Famous

“Corrugated Faces” by Roger Camp

Before Sammie came over, my body woke up screaming for coffee, so that’s what I gave it—two whole pots, if you counted the large tumbler I filled and put in the freezer for later. I’d noticed recently that I needed that extra jolt of joe like a microcurrent therapy zap in the ass. I used to be one of those freaks who didn’t need any caffeine—I’m naturally high!—but at the logic-defying age of thirty-seven, if I wanted to go faster than a New York City subway during rush hour, I needed more than one pot in the morning, a couple shots of espresso in the afternoon, and a fix of decaf before bed to keep the synapses running smoothly. Really, I needed to keep up with the kids.

Sammie was naturally wired, bright and unconcerned with getting on adults’ nerves. She always looked at you funny when you said something off-color, but whenever she said something unhinged, she expected people to automatically laugh and tell her she was the smartest person in the world. She had wispy brown hair and these tortoiseshell glasses that gave her a look of perpetually magnified delight, and her button nose—outrageously indifferent to its own perfection—was usually lost in a book. That’s why I liked having her around. She was a good reader.

When I heard her coming up the five flights of stairs to my apartment, her mother’s softer footsteps trailing behind, I flung the door open and she launched straight into me, all skinny heat and flossy hair.

“Aunt Jess!” she shrieked. “Aunt Jess is here!”

“Shh,” I said. “My landlord thinks he got rid of me.”

“Sammie,” her mother’s voice warned. And then Caroline, this pale gorgeous creature from college, the one who decorated our closet-sized dorm room to look like a Laura Ashley ad, appeared. She was part of the growing circle of busy, professional moms who dropped their kids off for me to babysit, who slipped wads of cash in envelopes and pockets of my jeans since a) they felt bad for me, single and childless, boohoo, b) they questioned the legality of my mysterious sources of income, and c) they needed to go shopping or get a massage or masturbate in peace for a few hours.

“Sammie, please don’t headbutt Aunt Jess.” Caroline leaned over her squirming daughter to give me a hug. When she stepped back, I spotted a round, fleshy growth in the corner of her eye, like a tear waiting to fall, which only added to her glamour. Even the purplish shadows under her eyes looked chic. In school, while everyone else would pull all-nighters at the library, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot as the two of us would stay up late, eating pizza out of the box and discussing the latent sexual urges we’d had as children. Now Caroline had a successful interior decorating business and a well-tended husband/home combo on the Upper East Side.

“Thank you so much for taking her,” she said. “My roster is getting kind of unmanageable. Did I tell you? I just added Philip Seymour Hoffman. I thought it was some kind of scam, but it was really him!”

“God, that’s amazing,” I said, “especially since he’s been dead for, like, several years.”

“Oh, shit. Then it’s Daniel Day-Lewis or some other actor with three names. You know me with celebrity stuff.”

“Mommy cursed,” Sammie observed.

“True,” Caroline said, a bit wistfully.

Was it possible? But how could it be? How could Caroline know, or care, that one of my many indulgences, besides impulse buying a home karaoke machine, was having imaginary conversations with Philip Seymour Hoffman? The mercurial thespian, the reluctant screen star, the actor’s actor. So many contradictions wrapped up in one demon-battling body. He understood struggle on a metaphysical level, the struggle of putting yourself in your own way for a role. I’d seen him do it again and again—flailing around inside a character until he’d located some sort of spirit in distress to exorcise. I still remembered him in Happiness—which I’d undoubtedly seen too young—as the creepy, vulnerable pervert. He had a trembling soft spot for the vast range of louses and fuckups in our society.

Caroline didn’t seem to be winking at my secret, though. All she did was ruffle Sammie’s hair and tell her to be a good girl. “You guys have fun, okay?”

“Bye, Mommy!”

“Bye, sweetie. Bye, my other sweetie.”

We waved, and then Caroline disappeared. Sammie’s presence suddenly seemed to expand around the room, her young mind no doubt inflating with the idea that babysitters were put on this Earth for the sole purpose of being molded into perfect playthings. She gave me a sly look.

