This story originally appeared in our June 2014 fiction issue.
I lived in a basement beneath a French professor and his wife, who taught German at a dying school for girls. The carpet was pine-green. There was no kitchen. I kept ready-made sandwiches from Trader Joe's in a brown mini-fridge, and the outline of a sandwich was embossed in burnt sauce on the microwave's plate. When Agnes visited, there was the sharp, joyous smell of new tires. That was the smell the blue vibrator released when cleaned.
I didn't ask for help with my career. When she wondered aloud whether she should cast me in her next movie, I said no, she had to follow her vision. We avoided bars where I couldn't afford to buy my own drinks. I paid for half of everything, except for twice, when we went to resorts she wanted to try, in Montana and Big Sur, and on my birthday, and every once in a while, when she wanted to sit at a table on a deck overlooking the Pacific and for me to be there with her.
At mid-price restaurants, waitresses praised her most popular film. At expensive restaurants, they would tell the owner she was there, and the owner would introduce himself and bring free appetisers and desserts. One owner pulled up a chair after he'd laid out his offering: slices of pie, boysenberry, sour cherry, salty honey. He called for wine and said to Agnes, "It's been such a fucking night." We'd never met him before.
Most times I took a shower at Agnes's house, she knocked on the bathroom door. When she drew back the curtain, the sound of the water changed.
"Show me your asshole," she said. I turned, bent my knees, drew apart my buttocks and let them fall back in place. She giggled for a long time, and said, "That is just so wonderful." I stayed longer in the shower than I had to, after it happened, while she sat on the toilet and read aloud passages of novels she hoped would move me. "You're a good boy," she said. "You never gave your mama any trouble." There was something about the water and the humiliation, heat on heat.
Agnes only worked behind the camera, and the fans who accosted her on the street were educated people. One said, "Quietly subversive"; another said, "Throwback to the age of the auteur". They didn't so much tremble in her presence as thrum. When they looked at her, there was something in their faces that was rare and handsome: concentration.
Agnes was beautiful when she humoured fans. In their presence, she tapped a Gauloise on the heel of her hand. She was smaller and brighter. Her high school self would not leave her, that big-nosed girl with flyaway curls, so she wore her power like a joke, smiled with her teeth, arms folded, eyes incredulous. I saw the point of an entourage.
Once, when we were waiting in line to buy hot dogs from a kiosk at the airport, a teenage girl behind us called someone on her cell phone.
"I'm standing behind Agnes Dakopoulos at a hot dog stand," murmured the girl. "She's talking to this guy about how he has to read this book she's carrying. I thought he was Thor, but it's not him. She's wearing white Converse and white nineties jeans and this red polka-dot top with one of those little belts in the back. Now she's ordering a hot dog." She gave the play-by-play.
The first email from Dorit came when I was watching Vagabond on my Dell, an assignment from Agnes.
Hope it's not weird to still call you that? Is it true you're dating Agnes? She's one of our clients. How's that going? Recently sold a documentary-style show on competitive gamers for a butt-ton, made me think of your mum's boyfriend's computer-game addiction.
The last time Dorit and I had stood face to face, she had said that it was so sad watching me decline from lacrosse star to benumbed failure that she could no longer have sex with me while fully awake. "If you want," she said, "you can wait until I fall asleep and poke me. I understand you have needs." It was odd that she would keep me abreast of her accomplishments.
I showed the email to Agnes that night, in the interest of transparency.
"She walks like a duck," Agnes said. That was not right. When Dorit wore heels, she threw her legs in front of her and swung her arms, as if she were in a fen.
"True," I said to Agnes. "You always nail people. I guess it's because you're a director."
Agnes scrambled off the mattress and duck-walked up and down the green carpet, smoking her cigarette, looking nothing like Dorit.
"Oh my God – uncanny," I said, clapping. "Hi, Dorit."
We had sex, building to the vibrator, and watched The Lion King. I wanted Agnes to see it so that she could see the real America. As I explained each scene, I found myself telling the story of my boyhood. When it was over, Agnes knelt on my mattress and looked out the window. My purple-and-yellow college sweatshirt was all she wore. She loved the shirt because it proved my world was real.
"The thing about movies like that," she said, "is that everyone is struggling with real problems."
"Most people," I explained, "have real problems."
"Of course." She shook her lighter, which, resting on the sill during the climax of the movie, had been exposed to light rain. "But they don't attack their real problems, typically. They attack fake problems while their real problems eat them alive. That's what French and German movies get that Hollywood movies don't."
"Before you respond to Dorit's email," she said, as we were falling asleep, "show me what you're going to say."
