When you were the size of a fist, a coyote dragged a three-year-old Angeleno out of the living room by the Peter Pan collar of her pale yellow shirt. She survived but was left with a sizable scar on her cheek. The scar resembled an American flag, pocks for stars and gouges for stripes. Her mother was on the news all the time, which led to the child signing a deal with an agency, and quite soon after that, the child and her scar started appearing on billboards as the new face of a California restaurant chain that sold bratwursts. Last month, for reasons unrelated, the little girl passed away.
The querent used to say we come back as either human or animal, that in the spirit world, there is no delineation.
It’s nice to think the end isn’t the end.
Though I wouldn’t dare say that to the dead girl’s mother.
She was a dancer then, the querent. Ballet was her passion, but it didn’t make any money, so every few weeks, she donned metallic bikinis and shot videos with famous rock musicians. The evening I met her, during my usual walk right before sunset, she was sitting at the bottom of her driveway staring into a tiny teacup. She looked nothing like Grace Kelly, but she was that kind of pretty, once-in-a-generation pretty.
That night, the sky was orange and apocalyptic, and the neighborhood reeked of warmed garbage and motor oil. The air quality level was around one hundred and eighty, on the cusp of being hazardous. Most people didn’t like to walk around in that weather, but the smell of smog made me feel alive. When the querent saw me stroll past her driveway, she yelled something. I almost kept moving, but it would’ve been too obviously rude, so I stopped. She didn’t tell me her real name. She told me people called her the querent and that she read tea leaves.
You meet all kinds out here. Some eccentricities you can’t stand, others pull you in without trying. There is no way to predict affinity.
We started going on walks together, nearly every night. It’s always been easy for me to make friends. I guess I’m approachable. It’s a trait I like about myself, and I have very few of those.
I’d stroll past her place, and she’d join me, and I’d listen to stories about her life, about the musicians who took her to private islands and the musicians who had treated her poorly and the musician who once asked her to rub the guts of a ghost pepper all over his hairless chest.
You grew steadily, but I never mentioned you and the querent didn’t either. I didn’t want to talk about it because it felt like a fragile thing I needed to keep between us. Superstition, they call that. They will tell you it is useless, but I disagree.
Sometimes I felt like the querent’s eyes would linger on my stomach, but I always wore loose clothing: flowy linen dresses, baby doll tops, those kinds of things. I got away with it for as long as I could. She didn’t ask about your father, who was working on a film in Georgia at the time. I felt the querent must have known I was married to a very prominent producer. Most people who lived at the top of the hill knew. Out here, it’s part of the job to understand where you fall in line, whose head you might be able to step on for support as you climb the ever-growing ladder. I told her I used to work in TV but did not name specifics. I wanted her to think I was a real creative—a writer, a storyteller—because that’s what I always wanted to be, but the truth was that I used to be a part-time producer on a very popular reality series. I won’t name it here. We did all sorts of things to make normal people look terrible. One day, I’ll tell you what it means to frankenbite and I’ll tell you about the time I convinced the most beautiful woman in the world not to hang herself in a Four Seasons.
They were nice walks, our walks, the querent’s and mine, fast and steady, up and down the neighborhood’s rolling asphalt hills, the air warm and tarry, the waning sun filtering through massive Ficus trees and modern homes made mostly of glass. We’d walk all the way out of the neighborhood and every so often, we’d spot a coyote crossing the road, or else licking itself under a highway overpass. Once, when we went in for a refreshment, a coyote was roaming around the outskirts of a gas station, and I could have sworn that it smiled at me—not in an animal way, but a human one. I thought about telling the querent—if anyone would’ve understood it would have been her—but I didn’t have the guts.
That same day, we stopped inside the bratwurst joint on the corner of an intersection and got two dogs apiece. There were pictures of that little dead girl still inside, but it wasn’t a place where patrons sat down, so I could mostly avoid them. When we stood in line, I did every possible thing to look away from the dead girl’s gaze, her staged grin. I had a feeling you would be a girl, too, and it felt awful to look.
