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THE BOOK: The Third Law of Motion
PUBLISHED IN: 2011
THE AUTHOR: Meg Files
THE EDITOR: Anna Faktorovich
THE PUBLISHER: Anaphora Literary Press
SUMMARY: The novel is set in Michigan in the early 60s, when the worst thing a girl could do was get herself “in trouble,” when domestic violence remained hidden in silent basements. It tells the stories of Dulcie White, a bright, confused college girl distracted by sexual discoveries and the power of her boyfriend’s neediness, and track star Lonnie Saxbe, who is caught up in his own confusions and compulsions. The Third Law of Motion offers an intimate look at the subtleties and the complexities of the dynamics between a battered wife and a violent husband, where nothing is so simple as a fist punched through a wall.
THE BACK STORY: I wrote a draft of this book many years ago, with the title “The Heart, Also a Hunter.” It was my first attempt at a novel, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I put the manuscript away for a long time and published other books. But the story and the characters stayed with me. Once I thought I knew how to handle the points of view and the voices, I rewrote the book. Without that early draft, I don’t think I would have been able to recreate the period details or the plot.
WHY THIS TITLE: The Third Law of Motion was originally Bodies of Water. However, before the novel was published, another book with that title came out, and I didn’t want any confusion. As with my first novel Meridian 144, I liked the ways the title could have literal and metaphorical meanings.
WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT: The Midwest Book Review described the book as “a riveting and much recommended pick for general fiction collections focusing on the struggles of women and battered wives.” Reviewing for the Superstition Review, Mary Sojourner wrote: “To read The Third Law of Motion is to understand more than why a woman might find herself trapped by her past and present. As Dulcie and Lonnie tell their stories, the reader comes into contact with greater notions of cause and effect. We understand the degree that Second Wave Feminism — Files never preaches ideology — provides light for a dark and potential deadly path.”
What I was after was an exploration of the dynamics of domestic abuse. But the book is not a case history. I didn’t want Lonnie to be a cardboard villain nor did I want Dulcie to be just a victim. So I was pleased when Jarret Keene, reviewing the book for The Tucson Weekly, said: “. . . what’s truly indelible and incredible about Files’ novel is how much empathy she generates on behalf of Dulcie’s abuser.”
Mary Sojourner again: “I imagine some of Files’ younger students reading the book and wondering why Dulcie didn’t go to a women’s shelter, to Planned Parenthood, to an empathetic woman OBGYN. Those of us who lived through the ’50s and ’60s can answer that question. There was nowhere to go. We were alone with what we believed were our choices. We didn’t yet know that there were few choices — and that all of them were part of the swamp that held us fast.”
One of my students, a young woman from another country, came to my office all black and blue. She told me her husband had beaten her up. Again. Her family was on the other side of the planet, she didn’t really know people here, and she was scared. We all know domestic violence didn’t end in the last century, but I was reminded, terribly reminded, of what it is to be cut off and helpless. And it seems that the shame hasn’t vanished, either. I rewrote my first novel in the belief that it is relevant still, even in our “enlightened” times. The #MeToo movement has sadly confirmed the story’s relevance, some fifty years later.
Oh my heck, as we said in the day, here is a novel of a time when we faced the first “dangers” — boys and girls — and now that harm seems curious and charming, and so delicious in Meg Files’ dear and vivid novel. The Third Law of Motion sweeps us through those sunny days, and then – as it truly happened — dapples us with shadow. — Ron Carlson.
Meg Files unfolds her story gently with clean, lyrical prose, balancing vivid scenes of raw sensuality with heartrending moments that foreshadow disaster. The Third Law of Motion is about love, madness, coming-of-age, and redemption, and it is also a tragedy and a page-turning thriller; in short it is a timeless classic. Meg Files is a deeply insightful and generous writer who allows even her most flawed characters grace and humanity. The Third Law of Motion is a wonderful book that absolutely deserves to be read. — Laila Halaby
When Meg Files’ The Third Law of Motion arrived, I warned myself not to take a peek until I’d cleared time on my schedule. Then I thought, Well, one page couldn’t hurt. Of course, the delicious writing, the pitch-perfect and absolutely fresh evocation of these lives of the 1960s immediately dazzled me; and then, the suspense that Files had been oh-so-deftly building into the story would not let me stop reading – or resume breathing— until the last page. — Elizabeth Evans
Meg Files has given us, in The Third Law of Motion, a portrait of a marriage that is as searing and emblematic as Richard Yates’ in Revolutionary Road. What emerges is a story where damaged men damage those they love, where parents look the other way, and where women provide hope and strength to one another. This is a moving, wise, and hopeful book. — Beth Alvarado
I read this novel in one sitting without stopping for sleep or food. The characters climb inside your skin so you feel acutely their desires, their obsessions, and the family secrets that bloom between them. Most of all, you find yourself in love and irrepararably tied to them, so that as the novel reaches its final, exhilarating climax it is your own soul on the line, waiting either to be extinguished, or to find redemption. — Suzanne Kingsbury
AUTHOR PROFILE: Meg Files is the author of the novels Meridian 144 and The Third Law of Motion, Home Is the Hunter and Other Stories, The Love Hunter and Other Poems, and Writing What You Know, a book about using personal experience and taking risks with writing. She edited Lasting: Poems on Aging. Her stories and poems have appeared in many publications, including Fiction, Writers’ Forum, Oxford Magazine, The Tampa Review, and Crazyhorse. New poems appear in Miramar and the anthology Driftfish. Her awards include a Bread Loaf Fellowship. Her work has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, for the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, and for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She taught creative writing, directed the Pima Writers’ Workshop, and chaired the English and Journalism Department at Pima College for many years. She was the James Thurber Writer-in-Residence at Ohio State University and the Doris Leadbetter Writer-in-Residence at Victoria University in Australia. She directs the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards and Masters Workshop.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: I speak at writers’ conferences and teach at writers’ workshops. I enjoy doing readings and visiting writers’ groups.
