As a girl I was a diamond savant. Not that I ever craved shininess in other forms, not glitter pens or flashing sneakers or first communion dresses slick with seed pearls. I never Beadazzled anything. Upon being born, I’d found princesshood already staked out as a personal fetish and absolutely not available: Mary Ellen had dug her nails into the whole plastic-tiara scene before she could even talk, and we all sensed how very reckless it would be to challenge Mary Ellen on her own sparkly turf. Mary Ellen is the eldest of us nine girls. I’m number eight.
Also reserved in advance were horses (Anne), 4-H and FFA (Carolina), Jesus (Joanna and Mary Ellen again), beauty pageants (Simonette and Mary Ellen again), sports (Regina), grades (still Mary Ellen), and Dad (Denise).
Books were not yet taken.
We had a hundred and sixty acres of almonds, which we called ammonds and still do, and forty acres of prunes, which we called prunes but are now supposed to call dried plums. Our tractor was loud, but it was quieter than eight girls, so by the time I was ten I was volunteering to mow and spray the orchard almost every weekend. After Dad duct-taped a block of wood to the pedals so I could reach them, all I had to do was engage the hydraulics and miss the trees. “Be a hard worker,” Dad would say, thumping the chassis for good luck, “and you’ll get a good reputation. One thing nobody can’t never take away from you, it’s your reputation.” Dad’s idea of praise was always to advise you to do something you were already doing.
Once Dad was out of sight, I would pin a book to the steering wheel with my thumb. I read with shameless promiscuity whatever people were leaving at the Elks lodge: eighties sci-fi, Ibsen plays, hagiographies, world history. Basically, if it hadn’t happened on a farm, I was interested.
It was in The Color Atlas of Fortified Borders that I first discovered diamonds. People bought their freedom with them. So that’s how it’s done, I remember thinking. Once I started looking, diamonds were everywhere: Jews were sewing them into the linings of their coats in 1937, Belgian Protestants were fleeing their ruined towns with them in 1585, and every year of the world, slaves were concealing them in body cavities. And the women! How many millions of women had escaped their so-called homes by pawning the very diamonds their tormentors had screwed to their fingers?
Money can lose its value in an instant, land can be seized, houses burned, and even “your reputation,” Dad’s constant refrain notwithstanding, can vanish like smoke. But two things can never be confiscated.
One is diamonds. Imperishable, tiny, easy to disguise yet impossible to counterfeit, they are the maximum concentration of sheer value available on Earth. They are as inconspicuous and as indestructible as the second thing, which is knowledge.
Now I’m twenty-three, I’ve escaped to The City, and I work at Sandra’s Estate Jewelry. Short of clinging to wreckage at sunrise, this is probably the shiniest place you’re ever going to see. It’s a tiny shop, twenty feet deep by maybe fifteen, yet no one comes in without staggering to a carat-struck halt. It’s the four hundred and sixty-eight light bulbs, the quarter-mile of brass trim (which I polish every Tuesday and Friday), the three chandeliers, and the thousands upon thousands of diamonds, all reverberating in mirrors like lighthouse lenses.
Today’s first customer, though, barely looks around. She is a regular, one of our beloved magpies. Even with my head down and my phone awake under the counter, I can tell.
I look up. It’s so nice to see you again, I say to the magpie. Under the counter, my thumb had been seeking the day’s first text from my boyfriend, Jorge. Checking for his texts has been an hourly compulsion for one year and six weeks, but lately it’s felt less like scratching a sweet itch and more like picking at a scab.
As I slip the darkening phone back into my purse unread, I’m surprised to notice my neck muscles relaxing, my jaw unlocking. I get taller.
A magpie is a woman who hoards jewelry. (Men who do the same thing are collectors.) I see this lady every month, between the fifth and the tenth. She’s chubby and powerfully built, younger than me and depressingly wealthy. She dresses vividly, in greens and teals and purples, yet she never washes her hair, a sign something is off. I don’t know her name. Mentally, I call her Iris Kim: Iris for the violet color contact lenses floating in her surgically widened eyes, and Kim because I think she’s like Korean. Hopefully that’s not racist.