"Whatever you want," I told her, and fit two of her knuckles in my mouth.
The next morning, I showed Agnes my proposed reply to Dorit: "We're so in love, such wonderful thing, re gamers." Agnes approved it and I tapped "Send".
Thirteen minutes later, Dorit wrote:
- Agnes D. and Sneeze in love... adorable, and it should help with your acting. Do you still not talk to your dad since he sent you the McKinsey internship application?
I could feel that Agnes was angry as she read it over my shoulder.
"She's a cunt," said Agnes. "She's a devious super-yid. She wants to scheme you back, now that you're dating me, because of my..." The omitted word was fame.
I agreed that Dorit's interest in me had been revived by my dating a famous person. But there was no evidence of a scheme.
"The instant she emails you again, you tell me," said Agnes, throwing on her blazer, looking for her car keys. She was needed on set; dawn was breaking around the edges of the towel I used as a curtain. Above, the four-year-old screamed like a half-slaughtered piglet and was admonished in French and then English.
"Whatever you want," I said. I pulled down her pants and fucked her, instead of eating her out or using the vibrator, as I had been doing lately. We said, "I love you."
That night, Agnes showed me The Story of Adele H., by an auteur named Truffaut. It was about a celebrity's daughter who went mad stalking a soldier who ignored her. The movie didn't say it, but what it was about was that she got hotter and hotter the madder she became, wandering North American colonies in a green dress.
"I didn't realise how problematic this movie was when I was a kid," said Agnes. "I just thought, All the world will attend my dad's funeral while I'm in an asylum."
What I liked about the movie, I said, was that the girl had no reason to like the guy. She didn't know him.
"Of course not," said Agnes. "It's easier to be obsessed with someone when you don't know them. You make them into whatever it is you want."
But that's not the point, I thought. She chose to love a god because if she loved a god she could be sad and hot.
"Yes, I see," I said. I thrust my face between Agnes's legs and lost myself. After we had sex, she slept with her curly hair coiled against my neck and sucked her thumb in her sleep, and I wiped sweat off her temple with the tip of my finger to taste it.
The next email came in the night. I saw it in the morning, when Agnes was in the bathroom, brushing her teeth.
"Uh oh," I called to Agnes. "Here comes Dorit."
Agnes came to look at my phone with her toothbrush arrested in her mouth.
You were in my dreams last night. You were riding past me on a horse and hit me in the head with a Barbie.
Agnes paced and cursed, but for half a minute I didn't hear much of what she said. My face was tight; I was smiling.
"You know," said Agnes, "I want to say to her, 'We've all been there, girl. I know it's hard. But it's over. You man up; you roll on.'" I fucked Agnes. We said, "I love you."
After Agnes left for set, I walked out into dawn with my hands in the pockets of my sweatpants. The Rust-Oleum-dappled lawn chair caught the red light dully. The four-year-old ran down the slope to stand by the lawn chair and look at me.
"Bonjour," he said.
"Bonjour, Michel," I said. The child laughed at me. Dorit's email had made my happiness uncontainable; my smile stretched my face. With the red light in his lank hair, the child ran into my legs and pressed the side of his head into my crotch.
The next email arrived at noon. It was a photograph of a breast, one of Dorit's, pale in yellow light. She must have used a mirror, and twisted her torso, for the breast was alone. It consumed the right half of the photo, its nipple at the centre, the remainder of the body out of frame. There is nothing lonelier, I realised, than a picture of a tit.
The next email came thirteen minutes later.
- What has just happened makes me want to die. I hope you know that I would not do that deliberately.
I forwarded the first email to Agnes. I didn't mention the second.
She sent back a block of question marks, exclamation points and obscenities, and I danced by myself on the unkempt grass.
The next morning, I ran my lines for an audition but took frequent breaks to check my phone. By the end of the day, there were no new emails from Dorit. At the audition I was distracted by my memory of the breast and had trouble being a pilot in World War II.
The morning after that, there was still no email. I paced the basement for half an hour, twisting my hands. Finally I wrote Dorit, "It's not a big deal, just surprised. How are you?" I decided it was unnecessary to tell Agnes. It was a moral issue, because Dorit sounded depressed.
That evening, there was still no response. When Agnes offered to bring Brazilian takeout, I said I was engrossed in a book about theatre. I wanted to be able to check my phone in private, in case Dorit replied.
When the sun came up, I checked my phone before I got out of bed. Nothing from Dorit, nothing from the director of the play. I went outside and sat in the rusted lawn chair and, despite the glare on my laptop, priced ropes and stools on Amazon.
