The Odd Woman
A half-hour before Sonia Marks was due to arrive, all details of the lunch had been taken care of. The chicory-and-mushroom salad was tucked inside the refrigerator beneath a sheet of plastic wrap, the curry soup had been blended and was simmering over a low gas flame, the black bread was cut and arranged attractively (with another sheet of plastic wrap guarding its freshness) on the breadboard between the two places set with bright Danish mats and napkins, and the butter and cheese had been taken out to soften to room temperature. The first bottle of wine, a dependable Soave Bolla, had been uncorked, for quick serving, and then put back in the refrigerator to chill. Jane walked to and fro in the rooms of her duplex, trying to see the rooms as Sonia might see them, trying to read the person who lived in them. Frequently she slipped into the bathroom and checked herself in the medicine-chest mirror. She was nervous because Sonia Marks meant something to her: Jane looked on her as a winner.
When she had arrived at the university, a year and a half ago, she heard almost immediately about this woman whose dissertation had been published by the Oxford Press; whose seminars had such a large preregistration that the chairman had asked her, as a favor, to repeat the topic a second, and a third, time; who, at the age of thirty-five, had nineteen publications to her credit, and five listed in the MLA International Bibliography for the same year she had married another woman's husband of twenty years! She also had "two darling children," the department's friendly gossips informed Jane. "She sounds like a paragon," said Jane, physically weak with the gnawings of envy, but wanting to know more about this person who seemed to have captured with such ease all the things that she herself wanted. "Ah," said the gossips, "but she's hard; she's very hard. When she stops to talk to you in the hall, her eyes are already going ahead to the next achievement. And at parties you can see her fidgeting and rolling her eyes at her new husband the moment the conversation gets the least bit boring. She has very little charity for the ordinary run of mankind, does Sonia Marks."
Jane watched for the right opportunity to meet Sonia. She saw her, of course, at all the English Department receptions and meetings, during the early part of the year. But she could never get the courage to go up and introduce herself; she was too afraid of causing this remarkable woman to "fidget and roll her eyes at her new husband." She met the husband, however; he came up and introduced himself. Jane knew his biography from the gossips as well. A Guggenheim, stream of publications exceeding his new wife's, his cast-off wife (who had money of her own) and three children gone back to the East. Jane stood holding her paper mug of coffee and a cookie in one hand (wishing she hadn't taken the cookie; it was awkward) and chatting with this man. Max Covington, who was married to the paragon Sonia Marks. ("She's always gone under her maiden name," said the gossips. "Even when she was married to that bright young historian; he was the reason they came here. The university waived their nepotism policy for her, to get him.") Max Covington asked her if she knew -- and -- and -- at her old university. "Ah, he directed my thesis," she was relieved to be able to say of the third. "A fine scholar," he said. "He writes something when he has something final to say. He isn't like some of us, who clutter up the world of print every time they have a new enthusiasm." Jane had looked into the mild face of this man, wondering if he was putting down her old professor or himself. "Enthusiasms are important," she had ventured at last, wondering what his old wife had been like: he looked so boyish; he dressed young, like a student. "Sometimes they generate something quite wonderful in other scholars. I think it's showing good will to offer one's professional colleagues the first seed of an interesting idea. Then somebody else might take it up and polish it and rewrite it a hundred times and make it final. But the seed gave the first push."
Later, she saw Max Covington talking to his wife in a corner. They were looking toward her. She left the reception, slipping through clusters of people. She wasn't ready yet.
She found a note in her department mailbox. At first she couldn't decipher the scrawl. Her first thought was that it was a hate note from one of her hippie students. She had inaugurated her own courses with fierceness, to cover up her feelings of inadequacy. But the scrawl was from Sonia, asking her if she would be interested in having lunch at the Union.
To Jane's amazement, the lunch went splendidly. What was all this about fidgeting and roving eyes? Sonia's attention never once wavered from their table, and Jane was disarmed by her colleague's openness, her reckless way of exposing her private life. Before the lunch was over, Jane's curiosity had been satisfied concerning all the little details of the "marriage merry-go-round year" which even the gossips had left dark. "Max's wife had a lover first," said Sonia. She had a way of blushing to the roots of her hair as she gave away these things, as if the intellect Jane had heard so much, about were admonishing her impetuous revelations. "So, of course, that made it easier. Of course, her lover had moved away by the time she confided it, during a fight with Max; but that made him less guilty about confessing his love for me. Then she staged a scene, one of these scenes women stage when they really want to threaten but not act out the threat; she said she and the children could not possibly sleep under the same roof with him another night if he was carrying on with a married woman in his own department; so he said she didn't have to, and moved out to a hotel that very night. I know the gossips say he moved in with me, because Jacob was still away; he was on a research leave that semester -- that famous semester! -- though of course I later found out he was living with Vicky, the girl he's now married to."
