Sometimes I go to sleep thinking of the next morning’s hot coffee in my customary white paper cup. The anticipation makes the sheets seem softer. In my life, I am between landmarks: after childhood, before a book, before marriage and children, all potential. I’ve heard the gambler’s rush isn’t in losing or winning, but the interval between playing and knowing. Coffee is my ritual, my interval, the luminous place between now and what’s next, more arc than landing. It is ubiquitous and legal, solitary and communal. In the morning, when I take a sip, space opens between the molecules; voices and clatter in the café separate into bright, tonal bands. My mind fans open. Fireflies blink in my torso. I take it to go, so I can drink and walk alone in the cool air under the trees on 12th street on my way to work. I savor each sip after the scorch has dissipated, before the cup is loose and lukewarm like a hand in mine.
Published in The L.A. Times, OpEd, September 15, 2005
“IT CONTAINED more lumps, hairs and unexplained black things than one would have thought possible,” wrote George Orwell half a century ago about his English school food. But Orwell didn’t know how lucky he was.
Over the last 20 years in Britain, his porridge lunch was replaced with processed, additive-ridden fare such as Turkey Twizzlers — 30% turkey, 70% other, shaped like Shirley Temple’s ringlets — that makes his lunch seem almost nutritious. And the number of obese children has tripled in those 20 years. Obesity rates in Britain — 22% — are second only to the United States.
About a year ago, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (the “Naked Chef” — the ingredients were stripped down, not him) thought drastic action was needed; not just long-range policy changes but triage. In a Channel 4 series called “Jamie’s School Dinners,” Oliver took charge of school lunches in one school, then two schools and then the entire London borough of Greenwich, with 60 schools and 20,000 school meals per day. Oliver’s aim was not just to improve kids’ health; he wanted to show the government that it could be done, and fast.
Even the schools’ catering staffs agreed that change was in order. The most ardent resisters were the kids — they liked the junk. In the show, one boy said he’ll take “anything that you can cook with grease.” Faced with vegetable-tainted food, one girl said, “I’ll starve.” It took six months of cajoling, with no alternative menu, to win over the kids at the first school. The parents sent hate mail. The kids chanted, “Jamie Oliver go away.” On the first day, more than 100 students wouldn’t touch the food. On the last day, only two children didn’t eat with obvious relish.
The frozen, processed meat from Botswana was replaced by local, organic fresh meat in identifiable forms, such as thigh, breast and leg. Many of the children had never seen meat this way, even at home. Many had had few encounters with a vegetable. But the deep fryer was abandoned and the catering staff, or “dinner ladies” as they’re called here, picked up long-forsaken produce. In the end, it all came to the same price as the processed food, give or take a few pennies: about 65 cents per lunch.
One menu was cannelloni stuffed with cheese and spinach, Thai chicken curry with butternut squash, chickpea and leek soup. Sometimes, Oliver learned, trickery helps: The pasta sauce hides seven vegetables.
As a result of the show, and the surge of support that followed, the government promised to spend more than $500 million to improve school meals throughout Britain. Many districts banned Turkey Twizzlers.
On Wednesday, I joined some 9-year-old girls at the Charlton Manor Primary School in Greenwich for lunch. I sampled fish fillet with breadcrumbs, sweet and sour chicken, coleslaw, salad with balsamic dressing, cooked fresh peas and, for dessert, a warm, mildly sweet rice pudding with pineapple. We all finished our plates.
The head chef told me she could finally stand behind the food she was serving. The school planted a garden. The teachers report that their classrooms are now calmer after lunch. The school taught nutrition before, but the theory was without resonance before the kids could feel the difference.
The girls fumbled with their knives and forks, and the teachers corrected them; they’d never really had to use cutlery with the old processed meals. I thought of what Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant and founder of the cutting-edge Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, calls “the civilizing and socializing effect of the table.” I asked the girls if they’d take their Twizzlers back. They said yes. But at the same time, they seemed happily resigned to their healthy fate.
Steps are being taken to combat obesity in California too. Today, a summit in Sacramento will address childhood health and nutrition. Last week, state lawmakers passed legislation that bans the sale of sodas on campuses during school hours.
But if a TV show can change the way thousands of children eat and how a nation thinks about food, what will it take to do the same in California, where almost a third of the children are overweight? Maybe we need to enlist a battalion of celebrity chefs, call in the camera crews and find out. If reality TV can serve people, rather than just entertain them, let’s use it now.
Published in The Harvard Advocate, Spring 1999
We drove. I sat on my mother’s lap in the driver’s seat and steered while she did the pedals, keeping us at 15 mph. She held her hands an inch away from the steering wheel, hovering, in case I overestimated one of the turns on our twisted road in Los Trencos, California. It was just the two of us, my mom and me – so nobody told her she was crazy. My mother knew: at five I was coordinated enough to steer the car.
In my aunt Mona Simpson’s book, A Regular Guy, a girl named Jane also drives. Her impoverished mother, Mary di Natali, sends her to find Jane’s rich father, Tom Owens.
