told herself. You had accepted this as your lot.

She continued to plant Pilar’s letters in places Ralph might find them. One she even put in his sock drawer. He handed it back without opening it, saying, “I think you left this with the laundry.” She thanked him, though a part of her withered as she returned the envelope to her nightstand.

Sometimes she and Pilar reminisced about drama school—the Meisner exercises where they’d stand across from each other, repeating a single observation—“Your eyes are blue.” “My eyes are blue.” “Your eyes are blue.” “My eyes are blue.” “You didn’t like that?” “I didn’t like that”—and the Williamson technique classes where they’d roll around on the hardwood floor, visualizing their limbs as extrusions of Jell-O. In one letter, Pilar mentioned that she’d once run into Dimitri when he was bartending an Actors for Animal Rights gala at the Chateau Marmont. The Chateau Marmont—it was the sort of inane detail Jenna wished she could share with Ralph, who detested celebrity culture. She would borrow his hatred, just as she used to scan Mr. Fromm’s face for cues on how to react to classmates’ performances.

She considered her daughters, who loved playing pretend, deriving pleasure from their power to deny the world and their fixed identities inside it. They’d look at the empty plot of land at the end of the block and declare, “Look at that palace! I am a princess, and that palace is my home, and you, sister, are my handmaiden.”

When Jenna tried to take part in these games, the girls rolled their eyes. A parent’s job wasn’t to deny reality but to uphold it, erecting a fence in a bid for safety. Little pleased the girls more than trespassing such boundaries—staying up past bedtime, filching an extra piece of candy from the dish. There was pleasure in skirting limits. Pleasure, even, in the punishment that followed, or at least relief at recognizing that the world was solid enough to push against you if you went too far.

Around Thanksgiving, a letter arrived from Pilar, saying Jenna had been right about theater; it was a far nobler vocation than film. For the past thirteen years, Pilar had been living as a pauper who needed to accept every opportunity Hollywood extended her way, even ones she knew would produce risible results. This scarcity mindset no longer served her. And so, acting on Jenna’s advice, she’d accepted the starring role of Miss Julie in a touring production of Strindberg’s famed play. It was a limited engagement, only twelve weeks. The best part was that Pilar’s boyfriend was due to direct. “We’ll be passing through Albuquerque the Friday before Christmas. I’d love to see you.”

Jenna was on the bed when she read this. Ralph was in the bathroom shaving for church. She could hear the slow drag of his razor along his chin. The Friday before Christmas—that was their date night. Jenna stood, fighting a throbbing in her temples. It had never occurred to her she and Pilar might one day find themselves in the same city. While composing her letters, she’d believed their acquaintanceship to be sealed off, an ecosystem unto itself. But Pilar had taken a hammer to the glass, and suddenly Jenna’s lies were swarming out, blackening everything in sight.

From the other side of the house came a sudden shrill cry, perforating her thoughts. Ralph dashed into the room, his chin frosted with shaving cream. “The girls,” he said.

It took Jenna a moment to connect the strangled sound to her daughters. She hurried to their room. At the doorway she paused, her eyes making sense of the scene. Margaret wore a wool blanket like a mantle. Scattered around her were an assortment of dolls, their Velcro dresses in various states of disarray. “Burn!” Daisy cried, delivering a swift blow to her sister’s wrapped head.

Margaret whimpered, though her face shone crimson with joy.

“What are you doing?” Jenna asked.

“We’re playing Taos Pueblo,” Daisy said calmly.

The field trip, Jenna remembered, the single column that remained of the razed church. “This isn’t a game,” she snapped.

The girls looked at each other. Their superior expressions spurred Jenna to apoplexy, and she let out a scream of her own, which made them giggle. To discipline one child would’ve been hard enough, but to discipline two—it was a losing effort; she’d always be outnumbered.

Margaret picked up one of her dolls and stroked back its hair. Jenna turned to fetch Ralph. The girls would listen to him.

On the threshold to their bedroom, she paused. The letter from Pilar was on the bed where she’d left it. Ralph was busying himself at his night table. Had he read it?

