NOV. 23, 1998
Photograph by MARY ELLEN MARK

LAURA was walking around her apartment in a cotton nightgown with green and yellow flowers on it muttering, "Ugly cunt, ugly cunt." It was a bad habit that had got worse in recent months. She caught herself muttering while she was preparing her morning coffee and made herself stop. But it's true, she thought. Women are ugly. She immediately thought of her sister Anna Lee making herself a chicken-salad sandwich to have with a glass of milk. Anna Lee was not beautiful, but she wasn't ugly either. She thought of her mother, frowning slightly as she sat at her kitchen table, drawing a picture of fruit in a dish. Her mother had a small, dear bald spot on the top of her head. If anyone said "ugly cunt" to her sister or her mother, Laura would hit him. She would hit anyone who said it to her friend Danielle. Well, she didn't really mean it when she said it. At least not in the normal way.

She put her foot up on the table and drank her coffee out of a striped mug the size of a little bowl. She had to be at her job at the medical clinic in half an hour; she wasn't late, but, still, her body was racing inside. Even though she'd been at the clinic for five years, every morning her body acted as if getting out the door and into the world were an emergency. This was even more true since her father died. The death had turned her inside herself. Even when she was in public, talking to people or driving through traffic or carrying forms and charts and samples in the halls of the clinic, she dimly sensed the greater part of herself turned inside, like a bug tunnelling in the earth with its tiny sensate legs. All through the earth was the dull roar of unknown life forms. She could not see it or hear it as she might see and hear with her human eyes and ears, but she could feel it with her fragile insect legs.

She finished her coffee and got out the door. Houston in the summer was terribly hot and humid; the heat made her feel grossly physical. She gave a tiny grunt to express the feeling; it was the kind of grunt her cat made when it lay down and settled in deep. She opened her car; there were cassettes and mixed trash on the floor and the passenger seat, and she thought there was a sour smell coming from somewhere. She let the airconditioner run with the door open, sitting straight up in the seat with her legs parted wide under the tented skirt of her uniform. Across the street, there was a twenty-four-hour flower market in an open shack, dimly, she could see the proprietor inside, wiping his brow with a rag. He looked like he was settled deep into something, too.

Last night she had dreamed of two men in a vicious fight. At first, they had been playing basketball. One of them seemed the apparent winner; he was tall, handsome, and well developed, while his opponent was short and flabby. Watching the game, Laura felt sorry for the little one. Then the game became a fight. The men rolled on the ground, beating each other. The little flabby one proved unexpectedly powerful, and soon he had the tall handsome man pinned on the ground. As Laura watched, he pulled out a serrated knife and began to cut off the top of the handsome man's skull. The handsome man screamed and struggled. Laura ran to them and took the knife away from the small man. He pulled out another knife and tried to stab her. She cut him open from his neck to his crotch. He remained standing; offal fell from his opened body.

She lit a cigarette and closed the car door. Her father had been a small man. When he was younger, he'd struck boxing poses in front of the mirror, jabbing at his reflection. "I could've been a bantamweight," he'd said. "I still have the speed."

Laura lived in a run-down neighborhood that was usually slow, but today there was heavy traffic. She talked to herself as she negotiated the lanes, speeding and slowing in a lulling rhythm. When she talked to herself; she often argued with an imaginary person. This time, she argued about the news story concerning the President's affair with a twenty-two-year-old intern. "Personally, I don't care," she said. "It shouldn't really matter what they're like sexually." Stopped at the red light, she glanced at the people waiting for a bus. They looked tenacious and stoic as a band of ragged cats, staring alertly down the street or pulled tidily into themselves, with crossed legs, holding their handbags. "It's hard to tell what really went on between the two of them anyway," she continued. "Sometimes things that look awful on the outside look different when you get up close."

Her father had started dying in a hospital in Tucson. By the time Laura had got there, her mother and her sister were fighting with the doctors about his treatment. He was too weak to eat, so they'd stuffed tubes down his nose to feed him something called Vita Plus. "His body doesn't want it." Anna Lee was talking to the nurse. "It's making him sicker." It was true. As soon as Laura looked at her father, she knew he was going to die. His body was shrunken and dried, already half abandoned; his spirit stared from his eyes as if stunned. "I know," said the nurse. "I agree with you. But we have to give it to him. It's policy."
"Hi, Daddy," said Laura.

When he answered her, his voice was like an old broken sack holding something live. He was about to lose the live thing, but right now he held it, amazed by it, as if he had never known it before. He said, "Good to see you. Didn't know if you'd come."

