In honor of Vertigo usurping Citizen Kane as the number one movie of all time by the British Film Institute’s prestigious Sight and Sound Poll, a position Orson Welles held firmly for the past fifty years, I am posting the Vertigo excerpt of my novel, REEL LIFE, on my blog for your reading pleasure. The novel charts the story of two sisters who must call upon the past to forge a new and meaningful connection, with iconic moments of contemporary cinema as its driving narrative thread. Way to go Vertigo!
Chapter 8: VERTIGO
** 1994 **
Jamie peered out her tall window through the dense morning fog. A piece of suspended metal poked out from the mist, but there was no sign of the bay. So then perhaps it wasn’t there she told herself, looking down at the pregnancy meter she’d been holding. “This is really stupid,” she said to Betty who’d been waiting with her on the phone.
“I can’t believe it’s been two months since your period and you’re just doing this now.”
It had been more than two months, but Jamie didn’t tell her sister that. She pulled at her turtleneck, burning up. “Did you have hot flashes?”
“Who the hell is this guy anyway?” her sister wanted to know again, and again Jamie couldn’t respond. She didn’t have an answer. She’d been mentioning him to Betty, albeit carefully, over the phone in recent weeks. She hadn’t explained the depth of their relationship because she didn’t entirely know herself. She certainly hadn’t told Betty that she was in love. Saying it out loud made it real, and Jamie had had painful experiences with real. She looked back out the window at the bridge, which had disappeared. “You know I’m leaving for Russia next month.”
“Well, maybe you’re not!”
A foghorn blared in her imagination. A ship had lost its way. “I’d get an abortion.”
“Oh, Jamie, don’t say that.”
“What’s wrong with saying that?”
This time Betty didn’t answer, and they waited the final two minutes in silence with Sam, Betty’s newborn, gurgling and suckling in the background. When at last a dark pink plus sign came through, Jamie told Betty, “Negative. Blue.”
There was a long silence in which Jamie could sense her sister’s disappointment. She listened to her swing Sam from her breast over her shoulder and sooth him there. One would never know Sam was Betty’s first child given the confidence and ease in which her sister’s maternal experiences unfolded. “I guess you’re just lovesick,” her sister finally resigned, patting Sam on the back. There was a tiny burp, they hung up, and another hot flash struck Jamie. It ignited in her core and spread quickly to her externals. She threw down the phone and climbed out the living room window onto the thin balcony, constructed for decoration more than use. It’s where she often found herself these days, perched here on the top of Nob Hill taking relief in the cold, wet, and whipping wind, sliding her gaze up and down the pastel Victorian slopes until they fell off into the bay, and by then, like clockwork, the heat flaming inside her would be gone, almost as quickly as it had come. As it had now, and she crawled back inside, threw on her raincoat, grabbed her briefcase, and sprinted to the bus stop at Clay Street.
It was drizzling, and she’d forgotten her umbrella. Distracted with what this might mean for her hair, she didn’t see him at first. They always arrived at the same time, two minutes before the 8:05, and today would be no different, his tall, graceful frame growing out of the mist.
“Fa freddo,” he said, stepping up and covering her with his umbrella.
She blinked up at him.
“It’s cold,” he translated, touching her cheek.
It always took a moment for her to adjust to his presence. But today she couldn’t let it consume her, for she needed to tell him about Russia. One year. She had planned on telling him tonight.
Though would she, should she, be telling him something else?
It began to rain harder. Three minutes late, the rush hour bus lurched to a stop, burped and sighed. The door swung open. They squeezed in and grabbed the high handles just in time to keep themselves righted as the bus began its free-fall into the financial district. Their sides collided, their eyes spoke: tonight they’d meet at the wine bar, and she’d tell him about Russia—Ukraine, actually—about being sent over with a team to dismantle missile silos from the Cold War. He’d be impressed, certainly; he’d like the James Bondness of it, plus she’d already told him that travel was what she’d always wanted. New experiences, her career, everything she’d worked so hard for… He brushed her cheek with his hand as the bus stopped at Bush, and she looked down at the umbrella he’d slid into her hand, thinking, he should be happy for her, right? When she looked up he was gone. Two stops later she was gone too.
