RUNNER-UP
The House Wren

It was a Sunday morning in late May, toward the end of the warbler migration. We had just come in from a bird walk at the cemetery in Cambridge. We hadn’t seen many birds, because I was unable to get Maeve out of bed early enough, but I have learned to hold my tongue when this happens. As it turned out, I had all of the scant luck, seeing a wood thrush, a blackpoll, and an ovenbird foraging under a boxwood. Maeve missed all of them, despite my feverish attempts to describe their locations.

“Look where the left main trunk makes a vee,” I said.

“What vee, Irene? There’s no vee.”

Of course, she was looking at the wrong tree altogether.  Explaining where birds are is a tricky business. I sometimes wonder if Maeve suspects me of deliberately misleading her, a thing I would never do and in fact would consider grounds for breaking up.

When we got home I cooked her favorite breakfast of sausage and Swedish oatmeal pancakes in apology for having hogged all the birds. I’d just gotten the plates on the table when the phone rang. Maeve ignored my let-it-ring look.  She was still annoyed about the birds. In two seconds by my Swiss Army watch, I knew it was her mother.

Whenever they talk Maeve gets into a state; but in smallish doses I’m fond of Bettina, a gaunt widow of seventy-three who reminds me of a heron poised to devour a bluegill. I’ve noticed that people are often fond of snobbish bullies like Bettina. It’s like making friends with a big scary dog everyone else is afraid to go near.

Maeve had the short end of the conversation as usual. Bettina out-talks her interlocutors by a factor of four to one.  I once made the mistake of pointing this out to Maeve when it was too early in our relationship for me to criticize her mother and we had one of our worst fights. It was right after our six-month anniversary. Maeve had given me some nasty turquoise earrings before I’d had time to tell her I loathe turquoise. In fact, I dislike most stereotypical lesbian predilections: folk music, softball, and cats, who are hell on the songbird population. Variant spellings of the word woman make me cringe. Maeve says I’m a poor excuse for a dyke, but I do what I can with what nature gave me.

I had started eating my pancakes on the principle that one cold breakfast was a better thing in the world than two, when Maeve hung up the phone with a bang.  I lowered my fork and stopped reading the newspaper. Reagan had just broken the air traffic controllers’ union.

“Don’t get mad,” she said. These are words you never want to hear from your girlfriend, right up there with we need to talk.

I resumed eating. Maeve announced that her mother was coming to stay with us at the end of the week while her apartment in New York was being painted.

“Three days at the most,” she promised. “If it takes longer, she’ll sue the painting contractor.”

I could have said I told her not to answer the phone but there was no point, so I smiled and said, “Fine.”

She regarded me with suspicion.

“Really, Maeve, it’s okay,” I said.  “It might even be fun.  Now please eat your breakfast before it’s even colder.”

Apart from Bettina, who causes her great stress, my girlfriend is maddeningly imperturbable, while I worry about everything, from cancer to Alzheimer’s. Last week I read in the New York Times that lesbians are three times more likely than straight women to get breast cancer. Maeve just yawned so then I read her an article titled Brain-Eating Amoeba Kills Six This Year about a bacteria that enters people’s noses as they swim in lakes, attaching itself to the olfactory nerve, moving upward and devouring brain cells. You’re dead in in two weeks. Maeve said, “Yeah, but what a great story for your family! Any time somebody started talking about the death of a loved one, they could say,  ‘Hah! That’s nothing!’ ” So I do all the worrying for both of us while she lolls about like a pasha except when she has to deal with her mother.

I resolved not to think about the weekend ahead with Bettina rampaging around our tiny house, asking in a lemony voice who cleaned for us. We do not have a cleaning lady. We play a game of chicken with each other about housework. In a few more years we’re hoping to sell the mineral rights to the place.

Our only firm plan was taking Bettina out for dinner on Friday night. Maeve booked a reservation at a trendy Spanish restaurant where the food would be good and the service slow, so that we could all go straight to bed the minute we got home. We would let Bettina direct things for the rest of the weekend. This would be less dispiriting than having her dismiss our suggestions as boring, or worse, “odd,” her supreme expression of disapproval.  “Look at that woman’s hat,” she would say. “Don’t you think it’s odd?”