I met Lonnie at dancing class. I never really learned to dance.
My friend Annie Halverson convinced me that we’d get asked out if we knew how to do the twist and the jerk. “How’s any guy supposed to know?” I said. “You gonna get a big tattoo? ‘This chick can do the funky chicken?’” Really, I thought, Annie was guilty of the post hoc fallacy — she believed we didn’t have dates because we couldn’t dance — when both were just symptoms of our invisibility. Besides, bodies couldn’t be taught to twitch and beat the way Annie and I had seen them at the armory dance. When my mother caught me trying it before the full-length mirror, she said, “Don’t grind. That’s nasty.” Annie said the girls who put out were the tamest dancers. Wild or subdued, they all moved in an oily repetition that I knew couldn’t be learned.
Still, I went with Annie to the studio downtown and lined up with the other rejects where for six Saturday mornings we shuffled around under fluorescent lights to rock-and-roll played softly.
On the final Saturday, when Lonnie Saxbe was paired with me, he said he was a junior at Battlebush, ran track, and wanted to take me out.
“I’m a senior,” I said. “At Central.” I didn’t know if I was saying yes or no.
He said he’d pick me up next Friday if I’d tell him where I lived.
When I told Annie on the bus, she said, “For a track star, you’d think he’d be able to dance. He dances like he’s made out of cardboard.”
“And I’m so great,” I said.
“But he is cool-looking,” she said sadly. “Well, now you’ll be with him and I still can’t dance.”
“He’s clean-cut. A very good-looking young man,” my mother said sadly. Lonnie made everybody sad, as if his presence fixed my future. “But he isn’t so great in the brains department, is he?”
“I’m not going to marry him, Mom. But it’s nice to do something on Saturday night besides watch Gunsmoke with Dad.”
“You don’t want to live your life with a man who’s your intellectual inferior,” she said. “Whatever else, at least your father’s got a sizeable brain.”
By January I’d been accepted to the small private college I’d chosen for its reputation for scholarship and its junior-year-abroad program. Nobody would force me to marry Lonnie Saxbe. We went to movies and ate pizza and made out in the back seat of his maroon Tempest. We didn’t mention his junior or my senior prom.
My parents were merely parents. My father paid my extravagant tuition and set up a checking account for me, no questions asked. My mother wanted to help me plan a college wardrobe. I didn’t think about what they were to each other.
In the summer, Lonnie worked at a Shell station, pumping gas, checking oil, and cleaning windshields. His father had some disability and no job. Lonnie took me once to their trailer. His broad-faced mother wore man’s pants and served macaroni, hot dogs, and beans for supper.
“The musical fruit,” his father said, and Lonnie turned red.
The father was small and gray. The mother’s head seemed too large even for her sturdy body: megacephalic was the word, I thought, though it might just have been the thick bouffant hair.
“Your old man does what?” Lonnie’s father said.
The hot dogs were terrible, boiled instead of grilled, reminding me they were made of animal parts like lips and glands. Lonnie sometimes called himself my old man. I chewed and chewed the rubbery meat and worked at the question: Did he want to know what Lonnie did to me in the back seat?
“He does something with drugs,” Lonnie answered for me.
“Drugs?” Mrs. Saxbe made the word two shocked syllables.
“Oh, my father,” I said. “He does research. Pharmaceuticals.”
“What I said,” Lonnie said.
After dessert of red Jell-O with Cool Whip, Lonnie’s father turned on the black and white television and his mother ran a sinkful of soapy water in the tiny kitchen.
“I’m taking my girl down to the lake,” Lonnie said.
His mother looked at me over her shoulder, her hands in the dishwater, looked at my white rolled-up-sleeve blouse and my pink-checked bermudas and my sandals and then back up to my face. His girl. My head felt too small for my body.
“Thank you for dinner,” I said. “It was awfully nice to meet you.” It came out sounding like Hayley Mills.
“That boat don’t go out in the dark,” his father said. “You hear me?”
At the lake, we took turns changing behind the boathouse. Everything was dark and marshy-smelling. On Saturday afternoons we’d raced the boat around the lake, and I’d learned to rise in the heavy water and ski it. But this night we drove slowly and in the middle of the lake Lonnie cut the outboard motor. We lowered ourselves into the dark water and swam, splashing
gracelessly through the glass bubbles the boat’s headlights made, and we hung on the side of the boat and kissed, shivering.
In the boat he wrapped me in a towel and drove to a lagoon overgrown with lily pads and killed the lights. We kissed and kissed in our wet bathing suits. I didn’t lift his hand away from my breast. Behind the boathouse I’d crossed my arms and tested the feel of my breasts, and so I knew all he felt was stiff cotton and wire. I let him unhook the top of my blue and white dotted bathing suit. I let his dark hands feel my shriveled and clammy breasts. I thought they must feel like meat straight from the refrigerator.
In July he wanted to take me out for dinner. “Fancy,” he said. He said the word slowly, the way he said my name, Dulcie. “It’s our nine-month anniversary.”
Annie and I had laughed secretly at Whitman’s “Ninth-month midnight.” Nine months were giggly words, scary words. Nine months meant shame swollen under loose dresses. Nine months meant someone in trouble, sent to a sister in California or somewhere to miss the rest of senior year, exiled from parents and hometown to live the rest of her life blooded with whispers: in trouble, gave the baby up. Nine months meant the mystery of bodies joined, as on the dirty cards Annie’s brother had, tiny smudged bodies standing front to back with a rope of flesh joining them. I shivered. I’d kissed Lonnie with my mouth open and I’d put my hand on the front of his white Levis. Everything was so secret. In nine months Lonnie and I could have made a baby, I thought. Made a baby. It was an impossibility, as if touching flesh could create flesh. It was as random and mysterious as chemistry experiments, dipping a glass rod from beaker to beaker until a liquid smoked or sizzled or reeked.
