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Oct/Nov 2013 Fiction

Owen in Her Head

by Caroline Kepnes

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns

Electronic/fiber artwork by Phillip Stearns


Bertrand's Pot

Midnight in Paris seemed a little precious to Valeria. Owen Wilson drinking with Salvador Dali? Time travel? This is the Woody Allen she loathed, the guy who'd obviously never had to clock into a shitty job or negotiate a lower interest rate and instead wore man-blouses and knew Europe. Valeria liked her Woody rough and real. Crimes and Misdemeanors was her favorite. She had no interest in watching Owen Fucking Wilson with his sandy hair and his handsome brothers and his laundry list of skinny ex-girlfriends go prancing around France with dead famous authors under a jazz score. Bleh. But when Woody Allen made a movie, Valeria went to see it. So there she'd been with her asshole husband Bertrand, holding hands—WHY DOES HE DO THINGS IN PUBLIC HE WOULD NEVER DO AT HOME—and waiting for the lights to dim on what was bound to be a waste of a couple hours.

But she had been wrong. Midnight was amazing. It wasn't pretentious. She wanted to be Marianne Cotilliard, and she wanted to go to Paris and pronounce it just like that, Paaaaaris, not Pear-us. As she watched, she sat up straighter. She got wet. She crossed her legs. She lowered her chin so that she could look up at the screen with big, wide, black and white movie kind of eyes that most girls only made for selfies on their stupid iPhones. Bert laughed at her at one point, and she elbowed him.

But the movie. The movie. It was better than life. Bertrand didn't get it, of course, and she battled him. "As an artist I don't see how you're not moved."

"Not my thing, babe."

Babe. She never called him babe. In 14 months of marriage, he hadn't picked up on that.

"Who was the director, again?"

She pulled away. "Who was the director? Are you kidding?"

He gave her that blank, Bertrand, music-making face where he wants the girls in the audience to project their desires onto him so he doesn't have to figure out what he wants to say, so he can instead just be a canvas for horny women.

"Bertrand, it's Woody Allen. It's Woody Allen! He's famous. How can you ask who the director was? How can you not know that?"

"Excuse me if I don't know every director. You know I'm more into music."

"But it's Woody Allen. He's not a director. He's Woody Allen."

"I'm not much into mainstream movies. You know, before you, I never went to see big Hollywood movies."

"But he's not big Hollywood. He's not mainstream. He's Woody Fucking Allen. Bertrand. If he didn't make Annie Hall, I might not even be here right now, because Annie Hall is the reason I wanted to live in New York in the first place. He made me and a million other people fall in love with this city, and that alone is power. He's Cupid."

He grinned. "So now that Cupid made a movie about Paris, I suppose I should pack up because you want to go back to my home, eh?"

Nothing sounds worse than a stupid person trying to sound smart. Nothing except when said stupid person is singing and she wanted a divorce.

"Don't be upset. Just follow me here."

One of his worst phrases: Follow me. As if life were Twitter. He claimed it was more a Phil Collins thing, from that song from the '80s, but he was lying, just trying to sound original. GOD DAMN IT, BERTRAND WAS ANNOYING.

"Follow me, follow me, Valley."

"I'm listening." Not following. Dip shit.

"How can you say he's a household name in one breath and then say he's not big Hollywood in the next?"

"Because he's Woody Allen. He's special."

"Successful. Oh, Val, you amaze me. You can't even follow your own train of thought."

Now he was laughing. Like all stupid people, he loved believing that he had the last word. To celebrate, he was going to throw an arm around her and kiss her head and say that this was why he loved her: because she's fucking crazy. And then he laughed. And he threw his arm around her and he kissed her head and said, "See, this is why I love you, Val. You're fucking crazy, you know? What goes in there?" He knocked her head, gentle. "Is anybody home? Knock knock!"

That night, Owen came to her while she was sleeping. Seriously. The actor Owen Wilson somehow got into their apartment and into the bedroom. When she opened her eyes, he was standing over her in the bed and motioned for her to be quiet and then motioned for her to follow him out of the bedroom. He didn't wait for her. He just left. She was scared, and she looked in the mirror. Was she dreaming? Was she nuts? Did she have any popcorn kernels in her teeth? How did he get into the apartment?

"You really wanna focus on that aspect of things, Valley? That's almost clerical."

"You're right. You're here. Who cares how you got in, I guess."

"All you need to know is that I'm here. I got in because I wanted to. That's the thing about life. If someone wants to get to you, Val, they try their damndest, and once in a while, doncha know, they get there."

It was crazy, the way Owen Wilson sounded like Owen Wilson. He made hot cocoa and noted the lack of marshmallows in the household and talked to her about things he never talked about in public. He talked about why he loved heroin and yet hated heroin, and he talked about his breakups and how hard it was to connect and stay connected, and he talked to her about Bertrand's music (not a fan), and he knew everything about Val. He knew about how hard she had cared for her dad (cancer) and her mom (epiglottitits) and how much she didn't like being an orphan. He knew about the way she cried and how her heart had grown full of dread. She hadn't felt this known in a long time, and she hadn't wanted to know someone, and all the while she kept flinching every time she heard the smallest sound, as if Bertrand was going to wake up at any moment and wreck it all.

"Owen, why me?"

"I could ask you the same thing."

"No, I mean, I just saw your movie. You're on my mind."

"Did you not want me to be here?"

"No, of course I want you to be here."

"Because if you don't, I can go."

"No, no. Go on."

And he did. It was like he hadn't talked in a hundred years. It was like she hadn't listened in a million centuries. And soon enough, they were naked, and soon enough they were side by side staring at the cracks in the ceiling and sharing one of Bertrand's joints.

She was praying that Bertrand would wake up, and she was praying that he wouldn't. The pot hit her.

"You know what's weird about this?"

"Everything," he laughed.

"I'm serious. I have to say something."

"So say something."

"Something."

They laughed even though it wasn't funny. And then they laughed because they had laughed at something that wasn't funny, and now she knew what it was like to be a smug Hollywood fuck. It was fun.

"Owen, I haven't, like, lusted after you."

"Not at all?"

"I'm a Clooney girl."

"With some o' that Magic Mike to stay hip."

"Eh. He's a little young."

He nodded and pulled the blanket and turned away. Were they fighting?

"Are you mad?"

"Fourteen."

"Huh?"

"That's how many times you've seen Wedding Crashers."

"How do you know that?"

"And you're up to nine times with Hall Pass. Let's not even get started on Zoolander because for a while there I was a little uncomfortable, and we all know about your little Lightning McQueen mug." He rolled over and smiled. "You should be blushing."

"I mean you're not someone I googled and thought about."

"That's why you married the wrong guy. You think you love Woody Allen and Wes Anderson? You do, you like them the way you like sushi or an 85 dollar facial or a Paula Fox book or a Sidecar on a first date or a soy latte instead of milk or a Pedro Almovodar movie while you're on your period and you have no attention span or a pencil skirt with hose in autumn or Nutella on white bread or bicycle riding, helmet and spandex and all. Valley, there are the things you wished you loved, and then there's what you really love. There's a difference there. You live in what you want all the time, not the once in a whiles that you think make you more appealing to a superior demographic on eHarmony."

"I was never on eHarmony."

"Valley, you've seen Annie Hall six times. In your whole life."

"Because it's precious."

"Because you're not precious."

He had a point. She really was full of shit. She looked around the apartment, decorated by Bertrand, all the things she agreed to, all the things she hated or resented because she didn't go find what she loved. And then she wanted to go out for coffee with one of her friends she didn't like very much and try to wonder why she was so unhappy? Well, of course she was unhappy. Until just now, she had thought Annie Hall was her favorite movie.

"Owen."

"Yes, Valeria."

"Why did you try to kill yourself?"

"Why did you?"

She blushed and turned away. Nobody knew about that. How did he know? Only a few employees at St.Vincents, her former neighbor Johan, and a cab driver knew about that day. He brought her back. "Bertrand would never do a silly thing like slit his wrists."

"Owen, that's terrible," she said, but she was already starting to laugh.

"I mean if you kill yourself, you can't write the same folk song over and over. Well, actually, you know, I bet there are certain places in hell where they embrace that sort of thing."