The querent could sense my sensitivity. She said I seemed like I was going through something. I told her about you. It was the first time we had uttered your existence. I said nothing of your lungs. Outside, on the curb and a few feet down from the restaurant, we sat near a roadside memorial. This intersection was the site of a lot of accidents. Then again, in Los Angeles, many are. Death is in more places than it’s not. One way to forget about death is to eat a lukewarm bratwurst on a hot evening in Los Angeles, reveling in the carcinogens, the hint of onion powder that stays in your mouth long after, the sweet bread that sticks to your sweaty fingers.
Your father and I knew that my pregnancy came with complications. But we were careful with language, holding in the back of our mouth words like geriatric, works like risk. A week before I met the querent, I had a casual check-up appointment where the usual chatty doctor was quiet. Halfway in, he handed me a leaflet. It is never good when they hand you a leaflet. This one was navy blue and glossy and I sliced my thumb on its edge as the doctor told me that you had a large malformation on your right lung, which meant that your left lung would fail to reach its full size. In the most extreme cases, the doctor said, the size of your right lung might break an airway and overwhelm your heart.
He said there were options.
I wondered about his use of the world overwhelm.
September came and went. Your father stayed in Georgia. I told him you and I were doing fine, but didn’t tell him I had a nightmare that I gave birth to a balloon that popped immediately once I pushed it out, or about the querent and her metallic bikinis and the deck of tarot cards she kept in her back pocket and her tea-stained fingertips and about the Merino wool cardigans she wore in seventy-five degree heat or about the exquisite smell of jacaranda this time of year.
I said I’d been walking a lot.
He said, “It’s going to be a bit longer out here.”
I said, “Coyote season is in full force.”
He said, “Mmm.”
I said, “Do you know what a ‘querent’ is?”
One night, the querent informed me that a famous musician wanted to do a music video in our neighborhood. We were used to this kind of thing. It was a quintessential Los Angeles street we lived on: a view of the Hollywood sign, lots of palms, houses with iron gates. A crew wearing all white spent two hours setting up bright lights and then a cabal of women with cut-off shorts and waist-length hair came through—the querent being one of them, the loveliest of the bunch. From my balcony, I watched her warm up, her long shadow stretching and twirling on the driveway. She was too good for this, but I had no place to judge. I’d done all sorts of things I’d never wanted to do. When the semi-truck came, the musician opened it to reveal what looked like an entire butcher shop. The crew began taking pieces of meat out, walking in line with chunks of cow, goat, etc. At one point, a pig’s head.
You should know this now: money can buy you anything.
I could smell the meat all the way from my balcony, and so it would be foolish to think the coyotes couldn’t. They waited until dusk, once people weren’t paying attention anymore, filled with booze and the adrenaline of creation. Then they arrived in a pack of ten, stole much of the meat, and scuttled off—all except for one. The musician ran after it and grabbed a huge hunk of something—a lamb leg, maybe—and he and the coyote were fighting for it until the coyote outsmarted him and, in the process—I don’t know, I couldn’t really see this far—the coyote took a chunk off his ear—just the lobe—then ran off into the night.
I suppose the coyote didn’t like the taste or texture of the lobe because the querent found it in the middle of the street, picked it up, and kept it in a mason jar.
The next night, she gave me a tea leaf reading.
Inside, her house was nothing like I pictured. She’d decorated sparsely. It seemed like no one even lived there. It seemed like whoever lived there was on the run.
The jar with the lobe sat on the kitchen table.
She took a tiny teacup down from her cupboard. It was the smallest teacup I had ever seen, the most delicate, with pink roses painted on the inside. It seemed like a cup made for you. I wondered if I could keep it and give it to you as a present to say, While you are in here, growing, I was out here, trying to understand our future.
If that was what I was doing.
We sat on the ground, on two large, mustard-colored pillows. Between us was a pillar candle. The flame gave off white smoke, like milk.
I stared at the earlobe.
I said, “Do you get the feeling that someone’s listening?”
But she took this very seriously and said, “All that matters is that we’re listening.”
She poured hot water into my tea, and then I drank it and we waited. She picked it up and gazed into the cup deeply.
She saw, for me, a hat.
She nodded. She said it meant success in life. I looked into the cup. I did not see a hat.
“I don’t see a hat.”
I wondered what kind of hat to look for. Top hat? Cowboy? Baseball? I tilted my head, squinted.
“Maybe it isn’t for you to see,” she said.
“But it’s good news?” I asked.
She said it was very good news.