Getting dressed up for the anniversary dinner, I put my palms on my bare stomach. My skin and my insides felt dulcet, my secret name-word which meant soft and smooth, tender for my secret impossible baby. My skin twitched under my hands, and I was abruptly terrified of ropes of flesh like boiled hot dogs, of composite shapes — lips and saliva and tongues and glands and bellies snipped up and molded into an embryo.
Lonnie’s idea of fancy was Bill Knapp’s. I ordered the ham croquettes, as I always did when my parents and I ate there after church. Though it was Saturday night, the restaurant’s light was just as frank and guileless as on Sunday afternoon.
“This is for you,” Lonnie said and pushed a little box across the table. He’d wrapped it in yellow paper with too much Scotch tape.
A pair of waiters stepped toward us with a cake and lit candles. Not nine candles in this public place, I thought. They set the cake in the midst of the family next to us and sang: “Happy birthday dear Julie, happy birthday to you.”
In the box, clenched in blue velvet, was an engagement ring.
“The wedding band has diamond chips, too.” He leaned across the table to look at the ring. He laughed. “Probably still be paying on it when we have our sixth kid.”
“Lonnie — you’re still in high school.” What had I done to make him think I’d marry him?
“Well, yeah, I know,” he said. He looked uncertain, then laughed. “I go for older women.”
“But you know I’m going to college. Next month.” I had a picture of my assigned roommate in my purse, a sweet-faced girl with dark hair in a flip just like mine. Her name was Katie Leeview. I thought of her in Minnesota staring at my senior picture, laughing at my blonde
flip. Would she understand that the angle of my head was the photographer’s pose, that my lifted nose gave me a false face, that I wasn’t really stuck up but scared?
“Yeah, I know,” Lonnie said. “I thought you’d stay here, though. We could get married now. Stay with my parents at first. Or I can just get a job and we can find an apartment. What do I need another year of shop or stupid English for, anyway?”
“You’re crazy. You have to finish high school.” I wasn’t going to argue with him about my beloved English classes. I wouldn’t marry Lonnie Saxbe if my life depended on it.
“You better not say I’m crazy,” he said, low. “You just better not, Dulcie. I admit, another year of track wouldn’t kill me. But I’d give it up if you said.”
I closed the ring box. “Here, you keep this. You’ll find the right woman sometime.” It was odd to say woman not girl. I imagined Katie Leeview watching my gentleness. I spoke the grand lines softly. “You know I care about you, Lonnie. But I’m not the right one for you.”
I thought he was going to cry. “But — I love you. I’ve been saying I love you.”
That was true. In the Tempest’s back seat, steaming up the windows, putting his hands under my blouse and on my thighs, he’d been saying he loved me, the words coming out wet against my neck, I luff you.
At the next table, the mother reached across and tapped the birthday girl’s shoulder. “Don’t stare, Julie sweetheart,” she said.
“Let’s talk about this outside,” I said. “People are looking.”
“Well, goddamnit, Dulcie, let them look.”
“Take this.” I stood and set the ring box beside his plate. He hadn’t finished his salisbury steak. He grabbed my wrist. “I said I love you. I’m going to marry you. I’m going to.”
I tried to pull away. He held on. “What do you say?” he asked the staring family at the next table. “Don’t I have the right to marry my girl? Huh? Don’t I?” The armpits of his yellow oxford cloth shirt were wet. His face was wet and blank, as if disbelief and outrage canceled each other out.
“Let me go.” I jerked my arm free and strode past all the ordinary people eating their croquettes, their pork chops, their little pots of au gratin potatoes, out into the humid night. I wore my true face. I was full of powers — to cause Lonnie’s love, to stash him in my past.
The sweet-faced girl sat on one of the little dorm room’s beds, with the fat pink bonnet of a hair dryer on her head. She looked up at me and ripped it off. My parents stepped back into the hall to let us confront each other alone, as if we were dogs strange to each other or lovers after a separation.
We made shy arrangements: her bed, my bed, her desk and mine, her record player, mine sent back with my parents, her French dictionary, my Thesaurus, her Tchaikovsky, my Beethoven, her Brontees, my Tolstoy.
The first night we lay on our narrow beds in the little room and to Swan Lake in the sanctified darkness confessed our lives. Katie had said goodbye-forever to a boy in Minnesota, and we compared endings. I told her about the scene in Lonnie’s bedroom last Sunday when I told him to forget me.
“You did it in his bedroom?”
“It was Sunday afternoon. I figured his parents would be there but they weren’t.”
His single bed had a brown plaid bedspread and no headboard. On the wall above a small pressed-wood desk hung a crucifix. That surprised me. We hadn’t talked about what we believed. We talked about movies and track and his car. With Annie Halvorson it was Anna
Karenina and my piano lessons with Bernard Fink over at the university and her brother’s dirty cards and our parents’ conformity and the nature of God. Lonnie was my date. I liked going out with him, I liked feeling his hand on my elbow as we walked, I liked saying my boyfriend. He looked cool, dressed cool, wore a letter sweater, and went to a different high school so nobody knew he was in shop while I was in college-bound English. He was a walking, talking boyfriend.
“I did it in Alex’s car,” Katie said. “I wish I’d thought of the bedroom.”
“Private. Intimate. But it didn’t turn out so hot.”
He’d come to see me at college, Lonnie said. It was only a hundred miles away. He’d tool up on the weekends.
“When I said no, forget it, he ripped the crucifix off the wall,” I told Katie. “He yelled, ‘A hell of a lot of good you are,’ and threw it on the floor.”
“What a scene,” she said. “Weren’t you scared? Alex just started crying.”
I thought of how the picture hook flew out, how chips of the wall fell away, showing the cardboard under the plaster, how he hurled Christ to the linoleum floor.