"The gossip about you is fascinating," Jane put in, deciding she could afford to be a little reckless herself, under the tutelage of this marvelously open companion. "It makes you sound like some sort of superwoman. I was so impressed I was afraid of meeting you. I was afraid my conversation would bore you. I heard your seminars are so popular that the chairman begs you to do reruns. I wish I could come to one. I was getting up the courage to write you a note, asking you if I could. I am terribly uncertain about my own teaching. I always seem to do all right once I'm in there, but I have this fear -- I always have had -- of losing them, all of them. Once, when I had just begun teaching, as a teaching assistant, I remember a boy suddenly got up and walked out. A few days later I received a slip from the registrar informing me he'd dropped the course. I guess, deep down, I expect them all to get up and walk out one day. I've dreamed about it, even."
"Nobody's going to walk out," said Sonia. "I've heard you're very good, very enthusiastic. One of my students is in your British novel course, and he said he comes just to hear what you're going to say next. And he's not a fool, this student."
"I do try to teach from the standpoint of what interests me," Jane said, her heart glowing absurdly from the news that someone who was not a fool came to class just to hear what she was going to say next; "enthusiastic," applied to her, did not interest her much; and yet, if Sonia used the word the way her husband did, it was a tribute to her, she supposed.
"Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theatre," Sonia said. "It's in the very physical structure of the classroom, and I'm referring to the old-fashioned structure, not this 'we're all in a circle together' junk that the half-assed, ill-prepared, uncharismatic teachers adore so much. In the conventional classroom, what do you have: students in the 'audience,' teacher 'up front.' I make it my business to utilize that separation, and it hasn't seemed to be so unpopular around here." Then she really did blush, having attributed charisma to herself, as well as reminding them both of the well-known fact that she was the most popular teacher with the students, as well as the most hated, or envied, by her fellow faculty members. But Jane liked the security her arrogant frankness implied, and felt it to be a compliment to herself that Sonia could deliver these unpopular statements with such relish to her. It meant that she considered her, if not her equal in achievement, her equal in intention.
She visited Sonia's seminar, and it was theatre: instructive theatre. Sonia walked "onstage" at precisely the dot of the hour. Her first words, uttered in a rather girlish, offhand way, were the words Jane had not heard since convent school: "All right, let's settle down in here. We've got a lot to get done today." To a graduate seminar! And, like obedient children, they did settle down. Barefoot toes were removed from the backs of chairs and slipped respectfully back into sandals or loafers; texts were opened, and in a way that indicated they had been looked at before; ball-point pens were clicked and poised expectantly above notebooks. "I will talk first today," said Sonia, settling herself into a chair and briskly opening a large looseleaf notebook, "because I had a lot of ideas when I was rereading my old friend Hawthorne last night, and I want you to have them hot from the presses. Now, then . . ." And she had not looked up, but Jane saw her go red to the roots again, and knew it was because she was suddenly conscious of being onstage for a colleague. The first hour passed as though it were fifteen minutes, and when Sonia slapped shut the big notebook and said, "Take a five-minute break, and then come back and you talk awhile," Jane looked round the room and realized she was not the only one who was disappointed that the curtain had fallen on Act One. During the break, several students hovered round Sonia's desk, waiting their turn to talk with her. Jane looked down and discovered she had used up every inch on both sides of the two sheets of paper she had brought with her. But perhaps that most telling proof of Sonia's success as a teacher was that, immediately after the second hour of the seminar, Jane went to the bookstore and bought the "Tales and Sketches" they had been discussing. Hawthorne no longer seemed "regional" or "denominational" or merely a successful allegorist to her. He seemed of immediate importance to her own life, and this was due, in large part, to Sonia's method of presenting him. How did she do it? Jane went over her notes and tried to reconstruct that engrossing hour. But it was like reading an abridged version of a play after the star has gone home.
