The plane is small, and I am the only one in it. They have taken away my phone, so I cannot tell how much time is passing. No one talks to me during the flight. I sit. I try to read the stack of gossip magazines someone has left tucked into the seat in front of me, all of them featuring articles about Rosanna, but the words swim. I drink the sweet champagne they bring me in tiny plastic cups, ignore the food. My old life already seems so far away. Last night I was sitting on the carpet of the empty basement, listening to my former foster mother watching TV upstairs, drinking the last of the beer from the mini fridge, thinking about calling someone, anyone really. Not telling them I was leaving, just grabbing drinks, being outside somewhere, with the people I cared about, secretly saying goodbye. But there was no one I wanted to call. I sat there and listened to the mutter of the television. I closed my eyes. I imagined my new life. Soon, I thought, I will be on the other side of that screen. And now I am here. I have never drunk champagne before. I have never been on a plane. I try to picture how the basement, the house, the theater, my whole town would look from up here. A fading speck of dirty earth. Nothing more significant than that.
I try to identify when we leave one state, enter another, where the borders are, the lines that separate one place from the next. But it is impossible to tell. Outside is mostly cloud anyway, a blank white screen I cannot see through, even when I strain my eyes trying to distinguish the vague shapes of the country passing below. I try to guess when we are over Arizona, where my father is presumably still in prison. It was a life sentence, but who knows? We haven’t spoken in years. Now we will never speak again. I wonder if I will miss him. If I will regret this. No, I tell myself, I won’t. Outside the window, the landscape slides by fast. I picture the shadow of the plane passing over it, darkening the mountains beneath, sliding over the land like some enormous deep-sea fish, leaving a rippling wake of light behind.
Los Angeles sneaks up on you. One minute you’re above the vast splendid deserts of the south, and everything is gaping canyons, red earth, pink light, the landscape glowing as the plane passes silent overhead. Then dust seems to creep up over the mountains, turning them slowly gray. Everything flattens out. Becomes monotonous. Before you have time to prepare yourself for it, the city is below you, surrounding you, all you can see, endless miles of industrial sprawl, low buildings faded to the same undifferentiated shade of dirty white by decades of year-round sunshine, stretching out pure and uninterrupted to the horizon, skirting the broken-glass glimmer of the sea.Something about the shadow of him, dark against the bright bright of concrete and sun, makes my heart turn over in my throat. I do not know this man, I think.
We land with a bump, the plane bouncing off the tarmac with a buoyancy that seems unnatural. I breathe into my abdomen, pushing away the familiar tightenings of an oncoming panic attack. In, out, counting the beats; in, out, in again. The plane comes to a standstill. Breathe in. Outside, the white concrete of the runway shimmers and twists in the dirty heat. Breathe out. Try not to feel the tightness of the walls around me, as plush as a coffin, slick and white. In. A black car, doors opening. Out. Max climbs from the back seat. I watch the way the wind gets its fingers in his hair, tugging at his coat, making the loose legs of his black suit rustle. Something about the shadow of him, dark against the bright bright of concrete and sun, makes my heart turn over in my throat. I do not know this man, I think. I do not know this man. In, I tell myself, out. Breathe.
The stewardess sticks her head around the room divider. “You’re wanted outside,” she says.
I make my way into the wind, waving from the steps of the plane like I’m someone important, a celebrity, a president’s wife, like this is fun. I force myself to smile. Max squints up at me through the fading sunlight, his expression not changing, tense. Disappointed, I think. He is disappointed in me already, and we haven’t even started yet.
“I’m here!” I say, falsely cheerful. “I made it.”
I make my way down the steps to the idling car, my small bag slung heavy over my shoulder. Now, I think, now he will break the awkward silence. He will tell me he’s glad I’m here, introduce me to the rest of our team. He will take my bag. His face will light up again, with that same excited softness from the theater, that same look of knowing, the two of us together working as one. This time I will understand what he means when he looks at me that way. But instead he nods, tight, swiveling his eyes around as if he is afraid, embarrassed to be seen with me, my rumpled shirt, my stretched- out jeans, his gaze sliding toward the sky, where clouds skitter like frightened sheep. A sign of rain, I would have said, in other places. I should have put on makeup. I should have done something about my hair. I shift my bag from one shoulder to another. Max waves me into the car.
“You did,” he says. An afterthought: “Thank you. I’m glad.”
