About Girl Number Three . . .
About Girl Number Three . . .
Charlie Sitter’s favorite sister, Dorcas, was talking. She was caught up in what the family called “one of her Dorcas-sagas.” They were seamless narratives that were very hard to reroute once she got started. He would remember that for many years, after—that you could never stop her sagas, not even on the afternoon of the day she died.
There’d come a day when he was in his forties, talking with a famous actress who had come to his upscale dealership because she wanted a car to match her celebrity. She’d remind him of Dorcas, though he wouldn’t know it at first—he’d simply sense a familiarity about her, and he’d push away the impression because he didn’t find much use in impressions. The actress was just a few years younger than he, but she played roles a decade younger than her age, with a ferocity that, against the odds in her business, was prolonging her career as a leading lady. She spoke with total clarity and no hauteur, in spite of her fame. Only rarely, he thought, did you see that in his business. Mostly he dealt with very rich men and women who could have whatever they wanted and acted like it.
Suddenly the actress stopped in mid-sentence, stared at Charlie and said, “Why am I not scaring you? Everyone is afraid of me.”
It caught Charlie off guard for once, and he said (and then regretted it), “I had a sister—”
“Had?” the actress asked.
“Yes. She died from an illegal abortion.”
The actress didn’t say anything more until they were finalizing the sale. Then she looked up from signing a check for a large amount of money and said to Charlie, “For every smart girl who dies because she didn’t behave herself, there are two more. One goes undercover and acts like a little Stepford wife because she’s figured out that that’s how you get the things you’re supposed to want. Marriage. Babies. Disease-free, reliable sex. That number two girl sells out. Girl number three is me.”
She didn’t wait for Charlie to ask what she meant. “Imagine a dog that’s somehow gotten on top of a passenger train. Why? It’s a climber by nature. Something just made it want to get up there. Then the train starts up, and that animal is up there, so terrified that there’s no name for what it’s experiencing. ‘Terror’ isn’t even in the same dictionary as the language that describes this kind of fear. And then the dog’s instincts all kick in; its claws are not much use. It calls on whatever its genes know about balance. The train is rolling along, through urban neighborhoods, past feedlots, a snaky river. Fast. Drumming along the tracks. That dog—let’s say it’s a spaniel—smells all the smells in the world—in this particular country, at least, from the smell of baking brioche a young culinary school student is dreaming about in bed right before the alarm goes off one morning to the nascent sprout of a cold-weather grass spiking up under snow on a windswept mountain. The whistle shrieks, and the dog wants to jump. Something tells it to stay. Sniff. Listen. Watch. When the train finally stops, a station employee sees it up there and calls the fire department, but before anyone can do anything, the dog leaps fluidly from one car to the next, like a bounding plume of dark smoke—it can do that now that the train has stopped—and it’s gone. It isn’t the same animal anymore. It’s beyond feral. It’s not a dog now; it’s an idea of risk. Recklessness. Luck.
“That’s me,” she said. “That’s girl number three. Girl number three is the sweet twenty-two-year-old with no makeup, long hair, stilettos, a little red teddy, waiting in a windowless room for the professional man who’s bought her to come in and pay a generous wad of cash that she needs to fund her dancing or her painting or medical school applications or brother’s legal fees for something he did that she can’t even bring herself to think about. There’s a just-sharpened pencil under the mattress. Or knife. Thought. Razor. Which? And which one is getting their money’s worth?
“Girl number three is the stunt man not killed on the set of a blockbuster-film-in-the-making when the explosion goes wrong. She’s the one who gets away without a scratch, while his partner is blown up or burned up. Because she sensed it coming, and she ran out of the scene. Yes, I said ‘she,’ ‘his,’ ‘stunt man.’ Girl number threes aren’t subject to gender. Gender is irrelevant to girl number three—or she’d be girl number two or dead.
“Girl number three is diving from a cliff top into a lake. Or maybe just diving from a cliff top. She’s watching a wonderfully erotic film in a seedy theater, eating popcorn with one hand, rubbing her clitoris through her pants with the other. Girl number three is a legend. She’s a vampiress.”
“That could be a boy,” Charlie finally said, after a long pause during which he was wondering for the first time whether he’d married because on the surface there was something of Dorcas about his wife.
And the actress regarded him with curiosity. “I suppose so. It could be a boy, if the boy were an aberration. If the clitoris were a metaphor.
“That’s a speech from a film, you know.” She named the film, a recent one, and the character she played who said it. Charlie would rent and watch it one holiday weekend. When the action reached the point where she gave the soliloquy about the dog on the train and girl number threes, Charlie would be surprised at how different it sounded—how the circumstances of his conversation with the actress made it seem to be about his sister, who should have lived, and about him, and his troubled marriage, but in the film, it was about something quite different.