Vivian and Shelly lived in downtown Los Angeles, in an industrial space that belonged, nominally, to a ribbon factory whose warehouse was attached. Shelly discovered it one night when the band she belonged to had played at an impromptu concert there. When the evening was over and everyone had cleared out, Shelly and a man she’d met that evening stayed on. The man left soon afterward, but Shelly did not. She worked out an arrangement with the owner of the ribbon factory: the rent would be paid in cash, and if Shelly was discovered by the housing authorities, the owner would claim that she was a squatter.
Vivian met Shelly at the temp agency where they both applied for work. She had just finished two years of community college in Oklahoma and moved to L.A. Shelly offered her a small room in return for half the rent. She couldn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t be thrown out in a week or a month, but it was cheaper than the motel where Vivian had been staying, where she had to get out of bed two or three times a night to check the lock on the door whenever a drunken couple pin-balling past caused it to rattle in a way that unnerved her. At Shelly’s place, the thumps and grinds of machinery could be heard through the walls, but only during the day. In addition to Vivian’s room, there was a doorless bathroom and a large open space. A rolling garage door served as the only window. You pulled on a chain and by some miracle of simple machinery the metal door ratcheted open with a satisfying flourish that appealed to Shelly’s sense of drama.
Vivian had never met a girl like Shelly, who left her money lying around on tables and liked to throw blindfold dinner parties. Vivian had to learn not to compliment Shelly’s clothes or jewelry because Shelly had a habit of taking off whatever it was that Vivian liked and giving it to her. Vivian also learned to be blasé about coming out of her room in the morning to discover Shelly sleeping with a man they had met the evening before—or a woman. Vivian felt a little thrill at being able to carry off such sophisticated nonchalance, and she admired the way Shelly slithered through her days and nights, shedding the most outrageous experiences as if they were simply the air she passed through. Shelly had negligible professional skills and wavering incentive, and only Vivian managed to get a temp placement—doing clerical work at an adoption agency. Still, Shelly managed to come home with bags full of mangoes and coconuts, and sometimes they drank margaritas and grilled steak on the loading dock outside the garage door, using Vivian’s George Foreman. Shelly’s last name was vaguely familiar to Vivian, as if she had seen it on packages at the grocery store, or maybe on television ads for insurance.
But she didn’t ask, because she didn’t want to appear ignorant, and because her parents had taught her that it was impolite to talk about money.
At the adoption agency, Vivian was put to work at a computer in a small, windowless room where office supplies were kept; the walls were lined with bales of toilet paper and paper towels, industrial-sized bags of coffee and nondairy creamer. Vivian’s job was to transcribe the interviews recorded with prospective parents. These interviews were poorly taped, and Vivian spent her days winding the tape recorder back and forth in order to see if a husband had said that he loved children or loathed them, or if a wife had called herself infertile or infantile. Vivian herself was adopted—this was the single piece of information that had gotten her the job, as she typed only sixty words a minute and didn’t know how to make a spreadsheet. Her adoptive parents were nice people. Until the recent recession put him out of business, her father had run a small jewelry store in a mall that catered mostly to young couples buying engagement rings and girls celebrating their quinceañeras. Her mother had worked as a secretary in a doctor’s office. They were older than most parents and had required little of Vivian when she was growing up. They had always treated her with a kind of cautious respect that she didn’t see many other parents accord their children. By the time she was ten, her father was sixty. At back-to-school nights, her parents stood by themselves while the younger parents exerted a kind of hysterical energy toward one another. “Oh, you’re Alison’s mother!” they’d say, as though Alison, with her accomplishments, bestowed a reflected glory on the parents who’d made her. No one came up to Vivian’s parents to remark on Vivian, but this was understandable. Vivian was a “below-the-radar kind of girl,” as her adviser had written on one midterm evaluation. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the adviser had added; not everyone could be a leader.
When Vivian was fourteen, her mother became sick and was on the verge of death. In her mother’s hospital room, Vivian’s parents told her that she was adopted. As it turned out, her mother made a miraculous recovery, but the cat was already out of the bag. The information didn’t have much of an effect on Vivian. She lay in bed trying to feel different, now that she knew that her parents weren’t her real parents, but she didn’t feel different. The words father and mother were inextricably bound to the man and woman in the room down the hall, to her mother’s Je Reviens perfume and her father’s top dresser drawer filled with collar stays and golf tees. She was not imaginative enough to associate any other meaning with the words. She watched a television news show about a famous singer whose daughter had tracked her down after forty years. The famous singer seemed happy to have been found, and the two sat with their arms around each other and took long walks on the bluffs above the ocean, hand in hand. The women’s intimacy made Vivian uncomfortable. Her own mother’s kisses were dry, soft things, her hugs unassertive and prudent, as if she didn’t want to cause Vivian any harm. There was a moment during the show when the two women looked at each other as if to say, “Now what?” and Vivian had the sense that the mother had some misgivings about being found, that having given up a child had become part of her personal mythology, her idea of herself. Now, faced with the real person, she had lost some of the romance of her story. Driving across the desert on her way to Los Angeles, Vivian had seen a billboard announcing that this same singer, who had been very popular in the seventies, would be performing five nights at a casino on an Indian reservation. This strengthened Vivian’s decision not to explore her own adoption. You didn’t always want to know everything.
