Writing this isn’t easy. 1 was brought up to be a lady, and ladies only get into print twice in their lives, you will recall – when they marry and when they die. The first ladies may well have been the women of fifth century Athens, who were advised by Pericles not to allow their names to be bandied about by making themselves remarkable, a tradition that produced such literary figures as Clytemnestra and Medea. Energy has to go somewhere. I don’t want to kill my husband or my children either physically or psychologically, so for the past eight years that I have been in Dallas 1 have slowly and painfully abjured a lifetime’s comfortable habit of reticence and self-deprecation. For me, that is what it has meant to be a woman in Dallas.
When I came to Dallas in May of 1970, 1 had just gotten an M.A. from the University of Texas in Austin. I was 37 years old. I had spent ten of the previous years in the cocoon of my home, taking care of two small children, till I became almost a recluse. There’s some nervous ailment, I forget its name, that afflicts only women. Its chief symptom is the fear of leaving home. I had it bad. Even a day in the company of a woman friend with her children and mine was too stimulating, too exhausting for real pleasure. Parties terrified me, and I was utterly dependent on my husband, whose presence or absence made my day, my life. Now, at the university, I had found something for myself alone, something which had nothing to do with my family. A surprisingly successful graduate student, I wanted to go on for another degree, but, like hundreds of other women for hundreds of years – here I know I am representative – I followed my husband to Dallas, as I had followed him from Houston to Detroit, from Detroit to Austin, from Austin to Chicago, from Chicago to Austin.
The other day I heard a man say, “It may be the people who’ve benefited most from the women’s movement have all been men. I took a whole year off to write a book while my wife worked.” Such a proposal would have shocked me silly in 1960. I regarded it then as my absolute moral duty to be with my children at all times. To leave them with a sitter filled me with pangs of guilt. Even leaving them with their father perturbed me – he was certainly not as careful as I was and besides he had to work. A man’s work in a man’s world.
How strange that I rebelled so little against this state of affairs.
When I look back at the girl I was, the woman I was becoming, I am amazed at her facelessness, her desperate desire for anonymity, for absorption into an ethos. I was a fish who swims around looking for a hook. I could hardly help finding it. When I swallowed it, I became, I thought, a woman.
The hook was mine by benefit of heritage and training as well as natural disposition, however. I come from the most upright of families in a small Mississippi town, where my father is a Baptist deacon. In 1973, when, after two years of separation covered up and smoothed over for my parents’ visits, I told my mother I was getting a divorce. I watched her face, that face I have known longest of all and always trusted, crumple in dismay. “I’d understand it better,” she said on a long sigh, “if you killed somebody. I can understand murder, but not divorce.”
My college, which I chose largely to escape Ole Miss, going down in 1952 with my new graduation luggage and high hopes, was Belhaven College in Jackson, a Presbyterian girls’ school with strong Calvinistic leanings. The red brick buildings with white columns housed 150 to 200 females in the process of being turned into “Belhaven girls.” There was a “Belhaven girl”: She wore, by requirement, hats and hose for downtown or church and pastel antebellum frocks with hoop skirts supported by barrel staves for dances and the May Day fete; she neither smoked, drank, swore, spent money on Sundays, nor dated in cars until she was a senior; she read a paper called The Belhaven Miss which I edited; and her always smiling face appeared annually in The White Columns. She took true-false tests in philosophy classes and made A’s. She married early, had children, took her place in the community. The Belhaven girl was my friend Susie creating a legend of grace and beauty as Mississippi’s Miss Hospitality one year. Years later, when I found myself buying Chantilly. the heavy, sweet scent Susie always wore, for my daughter’s first perfume, I realized how deep the desire for the hook goes. My daughter didn’t like it; she opted for Charlie.
In Austin, I’d found out. for maybe the first time, how it feels to swim freely. I didn’t want to come to Dallas. But I came.
The Apartment Compound – 1970
In its brown grimness it sits just off the freeway like a strange prehistoric structure, a labyrinth designed by a commercially savvy Daedalus or a catacombs brought to the surface. I hate it instantly. Once inside the tomb which is to be ours, however, I find myself sliding into acceptance. It is the most luxurious as well as the ugliest place I have ever lived in: four bedrooms, split level, fireplace, thick carpets, built-in everything, sliding glass and recessed lights and Mexican tile. So this is Dallas.
