Listen to your mother’s story about playing baseball at fourteen and hearing her own mother say to a friend, I don’t know what I’ll do about Martha’s looks. Wonder if your mom’s speaking in code. Is she going to say that you’re pretty, or has she just told you why she never will? Later, thumb through her high-school yearbook. In the class picture she is the same age as you. She stares ahead sullenly, her face slightly misshapen, like a spring potato.
Squat on the landing in the fuming heat of the late-August afternoon. Eavesdrop while your mother and grandmother discuss your fatness and drink iced tea with fresh mint that you picked. Hate them both. Turn your eyelids inside out, stretch your mouth wide, and go, “Bleeeeah,” when they talk about navy blue shirtwaist dresses, their slimming properties. Pinch the roll around your middle. Cry silently.
Riding home on the city bus with Ruthie, feel guilty for having secret thoughts about French kissing and cleavage — thoughts Ruthie doesn’t have. Act conspiratorial. Put your head next to hers and whisper furtively so everyone will think you’re talking dirty. Let the fat woman across the aisle glare and arrange her face in mean, ugly folds. Snigger rudely because she’s pig-fat, because her peach-colored bra straps show, because her swollen feet pooch out of her tight, cheap shoes. Swear to God you’ll never be like her. Pretend to Ruthie that you’re excited about the PSATs, too. Tell her you’ve decided on four colleges: Rice, Tulane, Connecticut College, and Columbia. Nod when she asks if you’re still going to major in English.
Begin to imagine him, wish for him. Keep it literary. Figure out his hair: dark, springy, chewy texture, long on the neck, floppy in front. Decide that his gaze is heavy-lidded, shadowed, that he stares into deep distances. Make his mouth curly, so that even when he sneers you can imagine a kiss with tongues involved. Decide that he loves you because you don’t care about him. (Where did you learn the power of apathy?) Work hard at indifference. Visualize your listlessness diligently, the way some girls imagine their weddings. Alone in your room, practice yawning, looking away, breaking off in the middle of a conversation, being bored. Stare at your moon face in the mirror for hours.
Put your mother over to one side. Your mother does not exist in this equation. Be an existentialist. See yourself in his hazardous car having adventures, going nowhere fast. He gives you a mean smile. His teeth are chalk white, so numerous they overlap, and show dangerously in his mouth, like a shark’s. Expect him to lie to you constantly. Be prepared to hurt valiantly. This is what existentialists do.
Get dropped by Ruthie because she thinks you are as shallow as a saucer. Prove her right. Have hardly any dimensions left. Lose thirty pounds over the summer. Be shallow, slight, skinny, thin, bony. Concave. Tweeze your eyebrows, dye your hair a Clairol red, and buy clothes like everyone else’s. Tell yourself you dropped Ruthie because she has blackheads on her nose, no waistline, and a funny haircut. She juts outward, her childish stomach divided by the waistband of her skirt. Convex. In the halls, feel Ruthie watching silently, betrayed and bulging. Realize you don’t care. Practice boredom in public — in the hall, at the cafeteria, during classes. Sit sideways in your desk and yawn, glance at the clock, pass notes, stare pointedly. Become so thin that you are always cold and have bruises on your tiny ass. Make up your mind to be trouble for someone.
Get asked out all the time, though not by him, the one you have glued together out of snatches from On the Road and Bonjour, Tristesse. Get calls from guys with burry haircuts, guys who wear madras shirts stretched tightly across their athletic shoulders, guys who are solidly packed into wheat-colored jeans, guys who wear penny loafers without socks, guys who smell like after-shave, guys who wouldn’t know an existentialist if one bit them on the butt. They want to take you to wild parties on the river, buy you beer, drive you around town, make their moves in Woodard Park. They ask you out between classes, their eyes pleading like a hound dog’s. Turn them down. Carry a copy of Franny and Zooey everywhere.
Go visit your mother in the hospital that is not a hospital, where nothing matches: the curtains don’t match the walls, the walls don’t match the floors, and the floors don’t match the furniture. The colors are horrible and biological, jangles of fleshy pink and bile green. Sit with your grandfather, your grandmother, and your sister, all of you lined up in plastic chairs like a miniature audience. Your mother talks about the doctor, how amazed he is that nothing makes her angry. She acts it out for all of you: “So he said, ‘What if I drop this? Does that make you mad?’ ” — and here your mom drops a full ashtray on the floor. “And I said, ‘No.’ So then he said, ‘What if I drop this?’ ” — and your mom drops a potted plant, which cracks, adding clots of dirt to the cigarette ashes scattered on the linoleum. Now she’s picking up a lamp. Your grandfather rings for the nurse.
