SIREN • by Joseph Helmreich

The first time you see her, she is only fourteen and trying to look younger. She wears a frayed, faded chartreuse dress with half-torn embroidery and her hair is cropped extremely short, shorter than most boys’. She asks, “Are you sure we’ve never met? I could swear we went to school together or camp or church — you’re so familiar, that’s all.” She’s direct and it wins you over fast.

The next time you see her, four years later, you don’t recognize her at first, she’s become taller, full-bodied, a woman, and after an hour and a half with her, you know you’ve never felt this way before and it scares you in ways that you want to be afraid.

“I’m not hard to please,” she says, “but I don’t settle either, I get bored pretty quick and if I can live without a lot of money, that doesn’t mean I want to.” She contradicts herself all the time and it only makes her more charming.

The next time you see her, she’s a waitress, working tables in some small cafe whose name you’ll soon forget. She’s entirely different, salt of the earth, but her eyes, light hazel eyes, haven’t changed and her long, auburn-dyed hair makes her seem motherly.

“I need you,” she says. “I need you real bad, you motherfucker, you piece of shit who walked away and never came back, you fucking piece of shit…” and “shit” is the last thing she says before her words become a kiss.

Five years later, the waitress is a memory, she’s a businesswoman now, successful, hard, and she speaks with a quasi-British inflection, pretentious and unconvincing, and she uses words like “rather” and “darling” but they never seem real and neither does she and it’s the first time she’s ever been that way. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

The last time you saw her, she was a beggar, dressed in rags, sleeping on the cold steps of Baltimore’s Calvary Baptist Church by night and wandering that city’s rank subways by day, asking for loose change or a small bite to eat — the latter request made it easier for people to give her change. She spoke, you recall, with a mid-Western twang and there are many who say that it was really this, combined with the dirt and the rags, which won her all the acclaim, but you think it had more to do with a certain naked desperation in the eyes. Later that night, after you went home, you saw those same eyes in your sleep, so penetrating, so deep, but infinitely distant all the same because you knew they would never see you. She never sees you and nothing she says is ever said to you.

Someday, you will tell your son, if you have a son, “Try not to fall too hard for movie actresses. They give and they give and they give, but they never give back.”

Joseph Helmreich is the author of Warring Parents, Wounded Children, and the Wretched World of Child Custody, a collection of cautionary tales based on real life child custody disputes (Praeger, 2007). He lives in New York City, where he works in international film distribution for The Weinstein Company.

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