She stopped at a crosswalk; there was a squirrel crossing the street in short, halting runs. She stopped traffic for a minute, waiting for it. A woman sitting on a public bench smiled at her. The woman sat with her knees tensely open and her feet poised on their balls. In her pointy shoes, her feet were like little hooves. It made sense that she was on the squirrel's side.

“His delicate beauty was almost too bright-lit by his youth and maleness.”

They brought their father home to be cared for by hospice workers. By that time, he was emaciated and filled with mucus that he could not discharge through his throat or nose. It ran out of his nostrils sometimes, but mostly they heard it, rattling in his lungs. He couldn't eat anything, and he didn't talk much. They put him in the guest bedroom, in a big soft bed with a dust ruffle. The sun shining in the window made his skin so transparent that the veins and spots on his face became more present than the skin. He blinked at the sun like a turtle. They took turns sitting with him. Laura stroked his arm with her fingertips, barely grazing his fragile skin. When she did that, he said, "Thank you, Laura honey." He had never called her honey before.

He was so weak he couldn't turn himself; so two hospice workers had to turn him. When they did, he got angry; his skin had gone so thin that his bones felt sharp, and it hurt him to be moved. "No, leave me alone," he'd say. "I don't care, I don't care." He would frown and even slap at the workers, and, in the fierce knit of his brow and his blank, furious eye, Laura remembered him as he had been twenty five years ago. He had been standing in the dining room, and she had walked by him wearing flowered pants that were tight in the seat and the crotch. He'd said, "What're you doing walking around with your pudenda hanging out like that? Nobody wants to see that."

SHE arrived at the clinic early and got , a good place in the parking garage. On the way up to the seventeenth floor, she shared the elevator with Dr. Edwina Ramirez, whom she liked. They had once had a conversation in the break lounge during which they both revealed that they didn't want to have children; Dr. Ramirez had looked at Laura suddenly, a deep, bright spot inside her eye. "People act like there's something wrong with you," she said. "Do they know about overpopulation? I mean, yeah, there's biology and shit. But there's other ways to be a loving person." She had quickly bent to take her candy bar out of the machine. "You know what I mean?"

Ever since then, Laura had felt good around Dr. Ramirez. Every time she saw her, she thought, Ways to be a loving person. She thought it as they rode up in the elevator together, even though the doctor stood silently frowning and smoothing her skirt. When they got to their floor, Dr. Ramirez said "See you" and gave Laura a half smile as they strode in opposite directions.
Laura went to the lounge to get a coffee. Some other technicians and a few nurses were sitting at the table eating doughnuts from a box. Newspapers with broad, grainy pictures of the White House intern lay spread out on the table. In one of the pictures, the girl posed with members of her high school class at the prom. She stood very erect in a low-cut dress, staring with focused dreaminess at a spot just past the camera.

"She's a porker," said a tech support. "Just look at her."

"Beautiful hair, though," said a phlebotomist.

Laura lingered at the little refrigerator, trying to find the carton of whole milk. Everybody else used two-per-cent.

"It makes me sympathize with him," said a nurse. "He could have anybody he wanted, and he picks these kinds of girls. Like, they're not models, they're not stars."

"That makes you sympathize? I think that's what's gross about it."

"But it might not be. It might be because he wants somebody to be normal with. Like somebody who's totally on his side who he can, like, talk about baseball with. Somebody who's pretty in a normal way."

"What? Are you nuts? She was a fat girl sucking his dick"!

Laura settled for edible oil creamers. She took a handful, along with a pocketful of sugars and a striped stir stick.

THE day they brought their father home, the plumbing in the bathroom backed up. Sewage came out of the bathtub drain, water seeped into the chenille tapestry their mother had put up around the window. The sight of it made Laura's heart pound.

During the eight days that Laura stayed there, she slept in the bedroom of her girlhood,
sharing the bed with Anna Lee. She and Anna Lee had slept close together in the same bed until Laura was fifteen and Anna Lee thirteen. Even when they got separate beds, they sometimes crept in together and cuddled. Now they lay separate even in grief.

They talked, though. The night before their father died, they talked until four in the morning. Anna Lee talked about her six-year-old, Peter, an anxious, overweight child with a genius I.Q. The kid couldn't make friends; he fought all the time and was often beaten. He'd set his room on fire twice. She was talking about a psychiatrist she had taken him to see. In the light from the window, Laura could see her sister's eyelashes raising and lowering with each hard, dry blink She could smell the lotion Anna Lee used on her face and neck. The psychiatrist had put Peter on a waiting list to go to a special school in Montana, a farm school with llamas the children could care for and ride on.

