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Days started in Brooklyn with bright, compromised light. I'd been sleeping late. In the mornings, the blinds sending geometric stripes across the sheets, I kept willing myself to wake up, then slept again, fifteen minutes each time. Construction and conversation, dogs barking their greetings, the irritated beeping of vehicles in reverse-none of it could get me out of bed. By the time I got up, it seemed too late to bother doing anything; the day was almost gone. This was a problem I'd been having.
The phone rang early in the morning, early in June.
"Lynn," my mother said. She was panting slightly, as if she'd been running to the phone, though hadn't she placed the call? "I didn't think you'd be home. You're always at the library, or teaching, I thought."
"I almost always am," I said, pulling back the covers and pushing myself finally out of bed. I opened the blinds and looked out through the grate. Across the street from me, between the pet store and the souvlaki place, was a psychic's office. A neon crystal ball-blue pedestal, red base, under a pair of cajoling hands-stayed lit in the window twenty-four hours a day. The psychic herself was a stocky woman with long frizzy hair, given to flowery housecoats and red lipstick. I sometimes watched her sit in the window drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, gazing out at the street. I never saw anybody go in there. What did she do all day, and how did she survive? I'd lived across from her for three years, ever since I started graduate school, but still I often asked myself these pressing questions.
"Lynn," my mother said again. "So what do you think I should do?"
"I've been talking," she said. "By convention, on the telephone, one person talks while the other listens. People have agreed that this is the best way to approach it. Do you have a different idea?"
"Sorry. My attention must have drifted there for a minute. I just got up."
"It's ten o'clock!"
"I was up late, um, studying."
"I've been up for hours. I couldn't sleep. I'm worried about Wylie, and I thought, I'll call Lynn, she always knows how to handle him, she can communicate, and now you're not even listening." "What's wrong with Wylie?"
"He cut off his phone. He lives like a monk and weighs about as much as a tin can. An empty tin can. Not only that-he won't speak to me. I have one child who won't speak to me in person and another who won't listen to me on the phone."
This she ignored. "I want you to come home."
"To Albuquerque?" I gave a shudder I hoped was inaudible and went into the kitchen to make coffee, cradling the phone against my shoulder.
"Don't take that tone," my mother said. She seemed to have heard the shudder, which was an uncanny ability of hers.
"What tone is that?"
"The I'm-too-good-for-Albuquerque tone. You've had it ever since you moved to New York."
"I hated Albuquerque just as much when I still lived there."
"I don't know why. You're just like Wylie, do you know that? You have all these objections that don't even make sense."
"Mom," I said, "I feel like we're not actually getting anywhere in this conversation." Across the street the psychic entered the window and stood with her arms folded, a cigarette tense between her fingers. The souvlaki guy, passing by her window, waved good morning. With slow elegance she raised her eyebrows and blew a perfect smoke ring, and he laughed.
"It's those eco-freaks," my mother said plaintively. "Wylie's friends. They've turned him against me. He won't call, won't come over for dinner. He says he's breaking away. He says I'm too complicit, but I don't think it's complicit to cook him a hot meal. I don't even know what I'm complicit in, do you?"
"I'm not sure. The dominant paradigm?"
"I'm a travel agent," my mother said, "not a paradigm." Sorrow and annoyance chimed together in her voice, a mother's chord.
"I know," I told her. We observed a moment of silence. Afterwards a gentle plastic rattle came through on the line, the sound of my mother's short manicured nails against her keyboard, and I realized she was calling from work.
"I'm booking you a ticket. We have some great deals through Minneapolis."
"Don't do that, Mom."
"I'm not taking no for an answer."
"No," I said.
"What did I just say? We've got great deals. Minneapolis is desperate for flights. They'll do anything. They'll pay you to fly there, practically. Listen, I'm pressing a button. I'm confirming. I'll e-mail you the reservation."
"Don't do that," I said.
"You're coming home."
