When Miranda walks in late with her red hair dripping, Miles doesn’t turn. He stays at the window watching a damp delivery man carry cases of Bud Light to the 7-Eleven across the street.
“Hi,” Miranda says.
Miles doesn’t tell her that she’s late. He doesn’t move to take her coat. He just tilts his head and watches the droplets of rain fall onto his white carpet.
“I’m sorry,” she says, but she’s smiling and her dimples change the shape of her face into a squished heart. She takes off her black wool coat, hangs it in his closet.
Eight months ago, Miles placed a classified ad for a girlfriend in the Kalamazoo Gazette. He didn’t trust Craigslist and anyway, he wanted a girl who read the paper. His ad read, “Looking for a girl who enjoys culture: 15hr/wk. Pay negotiable.” The paper charged thirty-eight cents per word per day. He ran the ad for five days before Miranda called.
Sometimes Miles tries to remember how she sounded on the phone, the first time she called him. Tries to recreate the way her voice ran across the line. Did she say, “Hello” or “Hi” or “Is this Miles?” He wishes he’d recorded it, but he didn’t know how significant the moment was at the time. The beginning of Miles and Miranda. That was before he’d spent a week filling out internet personality questionnaires to develop Miranda’s character, before he wrote the script for their first date complete with hand-holding, before they kissed for the first time at the Harvest Moon drive-in theater just outside of town.
Before Miles stopped scripting their meetings, he used to write out everything. Even their fights had been staged. Sometimes, in the act of typing, he’d realize that one of their fights was his own fault, that Miranda really did have a point. Why did he care if she called her ex-boyfriend Juan? That relationship had ended years ago and didn’t Miranda need space to breathe, to be a person independent of Miles? He prided himself on not altering the outcomes, letting the fights play out with Miranda as the victor, himself apologizing meekly.
But today, it’s Miranda who whispers, “Don’t be mad, baby.”
She moves behind him and wraps her pale arms around his middle, rests her damp face on his ironed blue button-up.
Her late entrances have started to become a troubling habit. Just last Wednesday, Miranda knocked on his door twenty minutes after five and he could tell she’d been crying. Her tear ducts were swollen and there’d been a thin thread of snot hanging from the tip of her nose.
“Let me see your hand,” Miranda says, turning him around.
Her words are warm in his ear and Miles lets her pull him away from the window to the leather couch. He gives her his palm, conscious of the thick hair on his knuckles.
“You’ve had a bad day,” she says, tracing the deep creases with her long fingernails.
It’s true. Miles has been feeling sluggish recently. He turned thirty last weekend and Miranda baked him a cupcake made of shredded carrots.
“Do I look older?” he’d asked, standing up straight. Miranda shrugged.
“You look like you’ve seen a few miles.”
She’d laughed for a good long time at that.
Miranda really doesn’t know how to read palms, but she knows that he loves this bit. It makes him feel nostalgic; he wrote this scene into her very first script.
Of course, he had written out his own lines too, even rehearsed them in his bathroom mirror during those first weeks when he’d still felt a little sick around her. It had been hard to believe that she belonged to him, but now it was easy. He didn’t need to type out the words anymore because he was fluent in Miles, and no one knew Miranda better than Miranda.
“Silly goose,” he says, pulling her towards him and kissing the top of her hair.
It’s pouring outside and the sky is purple. Miranda’s hair has dried in the heat of his apartment and a red strand sticks to his chapped lips. He keeps the thermostat set at 75 degrees
When Miles’s cell phone rings, they’re lying on the couch watching Seven Samurai, Miranda’s small body curled against his. Miranda loves black and white foreign films.
“It’s my mother,” he says.
“Guess there are some perks to being an orphan,” she says.
Real Miranda is also an orphan. Her mother and father are buried four miles away from his apartment on a hill underneath an oak tree. He followed her there once, watched her sit cross-legged in front of the headstone. He hadn’t been close enough to hear what she said, but he watched her lips move for an hour.
Miles has always thought it would’ve been nice to be an orphan. His father died years ago, cut his mother completely out of his will, and left Miles a small fortune. He figures it can’t be too long before his mother dies too, but by then he won’t really be able to call himself an orphan. There must be some age limit on orphanhood, some point in which parentlessness loses its thrill, becomes ordinary.