Just as when a child I confused compound and complex sentences, I now think I live in an apartment compound. An apartment compound: barbed wire fences with electric shocks, guards, dogs, empty hopeless faces. We hear no noises except traffic outside and central air inside. The children sleep all morning as if they are drugged. I miss birds.
Years later when I drive this section of the freeway I turn my head away. If I look, my palms sweat, I shake, I feel sick. The minotaur exists, all right.
My husband, who has always been my best friend, has changed. Some of the reasons I know, some I do not. But he now comes in very late, two or three a.m.. or not at all. If he’s home early, he’s belligerent or depressed. He has his problems. I spend the days in a daze of anxiety. During the hot July afternoons I take the children to the pool and I do laps to breathe. It eases the tension and loosens my back, I have discovered. When 1 feel the fear rising again, the tight knot in my chest, I say to myself, You know what that is.
It is called anxiety. Saying this helps.
At night when he is very late I leave the sleeping children, knowing I shouldn’t, and drive the Dallas North Tollway. The Tollway is lit by enormous yellow lights. I can see only the roofs of houses over the gray walls, but the large signs are comforting: Forest Lane, Loop 12, Lemmon Avenue, Wy-cliff. They are always in the same order and I know where I am.
We will show the children Dallas, we say. What are the famous places? We decide against the Texas School Book Depository, and choose instead a trip to downtown Neiman’s. My husband, who has an instinct for historicity, tells the three of us about Neiman’s – its origins, its place in the Southwest, its Christmas catalogue, its quality. We like the part about the catalogue best. Once downtown we are all a bit apprehensive – Dallas seems so much bigger than Austin, the one-way streets are confusing, and we can’t find a parking place. While my husband and our son circle the block, our daughter and I go in for a look around. We buy an Australian bunny fur hat for her and an English yo-yo for her brother. We have to hurry.
Our neighbors in the apartments are a man and his wife, both impressively big and blonde, and their three children. The children have straight brown hair, wear bathing suits or cut-offs, drink Cokes in cans, and carry radios as they go from pool to home to 7-11. The mother and father are gone all day during the week, but on Saturday and Sunday they lie out by the pool and drink beer. They are both deeply tanned. They never swim, though occasionally they wet their bodies carefully. Sometimes on weekends the whole family goes to Oklahoma.
One morning when I am carrying out the garbage I find a letter – I think it’s a letter – which has fallen from their trash can. It isn’t a letter, but a long amorphous illiterate confession of the agonies of a woman who is ready for suicide. Her husband doesn’t love her, she hates her children, her job is empty and exhausting, she can’t sleep. Late at night in the sleeping house she drinks Scotch and smokes and writes this journal. It isn’t a letter because there’s no addressee. She wants to die.
Sometimes when I’m alone at night, I think of her there, through the wall. Is she writing now? Should I speak to her? Suppose I knocked on her door and said, Let me come in. I am your sister. But I can’t. It was in the garbage, after all. It wasn’t meant for me. Maybe she wrote it a long time ago. Maybe now she’s happy.
My friendliest professor at Texas has given me the name of a man he knows at the university in Dallas. One morning in late July I call him to talk about graduate courses. We make an appointment for later in the week. My husband draws me a map, I get a sitter, and I drive down Central farther than I have been by myself.
I like the man. He is polite, almost courtly, but direct. “We don’t have courses for you,” he says. “You need a doctoral program, and we concentrate on undergraduate teaching.” Teaching. I have never thought, honestly never thought, of teaching in a college before. Before I leave, I have met the director of freshman courses, the chairman of the department, and I am carrying my textbooks. In twenty minutes I have become a university instructor.
I am in the car and driving home before I realize that none of us has mentioned money. Oh, well, when I get my first check, I can take that figure and multiply it by – I guess I should multiply by nine.
Eureka, we call it, because that’s how we feel when we find it – Eureka! In our excitement my husband and I have beaten the rental agent there, and while we wait for him, I am literally jumping up and down with pleasure. Eureka is a farm, a real farm, or was once and could be again. The fields are gone to the railroad and the freeway, but eight acres of pasture slope down behind the house, an enormous garden plot waits for us, in the October chill, like the promise of spring, and the barn is roomy and stout. There is a tack house which will make my husband’s study, a summer house for the children, an orchard of fig and pear trees, a circular drive with two gates and a white fence, an arbor.