Outside, summer heat was putting pressure on the day. My super, Guhan, stood by the door rifling through the building's garbage cans, sweat inking a line down the back of his Yankees T-shirt. He was very nosy and went through everybody's garbage, supposedly to make sure all the right paper got recycled. When he saw me he grunted. Originally he'd helped my old roommate-a dark-haired, six-foot-tall Swiss woman from my art history program-get a rent-stabilized apartment in the building. I moved in; then Suzanne finished her dissertation on a little-known Swiss surrealist and went back to Bern. For months afterwards Guhan kept asking me when she was coming back. Now he just sighed, eternally disappointed by what was left.
The street smelled of coffee in paper cups, car exhaust, perfume that had just been sprayed too strongly in the privacy of apartments, dog turds baking in the sun. I crossed the street and passed the psychic, gone now, and the pet store, where mangy kittens lay curled in the window in sad, scruffy balls. I bought a coffee and a paper to read on the subway. All the news involved natural disasters in faraway places: earthquakes, droughts, fires, floods.
A man wearing fake breasts under a black dress came on the train and sang a Spanish song while shaking his hips and holding his palm out for money, which nobody gave.
The woman beside me, middle-aged, short-haired, and suited, fell asleep, her tired face smearing makeup against my shoulder.
I thought about Wylie, my baby brother, fat and jolly when he was little, tall and bony and righteous now. Our father had died two years ago, when his heart suddenly failed him; it was quick and painless, the doctor said. I went home for the funeral and stood with my mother and brother at the graveside, thinking that these were the most appropriate words for death I could imagine: "heart" and "failure." Ever since then, Wylie'd been getting both thinner and more radical. These days he was some kind of environmental crusader, a haranguing activist with a philosophical bent. He supposedly was finishing his biology degree at UNM, but only registered for one class a semester. My mother often said he took after my father, who was a scientist; but my father had a Ph.D. and a job at a lab, whereas Wylie was twenty-four and years away from any degree at all. Instead of doing course work, he devoted his time to writing his undergraduate thesis, a massive opus "about all of nature," as my mother told me on the phone when I asked why it was taking so long. The opus seemed to have more to do with ideology than biology, and sometimes he sent me chunks of it by e-mail, in the middle of the night, after too much beer: The desert is deconstruction in practice, not theory; an experience that dismantles the border of the self and defies the human (frequently but not always male) sense of authorship, the idea that people create their own reality. In this Derridean context we can locate a species of alternative to the institutional structures of civilization. Not by fixing but by decentering us, wilderness puts us in our place in the world. It is a narrative that cannot be controlled by the participant.
Usually I didn't make it much further than that. In my head Wylie was still a tousle-haired geek of around fourteen, camping out in a teepee in the backyard and building that science project where the volcano erupts. There was no way I could take him seriously. "Lynnie," he wrote at the beginning of one of his messages, "I showed this section to Mom, and she said, 'Have you ever thought about going to law school?'"
By the time I got to school it was past noon. Summer students with fluorescent hair and bad posture sat smoking on the concrete steps of the art building, where optimistic pigeons kept pecking at the discarded butts and dropping them, pecking and dropping, never learning their lesson. Inside, the hallways were almost empty, the classrooms silent and offices closed, my steps echoing against the linoleum. Bright shreds of posters on the bulletin boards publicized outdated events.
I could hear a girl's shrill giggle around a corner, fading as she walked away. In Michael's office there was yet another girl, this one young, very pretty, and Japanese, in a red miniskirt and matching high heels.
"But you don't understand the pressure I'm under," she was saying. "If I don't get an A my parents will kill me, seriously kill me!"
"I have to admit that I doubt your life is in danger," Michael said, his voice a low rumble, audibly amused.
"But everything will be ruined, and it will all be your fault! Who do you think you are?" the girl said, hysteria rising into her voice.
"It's my job to grade your work."
"You're the teacher," she said squeakily, "not God."