Sit in the library staring toward the door, not expecting anyone to walk through it, when he does. He walks right in and crooks his finger at you, just like that: C’mere. Without thinking twice, snap your books shut and jump up. At first, Ruthie acts as if he were an oncoming car, as if she might pull you out of his path, but then she slumps over her valence chart, heaves a morose sigh, remembers that she gave you up for dead a while back. Everyone stares as you march out.
Later, drinking beer in his car in the cold, snowless afternoon, stare at his pure, scornful profile and check off the items on your list, one by one:
Chewy black hair, long in back. Hard green eyes fringed with black lashes. Skin the color of a clean penny. Chalky white teeth — lots of them. Mean smile.
He could be your first. He has parked his Jag just outside the city, high on a ridge overlooking his family’s brown-and-green ranch. Get jabbed by the gearshift while he breathes hot and wet on your neck, crushing you. He tugs at your clothes, fumbles for his wallet, yanks something out, thinks he’s ripping it open but, in fact, he’s ripping it in half. “God damn it!” he yells, scowling, and holds out the two pieces of his Social Security card, as if it were your fault. Get the giggles. Keep on snorting even when he shouts, “Shut up!” Guffaw unprettily until your stomach hurts. Don’t fuck him if he can’t take a joke.
Fake a cold and stay home to watch Kennedy’s inauguration on TV. Notice how Ike and Mamie look suddenly and strangely ancient, like old Chinese poets. Watch Robert Frost, in his dark coat, fighting his sheaf of papers as the wind snaps the pages.
Go to college with a case of Dr. Pepper and all your cotillion dresses. Leave the dresses sitting in your trunk, along with twelve pairs of dyed-to-match shoes. Look at them mournfully every so often, as if they were cats and dogs at the SPCA, animals no one will ever adopt. Open the box your mother sent you and find it full of used lipsticks. They rattled together like a real present. Stare down in disbelief at all the lipsticks, with their used, pointy ends, in terrible colors like Orangeade and Mocha Polka. Smoke dope for the first time. Refuse to be friends with anyone. Drop out.
After a year’s worth of awful jobs — shoe-store clerk, office worker, picture framer — go back to school. Crave love. Even so, think of yourself as a cold bitch. Realize this trait is what you’ve inherited from your parents — rather than, say, a gateleg table or a string of real pearls. You have your mother’s hardheartedness, your father’s snottiness. Realize this the minute a nice guy falls for you. Of course this calm, pleasant man wants to take you to dinner. Of course he wants to talk to you for hours. Of course you haunt his dreams. After all, you are young, beautiful, and, at moments, even witty. He does not amaze you with his tidy room, his B average, his business major, his dog, Pal. Just looking at his socks (white, thick, clean) makes you feel sleepy.
See Oswald get shot on television. See it repeated so many times that Oswald-getting-shot becomes your personal definition of infinity.
Dream of a pecan-colored velvet curtain. In its folds hides a small wooden drawer that you pull open. Wake up remembering this dream, remembering delight.
Decide which man you want. Huddle in the lounge and listen to the girls in your dorm talk about him. Find out how he knocked a girl up, how she gave birth outdoors near the soccer field, how she took four boxes of No-Doz after he dumped her. Discover that he’s married, or rather that he was married, but got a divorce. Find out that he sells pills and grass, that he has a child in another state, that he’s back from Vietnam, that he owns a gun. Watch him closely whenever you see him. Try to envision all these pieces of information projected on him, as if he were walking in front of a slide show. Wonder at how these images curl around his body. Picture him wrapped in multicolored horrors, like a hideous scarf. Shudder with delight whenever he walks by. Wear your black cashmere sweater every day.
Meet him for the first time when you go down to get the mail. Be wearing bluejeans and a blue work shirt with the top buttons undone, and have bare feet. No other girls dress like this. See him standing nearby, talking to that quiet, crazy blonde from the fourth floor, the one who plays “96 Tears” day and night. Now he’s leaving. As he walks by, he stops, looks right into your eyes, says, “You are stunningly beautiful,” and walks away without another word. Have a fistful of mail; be in the middle of washing clothes; smell like bleach. Trust this beginning because it’s just like a movie.