A cricket match was in progress on the television behind the bar, softly lit, and draped in dark velvet. Jamie loved coming here with him, of another time, with all its foreign wines and dark, malty beers; it reminded her of all the places she’d never been. “Cricket world champs,” he was saying, switching to an Australian accent, as he could do with any accent. In this case he was referring to Melbourne, where he’d spent a period of his youth, and she imagined this place now, with its deep blue sea on which they might sail someday. “You couldn’t pay me to go back there.”
Her image snapped shut. “Why not?”
“It’s an isolated, racist country, and that’s all you need to know.” Then he switched the topic back to cricket. Half his peers at CS Partners were Indian, and some of them had gone to Dubai for the World Cup.
She made the mistake of comparing cricket to baseball.
He insisted that cricket was vastly superior to baseball and then began to explain why. Like the fact that there are no field positions, like first base or left field or shortstop. The coach strategically places his players on the field based on the batsman and bowlers.
“You mean pitchers.”
“I mean bowlers,” and he enjoyed her muddled expression.
They watched the match for a while, drinking from glasses of Barbera, he continuing his attempts to explain the game she was not getting. But she kept trying to…she was ready to try all night.
The waiter delivered a cheese plate.
Roberto held out a piece for her, not to taste, to smell.
“Feet?” she said, after deliberating a moment.
His eyes were like chocolate in the soft orange light, and in them she could see she’d gotten it right. He looked proud, not of her getting it right, but because the cheese smelled like feet and it was Italian. His father was Italian, the little she knew, and that his mother had died hours after he was born. He fed the cheese to her. She glanced back at the TV if only to collect herself from the intensity of his gaze, but the teams had taken a tea break, he informed her. She thought he might be insane. No. A tea break wasn’t insane; this was simply India, a part of the world to which she’d not been exposed…and he might love her. She lost the sense of herself in that look, in all those places she would someday go, and smiled back at him. His hair was silky and brown, like the Andaman, his skin golden, like the Mediterranean. She would not have believed he was part Thai had he not told her. By the time they finished their wine and stepped out onto the streets still wet with rain, she realized she’d forgotten to tell him anything.
They walked arm-in-arm to the bus stop at the intersection of Montgomery and Sacramento. It was clumsy to walk in this way, especially given all the work she had lugged home in her bag, the Russian language book, tips on local etiquette and customs…and yet it felt unnatural not to walk in this way. Only when the bus didn’t come and they began scaling the hill on foot did they separate and resort to holding hands. When their thighs started burning they took turns pushing each other up. Then they tried walking backwards. At the corner of Mason, the street leveled off in repose, and they sat on a low wall to catch their breath. Across from them was the peach sandstone mansion that appeared in the movie he’d made her watch. They waited, imagined. But no seductive, gray-suited blond came or went.
Roberto had minored in film at Stanford, and when she mentioned that the only Hitchcock movie she’d seen was The Birds he didn’t hide his alarm. Vertigo became their first date. That was four months ago when they were still just strangers riding the same bus, the same bus that appeared now out of nowhere. They waved and it pulled over, unexpectedly, perhaps the driver was bored, for it was empty inside, and obnoxiously bright. They made their way to the back and fell into seats just as it lurched into motion, preparing for that impossible climb. Roberto turned around to watch the mansion fade into the mist. Jamie unbuttoned her coat, leaned over him, and cracked open the window.
“You OK?” He eyed her sweaty brow and fanned her with his coat. Cool air swept her neck and blew her hair back, and she closed her eyes.
“You didn’t eat anything. Maybe you’re hungry.”
“Maybe,” she said, feeling full.
He studied her a moment, then announced in one of his Italian outbursts that he was going to make her pasta aglio e olio! As if that were the answer to everything. “You a gotta eata the pasta.” He shook pinched fingers before his chin.