“They’ll remember us for the rest of their lives,” Katie said. “They’ll have jobs and get married and have kids, but they’ll always remember us.”
On Saturday we walked together into town and bought blue and green plaid bedspreads, matching curtains, a shaggy rug, and two prints — a Renoir of two dappled girls, a blonde and a brunette, on a river bank; and a Picasso, the head and torso of a woman we named Old Virgin Face. We readied our cell where for nine months we filled in each other’s words, watched rain fall to Rachmaninoff, located ourselves in each other.
“Why did the three old ladies dig up Tom Dooley?” Glenna said. Her room was next to ours, and she didn’t like her roommate.
“Why?” Katie said.
“They wanted to see how he was hung.”
We were silent. Shouldn’t it be hanged? Why three old ladies? What was the joke?
“You dummies,” Glenna said. “They wanted to see how he was hung. Get it? How he was hung?”
“We don’t get it,” Katie said.
Glenna had been to boarding school, and we invited her into our room whenever we needed an interpretation of some guy’s possibly suggestive comment or something we’d read in a novel or the psych text. She always knew the carnal meaning but her explanations, once she’d quit laughing at us, were metaphorical and vague. An Oedipus complex was like this older brother of this girl she’d known in boarding school who still needed his mother to tuck him in. Tom Dooley’s being hung was something like horses.
She knew all the answers, we knew, because she’d signed out to stay with a townie and then spent the entire night at a motel with Rick, the senior she was going out with. And she showed us how to dance. She brought over her records and did the jerk. She’s got a ticket to ri-hide. She got Katie and me to go over to the mixers at the state university, where we had more anonymity, more choice, too, than at our prim private school. The three of us, in knee socks and kilts, would walk over in the dusk, and I felt like a lit wick, in the center of guttering fall, in the center of the shadows, the yellow leaves, all the molten world. Glenna would find us guys — no, they were men, not guys, she said — and we’d dance fast and we’d dance slow beneath strobe lights, and they’d walk us back to our dorm.
There the kissing couples were assembled by the front step and in the lobby. Nobody wanted to risk getting in late after the doors were locked. Mrs. T, the housemother, supervised. If a couple strayed out of bounds, she said, “Ah ah, you mustn’t do it on the rug, only on the tile.”
When Lonnie called, I talked to him on the hall phone, politely telling him about my classes and politely listening to his pleas. “My blood feels like sand,” he said one time, and I kept thinking of that, blood like sand, blood slick like quicksand sliding through him.
On Friday nights, Katie and I went to the university mixers with Glenna, and on Saturdays we went to football games, more to be outside in the bright Michigan fall, with the sweet crowd and the smell of hot dust around us, than to see the game, for we thought football was stupid. Saturday nights we went out together with a pair of sophomores, roommates also, Josh and Bruce.
But when Lonnie showed up during the week, I’d go riding with him if I didn’t have a test the next day. I liked being among the girls with a leftover boyfriend. We were women with a past. The others could show off their letters, but my old boyfriend was in the flesh. “The man’s obsessed,” Glenna said one night in the bathroom, and the other girls, putting their hair in rollers, looked away from the mirrors at me, a good-looking guy’s obsession.
Before finals, Katie and I began pulling all-nighters with the rest of the floor. Coffee tasted nasty, and we tried Glenna’s No-Doz. “That could be dangerous,” my mom said when I told her how we stayed awake to cram. “I don’t like the idea of that.” Katie and I quizzed each other on fetal pig parts and French vocabulary and B. F. Skinner, everything magnified in our wide-awake eyes. Our room was next to the bathroom, and every time a toilet flushed we jumped. I told her about my discovery that everything was connected, that all the subjects, chemistry and French and plane geometry and orchestra and social studies and even P.E., were part of each other, that crystals and proofs and counterpoint and grammar and bodies were all connected. And she nodded, no explanation needed or possible. We sat face to face at our desks, wrapped together in diaphanous continuum.
Now and then we’d stretch and walk down the hall to the lounge where others were dozing or trying to study or eating soup in the middle of the night.
“What, are you two roomies joined at the hip?” Glenna’s roommate, Andrea, said. “I have to get away from my roomie’s snoring to concentrate.” We knew they didn’t really like each other. We knew Glenna wasn’t going to make it through her freshman year.
“We’re not roomies,” Katie said. “We’re chambries.”
I knew immediately that she’d transformed chambre and made us a dulcet name. “That’s right,” I said. “We aren’t like the rest of you roommates. We’re chambries.”
In our room we talked about operant conditioning and God. By dawn we were silly with fatigue. We laughed at Old Virgin Face on the wall. We identified the different sound of each flush on the other side of our wall and named the toilets — the plasher, the singing serpent, the screamer, the barbaric yawper, the crepitator, and the next-to-the-last one at the far end that nobody used, the virgin.
Before we left for our separate homes, where we would still be children, we gave each other Christmas presents. I gave her Sonnets from the Portuguese and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. She gave me The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.
We wrote to each other every other day during the break. I imagined our letters flying between Minnesota and Michigan, riding currents, crossing each other in the air, leaving
contrails that wove together high above the blue snow. Dear Chambrie, she wrote, I can’t wait to return to our little room, to the crepitator on the other side of the wall, to more all-night study (talk) sessions, to Josh and Bruce and doing it on the tile, to Old Virgin Face, and to the only one who’s ever understood me.
On Christmas morning, I slept until nine, and Mom finally woke me. “Hey,” she said, “don’t you know Santa’s been here?”
“Mom, I’m almost nineteen years old.”
“Well, maybe you could play along for our sake. Did you ever think about how this is for us, our only child gone?”
I brushed my hair, which I was letting grow long, and tied a pink ribbon around my head, Alice in Wonderland style. I could be their little girl for the morning. For a moment, I wondered what I had been to them: to them as a married couple.
