Read The Invisible Circus Online
Authors: Jennifer Egan
At these words Zane’s face parted in the first and only real smile Phoebe ever saw upon it. He squatted beside her, handsome, scary, his eyes oddly spent, like burned-out flashcubes. His breath on her face was boozy, medicinal. Rather shyly Zane asked Phoebe her age. Nine, she told him. He started to laugh, a rusty untried sound like an old car door swinging open and shut. “Nine years old, shit,” he said to Faith. “She’s gonna end up crazier than you.”
Riding back, he really let fly, showing off for his crazy girlfriend’s crazy little sister, leaning into such drastic turns that Phoebe’s ear seemed nearly to graze the pavement.
For weeks after, Phoebe would lie in bed thinking jealously, achingly, of Faith and Zane sawing the world in two on that bike, the violence of its speed, the unwilling pleasure that had risen from her legs through her stomach and finally to her throat, pushing up from behind her tongue like fear or nausea, but it wasn’t all bad. It was good, too. It was all mixed up.
Remembering her times with Faith, it seemed to Phoebe that over and over again they had approached a border that, since her sister’s death, had moved out of range. Occasionally, by accident or sheer force of will, something propelled them across it. Yet much as Phoebe longed for the intensity of those times, her own life remained stubbornly apart from the world of events. Governments, armies, networks of underground crooks—their very existence struck her as impossible, dizzying. How had it all been organized? Who was in charge? She was left feeling that the news took place in another world, far from the quiet, incremental one where she led her life.
With one exception: the kidnapping of Patty Hearst had riveted Phoebe like no other news event in her lifetime. She’d been fourteen when it happened, had neither heard of William Randolph Hearst nor read much further in his newspaper than “Question Man.” But that winter she’d scoured the
each day for news of the heiress, discussing minute developments with her friends on the telephone, even dreaming of her. During the year when Patty was in hiding with the SLA, Phoebe and two other girls had spent several Saturdays in search of her, combing the Sunset and Richmond districts, giggling cra-zily as they peered through strangers’ curtains for a whisper of Patty’s black beret, the long shadow of her rifle. Patty’s later account of rape and torture and brainwashing had done little to alter Phoebe’s vision of her: a dull, privileged girl drawn irresistibly toward an invisible border, then crossing it into a dark, transcendent world.
Phoebe stacked the bulletin board’s contents in the box where Faith’s postcards had been and slid it back under the bed. Then she stood in the midst of Faith’s room and listened to her sister’s chimes. She heard the front door open—was it? Yes! Phoebe ran into the hallway, leaning over the banister to listen for her mother’s steps … yes? But no, it was just the overgrown tree knocking against the roof. But wait, wasn’t that her mother’s car? Phoebe listened, every nerve trained on the street awaiting the sound of tires, the jolt of the garage door starting to open. Her false relief left a terrible emptiness behind it. Phoebe went back to Faith’s room, realizing, as she surveyed the half-filled backpack and piles of clothing, that she had no desire to go anywhere. She was bluffing, arming herself in the hope of calling her mother’s bluff, forcing her to give up Jack and come back to Phoebe.
Disgusted, Phoebe resumed her packing. She packed the white sundress it was always too cold to wear in San Francisco, a bottle of Chanel No. 5, extra shoelaces. Shorts—did people wear shorts in Europe? Mascara, though she didn’t need it, her mother said, her eyelashes were so dark. She sat at her desk and penned a letter to Berkeley announcing her decision to defer her admission until next year. She sealed the letter and stamped it. But all this felt preventative, like her father keeping a bag packed for the hospital after he got sick—“How often does it rain if you carry your umbrella?” he’d say, trying to sound jovial—in hopes that preparing himself would protect him from having to go.
Phoebe left her backpack in Faith’s room and went downstairs to the living room. Their father had been an avid collector: etchings of Connecticut River yachts, ivory backgammon sets, relics of a patrician America to which neither he nor anyone else Phoebe knew had the slightest connection. She paced the room. Her mother was out with Jack. Phoebe touched a gold clock under a dome of glass, a carving set encased in a pair of mock dueling pistols. She opened the cupboard where her parents’ wedding china was kept and took out a dish of Florentine marble eggs. She held the eggs in their alabaster dish, awaiting the hum, the swell of promise to rise from beneath the house and lift her up. But the house felt cold.