Iris chooses a display case at random, stabbing her gaze here and there like a cane. “I want a ring!” she shouts defiantly. Oh, what kind of – “Maybe…. emerald!” Wonderful. What is your budget today? You can ask a magpie that. “Aah,” she drones, her eyes rolling over the radiant, gilded ceiling, “Sixteen hundred, maybe fourteen hundred, dollars, aah, seventeen hundred one seven.” Let me show you something I think is nice.
There’s no unifying magpie syndrome: the women are as different from each other as are, for all I know, the birds. You’ve got your joyous hunters, clattering with bangles, exultant for their latest prize; you’ve got the careful, reserved acquirers, in artificial pearls for safety, women whose purchases are seeing the light of day for the last time; and then there are the unsteady diamond drunks, in knockoff shoes, women with the glassy look of the compulsive slots player.
And then there’s Iris, with her eyes careening in different directions like birds trapped in a house, and a rope of saliva rappelling unnoticed from the corner of her mouth. I show her a peacock-shaped confection of tiny, nearly worthless sapphires and emeralds. She loves it, as I’d known she would. It’s well-crafted, but craftsmanship has no resale value; nor do chip gems like these. The ring is worth maybe a hundred dollars in scrap gold. It won’t get Iris across any fortified borders. That looks so pretty with what you’re wearing, I tell her.
A city’s magpies, not its lovers, drive a jeweler’s inventory. The serious men and women upstairs, poring over Rapaport, are just trying to hold the interest of this woman before me. (Not that they don’t also keep updating the break room whiteboard to say how many days until Valentine’s. We are now at V - 9.) Crouching up there among all the blinking screens, Sandra and Dennis and Bernard have only data: without ever seeing Iris Kim’s violet eyes, they will chart the course of her addiction, plot out her financial relationship with Sandra for the next twelve months. They do it very well. They make much, much more money than I do.
I would prefer to be upstairs, too, but unfortunately I have a kind face; plus, I possess the superpower of matching a woman to the one adjective she most longs to hear. Some women are thrilled to hear a ring looks cute, others need to know it’s stunning, and so on. As I’ve said, I have eight sisters.
I feel a twinge of guilt as Iris deals out her $100 bills. When she gets to fourteen or fifteen, I usually have to help her count. I wonder where her family is, and whether they realize she’s gotten her hands on the special needs trust they set up for her.
But Iris is happy, at least for the moment, and Sandra will be happy. And even I’m happy, happy because I’ve rid the shop of one worthless ring no woman will get as a Valentine’s gift this year.
After Iris leaves with her pink Sandra’s bag, I lower my head again to read the text on my phone. To my sinking dismay, Jorge has sent me another apartment link. One bedroom, one bath, Inner Sunset, $2400 a month.
Maybe we should jump on this one! he’s texted. Want me to call them?
I can’t even begin to explain how these cheerful apartment-hunting messages feel like acid thrown on all my deficiences – my coldness, my selfishness, my addiction to autonomy. Frowning, I start to text back: I SAID B4, WE’RE *NOT* LOOKING 4 APTS. PLS, DESIST!
But I stop myself at the last minute and text instead, No good. Under the fog :(
• • •
Here’s what diamonds have gotten me so far: I live alone in a windowless “studio” off Haight, with an inextinguishable cancerous reek and an inner door that leads to my neighbors’ bathroom. It doesn’t lock; I have to keep my bed braced against it, or they can walk in. There’s a shared toilet down the hall. I pay $1200 a month and take sponge baths in the kitchen sink. If I remove the thick pad of Chinese newspapers that’s duct-taped over the sole ventilation grille, black smoke billows into the room – I have no idea why – and I have to stay at Jorge’s for three days. It’s all mine!
When I got here, I emailed all my sisters, emphasizing that anyone would be welcome anytime. As the weeks passed, I couldn’t understand why none of them ever appeared on my doorstep, seeking refuge on some desperate rainy night. Or even in the daytime. Or even when it wasn’t raining, which, okay, would be all the time now. (It hasn’t rained, really rained, in thirteen months. It’s California’s driest year on record.)
Because here’s what mystifies me: All my sisters are married. They all (a nauseating, blood-crawling thought) have children. Eight families, and no one needs to flee?