She howled, and he covered her mouth with her hand and told her he loved her and that she had to prepare for his arrival. He left shortly thereafter, and the next morning she knew she wasn't crazy and that it wasn't a dream because the apartment smelled like Bertrand's pot.

 

Love in Fucking

Valeria couldn't remember those first few weeks with Bertrand with much clarity. It was just the regular fucking. Those weeks were a few still pictures in her head, a slide show. Positions. Sex ones. The forced time on the couch—he was a cuddler, of course—then fucking on the couch and in the shower and in the kitchen and mostly in the bed. There was talking, she supposed, but she had to block him out, he was so stupid.

He lived on the fourth story of a building, and she now lived there, too. Up, up the stairs, she would trot, sometimes hopping like an aerobicizor. Other times dainty walking, in heels, fingers smooth on the banister, love songs playing in her head. Down the stairs, bounce, bounce, pass a neighbor and nod, the act of being Bertrand's girlfriend. Bertrand exercised, so she did too now, with less enthusiasm, but she tried. She didn't fall in love with him. She climbed into it, every time she made her way up to that apartment, one misguided, truthless step at a time, just because she wanted to fuck him. Doing things she didn't like with a big fat smile on her face and thinking of elevators every time she went up, every time she went down.

But the fucking! It had been so long since she'd fucked. Her dad's cancer made her stop fucking. Bodies seemed dangerous. The idea of being naked with a man had become impossible. Someone else's flesh. She was too sad to be naked with a man. At first she'd gotten skinny, and then she'd gotten fat, and her body had become nothing more than a tool she needed to take care of her dad. It wasn't for joy. Even masturbating had become difficult, and eventually she was just too tired to hunt Craigslist for literary fantasies. And then after the deaths, she'd been living off her mouth, in cabs, on stoops, in bathrooms, everything above the clothes, making out like a freshman at a frat party. Her body responded well even though over several months she'd trained herself to push hands away, to leave everything at a kiss, to leave wanting more. She could not remember details about their talks, about their time. All she could see was a series of dioramas: Dull nights at the wine bar, her at the bar with her legs crossed, sipping vodka and watching him onstage, trying to focus on how appealing he was to the eye instead of obsessively grading his songwriting ability, err, inability.

Another one: sharing the sofa, his hands cradling and massaging her feet as NPR played in the background and he repeatedly promised to love her and make her feel good and show her that not only was it okay to be happy, but that she would be happy.

And still another: her telling him things. Truthful vivid things. How death felt. Holding their cold, old hands. Mum dead. Dad dead. Her hands in his hands and her eyes bent down because it wasn't possible to look at him as she talked to him. He said her parents could rest with relief. She had him now. And that was her cue to stop talking and look at him, because he had his limits. So then she would lift her chin and meet his eyes, and he was fool enough to think that she was vulnerable in those moments and think that it was because of him, specifically. He didn't know he was being used. He only held her.

He didn't get inside of her, he didn't really know her, and she didn't really want to know him. But still they got more serious. Every day, she waited to feel connected to him and never did. But he felt so connected to her, so involved in her loss, and he said so, so often. She felt useful in some way. At least she had given him a sense of purpose. But what had he given her? Nothing. She was outside of it all looking in, and she didn't like what she saw. She hated his folk music, and she missed rap songs and random men with new smells and new tongues and surprising ways of moving them. Licks. She liked things to go fast; he went slow in all the ways a person can be slow. He ate slow. He talked slow. Most of the time she wanted to smack him. She liked the horror and the happiness of the world more than the complacency of two people sharing a life and pretending that one of them might get paid to play music one day in order to make it through each day, each day more dull than the one before.

Over their first year together, she grew more and more detached from him. She stayed up late at night writing go nowhere journal entries about how dull and stupid he was. She never grew tired of cataloguing his flaws, of which there seemed to be more every day. She came to see him as the ultimate tool for avoidance. Being with him was just a distraction from mourning her parents. How stupid she had been to not realize that sooner. More and more, she realized just the way the deaths had fucked her. She was much better off when she was making out with strangers because it was more honest. She brought Bertrand home to avoid happiness.

When he kissed her, she clapped her eyes shut and tried to turn off her senses. She resented his kiss, resented that it did make her feel good in the short term. He couldn't be her destiny. He couldn't write those silly, maudlin, slow ballads and be her husband all at once. No. She wanted more. She wanted someone to laugh with. She wanted someone to surprise her. She wanted someone to talk to about annoying, hanger-on Bertrand. She wanted someone smarter than him, someone who would have seen through her act, someone who wouldn't have jumped into illness so blindly, so unaware that the girl he thought loved him was incapable of love given the load on her shoulders.

"You shouldn't make any sudden moves. The first year of marriage is hard for everyone, especially given your circumstances."

"You get impatient with all your boyfriends."

"He's a good man, Valeria. And really handsome, too."

"How could you even think about leaving him after what he did for you?"

"What do you think your parents would tell you to do?"

"Are you seeing a shrink? It sounds like you miss your parents and are blaming him."

She'd married him because when he'd proposed, on one knee, wearing a blousy white shirt unbuttoned (his fashion: another flaw), revealing chest hair and a floppy straw hat, she'd felt so guilty for judging his taste in clothes that she had to say yes. She wanted to learn love and thought marriage was the best way to learn. She wanted her friends to not feel so burdened by her, the depressed, alone, mourning girl with no family. And she wanted Bertrand to continue to go through life with such a smile. His high self-esteem seemed like a miracle, and she couldn't face knowing that she'd been the one to muck it all up for him. She also hoped that some of his cheeriness might be contagious. Maybe if she agreed to a life with him, she would grow to like herself. And the sex. In a technical way, she did love the sex. But after the sex, she wanted to strangle him and bury him far away from her parents. He wasn't smart, and he never would be. He wasn't deep, and he never would be. So much of the world was unknown to him and always would be. His brain was a series of dead ends, and all the orgasms in the world couldn't touch the horror that was her heart settling, her body leveling, after being with him. Happiness could piss off if it was only going to come from uniting with someone she didn't want.

So she'd asked him to leave. She'd picked up his guitar and walked it outside and tossed it into his car. He had been surprised. (What else was new? He was so easily caught off guard by the world.) And he had gone to live at a hotel. Her friends all sided with him, the dejected, journeyman romantic songbird who had flown in to rescue her in her time of need. And this was how she treated him? She kicked him out? So she'd taken him back, of course.

Owen came to her only a few days later. Sure, he came in a dream, but who's to say which world is the one that counts? Nobody can know, not for sure, where true meaning lies. Our own conscience is, after all, limited by our senses, which are by nature confined by the limitations of our bodies. In essence, we're not good enough. If we were, we'd live forever. But we don't. We die. And at night we dream. And we don't know what else to want for ourselves except... life. Valeria soothed herself by imagining her dead parents in an afterlife, cooking dinner, watching the Food Network. She was too blood filled, too earthen to build a better life for them. It was inane to think of them as bodiless souls passing from cloud to cloud. That was the kind of shit that made her roll her eyes. But then, her imagination was inadequate, just like her body. The best afterlife she could imagine for them was an imitation of this life? Pathetic.

Or.

Maybe it really wasn't all about this life. Maybe we do live in our dreams. Maybe it will turn out that dreams are more real than reality. Losing her parents had turned her into a navel-gazing college sophomore, up all night talking and figuring out the meaning of life while munching on Doritos and not doing anthro homework. Anticipating death had changed her. So many nights she had shut her eyes to try and sleep, only to sit up and turn on the light, her mind blown into a waking state by the mere idea of her parents not existing. That notion had kept her awake, had her rocking back and forth on her bed, crying. To be conscious hurt. It was a punishment, the waking hours. On those nights she sometimes comforted herself with books about the afterlife, books that suggested that death really might be more of another kind of life, one we humans on earth aren't capable of understanding. Valeria had learned all about the various planes of existence. But in the end, the best proof of that other plane was the fact that we dream. We do not just sleep. We do things. In this way, all these nights had primed her for a change. Deprive someone of sleep, and they dream harder when they finally get to sleep. Those dreams count more.