After Anna Lee stopped talking, there was a long silence. Laura could feel her sister's body become fractionally softer and more open, relaxing and concentrating at the same time. Maybe she was thinking of Peter, how he might get better, how he might grow happy and strong. Laura had met the child. He'd frowned at her and looked down at the broken toy in his hand, but there was curiosity in his mien, and he was quick to look up again. He was already fat and already bright; he seemed too sad and too angry for such a young child.

"I had a strange thought about Daddy," she said.

Anna Lee didn't answer, but Laura could feel her become alert. In the scant window light, Laura could sense that the muscles around Anna Lee's eyes had tightened. She knew she should stop, but she didn't. "It was more a picture in my head," she continued. "It was a picture of a vagina that somebody was slashing with a knife. Daddy wasn't in the picture, but-"

"Oh Christ, Laura." Anna Lee put her hands over her face and turned away. "Just stop. Why don't you just stop?"

"But I didn't mean it to be"

"He's not your enemy now," said Anna Lee. "He's dying."

Her voice was raw and hard; she thrust it at Laura like a stick. Laura pictured her sister at twelve, yelling at some mean boys who'd cornered a cat. She felt loyalty and love. "I'm sorry," she said. Her mouth frowned, a weak, spasmodic grimace in the dark. "I'm sorry.

Anna Lee reached back and patted Laura's stomach with her fingers and half her palm. Then she withdrew into her private curl.

Laura lay awake through the night. Anna Lee moved and scratched herself and spoke in urgent, slurred monosyllables. Laura thought of their mother, alone upstairs in the heavy sleep brought on by barbiturates. Tomorrow she would be at the stove, boiling water for Jell-O in case her husband would eat it. She didn't really believe he was dying. She knew it, but she didn't believe it.

Carefully, Laura got out of bed. She walked through the dark house until she came to her father's room. She heard him breathing before her eyes adjusted to the light. His breath was like a worn moth feebly beating against a surface. She sat in the armchair beside his bed. The electric clock said it was five-thirty. A passing car on the street filled the room with a yawning sweep of light. The wallpaper was yellow flowers. Great Aunt's old dead clock sat on the dresser. Great Aunt was her father's aunt who had raised him with her sister. Two widowed aunts and a little boy with no father. Laura could see the boy standing in the parlor, all his new life coursing through his small, stout legs and trunk In his head was a new solar system, crackling with light as he created the planets, the novas, the sun and the moon and the stars. "Look!" he cried. "Look!" The dutiful aunts, busy with housekeeping and food, didn't see. The more he tried to show, the more they wouldn't see. The boy hesitated, and with his uncertainty his system began to break Thrown off its trajectory, the sun became erratic, and the planets went cold. The stars burned fiercely in the cold dark, but the aunts didn't notice that, either.

Another car went by. Her father muttered and made wet noises with his mouth. She imagined him saying, “When I was broken, then they loved me.”

"No wonder you hated them," said Laura softly. "No wonder."

BEHIND the reception desk there were two radios playing different stations for each secretary. One played frenetic electronic songs, the other formula love songs, and both ran together in a gross hash of sorrow and desire. This happened every afternoon by around one. Faith, who worked behind the desk, said it was easy to separate them, to just concentrate on the one you wanted. But Laura always heard both of them jabbering every time she walked by the desk.

"Martha Dillon?' She spoke the words to the waiting room. A shabby middleaged man eyed her querulously. A redhaired middle-aged woman put down her magazine and approached Laura with a mild, obedient air. Martha was in for a physical, so Laura had to give her a preliminary before the doctor examined her. First, they stopped at the scale outside the office door; Martha took off her loafers, her socks, and her sweater, to shave off some extra ounces. A lot of women did that, and it always seemed stupid to Laura. "Five four, a hundred and twenty-six pounds," she said loudly.

"Shit," muttered Martha.

"Look at the bright side," said Laura. "You didn't gain since last time."
Martha didn't reply, but Laura sensed an annoyed little buzz from her. She was still buzzing slightly as she sat in the office; even though she was small and placid, it struck Laura that she gave off a little buzz all the time. She was forty-three years old, but her face was unlined and her eyes were wide and receptive, like a much younger person's. Her hair was obviously dyed, the way a teenager would do it. You could still tell she was middle-aged, though.

She didn't smoke, she exercised three times a week, she drank twice a week, wine with dinner. She was single. Her aunt had diabetes, and her mother had ovarian cancer. She had never had an operation or been hospitalized. Her periods were regular. She had never had any sexual partners. Laura blinked.