The bus dropped them at Hyde, and they walked the four blocks to her Victorian apartment building. At Jackson, the cable car came at them from the opposite direction, the conductor clanging so wildly on the bell that she dropped her things. Roberto bent down to help her, staring skeptically at the book, Russian for Business. She pulled it from his hands, mumbled something about working with Russians on an assignment, and stuffed it back in her bag. Curdling screams made them spin around just in time to catch the tourist-laden cable car turn sharply down Washington, as if it had just driven off the side of a cliff.
Inside Jamie’s first floor flat, she changed into jeans and a t-shirt before joining him in the kitchen, where she immediately became useless. She never knew what to do, so she poured herself some wine and took a seat on the stool and watched. He set a pot of water on the stove to boil, chopped garlic and hot peppers, and began frying them in olive oil, a wooden spoon in his hand, a dishtowel tucked in the pocket of his jeans. He never commented on the Top Ramen lining her cupboards. One day he simply brought over sharp knives, a string of garlic bulbs, and a curiously large bag of colorful peppers, Thai chilies, he informed her, from one of his recent trips. Sometimes they talked as he cooked, but tonight she just stared at his focused profile and wondered what he would say if she told him she was pregnant. Her head told her he’d support her decision to have an abortion; her heart told her he wouldn’t. But then she’d never gotten his thoughts right. In fact he often acted in ways that completely surprised her. He cursed in Italian, for instance, cooked in Thai, read novels in French. He pretended to disdain America, yet studied American history obsessively. He had a collection of the teeniest tiniest little Buddha statues and a rosary, but assured her he was not religious. He had an accent ready for every language, and he could spot a nationality at the drop of a hat. He knew things and had been places she didn’t even know existed.
His skin was sensuous and soft, his lashes dark and full, like his hair, that silky luscious brown; yet his features seemed chiseled out of some rare Roman stone. She began imagining what their baby might look like, the languages he or she would speak, the places he or she might grow up in, and without really thinking she blurted out the question, “Where’s your home?”
He was shaking the garlic around in the pan over the fire, and for a moment she wondered if he’d heard her. “I mean if you had to have one, of all the places you’ve lived.”
He still didn’t speak.
“Your father’s Italian, you were born in Thailand, you spent summers in Italy, but went to Jesuit school in Malaysia…”
“I went to middle school in Malaysia.”
“Anyway. You know what I mean. Which place feels to you like home?”
“I will never have a home!” He banged down the pan, and she jolted backwards, almost falling off the stool. The force of his words, the desperation in his voice, startled her senseless, and seeing her alarm he softened his tone, though what he said next came out just as even and definitive. “I need to know that I can leave whenever I want.” It was just that simple, his expression said, and then he checked on the pasta.
She picked up her glass, took a sip and said, in a barely audible tone, “Me too.”
The pasta was done. He drained the spaghetti, mixed it in the frying pan with the olive oil, garlic and chili pepper, and then transferred it into a bowl on the kitchen table in front of her. She got out some forks and napkins and sliced some bread. He served them both. It was a simple dish, he shrugged, intently watching her taste it. We made it at home all the time he went on to say, and something stung the back of her eyes…So he did have a home. The sting became a burn, and she fanned at her open mouth, which was on fire. The dish was spicy as all hell…and not simple at all.
Jamie didn’t have a regular OB/GYN, having stopped seeing doctors when her treatments ended six years ago. She’d go in for the disturbing colonoscopy every other year, but was always clean. Other than that she would ride out a bad flu, suffer through a bladder infection, and use the Today Sponge for birth control. She couldn’t deal with the doctor’s skeptical look upon sight of the checked cancer box on her medical history form. Only when they came upon her scar during the exam was she taken seriously…as if she would lie about something like that. Then proceeded the inquisition in which she would be required to recount all the horrid details of an illness that to her was ancient history, especially when the purpose of her visit was related to something else.
