The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.
I dropped the compact into my pocketbook and stared out of the train window. Like a colossal junkyard, the swamps and back lots of Connecticut flashed past, one broken-down fragment bearing no relation to another.
What a hotchpotch the world was!
I glanced down at my unfamiliar skirt and blouse.
The skirt was a green dirndl with tiny black, white and electric-blue shapes swarming across it, and it stuck out like a lampshade. Instead of sleeves, the white eyelet blouse had frills at the shoulder, floppy as the wings of a new angel.
I’d forgotten to save any day clothes from the ones I let fly over New York, so Betsy had traded me a blouse and skirt for my bathrobe with the cornflowers on it.
A wan reflection of myself, white wings, brown ponytail and all, ghosted over the landscape.
“Pollyanna Cowgirl,” I said out loud.
A woman in the seat opposite looked up from her magazine.
I hadn’t, at the last moment, felt like washing off the two diagonal lines of dried blood that marked my cheeks. They seemed touching, and rather spectacular, and I thought I would carry them around with me, like the relic of a dead lover, till they wore off of their own accord.
Of course, if I smiled or moved my face much, the blood would flake away in no time, so I kept my face immobile, and when I had to speak I spoke through my teeth, without disturbing my lips.
I didn’t really see why people should look at me.
Plenty of people looked queerer than I did.
My gray suitcase rode on the rack over my head, empty except for The Thirty Best Short Stories of the year; a white plastic sunglasses case and two dozen avocado pears, a parting present from Doreen.
The pears were unripe, so they would keep well, and whenever I lifted my suitcase up or down or simply carried it along, they cannoned from one end to the other with a special little thunder of their own.
“Root Wan Twenny Ate!” the conductor bawled.
The domesticated wilderness of pine, maple and oak rolled to a halt and stuck in the frame of the train window like a bad picture. My suitcase grumbled and bumped as I negotiated the long aisle.
I stepped from the air-conditioned compartment onto the station platform, and the motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station wagons and tennis rackets and dogs and babies.
A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death.
My mother was waiting by the glove-gray Chevrolet.
“Why lovey, what’s happened to your face?”
“Cut myself,” I said briefly, and crawled into the back seat after my suitcase. I didn’t want her staring at me the whole way home.
The upholstery felt slippery and clean.
My mother climbed behind the wheel and tossed a few letters into my lap, then turned her back.
The car purred into life.
“I think I should tell you right away,” she said, and I could see bad news in the set of her neck, “you didn’t make that writing course.”
The air punched out of my stomach.
All through June the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the dull gulf of the summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap.
Then my mouth shaped itself sourly.
I had expected it.
I slunk down on the middle of my spine, my nose level with the rim of the window, and watched the houses of outer Boston glide by. As the houses grew more familiar, I slunk still lower.
I felt it was very important not to be recognized.
The gray, padded car roof closed over my head like the roof of a prison van, and the white, shining, identical clapboard houses with their interstices of well-groomed green proceeded past, one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage.
I had never spent a summer in the suburbs before.
The soprano screak of carriage wheels punished my ear. Sun, seeping through the blinds, filled the bedroom with a sulphurous light. I didn’t know how long I had slept, but I felt one big twitch of exhaustion.
The twin bed next to mine was empty and unmade.
At seven I had heard my mother get up, slip into her clothes and tiptoe out of the room. Then the buzz of the orange squeezer sounded from downstairs, and the smell of coffee and bacon filtered under my door. Then the sink water ran from the tap and dishes clinked as my mother dried them and put them back in the cupboard.
Then the front door opened and shut. Then the car door opened and shut, and the motor went broom-broom and, edging off with a crunch of gravel, faded into the distance.
My mother was teaching shorthand and typing to a lot of city college girls and wouldn’t be home till the middle of the afternoon.
The carriage wheels screaked past again. Somebody seemed to be wheeling a baby back and forth under my window.
I slipped out of bed and onto the rug, and quietly, on my hands and knees, crawled over to see who it was.
Ours was a small, white clapboard house set in the middle of a small green lawn on the corner of two peaceful suburban streets, but in spite of the little maple trees planted at intervals around our property, anybody passing along the sidewalk could glance up at the second story windows and see just what was going on.
This was brought home to me by our next-door neighbor, a spiteful woman named Mrs. Ockenden.