She wrote Sonia a note, trying to thank her without flattering her for the experience; and received a rather curt note back, thanking Jane for "all the nice things you said, but I really have a tenth-rate imagination. What I said during the first hour was not drawn from it at all. I read literature as a means of moving out of my own subjectivity, and use my mind to get into the minds of others, and this makes the world a bigger place for me. This is what I try to show students: that literature is a way out of their own minds, and a consequent expansion unlike anything in the world." Jane burned with remorse as she read this note. What exactly had her own note implied that Sonia misunderstood? She remembered using the word "imagination," but surely it was in Sonia's sense: a method of getting into the minds of others; whereas this cold reply made it sound as if Jane were accusing her of regaling her students with her own fantasies, not Hawthorne's. Had she implied such a thing in her note, which she had written quickly, assuming it would be received in the spirit of that charmingly frank lunch? She stopped by the library, on her way home after classes, and looked up "imagination" in the Oxford English Dictionary, already writing in her mind an explanatory answer to Sonia. She ate supper alone full of snippets and definitions of imagination and how she could rephrase them to fit what she had meant. What had she meant? She went to bed and dreamed Sonia was having lunch with a new teacher at the Union, explaining how Jane and all the other teachers in the department were "half-assed, ill-prepared" and, what is more, in Jane Clifford's case, tried to dissect true charisma. She awoke hearing Sonia's ringing laugh. "She actually tried to steal some of mine!" Sonia cried.
Why, oh, why had she written such a note? What business had she trying to analyze and define Sonia's success with her students? Perhaps she was trying to steal Sonia's success. After all, she was successful in so many things Jane wanted to win at, too.
But when she arrived at school, there was another note in her box. "Dear Jane. Here is a story: 'A woman sends another woman (a friend) a note, in answer to the friend's very nice note. She's not in the habit of writing notes. Her articles are redrafted sometimes as often as fifty times, even her letters go through three or four drafts. But her friend's note was spontaneous and candid, and it called for the same sort of answer, so she tried to express in her own note, exactly as she would talk to this friend, certain things important to her, very accurately. The next day, in another frame of mind, away from her children (who are down with flu), she thinks over what she wrote and in her memory it's partial, pompous, and even a bit insulting. So she writes another note, redoing the first. The next day, in another frame of mind again . . . etc.!' Anyway, what I am saying is I really appreciated your note; it made me start thinking about certain things that interested me, and even gave me an idea for an article. For which I thank you again. I hope you weren't put off by my pomposity. Have a good week. Sonia."
Jane would have written a warm epistle in reply if she hadn't had to rush to a class. As it was, she had only time to scrawl "not put off at all. And I love your 'etc's," and put it in Sonia's box. She could not remember ever having been so relieved at a cleared-up misunderstanding. Sonia had actually used the word "friend" four times in her note. Jane decided her terrible previous evening had been worth it, to find out that not only could this intelligent woman be so open about her private life but, unlike so many intellectuals and scholars with "reputations" to uphold, she could so easily, disarmingly, revise herself.
They met for lunch every other week, at least, continuing their dialogue; and sometimes, on Monday nights, Sonia would invite Jane to have supper with her and the children while Max played squash with a graduate student. The notes between them became a habit when either one of them had an idea; they also served as addenda or revisions of their last meeting.
. . . Tomorrow in class I'm doing a pop woman's fiction book published in the 1860's, and the thought of the soap opera is much on my mind. Jane Eyre is great soap opera! Too many women's lives conform to its pattern. Do you think the soap opera follows life or do we pattern our lives with their innumerable crises and catastrophes and shifting casts of characters after this model? Have a good week. Sonia.
Dear Sonia: Today when we were talking about Hawthorne again, you said that for him the woman represented all the qualities which the man has self-destructively despised in himself and thus projected onto, or "stored" in the woman for safekeeping. You said that (according to Hawthorne) the man needs union with her to restore into himself the sundered parts which would make him a whole human being. Now I can't get out of my mind the possibility that over the centuries we may have abandoned certain human qualities, too: "left them to the men," so to speak, as we leave the garbage and the storm windows to men. I wonder what are these qualities we have given up? Have you any ideas?