And she was right, I guess. That night, something strange happened. I went to my little office and sat down, opened my laptop, and wrote a television pilot. I wrote until the sun rose, then I wrote some more. It poured out of me, as they say. I think what I always desired was desire itself, and so I channeled that into my characters, all of them, as I clacked on the keyboard, my finger pads crackling with energy, fueled by a deep and guttural longing to conceive something bigger than me, something to take on a life of its own.
Some people will tell you that television writing is for sell-outs. They are wrong, stuck in the past. The average person spends seventy-eight thousand hours of their lives watching television, though that number will certainly have increased by the time you read this. Such a statistic might sound depressing, but I found it motivating. I thought of a million eyes on my words and ideas—I could see actors and actresses speaking what I wrote as I wrote it—and eventually, that night, I completed four episodes out of an eleven-episode arc. The hat had unleashed a fury. Or perhaps the querent had—with her doll-sized cups and her crystals and sage and ideologies—or maybe it was you, you and your lungs, how terrified and vulnerable they made me feel, killing me with their unfathomable fragility.
One day in November, I turned on the news and ate an entire watermelon sprinkled with cinnamon because that’s what you told me we needed. The querent once said that tea grounds were an energetic conduit and so I wondered if you were speaking to me through food—maybe it was a cipher, what I was craving, maybe it was a good sign that you wanted something pure and not processed, something bright and not melancholic—when the thief came on the TV.
You thought I was done introducing people, but there is more. There is a thief. There is, perhaps, always a thief.
Though I will say, it was a hard time to treat all threats as equal. With the fires, the earthquakes, the mass shootings, etc., it was easy to ignore a woman breaking into houses at midnight and stealing other women’s Italian lingerie. Even if she—allegedly—carried a knife. I myself had a BB gun.
In general, few people took the thief seriously. The late-night hosts joked about it during their opening monologues. It trended online. You might be wondering what that means and how it happens. Unfortunately, I cannot explain.
A few nights later, I asked the querent about the thief on our walk. The day before, a dry thunderstorm had rolled through Los Angeles and lightning struck the tallest palm tree in town. The air still smelled of burnt plastic.
The querent shrugged and said, “I think everybody is always robbing somebody else of something.”
A few days passed. Then, one afternoon, a regular warm and sunny afternoon, I sliced into a humungous watermelon and stood in front of the sink, letting the juices fall into the basin. I looked up and was stunned. I never realized it, but through our kitchen window, I could see into the querent’s living room.
Remember, the home was barren. Only a couch and a single table in the living room, the latter of which was pulled to the side. The querent, in nothing but a bra and underwear, was dancing—ballet at first, and then jazz, it seemed, and then tap—and in front of her, on the couch, sat a man watching, silently.
I didn’t think he was a musician, at least not one I recognized, but I didn’t know. He was handsome. But she, she was stunning. I felt like I was looking at some classic painting. I tried to see the details of her lingerie, but it looked bland and the pale-pinkish color of her skin. It was the first time I entertained the thought of who she might be, as I wondered: was this the type of lingerie someone might steal? It did look a little snug for her, a little out of place.
I watched until the show ended, about half an hour later, I would say. Evening came, and I could not eat. I threw up all the watermelon. I could not stop thinking about the querent, or the thief. In a daze, I went through my drawers of underwear and realized I’d only ever purchased most items with the concern of what a certain man would or would not like, and which parts of my body they would successfully hide. I am ashamed to admit this because I am sure that at this very moment, they are burning in a trash heap and releasing carbon dioxide into the sky, but I threw them in the bin.
The querent called me as I was rolling the garbage can out to the street. I let the phone go to voicemail and then I picked it up and listened.
“I just read a man’s leaves,” she said. “And I think he’s going to die.”
Your father was supposed to come home by Thanksgiving, but the film shoot had been extended due to bad weather.
He’d heard about the thief. “What did a woman want with other women’s underwear?”
I said, “I think I might know who it is. I think it’s one of my friends.”
He said it seemed like it could be Carrie. He said, “Don’t let her take that one thing I like. The red thing with the lace.”
I said, “It’s not Carrie. It’s a new friend. You don’t know her.”
