The Big O – chapter five

by rthieme on April 21, 2009

the-roomBetween jobs, Terri watched Oprah.

Surprisingly, she bonded with the black woman quickly. As a rule, eastern and northern European whites passed straight through to her inner life, Italians and Greeks met significant resistance, and blacks, Jews, and Hispanics were stopped at the border. Oprah, however, like a good hacker, broke herself into little pieces, slipped through the perimeter, and reassembled herself inside.

It wasn’t her achievements that did it, nor her money, nor all of those millions of adoring minions; her infiltration was facilitated by a confluence of circumstances, above all, the erosion of Terri’s self-confidence, the breakdown of her belief that she understood even simple things, thanks to Paul’s unpredictable behaviors which interrupted the feedback loops that had made her surroundings and her inner map a seamless coherent whole, and the sheer force of the celebrity’s personality, the power of her will, her intellect, her empathy, caring and understanding, her generosity of spirit, her deep feelings shared with such ease (she was so articulate!), the money, sometimes cars and all kinds of other stuff given away in little and big public gestures, her relentless drive to get inside and connect with every woman who had been educated to a certain level, stayed home most days, and plotted to her demo- and psychographic maps. All of that enabled Oprah quietly to shoulder Silvia, Terri’s mother, out of the foreground of her mind. Terri didn’t even notice that it happened, much less how.

It didn’t happen all at once, of course. At first a tiny image of Oprah hung in the upper corner of her waking thoughts like a Christmas tree ornament used to correct an overabundance of evergreen. The image winked off and on throughout the day, a benevolent spirit manifesting at the right times. As Terri watched her program every afternoon, however, as she laughed and cried and learned as she might have learned from her mother, had Silvia been more inclined or capable of teaching, the earnest strong-willed big-haired personality moved toward the center. Her image grew larger and brighter until it glowed in Terri’s imagination, stuffed and plump or slender and sexy, depending on Oprah’s weight. She was no longer an ornament but a shining star, lighted from within. Her complexion lightened and her face became more Aryan. One day Oprah’s features and her mother’s merged, Oprah’s mapping onto the older woman’s Polish, German and Serbian traits as if an invisible hand were photoshopping their portraits.

The hypnotic power of television was absolute, its imprinting indelible. Her mother’s high cheekbones disappeared into the plump chocolate cheeks of the star, then her forehead darkened and was absorbed, her eyebrows tightened and her nose widened until all that remained of her mother’s face was a constant anxious frown. By that time Terri had become so discipled to the entertainer that Oprah’s voice and her mother’s were equal in impact. Then Oprah‘s pulled ahead and her mother’s sounded silly, whiny, and irrelevant. Telephone calls from her Mom and interviews conducted by the superstar elicited similar feelings, but oddly, Oprah’s tone seemed more familiar, as if her own mother were one of the cousins while the Big O was an older sister who had always been around.

And something else happened. Along the way to resident status in her mind and heart, Oprah became a woman who was not exactly black. She was something else, a check in the “other” box, the many pejorative qualities of her race scrubbed clean like a man – Stedman, in point of fact – washed out of her big hair. Her internalized voice echoed after everything Terri thought or said like the still small voice of her conscience, accessible any time of the night or day for wisdom, consolation, or strength. By definition and ontological status, no black person could occupy that position. So her race went missing while her womanhood, powerful but bleached, arrived inside.