Best of all is the house itself. How to describe something that you know is meant for you? Imagine a white farmhouse built in the Twenties with a red porch and a big chimney. The dining room is octagonal with windows on all sides, and a big sun porch sprawls across the back, open to the tall pecan trees and the long pasture. In October we don’t bother that the house isn’t air-conditioned, nor do I flinch at the primitive kitchen. We can have Christmas here, and horses, and picnics in the little wood. Later, when things get tough, we are to swear bitterly at the vicious whimsicality of the plumbing, the heat in the summer, and the cold in winter. For now we are utterly charmed. A freeway fifty yards to the right, another two miles over on the left, downtown ten minutes away, but here we seem to be sitting squarely in the middle of 1925, a simpler time, a gentler world. When the toy train thunders across the bottom of the pasture, rattling the windows as it blows its comic whistle, we laugh and mouth our words: Only in Dallas could we find this overlooked dream. Only us, in Dallas.
In the winter of 1971 twelve or fifteen people in our department at the university form an encounter group. They want self-discovery and honesty in interpersonal relationships. Husbands and wives can’t join together, so there is some mixed encountering, very good for self-discovery and interpersonal relations, but hell on marriages. The chain of consequences spins out intricately over the next few years: two long separations, two divorces, possibly a suicide. There are gamma rays in the fall-out from all this truth.
I write out my first real lecture for a class. By this time I have a semester of freshman teaching behind me, and except for my being labeled a “housewife,” which is absolutely true, by one student in his course evaluation, it has gone fairly well.
But now I have a course on the novel for upperclassmen, a big jump, I think, and I want it just right. So I write out the first lecture, on Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. “If Stendhal were in Dallas,” I began, “you would probably find him on a Saturday night at the corner of Lemmon and Oak Lawn, wearing one of his thousands of disguises, waiting for a beautiful duchess to come along and pick him up.” And on for twenty-five pages or so. When I have finished it I memorize it and say it for my husband, complete with gestures. Then I work on it in front of the mirror. I have it letter-perfect. It is, I think, witty, informed, perceptive, above all, relevant, a big word in 1971. I’m scared stiff.
The first sentence gets a laugh, but it takes me almost two weeks in class to cover the material in this lecture, and toward the end of the first week I abandon the script entirely and stride in to meet these people in my class. Learning is not an encounter, but a transaction, I learn.
We have our Christmas, a wonderful big Christmas with two turkeys and wine. Something in this house returns me to the spirit of a generous past, and we set up two long tables in the gemlike dining room and load them with food and pine boughs and candles. Beautiful Laura, who has since died, takes pictures of us all, family and friends, in the candlelight at dusk. Our son is soft and blonde, a little boy with curls still. I will not cover the windows so far from neighbors, so everything around his face is light: crystal and candles and windows’ glow. Almost, for a moment, what we thought we’d found here.
For the inter-term I propose a course with the unlikely title of Woman as Goddess, a private effort to understand some tenets of the women’s movement just beginning to make itself felt in Dallas. The course has a goal: to explore the idealized and dehumanizing view of women in the male imagination from Homer’s Helen of Troy on. Somewhere in the next three weeks, I lose the ironic disapproval of deluded males with which I began. Gradually a new theory emerges, one closer to me though farther from the movement: that the symbol of woman has been used for centuries by men and women writers to cross the gap between real and ideal, mortal and immortal, finite and infinite, particular and universal.
Together we read Hester Prynne’s impassioned pleas, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Mrs. Ramsay’s hopes for a journey to the lighthouse. When, in the context of woman as arbiter of values, as link between the two worlds, temporal and eternal, we conclude our brief semester with the dinner table scene in To the Lighthouse, with the lighting of the candles to shut out the enveloping darkness, with our hostess helping us all to “a specially tender piece of eternity,” I find myself convinced of the authenticity and necessity of that link, and of my responsibility to it. I remember our Christmas dinner just past. As a woman, I want to make those connections. What kind of feminist does this make me?
All four of us put in the garden together, waiting until Easter and consulting the almanac. We have so much space, row after long row, that we go wild with possibility. There are three rows of potatoes, planted in chunks with eyes, which make only greenery; peas and beans, okra and squash; an extravagance of cucumber vines, which produce only one enormous cucumber; tomatoes blooming profusely; rows of tender corn plants.