Phoebe brought the marble eggs to her father’s love seat and lay down. An exhaustion overcame her. I’ll sleep here, she thought, lulled by the foghorns, and felt a sudden hush. She placed one egg in each eye socket, the sensation of cold marble dense, final somehow, like coins on the eyes of the dead.
It shocked Phoebe to find her mother in the kitchen as always the next morning, reading the
in her white terrycloth robe. “That was so odd,” she said, looking up when Phoebe appeared in the doorway.
“What?” Phoebe was alert.
“Last night. Finding you asleep on the love seat.”
“God, I forgot.”
“I could tell you were in the house because your purse was by the door, but I couldn’t find you,” her mother said. “I got absolutely terrified.”
“What time was this?”
“I’m not sure. Pretty late.”
Something should certainly be different, but everything seemed as usual: the smell of coffee, Bach melodies filing neatly from the radio. KDFC San Francisco, KIBE Palo Alto,
Your Radio Concert Hall.
“What were you doing down there?” her mother said.
“Thinking,” Phoebe said. She sat down. Oatmeal bubbled on the stove.
“Did you go to your party?”
Phoebe shook her head. She glanced at the headlines: OPEC promising not to raise prices in 78, NATO planning billions more for defense. A grainy photograph of Aldo Moro, the ex-Prime Minister of Italy who’d been murdered by Red Brigade terrorists the previous month. Phoebe remembered the story only dimly, but the blurred, grainy face of the dead man struck her as poignant. “Look at him,” she said. “That poor guy.”
Her mother was stirring the oatmeal. “Who?”
“Mr. Aldo Moro. They kidnapped him, and when the prisoners weren’t set free, they shot him and left him in the street.”
Her mother shook her head, dropping bread in the toaster. She went to the window and stretched, her spine cracking gently. The sound made Phoebe look up. She noticed the gold serpentine bracelet sliding down her mother’s wrist as she reached her arms overhead. She must have worn it to bed.
“Look. The sun,” her mother said, yawning.
“I guess you don’t really care.”
Her mother turned to her. “What kind of a question is that?” she said. “It’s terrible, yes, but I don’t feel personally about it. Why, do you?” She looked incredulous.
Phoebe said nothing. Heart pounding, she carried breakfast to the table, hot cereal and toast, a creamer of milk, brown sugar in a blue ceramic dish. In her mother’s every gesture she sensed a turning away, the loss of some hold Phoebe had had on her before. She felt powerless to stop it.
Her mother returned to the paper. While she read Herb Caen, Phoebe glanced at the soft collar of her robe, the shadowy tops of her breasts. In the attic, she’d come across some old nudes her father had painted of her mother in the fifties, and been startled by her mother’s alien, painted flesh, the bright nipples, stomach and hips that seemed to flow, as if the skin were actually moving. It was not the same body she’d seen dripping after the shower or sucking in its breath to zip up a skirt.
“Have some toast,” her mother said, nudging the plate. She’d moved on to Art Hoppe.
Phoebe lifted a piece to her mouth, wishing her mother would look up. “Did anything funny happen last night?” she asked.
Her mother glanced at her. Phoebe saw the tiredness in her eyes. “Funny how?”
“You know, just sometimes Jack is funny. Like he does funny stuff.”
Her mother’s expression went flat. “No. Nothing funny happened.”
Phoebe saw this was the wrong tack but couldn’t seem to stop. “You know, like that time when he put out his cigarette in the middle of that guy’s steak, or—”
“Jack is not a clown, Phoebe, all right?”
The toast turned to sand in Phoebe’s mouth. She stood up. Dishes rattled in her arms as she brought them to the sink.
“I’m sorry,” her mother said. “I’m just bored with the jokes about Jack, aren’t you? After all this time?”
Phoebe began to cry.
“Sweetheart,” her mother said.
Phoebe stood in the kitchen and wept. Her mother left her chair and enfolded her in a familiar, soothing embrace. “Hey, I wasn’t so bad,” she said. “I’m tired and I barked, that’s all.”
“I’m tired, too,” Phoebe sobbed.
Her mother held her another moment, then let go. “You seem awfully tense,” she said. “Is something wrong?”
Phoebe shook her head, ashamed of having cried. “I have to go,” she said. “I told them I’d come in early today.”
“Let’s have supper tonight,” her mother said. “Get dressed up and go someplace nice, drink some good wine. We haven’t done that enough lately.” Phoebe sensed her mother’s gaze playing over her anxiously.
