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Authors: Jennifer Egan

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BOOK: The Invisible Circus
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But tortured as Phoebe was by her own irrelevance, deep within herself she saw its necessity. For all that surrounded her now was barely real. What about Faith? she would remind herself, walking the smudged halls or eating her lunch alone in the hospital-smelling cafeteria; what about the student strike of 1968? All that was forgotten. Even the teachers who had been there seemed barely to remember. What a nightmare, they would say, rolling their eyes; you kids are much better. But what about Faith O’Connor, who organized the strike and gave a speech in the courtyard? Well, maybe, they’d say. Let’s see … squinting at the window as they reached for some blurred memory to match Phoebe’s encyclopedic descriptions of her sister; but no, incredibly enough, no one remembered Faith, either. They saw nothing but the present. And sometimes even Phoebe would forget, dancing to the Tasmanian Devils or Pearl Harbor and the Explosions; for a moment everything but her immediate surroundings would slip from her mind. But something always brought her back—jerked her, like discovering she’d overslept—and Phoebe would remember that her present life was nothing but the aftermath of something vanished, at which point its details would simply shrink. Her life shrank even when she fought to hold it still—clinging to a boy named Daniel in his car during a school dance, watery music faintly audible from the gym as they lay across his front seat, fog crystallized like sugar on the windshield. She’d liked him all year. Daniel’s breath on her neck, ribs splayed beneath her like a fan, and suddenly a different world seemed to offer itself to Phoebe, bones and flesh, all she wanted was this—Yes, she thought, this was enough—but already it was starting to slip, she was slipping from Daniel even as she clung to him, something she needed to remember like distant footsteps in the corners of her mind. “Hey, you still there?” he asked, but Phoebe wasn’t, could barely make out Daniel’s startled face as she drew away, full of anger, feeling as if someone had robbed her.

Afterward, as always, Phoebe was relieved she had escaped—even when Daniel avoided her eyes in the halls, for he was nothing, all of this was nothing. She had to resist. If Phoebe lost herself in her own small life, it would be like dying.

At six-thirty Phoebe and Patrick hung up their aprons and left Milk and Honey together. The sun was low. Outside the door they paused. The street was empty, caught in the pause between day and night.

“Thanks for the help,” he said.

“You did great.”

“I don’t know. The first day’s always a bitch.”

“No, you did.”

They stood in silence. Phoebe felt depressed, anticipating the empty night ahead. Her mother was busy.

“I’ve got a car,” Patrick said. “You need a ride someplace?”

“No, thanks,” she said, then wondered why she had. It would be better than taking the bus. But Patrick had already turned.

“Okay. See you.”

Phoebe was going the same direction, but felt stupid following Patrick when they’d just said good-bye. She lingered outside Milk and Honey, watching the night staff set up. When Patrick was out of sight, she headed for the bus stop at Haight and Masonic. There was a party on Ocean Beach that night, but those parties were always the same, surf toppling in, a wavering line of bonfires strung across miles of cold sand. Phoebe stopped at a pay phone and fished through her tip money for a dime. She dialed her mother’s office.

“Sweetheart,” her mother said, “how was work?”

“It went fast. Mom, I can’t remember,” Phoebe lied. “Are you busy tonight?”

“I am, unfortunately,” her mother said, lowering her voice. “We’ve got a director in from Germany.”

“Does it go late?”

“No, just cocktails, although I don’t know, we may go on to dinner. Why, are you at loose ends?”

“Not really. There’s a party.”

“Well, that might be fun. Why not go?”

Phoebe said nothing, remembering her mother’s worries about her.

“Well, you’re welcome to join us,” her mother said. “Would you like to?”

Phoebe declined. An evening with Jack Lamont she could do without. Besides, it was probably dressy.

“All right then, I’ll see you later on. If I’m back early, we can watch some TV. Oh, but you’re busy.”

“But I might be home though.

Her mother paused. “Sweetheart, is something wrong? Your voice sounds funny.”

“I’m outside.”

“Okay. Well, have fun at your party. And please be careful—promise you’ll call a taxi home. I’ll reimburse you.”

“But Mom?”


“How late will you be back? Maybe I won’t go.”

“I’m not sure, honey. I wish I could tell you, but I just don’t know.”

Phoebe could think of nothing else to say. “Okay,” she said.

“Bye-bye. I’ll see you tonight.”


Phoebe continued slowly toward Masonic. Abruptly she stopped, turned back around and headed for the bus downtown, to her mother’s office. She wanted to see her. Just see her, just for a minute, then she would go home.