By the time the vegetables start coming in, my husband is not there. He goes out west to write. We get letters like travelogues: today I climbed a mountain, I visited Lawrence’s house, I went to see the pueblo. Before he leaves, he has driven his car off the highway and turned it over, and we all agree he needs a change, a release in tension. My mother comes to stay; she keeps the children in the hot summer months while I teach morning and night. She is plainly puzzled.
Big flat brown bugs take the squash, and I let it go. We have that one yellow cucumber, very tough and bitter. I have no time to shell the peas or string the beans, and the horses get out – by now there are three, though no one rides them – and eat the succulent tops of the young corn. Only the tomatoes don’t know how to stop, and at the back of the garden, the hot peppers, never picked, growing redder and redder under the sizzling sun.
My fiction class meets downtown at night, and has attracted a motley group of college students, older women, characters. One character hangs around me at 9:30, and walks me to my car. He is a free-lance photographer, very full of himself, but he seems to like me and we talk. When I get his first paper, I am appalled. I have told the class to write freely and informally, but he has no subject but himself, not a paper but a diary, and a racy one at that. Judiciously I evaluate his academic performance and return it with a D-.
The following class meeting he returns it to me, with a long letter attached attacking me as an ignorant and prejudiced woman and threatening to beat me up and to firebomb my house. At the kitchen table I read it trembling and ready to break. But the next night, buoyed up by the sterling advice of a teacher friend, I face him down. “It’s not you I’m critical of, but your work,” I say tactfully. “Let’s see if we can lessen the gap between your genuine intelligence and acumen, and your expression.” He goes for it, and subsides into passivity. But when I go to my car, I watch the shadows and listen for footsteps and try not to run.
Friday afternoon we drink beer in one teacher’s apartment, smoke and talk about school, read aloud the funny personals in The New York Review of Books: Professional woman, fortyish, married but miserable, seeks male counterpart for discreet diversion, cosmic connection.
Male Capricorn, 32, writer and lecturer, seeks complementary Cancer, male, 18-38, for mutual support and stimulation.
’’ How could anyone advertise?” I say, contemptuously, at last.
“I know someone who did,” he answers. “She didn’t find a lover, but she met a lot of nice people. Your trouble is, you’ve just never been lonely, with your husband and your children and all. So you don’t understand.”
Late at night and I am alone in my pink room at the top of the house. Unexpectedly, unaccountably, I am in panic and despair.
The woman at Suicide Prevention whom 1 call first is logical and kind. “If I were you, dear, I’d forget your husband and make things comfortable for yourself. Everything will look better tomorrow. Hang on – don’t hang up – I’ll be right back.” I hang up.
My friend Jan in Chicago doesn’t try logic. In a second she is awake. Over and over she chants to me, “You will not die, Jo. You will not die, believe me. Don’t hang up. Just go to sleep. Hold onto the phone and go to sleep. I’m right here.” I fall asleep with the line open.
Two psychiatrists are recommended to me. The first one gives me an article he has written and describes my anxieties as sexual in nature. No doubt he is right, but knowing it doesn’t help me to sleep. The second one, a gruff old man in his seventies, is Adlerian. “Look at you,” he snorts. “You’re a worm. Do something for yourself. How can you creep around in this disgusting fashion?” I cry. To demonstrate the success of his method, he sends me to a former patient, now fully in control of her life, who sometimes works with him on a purely voluntary basis.
Her house in North Dallas is on Turtle Creek and she is a woman of a carefully preserved fifty-five with the sort of beauty you see in Oil of Olay ads. Her husband is away on business when I drive up at seven. First she shows me her house, from atrium to kitchen to den to flood-lit patio and pool. I am admiring but adrift. We return and sit down at a table facing each other.
“I wanted you to see the house,” she says, “because I owe it all to Dr. X. To build this house we had to tunnel through solid rock, and without his help I could never have done it. would never have believed it possible.” With that dramatic beginning she launches into the story of her life – sexual favors for money, an early unhappy marriage for advantage, the birth of a child, till under Dr. X’s tutelage she has found her millionaire and built her house. She is elated with her recital: Go thou and do likewise. It is growing late.
Suddenly she stops. Her voice changes. She sees me, really sees me, for the first time. “Why do you look that way?” she says. I look down at myself, at my pants and t-shirt. I am very thin because I can’t eat. very brown because I haven’t given up on the garden yet. My hair is straight and short, I wear no make-up, I look like what I am, I guess.