Make a name for yourself with your dangerous poems, your long hair, the way you look sideways at people. See him next at a drunken faculty party where the host recites his own poems while playing stride piano. Stand by the brick-and-board bookshelves, very buzzed, drinking rock-bottom Chianti. Wonder if this is where writing poetry gets you. He walks over and takes you by the shoulder, saying, “There you are.” Let it work this once. (Years later, when someone tries this line on you again, crack up and snort wine out your nose.)
Drink coffee alone in the student union. Sit next to the jukebox and play “Mellow Yellow” over and over while you write a poem about madness and blood. Decide you are better than Sylvia Plath. Let him walk over to your table. Remain transfixed by your work. Don’t look up. Be mute. Stare at the papers in front of you, covered with your scratchy, angular handwriting, lists of rhymes in the margins and two stanzas scratched out. Let him drop a copy of the college lit magazine on the table in front of you. Look up at him, finally, when he hits it with his knuckle, thunking the cover, pointing to your name. Be the girl who wrote those poems.
Go to bed with him immediately — or, rather, talk all night and then go to bed with him. On his malodorous sheets that smell like old skin. At the first, gray light of day. Although he should know better, he actually says out loud, “We are everything a man and a woman can be.” Shiver, feeling a headache grip you. Get goose bumps. Drink whatever he has at his place. It’s the first time you have ever been called a woman. Later, race down the sidewalk with your arms outspread goofily. Put on the Rolling Stones and dance in front of the mirror in your bikini bottom, watching yourself closely, remembering every single thing he said. Stay up all night writing high-strung sonnets, then tear them up. The next day, clean his disgusting bathroom as an act of love, wiping up the wiry black hairs with a shredding paper towel. Feel discovered.
Watch women in your English class drop out one by one after their husbands are killed in Vietnam. No one talks about the war.
Be seen with him in the student union, smoking cigarettes, having coffee. Sense yourself being noticed, being judged. Sense people making up their minds about you. Plan to tell the girls in your dorm, He’s not like that. He’s not what you think. Everyone around you is smoking banana peels. He is playing with your fingertips, ignoring the banana smoke, saying, “You’re not like anyone here.” All at once, feel smothered and irritable. Say, “I’m like everyone here.”
Get a fifteen-page typewritten letter from your father informing you that he is moving the family to London. Everyone is going except you; you will come in the summer. Four pages of the letter list the clothes you will need; six pages have to do with getting your passport, your travel papers, your tickets; five pages are taken up with Victorian-style ruminations on your lack of common sense, money sense, survival sense. The letter leaves you with your heart thudding like running feet, tears shivering in your eyes. It is signed by his secretary. Remember a quote from Pascal: “Only madmen write letters more than four pages long.” Send it to your father.
Find out a friend from high school was blown up in Saigon. See a newspaper photograph showing the bombed-out rubble of the American Embassy. Touch it with your finger. Imagining arms and legs buried under stones. Trying to find Dusty.
Spend night after night, day after day, exploring each other. Let your fingertips quiver like antennae. Feel his touch bounce off you like radio waves off a satellite. Lie on your stomach while he writes his name on your back with his fingernail. Store the information deep in your bones, like radiation. Alone in the shower, marvel at yourself as you bathe. Squeak your wet hair. Make your navel wink. Think, This is what he likes. And this. And this.
When you remember to eat, poke food into each other’s mouths. Take bites of his toast. Nibble out a dog shape, a horse shape. Then bite off the head. Giggle as he tackles you, tosses you on the bed, peels your sweater up, makes fart noises on your stomach. Listen to him say, “You, you, you, you, you. My God, your face is beautiful.” Take a hit of reefer. Stare at his perfect profile and think about his chewy black hair, his many dangerous teeth. How they overlap like a shark’s.
Dream that you are on a date with an insistent stranger. Momentarily lose him, then see him sitting at a long table eating ice cream. He has bought you a chocolate sundae. It is melting in the dish.
Keep a sweater and some panties at his place, but wear his T-shirts to bed. Sleep curled up to him, then roll on top of him. Hear his heart beating when he tells you he’s never allowed a woman to get this close before. Think: Woman! Feel the darkness enclose you like a black-velvet jewelry box. Rub your lips against his back. Wonder what he’ll be like when he’s old. Listen to his voice whisper throughout the night, like wind on the water. He is talking about his old girlfriends.
Talk to him one Sunday afternoon and discover he’s obsessed with an obscure baseball team. Find out he wants to go back to Vietnam as a door gunner; it was exciting, he says. He glances over at you, gives you a pat on the thigh, says he’s a leg man, and that yours go all the way up to your ass. Think: Do anyone’s legs stop at the knees? Think about saying this out loud. Try to remember a funny story about legs, but draw a blank. Discover it’s not just a leg blankness: you are blank all over. Your brain is a safety-deposit box rented by a nutty relative that holds a couple of buttons, a baby’s name bracelet, a single earring, a ballpoint pen, a gas bill, some pennies.
