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Authors: Emily Fox Gordon

It Will Come to Me

BOOK: It Will Come to Me
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Mockingbird Years:
A Life In and Out of Therapy

Are You Happy?:
A Childhood Remembered

Emma Adelia Constantine

Though it was really one laugh
with a tear in the middle,
I counted it as two.



rofessor Blau!” the student cried out, bounding up the steps. A frenetic session of handshaking ensued, but Ruth could see by Ben's warm vague smile that this young man had him at a momentary disadvantage.

The student, or ex-student, was sandy-haired and sunburnt. His aviator sunglasses hung from a braided leather cord around his neck. Now he was telling them about his year as an intern in a senator's office and how he'd gotten into the Stanford program. Remember Alison, his girlfriend? She was in med school and they were getting married in December. Here he glanced shyly at Ruth.

A pause. The preliminaries had been gotten through, and Ruth knew all too well what would happen next. The student would ask Ben's advice and Ben would dispense it. Ruth would stand there, trapped and excluded, shifting from one foot to the
other in an ecstasy of boredom. Twenty minutes, forty minutes. At some point the conversation would begin to wind down. After a long diminuendo of farewells the student would excuse himself. But even then, the danger would not have passed. It had happened more than once that even as Ben's interlocutor had turned and taken several steps away, Ben remembered some final piece of advice—a colleague to look up, a course to avoid—and actually called the student back. The coffin sprang open and the grinning corpse of the conversation sat bolt upright.

Now was the moment to slip away. She smiled her quick sideways smile at Ben, who was too involved in talk to notice, and withdrew to the stone railing. Looking down, she saw a scene of young people standing in conversational knots. This place, known as Nirvana, was the graduate-student bar, a beer-dispensing station operating out of the basement of the chemistry building. Patrons descended into that dank grotto to order their seventy-five-cent bocks and lagers and carried them up into the light of late afternoon to drink them under the dappled shade of live oaks. They arrayed themselves around the grounds of the building, sitting on benches, leaning against brick, ranged along the steps of the external stone staircase leading to the second floor. Nirvana was a chronically endangered institution. For years, a counselor at the Wellness Center had been waging a letter-writing campaign against it in the student paper, and the proprietors had recently been put on notice that it would be shut down by the university if a handicapped ramp was not installed.

Ben liked to spend an hour or two here on a Friday afternoon perched at the very top of the stone steps, where he could pick his students out of the crowd, or those of his colleagues—not many showed up—to whom he wanted to speak. Ruth had pointed out
several times that he was just as visible to people down there as they were to him, but the panoramic view seemed to make him feel secure. On these occasions he drank one beer, two at most. Ruth drank two and wanted two more.

She looked down directly on the neatly parted blond head of a young woman who stood flanked by two tall young men. One was carrying a sleeping newborn in a front pack. The other had a receding hairline and an Adam's apple like a swallowed anvil. The patrons here were mostly graduate students, some as old as forty, but their faces were so unmarked as to seem hardly human. Faculty members tended to stay young too, she'd noticed—perhaps it was the sea of youth washing over them year after year. And when they did begin to show age the effect was often stagy and unconvincing, as though they'd achieved it by powdering their hair and applying grease pencil to the lines around their mouths.

Ruth stole a glance at Ben, who was listening to the student with unfeigned interest. How the student glowed in the light of his attention. Or perhaps that was just his youth, just his health. Ben had turned sixty a few weeks ago, but he was still broad in the shoulder and trim at the waist. Standing in shadow he could almost pass for a graduate student. Could she? Certainly not, though she dressed as though she hoped to, in black jeans and clogs and dangling silver earrings.

As faculty brat and faculty wife (or spouse, as the euphemism had it) and occasional adjunct instructor, she'd always been a member of what the administration liked to call the “university community.” Though she was permitted to use the gym and the libraries and included under the umbrella of the university's medical and dental insurance, she was not, apparently, covered by the stay-young policy. She was fifty-six, and looked it. But recently
she'd discovered one of the benign perplexities of aging: despite the increasing efforts she made to conceal them, the cosmetic changes didn't bother her terribly. In the last few years she'd watched the pleating of the flesh under her chin and the deepening of the seams that ran down her cheeks with a certain dismay but also with an oddly detached sense of satisfaction. It was very much the way she felt twenty-five years ago when she was pregnant, standing nude in front of a full-length mirror, assessing the swelling of her belly.
It's coming along
, had been her thought then, and that was her thought now too.
Coming right along
How was it, then, that most nights she lay awake at three in the morning, brooding about age and death?