“Why do you look so young?” she says. “You must gain weight, grow your hair long, dress differently – be a woman. You look entirely too young.” She sounds harsh, angry.
I leave soon after that. As I drive away, she stands in the doorway of her house built from solid rock, looking after me.
The next time I see her, it is at a crowded autograph party for a friend’s book. She is very beautiful, but she looks tired. We exchange glances, but we don’t speak. Her psychiatrist has just died.
Christmas comes again. From the departmental party I bring home another woman and a young man. It is two a.m., but my husband’s car is there. I haven’t seen him for three weeks. All winter he has had his own place, so he can think. But now the red Gremlin sits under the pecan tree, the babysitter’s car is gone, and the house is dark.
“You’ll have to go,” I say.
“Why?” the woman asks.
The young man, whom later I will marry, looks at me and presses my hand.
Upstairs in the king-sized bed, my husband is flanked by the two sleeping children. In the dark, without bothering to undress, I climb in too, and silently we hold each other across the body of the nine-year-old.
On New Year’s Eve I take myself to a big party. I am very pleased with myself. My black dress has come from Margie’s for $10 but I have done some interesting things to it. I disdain a coat, I drive up late, alone, I walk in and make an entrance. All night I dance and laugh and flirt. Either I am not me, or I am more me than usual. 1 shake people off and drive home alone and take the babysitter home, with the happy children who have had their own party going along for the ride. Tonight 1 feel great.
The next morning a rich and social man I have met at the party calls and asks me out. 1 put him off- I am very cautious these days – and phone my friends for references. Last night’s hostess is incredulous, then delighted: “He asked you out? But, my dear, he can do everything for you – fly you to New York, Paris, everywhere. He has millions.” She sees me luxuriously installed as his mistress.
A male friend, my respected and benevolent mentor, misunderstands. “’Don’t accept the position, Jo. He is dreadfully cheap with his help.” He sees me miserably installed as his secretary.
1 learn he asked me out because 1 was wearing a dress with square armholes and he has never seen a dress with square armholes. We go to dinner. He is not cheap with me, but he doesn’t fly me to Paris either.
I am teaching Greek literature in translation now, challenged by the difficulty of what we are asked to do: to make Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, and Virgil matter to business majors and football players. I can’t think of my students so narrowly. They are people, and people can be reached. I care, I care too much. I can”t bear to have anyone in my class unmoved by the beautiful quiet moment between Achilles and Priam in Book 24 of the Iliad. “And the two remembered,” I read aloud in my most impressive voice, and wait for the hush that must fall. It does, probably from sheer nervousness.
Eventually I have taught the Iliad to three, to four, to five hundred students, thirty at a time, and I grow cooler and less embarrassing for sophomores. But I still care. I begin to see myself as a conductor through which the continuum flows from past to present to future. I use everything, whatever I can muster, to win students to what I hope and aspire to be. 1 am proven in my calling.
A soft spring morning, the best time of year on the farm, but 1 wake up early with a sense that something’s wrong. 6:30. I rush to the window and look down just in time to see the last of the horses trot out of the gate and head west. Damn! There they go to the freeway again. Somehow in the next hour and a half I have to get them in, working against my own fear and lack of command, bring them to the barn and feed them and do a makeshift fence repair. Then I have to wake the children and feed them and send them off to school, get myself organized and out to teach an eight o’clock class. I can do it – I’ve done it before – but it’s not a big thrill. It’s time I moved to town. 1 make this decision alone.
At Sanger’s I apply for credit to buy a clothes dryer, not wasting a thought on the sheets dried in fresh air. I sign my own name.
“You’d better sign it Mrs.,” the graying motherly clerk advises.
“You don’t understand,” I say. “My husband and I don’t live together.” I have never said this flatly to anyone before. “1 pay all my own bills, have for two years now.”
“I don’t know about that, honey.” she says wearily. “I just know if you want this to go through, you’d better sign it Mrs.” I sign it Mrs. with a flourish.
Four years later as I discuss this piece with my editor, who is also my friend, I mention this episode. It is what I think he wants – representative of what it is (was?) like to be a woman in Dallas. “Don’t write about that,” he says. “That sort of thing happened to everybody. Write about the horses on the freeway.”
The Park Cities- 1973-1978
I have found my own place, an old Spanishy duplex with a lazy, shabby grace. To make up for the pasture, there’s a city park across the street; in lieu of the summer house and the horses, a big community pool. The three of us like it. It costs less than the farm, and I am amazed at the ease, the civility, life suddenly acquires. This world ij a garden I can cultivate on my own.