Snoop. Arrange to be alone at his place while he’s in class or at the mechanic’s having something complicated done to his Opel. Give yourself plenty of time. Go through his mail. Paw through the bureau. Find his hidden sentimental troves, squirreled away against long winters of loneliness. Get out a kitchen chair, climb up on it, nearly fall off. Think, That’s what I get for being nosy. Keep going anyhow, even though this will kill you. Check all the top shelves. Read the titles of his books; realize they’re all required texts. Find a bundle of letters from his ex-wife, a shark knife, Zig-Zag rolling papers, a pack of pornographic playing cards, a bottle of antihistamine, a matchbook from a barbecue stand, a handful of screws, some bent nails and eye hooks, his dog tags, seven snapshots of people you don’t know. Everything he owns has the sticky texture of poverty. Be disappointed and confused. Picture yourself living in a trailer. Put on Rubber Soul. Stretch out on his bed and take out your French book. When you hear his key in the lock, look up from your vocabulary lists and smile distractedly. Say, “I didn’t hear you come in.” Say, “Is it still raining?”
When you take candlelight baths together, notice how soaping him has become a domestic chore, like washing a car. Realize he has stopped asking you to trim your pubic hair into a heart.
Call him from the dorm. Listen to the phone ring eighteen times. Become frightened. Picture him lying in the wreckage of his Opel with his back and both legs broken. Picture him dead and yourself kneeling beside him, shrieking and shaking your fists at the sky like a woman in India, like a woman in Saigon, your mouth a broken black O. Run from the phones. Shake your head when anyone stops you to ask what’s wrong. Sob. Let the tears fly from your eyes like a boxer’s sweat. Keep calling every half-hour until two in the morning. Try to remember women’s names he’s mentioned lately. Come up with Lorrie. Did he really mention a Lorrie, or have you invented her? Lie in bed, stiff and sleepless, picturing an army of blond, high-stepping Lorries, all with perfect cheekbones.
Start calling him “Mr. Wonderful” whenever you talk about him, to show your friends you know the score. Say, “Yup, that’s Mr. Wonderful, all right,” when you hear he was out drinking with a tall redhead. (Lorrie?) Vow to lose yourself in your work. Decide to write a sonnet cycle about why he’s a rat, about why your love for him is pure. Instead, add up his sins (he has driven you to this):
He talks to his ex-wife on the phone while you are in bed with him. He says your poems stink. He says your legs go all the way up to your ass. He makes terrible pencil drawings of you. The way he comes on to your roommate. His smells — some of them. The way he hollers, “Play ball!” to indicate excitement of all kinds.
Decide that if you were in Mississippi helping to register voters right now you would be a better person. Remember your girlfriend in CORE, the one who always wore a black satin eyeshade to bed.
Feel humiliated. Decide you are going to hash this out once and for all. Have conversations in your head about it: Do you think I care? It’s the lying. Do you think I’m . . . that you can treat me . . . if you want to be with her. . . I thought l’d found . . . when you said . . . our love . . . Was it all a lie? Say the words out loud in front of the mirror with your makeup on. Realize he hasn’t called in a week. Compose a six-page letter on the typewriter. Use all the words: Lie. Love. Regret. Lose. Us. You. Honest. Her. Our. Heartbreak. Woman! Allow your hand to snake toward the phone, then yank it back. Smoke. Cry. Type, I’m crying now. Decide to write a poem so brazen, so truthful, so poignant, that everyone will know he has treated the next Sylvia Plath like trash. Realize you are insane. He is goading you to blood and madness. Look outside, through the prison-slit window of your dorm room; it’s raining, a cold rain, and all the trees are black.
Because of him, or maybe not just because of him, your life is coming unglued fast. Your father is in England with his new wife, her mother, your sister, and your stepsister. For mysterious reasons of his own, he has rented the family home in D.C. to the Australian Embassy. Now it’s a perpetual beer blast there. Call the house trying to locate your IRS check and hear blaring music, shouts, sounds of breaking glass and splintering wood in the background. Picture Aussies wrecking the furniture, punching out the windows. Wonder what might be left of your bedroom. Your allowance is sent from London in pounds sterling, and your mail is forwarded to you in huge embassy envelopes. When you try to exchange the pounds at the Amherst First National, the cashiers eye you hatefully, as if you were trying to pawn off Monopoly money.