• • •
Jorge texts back:
It’s not under the fog, it’s in the skin cancer prevention zone. ;) so did you look at it?
Cant look now im at work
OK, how about lunch @5happiness? 1 pm? p.s. how do you not live under the fog?
• • •
Ever since his old roommate moved to Oakland, Jorge has been paying $1850 a month for a SoMa studio with no kitchen. Rather than buy a hotplate, he microwaves all his meals at work, at GeoSci Partners.
He texted me the first apartment link last month. We’ve been dating for > 1 year now, he pointed out.
Yes, I replied (a year and two weeks), but we’re usually just asleep! So consecutively, how much time have we actually spent together? Like a cumulative week?
Exactly! he responded. So if we lived together, we would see each other always! The very thought makes me feel like the Chinese newspapers have been ripped off the vents of spousal torment for all time.
I text right back: Dunno if ill even get lunch break, super busy! Next wk = Valentns. Plus ppl just got paid, perfect storm!
Then I’ll order ahead and be waiting in front. I love you too. XOXO
• • •
Jorge is a farm kid like me, the third kid of six. We both grew up Catholic, gleaning fields for pocket money, hiding novels in coyotebrush on our respective walks home, each summer’s ammond harvest blackening our respective snot for the duration. We probably have the same concentration of Sevin in our blood. “We come from such different worlds,” I like to joke to him. Lately he’s been giving me a creaseless, 2D smile that tells me this is no longer funny like it was back when we’d only slept together a dozen times. Like bloody tampons on top of his trash, many of the things I like to say seem to be transitioning from exhilaratingly tolerable to candidates for the Project List, the roll of things about me that should be changed. Yet even as his irritation with me accrues, it’s plain to see his love only grows more sincere. As for me, there is not a single thing I’d change about my perfect Jorge, except that I’d prefer he were a little less attached.
• • •
My next customers are a depressing pair: a blushing man-child stammering his way through the first decision of his life, and his future mother-in-law, fiftyish, crisp and frosted. She is there to help him choose an acceptable engagement ring, and my heart crumples for the girl whose mother would supervise even this. I mean, if your daughter makes it to The City – that should be, like, base! I feel like screaming: Twenty-six-year-old millionaire! Pick something all by yourself! Take that chance, that minuscule chance, that your girl will not love a $22,000 diamond ring. You may find the risk exhilarating!
Truthfully, this isn’t at all unusual. People love their mothers and appreciate their help. Why wouldn’t they? But deliver me from these people and their collusion, their protective custody; from marriage and from families and from all safekeeping, deliver me.
• • •
Mid-morning, we get a strange run of customers, all alike as if someone let a little kid shuffle the deck. Lots of larger, older women with cloudy perms, dough-shaped matrons in control top jeans and cotton turtlenecks. No one is buying, everyone is selling. And for the most part, what they have aren’t the kinds of pieces Sandra’s would even buy. They have little stud earrings, cheap Tiffany’s pendants; some of what they think are diamonds aren’t. I have to direct them to pawn shops and gold exchanges, and when I say “Union Square,” which is a block from Sandra’s, they flinch and ask meekly if it’s far away, and will they have to get back on the train.
I hate turning down women with jewelry to sell. If it were up to me I’d buy every last piece, even the CZ. No one should tote her treasures to The City and go away empty-handed. Sandra bitches about the stupid women who turn up on our doorstep sometimes, having not even thought to call ahead and make an appointment, but even she must have rehearsed some fantasy of escape a thousand times inside her own bald, rouged skull, and it probably is missing some practical details.
Suddenly, about noon, I figure it out. I’m trained not to pry into sellers’ circumstances, but this woman seems so near tears, and her jewelry is so worthless, and just being near her in her misery and disappointment I suddenly feel so lonely that I suggest: “Dry year, huh.”
The look of astonishment on her face proves I’m right. We will never believe, we farmers, that urbanites have the faintest idea what’s happening out there where their food comes from. Suddenly the woman sucks down a breath and she’s off: First the water district said sixty percent, then forty, then last Friday, zero percent, no irrigation water this summer. They’ll be rationed two hundred and fifty gallons a day of “safety and sanitation” water, whatever that is! Ten acres of cherries, fifty acres of apricots: all will die. And the water district lied! And CDFA lied! And they say this is the driest year on record, but how can it be – what about ‘77? But they’re already trucking water to Marin County. If I go out to the Golden Gate Bridge, I can see for myself: Tanker after tanker, hauling precious drinking water to rich people.