“What happened?” he asked, and listened as she relayed her findings. When she finished, he told her she was overreacting—children did this, and far worse. As a young boy, he and his sister had often engaged in games of doctor during bath time.

Jenna understood this, of course. What upset her was not the game but her daughters’ laughter. “They don’t take me seriously,” she said.

Ralph frowned. “I’ll go talk to them.”

Once he’d gone, she read over Pilar’s letter, trying to imagine what he might have gleaned. There were a few strange remarks about her flourishing career as a theater artist, but it was possible he’d overlook these. She put the letter away. The afternoon’s events had depleted whatever short-lived enjoyment she’d reaped from this correspondence. It would be best for everyone if she ceased contact with Pilar, allowed her life to contract to its normal proportions.

But as the weeks passed, Jenna grew restless, taking every item out of the refrigerator several times a day and reshelving them in the same order. Pilar had revealed to her a window, and through it she’d climbed. There was no returning from that. She recalled a parable a farmer had once shared with her: if you set a cow loose in an open field, it would become intimidated and lie smack down in the center. But if you fenced in that same cow from birth, it would grow up exploring the edges of its pen and be none the wiser to the artificiality of its confined life.

Ralph never mentioned the letter, so Jenna accepted that he must not have read it. When she went to the mall to purchase the girls’ Christmas gifts, she wove between the perfume counters, spritzing herself with unfamiliar essences of vetiver and bergamot. Later, when she opened the trunk to unload the afternoon’s haul, she caught a whiff of herself and, for a single iridescent moment, believed she was someone else.


On the day of her and Ralph’s date night, Jenna shaved and moisturized her legs. She twisted her hair into a topknot, then released it and tried again. For half an hour she applied makeup and contemplated how much longer her beauty would last.

At six, she went to the front porch to await the sitter. She wore the same coat she’d had for years, a sturdy wool blend in abalone gray. Across the street, in houses strung up with colorful lights, neighbors went about their business. Their coziness made the winter air feel even colder. New Mexico’s ski season had already begun. Last week Ralph had reinstalled the snow chains on their tires. Soon it would be too frigid to stand outside for more than a few minutes.

Behind Jenna, the door closed. Ralph came and wrapped his arms around her. She considered his profile: the features that had begun to round, the subtle way his brow protruded as if to accommodate the mind underneath.

“Guess who’s at it again?” she said, pointing to the orange house with several plastic flamingos on the lawn.

A young couple had recently moved into that house. They could regularly be seen having sex through the upstairs window. At first Ralph had tried to deter Jenna from her voyeurism. They ought to leave a strongly worded note on the couple’s door, he said, reminding them that this was a child-friendly block. He’d eventually given up pretending he wasn’t curious too. Now he watched them unabashedly, offering commentary on each position. Jenna wondered if she and Ralph had ever looked like that: so firm and abundantly carnal.

“Where are we going tonight?” she asked.

“You’ll see.”

They got into the car. Ralph pressed a button on the tape deck. Miles Davis filled the sedan. They drove for a few minutes listening to the restless trumpet runs. Jenna watched the road, the passing trees with their blotchy complexions. “We should go back,” she said.

Ralph reached for her hand but did not respond.

She was worrying for nothing, she told herself. They were going to get dinner, that was all. But the tightness in her muscles did not give. She remembered last summer, when the girls had begged her to let them jump on a friend’s trampoline. Just once, she relented. Twenty minutes later, she received a call—Margaret had fallen off and fractured her ankle. In the emergency room, Jenna felt relieved. Had she not anticipated this? And because she had, did that not relieve her of her guilt?

“We’re going to the theater, aren’t we?” she asked.

Ralph smiled, a warm smile that resisted smugness. “I may have seen your famous friend’s letter. Did you know that Churchill liked the theater too? He took his children to see Major Barbara. We should do that with the girls.”

“Oh, God.”


“Nothing. It’s nothing.”