 

The Unlike Button

Valeria was afraid of death. Because of this fear, she was ripe for Bertrand. He wasn't just unafraid of death. He actually looked forward to death as an opportunity for his music. Once he was dead, he reasoned, his music would have the ultimate purpose, to live on, brother. He said this stuff to his musician friends, and they nodded in agreement. Ugh. And unfortunately, there was no denying it: Valeria liked a man who was dumb enough to believe that he would live forever through his songs, his songs that didn't pay his rent and failed to attract a crowd or a record deal. These songs that all sounded the same would grant him ETERNAL LIFE. His faith was maddeningly stupid and yet deeply attractive. It pulled her in and pissed her off. It was a bag of chips, and she couldn't stop digging her hands into and eating even though she knew the chips were bad for her and she didn't even like chips that much. She would lick her fingers. STOP IT, VAL. And she would close the bag. But then a minute later she would open it up again. Chomp Bertrand's silly faith. It was on the walls in his apartment. It was woven into tapestries plastered up with thumbtacks and the votives nailed in—good God, a candle man, he goes out and he buys candles like he's a college girl. His faith and fearlessness were why he had a beard. They made his eyes big and brown as a puppy's. He was so sold on his own peaceful fate that his eyebrows could run thick and wild on his pretty boy face. His face truly was the perfect setting for his mouth to spew out his middle school bunk. Some of her favorite Bert bites:

"My music will live forever and so, then, will I."

"When I sing, I know why I was born."

"Follow me, here. We're only here for a second."

And he did all the stupid things you'd expect someone saying stupid things would do. He'd light one of his candles, blow out a match—completely unnecessarily as the match was going out on its own—set the match on whatever record was nearby—yes, he owns records, they're all over his apartment—and sigh: "It's not about fame, Val. It's about leaving your voice on the record. Maybe the record is a record, but maybe the record is other people. Some people are walking around with my songs in their head. It's not a numbers game. I won't be Dylan, probably."

It was embarrassing, his "probably," revealing an ego more fit for a supermodel or a CEO. He really went through every day thinking he was going to be famous. Imagine!

"I put myself out there, babe. Someone buys it. One person. Five people. It's had. It stays around when I'm gone. I go, it stays."

He said this stupid shit, and still Valeria had married him. No wonder she couldn't sleep most of the time. Her whole life was a lie. She was living in a closet of folk songs and optimism and hemp placemats. She smiled and nodded and tried to believe. Inside, she raged: Yeah you live, Bertrand, unless of course someone tosses the record because it's awful and because it's a CD, not a record, and the only people who buy your crappy CDs are women who want to fuck you and get upset when they realize you're not available because of me. In a way, I'm the bad guy here, robbing all these girls of their right to a one night stand with the hot folksy guy who actually gets to go through life thinking that God—fucking God, the God, the Almighty—brought him to earth to make music. Specifically designed Bertrand. Ha! You don't live, Bert. You die. God tosses you and your music, and you wind up a corpse whether you're famous or not.

Valeria had no way of knowing what God was up to when he built Bertrand or her or anyone for that matter, but, it was possible that God built Bertrand just to drive her nuts. He was like this giant, chalky daily vitamin she had to take or else. Or else. Maybe, she thought, you had to be near someone who was French and available with good cheekbones and positive energy, someone stupid enough to believe the best was yet to come, in order to get through this life with all its letdowns. So she'd gotten into it with him. Maybe there was a kind of psychological osmosis where within time, she would stop taking the vitamin and be the vitamin. But more and more, it was starting to seem like a bad idea. Being with him had been helpful at first, faking a smile at his strumming, playing faithful, acting out of loyalty and love, living as if she, too, chose him to be her one and only—all of it had provided solace in the beginning. But they weren't in the beginning anymore. Lately it felt like the vitamin was chalkier. Or was her throat closing? She was not becoming faithful and fearless. Oh, but, she wanted to be changing. She pictured the movie trailer of her life thus far, were she the boss of her life:

They thought I was doomed. My mama died. My daddy died. They thought I was doomed. Single. Alone. No brothers. No sisters. They said I was doomed. No job. No home. CUT TO: A field of daisies smack in the middle of Manhattan—dreamy as it sounds!—and there are Valeria and Bertrand smashing into each other. Boom. Love. TITLE CARD: The Un-Dooming of Valeria Cruise.

Maybe there was a still a chance. Maybe she hadn't given it enough time, the it being him, the man, her husband. Maybe if she spent more time with him, she would become like the person she was pretending to be with him. Then she'd feel better about death, specifically her parents' death. The words still sounded foreign in her head: My parents are dead. They died.

They weren't artists or musicians, so they left nothing behind to keep them alive, unless you counted Valeria, which you couldn't, because that was too much pressure, damn it. Her father had died slowly of a cancer that ate him in a bone chilling manner, so slowly that it was almost polite, the way a baby might take hours to eat 45 cheerios, accidentally knocking half of them on the floor, periodically losing interest in them because of something bright and fuzzy on the TV set. Cancer was relaxed in its destruction. Which in turn made everyone in its wake even crazier. Her father's cancer was there, and it was a dictator ruling them all. Then it went away.

Why? How? Who cares? Yay!

Then it was there again.

Why? How? Who cares? Boo!

But from day one, the battle had been something of a joke. After all, Dr. Hazard—you can't make this shit up, Valeria had thought that first day in the exam room—well, he said the cancer wasn't the kind you could beat. But you fight. You believe. You go for it anyway, the way the fat person runs a marathon he won't win, the way a girl buys a half gallon of ice cream that won't last the night because she can't resist the call, the knowing that it's just sitting there, frozen, hers. The cancer was always going to win. The doctors had said so. Still, one had to fight and wear ribbons and give pep talks, quit work, move home, help Mum, help Dad, watch TV you hated with him, let her cry, go to the grocery store for Jell-O, go back for lime Jell-O, go back for pudding, go back for chocolate pudding, clean up vomit, fuck it all, cry yourself to sleep, wake up the next morning, think you could eat one of those muffins from that place down past the mall there.

Fuck it all. Act as if all this might somehow save a man's life. Muffins. Smiles. Chemo. Hugs. All of it woefully, absolutely, and consummately inadequate. Score! But a bag of chemo doesn't have feelings. A bag of chemo can't grow depressed and lethargic from hiding those feelings from the cancer person. A bag of chemo just keeps going. And chemo was mercenary, so non-invested in all of it. An assassin for hire. One minute the chemo is trying to kill the cancer, and the next minute Dad's getting pumped with someone else's blood—whose blood? who cares?—because the chemo is trying to kill him. God that chemo was a 7th grade mean girl, wasn't it? Valeria named it Lissa because the biggest cunt she'd ever known had been named Lissa.

And Lissa got whatever she wanted, no matter what she did. Lissa was proof that karma was a joke. Lissa was not in jail or suffering somewhere. Lissa was in Weehawken with two children and a job as an editor at a housewife magazine in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, with a husband who actually looked like one of the good ones. Lissa got away with being a cunt. Lissa's unrelenting torture for several of her formative years was somehow written off by the universe or God or the cells that find homes for cancer as whatever, she was young and she didn't know any better. Nothing was wrong about Lissa's life. Lissa had no suffering. Photographs indicated that both adults in the marriage had healthy, living parents, parents that were not only alive but also babysitting and skiing and clearly knowing how to post pictures on Facebook, i.e., mentally agile. And, as Lissa was fond of saying via status update, parents who lived just around the corner. Slaves. Health. Lissa, of course, was also healthy. Her husband looked strong, like a steak eater who hits the gym. And her kids didn't have autism. And what were the odds of that in this day and age, two healthy kids, a boy and a girl? And why did Lissa get to have that after she'd been such an absolute shit?

Valeria really had to get off Facebook. Facebook was no different from chemo. It wasn't on her side, either.

But, anyway.

Chemo didn't beat cancer. Dad died almost two years after diagnosis, which Dr. Hazard said he would. They were right about these things generally, doctors. Life was not a movie where miracles happened. So that's why she had been ripe for Bertrand, she supposed. She was not a doctor. She did not make music. She had to go one way or the other, the way of the hard scientist or the way of the rambling, tripping musician.

