FOR THE FIRST TIME in her life, Mary was seeing two boys at once. It involved extra laundry, an answering machine, and dark solo trips in taxicabs, which, in Cleveland, had to be summoned by phone, but she recommended it in postcards to friends. She bought the ones with photos of the flats, of James Garfield's grave, or an Annunciation from the art museum, one with a peacock-handsome angel holding up fingers and whispering, One boy, two boys. On the back she wrote, You feel so attended to! To think we all thought just one might amuse, let alone fulfill. Unveil thyself! Unblacken those teeth and minds! Get more boys in your life!
Her nervous collapse was subtle. It took the form of trips to a small neighborhood park, for which she dressed all in white: white blouses, white skirts, white anklets, shoes flat and white as boat sails. She read Bible poetry in the shade on the ground or else a paperback she had found about someone alone on a raft in the ocean, surviving for forty days and nights on nail parings and fish. Mary spoke to no one. She read, and tried not to worry about grass stains, though sometimes she got up and sat on a bench, particularly if there was a clump of something nearby, or a couple making out. She needed to be unsullied, if only for an afternoon. When she returned home, she clutched her books and averted her gaze from the men unloading meat in front of her building. She lived in a small room above a meat company--Alexander Hamilton Pork--and in front, daily, they wheeled in the pale, fatty carcasses, hooked and naked, uncut, unhooved. She tried not to let the refrigerated smell follow her in the door, up the stairs, the vague shame and hamburger death of it, though sometimes it did. Every day she attempted not to step in the blood that ran off the sidewalk and collected in the gutter, dark and alive. At five-thirty she approached her own building in a halting tiptoe and held her breath. The trucks out front pulled away to go home, and the Hamilton Pork butchers, in their red-stained doctors' coats and badges printed from ten-dollar bills, hosed down the sidewalk, leaving the block glistening like a canal. The squeegee kids at the corner would smile at Mary and then, low on water, rush to dip into the puddles and smear their squeegees, watery pink, across the windshields of cars stopped for the light. "Hello," they said. "Hello, hello."
"Where have you been?" asked Boy Number One on the phone in the evening. "I've been trying to reach you." He was running for a local congressional seat, and Mary was working for him. She distributed fliers and put up posters on kiosks and trees. The posters consisted of a huge, handsome photograph with the words Number One underneath. She usually tried to staple him through the tie, so that it looked like a clip, but when she felt tired, or when he talked too much about his wife, she stapled him right in the eyes, like a corpse. He claimed to be separating. Mary knew what separating meant: The head and the body no longer consult; the wife sleeps late, then goes to a shrink, a palm reader, an acupuncturist; the fat rises to the top. Number One was dismantling his life. Slowly, he said. Kindly. He had already fired his secretary, gotten a new campaign manager, gone from stocks to bonds to cash, and sold some lakefront property. He was liquidating. Soon the sleeping wife. "I just worry about the boys," he said. He had two.
"Where have I been?" echoed Mary. She searched deep in her soul. "I've been at the park, reading."
"I miss you," said Number One. "I wish I could come see you this minute." But he was stuck far away in a house with a lid and holes punched in for air; there was grass at the bottom to eat. He also had a small apartment downtown, where the doorman smiled at Mary and nodded her in. But this evening One was at the house with the boys; they were sensitive and taciturn and both in junior high.
"Hmmm," said Mary. She was getting headaches. She wondered what Number Two was doing. Perhaps he could come over and rub her back, scold the pounding and impounding out of her temples, lay on hands, warm and moist. "How is your wife?" asked Mary. She looked at her alarm clock.
"Sleeping," said One.
"Soon you will join her cold digits," said Mary. One fell silent. "You know, what if I were sleeping with somebody else too?" she added. One plus one. "Wouldn't that be better? Wouldn't that be even?" This was her penchant for algebra. She wasn't vengeful. She didn't want to get even. She wanted to be even already.
"I mean, if I were sleeping with somebody else also, wouldn't that make everyone happy?" She thought again of Boy Number Two, whom too often she denied. When she hung up, she would phone him.
"Happy?" hooted Number One. "More than happy. We're talking delirious." He was the funny one. After they made love, he'd sigh, open his eyes, and say, "Was that you?" Number Two was not so hilarious. He was tall and depressed and steady as rain. Ask him, "What if we both saw other people?" and he'd stare out the window, towering and morose. He'd say nothing. Or he'd shrug and say, "Fthatz . . ."
"Fthatz what you want." He'd kiss her, then weep into his own long arm. Mary worried about his health. Number One always ate at restaurants where the food--the squid, the liver, the carrots--was all described as "young and tender," like a Tony Bennett song. But Number Two went to coffee shops and ate things that had nitrites and dark, lacy crusts around the edges. Such food could enter you old and sticking like a bad dream. When Two ate, he nipped nothing in the bud. It could cause you to grow weary and sad, coming in at the tail end of things like that.
"You have everything," she said to Number One. "You have too much: money, power, women." It was absurd to talk about these things in a place like Cleveland. But then the world was always small, no matter what world it was, and you just had to go ahead and say things about it. "Your life is too crowded."
"It's a bit bottlenecked, I admit."
"You've got a ticket holders' line so long it's attracting mimes and jugglers." At times this was how they spoke.
"It's the portrait painters I'm worried about," said One. "They're aggressive and untalented." A click came over the line. He had another call waiting.
"It's so unfair," said Mary. "Everybody wants to sit next to you on the bus."