“You never talk about your mother,” Miranda says, licking her bright pink lips. She reapplied her lipstick in the bathroom while Miles was microwaving popcorn.
The real Miranda is a mother. She takes her child to the park every Sunday and swings it around in a circle like an airplane. The child is blonde. He only watched them together once, sat on a blue plastic bench disguised in sunglasses and a Wolverines hat. He knew it was a mistake. He’d wanted to go up to her, to pull her away from the child, from that sad, wood chipped life. But then he pinched his thigh until it bruised, got up and went home.
Now at night when he can’t sleep, he stares up at his vaulted ceilings, wondering about the real Miranda. He dreams of uncovering her past, her likes and dislikes, her favorite type of frozen yogurt. He acts out his delight in discovering she’s just as he wrote her.
On the last ring, Miles decides to pick up the phone.
Gingerly, he lifts Miranda’s head from his arm and walks barefoot into his recently renovated kitchen with its black granite countertops and stainless steel. He holds the phone up to his face and stands at the open threshold, looking back at Miranda’s body, still curled on the couch.
His mother sounds frail on the phone, but it could easily be an act; the way her voice trembles, the muddiness of her vowels.
“You haven’t picked up my calls in a month.”
Miles can picture her sitting in her pink armchair in that needlessly ornate living room. Her toothpick legs crossed, right over left.
“You don’t come to visit.”
Her mouth is too close to the phone. He can practically feel her stale breath hitting his cheek. How could he forget that he hates her. He has always hated her.
“I’ve been busy,” he says, surprised at his own voice, how low and even it sounds. It’s been a while since he’s played this part. He places one hand palm down on the kitchen counter. “I just started dating someone.”
“Well, that’s a surprise. Been a long time. I wondered about you.”
In the other room, he hears nothing but the television and he hopes that Miranda’s asleep.
“You know I did my best.”
Miles rolls his eyes and prepares himself for his mother’s one-woman show, the dramatic monologue he’s heard a hundred times since his parents’ divorce.
“It wasn’t easy raising you alone.”
Miles laughs into the phone, but it comes out like a bark. It wouldn’t surprise him if his mother was reading from a script.
“I know you don’t believe me, but I tried. I tried to make him stay.”
He can’t tell if she has started crying yet or not, but it’s inevitable. He just wishes he could be there to witness it; the makeup rolling down her cheeks, revealing her for the clown that she is.
Miles has been staring out the kitchen window for too long, and when he moves his eyes to the sink, he sees pinpoints of black in front of him like a swarm of gnats.
“Your father was not an easy man.”
Without thinking, Miles moves from the kitchen to the back room where he keeps his turtle aquarium. He puts his mother on speakerphone and sets the phone next to the tank. The water is murky and he has to look hard for Lily, swimming against the glass edges. He imagines her choking underwater on her own waste. His hand automatically moves to assemble the siphon. He pushes a bucket over, and begins to drain the tank.
“Remember Teresa?” his mother asks, her voice distorted from the speaker. It sounds to Miles like she’s speaking to him from the end of a long tunnel.
Miles submerges the siphon into the turtle tank, and holds up the bulb until the air finishes bubbling to the surface. The green algae and green turtle feces swirl together, feeding each other.
Lilly nips at his arm with her beak and Miles lets her. He runs a finger across her green spotted shell until she pulls away.
“The babysitter,” Miles says as he holds the bulb under water and puts one finger over the end of the tube. He lifts that end from the tank and places it quickly into the white stained bucket below. “The one who always made me finish my carrots.”
“He was sleeping with her,” his mother says.
This is not news to Miles; his mother tells him this every time she calls. It has become almost an incantation, a confession she repeats as if it’s her own. But Miles knew about Teresa even before his mother did. Once, when Miles was ten or eleven, his father came home early from work and Miles watched Teresa greet him in the foyer underneath the chandelier. His father had engulfed her small frame with his big arms, and he’d kissed her with such passion, such power, that she’d had to lean backwards like a human slinky. Before Miranda, Miles used to have dreams about Teresa with her dark eyes and jittery hands, but now he doesn’t have to.