What made her sit up in bed and turn the light on and go OH FUCK I'M A FUCKING NUT JOB was that while it was true that she was not a physician, she was in fact a licensed nurse practitioner. LOLOL. How did none of that logic that she studied and was licensed in permeate her view of the world? Nurses are supposed to be firmer in the head. You can be one of those nurses invested in Reiki and vibes and chakras, or you can be a nurse who practices penicillin and discipline and sterile swabs. How was Valeria so wishy-washy that she was somewhere in the middle? The chakra nurse would totally dig marrying a guy like Bertrand who thinks he can live forever through his whiny fucking ballads. The penicillin chick who works doubles to build up to that week off where she does whip-its and 18 year-olds and checks into a trashy motel under a fake name and ends it all by hooking up to an IV to ice out the hangover... well, she'd sour at the mere notion of Bertrand.

"Oh please," she would intone, dragging on her cigarette she would smoke 100 feet away from the hospital at the kiosk. "Give me a fucking break."

Valeria was not extreme. She was fucking nuts. Right? What other explanation could there be?

In bed with Bertrand. Both her parents are dead, and she should be happy to have a husband like this, French and hot and dedicated. God, the man wakes up thinking about how to make her happy. The man's too noble to know he's on a fool's errand. But it's a bad marriage. Because Valeria is out of bed and on Facebook to check in on Lissa. Maybe Lissa was dead. Maybe her kid broke his leg. Maybe her husband fucked someone else and she would have some little pink Pinterest postcard up about how independent women don't need men with 65 thousand fucking "likes." Well, no. Nothing bad had happened to Lissa. She was at home buying tickets to Disney World. Her status: "Ssh. It's a surprise!"

Valeria hit the LIKE button. It was an exercise in becoming less of a bitter fuckface. But an hour later it was still bothering her. She didn't like that. She didn't like that Lissa was in such a wonderful place, anticipating a vacation, in possession of a credit card with the power to make a vacation a reality. She got back online, and she hit the Unlike button.

Someday, maybe, hopefully. But not tonight. Tonight is a night she'll come back to many times. A night when she accepts that she's fucked in the head, that she's what James Taylor meant when he sang about going to Carolina in his mind. She goes strange places. She better pick those places, or the places will pick her.

But for a while anyway, she would just stay being married to Bertrand. She didn't have the balls to be crazy.

Yet.

 

144 Words

Until one day she was ready. And she had a deadline. Synergy was her friend. She wrote:

Glamour Magazine Bold and Brave Writing Contest Entry

Valeria (Cruise) Deneuve, 36, LPN

I will tell you the secret to a lasting, manageable marriage. Marry someone with a passion and a physical displacement from the source of said passion. I married a French ex-pat named Bertrand Deneuve. (No relation to the sex-pot actress, if you catch my drift, but more on that in just a bit.) Bertrand had two key traits: He was tall, and he was away from home. He also had a childlike yearning for all things French, and he was dumb enough to pick an American for a wife. You want your man a little dumb. Naïve. Bertrand was extraordinarily easily pleased. Any fight we had could be put to rest if I were to run down the block and pick up a baguette or, if it was raining, toss a beret on my head and tie a scarf around my neck and whisper en Francais, "Bertrand, mi amour." Yes, ladies. This is how much the man missed France. If I wanted to, I could stay easily married to Bertrand for the rest of my life. And it's largely because he has to bend over to kiss me on the lips, and he's a Francophile.

But I don't want to.

I had a dream that I was with Owen Wilson. Not a sex dream. A life dream. It wasn't the stuff you think about on the treadmill to make it up the hills: You and Owen Wilson—looking obviously dashing and sexy and styled—breeze into a glamorous bar where every man who ever wronged you and every woman who ever belittled you all happen to be hanging out, and you proceed to dance a dance that fills them all with envy and regret. No, my dream was full of laughter, companionship, and curiosity. I did not understand Owen. I knew that if we were to have a blowout fight, I would not be able to please him with a baguette or a beret. So I have decided to leave my adoring husband. It's the right thing to do. A lasting, manageable marriage is right for some, but not for me. I want connection.

The damn key was jammed again, and Valeria was coming to hate New York. It was bad enough to waste her life at Presbyterian where she was outcast. She was not one of the nurses. She did not want to be one of the nurses, all of them so pathological in one way or another, addicted to this, married to that, annoyed by this, chain smoking because of that. Ick. Valeria wanted them all fired. And she could get them all fired. Every day on the subway, she wrote detailed notes in her phone about all the malfeasance she witnessed. Were she to collect those notes into a manila envelope and forward them to the board of Trustees or God or the police, then most of the nurses would be done for. And they deserved to be fired. They weren't like Valeria. They didn't want to help people.

But every day had a way of burning the manila envelope even before there was a chance to fill it. The stench of the subway. The fear of being on air, because don't whistle blowers have to go on air? The guilt. A child without a mother. A nurse without a license. No. Valeria wasn't mean enough. Getting off the subway at Christopher Street (because of Bertrand's dated antagonism toward Brooklyn—what kind of a grown man derives his local hang ups from Sex & the City repeats on Style Network?). Getting off the subway. Every. Mother. Fucking. Day. The steps longer each day even though they weren't. The only thing more and more crystal clear was the fact that Valeria would not revolutionize the hospital, the nursing field. She would only get the key in the door and go inside and climb more stairs toward a man who had elaborate opinions on Big and Carrie.

But not for long.

In moments her life would be new again. It would be hers. She was going to read her essay to her husband, thereby beginning the divorce process. Her guts were crumpling. Nerves. Knees buckling. Palms damp with sweat. She was alive again. It was a good thing, it was. It would be. He was in there. His music was on. Literally, his music, the music he thinks he's one day going to make a million off of, that sappy guitar, those cloying rhymes. Ick. Again. Ick. That was their word: Ick.

She could smell the garlic. He was making chicken. Always with his fucking chicken. Never enough garlic or ginger or whatever it was he was putting on it this week. His chicken alone was reason to leave. She could hear the baseball on the TV. Another major Bertrand flaw: he wasn't irritated by two loud, competing sound sources. Even when they were at sonic war in a tiny apartment, the baseball commentary shrill against the lame wallpaper of his own lame lyrics and lamer guitar. How did that not sound like hell to him? Did he have two sets of ears that went to two separate parts of his brain, or just one incredibly dull set?

They had been married for just over a year. Now their marriage would be one that lasted only a year. That was why she'd only used 353 of the 500 words allotted by Glamour Magazine in the Bold and Brave Essay Contest. She would need the 147 words left to tell what happened after she read Bertrand her essay. Would he yell? Cry? Scream? Would he shut off his damned music? She opened the door and said what she'd said most days of her entire married life, in a mock sugar tone that amused them both, "Hi honey! I'm home!" She let him tell her about his day and check on his chicken, and after dinner she moved them into the living room so that she could stand on the spot where she'd been with Owen and read her Glamour essay. When she was done reading, Bertrand stood up and walked by her and into the bedroom. He didn't even slam the door. She felt gypped.

 

Don't Do It Son, Don't Do It

The next morning he shuffled toward the coffeemaker. He was wearing his slippers: another wimpy characteristic. Slippers after being dumped? Was there no end to his namby pamby nature? He poured coffee. She stood there not saying anything.

"This is weak."

"One tablespoon per cup. I did what I always do."

"You missed one. It's weak."

"Christ, Bertrand, are you gonna talk to me?"

"Well, I wasn't going to yell at you, if that's what you were hoping for."

He took his weak coffee to the table and sat down. The table had only two chairs. They weren't rich. They weren't hosts to fun dinner parties. Even Bridget Jones has a bigger apartment, she had thought the first night she came here. She sat down in the other chair with her own cup of coffee. He wouldn't look at her. He stared at the fire escape. She hoped for his sake that he would move once she was outta there. He deserved to live somewhere more adult. Somewhere Frencher.

"Bertrand, we should talk about some things."

"I want to know the truth, and you won't tell me the truth, so there really isn't anything to discuss."

"I told you. He was not a patient."

"Then how the hell did you meet him?"

"I just met him."

"What was he in for? Broken leg? Broken wisp of shaggy blonde hair? Or, I know, did he sprain his sense of humor?"

Bertrand was just plain not funny. He sipped his coffee. She cringed just imagining what life had been like for him in the early days, when all of his one-liners fell flat and he belligerently refused to learn to accept the fact that he simply could not tell a joke.

"He wasn't a patient."

"Oh Christ, stop it."

"He wasn't."

"For the tenth time, Valeria. You and I went to dinner. Then you had a swing shift. And then to the best of my knowledge you came home. So if not at the hospital, then where? Was he the cabbie? Were you locked in an elevator?"