Looking down again, she counted three toddlers in the crowd. One slumped in a backpack, blankly mouthing a pacifier. Two staggered unsteadily through a forest of adult legs. They made a pleasant enough sight, she supposed, if one was in a mood to find it so. She wasn't. Instead, she was feeling irritated, as she often did these days. Why, she asked herself, does nothing ever happen? This was a drinking establishment, but no place could be safer or duller. The presence of children made it duller still. Somebody should tell the wellness counselor not to worry: in all the years she and Ben had been coming here, she'd never seen anyone betray even the mildest symptom of intoxication. It was as if some odorless gas had been released into the air, rendering all these fit young people perfectly placid and well behaved. There were no brawls, no loud laughter, no raised voices, none of the intense intellectual talk Ruth would have liked to become embroiled in. Or would she? She used to think of herself as an aggressive debater, but she'd grown shy in recent years, conscious of all she didn't know, easily flummoxed by a challenge.

one of Ben's students knew it anymore, and neither did most young faculty, but twenty-five years ago Ruth had been a writer of some small note. Her first book, published by an academic press, was a collection of carefully crafted short stories in the
New Yorker
style which got little attention and was reviewed only in the local paper. Under the influence of Alison Lurie's
The War Between the Tates
, she went on to try her hand at a short novel—a novella, really—about an assistant professor of ethics with a bullying, womanizing chairman and a passive, contemplative wife.
Moral Turpitude
was its title, and it happened to catch the attention of a prominent reviewer, who called it “sharply observed.” Encouraged, she produced another,
In These Halls
, with the same cast of characters. “Refreshing!” a second critic said, so she wrote a third,
Getting Good.
Her publisher packaged the books as a trilogy under that title, which was duly hailed as “acid,” “biting,” and “caustic.” The volume sold surprisingly well and Ruth was summoned to New York and fed cold salmon at lunch by her publisher.

Then Isaac was born, and in the milky dreamy years of early motherhood she found she'd lost access to whatever capacity it was that had called forth all those low-pH adjectives. She looked for it again when he started school, and discovered it was still gone. Not that she stopped writing entirely. During Isaac's early adolescence her time was divided among part-time teaching, volunteer work, and consultations with his therapists and teachers, but even so, she produced three hundred pages of an unfinished novel. Three years ago, at the advice of her own therapist, she enrolled in a local writing program, where she was the oldest student
in all her workshops. She dropped out in the middle of her third semester. For a year after that she worked in fits and starts on another novel,
Whole Lives Devoured
, two hundred pages of which now lay ignored in a disordered pile on her desk.

The paperback of the
Getting Good
trilogy had long since gone out of print, but you could find it in secondhand bookstores, sometimes in the dollar bins out in the street. She could spot it on a shelf fifty yards away, a compact, chunky book with a pastel three-stripe cover design, like a slab of Neapolitan ice cream. Every once in a while—less and less frequently as the years went by—she would be introduced to someone who would stare at her hard for a moment and blurt out, “You wrote
Getting Good
, didn't you?” Ruth would blush violently and say yes. Yes, that was me.

Now, with Isaac out of the house, she found she could summon forth any amount of useless bile. At a Philosophy Department potluck dinner last spring she had posted herself in the kitchen doorway and observed. How, she asked herself, would she make use of the scene she was watching? If she squinted hard enough to blur the identities of the guests, she could imagine, just for a moment, evidence of sexual tension in the interaction between a statuesque graduate student and a married faculty member. But it didn't last. There was nothing predatory in his posture, nothing seductive in hers. Could she hope at least that they were sharing confidences? Probably not. More likely they were complaining about the delinquencies of the registrar's office or the campus parking situation.

That party. It was like a hundred others. The table was laden with the ruminant foods brought by faculty members (quinoa salads and lentil casseroles) and the childish sweets contributed by graduate students (lopsided cakes and giant cookies embedded
with M&M's). Guests grazed at the table, milled through the rooms of the house, paused to take inventory of the books on the shelves. Looking at these people, many of whom she liked, she felt a mild astonishment. My, they were dull!

BOOK: It Will Come to Me
7.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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