Sometimes, when Vivian finished transcribing an interview at the adoption agency she would add a note to the bottom of the document offering her opinion of the interviewed couple. No one asked for her advice, but she felt compelled to give it since a life was at stake. Mostly she felt the couples should be allowed to adopt, because whatever flaws they had were no worse than the flaws of people who could have children effortlessly, even thoughtlessly, and she knew that children could survive almost anything. In one case, though, she felt strongly that the husband was unkind to the wife, and she noted this at the bottom of her transcript. She could not explain how she knew this, never having seen the couple. But the woman sounded frightened in a way that set her apart from the other women who were simply nervous during their interviews. She paused before each answer, as if waiting for the man’s permission to speak, and at the end of her answers she always added, “Right, Paul?” The woman who ran the agency reprimanded Vivian for this insight and reminded her that her job was a temporary one. But Vivian kept track and she knew that the couple had not yet been matched with a child.
Shelly gave up looking for work. She said that she had too many projects of her own to concentrate on, and besides, she just wasn’t “the office type.” This statement seemed slightly insulting to Vivian, who clearly was the office type, but she could not discount Shelly’s generosity—the way she paid when they went out to dinner or brought home expensive wine for them to share—and Shelly’s rejection of such commonplace concerns as making a living seemed exotic to Vivian. Shelly spent most of her mornings wandering around their living space in a loosely tied mint-green kimono, her small, freckled breasts winking out from the material as she moved. For a time she took up painting and made large canvases on which she drew crude images of her face struck through with angry slashes of color. She organized a viewing of her work and a hundred strangers showed up at their home. Vivian wore one of Shelly’s beaded dresses and Shelly wore body paint. The guests ate the food that Vivian and Shelly had prepared and refrained from buying anything. Shelly didn’t seem to mind. After a few months the canvases disappeared, though it was unclear to Vivian whether someone had finally bought them or if Shelly had just thrown them into the Dumpster behind the ribbon warehouse to be carted away along with the giant spools of badly dyed grosgrain.
By this time Shelly had become involved with a man named Toby, who stood on corners in Silver Lake and Echo Park handing out pamphlets about the Socialist Workers Party. He was a quiet man who wore thick-framed glasses and collared shirts, which he tucked into his jeans. When he spoke to people he listened carefully as if they were giving him directions. He had gone to a very good college back East, and when he talked fervently about his political beliefs, Vivian admired his seriousness and his self-restraint, and the prominent tendons of his forearms. Shelly grunted a lot while having sex on the pullout, and in the mornings Toby left quickly, a ream of freshly printed flyers stuffed under his arm.
The couple whom Vivian had considered unsuitable for adoption had come back for a second interview. When Vivian turned on the tape recorder, the sound of the man’s voice was so vivid that she looked over her shoulder thinking he was behind her. Instead of starting to type she pressed the headphones tightly to her ears and just listened to what was being said.
“Maybe we didn’t make the right impression,” the man said.
There was a pause, and then the wife said, “We have a lot of love to give. Right, Paul?”
“But that’s what everybody says, of course,” the man said. Vivian could hear the tension in his voice. He must have stood up at that point because as he continued his voice grew distant and full of air. “You must hear stupid, obvious things like that every day,” he said. “ ‘We have a lot of love to give.’ It’s probably meaningless to you. But what else can we say? We want a child. We have enough money to offer a child a good life, all the advantages. We’re decent people with decent values. But it feels like we’re paying the price for some biological glitch we have no control over.”
The director of the agency assured them that they had done well in the interview process, but that it was her job to match the right children with the right parents and this effort could take time.
“Some people don’t test well,” the man said. “Is that it?” His voice was louder, as if he were seated again.
The director told them that it wasn’t a test.
“Sure it is,” the man said. “Everything is a test.”
