By the time Nan was a sophomore in college, she’d settled in—but
only academically, which was what she figured would happen. Her teachers
admired her—they said they respected that her ideas were based
on her impressions rather than her speculations. She didn’t know
what that meant, but she never attempted to decode the praise of her
professors—it was the delivery, the facial expression, how their
hands moved in the air, the tone of voice, that seemed to communicate
what she was meant to understand, like when she was at home, in Vermont,
where the science behind the sunlight, the snow squalls, and the changing
leaves seemed secondary to the fact that, more than anything, being
in and among them made her feel alive.
Since she declared her major, never was this feeling of intangible appreciation
more powerful than with her adviser in the English department. He looked like
he was around forty, and probably was, except that he acted older—he had
the warm, patient air of the elderly, which she characterized as an affectation
of academia. She imagined his was the same demeanor of cultured Europeans, although
she’d never been to Europe—except for coming to college in New York
City, she’d hardly left her small town in the Northwest Kingdom. In high
school, on the weekends, instead of going to the A&W parking lot to hang
around in people’s cars, or the pastures beyond the farms to get drunk
and race tractors, she would sit with her parents and watch the few non-pornographic
foreign movies the general store had in its video collection: Wild Strawberries, The
400 Blows, Cinema Paradiso. She had seen A Room with a View so
many times she’d worn out the tape. Each time she walked into her adviser’s
office and found him raising a steaming mug of tea to his lips, or rubbing tiny
circles into his temples with his long, bony fingers, she’d think: He
could have been in any one of those films.
He had recently invited her to dinner at his apartment on Riverside Drive, across
the street from a large bronze statue of a horse and rider that had oxidized
to a robin’s egg blue. In the kitchen his young wife, dressed in a sleek
gray wool suit that looked like a designer’s sketch laid perfectly over
her thin frame, emptied all the white Chinese take-out food containers into separate
serving dishes. Watching the glamorous woman forgo the inherent convenience of
take-out food made her feel young and unrefined—more the rural scholarship
student than ever, and it took all her strength to keep from running out of the
At the dining-room table their five-year-old twin boys joined them—appearing
from a room she hadn’t seen on the brief tour her adviser had given her.
The boys had sandy hair, their mother’s green eyes, and crooked white chips
for teeth. They ate their food distractedly, but with admirable mastery over
their chopsticks. Every now and then they abandoned their meals and dipped down
from their chairs to play games on the rug. It was spring, and in an effort to
look nice, perhaps even cosmopolitan, Nan had worn a skirt. But when she sat
down for dinner, she noticed it rose up higher on her knees than she’d
realized. So she stuffed her napkin into the crease between her thighs and turned
her legs strategically away from wherever she thought the boys might be playing.
She ate slowly, carefully, wiping her oily hands, only when necessary, on her
A few nights later she saw her adviser at a deli on Broadway, and he insisted
on paying for the coffee and buttered roll she’d ordered. To be polite,
she accepted, not feeling too badly about it since it was such a cheap snack;
he paid with all coins. Outside, on the street, he told her how much he’d
enjoyed having her over for dinner, and how he believed his boys had developed
competing crushes on her. This, she knew, was a lie, considering that boys her
own age—at any age she’d ever been—had never had crushes on
her. It was impossible for her to fathom that children might. She was not fat,
but sort of thick; not ugly, but plain, nearly non-descript. As an adolescent
she used to gaze into the mirror searching for something that set her apart—Maybe
my eyebrows, she thought. Maybe my eyelashes. She had limp beige
hair and brown eyes the color of cake. Over the years she’d grown used
to never being the object of anyone’s affection. What she wasn’t
used to, however, was someone making the effort to convince her that she actually
She thanked him for paying for the snack, and again for the dinner, and told
him, nervously, needlessly, how she’d loved his home—the old Turkish
rugs, the framed Picasso etching, and the built-in bookshelves in the living
“I’m glad you liked the place,” he said. “We’re
very happy there.”
“I would be too,” she said.
He looked at her and tilted his head, smiling. Over his shoulder she saw the
M104 bus cruising up Broadway, and considered diving under it. Instead she took
off toward the corner, in shame, and he followed. When they parted ways, he took
her hand and kissed it gently, just above the knuckles.