“Aunt Jess, are we going to play zombies today?”

“No, we’re not doing that today. Remember how long it took you to break character?” I squatted so I could look at her. “No, we’re going to the supermarket!”

We walked a few blocks to the grocery store, and I told Sammie to pick out anything she’s ever wanted to eat in all her eight years. We raced up and down the aisles until our cart was overflowing with the kind of junk parents didn’t let their kids eat because it wasn’t sourced from an upstate farmer’s market.

After unpacking the groceries and leaving them in a colorful mess on the kitchen counter, I rummaged in my purse for the script Adela, my agent, had given me a couple weeks ago before jetting off to St. Lucia for her star-studded wedding, which was going to appear as a spread in Vogue. “Whatever you do, don’t call me,” she’d said, and I’d gasped and shouted an expletive and laughed that I would never, ever do that before she hung up.

“So what are we playing today?” Sammie asked.

I pulled out the script and scanned the cast list, then found a copy and handed it to Sammie. “Okay, so I’m Red, the pregnant heroin addict, and you’re gonna be Ruth, her drug counselor. All you really have to do is talk to me very sternly, like when Mommy is talking to you after you leave the toaster oven on. Can you do that?”

“Of course,” she said. “But wait.”

“What?”

“First, can I have some Gushers?”

“No, Red used to be strung out on Gushers. It would be triggering.”

She sighed. “Okay.”

She closed her eyes and summoned her inner Ruth, like I’d taught her to do. We had talked about grounding yourself and establishing backstory. Who was this character? Which traits defined them? Where could we locate them in ourselves? I took a deep breath and deflated, becoming a sorrier, flintier version of myself. It wasn’t that difficult.

Ruth, I just don’t know what to do anymore. I’m losing it. I don’t know how to be a person in the world. I just want to get high and stay there, you know? Do you have any idea what it’s like? I bet you had to be on some pretty hard drugs at one point to be a drug counselor.”

Sammie channeled her mother, the airy, know-it-all lecturer. “You need to get to a dark place to come out of this. I do know something about dark places.”

Oh yeah? What do you know? You have all your shit together. I hate people like that.”

Sammie giggled—second shit of the day and it wasn’t even noon—and then drew in her breath: “I lost my child when I was nineteen. You need to take a long hard look at yourself. This baby is going to be a blessing, and you don’t even know it.”

Well, I hate what it’s doing to my body! I can’t shoot up, and I can’t—stop—eating!

With that, I ripped into a blue bag of Chips Ahoy and gobbled two at a time. Then I pried open a carton of Bountiful Brownie Mint Chip ice cream and shoveled it down while stuffing my face with Doritos. I gorged on Twizzlers and M&Ms and then finished it all with a couple shakes and spritzes of Cheez Whiz. Sammie stared at me, her eyes wide and lips parted in astonishment. Then she burst into screaming laughter and collapsed.

“Sammie! Get off the floor and back into character. You’re staring at a desperate woman here.”

“Okay, but can I have a cinnamon roll? Pleeeeaaaase?”

“You can have all the snacks you want when we finish this scene.”

She rose obediently and turned back to the script. In my years of trying to get work, I’d landed some lifestyle commercials, and then, when I told Adela I was ready for something more suited to my talents and disposition, she got me more commercials—for Lexapro and Cymbalta.

“That’s not what I meant, goddammit,” I’d told her.

“Jess, you can’t be picky,” she’d said. “There’s a ton of voice work right now, and you know how lucrative that is. I heard the new guy for Geico is probably going to get canned. He apparently flashed some woman a million years ago. It’s on Twitter.”

I didn’t tell her I had just unwittingly flashed someone on the subway. Adela, to her shaky credit, did get me a few stints on primetime shows—I’ll always have He Never Texts Back! and My Achy Ancestors—but nothing became regular, no one called my number or even seemed to have it, and I couldn’t help feeling that the plan I had envisioned for myself after college was flaming out.

