Toward the end, Veronica's shoulder pads used to get loose sometimes and wander down her arm or her back without her knowing it. Once I was sitting with her in a good restaurant when a man next to us said, "Excuse me, there's something moving on your back." His tone was light and aggressive, like it was him versus the fashionable nitwits. "Oh," said Veronica, also light. "Excuse me. It's just my prosthesis."
Sometimes I loved how she would make cracks like that. Other times it was just embarrassing. Once we were leaving a movie theater after seeing a pretentious movie. As we walked past a line of people waiting to see the other movie, Veronica said loudly, "They don't want to see anything challenging. They'd rather see Flashdance. Now me, if it's bizarre, I'm interested." There was a little strut to her walk and her voice was like a huge feather in a hat. She's not like that, I'd wanted to say to the ticket holders. If you knew her, you'd see.
But she was like that. She could be unbelievably obnoxious. In the locker room of the gym we both went to, she was always snapping at somebody for getting too close to her or brushing against her. "If you want me to move, just tell me, but please stop poking me in the bottom," she'd say to some openmouthed Suzy in a leotard. "Fist fucking went out years ago. Didn't you know that?"
The Mexican woman clicks her suitcase shut and stands with a little smile. My focus snaps back to normal, and the woman slips back into the raining hugeness. She smiles at me again as she turns to go, returning my civility with rain running down her face.
In the dream, it's like the strangers are delivering messages for more important people, who for some reason can't talk to me. Or that the people who are important by the normal rules--family, close friends--are accidental attachments, and that the apparent strangers are the true loved ones, hidden by the grotesque disguises of human life.
Of course, Veronica had a lot of smart cracks stored up. She needed them. When she didn't have them, she was naked and everybody saw. Once when we were in a coffee shop, she tried to speak seriously to me. Her skin was gray with seriousness. Her whole eyeball looked stretched and tight; the white underpart was actually showing. She said, "I've just got to get off my fat ass and stop feeling sorry for myself." Her tough words didn't go with the look on her face. The waitress, a middle-aged black lady, gave her a sharp, quick glance that softened as she turned away. She could tell something by looking at Veronica, and I wondered what it was.
Veronica died of AIDS. She spent her last days alone. I wasn't with her. When she died, nobody was with her.
I'm feeling a little feverish already, but I don't want to take the aspirin on an empty stomach. I also don't want to deal with holding the umbrella while I get the aspirin out, put it back, get the water, unscrew it, squeeze the umbrella with one arm, the one that's killing me. . . .
I met Veronica twenty-five years ago, when I was a temporary employee doing word processing for an ad agency in Manhattan. I was twenty-one. She was a plump thirty-seven-year-old with bleached-blond hair. She wore tailored suits in mannish plaids with matching bow ties, bright red lipstick, false red fingernails, and mascara that gathered in intense beads on the ends of her eyelashes. Her loud voice was sensual and rigid at once, like plastic baubles put together in rococo shapes. It was deep but could quickly become shrill. You could hear her from across the room, calling everyone, even people she hated, "hon": "Excuse me, hon, but I'm very well acquainted with Jimmy Joyce and the use of the semicolon." She proofread like a cop with a nightstick. She carried an "office kit," which contained a red plastic ruler, assorted colored pens, Liquid Paper, Post-its, and a framed sign embroidered with the words STILL ANAL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS. She was, too. When I told her I had a weird tension that made my forehead feel like it was tightening and letting go over and over again, she said, "No, hon, that's your sphincter."
Excerpted from Veronica by Mary Gaitskill Copyright © 2005 by Mary Gaitskill. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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