My mother had mothered me in the ordinary way, I supposed, and commiserated with me when Dad said no to something until we learned to stop asking him, and Dad had been there in my background, eating my mother’s meals, automatically saying no if I asked permission to spend the night at Annie’s or to ride the bus downtown on Saturday, paying for my piano lessons, going to work where he made money doing I didn’t know what exactly and hadn’t really asked. They were just the parents, the grown-ups, and I’d been the one who’d counted.
I was glad I’d bought them thoughtful presents last week and wrapped them carefully, like an out-of-town guest.
It was strange to think of them meeting at a dance at Michigan State and falling in love — had that been something swooning, something that would happen to me sometime? and would that make my life like their boxed-in go-to-work make-the-beds what-will-the-neighbors-think life? — strange to think of them in bed making a baby, making me, and Dad falling asleep and burning a hole in the green MSU blanket we still had, while Mom lay in pain waiting for me to come out of her.
After we’d opened all the presents from relatives and each other, Dad brought out two small boxes, store wrapped in silver paper. “For my women,” he said. He rarely bought us presents, just paid for what we picked out for each other in his name.
I held my box, panicked for a moment, not one of his women like Mom, nobody’s woman, remembering Lonnie at Bill Knapp’s sliding the ring box across the table.
Mom’s was a diamond. All these years she’d worn the plain wedding band he’d bought as a student.
Mine was a garnet, my birthstone. I couldn’t look at him. “Oh Walter, oh Walter,” my mother kept saying, “oh Walter I can’t believe it.” I didn’t want them to see me ready to cry. My mother and I had relegated the man to background. Why was I anything at all to him? I saw myself as if through gauze: a typical teenager, as my mother said, words I relished because I’d been such a reject in high school, but also words that infuriated me — terrible twos, typical teen — flattening me and dropping me into a slot. I saw myself in my blue mohair sweater and pleated skirt and in an x-ray flash I saw my body walking through his house in the lightly padded bra and garter belt and nylons under the clothes. What was I to him? I used to climb onto his shoulders in Lake Michigan and dive from him into the waves. Through the gauze, I saw my graceless self that was nothing to anybody but Katie Leeview, and in a welter of guilt at my secret loyalty and at my neglect and at the secret light that shined on my parents between the sheets without me, I put the ring on, and uttered breathlessly, “Thank you, Dad,” and ran upstairs to cry in the bathroom.
After dinner, I was modeling my new clothes for Mom and Dad, strutting through the wrappings on the living room floor, when the phone rang and I knew Lonnie’s deep voice wanted me.
He was wearing a yellow button-down collar shirt under a brown V-neck sweater, and brown corduroy pants. I hadn’t seen him for at least a month. He’d let his hair grow longer. He shook hands with my father and presented a box of chocolates to my mother.
“I have something for Dulcie out in my car,” he told them. He winked at Mom. “Would it be all right with you if I took her for a ride?”
I hadn’t bought him anything. I imagined telling Katie about the scene, the poor guy trying so hard.
Still parked in front of the house, he handed over a large white box with a pink ribbon around it. Inside were a short yellow skirt and a pale yellow angora sweater.
“It’s to match your yellow hair,” he said. “I made your mother tell me what size.”
“Lonnie, Lonnie,” I said, “you’ll never learn, will you?” I shook my head, feeling my mouth warp into a sort of smile. If Katie’s old boyfriend gave her a Christmas present, we’d compare scenes.
I watched the Tempest pull away, as if my bucket seat were in a movie theater. In the old black-and-white film the car slid around the curves of the lake road, the sepia cottages and snowy banks and sanded road blurring. I watched the car stop silently on a driveway beside a small brownish-gray boathouse. The boy in the brown sweater climbed over the seat. Through the thick pale clumps of falling snow, I saw him stretch out his arm to the girl. She took off her heavy raccoon-collared coat and let the boy pull her into the back seat. I watched the two move together in a grainy embrace.
But then I was seeing Lonnie’s hand move under her sweater from behind the girl’s eyes, and the sweater was blue and his shirt was yellow and the big flakes of snow falling past the steamed windows were blue-tinged. Lonnie lifted my sweater over my head and unfastened the back hooks of my bra with one hand, and the air in the car was warm on my thin nakedness. He put his mouth on my breasts.
His hand went to the crotch of my blue-checked stretch pants, and then he pulled them and my pink underpants off. He took off his sweater and shirt and pants and white underwear, and laid them neatly with mine over the front seats. My hands were pale on the dark hair of his body. We fell back on the seat.
Here with all the colors sharp, here with the arousal of being naked outside, in winter yet, here the violin concerto was supposed to be overlaid on the scene like a sheet. But when his penis touched me I was numb. While he rocked on me, my whole body went to sleep, like a limb left in one position too long, and I wasn’t sure it could be rubbed past pins and needles to life again.
At home I found the surprise of blood in my underpants. I had forgotten about that. In junior English, when we’d read about the beautiful Hymen with his torch, Douglas Deakins behind me whispered, “What’s a torch but a hot, hard stick for breaking hymens?” and Freddy Leon, trying to laugh silently, sounded like a dog about to throw up. That night Annie and I checked the dictionary on hymen and read about a fold of mucous membrane. “Sounds like nostrils,” I said.
The next morning Annie was all excited on the way to school. “I figured it out in the middle of the night. Hymen means cherry. When someone loses her cherry, it means someone got his thing under that fold.”
After that, when we wondered how far some couple had gone, we said, “Do you think he’s picked her nose yet?”
I scrubbed the underpants and hung them in the back of my closet to dry where Mom wouldn’t see. So Lonnie had broken my membrane. I wondered if there was blood on him. I hoped he wouldn’t let his mother find my blood on his white underwear. I didn’t love Lonnie but he had torched me and caused blood.