Unless one understood this, Terri’s behavior at the Christmas party was incomprehensible, given her usual demeanor. The party was hosted as always by her cousins Chris and Chris because they had a bigger house. There were too many children, step-children, newly adopted babies, even one from China, cousins uncles aunts and all, for anyone else to think about having it at their place. The result was an inflow of friends as well as relations, including people from the north side and a Jew or two from the swank suburbs up on the lake—Lox Cove they called Wolf Cove, Bagel Bay instead of Bream. One of those people, a friend of her Uncle Dan’s, apparently, someone he knew from work, a lawyer for the union he told her later, you could tell from how he held himself so fancy-schmancy and how he used big words to make sure they knew he had gone to an expensive school, he was Morris or Meir, Michael or Micah, one of those, when he made dismissive remarks about people who watch sitcoms, soaps and talk shows as if they were all idiots, Terri bristled but said nothing, but then he ridiculed serious people like Regis and Terri had to bite her lip, and then—then he made the mistake of beating on Oprah, mocking how she promoted books and book clubs and–shit! Terri thought, shit shit shit! and sprang for his face like a rottweiler, snarling, go fuck yourself you arrogant prick! Yes, you heard me, she repeated when he took a step back and expressed wonder and disbelief. You can shove your superior North Shore Jew act up your ass.

Terri! said Florence, looking at Paul to do something. Terri! said her mother, but it came out “Trrr” because Silvia’s mouth was full of cream cheese and chutney. Her uncle Dan chuckled, but Aunt Minnie, sustaining the ethos of the subculture, got real quiet, the back of her hand at her open mouth. In the dining room, everyone else got quiet too, their silence like a thunderclap in contrast with the loud laughter and chatter in the other rooms. The hush expanded like spilling ink over their merriment, ticking off six seconds, seven seconds, eight, nine, ten, a lot of silence in the middle of a traditional Christmas party.

At ten seconds, Paul said, Terri! Jesus!

One of the cousins said to anyone who was listening, I didn’t know that young ladies talked like that these days.

But Terri did. Terri burned. There was no quenching her righteous fire, no way to stop her defending her mentor. She knew she was well within bounds to shut Mister North Shore Know-it-all once and for all the fuck up.

Oprah had become the most dependable person in her life. Her mother loved her, sure, but had less and less support to offer and little understanding; her relatives were there but not there, if you know what she meant; and Paul had come back damaged in some way she didn’t understand. The fabric of her life and understanding was corroding. She walked constantly on leafy branches over a pit, afraid they would give way. Only Oprah with her deep wisdom continued to flow like a river to her troubled heart.

And the asshole did shut up, she did accomplish that. He left the party in a huff. Terri was getting ready to chase after him but Paul grabbed her by the arm and said, Jesus, leave him alone, Terri! Let it go.

She turned and looked at her boyfriend, her steady, her significant other, not her fiancée yet but almost, almost, more than a fuck buddy, much much more, the man she had intended to marry as soon as he returned from his tour and narrowed her eyes and folded her arms in a tight cross and glared.

The relatives buzzed among themselves and then someone shouted that the kringles were out of the oven and everyone shifted gears. The kids ran for the big kitchen and the smells of diverse kringles (almond and maple walnut, strawberry raspberry and cherry, Bavarian cream, chocolate walnut and toffee pecan for Terri’s mom) mingled with the scent of evergreen in the hot dry house and grown-ups wandered around and Paul took Terri by the arm into the livingroom, mostly empty, and asked her what in the fuck was the matter.

“If you don’t know, then I can’t tell you,” she said, still glaring. “You heard him.”

“Yeah, but it’s no big deal. You worry about the little shit, you’ll make yourself nuts. You’ll never see him again.” He breathed deeply. “So what’s going on?”

Terri couldn’t tell him because Terri didn’t know. But she could tell him what she did know.

“I don’t know,” she said, “how much more I can stand.”

“How much more what?”

“The way things are, now,” she said as if it were obvious to anyone with half a brain. Then she was crying again and running out of the house without a coat into the cold gray afternoon.

So when she heard that Oprah was having a show on returning vets and their “issues,” she didn’t say anything to Paul, she just got on the Internet and went to the Harpo Studio site and found out how to apply. She did it all online, answering their questions as honestly as she could, and of course she went absolutely insane when she got an email saying she had moved to the second round. They told her to expect a call.

An assistant producer named Naomi called that week.

