I'll Stay, page 8
But still. My mother should be here. How would I explain this to Ben, who had never met my parents? “Can you say that I’m graduating from college?”
“Well, of course,” she said. “But I’m telling you this because we will most certainly not make the dinner the night before. We’ll be driving in very late.”
The pregraduation dinner with Ben and his parents. Two months ago he’d made reservations at a restaurant in town.
I rubbed my eyes with my thumb and first finger. I shouldn’t have had those extra beers. I shouldn’t have gone back to Christopher Mansfield’s house again. Tonight I’d stay in and work on my English paper. I couldn’t keep doing this. I was betraying Ben. I was acting as if I didn’t know what I was doing.
Christopher Mansfield. I rolled his name around my mouth and felt my knees weaken and the muscles in my inner thighs tighten.
“Clare? Are you there?” she asked.
“I don’t know what I’m doing after I graduate!” I blurted. Maybe we could talk about this? Sarah said she talked to her parents about her plans for medical school. Julie and Amy said they talked to theirs, too. It was normal, talking through things with the very people who’d given birth to you.
“Why, you can do anything you want,” she said. “For the first time in history women have all sorts of opportunities. Really, it’s extraordinary.”
How many times had I heard her say this? It meant nothing to me. It was like saying there were fifty-seven kinds of ice cream. “But I don’t know exactly—”
“When I was in school, we had limited options. We could study to be nurses. Chefs. And teachers, of course, but not so much on the collegiate level. There were tenured female professors but certainly no female Miltonists. And then—”
“What do you think of Philadelphia?” I asked.
“Philadelphia?” she cried.
I rubbed my eyes again. I needed something but I didn’t know what.
And then I heard commotion in the background, like paper bags being placed on the counter, and my dad’s voice. “Why’s the microwave in the sink?”
“Clare’s on the phone,” my mother said, her voice nearly breathless.
“Oh!” he said. “Ask her about Reagan.”
I sunk to the floor and put my head between my knees. Christopher Mansfield. Christopher Mansfield.
“Your father wants to know what people on campus are saying about Reagan’s evil empire speech,” she said.
“And the Strategic Defense Initiative proposal,” he yelled, his voice closer to the phone. “What a joke! It’ll cost billions. And it can’t be done!”
The Strategic what? Few people here were as obsessed with politics and current events as my parents. No one I knew read the New York Review of Books and only one place, the student union, sold The New York Times. Even after I repeatedly explained this to my parents, they couldn’t help themselves. Why hasn’t Indiana elected a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964? Why did conservatives think a Hollywood B-rated actor would make a good president? What did conservatism mean to them? What were they thinking?
That was the point they always missed. People here weren’t thinking about any of it. How many times would I have to tell them this? “Tell Dad that nobody talks about Ronald Reagan. Nobody cares.”
“Clare said that nobody cares about Reagan,” my mother said. I heard my dad snort. I imagined him in his faded chinos and favorite blue blazer. “But if they don’t care then why did they vote for him?”
I felt anger boil up my neck and explode, hot and throbbing, on my cheeks. “Tens of thousands of people live in this state. I don’t know how they all voted. I keep telling you that people here don’t care about politics!”
“Well, I don’t understand.”
Just once I wanted her to say, I understand. Or, of course, you don’t know how everyone in the state voted. Just once I’d like to hear her ask me how I was.
But that wasn’t nice. If I truly needed her, she’d help me. Probably. Well, maybe. I stretched my legs in front of me and tried to take long, deep breaths. The back of my neck was wet with sweat. Oh, God, I was so hung over.
“Stop! I’m sick of politics! You think I know everything, all of the time, and I just don’t!” I was a train, speeding down the tracks, out of control with no brakes.
“Here, talk to your father.”
“Clare!” My dad breathed heavily into the phone. “Are you all right?”
No, I wasn’t. Tears burned in my eyes as I croaked, “Dad?” “I imagine you’re in the thick of studying. How’s it going? How’s Lee?”