I didn’t read the book for two years. Mona sent me the manuscript before publication, and asked me to read it over. I expected it to be a series of conversations from a cocktail party, an idea I remembered her telling me about years before. She told me that I was to tell her if I thought she should change anything. I was honored. After reading only a few pages, it was clear that the book was about something different—but I only read so much then, and I only asked Mona to change a few details. I was intimidated to ask her to change more. Who was I to tell an accomplished writer what to do? Her first two books, Anywhere But Here and The Lost Father earned her literary fame—her work has been translated into 14 languages. She is the recipient of Whiting writer’s award and a Guggenheim grant. She was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Yet, in the first few pages, I was confronted with my family, my anecdotes, my things, my thoughts, myself in the character Jane. And sandwiched between the truths was invention—lies to me, made more evident because of their dangerous proximity to the truth. Less than the uncanny resemblance between Jane and me, it is the mixture of fact and invention that grates. Jane is me and not me. Jane and I are playing tug-o-war; I am truth, Jane is lies, the rope is fiction.
Do I have a right to complain? A Regular Guy is, indeed, a work of fiction. The truths – points of commonalty between Jane and me – are mixed with equal or greater parts invention. Still, Jane bears a strong resemblance to me. Like me, Jane was born out of wedlock, grew up with a single mother, moved 13 times, and began the slow process of getting to know her father later in life. The book is cluttered with my life’s details parading as Jane’s—the “dangly” earrings I wanted to wear in sixth grade, descriptions of my old houses, how I ran for class president in high school. Like Jane, I was born in Oregon. My mother is an artist, my father an entrepreneur. Just like Jane’s.
I speculate about other connections. Jane di Natali, her full name in the novel, sounds very much like “Jondali,” my Arabic grandfather’s name which, by a twist of fate, I didn’t inherit. My hometown is Palo Alto, which sounds like Alta, the home base of the novel. My street is called Waverley, Jane’s is Mayberry. Objects, facts, events, emotions—all of the similarities between us jump out at me when I read them, like they are inked in bright red 18-point font. The book starts when Jane is ten years old, and ends when she is about 19, my age now. My aunt took six years to write it and it was published two years ago, in 1996.
I didn’t know, for those six years, that Mona was collecting. More than I have – I let time wash over me and slip through memory’s wide-meshed net – she gathered the grandest of stories and the smallest of details. Some scenes in the novel are so vivid that they jab me back to a mood and a time, years ago. It is a rare experience to find that someone unexpected has been holding captive moments of my past. She watched me when I was younger, sneaking contraband mini skirts and makeup into my locker, and later, during middle and high school, she was one of my primary confidants. I didn’t know that as I sought her consolations and took her advice, she, too, was taking. It was apparently a trade. And now I see myself, little bits of my past strung together, but mutated, in Jane.
Once, Mona bought me a Chinese pillbox from an antique store in my hometown. The woman behind the counter said, “She’s too young to have it, it’s precious.” I was elated to receive it after all; it is good to be young and immune to the rules. Now, in A Regular Guy I find it again: “On the corner was the antique store [with] the Chinese pillbox she’d lost…” (363). This pillbox is an enameled present Mona gave me, which, in the end, she kept. Even words smaller than my pillbox (which has just space enough to fit a ring) expand with connotations. Even the word Ye. When Mona and I hiked in Montana, and I easily lost belief that we’d ever make it to the top of the mountain, or that the top existed, she bribed me with chocolate fudge and dubbed me Ye of Little Faith. The dedication, “To Ye, who now has faith,” is, to me, a mountain, fudge, a chalky, opaque glacier lake, hundreds of dead bugs webbing the water surface, roots on the hiking path, shoes digging into my heels, socks that kept slipping, Mona, and me, ten years-old.
In his book, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Umberto Eco recalls how a friend arranged to take him to a planetarium in the science museum of La Coruna, in Galicia, and to show him, on the massive planetarium screen, the night sky on the night he was born. Eco wrote, “you will forgive me if during those moments I had the impression of being the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning” (140). In A Regular Guy I am able to watch myself, or someone very much like myself, start out my life. But Mona didn’t paint the night sky from scratch, she revised it.
How thin and permeable is the membrane between fantasy and fact? Jane and I are an example of how tenuous these distinctions are. It is sometimes thrilling to live vicariously through Jane. Some descriptions of Jane describe me more precisely than I could describe myself. Others distort. Is it the right of a fiction writer, like the expressionist painter, to distort? How did Madame Cezanne feel, while she was being painted over and over as frumpy, thick, and awkward? Perhaps she let Cezanne paint her because it was his labor of love. Or maybe she liked herself that way, distorted.
Some distortions are frightening. It is compelling, and sometimes dangerous, to combine life and fantasy – to read invention as if it were life. In the book, Owens and Mary are Jane’s parents. Owens is almost apathetic about Jane’s existence; Mary lives for little else. These are not my parents. But acquaintances of my family, who recognized the similarities between my life and Jane’s, assumed that Mary and my mother must be similar, too. My mother avoided A Regular Guy. No one wants to face their frail moments or to identify with a weak character. Mary has many awkward moments in the novel, where cameras catch her unaware in moments of guilt, grief, and hopelessness, like when she pleads with Owens to let her borrow one of his cars and “She lapsed into a fragile smile, which she expected would delight no one, like a poor tap dance” (94). She must have had moments of weakness. Was Mona watching for those? Like Mary, my mother is an artist who raised me alone. But she did not subject me to drastically changing bedtimes, expose me to squirrels that scratched and scarred me, or give me too little food. Nor did she send me in a truck across the country alone. She did not use palm readers to justify her actions, nor did she feel lovesick for my father. Mary hides behind her daughter, as one would behind a mask. For her “It was simpler to fight for the rights of the small person than to say, I want those big strawberries for myself” (119). My mother didn’t hide.