Since Maeve had to work late, it fell to me to pick Bettina up at South Station.  After vigorous internal debate, I had washed and vacuumed my car – not to impress Bettina but to cheer myself up. I love the moment after I’ve emerged from the tunnel of water when I pull out onto the street with my car’s flanks gleaming like a racehorse. In fact, the entire passive carwash experience gives me a briskly extinguished sense that I am the sort of person who gets things taken care of on a regular basis.

 

My mother only met Bettina once.  After Maeve and I had been together for three years, we took our mothers out for lunch on a rainy Sunday in November. When we introduced them, they nervously air-kissed, victims of one of God’s little jokes, wary of re-infection. The lunch was an agony of tight smiles and loud exclamations over carefully neutered topics.  After the meal, Maeve and I waited for one mother to tell the other that they should get together again sometime. We were relieved and chagrined that neither Bettina nor my mother suggested it.

 

I was an only child and an unrewarding daughter, clumsy and stout. When I was in the fourth grade my mother came to a school dance program in which I was expected to perform a series of cartwheels.  Although I practiced and tried my best, I was unable to heave my pudgy body aloft in any convincing way. My mother said afterward that I had looked like an albino tarantula having a fit, and I said, “OK. Let’s see you do a cartwheel.” When we got home she moved the coffee table and performed a trio of flawless cartwheels. She would have gone on forever if the wall hadn’t stopped her.

I wasn’t popular in school. I kept to myself, reading or simply staring at the world. I thought that by focusing on a certain patch of dead leaves on a tree, I was bestowing a kind of blessing on it, like a company president pausing for a chat by a laborer’s bench in a factory.  My mother was impatient with what she called my mooning around. In my sophomore year at Barnard I told her I was a lesbian. My roommate was away for the weekend. I drank three cups of coffee to get ready. I sat on my bed and pulled my ankle into a painful position as a counter-irritant. Then I called my mother and said I needed to tell her something.

“Oh, dear. You’re not in any trouble, are you?”

“No, nothing like that, Mother. I’m a lesbian.”

After a silence, she asked if I were sure.

“Oh, yes. I’ve had all the tests and there’s no doubt.”

“There’s no need to get snippy, Irene.”

I heard the scritch of her cigarette lighter. Finally she said, “Well, dear, I’ve always thought the great battle in life is the one against loneliness. Some people have husbands and children, and some people have hamsters, and you–you have your special friend.”

I didn’t want to think about my girlfriend ranking below a hamster in the battle against loneliness so I said I’d been meaning to tell her for a while.

“And now you have! Tell me about your classes. How’s your Latin coming along?  Amo, amas, amat. How I used to love it, with dear old Mr. Prothero. Did I ever tell you about the time we were studying the Punic Wars? One day Sally Carstairs raised her hand and asked, ‘Mr. Prothero, who exactly were these Punes?’”

I’d heard this story a million times but I laughed again before stumbling out of the conversation and saying goodbye. I’ve always known that after this phone call my mother folded what remained of her hopes for me, although we remained on the same bone-dry civil terms until she died of a stroke twenty years later. On her final Christmas card, a snowy Impressionist landscape from the Met, she had written in peacock blue ink, Love to you and M. It was her first and only acknowledgment of my relationship. I still have the card in my bureau and I see it when I run out of clean underwear. It’s no wonder I’ve never been tempted by motherhood, and while I can’t speak for Maeve, I know I sleep better knowing that when I die I won’t leave behind children I’ve spent decades casually mutilating with my dissatisfaction. I have no illusions about not repeating the mistakes my mother made.  I’d probably do an even worse job.

 

Bettina’s train arrived exactly on time at 7:30.  When she saw me she dropped her Louis Vuitton suitcase on the platform and trotted over in her patent leather heels. She kissed the air loudly on both sides of my face and I breathed in her lily of the valley scent. Despite the warmth of the evening she wore an ancient fox tippet of a kind I hadn’t seen since my childhood.

“But what have you done with Doctor Millmoss?” she cried, her standard line from a Thurber cartoon whenever anyone was missing.

“Maeve’s meeting us at the restaurant.”

I hoisted her suitcase. From its weight it seemed that she had hidden the silver from the painters by bringing it along.

“What a charming little car!  Is it your weekend car?”