Terri responded without forethought or guile. She told them how long she had been with Paul (five years), how he had been before he left (fine, really nice), how he was acting now. She told her about her family, how they mostly talked about other things and changed the subject whenever she wanted to bring it up. She told them about Buddy, Paul’s younger brother, how mad he was when she said even the least little thing. She said how Florence was crying all the time, saying it was from happiness, but Terri wasn’t so sure about that.

Naomi asked about her background. She told her about growing up in Lake View in a bungalow like everyone else, her age (23), her education (high school with a C+ grade point, three semesters at the local branch of the state university), even her criminal record (none), embarrassing incidents in her life (the time they covered themselves with body paint in high school and crawled in through the basement window and ran naked into Jerry’s livingroom where Jerry and Paul and Steve and Andre and Louie were playing poker but Jerry’s parents (oh my God!) were there, too, and the time they pretended to kidnap Andre’s brother Bucky, turning over the furniture carefully so as not to wreck anything really, making it look like there was a fight, dipping a kitchen knife in ketchup, leaving it on the floor and the door open, but his parents freaked and called the police and the cops gave them a long lecture about simulating crimes and wasting resources, how much it cost, why it was a crime which of course they had not known, not before that night), and did she do drugs or use any illegal substance? no, not really, they all smoked a little pot now and then, but she never did coke or meth like some of her friends or sniffed anything, and sure, she had a few drinks with friends, but not to excess, maybe one night of drinking, oh I don’t know, five or six but only once or twice a month, maybe more in cold weather. Maybe once a week. Yes, she was a Caucasian and a good Catholic, but Anglo Catholic now (that’s a whole other story, Terri laughed) and she still did Hail Marys and went to St. Peter’s with her mother, she was five feet five with brown hair some called mousy but Terri thought it was kind of pretty. Yes, she would do it the way they wanted, yes oh yes she would be thrilled to go to Harpo and have them do it right there in the studio before the show. No, she wasn’t working now, she was between jobs. I’m sorry, what was that? Well, just jobs, not a career: she had been a barista at Java Jive and could always go back, she had been a photographer’s helper in a studio here in Lake View, she had sorted books in the library for a school job in exchange for financial aid, and for two summers during high school she held the stop sign when her Uncle Dan got her the job through his friends at the county. Did she (Naomi) have any idea how much you got paid to stand there and turn the sign from stop to go slow? It was really something, considering what you did. No, just union dues, which come to think of it were pretty high. No, they never had a meeting. Nope.

Naomi said they had lots of applicants, of course, asked her to email a picture which she did at once, before the call had ended, and said they would let her know in a week or two. Terry thanked her very much and when she was off the telephone, she leaped and woo-hooed and danced in a circle around the small livingroom she and her roomies shared until she was winded and dizzy and fell down on the carpet they had rescued from the old couple moving out upstairs. Please God please Jesus, she said aloud, the question about religion reminding her to pray, knowing it was a long shot but my God! Oprah! and in the meantime she was bleeding off anxiety, the mere possibility of telling her mentor what was going on a means of feeling much better for the moment despite nothing really changing in her life.

She didn’t tell anyone what she had done. She did not want to argue, justify her actions, or listen to critiques. There was time enough for that if they let her on. What her roommates noticed was a heightened cheerfulness, whistling and humming and even skipping a step or two with her mind off in another world. Christine said with that sly smile, come on, Terri, what’s up? Did Paul propose? You’re not pregnant, are you? Terri laughed and said, no, God forbid, then added that she would tell her all about it, but in due time.

Paul didn’t notice anything different except if he stopped to think about her behavior, which he didn’t, Terri wasn’t as crabby. He felt the difference without knowing it. So it did make it easier for a bit, and God knows, he did not need distractions. It was all he could do to show up at work and do his job. It felt like he was riding a huge bubble of something hot and elastic that might blow at any moment. He straddled it as he imagined you straddle a mechanical bull except a bull was hard and this was slippery, a balloon filled with some kind of weird liquid pushing out unpredictable bulges every time he tried to grip it with his knees. It took all his energy to ride the goddamn thing, not make mistakes at work and get paid, play into Terri’s extreme expectations of what a boy friend did or was like based on how the world was before he left, a world that was gone for Paul forever, and once a week he had dinner with Buddy and his mother at the old house. He had moved his stuff to a two-room flat above the barber shop on T and stayed there a lot, watching TV, looking out the window, thinking about things.