“Okay,” she said, pulling on her down vest, which she wore even in summertime.
“If you want to,” her mother said. “But if you have other plans, we can wait …” She was searching Phoebe’s eyes.
“I don’t have any,” Phoebe said.
She was working with Patrick again. Phoebe nodded hello and donned her apron without a word. He took the hint. They worked the morning rush in silence.
During a lull Patrick shared a cigarette with Art. “Can I have one?” Phoebe asked them.
“Of course, dear,” Art said.
“No, I mean it.”
Patrick cocked his head, took a filtered Camel from his pack and gave it to Phoebe. She felt both men’s eyes on her as he lit it. She inhaled deeply, feeling a blow of white dizziness. When she looked up, the men were still watching her. Art looked worried.
“So I’m smoking,” Phoebe said. “So what?”
“What about your promise?” Patrick asked.
Phoebe leaned weakly against the counter. “Promise?”
“Not to smoke.”
The information seemed to take a moment to reach her. “Oh,” she said. “It broke.”
Phoebe spent her lunch break on the phone in Art’s office. She called her father’s lawyer, Henry McBride, whom she dimly remembered having known as a child. Come down to the office, he told her, sign the papers anytime. Her check for five thousand dollars would arrive about two weeks later.
“There’s no way I could get it today?” Phoebe said. “Or tomorrow?”
Henry McBride laughed. Phoebe imagined him, white hair, boozy red nose. “Sorry, my love,” he said.
Phoebe called Laker Airways, whose flights to London proved to be booked solid through the rest of summer. Alone, she might get on standby, the man said, but he couldn’t guarantee it. Phoebe returned to work feeling oddly relieved; for the moment, at least, there seemed no way she could leave the city.
She shared another Camel with Patrick when their shift ended.
Phoebe had long viewed herself as the sole audience for her mother’s unfashionable beauty, a subtlety lost on the fools she dated and Don Juans for whom she was nobody, a middle-aged woman in eyeliner. But tonight she sensed a keen awareness of her mother in every man they encountered, from the young valet who parked their car to their waiter, whose gaze never strayed from her mother’s face while he recited the specials. Pair after pair of moist eyes, and Phoebe saw what drew them: a new liveliness sharpened her mother’s features, dissolving her usual wistfulness like a mist burning off around her. Her long bare neck and delicate wrists seemed too exposed. Phoebe wanted to hide them.
“A Sancerre? Does that sound good?” her mother asked.
Phoebe nodded. The restaurant was new to her, a bustling, elegant place on Union Street, French waiters, specials scribbled carelessly on small chalkboards and propped at each table. No doubt her mother had been here with Jack, Phoebe thought, and felt a sudden, uneasy need to entertain her.
“How’s work?” she asked, buttering her bread with care.
“Well, it’s been great …”
“Go on …”
They shared an edgy laugh, both gulping their wine.
“I was going to say, we’re having our first rough-cut screening of the Che Guevara project next week. So that’s exciting.”
“Wow,” Phoebe said, oppressed by her mother’s frequent use of the word “we.”
They studied their menus and ordered, then her mother straightened the heavy silverware beside her plate. “I have some other news,” she said, obviously nervous. “Surprising news, I think.”
Phoebe’s heartbeats scattered. She was going to be told. A terrible dread overwhelmed her. She didn’t want to hear it, now or ever.
The waiter arrived to replenish the wine, and Phoebe left for the bathroom. She stared in the mirror at her white face and gray, nervous eyes and wondered what she was so afraid of. Finally she returned to the table, threading her way among couples toward the solitary figure of her mother. Jazz played, the sound like insects diving against a lightbulb.
The appetizers had arrived. Phoebe attacked her foie gras, barely looking up. She speared a bite for her mother, who swallowed it distractedly. Her own dish lay untouched.
“Mom, why don’t you eat?”
Her mother gave a tense laugh. “I’m afraid,” she said. “Isn’t that funny?”
“Telling you. My news.”
Phoebe was flushed from eating so fast. Sweat trickled from her underarms, seeping into her silk dress. “Then maybe you should wait.”
Her mother studied her. “That’s an odd suggestion.”
It was hopeless. Phoebe let the last bite of foie gras slide down her throat and slowly wiped her mouth. “Never mind,” she said. “I know what it is.”
“I’m not sure you do, Phoebe.”
“Jack?” Her throat was dry. “You and Jack?”