"Bertrand. Please."

"Just tell me."

"It's not the way you think it is."

"You've slept with him?"

"Bertrand, I'm in love."

You could always tell when he was trying to figure something out. He looked like a fourth grader struggling over division. God, she wished that man had some guile.

"Valeria."

"Bert."

"Is this... in your head?"

"It's in my heart."

She reached for his hand. Bad move. Don't touch a man if you don't mean it. He let her hand sit on his. She was his mother now, and she patted his hand before she took her own away, as if sealing the deal on this new contract.

"We can get you help. Val, you work too much, and I should be around more, and I've probably been caught up in my music."

"I don't need help."

"I wrote a song."

I wrote a song. That sentence had become her least favorite sentence in the English language. It was, quite literally, a sentence. It meant that he would shuffle into the den he called a music room, drag that poor, tortured guitar out of its only safe place, that leather case that he'd found in a second hand store. It meant that she would have to perch on that little leather stool—another Crate and Bertrand Barrel find—and perform the act of listening. If just once he'd seen through her disgust for his abilities as a singer and songwriter, if just once he'd pressed her for constructive criticism. But he hadn't. Bertrand wanted to be loved. When they went out with other couples, he could never resist, after a couple of glasses of wine, mentioning his "fans" and his "album." There were no fans. There were a few sad sack women with guitars of their own, balsa wood orbs of pre-menopausal answers to unasked questions, women who clapped for his songs but only because they were going up to perform after him and they wanted a man to clap, and in Bertrand they correctly identified the kind of rare man who was both masculine and feminine. Feminine in the sense that he desperately wanted an audience, wanted to give audience to others, too. Audience. Argh! Could he be that stupid to not understand that his open mic family was nothing more than a musical mutual masturbation ceremony wherein they all appropriated one another's delusions that they might one day live off of people paying to listen to their non-musical music?

Some nights, after going to listen to him play, she couldn't sleep. The music was cocaine. It was anger in her body that wouldn't quiet. Nothing stopped it. She'd sit up biting her fingernails and drinking wine, very straight on the couch, enraged. And over what? The fucking folksy music that was poison to her, and yet she exposed herself again and again. And she'd fucked up at work a few times because of it. When she slipped up, instead of muttering "shit," she said "Bert."

But really, it was the one-on-one at-home concerts that drove her down the most. She would spend the sessions imagining horrible situations that paled in comparison to being alone with Bertrand and his guitar: trapped in an elevator, menstruating without any pads; trapped in an elevator, vomiting with a fever; enduring a catheter insertion that was the wrong size catheter; those nights by her father's death bed; those days by her mother's deathbed when she had nothing left in her.

She hadn't been drawn to Bertrand because she wanted love and family and safety and all that. She had been drawn to him because after caring for her parents for so long, she only knew how to function in death traps. But how do you tell someone that? Especially when that someone enters a room with flushed cheeks, guitar in hand, sad, with a full notebook of handwritten lyrics ready for their worldwide debut?

Bertrand and his songs. Oh, God, they were awful. They were about New York—take me uptown, billy joel, oh how i miss that rock 'n roll—They were about France—where the women are skinny and their eyes are tinny and they all look down on huckleberry finny—They were about falling in love—don't do it, son, don't do it, she'll only break your heart—and money—don't buy it son, don't buy it, it sure as shit ain't art—and what he liked to do with organic chicken—let's stay home and lick thigh off bone. And they were all at the same giddy-up tempo. The notes never changed, only the words. Did he realize that? But she was complicit in his attempt to fill the world with his songs, because in the early days she had sat across from him and listened and clapped and encouraged him. In fact, that was something she might add to her Glamour essay. Don't marry someone if you don't like the music he makes. You just can't. Men who play guitar want to do it all the time, and they want you to love it, and they don't care what you really think. They want you to love it.

"I don't want to hear it."

"It isn't me trying to win you back. I get it. I get you."

He didn't get her. He didn't know her smiles. He couldn't tell when she was enjoying something and when she was gritting her teeth trying to survive it. The first night she met him: He was playing at an open mic. She sat at the bar alone, laughing hysterically but politely. When he finished his set, he told her he'd never seen a woman smile so brightly, so beautifully. Fucking moron.

"Bertrand, I don't like your music."

"It's a new song."

She was toughening up now, and she rolled her eyes. "There is no such thing. They all sound the same."

"I suppose you think Bob Dylan's songs all sound the same, too."

"No," she said, turning into Kate Hudson in one of her bitchy roles. "No, they don't, because Bob Dylan uses melodies. They're these great things that actually carry a song. You should look into them. Write it down. Melodies."

Now came the rage she wanted. He threw his mug in the sink. It shattered. His voice changed. She hoped Owen couldn't hear him.

"You fucking cunt, I saved you when you were drowning! Fucking lunatic! Owen Wilson, Valeria? Are you kidding me? You know you can check into your own hospital by spouting that kind of shit. 'Yes, hello Dr. Psychiatrist, I just left my faithful husband for a fucking movie star who doesn't know I'm alive.' You hate my music? Well, you hate anything good and real. We know that now. I guess we know that now. You hear that neighbors? We know that now!"

And another wine glass smashed. Finally he got the stem too! He had an arm after all! There he was, folksy, candle lighting, recycling, slow reading, "song" writing Bertrand, demonstrating a little chutzpah at long last. He was screaming and yanking at his hair and tossing errant newspapers onto the floor with a flick of the wrist. Bam! If only he had the slightest ability to put some of that in his music, then he might get somewhere. As she stood there watching him destroy wine glasses and shriek, she learned something about herself, something she would not be including in her Glamour essay. She had wanted to break his heart. She had wanted to know that she had that kind of power. She had never made a man cry before, and it felt like something she needed in order to grow into herself. Maybe it was nursing school and all those long shifts of trying to make people feel better. Something in her was not very nice at all. She had woken up wanting to hurt him. But there was more, and she knew it, and she grew very still and unsure of whether she was more afraid of the screaming Frenchman running out of plates to destroy or her own nature, only now becoming clear to her, as if what Bertrand had really been smashing was some shell within her that prevented her from knowing who she was and what she wanted. She wanted to make Bertrand feel like a complete sucker. She wanted him to hate her. She wanted him to see how utterly stupid he'd been for thinking she was some sweet and grateful wife who savored his homegrown slow songs. She wanted to be hated. To be reviled.

He stopped throwing things and walked into the bathroom and slammed the door. She was hated now.

 

Dr. Compromise

Patsy was always late because Patsy was in the adult stage of her life, with kids she fussed over too much, a job that she took too seriously, a husband she professed to love too much. She was belligerent by nature. She had attended medical school, made it all the way to residency, and then quit suddenly to go work for the public sector. But she still insisted that you address Christmas cards to "Dr. Patsy Huffnagle" before she was married and then once hitched, "Dr. and Mr. Bryan Schwartz." When anyone got sick, Patsy went into doctor mode. She would run her fingers through her sharp black hair and tie it back with a rubber band and speak in a know it all tone. She meant well. But it was annoying. If she wanted to be a doctor so badly, she should have just become a doctor instead of quitting and then pretending to have some sort of authority. You can't have it both ways. That's what Valeria had always wanted to say to Patsy but never would. Ultimately, you had to feel bad for Patsy, hampered by a deeply masochistic streak wherein she couldn't get through her life without denying herself the title she had earned and wanted.

Valeria sipped her coffee. Things would change now. The dynamic of their friendship would forever be altered because now Valeria would be like Patsy, busy and engaged. But. As it turned out, the dynamic was not strong enough. When Patsy did finally arrive, wearing an unnecessary scarf, carrying fresh magazines she could have purchased after their scheduled lunch, Valeria had a premonition that things would not go well. And they did not.

When Valeria told her the good news, Patsy just acted like she was crazy.

"Ha, ha, Val, very funny. I'll grab Clooney, and we'll double."

"I'm not kidding."

"We can all live in a beach house in Malibu, yeah?"

"Patsy. I'm not kidding."

"Me neither. I'll throw hubby and kids in the pool house."

"Damn it, Patsy, listen to me. I am with Owen now. This is very real."

"You're having an affair with Owen Wilson? The actor?"

"Yes."

"Fine. Make him come here. Now."

"It's complicated."

