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Published: Tue Jul 1 2003
Eva LundsagerUnder Constant Still (detail), 2017–2021, oil on canvas
errata from the field: demographics

O’Brien screwed the top back on the bottle and sat admiring her handiwork, her hands held out at arm’s length, the bed of each nail slathered a brilliant cobalt blue, a shade which reminded her of coffee mugs and cancer. It was Saturday and O’Brien had already scrubbed the toilet, picked the black hairs out of the futon, arranged the library books in order of their due dates—January third and fourth underneath the bay window, books due on the Epiphany by the radiator. Unconsciously she licked each semi-dry nail with her tongue; it was like licking a fresh Polaroid. The week before, after paying to see an Elizabethan period piece, O’Brien had come home and with a pair of children’s left-handed scissors cut nine inches off her hair. Needless to say, O’Brien was right-handed and it showed.

O’Brien sat back on the sofa. Like two other people she knew in Silicon Valley who would admit it, for entertainment’s sake O’Brien had multiple on-going conversations running in her head. The majority of these imaginary dialogues were conducted in English and involved famous and attractive men but a few took place in the bowels of the world’s busiest train station.

A: “Sumimasen-ga, kono kushusta-wa momen desu-ka?”

B: “Iie. Nairon desu.”

A: “Aa. Soo desu-ne.”

It was Saturday and O’Brien had already Windexed underneath the stove’s burners and exhausted the various outcomes of buying socks in Shinjuku Station, so she decided to watch TV. She licked her cobalt nails again and reached for the remote. On the public television station a man was sitting in a tent with a goat. O’Brien lingered just long enough to watch him vacuum a cloud of flying bugs up into a clear plastic tube. She flipped to the Cartoon Network, where a pudgy man and a lanky rabbit were busy singing Wagner. “Oh Brünhilde, you’re so wuv-ly!” sang the man. O’Brien wiped a tear from her eye and moved on. On the cooking channel, a recently indicted pedophile was beating five egg whites “until frothy.” As the whites began to foam, O’Brien remembered how her lover had believed that certain foods should only be eaten on weekends and that eggs were one of them. Now, three weeks later, O’Brien only missed him for his eggs, the way he beat sugar into the milk before adding it.

Fervently O’Brien flipped on. On another channel, a woman in a man’s oxford and white sweat socks was sliding over the hardwood floor feeling like a natural woman thanks to her artificial hair color. On the next channel a middle-aged man happily boasted of an extramarital affair he was having with his teenage daughter’s best friend. Then onto the wide-mouthed bass fisherman followed by the Midwestern homemaker with problems storing her family’s sweaters. O’Brien didn’t stop to think about it, about what kind of people made the world go round and why she never seemed to gel with the segment of the population which periodically shared her bed. Instead she peeked in on a group of 18- to 25-year-olds tooling around the United States in a Winnebago. Besides being conventionally good-looking, the group also seemed to fight a lot. O’Brien flipped to the foreign movie channel and watched the last five minutes of a German period piece set somewhere in South America. In a half suit of armor the protagonist was listing around the wreck of a raft infested with rhesus monkeys and dead bodies. “I am Aguirre Wrath of God, who else is with me?” the subtitles read as the man chucked a small monkey into the water. O’Brien let out a hardy cheer. “I’m with you, baby,” she said.

Quan Barry published her first book of poetry, Asylum, through the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2001. Her second, Controvertibles, will be published in fall 2004. Her work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (updated 2003)

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