Once the myth of fiction is broken, it is impossible to read the novel as make-believe. For me, it creeps beyond its boundaries, and it distorts my perception of Jane and of myself. Mona changed the emphasis of my memories: she highlighted moments when Jane’s life intersects with mine. These are the moments that shine in the murky space of memory now. Pillbox facts dot the novel. The small facts I recognize are jarring, more than the general similarities between my life story and Jane’s. Many people could concoct a story of a child of a single mother – but few could weave in my very own antique box, a description of the view from my bedroom window, or my Arab ethnicity. I previously thought the arrangement of each liminal point in my life was like the arrangement of the little white Christmas lights we looped around an exposed pipe in my college dorm room: haphazard. But Mona created in Jane a plausible character. In some instances I see my past motivations more clearly through Mona’s lens. Black and white on a page is more easily sorted than the wash of emotion in days, weeks, years. But there are dangers to letting someone else delineate the patterns of my life: it’s easy to forget the rest of my memories, or to amplify the ones that are less important. My father said once, “Lis, you’re gonna remember this.” But all I remember is his voice: “Lis, you’re gonna remember this.”
Owens tells Jane, in her sixth grade too-much-makeup phase, the same thing my father told me: “You know, Ingrid Bergman never wore makeup” (116). His argument was convincing; I thought she was the most beautiful woman on earth. It is now common knowledge that Casablanca was shot day by day without her or anyone else in the cast knowing how the story would end. Ingrid Bergman’s charm and mystery in the film, her tender and ambiguous smile are there, in part, because she did not know which man she would choose. In A Regular Guy, Jane is choosing, too – between her mother and her father. Reading the novel, I remember and discover, page by page, like Bergman’s shot by shot, scenes from my past, and premonitions of my future.
I watch Jane to find out more about myself. Jane has some characteristics I wish I had – and Mona has talents I wish I had. Jane is smarter sometimes; she thinks of better metaphors than I do. When I try sushi I don’t like the texture, but I couldn’t say why. When Jane tries sushi she knows why it’s disagreeable—it lies on her tongue like another tongue. Why didn’t I think of that? She enriches my experiences by seeing more in them than I did. On her vacation in the South Pacific, Jane plays in the waves and follows a boy around. She catches him with a girl, kissing on the sand. This never happened to me. If it added to Jane’s character, would it have added to mine? My trips to Hawaii were spent making leis and lounging in the sun. My Hawaii was embellished for fiction’s sake, and Jane won.
Some aspects of Jane are character embellishments which ring too true—they’re aspects of me I hope no one else sees. In the final scene of the novel, in a flashback, Mona depicts Jane fitting into her first school uniform, a wool jumper over a white blouse and knee socks, relieved to finally be in the norm and join a group of schoolchildren. In the last line of the novel: “A bell rang and the front hall began buzzing with footsteps, as she’d imagined for years, and she hurried to get into the crowd” (372). I blush when I read this—is this how Mona sees me? I hope not. Yet it is an apt metaphor for me, the most conformist member of a family of sworn iconoclasts. Reading it, I have a tinge of guilt for the joy I feel to be Jane, dressed just right, joining the crowd. Maybe it is Mona’s present to me. Jane gets to dash into a welcoming throng of friends and belong. Jane, Ye, and I get our faith in the end.
In first person, though, Jane haunts me. She knows my thoughts. In italicized verse, Jane sings to herself. I sing along: “Remember Jane: never give away your luck” (231). These are words I’ve said to myself before, replacing her name with my own. And some of Jane is me, imperfectly. The narrator describes Jane selecting her favorite room in her father’s new house when no one was home: “…she picked out the room she wanted in the new house, the one next to Owens’. She’d tried it, lying down on the bare floor” (251). How did Mona know I did this? Later the narrator mentions that Jane forged her father’s signature on her college application. I did, too – he was away on business and it had to be done. How did she know? Mona describes Jane’s confidence in her father: “in a way she never was with her mother, Jane felt confidence in his driving, even when he sped” (229). It was the same for me. I remember the small eye-shaped crack in the windshield on the passenger side of my mother’s old silver Honda. When she drove I was often afraid we would crash and, right before I fell asleep in the car, I’d ask that eye to watch the road for me. With my father I was secure. After our silent car rides, I “always regretted the minute [we] touched ground” (230). But I thought this was my memory alone. These are thoughts and actions Mona couldn’t have known because I didn’t tell anyone. No one saw me. Are lives transparent? Is mine? Mona must have been the eye on my mother’s windshield glass, looking in.
Jane’s most accurate, powerful moments are not always realistic ones. In a chapter called “The Driving Child,” Jane drives across the country to claim Owens for the first time. Mary taught her to drive painstakingly, in a series of night lessons on deserted roads. It is one of the most fantastic scenes in the novel. Mary attached wooden blocks to the gas pedal and the brake so Jane could reach them with her ten-year-old legs. Of course, I never drove at night, or alone before I had a license. It felt like that, though, getting to know my father for the first time. More than anything else, it had the speed, tunnel vision, and required the courage of a first night drive. From eating sushi to taking a solo drive, Mona second guessed me. Even in the most surreal moment of the novel, I am still Jane.