Patsy waved the waiter over and sneered, "Obviously." She ordered coffee, no lunch, and then she crossed her arms, a move she had no doubt learned from the shrink who helped her adjust to the dullness of her life. "Okay. How do you know Owen Wilson?"

"It's hard to explain."

"Hold on. Do you even know Owen Wilson?"

Valeria smiled. Patsy slapped at the table. No regard for the shellacked families. Patsy was brutal that way. In some ways, Valeria really wouldn't miss her friendship.

"Have you ever met Owen Wilson?"

"Not met him, met him. No, we haven't shook hands and done all that run of the mill traditional stuff."

"So you're stalking him. Great."

"Patsy..."

"I don't understand. How can you say you're with someone you don't even know? Valley, are you okay?"

"I'm wonderful."

Valeria had never felt so sure of anything she'd ever said, but Patsy bulldozed, "What do you mean you never even met him? You can't leave Bertrand for a famous movie star you never met. Do you want me to have you put away right now?"

"But, Patsy we have met. I had a dream,"

"And now you're Martin Luther King, the shallow, horny version."

"A vision."

"You and those trashy magazines."

"It's got nothing to do with trashy magazines."

"Are you okay, Valeria?"

"I told you. I'm great."

"Have you... talked to anyone?"

"Patsy, come on. It's me. You know I'm not nuts. I'm trying to tell you that something wonderful has happened. I mean, for so long I've been sleepwalking and unsure of everything, and now, now I have this conviction. I know my destiny. God, Patsy. Can't you be happy for me?"

"Not when I'm so worried."

"But can't you tell I'm happy? Patsy, sometimes you just know something is good."

"Did you finish your Glamour essay?"

"Yes." Lie. "Did you finish yours?"

"Yeah. Had to. Valeria, the deadline was yesterday."

Silence then. Valeria had missed the deadline. Months ago they'd both planned to enter, and she'd looked forward not just to winning, but to beating Patsy. Now the most she could hope for was that Owen would be in this part of her life by the time the ceremony went down, just in case Patsy actually did win.

"Am I a jerk if I kinda wanna talk about my essay?"

"Of course you can talk about it. Go ahead."

But Patsy was a jerk. Valeria tells her she is in love with Owen Wilson, and Patsy changes the subject a minute later? Her essay sounded jerkish, too. "Dr. Compromise" was the title, and it was about Patsy's decision to forego a career in medicine because of some stupid yoga class where she learned that life is about giving the knowledge back, and she had this epiphany where she knew that she had amassed a total understanding of the human body that would enable her to be a great mother and friend and wife and daughter and patient advocate at difficult times, and that it was okay to be a doctor that people didn't call doctor. This, from a woman who dressed up as a slutty doctor every year for Halloween and wore her tattered medical school sweatshirt every chance she got. What a load of bullshit bullshit bullshit, and Valeria had to believe in the good of the world, in the airbrushed nobility of Glamour Magazine. There was no way Patsy would win the essay contest. And only Patsy would turn a lunch that was supposed to be all about divorce and Owen into a discussion of a bad decision she made years ago.

"You seem upset."

"I'm fine."

"I shouldn't have gone on about my essay. I know you're in hell right now."

"Patsy, I'm the one who asked him for a divorce."

"Well, where are you gonna go?"

It was a very telling question. It wasn't an invitation to stay with Patsy. It wasn't a suggestion that she might keep the apartment. And it was rude. Patsy knew that Valeria didn't have family to stay with, and it hadn't been that long since her parents passed where that basic homelessness was something comfortable. Not yet. Maybe never. Definitely not now. There was no love left. After so many years, it had finally happened. Patsy was disgusted with Valeria, and Valeria hoped she received nothing, not even an honorable mention, from Glamour.

The check came, and Patsy insisted on picking it up. Normally hugs with Patsy were warm. No patting, just arms wrapped. They'd been hugging for years. They were almost exactly the same height and their bodies fit well, as if they were twins who came up sharing a crib and knew how hard was too hard, how soft too soft. It was the first bad hug of their friendship. The last hug, as well, Valeria thought. Women are jealous by nature. She had been silly to think that Patsy would be happy for her. Patsy worked for the city, good God. Patsy had given up on a great life long ago. She had that pasty baby, that repetitive husband, that repetitive life. And here Valeria had discovered something wonderful about herself, that she still had imagination.

"Well, I don't know what your nursing schedule is, but if it works out, maybe I can help you apartment hunt."

"Why do you say that?"

"Say what? I'm good at apartment hunting."

"Nursing schedule. It's just weird. Everyone else. Bertrand, everyone. Everyone always says 'schedule at the hospital.'"

"Val, I don't get it."

"I mean you emphasize my title instead of where I work. You don't say to your lawyer friends 'What time do you have to practice law tomorrow?' You say, 'What time do you have to be at the firm?'"

The wind was blowing against Patsy's face. She didn't need to brush her hair off because the wind was taking care of that, but she did anyway. "Val, you're in it right now, and nothing looks good."

"You don't know what I mean? It's like you don't say to a waiter, 'What is your servant schedule like next week?' You say, 'What days are you at the restaurant?'"

"Whoa, Val."

"It's true."

"I gotta get Chelsea and Brennan."

Valeria was so tired of this. Every time she and Patsy started to get into anything that Patsy didn't like, Patsy mentioned her children. And then Valeria felt bad on top of bad. Not only was she criticizing the Best Semi-Doctor Mommy ever, but she was taking mommy away from children, children whom she loved, children who called her Auntie Val. It was too commonly observed for Glamour, but children really were the ultimate trump card, and though you could be friends with old friends who had babies, you couldn't be close like you used to be, not for the most part.

 

Always Two Apples

Everyone she knew was deciding that she was an insane person. Quitting Bertrand. Quitting her job. You can't just go around quitting everything. She wasn't Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love or the real life woman who wrote Eat Pray Love. She couldn't afford a house in Tuscany, and her parents didn't leave her a beach house in their will. They hadn't left her anything, in fact. They had nothing left. Sickness does that. So now she was back at Pa-Pa, where she practically lived, getting annoying texts from Sally, who was late: "5 minutes." (5 minutes later) "15 minutes." (and so on)

Every social interaction led to a fight. It was awful mooching off her friends for companionship and meals and a couch on which to crash. They were all so judgmental. Cold Olive with her dietary restrictions and tight T-shirts and rich girl straight teeth, teeth so fucking shiny you could see yourself in them. Olive had never had to worry about anything. Born into money, her life had been laid out for her the way a hotel bed is made for you. How had they become friends? How had it come down to Olive getting to cock her head to the side and say, "You should blog. You should start a blog like that woman did who was obsessed with Julia Child. And then eventually she met Julia Child. I think. Or not. Totally blog about it. Maybe Jimmy Kimmel will bring you on TV if your blog is popular and set you up with him on live television. That would be like therapy. That would help you. And if that didn't help, maybe you could, you know, maybe you could go somewhere, stay somewhere. Somewhere quiet. Just go with this alone thing. Go with it."

Shame on Valeria. She hadn't told her off. She hadn't told any of them off. She hadn't told them about how lucky they were to not know what she knew, loss and aloneness and loneliness, that aloneness and loneliness were, unfortunately, very separate and equally difficult feelings. Instead, she had thanked Olive up and down for the brilliant advice, complimented the fucking cape she was wearing—yes, years after the show was over, Olive was still trying to be Carrie Bradshaw—and she had actually promised to act on Olive's idiotic advice. The notebook in her phone was full of websites about staring your own blog and marketing. Argh! And she had asked Olive to let her know how her date went that night, once again, as if she were the Miranda to her Carrie. This whole life Valeria had going was like an episode of a TV show you'd just seen too many times to watch again, which was sad, because once upon a time, you loved that episode, you were thrilled when it surprised you on the TV, and you were engaged when you played it from the DVR. But a brain tires. Of Olive. Of television. Of everything.

Then there was Amy Bing. Amy Bing was Chinese. Or Korean. Valeria wasn't sure. Valeria was a bad listener. Owen would help her become a better one. Anyway, she'd known her for ten years, and she was unsure of Amy Bing's date of birth and heritage. What she did know: Amy Bing was a yes person, always available if you were desperate for someone to go somewhere with. Amy Bing had a small torso and a small mind. Amy Bing was always fresh out of dating someone. You never met her men. Ever. Something about that fact seemed very Chinese to Valeria, but that was an awful thought, vaguely racist, and Valeria put it away.