I touch her hand. I say, “I’m so sorry.” I write the address of Gary’s Gold And More on the back of a business card. As she slumps out the door, I call out, “Which water district? –If you don’t mind me asking.”
She hurls the name at me like a curse. It’s the district north of Mom and Dad’s.
I don’t go back to the farm much, now, because it’s far, and because it’s hot as fuck unless it’s the thirty days a year when it’s cold and raining, and because I’m defective, I mean I don’t love enough, the correct amount, that is, like normal people do, and the less time I spend near my family (where my deformities show most) the longer I might postpone the day when fate finally, somehow, deals me the punishment I deserve.
But now, as the apricots’ widow stalks away with her birthstone set, I’m beginning to feel an alien, itching anxiety as I recall the farm. I’m thinking now of all the sprinkler heads I ever ran over and fixed; all the Saturdays I spent mucking debris out of our ditch, coming home algae-streaked and with odd rashes. We would get the water every tenth day, and Dad would get a phone call from the district watermaster the night before, telling him what time he was allowed to open our gate and what time he’d have to close it again. Now I’m remembering the texture of an ammond leaf late on the ninth day, like antique silk. I’m remembering the susurrus of flood irrigation in the prunes at night, and the transgressive magic of the morning after, when what should have been bottled up in pipes was suddenly wild and rampant. Sometimes there would be so much water that it would actually just be lying on top of the ground. There’s some word for when that happens.
We all talked about it at Mom and Dad’s this past Christmas, although we were careful not to say the word “drought.” We said “all this sun.” It was an eerie Christmastime, highs in the seventies or eighties, the earth dry as old leather. Usually it pours. It’s normal, in the Central Valley, to get even one-third of our rain for the whole year crammed into those last ten days of December. We all asked Mom and Dad what would happen if it didn’t rain soon. “Oh, I guarantee it’ll rain,” Dad chuckled. “If it don’t want to, we’ll just see.” He folded his napkin and smiled beatifically.
“Yes, so, if it doesn’t,” I persisted. There’s something about Dad, some oaken decency, that just annihilates your ability to believe in whatever he believes in. “We have a well,” Mom observed. She has a voice like a shrug.
But if the district cuts off all the farmers’ surface water, as now seems certain, then everyone else will also be pumping water from their own wells, and won’t that lower the groundwater table until Mom and Dad’s well is useless? Some aquifers are easy to deplete, others not so much, but that’s as much as I know. This is really Jorge’s department. He knows all kinds of trivia about this “shale” or that “arch”. He has an intricately colored geological map of California on his wall, fifty-two inches by thirty, and he consults it. I consider asking him about the aquifer under my family’s property, but then I decide it would be like trying to get something for nothing. I think we’re both very careful, in our relationship, not to seek unfair advantages.
• • •
At ten to one – time for my lunch break – Sandra totters downstairs to take over. I do want to see Jorge, but I dread the topic of that Inner Sunset apartment, and my hesitation must show on my face. Sandra gives me the only look she has, an appraising look, as she unsheathes a tube of lipstick. “You look sad,” she remarks. I glower at her unsadly. “Frightened, then,” she says. “Lately, dear, you look frightened.” She turns to the mirrored wall and examines her tinted, blighted face.
“I don’t know why I would,” I snap. “I’ll be back at –”
“You know, young lady,” she tells her reflection, as she scrapes her remaining hair into one pile, “in this life, we’re not always punished for our flaws.” Then she looks straight at me, and God damn if her disturbing old lips don’t actually blossom into a mortuary smile. “In fact, we’re usually rewarded for them.”
I stare at her as I back toward the door.
As I hurry toward lunch with Jorge, I realize I’m scowling with dread. I don’t want to end up as a scowl hag, my character flaws gouged into my forehead for all to see, so I consciously relax my facial muscles. I should look serene when Jorge glimpses me. Five Happiness is now one block away. Carefree!