The children hate to leave their school, a satisfying rough and tumble mix of black, Chicano, and white kids, but because 1 have impulsively moved them in the middle of the semester, they soon make friends. People are so close. We have to learn to close the curtains, lock the doors, smile a good morning.
What does one wear for a divorce? At Belha ven we learned about proper dress, but never for this occasion. 1 settle for black and white, death and life, school clothes because I only take the morning off and plan to meet my afternoon classes. Surely this divorce, after a three-year death agony, is pro forma: no fault, no contest, no property to settle, no custody dispute. It takes ten minutes.
As we leave, my lawyer takes my hand, offers me lunch, coffee, a drink. No, I say, I have a class. Whereupon I drive home, close the curtains, unplug the phone, and cry. 1 wail. I pull out my hair. 1 moan and roll on the bed and walk from room to room, shaking with sobs. Fifteen years of my life, and it’s over. 1 hold a wake.
At last, very quiet, very tired, I wash my face, comb my hair, do what 1 can to restore order. The children will soon be home from school.
All women, we sit around the big conference table. On my left a woman in a maternity dress knits a pink blanket. A woman in jeans sits down on my right. “I shaved my legs last night,” she confesses, “and 1 have begun to feel guilty about it.” She smiles wryly, but she is serious. A heated discussion begins, and is quickly quelled. This meeting has been called to create a Women’s Faculty Caucus, and we must not slip into triviality or confusion.
A woman I know slightly rang my bell last night for, I think, a social visit. But she has a purpose – to know my salary. I tell her, but I don’t like it much. Accusingly, she tells me hers; it is less. What am 1 supposed to think, to do? I don’t know. Now my salary stares back at me from a sheet with a lot of other salaries, strangely uneven. Though little enough, mine looks pretty good. I feel proud and ashamed. I am confused.
Early in February, after the second semester begins, a graduate school dean calls and asks me to teach a graduate course meeting every other Tuesday in Tyler, a hundred miles east. The man hired to teach it, not a regular faculty member, bombed so dismally at the first class meeting that half the class has phoned the dean, threatening to drop. Would I like to have a go at it?
1 hesitate, contemplating the babysitter situation, the two-hundred-mile round trips after dark, the pressure of preparation, a class of demanding adults who have already sent one instructor packing. Then, of course. I accept.
Never for an instant, not even on Wednesday mornings when I have to get up and teach a full load of regular classes after a midnight drive back to Dallas, do 1 regret it. 1 feel like a circuit-riding preacher as I hurtle down the highway to my class. The members of the class are all ages and colors and occupations, and some of them have driven a hundred miles to be there too. As the semester goes on. we praise each other for our stamina. My excursions warm me up for the week. These days. I feel as though I could whip a bear.
Cindy is my daughter’s best friend. They have been best friends for two years – through braces and first periods and pantyhose and biology class. They have made hilarious tapes on Christmas tape recorders, made brownies, made upaftei 100 rights. They went to their first rock concert together, and went to the movies or to parties with two other girls. Mimi and Cathy, in a way that seemed uncomfortably like double-dates to me. Suddenly – it seems sudden – Cindy is not around any more. I miss her.
“Bring Cindy.” I say. “Ask her if she wants to go out to dinner with us. See if she can spend the night.”
“Not Cindy.” she says. “I don’t like her anymore. We”re too different.”
Later, obliquely, she refers to mysterious practices Cindy has fallen into – involving dope and cars and boys. I trust her judgment, but I miss Cindy, her good humor, her whimsy. There is another best friend, and I like her. but I play it closer to my chest this time. So does my daughter.
For five years now I have been teaching at the university, and the moment of decision has come. Unless I am awarded tenure. I cannot teach beyond the sixth year. The decision is difficult for my department: they may want to keep me around, but I lack the proper credentials. I don’t have a Ph.D. from a reputable or even a disreputable place. I have written only scattered small pieces instead of the book I need. I have enthusiasm and energy but. let’s face it. I am not heavy, you know?
