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.