I calm myself by mentally selling jewelry to the women I pass. Elegant, I intone to an acne-scarred tech vole. Classic lines, I whisper to a furious-looking matron in a Hillary pantsuit. Solid, ethereal, one-of-a-kind. There are even women who long to hear a piece is encrusted with diamonds, a word which makes me feel I’m manacled to a seawall.
It isn’t working, so I fall back on joyously screaming to myself inside: No One Will Ever Know What You Are Doing Right Now! No One Can See You! You Are Free!
“Oh, good day?” Jorge asks as I sit down, a crazy grin plastered across my face.
“It’s always a good day in The City.”
Jorge is a geologist, which is less interesting than it sounds. He sits in a glass skyscraper on the Embarcadero and interprets seismic test results so he can tell oil and gas companies exactly where to drill. He looks for hairline flaws in the armor of the planet, or that’s my understanding of it. He’ll find the weakest spot, he knows the signs of faults. This is how he operates.
“You know where it’s always a good day? –In Livermore,” he says, winking, pushing a carton of pork fried rice and his smartphone across the tiny table to me. It’s opened to a Craigslist ad for a 1/1, $1800 a month.
“This is not even considerable,” I say flatly.
“Only six blocks from BART,” he adds brightly. “Sun’s always shining in Livermore!”
“I’d spend a hundred a month just commuting, so I wouldn’t even save,” I sneer.
“Well, we don’t have to do it like that.”
“Oh yes we do.” I suspect a trick.
“Look, I’m paying $1850 now. It is what it is. So, I’m prepared to pay up to $1850. Anything over that would be you.”
“But that wouldn’t be fair, we can’t do it that way,” I cry out. This is the exactly kind of thing he will pull!
“It would be fair to me,” he continues gently. “My finances would stay the same, but I’d get to wake up with my girlfriend every single morning. I would pay any amount of money, that I had, to get to do that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t,” I say, near tears with the effort of concealing that I would pay any amount of money to continue living alone.
“I know,” he says quietly. “Let’s talk about this again after work. I’ll come by Sandra’s at six. ‘Kay?”
“Fine,” I say, exhausted even though absolutely nothing has happened.
As well as smarter than me, Jorge is better. Somehow, out of the chaos and squalor, he refined an un-woundable patience. He understands that you don’t move a rock, you just let it wear down. Jorge will make a good father.
For my part, I can’t let the rock just stand there; I have to punish it somehow, even if I can only dislodge a tiny chip, even if I splinter my hammer in the process.
Jorge tucks his smartphone back into his messenger bag. “Then til tonight, good-bye, sweetie pie.”
“Jesus Christ, do not say sweetie pie. I’ve asked you that.”
“What is wrong with that? It’s a term of, endear—”
“I don’t want to hear anything that’s from my family,” I say, for the tenth goddamn time. I scowl freely! “That’s what my dad always called me.”
Jorge takes a long sip of his tea. “Then, in my opinion, you were very fortunate.”
• • •
Business picks up after lunch. At about five, I lose my breath when my mother walks in. She’s not my mother, of course, but she’s the spitting image of the woman from my mother’s wedding photograph, down to the white minidress and cowboy boots. That picture was and remains the only physical evidence we girls ever had that Mom was once slender. Back then, she was working at the Mortensen dairy, and Dad says she never bothered to use the barn door but just slipped in and out through the stanchions. By the time I knew her, she could cross her breasts.
Mom-at-nineteen is followed by her lover, a lion of commerce with a dry-ice fog of white hair, who flashes me a hearty let’s-do-business smile. Mom, in carat shock, steadies her dazed palm on the shoulder of his blazer. She looks so vulnerable. I feel a piercing desire to give her the very best, something that will survive in case nothing else does. Sandra pays me $13.89 an hour, but I’d probably do this for free.
I asked Jorge once why he chose engineering in college. He beamed, savoring his words as he replied: “The fun of science is that it’s all about devising the right questions to ask.”
“Well,” says the lion of commerce.
Looking for something extra special today? I ask.
• • •
After the lion spends about what I make in a year, Mom staggers out with her pink bag, and the lion lingers for one last glance. He even inhales deeply, as if he could imprint the refulgence on his retinas that way, something to take away with him. “Dream job, huh,” he muses. “You like your job?”
