like a third world country of the heart

That had been Agnes’s mishmash decade, after college. She had lived improvisationally then, getting this job or that, in restaurants or offices, taking a class or two, not thinking far ahead, negotiating the precariousness and subway flus and scrimping for an occasional manicure or play. Such a life required much exaggerated self-esteem. It engaged gross quantities of hope and despair and set them wildly side by side, like a Third World country of the heart. Her days grew messy with contradictions. When she went for walks, for her health, cinders would spot her cheeks and soot would settle in the furled leaf of each ear. Her shoes became unspeakable. Her blouses darkened in a breeze, and a blast of bus exhaust might linger in her hair for hours. Finally, her old asthma returned and, with a hacking, incessant cough, she gave up. “I feel like I’ve got five years to live,” she told people, “so I’m moving back to Iowa so that it’ll feel like fifty.”

From Lorrie Moore’s “Agnes of Iowa.”

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