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by Miranda July
Twice I have sat next to a famous man on an airplane. The first man was Jason Kidd, of the New Jersey Nets. I asked him why he didn’t fly first class, and he said that it was because his cousin worked for United.
“Wouldn’t that be all the more reason to get first class?”
“It’s cool,” he said, unfurling his legs into the aisle.
I let it go, because what do I know about the ins and outs of being a sports celebrity? We didn’t talk for the rest of the flight.
I can’t say the name of the second famous person, but I will tell you that he is a Hollywood heartthrob who is married to a starlet. Also, he has the letter “V” in his first name. That’s all—I can’t say anything more than that. Think espionage. O. K., the end—that really is all. I’ll call him Roy Spivey, which is almost an anagram of his name.
If I were a more self-assured person I would not have volunteered to give up my seat on an overcrowded flight, would not have been upgraded to first class, would not have been seated beside him. This was my reward for being a pushover. He slept for the first hour, and it was startling to see such a famous face look so vulnerable and empty. He had the window seat and I had the aisle, and I felt as though I were watching over him, protecting him from the bright lights and the paparazzi. Sleep, little spy, sleep. He’s actually not little, but we’re all children when we sleep. For this reason, I always let men see me asleep early on in a relationship. It makes them realize that even though I am five feet eleven I am fragile and need to be taken care of. A man who can see the weakness of a giant knows that he is a man indeed. Soon, small women make him feel almost fey—and, lo, he now has a thing for tall women.
Roy Spivey shifted in his seat, waking. I quickly shut my own eyes, and then slowly opened them, as if I, too, had been sleeping. Oh, but he hadn’t quite opened his yet. I shut mine again and right away opened them, slowly, and he opened his slowly, and our eyes met, and it seemed as if we had woken from a single sleep, from the dream of our entire lives. Me, a tall but otherwise undistinguished woman; he a distinguished spy, but not really, just an actor, but not really, just a man, maybe even just a boy. That’s the way that my height can work on men, the more common way: I become their mother.
We talked ceaselessly for the next two hours, having the conversation that is specifically about everything. And he told me intimate details about his wife, the beautiful Ms. M. Who would have guessed that she was so troubled?
“Oh, yeah, everything in the tabloids is true.”
“Yeah, especially about her eating disorder.”
“But the affairs?”
“No, not the affairs, of course not. You can’t believe the ‘bloids.”
“We call them ‘bloids. Or tabs.”
When the meals were served, it felt as if we were eating breakfast in bed together, and when I got up to use the bathroom he jokes, “You’re leaving me!”
And I said, “I’ll be back.”
As I walked up the aisle, many of the passengers stared at me, especially the women. Word had traveled fast in this tiny flying village. Perhaps there were even some ‘bloid writers on the flight. There were definitely some ‘bloid readers. Had we been talking loudly? It seemed to me that we were whispering. I looked in the mirror while I was peeing and wondered if I was the plainest person he had ever talked to. I took off my blouse and tried to wash under my arms, which isn’t really possible in such a small bathroom. I tossed handfuls of water toward my armpits and they landed on my skirt. It was made from the kind of fabric that turns much darker when it is wet. This was a real situation I had got myself into. I acted quickly, taking off my skirt and soaking the whole thing in the sink, then wringing it out and putting it back on. I smoothed it out with my hands. There. It was all a shade darker now. I walked back down the aisle, being careful not to touch anyone with my dark skirt.
When Roy Spivey saw me, he shouted, “You came back!”
And I laughed and he said, “What happened to your skirt?”
I sat down and explained the whole thing, starting with the armpits. He listened quietly until I was done.
“So were you able to wash your armpits in the end?”
“It’s O.K. It’s part of showbiz.”
He leaned over and pressed his nose against my shirt.
“Oh. Well I tried to wash it.”
But he was standing up now, climbing past me to the aisle and rummaging around in the overhead bin. He fell back into his seat dramatically, holding a pump bottle.
“Oh, I’ve heard about that.”
“It dries in seconds, taking odor with it. Lift up your arms.”
I lifted my arms, and with great focus he pumped three hard sprays under each sleeve.