When the interview was over Vivian sat listening to the sound of empty tape winding through the recorder. She rewound it and listened to the entire interview again. Some people don’t test well. The way he said it made it sound like a kind of attack. It was as if he could open up the director’s head, peer into her brain, and see all her prejudices and value judgments. When he talked about the “stupid, obvious thing” his wife had said, Vivian imagined the woman looking at her lap, embarrassed that the compromises of her marriage were being exposed to a stranger, and that it was she who would be considered weak for accepting these insults, rather than her husband for hurling them.
Vivian rewound the interview once again and began to input it into the computer. The words were familiar to her now and she tried to visualize the couple. She saw the man with dark, neatly cropped hair, muscular from hours at a gym. He was the kind of man who, when he was inside, wore his sunglasses on the back of his head like a pair of upside-down eyes. She imagined the woman as delicate and fair, clasping her hands as if they were wayward children who might break something if she let them go. She was beautiful, but rusted, as if her beauty had been abandoned, exposed to the elements. Vivian knew that she could be completely wrong about the couple. They might be fat. They might be Chinese. They might be the warmest people in the world who would lavish on their adopted child the sort of palpable love advertised in greeting cards or on the collars of stuffed puppies. How could anyone know what kind of love another person had to give?
When Vivian got home that night, Toby was there alone. He sat at the table reading a book, his back straight, his head bent as if in prayer.
“She went to a thing at a club,” he said.
“You didn’t want to go?”
“I guess I’m not a club person.”
“Whatever that is,” she said.
He looked up and smiled, which embarrassed her because she knew that they were both making fun of Shelly and in doing so forming a secret bond. Why wasn’t Toby at his own house? Maybe Shelly had left him at hers the way she left hundred-dollar bills lying around, evidence of her carelessness. Shelly’s sofa bed was open and unmade, red sheets spilling suggestively off the thin mattress. Vivian got a yogurt out of the refrigerator and a filigreed spoon from the old Ball jar that held the set of antique silver utensils that had belonged to Shelly’s grandmother, and went to her room. She ate her yogurt but felt too awkward to go back out and throw the empty cup into the garbage so she left it on the floor by her mattress where it toppled over under the weight of the spoon. She tried to read a book but she couldn’t concentrate knowing that Toby was in the other room, reading his book. She had to go to the bathroom. Somehow, when Shelly was home with Toby, using the doorless bathroom wasn’t such a problem. But she couldn’t imagine using it now. The more she thought about it, however, the more she needed to. She decided not to make eye contact with Toby as she crossed the main room. If she pretended that he wasn’t there, maybe he would pretend that she wasn’t there either. In the bathroom she peed quickly with her eyes closed as if he were the one who didn’t want to be seen. The toilet made a grating mechanical sound when flushed, and the water pipes of the sink let out their customary screeching complaints, bedeviling Vivian’s attempts at invisibility. After she’d dried her hands, she turned toward the doorway, and there he was.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t hear you.”
“You didn’t hear me?”
“I guess I was into my book.”
“What are you reading?”
“Pnin,” he said.
“Is it good?”
He glanced past her into the bathroom. “You finished in here?”
“Oh,” she said, realizing that she was blocking the way.
She walked quickly back to her room, but not fast enough to avoid hearing his relieved groan and the hard stream as his piss hit the toilet bowl.
She took the empty yogurt cup and spoon to the kitchen area. He walked out of the bathroom, adjusting his jeans.
“Do you think you make a difference?” she said.
“With your flyers. I mean, is anybody interested?”
“You’re not, I guess.”
“Do you really think people change their minds?”
“People change their minds all the time. I think I want a hamburger, but I order a pizza.”
“That’s a ridiculous comparison.”
“Not really. That’s how we progress as a culture. We change our minds and, little by little, we become something else.”
“We become a more pizza-oriented culture,” she said.
He smiled. He didn’t seem offended.
“It’s just, if someone walked up to me on the street and started talking about communism or socialism, I wouldn’t stop to have a conversation.”
He shrugged. “I’m not going to change your mind, then,” he said.
The way he said this made her feel dismissed. She wanted to correct him. She wanted to be able to change her mind, wanted him to change her mind. Although he seemed to have convictions, he had the same careless quality as Shelly, a confidence that allowed them both to ride along above the dismal concerns of everyone else. Why did she care so much? Her care felt like a disfigurement, something that made it necessary for people like Shelly and Toby to distance themselves from her. Her care felt like something that would drag down the progress of human development. It made her an awkward, embarrassing person who asked what book you were reading when all you wanted to do was go to the bathroom. She felt her face flush and she returned to her room. She changed into her nightclothes and got into bed and turned off the lamp, but she was too agitated to sleep.