For lunch, I ate two sandwiches. I had just opened a paper bag of cookies when my phone sounded.
I am writing to offer my heartfelt apologies for my inappropriate and inexcusable emails. The communications I made to you, while in the case of the photograph accidental, resulted from a lapse in impulse control for which I take full responsibility and for which I have now sought counselling. I do not ask for personal forgiveness, only that you please let me know if you would like me to make reasonable compensation for my actions, such as community service, charitable giving or participation in therapy.
I threw out the cookies, ran to the gym and listened to heavy metal on the StairMaster.
Agnes knocked on my door at dusk, tired from a day on set, her makeup imperfectly removed. A stroke of eyeliner emboldened her left eye. Her MacBook was tucked under her arm, because we had plans to watch part one of Fanny and Alexander.
I unlocked the door and sat on my mattress, waiting.
She took a bottle of chilled Beaujolais from her bag. Next, a DVD of Debbie Does Dallas. Next, two cucumber-and-egg-salad sandwiches with their crusts cut off. She placed them at my feet and stood back.
"Did you break into my email?" I asked.
Agnes looked scared. She shook her head. "I forwarded the photo you forwarded me, as evidence."
I didn't say anything. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. I could smell that she had farted.
"Let's have dinner somewhere really amazing," she said. "It's my treat. I insist."
"Okay," I said.
Agnes drove a Civic Hybrid. Its hum made me think of a dentist's drill as we passed a lake trimmed with busy dealers and idle rowboats and merged with the northbound 101. The silhouetted tops of palm trees hovered like spiders in the sky.
"I made sure they didn't fire her," said Agnes. "I insisted."
I asked if they had spoken.
Agnes cracked the window and smoked. "On a conference call. She cried. She just said, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'" When Agnes did the imitation, her jaw twitched and smoke came out of her nose.
I told her to take the next exit, and we sank into a lowland of fast food and half-gentrified strip malls. I instructed her to pull into a parking lot shared by a pharmacy, a Laundromat and a gelateria.
Agnes stopped the car and put her hands in the air. "I have a problem with jealousy," she said. "I'm sorry I hurt someone, but I acknowledge it, and I will try to get better. I am so sorry."
I didn't like to hear her say this. "It's okay," I said.
"No, really," she said. "I'll go to therapy. We can do couples therapy. I want to get better."
"Stop," I said.
She looked confused. "I'm being sincere. Maybe this could be an important wake-up call. If I work really hard, maybe it will bring us closer. We could get to a more honest, real place."
I wanted her to stop sounding like a normal person. I thought about what it would be like, getting to a more honest, real place with her, and then I unbuckled my seatbelt. As I opened the door, I saw Clif Bar crumbs in the plastic pocket beneath the handle.
Behind me, Agnes started to cry. The landscape whipped and sharpened as if it were the screen of a television that had been smacked; I wondered if I was crying. An Aztec family paraded from the pharmacy in white T-shirts, a boy bucking in the seat of a shopping cart like a knight riding a horse into a valley. The streetlamps were dimmed by light fog or dirty air. A Hummer's dashboard was coated with dust that glared like pollen in the Civic's beams.
"Why are you walking away from me?" asked Agnes. She was calling me "sweetie", softer and softer.
People ask me what Agnes was like, and I think, what was Agnes like? I don't know. What she was like was:
Agnes is talking to me. That's Agnes's body. Agnes is educating me. I just made Agnes cry. Agnes is taking me out for my birthday dinner; that's actually Agnes sitting across from me, with the bluffs behind her, white as dentures. That's Agnes on the toilet. Agnes is getting jealous of her friend's Independent Spirit Award. That's really Agnes at the kitchen island, eating strawberries with the greens still on, depositing the greens and the surrounding flesh on the orange tile.
I wonder whether Agnes watched herself the way I watched her, the way the fan at the hot dog stand watched. Maybe she thought, Now I, Agnes, refuse to tolerate Dorit's incursions; I, Agnes, am directing the situation. Now I, Agnes, am on my trailer on set, listening to country blues on my portable record player, purchased at a small record store, because I was raised bohemian. I, Agnes, am reading a book, a present from my famous father, who named me after a director because he knew I would be a director. I, Agnes, look up from the book to note the interesting sunlight that overwhelms the venetian blinds.
I dated her for eighteen months, and I don't know what she was like. I wasn't – I'm realising this for the first time as I say it – I wasn't interested. I wasn't paying attention to what she was like. What she was like was not the point for me.
Benjamin Nugent's story "God" will appear in The Best American Short Stories 2014.