According to Eco, “In fiction, precise references to the actual world are so closely linked that, after spending time in the world of the novel and mixing fantastical elements with references to reality, as one should, the reader no longer knows exactly where he or she stands.” After the publication of Eco’s book Foucault’s Pendulum, a childhood friend wrote him: “Dear Umberto, I do not recall having told you the pathetic story of my uncle and aunt but I think you were very indiscreet to use it in your novel” (9). In fact, Eco had used his own uncle and aunt as a model for the imaginary characters. Eco’s friend was so absorbed by the story that he thought the book described his own relatives.
Perhaps I am like Eco’s friend, reading too much into Jane. Similar events happen to different aunts and uncles, and to different girls ages 10-19. Maybe for an author to create fictional characters, she has to render them so realistically that they breathe. Do Jane and I just converge? Biologists call a duplication of shapes and behaviors in unrelated animals “convergent evolution.” Creatures such as bats and birds converged because they independently came up with a similar biological solution to the same ecological problem—flight. Charles Darwin wrote, “I am inclined to believe that in nearly the same way as two men have independently hit on the very same invention, so natural selection, working for the good of each being…has sometimes modified in very nearly the same manner, two parts in two organic beings” (Sunquist). If bats and birds “invented” flight, maybe Mona invented Jane, and Jane corresponds with me. Or maybe Jane and I converge because Mona and I do. Mona had a family structure similar to mine. Maybe Mona knew – at the moment that Jane found a perfect room in her father’s new house – that Jane would lie down on the floor because she, Mona, might have done the same. Maybe the skeleton of my family was a perfect platform for Mona to flesh out herself.
In an interview with Salon Magazine Mona said, “fiction confuses people because you know there’s probably some little nuggets of the person’s life jumbled up in their work, but you don’t know what they are… I think as a writer you inhabit all the roles anyway” (Press). Much more than I am, Mona is present in the novel. She is Owens, Mary, Jane and the omniscient narrator. She doesn’t abridge the painful, awkward moments of her characters, some of which may be her own moments—instead she seems to have accentuated them. The pain that rings through Owens, Mary and Jane gives the novel depth and pathos. Like Mary, Mona committed to memory scenes and feelings from her past that other people prefer to forget: “Other people she understood, did not save these shards; they felt the cut and denied them, breaking the truth to fit their stories” (321). In this way she is, more than a thief, a martyr for her craft.
After the book was published, during the two years I didn’t read it, I wondered what happened to Jane in the end. When I went out with Mona to discuss A Regular Guy at a coffee shop a few months after its publication, I told her I hadn’t read it all yet—that I couldn’t. She said I would like what happened to Jane. I imagined the final pages of the book might be like the final scene in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude when Aureliano finds his fate written in parchments. In them is the history of the family—down to the most trivial detail—one hundred years in the future. He reads the illuminated parchment in the darkness as a cyclone tears apart the town: “he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror” (422). I never had this experience. When I did read A Regular Guy two years later at the age of nineteen I was the same age Jane was at the end of the novel.
In an interview Mona explains, “The important thing is to know what of life will translate to the culture of the page and what will not, and to understand that significant distinction” (Press). As a writer Mona seizes aspects of life and imagination that are fiction-worthy—but the most important parts of life aren’t. I thank Mona for preserving pieces of my life, though. And I think of Jane, too—we both have our night drives. But my stories are mine. I take them back. I say to her: Jane, never give away your luck. You are a character I will always root for. And you’re on your own.
Published in O, The Oprah Magazine, August 2006
That summer I felt beautiful in motion, but Camille was just beautiful, without exceptions, even leaning over a Petri dish in goggles, fiddling with a pipette.
We were interns in the Stanford Genetics Lab, growing yeast cells and then examining their tiny insides.
Camille was not the usual lab type, though—she had Audrey Hepburn’s haircut from the second half of Roman Holiday and also Audrey’s derring-do and mischievous sparkle—and next to her gamine grace and fluttering French eyelids, I was a graceless, boisterous sidekick.
But she became a dear friend, and so I minded less.
I’d never been in close proximity to a beauty before. I saw how it made men come alive and stumble over their words. Once a Ph.D. student followed us out of the building on our way home, talking about yeast and then about France and then about how well he could dance the rumba, up close and grinding. I imagined him, his lab coat swaying to a Latin beat.
I didn’t want him, or the other men who hung around her, and neither did she: pale Ph.D. students and post-doctorates crouched over magnifying instruments. But I saw how her presence lit them up, like the dye we used on yeast cells under the electron microscope to make them glow in the dark.
The only place I felt beautiful that summer was in dance class. I’d been dancing jazz since I was 8, and that summer I’d perfected my jeté: a splits in the air landing with a soft ploof sound, like a bird touching ground after flight.
One day I asked Camille to come to class with me. I wanted to share my favorite activity, and also I wanted be somewhere with her where I felt beautiful too. Camille had never danced jazz before.
I spoke to her freely of the perils – of listing pirouettes, of pas de bourrée that might pretzel her doe-thin legs, of the myriad details vying for attention, hand, foot, leg, arm, each slipping out of position as she concentrated on the next. I remembered what it was like to be new on the dance floor, and I wasn’t trying to trap her: I told her that no friend of mine had ever dared before.
She came along. And in the class she mixed up her lefts and rights and once, after an overambitious turn, she almost fell but she caught herself by the heel of her hand. Spindly legs were not an advantage here, and nor was a high center of gravity. She was concentrating too hard for her beauty to radiate outward like it usually did. I admit: enjoyed those moments feeling suspended and alluring beside her.