The apartment they have found for me is far from the airport. As we drive the freeway rises and dips like a wave, so I can see the whole city spread out stucco-pale at my feet, interrupted here and there by startling rows of palm trees, their shredded leaves like the heads of strange creatures peeking over the rooftops. I feel so lonely I can barely breathe. I don’t know what I had expected. Perhaps that Max would greet me at the airport with flowers and a team of personal assistants, everyone telling me how happy they were to see me, that I had made the right choice, that I was exactly what Rosanna had been looking for. Perfect? I thought I would be special here, that Max at least would look at me and seem pleased. Now he sits with the driver in the front seat, far from me, silent. The radio is tuned to a classical station, and underneath everything there is a mutter of brass on brass, the discordant clash of horns like a storm. Inside me everything aches and pulls, my heart beating fast. I try to slow my breathing, close my eyes, but the effort just makes me feel sick. I will not let myself regret this, I think. I won’t.
Arriving at the curb, Max thanks the driver with the same impersonal tone he used to thank me. He gets out before I do, leaving me alone to unbuckle myself and look up at the dirty cream facade of my new home. Out my window, across the street, lies the blurred twilight sprawl of the city beneath.
It’s an old, Moorish-looking apartment building, like a prison out of the Arabian Nights, stucco scrolls and ornamental black iron balconies twisting from its blank face, narrow panels of stained glass blinking in the twilight like half-closed eyes. There is a turret stud- ded with iron-barred windows, black mold growing thick and crusty across its surface. At the back, I swear I glimpse the edge of a golden dome, but for all its grandeur, it’s small, maybe six to eight units, cowering between the neighboring mansions like a chastened pet. I thought that Rosanna would have picked something cleaner for me, newer—simple Scandinavian modernism, maybe, or a farmhouse- style loft. But maybe she is past the point of worrying about these things. Maybe someone else is already making these small choices for her, like I will soon.
Inside, the hallways are narrow and dim, green vines cloaking the windows, white walls, wood floors as dark and still as a frozen lake. As we pass the doorways, I listen to see if I can hear any sign of life from my new neighbors—music, maybe, or the smell of someone making dinner. But there is nothing but the sound of Max’s shoes rhythmically clipping their way up the staircase behind me, echoing in the empty hallway.
I am surprised to find that the apartment itself is almost as cramped as my place back home, just one high-ceilinged room and a kitchenette, a door off to one side that Max points at, saying it leads to a closet and a bathroom. The furniture is heavy and expensive looking, but old, probably family heirlooms, or things Rosanna bought and no longer has an interest in. I feel a flash of disappointment pass through me, as quick and hot as shame. This must be her version of a storage locker, my borrowed body another thing too expensive to get rid of, too inconvenient to keep close. Every surface is coated with a sticky layer of dust that smears unpleasantly when I set down my bag. There is a futon, a coffee table, a small empty bookshelf, a single chair. This is not my new glamorous life, not the clean place behind the cameras that I dreamed of back home.
Out the kitchen window I discover a small overgrown courtyard, the wide leaves of birds-of-paradise, ornamental palm, reaching like pleading hands toward the pink sky. The fountain in the middle murmurs slowly, the surface of the water skimmed with green, a suggestion of mysterious movement beneath. The wind, perhaps, or fish, submerged and swimming, their fins flicking silent in the dark water. Out the front window lies the city, the rooftops of bigger houses, terra-cotta, gleaming bloody in the setting sun. The hillside is studded with them, houses from every architectural tradition: modernist boxes, French country houses with white shutters, Italian villas, a castle. So many dream houses, so many dreams. On the windowsill, there is a single footprint in bright white paint, left by somebody’s cat. I run my fingers over it, hoping to feel the distinguishing bump of paw pad, to make some slight intimate contact, but the paint is old, the surface long since smoothed over, the cat presumably dead.
Behind me, I can hear Max puttering around, unpacking my bag, rearranging my things. I can see his reflection in the dark mirror of the glass, as dim and patient as a ghost. I do not know this man, I think, and yet here he is, pawing through my underpants as though there is no such thing as privacy. As though everything I own belongs to him. As though I belong to him, too.
“Right,” he finally says, his voice clipped, professional. “You won’t be needing any of this.”
It’s not until I see him shoving all my clothes back into the bag and taking it to the door, where he dumps it unceremoniously, that I understand what he means.
“But those are all my things,” I say, “my clothes. I need them. Why did you have me bring them if I couldn’t keep them? What am I supposed to wear?”
The injustice of this infuriates me. I am here on his summons. All this was his idea. I have left so much behind already, but the thought of losing this last small part of home—the smell of those clothes, of my laundry detergent, air freshener, movie theater popcorn, gas station incense—makes me want to cry. Max seems to sense this. I don’t understand how, quite. I am good at hiding my feelings. I always have been. But he softens, coming to stand close beside me, the two of us aligned, looking out the window together toward those distant houses over the garden wall, one of them Rosanna’s, I imagine, listening to the quiet murmur of the fountain below.