Nan had cried on the day she received the acceptance letter for college
in New York—alone, up in her room, while her parents were making
dinner downstairs. A few days later, when she received the financial
aid letter informing her of her fully paid scholarship, she burst into
tears right in front of them, while they were playing Scrabble by the
fire in the living room. She was not a crier, and her parents were
alarmed. She showed them the letter, and once they had both read it
through, they wept too, although not for the same reason she had.
“I don’t want to go!” she said.
“You must!” said her mother tearfully, throwing her thick gray
braid over her shoulder to punctuate her certainty. “For God’s
“You have to live your life,” said her father, putting his arm
around her. She felt his worn chamois shirt against her neck. “We all
do—we’re trying; you’re trying. This way, with this, you
can do more—this is a gift.”
“It’s not,” she said. “I can’t!”
“You’ve worked too hard!” said her mother. “In school.
Too hard to stay around here. You know your brother would want—”
“He would want you to go,” said her father.
“I know that!” she cried.
In January of her senior year, four months before she received the
letters, her brother had fallen through the ice on the river, just
below the covered wooden bridge near their house. He had finished his
shift at the hardware store in town and stopped by the river to skate
while the moon rose. He was alone, which was his custom—when
he skated and in general. He had barely finished high school because
he was uninterested and undisciplined in studying, and slightly dyslexic;
he never even considered going to college. After graduation he moved
into a semi-furnished apartment above a family friend’s garage,
but he mostly spent his free time at home, with his parents and with
Nan, whom he believed to be the smartest girl in all of Vermont—something
he told her all the time. She would often come home from school and
find him in the kitchen, drinking cold coffee in a juice glass, with
one of the cats on his lap, looking out the window. Sometimes it appeared
that he had been waiting for her.
Nan’s two—and only—friends in New York, Annabelle
and Gina, her freshman-year roommates, had transferred to other schools
after their fist year. Annabelle went to a women’s college in
California, and Gina went to France, where her family had moved. Nan
came back to school for her sophomore year, friendless and adrift,
and instead of going back into the dorms, she moved into a two-bedroom
university apartment on Claremont Avenue that she’d found through
the housing office. She lived with a graduate student named Peter who
was always in Chicago doing research in genetics. Eventually he moved
out completely, just before Christmas, and for a week or so before
the holiday break Nan had the whole apartment to herself, which she
thought would feel exciting—like having a real life in the city,
rather than the life of a student posing as a resident. But whenever
she came in off the street and took the elevator up to her empty place,
she felt an acute sense of loss; the loss of her self—stepping
through the door was like entering a void unknown to anyone who might,
by chance, be trying to find her. But no one, she knew, was trying
to find her, and the barren apartment just made that fact clearer.
So she called each of her professors and told them that she had to
be home early because of “a complicated family matter”—an
excuse that, since her brother’s death, never seemed to wane
in validity—arranged to take her exams early, and rushed back
After vacation—refreshed, stabilized—she returned to New
York to find her apartment smelling strongly of sandalwood, women’s
deodorant, and a spice she couldn’t quite place. Four lit scented
candles in decorative glass jars were lined up on the living-room coffee
table, and a lanky blond girl was asleep on the couch with a heating
pad wrapped around her waist and a bright, peach-colored shawl covering
her head. Nan peeked into Peter’s old room and saw half a dozen
suitcases that looked as if they’d exploded; clothing and shoes
and underwear were everywhere. She went back into the living room and
stared at the sleeping girl, who, she noticed on closer inspection,
was only pretending to sleep—her breathing was erratic, her foot
“Hello?” said Nan.
“Hey,” said a voice from underneath the shawl.
“Are you my new roommate?” she said.
“Yup,” said the girl. “The housing office hooked me up.” The
girl pulled the shawl down from her face. She was pretty, with fine, symmetrical
features that, nonetheless, looked haggard. “Do you mind that I have
these candles here?” she said.
“I think they might be a fire hazard,” said Nan.
“I hope you’re joking,” the girl said in an annoyed voice.
“Yes,” said Nan quickly, and with fear. “I am. They’re
nice. They smell really nice. What’s the scent?”
The girl eyed the candles suspiciously. “I don’t know,” she
said. “Something, though. They were expensive.”