I smile back.
Mary Ellen is a lawyer now. Her firm has fifteen senior partners; all are men. Anne is a homemaker and mother of four who has come to believe her husband has a secret bank account. Carolina is an agronomist, the only woman in her office, who just learned she makes 22% less than anyone else, and Joanna is a girls’ soccer coach who makes 15% less than the boys’ soccer coach. Simonette’s first husband abandoned her and her two daughters, and then he changed his name to make it harder for Child Support Services to track him down. (He changed it to Bridget.) Regina, whose husband broke both her wrists, felt she couldn’t press charges because she needed to stay on his health insurance, which has maternity coverage. Denise dropped out of graduate school because of “something that happened.” And Julie, the baby, suspects her boyfriend of destroying her birth control pills, then tampering with the condoms. Now they’re engaged.
These facts are the real reasons I’ll never work upstairs. I am always able to talk a man into buying a woman a bigger diamond.
• • •
As I’m closing up, I see Jorge outside. He waves, pretends to window-shop.
“Sell a lot of diamonds today?” he asks with a kiss.
“A dump load. Secure America’s energy future today?” He gives a can’t-deny-it bow and we head downhill, the naked sky just beginning to turn its wild lilac blue.
“Hey, what were you thinking back there, as you were locking the safe? You looked so worried for a minute, and then you got the dreamiest expression.”
How I hate it when he asks that! —Well, I had been recalling the apricot lady, and then I’d been considering how it is kind of crazy (when you think about it) to grow so much of the nation’s food in a state where even in the wettest year, it doesn’t rain from June to October, and how now and then someone’ll bring that up, and everyone else’ll chuckle and say, Yeh-yep, people’re crazy! And how tragic it is that we have to base our entire society on something that just evaporates. Because for all the politicians’ talk about “banking” water, it isn’t something you can store, like knowledge; it’s something that has to keep arriving, like patience. And then I was daydreaming about how nice it would be if I were sailing across the ocean all alone, all by myself, and it started to rain. I’d bring all my little pans and dishes out on deck… “What? Nothing. I don’t remember.”
“Too bad.” His pocket sings. “Oh, check out what just got listed.” And he dangles his smartphone in front of my face, expertly holding the screen motionlessness as we hurtle downhill, like we’re two fast-walking executives on a job site.
“No, I’m not living in fucking, Danville. And twenty-one is insane for there.”
“Oh, you don’t think it’s worth it? Come on, put yourself in my place. Sometimes I don’t see you for days. You could be anywhere.”
“Yes, I could be anywhere! And you can’t just accept that one moment of my life could elapse without you watching?” My voice is rising to a shriek, and I cringe as I hear it, expecting fate’s blow at any moment. “Your idea of being together is all, Oh, what’s that book? Who’s that friend? If you could, you’d just – hear every thought I have!”
“That’s true. Okay, there’s an even better option. I’m thirty-five, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, so hear me out. If we got married, then with a first-time homebuyer’s loan, we could—“
“You can’t be serious!” I am appalled by his capacity for rejection. It occurs to me then that my need to test love, and Jorge’s instinct to redouble it, could make a timeless pair, like sun and tree. It will probably seem, for a long long time, like nothing else is missing.
“No, let me finish. I read about these condos, in Walnut Creek. I’d like to show them to you. This weekend? It’s just a BART ride.”
“People live in Walnut Creek?” I say in disbelief. “I thought it was just for endoscopy centers. Jesus, you don’t get it, this is where I belong. In the City, with all the other refugees.”
“Oh, you’re a refugee?” cries Jorge. “You’re a – never mind. Now that you bring it up, there are plenty of refugees in Walnut Creek.” He cocks an eyebrow at me, inviting me to cry out Oh Jorge, I never knew! Speak to me, with your superior demographic knowledge, of these East Bay asylum-seekers! Are there Armenians?
“No, go on,” I snarl. “I’m a, what?”
“It’s just, Tessa, your family owns two hundred acres.”
The farmer’s daughter in me is completely unable not to say, “We lease forty.”
“Well, try moving every four months, try watching all your aunts and uncles get deported. That’s what I don’t get: Why do you always think I’m trying to put one over on you? Do you just think this about everyone? Everyone is trying to take advantage of you? It’s not how the world works.”