Without waiting for me to reply she said, “Did Maeve tell you about my new weekend car? No? That’s just like her. I bought a little orange Fiat from a neighbor who’s gotten too old to drive. Well, it’s not so much that he’s too old as that he’s gone totally blind! So now I tootle around town on weekends in his old sports car. Too divine! Now, tell me, dear, where are you taking me for supper? Maeve said someplace Spanish, but that can’t be right, can it?”

“I’m afraid so,” I said.

Bettina expressed chastened shock by making a face like a startled goldfish before abandoning the topic. Next she wanted to know why neither Maeve nor I had ever colored our gray hair. She felt we were sadly negligent about our appearance.

“They do such a wonderful job nowadays!” she said. Her own hair was a thinning russet cap, artfully combed and lacquered in place. “You really owe it to yourselves to try it. I’m sure it would give you both a tremendous lift.”

This was irritating on so many levels that I was momentarily perplexed. We were stopped at a traffic light and I glanced over at Bettina. Her mouth was trembling with repressed joy, anticipating some bracing jet of outraged insult. I saw that she was merely warming up with me before baiting her daughter at dinner so I ignored her hair dye question and asked about her train journey. She had encountered an enormous family of Dominicans while trying to exit the train. “The mother had at least five children and was pregnant with another.  And you know who will have to pay for them?  Us, that’s who! Don’t have children you can’t afford to raise, is what I say. But nobody listens to an old lady, do they?”

“Here we are,” I answered, pleased at illustrating her complaint so neatly. I had spotted Maeve, her shoulders slumped, waiting beneath the restaurant’s ochre awning.  She wore her new sage tunic over fawn pants and the stylish red shoes that pinched her bunions.

“That can’t be my daughter, can it?” said Bettina, shading her eyes like a lost explorer.  She used a repertoire of gestures derived from old cartoons unstintingly and without self-consciousness.  “Why, she looks positively smart!” she said, giving my bad knee a congratulatory shake before emerging to air-kiss Maeve. I left them in front of the restaurant and turned down a side street, taking my time in search of a parking space.

As a rule we only saw Bettina twice a year, at Christmas and on her birthday in August, celebrated with a lavish dinner party in her New York apartment, an event Maeve began dreading around Memorial Day. I’d gone with her to the last few birthday dinners. I didn’t mind them nearly as much as she did.  The food was first-rate and expensive and I ate steadily all evening, tottering out to the elevator in a state of caloric stupefaction when the party was over for another year.

I parked and walked back to the restaurant where I squeezed between tables of diners as I searched for Maeve and Bettina. I felt fraudulent and mysteriously ashamed, as I always do when looking for people in restaurants. At last I saw Bettina waving her napkin from a table at the back. “Yoohoo! Irene!” she shouted. Maeve gave the ceiling fan a look of pious supplication.  Bettina was already halfway through a large glass of red wine. She addressed us in excited gusts, having spent her train ride dammed up, unable to converse with the immigrant hordes. “Well! Isn’t this fun! So wonderful to see you both looking so healthy!” This was her way of telling us to go easy on the desserts. We’d put on a few pounds since Christmas, but we still weren’t what we thought of as fat. As lesbians we felt entitled to be more relaxed about our weight than our straight friends who were always slaving away on treadmills to keep their husbands from divorcing them. There are advantages to being gay if you can only hang on long enough for them to kick in. Bettina put on half-moon reading glasses and surveyed the menu, bound in fake maroon leather with a gold tassel, which immediately fell into her wine and dyed itself red.  She went down her checklist of inquiries about our jobs and vacation plans and we made our answers as lengthy as possible. Our table’s candle had guttered and died in its netted jar by the time our food arrived and the waiter relit it.

After a few minutes I asked Bettina how her shrimp were.

“Simply marvelous!” she exclaimed, sounding surprised. I nudged Maeve’s ankle under the table and she pressed back. Bettina snapped her fingers for the wine waiter. When he had refilled her glass and gone away, she gazed after him with dreamy avidity. “Don’t you find him simply murderously good-looking? Oh, well, no, I suppose not. He looks just like a gardener we had when I was a little girl. He was Cuban, I think. La plume de ma tante est dans le poche du jardinière. Madame Crespin made us recite that in French class at The Madeira School. I always felt sorry for the poor gardener being accused like that! Isn’t it absurd what we remember?”

We agreed that it was.