Her mother inclined her head as if Phoebe had spoken too loudly. “I’ll be damned,” she murmured, lifting a fork to poke at her crab salad. Phoebe waited uneasily to be asked how she knew, but apparently her mother was too rattled to wonder. “Well,” she said with an empty laugh, “so much for my big announcement.”
Phoebe wished she’d simply feigned surprise. Several moments passed in silence. “For how long?” she finally asked.
“A month or so. A little less. At first I couldn’t believe it myself. I wanted to make sure it was something real before I told you, so I wouldn’t shock you over nothing.”
“Wow,” Phoebe said. “You and Jack.”
“I can imagine how bizarre this must seem,” her mother went on, with more confidence. “After so many years, all my joking and complaining about him. But I think when you see us together—he’s a wonderful man, I can’t tell you how happy he makes me.”
There was no need. Before Phoebe’s eyes a metamorphosis was in progress, her own mother merging seamlessly with a glamorous stranger from old photographs. Apparently that other woman had lain in wait all these years, beneath her mother’s wistfulness. She’d been biding her time.
“What I thought,” her mother said, finally beginning to eat, “was that maybe we could all do something together this weekend, go somewhere nice, Mount Tamalpais or Stinson, have Barry drive up—”
“Barry knows, too?”
“I told him today. We had lunch together.”
“I’ll bet he was thrilled,” Phoebe said, surprised by her own bitter tone.
Her mother looked startled. “He was pleased for me,” she said, then fell silent. “Anyway, how does that sound?” she asked, tentative now. “A drive somewhere, the four of us?”
“It sounds fine,” Phoebe said. “Just, it seems so … weird. You and Jack.”
Her mother took Phoebe’s sweating hand in her own long fingers, smooth and cool as bandages. “I know it, sweetheart,” she said. “Believe me, if someone had told me a year ago this would happen, I’d have said they were out of their mind. But I think if you saw us together …” Phoebe’s look must have discouraged her, for her mother withdrew her hand. “Please keep an open mind,” she said. “That’s all I ask.”
“Sweetheart, you make it sound as if I were asking your permission,” her mother said gently. “You realize that’s not the case.”
“Of course,” Phoebe said miserably. “Who cares what I think?”
Her mother watched her in silence. Phoebe glimpsed herself through her mother’s eyes—a problem, a wrinkle to be dealt with. She was filled with sudden, angry frustration. “So what about Dad?” she said. “Does he just fall by the wayside?”
“Phoebe, your father died thirteen years ago! I think by any standard this would be considered a respectable mourning period.”
In spite of herself Phoebe smiled. Her mother smiled, too. It’s already over, Phoebe thought, none of this makes any difference. She felt a wave of panic. “But how can you even look at someone like Jack, after Dad?” she cried.
There was a rare, unmistakable jerk of anger in her mother’s face. “That shows how little you knew your father,” she said.
“I didn’t know my own father?”
“Not if you think he was perfect.”
“I don’t think that. But Jack—”
She was silenced by the arrival of their dinners. Phoebe glanced at the soft-shell crabs without recognition.
“Look,” her mother said in a hushed voice. “You adored your father, you were a little girl when he died, fine. I’ve never questioned that. But you haven’t the slightest idea what sort of husband he was, so please”—she shut her eyes—“please don’t presume to tell me.”
“You and Dad weren’t happy?”
“I’m not saying that! We were in love, we had wonderful times, but he was a difficult man and we had problems like every couple. You have no right to compare him to Jack, whom you hardly know, as if your father were some perfect ideal. I promise you, he was not.”
Phoebe looked at her hands, remembering her parents’ warm bed with its milky smell of sleep, what a comfort it had been to lie there. “You feel guilty,” she said. “That’s why you’re saying that.”
“Guilty? For dating another man after thirteen years?”
Her father bursting through the kitchen door breathless, the rattle of new paint tubes in his briefcase, dinner cooling on the kitchen table. The hope and strain in his face. “Because he never got to paint,” Phoebe said, and experienced in that moment a thrill of relief. All her life she had known this, they all had. But no one had said it.
Her mother’s face tightened. She stabbed at her fish, then set down the fork. Phoebe felt the weightless exhilaration of having gone too far. A fight would be unavoidable now, and she wanted it. She wanted to fight with her mother.
“I think we’d better change the subject,” her mother said. “Because in about one minute I’m going to say something I’ll regret.”