At some point, I started to change my tune to friends and family and coworkers that, actually, this wasn’t a lifelong dream but something of a lark, and if a role were dumped in my lap, it would be a completely unexpected and even violent turn of events, diverting me from my easy-breezy routine. That’s what I tell my coworkers at the community college in Queens where I read People but am paid to tutor first-generation students, and my girlfriends when we go out for long, raucous dinners that embarrass the waiters, who regularly offer to buy us drinks at the bar next door if we’d just leave. That’s what I tell everyone. But their kids, when they come to my place, all help to keep my secret—that I’m still hungry and self-obsessed and will upstage them even, no, especially, when they’re acting like whiny, tired brats.

The only one who would understand is my mother, and she’s not here anymore to give me advice and tell me to screw what anyone thinks. I used to bounce out of bed in whatever cramped studio I was subletting with a nervous, tingling sensation, a feeling that something was about to happen—something big. I’d call her and tell her I was “on the precipice.” I was always on the precipice. She’d work herself up and say she had woken up feeling the exact same thing, she’d seen the moon was still out the same time as the sun, and she just knew my card was about to be called. She said crazy things like that, but in her deep, musical voice, she always managed to make them sound normal.

She used to be an adlibbing sidekick on a game show in that rollicking era of the Sixties. She was so good—she was always at her best without a script—that she worked her way into the host seat, unheard of back then for a woman who wasn’t a “blonde bombshell” or “raven-haired beauty.” She always wanted to make it to the big screen, but then she had me and that was that. We both have the same slightly crooked ears, the same shaggy hair and flabby nose.

None of that came in handy for me, but what did was a big pile of money she left me after the crash. Money, now running out, that fuels my caffeine addiction and pays the rent on my one-bedroom apartment on Jane Street—Jane Street!—in the Village. My father had given me the tapes of her shows, claiming there was no room for them in the house, so instead they’ve been collecting dust in my closet. My life, in a way, has come to resemble a game show without a host—chaotic, unmoored from reality.

“Aunt Jess, are you in a sugar coma?” Sammie was staring about two inches from my face.

I blinked at her. “Sammie, I need to get this role. I am Red.”

            She nodded in her knowing way. “Can I have some Twizzlers now?”

* * *

On the subway, while Sammie was munching on Cheetos, I explained that we were going to an audition so I could read the same lines to some very important people.

“Aunt Jess, what’s a heroin add—add—”

“Addict.”

“Yeah, addict.”

A woman sitting with her two young children glared at us.

“It’s a person who has nothing left to lose and nothing left to hope for,” I said.

“Oh.” She was getting crumbs all over the beige tiles as she tried to catch the Cheetos in her mouth after throwing them in the air. Orange fingerprints dusted the script on her lap. “Aunt Jess, why do we play zombies sometimes and other times we play mistresses and heroin addicts?”

“Because those are the types of roles I get called for. They used to be called ‘B-movies.’”

“What’s a B-movie?”

“It’s a movie that, well, isn’t very good. But it can still make a lot of money!”

She giggled. “Why would you want to be in something like that?”

“Because that’s the only thing I can get right now, Miss Nosy. But things will change, that’s what my agent keeps telling me.”

“What’s an agent?”

“A person who lies to you all the time.”

We reached Times Square and found our way to the 44th Street exit and then ducked into a Dunkin’ Donuts so I could refuel and loosen up. We went to a back corner and did some vocal exercises. We rolled our shoulders and necks forward, then backward. We did some miming. When I raised my arms above my head, Sammie did the same, and when she scratched at a mosquito bite on her arm, I did that too. A middle-aged man walking toward us did an about-face, taking his plain donut with him.

“Okay, we’re ready,” I said, smoothing my blazer as we made our way out. I’d let Sammie borrow my oversized sunglasses, and her face clouded over with intention as she put them on, assuming a more withdrawn, severe look.

“Hey, that was pretty good acting,” I said. “Where’d you learn that?”

“I wasn’t acting,” she said.

