In a Country of Mothers

by A.M. Homes

It was a bright afternoon near the end of March, a day filled with the strange and fragile sense that at any moment all that was clear might be taken away and replaced with a dark and heavy rain. Jody moved down the street, aiming the video camera at whatever looked interesting—a cat crossing the road as a cab barreled down the street, the age old game of beating the clock.

On the corner of Perry and West Fourth, near home, she saw something that caused her to instinctively duck behind the iron rail of a brownstone. Coming out the door and down the steps of Jody’s building was Claire Roth. Jody used the zoom, pulled in close, and pressed Record, locking in on Claire, trailing her from what seemed like a safe distance. She pulled open the door to Patissereie Lanciani—Jody’s café—slipped off her coat, and took one of the window seats. The waitress came and went. A cup of coffee arrived. Claire added sugar, no milk, and looked innocently out the window. The tape ran; Jody was getting the goods on Claire, video proof like the kind they showed on television: Video Trial, True Stories, New York’s Weirdest. Claire reached into her pocket and pulled out a stack of something that Jody couldn’t quite make out. Cards? The zoom was now fully extended; she needed to get closer to pick up more detail. Creeping down the block until she was directly across the street, Jody situated herself so that she was shielded by a delivery van. Photographs. Claire had reached into the pocket of her coat and taken out a stack of snapshots. She’d laid them out across the café table and arranged them in a specific order, as if she were fitting the pieces of a puzzle together. Jody was sure the pictures were of her apartment. Claire had broken in, gone through her drawers, her closet, the boxes under her bed, taking Polaroids of everything. She’d rounded up all Jody’s secrets and stolen them. Claire would take whatever she could get from Jody; that much was suddenly and surprisingly clear.

Video still running, her eye fixed on Claire, Jody came closer to the café, stepping into the street, hoping for a better position. Once she was out in the street, exposed, Claire looked up, saw Jody, and registered the expression of having been caught. A nearly lethal rush of confusion and guilt coursed through Jody; it felt as if all the blood in her body had evaporated. She couldn’t move. A car horn blared. “Outta the street, retard!” someone yelled. Like lifting lead, Jody raised one foot, then another, and made her way to the curb, the camera still fixed to her eye.

Claire tapped on the glass and gestured that Jody should come in, then pointed at the empty seat at the table. Jody stood at the window, blank. Claire tapped on the glass again, but Jody was unable to respond. Claire went around to the door and said, "It’s getting cold out. Come on in, have a cup of cocoa or something."

Jody sat down. The photographs were gone, as though they’d existed only in Jody’s viewfinder.

“How are you?” Claire asked, “You look a little pale.”

Had Claire slipped them into the dark pockets of her black wool coat? Jody shifted from side to side, looking at the dark wool draped over the chair, hoping to see the white edge of a photo poking out of the pocket. Nothing. The camera was there, hanging off the side of the chair, but where were the pictures? She must have zipped them into her purse. The purse was on the table in front of Claire, screaming to be opened.

“Have you eaten anything today?” Claire said. “Maybe you should have a croissant and some cocoa.”

“Double espresso.” Jody said to the waitress.

“Have something with it,” Claire said. “Espresso isn’t very nourishing.”

Jody didn’t answer.

“So, tell me about your day. You’ve been out making movies? It occurred to me just last week that you and I should make a movie together—write a screenplay about therapy. You’d write the girl and I’d write the therapist.”

“I don’t think so,” Jody said.

“It could be so funny, and there’s so much to say.” Claire acted as if she hadn’t heard Jody’s answer. “I always wanted to be a writer.”

“Strange,” Jody said. “I would’ve thought you wanted to be a photographer.”

Claire didn’t respond except to look vaguely puzzled. “I’m not very visual,” she said. “I’m much more mental.” She tapped her temple.

Jody tipped her head in the direction of the camera dangling off the chair.

“Oh,” Claire said, “That’s Sam’s. I didn’t want to leave it with the doorman.”

The espresso arrived and Jody poured sugar into it until it was the consistency of granular mud.

“You need to take better care of yourself. No wonder you’re not well.” Claire called the waitress over. “Could we have a croissant please.”

“I don’t need anything.”

“Do you want it or not?” the waitress asked.

“No,” Jody said.

“Then I’ll have it and maybe you’ll eat some.” The waitress went off and Claire leaned toward Jody. “That sweater’s my favorite color. Do you know what it means to me to see you wearing that color?”

Jody shrugged.