Naomi’s assistant, a woman named Taylor, called to tell Terri she made it.

“Oh my God!” was all she could say. “Oh my God! Oh, thank you! Oh my God!”

But how would she tell Paul?

She decided it might be best to have the roomies around for a cushion in case he reacted. So she asked him to come by the apartment when Christine and Karen were having dinner. She asked them to make something vegetarian, not telling them why, just saying please, can you please just not make hamburgers or roast beef, just for tonight? So they made a vegetarian lasagna with lots of cheese and salad and garlic bread. They were still sitting at the table with the empty dishes, Christine smoking and dropping ashes onto her plate, her legs up and her feet on the chair next to her, looking reasonably mellow and content in her sweats, Karen leaning across the oval table to tell her about some moron at work, this guy named Boris who they moved into the cubicle across, Karen still wearing her white blouse and navy suit, she usually changed the minute she came home but said she was going back to Butch’s to meet Harry for a drink, she was talking non-stop about Boris when Paul rang the buzzer and Terri buzzed him in and listened to his footsteps coming up two stories of carpeted hallway stairs to her door. She looked through the fish-eye and saw him all distorted, ready to knock, and opened the door.

“Hey!” Paul said. He looked tired and stomped snow from his boots and threw his blue parka onto the beat-up yellow sofa. He followed it there, sinking into the cushion which rose on his flanks like waterwings. Terri leaned and kissed him on the forehead, tip of the nose, and lips.

“Hey, babe.”

He kissed her back when she reached his lips. She could feel him in the room now, wanting to be there, wanting to come out. That was encouraging.

Karen stopped talking and looked over. “Hey, Paul,” she said. Christine turned her head, looking in his direction. Her hair was a complete mess and she wore a disheveled gray sweatshirt with maroon letters. She didn’t uncross her legs and he saw her toe sticking out of a hole in her white sock. They exchanged mute greetings with nodding faces, then the women went back to talking about Boris, like how do these Russians grow up? I mean, what makes them behave like that? Are they orphans? Were they all in prison or something? Wasn’t anybody home?

Paul turned back to his girl who was waiting patiently to say:

“I have some news.”

He sat up straighter and looked concerned.

“No no,” she smiled, “nothing like that.”

Paul waited, watching her eyes do the anxiety thing, shifting side to side.

“Well?” he said. “What?’

“Ok,” she said. “Well. You know how Oprah has different themes depending on the show?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Ok. Well. I heard that she was planning a show about vets coming home and how it is, you know, for their girlfriends and families and kids and all.”

“Uh-huh,” he said.

“So I wrote in and they called and we talked and they called back and they want me to be on! They want me to be part of the show!”

Paul was silent. Christine was telling Karen about the Russian Jews coming out in the eighties, how it was all planned out and now the Russian mafia was everywhere, into construction, gambling and stuff, even here, behind the scenes, and they practically own Israel now and their politicians, Karen confused because she thought mafia meant Italians, so Christine explained about the Russian mafia, she had seen a program on Dateline and read something in the doctor’s office, waiting for the official word which was negative, thank God, how Italians like Tony Soprano might kill you but these guys were crazy, they’d kill your whole family, Terri not hearing anything they said, watching Paul’s eyes, balancing on her toes like a diver on a high platform, waiting for something to show up but nothing did.

“Uh-huh,” he said, a little different in tone but she wasn’t sure how.

“OK. So, in a couple of weeks, I go down to Chicago to Harpo where Oprah does her shows? can you believe that? They’re going to send a limousine! and I am going to be on Oprah!”

He caught her excitement this time, not exactly into Oprah or any of the programs she told him about, the reality stuff, the one with the bunch of women talking all the time, the interns sleeping with each other and with nurses, other doctors, even patients in a daisy chain shot through with medical crises, so he thought OK, if that’s what you want to do. Be on TV. That’s fine.