Michael's voice dipped even lower, practiced and reconciling, soft as felt. I stepped into the doorway and coughed loudly. It was a little phlegmier, actually, than I'd meant it to be. The girl barely glanced up, but Michael smiled broadly, lines creasing deeply around his eyes, his looks as excellent as ever. He was my advisor. He was married. We'd flirted my first year in grad school, slept together my second, broken up my third. It was something he did; I knew this now.
"Lynn. Give me two minutes."
I checked my mail in the department office, and by the time I came back the girl was promising to rewrite her paper over the course of the summer-making it the most "A-worthy" paper, she swore, he'd ever read-and away she went, tottering delicately on her heels.
"So," he said. "How are you?"
"Good." I sat down, pulling a pen and notebook out of my bag as if I expected a serious discussion, which I didn't. The pages were filled with absurd scholarship in my messy handwriting, copied-out quotations from famous critics, notes on the sexual proclivities of obscure artists, reading lists of books I never consulted. It was a documented history of wasted time.
"How are you, really?"
He smiled again. It seemed unfair that he was still so handsome. He crossed behind me and closed the door, then came back to face me.
"I don't suppose you have anything for me," he said.
"You want gifts? If I'd known bribery would get me a degree, I wouldn't have bothered to sleep with you."
He didn't laugh. He was wearing a dark blue T-shirt and black jeans and a silver bracelet on his left wrist which he twisted around and around while he looked at me.
"A chapter. Part of a chapter. An abstract for a chapter. An idea. A glimmer of an idea that might eventually, in the fullness of time, become something more."
"Oh," I said. "I didn't bring any of those." I looked over his shoulder at the window. Students bent practically double under the weight of backpacks portaged across the quad. Rangy dark squirrels rummaged for snacks in the trees. As I watched, a gust of wind freed sheets of paper from the trash and skipped them like stones across the pavement.
"I am concerned," Michael said softly, "about your progress in the program."
"Yeah, well . . . I guess it's been kind of a slow semester."
"It's been a slow year, Lynn. You haven't done anything, so far as I can tell, for at least a year. Quite possibly two. When are you going to take your exams? What's going on with this?" He opened a file folder on his desk-my dossier, I guessed, wondering what other information he kept in there-and held up a piece of paper, my supposed abstract of my supposed research for my supposed dissertation. We'd written it together one night in bed in my apartment, the laptop battery toasting my thigh, Michael's arms circling me from behind, his index fingers tapping with aggravating slowness on the keys. The abstract, and his endorsement of it, had gotten me the year of fellowship support I was living on now. I could tell that he was going to read it out loud.
"Please don't start reading it out loud," I said.
He peered at it as if he hadn't written it. "The Secret Modernists: Cultural Production and Practice in Women Artists, 1965 to 1980." He looked up. "Have you looked at those Eleanor Antin papers I was telling you about? Did you go to Philadelphia to see that show?" Then, after I didn't answer: "You know, Lynn, I've always thought this was an excellent topic. You have an opportunity here to do something potentially explosive. But if you sit on it for too long, somebody else will beat you to it."
I'd heard this speech before, though I couldn't remember where the idea had even come from originally, whether it was mine or his. The dissertation supposedly would re-evaluate the feminist art movement in modernist terms, arguing that even though the artists themselves rejected traditional barometers of quality, the work itself could nonetheless be evaluated and prized according to those terms. It was the perfect approach, Michael once said, one that dismantled previous criticism while elevating provocative work; it could push buttons, make enemies, resurrect careers. And, if nothing else, I did like the art of that period, which was populated by high-concept performances and fervent politics, women parading around naked in galleries, issuing manifestos, painting with their menstrual blood. I liked the physical and emotional extremity of it, the willingness of the artists to put their blood and guts, their pain and pleasure, on full display. My dissertation was going to make the case for the aesthetic value of this art, as opposed to its historical significance; I would use my skills as an art historian to situate this work in a broader context and, at the same time, situate myself in the job market. That was Michael's plan, and clear enough to me; I just hadn't gotten around to following it.