Mrs. Ockenden was a retired nurse who had just married her third husband—the other two died in curious circumstances—and she spent an inordinate amount of time peering from behind the starched white curtains of her windows.
She had called my mother up twice about me—once to report that I had been sitting in front of the house for an hour under the streetlight and kissing somebody in a blue Plymouth, and once to say that I had better pull the blinds down in my room, because she had seen me half-naked getting ready for bed one night when she happened to be out walking her Scotch terrier.
With great care, I raised my eyes to the level of the windowsill.
A woman not five feet tall, with a grotesque, protruding stomach, was wheeling an old black baby carriage down the street. Two or three small children of various sizes, all pale, with smudgy faces and bare smudgy knees, wobbled along in the shadow of her skirts.
A serene, almost religious smile lit up the woman’s face. Her head tilted happily back, like a sparrow egg perched on a duck egg, she smiled into the sun.
I knew the woman well.
It was Dodo Conway.
Dodo Conway was a Catholic who had gone to Barnard and then married an architect who had gone to Columbia and was also a Catholic. They had a big, rambling house up the street from us, set behind a morbid façade of pine trees, and surrounded by scooters, tricycles, doll carriages, toy fire trucks, baseball bats, badminton nets, croquet wickets, hamster cages and cocker spaniel puppies—the whole sprawling paraphernalia of suburban childhood.
Dodo interested me in spite of myself.
Her house was unlike all the others in our neighborhood in its size (it was much bigger) and its color (the second story was constructed of dark brown clapboard and the first of gray stucco, studded with gray and purple golfball-shaped stones), and the pine trees completely screened it from view, which was considered unsociable in our community of adjoining lawns and friendly, waist-high hedges.
Dodo raised her six children—and would no doubt raise her seventh—on Rice Krispies, peanut-butter-and-marshmallow sandwiches, vanilla ice cream and gallon upon gallon of Hoods milk. She got a special discount from the local milkman.
Everybody loved Dodo, although the swelling size of her family was the talk of the neighborhood. The older people around, like my mother, had two children, and the younger, more prosperous ones had four, but nobody but Dodo was on the verge of a seventh. Even six was considered excessive, but then, everybody said, of course Dodo was a Catholic.
I watched Dodo wheel the youngest Conway up and down. She seemed to be doing it for my benefit.
Children made me sick.
A floorboard creaked, and I ducked down again, just as Dodo Conway’s face, by instinct, or some gift of supernatural hearing, turned on the little pivot of its neck.
I felt her gaze pierce through the white clapboard and the pink wallpaper roses and uncover me, crouching there behind the silver pickets of the radiator.
I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up.
I had nothing to look forward to.
After a while I heard the telephone ringing in the downstairs hall. I stuffed the pillow into my ears and gave myself five minutes. Then I lifted my head from its bolt hole. The ringing had stopped.
Almost at once it started up again.
Cursing whatever friend, relative or stranger had sniffed out my homecoming, I padded barefoot downstairs. The black instrument on the hall table trilled its hysterical note over and over, like a nervous bird.
I picked up the receiver.
“Hullo,” I said, in a low, disguised voice.
“Hullo, Esther, what’s the matter, have you got laryngitis?”
It was my old friend Jody, calling from Cambridge.
Jody was working at the Coop that summer and taking a lunchtime course in sociology. She and two other girls from my college had rented a big apartment from four Harvard law students, and I’d been planning to move in with them when my writing course began.
Jody wanted to know when they could expect me.
“I’m not coming,” I said. “I didn’t make the course.”
There was a small pause.
“He’s an ass,” Jody said then. “He doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it.”
“My sentiments exactly.” My voice sounded strange and hollow in my ears,
“Come anyway. Take some other course.”
The notion of studying German or abnormal psychology flitted through my head. After all, I’d saved nearly the whole of my New York salary, so I could just about afford it.
But the hollow voice said, “You better count me out.”
“Well,” Jody began, “there’s this other girl who wanted to come in with us if anybody dropped out. . . .”
“Fine. Ask her.”
The minute I hung up I knew I should have said I would come. One more morning listening to Dodo Conway’s baby carriage would drive me crazy. And I made a point of never living in the same house with my mother for more than a week.
I reached for the receiver.
My hand advanced a few inches, then retreated and fell limp. I forced it toward the receiver again, but again it stopped short, as if it had collided with a pane of glass.
I wandered into the dining room.