“It means we have a lot in common. Two peas in a pod. I’d like you to come for dinner some time this week, and on Wednesday there’s a play at Adam’s school. You’d love it”

If Claire had been anywhere near normal, she would have explained what she’d been doing. She would have said, Oh, there you are, what a coincidence, I just stopped by your building hoping to catch you in. But there was nothing—not a word—not a gesture.

“You know,” Claire said, “I’ve been thinking that if I can talk Sam into taking charge of the boys for a weekend, we could go away together. Just the two of us. Out to the beach, or maybe up to the Berkshires. It’d be great if we could have some real time together.”

Jody finished her coffee, picked up the video camera, and turned it on Claire. “Why don’t you tell me about your day,” she said, pushing the Record button. “It’s a documentary. The scene is Claire Roth at Patisserie Lanciani. Tell me where you’ve been today. Were you seeing patients?”

Jody paused. “And why do you call them patients? You’re not a doctor. What can you tell me about your background, your training? Your philosophy, your approach to therapy? Do you know what you’re doing?”

“Put down the camera,” Claire whispered. “People are watching.”

“Yes, we’re here in Patisserie Lanciani with a live audience, a room of real people.” Jody panned the room and then returned to Claire, closing in so that Claire’s face filled the entire frame. “They, too, crave the answers. The myth of the therapeutic process, the great wide unknown. But it doesn’t touch the truth, does it? No, it all goes on in here.” Jody tapped her temple just as Claire had done minutes before. “What you see, how you perceive, what drives you. Perhaps you could illuminate the process for us.”

“Stop.” Claire looked at her as if to say, How can you be so mean. Jody met her glance evenly and head-on.

“Me? Why? You just said you wanted to make movies—well this is how it’s done. Come on, loosen up. So, what’d you do today?”

Claire jumped up and ran to the bathroom.

Jody sat alone at the table. Perhaps she’d been wrong. It was possible that what she’d witnessed—Claire descending the steps at 63 Perry—wasn’t the clear and heartbreaking twist of betrayal she’d first thought it was. She was distorting Claire’s interest, turning it into something darker and more dangerous than it really was. Claire had probably left a package outside her door, a little present, or a sweet note on beautiful paper. Jody would find it there and, humiliated, would have to call Claire immediately to beg her forgiveness. Time and time again, Claire would say, I’ve asked you to trust me, but you won’t. And Jody would end up apologizing not only for the afternoon’s awkwardness but for a lifetime of doubt.

Claire’s purse was on the table, begging the question. Jody scanned the room. All the people who’d been looking at her had gone back to their cappuccinos, their eclairs, their own pathetic conversations. She reached for Claire’s purse and pulled the zipper back, expecting to find the photos tucked neatly between her wallet and cosmetic case. There was nothing except mail—so much, in fact, that various envelopes stuck out, and Jody had trouble closing the purse. Worried that Claire would come out of the bathroom and catch her rummaging, she was trying to push them back in when on the left corner of one she noticed, familiar handwriting—the return address of someone she knew in L.A. She pulled the envelope all the way out of the purse and checked; it was addressed to Jody Goodman, 63 Perry Street 4-B, NY, NY 10014. She pulled out another—her phone bill. A bank statement, a postcard from Carol Heberton . . . a schedule of screenings at the Museum of Modern Art. Claire had stolen her mail. She had reached into the mailbox and walked away with everything. A federal crime. In all the months that the lock had been broken, none of the multitude of strangers that came in and out of the building had ever taken anything. Then Jody heard the click of the bathroom door unlocking and jammed everything except the postcard back into the purse and zipped it closed. The purse was back in position on the table before the bathroom door opened. Jody tucked Heberton’s card into her back pocket, picked up her video camera, and looked out the window, pretending to shoot something in the distance.

“I didn’t realize what time it was,” Claire said standing over the table. “I’ve got to go, I’ll call you later.” She squeezed Jody’s arm. Jody glanced up and her eyes were red. “It’s all right,” Claire added. “Everything will be all right. Don’t worry.” Then she took some money from her purse, put it on the table, and went out the door. Jody ordered a second espresso, poured in the sugar and spooned the thick brown syrup into her mouth as though it were a prescription product. Trying to figure, trying to figure. She was trapped. Whatever it was that existed between her and Claire, she couldn’t stand it; all the same, she’d been living on it and couldn’t go on without it. Even now she didn’t hate Claire—she hated herself for buying in, caving in, getting hooked. She finished the espresso and paid the bill, thinking that crawling out of a well was harder than falling in.