Lee! I looked at the clock above the closet. There was still time to meet her, and with coffees from Village Pantry, but I’d have to hurry. “Dad, I gotta—”
“I got your mother into fifteen cities to do book talks. How about that? I don’t know why Janice hasn’t sent over the Time review yet. It’s due out today.” He called to my mother, “Eleanor, do we have the Time review yet?”
“Shush, Dad, don’t!”
In the background, I heard my mother moan.
I stood, miniature, silent silver stars bursting in my peripheral vision, and reached for the counter to steady myself again.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you that I talked to Logan and unfortunately he can’t come to your graduation,” he said. “He can’t get away. But he’s sorry to miss it.”
Logan was in graduate school at the London School of Economics and it was no surprise that he wouldn’t be at my graduation. I had seen him only three or four times in the last four years. What would he think of Christopher Mansfield? I knew that they had one thing in common. They both wore boxers, not briefs. I knew this about Logan because I did everyone’s laundry last summer when he visited the Vineyard. That I knew this about Christopher was the more troubling surprise.
“I gotta go, bye.” I hung up, hurried out of the mailroom, and ran into Sarah, who barely stopped her coffee from spilling down the front of our shirts.
“God, Clare.” She switched her cup to her other hand and licked coffee off her wrist. She was pale and doughy and her big, brown-framed glasses made the circles under her eyes darker. Her red hair, unrulier than normal, was pulled back under a blue bandana. We were rooming together but barely saw each other. She was in the library or the lab and not on the sundeck every afternoon or out all night. “What the hell is going on with you?”
“I have to finish a paper today.”
“No, I mean, what is going on with you?” She leaned in close even though we were alone in the foyer. “Julie told me that you were with Christopher Mansfield, again. Clare! Are you guys, like, an item or something? What about Ben?”
I frowned. I hated this aspect of close living. It wasn’t anyone’s business what I was doing. Still, I felt my heartbeat quicken. Christopher and I had fun, just innocent fooling around. It wasn’t anything. I didn’t want this getting back to Ben.
“No!” I felt my cheeks sting.
She raised her eyebrows and sighed. “I never see you. You come in late when I’m asleep and you’re usually asleep when I get up. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for days. People are asking me about Lee. You know, what’s going on with her.”
“Amy said that she never sees her and Julie said that Lee never goes out anymore. And then Susie found her in bed one afternoon in the cold dorm. With all of the lights off. Just staring at the ceiling. I don’t know what to say to them. And then I finally saw Lee at dinner the other night, and she looked awful. What does she say about, you know, what happened?”
It had been four weeks since we returned from spring break. In that time, I made sure to find Lee every day. We studied together at the union between classes. And last week, after her first appointment with a counselor at the health center, I surprised her with coffee from Village Pantry. She still hadn’t told me what happened that night in Daytona. I’d stopped asking because every time I brou
People had asked me about Lee, too. And she did look awful. I suddenly felt so dizzy again—being hung over was such an awful feeling—and dropped my eyes. It hurt to look at Sarah. “She doesn’t talk about it.”
“I don’t get it,” Sarah whispered. “I’ve been thinking about something else, too. We surprised them by coming back to the house. So, if she was raped, how come she was dressed? And standing there with her stuff? You weren’t gone that long, either. What, twenty minutes? A half hour? Have you ever wondered about this?”
“Just look at her! Something bad happened, Sarah.”
“I’m not saying that something bad didn’t happen.” She shook her head. “I don’t know. She’s seeing that counselor again, right?”
I nodded. Forget Village Pantry. I’d get coffee from our kitchen. I started for the stairs. I had to change, grab my backpack, and be out the door in five minutes but I could do it. I would do it.
“Maybe you should talk to a counselor, too,” Sarah said.
I stopped walking and turned. “But nothing happened to me.”
She shrugged, took a sip of her coffee, and stared at me over the rim of her glasses. I whirled around and headed for the stairs.
