YOU'RE UGLY, TOO
written and read by Lorrie Moore


You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal. Once, when the Dow Jones dipped two hundred points, a local paper boasted the banner headline

 

"NORMAL MAN MARRIES OBLONG WOMAN." They knew what was important. They did! But you had to get out once in a while, even if it was just across the border to Terre Haute for a movie.

 

Outside of Paris, in the middle of a large field, was a scatter of brick buildings, a small liberal-arts college by the improbable name of Hilldale-Versailles. Zoe Hendricks had been teaching American history there for three years. She taught "The Revolution and Beyond" to freshmen and sophomores, and every third semester she had the senior seminar for majors, and although her student evaluations had been slipping in the last year and a half — Professor Hendricks is often late for class and usually arrives with a cup of hot chocolate, which she offers the class sips of— generally the department of nine men was pleased to have her. They felt she added some needed feminine touch to the corridors — that faint trace of Obsession and sweat, the light, fast clicking of heels. Plus they had had a sex-discrimination suit, and the dean had said, well, it was time.

 

The situation was not easy for her, they knew. Once, at the start of last semester, she had skipped into her lecture hall singing "Getting to Know You" — all of it. At the request of the dean, the chairman had called her into his office, but did not ask her for an explanation, not really. He asked her how she was and then smiled in an avuncular way. She said, "Fine," and he studied the way she said it, her front teeth catching on the inside of her lower Up. She was almost pretty, but her face showed the strain and ambition of always having been close but not quite. There was too much effort with the eyeliner, and her earrings, worn, no doubt, for the drama her features lacked, were a little frightening, jutting out the sides of her head like antennae.

 

"I'm going out of my mind," said Zoe to her younger sister, Evan, in Manhattan. Professor Hendricks seems to know the entire soundtrack to "The King and I." Is this history? Zoe phoned her every Tuesday.

 

"You always say that," said Evan, "but then you go on your trips and vacations and then you settle back into things and then you're quiet for a while and then you say you're fine, you're busy, and then after a while you say you're going crazy again, and you start all over." Evan was a part-time food designer for photo shoots. She cooked vegetables in green dye. She propped up beef stew with a bed of marbles and shopped for new kinds of silicone sprays and plastic ice cubes. She thought her life was O.K. She was living with her boyfriend of many years, who was independently wealthy and had an amusing little job in book publishing. They were five years out of college, and they lived in a luxury midtown high rise with a balcony and access to a pool. "It's not the same as having your own pool," Evan was always sighing, as if to let Zoe know that, as with Zoe, there were still things she, Evan, had to do without.

 

"Illinois. It makes me sarcastic to be here," said Zoe on the phone.

 

She used to insist it was irony, something gently layered and sophisticated, something alien to the Midwest, but her students kept calling it sarcasm, something they felt qualified to recognize, and now she had to agree. It wasn't irony. "What is your perfume?" a student once asked her. "Room freshener," she said. She smiled, but he looked at her, unnerved.

 

Her students were by and large good midwesterners, spacey with estrogen from large quantities of meat and eggs. They shared their parents' suburban values; their parents had given them things, things, things. They were complacent. They had been purchased. They were armed with a healthy vagueness about anything historical or geo-graphic. They seemed actually to know very little about anything, but they were good-natured about it. "All those states in the East are so tiny and jagged and bunched up," complained one of her undergraduates the week she was lecturing on "The Turning Point of Independence: The Battle at Saratoga." "Professor Hendricks, you're from Delaware originally, right?" the student asked her.

 

"Maryland," corrected Zoe.

 

"Aw," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "New England."

 

Her articles — chapters toward a book called Hearing the One About: Uses of Humor in the American Presidency — were generally well received, though they came slowly for her. She liked her pieces to have something from every time of day in them — she didn't trust things written in the morning only — so she reread and rewrote painstakingly.

 

No part of a day — its moods, its light — was allowed to dominate. She hung on to a piece for a year sometimes, revising at all hours, until the entirety of a day had registered there.