And then I hung up. I had a bad habit of hanging up on your father. It was a point of contention. But sometimes, I could not be bothered by the way he saw things. Sometimes, the way he saw things upset me deeply. I tell you this because I need you to know something about the people you come from, because when you’re old enough to ask why I decided to bring a baby with a malformation on her lung into a world that was clearly burning, I can tell you that the world has always been on fire and that’s what I loved most about it. Nothing is certain. One day you could see a hat made of tea leaves and another day it could be a skull.
One day you could be a beautiful four-year-old child and the next day your lung could give out and you could collapse on the playground.
These were the things I had to think about.
The futures I had to hold.
Here is what the authorities knew: The thief was somewhere between five foot four and five foot five. She had long hair. The querent was probably five foot six. But maybe her sneakers added an inch. She had medium length hair. The thief’s laugh was “distinct.”
When I came to think of it, I couldn’t remember ever hearing the querent laugh.
I did not know what to make of this.
The other thing was that the thief had started to become violent with the husbands. Slashing their cheeks, or fingers, nothing lethal.
But she never hurt women.
Still, your father demanded I activate the alarm at night. (“Her behavior is escalating,” he said.) I told him it had been on the whole time he was gone and how dare he accuse me of being so cavalier.
The truth was I never liked to turn it on because I was always afraid of setting it off myself and having to deal with the aftermath and the chaos. Or maybe before you, I just didn’t really care all that much what happened to me. But now, I had something to protect. Real stakes, as they say. And, I had my television show, too. My project.
So, every night, after I made a cup of tea, I set the alarm and began my work. I even taped that number—seventy-eight thousand—to the wall above my writing desk to look at for inspiration, for validation that what I was doing had real value, though every so often when I got stuck, it appeared a little menacing, a little fatalistic. Still, I went on. This is what writers do: they persevere. They write through the insecurity. Though, the more I dictated my very real experiences, the more unrealistic my show became, the more unsure I was that it would work, but then I remembered what they say: truth is stranger than fiction. And according to your father, the market is a good place for strange. I could hear myself pitch the show now: “It is genre bending! It breaks boundaries!” People will watch anything if it makes them forget every single person and animal with whom they have come in contact will one day stop breathing.
At some point, I sent the scripts to your father, and he said I needed to cut the part about the earlobe. He said in the world of my story, it seemed out of place. Or unbelievable. I can’t remember which.
In December, the querent went out of town for a week to shoot a music video in South America with some young musician named Anacondaknot for a song called “This Love is Anacondaknot for You.” The day she left, I decided to break in. It was not hard to get into her house. I knew only four things about her.
She kept her spare key under one of those lazy fake rocks.
She was a dancer.
She read tea leaves.
And she may or may not have been the thief.
I went into her room and searched through her drawers to see if I could find anything suspicious. A stockpile of women’s underwear, for example, used or overworn, sized XXS - XXL. But I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary except for some strappy onesie that still had tags on it and seemed—to be blunt—not lovely enough for her.
I put it on and for the first time, in a long time, I didn’t frown at my changing, growing body. (It is hard to be a pregnant person anywhere. Harder still to be one in Los Angeles.) But you looked beautiful under my skin. I went into the bathroom to take a photograph of myself and then I deleted it because it didn’t capture my happiness well enough.
I strolled into the kitchen and made myself some tea, and then I went outside to the pool, drank from the cup, and tried to predict our future. I saw nothing. I tried again and got nothing. I would have settled for another hat. I took a picture and posted it on a tea reading message board and waited but no one replied. The sun got higher, hotter, and something about all that warmth sent me right to sleep.
I was startled by a voice, and the voice said. “Mom?”
“Yes,” I replied.
I opened my eyes, and it was the querent and she said, “What?”
She was wearing a metallic bikini and see-through dress over top, and over that, a Merino wool cardigan.
I said, “Did you just call me—?”
She was crying.
I didn’t ask why, I just motioned for her to sit next to me.
And then, she crawled onto the chair and we cuddled. Her skin was very soft and I think I gave into it so easily because of the sun, or because my skin had become plumper during the pregnancy and I thought it was lovely, but no one had touched it in weeks, or because I had thought she called me mom, or because this felt like a dream and I was not yet awake, or maybe because I’d always wanted to lie down in the sun with a pretty dancer, but since marrying your father so young, never got the opportunity. Nothing about it felt sexual. It felt, if anything, wholesome in an unironic way—a rare feeling to come by these days. But it did not last long—these things never do—and a moment later, she said, “Why are you wearing my underwear?” Before I got a chance to lie, she said, “Did you go swimming?” I said I hadn’t. She asked why I was wet. And then she looked under me, under the lounge chair, in that ghostly space between my body the concrete.