A losing streak. Coked up on espresso, paranoia and guilt, she raced home and found Peter Sears waiting in the vestibule. “Hi,” he said, “I thought I’d stop by and see how you were doing.”

Jody’s mailbox was empty, and the metal door was hanging open. Three other boxes also had broken locks, but the mail was there, waiting.

“How long have you been here?” Jody asked.

“Only a minute,” Peter said. “But I was about to give up.”

“My lucky day.”

“How’re you feeling—better?”

Jody shrugged. According to Esterhaus’s estimate, she would get better eventually, though maybe not for two years. According to what Jody’s mother read, it was a systematic yeast infection from eating too much sugar, and according to her father it was environmental poisoning. Jody had read reports calling it a B-cell virus, chronic immune dysfunction syndrome, a new herpes—a rare combination, a grenade type virus with an unidentified trigger pin. If it didn’t kill you, it could last forever, waxing and waning.

“Frankly,” she said, “I feel like shit.”

“Can I come in?” he asked.

“Sure, why not.” Jody figured she had nothing to lose.

“I’ve really missed you.” Peter said in the elevator on the way up.

Jody looked at her apartment door before unlocking it. There were no signs of tampering. On the floor, just inside, was a delivery menu from a Mexican restaurant. No note on pretty stationary, no magical explanation.

“Do you want to get naked now,” she said to Peter, “or can I listen to my messages first?”

“It’s not like that,” he said.

Jody rewound her machine, thinking she’d find a clue. There was only one message—from Ilene, the East Villager from UCLA. “I wanted you to be the first to know —well, almost the first to know. Remember that idea we worked up for story class? I went ahead and wrote it. The script got sold for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Can you believe it? God! Well, I hope you’re feeling better. Sorry I—”

Jody turned off the machine. She didn’t need to hear about it.

“Sounds great,” Peter said.

“Shut up,” Jody said, disappearing into the bathroom. She came back seconds later with her hands full of small packages. “Look,” she said, spilling them onto the sofa. “I have condoms. All kinds.”

“It’s different,” Peter said. “Or I’m different.”

“Bummer,” Jody said.

Peter shrugged. “I didn’t say I’d sworn off, just that things were different. You seem tense, upset. I took a course in massage. Would you like me to give you one?”

In what was left of the late afternoon light, with all the shades up, Jody stripped naked. She was so thin now that she didn’t care who saw her. There was nothing to hide. Her bad thighs and big butt had vanished. She lay on the bed and let Peter work his hands over her, applying pressure to spots where knots had formed.

“Tell me where you feel it and we can work it out,” he said. He found the places left over from the skating experience, knots that suddenly felt like scars. He pressed his fingers into places so sore that Jody had to bite the insides of her cheeks to keep from screaming. He was good, his hands strong and smooth. He dug deep into her, drawing the tension out, as if it were possible to pick the muscles one by one and wring them out like wet washcloths. She rolled onto her back, and when his palms traveled up the insides of her thighs, she met them and guided them further. She unbuttoned his shirt and slid her tongue over his chest. He sighed. He worked the muscles in her neck and shoulders, going all the way down her arms, and she bit his nipples. In his chinos he rubbed against her, teasing. No hurry, no rush. She unzipped his pants and pressed her face to the front of his underwear, licking him through the heavy cotton. She pulled him on top of her. He reached for a condom. Three times her phone rang; each time the phone rang and the caller—Claire—hung up. Peter and Jody spent the rest of the evening and most of the night sexing and resting, sexing and resting.

“So what happened?” Jody finally asked, after the delivery boy from the Chinese restaurant had come and gone, after they’d showered and feasted and fucked again.

Peter shrugged. He pulled on his underwear, fished his chinos out of the tangle of sheets, and buttoned his shirt.

“Come on,” Jody said. “People don’t just change.”

“I’ve been seeing someone who’s helped me a lot,” he said, sliding his foot into a loafer.

“A therapist?”

“No, a woman. She’s out of town this week on location. She’s a TV producer.”

Jody pushed him out to the door. She practically picked him up and carried him. She stood by the door for a moment, watched him flounder, then slammed and locked the door behind her.

“My shoe,” he called. “My other loafer.” He banged on the door. “Hey come on! That’s a Banfi.They cost four hundred and fifty dollars.”

 

A.M. Homes is the author of the novel, Jack, and a collection of short stories, The Safety of Objects. This is an excerpt from In a Country of Mothers, due out from Knopf this month.

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BOMB 44
Summer 1993
The cover of BOMB 44
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