“We needed you to bring a bag, something. It looks strange get- ting on a plane without a bag. But you won’t need any of your own clothes here. We’ll be getting you a new wardrobe. Something more appropriate to your new position.”
“I understand that,” I say, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice, to remember that Max is above me, works more directly for my employer. “But why not tell me? I spent so much time pack- ing, picking out the clothes I thought I might need. The ones I thought Rosanna would like.”
“I’m glad you’ve prepared,” he says. “I’m glad you’re taking this seriously. But don’t worry about your clothes. You won’t need them anymore. You’ll wear Rosanna’s. She has so many. We picked out one of her favorite at-home outfits for you to wear tonight, and I’ll be bringing more by soon.”
He says this as if it’s a kindness. He really thinks he’s being nice to me. Homesickness claws at my throat. I think of my thrift-store clothing, the jeans I’m wearing, my shirt, oversize and gradient blue, showing the three zones of the ocean—sunlight, twilight, midnight. I used to be interested in the ocean. I used to be interested in a lot of things. And the contents of that small bag: an unread copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a battered map of the stars. My one good dress, which is too short, probably, white lace. It almost looks like silk. I look nice in it. People have told me I look nice.
“Still,” I say, “I can wear them around the apartment. Just privately. I can keep a few things of my own. For when I’m not work- ing, I mean.”
Max looks out the window, seeming to consider a house on the other side of the canyon. Is that where Rosanna lives? Is she there now, perched in a window, looking back at us? I hug my arms close. Night is falling. Soon everything around us will be dark, and from her house on the hillside Rosanna will be able to look right into my brightly lit bedroom window. I wonder if that’s why Max wants me to change. So that she will like what she sees.
“I don’t think that would be wise,” Max says gently. “I hoped that I had conveyed this to you when we discussed the job, but this isn’t regular work. You can’t just clock in and out. If we’re going to succeed, you’ll have to learn to think like Rosanna even when you’re not in public, not working. You’ll have to internalize the way she thinks. And she would never wear any of your old clothes.”
I am wounded at this, but he’s right. I think again of the worn- out contents of my bag. Everything I own used to belong to some- one else. How is this any different?
“Besides, it will make Rosanna so happy,” he says. “She loves her clothes so much. It’s a sad thing for her, being hidden away, unable to wear them in the world. She has such a wonderful style. Isn’t it our responsibility, your responsibility, to honor that?”
“Even here?” I ask.
“Even here. It will be good to practice. We want them to feel as natural to you as your old clothes do. They belong to you now, too. I’ll tell her how nice you look in them. And you will look nice, I know.”
I think of Rosanna, wherever she is, wearing the same outfit day after day, too tired and confused to bother to change. Won’t she like thinking of me in all her nice things, old things, carrying her memo- ries around in my pockets? Won’t she like picturing me the way she used to be, well-dressed, carefree, a citizen of a better world? That is, after all, why I’m here. To become the woman she used to be. Max is right. I owe her this much. A new life is beginning. A new life with new clothes.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll wear them. I understand.”
“Good. Here, a welcome gift.” He leans over. There is a box beside the futon. He takes something out of it, clothes, folded, a gray cropped sweat shirt with matching pants. They are heavy in my arms, with none of the sheen of synthetic fibers. These are expen- sive clothes. These are mine. I try to feel pleased that he has brought me such nice things to wear. But they’re not really mine, whatever he says. They belong to Rosanna. I can smell her on them, a faint whiff of expensive floral perfume. I feel a quick flash of disgust. I thought that in my new life I would never have to wear another person’s clothes again. But it’s all part of the job, I tell myself. Just a few years of this, and then I’ll buy hundred-dollar dresses and wear them once. I’ll throw whole closets away.
“Put them on,” Max says, gesturing toward the closed bathroom door.
I do. My body feels numb, like I am wearing an extra layer of skin. I can barely feel the clothes, the way the fabric hangs heavy soft against my flesh. Max smiles when I leave the bathroom and try to hand him my old clothes, bunched into a messy pile, but he lifts his hands up in a gesture of renunciation and won’t take them from me.
“Throw them away,” he says. “I need to know that this is your choice. That you are deciding to be here. Committing to the project of Rosanna. Turning your back on that old self.”
“Okay,” I say. “I am. I will.”