Wonder if you are pregnant. Worry about this day and night — especially at night. Feel the whooshing tidal waves of panic splash whenever you’re alone, thinking, What will I do? Where will I go? Be late for curfew so often that you are confined to campus every weekend until school is out. On Saturday nights, put up with Sharon, your roommate, who has one eyebrow. She sits on your bed in her puffy, pink, quilted housecoat, shaved legs crossed, one foot jiggling, and announces, “It’s innaresting you don’t have any morals.” Share a pizza with her.
Become wretched and nuts. Realize you deserve to feel this way. Try to figure out what you’re going to do about it. Write several poems about love, about him. Wish you were famous enough to stick your head in the oven.
Run into him when you’re walking out of the library, the bakery, the art gallery, the laundromat, the fiction workshop. Bump into him while you’re burdened with books, doughnuts, xeroxes, wet clothes, notebooks. Be awkward. In fact, make awkward noises: Awk, awk, awk. Be a crow. He wants to have coffee with you, or a beer — some kind of liquid, anyway. Tell him you can’t. Because of the doughnuts, the wet jeans, all those notebooks. Caw, “No, no, no!” Let him walk with you part of the way while you drag your boring, lumpy life along with you: laundry, books, xeroxes — everything that has nothing to do with him. Go your separate ways.
Realize you have not heard from your mother in a year. Your grandfather writes you a letter on onionskin, the words bleeding through, leaving a bluish stain like a bruise: Your mother just bought a cute little VW car. She has a job in Kansas and is very happy. This is not a letter you can answer.
Be stunned when Uncle Jimmy shows up at the dorm. Remember that you listed him as your chaperone one weekend when you were shacked up with Mr. Wonderful. As usual, Uncle Jimmy’s pants are held up with clothesline instead of a belt. He’s brought you a box of Junior Mints. Uncle Jimmy is like slow-moving karma, inexorable as flowing lava. He’s come to check up on you. Go for a long drive with him on back roads through the pines. Uncle Jimmy drinks prescription medicine the whole way, gives you a slug from time to time. Become weepy on codeine; sob messily in his filthy, dented-up Saab. Decide what to do about Mr. Wonderful. Uncle Jimmy, fading in and out like a radio on the fritz, smiles blearily at nothing, lets you out in front of the dorm, his uncle duty done. He thrashes back to Fall River, his car making terrible sounds.
Get your period and whisper, alone in the stall, red blooming in the toilet bowl like a corsage, “Thank you, God. Thank you, God.”
Be in the dorm lounge studying for finals when two soldiers arrive. Hear the widow scream. Realize there are no poems you can write about this, not even one.
Fall into bed with him knowing it’s the last time. Afterward, get so drunk you say everything lurking in your head, which is no longer the crazy relative’s safety-deposit box, but a sea chest filled to the brim with gaudy plastic beads, costume jewelry, raffia handbags, stained hats, old letters, and souvenir spoons. Get it all out and throw it on the floor. Tell him he was fucked up by Vietnam. Tell him he will never know real love with a real woman. Tell him what all his phony macho crap is really worth. Tell him you were pregnant but had a miscarriage and nearly died. Tell him you were actually dead for two minutes, but they brought you back. Tell him you wanted to marry him. Tell him you can have any man you want; mention several. Tell him you gave up your reputation and your weekends for him. Howl. Break all his coffee cups in the sink. Smear your lipstick. Start to run out into the street. Make him grab you around the waist and drag you back. Give him sloppy kisses. Crash into his furniture.
Now time is junk. Time is like having a cold.
Take showers at 2 A.M., letting the water run over you like raging, anonymous tears. Get drunk and cut bangs in your hair. Call his number over and over late at night. When he answers, hang up, hard. Go by his place to pick up your sweater and panties. See a strange car out front and run away crazily, zigzagging down the chipped sidewalk, nose dripping, mascara wrecked, hair in your face.
Find your black cashmere sweater in your mail, wrapped in a wrinkled Food Fair bag, falling open at one end, no return address. Stuff it in the back of a drawer, or, better yet, high in a closet.
Get a dress box from your mother full of flowered caftans, hostess lounge coats, and silk party dresses. Read the enclosed note, written in wavering, strangely blotched lines: To wear to the dean’s tea. Realize you don’t know where to begin. The dean is on acid. Consider going to live in the Mojave with like-minded people, building a geodesic dome with someone named Rainbow.
Start planning your life.