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She’s intuitive. It’s closing time and it’s Sunday, and she opens late on Monday. “But you knew that, didn’t you?” she smiles. She helps me out in her amused, laid-back way. Her name is Maura. Thirty-four, divorced, no kids; she gets the statistics out of the way. She’s established an easy groundwork. In an hour or two she’ll ask those leading questions that are part, more and more, of doing love in the eighties. I check automatically for wedding and friendship rings. The flesh on her ring finger isn’t blanched and fluted so I know she’s been divorced a while. That’s a definite plus. The newly single are to be avoided.

Maura came down from Portland, Oregon, three winters ago. “I don’t know why I stay.” We’re having a pitcher of sangría, still in the mall. I like her voice; it’s rueful and teasing. I think I even like her big, sensible hands, so unlike Blanquita’s. I spot slivers, chewed nails, nothing glazed or pasted on. Hands that frame the art of Atlanta, such as it is. “Let’s see, there’s Farmers’ Market and the International Airport. What else?”

“The CDC,” I protest. The doctors and researchers at the Centers for Disease Control may all be aliens but this is no time to diminish the city’s glory. “I’m betting on AIDS to put us on the map.” There, I’ve made it easy, no sweat.

She laughs. I feel witty. I malinger, making small talk. Hard to tell what real time it is, out there in the world, but it must be dark. She suggests we go on to Appleby’s on the other side of the mall. Appleby’s is perfect for what we have going: relaxed fun and zero sentiment. I’ve struck gold.

No, I’ve lost my claim.

We have to drive around to the back of the mall. Her car’s a banged-up blue Subaru. Not her fault, she explains; an Oriental sideswiped her just outside Farmers’ Market on her first week in Atlanta. She kept the dent and let it rust. Her antisunbelt statement.

We order ten-cent oysters for her and Buffalo wings for me and a dollar pitcher. We don’t feed each other forkfuls as we might have in a prevenereal era. Afterwards we have to walk around some in the parking lot before finding our way back to her Subaru. I haven’t oriented myself to her car yet. It’s these little things, first moves, losing the first step, that become so tiring, make me feel I’m slowing down. We’ve had a pleasant time and what I really want is to let her go.

“Want to hear me play the harpsichord?”

She locates her car key inside her pocketbook. “That’s very original,” she says. “Should I believe you?”

“Only one way to find out.” The harpsichord was part of love’s debris. Wendi was musically inclined.

“It’s the best line to date,” Maura says as she unlocks the door on the passenger side for me.

Sunday night eases into the dark, cozy a.m. of Monday. Maura and I are having ourselves perfect times. The world’s a vale of tears only if you keep peering six weeks into the future.

“You’re good for me,” she keeps whispering, and makes me believe it. “Griff and the Farmers’ Market. You’re a whole new reason for me to stay.”

“We make a good team,” I say, knowing I’ve said it before. I’m already slipping back. I never used a line on Baby, and she never got my jokes anyway. Maura’s hair, silvery blond in the condo’s dimness, falls over my face. “Partner.”

“But we shouldn’t talk about it,” she says. “That’s one of my superstitions.”

I feel a small, icy twinge around my heart. I’ve swallowed too many superstitions these past few months.

Then the phone rings. I lift the phone off the night table and shove it under the bed.

“Oh, Christ, I just knew it,” Maura says. “It’s too good to be true, isn’t it?” I can feel her body tremble. It’s the first panic she’s displayed.

“Look, I’m ignoring it.”

“No you’re not.”

The ringing stops, waits a while, and starts up again.

“I don’t have to answer it.” I squeeze her rough hand, then splay the palm flat over my beard. “Give me a smile, pardner.”

“It’s all right with me,” she says in her frank, Northwest way. “You have a life. Your life doesn’t begin and end with me.” She’s already out of bed, already fishing through clothes for the simple things she dropped. “But if you ever need anything framed, do me a big favor, okay?”

The phone keeps up its stop-and-start ringing. It’s the Muzak of Purgatory. Maura’s dressed in an instant.

“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be involved with someone.”

Because I can’t bear to hear it ring anymore, I shout into the mouthpiece, “What’s with you, anyway? You’re the one who left!”

But Blanquita the Brave, the giver of two cheers for a new life in a new continent, the pineapple of Joker Rosario’s eyes, his Baby, sounds hysterical. I make out phrases. The Chief’s into games. The Chief doesn’t love her. Oh, Blanquita, you’re breaking my heart: don’t you know, didn’t anyone ever tell you about us? Under it all, you still trust us, you still love. She’s calling me from a diner. She’s babbling route numbers, gas stations, how to find her. Can’t I hear the semis? I’m all she’s got.

I hear my voice, loud and insistent. “Amoco?” I’m shouting. “There’s a hundred Amocos between the perimeter and Chattanooga.”

“I don’t want to know,” I hear Maura tell Marcos as I rush the front door, warm-ups pulled over my pajamas. “I don’t want to start anything complicated.”


MAYA SANYAL has been in Cedar Falls, Iowa, less than two weeks. She’s come, books and clothes and one armchair rattling in the smallest truck that U-Haul would rent her, from New Jersey. Before that she was in North Carolina. Before that, Calcutta, India. Every place has something to give. She is sitting at the kitchen table with Fran drinking bourbon for the first time in her life. Fran Johnson found her the furnished apartment and helped her settle in. Now she’s brought a bottle of bourbon which gives her the right to stay and talk for a bit. She’s breaking up with someone named Vern, a pharmacist. Vern’s father is also a pharmacist and owns a drugstore. Maya has seen Vern’s father on TV twice already. The first time was on the local news when he spoke out against the selling of painkillers like Advil and Nuprin in supermarkets and gas stations. In the matter of painkillers, Maya is a universalist. The other time he was in a barbershop quartet. Vern gets along all right with his father. He likes the pharmacy business, as business goes, but he wants to go back to graduate school and learn to make films. Maya is drinking her first bourbon tonight because Vern left today for San Francisco State.

“I understand totally,” Fran says. She teaches Utopian Fiction and a course in Women’s Studies and worked hard to get Maya hired. Maya has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and will introduce writers like R. K. Narayan and Chinua Achebe to three sections of sophomores at the University of Northern Iowa. “A person has to leave home. Try out his wings.”

Fran has to use the bathroom. “I don’t feel abandoned.” She pushes her chair away from the table. “Anyway, it was a sex thing totally. We were good together. It’d be different if I’d loved him.”

Maya tries to remember what’s in the refrigerator. They need food. She hasn’t been to the supermarket in over a week. She doesn’t have a car yet and so she relies on a corner store — a longish walk — for milk, cereal, and frozen dinners. Someday these exigencies will show up as bad skin and collapsed muscle tone. No folly is ever lost. Maya pictures history as a net, the kind of safety net travelling trapeze artists of her childhood fell into when they were inattentive, or clumsy. Going to circuses in Calcutta with her father is what she remembers vividly. It is a banal memory, for her father, the owner of a steel company, is a complicated man.