Mellie's brushing her hair, root to tip, and looking in the mirror. Her hair is a dull brown, with only intermittent sparks of red or gold, and it's not so much that she dislikes the color as that she thinks it's maybe what the word "mousey" is meant to describe. She'd think about getting it dyed, maybe the next time she goes in for a treatment, but she's sort of reluctant somehow to change something about herself, even something as insignificant as her hair color, on the off-chance it'll make her prettier instead of just sort of desperate-looking. She figures that's a healthy reluctance to have in LA.
The ends of her hair catch a little on the brush with each stroke down, and she's trying to track down a memory she has of brushing someone else's hair. She can't remember whose it was. Or maybe it was her having her hair brushed - that must have been her mother, though she almost remembers small hands holding the brush. Maybe her own, brushing her mother's hair? She remembers being small, having her hair washed for her. She was in a bathtub surrounded by brightly colored plastic cups, white and yellow and green: you pushed them down right side up, and they filled and sank to the bottom; you held them upside down and they stayed empty and popped back up, explosive, when you let them go.
The bathroom doesn't look anything like the one in the house where her mother lives. Maybe they moved when she was little? Mellie can't remember. Or maybe it's just because the memories are old, the way you can have childhood memories of places you never went to, things you never did. She's pretty sure she never was able to fly, but she can remember doing it, swimming in the air through a cramped and unfamiliar hall, blood thudding excitedly in her veins, trying to hold on with her paddling hands to each molecule of air, so sure she was about to fall. It has to have been a dream she had as a child - she's just remembering it now as something solid.
Even the dreams she has now are like that: the inside of her house is different, but it's still her house. Sometimes there's blood on her hands. That feels real, too. She wakes up some mornings to see traces of dark brown under her fingernails, scrapes on her knuckles, odd bruises on her body, and it takes a minute to remember: I was digging in my windowbox, I tore my fingers against the cheese grater, I bumped into a table in the dark.
She wonders if everyone's memory works the same way. She thinks probably so, but she doesn't really know how, or who, to ask.
. . .
One evening she's flopped on the couch, reading something, a book about a girl whose mind is put in the body of a chimp because her real body was in a car crash and couldn't survive. It's interesting, but Mellie feels like she's read it before. She hears Paul's steps down the hall - it's funny how she always notices his footsteps, how attuned to everything about him she always is - so she drops the book and grabs a half-empty wastebasket, so she'll look like she's taking out the trash.
Paul's opening his door when she steps out. "Hey," he says. "Just get home?"
She doesn't know what he means for a second, till she looks down and sees she's still in her work clothes. "Oh. Yeah. I just - " she gestures with the wastebasket, in the direction of the garbage chute.
"Right. Hey, um," he's leaning against the wall, voice changing to casual. He's decided to make an effort to be friendly to her. Her pulse speeds up, and she can feel it in the back of her mouth. "I was just going to go out. They're showing 'Vertigo' at UCLA tonight. I was going to go alone, but - "
"No! No, sure, I'd love to. I'm - I'm not doing anything else." Stupid, stupid, why can't she be normal?
"Okay, it starts at seven. Give me a minute to change?"
"Sure, um. Me too."
He smiles at her, and goes inside his place - she sees a flash of it before the door closes, and she has to turn back, run inside her own apartment for clothes, something casual, nothing that tries too hard. Has to find a little calm to dress herself with.
It's one of those nights you get sometimes in LA, at the start of summer, where the air is soft and just a little cool, and all across the westside you can smell jasmine. It smells like heaven on earth, and they roll down the windows of Paul's car as they drive through Westwood in the thickening blue.
Paul's wearing a t-shirt that hugs his chest. It's not new but it looks a little stiff - he doesn't use fabric softener. She's seen him carrying his laundry basket down to the basement. Maybe he doesn't know what a difference it makes, even if does it break the fabric down faster in order to make it soft. Mellie wants to ask. She wants to offer to do his laundry if he's busy. She wants to circle his bicep with one hand, and feel the edge of the t-shirt and his skin warm beneath her palm.