I look at him with a purity of hatred only a culpable child can know.
“I’m not trying to take anything from you,” Jorge is saying. “I just want to share with you. I’ll make your life better. I don’t know what I have to say.” We’ve stumbled to a halt, suspended in a pod of two hundred other pedestrians all waiting to ford Market at Kearny, and I’m about to burst into tears of guilt and dread, and no one’s even eavesdropping, everyone’s staring straight ahead with that unimpressed S.F. expression like their emotions are still loading. “Look, I know you’d pay twice what you’re paying now, just to keep being princess of your own domain.” (When I start weeping, it’s not – God help me – with regret for being so selfish, but with shame for being so transparent.) “– That’s okay. But some day when it’s not easy any more, I’ll be there to make it easier. I just wish you’d take me up on it now, save us both the trouble. But I’ll wait for you to figure it out. Because you’re the love of my life.”
“I am not the love of your life,” I hiss.
“You actually don’t get to decide that.”
“We’re not a match!”
“Whatever you say.”
“I know lots of women you’d like better than me. I should introduce you to some.”
“You don’t even know me!”
As we all surge into the crosswalk together, Jorge has begun to laugh.
That all happened on a Wednesday. The day after that, Thursday, with only a week left before Valentine’s, Sandra suddenly changed my wages to a commission. I never understood why – it was a terrible business decision on her part – but I was elated. It was clear that I would soon have enough money in the bank to start fulfilling my only remaining ambition: building a diamond stockpile of my own. I had known for years exactly what kind of stones I would buy when I had money; I’d calculated which cuts, grades and weights would optimize my return. But now that I could invest in diamonds, I suddenly doubted the wisdom of them.
It seemed like gold was just as good, when you got right down to it. Gold was overbought that year, granted, but there were other metals – rare earths, for instance – that seemed like they’d be equally precious in the future. What was the matter with buying real estate again? I couldn’t remember, unless it was the whole marauding-hordes thing. That seemed like a teenage girl’s paranoia. This is America, for heaven’s sake.
I slept over at Jorge’s again that night. As we lay tangled up like fallen trees, I pressed my cheek to his forehead, pushed my nose into his wild-goat’s shock of hair, and privately reviewed the inner lectures I used to love to give myself, the ones about density of value. A city is a diamond [I had often gloated to myself], a city is a book. What was I thinking? The only book was in my arms.
“Jorge,” I whispered, “where is there always going to be water?”
“You mean like, after climate change?”
“I don’t know. If you could know that, that’s worth a lot more than a diamond ring.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” I murmured, as we both fell asleep.
Later that same night, I crept into Jorge’s kitchen, or the alcove where his kitchen would have been if he’d had any kitchen appliances. All he had was a small refrigerator-freezer. He needed the freezer for the frozen tamales and ice cream novelties that he pretty much lived on in those days, and, obviously, he needed the refrigerator for beer. I peered inside the freezer, foraging for an It’s-It. (We had forgotten to eat dinner. That happened to us all the time back then.) Batting aside boxes of mac and cheese, I glimpsed a small red velvet box. It was gut-stabbingly familiar. With dread in my heart, I slid it out from its hiding place. Sandra’s, it said.
I picked it up, more or less like it was an IED, the chilled velvet shaking in my hands. Why do you need this, I was thinking, or thoughts to that effect, you dumb, insecure bastard. We could have just kept enjoying ourselves. For like, indefinitely. We could have had a whole nother year. Now we have the seven days until Valentine’s. I opened the box.
Inside, resting in the lustrous pink slit that every Sandra’s box conceals, were two rings, plain wedding bands. I’ll never know quite how he did it, but it took a gifted engineer to devise a question I could say yes to.
The rings were made of ice.
I put the box back in the freezer. I watched my lover sleeping, the matchless grace of his limbs. Nights in the City are never silent, but this was a quiet one, and it was a special, proliferating kind of quiet, as if soft filaments of peace were accumulating on the spinning axis of the night. As I snuggled back into bed, I realized – that is, I remembered – what that kind of quiet means.
I curled up next to my lover and watched the wet window-glass being adorned, over and over, with raindrops, the sparkling currency of life.