The girl got up, rising like a large bird from the reeds in a pond.
She was at least six inches taller than Nan and stick thin. The girl
steadied herself against the couch before moving toward Nan.
“Are you okay?” said Nan.
“I just got out of the hospital,” she said drily. “So it’s
going to take a while to ‘get back into life.’” She made
the air quotes gesture with her fingers when she said this, and rolled her
“Oh. Well,” said Nan, extending her hand. “I’m Nan.”
The girl took Nan’s fingers against her palm. Nan thought the
girl might start laughing, and she immediately recalled the girls in
her high school that used to laugh at her, and the boys, too. She thought
of how disappointed the girl must be to move into a new apartment and
find someone like her—as boring and dour as bad wallpaper.
“I’m Mimi,” said the girl.
“Hi,” said Nan. “Welcome.”
“Thanks,” said Mimi, releasing Nan’s hand. “And don’t
worry about me invading your privacy—your space. No one knows how long
I’ll be sticking around.”
Her adviser called two days after they’d seen each other at
the deli. He asked her to go with him to a lecture on Wordsworth, which
was being held in a private residence on West End Avenue. Without thinking,
she told him yes. When she hung up, however, she felt a pang of regret—and
genuine fear—thinking of his voice, his tentative, stuttering
invitation, stated nearly in a whisper. She sat and stared into space,
feeling helpless. She had no one to speculate with about what the call
might mean. Even when Annabelle and Gina were around, they mostly talked
about books they’d read or movies they’d seen. If they
talked about boys, they were usually characters in the books or movies
they discussed. Sometimes they mooned over the unattainable graduate
students who worked as teacher’s aides or occasionally lectured
in their classes, and sometimes they kept tabs on the alluring men
they’d see walking around the neighborhood who they knew were
not students, but about whom very little else was known. Of the three
girls, none of them, over the course of their freshman year, had had
a boyfriend, and only one—Annabelle—wasn’t a virgin.
Mimi came out of the bathroom and leaned in the doorway to Nan’s
room. She was wearing a pink halter top and high-heeled sandals; her
hip bones jutted out from above the elastic waistband of her shorts.
“You know, I feel that at all times,” she said, “I always
have some amount of urine in my bladder.” She looked at Nan thoughtfully. “I’m
never just completely empty.”
Nan looked at her but thought only of the phone call. Did he call from
his office? Was he at home? Was he on his cell phone, calling from
the street? She had a memory of seeing him on campus talking on his
cell phone beside the fountain—it was a sweet image, the tiny
phone pressed up against his face; it seemed so weird, so out of place,
like sunglasses on a baby.
“I’ve learned so much about my body over these last few months,” said
Mimi. “That I feel like I could take myself apart and put myself back
together again. Do you know what I mean?” She looked at Nan and cocked
her head. “You’re in a weird mood, aren’t you?”
Nan took her hand off the phone. “No,” she said.
“Yes, you are,” said Mimi. “You are! You are! You can’t
hide it from me!”
“I’m not hiding anything—”
“Just by saying that,” said Mimi, “you’re admitting
“No, I’m not,” she said.
“Everyone has guilt,” said Mimi. “Before I went into the
hospital, I didn’t think I had any guilt either, but when I got there,
I realized that I was almost entirely comprised of it. And then we
had to do something about that.”
“That’s how I was encouraged to approach it—a collective
effort toward recovery,” she said. “We’ve made giant
“I haven’t really, actually,” said Mimi with a broad smile. “But
I made them believe that I did so they would let me go.” She bugged out
her eyes at Nan. “And now you get to deal with me!”
She pranced out the door and into the kitchen, where Nan heard her
filling the kettle.
Nan picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hello?” said her father.
“Dad,” she said.
“This is your dad,” he said, his voice as warm as her adviser’s,
which made her think: Oh, no! It was just the voice of a father. It’s
just a father’s warm voice!
“I know,” she said. “Hi. Is Mom there?”
“Where do you think she is?” he said.
“In her studio?” she said.
“Naturally,” he said. “She’s got forty bowls to make
for a wedding in June.”
“I don’t know,” said her father. “Some assholes from
“Are you making anything for it?”
