Today's Reading

She was much prettier in person, and it's impossible to know whether she's gained weight since grad school or whether the camera has added its proverbial fifteen pounds. Underneath the professional makeup and hair jobs, Jackie looks tired, as if twenty years of anger have drawn themselves on her face, one line at a time.

I crunch another Dorito and lick the salty chemicals off my fingers before rolling up the bag and setting it out of reach.

Jackie stares at me with those cold eyes that haven't changed, accusing.

I don't need her accusations. I didn't need them twenty years ago, and I don't need them now, but I still remember the day they started. The day my friendship with Jackie started going south.

"You're coming to the march, right, Jean?" Jackie stood, braless and makeupless at the door to my room, where I lay sprawled among half the library's neurolinguistics collection.

"Can't. Busy."

"For fuck's sake, Jean, this is more important than some stupid aphasia study. How about you focus on the people who are still around?"

I looked at her, letting my head drop to the right in a silent question.

"Okay. Okay." She threw up her hands. "They're still around. Sorry. I'm just saying what's going on with the Supreme Court thing is, well, it's now." Jackie always called political situations—elections, nominations, confirmations, speeches, whatever—things. That court thing. That speech thing. That election thing. It drove me insane. You'd think a sociolinguist would take the time to work on her vocabulary every once in a while.

"Anyway," she said, "I'm going out there. You can thank me later when the Senate confirms Grace Murray's seat on the bench. The only female now, in case you're interested." She started in again on "those misogynistic fuckwits on the hearing committee two years ago."

"Thanks, Jackie." I couldn't hide the smile in my voice.

She wasn't smiling, though.

"Right." I pushed a notebook aside and shoved my pencil through my ponytail. "Would you quit giving me shit? I mean, this neurosci class is killing me. It's Professor Wu this term and she's not taking any prisoners. Joe dropped. Mark dropped. Hannah dropped. Those two chicks from New Delhi, the ones who always go around arm in arm and have their butt imprints on next-door library carrels, dropped. It's not like we're sitting around trading anecdotes about angry husbands and sad wives and sharing our vision for how teenage text-talk is the wave of the future every Tuesday."

Jackie picked up one of the copied journal articles from my bed, glanced at the title. "Etiology of Stroke in Patients with Wernicke's Aphasia. Riveting, Jean." She dropped it onto the comforter, and it landed with a dull thud.

"It is."

"Fine. You stay here in your little lab bubble while the rest of us go." Jackie picked up the text, scribbled two lines inside the back cover, and let it fall again. "Just in case you can find a spare minute to call your senators, bubble girl."

"I like my bubble," I said. "And that's a library book."

Jackie didn't seem to give a shit whether she'd just tagged the Rosetta stone with a can of spray paint. "Yeah. Sure you do, you and the rest of the white feminists. I hope someone never comes along and pops it." With that, she was out the door, a mountain of colored signs in her arms.

When our lease was up, Jackie said she didn't want to renew. She and a few other women had decided on a place up in Adams Morgan.

"I like the vibe better there," she told me. "Happy birthday, by the way. You'll be a quarter of a century next year. Like Marilyn Monroe said, it makes a girl think. You stay cool, now. And think about what you need to do to stay free."

The present she left was an assortment of related trifles, a themed gift pack. Wrapped inside bubble paper was a bag of bubble gum, the kind with the idiotic cartoons inside each individually papered brick; a pink bottle of soap with a plastic wand attached to its cap; bathroom cleaner—you can guess which brand; a split of Californian champagne; and a pack of twenty-five balloons.

That night, I drank the sparkling wine straight from the bottle and popped every bubble in the wrap. All the rest went into the garbage.

I never spoke to Jackie again. On nights like this, I wish I had. Maybe things—the election thing, the nomination thing, the confirmation thing, the executive order thing—wouldn't have turned out the way they did.

This excerpt ends on page 13 of the hardcover edition.

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