When Vivian’s mother was sick, she’d stayed in the hospital for months at a time, and Vivian and her father learned how to get along in the house without her. Vivian cooked breakfast and dinner, and her father did the grocery shopping on his way home from the jewelry store. After dinner he would wash the dishes and Vivian would clean the table and the counters. They saw her mother every evening during visiting hours. Sometimes if her mother were very sick, Vivian wasn’t allowed in the room, and she would sit in the waiting area until her father came out. He’d always say something cheerful, like “The doctor feels confident,” or “She had a good day,” and Vivian would respond in kind, knowing he needed her to play along. Once back home, her father would turn on the television. He kept it on all night to avoid the new silence in the house.
One day Vivian decided that instead of going straight home from school she would take the bus to the mall and meet up with her father there. Maybe they could go out for dinner on their way to the hospital. After walking a block from the bus stop, she entered the dead weather of the mall. It was almost Easter, and a person dressed as a bunny hopped down the corridors, promoting a candy store by handing out chocolate eggs to children. Vivian rode the escalator to the second floor where her father’s store was. Through the glass storefront, she saw her father come out from behind the counter to fasten a woman’s necklace. The woman’s neck was long and pale, and her dark hair was drawn to the side and over one shoulder to make way for the jewelry. When Vivian’s father was finished with the clasp, he took the woman’s hair and spread it carefully along her back, as if he were smoothing down a wrinkled dress. He rested his hands on the woman’s shoulders while she admired herself in a handheld mirror. Vivian’s throat went dry. She left the mall and took the bus home. She never asked her father about what she had seen. She knew that if she did, her life would split open and she would slip through the crack.
In a few months, Vivian’s mother’s recovery was certain, and she came home. She was weak for a time, resting in bed most of the day, but little by little she began to take up her household chores again, cooking and cleaning, although she never went back to work. One night, when Vivian and her parents were seated at the table about to eat their dinner, her father started crying. Vivian had never seen her father cry and it frightened her. He was just so happy, he said, shaking his head at the folly of his emotion. Vivian’s mother sat in her chair and smiled shyly, like a girl watching a boy approach across a dance floor and realizing that he has singled her out from all the girls around her.
A knock on her door made Vivian realize that she had almost been asleep. The door opened a crack and Toby stood silhouetted against the light of the outer room.
“Shelly just called,” he said. “She’s not coming back tonight.”
“Oh,” Vivian said, sleepily, not quite understanding. But then she found herself moving over in bed and lifting the covers as an invitation. Toby stepped into the room, took off his clothes, and slid in beside her. His skin was warm, and when he moved on top of her Vivian felt the thin tautness of his body. She put her arms around his narrow shoulders as if he were a log floating in a river on which she could rest to catch her breath.
“Just for now,” he whispered into her neck as he began to move faster on top of her. He was boyish in the way he announced his orgasm, and she felt protective of him as he rested, spent, in her arms. She wondered if she cared for him, if it mattered to her that tomorrow he would likely be gone for good, Shelly having obviously had enough of him. Was it possible to care and not to care at the very same moment, the way it was possible to be a husband and not, a parent and not?
The receptionist at the adoption agency went on maternity leave. Rather than hire another temp, the director decided that Vivian could manage her work while sitting at the front desk. She instructed Vivian on how to handle the prospective parents who came to the office to be interviewed. Vivian was to be polite and helpful in terms of offering water or coffee or directing them to the restrooms in the hallway, but not overly solicitous and definitely not optimistic in any way. Vivian was confused by this last directive; she was unsure how to be helpful without giving off an air of optimism. Most couples sat in the waiting room in silence, fearing, perhaps, that anything they said in front of the receptionist might be used against them.
One afternoon a man walked into the office. He was a small, compact man with what Vivian’s mother would have called a “coif ” of thick, shiny hair. He wore an elegant suit of a modern cut, the jacket purposefully small, the pants short enough to reveal his garishly printed socks. He stood in front of her desk, and a second before he opened his mouth to speak, Vivian realized who he was.
“Where’s your wife?” she said, imagining that the man had forbidden his wife to come this time, that he had decided that her presence was what stood in the way of their getting a child.
“Usually we see couples,” Vivian said, covering for her blunder. She reminded herself to be polite and not optimistic. She didn’t want to lose her job.
“I don’t have an appointment,” he said.
“She’s doing an interview right now,” Vivian said.
His face was anguished for a moment, as if he thought that this other couple were, at that very moment, being granted the child he’d hoped would be his. Of course this was not the way it worked, but perhaps the man didn’t know that.
“Is it okay if I wait?”
“I guess,” Vivian said. “Do you want water? Or coffee?”