Fifteen minutes later, I was in the health center office with five minutes to spare, still feeling unsettled after my conversation with my mother. How worried should I be about her? I pulled out the draft of my English paper, but then sighed and put it away. I had the rest of the day to work on it. I’d written about how pathetic fallacy was used to foreshadow the end of Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship in The Great Gatsby. There wasn’t a bit of creativity or originality in this, but the paper was good enough. I had done nothing to distinguish myself on campus, no internships, awards, or club involvement, but I would leave here with good grades. At least I had that.
I hadn’t started out this way. I bombed my first English paper. We were asked to write about the role of literature in our society and I’d spouted off this: Readers shouldn’t hold up novels to be voices of a generation or believe that they proclaimed any kind of truths about people or our society. Novels were made-up stories, stretched and manipulated by the author (and sometimes borrowed or stolen) in order to provoke some kind of emotion in the reader. Writers, I concluded, were spectacular liars and thieves.
Of course I was speaking about Listen, Before You Go, which was proclaimed to be the “Vietnam War novel” of the decade even though my mother had no experience or personal knowledge of what went on in Southeast Asia, whatsoever.
But my teacher, a graduate student who didn’t know I was the daughter of Eleanor Michaels, argued that I was wrong. Novels were important statements about society. Novels spoke the truth about the human condition! Back then I was too troubled by the ending of my mother’s novel and conflicted with people’s assumptions that I was the model for Phoebe to think rationally. Since then I’d learned that I should stick to the basics if I wanted good grades. Identifying metaphors and symbols. Comparing themes in a body of work. Not ever talking or writing about my mother or Listen, Before You Go.
The girl to my right kept glancing at me. When I turned my head to look at her, she shifted her eyes to something over my shoulder. Maybe she was wondering why I was here. Maybe she knew me. When Christopher Mansfield and I were suddenly alone three weeks ago in front of a keg, I’d introduced myself. I’d never talked to him, never been up close—he was such a big man on campus, after all. And he’d grinned and said, “I know who you are. Your mom wrote Listen, Before You Go.”
And I’d smiled, pleased for once to be acknowledged this way. But for most of my college years I’d lived in relative obscurity.
My mother nearly fainted when I told her I wanted to come here. Not Dartmouth, where my dad and brother had gone, or Sarah Lawrence, where she’d been a star. She put her hand on the kitchen counter to steady herself and said, “Where is it? And just tell me why?”
I liked how it looked in the brochures, I’d said, and how large it was. It’d be good to know a different part of our country (it was so far away that I couldn’t just pop home for a weekend). Truth was, I’d never heard of Indiana University until one day during the fall of my senior year in high school when I saw my old junior high school librarian, Mrs. Miller, sitting in our living room. She was attending one of the writing classes that my mother taught in our house.
“Anne Sexton will be nothing more than a footnote,” my mother said as she pulled her long hair behind her. “A minor poet at most.”
“Oh, I don’t care about that,” Mrs. Miller said.
A hush fell over the room as I peeked inside. About twenty women were staring at my mother, who sat still and erect in the oversized chair next to the window. You couldn’t see out onto the street, it was already dark, and my mother’s reflection bounced off the window, making it seem as if there were two of her in the room. The logs in the fireplace hissed, snapped, and popped.
Mrs. Miller sat forward. “I mean, no, she’s not in the same league as Milton, of course. But I don’t feel anything when I read his poetry. Think of Sexton’s poem, ‘The Wedding Night,’ and those sad last lines. They made me cry when I read them the first time. There’s value in that, isn’t there?”
My mother’s dissertation was on the pastoral elements in Milton’s famous poem, “Lycidas,” and I’d never heard anyone criticize him in front of her. I’d also never heard anyone challenge her on anything that had to do with writing. I held my breath and waited behind the partially closed pocket door for her response.
The fire snapped and hissed again. Someone coughed.