We entered a spacious, sky-lit lobby and checked in. The walls and rugs were a deep mauve, and there was a tantalizingly sexual photograph of a white flower hung behind the receptionist desk, Georgia O’Keefe on crack.

“Mr. Riggs will be right with you,” said the receptionist. “In the meantime, please have a seat on our Fendi Casa sofa.” She smiled coolly at me and offered Sammie a Tootsie Pop, and I figured one more sweet wouldn’t kill her, so I nodded and she happily unwrapped it.

“So can I watch?” Sammie asked.

“Remember what we talked about?”

“I can watch, but I have to flip my ‘off’ switch.”

“That’s right. You helped me practice, so if I get the role, guess who gets to help me celebrate?”

Sammie’s eyes shone. For a second I thought she was going to cry, but then an outrageously dressed woman—confident or medicated enough to wear a bright red pantsuit with orange piping—served as a good distraction.

“Jessica Rothstein? Please come this way.”

We followed her bright red butt down a long hallway lined with pictures of celebrities who had kissed their high school yearbook shots buh-bye. What was it Adela had said? That leading ladies these days were women harder to pin down, prone to paranoia, interesting in their flaws. Everyone now wanted to show real life, real people, real actions, real consequences. Well, here I was. I was as goddamn real as they got.

You can fuck up all you want, Philip Seymour Hoffman said in his authoritative, rumbling voice. Just don’t fuck this up. Sammie squeezed my hand with her sweaty one.

We entered the audition room, where a sad parade of tired-looking casting agents sat at a white folding table. Riggs was dumping cigar ashes out of a barely cracked window. When he turned around, I could see his neon trucker hat emblazoned with the words I DIDN’T ASK YOU TO TAKE ME SERIOUSLY. He was still the same humorless dud I’d known from improv when we were in our early twenties. He’d hated how I’d always outsmarted him, saving most scenes we were in together from going off the deep end. Now he oozed Casting Director Cool with his large black-frame glasses, pastel tattoos twirling out of his shirtsleeves, and that ridiculous hat.

“Riggs,” he said to me, extending his hand, pretending we had never swapped coke-laced spit in the bathroom of The Itch Factor. I played along.

“Jessica. And this is Sammie. She’s my coach for the day.”

“Well, hello there. Are you our leading lady?”

Sammie smiled and walked to a chair in the back she seemed to intuit was for her.

“Okay, so, yeah, thanks for coming in on such short notice, Jessica,” said Riggs. “Why don’t we take it from the top of page fifty-three? Avery will read Ruth. Whenever you’re ready.”

There was shuffling of papers, and then I cleared my throat and began, perfuming each word with Red’s ragged breath. Avery read back Ruth’s line in a bland monotone.

Oh yeah? What do you know? You seem to have all your shit together. I hate people with their—”

“Okay, cool, thank you very much, Jessica,” Riggs said.

I stared at him and swallowed down some rising dark-roast bile. “Well, wait, how about—”

“Sorry, but that’s all we need. It’s super busy today. We’ll be in touch with Adela.”

Adela! The most incompetent, risk-averse agent in New York. I wondered if she was, at that very moment, walking down a flower-strewn aisle in the middle of the Caribbean, and what she would do if she saw my number light up her phone. I wondered if she had the guts to murder me while finishing up her vows. I was suddenly aware that the screaming I was doing in my head was actually Sammie, standing next to me, releasing all the air in her lungs.

“This is a scam!” she was shrieking. “How can you treat a real pregnant person like that? Aunt Jess has nothing left to hope for! She’s having a baby!” She put her cheek to my stomach, her eyes wide and serious, as if she could hear something other than my hungry growls.

“What the hell?” Riggs said to someone at the table.

I grabbed her arm and bent down. “What are you doing? Stop it!”

“This is pathetic,” Avery-Ruth muttered. The rest of them were trying to register shock on their faces, their dead, seen-it-all-before eyes adjusting to the unexpected outburst like gravediggers in daylight.

“Tell them, tell them, Aunt Jess,” Sammie said.

“Tell them what?” I hissed.