"You should see a psychiatrist. My second cousin is schizophrenic, and Brad Pitt tells him do the strangest things. There's medicine you can take for that."

"Amy, I'm not your brother."

"Well, obviously you're going through something. This could also be post-traumatic stress. Losing both parents is a definite stressor."

Fuck you, Clinical Amy Bing.

"It's just something in my heart."

"You need help."

"I don't."

"You do."

"Why? Because I think I'm good enough for someone like Owen Wilson? Because I have confidence?"

"Valley, please. I have this friend. She's getting her PhD. She's awesome. I talk to her about stuff. Why don't you just see her just once?"

"Because I don't need a shrink."

"If you just met her at the coffee shop and talked about whatever, it wouldn't be seeing a shrink."

She let Amy Bing make tea for her, and she drank it. She lived her life with Amy Bing in charge, slept in the guest bedroom, woke up when Amy Bing woke up, ate what Amy Bing saw fit, drank the amount of wine that Amy Bing saw fit, watched the TV shows that Amy Bing saw fit. And the whole five-day stretch of living life according to Amy Bing. Valeria couldn't stop thinking about how different this would be if the tables were turned. If she were in charge of Amy Bing, what then? But wait. Would Amy Bing even let her take over? Wouldn't Amy Bing do what she wanted when she wanted no matter what? Those five days killed Valeria. Valeria had no fucking clue what she would do if left to her own devices. Drink a bottle of wine or no wine or a glass of vodka or four glasses of rum? Watch Law & Order or CNN? Who the fuck was she? How was it possible to get this old and not be sure of exactly what you would do if you could?

The sadness was too much. She had exited Amy Bing's apartment one morning at eight, left a note on the clean counter next to the apples—Amy Bing always had two green apples in a bowl on the counter, the way families do in TV shows, even though Amy Bing had no family, even though never once in five days did Valeria see Amy Bing eat an apple—and she had gone to the hotel where she was staying now, the hotel she couldn't afford. The apples didn't rot either. And Amy Bing never arrived home with apples. And they were real apples; Valeria smelled them, felt them. So when did it happen? The replenishing of the apples? The eating of the apples? This was the kind of shit she thought about all day in Amy Bing's apartment as she tried to decide whether to get coffee out in the world or make it in here, in Amy's Keurig. She should have gone to a hotel. But she couldn't afford it. But if she had stayed in Amy Bing's world another hour, she might have fully, actually disappeared into thin air. She might have become the green apple. A living prop.

A text from Sally: "I am SO sorry but can't make it :) Sit tight though. A Bing has surprise for U. :) Shrink. Good. I swear. And we are paying. xo"

So all this time she wasn't waiting for Sally. She was waiting for a shrink. Her last activity as a married nurse in New York would be to slip out of Pa-Pa and let the shrink be the one wasting his life away, sitting at a table waiting for her. She threw her phone in a trashcan.

 

Codfish Bones

Valeria had a whole new life on Cape Cod working as a home health aid for a nice, rich, elderly couple named Mandrake. Their house had a name—Mandrake Place—and a placard on the brick wall. The first time Valeria pulled into that driveway, she liked everything about all of it: the way the white shells glistened, the way they crunched under the weight of her car, the length of it and the curve of it, the feeling that it might go on forever, the way the trees arched so that you could only see pockets of sky. The light. Money had never held more appeal than it did that first day at Mandrake Place.

Their main house sat on a bluff hanging over the water. She would have taken the job just to go there every day. It was so easy to picture Owen walking around the lawn, taking the path over the dunes down to the beach where the waves lapped at the shore as if they were bowing down to the Mandrakes who were rich and kind and ill. The house could have been the set of a Wes Anderson movie. She loved photographing it, and in the beginning the Mandrakes thought she was odd, but now they were asking to be in the pictures. It was nice having a family. They were both terminal and weak, and the only thing that kept her up at night was the obvious, undeniable, and cruel reality that they would be dead soon, within six months. If she didn't get Owen soon, they'd never get to meet him. She'd be alone again, again. They joked that she might like their son, but she couldn't imagine that happening. They had given her so much—a sense of home, love, income, an actual home when she had issues with her loud neighbors. How could she expect they'd have even more for her? Plus which, the obvious... Owen.

But, it was after a long night worrying about metastasizing, dream-killing cancer that she pulled into the Mandrake's long driveway only to find a yellow vintage Ferrari in her spot. She parked behind it. This is what she hoped would never happen. Their son had come home. Peter, whom she'd learned was manic-depressive and addicted to cocaine, which meant that he spent most of his time in various hospitals and halfway houses. He was not to be trusted. They blamed themselves for his problems, and she told them it wasn't their fault, that so many problems are chemical and inborn. They pointed out that she had no problems, and sometimes she felt guilty about not telling them about Owen and Bertrand and the fact that she didn't speak to anyone from her old life. But most of the time she just dreaded this moment because everything was otherwise working out. She and the Mandrakes had a way together, and this yellow, in-your-face car seemed like an omen.

She first saw him when he opened the screen door and stepped onto the porch. He was wearing a pink short sleeve Polo shirt with his collar popped and wrist bands on his wrist and white shorts tight on his pasty legs, and he was holding a wooden tennis racket, and his eyes were hiding behind oversized aviators, and his hair was yellow, rich-people blonde, and he was skinny, and he was like a piece of soulless modern art. The whole value of him appeared to be less than the collective sum value of his possessions, and she wished she could strip him and burn his clothes or give them to the homeless.

And it has to be said. What was most offensive about it, so offensive that it took her a beat to acknowledge it, was his resemblance to Owen. He looked fucking crazy, like he thought life was a Royal Tennenbaums costume party, and he looked like Owen, like he knew it and was consciously trying to look even more like Owen, whereas a well-adjusted person would have found his own style. Life was being very cruel to Valeria, and she waved to the Mandrake son because being anything but polite wasn't an option. This was her home. This was her job.

"You're Valley," he said, as if she had asked him her name.

"And you're Peter," she said, but she wasn't able to mimic his tone.

They faced each other. He didn't take off his sunglasses.

"I'm the nut job son."

"We don't use words like nut job in my profession."

"But this isn't a professional conversation."

"Well, I should get in there and take some vitals."

"They're both asleep."

She clung to her clipboard.

"Wanna see my car?"

"I see it," she said.

"You wanna get in it?"

So they sat in his car, and he played ukelele, and they sang sea shanties—Cape Cod girls aint got no combs they comb their hair with codfish bones—and he was a better singer than Bertrand because he was funny. They became friends. He told her all about rehab, why he loved cocaine and why he hated it and why he couldn't stay in love with anyone and how much he loved being rich and how frustrating it was to own his car and not be legally allowed to drive it (DUIs), and he told her about the time he got out of jail for a DUI and promptly got onto his motorboat and smashed it into a boathouse bar and got another DUI for that and then tried to skip town on a bicycle and smashed it.

Peter said that they were a good match because he loved telling stories and she loved being an audience. She said that they were a good match because he didn't think she was crazy for leaving her husband for Owen Wilson and she didn't think he was crazy for being an addictive, manic rich kid.

They stayed up late and watched Owen Wilson movies, and Mr. and Mrs. Mandrake definitely thought something was going on between them, and they encouraged that thought because it made them happy to see their son with their nurse, the two lost souls, together. But they weren't together in that way. Peter said he'd never do that to Owen. He wanted to know all about Owen and made her tell the stories about his visits in her dreams over and over to the point where Valeria sometimes wished he didn't want to hear so much about it. She worried that Peter was becoming involved in some way, corrupting the beauty. And for some reason, when she did see Owen, she didn't talk to him about Peter, so she had no idea if he was wary of him as well.

One thing was for sure: she wasn't alone. Peter, if he remained sober, would live for many years and be her family.

His mother died. He cried. They had a funeral with a huge raw bar.

His father died. They cried. They had a funeral with a huge, Vegas-style buffet.

Random Mandrake relatives came to the Cape and left. Peter didn't know any of them all that well. He said his parents were both black sheep. He said Valeria didn't need to work anymore. They had so much money, and she wasn't very good at being a nurse. Hey, both her patients had died.