“If you neck too much,” Mom started saying after I’d been out with Lonnie twice, “you won’t be able to stop. You’ll go too far. It’ll be like Becky Mead. Now the Meads can’t face anybody. They don’t even go to church. You’d ruin our lives.”
I could have stopped. I had stopped time after time. I could have stopped, but tonight I just hadn’t.
Under my blue quilt in my old bedroom, I thought of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap singing about how she cried a single tear and how she is woman now. I put Heifetz playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on my record player and got back in bed. Emily Dickinson must have been torched, too. I’ve finished that, that other state, I’m woman now. The music only made me want Katie under her blue and green bedspread across our narrow room from me under my blue and green bedspread.
In the morning I hadn’t changed, hadn’t modulated into any other state. I was just Dulcie White eating my mother’s pancakes and being told to sort the old clothes in my dresser and closet before putting the new ones away. I wore a new garnet ring and on a hook in my closet was a pair of stiff pink underpants. That was all.
“Cheer up,” Mom said. “It’s the day after Christmas, you’ve got all that new stuff, you still have another whole week of vacation. Your parents love you, you’re smart and pretty, you have your whole life in front of you. So don’t look like you’ve just lost your best friend.”
After all our passionate letters, Katie and I were a little shy, together again. We had to shake off the fact that we were our parents’ children.
“Well, what’s new?” she said.
“What’s a snoo?”
“Thanks. I was really hoping you’d turn into Emily Simperson over the break.”
“Anyway,” I said, “nothing much that I didn’t already write you. Except that I got my nose picked.”
“You got your nose picked? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Katie pushed her empty suitcase under her bed. Her dark hair was as long as mine. She wore a sweater we’d bought together. My mother had been angry for some reason when I told her we shared clothes. Suddenly I couldn’t tell Katie. If I told her, we would both be changed.
“Nothing. I’m just talking silly,” I said. “Let’s see what you got for Christmas.”
“It isn’t nothing, Dulcie. I know you.”
“Look at all these new clothes my mom got me.” I dumped the pile on my bed desperately.
“Be that way,” Katie said and lay down with her face to the wall.
We went separately to dinner. I took my tray to a table by myself. Josh and Bruce sat down with me. “Where’s your evil twin?” Josh said.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said.
We all saw her at the other end of the dining hall sitting with Glenna.
“Uh oh,” Bruce said. “Lovers’ quarrel.”
“Go sit somewhere else,” I said. “I’d rather be alone.”
“Misery loves — “ Bruce said.
I started to rise. “I mean it, you guys.”
“All right already,” Josh said. They picked up their trays. “On the rag,” I heard him mutter.
I sat at my desk all evening without any studying to do since classes hadn’t started yet. I tried a letter. Dear Chambrie. Guess what. I cried that single tear. I’m woman now. How phony could you get. I couldn’t write the truth — Dear Chambrie, I betrayed you. I worked myself into tears. I needed my dark-haired double. I didn’t even know why I’d let Lonnie do it to me.
I was in bed when she returned. She undressed in the dark and got into her bed. I heard the bedspread snap as she jerked it up.
In a few minutes I went into the bathroom. I took the rarely used stall and flushed the Virgin. When I got back in bed, we stayed silent. Then her bed began thumping the wall rhythmically.
Finally I said, “Are you laughing or crying?”
“I know what happened. You got flushed, didn’t you?”
Next door somebody flushed the screamer and we started laughing. “At least it wasn’t like that,” I said over the plumbing’s high-pitched howling We couldn’t stop laughing. Our beds beat against the walls with our shaking. I laughed wetly until I had to get up for Kleenex. “I’m blowing nose bubbles,” I said.
“That’s what happens when you let somebody up your nose.”
“My mother told me once it wasn’t any big thrill,” I said. “It isn’t. But it is, too.” I kept rewinding it, like my father’s reel-to-reel tape recorder, the details blurring and then snapping to a stop with the wheels on rewind. Then I’d run it slowly again, stretching and distorting the ride to the boathouse when I knew without actually deciding that I would let him, slowly slowly removing each piece of clothing, crystallizing the cold until it hurt my skin, separating the shivers into slow shudders.
The next afternoon, after our first classes, we walked downtown and ate at the ten-cent store’s lunch counter. The store was high-ceilinged and dim and smelled just the same as the Woolworth’s at home, like sawdust and cheap cloth and hamsters. After our grilled cheese sandwiches and cherry Cokes, we looked for something to buy. Katie needed a new hairbrush. I got a black velvet hair ribbon. In the pet section, gerbils huddled in the corners of their glass cages, though they could have run in the treadmills, and parakeets picked under their wings. We bought a fishbowl, colored stones, and a pair of goldfish.
In our room we transferred the fish from the Chinese take-out container to the bowl and set them on the window sill. We named them Andante and Vivace, Andy and Viv for short.
Every day, two hours before dinner, we walked through the snow to the music building where we found two unoccupied practice rooms. We wheeled the piano from one room into the other, closed the glass door, and set up our music. We worked on the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto, Katie playing the piano part and I an arrangement of the orchestral score. By graduation, we figured, we’d be perfect. We decided we would play it on two grand pianos in Stinton Chapel for the entire school. In the meanwhile we had the immensity of two pianos and Tchaikovsky closed up in the little room with us.
Dr. Harris used thirty whole minutes of the fifty-minute period to read my paper to the class. He’d written on my title page: “This is the best paper I have ever received in Engl. 103. You cannot imagine the pleasure I have had reading it.”
I’d titled it “A Study of Dehumanization.” I’d shown how the characters in Heart of Darkness and Steppenwolf and Notes from Underground and Ellison’s Invisible Man each denied facets of his mind and/or body and thereby lessened his membership qualifications for the genus Homo.
“What is Miss White saying here?” Dr. Harris asked. “Who can paraphrase? And take it to the next level. What is this saying about society? About events such as the March on Washington? Or — what is it saying about you?”