“A bower,” he said. “They want a damned bower to get married
under. So I’m making that—out of cherry. Can you believe that?
They want cherry.”
She pictured him sitting on one of the stools in the kitchen. He’d
made most of the furniture in their house, plus a carved headboard
for her ninth birthday, decorated with birds and leaves, and a tree
house for her brother that had a tar-paper roof and a fireproof pedestal
for his camping stove. Except for the glassware, her mother had made
most of their dishes and all the vases they used for wildflowers. “How’s
school?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” she said. She didn’t want to tell her
father about her adviser. She wouldn’t have told her mother, either,
but she would have alluded to it—substituted “boy” for “adviser,” and “coffee” for “poetry
lecture”—just to get her ideas. She couldn’t do that with
her father. He’d always seemed happy with the fact that boys, and now
men, had never seemed to take any hold on her life.
“Maybe I’ll call you guys back on our regular day,” she said. “Sunday.”
“Is there a reason you’re calling, this not being our regular day?” he
said. “Is something wrong?”
She didn’t know how to answer that. So many parts of this situation
could be considered wrong—her adviser’s kiss, her inability
to gauge the nature of his invitation, the low-grade thrum of interest
she felt somewhere behind her heart, her curiosity secretly piqued.
“I’m just confused,” she said.
“Well, that’s not very like you,” he said.
And with that she had no choice but to tell him—because it was like
her, it was her. If she let the comment go, she’d be
lying to him, or to herself. She didn’t know—she was a
ball of confusion, unruly and tangled like the contents of her hairbrush. “I
think a boy asked me out for coffee,” she said. “But I
can’t tell if I should go.”
“Oh, dear,” said her father. “You will be needing your mother
“No, Dad,” she said. “Please try.”
“Okay,” he said, sighing. “I’ll give it a shot.” He
paused, and in the silence before he spoke again she could hear birdsong coming
from his end of the line. On her end there were police sirens and loud, harsh
blasts from the tugboats on the Hudson River. She felt a wave of raw longing
to be there in their sunny kitchen, or in their yard, where the magnolia was
most likely blooming—to be back at home, to be safe, far away from these
“Well, do you and this boy know each other?” he asked. “Have
you spent time together?”
“I know him,” she said tentatively. “I’ve spent time
with him. Not a whole lot of one-on-one time. Actually . . .”
“Does it come as a surprise that he would call you?” he asked. “Or
that he would ask you out on a date?”
“We’ve had dinner,” she said. “Once.”
“Alone?” he said, his voice rising slightly.
“No,” she said. “Other people were there.”
“Well,” he said. “I guess this would be different because
it would be just the two of you.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s the part that would be different.”
“Going out for a cup of coffee isn’t exactly serious,” he
said. “It sounds very casual to me. I’d say go.” He sounded
conclusive, relieved. “You’re young and you’re in the city.
I’m sure Mom would agree. Things should be fun for you. You should live
“Okay,” she said after a few moments.
“I get the feeling that you would have rather had me say something different.”
“No,” she said. “It’s fine.”
She wanted to say: “I just want to come home. Why can’t
that be an acceptable thing to want? I wasn’t ready for this—to
come here, to move on, to begin a new life. Why can’t you just
tell me to come home? Why can’t you tell me that, in your mind,
this was a mistake, and it’s not my fault, but that I should
just come back?”
“I’m just still a bit confused,” she said.
“Well,” he sighed. “I tried.”
“I know,” she said. “So did I.”
She said good-bye and hung up; Mimi appeared in her doorway, grinning.
“I heard everything you were talking about,” she said, doing improvised
ballet stretches, pointing her toes toward Nan. “And now I know why you’re
in such a weird mood. You have a date!”
“I don’t have a date,” said Nan, staring hard at her bedspread.
“Don’t lie to me!” said Mimi, bouncing from foot to foot. “I
heard it with my own ears! I have very acute hearing! It’s the one part
of me left that’s actually still working right!”
“Well,” said Nan. “I’m not going to go.”
“Oh, yes you are!” said Mimi, kicking up her leg. “You’re
going to go! You’re going to get out of this freaking apartment, and
you’re totally going to get laid!”