“It’s best if you keep your arms out until it dries.”
I held them out. One arm extended into the aisle and the other arm crossed his chest, my hand pressing against the window. It was suddenly obvious how tall I was. Only a very tall woman could shoulder such a wingspan. He stared at my arm in front of his chest for a moment, then he growled and bit it. Then he laughed. I laughed, too, but I did not know what this was, this biting of my arm.
“What was that?”
“That means I like you!”
“Do you want to bite me?”
“You don’t like me?”
“No, I do.”
“Is it because I’m famous?
“Just because I’m famous doesn’t mean I don’t need what everyone else needs. Here, bite me anywhere. Bite my shoulder.”
He slid back his jacket, unbuttoned the first four buttons on his shirt, and pulled it back, exposing a large, tanned shoulder. I leaned over and very quickly bit it lightly, and then picked up my SkyMall catalogue and began reading. After a minute, he re-buttoned himself and slowly picked up his copy of SkyMall. We read like this for a good half hour.
During this time I was careful not to think about my life. My life was far below us, in an orangey-pink stucco apartment building. It seemed as though I might never have to return to it now. The salt of his shoulder buzzed on the tip of my tongue. I might never again stand in the middle of the living room and wonder what to do next. I sometimes stood there for up to four hours, unable to generate enough momentum to ear, to go out, to clean, to sleep. It seemed unlikely that someone who had just bitten and been bitten by a celebrity would have this kind of problem.
I read about vacuum cleaners designed to suck insects out of the air. I studied self-heating towel racks, and fake rocks that could hide a key. We were beginning to descend. We adjusted our seat belts and tray tables. Roy Spivey suddenly turned to me and said, “Hey.”
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey, I had an amazing time with you.”
“I did too.”
“I’m going to write down a number, and I want you to guard it with your life.”
“This phone number falls into the wrong hands and I’ll have to get someone to change it, and that is a big headache.”
He wrote the number on a page from the SkyMall catalogue and ripped it out and pressed it into my palm.
“This is my kids’ nanny’s personal line. The only people who call her on this line are her boyfriend and her son. So she’ll always answer it. You’ll always get through. And she’ll know where I am.”
I looked at the number.
“It’s missing a digit.”
“I know. I want you to just memorize the last number, O.K.?”
We turned our faces to the front of the plane, and Roy Spivey gently took my hand. I was still holding the paper with the number, so he held it with me. I felt warm and simple. Nothing bad could ever happen to me while I was holding hands with him, and when he let go I would have the number that ended in four. I’d wanted a number like this my whole life. The plane landed gracefully, like an easily drawn line. He helped me pull my carry-on bag down from the bin; it looked obscenely familiar.
“My people are going to be waiting for me out there, so I won’t be able to say goodbye properly.”
“I know. That’s all right.”
“No, it really isn’t. It’s a travesty.”
“But I understand.”
“O.K., here’s what I’m going to do. Just before I leave the airport, I’m going to come up to you and say, ‘Do you work here?’”
“It’s O.K. I really do understand.”
“No, this is important to me. I’ll say, ‘Do you work here?’ And then you say your part.”
“What’s my part?”
“You say, ‘No.’”
“And I’ll know what you mean. We’ll know the secret meaning.”
We looked into each other’s eyes in a way that said that nothing else mattered as much as us. I asked myself if I would kill my parents to save his life, a question I’d been posing since I was fifteen. The answer always used to be yes. But in time all those boys had faded away and my parents were still there. I was now less and less willing to kill them for anyone; in fact, I worried for their health. In this case, however, I had to say yes. Yes, I would.
We walked down the tunnel between the plane and real life, and then, without so much as a look in my direction, he glided away from me.
I tried not to look for him in the baggage-claim area. He would find me before he left. I went to the bathroom. I claimed my bag. I drank from the water fountain. I watched children hit each other. Finally I let my eyes crawl over everyone. They were all not him, every single one of them. But they all knew his name. Those who were talented at drawing could have drawn him from memory, and everyone else could certainly have described him, if they’d had to, say, to a blind person—the blind being the only people who wouldn’t know what he looked like. And even the blind would have known his wife’s name, and a few of them would have known the name of the boutique where his wife bought a lavender tank top and matching boy shorts. Roy Spivey was both nowhere to be found and everywhere. Someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, do you work here?’