“Well, good for you,” he said, and Terri exhaled, not even knowing she was holding her breath. She couldn’t know that Paul was thinking of Gene, Eugene, really, his boss, and how he had been less than helpful that afternoon, taking the customer’s side, thinking too off and on of Cerie who for some reason he could not get out of his mind, and thinking always about the bubbling or froth on the edges of his feeling, how it never went away, whatever it was, thinking in short of everything but what she was talking about or what it meant, exactly, what was the content of the show or what Terri might say, so it meant nearly nothing to him, not that night, the girls talking after dinner, the shadeless windows of the livingroom black with night, the smell of garlic strong in the apartment but nothing got triggered, luckily, nothing at all. So when Christine said, “You guys want some chocolate chip cheesecake?” Terri and Paul said “Sure” at the same time, laughing about it as Paul got up feeling like a creaky old man instead of a kid of twenty-four and they went into the kitchen looking for the big white box among the mess so they could help themselves to two huge pieces of cheesecake and put on coffee and take it all into her bedroom and eat and straighten out the sheets and get into bed for some seriously restorative recreational sex.

Six weeks later Terri stood outside her apartment building thirty minutes early, waiting for the limo. The sun was coming up earlier but you wouldn’t know it—the overcast made everything look the same and the temperature had been below freezing for a week. Terri was stomping around like a rain dancer, squeezing her fingers in her gloves in her deep pockets, when the big stretch limo navigated the corner and crunched through the snow. The long white vehicle double parked and the older guy who was driving slid down his window. Are you Terri Metzger? Terri said yes, giggling like a schoolgirl despite her freezing fingers and toes and he came around and opened the door.

The limo seemed like a yacht, it was so big, so warm and cushiony, with a little fridge with water bottles and snacks, magazines in side pockets, a place to put up her feet. The driver was so far forward she thought she would have to shout but she must have been amplified—anything she asked, he gave her the answer. She asked a million questions and Curtis responded in short clips, giving her data, not the kinds of fascinating narrative she hoped to hear. The limo rode on air, gliding through the bleak landscape, the early spring fields patches of black and white, trees without leaves except maybe willows yellowing a little, then office parks of anonymous glass and noise containment fences all the way to Chicago. The traffic wasn’t bad until they hit the city. Then they crawled through the morning war of fender and horn to the downtown exits and went west to Harpo. Monsieur le Chauffeur as Terri thought of him led her inside through a side door. She had to stop for security, a big matronly woman making her empty her purse and pockets, take off her shoes, stand with her arms out to be wanded, just like at the airport.

But then—then! Oh my God! it was like a cruise, she told Christine and Karen later, something you’d win on Wheel of Fortune. It was incredible! They had all this food and plush leather sofas and everything was so elegant, so … classy. Naomi, the one I spoke to, met me at the door and led me to the Green Room. The others on the show were already there, I guess they flew in the day before and stayed at a hotel. Naomi did most of the talking and told us what to expect. They do lots of shows on the same day, I hadn’t realized that, and guess who was there! Harrison Ford! doing a show! while we waited! We had to wait a long time, too, because apparently he wouldn’t say anything interesting and Oprah had to stoke up the crowd like a cheerleader. We saw it all from the Green Room on monitors. Oprah played games with different parts of the audience, getting them all excited, and finally he must have said enough because then it was our turn.

When they took us to make-up, the guy who was doing it, this obviously very gay guy? was looking sideways at my hair and I asked if it looked Ok? and he said, well, you’re the one who’s “average,” right? I didn’t know what he meant so he told me they had one black, one Hispanic, one Unknown Soldier—wait, I’ll tell you in a minute—and apparently I was picked because I’m white and Midwestern. Apparently I stand for middle America. He said my plain hair fit the part perfectly, that he thought the photo had made up their minds. I asked if he couldn’t do something with it without losing the effect, and he curled it, you’ll see when you see the show, he did this little thing but it looked so different. I love what he did.