Nan fled the apartment while Mimi was in the bathroom, and went to
pick up her paycheck at the language lab. Her boss had tacked it to
the corkboard above the punch clock, along with a note asking her to
pick up two additional shifts for someone who was going on vacation.
Just by his asking, she knew he expected her to do it. She read the
note over and over, reflecting on what a dependable and trustworthy
person she’d always been—and she was happy to be that way;
it was never a burden for her to be kind or willing to help those in
need. But sometimes, especially in moments like this, she worried she
might have missed the chance, the opportunity, to try being something
else—not to be the opposite of who she was, but perhaps someone
slightly different. This idea, she knew, had been born in New York,
but it was always attended by the image, sudden and unbidden, of the
frozen hole in the river ice—not of her brother falling in and
struggling, but of the scene after he was gone, the empty silence,
the sound of what would never be recovered.
She left the language lab without responding to her boss’s note.
The check in her hand was for $145.35—one week’s worth
of work sitting behind a desk, handing out tapes and CDs, showing movies
in the screening rooms, and archiving language primers and course materials.
Looking at the check, she knew that she could do one of two things:
go to the bank and deposit the money directly into her account (what
she always did), or cash the check at student services and go to the
boutique on 112th street and buy the Indian-print skirt—cut above
the knee, ruffled at the hem, yellow print on blue fabric—hanging
in the window (what she’d never do). As usual, to stave off reckless
spending, she reviewed the terms of her scholarship: it paid for her
tuition, books, and the most basic food and living expenses; it helped
her get one of the higher-paying work-study jobs on campus, which supplemented
other things—groceries, personal extravagances like movies and
bakery items, bus tickets to and from Vermont. She rarely spent her
money on new clothes—she wore what she’d brought from home,
which she’d picked up with her mother at yard sales or dry-goods
stores or thrift shops. When she first arrived in New York and saw
all the well-dressed students in school and on the streets, a new,
unexpected inadequacy had bloomed within her and settled neatly alongside
her other insecurities. Sometimes she saw homeless people wearing similar
items of clothing that she owned, or sometimes she recognized a blazer
or sweater or scarf on the elderly residents of the nursing home on
Amsterdam Avenue when the nurses brought them out in their wheelchairs
to sit in the garden by the sidewalk.
As she walked through campus toward her bank’s branch on Broadway,
it began to rain. She hustled toward the library and waited under an
eave as the storm poured down. A man ran by, soaked, yelling into a
cell phone. She thought of her adviser—his voice on the phone.
Had he been calling from home? I’ve seen his house, where
he lives, she thought. Was he there now?
Why did he feel the need to show me his collection of Proust first editions? she
wondered. Or the cloth doll with the leather hat and vest that he’d
bought in the Lake District? Or the erotic mono print of a couple languishing—exposed,
aroused—hanging in his study? The image of his young wife flashed
before her eyes: fashionable in an almost alien way, sharp shouldered and gaunt
like a mantis.
She took off through the rain toward the student center, her paycheck
clutched in her hand. She felt the cold raindrops pelting her scalp
through her hair as she threw open the door and headed for the cashier. I’m
a fool, she thought. I’m a fool.
When Mimi came into her room that night, it was late, but Nan was not
asleep. She was staring at the digital display on her clock radio and
listening to the sound of the garbage collectors throwing cans around
“Are you sleeping?” said Mimi, tapping Nan gently on her foot.
“No,” she said.
“Good,” said Mimi. “Me neither.”
Nan rolled over and faced the wall, preparing herself for what might
be hours of passive listening. It was always the same with Mimi—she
only wanted someone to direct her voice at and needed little more than
a nod or slight murmur of acknowledgment to keep her talking. Nan felt
like a piece of furniture during these talks—used and disregarded
at the same time. Except she genuinely felt sorry for Mimi, who, after
all, had almost died—last fall an ambulance drove onto campus
with all its lights flashing and retrieved Mimi from her art history
class, where she’d collapsed. In one of her divulging narratives
since she’d moved in Mimi had confessed to Nan that she’d
been starving herself since she was in the tenth grade, and up until
the point when she was hospitalized, her daily intake of food had been
little more than half a can of corn Niblets and ten cups of Sanka.