Propped on the table I found a long, businesslike letter from the summer school and a thin blue letter on leftover Yale stationery, addressed to me in Buddy Willard’s lucid hand.
I slit open the summer school letter with a knife.
Since I wasn’t accepted for the writing course, it said, I could choose some other course instead, but I should call in to the Admissions Office that same morning, or it would be too late to register, the courses were almost full.
I dialed the Admissions Office and listened to the zombie voice leave a message that Miss Esther Greenwood was canceling all arrangements to come to summer school.
Then I opened Buddy Willard’s letter.
Buddy wrote that he was probably falling in love with a nurse who also had TB, but his mother had rented a cottage in the Adirondacks for the month of July, and if I came along with her, he might well find his feeling for the nurse was a mere infatuation.
I snatched up a pencil and crossed out Buddy’s message. Then I turned the letter paper over and on the opposite side wrote that I was engaged to a simultaneous interpreter and never wanted to see Buddy again as I did not want to give my children a hypocrite for a father.
I stuck the letter back in the envelope, Scotch-taped it together, and readdressed it to Buddy, without putting on a new stamp. I thought the message was worth a good three cents.
Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel.
That would fix a lot of people.
I strolled into the kitchen, dropped a raw egg into a teacup of raw hamburger, mixed it up and ate it. Then I set up the card table on the screened breezeway between the house and the garage.
A great wallowing bush of mock orange shut off the view of the street in front, the house wall and the garage wall took care of either side, and a clump of birches and a box hedge protected me from Mrs. Ockenden at the back.
I counted out three hundred and fifty sheets of corrasable bond from my mother’s stock in the hall closet, secreted away under a pile of old felt hats and clothes brushes and woolen scarves.
Back on the breezeway, I fed the first, virgin sheet into my old portable and rolled it up.
From another, distanced mind, I saw myself sitting on the breezeway, surrounded by two white clapboard walls, a mock orange bush and a clump of birches and a box hedge, small as a doll in a doll’s house.
A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing.
Elaine sat on the breezeway in an old yellow nightgown of her mother’s waiting for something to happen. It was a sweltering morning in July, and drops of sweat crawled down her back, one by one, like slow insects.
I leaned back and read what I had written.
It seemed lively enough, and I was quite proud of the bit about the drops of sweat like insects, only I had the dim impression I’d probably read it somewhere else a long time ago.
I sat like that for about an hour, trying to think what would come next, and in my mind, the barefoot doll in her mother’s old yellow nightgown sat and stared into space as well.
“Why, honey, don’t you want to get dressed?”
My mother took care never to tell me to do anything. She would only reason with me sweetly, like one intelligent, mature person with another.
“It’s almost three in the afternoon.”
“I’m writing a novel,” I said. “I haven’t got time to change out of this and change into that.”
I lay on the couch on the breezeway and shut my eyes. I could hear my mother clearing the typewriter and the papers from the card table and laying out the silver for supper, but I didn’t move.
Inertia oozed like molasses through Elaine’s limbs. That’s what it must feel like to have malaria, she thought.
At that rate, I’d be lucky if I wrote a page a day.
Then I knew what the trouble was.
I needed experience.
How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?
By the end of supper my mother had convinced me I should study shorthand in the evenings. Then I would be killing two birds with one stone, writing a novel and learning something practical as well. I would also be saving a whole lot of money.
That same evening, my mother unearthed an old blackboard from the cellar and set it up on the breezeway. Then she stood at the blackboard and scribbled little curlicues in white chalk while I sat in a chair and watched.
At first I felt hopeful.
I thought I might learn shorthand in no time, and when the freckled lady in the Scholarships Office asked me why I hadn’t worked to earn money in July and August, the way you were supposed to if you were a scholarship girl, I could tell her I had taken a free shorthand course instead, so I could support myself right after college.
The only thing was, when I tried to picture myself in some job, briskly jotting down line after line of shorthand, my mind went blank. There wasn’t one job I felt like doing where you used shorthand. And, as I sat there and watched, the white chalk curlicues blurred into senselessness.
I told my mother I had a terrible headache, and went to bed.
An hour later the door inched open, and she crept into the room. I heard the whisper of her clothes as she undressed. She climbed into bed. Then her breathing grew slow and regular.
In the dim light of the streetlamp that filtered through the drawn blinds, I could see the pin curls on her head glittering like a row of little bayonets.
