Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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January — bone-brittle cold.
Another year has gone by, one of many in which I did not get a Christmas card or any kind of howdy-do from Jane.
We have been through a lot together, Jane and me. But Jane is not at all good about answering letters. She did not even write back when I told her my father died last year.
I was my father’s light, and he was always so proud of me. When I was little, he and I would lie in bed and count until the numbers were so large they could no longer fit in our heads. We recited poems about dark birds and made up songs about our heroic, badass tomcat slipping through the sun and rain. We would sing, “He is great / Like a snake / Waiting for his prey.” And my father would sing to me, “Little Nora, / Little Nora, / Oh, what a pretty girls her is,” the bad grammar making the song all the more precious.
Now my father is a silver memory that tarnishes with handling. I can hardly believe Jane did not write to me after his death.
She also did not write after I had my hysterectomy in July.
I teach part time at colleges in Ohio, three in all, sometimes eight or nine classes a semester just to make ends meet. I buy my clothes once or twice removed at the Goodwill. Who can afford new clothes when a good pair of wool pants with lining is more than a hundred dollars at the mall? It is just too sad, going to the mall: the fake plants, the crowds all eating chicken sandwiches, the flash and glitz of sparkling glass and recessed lighting and Christmas lights even when it is not Christmas. I am afraid of the clerks, all whispery when they ask, “Can I help you?” a cloud of perfume around them like a fortress.
I think sometimes — almost every day that I get dressed for work, in fact — about a woman who taught English part time at East Carolina University when I was taking classes there. She wore a rubber band around one shoe to keep the sole from flapping. At the time I wondered what the hell was the matter with her, a university teacher, for God’s sake, dressed like that. Now I virtually am that woman.
I once thought that excellence and knowledge and expertise were all you needed to succeed and be loved and respected in life. I never guessed that they would not even buy you good clothes. That teacher at ECU was about the same age I am now: almost forty-seven, which for a man is young, but for a woman, well, you know the story.
Even my mother says it. She said it when she called last night from Jacksonville, North Carolina, where she has lived all her life, talking of this and that, asking me if I thought Senator John Edwards, a fellow North Carolinian, would make it to the presidency. He is so young, she said — only forty-nine! She is half in love with the handsome young senator, I can tell. She said he has “it,” the magic. Like Kennedy. “At the very least,” she said, “he has to be better than Bush.” At least Edwards has a real education, she said.
Education is very important to my mother because she didn’t get much of one. She is proud of me for having gotten an education, which is what she is striving to get across when she talks about John Edwards.
I love my mother.
Back when I was an undergraduate, I thought education would give me a place to hide. I would teach and write great novels. I was encouraged in this belief by some small successes: two publications in the campus literary magazine and about three hundred dollars in prize money. I also received encouraging letters from a big editor at a small magazine and a small editor at a big magazine. And I had gotten a personal response from Vanity Fair.
Nobody tells you how tiny these victories are.
Now I am too tired to write. My head is so full of the black gunk I allow to pour through my eyes at work that I no longer think in metaphors. There is only the five-paragraph structure with proper transitions, arguments, and counterarguments, student prose that twists on the page like venomous snakes. Let’s say I teach seven classes, though oftentimes I teach more. That is five five-page papers per student, times twenty-five students per class, times seven classes. Each student also revises all five papers at least twice. That is well over ten thousand pages of psychological death I must expose myself to every sixteen weeks.
Still, I manage to write to Jane once in a while. You would think she could find time to write me back. She does not have an outside job. She has her marriage to Bart, a logger for Weyerhaeuser, and her church: that is all. I know being a housewife is challenging. I know she does not sit around all day twiddling her thumbs. But give me a break.
I will grant that Jane and I have grown apart. But if she would write more often, we could salvage what we once had. If she would write more and lengthier letters, I could tell her more than “I had a hysterectomy. It went well. I am fine.” If our relationship were better, I could tell Jane that I feel maimed and dead, that when I touch myself I do not feel anything anymore.
I would like to tell Jane that I still hear from Sharon, our friend who moved to Georgia in sixth grade. Sharon sends me a letter at Christmas, and we write a couple of times a year. I would like to write to Jane: “Amazing, isn’t it, that even though Sharon is a high-school English teacher and also in charge of the school yearbook, and even though she has three sons and no husband, just a worthless ex, she still manages to write?” But that would be too mean. And too pitiful.