She's pretty sure she's never felt for anyone what she feels for Paul. Just looking at him makes Mellie happy. She wants to listen to him, she wants to be anything he needs. She wants to hold him, she wants to smooth away the lines of stress around his eyes with her thumb, she wants to make sure he eats right and gets enough sleep. She wonders if it even really is a crush sometimes; she tries to imagine kissing him and it's like the world dropping out from under her feet. Does she even like him? She must like him, of course she likes him.
It's a little weird, she thinks. He's just her neighbor. And maybe it's romantic to be so sure he's the one for her, but it's so one-sided, and the depth of it scares her. It's crazy, and she doesn't want to be crazy. She doesn't want to pressure him or scare him away. She doesn't want to think about any of this.
. . .
Mellie is a temp, doing office work mostly. She's lucky, really lucky actually, to be able to afford her apartment. Even aside from it being across from Paul's, it's a very nice place.
Last week after work, a file clerk at one of her temp jobs, a girl with dyed black hair and a lunchbox for a purse, had asked her if she wanted to go get dinner. She felt a little guilty for saying sure, yes, why not because she knew why not. What if Paul came by, what if he needed someone to talk to, and she wasn't there? But the magazine she'd been reading on her lunch break earlier had said men liked women who had their own lives and interests. And the girl was insistent, and Mellie was hungry, and she didn't really like to tell anyone no.
When they got to the girl's apartment, they turned on music, nothing Mellie recognized. She felt rebellious, somehow, and wanted to dance, though she couldn't remember if she could dance. Probably not, so she didn't try. And then there were glasses of wine being poured, that cheap cabernet from Trader Joe's. The girl smiled as she gave her the wineglass; they were leaning together against the back of a futon-sofa, hip to hip and elbows brushing.
Mellie kept feeling strange about how small the girl's apartment was. How everything was sort of mini-sized or crowded in together just to fit, and none of the furniture looked solid or seemed to match. The girl couldn't make that much less with a permanent job than Mellie did temping, and Mellie had her treatments to afford. Maybe she had other expenses? Not that Mellie could ask, because that would be rude, not friendly, and she would like to have a friend. She thought she ought to have more friends, or any friends, really.
"Penny for them. Your thoughts?" said the girl. Her name was Audra, she was a little younger than Mellie, she smelled like baby shampoo and jasmine incense. She was nice.
Do you ever feel like you're just pretending? Mellie thought. It was trite, it was stupid, she didn't say it. She said, "Oh, nothing." And then she noticed how close Audra was to her, the way she was looking at Mellie, the way her lips were shiny with gloss and licking, and why didn't she notice that before? Mellie never noticed that kind of thing. Weren't women supposed to have instincts - weren't they supposed to be able to defend against - ? She was angry, suddenly, her blood pumping, her body almost shaking with adrenaline, and she didn't know why. "I should go," she said. And did.
. . .
There's no popcorn or anything at the movie, of course, because it's in one of the university auditoriums. Mellie has a bottle of water in her purse, though, which she gives to Paul, and a bar of organic dark chocolate which he turns down, and she ends up having a piece of it, just so she won't look weird for having taken it out to begin with. She's grateful when the lights go down.
She's never seen this movie. She doesn't see a lot of movies, actually - there's something about people acting that she doesn't like to watch, that bothers her. But the movie's pretty interesting. For the first half she's really uncomfortable, because there's Jimmy Stewart the detective - his name is Scottie, and she likes him. But there's also a woman named Midge who loves him, and he doesn't know it, he thinks they're just friends. That's the whole purpose of her character, to be supportive and loving and not what he wants. And she keeps pretending they're friends, taking care of him and calling herself his mother, and he just doesn't get it. He keeps talking to her about the mysterious beautiful woman who's his case, who he's obsessed with. Mellie glances over at Paul - she tries to be really subtle about it. He doesn't seem to notice her looking. He doesn't seem bothered at all.
As the movie goes on, Midge kind of disappears. Mellie doesn't know whether to be grateful or indignant that she doesn't have to watch that anymore.