“Now, Maevie, let me see what news I have for you. Oh! Remember Nina Carruthers, your old chum from Miss Porter’s? Well, she and her husband have moved into my building. He does something with computers and Nina has a seat on the Stock Exchange. She has her own little airplane and she flies all over the place on weekends. I gave her your number and said you’d love to hear from her.”

“Great,” said Maeve glumly. “Let’s get that wine waiter back here.”

“And wasn’t Melissa Dandridge your roommate at one point?”

“I’d just as soon forget that year, Mother.”

“Well! She married Sandy Deveraux. Your father and I knew his parents. Wonderful people. Dead now. They left Sandy pots of money, and Melissa’s opened the most marvelous art gallery. On East 82nd, if memory serves. When you come to New York, I’ll see if we can all have lunch together. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“I guess maybe.” I worried that inside her a delicate scaffolding was collapsing. Bettina went on gossiping about people in New York until the waiter brought the bill and Maeve and I began fossicking in our bags for money. Bettina said in a foghorn voice, “Don’t be ridiculous, girls. Let me take care of this. It’s the least I can do!”

“Then I’ll buy us dessert and coffee at Swenson’s,” said Maeve. The meal had taken less time than we’d planned for, making this addendum necessary to keep us on schedule. The ice cream parlor was crowded with young families.  I asked Bettina to lend me her fur to reserve a booth while we ordered.

“Will Bright Eyes be safe there, do you think?” she asked.

I said I didn’t think any of the children present would attempt to annex a moth-eaten dead fox in full view of their parents. When we reached the head of the line Bettina ordered first. “I’ll have, let’s see, could you give me a tiny dish of peppermint ice cream? And a cup of tea.” When the clerk was scooping her ice cream, she changed her mind. “Never mind the ice cream, dear! I’ll just have the tea.”

Maeve gave me a look of despair. She wouldn’t want to eat ice cream in front of Bettina. This made me so sad and angry that I ordered us two butterscotch sundaes with whipped cream and chopped walnuts.

In the booth Bettina put her fur back on, attracting the notice of a small boy  whose mother jerked him by the shoulder and said, “Stop staring at that thing.”

“Is he dead?” the child asked Bettina.

“Oh, my dear, yes,” she replied airily.

“Then why are his eyes still open?”

“Calvin, that’s enough!” said his mother.

Bettina widened her eyes and folded her lips inward, showing the child the useful art of suddenly falling mute.

I ate my dessert slowly, dreading the moment of finishing. Bettina asked Maeve if she really thought she should eat all that right before bedtime.

“I’m quite capable of feeding myself, Mother.”

“Of course, you are, dear.” She winked at me. “Anyone can see that, can’t they, Irene?”

“I think she looks great,” I said.

“I didn’t mean—”

“I hope you don’t really expect me to join you in insulting Maeve.”

“Oh, for heavens sake! Are you two always so humorless? I never thought Maeve would forget how to laugh at herself.”

“She doesn’t have to laugh at herself. She has you for that, doesn’t she?”

“Stop it,” said Maeve. She pushed her ice cream away. We all stared at it melting in the center of the table.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Bettina said, “I’m sorry, too, dear. We shouldn’t squabble in public like this.” She gave me a brief assessing look before jerking back into her customary major key. “Now then! I’m so thrilled to be visiting you girls. We’ll have fun, won’t we? What do you have planned?”

Maeve had recovered enough to answer, “Well, there are a number of possibilities. Let’s not decide until we have a look at the paper in the morning.”

“Splendid. And I’ve really had a grand evening. I had no idea Spanish food was so divine. I’ll have to find a Spanish place when I get back to the city.”

We went home and climbed gratefully into bed.

“You okay?” I asked Maeve.

“What do you think?”

“Sorry about that little fracas back there.”

“You should be. If you hadn’t ordered that sundae for me, nothing would have happened. You set me up.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Right. Well, good night then.”

“Don’t be that way, Maeve. Tell me what’s going on.”

The lesbian couple’s mantra is Process Or Die. We will talk a thing through until it’s reduced to a smelly grayish paste.

“Oh, it’s nothing new. I’m just so tired of listening to my mother going on and on about my old friends from school. I can’t picture her bragging about me to anyone.”

“Would you want her to?”