Her mind cycled through possible excuses to make him turn around: she’d left on her curling iron, or forgotten to tell the sitter the twins’ bedtime. Or maybe she could put on a display of anger, accuse Ralph of snooping on her mail. But that reaction would be disproportionate to his kind gesture. She could see now how foolish she’d been to leave Pilar’s notes around the house. If she were to admit everything—expose the fantasy she’d created—then he would rightly determine that she bore a hefty deal of self-loathing, for why else would someone be inclined to exaggerate as she had? At best, she’d incur his pity; at worst, she’d wound him, drive him to suspect she regretted their entire marriage. And then what?

The theater lobby smelled like every other lobby Jenna had been inside—a combination of old velveteen upholstery and floral disinfectant. She buried her nose in her coat sleeve, hoping to inhale herself elsewhere. The usher, an elderly woman with silver-streaked hair, ripped their tickets and led them to their seats. Jenna’s legs felt unsteady beneath her, and she was grateful to sit again. From the comfort of her chair, she scoured the space as a fire inspector might, seeking out every exit.

“This should be good,” Ralph said.

As the houselights dimmed, she felt the audience’s anticipation surge, as if they’d all boarded a train and were waiting to be gorged into the tunnel’s dark mouth. A man and woman strolled onstage. The Fresnel lanterns hanging on the grid above illuminated, washing the minimalist set in ersatz moonlight. The actors began speaking in vaguely transatlantic accents about the count’s daughter, Julie, who’d recently broken off her engagement. It was Midsummer’s Eve, and the rest of the estate was quiet, everyone gone to the revelries in town.

By the time Pilar made her entrance as Julie in a high-necked dress, the skein of nerves in Jenna’s stomach had unsnarled. Pilar waited for the applause to settle—the only signal she’d heard it at all. Her slender figure, which Jenna had once envied for its elegance, appeared gaunt beneath the heavy layers of plum-colored taffeta.

“Well,” Julie said, crossing the stage, “is it ready?”

The play followed Julie through her attempts to seduce the male valet, Jean. In the kitchen, Julie asks Jean to dance with her, and when he refuses—he is engaged to the count’s cook—she orders him to dance anyway. Pilar delivered these lines with an air of chilly gentility. All the while, her face remained open and bereft, the expression there seeming to say: Please, I beg you. I am nothing.

In the play’s most harrowing scene, after Julie and Jean have slept together, the two characters decide to escape to a faraway town. Julie wants her bird, a yellow canary, to accompany them. The bird is the only living creature that loves her, she says.

Jean pointed to the cage. “Leave it there, I tell you, and don’t talk so loud. Christine might hear us.”

The bird fluttered. Pilar ran a crooked finger over its bright neck. “No,” she whispered, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “I won’t leave it behind among strangers. I’d rather you killed it.”

Jean reached for a kitchen knife. With a brute motion, he snatched the prop bird and sliced its head clean off. Pilar let out a shriek, which abruptly gave way to sobs. There was a tidal quality to her emotion, the wails reined in to snivels before she lost control again.

Jenna felt herself reeled forward until the distance between herself and Pilar collapsed. Longing, like a sort of vertigo, rose in her. She thought again of the parable of the cow, and the desolation of New Mexico, and the immensity—the terrifying immensity—of her subdued existence, all of which she recognized contained within the perimeter of Pilar’s face. How did she do it, tap into these other lives so effortlessly? Jenna couldn’t say. Inside, she felt something breakable slip from the ledge of her heart and shatter, something she could only later characterize as love.


After the show, Ralph suggested they wait for Pilar by the stage door. Jenna shook her head. It was late; they ought to relieve the sitter. Besides, best not to disturb an actor subsiding from the throes of performance. An edge in her voice must have convinced him, because he said, “Okay, sweetheart, I’ll pull the car around.”

Jenna waited beneath the heated lamps of the marquee. A crowd had gathered at the stage door to await Pilar’s exit. Though she hadn’t smoked in years, Jenna wished for a cigarette to occupy her hands. The ending of the play had unnerved her. In the final moments before the curtain fell, Julie had taken Jean’s razor blade and stepped deliriously out into the morning to kill herself. It was the only moment in the whole play that Pilar—for Jenna was certain now there was no distinction between Pilar and Julie—had looked serene.