Miles moves his thumb from the siphon’s opening and lets the green water run out. He hadn’t let Lily out today because earlier in the week she’d made her way up to the tops of the suction cups of her floating dock, gripped the plastic with her long turtle claws, and hefted herself forward, a turtle pull-up for the ages.
Judging by the dryness of her shell, she’d been out at least a few hours before Miles had found her, trapped in the crack between the aquarium stand and the window. Her turtle shell was sideways and her arms, legs and tail flailing as she tried to flip herself over.
“I’m swamped right now, mother. I have to let you go,” Miles says and ends the call before she can respond.
After he hangs up on his mother, Miles carries the bucket into the shower. He dumps it out slowly and watches the turtle feces swirl, making symbols on the white tiles like tea leaves.
It’s been thirty minutes since he left the living room, and he returns to find Miranda asleep on the couch, her long red hair falling against her face. She does that sometimes, falls asleep mid-movie. Miles likes it; it’s comforting to know that she can’t play the part in her sleep. If only for a few moments, he is holding the real Miranda, sliding his hand up real Miranda’s thigh, unbuttoning real Miranda’s blouse.
As he approaches, he realizes his hands are shaking with need for this sleeping girl and her effortlessness. This sleeping girl who belongs to him. Miles unzips her skirt while she’s still asleep. She must love me, he thinks as he stares at her purple satin panties.
“Miles?” Miranda opens her eyes.
“Let’s go to the bedroom,” he says, smiling down at her as she yawns and blinks.
“But you didn’t watch the movie?”
“I’ve seen it before.”
It’s Wednesday and on Wednesdays, Miranda takes his head in her hands, moves her fingers slowly along his neck, his skinny chest, his modest penis. He doesn’t call her “bitch” or “whore” or “slut,” doesn’t even imagine screaming these things into her open mouth. He does spank her every once and a while, but he thinks she likes it, moves her butt into his hand rather than away.
“Miles,” she says and her voice sounds deeper than usual. She sits upright on the couch. It’s dark. Miles hasn’t turned the lamps on yet.
“There’s something I need to tell you.”
Miranda’s not smiling and her face looks two-dimensional, like it could be engraved on the side of a coin. Miles’s hands are still shaking, but he’s no longer aroused.
“I got a job in Ann Arbor.”
Miles’s thinking of when he took her apple picking last October. He fed her a Honeycrisp and she’d spat it out.
“Sorry,” she’d said, sitting on a tree stump with her orange hair falling over her face.
“Have you been to the sand dunes?” he’d asked, his fingers dancing, itching to touch her.
“No.” She looked up at him then, conceding gently like a mother to a child. “But I want to.”
He’d picked up her hand and she’d stood, her arm limp in his. The sky was clear that day, the clouds flattened into pancakes, and he’d felt like he’d been born to breath that air.
“Are you really allergic to apples?” he asks now.
“I’m leaving Friday,” she says.
Miles’s smiling, but nothing’s funny. He gets up and begins to pace. His neck’s sweating now.
“Do you know what Kalamazoo’s slogan is?”
Miranda crosses her legs, her hands are in her lap. She’s trying to smile politely, but her left index finger is tapping her right knuckle.
“It used to be Easy to get to. Hard to Leave. But in 2009, they changed it to You’ll be back. We promise.”
For a moment, the room is silent. Miles can hear the buzz of the refrigerator.
Then Miranda begins to laugh softly, the sound tinkling like a wine glass breaking.
“You’re going to make me play my part right to the end, aren’t you?”
Miranda’s face is shadowed, her pink lips look unnatural now.
“Couldn’t let me off easy?”
Miranda would never say this, Miles thinks. Her smile too has changed, gotten larger. So big it looks like her teeth might break skin.
Miranda stands up from the couch. She moves in front of him and pulls her shirt over her head. Her unzipped skirt falls to the floor. In the dark light, her pale skin glows fluorescent, and he can just make out her glinting belly button stud. In her purple underwear, on his hardwood floor, Miranda begins to spin. She does pirouette after pirouette in front of him. The real Miranda must’ve taken dance lessons because her body stays straight as a pencil as she turns.
“Miranda, Miranda, Miranda. That’s me.”
She sings the words like a nursery rhyme, leaping higher now in between twirls.
“Miranda, Miranda, Miranda. That’s me.”
“Miles, Miles, Miles. Who are you?”