"It's an amazing movie, isn't it?" Paul asks as they leave the theater and walk back through the dark campus to his car. She agrees, and he goes on. "I've seen it a couple times, but it always, wow. That moment when she steps out of the darkness, and she's finally just the way he wanted her to be, just for him. And then you see his eyes. It's..." He shivers, exaggeratedly. He's trying to be funny?
"He's a great actor," she says. Feeling a little vapid, but glad Paul's enjoying himself, enjoying talking to her.
"He's amazing. And the character. He's a monster."
"He's...how is he a monster?"
Paul gives her an incredulous look. "What he does to her. He wants her to be something she's not, something that never existed. He wants it so much he destroys her. It's sick."
"Well. Yes. It is. The whole thing is." He's really looking at her right now, as if he really sees her and is interested in what she's saying. "I mean, what's wrong with him is wrong with all of it, the whole movie."
Frowning, but still interested, he says, "So you think Hitchcock was screwed up, and the movie reflects that?"
"I don't know. Maybe he made it to say something. Because he really needed to make it. Maybe it helped him."
Paul snorts. "Maybe he just should've gotten over it. He was kind of a jerk to his actresses, you know." He's got his car keys out, and is fiddling with them. The lights in the parking lot are sodium; they don't so much illuminate as turn things orange and deepen the shadows. The keys catch the light for a moment, and glint like knives.
"I don't know," says Mellie. "I think - a lot of things are like that. Movies and art."
"Huh," says Paul.
She doesn't know what to say next.
. . .
Mellie puts down the hairbrush, and stares at herself in the mirror, for a minute. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the package of timecards they give her every month at the temp agency. There's a whole stack of them, the hours of her life, waiting to be filled in with being someone's temporary help.
She wonders why she doesn't have a real job, sometimes. She's smart, she's got a college degree listed on the resume she gives out to some of her employers. Why didn't she get something better, something more stable? She could have been a teacher, maybe - she loves children. Was it that she wanted to come to LA, and couldn't stay for another year to get her teaching credential? Why did she want to come to LA?
But she likes LA. She likes her life. She doesn't mind her jobs. It's fine. Maybe she's just lonely, but who isn't? She ought to have more people in her life.
Mellie thinks about the friends she ought to have. Women like her in books and movies and TV always seem to come prepackaged with a set of friends, a couple of pretty girls with sly smiles and bad love lives, maybe a gay guy with dark puppy-dog eyes. She's not sure how or where to find them.
I went to a movie with Paul last night, she imagines telling the friends she doesn't have. One of the girls would giggle. Ooh, Paul.
What was the movie? the other would ask.
It was Hitchcock. It was weird.
Never mind the movie, the guy would say. What about Paul?
It wasn't like that, she'd say, looking down at her plate. They'd all be having dinner, together, in Mellie's nice apartment. Not lasagna, pesto cappellini or something, with white wine one of the girls brought. And the guy would bring her flowers, just being nice, but she'd be worried Paul would come in and see them in the vase, slender green stems and yellow petals.
Or maybe she'd wish he would see them. Just so he'd know she had a life of her own, and it wasn't only her here, alone all the time, empty and waiting for him.
We're just friends, she'd say, looking across the room at the flowers. Yellow and green. I'm fine with just being friends. He needs someone to talk to. I don't mind. They'd laugh like they didn't believe her, but it would be true. It is true. She'll give Paul anything he needs, and be happy.
In the mirror, the hand clutching the brush trembles, drops down to her side. She's holding it like a blunt instrument.
Maybe not happy, exactly. But nobody's really happy anyway, are they? At least not all the time. There are people who are much worse off. It's a scary city. There are bad people out there. Rapists lurking in parking lots, death and misery waiting for you and everything you love. You have to take any kind of happiness you can get, and hang onto it as hard as you can.
And if she can help someone, if she can help Paul, that's the most important thing. That's a purpose for her life. That's the only important thing.
She meets the eyes of her reflection in the mirror. She's been looking at herself so long, her face doesn't make any sense to her anymore.