“You know when you can’t sleep because your mind is racing and
it won’t stop?” said Mimi, leaning back over Nan’s extended
legs. Nan felt Mimi’s sharp spine against her shins. “That’s
how it is with me right now.”
“Maybe you should get up earlier,” said Nan after a few moments. “So
that at night you’re more tired.” It was something her father would
have suggested, and she smiled, thinking about what he might say knowing she
was using his words of advice on a person she knew he would find completely
“I’m not a morning person,” she said. “I used to think
I was a night person, a night bird—”
“A night owl,” said Nan, picturing the barn owl that lived and
hunted near her home. It would leave the carcasses of voles and mice on the
paving stones on their front walk, picked apart, emptied, and yet somehow still
intact, so whenever she found them, she’d think, at first, that they
were still alive.
“Owl,” said Mimi. “Right. Night owl. But I don’t think
I’m that, either.” She sighed heavily. “Sometimes I don’t
think I’m a person at all.”
Nan felt Mimi’s body shudder against her legs. In the shadowy
room she heard her begin to cry.
“At least in the hospital,” she said in a watery voice, “they
gave you pills to sleep. You didn’t have to try—you didn’t
have to convince your brain to stop working. It was automatic, like unplugging
a light—it just goes out. You take a pill and you’re gone.”
Nan was quiet. It wasn’t that she lacked the ability to be comforting
and sympathetic, but she doubted if her approach to empathy—forged
by her sole pastoral tragedy—could apply to these new urban realms:
starvation, self-hatred, the bankruptcy of an Upper East Side childhood,
which, over the months, Mimi had recounted. In one story a driver shuttled
a lonely girl to and from school in a limo; in another a loving Caribbean
woman raised the girl like her own child and then one day disappeared;
in another, when the girl was twelve, she lost her virginity to her
mother’s personal trainer, on a towel in the laundry room.
“At night, I think,” said Nan, “things always seem harder.”
This is what her mother had told her after they finally found her brother,
two days after he’d been missing. The police and rescue teams
had melted portions of the river with gas torches, near the bends and
narrows and shallow pools, until they finally found the body, about
a quarter mile from where he fell in, snagged in the branches of a
Once they had buried him, Nan would lie awake in bed at night and picture
the river in her mind; she would follow its course, floating above
its surface like a ghost. She would begin at the glassy, black hole
where he had gone in, and continue downstream to the place where they
had found him, in the white tree. Then she would return, against the
current, to the hole, and then she would go back to the tree—all
in her head, back and forth, flying through the evening in the same
“I think you’re right,” said Mimi. “It is always harder
at night.” She pulled up her legs, and Nan heard her clogs fall to the
floor. She curled up on the end of the bed. “But why is that?”
Nan thought about how she would explain this without telling Mimi about
her brother. Over the four months of living together she had told her
virtually nothing about herself, and Mimi, being who she was, had never
asked. As time went by and the one-way conversations continued, Nan
grew territorial and proud of what she’d withheld in the face
of so much desperate confession.
Mimi started to cry again. “Seriously,” she said. “Why?”
“Because, I think,” said Nan quickly, her pity surpassing her will, “it’s
when you’re most alone. It’s when you realize how alone you are.”
“But you’re always alone, Nan,” said Mimi, sniffing. “Night
and day—all the time.”
She had an uncontrollable urge to shove the spindly girl off her bed
with a quick kick of her heels; it wouldn’t take much. She had
been suckered, her innocence abused. And yet there was something different
about this—something about how Mimi had said what she did; it
lacked her usual blasé ignorance and expressed, instead, an
authentic concern—an abundance of the same empathy Nan herself
was so hesitant to dispense. Mimi, whose eyes might as well have been
set backwards in her skull, had noticed her—and Nan felt accounted
for and, therefore, disarmed. “I know,” she said.
“But why?” said Mimi, adjusting closer against Nan’s legs.
“I don’t know,” said Nan. “It’s just the way
it’s always been.”
“How can that be?” said Mimi. “You can’t always be
alone. I mean, do you have family?”
“Of course I have a family,” she said. “My parents live in
“But no siblings?”