But after class and the next day and then for the rest of the summer I noticed her looks less often. I thought instead about the way she’d finished the dance class with unselfconscious aplomb. And about how loyal she’d been to come. When I looked at her, I imagined I saw further in. Beauty thinned next to brave friendship.
The next day we punctured millions of yeast cells and discarded their little membrane skins. It was just protocol: we hoped to examine their complex and surprising insides, and the skins sometimes got in the way.
Published in The Massachusetts Review, Spring 2006
A woman – I’d never seen her before – stepped into the lift with us. Her hair was dark, pixie cut around a pretty face with a delicate, freckled nose. She and my friend, Cole, recognized each other at once. Both seemed startled. He had forgotten her name but remembered when she told him – Emily.
As the lift dropped from the fourth floor, they spoke – mostly Emily spoke. Her voice was frail but insistent, reaching to him, engaging him, laughing when he didn’t laugh. I noticed she was English, and her accent rounded softly at the edges so it was difficult to hear the last part of each phrase. Her demureness seemed a form of humility, or a false humility.
She had a hiding, teasing expression I mistook for flirtation. I suspected the lingering bruise of an unrequited crush. This irritated me, maybe because I was possessive of Cole. He wasn’t my type, but he was my luck, I thought then, and I was possessive of that. But his good looks could be a liability. Girls must fling themselves at him and get hurt without his participation, or his wanting to hurt them, like nocturnal bugs to a bright, hot light. I wasn’t attracted to him myself, but if I was exempt from his appeal, I still knew there was a hierarchy: Cole was too much of a catch for her. I remember wondering, with disdain, why this wasn’t clear to Emily, too.
I thought I understood her from the scant evidence. But then this was my habit. It was easier for me to flesh out a fiction than to be uncertain.
Cole responded cheerfully, if curtly, to her talk. I was relieved when we arrived in the dorm lobby and Emily stepped out of the lift, returned our space, and everything seemed normal again.
She wore a crimson shirt with HARVARD across the chest. That spring, she and I were studying at the same London university, living on opposite sides of the same dorm. It was at Harvard, though, that we had both met Cole.
At Harvard, I majored in English Literature. If the chance meeting in the lift had been a scene in a Henry James novel, I knew, my uneasy feeling would not just fade away. It would be part of a careful construction, and it would portend something; the slight would unravel into importance. I could count on it. In literature there was always an epiphany – a tingling moment, sometimes buried – the pearl around which the whole work formed.
James said he was inspired to write The Ambassadors from a fragment of a conversation overheard at a Paris garden party. He gave the pilfered lines to a character, Lambert Strether: “Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had?...” At the center of the novel’s elaborate make-believe was an admonition recycled from the real world.
I wanted to take Strether’s advice to live life fully, to believe – as some novels suggest – that truth at the heart of the matter emerges. One depended on the other, entirely: life couldn’t be lived fully and also be trivial. If truths do emerge, it meant life had purpose, as if it were authored and organized. But I was a doubter. I wondered whether characters, marionettes in arranged settings, were really applicable to the happenstance of adult life.
The social scene at the Harvard I knew was outside the rules of literature. It was less poignant. I’d imagined that my days there would be full of interesting art house films, important conversations on comfortable if deteriorating couches, drives to the country in battered cars brimming with friends. A mix of comfort and excitement would nudge age-appropriate epiphanies out of me (the kind that weren’t elicited in classrooms), where I knew they were, hibernating, during this margin between childhood and whatever was next.
I tried to find a social niche at Harvard – a group, my group – but I was unsuccessful. I sensed I might be slotted into unflattering categories if I let my guard down, though I wasn’t sure what the categories were. I was a social person, but with few practiced graces, and that kind of social seemed flat now, tactless. In the competitive atmosphere, tact was essential. I had assumed people would like me and that I would make friends easily, as I had at home in California, but most of the Harvard parties were short and tense. And the parties rumored to be fun, the ones off-campus, seemed dangerous, unsavory, teetering between revelry and debauchery. So I found refuge in my studies, which were vast and intricate, but disconnected from the social Harvard and so also from the part of myself I’d hoped would blossom there.
I had expected social life to fill in the places where the classroom stopped, to provide a counterbalance, not only for academic work, but for the idealism and profound inquiry the work required. Or, at least, to be safe and inviting. Until I met Cole two years later in the fall of our junior year – and our friends Paul and Avery – I didn’t, couldn’t belong to this other, essential world.
The fall after I met them, I left Harvard to spend my last year of college studying abroad in London. I lived in a dorm building, a converted industrial warehouse from the 1930s on the south side of the Thames River, near Waterloo train station. Cole visited me that April. When I met him outside on a Saturday morning, he was wearing long cotton shorts and a green T-shirt. At the first sight of him, so nonchalant, I felt like I was exhaling after holding my breath for months with the more elaborate, formal Englishmen I had met. He had the uncomplicated look Americans sometimes have, especially when they travel abroad.
The possible is continually lost to the actual – unless a bit of possibility is never relinquished. In London I became aware that my friendship with Cole still hovered in the realm of possibility. That was why I found it intriguing, and also why it started to seem unreal. It didn’t have the burdens or expectations real things had. We’d settled into an easy platonic friendship. We were comfortable with silences because they had no weight; a pause was only a pause.