 

The job she'd had before the one at Hilldale-Versailles had been at a small college in New Geneva, Minnesota, Land of the Dying Shopping Mall. Everyone was so blond there that brunettes were often presumed to be from foreign countries. Just because Professor Hendricks is from Spain doesn't give her the right to be so negative about our country There was a general emphasis on cheerfulness. In New Geneva you weren't supposed to be critical or complain. You weren't supposed to notice that the town had overextended and that its shopping malls were raggedy and going under. You were never to say you weren't "fine, thank you — and yourself?" You were supposed to be Heidi. You were supposed to lug goat milk up the hills and not think twice. Heidi did not complain.

 

Heidi did not do things like stand in front of the new IBM photocopier saying, "If this fucking Xerox machine breaks on me one more time, I'm going to slit my wrists."

 

But now in her second job, in her fourth year of teaching in the Midwest, Zoe was discovering something she never suspected she had: a crusty edge, brittle and pointed. Once she had pampered her students, singing them songs, letting them call her at home even, and ask personal questions, but now she was losing sympathy. They were beginning to seem different. They were beginning to seem demanding and spoiled.

 

"You act," said one of her senior-seminar students at a scheduled conference, "like your opinion is worth more than everyone else's in the class."

 

Zoe's eyes widened. "I am the teacher," she said. "I do get paid to act like that." She narrowed her gaze at the student, who was wearing a big leather bow in her hair like a cowgirl in a TV ranch show. "I mean, otherwise everybody in the class would have little offices and office hours." Sometimes Professor Hendricks will take up the class's time just talking about movies she's seen. She stared at the student some more, then added, "I bet you'd like that."

 

"Maybe I sound whiny to you," said the girl, "but I simply want my history major to mean something."

 

"Well, there's your problem," said Zoe, and, with a smile, she showed the student to the door. "I like your bow," she said.

 

Zoe lived for the mail, for the postman — that handsome blue jay — and when she got a real letter with a real full-price stamp from someplace else, she took it to bed with her and read it over and over. She also watched television until all hours and had her set in the bedroom — a bad sign. Professor Hendricks has said critical things about Fawn Hall, the Catholic religion, and the whole state of Illinois. It is unbelievable. At Christmastime she gave twenty-dollar tips to the mailman and to Jerry, the only cabbie in town, whom she had gotten to know from all her rides to and from the Terre Haute airport, and who, since he realized such rides were an extravagance, often gave her cut rates.

 

"I'm flying in to visit you this weekend," announced Zoe.

 

"I was hoping you would," said Evan. "Charlie and I are having a party for Halloween. It'll be fun."

 

"I have a costume already. It's a bonehead. It's this thing that looks like a giant bone going through your head."

 

"Great," said Evan.

 

"It is, it's great."

 

"All I have is my moon mask from last year and the year before. I'll probably end up getting married in it."

 

"Are you and Charlie getting married?" Zoe felt slightly alarmed.

 

"Hmmmmmmnnno, not immediately."

 

"Don't get married."

 

"Why?"

 

"Just not yet. You're too young."

 

"You're only saying that because you're five years older than I am and you're not married."

 

"I'm not married? Oh, my God," said Zoe, "I forgot to get married."

 

Zoe had been out with three men since she'd come to Hilldale-Versailles. One of them was a man in the municipal bureaucracy who had fixed a parking ticket she'd brought in to protest and then asked her out for coffee. At first, she thought he was amazing — at last, someone who did not want Heidi! But soon she came to realize that all men, deep down, wanted Heidi. Heidi with cleavage. Heidi with outfits. The parking-ticket bureaucrat soon became tired and intermittent. One cool fall day, in his snazzy, impractical convertible, when she asked him what was wrong he said, "You would not be ill served by new clothes, you know."

 

She wore a lot of gray-green corduroy. She had been under the impression that it brought out her eyes, those shy stars. She flicked an ant from her sleeve.

