There’s a woman on television discussing her extraordinary life. Her neighbor snuck into her attic crawlspace and drilled pinprick holes into her bathroom ceiling and inserted cameras with views of her shower and toilet. He bought the cameras from a web site that sold private eye equipment, and I calculate the cameras cost him enough to have purchased a decent flower bouquet and dinner at a fairly nice restaurant—a shared appetizer, two entrees, and an alcoholic beverage apiece. And I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s about as much as a woman like her could have expected.
“Eat, sleep, go to work. That’s all I thought I did. Throw out garbage, take in mail, hang up on creditors,” she says. “I had a very normal life.” Her lower lip trembles. Her eye shadow sends reflected studio light out into space. She squints. Her eyes are dull. She speaks as if she had been dragged on television to discuss things she’s normally too polite to mention, and I’m annoyed that she shares the details of her fame so perfunctorily. You have a camera locked on you and an upper lip that was waxed for the occasion, I think. You are store brand tampons, comfort slacks, chamomile tea. Relish it, bitch.
That might sound mean, but I’m a control-topped and underwired and thick-browed woman, too, and when I think that some deviant went to all the effort to enjoy the stumpiness of her ankles undetected, I’m startled by a impulse to apologize to him.
The talk show host nods and crosses his arms. To him, her story is grave and her resilience noteworthy. He’s holding his own elbow with one hand, and uses the other to keep the microphone close to his lips; he reminds me of a baby, the way they also guard the things they love by keeping them within easy swallowing distance. His face carries the sympathy of America in hangdog pockets under his eyes.
“Amazing,” says the host. “You courage is inspiring.”
The neighbor set up a web site, where he sold streaming access to this jowly woman’s bathroom rituals. Here, the audience is shown a montage of video, the woman nicking her legs with a Lady Shik, lifting up her breasts in a mirror and feeling for lumps. Her face in the clips is expressionless, her movements free from performance as she traces the outer ridge of her areola, then drinks Pepto Bismol. A black bar covers her naked front, and for the first time I think of this dull woman’s private parts. I imagine her vagina to be beige.
Since discovering her neighbor’s enterprise, she wears Donna Karan suits and writes books about her ordeal. The latest one is called Seven Easy Tests to Find Out If You’re Being Spied On, but not one of the seven covers accidental unearthing through a ceiling leak, which was her method. She testified before Congress about stricter privacy laws and quit smoking by sheer force of will. She wants to get her doctorate in family counseling and lose another fifteen pounds. When she swears, she puts a dollar in a rinsed-out Maxwell House can and uses that money to keep a publicist on staff. She has a filthy mouth she’s trying to tame.
She fell in love with her attorney, and they will marry in six months.
Now she’s carrying on like a contest winner, and I don’t blame her.
I live below flight paths.
It is the Monday of Labor Day Weekend. The rush of jet engines as they return tanned travelers to earth rattles my china cabinet. I’m sitting on my factory-direct apartment sofa watching a stranger’s life takes twists mine never has, with no story to tell about myself.
I’m so jealous of this woman I ball two fists into the microfiber pillow that accents my sofa, only not really because it is upholstered in the same fabric and came free with purchase, whether I wanted it to or not.
Then I get up and microwave a ball of tin foil to watch it spark, and I open the door without stopping the timer. I read somewhere that most accidental deaths occur at home. I am ruling out each possibility. I put heavy things on high shelves and count to thirty standing underneath. My home has been deleaded. Insurance premiums are at an all-time high.
I suppose that most of us realize we are unremarkable sooner or later. I’ve been dating my boyfriend Phil for seven years and bored with him for six of them. His favorite thing to tell me is, “Gail, you’re an overthinker,” which is something he’s called me since we flew home to my small town to visit my mother, whose chief hobby is watching birds eat from the ten feeders she’s scattered throughout her backyard. I told Phil, “She loves those birds so much: those ordinary little chickadees and snowbirds.” I gave her a photo book I found of exotic birds, and I bookmarked a chapter on varieties of hummingbirds I’d seen when I was on vacation in Arizona, thinking she would love them. She opened the book and flipped past some amazing larger birds of prey, glancing at the pages and repeating over and over, “Well, these are kind of ugly,” and afterward when Phil and I were alone in separate twin beds, I said, “Mom can’t see the beauty in anything that isn’t in splitting seeds in her own backyard. It’s like a metaphor for our differences, the way I up and bolted somewhere she has no idea about, and now I’m a kestrel, something beyond her understanding and therefore not worth trying to experience.”
Phil said, “You’re an overthinker, Gail,” and I wanted to say, “You’re boring as hell, Phil,” but didn’t. I was hurt. I wanted him to look at me and see how broad my wingspan is.
So I don’t want to talk to Phil about the talk show or the woman or how unremarkable she is because he would ask me why I was so invested, and all I would be able to tell him is, “She could’ve been stuck with you.”
I’ve seen commercials for vacations to places with teacups big enough to sit in, parades at twilight, a lucky tourist plucked from the crowd to serve as its Master of Ceremonies. I picture parades from my front room window, a happening so big cars had to be towed; it spills into the scrubby lawns of everyone, everywhere. Each trumpet blast ricochets off my storm windows, a trapeze act off the power lines that link my house with the houses of neighbors I have never met. Clowns and anthropomorphic animals play Ring and Run throughout the neighborhood. I hear the sound of doorbells traveling like bowling balls through empty hallways, drawing angry ladies from the shower, men from pornographic fantasies, maybe about me.
But outside I see only shrubbery and shutters and a driveway and a parked car.
I open my freezer, which is stocked to the top with Lean Cuisine. I once read an article that food preservatives were contributing to the refusal of corpses to decompose. I want to be a miracle of science. The Norse relied on a chance fall into a peat bog, airtight bodies sunk below the surface; I use flavor enhancers in an attempt to lie in state, like Stalin.