But that evening, after the short lift ride with Emily, sitting together in a tourist bar in Covent Garden, I wondered whether we knew each other at all. We sipped blue drinks that looked medicinal and masked cheap vodka with sweetness. Like the ill chosen bar, and the blue drinks, our evening had an eerie absence of anchor or substance. Cole couldn’t name my hometown; I couldn’t remember whether he had siblings; we’d never shared things about ourselves that made us seem frail or even human. We’d missed the opportunity to create these bonds early in the friendship and they were excluded from us now.
I arranged a makeshift bed for him on my dorm room floor that night. There was little space because the bathroom unit – slightly more permanent than a port-o-potty – took up a third of the room. It was an incongruous, space-age bulk fitted into the old, industrial building, and its door closed with a Tupperware lid pop. Cole’s bed was out of place, too, and too close. It suggested we knew each other better than we did, that our surface camaraderie had a corresponding depth. But we slept well.
The next morning Cole left to wander along the Themes river and I stayed in my room. I was surprised to see Emily show up shortly after he left. I didn’t know how she’d found my room, or why she’d come. She started telling me about cheap tickets to Turin on Ryan Air. She was breathless about the mountains, the wildflowered hikes, how much I’d miss if I didn’t make the purchase immediately.
“You should buy them now, while they’re cheap,” she said. “Tomorrow the price will rocket.”
I didn’t have much money just then, and didn’t particularly feel like taking a trip, but soon I was looking up the web site for the tickets – she was right about the price – and she kept pushing, and I bought them. Then she said she had a Turin travel guide in her room she would lend me. I asked if I could pick it up later, but she insisted that now was best. Below her urgings was something fragile that I didn’t want to say no to and break. I followed her back to her room to collect the guide.
When we got there, Emily closed the door. “There’s something I want to tell you,” she said softly. Then she hesitated. “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all.”
I had a feeling this was about Cole. “Cole and I are just friends,” I said. “You don’t have to worry. We’re not a couple or anything.”
She began to tell me her story.
It was not, I learned, a crush at all. She had met Cole at a party at one of Harvard’s final clubs. She had a few drinks there, but didn’t remember anything after that. She woke up the next day in an unfamiliar bed, knowing that she’d had sex, missing her underwear. She went to the hospital and tested positive for the presence of Rohypnol—the “date rape drug”—in her blood.
I’d never heard of Rohypnol before. Emily said it made you cognizant, even excited or blissful, in the moment, and then you forget everything the next day. She didn’t know who had slipped the drug into her drink or who had had sex with her. Several people told her later that she and Cole had sex that night in the club in front of a group of people.
At the time, I learned, she was training to be a doctor at Harvard and had almost completed her course. She dropped out after the incident with Cole and returned to her native London.
At Harvard I was a reporter for the student-run daily newspaper, the Crimson. This was a vocational extra curricular activity, intensely competitive and political. I didn’t take to the work — it seemed repetitive drudgery and I craved alchemy. I’d expected the article writing, fact-checking and the hours inside the florescent-lit room to lead to something different, better, though I wasn’t sure what that was. Maybe adult life was only continuation, I thought, a slow accrual of moderately better versions of the same few tools, rattling in a box.
I persisted for a little while, though, and once I was assigned to report on a letter from Dean Archie C. Epps III warning about the growing dangers in Final Clubs, the Harvard equivalent of fraternities.
I wasn’t an authority on the subject – I’d never stepped inside a final club before. In fact, I had avoided them because I was sure I wouldn’t belong. I imagined dens of sin. On-campus parties were controlled by the institution; there were strict rules for who could attend, for who could drink and for how long. The lighting wasn’t flattering.
The final clubs were subject to no control, it seemed. I had heard that Harvard College has no official connection with the eight clubs, no legal attachment, though the members are Harvard students and most of the partygoers are too. The university broke ties with them in 1984 because the clubs wouldn’t elect female members, and Harvard, now co-ed, could no longer abide the omission. College drinking laws tightened in 1989, so the clubs became the place to drink.
They are also the place to be glamorous. The clubs own stately, if dilapidated, mansions in the center of Cambridge adjacent to the university gates. They have jaunty names like Fox, Fly, Owl and Spee. Some are rich from alumni donations, I’d heard, and own great swathes of land. I’d also heard that they hadn’t accepted Jews until the 1980s and that women are invited to come to parties alone to correct the ratios. I knew the risk wasn’t particular to Harvard. But the clubs intrigued me and I collected notions about them, I think, because I’d never been. Epps said he had issued the letter to “warn women and new students about the clubs,” among other reasons.
Of course these things happened here, too.
One night during that year, my last at Harvard, I walked a friend to her dorm and we found one of her roommates, drunk, holding her large breasts in her hands, shaking her head and saying she wished she hadn’t done what she’d done at a final club that night. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I wondered why she didn’t have the savvy I had – a crisp cynicism that allowed little true unburdening, little of the unfurling of myself I’d hoped for in college.
I met Cole the summer after my junior year of college, working on the editorial staff of “Let’s Go” travel guides. He was co-editor of Let’s Go India. They’d hired him because he was a good writer, smart, and because he’d traveled throughout India, where he had some family. He had a round, boyish face that tanned the color of honey. His wide smile came from places with warmer climates, I thought, places I’d read about with older women who were loved and respected most that way – all their youthful beauty just the means to a different, more substantial power. I assumed other things too, that Cole was guileless and light-hearted.
The Let’s Go travel guides were sold throughout the world, but the business, editing and writing were the exclusive province of Harvard students. Paul and I were editing the Southeast Asia guide. Across the hall, Avery worked closely with Cole. The four of us became friends.