I’d thought my paper was about the particular men. I’d thought it was about doing to oneself, not about being done to. It hadn’t been about civil rights. It hadn’t been about me, either. It was just a good paper with good words, such as phantasmagoria, about characters. Maybe the men were representative, but not of anyone I knew. Suddenly I saw universality as a nimbus around certain people — such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., such as our president, now that he was dead — and I wondered how it would be to walk in your own shining cloud. Would you need to kick through it now and then or stick your arms out, so people could see your skinny ankles or your rough knuckles? Or would you be your hard self inside the cloud and everybody else, seen through it, insubstantial and bland?
When I showed the paper to Katie, we saw that Dr. Harris had written “image” instead of “imagine.”
“Well, we know what he means,” Katie said. “Still, it’s a shame to have your brilliance marred by his carelessness.”
“You hear that, Old VF?” I said to the Picasso print. “She said I’m brilliant.”
“Too brilliant for Lonnie Saxbe,” she said. “So what if he’s a doll. He’s not good enough for you.”
“So what if he loves me.”
“I grant you, adoration is appealing. But you aren’t in love with him. It doesn’t matter if he loves you. We’ve got all this — “ She spread her arms to take in our room and our life.
“Yes, Mom. I have my whole life ahead of me.”
She laughed. “I know. But, you know, my parents and everybody act like this is all preparation. Like we’re getting ready for real life. When the truth is, this is our life.”
It wasn’t as if all our books and music, all the literature and psychology and philosophy lectures, all the dancing and the boys who kissed us, all Katie’s and my intimate life together steaming in our little room weren’t enough. It was all too much. Lonnie worked for contrast, maybe. Lonnie siphoned off enough of the intensity to keep me from exploding. Lonnie was my other life.
“You’re right. I know you’re right,” I said. “But it’s not like I chose him.”
“So you’re just suffering your fate? What, just because he chose you, you think you have to go along with it?”
Maybe, I thought. Or — I heard Dr. Harris’s classroom voice — what is it saying about you? Maybe it wasn’t about doing to yourself but only about having things done to you. Katie and I believed in free will, but that was philosophy. Free will was in a nimbus too and it had nothing to do with me and Lonnie making out in the back seat.
On Sunday afternoon Bruce borrowed a car from an upperclassman who charged him twenty dollars and we drove over to Lake Michigan and walked along the beach. The shoreline was scattered with driftwood that storms had tossed out of the water. I carried a piece along with me, smoothing the wood with my thumb, imagining how it must have entered the water somehow last fall, just an old hunk of tree, and spent the winter underwater, the sand scrubbing off its bark, ice rubbing down its knolls, the cold water turning it over and over.
That’s what I’d be with Lonnie, I thought. I would spend my life in cold water, worn down by forces I’d have no say in. I would become faceless and smooth as an egg.
Bruce and I sat on the beach and ate sandwiches. The wind off the lake was cold and he moved his arm around me. We kissed for a while, and I carefully blocked his hand when it moved toward my breasts. He had to try, of course, and I had to resist. I was a good girl, he’d been Grosse Pointe raised to be a gentleman, and we were more shadows of Katie and Josh than a real couple. Between kisses, the wind blew sand onto our wet lips and we had to wipe our mouths before we could put them together again.
Wednesday after dinner, Emily at her switchboard paged me on the hall phone. “He is here,” she said and gave a big sigh.
“What’s that for?” I said.
“Oh nothing,” she said. I figured Lonnie was standing right there. I could never tell if her emphatic announcement of him was sarcastic or admiring.
“Anyway, I’m glad he’s here. Tell him to keep his pants on. I’ll be right out.” My mother’s expression at any impatience — just keep your pants on — had popped out. I hoped poor homely Emily Simpson, a work-study student stuck at the dorm switchboard every night, hadn’t immediately pictured Lonnie Saxbe with his pants off. I was glad he’d shown up, though. I was going to tell him to keep his pants on.
As soon as we were in the car, he said, “I’m starving. Baby, I am starving in every way.” He kissed me. I kept my lips together, but he pushed his tongue between them. I’d let him do it twice since Christmas. There was no real reason to refuse. “You’re giving me an extraction,” he whispered.
“A what?” I buckled my seat belt across my lap.
“You know,” he whispered.
I didn’t know. “Listen, you’re hungry. Let’s go get a pizza.” If I told him in public, he couldn’t carry on too dramatically.
At Bimbo’s we sat at our regular table. “Where’s Charmaine?” Lonnie asked the waitress.
“She’s off tonight,” the woman said. She was large, her flesh so tightly packed in the red checked uniform it was hard to say if she was flabby or solid. “Her kid has chicken pox.”
“We’ll have the super,” he said. “And bring me a beer. Dulcie, you want a Coke, right?”
“Nice try,” the waitress said. “But I’ll need to see your ID.”
“Look, damnit, I’m old enough. Just get me the beer.” Lonnie’s face looked purple in the dim reddish light. He looked like an angry six-year-old ready to cry.
“You cuss at me again, I’ll haul you back there to the ladies’ and wash your mouth out,” the waitress said and walked away.
Lonnie held onto the edge of the table. “Hey, take it easy,” I said. I thought he might heave the table over. His fingers were white but the nails looked purple. “It’s not a big deal.”
“That bitch isn’t getting a tip out of me,” he said, low. He was pitiful, I thought, my chest hot with shame.
“I don’t think she needed to embarrass you like that,” I said.
“I am not embarrassed, Dulcie,” he said.
I picked up the menu and read about the original Bimbo’s owner and the restaurant’s guarantee of satisfaction. Lonnie should be embarrassed, I thought, like some thirteen-year-old acting too big for his britches who’s reminded he’s still a child. I can’t get no satisfaction, I thought. The song was supposed to have secret dirty lyrics if you played it backwards. Or was that Louie, Louie? We’d tried it with Glenna’s records but heard only hoarse devilish warnings we couldn’t fathom. How did you actually play a record backwards anyway? Glenna said the one was dirty enough forwards. “It’s about this guy who can’t do it.” “Why not?” Katie wanted to know. “Is this something about horses again?” I said.