"Peter, come on. That's not funny."

"Owen would think it was funny."

She hated when he did that, tried to act like he knew what Owen liked. He didn't know. He had no way of knowing. She was getting tired of it all. It was depressing to think these secret, bad thoughts about Peter. If she thought he was crazy, then she must be crazy, too. But at least they kept busy. Peter had to have a project going. He donated money to a local theater and forced them to do a staged reading of Marley and Me, and he and Valeria were the stars. They donated the money that came in to a local dog shelter. They crashed weddings every weekend in the summer, and they had walk-offs in the back yard as their favorite George Michael songs blasted.

There was one thing for sure: it had to end.

Life couldn't be a nonstop, crackling, giddy homage to Owen Wilson movies. At some point, something bad was going to happen. Sometimes she thought she and Peter would both attempt suicide at the same moment and both die because neither would be stable enough to call 911 for the other. But oh, it was a fun summer. They were tan, and she was blonde now—Peter said she had to go blonde, Owen likes blondes best, another fact she doubted—and they were on the water a lot. She was surprisingly good at driving a boat, at being a wealthy, preppy Cape Cod misfit.

If they were normal, they could have had so many friends, but they weren't normal, and everyone around knew it. So at bars people looked them up and down or evaded eye contact. Maybe this was her true self, to never fit in socially, and at least she wasn't pretending to like her friends. There were no Patsys in her life anymore, no Bertrand with his bad songs. She knew that Patsy was writing for Glamour, and she knew that Bertrand was still singing for YouTube, and she didn't want to read or hear their products. She tried not to worry about her own lack of career, but financially it was frightening. What if Peter died tomorrow?

"Then you'd die, too, kid," he laughed.

"That's not funny, Peter."

"Owen would think it was."

 

He's Here

It was winter, and it very much wasn't summer anymore. It was too cold to go outside. They were both pale, and their favorite restaurants were shut for the winter, and there was a grumpy edge to their life. Life had become solidly depressing on the Cape. She thought of all the summer residents who essentially walked out on this place when the weather turned. How was it acceptable to use a place, to be so callous? See ya next summer, maybe. And depressive weather patterns, the days growing shorter, the water icing at the shore and the need to pack on layers of clothing. None of it agreed with Peter. Valeria knew the signs. Nothing good was coming their way, and she worried that Peter would realize that his parents were dead and that summer was over and kill her or buy cocaine or go manic and spend all the money on a gold shower curtain, if there existed a gold shower curtain that was expensive enough.

Peter had another plan. He bought two first class tickets to TF Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island. She was relieved. It was a good sign of his mental state that he recognized his increasing seasonal affective issues and was looking into a change of scenery.

"We're going to Providence, Val. Don't pack light."

"This is awesome, but it's like an hour and a half drive. Do you really want to fly?"

"Yes."

"Why don't we go somewhere farther away?" she said, but she was still uncomfortable with spending other peoples' money and her voice trailed off and Peter sniffed.

"Because Owen isn't somewhere farther away."

"What?"

"Because Owen Wilson is near Providence, Rhode Island, and we need to be there, obviously, so that we can find out what he likes to eat, so we can stock the refrigerator with his favorite foods and drinks for his visit."

Peter held up his iPad and the headline in the Providence Journal Bulletin was beautiful: OWEN WILSON SIGHTED IN BRISTOL FILMING FARRELLY BROTHERS MOVIE

Valerria was shaking and crying and quivering and lit inside out and shrieking, and Peter was clapping and jumping, and they were animals bounding through the house, throwing throw pillows at the windows and screaming. It was the hottest she'd felt since the weather had turned, because it was the first physical exertion she had exerted since the weather turned. Owen had come for her. Okay, so it wasn't Cape Cod like she had thought, but Bristol was closer to Cape Cod than it was to New York, so she had made a good decision with her life. They packed their bags. They got on a tiny plane with a disgusted captain, and they drank champagne and kept their sunglasses on and quoted Hall Pass and looked out the window. Peter wore a captain's hat, and they both didn't cover their wrists. Their scars matched. They had nothing to be ashamed about. She had read that Owen had scars, too.

"I have such a good feeling about this," Peter said.

"I know," she said. "Me, too."

 

Intentions

Sometimes the Mandrake house was too big, and she thought she might move. But she couldn't do that. She had to stay. It was her home. There was no denying it. What happened in Bristol would always be with her, in part because nothing much had happened since.

They were terrified of the bridges in Bristol, and getting anywhere was a nightmare because Valeria was a nervous driver and Peter was a nervous backseat driver. There was a lot of tension. The stakes were high. The bridges were cruel. There were police near filming locations. Even though it was the off-season, there were people around. Finally, after four days of hunting, they tracked Owen to a local bar. There he was, seated at a red leather banquette, nursing a clear drink and talking to a girl who looked Japanese. He was wearing a baseball hat and a wool fisherman sweater, and he looked like Owen Wilson in the movies and like Owen Wilson in her head, except when he glanced at Valeria, he returned his focus to the Japanese girl.

Valeria wanted to hold off, but Peter wanted to go for it. He wanted in that booth, and he wanted in now, and Valeria was a wimp, he said, a wimp behind the wheel, a wimp at the bar, a wimp in life, so why should it come as a surprise that she was a wimp now, here, during the most important moment of their lives?

"Peter, stop screaming, or they'll kick us out."

"I'm not screaming. Stop being a nurse."

She noticed his eyes. She didn't have to say it.

"Oh fuck off, Nurse Nursey," he sneered. "I only scored a couple of bumps. This is the biggest day of our life. It's normal to celebrate. You think Owen doesn't do a fucking bump when he has something to celebrate?"

"I think he does it when he's sad."

"You think you know him so well, and you don't know shit, Valley."

"Why are you wrecking this?"

But Peter was done with the conversation. He stormed Owen's table. Owen gently asked him to step away, and Peter proceeded to ask his lady friend to hit the road, and he didn't just ask, he grabbed her arm. The police took Peter screaming and crying, and she was 15 feet from Owen, but they didn't make eye contact. It was like he didn't know her. She flared and realized he had dreams of his own, and she didn't live in those dreams the way he lived in hers.

At once, that stage of her life was over. Peter successfully overdosed and died in a holding cell in Rhode Island. She took a bus back to Cape Cod. The local papers wrote about what a nut job Peter had been, living in a Grey Gardens loony bin mansion with a girl who had taken advantage of his sick parents in their weak condition.

But none of the random Mandrakes came back for Peter's funeral or to fight over the Mandrake house. As Peter once said, "We're that rich that there's enough to go around. That's why I've always been kind of bored. What's the point? I never needed to figure out what to do. When you don't have to survive, you don't learn survival instincts."

Those words haunted Valeria, and she watched Grey Gardens on Netflix, and then she watched the film adaptation starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange and noted the differences. There were infinite versions of everything real and everything fantastic. The real women of the real life Grey Gardens were dead like her parents, like the Mandrakes, like Peter. All that remained now were memories, which were just flawed, biased, intangible tributes.

Did she love Peter? Could they have married each other and become normal people, maybe even parents? Now at night when she fell asleep, she saw Peter in her dreams, and he was happy and his wrists weren't scarred, and he swung his baby boy up in the air, and he really did look like Owen Wilson, only better looking somehow, better because she knew him, she supposed, because she loved him inside and out, and because he knew her and loved her anyway. They had fun in their family. There was a trampoline in the backyard, and Peter could drive, and they went on family drives. Sometimes they made it all the way to Bristol, and they were driving on one of those scary extreme bridges, and the children were screaming, afraid, but Peter and Valeria were fearless and brave and comforted their babies and always they made it to the other side.

A year after Peter died, she put a profile on a dating website. In the part that asked, "It would be great if you _______. It would be better if you ________," she filled in the blanks, "Resemble Owen Wilson. Live in Massachusetts and can stay for a while, maybe even forever."

She flipped the phrases back and forth a few times. She still wanted the Owen in her head, and it felt dishonest to say she'd prefer someone who was here and available over her beloved. But it was worse to think she'd go out with a man just because he reminded her of Owen, who now only served to remind her of Peter.

Which is why, a week after posting her profile, she edited again: "It would be great if you lived on Cape Cod. It would be better if you lived on the Outer Cape, because that's where I live."

 

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