Since the first note, which had caused the misunderstanding, Jane kept carbons of her notes to Sonia. She had all their notes in a little folder and sometimes she took out the folder and read through their entire correspondence. She came to feel more comfortable with the notes than with their meetings. In spite of the ease of that first lunch, a nervousness had developed in their personal contacts. The first parts of their lunches and suppers and visits to each other were clumsy and distracted. Their first moments of conversation -- when Sonia came to Jane's and fidgeted with whatever books and magazines were on the coffee table, or when Jane went to Sonia's and ruffled the children's hair and talked more to them, ducking her head toward the floor, than to Sonia -- could be a scene in an afternoon soap opera on TV, where a woman drops by to see another woman. Jane had tried to analyze this nervousness; she supposed Sonia had, too. She believed it, in part, to be that they lived such different routines, Sonia, taken up with her many activities and roles of motherhood, wifehood, star teacher, and herself taken up in dealing with the many selves that make solitary living such a crowded occupation. But she also believed the nervousness to be some primal, instinctual reaction from their very flesh. As if the flesh shrank at the first quiverings of these meetings, which drew so heavily on its energies, and so sent forth its own warning, in the form of erratic little inattentions and unfocusings, trying to short-circuit the two women back into their fleshly, historical species, which used its energies to survive, not to probe and soar.
So, when Jane's doorbell rang on the dot of noon, she went to answer it with misgivings, and she knew that the person on the other side of the door was fighting an unreasonable urge to run down the steps and flee across the frozen lawn before it was too late and the door was opened. Well, it can't be helped, she thought. This is the price we pay for evolving: the deadly drain on our energies, and what security we have stored up for ourselves, when we dare to open our mind and let another examine its contents and afterward go away again, leaving us to pick up the spillings, as an only child regathers his toys after his playmate has left.
Jane opened the door to Sonia.
"Hi, am I late?" said Sonia, who was never early or never late for anything.
"No, right on time."
"Oh, good. I had to get a different baby-sitter today. The girl we have living with us has gone to Chicago with her boyfriend for semester break. My, something smells good. I hope you haven't gone to a lot of trouble."
"No trouble at all. Would you like anything to drink first, to get warm?" Then Jane realized she had only chilled white wine to offer. She laughed and explained.
"Chilled white wine would be lovely," said Sonia. "Only, I have to save some of my wits for later, because I want to grade all my papers tonight. Jacob is taking the kids for semester break and Max and I will have some time to ourselves, which we badly need."
"Sit down. I'll bring the wine in here." Jane waved Sonia toward the sofa.
She heard her sigh as she went out of the room. She heard the experimental rustlings of Sonia turning over the pages of various books and magazines. When Jane came back, Sonia had garrisoned herself into a far corner of the sofa, kicked off her clogs, tucked her feet under her, and was looking through The Odd Women.
"Any good? You're using it for the spring course, aren't you?"
"It's a tough little book. Inelegant, maybe, but I like it. It will work well in the course. What I like about Gissing is that he lets his characters think. They come to horrible ends, most of them, but they keep track of themselves so beautifully along the way. And he writes women well. He doesn't keep the sexual-ironic distance of many male writers when writing about female characters."
"Or female writers writing about male characters," added Sonia. "We must be fair, mustn't we? Ellen Glasgow makes her men seem such fools. Now there's a challenge. Barren Ground. I'm doing it last. It's the book which tests the mettle of the sincerest militant. Most women can identify with heroines who learn to live without marriage; but not so many want to live without love of any kind."
"How true!" And the two women looked at each other for the first time. Thank God for Gissing and Glasgow, thought Jane, pouring them each a full glass of cold white wine.
"What will you do over the break?" asked Sonia.
On an impulse, Jane decided to sacrifice her planned reticence over Edith for the further success of this lunch. Edith would not mind. In fact, if she were able to know, she would probably prefer having her death discussed. She had discussed it herself so often, as if she were planning for it, like a future vacation.
"Actually, I have to go South. My grandmother died early this morning. I'm leaving on the evening plane."
"Oh, I'm sorry! Was she very old? Has she been sick for a long time?"
Jane could see Ediththrough Sonia's eyes: a "grandmother."
"No. I think parts of her were wearing out. Her back gave her trouble. But when the doctor x-rayed it, he said the spine was simply disintegrating and there was nothing he could do. He said, 'What do you expect, at your age,' and she changed doctors. The new doctor, it seems, put her into a small private hospital to see if rest would improve it. She died there -- quite painlessly, my mother said. Almost like taking the next breath."
"How old was she?"