I loved the way I was with them, and how I could blend. Later I tried to understand why I wanted so much to belong with them, to be friends with Cole, right up to the point of not wanting it at all. I noticed that I have longed for many things, passionately, that turned out to be undesirable – and I have longed for these things the most.
Cole’s ease, and the way he exuded a carefree sort of entitlement, was probably the reason I began to feel at ease at Harvard myself, the summer before I left for London. Working at Let’s Go, among the editors and travelers and my new cluster of friends, I felt I’d been admitted into an inner sanctum of Harvardness, where the men were sporty and good looking. These were the people I’d been searching for but had been unable to find. Now I fit in almost seamlessly with them.
We edited the guides from revisions and additions sent by our researchers, FedEx’d or faxed or phoned, staccato, through old telephone lines from Viet Nam or Laos or Burma/Myanmar. At night, after we’d updated opening hours and menu tips for little indigenous cafes I’d never visited, we went out (there was almost always a party) and on weekends we drove out of Cambridge and Boston. My new friends took the fun and ease for granted, I could tell, so I tried to, too.
One weekend that summer the four of us went to Avery’s summerhouse in New Hampshire. She drove her father’s red MG with the top down and it was just right, just how it should be, I thought, on the East Coast during college in the summer with friends. The house was small, clean and furnished beautifully, expensively. The walls were thick. Vintage quilts spilled over antique four-posters. The house was two stories, rectangular, with a patio and a lawn in back that sloped down and ended at an inlet of the Atlantic ocean. There was no beach, just a little drop down. I didn’t understand that the water was ocean, and not lake, until we jumped in and I tasted the salt and felt the sharp cold. It had a power that a lake didn’t have, too, even though it was calm on the top. Lake water seemed thinner. I had never seen this kind of ocean before, this domesticated version of the Pacific. Later we made dinner together and ate on the patio as the sky darkened. I extrapolated, watching the ocean from the porch, sitting with my friends, eating: here with these people, even wild and violent things were calm.
I began to wonder whether I’d been wading too deeply through my life, hampered by unnecessary seriousness. Maybe life could be lived more on the surface layer, where the sheen is.
My belonging with these friends felt precarious, though, maybe because it was new and unexpected. Any momentary awareness that I was not completely comfortable, or any wondering why I was so aware of being at ease – how an ease-filled mind could have any room left to notice itself – could be gathered and held in suspension for a moment, the way I held my breath in the cold saltwater, until it passed.
At Harvard I’d grown used to the feeling of not belonging. My sophomore year I joined the staff of the literary magazine, the Advocate. Soon after, the student president of the magazine, James, petite and thin-boned, hobbled up to me at a party, drunk, and told me that they hadn’t been sure about whether to accept me on the staff but did, in the end, because I was pretty.
I was pretty, but not striking, and I wondered how this had been my ticket in. Did I owe James now, was that what he was telling me? I fell silent and watched him. I noticed that he was consistently tattered and unkempt, but in a studied way. He was a different kind of man than I’d seen before, and intimidating. That night, fresh from California, I saw a pale little man wearing faded neck scarves and sweaters with holes, heavy with the affectations of an old man, as if he were cloaking himself in layers of grey gauze. Later, after London, I thought his dry sartorial tone must have been code for the burdens of old money – the preservation of objects through seasons and generations, beyond the point when they should be preserved – and so, in turn, code for its blessings.
In any case, I felt, his comment made it clear: I didn’t fit in. My interest in the Advocate, and in Harvard, waned. To get into Harvard I’d been enterprising, hard-working, I had burrowed in books and had been sufficiently extracurricular. But once I arrived, the uniform marching of my classmates toward graduation and the planned riches beyond that and beyond that – the striving en mass – seemed grotesque. Years before on a camping trip with a friend I’d walked off the path and found, writhing around a branch, a dense globe shivering with hundreds of ladybugs. Were these the same bugs I played with individually, gently, careful not to crack their mottled shell? Now they were repulsive and seemed, collectively, foreign and self-absorbed.
There was a lot about the East that California hadn’t prepared me for. I’d been warned about class in the abstract, warned that old money bred complacence – and often came with bad taste. At Harvard I was intimidated, but I didn’t know why, or how to identify the trouble. Growing up I’d been very poor, very rich, and sometimes in the middle. And if the middle gives a sense of stability – a clear divide between what can be assumed and what cannot, neat like a picket fence – I was never really there. I noticed some girls had a sense of calm that grounded them, modulated their voices and their gestures, even when they were hurried and active. I wondered if this calm came from their homes, if they were born with it, or if it was cultivated.
Later I learned that James from the Advocate had grown up poor and affected his look. He sold vacuum cleaners in high school for spending money. An uncle in the clothing business gave him the clothes. The real scions of old money were probably more discreet than James. I’d felt it, the old money, but assigned it to the wrong actors. Rather than resist a local ideal, James had absorbed it. It was a ruse, and I’d believed. Many of my conclusions must have been false like this one, borne of my own insecurity and seriousness.
At some point, after we became friends, I learned that Cole and Paul were both members of different final clubs, and I regretted that I hadn’t gone to the parties after all. I might have had more fun if I had met people like Cole and Paul earlier, if I felt less inhibited. Perhaps I had imbued the final clubs with a heaviness – my own – that they didn’t possess.