“Are you serious? Of course I would.”

“Oh, Maeve.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t get it. Your mother was just like Bettina.”

“That’s why it kills me to watch you pumping a dry well.  If she doesn’t see what a gem you are, it’s her loss.”

“It sure as hell feels like mine,” said Maeve.

“I know all about that. But she’ll leave on Sunday. You’re going to be okay.”

“Huh.”

“Trust me.”

I was looking forward to patching Maeve up after the weekend, a task that made me feel pleasantly indispensable.

 

We shuffled into the kitchen the next morning to find Bettina rummaging in a cabinet.

“Oh God,” whispered Maeve. “I forgot her stupid Wheatena.”

“What about some pancakes, Bettina?” I asked.

“Oh, no. Too heavy! I’ll just have a piece of dry toast and eggs. Can you make soft scrambled eggs, do you think?”

“Sure thing,” said Maeve.

I was proud of her for ignoring the note of doubt in Bettina’s question. Over scrambled eggs, we made plans for the day. Bettina, consulting the newspaper, said, “How about a movie? I haven’t been to one in ages! What about this nice Italian film?”

“Fine,” said Maeve. “Let’s go to the three o’clock show and then we can think about an early supper somewhere on the way home.”

“Righto,” said Bettina.  She patted her mouth with a napkin. “Now girls, you should just do whatever it is you do on Saturday mornings. I brought my sewing and I’ll be perfectly happy here on my own for a bit.”

We decided to look for birds in the cemetery. When we were at the door Bettina said, “I’ll just pop the breakfast dishes into the washer, shall I?”

Maeve said, “We don’t have a dishwasher, Mother. Just leave the dishes and we’ll get them later.”

Bettina said, “Oh, no. It’s no bother. But I’m surprised that you don’t have a dishwasher, dear. They don’t cost a lot nowadays.”

“Bettina, I’ve just had an idea,” I said. “Why don’t you come with us? I’ve got an extra pair of binoculars, and it’s a beautiful morning.”

Maeve shot me an are-you-nuts look.

“Oh, no! I couldn’t possibly!” said Bettina. “Well, are you sure it would be all right? I wouldn’t just be in the way?”

“Come on if you’re coming, Mother,” said Maeve. “The birds won’t wait.”

We were barely inside the cemetery gates when we heard the metallic chatter of a house wren. Maeve spotted it singing on top of a headstone, demonstrating the surprising strength of sheer bluster as a defense. Once I had it in my binoculars, I relaxed for the first time since leaving the carwash on Thursday. Maeve was showing her mother the wren.

“Oh!” said Bettina. “I see it! What did you say it was?”

“A house wren.”

“Too divine.”

I left them with the cooperative wren and started towards a crab apple  where I’d once seen a Blackburnian warbler. Maybe I’d find another in the same place. Birdwatching strews your path with bits of foolish hope like this. I didn’t see a Blackburnian but Maeve found a chestnut-sided warbler in a cherry tree. I missed it entirely but Bettina saw it before it flew off.  Next Bettina found a golden-crowned kinglet and a blue-gray gnatcatcher in a rhododendron.

“They do have such marvelous names, don’t they?” she said.

Maeve agreed. “You’re a natural-born birder, Mother. You must get it from me.”

Bettina gave a stagey trill of laughter. She was having beginner’s luck, she said. A blind man could see she was enjoying herself. I never imagined she would take the slightest interest in looking for birds. I’d invited her along thinking she’d be comically impossible and Maeve and I could laugh about it on Sunday night when we were alone again.

When she and Maeve found a prairie warbler that flew away before I could raise my glasses I began feeling distinctly sulky. I was the only one not having fun. Maeve showed her mother how to adjust her binoculars and Bettina said, “That’s much better! There’s really quite an art to this, isn’t there?”

“It’s fun once you get the hang of it,” said Maeve.

“What’s that little grayish bird with the crest? Is that something special?”

“It’s a tufted titmouse. They’re cute, but common.”

“You do know such a lot about birds, dear,” she said. “Did it take you ages? Could I pick it up, do you think?”

“Of course, you could, Mother. I could teach you, if you like. I’ll come to New York and we can have a lesson in Central Park. It’s a great spot for migrants. But no lunch dates with anyone, okay? Just you and me and the birds.”

What about me? I wondered.