The bus came quickly, floating on its electrical wires. From the crest of each hill Phoebe glimpsed the East Bay blinking across the water. Torpid planes floated overhead.

She got off downtown. The air was linty, opaque. Her mother had warned her repeatedly that cars crashed more often at dusk than at any other time, and Phoebe crossed the streets with care. Nearly a block from the office she was startled to see her mother standing outside the building. Just waiting there, in her white suit. Phoebe stopped. The sight of her mother alone on the street, unaware of her own presence, was strangely compelling. She felt a childish urge to hide—it had been a favorite game of Faith’s, positioning herself and Barry and Phoebe in different parts of a room to eavesdrop on their parents; the wild hope of hearing things they weren’t supposed to know. Of course, their mother and father heard their sniggering, the rasp of Barry’s asthma. “Where are those kids?” their father would growl, causing a leap of delicious fear in Phoebe’s stomach. “Where are those kids, so I can hang them out the window by their toes?”

Phoebe flattened herself against a wall. Her mother’s back was turned. She faced downtown, where a soap-bubble moon had risen between two buildings. Her mother tipped back her head to look at it. This was strange, watching her watch the moon. Phoebe felt a little guilty.

Someone else came outside—Jack, Phoebe thought at first, then recognized the bouncing, tentative stance of Marty, her mother’s new intern. Phoebe had met him twice—very eager, determined to make his own films. His ears stuck out.

Typical Jack, Phoebe thought, making everyone wait. She could see him now, telephone wedged between shoulder and jaw, flapping them out the door as he lit a cigarette. She heard her mother’s and Marty’s voices, but not their words. It began to seem absurd, skulking here while her mother made conversation with a boy hardly older than Phoebe. She longed to leave her hiding place and join them, but how to explain her arrival? Say she’d changed her mind and wanted to come with them, in her torn jeans and berry-spattered T-shirt? She could imagine Jack’s reaction.

A car pulled up alongside her mother—their own boxy Fiat. To Phoebe’s surprise, Jack climbed out. He wore a dark blazer, shiny buttons catching the glare from the streetlight.

The three stood talking for several minutes. Phoebe’s mother’s voice was high, silvery. Jack kept laughing, which seemed unlike him. Phoebe began to feel desolate, stowed away in her corner, furious with all three of them for leaving her out. She wished she’d just gone home.

Finally Marty handed Jack a folder and went back inside the building. Jack and her mother waved. Then her mother turned and looked right in Phoebe’s direction—Phoebe’s heart contracted like a fist. But her mother hadn’t seen. She turned to Jack, who caught her hands in his own and swung them. Then Jack took Phoebe’s mother in his arms and kissed her mouth.

Phoebe was so stunned that she simply stared. It seemed possible this was not her mother after all; as a child she’d made that mistake in department stores, clutching the legs of strange women whose skirts resembled her mother’s. A man and woman were kissing—they could be anyone, Phoebe thought, filled with brief chaotic hope. But there was the Fiat, lights still on, the left one slightly dimmer, their own without a doubt. It all felt irreconcilable, dreamlike. The kiss seemed to last so long. Afterward Jack and her mother hugged, folded together like a single body under the streetlight. Phoebe shut her eyes.

When she looked again, they were getting into the car. Jack took the driver’s seat. The windshield clouded their faces. The car drifted away from the curb behind a bus, heading in Phoebe’s direction. She flipped to face the wall, shoving her cheek to the plaster and holding very still, not turning around until the traffic had gone and the street was silent.

Phoebe stayed where she was for some time. Her mind felt curiously empty. She began walking aimlessly, toward Polk Street, feeling only a numb, dizzy sensation, as if she’d been hit on the head.

Phoebe reached a block lined with male prostitutes her own age or younger, crotches bulging, faces riddled with acne. One boy leaned against a parking meter, smoking. Phoebe approached him. “Can I bum a cigarette?” she asked.

At close range the boy’s face looked uneven, as though poorly assembled under hasty conditions. “I’ve only got this one,” he said, pulling it from behind his ear. “You want it?”

Phoebe took the cigarette. The boy’s hands were thin, freckled. They trembled a little. “Light?” he said.

She nodded, placing the cigarette between her lips. It was filterless, and mixed with the tobacco was an oily taste from the boy’s hair. He struck a match and held it for her. Phoebe let the smoke wander from her mouth. “Thanks,” she said.