Nan stopped and thought, considering the risks at hand. “No,” she
said. She was about to say “not anymore,” but Mimi interrupted
“Were your parents totally freaked out about you coming to New York by
yourself?” said Mimi in a tone that suggested that such a response would
Nan remembered a story Mimi had told her about her parents forgetting
her on vacation, at the airport, and how she had to fly back from San
Juan by herself. Or when she and her younger sister were left in the
care of the doorman of their apartment on Park Avenue for the weekend,
while their mother entertained a man they didn’t know in their
house in the Berkshires.
“No,” said Nan. “They were excited for me. I think they’re
hoping this is where my life will begin.”
“That’s funny,” said Mimi. “It’s where my life
almost ended. Twice.” “Twice?”
“We don’t have to talk about it,” said Mimi, crawling up
the bed to lie parallel with Nan, her head on the other pillow. “Let’s
talk about something else.”
Nan said nothing.
“Let’s talk about your date tomorrow.”
“No, let’s not,” said Nan, recoiling slightly from Mimi’s
face, a few inches away from her own. “And it’s not a date.”
“Well, whatever it is,” said Mimi, her voice softening with sleep, “maybe
your parents’ wish will come true, and your new, exciting life will begin.”
When Nan got home from her day of classes, the apartment was empty.
She had not seen Mimi that morning because she had left the bed before
Nan woke up—there were only a few strands of blond hair spanning
the length of the pillow.
Nan took the skirt, still in the shopping bag, from her bottom dresser
drawer and laid it over her bedspread. It looked thin and flimsy, like
a rag. She stared at it and prepared the lie she would tell Mimi when
she saw her next. She would say that the date was a disaster and would
describe it in Mimi-speak, saying something like “He was a nightmare” or “He
was hideous” or “He was too stupid to live,” and
that she ran out after a half hour, inventing some lame excuse designed
to make him feel unworthy. She knew she only had to capture a fraction
of Mimi’s attention regarding the topic, because within minutes
Mimi would be on to something else: summer plans in Amagansett, her
mother’s hairdresser, a new line of expensive handbags. But she
would have to bluff her, she would have to lie, because, looking at
the skirt—this flag of surrender to her curiosity and weakness—Nan
had made up her mind that she could not go to meet her adviser.
She balled up the skirt in her hands and threw it down on the bed.
The receipt flew out of the fabric like a tiny white leaf and fluttered
to the ground. Retrieving it, she peered at the total—$65. It
was as if the price itself were appraising her moral character. The
city had lowered her value in imperceptible ways—how did people
like Mimi survive here? She was not cut out for this new life, she
thought. She had no place in this new world.
And neither did her brother—a fact that was unwavering no matter
the gradations of her confusion. She sat down on her bed, weakened
by the vividness of her memory of him: his mop of black hair, his talc-like
smell, the deep drawl of his voice. She had spent too much time imagining
his final moments, what went through his mind when the hole widened
under his hands, when the current wouldn’t surrender him. Held
up against her brother’s fears, her own felt empty, hollowed
out by inexperience. Every day, by squandering the simplest aspects
of her life, she felt she was dishonoring him.
She took off her sneakers, socks, and jeans and pulled on the skirt.
She was pleased that it was not so tight that it caused her stomach
to spill over the top of the waistband. She went into the living room
and looked at herself in the full-length mirror Mimi had set up. The
skirt fit well; it looked good. The color in the print and the clean
white T-shirt she was wearing seemed to bring out the subtle ivory
of her pale skin. She pushed her bland hair back behind her ears. She
didn’t know that, later, when she arrived on campus to meet her
adviser, she would actually be one of five students that he had invited
to the lecture. And that although he would smile at her and say he
was happy that she’d come, he would say similar things to each
of the other students, both male and female alike. She didn’t
know the mixture of disappointment and humiliation she would feel,
unable to concentrate on the speaker, and unable to engage in any kind
of discussion at the tasteful reception that followed the lecture.
She knew nothing of what was to be, nothing of her imminent mortification,
as she turned from side to side, watching herself closely, staring
into the mirror as she had stared into the hole in the river ice in
her dreams, searching the empty aperture for some sign of life.
Nathaniel Bellows Nathaniel Bellows is the author of the novel On This Day (HarperCollins, 2003) and a collection of poetry, Why Speak? (W.W. Norton, 2007).