“Sexton’s idea of poetry was to regurgitate every sexual perversion in which she’d partaken and think these worthy of a poem,” she said. “She had no scholarly education, no deference to poets who came before her, and certainly no respect for keeping her neurosis where it belonged. Private. All that emoting and revealing was self-indulgent, at best.”
I cringed and thought about rushing into the room to create a distraction but then Mrs. Miller—her thick blond hair resting on her shoulders and her skin white with patches of pink on both cheeks—smiled. It wasn’t an embarrassed or cynical smile. She didn’t seem the least bit intimidated or upset.
“Well, I really like that poem,” she said. “And I like to think about how Sexton’s poems might reflect what was going on in her life. It’s interesting.”
“Be that as it may,” my mother said. “As writers, you want to pay attention to the words, not the author’s supposed intentions. I encourage you all to read Welleck and Warren if you need an explanation on the importance of New Criticism.”
My mother was in love with Welleck and Warren. Their book, The Theory of Literature, had been her bible for as long as I could remember. Ask her what personal stories went into Listen, Before You Go and she’d stare, coldly, at you. But ask about the death foreshadowing in Chapter Two, and she could talk forever.
Later, after the class had ended and the women were still milling around, I walked up to Mrs. Miller. She was taller than I’d remembered although everything else was the same. Pink cheeks. Glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. No makeup. I didn’t know her well but I’d always liked her. She was different from the adults I knew. Maybe because she smiled a lot and didn’t take herself so seriously.
“Clare! Hello!” She grinned. “Nice to see you. What are you now, a junior?”
“No, a senior,” I said.
On the far side of the room a group of women crowded around my mother like chicks at a mother hen’s feet.
“A senior, my goodness!” She laughed loudly, genuinely. “Have you decided where you’re going next year?”
“My parents want me to go to Dartmouth. Logan and my dad went there.”
“Excellent school.” The corners of her smile dipped. “But maybe not where you want to go?”
It was that obvious?
“Indiana University!” She burst into a smile, her white teeth sparkling.
“Did you like it?”
“Loved it! Beautiful campus, great education. I met my best friend there.” She leaned into me, as if she were going to whisper a secret. Her perfume was sweet, flowery and natural, and I leaned in, too. “And I had the time of my life.”
I pulled back, surprised. I’d heard college described many ways—Logan said he’d never worked so hard and my parents said that it was where they became “politically alive.” But I’d never heard it described as the time of my life.
The next day I went to my school library, checked out a book of poems by Anne Sexton and read “The Wedding Night.” It was one of those poems, unlike “Lycidas,” where you could actually follow what was going on. Somebody was leaving somebody, and the person being left was sad as she walked down Marlborough Street in Boston (I’d been on that street a hundred times!). I liked it.
Then I looked up Indiana University, copied the address and that night sent away for an application and brochure. The rest was history, a cliché about which my mother would most certainly complain.
The health center door opened and a boy walked in and threw himself on the couch in the corner. Next to me, the girl rubbed her eyes. She was young, maybe a freshman, with feathered brown hair and ruddy cheeks. Maybe someday going to a counselor wouldn’t be a big deal but not now, in Indiana, in 1983. People would talk. A stigma was attached to it. What was wrong with you?
Maybe the girl had trouble with her boyfriend. Maybe something terrible happened to her. Maybe she didn’t know what she was doing with her life. Maybe she felt guilty. Last night’s beers roiled in my stomach and started up my throat.
I swallowed, grimaced, and reached for a magazine on the table next to me. The new issue of Time. I flipped through until I saw the review of my mother’s new novel. It took up half of a page with her picture—the professional one she’d taken in Back Bay last year—in the middle of the text. With her new short hair, huge eyes and thin lips, the picture screamed Serious Author but looked so little like her. Where were the wrinkles in the corners of her mouth and the sagging skin under her chin? Or maybe this picture was how she really looked and I only imagined the flaws.