When my roommate comes in at about twenty minutes after eleven, Judge Judy is in the middle of a sarcastic summation and I'm about ready to drop off to sleep. Cindy, my roommate, drops her purse by the front door, slides shut the deadbolt, and plops herself down on the couch. You can tell she's got something big to tell me; she's fidgeting with her long hair, biting her nails, tapping her heel against the bottom of the couch. She waits until the commercial break to bust out her big news, though. She knows how much I hate interruptions.

"Guess who I just had drinks with?" she asks. I can tell I'm not supposed to really guess, but I screw up my face and pretend like I'm giving it the old college try. Just for form's sake. She giggles, and bounces a bit on the sofa.

"James Agee!" she declares.

"Cindy," I say in a flat tone. "You did not have drinks with James Agee."

Cindy jumps up, snatches her purse from beside the door and stalks back to her bedroom. I hear the click of her lightswitch, the uncoordinated shuffle of papers being pulled and shoved this way and that, and then the solid blows of her feet against the carpeted floor as she comes back down the hall into the living room. She's holding Agee's collaborative masterpiece in her hand, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," and takes a seat in the peeling leather recliner opposite the sofa. The last of the commercials whine to a close.

Judy's back to tell us all what we already know about the loser she just reamed, and about whom she has supposedly been deliberating.

Cindy perches in the chair, indecisive.  I know she wants to pout, and she wants to gloat, but she doesn't want to risk pissing me off too severely by violating my no-talking-while-I'm-watching rule. I feel a little sorry for her, so I say,

"I'm not trying to say that you're lying or anything. It's just that he's dead."

She flips open the book to the Walker Evans photographs preceding the text.

"Whatever," she replies. "We had beers in Park Slope. He's a nice guy. I bumped into him and Stacey on the street, and the three of us went out. Stacey went home early because her husband was expecting her. Jim and I stayed for another pitcher."

I scrunch my face and pretend to be concentrating on the television screen.

"Phone bill's on the kitchen table," I say, when the show concludes and the credits roll. I go to the bathroom and brush my teeth. When I emerge, Cindy looks sad, rubbing her index finger over the small-type table of contents in 
the book on her lap.

"Night," I tell her. She nods, not looking at me, not really looking at anything, and I disappear into my bedroom to avoid the responsibility of tears.


Cindy doesn't say anything more about James Agee. We continue in our usual way for the next several weeks, poking fun at the idiocy on television, getting caught up in the few dramas we can agree are all right, competing 
with each other and the contestants on game shows. Her schedule is inconsistent -- she's a lot more social than I am -- so pleasantly enough, I also find myself with a fair amount of time for quiet reading and writing.

I don't know exactly what point it is that she starts behaving strangely, but the moment I notice it sticks out pretty distinctly in my head. It's a Tuesday night, pretty late, and I'm standing over the oven, stirring a pan of noodles in boiling water.  I've got my CD player out in the kitchen and am listening to Louis Armstrong. Down the hall, I hear Cindy come banging in. 

She half-runs, half-scuffs into the kitchen, stops to look at me, grabs the phone, and run-scuffs into her bedroom.  From beyond her closed door I hear laughter.

She's a strange girl. I don't try to figure it out. Two evenings later, she's home before me, which is rare. I come in to find her mopping the kitchen floor. There's an open garbage bag of debris that she's collected from around the common area.

"Good lord almighty," I mutter. "Are you sick?"

Cindy sticks out her tongue at me and continues with her mopping. Almost immediately, she looks up anxiously and says, "I've got someone coming over in about an hour. We won't stay long. He just wants to see my place."

Tip-toeing around the wet streaks to get to my bedroom, I grin. "No problem," then something hard twists inside me. "Is this James Agee?"

Her eyes lose their focus; she looks back down at the floor and thrusts hard with the mop. She shakes her head.

I stay in my bedroom until after I've heard the livid squawk of the buzzer, Cindy's voice in bubbly greeting, a masculine voice responding to her familiarly but with just a slight grain of nervousness. Though I want to respect her privacy, I know that she'll want to get my approval of her latest choice, so I pretend to need the book that I've left in the living room and thrust open my door loud enough to announce myself.

"Oh," says Cindy, her thin cheeks flushed. "My roommate.  This is Jack." The man standing by her smiles at me politely, proffers his hand.