“About the junk food you ate for your ravings and the pregnancy test and how it made that alarming little plus sign. Tell them, Aunt Jess.”

The way she was gazing at me—had she mistaken me for one of Caroline’s other friends? I touched my stomach. Then it hit me—did something just kick?—as if I finally figured out a plot twist that was obvious to everyone else. Something was growing inside me, and it wasn’t just the fear and anticipation of taking care of another human. It was the possibility that everything I had worked so hard for would be lost, everything I sacrificed meaningless. I felt like I was about to throw up.

“Yes,” I said, clearing my throat. “I didn’t want it to interfere with the audition. But I am pregnant.”

“Jess—you are?” Riggs looked at me, slightly flushed. “Didn’t know, sorry. None of my business, but do you have a, you know, partner?”

“Nope. I’m doing it alone.”

Riggs frowned. “So is Red. You have a real connection to her.”

I thought about telling him about my caffeine addiction and pointing out the obvious parallels to heroin junkie-ism, but that felt like going too far.

“Well,” he said tentatively, “why don’t you try a few more lines?”

I opened the script again and spoke as though I had a strange-changing body and an addiction careening out of control, as though I were being cracked wide open and the pieces were scattered all over the floor, as though I were tired of being asked to read more fucking lines.

“Okay, thanks, Jess,” Riggs said afterward. “That was great. We’ll definitely be in touch with Adela. Take care of yourself, okay?”

I walked out of the room in a daze. Sammie followed me back into the lobby. We tumbled back out into Times Square, where there was an unbreakable barrier between all the noisy action and us. I was no longer on the precipice—I had waded through a massive dumpster filled with everyone else’s castaways to claim what was mine! My face started to hurt, and then I realized I was grinning like an idiot. So, I wasn’t really pregnant, but that was a nominal concern. Once Riggs gave me the role, that would be it. Contracts would be signed, ink would dry.

“That was awesome!” Sammie looked up at me, turning back into the sweet-faced, naïve kid I’d thought she was.

I squatted down and took her by the arms. “Sammie, what came over you in there? How do you know about pregnancy tests and little plus signs? What are they letting you watch at home?”

She scowled. “I’m going to have a little sister soon.”

“Your mom—Mommy is pregnant?” I slowly stood up and leaned against a doorway underneath a green awning that read Divorce Lawyers Plus! It looked like it was about to rain.

She nodded.

“Is Mommy happy about that?”

She shook her head. “She said she doesn’t want another baby and it’s not part of her ‘life plan.’ I heard her say it to Daddy. And I don’t want another baby, either. They ruin everything.”

“Well, honey, you were a baby once, weren’t you? And look how amazing you turned out. Babies don’t stay that way forever. We all grow up.”

“It’s going to be shit.”

I pictured Sammie listening to her mother through the door, questioning her place in a world that would become more crowded. My mother had never made me feel like I was interfering with her life, her career. She used to act out little scenes with me, pushing boring, ordinary routines—going to school, driving to the grocery store—around their edges. She was a master impersonator who could imitate our whole family, even Uncle Les with his heavy, Midwest-flattened lisp. The worlds she created, narrated by voices ranging from husky to high-pitched, were places I never wanted to leave.

But Sammie already had an uncanny ability to dream outside of the real world. She didn’t need anyone else’s help. I was absurdly, momentarily, jealous. I watched as she picked a plump booger out of her nose and flicked it in the opposite direction.

“Sammie, you know what? You have a superpower. You really made them think I was pregnant in there. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I think it worked.”

She smiled mischievously. “I’m going to have a baby, too.”

“No, don’t say that.”

“I’m pregnant, like you and Mommy.” She stuck out her stomach and spread her fingers on top of the fake bulge. For the most part, I was relieved to be able to deposit these precious bundles back to their rightful owners at the end of the day. But I could still see Riggs’ shocked expression, as if the idea of me having a child were incompatible with reality.

“Aunt Jess, what are we doing now?”

“We can do whatever you want. We’re celebrating, remember?”

“Can we go to the park?”