 

"Did you have to brush that off in the car?" he said, driving. He glanced down at his own pectorals, giving first the left, then the right, a quick survey. He was wearing a tight shirt.

 

"Excuse me?"

 

He slowed down at an amber light and frowned. "Couldn't you have picked it up and thrown it outside?"

 

"The ant? It might have bitten me. I mean, what difference does it make?"

 

"It might have bitten you! Ha! How ridiculous! Now it's going to lay eggs in my car!"

 

The second guy was sweeter, lunkier, though not insensitive to certain paintings and songs, but too often, too, things he'd do or say would startle her. Once, in a restaurant, he stole the garnishes off her dinner plate and waited for her to notice. When she didn't, he finally thrust his fist across the table and said, "Look," and when he opened it, there was her parsley sprig and her orange slice crumpled to a wad. Another time, he described to her his recent trip to the Louvre. "And there I was in front of Delacroix's The Barque of Dante, and everyone else had wandered off, so I had my own private audience with it, all those agonized shades splayed in every direction, and there's this motion in that painting that starts at the bottom, swirling and building up into the red fabric of Dante's hood, swirling out into the distance, where you see these orange flames — " He was breathless in the telling. She found this touching, and smiled in encouragement. "A painting like that," he said, shaking his head. "It just makes you shit."

 

"I have to ask you something," said Evan. "I know every woman complains about not meeting men, but really, on my shoots I meet a lot of men. And they're not all gay, either." She paused. "Not anymore."

 

"What are you asking?"

 

The third guy was a political-science professor named Murray Peterson, who liked to go out on double dates with colleagues whose wives he was attracted to. Usually, the wives would consent to flirt with him.

 

Under the table sometimes there was footsie, and once there was even kneesie. Zoe and the husband would be left to their food, staring into their water glasses, chewing like goats. "Oh, Murray," said one wife, who had never finished her master's in physical therapy and wore great clothes. "You know, I know everything about you: your birthday, your license-plate number. I have everything memorized. But then that's the kind of mind I have. Once, at a dinner party, I amazed the host by getting up and saying goodbye to every single person there, first and last names."

 

"I knew a dog who could do that," said Zoe with her mouth full.

 

Murray and the wife looked at her with vexed and rebuking expressions, but the husband seemed suddenly twinkling and amused. Zoe swallowed. "It was a talking Lab, and after about ten minutes of listening to the dinner conversation this dog knew everyone's name. You could say, 'Take this knife to Murray Peterson,' and it would."

 

"Really," said the wife, frowning, and Murray Peterson never called again.

 

"Are you seeing anyone?" said Evan. "I'm asking for a particular reason. I'm not just being like Mom."

 

"I'm seeing my house. I'm tending to it when it wets, when it cries, when it throws up." Zoe had bought a mint-green ranch house near campus, though now she was thinking that maybe she shouldn't have. It was hard to live in a house. She kept wandering in and out of the rooms, wondering where she had put things. She went downstairs into the basement for no reason at all except that it amused her to own a basement. It also amused her to own a tree.

 

Her parents, in Maryland, had been very pleased that one of their children had at last been able to afford real estate, and when she closed on the house they sent her flowers with a congratulations card. Her mother had even UPS'd a box of old decorating magazines saved over the years — photographs of beautiful rooms her mother used to moon over, since there never had been any money to redecorate. It was like getting her mother's pornography, that box, inheriting her drooled-upon fantasies, the endless wish and tease that had been her life. But to her mother it was a rite of passage that pleased her. "Maybe you will get some ideas from these," she had written. And when Zoe looked at the photographs, at the bold and beautiful living rooms, she was filled with longing. Ideas and ideas of longing.

