ABOUT A YEAR AGO
Julie tells me she watches Oprah. After she confesses this, she opens a bottle of wine between her legs, then asks if I want to smell the cork. I don’t.
“Why Oprah?” I ask. I think maybe it’s some kind of joke, something she’s trying on, like a bad wig or neon-colored nail polish. Still, Julie is nearing 40 and wears those high-waisted jeans, and if she had kids she might pass—in some lights, maybe next to a minivan—as a suburban soccer mom. Those women don’t joke about Oprah.
“She’s a strong woman,” Julie says. “She’s been through a lot in her life. And she really listens to the people she interviews. She cares about what they have to say.”
I want to ask how she knows that Oprah actually listens, that she actually cares; those things are so easy to fake. Instead, I say, “It’s cool that she gives away cars to people in her audience.”
We are sitting at Julie’s kitchen table and she has opened the back door to let in some air. It’s the beginning of summer. Someone next door is mowing the lawn—I can hear the humming—and the air that floats in smells like grass. I wipe my face with a napkin. We are always sweating. Julie doesn’t have air-conditioning or even a fan, because she’s worried about her carbon footprint. She composts, she doesn’t flush her toilet every time she pees. Sometimes I forget to turn the lights out when I leave a room, then she clicks her tongue and says I’ll care more when I get older. I say, “Whatever.” I am 15 years younger than Julie. She likes it when I wear my hair in pigtails and when I let her tell me what to do, and sometimes we fall into something that feels like playing house—like she is pretending to be someone else, she is pretending I am someone else. I like playing like we do, at the same time I am afraid of whatever is underneath.
Julie has been over to my apartment only once, after our third date a few weeks ago. We kissed on my couch but didn’t fuck. She looked at my face like she had missed me and asked what I wanted from her. The TV was on behind her—a commercial for tampons, the cotton soaking up blue liquid. I thought about it and I finally said, “I think I just want to be known.”
Since then, my living room has been overrun with ants, so I don’t invite Julie over. I’ve called the landlord, sprayed with Raid, mixed borax with maple syrup. I’ve started getting little red bites on my legs. I get scared Julie will ask why we never hang out at my place, that I’ll have to tell her about the ants and she’ll think I don’t take care of my place, that I’m messy and unhygienic. But she hasn’t asked yet, though she asks me everything else. She asks better than most people.
After we have sex, Julie puts her hands on my shoulders. Her lips have purple crust on them from drinking wine. She asks me how she should touch me to make me come. I say that it’s so nice that she asks, that she did everything perfectly. I don’t explain that I didn’t have orgasms with the last girl before her, or the girl before her, either. I know I should do something like touch Julie the way she is touching me. I lie still, and I don’t touch her. She gets up to use the bathroom. She flushes this time. I picture the water swirling down. When she climbs back into bed she kisses my forehead, calls me sweetie, like I’m a child. I’m happy. But then I think about the dead ants back in my living room that I crushed with the sole of my shoe, their bodies flattened against the rug.
Julie wants to see me every day. I don’t know why she wants to see me every day. Soon I realize the Oprah thing is not a joke, or like a wig. Julie tells me more about Oprah—there are so many interesting things about her, more than seems possible for a single human being—and I wonder if maybe Julie is making things up, just to test me, though I don’t know what I’m being tested on. Supposedly, Oprah dated Roger Ebert. When she was depressed, Oprah wrote a suicide note telling a friend to water her plants. Oprah had a half-brother who was gay and died of AIDS. Oprah owns eight houses.
I hear her and my responses aren’t enough. I nod or ask questions, or act impressed and say nothing. Still, Julie wants to talk more about Oprah. I think it would be easier if Julie asked me things about myself instead, but I know that’s wrong.
While we walk to get ice cream, Julie talks about Oprah again. She says she is thinking of reading some of the books Oprah recommended for her book club. I am getting really annoyed with Julie. The line for ice cream is long and full of little kids. One of them is screaming like he’s trying to get rid of something in his lungs. Over his cries, I order chocolate ice cream, and Julie orders frozen vanilla yogurt with no toppings. The man who scoops our ice cream has a mustache, and little hands like a girl. At the cash register he asks me, “Is your mom paying with cash or credit card?”