His face relaxed and opened up, and Vivian saw how great the barriers were between a person and his happiness, and how little it took to make him think they were small.
“I don’t need anything,” he said.
She tried to go back to her transcription, but she could not concentrate. She typed zzzzzz for an entire line, then ?????? for two more after that.
“My wife left me,” he said.
She looked up. He was staring down at the checkerboard pattern on the linoleum floor as if it were a code he was trying to break.
“Oh,” she said.
“Does she do single-parent adoptions?”
“I don’t know,” Vivian said. “I’m just a temp.”
He nodded. His pants were so short, she could see his legs where his socks ended. The hair there was dark and smooth, as if combed.
The man stood up and walked over to the wicker shelf that held various books about adoption. He took down a paperback, flipped through it, put it back.
“Do you know what she looks for?” he said. “I mean, what type of people she accepts?”
“The stupid, obvious things,” Vivian said. “People who have a lot of love to give.” She was immediately ashamed of her small cruelty, but he did not seem to remember his own words.
He sat down again. “This is crazy. I don’t even have an appointment.”
Her job was temporary. The director had informed her that the receptionist, when she came back, would take on the work of transcribing the interviews along with her other duties. Vivian had proved that it could be done. Vivian had a feeling, too, that she would soon have to find a new living arrangement. Shelly had found out about the night with Toby and had said that she didn’t care, but things felt different now.
“Why did your wife leave you?” Vivian asked.
The man looked at her, stricken. “I don’t know,” he said finally.
For some reason, she believed him. She was sure that he had all the information: perhaps his wife had had enough of his meanness; perhaps she had a lover; maybe she didn’t like the fact that he was the kind of man who cared about fashion. Vivian believed that he understood the facts, but that, still, he didn’t know.
Vivian’s mother lived for another three years, until Vivian was seventeen and almost finished with high school. Toward the end, she began to lose her eyesight. The doctors said that this was a result of the tumor growing back—it was pressing on nerves. Surgery was out of the question; the tumor was clinging to the brain like a child to its mother, as if it didn’t really believe that it was a separate thing in and of itself. This time, Vivian’s mother told her that she was definitely going to die. She didn’t want Vivian to think that because a miracle had taken place once it might again.
“And now we know,” her mother said. “It wasn’t a miracle after all.”
Strangely, those last years were some of the happiest Vivian could remember. Her mother threw caution to the wind. They ate dinners of crackers and canned cheese if they felt like it. They watched movies until three in the morning, even on school nights. Her father’s business was beginning to fail, and occasionally he brought home jewelry for Vivian and her mother. Vivian’s mother would protest, but he rationalized these gifts, saying that he would have to lower the prices so drastically to make a sale that he might as well not sell the pieces at all.
“When I ordered this,” he said, fastening a necklace around his wife’s neck, “I imagined how it would look on you.”
Vivian remembered him making the same gestures with the woman in the store that day, and it occurred to her that she might have misunderstood what she had seen. Her father might simply have been generous with a stranger. But she did not really believe this. As she watched her mother admire her new necklace in a mirror, Vivian realized that she would always have to choose what to believe, and that chances were, more often than not she would be wrong.
In the last month of her life, Vivian’s mother took up smoking. She was completely blind by then. She had always wanted to smoke, she said. She thought that a woman with a cigarette looked elegant, even if it gave her cancer. Vivian bought a pack of Parliaments on her way home from school one afternoon. Her mother put a cigarette in her mouth and Vivian lit it for her with a long kitchen match. Her mother, too weak to sit up in bed, lay against her pillows and inhaled deeply. She coughed, and they laughed, but soon enough she got the hang of it, except that when she exhaled she did a funny thing: she blew out again and again, like a woman practicing for childbirth. She looked silly and not at all elegant, but Vivian didn’t say anything because her mother seemed so happy. When her father came home that evening, he watched his wife enjoy her cigarette.
“What is that you’re doing?” he said, as she exhaled.
“What?” she asked, her thin voice made even thinner by the stress of the smoke in her lungs.
“You look like a fish, sweetheart,” he said, and he put his lips to her cheek and blew out puffs of air until she giggled. For a second, Vivian caught a glimpse of what her mother had looked like as a little girl.
“But I can’t see. How do I know when all the smoke is gone?” Vivian’s mother said, her voice coy, flirtatious.
“You don’t have to worry about that,” he said, brushing a strand of hair from her cheek. “It’ll all come out in the end.”
She smiled and took a drag on the cigarette. She let out a smooth trail of smoke. She kept her eyes closed as Vivian and her father watched the delicate curl of smoke dissolve and disappear, like sugar on the tongue.