Sharon was the girl Jane and I thought would live a golden life because she had both brains and looks. Instead she divorced her first husband, Nick, because he was too immature. He could not keep a job and crashed the little Volkswagen her parents had bought for her in college. Then she married Andrew and worked to help him get his master’s. After Andrew had gotten his degree and was making a great deal of money, and after Sharon had quit work to have his sons, Andrew cheated on Sharon. He told her he was going golfing.
If our relationship were better, Jane’s and mine, I might tell her that Sharon had never stopped loving Nick, and that a few years after Sharon divorced Andrew, Nick found her again. He’d never remarried, and he wooed Sharon all over again, although this time she was cynical about love. Nick treated her sons as if they were his own. He even crammed Sharon and the boys into his car one winter day and drove north until they found snow, just so the boys could play in the snow for the first time in their lives. The very thing that had made Sharon divorce Nick in the first place was what brought them back together: the impulsiveness, the fire, the what-the-hell-let’s-go-find-some-snow attitude of this man. I could tell Jane how Sharon planned to remarry Nick, but then he got cancer, which spread to his spine, and Sharon had to watch him slowly die. He died this past July, on her birthday, just about the same time I had my hysterectomy.
“I stay busy, which helps,” Sharon wrote to me. “By the way, how was your hysterectomy?”
You would think that when two people do not write for so long, like Jane and me, they would have a lot to say. But really there is less and less to write about. Before you know it, you are writing things like “How are you? I am fine. I hope you are fine.”
In fourth grade Jane and Sharon and I formed a club: the Horse, Cat, and Squirrel Club. We all loved animals, and each of us had her favorite. Sharon loved horses and collected horse figurines. I loved cats and collected cat figurines. Jane’s family could not afford pets, or figurines, so she chose squirrels, because they ran rampant over her shaggy, automobile-strewn yard. With seven other kids in her family, there was no room for collections of any sort. Jane did not care one whit that she could not collect figurines. Her family was the center of her life. The oldest child, she was like a second mother to her brothers and sisters.
One day in fourth grade, Jane and I staged a rebellion. I do not remember why. Out of nowhere we decided we did not like it that the horse came first in the name of our club, and we were tired of galloping and neighing all over the playground at recess. Why were we never allowed to meow or chatter? Also, if one of us got “hurt,” we had to stand on a dirt mound called the Dead White Horse’s Grave, and thereupon we would be healed. We were tired of this Dead White Horse game especially. But for some reason we could not simply tell Sharon this. I am quite sure she would have been more than happy to give cats or squirrels top billing. I think Jane and I knew this even then. Still, direct honesty was not for us. For some reason, we had to act out our disgruntlement in full technicolor drama.
So we took sticks and wrote things like “The Dead White Horse is stupid!” and “Down with the Dead White Horse!” on the dirt mound. One of us subsequently pretended some horsy injury or another, and away we galloped to the mound, letting Sharon get there a little bit ahead. When Sharon read what Jane and I had written, she lifted her pretty head and looked at us with curiosity and grief. As Jane and I laughed and galloped away (why were we still galloping?), Sharon said, “You won’t believe what somebody wrote on the Dead White Horse’s Grave!”
She was so trusting. She is so cynical now. Even more so since Nick died. Nick stormed the castle of her cynicism like a thousand villagers with burning torches. But now Nick is dead, and I do not think Sharon will let her defenses be overrun again.
After the Dead White Horse incident, Sharon stepped quietly out of the picture, and then it was mostly Jane and me. I think we were bound together by our geekiness. In seventh grade, the English teacher noticed us squinting at the chalkboard, and we both had to get glasses. In fact, Jane and I did more than just squint. We pushed down on our eyebrows while squinting or looked through a tiny hole formed with thumb and index finger, like a fleshy monocle. This was too much for the teacher, who sent us both home with notes about our diminished eyesight.
My parents had a decent income and got me glasses at once. They were cat’s-eye glasses — not cheap, but ugly enough to get me teased. I complained about my glasses to anybody who would listen, but secretly I loved them because now I could see individual leaves on the trees instead of just a green blur. With my acute powers of observation, I would sit and write in my notebooks, describing things in minute detail.