"Well, I figured it up once. She was eighty-six. But she would have been furious if I ever let on that I knew."
"Was she one of those traditional Southern belles?" asked Sonia.
"Oh, Lord, yes," said Jane, beginning to get animated over the prospect of what Gerda would call "mythmaking about your family." "Edith -- we all called her Edith -- was the perfect Southern lady. She was elegant, snobbish, beautiful to the very end. Her skin -- and I'm not exaggerating -- when I saw her this past Christmas was smoother than mine. She took exquisite care of herself. She was a woman who was always in style. I'll tell you a strange story. It just came to me. When I went home this Christmas, Kitty -- that's my mother -- and I went to take Edith to the new doctor, for her back. When we arrived at her apartment, she was sitting very straight in her armchair. She had put up her hair by herself, though we came early especially so we could help her with it. She had her make-up on, her diamond earrings screwed through her ears, her silk blouse, her little diamond brooch, her slip, her stockings, her shoes, and all of her rings. Her face had odd little spots of color in each cheek though she is normally very pale. She prides herself -- I mean prided herself -- on this pallor.
"Now she looked as though she were blushing for shame. As if something had embarrassed her greatly. She looked at us both rather coldly, as if she had forgotten exactly who we were -- these two women who had walked into her apartment. Then she said, rather haughtily, 'I don't think I'll be able to go to that doctor. I haven't the strength to put on my skirt, you see. Kitty, will you please call and cancel the appointment?'
"While Kitty was on the phone, talking to the receptionist, Edith motioned me closer. 'Do you know what happened this morning, Jane? I saw the awfulest thing while I was sitting in front of that mirror getting ready.' I could see her reflection and mine in her triple mirror. It's one of those old-fashioned things with drawers on each side. The three of us have watched ourselves grow older in these funny mirrors. Those mirrors are the only ones I know that show you how you used to look, how you look now, and how you're going to look.
"I asked Edith what she had seen. I had no idea what she would reply, she looked so strange. I have never seen her look so . . . chastened. 'Well,' she said very softly, leaning toward me, 'I saw this . . . I saw this tired little old lady, that's what I saw.' And I've just realized this, Sonia, talking to you: Edith had made up her mind that morning she was going to die. She had died to herself, to her image of herself. It was now only a matter of finding an excuse to justify her death to us."
"Ah, " said Sonia significantly. She drank more wine. "Yes."
Jane was gratified. She knew she had found an audience who appreciated the shape of this story, grasped its symbols and implications.
"I've only been to one funeral," began Sonia. "Jacob, my first husband, and I were in Sweden. We had a fight and I went for a walk by myself in the country. I came to this pretty little white church and went in. Some service was in progress. It was a funeral. I decided to stay. It was very simple and dignified -- in Swedish: I understood the cadence if not the words. When they carried out the coffin, the widow, who was about the age I am now, looked straight at me. It was incredible! At that moment, I understood that I, too, had lost my husband. Our love was dead. That woman had made me see it in one glance. I began crying. Then she smiled, kindly. it was as if we both buried our husbands that day."
"Oh, my God," cried Jane. The two friends looked into their wineglasses, thinking. Then Jane suggested they go into the kitchen and have lunch.
"Excellent soup," said Sonia. She had a way of puckering her mouth, sweet and childlike, as she pronounced her words. Jane liked her sharp, pointy face: like a determined elf's. "Did you make it? How?"
"An apple, and onion, a can of consommé, and a spoonful of curry. Throw it into the blender and slowly add a half-cup of cream."
"I think I may have put too much paprika in. It tastes a little bitter, doesn't it?"
"I don't taste any bitterness. Do you have any sisters or brothers?
"Two half-brothers and a half-sister. Much younger. The boys are thirteen and sixteen and Emily is nineteen. She's in law school. She got married at fifteen."
"No. She's a unique person, all right. I don't think she likes me very much. I think she thinks I have too many problems when life, according to her, has been so simple. I am sure she feels herself, secretly, to be the older sister. I have never known her to be a real child." That's quite enough, thought Jane. No more family myths. We'll have a few moments of awkward silence and soup-slurping and then attempt a mental flight somewhere, as planned.
But Sonia said, "How do you mean? Tell me about her. I'm fascinated."