"Jack Gibbs," he says in a businesslike way. He's about my height, but still taller than Cindy, who's only five feet tall and incredibly petite. He wears a button-down shirt, cotton slacks, and polished leather shoes. By contrast, Cindy wears jeans and a heather-gray tank top. At least she's showered. The skin of her shoulders gleams like the curve of an orange. Even though she's wearing no makeup, her whole face seems bright as the two of them leave, Jack Gibbs nodding at me when he pulls the door shut.

Two hours later, it hits me. I stay up until three in the morning waiting for her to come home, bursting to talk to her, hating myself for being so eager. She doesn't come home that night. It's not until ten-thirty the next morning, me sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the Sunday news, that she wanders back in, looking tired but happy.

"We have to talk," I say. "Have a seat."

Cindy seems confused, and obeys.

"Where did you meet this Jack guy?" I ask. She bristles.

"You know, I don't see how that's any of your business," she replies. She means it. Almost immediately, she starts to get back up, but I reach over the table and put a hand on her arm.

"Is he from Long Island?" I ask. Her expression passes from reproach to doubt. "Is he an aspiring writer, teaching grade-school, coming into the city occasionally to hang out with a couple of buddies in a shared Harlem apartment?"

Cindy seems shocked. I can tell that I'm right, right and right.

"He's yanking your chain, honey. Jack Gibbs is a fictional character, from a William Gaddis book. I don't know who your boyfriend is, but he's not who he's telling you."

Her eyes glisten. I keep my hand on her arm, knowing that because I caused the tears this time, I should be around to catch them. Cindy pulls away from me and goes into the bathroom. I hear the sound of running water. I wait for a moment, feel a little silly and predatory, and go back in my own room to read. We don't talk to each other for the rest of the day. She goes to bed early, and continues to do so for the next week. By the next weekend, she's nagging me to lend her my video store card, and we're back to watching trashy movies and brandishing our reckless contempt.


Then she disappears. I come home one day and there are fewer books in the bookshelf, the framed Gaugain print is missing. I open her bedroom door and the room has been hollowed; the only remnants of use are a couple of clothes hangers and a twisted braid of dust where her bed used to be. There's a message from her sister on the answering machine telling me that Cindy's all right, she just needs some time back home, and that I can use her security deposit in lieu of next month's rent. No doubt about it, everything is fair and reasonable, but I nonetheless feel stunned, and it's a few days before I can place the ad for a new roommate. The subsequent process seems absurd and insubstantial, like at any moment Cindy could walk in with luggage in hand and plead to be forgiven for her flightiness.

But, as they say, life does go on. I find a new roommate, she moves in, everything is pretty quiet for a while as we feel each other out. Eventually we achieve enough comfort to make things seem like home once more.

A year after Cindy's unexplained departure, I start reading a book by this guy all my friends are raving about. He's new, mysterious. He refuses to include his photo on the jacket. A couple of pages in, I recognize our apartment. I see the specific magnets we have on our refrigerator (clay 
fruit), the specific color of our bathmat (burgundy), the specific stubbornness of our gas range (only the left burners work) and the specific ritual required to climb your way out onto the fire escape.

I have a hard time sleeping that night. The next day, from work, I track down the book publisher to find out where I can see the author read. Boston, they tell me. In a week.

I book a reservation in a suburban Motel 8. The reading takes place in a Harvard Square bookstore on a Saturday evening. I get there pretty early, but the room fills up fast.  By the time the author arrives, there are people crammed into the farthest corners of the room, craning their necks toward the podium. The author is a slim, short man. I'm so disappointed when I see him -- I had thought for sure Cindy has spent the last year writing. To salvage a shrapnel of hope, I scan the crowd to see if Cindy might be tucked off to the side, a proud muse, waiting to escort this very real man home.  I look and look, but she's not here.

The author places a couple of sheets of white, computer-printed paper on the podium before him. Without explanation, he begins to read. The story he reads is about a woman writer who lives with roommates. One of the roommates, as the story develops, seems to have affairs with impossible partners. The roommate leaves. The protagonist misses her friend, but organizes herself and continues. The protagonist reads a familiar-seeming book. The protagonist comes to Boston.

The author is looking at me. He is smiling. I have a picture in my head of when, over a year ago, I told Cindy the hard truth about James Agee, and she looked at the book in front of her, and if she wanted to cry I couldn't understand it, because real is real and true is true. I forget how I got 
here. I forget what I've heard about this man before.  My heart is beating fast, and all eyes are on me. They want to know what happens next. So do I.


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