Jane’s parents could not afford glasses right away. So, during English class, I would loan Jane my glasses. She would gingerly hold them up to her eyes — not putting them on, because she did not want to stretch them out, she said. She always cleaned my glasses before she gave them back. The symbolism of sharing my glasses, my very eyes, with Jane is not lost on me. The act is every bit as grand a metaphor as the enormous, disembodied eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby, which Jane and I were reading in our accelerated English class that year. Maybe it was T.J. Eckleburg’s all-seeing eyes, along with my new ability to observe detail, that made me want to write novels in the first place.
I did not like the kind of books that Jane liked: romances in which the women clawed animal-like at the men’s massive chests; books that promised passion and love and a happy ending like a plump red cherry on top. Give me Fitzgerald any day, I would think, or Maupassant, whose Complete Stories I kept hidden under my bed, reading them after the rest of my family had gone to sleep, because the stories gave me a morbid thrill that felt forbidden.
Jane eventually got her glasses, through a government program, and they were truly vile: cheap-looking and even uglier than mine. They were generic, which was about the worst thing you could be in junior high. But then, Jane’s glasses would not have made her popular even if they’d been made of diamonds and gold. So the difference in our glasses was hardly any difference at all.
Jane and I were both gawky, with too-long arms and hairy legs, since our mothers would not let us shave. The dress code forbade pants, and if we tried to hide our legs with flesh-colored hose, the effect was absurd: all those flattened hairs trailing off in every direction.
Then in high school, our mothers let us shave our legs, we both managed to get wire-framed glasses, and men and boys started to notice us. By that time Jane had her driver’s license, and she was always driving some junker or another that her mechanic father had fixed up.
One night Jane and I were on our way home from a French Club meeting when two marines drove up alongside and ogled us through Jane’s window. Just for fun, Jane beeped her horn, and we threw back our heads and laughed. Freedom from parental restraints had made us giddy and stupid. The marines’ car hurtled forward and then pulled into our lane and slowed down, forcing Jane and me to a crawl. It was funny at first, but then we got scared. The road was suddenly lonesome and dark. We had the curious and spine-tingling feeling of being completely helpless.
The marines played cat-and-mouse with us for some time. I got a good look at one of them. He had on black-rimmed, government-issue glasses with an elastic band that went around his long, white, bald head. That is what the corps did to young men then, shaved their heads, took every part of their identity, especially their hair. Maybe the corps still does this, but it seems to me the men packing their bags to go fight terrorism have longer hair.
Anyway, the marine who was playing cat-and-mouse with Jane and me looked like a maggot with glasses. Jane steered carefully, as if trying to drive on a high wire. When we finally turned onto my road, the marines did not follow. Jane and I decided to stick to local boys after that.
Jane’s first boyfriend was Jim, and she filled her notebooks with “Jane + Jim” inside hearts. Jim was a disc jockey, which was unusual — unheard of, really — for a boy that young. He had long, fine reddish blond hair that shone in the sun, and he walked with his head back, which made his hair seem longer. He had a pointed, birdlike nose, but he was handsome. Jim was not one of the most popular boys in our class, but he was quite a catch. The only thing was, Jim went through a lot of girlfriends. Every girl he went out with thought she would be the last. Miraculously, and perhaps to Jim’s credit, each girl he broke up with said she could not hate him because he was “so sweet.” The girl cried and followed him around for a while, but eventually she would let him go, because she wanted him to be happy.
For the first time, Jane had someone to take her to football games and buy her a corsage for homecoming. These things were more important to her than they were to me. While it lasted, Jane enjoyed having Jim steer her around school and buy her cheap trinkets and whisper in her ear. They dressed in matching clothes and took Jane’s car to secret locations to make out. Once, Jane told me, a policeman found them and shone a bright light in the car. Jim gallantly threw his jacket over Jane’s breasts and told the policeman, “Get that damned light off her.” It sounded very romantic.
My first boyfriend was Charlie. He was nineteen and had dropped out of school and now shared an apartment in New River with a marine who was almost never home. Charlie sometimes showed up in the school parking lot just to hang out and talk to me. People thought he was cool, since he had a car and played guitar in a band, but Charlie did not go to homecomings or high-school dances, except when his band played at them. And this was all right with me. I wanted somebody older, somebody a little more like the characters in my favorite books, who made their own way and did not depend on their parents. I liked self-sufficiency.