"Well, to begin with, she decided she wanted this boy who is now her husband when she was twelve years old. He was eighteen at the time. A very shy, isolated boy, the son of one of my mother's best friends, a woman who had died very suddenly and tragically. Kitty often had John -- that's the boy -- and his father to dinner. Emily decided she wanted to marry John one day, and went to work."
"Oh, I want to hear this. How' did she go to work? What do you mean by that: going to work?" Sonia's dark eyes snapped with lively interest and Jane knew she was spellbound.
Yes, that is the story we still love most, she thought. How some woman went to work and got her man. Even "emancipated women" like Sonia love to hear the old, old story one more time.
So Jane launched into the story of how Emily Sparks, age twelve, had looked across the roast beef and potatoes at this shy young man and begun her campaign to annex him to her life. Jane described the fierce Ping-Pong matches in the basement after dinner. "She would rip her best dresses to pieces under the arms to win her point." And the elaborate table settings, the candlelight, the poring over The Joy of Cooking to get it right. "Even at twelve, Emily was an excellent cook, the best in the family, much better than Kitty, because she could organize things and she never got ruffled and she chopped all her onions and things ahead of time -- that kind of thing. Emily would say, 'Kitty, can we have John and his daddy to dinner on Saturday?' and Kitty would say, 'Oh, no, Emily, we just had them and I don't feel like cooking a great big feast.' 'I'll do everything -- if you ask them,' Emily would say, and Kitty, who loathes cooking, fell for the bribe every time.
"The next thing in Emily's favor was that John was lazy. He was not organized. She slowly began taking over his life. She typed his term papers. When she got older, she wrote them. I should mention that Emily is brilliant, perhaps a genius. She skipped three grades; that's how she was ready for college at fifteen. So, at fifteen, she had been offered scholarships to seven colleges. By this time, of course, John had his B.A. and was living at home with his father, sleeping till noon, reading Dickens -- one novel at a time from his father's set of classics -- playing tennis, and on rare occasions riding his own horse, which he kept stabled in the country and sometimes saw as seldom as twice a year. He seemed to be ready to do anything Emily wanted, as long as she took care of the practical arrangements. You must wonder why my sister would want such a passive person; I have wondered myself. But for some reason or reasons he makes her happy and vice versa. I have watched them be together for hours, doing nothing much, drinking Cokes and smoking and reading the funny papers. He is brilliant, too, in an offhand sort of way. He can do anything in math or physics, run computers, build things with his hands, fix any kind of machine that has broken down. I think Emily and John have found in each other the childhood they never had. Well, Emily decided on Tulane, and then she sat down and went through the New Orleans telephone directory and wrote innumerable letters, which John agreeably signed, and he got a job designing refrigerators in that city, and off they went. The first semester, Emily lived in a dormitory because Kitty wanted her to have a taste of college life, she said, and then at Christmas they came home and had a big wedding and went back to the apartment Emily had found and rented for them."
"I love this story," said Sonia. "May I pour myself some more wine? Here, let me pour you some, too."
"And then, when Emily graduated and decided she wanted to go to law school in her own state -- as she intends to practice there -- she finished completing all her own forms and once again got out the telephone directory, and now John has a job programming computers. It's a good job for John because it doesn't start till one, so he can continue to sleep till noon.
"I've been to visit them once -- they have a house now; they bought a small house near the campus. While it's not a life I could lead for one minute, I can't help but admire the accommodation they have made to each other. Emily seems always terribly busy, abstracted, with all her studies, and then she's in all sorts of political activities which she drags John along to if he wants to come or leaves him home if not. Their house is a mess and yet it's organized. John has arranged all her books in one room, in alphabetical order, and all his in another, in alphabetical order, and their records, according to the type of music and then also in alphabetical order, and even Emily's spices in the kitchen in alphabetical order. But there are cigarette burns all over the sheets and the ashtrays are always overflowing -- both of them smoke like fiends; they have to go to the dentist every two or three months to get the stains scraped off their teeth, and God knows what their lungs look like -- and when Kitty was down there, she discovered some strange sticky, syrupy substance on either side of their bed. It turned out to be the leakage from Coke bottles. Apparently, they lie in bed and smoke and read comics and drink Cokes all the time. The funny thing, when I was staying with them, I got the feeling 'Here are two children playing house,' except that's not the way real children would do it. Real children would ape the 'responsible routines' they have observed in grownups. Emily and John have no routine. They don't seem to have any guilt, somehow, about when they should be doing what and what they should be doing next in their lives. Even Emily's law school -- she never gets upset about it. Once I asked her, 'What would you do if you flunked out; don't you have a horror of flunking out?' You know what she said? 'Oh, Calamity Jane' -- she has a trunkload of 'Jane epithets' for me: 'Plain Jane,' 'Calamity Jane,' 'Pain'--' you worry too much. If I flunk out, I'll do something else. I'll have a little baby, maybe, and John will teach it how to make model airplanes.' John, by the way, makes the loveliest model airplanes. He gave me one for my thirtieth birthday, a Flying Tiger. You know what he said? 'Here, Jane, have yourself a ball.' Sonia what is it? We weren't like them. But how are they different? They are different. I study my students, their attitudes, even the way they walk along the halls -- more dreamy, somehow -- but I can't put my finger on it."