Phoebe puffed, gently inhaling. A swell of dizziness stunned her. She smiled at the boy and he smiled back, his teeth gray, the bottom ones missing in front. “So long,” Phoebe said.

He nodded. As Phoebe wandered down the block, she thought she felt the boy’s eyes on her. At the end of the block she swung back around, expecting to intercept his gaze. But the boy was facing the street, eyeing the slow parade of traffic.


Phoebe walked quickly, trying to hold the fragile emptiness in her mind. Down Polk Street to O’Farrell, then into the Tenderloin, where prostitutes in hot pants and feather boas sauntered up to cars with the wary swagger of lion tamers. The air smelled of sweet, ripe things gone bad. Phoebe’s hands shook from the cigarette, and she threw the butt in the gutter.

But she kept thinking about her mother.

Again and again the scene played through Phoebe’s mind: her mother and Jack holding each other in the half-dark; herself, invisible, watching them. It had the terrible, fated power of a dream.

For years when she felt ignored at school, Phoebe would tell herself, I always have my mother, and imagine herself back at home, how funny she was, talkative, how lost her mother would be without her.

Phoebe walked up lower Powell toward Union Square. The air was heavy with fog, cold points of moisture on her face. The ocean felt so near, black and deep, ships’ foghorns crowding the night with their plaintive, guttural cries. Phoebe gazed at the palm trees flapping above Union Square and felt a tightening around her heart. This would never have happened to Faith.

And Phoebe saw, with a dreadful clarity, that in the end she’d failed to interest her mother enough, failed to hold her attention. Some flaw within herself made her extraneous to everyone. She stopped on a corner overwhelmed by a terrible pain. It was her fault, her own fault. She’d done everything wrong.

Wait, she thought, but wait—walking again, faster now—maybe she’d misunderstood, maybe the deal with her mother had been that they each would live a secret life and not tell the other, but Phoebe hadn’t realized—she’d failed to live the secret life and now her life was only this, a hundred empty years stretched uselessly behind her.

She entered Union Square. This was not a place you went at night. Phoebe sat on a bench and looked at the empty square. Overhead, white fog swept past. How could she make up the time?

A young black woman ambled through the square in thigh-high magenta boots, a silvery wig on her head. When the woman was some distance away, Phoebe left her bench and followed her from the square, up Stockton Street. She’d done this many times before, followed people who she sensed could lead her to shadowy, interesting places. Always at a distance. The woman turned inside a hotel lobby near the entrance to the Stockton Tunnel, and Phoebe continued on through the white, echoey tunnel, ignoring the elongated whoops of boys in passing cars. She emerged in Chinatown and turned down Broadway, heading into the thicket of strip joints and X-rated bookstores she was always straining to see through her mother’s car window. The night world glimmered around her, its colored light garish, too bright for ordinary life, like stained-glass windows. Phoebe passed the Condor, where the famous Carol Doda danced; Big Al’s, where tired-looking girls in spike heels and bathing suits were poised at the entrance before red velvet curtains, music pulsing out from behind them. Phoebe allowed herself only a glance, not wanting to draw attention, but she longed to stare at the women, to part the curtains and peer inside. Between this world and her own cautious life lay a barrier, transparent, impermeable. One day Phoebe would cross it. At the Casbah a whispering man in a fez muttered indecipherable promises about the belly dancers within; wasted punk rockers lounged outside the Mabuhay Gardens, chains of safety pins running from their noses to their earlobes. What a relief it would be finally to cross, like walking into a wall of oncoming headlights rather than leaping aside, releasing yourself to the luminous swirl of water under the Golden Gate Bridge. Pure surrender. And afterward, catharsis. She would be on the opposite side of her life.

Phoebe turned off Broadway and went inside a bar. It had a close, velvety feel, like a jewelry box where the ballerina twirls. Small round tables crowded the shadows. Phoebe sat on a stool and ordered a martini. She’d never had one before, only the residue left on olives her father used to feed her at the country club, a vile, medicinal shock she’d endured as the price of the olive’s deliciousness. “On the rocks or straight up?” the bartender asked.

“On the rocks.” She liked saying it. The time had come for a hard, different life. Spotting a cup of pickled onions on the bar, Phoebe added, “With onions, too.”

“You want a Gibson,” the bartender said.

“A martini.”

“With onions it’s a Gibson.”

“Oh. Then no onions.”

“I mean,” he laughed, “I can make you a Gibson. I’m just saying.”