“It’s funny,” I said, trying to raise Lonnie from his angry embarrassment. How could I break up with him in this mood? “When she wanted to see your ID, I pictured it in writing, in lower case — she wanted to see your id.”
“Ha ha,” he said. “Why’s that funny?”
“You know, Freud. Id, ego, superego. She wanted to see your id.”
“You saying I’m conceited, Dulcie? That what you think?”
“No — it was supposed to be a joke. Never mind. It’s too complicated to explain.”
“And I’m too dumb for your fancy college humor.”
“No, Lonnie.” I slapped the table and looked around. “Geez, is that pizza ever going to get here?”
“Oh screw it all,” Lonnie said, rising. “I’m gonna make a pit stop.”
When we parked, I felt light-headed, as if I’d had a beer with the pizza. I’d never had a beer in my life, or anything else. In tenth grade once, Annie and I had dropped aspirin into our Cokes, but nothing happened. My parents had a cocktail every night before dinner, and I knew that I would never drink like that.
Lonnie was moving a finger all over my back. “Guess what I’m writing.”
“You’re writing, Goodbye Dulcie, I’m running away with Charmaine.”
“Wrongo, baby. Wrong-o. But I never thought she’d have a kid. Be married.”
“You thought she was waiting tables until you came along and swept her away to a better life?” I was getting angry, though I didn’t know why. Maybe I didn’t want anybody else to have him. Maybe I was in love with the picture of Lonnie at forty, living at home still, missing me forever, trying to drown his love every night in some bar. Maybe I despised his self-delusion: that he was such hot stuff Charmaine or Emily Simpson or I or anybody was just breathless.
“Write it again,” I said. “I’ll pay attention.” Maybe I wanted his hand on my skin. Of course he was spelling out I love you, and maybe I wanted to hear it one last time.
“God, baby, I love you,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer I can wait.”
I let him kiss me. I can’t get no-o sat-is-faction. I didn’t know what satisfaction might be available. I let him pull my sweater off and unsnap my bra. But when he started sucking on me, I pushed him back up to my face.
“Lonnie. I have to tell you. This is our last time together. I mean it this time. Really. I do care about you. But we both need to get on with our lives now.”
He pulled his hand away from my bare shoulder and held it out. For an instant I thought he meant to slap me, but he just stared at his hand.
“I don’t want you to come over here any more,” I went on. “Don’t call, don’t come over. All right? I mean, you agree it’s not going to work. Don’t you really? So —.” I clapped my palm on his thigh, everything all settled. “Let’s just say a nice goodbye.”
His hands fell to the seat and he fell forward. His forehead hit the steering wheel. “Please, Dulcie,” he said. “Please. I won’t come over so much. I won’t be so serious. I won’t bug you about getting married. I’ll wait as long as you make me. Just. . . .” The skin of his face was stretched tight over his forehead down to his blue-tinged jaw.
“No,” I said, “no. There’s no point to it.”
He lifted his head and dropped it, hitting his forehead on the top of the steering wheel again, and lifted his head and let it fall again and again.
“Quit that,” I said. “Now you just quit that.” I sounded like somebody’s mother. I thought of the waitress’s threat to take him back to the ladies’ and wash his mouth out. I knew she meant the restroom, but I pictured a half dozen ladies in red-checked uniforms back in a storage room waiting to scold or spank or do some magic.
His shoulders heaved and he cried out loud: hoo, hoo, hoo. The cries rose in the middle and broke.
“Quit that. Don’t cry.” I put my hand on his back and let it ride up and down. “It’ll be all right. You’ll get over this. Hush now.”
He grabbed onto me, tight, as if I’d given in, and held on, shuddering. He took a huge breath. He dropped his head to my bare chest and sucked. His face was wet and hot. I could feel his slick mouth and his whiskers. I was hot with shame for us both. We opened separate doors of the car, took our pants off outside in the dusk, and got into the back seat. I saw his penis and its ground of dense, dark hair as he held it and slid the rubber on. He had that springy hair, too. I wanted to see his hands, how would that be, to have yourself in your hands. I lay under him for one last time, with one knee jutting up and the other foot on the floor. My skin felt steamed and abraded. He rocked and then went heavy on me.
At the dorm I went into the bathroom before going in to Katie. I sat spread-legged on the toilet. My muscles pushed downward, and I pushed my fists against my stomach.
Finally I combed my hair and went to our room. Glenna and Katie were doing the monkey. I told them I’d broken up with Lonnie for good. I sat on my bed and watched them dance. Emily called and said the pizza they’d ordered was here.
“Help yourself,” Katie said. “You must be hungry. Breaking up is hard work.”
“Breaking up is hard to do,” Glenna sang.
I picked up a slice, but the thick pale mozzarella smelled like vomit and I couldn’t eat it. “I’ve already been pizza-ed tonight,” I said. I knew Glenna would laugh. “Since you’re here, oh worldly one,” I said then, “I have a question.” Katie’s and my innocence had become a joke. “And don’t say a thing about horses. But what’s an extraction?”
“Extraction? You mean like a tooth?”
“No, he said I gave him an extraction.”
Glenna fell over sideways on the floor, hooting her wild laugh. “An extraction,” she gasped. “Oh God but you’re an innocent. . . You give him an erection.”
“I thought he said extraction.”
“I hate to say it,” Katie said, “but what exactly is an erection?”
Glenna sat up and hugged herself in pain. “You’ve seen how a horse kind of extends his thing? Until it’s hanging way down?”
“No horses,” Katie said. We all rocked hysterically.
Finally I said, “I didn’t know it could change.”
“You know what you say when that happens?” Katie said. “You say neigh.”
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