I am not exactly sure that this is true, but I know that I want him to think it is. Whatever parts of myself I keep are none of his business. I think of my squalid old life, of the money. This is worth it. It has to be. I take my old clothes and stuff them down into the bottom of the kitchen trash can, shoving them in deep so I won’t be tempted to dig them back up and put them on. I tell myself they are no longer mine. They have nothing to do with me anymore.
“Thank you,” says Max. “Well done.” A pause. “You look nice,” he says. “I knew you’d look nice in her clothes.”
There are more things in the box. A pile of magazines with articles about Rosanna in them, which someone has helpfully book- marked for me. The same ones from the plane, plus a few more, all of them back issues, months or years old, Rosanna’s archive. At the bottom, there is a thick stack of flash cards covered in dense, sloping handwriting, full of the details of Rosanna’s life—her friends, her acquaintances, her likes and dislikes. I flip through the deck, catching quick snatches of text: rosemary, one card reads; Shalimar, another. “You’ll need to memorize these,” says Max. “I want you to know everything about her. Not know, even—more intuit. Feel. Every- thing that belonged to her is yours now. I want you to take all this inside you and make it your own. So that it seems natural. So no one
will be able to tell but me. And Rosanna, of course. She’ll know.”
I am good at memorization, at pretending. This will not be a problem. I nod. Rosanna’s clothes weigh heavy on my skin, sweet with perfume, a slight crushed cumin ghost of someone else’s sweat. Max has taken my clothes, my books, my old life. Soon I will become another person. The person who wears these clothes. For now I want to hold something back, keep something for myself, a privacy that Max can’t penetrate. I keep turning through the deck, pretending studiousness. The Rosanna I knew wore long silk dresses. She was everybody’s girlfriend, stylish, carefree. There is some of that reflected here. But there are unexpected discoveries, too. A pic- ture of the goldfish she keeps on her bedside table, his name on the back—Ron. Little Women, written on a card that asks about favorite childhood books, a book I’d loved back when my father was around to read it to me, before. Rosanna is closer to me than I thought. And I am closer to her. I can feel Max’s hesitation. He’s waiting for some signal from me, some sign to tell him that I’m ready, that I under- stand what he needs me to do. I do understand. I am ready. But I will not give him what he wants. Not this one small last thing. Finally he makes a noise, a little sound in the back of his throat like a hum. I want to turn to look at him. I don’t. I turn over another card.
“See that?” he says.
His voice has changed. It’s tender now. Cajoling. He is pretend- ing to notice something in the garden outside, trying to draw my attention back to him. He must sense me moving away, escaping inside to some place beyond his reach. Despite myself, I look, following the line of his finger toward empty green, nothing. Then all of a sudden I see it. A flash of bright movement somewhere deep in the dense green tangle of leaves.
“Parrots,” says Max. “There are flocks of them here in the hills. Their owners die or get sick of them or are careless and let them escape. Eventually they find each other. This courtyard is one of the places they like to nest. That’s one of the reasons I . . . we . . . Rosanna and I chose this apartment. We wanted to give you something to look at during the long days of work to come.”
I move back just a little, so I am standing closer to him, the edges of our bodies almost touching. Almost, but not quite. I can feel the prickle of electricity coming off his arm. I want very badly to reach toward him, to bring him closer to my own body. I am awash in a strangely powerful lonesomeness that makes me want to gather him up in my arms and hold on for ballast as I’m sucked away into this new life. Finally I speak, the words strange in my throat, my voice like my voice after I wake up from a long nap, disoriented in the afternoon sunlight, and after a long day of not speaking to anyone, answer the ringing phone.
“How can they survive out here alone?” I say. “Doesn’t it get too cold for them? Where do they go when it rains?”
“They have one another,” says Max.
He responds to my movement with his own, lifting his arm, running his fingers lightly above my back, rippling through the empty air, thrumming an alien sensation between pleasure and alarm into life somewhere deep inside.
“And it never rains in Los Angeles.”
I know this can’t be true. It rains everywhere. But right now, with Max beside me, and the purple sky, the fountain, the scent in the warm air of jasmine and orange, something bitter and rotten and sweet, I want so badly to believe him. On a branch in the court- yard, a lone bird fluffs its wings. And then as we stand there, watching, the air is full of fluttering. A cloud of birds circle and land, their wings flashing bright in the bushes, all colors, the air full of their sounds, until just as suddenly it isn’t, and all that’s left is their bodies deep in the branches, a quiet cooing click as they settle in for the night, shifting their tiny feet, gripping and ungripping their tiny claws. They are utterly foreign to this place. They are completely at home. Max stands close beside me. We watch the birds settle, the sun disappear behind the high rim of the golden dome. Night falls slowly over the courtyard. Together we watch the world outside go dark.