The gynecologist was in Marin. Friday morning, borrowing Roberto’s Fiat for what she told him was a routine physical check-up, Jamie set off across the Golden Gate Bridge fraught with Friday morning traffic. As she inched along the orange suspension in a blinding fog, she reassured herself that the pregnancy test was wrong. But when she reached the other side, and the sky was all at once clear and blue, as if a whole other world had opened up, she felt deep in her heart for one spectacularly hopeful moment that the test was right.
Warmth lingered on her sweater, as if to nurture that thought as she entered the clinic lobby, what was also nurturing a variety of waiting women in various stages of maternity. Even the receptionist was pregnant, with a fresh daisy tucked behind her ear. She smiled genuinely and passed Jamie the clipboard. With the scalding Pete’s coffee she’d brought for protection, Jamie sat in her vinyl chair and flew through the questions, drawing a straight line through the ‘no’ column until she got to that dreaded box, and she brought the cup to her nose. Part of her always wanted to mark “no” here too. It felt wrong to mark “yes” when she was perfectly healthy now. Anyway, she handed in the clipboard, then sat flipping through a Mommy and Me magazine wondering: Is this me?
A nurse measured her weight, one-twenty, height, five-eight, and blood pressure 120/80. As instructed Jamie used the adjoining bathroom to pee into a cup. She removed her clothes and organized the paper gown onto her body. Then she sat on the examination table between the cold stirrups poking out from either side of her, staring at the collage of baby pictures on the wall directly in front of her. Again she tried to imagine the child she and Roberto might have, a redheaded Californian her, a brown-haired Cosmopolite him, then a freckled freak with a cleft chin, which is when the doctor stepped in.
Alarmingly tall with thick silvery hair, he looked like he’d just stepped off his yacht. Am I in the right place, said his fleeting eyes. The nurse handed him Jamie’s chart, which he studied. Jamie sat motionless, eight years back and waiting for the inevitable pause followed by the inevitable interrogation. When it came she gave him her seasoned responses, unflinchingly, like they were discussing the weather. Yes colon cancer was an unusual disease in a woman so young. Yes she was lucky or unlucky depending on how you looked at it. But thankfully this particular doctor didn’t belabor the subject. He just took a cotton swab of her cervix for the Pap smear she hadn’t had in five years and felt around her belly and breasts. She told him about her nausea and hot flashes. Severe? If putting her head in the freezer defined severe, then yes. Then the nurse took her blood. He’d call her in a couple days with the results. When she asked him if she was pregnant, he said, like he hadn’t just said it, that he’d call her in a couple days with the results.
She didn’t feel like going back to work, so she wound Roberto’s car around the cliffs of Highway One, trying to shake off the desperate urge to call Betty. Her sister wouldn’t listen to Jamie’s logic. She wouldn’t accept an abortion, the same abortion that Jamie was beginning to wonder about herself.
And suddenly everything was foggy again, so foggy that she didn’t see the congestion ahead of her until she was upon it and had to slam on the brakes. Crawling by the exit for Muir Woods, an image from Vertigo struck her and she veered the car in that direction. She parked in the visitors’ lot and stepped out into the misty cold unaware that she was cradling her chest, that she wore no coat. She walked numbly, hypnotically towards the tall groaning beasts, until she came upon one, fallen, and paused. On its side the redwood was twice her height, and she stared at it for a time. It didn’t seem of this earth.
And maybe it wasn’t.
On the trail now, she passed tourists in small clusters gaping up. At what, one might wonder, for the trees simply disappeared into grayness. She noted how crowded the place was, and very unlike the scene from the movie, when Scottie and Madeleine wandered around in the pockets of mist, isolated and alone and falling in love with the people neither of them was. She stood before the oldest living redwood for a while, she and a hundred other people; it’s roots rising over their heads and disappearing into the clouds. For what she was waiting she didn’t know…for something to move maybe. Wind howled off the bay and not even the leaves would rustle. She finally gave up, fought the wind back to her car, and wondered if she was going nuts. How could she let this man come between her and her career? She’d never wanted a baby before.