But Emily was proof that I had been right to be wary. Or that to avoid the risky is to avoid risk, to walk a smooth, smug path, to live less. The night in the club with Cole was the pivotal moment in her life. I didn’t know what a date rape kit was but she said hers had not expired yet, like good milk, and could still be used to prosecute. I didn’t think she would prosecute, though. What she wanted – what she couldn’t seem to get – was knowledge of what happened to her that night.
Before this, I’d imagined that after some time, maybe a year, a traumatic incident like this would linger as a dull pain. But Emily was still in agony—unable to concentrate, speaking in a breathy way, sobbing to me about how impossible her life was, not knowing exactly what had happened.
I thought of how improbable our meeting in the lift was. Cole and Emily had walked into a small, closed space in a foreign country with the very person from whom they thought they’d escaped.
Emily pleaded with me to help arrange a meeting with Cole. Suddenly I was her portal. I helped arrange it that afternoon.
They went out together and returned to my room, holding enormous Styrofoam cups filled with fruity drinks. Cole slurped his contentedly. Emily held hers awkwardly, like a prop. Cole’s pleasure seemed rimmed with a thin layer of anger, as if he were saying “See, aren’t we fine? Aren’t we carefree?” I thought of the kit. Emily looked grateful, straining towards delighted, but she wilted as soon as he left the room. She told me she needed to see him again. It was endless, and unsolved; I had been naïve to help them meet again.
Moral certitudes were clear only if there was a cage to hem them in, if you belonged to the same clubs long enough to assume what everyone else assumed, I thought. Could a bedrock morality, a fast and determined code, be quickly imposed, like the prefab bathroom in my industrial dorm room?
I decided to speak with Paul, to create a floating island. Our group had to be reunited before it was dispersed; it would be tedious to explain the situation to someone wasn’t close to its core, like I was, and knew how easy and innocent it had felt.
Paul had finals club ties, good looks, and also a moody, truthful side. I wondered if it would hold up to this, or whether he, like me, would be at a loss. But he wasn’t. We spoke and he knew almost immediately what to do. I consulted with him, and he seemed to consult with some profound, heavy part of himself, so that his words came out slowly and deeper than usual.
Cole was intruding on Emily now, Paul thought, shifting her balance, and he must be made to go. I agreed. We would not presume to determine Cole’s innocence or guilt, or try to wheedle it out—we would just extricate him. And then Paul and I decided we wouldn’t speak about it to anyone else, that it was to heavy to be gossip, to whip up casually. We would close the door and from there mark a new beginning, and beginnings are often marked by seeing what was always there.
I asked Cole to leave and I watched him pack. At first he didn’t hear me, or didn’t want to hear me, and wouldn’t pack, or even move. Then I was firmer and he began to collect his scattered clothing.
Cole spoke to me and his voice trailed off. He was worried about his family and their large expectations, he told me. He teared up and shuffled around my room after he had finally finished packing and I walked out with him, into the lift and out onto the street to the intersection before Waterloo train station. He would buy a ticket to Paris on the Eurostar. “But you’ve already decided that I’m guilty and you haven’t even heard my side of the story,” he said, on the way.
“I know. But you’ve upset her just being here, and you have to go.”
If I’d kept Cole at a distance at Harvard, I’d also done so with myself. I tried to keep the perceived measure of my potential uncapped. It was sexier to suggest a frontier, rather than go right up to the edge of it, and see where it stopped. I thought that if I partially covered my face with glasses, if any beauty I had was obscured or at least not accentuated – a makeup-less face, hair pulled back tight, clothing in black or muted colors which boxed my figure – I would be a cipher for others’ impressions. But what if she tore off those glasses and let down her hair, they’d wonder. She might be very pretty that way. Maybe a fantasy would be more alluring than I actually was.
But if I expected others to weave fantasies about me then, I noticed that I didn’t do the same for them. I was too lazy to imagine or dig, to probe or extrapolate from beyond what I saw, from a harder-won foundation. I wasn’t really guilty, of course: I had a small path that wound away from Cole and Emily, and I could not have stopped that night in the club, as I didn’t know them then. But I still had a part in their story. I noticed that fiction sometimes appropriated the space that fact should have; it’s shinier, and easier, and it becomes more appealing the more people, like me, give it credence.
Somewhere at the confluence of Emily’s noticeable attributes – her small nose, her Harvard shirt, her biology textbooks, her voice – I’d imagined when I first met her, was, more or less, the whole girl. Passing faces on the street, meeting new people, I’d have to remember that life extended out, beyond what we can see. I heard that mushrooms are connected underground by a network of fine, white threads. Maybe people are connected, too – coincidences like this one made it seem so, seemed to uncover a unifying, hidden structure.
Below the intersection a tangle of underpasses spoked off the hub of the IMAX theatre to all destinations: the theatre, the bridge, the station. It was faster to run across the road above ground to the taxi rank at Waterloo station than to wind through the underground passages. But it was dangerous. The traffic is fast and runs the wrong direction in double lanes on each side, and the IMAX theatre looms like a cake in the middle of the roundabout, blocking the view of oncoming traffic. I sent Cole across the road, though. I wanted to watch him go to be sure, as if underground he might loop around and come back. I watched him run and stop to avoid the cars and then disappear into the black beetle line of taxis and into the station.
I returned to my room. I still don’t know what happened in the final club that night. And I never saw Cole or Emily again. I called Emily and offered help, but she didn’t return my messages. My part in the story was over. If this were fiction, all of us would go our separate ways, changed, and question later if such an improbable meeting could have happened at all.