So the others in the Green Room were this black girl, LaDonda, and a short bald guy from Nogales, and me. It was funny, they kept this fourth person in a separate room and disguised her face and voice and all. They did her after we finished. Naomi called her the Unknown Soldier. I guess she was tortured. Her voice sounded like a cancer patient using one of those boxes and they made her face like a mask. So it wasn’t like a real person or someone you knew, it was more like a movie. You’ll see what I mean.

Ernesto, the Spanish guy, his wife was over there a year and I guess he had to deal with how much sex he thought she had with different guys. You could barely understand anything he said. LaDonda, the black girl, was just plain angry, but I couldn’t blame her, the guy she’s living with sounds like a whacko. He carries a gun and beat up some guy in a bar fight and got arrested – LaDonda said he had gotten into some stuff before he left but hadn’t done time, so she blames it all on what happened over there. I don’t know why she stays with him. Anyway, I wore my new suit, the beige, the one from Boston Store? And they led us into the studio and … there was Oprah, big as life, wearing this incredible green dress and her shoes were absolutely fantastic, she came over and it felt like coming home for dinner, except better, the way she made us feel. She is so natural, so down to earth, like she knew you forever. I told her how much she meant to me and she squeezed my hand and gave me a little hug. Then Taylor, the one who works with Naomi, sat us in chairs in the order she would talk to us. I went last.

So … that was it. We all talked and when we finished, the limos were lined up outside, waiting. I had a different driver coming back, a guy named Julius, and while he was walking around the limo to open the door, these huge silent flakes of snow started drifting down from the overcast sky and everything was muffled, even close to downtown, the snow absorbing the traffic noise and I looked through it toward the skyline you could barely make out and I started to cry. I don’t know why. Everyone had been so wonderful and I talked so much about Paul and what was going on and now it was all over. Here, Julius said, let me help you, Miss, and the way he said it was so nice. He asked if I was Ok, and I said fine, I’m fine, let’s go, and he gave me a Kleenex and got me settled in the back and—that was that.

The show will be on in a couple of weeks. But listen, you guys, listen to this—Oprah thanked me for coming. She thanked me! Can you believe it? Just thinking about it is enough to make me cry again.

The day the show was on, she had Paul come over to be with her and Christine and Karen and Karen’s latest guy, Harry, who worked with her in the office, they all got together after work. Terri made herself go out and walk around when the program was on in the afternoon, not wanting to see it until everyone was together. She used the DVR and Paul’s mother made a tape, too, using a VCR, just in case.

They had beer and pizzas and Christine made tons of popcorn. There were three big ceramic bowls of the hot buttered stuff on the table in front of the sofa, the fridge was right there if anybody needed more beer. Paul pushed into the corner of the sofa, Terri taking his arm and putting it around her, saying, silly, come on! Karen sitting on the left side of the sofa, Harry on the arm, his arm lightly around her, Christine in the big flowered chair with wings. Karen asked, is everybody ready? and they all shouted YES!

It was hard to remember, Terri said later, who said what and when. Some people said things she didn’t remember anyone saying, and there were things she could swear they said that were missing. They taped for a couple of hours and edited the thing down to a seamless illusion of a short conversation that never happened, or so she tried to tell Paul, you have got to try to understand what they did, how they make it look, leaving things out or having it sound like people clapped when nobody clapped.

She was talking to his back then, going down the hallway stairs, and his back didn’t answer.

Before she started the recording, she explained that LaDonda went first. Oprah asked her to say what happened when Donald came home. The girl’s mouth was like a machine gun, spitting bullets of rage. He didn’t want to talk to her at first about anything. Then he told her too much. She didn’t need to know about the women, did she? Or what it was like to watch some guy DeWitt from Bisbee Arizona die in the street? He told her his blood was all over him and forming puddles in the street, he was crouching behind his dying body, trying not to die himself. Go talk to a shrink, she told him. I don’t need to know all that.