 

Right now Zoe's house was rather empty. The previous owner had wallpapered around the furniture, leaving strange gaps and silhouettes on the walls, and Zoe hadn't done much about that yet. She had bought furniture, then taken it back, furnishing and unfurnishing, preparing and shedding, like a womb. She had bought several plain pine chests to use as love seats or boot boxes, but they came to look to her more and more like children's coffins, so she returned them. And she had recently bought an Oriental rug for the living room, with Chinese symbols on it she didn't understand. The salesgirl had kept saying she was sure they meant "Peace" and "Eternal Life," but when Zoe got the rug home she worried. What if they didn't mean "Peace" and "Eternal Life"? What if they meant, say, "Bruce Springsteen"? And the more she thought about it, the more she became convinced she had a rug that said "Bruce Springsteen," and so she returned that, too.

 

She had also bought a little baroque mirror for the front entryway, which, she had been told by Murray Peterson, would keep away evil spirits. The mirror, however, tended to frighten her, startling her with an image of a woman she never recognized. Sometimes she looked puffier and plainer than she remembered. Sometimes shifty and dark.

 

Most times she just looked vague. "You look like someone I know,"

 

she had been told twice in the last year by strangers in restaurants in Terre Haute. In fact, sometimes she seemed not to have a look of her own, or any look whatsoever, and it began to amuse her that her students and colleagues were able to recognize her at all. How did they know? When she walked into a room, how did she look so that they knew it was she? Like this? Did she look like this? And so she returned the mirror.

 

"The reason I'm asking is that I know a man I think you should meet," said Evan. "He's fun. He's straight. He's single. That's all I'm going to say."

 

"I think I'm too old for fun," said Zoe. She had a dark bristly hair in her chin, and she could feel it now with her finger. Perhaps when you had been without the opposite sex for too long, you began to resemble them. In an act of desperate invention, you began to grow your own. "I just want to come, wear my bonehead, visit with Charlie's tropical fish, ask you about your food shoots."

 

She thought about all the papers on "Our Constitution: How It Affects Us" she was going to have to correct. She thought about how she was going in for ultrasound tests on Friday, because, according to her doctor and her doctor's assistant, she had a large, mysterious growth in her abdomen. Gallbladder, they kept saying. Or ovaries or colon.

 

"You guys practice medicine?" asked Zoe, aloud, after they had left the room. Once, as a girl, she brought her dog to a vet, who had told her, "Well, either your dog has worms or cancer or else it was hit by a car."

 

She was looking forward to New York.

 

"Well, whatever. We'll just play it cool. I can't wait to see you, hon.

 

Don't forget your bonehead," said Evan.

 

"A bonehead you don't forget," said Zoe.

 

"I suppose," said Evan.

 

The ultrasound Zoe was keeping a secret, even from Evan. "I feel like I'm dying," Zoe had hinted just once on the phone.

 

"You're not dying," said Evan, "you're just annoyed."

 

"Ultrasound," Zoe now said jokingly to the technician who put the cold jelly on her bare stomach. "Does that sound like a really great stereo system or what?"

 

She had not had anyone make this much fuss over her bare stomach since her boyfriend in graduate school, who had hovered over her whenever she felt ill, waved his arms, pressed his hands upon her navel, and drawled evangelically, "Heal! Heal for thy Baby Jesus' sake!" Zoe would laugh and they would make love, both secretly hoping she would get pregnant. Later they would worry together, and he would sink a cheek to her belly and ask whether she was late, was she late, was she sure, she might be late, and when after two years she had not gotten pregnant they took to quarreling and drifted apart.

 

"O.K.," said the technician absently.

 

The monitor was in place, and Zoe's insides came on the screen in all their gray and ribbony hollowness. They were marbled in the finest gradations of black and white, like stone in an old church or a picture of the moon. "Do you suppose," she babbled at the technician, "that the rise in infertility among so many couples in this country is due to completely different species trying to reproduce?" The technician moved the scanner around and took more pictures. On one view in particular, on Zoe's right side, the technician became suddenly alert, the machine he was operating clicking away.

 

Zoe stared at the screen. "That must be the growth you found there," suggested Zoe.