I announced I was getting a blister and wanted to sit down for a bit. I would meet them at the pond in twenty minutes. I searched an oak where I’d had some luck once, but I only found a chickadee. Sitting on a cool cement bench I admitted to myself I was jealous of Maeve. She’d said my mother was just like hers, but it wasn’t true. Bettina was warmer and more hopeful about Maeve, and this pained me. When my mother died, my sadness was mixed was relief; now that she was gone, I could finally stop disappointing her.  Maeve was getting a second chance with Bettina, and I felt worse for knowing I should have been happy for her.

I got up and went to find them. They were peering into a flowering dogwood and Bettina shushed me when I approached.

“There’s something in this tree, towards the top, on the left.”

She already sounded like a seasoned birder, and this annoyed me.

“It’s just a yellow-rump,” I said.

“It’s not ‘just a yellow-rump’ to me,” said Bettina. “It’s perfectly lovely.”

Maeve said, “Once you get more birding under your belt, you’ll see that Irene’s right. Yellow-rumps are as common as dirt. Some people call them butter-butts.”

Her defending me confirmed my gloomy sense of their alliance.

“How vulgar,” said Bettina.

They had seen six species of warbler, and a singing rose-breasted grosbeak. I’d have seen all these birds if I hadn’t told that stupid lie about my blister.

 

The movie was about a stylish young couple in Milan whose marriage went to pieces when their child died.  In the end they divorced and the woman got remarried to an architect. I found it difficult to pay attention to the problems of the couple on the screen. I have noticed that when I most need to escape into another world, I’m mired in this one by a quicksand of self-referential gloom. I once stopped reading a novel after only one paragraph because I was depressed by the mention of dry-cleaning, a service I never use.  But the movie had a strong effect on Maeve and Bettina, who began sniffling companionably after the death of the child. I was sitting between them and they kept reaching across me to pass a purse-sized packet of Kleenex to each other. After the movie Maeve and I went to the ladies room. At the sink I looked at her red eyes in the mirror.

“Some movie, huh?” I said.

“It really made me think. Life is so short and so—I don’t know—fragile, isn’t it? I guess that sounds pretty dumb.”

“No, it doesn’t.” I was irritable and determined not to show it. I was annoyed with Maeve and her mother for crying over the movie, for identifying so strongly with the bereaved couple when all I had noticed was how chic their apartment was and how great the woman looked in her short red leather jacket. I wanted one exactly like it, but then I realized that even if I found one, it would only remind me of this unsatisfactory day.

I drove us to a little trattoria for supper. Maeve and I had discovered the place a couple of years earlier and thought of it as our restaurant. Bettina said we were clever to pick an Italian place to go with the movie. I noticed that Maeve was feeling sufficiently secure around her mother to order her favorite dish of penne with cream, pistachios, brandy and gorgonzola. Bettina didn’t make any cracks about it. She ordered fish and helped herself to some of Maeve’s pasta, declaring that her daughter had made the better choice. She and Maeve talked incessantly about the movie. I felt lonely listening to them. I couldn’t remember anything my mother and I had ever discussed with this mutual pleasure. When they had finally exhausted the subject I asked Bettina what colors she was painting her apartment.

She looked startled. After a sip of Chianti her face relaxed in a blurred smile.

“Oh, dear, I might as well confess. I’m not having my apartment done over at all! I just felt like a visit. I made up the business about the painters because it would have seemed odd to visit without a reason.”

“No,” Maeve said, her eyes radiant and brimming. “Visiting just because you feel like it doesn’t seem odd. Having to make up a story about getting your place redone to justify it is what’s odd.”

Bettina looked defeated for once. I wished I’d had a camera.

Maeve relented. She’s never one to press her advantage. It’s one of the reasons I love her. She reached across to pat Bettina’s speckled claw.

“Well, not odd, exactly, Mother. Maybe just a little sad, don’t you think?”

This was the moment when my own mother would have told me not to be ridiculous. But Bettina dabbed at her eyes and squeezed Maeve’s hand. I excused myself for an unnecessary trip to the ladies room.

I stayed in there for a good ten minutes. Nobody came in, and after a while I wished someone would. When I got back to the table, Maeve and Bettina were talking. Again, or still, I couldn’t have said.  I would have traded places with either of them then.

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