She drove back down Highway One to the overlook at Muir Beach, where she could stand on the low cliff and watch the sea crash on the rocks that reminded her of home. She spotted a tree on a plateau of lush grass nearby. It was under a tree like this that Scottie vowed to Madeleine to find the key to the spells that tormented her, the ones in which she believed she was another woman, a woman long dead of suicide, a woman named Carlotta. “I’m afraid,” Madeleine told him, in his arms, begging him to stay with her, and into her ear he whispered, “All the time.”
The doctor called Jamie at work the following Monday. “Your blood work shows a hormone deficiency,” he said, not hesitating. “Well, in fact, no hormone activity at all.”
There was a pause before she frowned, and tried to think of the right question.
“It could be a result of your chemo treatment.” Papers shuffled. “Here on your chart it says that they moved the ovaries during your surgery as a precaution for radiation treatment,” he went on. “But for some reason your ovaries are not releasing eggs, and so you’re estrogen deficient.”
More silence as she attempted to digest what he was saying.
“So I’m not pregnant,” she said finally.
He cleared his throat. “You’re experiencing symptoms of menopause.”
A joke, that’s what she wanted to say, something sarcastic, but no words came.
“There’s no reason you need to suffer with the hot flashes. There are options.”
A life sentence.
“Like hormone therapy.”
She wrapped the phone chord around her wrist. “So I can’t get pregnant.”
He refused, it seemed, to answer.
“You mean, like never?”
She heard his frustration. “There are other ways to conceive,” he said quickly, awkwardly. “When you’re ready, if you’re ready, we can talk about that.”
“Right,” she said after a moment of processing, when it became clear he didn’t want to talk about anything of the sort. But then neither did Jamie. In fact alternative means of conception was the last thing she had ever expected herself to be concerned about, a child had never been on her list of priorities, and why should that change now?
“Have your pharmacy call us for a prescription of Prempro.”
There was a pause.
“Hormone replacements.” Then he answered a few questions she couldn’t ask, mostly about side affects, which he said were limited. Risks of breast and uterine cancer didn’t sound so limited. “OK,” she said anyway and hung up. What else was she going to say?
“He’s wrong, Jamie!” Betty blurted out into the phone. “That doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Jamie could hear Sam cackling in the background like he thought this was all such a gas. He was a happy baby. In fact Jamie couldn’t remember if she’d ever even heard him cry, and over the din of his elation, Betty was well onto her second supporting example, a woman she knew who had lymphoma, whose doctor told her she couldn’t reproduce, and here she now was, mother of two.
Jamie didn’t feel like arguing. She sat perched on the back of her living room couch gazing out at the piddling rain. The water accumulating on her roof and dripping onto her balcony railing should have bothered her. Tin, tin, tin. “I don’t want children anyway.”
“But you said yourself you felt something.”
“Well, I was wrong.” She went to the TV and picked up the video lying on top of it. They’d watched it again last night. It wasn’t the same tree. She read the back cover while her sister rambled on. What Scottie didn’t know was that Madeleine, the troubled woman he’d fallen in love with, wasn’t, in fact, Madeleine, but somebody else pretending to be Madeline. “Have you seen Vertigo?” Jamie said idly, changing the subject.
“The movie,” she added when her sister didn’t respond.
There was a sigh.
“It’s classic Hitchcock, Betty,” Jamie said in a preaching voice, reading the tag line off the back cover. “You’ve never heard of him?”
“I’ve heard of him,” Betty said defensively.
“Well, you should see the movie.”
“What’s it about?”
“A woman who pretends to be someone else, twice really, to please the man she loves.”
“Sounds like Mom,” Betty said in that voice Jamie hated. And now she regretted having picked up the phone in the first place. She had known it was Betty all along, she could tell by the way it rang. “I’ve gotta go…”
“What are you going to tell Roberto? Because you don’t even know for sure…”
“Do you want a signed affidavit from my doctor?”
“Why do you always have to be so dramatic, so finite? Like this is it?”