I followed her eyes, where I saw a small puddle of blood.
“Fuck,” she said.
“Fuck,” I said.
She took my hand, and she opened the garage door and we got in her soft top convertible Porsche but not before she lined my seat with a towel and handed me an extra-large Anacondaknot sweatshirt to cover myself.
A few minutes in, when we arrived at the main road in the neighborhood, there was a line of police cars thronging the street. It was all closed off. Worried men and women walked around aimlessly, in the street, holding onto one another. I could hear them already typing on their phones, anxiously rocking their heels and pathologically chanting thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers.
The querent stopped, rolled down the window, and asked an officer what was going on.
Apparently, a pack of coyotes had encircled the home the thief was robbing, and the thief couldn’t leave, and she’d been caught and there was a shoot-out.
I leaned over the querent.
“Is she dead?” I asked the policeman.
He gave me a smile. He said, “It was a man, not a woman.” His eyes looked like two black holes.
The querent stared out ahead.
The police said, “Doesn’t it seem more likely? That it was a man? What would a woman want with other women’s underwear, right?”
“That’s a very limited viewpoint,” I said, “And we all know for a fact it was a woman.”
“We don’t know anything for a fact,” the policeman said.
The blood that had dried under my thighs began to itch.
About me, he said to the querent, “Is she all right?”
“She needs to go to the hospital. She’s pregnant.”
The cop leaned over and put his elbow on the querent’s half-rolled-down window. “Wow,” he said. “At your age? Congrats.”
(He might not have said, at your age, exactly, but also, he might as well have said it, the way he looked at me.)
We decided to turn around then, go the longer way. The sun was completely gone, and the back roads so dark that the querent had to flip on her brights. Anxiously, I watched the speedometer climb from fifteen to thirty-five, and I said, “Slow down,” and the querent said nothing. She kept telling me to breathe.
“In through the nose, count to six, hold, out through the mouth, count to six.”
I looked at her and I thought her hair looked longer and maybe she was five foot five.
“I need you to laugh,” I said.
She looked at me.
I yelled at her to look at the road.
I said, “I demand you to laugh.”
“But nothing is funny,” she said.
She was not wrong.
“Is that why you were crying earlier?”
She said, “Was I?”
I asked why she had come back to the house—Wasn’t she catching a flight? Did she know I was there? She said she hadn’t known. She’d come back because she had forgotten her e-reader, which is a thing shaped like a book, but is not a book, but holds an infinite number of books.
And then, I don’t know why I did what I did.
I’ve gone over everything that happened, that I can recall, in the weeks leading up to our accident.
It was all so quick, as they say.
The coyotes came out of nowhere.
As they say.
She slowed down, but we couldn’t go left right, forward, back. They surrounded us on all sides. The querent told me they could smell my fresh blood, and then there were five of them, ten, twenty, there could have been a hundred, their eyes bright and shiny, those sable tails whipping through hot air.
The querent began to panic. Her right hand tremored and she began counting her breaths. I’d never seen her lose her cool like that, but this much I know: beautiful women really hate feeling trapped.
Me, I was calm. Serene, you might say. I surveyed the coyotes and thought about how they might be an energetic conduit and maybe all we needed was to not feel threatened by one another. I rolled down the window and put my hand out for the coyotes—I mean this, it really happened—and one coyote moved closer, it looked like it was floating it came to me so quickly—and remember it was fully dark out on the road, but I already told you that, I just want you to really get it—no artificial lamps, just the moonlight—and then all the sudden the querent pressed her foot into the gas pedal.
The coyotes moved out of the way, all except for one who must have been a few hundred feet in front of us, who we were now approaching with abandon. As I yelled at the querent, everything went dark. I thought of Peter Pan collars and jacaranda and Merino wool cardigans and unopened BB guns, and I thought, most of all, of you, and then—
I did the thing I did.
I took the wheel and must have overcorrected because everything blurred.