The rain seemed to be holding off. I hailed a cab even though we were only going about fifteen blocks. The matinee theater rush, the unlit marquees in broad daylight, the hotels and office buildings and sprawling delicatessens all rushed by in a blur as we sped up Eighth Avenue, and Sammie plied me with questions.

“How are you going to get ready for the role? Can I help? Do you think Mommy would let me? I can be an actress too, right, Aunt Jess? Will I do auditions too? Can I leave school? Can I tell my friends that I know the man with the hat?”

I told her something about how we could keep doing our character work and exercises, but that her mother couldn’t know about what happened today. She had enough to worry about. In fact, I told Sammie, if she found out, she’d kill me. And, by the way, this stuff isn’t easy. This takes years of dedication and infinite patience, not to mention—

“Twenty bucks,” the driver said as the cab screeched to a halt at 60th Street.

“What? We just barely went ten minutes!” He glared at me in the rearview mirror.

“You wanna argue with the meter?”

“I’m not a tourist, you know?” I said. “I never do this.”

“Sure,” he said.

I took out my credit card and swiped it through the machine.

“Aunt Jess,” Sammie said as we were dumped on top of a hot dog cart, “how will we know when we’re famous?”

I looked at her face, with its small, growing cloud of healthy skepticism mixed with a dash of impatience, and sighed. “Maybe you never find out for sure. Maybe there’s always a little bit of doubt. Maybe that’s the point. God, what a rip-off.”

She took my hand and we walked into Central Park together. Joggers and bikers owned the pavement, while everyone else assumed a shape around them. We walked the main path until it branched off into different, smaller paths, and we chose one and kept walking along until the crowds thinned out into just a few scattered nature lovers, inspecting the thick bark of trees, looking up for birds, lost in their own private worlds. A light breeze played with Sammie’s hair.

We kept walking until we came to a clearing where there was a wide-open field and a rolling mound of earth that curved into a hill a ways beyond. Kids ran around each other in circles and the adults stood in clusters, chatting and laughing. Booths with different activities dotted the green expanse. Sammie and I edged a bit closer until a woman with silver hair, wearing a flowy caftan, started waving and jogging over.

“Rebecca! Oh, you brought Susie! So glad you could make it.” The woman took Sammie’s hands into her own, which had jeweled rings on every finger.

Sammie looked up at me, unsure of what to do, and I nodded at her even though I didn’t know either. The woman smiled. “Come with me,” she said.

We followed her, and Sammie was presented to a small clump of children who eyed her with guarded interest. “Girls, Susie came to celebrate. Isn’t that nice? Why don’t you show her your game?”

As the woman took my arm and started leading me away, I heard one girl say she thought Susie was sick. Another says no, that’s wrong, she moved away. A third says no, you’re both idiots, she flew off the slippery slide at Disneyland and was in the hospital with two broken ribs. In any case, they welcomed Sammie into their tribe, taking her to get her face painted.

“I’m so happy you guys could make it,” the woman said. She lowered her voice. “We were all so worried after the accident.”

“Accident?” I asked, startled.

She looked concerned, and then her expression changed and she patted my arm as if to reassure both of us. “Let’s not talk about that now. Today is supposed to be happy. Happy!”

She led me to a group of parents who were talking about the merits of exposing their children to violin versus opera. “They’re both archaic,” one man said. “No, they just evoke a very special, forgotten era,” another woman said. “You know, like Latin.”

The man turned to me. “Rebecca, you’ve raised a wonderful little girl. Tell us, which works, violin or opera?”

“Acting,” I said.

Everyone laughed.

“Well, I certainly don’t want my Paolo busing tables all his life,” the forgotten era woman said.

“Getting into a character makes you keep looking for the thing in yourself you don’t want to find,” I said. Well, technically, Philip Seymour Hoffman had said that, but what did they know? “I think we should all try that at least once.”

They looked at me as if I had advised them to feed their kids crack, and then resumed normal conversation: What should their children have more of, curiosity or grit?