“Because this is it.”
“It’s like you want him to leave.”
Jamie hung up on her mid-sentence, afraid of her own seething words, which at their worst could be ruthlessly cutting. Why had she ever listened to her sister in the first place? Let her fill her head with all this maternal instinct stuff when it wasn’t in her heart. When what she really had was no instinct at all. She’d had the hot flashes occasionally since her treatments ended, but in the past six months they’d grown steady, and her period had been spotty at best. So if she’d had any instinct at all, she would have sensed this coming.
The rest of the week was miserable. The rain wouldn’t let up, and Betty didn’t call her, and Jamie didn’t call Betty. But worst of all she knew she had to tell Roberto something, if not everything. Luckily he’d been out of the town on business, and didn’t show up at her place until Saturday morning after his soccer game in the Marina. Cold and muddy, he came over to the couch, bent down and kissed her. “I missed you,” he said, pausing to take in her scent before heading for the shower, turning when she didn’t naturally follow.
“I already took one,” she said.
After he’d cleaned up, he came back and began managing the difficult process of reading his pink Italian sports paper while rubbing her head which rested on his lap. “Let’s go see it,” she said, speaking for the first time in twenty minutes.
He kept reading, intently.
“The church bell tower from Vertigo.”
He turned the page.
“I want to go to the top.”
He looked at her over his paper. “What, so you can jump off?” He was kidding. She was not. “It would be a nice drive.” She stood up. “We could have lunch in Saratoga.” She tried to suppress the sudden urgency. “What else are we going to do today in this miserable weather?”
“Cuddle,” he said simply, and she dropped her shoulders and settled back into her spot. He resumed rubbing her head and absorbing his paper, and she didn’t mean for it to happen, but a tear trickled from her eye and hit his bare leg. He brushed it with his finger and stared at it for long, confused moment. Then he fixed his gaze intently on her, and she looked away. “Maybe I just need to get outside.”
They took the 101 south. The roads were wet but traffic was light. For a while they followed the windsurfers skirting along the bay, until the bay evaporated into cloud, literally, they could feel its dark heavy weight above them now, hitting Mountain View, a monotonous series of low-rise office spaces. RAPID had its headquarters there, and Roberto was still getting used to the fact that this would soon be his commute, that their companies had just merged. A spark ignited in him as they passed the big bold sign, and he went on about how their new joint pitch would redefine technology in the new world. They were already talking about an IPO.
The horizon turned brown and green and bland, and she wondered if that new world included places like Russia. For the first time, Jamie tried to imagine what the country she’d be spending a year in would be like. She hadn’t really cared before. It was a place far away and different, and that’s all she had ever needed to know. Now she pictured a land cold and gray, a land of nerve agents, sulfur mustards, and chlorine hazards, those listed in the waiver she’d signed, a land no different than here or anywhere. The work would be grueling, but she’d never had a problem with grueling if that’s what it took to reach her goals, goals she couldn’t remember suddenly.
An hour later, that same dense cloud tracking them, they exited the highway and ascended a narrow winding road. At the end of a sleepy town, before a view of Santa Clara Valley, stood a small, reconstructed mission: a grassy square framed by low adobe buildings, the church and monastery in a far corner, the saloon, livery stable, and jail in another. What struck her, when she got out of the car, was the silence. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around but them. And perhaps some ghosts. They wandered around under cracked archways whose ceilings were made of old wood beams and from which cast iron candelabras hung perilously. A decrepit sign on the wall read, “Building not reinforced for earthquakes.” They fled the archway and stumbled inside the church, which was a chaotic display of color and slanted, fuzzy light streaming through stained glass high windows. Outside again, they found themselves in a beautiful, secret-feeling garden, where they sat on a bench even though they weren’t tired and pretended not to notice the clouds swirling and swaying overhead. They went to the tiny gift shop, where Roberto spent a half hour perusing the prints and photos depicting the lives of the Mutsun Indians that once lived here. He bought a book about the history of California missions, seemingly happy to have come, and it made her wonder why he had resisted at first.