I decided I would put off the novel until I had gone to Europe and had a lover, and that I would never learn a word of shorthand. If I never learned shorthand I would never have to use it.
I thought I would spend the summer reading Finnegans Wake and writing my thesis.
Then I would be way ahead when college started at the end of September, and able to enjoy my last year instead of swotting away with no makeup and stringy hair, on a diet of coffee and Benzedrine, the way most of the seniors taking honors did, until they finished their thesis.
Then I thought I might put off college for a year and apprentice myself to a pottery maker.
Or work my way to Germany and be a waitress, until I was bilingual.
Then plan after plan started leaping through my head, like a family of scatty rabbits.
I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three . . . nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.
The room blued into view, and I wondered where the night had gone. My mother turned from a foggy log into a slumbering, middle-aged woman, her mouth slightly open and a snore raveling from her throat. The piggish noise irritated me, and for a while it seemed to me that the only way to stop it would be to take the column of skin and sinew from which it rose and twist it to silence between my hands.
I feigned sleep until my mother left for school, but even my eyelids didn’t shut out the light. They hung the raw, red screen of their tiny vessels in front of me like a wound. I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone. It felt dark and safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough.
It needed about a ton more weight to make me sleep.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. . . .
The thick book made an unpleasant dent in my stomach.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s . . .
I thought the small letter at the start might mean that nothing ever really began all new, with a capital, but that it just flowed on from what came before. Eve and Adam’s was Adam and Eve, of course, but it probably signified something else as well.
Maybe it was a pub in Dublin.
My eyes sank through an alphabet soup of letters to the long word in the middle of the page.
I counted the letters. There were exactly a hundred of them. I thought this must be important.
Why should there be a hundred letters?
Haltingly, I tried the word aloud.
It sounded like a heavy wooden object falling downstairs, boomp boomp boomp, step after step. Lifting the pages of the book, I let them fan slowly by my eyes. Words, dimly familiar but twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror, fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain.
I squinted at the page.
The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns. I watched them separate, each from the other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way. Then they associated themselves in fantastic, untranslatable shapes, like Arabic or Chinese.
I decided to junk my thesis.
I decided to junk the whole honors program and become an ordinary English major. I went to look up the requirements of an ordinary English major at my college.
There were lots of requirements, and I didn’t have half of them. One of the requirements was a course in the eighteenth century. I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason. So I’d skipped it. They let you do that in honors, you were much freer. I had been so free I’d spent most of my time on Dylan Thomas.
A friend of mine, also in honors, had managed never to read a word of Shakespeare; but she was a real expert on the Four Quartets,
I saw how impossible and embarrassing it would be for me to try to switch from my free program into the stricter one. So I looked up the requirements for English majors at the city college where my mother taught.
They were even worse.
You had to know Old English and the History of the English Language and a representative selection of all that had been written from Beowulf to the present day.
This surprised me. I had always looked down on my mother’s college, as it was coed, and filled with people who couldn’t get scholarships to the big eastern colleges.
Now I saw that the stupidest person at my mother’s college knew more than I did. I saw they wouldn’t even let me in through the door, let alone give me a large scholarship like the one I had at my own college.
I thought I’d better go to work for a year and think things over. Maybe I could study the eighteenth century in secret.
But I didn’t know shorthand, so what could I do?
I could be a waitress or a typist.
But I couldn’t stand the idea of being either one.
“You say you want more sleeping pills?”
“But the ones I gave you last week are very strong.”
“They don’t work any more.”
Teresa’s large, dark eyes regarded me thoughtfully. I could hear the voices of her three children in the garden under the consulting-room window. My Aunt Libby had married an Italian, and Teresa was my aunt’s sister-in-law and our family doctor.
I liked Teresa. She had a gentle, intuitive touch.
I thought it must be because she was Italian.
There was a little pause.
“What seems to be the matter?” Teresa said then.
“I can’t sleep. I can’t read.” I tried to speak in a cool, calm way, but the zombie rose up in my throat and choked me off. I turned my hands palm up.
“I think,” Teresa tore off a white slip from her prescription pad and wrote down a name and address, “you’d better see another doctor I know. He’ll be able to help you more than I can.”
I peered at the writing, but I couldn’t read it.
“Doctor Gordon,” Teresa said. “He’s a psychiatrist.”
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