One of the dads—at least I assumed he was a dad, not some random guy—seemed different from the rest. First of all, he didn’t join the discussion. In fact, he looked bored. Second, to overcome his boredom, he was giving me the old eye. He wore dusty-looking jeans and a blue button-down shirt and he was chewing on something, which made him seem tough and thoughtful at the same time. The parents all moved around like Tetris pieces, and soon he was next to me. My heart started to beat a little faster.

“Rebecca, can I tell you something without sounding like a cheese? You look absolutely radiant.” He smiled at me with just one dimple, on his right side, and spit out what he was chewing with one clean, direct hock. He came closer. “I much prefer this Rebecca to the other one.”

I smiled back and said nothing, mostly because he smelled so good that I just wanted to inhale, but also because I had no idea what he was talking about. I breathed in fresh aftershave mixed with cinnamon on his tongue. I always liked the name Rebecca. It suggested romance, drama.

“You don’t think acting is stupid, do you?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “They are.”

I felt a strong pull toward him, as if he were someone I could have loved if I had not cast most relationships aside for the siren song of another casting call. He placed his hand on my lower back, and I was surprised by a flare of desire. As the voices and laughter faded into the background, he and I seemed to understand, just by looking at each other, that we should move off somewhere together, preferably behind a giant tree, if only to get away from this particular breed of parents who would make exaggerated gestures of horror but enjoy watching.

Before we could do anything illegal, someone came out carrying a giant rectangular cake with rainbow frosting and, in blue icing, HAPPY BIRTHDAY JAMIE! Everyone gathered around, and the man disappeared into the crowd. I started to panic as I searched for him, and then my eyes fell on Sammie. An incredibly detailed tiger with a huge flower coming out of its mouth was painted in bright colors all the way from her chin to her cheekbone. She was walking and chatting with two girls, and on their way over they passed a booth where a man was making elaborate balloons. They laughed as he released them into the air. One shaped like a teddy bear came loose from the pack and floated upward toward the sun, which was setting a hazy, cotton candy pink.

“Okay, on the count of three!” said the woman who’d greeted us.

We sang happy birthday and waved crackling sparklers. I felt myself move, but it could have been anyone’s movements. I mouthed the words, but no sound came out. After the cake was gone, the kids formed a circle. Sammie was in the middle and they were all chanting

  Su-sie, Su-sie, Su-sie

She started to dance, shyly at first, wiggling here and there. They all clapped out a rhythm and stomped their feet and chanted louder, and she began to go faster, faster, spinning in circles and letting out ecstatic shrieks. She finally landed on the ground on her back, and everyone cheered. She got up and looked at all the faces around her. She spotted me and gave a shy, adorable nod that didn’t acknowledge me so much as the fact that I had seen her. Another kid came into the center to show off his moves, and she graciously eased herself back into the outer ring. I wanted to find the man again, impersonate the snobby adults and make each other laugh, tell him I loved him. But he was gone. Being on the precipice had kept me going for so long, but what happened when it was no longer beneath my feet? What was waiting for me when I jumped?

Sammie ran over to me, arms filled with spoils from the afternoon, bags of party favors and more candy. She gave me a hug that smelled like dirt and grass and wet paint. After taking a shorter route back to the park entrance, I hailed a cab and we climbed into the backseat. It was dark and had started to rain, and I knew I had to get her back to my apartment before Caroline came and freaked out. The patter of drops, the back and forth of the windshield wipers, the slow-changing streetlights lulled us both into a meditative stillness.

“Aunt Jess?”

“Sammie?”

“I hate getting my face painted.” A drowsy smile came over her face. “But Susie really likes it.”

I squeezed her hand and yawned for a long time. I hadn’t realized how tired I was, or that I could even be this tired. I was flooded with an intoxicating sense of calm that came from deep inside, underneath all the layers of artificial energy. My phone kept buzzing, but it sounded too far away to be important, buried at the bottom of my bag. The cabbie slowly veered into the right lane and jumped the curb, almost hitting a DO NOT WALK sign. There was no one else on the street to see it happen. The tiger on Sammie’s face glowed brightly.