The bell tower stood at the end of the monastery next to an old cemetery that was overcrowded with wood crosses tilting in all directions. The tower was much smaller than the one in the movie, they agreed, after some examination. Not high enough to die from a fall, Jamie noted, and based on the positioning of the tower next to the roof, Madeline would have landed on the dirt, not the red tiles. And with that thought, came thunder. It slapped hard, and the rain that had been hovering above them all day at last poured down.
Jamie sprinted to the tower door. It was made of old wood and adorned with a life-sized carving of Jesus on the cross…and locked with a massive chain. She tried to open it anyway, and then stood staring at it while the rain came down harder, as if that were possible. “What are you doing!” Roberto called out to her, having taken cover under a nearby archway. Jamie stepped back from the door and looked up at the bells, three of them she counted through the sheets of rain, not one like in the movie. And there didn’t seem to be internal stairs or any means for someone to get up to the top as Madeline had done. There was something wrong, something about those bells, as if they never rang at all.
Come on! He was getting pissed now.
She envisioned that massive redwood from the other day and wondered about all the people that tree had known before her. She thought of the Mutsun Indians Roberto had been so intrigued by, the four thousand of them crammed into that earth over there. Roberto would have appreciated all those layers in that million-year old tree. He seemed obsessed about the origins of people and places, probably because his own origins were so vast and varied. Just the other day he’d taken out his atlas so that he could explain to her why Sicilians were barbarians; apparently his paternal great grandfather was Sicilian. “See,” he was trailing his finger across the route from the Middle East and then back from Europe, and either way you had to pass through Sicily. It was constantly being conquered, a melting pot of nationalities. His face was illuminated. And that wasn’t the first time he’d lugged out that hundred pound book and searched for an answer in its geography. There was always an answer, he’d say. It was why he liked technology, why he never got impatient or frustrated setting up some new device, like the VCR or the stereo system he’d helped her select. If you were patient, researched the instructions, you could always find the answer. She wondered how he would find the answer to her infertility, and if he couldn’t, if he would allow his own history to end with him.
She turned to ask him but he had already fled.
“What were you doing?” he wanted to know, when she got to the car where he’d been waiting with the heater on.
“I don’t know,” she said, shivering, water dripping off her nose. It was hard to tell if she was crying.
The rain turned into a drizzle.
They gave up on Saratoga for lunch and opted for Dona Esther’s Mexican because it was right there on the edge of the mission, and it was one of those lonely, empty dives where they could sit at the bar and order tequila straight up and nobody would blink (though because of the drive back they kept it to watered down margaritas). Sensing her distance, he pulled out the mission guidebook and pointed out little facts that might bring her back, like the original bell tower, it turns out, was burnt down in a fire. Hitchcock built a replica for the film.
“How could he love her when she didn’t exist?” was Jamie’s response. She was talking about Scottie’s love for the Madeline-who-wasn’t-really-Madeline.
Roberto sat back, closed the book, and thought for a moment. “To him she did exist,” he offered eventually. “Even if it was only in his mind, she existed.” He polished off his drink.
Jamie, already done with hers, wanted another, needed another. But he wanted to beat traffic home, so they left but got caught in it anyway. Roberto cursed in Italian under his breath every so often when someone didn’t move out of his way. Jamie fell in and out of sleep. Dusk had fallen by the time they squeezed into a spot around the corner from her apartment. He turned off the engine and they sat for a minute. Cable car lines hummed beneath them. The sky was a purplish gray. He asked her why she’d been so quiet on the ride home. She said she was tired. He wanted to ask more, she could tell, sensing something wrong. But in the end he couldn’t.
After they made love that night and he lay tracing her scar lightly with his hands, he told her, as if he already knew what lay absent beneath the layers of hardened flesh he felt there, even though she had yet to say anything, that he did not want children. And perhaps she had vaguely heard him say that then, but what she heard more strongly were Betty’s words: Why tell him anything? Because you don’t even know for sure.