I am giving a dinner party for the tenure and promotion committee. Things are going well w hen I go out to the kitchen for dessert – for some inexplicable reason, hot fudge sundaes. Ice cream, hot fudge, nuts, whipped cream, cherry – up and up. Gracefully and competently I pass them around. Surely I deserve tenure for this? Calmly I survey the candle-lit table as 1 pick up my spoon and look down to see- worms. What I thought were pecans were worms. All around the table people are getting up in honor and leaving, gagging, covering their mouths. I wake up.
David and 1 stand outside my office door talking. He is a teacher, ten years younger than I am. Harvard, very bright and articulate. We are easy together, for some reason, and despite our differences are friends.
An ordinary student walks down the hall – absolutely ordinary: male, big. brown hair, rugby shirt, cords. He addresses me: “Dr. Gabriel is not in his office. Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Don’t you know his office hours?”
“Well, uh – could you locate him for me, or take a message for him? It’s pretty important.”
Light dawns. “Oh,” I say, “you need the departmental secretary, not me. I just teach here, too.”
David speaks up. “Give me your message,” he says. “I’m the secretary for the department.” The boys face is a study.
When he leaves, we fall into each other’s arms, rocking with suppressed laughter.
A man at a party: “’Dallas is a city run by men for the sake of women.” 1 don’t believe it for a moment.
At fifteen, my daughter describes her high school over dinner. “There are really three kinds of people,” she says, ’”the popular people, the freaks, and the others. Freaks wear long hair and boots and smoke across the street before school. Popular people go on Young Life skiing trips in Colorado and usually get cars on their sixteenth birthdays. How their parents do it is, you get the keys wrapped up like a present, and then the car is sitting out in the driveway. It’s stud.”
“What are the others like?” 1 ask.
“Oh,”’ she says, “they’re like me.”
“What do you want to be?” I say.
“Well.” she says, “I like the freaks – they’re funny – but they’re always getting in trouble. I guess I’d really like to be one of the popular people.”
“I don’t think I can give you a car.” I say, “but you could go to Young Life.”
“How can I?” she answers indignantly. “You know I’m an atheist.”
At twelve, my son asks me for a clothes allowance. Trying to keep the panic out of my voice, I ask him what he needs – socks, underwear, new shirts?
“Adidas sweats,” he says. “They’re on sale at Brookhaven. I saw them when 1 went with Mike. Only fifty bucks and 1 really need them.”
He is into tennis heavily, and all his status symbols are tennis – a Jack Kramer Pro Staff racquet, a Head Competition II back-up, K-Swiss shoes, a Boaster shirt with a marijuana insignia, even, for godsake, Sai socks. All his friends have these things.
On the phone, his father deprecates my concern. “It’s his way of finding quality,” he says. “It makes him feel secure about himself.”
Maybe so, but it makes me insecure as hell.
She’s waiting for me at nine a.m. when I come out of the eight o’clock class – her class. I call her Alice because she doesn’t live there anymore. But she’s been my student for two years now, and we are friends, and I know that she doesn’t always have to be in class because she’s easily one of the three or four best in the hundreds that have filed in and out over these eight years. I have handed her, casually. Adrienne Rich and Erica Jong and Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion because I know that’s where she is, where she should be at eighteen.
Planting her boots on my desk, she can’t quite figure me out. I am not shocked. I have all these books, I know Adrienne Rich has become a lesbian.I have read Jong. I understand Sylvia’s plight. I am receptive to Didion’s apocalyptic anguish – but I won’t come to the Women’s Faculty Caucus at the Women’s Center where she works.
“I don’t need it,” I tell her. “I always hated Sunday school.”
She doesn’t agree. I am an influence, she thinks, I have a responsibility – dammit, I have a responsibility to her.
“It’s a draw,” I say. “”You won’t like Jane Austen for me, and I won’t be a role model for you.”
Swinging her long legs to the floor, she stands and stretches. At the door, she turns and grins impishly. “You are anyway,” she says.
After she leaves, I sit still, staring out the window for a long time at the morning campus.
I am at a party on University. It is a small party of people who know each other fairly well – teachers, an author, two editors. The main attractions are a man playing the sitar and a woman reading palms. The sitar I can do without – I have never been very musical – but the palmreading I must have. I am first.
“Your hand is very balanced, very pragmatic, very practical,” she says. “You will live a long time. See. here is your lifeline and it runs down into your wrist. You’ll be married either two or three times. You want success and you will have it, but it is not the most important thing in your life. The main characteristic of this hand is balance,” she says, waving it like a flag to the others.
I smile modestly. It’s what I alwayswanted, balance.