"I know what you mean," said Sonia. "Well, for one thing, they are pretty much in love with themselves. We hated ourselves.
"Yes, that's certainly true."
Jane opened a second bottle of wine and poured each a generous amount. Sonia did not protest. She seemed to have forgotten her decision to save a few wits in order to grade papers. Perhaps that had been ladies' lunch talk; perhaps Sonia Marks could grade papers after swigging many glasses of wine as triumphantly as she did everything else.
>"Jane, what's it like to live alone? Do you know I never have? I married Jacob right out of college. I went from my roommate to Jacob. The only time I came anywhere close to it was when Jacob went away on that research semester and Max and I hadn't gotten together openly, yet. And I had the children then, so it doesn't fully count."
"What is it like?" Jane wanted to give Sonia as much of the truth as she could, because for a long time she had felt miserly in the confidences department with this friend. Sonia did not know about Gabriel, and thus remained in the dark concerning a whole side of Jane. Jane had kept back Gabriel, despite frequent urges to confess all and ask Sonia's advice about how one won a man away from his old wife. But the circumstances in her case were so different. And she did not want to give up a certain advantage in this relationship (Sonia had so many advantages!); the advantage of appearing to be a person content in her solitude, who functioned alone out of fastidious choice.
"Some of the time I like it," she said. "There is an intensity about it which can work toward your clarifying things more quickly. Though this same intensity can often turn itself inside out and work to haunt you. Everything takes on more weight, even little things, when there is no one, no outside thing, to diffuse your attention from yourself. Another thing that happens is that time functions differently. I mean the minutes tick by, but sometimes one minute can take a whole hour. Or the other way round. Same with chronology. When you are alone, you are all over your life: a child one minute, an old woman the next. I often forget my age when I'm alone. There is no one in present time with you to reassure you that you are in the year 1971 or 1972 and not in 1948 or 1986. All your ages sort of enter your head and swim round and round like little fish. Only, sometimes a dark fish surfaces and pervades everything. Another thing is, I think living alone spoils you. It makes it harder to get together with someone, if you ever do. Living alone makes you your own only child. There is nobody else to please, nobody's schedule or temper to consult but your own. Your only lonely self's. I say self, but that is another aspect of living alone: the self splits into many. Say, for instance, I'm in a bad mood and would like to pick a fight, only I don't have parents or a sister or a husband to pick a fight with. So I find some part of myself to have my fight with. I single it out and focus on it and make it miserable. I divide myself into tormentor and victim. One torments, the other cries out in pain, and the whole thing hurts. I suppose if one divided oneself and didn't manage to keep track of the whole thing, madness would result. Then there are scary times. I don't have them often, thank God. These awful states of dangerous awareness, as if someone had slit a gash in that thin web of sanity that holds in my wholeness, and I start to believe that this web is the only thing that makes me me. Inside the web is a sort of liquid state, which contains all the things in everybody, all the things in the world, not 'mine' anymore than anybody else's. And I am terrified that this liquid will start running out of me and seek its natural source, some kind of Source Sea which contains elements of everybody, all kinds of habits and attitudes and characteristics of future people. If this should happen, I know I will cease to be. What was 'I' will be a crumpled empty skin, a web vacated. Like -- well, for instance, afterbirth, if you want to look at it positively, with Hindu detachment; like a corpse, if you are in the mood to mourn the loss of your self." Jane took some more wine. Her "web" at this minute was quivering with opposing sensations. Self-satisfaction, because she could see she had impressed the other woman, had described a state to her that she had not been privileged to experience, living with so many people; and fear, as if the impersonal tides pushed against the web with vengeance, murmuring, "Just you wait till she leaves and you're alone again with us. We'll fix you for giving away what should never be put into words."