"I've got to get off the phone now," he said, for he was afraid of how the conversation might go. It might go and go and go.
IN THE PARK an eleven-year-old girl loped back and forth in front of her. Mary looked up. The girl was skinny, flat-chested, lipsticked. She wore a halter top that left her bare-backed, shoulder blades jutting like wings. She spat once, loud and fierce, and it landed by Mary's feet. "Message from outer space," said the girl, and then she strolled off, out of the park. Mary tried to keep reading, but it was hard after that. She grew distracted and uneasy, and she got up and went home, stepping through the blood water and ignoring the meat men, who, when they had them on, tipped their hair-netted caps. Everything came forward and back again, in a wobbly dance, and when she went upstairs she held on to the railing.
THIS WAS WHY she liked Boy Number Two: He was kind and quiet, like someone she'd known for a long time, like someone she'd sat next to at school. He looked down and told her he loved her, sweated all over her, and left his smell lingering around her room. Number One was not a sweater. He was compact and had no pores at all, the heat building up behind his skin. Nothing of him evaporated. He left no trail or scent, but when you were with him, the heat was there and you had to touch. You got close and lost your mind a little. You let it swim. Out into the middle of the sea on a raft. Nail parings and fish.
When he was over, Number Two liked to drink beer and go to bed early, whimpering into her, feet dangling over the bed. He gave her long back rubs, then collapsed on top of her in a moan. He was full of sounds. Words came few and slow. They were never what he meant, he said. He had a hard time explaining.
"I know," said Mary. She had learned to trust his eyes, the light in them, sapphirine and uxorious, though on occasion something drove through them in a scary flash.
"Kiss me," he would say. And she would close her eyes and kiss.
SOMETIMES in her mind she concocted a third one, Boy Number Three. He was composed of the best features of each. It was Boy Number Three, she realized, she desired. Alone, Number One was rich and mean. Number Two was sighing, repetitive, tall, going on forever; you just wanted him to sit down. It was inevitable that she splice and add. One plus two. Three was clever and true. He was better than everybody. Alone, Numbers One and Two were missing parts, gouged and menacing, roaming dangerously through the emerald parks of Cleveland, shaking hands with voters, or stooped moodily over a chili dog. Number Three always presented himself in her mind after a drink or two, like an escort, bearing gifts and wearing a nice suit. "Ah, Number Three," she would say, with her eyes closed.
"I love you," Mary said to Number One. They were being concubines together in his apartment bedroom, lit by streetlights, rescued from ordinary living.
"You're very special," he replied.
"You're very special, too," said Mary. "Though I suppose you'd be even more special if you were single."
"That would make me more than special," said Number One. "That would make me rare. We're talking unicorn."
"I love you," she said to Number Two. She was romantic that way. Her heart was big and bursting. Though her brain was drying and subdividing like a cauliflower. She called both boys "honey," and it shocked her a little. How many honeys could you have? Perhaps you could open your arms and have so many honeys you achieved a higher spiritual plane, like a shelf in a health food store, or a pine tree, mystically inert, life barking at the bottom like a dog.
"I love you, too, said Two, the hot lunch of him lifting off his skin in a steam, a slight choke in the voice, collared and sputtering.
THE POSTCARDS from her friends said, Mary, what are you doing!? Or else they said, Sounds great to me. One of them said, You hog, and then there were a lot of exclamation points.
She painted her room a resonant white. Hope White, it was called, like the heroine of a nurse novel. She began collecting white furniture, small things, for juveniles, only they were for her. She sat in them and at them and felt the edge of a childhood she'd never quite had or couldn't quite remember float back to her, cleansing and restoring. She bathed in Lysol, capfuls under the running tap. She moved her other furniture--the large red, black, and brown pieces out onto the sidewalk and watched the city haul them away on Mondays, until her room was spare and milky as a bone.
"You've redecorated," said Number One.
"Do you really love me?" said Number Two. He never looked around. He stepped toward her, slowly, wanting to know only this.
IN THE PARK, after a Lysol bath, she sat on the paint-flaked slats of a bench and read. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? . . . He who has clean hands . . . There was much casting of lots for raiment. In the other book there was a shark that kept circling.
The same eleven-year-old girl, lips waxed a greenish peach, came by to spit on her.
"What?" said Mary, aghast.
"Nothin'," said the girl. "I'm not going to hurt you," she mocked, and her shoulders moved around as children's do when they play dress-up, a bad imitation of a movie star. She had a cheap shoulder bag with a long strap, and she hoisted it up over her head and arranged it in a diagonal across her chest.
Mary stood and walked away with what might have been indignation in someone else but in her was a horrified scurry. They could see! Everyone could see what she was, what she was doing! She wasn't fooling a soul. What she needed was plans. At a time like this, plans could save a person. They could organize time and space for a while, like little sculptures. At home Mary made soup and ate it, staring at the radiator. She would plan a trip! She would travel to some place far away, some place unlittered and pure.
She bought guidebooks about Canada: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island. She stayed in her room, away from spitters, alternately flipped and perused the pages of her books, her head filling like a suitcase with the names of hotels and local monuments and exchange rates and historical episodes, a fearful excitement building in her to an exhaustion, travel moving up through her like a blood, until she felt she had already been to Canada, already been traveling there for months, and now had to fall back, alone, on her bed and rest.
Excerpted from Like Life by Lorrie Moore. Copyright © 2002 by Lorrie Moore. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.