Phoebe’s face filled with heat. “Okay.”

“Okay what? A Gibson?”

She nodded. A certain weight of attention seemed to be gathering upon her, but she didn’t look around. The bartender set an empty triangular glass on the bar, then paused at the approach of another man, quite short, neatly dressed in a brown pin-striped suit. His companion, a woman whose hair was arranged in a pale, translucent ball, sat at one of the small tables. Her face resembled a tabby cat’s.

The man in brown flicked his eyes at Phoebe. “You got some ID, miss?”

Phoebe looked at the bartender. The brown-suited man did the same. “You gotta card ’em, Eddie, I keep saying,” he said. “You’re my eyes and ears.”

Phoebe wormed through her bag for her wallet. It was hard to feel much confidence producing her fake ID, a wrinkled card with a blurry photo, making the unlikely claim that she was a twenty-three-year-old Las Vegan. The brown-suited man took it, studying the card in the light from the bar. His hands were beautifully manicured. “No can do,” he said, handing it back.

“Aw, give her the drink for chrissakes,” said the tabby-faced woman. “Drive yourself crazy, Manny, what for?”

He turned on her fiercely. “I got cops up my ass,” he said. “June’s the worst month, you got all these goddamn proms over at the Hyatt.”

The woman breathed smoke like a retort. “She look to you like she’s going to a prom, Manny?”

Phoebe slid off her stool and made for the door, ears ringing. A disaster, a complete disaster.

“Go to Paddy O’Shaughnessy’s, sweetheart,” the woman called after her. “Sansome and Jackson. They got happy hour till eleven.”

Phoebe did not go to Paddy O’Shaughnessy’s, she went home and started to pack. A determination had seized her: to flee the city, the country, her life. From the closet of her old room she yanked the backpack her mother had bought her for an eighth-grade trip to Yosemite, a hail of dust and pine needles raining down from its waterproof canvas. Phoebe opened a window and shook out the pack over the backyard, turning her face to the wet air and closing her eyes.

What could she do? She could vanish.

They would hardly notice.

She began rounding up things she remotely imagined needing across the world: the passport she’d gotten for a trip to Mexico with her mother, calamine lotion, the hit of acid she’d been handed at a party and kept for months in its white envelope. Birth control pills some doctor had given her, cough medicine, a snakebite kit, a book of Charles Dickens stories. She lay on the floor and groped under the bed for the box of postcards Faith had sent from Europe. At one time Phoebe could recite these by heart, but memorization had dulled their effect. Two years ago she’d put the cards away, determined not to read them again until she had reached the places they were written from. She fished out the box and slipped the cards in a manila envelope, which she packed.

Phoebe turned now to Faith’s bulletin board, a frenzy of newspaper clippings curled and brown with age. Though she’d dusted them frequently over the years, she rarely looked at their contents: stories on the Tet Offensive, the March on the Pentagon, the assassinations. Now she had an urge to take the clippings down, protect them from whoever might come in this room when she’d gone. She began unpinning articles. Some crumbled like ash in her hands. The magazine pages were heartier, John F. Kennedy’s shooting in a series of freeze-frames—Jackie holding the President’s head, then crawling in her short skirt over the back of the moving car—each moment so still, so deeply familiar, like images from Phoebe’s own dreams.

She removed a newspaper clipping and held it in her hands. OAKLAND DRAFT PROTEST,

The headline was dated Wednesday, October 18, 1967, a picture below it of three cops in riot gear beating two protesters with clubs. One of the victims, a boy, had just been hit and was falling, knees giving way, head bent—he looked as if he were kneeling to pray. Beside him, Faith was lunging—toward the cops (as she claimed)? Away from them? It was hard to say. A billy club was inches away from hitting her head. The picture had darkened with time, so that even the white hexagonal patch on the thigh of Faith’s jeans (her irrefutable proof) had melted into the basic fact of violence, five people jammed together in what had proved to be a historical conflict.

Phoebe remembered the envy she’d felt, gathering her lunch bag and books for third grade while her sister sat at the kitchen table, a washcloth full of ice on her head.

Barry hunched over the newspaper, cupping one hand around the picture as though it were homework he feared they might try to copy. “That’s you?” he kept asking, skeptically.

“Look at the jeans,” Faith said.

She had gotten in the newspaper. Now she wasn’t going to school, she was going to the doctor.

“Can I see it?” Barry asked.