But you wouldn’t know that she said that, Terri explained, as they watched the tape of the show. It opened with LaDonda talking about Donald waking up screaming every night. Most nights he didn’t sleep at all, trying to keep himself from dreaming. Terri did remember her saying that but at the end. There was nothing on the show about the women or the guy dying on the street which was amazing because you couldn’t possibly know why she was so pissed off. Then they cut to Ernesto who could barely speak English but the editors must have spliced his different sentences together so he sounded like a genius, talking about his wife and how he took care of the kids while she was gone, how they had to learn how to be a family all over again. Tears welled up in Christine’s eyes, listening to the guy, and Terri tried to tell her that he wasn’t like that, not at all, as Oprah introduced the woman who was tortured.

What the hell? said Terri said, pausing the remote. She came last! The audience never saw her. But it looks like she was sitting right there on the stage. In fact, Terri said, what really happened after the Spanish guy got done was that I talked to Oprah for at least twenty minutes. Oprah asked questions and I told her how we met (he waited every morning when she stopped traffic, chatting through the window of his beat-up Stratus) and one thing led to another and he got into the Guard while she started college but then they sent him over.

Paul wrote letters for a while, she said she had said. Then they stopped. He never got into combat, from what she understood, which made what happened hard to understand. He went to a special place and they flew him to other places, too. He never told her where or what he did, exactly. She knew it had to do with talking to people and getting information and he worked with a bunch of other guys. His team (she told the whole fucking world, Paul began to think, unable to believe what he was hearing) had a doctor in it and a Jew who spoke different languages and two guys Paul said were real good at getting people to talk and a Spanish kid they called Menudo who could be pretty tough and, of course, Paul.

What was his job? Oprah asked.

His job, Terri said, was to do what he was told. Defend freedom. And keep bad things from happening.

She told them all that, and more, was what she really said, before the one in the hidden room came on, and Paul became very very quiet. Terri was aware that his arm, still around her, was unmoving and he didn’t say a word which was scary. Everyone else was quiet, too, and at last he said, “Are you aware that you gave away our group? That anyone who wants to know knows now who we were?”

Terri stared, not even shaking her head, no.

“Are you aware,” he said, “that you betrayed us?”

The room was quiet. Everyone waited.

Terri pulled out from under his arm and turned. “I don’t even know what you did! How could I betray you or say what you did when I don’t even know what you did!”

“Paul,” Karen said, “it wasn’t even on the show. Even if Terri revealed some details, not meaning to, of course—everything was cut. Isn’t that what you’re saying, Terri?”

Terri tried to catch her breath and say, “Yes. That’s what I’m saying. I was third but they make it look like that woman went next.”

Karen reached across Harry to take the remote. “Let’s see what really happened, Ok? Paul? Don’t get upset about things that didn’t happen.”

“She said that she said it,” Paul said. “She said that it happened.”

“Yeah, but if it wasn’t on TV, it never happened. Right? Not in terms of anybody knowing.”

She clicked the remote. Oprah introduced “a woman we are calling the Unknown Soldier.” She looked earnestly out of the screen and said that “some of what you will hear will be graphic and shocking. If you don’t want to hear this or want to get your children out of the room, now is the time.”

She turned as if she were facing someone but the woman wasn’t really there. Some kind of black screen flexed in front of a person who looked like a young women, more or less. Oprah asked when she was captured, how it happened.

They were on patrol and were ambushed. Three guys were killed, the rest got away. She was the only one captured.

Oprah leaned toward the phantasm with concern in her eyes. She lowered her voice, too. “If you can … please … tell us what happened.”

They put a hood on her, said the raspy voice of the apparition, tied her hands and legs, and threw her in back of a truck. They bumped along over rocks for a long time. Yes, she was terrified. She had no idea where they were going. She lay there bouncing around, hurting and afraid, when someone worked her pants down to the ankles. They played with her like she was a toy.