It is obvious at this point where the story goes. The car flipped in a ditch, smoke plumes rose from it, etc. Because the querent died—her body shielded the impact—I survived. The coyote, I think, was fine. From what I can recall. Most importantly, I gave birth to you that night. It went smoothly, and when you came out into this world, you took one, long, beautiful breath.
“The lungs,” I said, crying, “they work.”
Although you were alive and well, and although it was a miracle—I didn’t even tear—I remember being disappointed about how lackluster my scar from the accident was—just a small cut in the shape of a C on my forehead from the broken window. Two stitches. Nothing as interesting as an American flag. I wouldn’t even need unflattering bangs to hide it. People would look and think, that’s all?
The nurse came in and handed you to me, after they took you away for checking and whatever they do. I told her about the querent and how she was my partner, and I really leaned into this story to get all the sympathy I could. I told her this whole thing about how her best friend from elementary school had been the sperm donor and about how long we’d wanted to have a child together. I told her about the querent’s tea leaves and her dancing, and she said she would have to look her up online and I said, only the music videos are online, and I think, even in death, she would not like that so please promise me you won’t?
The nurse promised.
I said, “Do you believe in reincarnation?”
She said, “It’s nice to think the end isn’t the end.”
And here we are at the beginning again.
Of course, when it came time for the paperwork, I had to tell the truth, that I was married to a man. The nurses seemed to know who your father was, which was both good and bad. They regarded me differently, and they let my fable pass, and sent us home together, healthy and happy, and your father came back that night, and when he saw you, he fell to his knees, and I fell in love with him all over again.
A few weeks after the accident, I sold my television pilot to a large streaming service—which I am sure will be obsolete by the time you understand all this—mostly because your father had connections.
And now, at night, after you and your father are asleep, I watch my show with the sound off and subtitles on so I can read my own words. It feels like it is both my story and not my story. It feels like I don’t believe any of the things that happened anymore, and perhaps that’s why I feel the need to tell you. Because when I relive it every Thursday night, it feels foreign and confusing. It feels like it belongs to the querent, and that I have stolen it, repackaged it into something else. I am embarrassed about the truths I left in, the truths I took out. I am embarrassed by the casting. The woman who plays the querent is radiant, the woman who plays me is dull and, if I am being honest with you, not an especially good performer. I do often wonder if she would like it, but the truth is the querent is dead and I will never know. Maybe one day I will make something better, so much better that I will forget this story ever existed, something that overshadows everything I’ve ever accomplished. Besides you.
You might be wondering what happened to the thief. For many more months, the pilfering continued. Was I surprised that the police shot an innocent landscaper and not an actual intruder? No. To put it lightly, they, like many of us, can be horrifying people, and very bad at their jobs. So, the thief escaped. I like to think she was in the crowd that night, that she blended in, outsmarted all of us, and then fled.
As far as I understand, from what I tracked in the papers, she went up and down the California coast and then moved into Oregon and Washington. Right now, there are likely thousands of women whose most secret drawers have been touched.
As for the coyotes, a succession of bad fires drove them out of the area, and like the palm trees and the monarch butterflies, they are dying. I don’t know how much longer we will have them.
I do know that someone moves into the querent’s house every few months, but they never stay.
I do know that you don’t like any of them. You cry and cry when they play their saxophones or watch soccer on wall-sized TV screens.
Look, I’m not saying you don’t like them because the querent’s soul inhabited your body because that would be insane, but I am saying you have a certain affinity for teacups. You want to touch them all the time. Not the plastic ones. They must be real—no child plaything. Your father thinks you just have an aversion to plastic because you intuitively know that the world is ending, and it may or may not have all started with plastic.
And now that we’ve come to an end, I must reveal that I think about the querent often—too often, perhaps. I feel bad that I survived, and she did not. But as your father says, I have to move on, there’s no time to waste. It's getting warmer every year. Today it is February, and it is ninety-four degrees in Los Angeles, not a cloud in the sky, but the air quality is so bad you and I can’t go for walks because of your lungs, though sometimes, when a funny looking person walks past our home—maybe that man with rhinophyma who wears a huge visor, or maybe that woman who walks her rabbit on a leash, or maybe those depraved twins with their bright and spiky red hair—you look out the window from your high chair and I listen for the air to fill up your lungs as I hold my breath, silently dying for you to laugh.