Charlie let his straight brown hair grow to a fantastic length and had a sweet mouth, like Jon Voight’s, and a mustache that did not quite hide it. In the summer Charlie worked construction, and his skin turned a beautiful dark copper. In the winter he worked at a local coffee shop and made sweet doughnuts that chased away the achy feeling inside me.
After school, I would let Charlie drive me to his apartment, where we would smoke pot and have sex. We had sex on the floor inside a wooden frame that had once held a water bed until a friend of Charlie’s had thrown a cherry bomb on it and the bed had burst, spilling water throughout the apartment. So now there was only the floor, which Charlie made as soft as he could with fresh, clean blankets.
While we made love, Charlie played eight-track tapes of the Carpenters, the clunky player interrupting the songs in the same spot every time. I still cannot listen to a Carpenters album without anticipating that thu-thump where the tracks changed. That glitch is supposed to be there, and I feel off-kilter when it does not happen.
Charlie and I would hold each other and carefully nibble on each other’s nipples. We kissed on the neck but did not leave marks — we both thought hickeys were tacky. We never looked below each other’s waists. When Charlie got on top of me, I could feel his pubic hair mingling with mine, a delicate sensation. He held his weight off my body, and his long hair brushed against my skin. It was like being ravished by a bird. I thought of how Greek gods would turn into swans to copulate with human females.
The first time Charlie and I had sex, I was afraid to step out of my panties, because then there would be no turning back. Charlie’s eager hands shook as they followed the curves of my hips and thighs, and he seemed vulnerable and kind of lost. Then he said, “Nora, I don’t want to degrade you.” I guess he meant me standing there with my panties around my ankles, and it really was a sweet thing to say, maybe even better than when Jim had told the policeman to stop shining the light on Jane. Jim could have just been acting macho, but Charlie really did not have to say that. If he had never said it, I would never have known the difference.
In 1974 Jane and I both found out we were pregnant. Before that, it had all been fun, something we would pass notes about during class.
Jim had broken up with Jane, and she was beginning to realize that she would not be the last link in Jim’s chain of lovers, but that she would always love him just the same. Charlie and I were still seeing each other, but were beginning to realize it wouldn’t last. I did not tell him I was carrying his child. A baby would have canceled his plans to travel with his band, and my plans to go to college.
Jane and I were both eighteen and did not need parental permission to do as we wished with our bodies. Still, we told our mothers — but not our fathers. I just could not disappoint my father by letting him know I had made such a mess of my life. So I told my father a lie: that we were going to a Bible retreat. He believed me, I think because Jane went to church every Sunday with her mother and brothers and sisters. (Her father did not go.) Also there was a fad then of teenagers becoming Jesus Freaks. I do not think my father thought twice about it.
My mother gave me the money. I do not know where Jane got hers. We drove to a clinic in Washington, D.C., where nobody would know us. They made us each talk to a counselor, who tried to convince us to go on the pill so this would never, ever happen again. We both refused. We were sickened enough by what we were doing that the very idea of sex was repulsive.
On the way home, Jane and I spoke not a word. We listened to the radio and nursed Dr. Peppers with our chapped lips. The Washington radio stations faded and died as we moved out of range. We stopped once to eat at a roadside diner. Neither of us could finish our pancakes and sausage. We went to the bathroom together and sat in separate stalls. I listened to the rustling of her clothes, the familiar sound of changing a pad. Afterward, I washed my hands. The soap smelled funny, and the smell lasted a long time.
When we got home, Jane’s mother cried but mine did not, or maybe she did, but not in front of me. My mother never spoke of the incident again, for which I am grateful.
I did not see Charlie again, but in one of her rare letters to me, Jane told me she had run into Jim in a grocery-store parking lot. This was probably five years ago. She said that Jim was still a disc jockey, and he was balding and lumpy and wore a tweed coat. He had never married.
I thought that maybe some small part of Jane was hoping that Jim still carried a torch for her. I imagined Jane lamenting, My husband, Bart, is not a disc jockey. He cuts down trees, trees that will never be made into torches to storm a castle. But these are my words, not Jane’s.
Anyway, Jane is probably happy. She has her children, and a grandchild on the way. Her husband makes few demands. He wants only to work and to fish once in a while. He pours some money into a rickety old boat, and when he says he is going fishing, he is really going fishing. Jane probably does not desire in the least the former boyfriend who once so gallantly threw his jacket over her breasts.