Ralph pulled up to the curb. As Jenna reached for the door handle, a cheer rose behind her. Instinctively, she glanced back. At the stage door, Pilar stood in full makeup, looking at Jenna with shock, their eyes meeting with strain across the thicket of years. Neither woman moved. For a moment, they were back in the dingy stairwell, the last night they’d spoken, when Pilar called Jenna boring. “And you’re a bitch,” Jenna replied, laughing crazily to stanch her tears. Pilar insisted she had not meant it as an insult—you couldn’t make a chocolate-chip cookie without all-purpose flour—and it was the earnestness of her tone that Jenna found most bruising.

Now, behind the metal barricades, fans jostled for Pilar’s autograph, but she remained oblivious to them. A plea animated her face—the same face Jenna had seen on movie screens for years. No, Jenna thought, suddenly consumed with her own power. I will not give you that satisfaction; I will not go over there and tell you how great you were. Thirteen years she’d waited for this moment, to injure Pilar back. Slowly, she pivoted and climbed into the car. She stared out at her movie-star friend with deliberate aloofness, as if regarding a stranger, a nobody.

Off into the night they drove. Ralph seemed distracted, his awareness of himself not yet returned. Jenna ached to rest her head against his chest and stay there. She recalled a question she’d once asked Pilar: is your relationship to acting that of a dog to its master, or a master to its dog? Pilar had said, “I am the dog, and the acting is my master.” Jenna, who’d believed it was the opposite, felt a touch of rare dominance over her friend.

“Well, so there was a misunderstanding,” Ralph said at last. “You didn’t want to go tonight after all.”


“But the letter…”

Ridden with guilt, Jenna clapped a hand over her mouth and began to cry—fat, explosive tears that she felt at first as a soreness in her throat. She tried to laugh, but this too sounded like crying. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d let herself go. It was a pleasurable sensation, so she squeezed her eyes shut, manufacturing more tears. They moistened her collar.

“It’s my fault, isn’t it?” Ralph asked. “I fucked up.”

He pulled the car to the side of the road. For a few silent minutes they idled beneath a streetlamp, across from a park with a baseball diamond. Jenna imagined the floodlights surrounding the diamond as spotlights. She pictured the bleachers filled with a roaring audience who’d purchased tickets just to see her—Jenna, actress extraordinaire, returning to the stage for just one night. She panted, ramping herself up, like a plane firing its engines. Then she let out a terrific, heaving sob.

“I’m sorry, J,” Ralph said, his timbre colored by panic.

He took her hands in his own, rubbing her fingers to warm them. He lifted her wrist and kissed it, trailing his mouth up her arm to her neck. When he reached her chin, he whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

Jenna forced a quiver to her lips, milking the moment, drawing it out as she would an orgasm, both euphoric and crestfallen to discover her act was working.

“Can you forgive me?” Ralph asked.

“It’s not that,” she said. “I’m just so happy, is all.”


“You’ve given me the best gift. The best.”

He pulled back, confused. “I did?”

“I always wondered what my life would be like if I’d been like Pilar, and now I know: I’m the lucky one. I have you, and the girls, and Wiley. I won, Ralph.”

She stared into his face. Was he buying it? He was. Inside, her pulse was like that yellow bird in its cage, fluttering for dear life. If only Pilar could see her now.

Ralph chuckled, too loudly. His laugh had the barking quality of a cough, the way someone laughs when they’re trying to dislodge a bone. “You scared me,” he sighed.

Jenna smiled. Her cheeks were blissfully wet. It was the greatest performance of her life.

Ralph started the car. The quiet between them was light, diaphanous. He touched her shoulder—so soft, she barely felt it.

Jenna had not expected it to be a calm voyage through her life, but here she was. Tonight she’d tuck the girls into bed, feed the dog, kiss her husband goodnight. Maybe she’d fall asleep right away, or maybe she would stay up, listening for that strange distant hum, beckoning her to some other shore.



Lauren Aliza Green’s work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Joyland, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook A Great Dark House (Poetry Society of America) and the forthcoming novel The World After Alice (Viking/Penguin).




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