"That is very strange," said Sonia. "I can't quite get hold of it. I don't think I have ever felt anything quite like it, no. It's like another plane of living altogether." She puckered up her face, looking like a contemplative imp, if there was such a thing. Behind her forehead, things seemed to move very quickly; Jane felt them move, could almost see waves and eddies of thought, knocking against one another, now and then stilled by a great shadow of the incomprehensible. "Perhaps I would have had it after Jacob left, if I hadn't had Ruthie and Michael. Oh, sometimes at night, after they were asleep, I would be lying in bed reading or correcting papers and I would suddenly remember the old life, when Jacob would be lying next to me, also reading, or we would be talking, and he would say, 'Sonia, baby, how about a salami sandwich?' God, how I sometimes hated him for that, because you know who had to go and make it. When he was next to me, all those years, there was always a little part of my brain separate from whatever I was doing or reading, waiting, sort of hoping in a masochistic way, to hear those words which would send me downstairs in the cold, into the dark kitchen to make that damn salami sandwich. But after he was gone, you know what happened? I still waited for the voice, and I still heard it: 'Sonia, baby, how about a salami sandwich?' And I got in the habit of going down in the dark and making them for myself. Now I'm mad about salami sandwiches; I have been ever since that funny period which is as near as I ever came to being truly alone. Max makes them for me now. I love him for that. I had told him this little story, you see; and one night, not too long after we had been married, we were both correcting papers in bed, and suddenly he laughed to himself and put on his bathrobe and socks and went downstairs and came back with two plates with salami sandwiches, and potato chips and pickles on the side. Oh!" And Sonia was suddenly somewhere else; she gave her famous blush, to the roots of her hair. "I remember how much I loved him at that moment. Afterwards . . . well! We didn't get all the potato chips out of the bed for months. in fact, I still think I feet one scraping against me occasionally." She laughed to herself and looked quite touching, very vulnerable, and Jane saw for a second the woman Max Covington saw late at night, a woman who would be unrecognizable to the gossips who saw Sonia Marks rolling impatient eyes toward the next achievement, or controlling her students like a Russian dictator.
Then she suddenly changed expression and was back with Jane. "It's odd to me that you never married," she said. "How ever did you manage to avoid it? You can't tell me you haven't had some close calls."
"I was engaged once, when I was in England. After I finished undergraduate school, Edith gave me a trip abroad. I got engaged to a nice boy, just out of Oxford, who was apprenticed to a solicitor's firm in London. I used to spend weekends with him and his parents in the country. It fell through, and I really think we were both relieved. We had a huge celebration at the Old Bell in Hurley the night we decided to break it off. He spent more on the meal than he had ever spent on any previous occasion. And we laughed more that evening than we had ever laughed during the entire time we had known each other. Then, in graduate school, there were several -- I don't want to call them lovers, because there wasn't much love. it was as if each was using the other to resolve some separate loneliness. But I actually think we increased each other's loneliness. And this is the sad thing: each of us knew the other was not really what was wanted. It was all so sad that after a while I gave up that sort of thing. It was like going to bed with one's own dissatisfaction, and who could blame whom if it wasn't satisfying?"
"You gave up that sort of thing," repeated Sonia, looking at the wine in her glass, and Jane knew Sonia was dying to ask if this "giving up" had lasted into the present moment. Now was the time to tell about Gabriel, maybe just a little bit today, maybe just the simple words "There is someone I love now . . . . " She was on the verge, just on the edge of saying it when Sonia continued: "I've been trying to think of a man you would find satisfying."
"Oh, there's no one around here," said Jane, feeling her mouth turn down at the corners, all on its own. She was slightly drunk. Now, she thought, now. Now is the time to add, "But there is someone . . . ."
"Oh, I didn't mean in real life," Sonia surprised and dismayed her by replying. "I meant in literature. I considered Knightley seriously, but I think you need a little more pizazz. Heathcliff has pizazz, but I don't think you'd fall for someone that unstable. Then there's Rochester, but there's also his wife in the attic, and I'd wish you better than that. I gave up for the time being. I couldn't come up with anyone."
Jane felt bereft.
Ballantine Books | Paperback| 464 pages