I laugh nervously. Julie doesn’t hear him; she’s fishing around the container of plastic spoons to make sure they’re clean. After we leave the store we sit on a bench together outside. I sit sideways so I put my feet on Julie’s lap. She scolds me because the bottoms of my shoes are dirty. She asks if I have some sort of mat by the entrance of my door, because I should have one if my shoes are that dirty. I become terrified that she is finally going to ask to see my apartment again. But to my surprise, she changes the subject, saying, “Did you know Oprah had a child?”
“No,” I say. “I didn’t know that.”
“He was premature, and he died pretty soon after he was born.”
“That’s horrible,” I say. “That makes me feel really sad for her.”
“Don’t say that.”
“You shouldn’t feel sorry for her.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Oprah doesn’t feel sorry for herself.”
“I had a son once.”
“He died, too.”
“What?” I ask again.
“Like Oprah, though my son was two years old when he died. We were in a car accident. No one should feel sad for me. You shouldn’t feel sad for me. It made me the person who I am today.”
I take my shoes off her lap. A few minutes pass in silence. We finish our ice cream. There’s a pool of brown milk at the bottom of my paper bowl. Julie bends her plastic spoon and it cracks. I try to figure out what to say about her son. What was he like, what was his name, what did he play with, how did he sleep, what did she feel when he was born, what did she feel when he died? I should ask about those things. But instead I say, “Don’t tell me not to feel sorry for Oprah.” And then, “How long ago did he die?”
Julie says it was about a year ago.
One evening I’m trying to clean my apartment; the ants have expanded their territory and are now venturing into the kitchen. They head towards the pantry, single-file. One of them carries a crumb of food. I vacuum up as many as I can. Julie calls my cell phone so I turn off the vacuum. Julie asks if we can spend time together tonight. I saw Julie yesterday and I’m seeing her tomorrow. She says maybe we can watch an episode of Oprah together. Oprah is going to talk about how people can overcome tragedy if they just focus enough on the positive.
“Why do you always want to see me?” I ask.
“I like being with you.”
“Is that really it?”
“Of course that’s really it.” She pauses. “Is this because of what I told you about my son?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know, it was just a year ago and you want to see me every day.”
“I told you about him hoping you wouldn’t judge,” she says. “This isn’t about you. This is about me.”
I realize that she needs the right responses from me, that she will always need the right responses from me, that she needs my acceptance even more than I need hers. I can’t be that. I start to apologize, but then reconsider. “I don’t want to do this,” I say. I mumble a break-up. I hang up, feeling sick.
Maybe I’m hungry. I get some food from the refrigerator to make a sandwich. Because I always ate at Julie’s place, it’s been so long since I’ve made myself a meal. The lettuce is wilted and soggy. I put a piece between two slices of bread with some cheese. I go into my living room and sit on the couch, hoping the ants won’t bite me. I eat the sandwich, while trying to watch TV. Minutes later my hand itches. I think it must an ant bite. But I glance at my hand and there is something crawling up my arm. Not an ant—much smaller, lime green, with antennae. I shake it off my hand and start crying because why are there all these things crawling around, first the ants, now these little green bugs, and what will come next, and they won’t go away and I want to blame Julie. This is all her fault. I know it is not her fault.
A few hours later Julie emails me and writes, It’s so funny that you said all you wanted was to be known and understood, but you didn’t want to know and understand me. I don’t email back. Instead, I search the Internet and find out the green bugs are attracted to rotten lettuce. I throw away the lettuce. Then on the Internet I learn I should buy the kind of ant traps that poison the ants yet don’t kill them instantly. That way, they’ll carry the poison back to the queen, eventually killing her. Then the ants will be gone, finally.
I take a bath, filling the tub as full as possible and sinking under the water until everything about me is submerged but my face. I close my eyes and think about Julie loving her son, missing her son, mourning him; wishing she could share those experiences with someone else, someone who would hold them, so carefully, for her. Hold so long and so well until there is nothing else. I open my eyes; I expect bugs to be falling off me but there’s nothing in the tub. No ants, no green bugs. Just my naked body in dirty water.
She was right. I didn’t want to know her.
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