After a long ride, they carried her into a stinking place where she stayed for days.. They took turns punching slapping and kicking her. They untied her hands so they could tie them to something high. They cut off her uniform with a knife. No, she never saw anyone’s face, not once. They took turns hitting her, sometimes punching her with fists, sometimes lashing her with something that felt like a dog whip. I don’t know how many times. When she went unconscious, they threw water into her face. Yes, the hood was on me the whole time. No, I barely ate, they pushed this crap under the hood into my mouth. They gave me enough water so I didn’t die.

Now, this is a very very sensitive question, Oprah said, so please don’t answer if it’s too painful—

Yes. I was raped.

Oprah turned away, looking stricken.

They never asked questions or anything. I never heard anyone speak English. I didn’t know anything anyway and they knew that. They didn’t do it to get information. They did it to break me or because they enjoyed it.

One day there was silence. They disappeared. She was alone for a long time and then someone found her and got some troops.

Oprah explained that this young woman had agreed to tell her story so people could understand what kind of enemy we were fighting.

Then a commercial break.

Christine fast forwarded through ads for medications, restaurants, cars. Then Oprah was back letting the audience ask questions. She went through that fast too. At the end of the session the applause was long and loud.

According to the recorder, only three minutes were left. It must be Terri’s turn now.

Oprah introduced her as the face of mid-America, the heartland soul who stayed behind while her young man went to war. Oprah asked Terri to “tell us about the place you grew up. Tell us about the people.”

While Terri’s voice answered questions in the background, Oprah provided a voiceover telling the audience what she said. She described the small town where she was born, then the bigger city to which she moved. The narrative was illustrated with images of bungalows, neighbors talking over fences, an elderly woman pausing on her walker to wave to a friend.

Then Oprah said, “Tell us about Paul. What was he like when you met?”

Her answer was clipped to a single phrase. Paul was “a wonderful sweet guy.”

Now tell us, Oprah said, her face grave, what he was like when he came home.

Terri’s voice said, “I don’t know how to describe it. Something in him had died.” A close-up of her face showed tears. “Fuck!” the real Terri cried. “That shot was taken when we came out and they turned on the bright lights! I wasn’t crying, then!”

Oprah reached to take Terri’s hand. There were seconds of silence, then they went to a commercial.

When the show returned, it was all Oprah, recapping the stories of the four guests and how the war had knitted their lives and their stories. Their faces came on the monitor, one at a time, finishing with the distorted face of the Unknown Soldier, then they morphed into one, their features bleeding together, as Oprah described tomorrow’s show.

The recording stopped. The DVR said: Would you like to erase this show now?

Karen clicked no, save it, and turned off the television.

Terri was aghast. “They cut out almost everything I said and turned the rest into captions for those silly pictures!”

Harry said, “Well, what did you expect?” He took a long pull at his beer. “Paul? What do you think?”

Paul looked at the guy from the office, still wearing his Brooks Brother shirt and his wide silk tie, although he had taken off his jacket and hung it carefully on the knob of a closet door. He watched the guy put his bottle back on the table, then his eyes looking from Karen to Christine, then back to Paul.

“I think it’s a betrayal.”

Terri looked up, thinking he understood. “I’ll say it is,” she said, hopefulness flooding her heart. “They sure didn’t tell me what they intended.”

But Karen saw the expression on Paul’s face. She jumped up and collected bottles and cradled them into the kitchen. Christine reached to retrieve a bowl of popcorn, set it on her lap, and began eating handful upon handful, turning her buttery fists in front of her mouth to lick whatever stuck. Harry looked at Paul, waiting for a little more.

Instead, Paul stood and put on his parka. He didn’t need to look at Terri, not any more. He opened the door and walked out. Terri rose and went after him, talking to his back, telling him what had happened, how they make things look, but Paul wasn’t listening. Paul was intent on making it to the downstairs door without swinging at Terri or anyone else, without screaming, without saying so much as a single word to her or to anyone in the street who had the balls to be walking where he intended to walk and didn’t get out of the fucking way in time, daring him to a fight by the mere fact of their miserable existence.

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