 

"I can't tell you anything," said the technician rigidly. "Your doctor will get the radiologist's report this afternoon and will phone you then."

 

"I'll be out of town," said Zoe.

 

"I'm sorry," said the technician.

 

Driving home, Zoe looked in the rearview mirror and decided she looked — well, how would one describe it? A little wan. She thought of the joke about the guy who visits his doctor and the doctor says, "Well, I'm sorry to say, you've got six weeks to live."

 

"I want a second opinion," says the guy. You act like your opinion is worth more than everyone else's in the class.

 

"You want a second opinion? O.K.," says the doctor. "You're ugly, too." She liked that joke. She thought it was terribly, terribly funny.

 

She took a cab to the airport. Jerry the cabbie was happy to see her.

 

"Have fun in New York," he said, getting her bag out of the trunk. He liked her, or at least he always acted as if he did. She called him Jare.

 

"Thanks, Jare."

 

"You know, I'll tell you a secret: I've never been to New York. I'll tell you two secrets: I've never been on a plane." And he waved at her sadly as she pushed her way in through the terminal door. "Or an escalator!" he shouted.

 

The trick to flying safely, Zoe always said, was to never buy a discount ticket and to tell yourself you had nothing to live for anyway, so that when the plane crashed it was no big deal. Then, when it didn't crash, when you succeeded in keeping it aloft with your own worthlessness, all you had to do was stagger off, locate your luggage, and, by the time a cab arrived, come up with a persuasive reason to go on living.

 

"You're here!" shrieked Evan over the doorbell, before she even opened the door. Then she opened it wide. Zoe set her bags on the hall floor and hugged Evan hard. When she was little, Evan had always been affectionate and devoted. Zoe had always taken care of her — advising, reassuring— until recently, when it seemed Evan had started advising and reassuring her. It startled Zoe. She suspected it had something to do with her being alone. It made people uncomfortable.

 

"How are you?"

 

"I threw up on the plane. Besides that, I'm O.K."

 

"Can I get you something? Here, let me take your suitcase. Sick on the plane. Eeeyew."

 

"It was into one of those sickness bags," said Zoe, just in case Evan thought she'd lost it in the aisle. "I was very quiet."

 

The apartment was spacious and bright, with a view all the way downtown along the East Side. There was a balcony, and sliding glass doors. "I keep forgetting how nice this apartment is. Twenty-first floor, doorman . . ." Zoe could work her whole life and never have an apartment like this. So could Evan. It was Charlie's apartment. He and Evan lived in it like two kids in a dorm, beer cans and clothes strewn around.

 

Evan put Zoe's bag away from the mess, over by the fish tanks. "I'm so glad you're here," she said. "Now what can I get you?"

 

Evan made them lunch — soup from a can and saltines.

 

"I don't know about Charlie," she said after they had finished. "I feel like we've gone all sexless and middle-aged already."

 

"Hmmm," said Zoe. She leaned back into Evan's sofa and stared out the window at the dark tops of the buildings. It seemed a little unnatural to live up in the sky like this, like birds that out of some wrong-headed derring-do had nested too high. She nodded toward the lighted fish tanks and giggled. "I feel like a bird," she said, "with my own personal supply of fish."

 

Evan sighed. "He comes home and just sacks out on the sofa, watching fuzzy football. He's wearing the psychic cold cream and curlers, if you know what I mean."

 

Zoe sat up, readjusted the sofa cushions. "What's fuzzy football?"

 

"We haven't gotten cable yet. Everything comes in fuzzy. Charlie just watches it that way."

 

"Hmm, yeah, that's a little depressing," Zoe said. She looked at her hands. "Especially the part about not having cable."

 

"This is how he gets into bed at night." Evan stood up to demonstrate. "He whips all his clothes off, and when he gets to his underwear he lets it drop to one ankle. Then he kicks up his leg and flips the underwear in the air and catches it. I, of course, watch from the bed.

 

There's nothing else. There's just that."

 

 

 

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