It was him. Except that it wasn’t him, because there was no voice in his eyes; his eyes were mute. He was acting. I said my line.
A pretty young airport attendant appeared beside me.
“I work here. I can help you,” she said enthusiastically.
He paused for a fraction of a second and then he said, “Great.” I waited to see what he would come up with, but the attendant glared at me, as if I were rubber-necking, and then rolled her eyes at him, as if she were protecting him from people like me. I wanted to yell, “It was a code! It had a secret meaning!” But I knew how this would look, so I moved along.
That evening, I found myself standing in the middle of my living-room floor. I had made dinner and eaten it, and then I had an idea that I might clean the house. But halfway to the broom I stopped on a whim, flirting with the emptiness in the center of the room. I wanted to see if I could start again. But, of course, I knew what the answer would be. The longer I stood there, the longer I had to stand there. It was intricate and exponential. I looked like I was doing nothing, but really I was busy as a physicist or a politician. I was strategizing my next move. That my next move was always not to move didn’t make it any easier.
I let go of the idea of cleaning and just hoped that I would get to bed at a reasonable hour. I thought of Roy Spivey in bed with Ms. M. And then I remembered the number. I took it out of my pocket. He had written it across a picture of pink curtains. They were made out of fabric that was originally designed for the space shuttle; they changed density in reaction to fluctuations of light and heat. I mouthed all the numbers and then said the missing one out loud: “four!” It felt risky and illicit. I yelled “FOUR!” And moved easily into the bedroom. I put on my nightgown, brushed my teeth, and went to bed.
Over the course of my life, I’ve used the number many times. Not the telephone number, just the four. When I first met my husband, I used to whisper “four” while we had intercourse, because it was so painful. Then I learned about a tiny operation that I could have to enlarge myself. I whispered “four” when my dad died of lung cancer. When my daughter got into trouble doing God knows what in Mexico City, I said “four” to myself as I gave her my credit-card number over the phone. Which was confusing thinking one number and saying another. My husband jokes about my lucky number, but I’ve never told him about Roy. You shouldn’t underestimate a man’s capacity for feeling threatened. You don’t have to be a great beauty for men to come to blows over you. At my high-school reunion, I pointed out a teacher I’d once had a crush on, and by the end of the night this teacher and my husband were wrestling in a hotel parking garage. My husband said that it was about issues of race, but I knew. Some things are best left unsaid.
This morning, I was cleaning out my jewelry box when I came upon a little slip of paper with pink curtains on it. I thought I had lost it long ago, but, no, there it was, folded underneath a dried-up carnation and some impractically heavy bracelets. I hadn’t whispered “four” in years. The idea of luck made me feel a little weary now, like Christmas when you’re not in the mood.
I stood by the window and studied Roy Spivey’s handwriting in the light. He was older now—we all were—but he was still working. He had his own TV show. He wasn’t a spy anymore; he played the father of twelve rascally kids. It occurred to me now that I had missed the point entirely. He had wanted me to call him. I looked out the window; my husband was in the driveway, vacuuming out the car. I sat on the bed with the number in my lap and the phone in my hands. I dialed all the digits, including the invisible one that had shepherded me through my adult life. It was no longer in service. Of course it wasn’t. It was preposterous for me to have thought that it would still be his nanny’s private line. Roy Spivey’s children had long since grown up. The nanny was probably working for someone else, or maybe she’d done well for herself—put herself through nursing school of business school. Good for her. I looked down at the number and felt a tidal swell of loss. It was too late. I had waited too long.
I listened to the sound of my husband beating the car mats on the sidewalk. Our ancient cat pressed against my legs, wanting food. But I couldn’t seem to stand up. Minutes passed, almost an hour. Now it was starting to get dark. My husband was downstairs making a drink and I was about to stand up. Crickets were chirping in the yard and I was about to stand up.