Yes, Jane may be wholly happy with her life.
My story about her carrying a torch for Jim is simply a fabrication.
Jane, can I tell you how hard it is to have most of what makes you a woman stolen through an eight-inch gash? You awaken from the anesthesia feeling as if you have just been split apart by an ax. You cry out, and the nurse says, “What did you expect?” They pump you full of morphine and send you home in three days. Do you know what it is like to go back to work after just four short weeks because, if you do not, somebody just as desperate as you are will take your job? Do you know what it is like to stand in front of people and talk about a thesis statement when your mind feels as split apart as your body?
I have never married, but men have used my body, and I have used theirs. We have glided in and out of each other’s bodies without dedication or love. There is only one thing I did not try in my sexual life, and that is paying for sex.
What would it be like, I wonder, to let a man come in through an unlocked door to my bedroom, where I lay in the dark, naked and waiting? It would be ecstasy. There would be no disappointment about his poor performance or that awkward moment when he has fallen like a brick into sleep, and you take your shower to wash him out of you. There would be no noise or fanfare or promises neither of you intended to keep. There would be no coffee to make. The man, once paid, would disappear into darkness. He would close the door ever so quietly behind him. I know such a transaction would never be as clean as it seems. Such is the power of the imagination.
Jane, the operation took the last part of me, the part that jobs or men or even the abortion could not take. Before it, there were times when I opened myself like the universe unfolding. I was Grandmother Spider spinning out her web. My legs beat like wings, my womb like a second, stronger heart. Now I am but a sack of organs that hammer and grind and process and fill with air.
© Sharon Wharton
When my mother called me last night, she asked if I had heard from Jane this Christmas. I told her no.
“What is wrong with that girl?” she asked.
I do not know, I thought, but it seemed to me last night that some experiences should bind women, the way that men are bound by warfare, the way soldiers will be bound, for better or worse, by fighting side by side in Iraq.
My mother changed subjects frequently, and each topic bled into the next. One moment we were speaking of Jane, and the next we were talking about the weather. “How is it in Ohio?” my mother asked, and I said, “Fine,” though I wanted to say, It is dismal too much of the day and too cold. I wanted to say, It is flat in this part of the state. You can hardly believe it, it is so flat. Flat from the glaciers — the same ones, I guess, that gouged out the terror and grace of the Great Lakes. So flat there is nothing to stop the wind from blistering you. On the roads the wind piles the snow in drifts so high that you must try to bust through with your car to get to your money-making job.
After my mother made her comment about John Edwards, she asked if I had met a man I planned to marry. I told her, as I always do, that I am married to my work. By this she knew I did not mean teaching, but writing. She believes I am pasting together, from the scattered products of my imagination, a soon-to-be-fabulously-successful book like The Lovely Bones. Only my novel will be much better than The Lovely Bones, my mother said. She was sure, she told me, that my book will surpass The Lovely Bones in excellence as well as sales.
“Your father was so proud of you,” she said, like the inevitable chime of her grandfather clock that you wait for in the dark, like the glitch you wait for in an eight-track tape.
Maybe my mother really believes I will write a book. Or maybe she was only constructing pleasantries out of wishful thinking.
Anyway, when my mother mentioned The Lovely Bones I told her I had not even heard of the book.
“Nora!” my mother cried. “That book is everywhere!”
“Oh,” I said.
Thinking about it now, it seems I have seen this novel. I think it has a blue jacket. But I do not keep up with books anymore. They are my failure made concrete. I hurry past bookstore windows before the gay dust jackets can rise up and slap me in the face.
“The author’s name is Sebold,” my mother told me.
Even hearing the syllable bold in conjunction with writing was almost more than I could take. I changed the subject.
Once, while passing notes during a chemistry lecture, Jane and I decided we would each write on a piece of paper what articles of clothing we had not taken off on our last date. When we unfolded each other’s notes, we had both written the same thing: socks. This struck us as out-of-this-world funny, and before long much of the class was watching us stifle our laughter while the teacher, writing on the board, remained oblivious. To calm ourselves, Jane and I put our heads down on our desks, our shoulders heaving.
When our teacher noticed us, he asked with genuine concern what was wrong. He thought we were crying.