"No," said Martha. "Never." She looked at Laura as if she were watching for a reaction, and maybe holding back a smile.

Her blood pressure was excellent. Her pulse rate was average. Laura handled her wrist and arm with unusual care. A forty-three-year-old virgin. It was like looking at an ancient, sacred artifact, a primitive icon with its face rubbed off. It had no function or beauty, but it still felt powerful when you touched it. Laura pictured Martha walking around with a tiny red flame in the pit of her body, protecting it with her fat and muscle.

Laura felt tense as she watched the doctor examine Martha, especially when he did the gynecological exam. She noticed that Martha gripped her paper gown in the fingers of one hand when the doctor sat between her legs. He had to tell her to open her legs wider three times. She lay with her head sharply turned so that she stared at a corner of the ceiling. There was a light sweat on her forehead.

When she changed back into her clothes, though, she moved as if she were in a women's locker room. She got up from the table and took off the paper gown before the doctor was even out of the room. Laura stared at her. Martha suddenly looked right at her and smiled as if she'd won something.

"She's probably really religious, or maybe she's crazy." That's what Beatrice, the secretary, thought. "In this day and age? She was probably molested when she was little."

"I don't know," said Laura. "I respected it."

Beatrice shrugged. "Well, you know, everybody has the right." She lowered her dark, heavy lashes and continued her graceful movements at her desk.

Laura imagined her father looking at the middle-aged virgin and then looking away with an embarrassed smile on his face. He might think about protecting her, about waving at her from across the street, saying "Hi, how are you," sending protection with his words. He could protect her and still keep walking, smiling to himself with embarrassed tenderness. He would have a feeling of honor and frailty, but there would be something repulsive in it, too, because she wasn't a pretty young girl. Laura remembered a minor incident in a novel she had read by a French writer, in which a teen-age boy knocked an old nun off a bridge. Her habit was heavy and so she drowned, and the writer wondered, with a stupid sort of meanness, Laura thought, whether the nun had felt shocked to have her vagina touched by cold water. She remembered a recent news story about a man who had kidnapped a little girl so that he could tie her to a tree and set a fire at the foot of the tree. Then he went to his house to watch her bum through binoculars until the police came.

Instead of going back to the waiting room, she went to the public bathroom and leaned against the small windowsill with her head in her hands. She was forty; she tried to imagine what it would be like to be a virgin. She imagined walking through the supermarket, encased in an invisible membrane that was fluid but also impenetrable, her eyes wide and staring like a doll's. Then she imagined her virginity like a strong muscle between her legs, making all her other muscles strong, making everything in her more alive, all the way up through her brains and into her bones.

She lifted her head and looked out the small window. She saw green grass and the tops of trees, cylindrical apartment buildings, and traffic. She had not wanted her virginity. She'd had to lose it with three separate people; it had been stubborn and hard to break.

She brushed the dust and particles from the windowsill off her elbows. "I was a rebellious girl," she said, "and I went in a stupid direction."

She thought of the Narcotics Anonymous meetings she had attended some years ago. People had talked about the things that had happened to them, the things they had done on drugs. Nothing had been too degrading or too pathetic or too dull. Laura had talked about trying to lose her virginity. Her friend Danielle had told a story about how she'd let a disgusting fat guy she hated try to shove a can of root beer up her vagina because, he'd suggested, they might be able to fill cans with heroin and smuggle them.

Laura smiled a little. After the meeting, she'd asked Danielle, "Who tried to stick it in, you or him?"

"Oh," said Danielle, "we both tried." They laughed.

Such grotesque humility, she thought. Such strange comfort. She remembered the paper plates of cookies, the pot of coffee on the low table in the back of the room at N.A. She loved standing back there with Danielle, eating windmill cookies and smoking. Laura looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. "A stupid girl," she said to her reflection. Well, she thought, but who could blame her?

When Laura was still a teen-ager, her mother had asked what it had been like for her to lose her virginity. She wanted to know if the experience had been "special." They had been watching TV together. It was late and the living room was dark. Laura was startled by the question. Her mother looked straight ahead while she asked it, but Laura could see her expression was unhappy. "Was it someone you loved?" she asked.

"Yes," said Laura. "Yes, it was."

"I'm glad," said her mother. She still looked straight ahead. "I wanted you to have that." It seemed that she knew Laura was lying and that the lie was O.K. with her.

Virginity was supposed to be honorable, but who would want honor like that?

SHE went back to the waiting room and got the grouchy middle-aged man. He didn't bother to take off his shoes when she weighed him. He was there, he said, only because his wife had made him come. He had taken off work and shot the whole day. "My wife loves going to the doctor," he said. "She had all those mammograms and she lost her breast anyway. Most of it."