Faith lifted the washcloth from her skull and leaned forward shyly, offering them her head. Barry set down his books and moved near her, Phoebe following right behind, standing on tiptoe to peer at the wound.

“Wow,” Barry said with relish, parting Faith’s hair for a better view. “Sick.”

Phoebe touched the lump on her sister’s head. It was hot, moist. Beneath the bruised skin, she felt a pulse.

“That’s got to be a concussion,” Barry said.

“I hardly felt a thing,” Faith said from under her hair, and Phoebe heard the excitement in her voice. “My teeth knocked together.”

Barry held Faith’s head in his hands. As Phoebe pressed her palm to the wound, she found her eyes wandering again and again to the newspaper picture. Faith was here in this kitchen but she was there, too, in the news. Phoebe stared at the image: protesters and police, the billy club descending toward her sister’s head like a magic wand.

Months later, Faith read aloud to Phoebe about the general strike in Paris—students wandering the streets pulling the hands off public clocks, stopping time, Faith explained, because time literally
stopped, a new phase of history was beginning. “Think about it, Pheeb!” her sister cried, leaping from her chair and dragging it to the kitchen clock, where she snapped off both its hands. Afterward she seemed unsure what to do with them. She put them in her pocket.

That evening, their mother slid a casserole dish in the oven and glanced at the time. “My God,” she said, “what’s happened to our clock?”

It stared from the wall as if stunned. “I was stopping time,” Faith said.

A bubble of laughter broke from Phoebe’s chest. Then they all were laughing, Faith the most.

“If breaking a clock could stop time,” their mother said, “there wouldn’t be a single one left.”

Faith took the clock’s hands from her pocket and set them on the counter, useless things, like insect legs. “I love you, Mom,” she said.

Jealous as Phoebe felt, she was transfixed by everything her sister did, dating the Hell’s Angel while she and Wolf were apart, Zane, he was called—everyone appalled because of rumors Faith had repeated about the Angels’ initiation rites, which included killing a man and drinking a woman’s menstrual blood. Then Zane appeared at their house in a leather jacket that groaned and squeaked each time he moved, as if it were alive. He seized a quart of milk from the refrigerator and drank it straight from the carton, gulping in a kind of trance until the carton was empty (which was better, Phoebe argued later, than putting it back in the fridge after he’d already drunk from it). Then he crumpled the carton in his fist and placed it in the garbage pail with surprising gentleness. Their mother forbade Faith ever to see him again, but Faith vowed with a passion quickened by adversity that she would move to Alameda, where Zane lived with five other Hell’s Angels. She was sixteen and a half. Their mother gave in.

Zane’s motorcycle had seemed to Phoebe the pure embodiment of evil, a black-silver machine the Devil himself might ride, snorting, throbbing, belching sour-smelling fumes that wafted in through the windows of the house. In envy and revulsion she watched her sister straddle the seat and peel away, her hands buried in the thick leather of Zane’s jacket. One Saturday, when their mother was at work, Phoebe followed Faith down to the street and begged to be taken along. “Baby, no, Mom’11 murder me alive,” Faith said, but Phoebe persisted, finally aiming her whining appeals at Zane himself, until he ordered them both to shut up and lifted her onto the seat.

By the time they hit the highway, Phoebe was paralyzed with terror—not of crashing so much as the speed itself, which seemed likely to pulverize her. Wind pounded her head, yanking her hair—which she pictured leaving her scalp in tufts—and forcing itself inside her mouth so her cheeks flapped against her teeth. She tried to scream, but the wind shoved her voice back down, gagging her on it. In agony Phoebe clung to Zane’s leather jacket, and even the man inside it, while Faith sheltered her from behind.

On a cliff they finally stopped. Phoebe’s knees had locked, and Faith had to pry her loose from the bike. The world felt still enough to break. Phoebe gaped at her sister, awaiting some acknowledgment of the horror they’d just suffered, but Faith’s cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright. On shaking legs Phoebe followed her sister and Zane to the cliff’s edge, stared down at the glittering sea and promised God she would never, never again ride on a motorcycle. Yet strangely, as the peaceful minutes passed, Phoebe found herself recalling that terrible speed and beginning perversely to long for it, not so much with her brain as with her lungs and stomach and legs—unthinking parts of herself that had adjusted to the machine’s gnashing rhythms and now craved them. Gradually her hunger sharpened, a deep, inexplicable urge for the very thing she dreaded—for the dread itself. “Come on,” she finally cried. “Let’s go more.”

BOOK: The Invisible Circus
6.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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