"Well, but it's good to come in," said Laura. "Even if it doesn't always work. You know that. Your wife's just caring about you."

He gave a conciliatory little snort. With his shirt off, he was big and flabby, but he carried it as if he liked it. His blood pressure was much too high. As she worked, Laura let her touch linger on him longer than was necessary, because she wanted to soothe him. She felt him respond to her touch; the response was like an animal turning its head to look at her, then looking away again. She thought he liked it, though.

When the man was gone, she asked Dr. Phillips if she could go outside on her break. He usually didn't like her to do that, because she was always a little late getting back when she went out, but he was trying to be extra nice since her father died. "O.K.," he said, "but watch the time." He turned and strode down the hall, habitually bristling like a small dog with a dominant nature.

Outside the heat was horrible. She started sweating right away, probably ruining her uniform for the next day. Still, she was glad to be out of the building. The clinic was situated between a busy main street and a run-down slow street occupied by an old wig shop, a children's karate gym, and a large ill-kept park where aging homeless men sat around. She decided to walk a few blocks down the park street. She liked the trees, and she was friendly with a few of the men, who sometimes wished her good afternoon.

She walked and an old song played in her head. It was the kind of old song that sounded innocent and dirty at the same time. The music was simple and shallow except for one deep spot where it was like somebody’s pants were being pulled down. “You got nothing to hide and everybody knows it’s true. Too bad, little girl, it’s all over for you.” The singer laughed and the music laughed, too, laughter spangled with pleasure and contempt.

Laura had loved the song; she had loved the thought of its being all over and everybody knowing. A lot of other people must’ve loved it too; it had been a very popular song. She remembered walking down the hall in high school wearing tight clothes; boys had laughed and grabbed their crotches. They all said she’d sucked their dicks, but she’d really only screwed one of them. It didn’t matter. When her father found out, he yelled and hit her.

“Was it someone special?” asked her mother. “Was it someone you loved?”

She stopped at a curb for traffic. Her body was alive with feelings that were strong but that seemed broken or incomplete, and she felt too weak to hold them.

A car pulled up beside her, throwing off motor heat. The car was full of loud teen-age boys. The driver, a Hispanic boy of about eighteen, wanted to make a right turn, but he was blocked by a stalled car in front of him and cars next to him. He was banging his horn and yelling out the window; his anger was hot and all over the place. Laura stared at him. His delicate beauty was almost too bright-lit by his youth and maleness. He had so much light that it burned him up and made him dark.

He yelled and pounded the horn, trying to spew it out, but still it surged through him. It was like he was at war, like he could kill and kill, without any understanding in his mind or heart. In a real war, thought Laura, he would rush into danger before the other men and be called a hero. Her thought folded over unexpectedly, and she pictured him as a baby with his small mouth on his mother’s breast. She pictured his fierce nature deep inside him, like dark, beautiful seeds feeding off his mother’s milk, off the feel of her hand on his skull. She thought of him now with a girl; he would kiss her too hard and be rough, wanting her to feel what he had inside him, wanting to show it to her.

He turned in his seat to shout something to the other boys in the car, then turned forward again to put his head out the window to curse the other cars. He turned again and saw Laura staring at him. Their eyes met. She thought of her father showing his aunts the stars and all the planets. You are good, she thought. What you have is good. The boy dropped his eyes in confusion. There was a yell from the back seat. The stalled car leapt forward. The boy snapped around, hit the gas, and was off.

Laura crossed the street. She thought\t, I told him he was good. I told him with my eyes and he heard me. She flinched under a second of embarrassment- to think that she could give that guy anything he might want! But then she thought of the middle-aged virgin jumping off the examining table and smiling as if she’d won something, and she felt O.K. again.

She walked up the block sweating, and grateful without knowing why. Again, she pictured the middle-aged virgin, this time at home at night, doing her meticulous toilet, rubbing her feet with softening cream. She pictured herself at home, curled on the couch, watching TV and eating ice cream out of the carton. She pictured the men in her dream, fighting. She pictured herself kneeling beside the handsome man. She would pass her hand over his broken skull and make an impenetrable membrane grow over his exposed brain.

The membrane would be transparent, and you would be able to see his brain glowing inside it like magic stones. But you could never cut it or harm it. She pictured her father, young and strong, smiling at her, the planets all around him.

Deep in the park, she saw the homeless men moving about, their figures nearly obscured by overgrown grass and trees. For a moment she strained to see them more clearly, then gave up. It was time to go back; she was late.