stepped into the room.
At Belsize, even at Belsize, the doors had locks, but the patients had no keys. A
shut door meant privacy, and was respected, like a locked door. One knocked, and
knocked again, then went away. I remembered this as I stood, my eyes half-useless after
the brilliance of the hall, in the room's deep, musky dark.
As my vision cleared, I saw a shape rise from the bed. Then somebody gave a low
giggle. The shape adjusted its hair, and two pale, pebble eyes regarded me through the
gloom. DeeDee lay back on the pillows, bare-legged under her green wool dressing
gown, and watched me with a little mocking smile. A cigarette glowed between the
fingers of her right hand.
"I just wanted. . ." I said.
"I know," said DeeDee. "The music."
"Hello, Esther," Joan said then, and her cornhusk voice made me want to puke.
"Wait for me, Esther, I'll come play the bottom part with you."
Now Joan said stoutly, "I never really liked Buddy Willard. He thought he knew
everything. He thought he knew everything about women. . ."
I looked at Joan. In spite of the creepy feeling, and in spite of my old, ingrained
dislike, Joan fascinated me. It was like observing a Martian, or a particularly warty toad.
Her thoughts were not my thoughts, nor her feelings my feelings, but we were close
enough so that her thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of my own.
Sometimes I wondered if I had made Joan up. Other times I wondered if she
would continue to pop in at every crisis of my life to remind me of what I had been, and
what I had been through, and carry on her own separate but similar crisis under my nose.
"I don't see what women see in other women," I'd told Doctor Nolan in my
interview that noon. "What does a woman see in a woman that she can't see in a man?"
Doctor Nokn paused. Then she said, "Tenderness."
That shut me up.
"I like you," Joan was saying. "I like you better than Buddy."
And as she stretched out on my bed with a silly smile, I remembered a minor
scandal at our college dormitory when a fat, matronly-breasted senior, homely as a
grandmother and a pious Religion major, and a tall, gawky freshman with a history of
being deserted at an early hour in all sorts of ingenious ways by her blind dates, started
seeing too much of each other. They were always together, and once somebody had come
upon them embracing, the story went, in the fat girl's room.
"But what were they doing?" I had asked. Whenever I thought about men and
men, and women and women, I could never really imagine what they would be actually
"Oh," the spy had said, "Milly was sitting on the chair and Theodora was lying on
the bed, and Milly was stroking Theodora's hair."
I was disappointed. I had thought I would have some revelation of specific evil. I
wondered if all women did with other women was lie and hug.
Of course, the famous woman poet at my college lived with another woman -- a
stumpy old Classical scholar with a cropped Dutch cut. And when I had told the poet I
might well get married and have a pack of children someday, she stared at me in horror.
"But what about your career?" she had cried.
My head ached. Why did I attract these weird old women? There was the famous
poet, and Philomena Guinea, and Jay Cee, and the Christian Scientist lady and lord
knows who, and they all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care
and influence, have me resemble them.
"I like you."
"That's tough, Joan," I said, picking up my book. "Because I don't like you. You
make me puke, if you want to know."
And I walked out of the room, leaving Joan lying, lumpy as an old horse, across
I waited for the doctor, wondering if I should bolt. I knew what I was doing was
illegal -- in Massachusetts, anyway, because the state was cram-jam full of Catholics --
but Doctor Nolan said this doctor was an old friend of hers, and a wise man.
"What's your appointment for?" the brisk, white-uniformed receptionist wanted to
know, ticking my name off on a notebook list.
"What do you mean, for?" I hadn't thought anybody but the doctor himself would
ask me that, and the communal waiting room was full of other patients waiting for other
doctors, most of them pregnant or with babies, and I felt their eyes on my flat, virgin
The receptionist glanced up at me, and I blushed.
"A fitting, isn't it?" she said kindly. "I only wanted to make sure so I'd know what
to charge you. Are you a student?"
"That will only be half-price then. Five dollars, instead of ten. Shall I bill you?"
I was about to give my home address, where I would probably be by the time the
bill arrived, but then I thought of my mother opening the bill and seeing what it was for.
The only other address I had was the innocuous box number which people used who
didn't want to advertise the fact they lived in an asylum. But I thought the receptionist
might recognize the box number, so I said, "I better pay now," and peeled five dollar
notes off the roll in my pocketbook.
The five dollars was part of what Philomena Guinea had sent me as a sort of get-
well present. I wondered what she would think if she knew to what use her money was
Whether she knew it or not, Philomena Guinea was buying my freedom,
"What I hate is the thought of being under a man's thumb," I had told Doctor
Nolan. "A man doesn't have a worry in the world, while I've got a baby hanging over my
head like a big stick, to keep me in line."
"Would you act differently if you didn't have to worry about a baby?"
"Yes," I said, "but. . ." and I told Doctor Nolan about the married woman lawyer
and her Defense of Chastity.
Doctor Nolan waited until I was finished. Then she burst out laughing.
"Propaganda!" she said, and scribbled the name and address of this doctor on a
I leafed nervously through an issue of Baby Talk. The fat, bright faces of babies
beamed up at me, page after page -- bald babies, chocolate-colored babies, Eisenhower-
faced babies, babies rolling over for the first time, babies reaching for rattles, babies
eating their first spoonful of solid food, babies doing all the little tricky things it takes to
grow up, step by step, into an anxious and unsettling world.
I smelt a mingling of Pablum and sour milk and salt-cod-stinky diapers and felt
sorrowful and tender. H
easy having babies seemed to the women around me! Why
was I so unmaternal and apart? Why couldn't I dream of devoting myself to baby after fat
puling baby like Dodo Conway? If I had to wait on a baby all day, I would go mad. I
looked at the baby in the lap of the woman opposite. I had no idea how old it was, I never
did, with babies -- for all I knew it could talk a blue streak and had twenty teeth behind its
pursed, pink lips. It held its little wobby head up on its shoulders -- it didn't seem to have
a neck -- and observed me with a wise, Platonic expression.
The baby's mother smiled and smiled, holding that baby as if it were the first
wonder of the world. I watched the mother and the baby for some clue to their mutual
satisfaction, but before I had discovered anything, the doctor called me in.
"You'd like a fitting," he said cheerfully, and I thought with relief that he wasn't
the sort of doctor to ask awkward questions. I had toyed with the idea of telling him I
planned to be married to a sailor as soon as his ship docked at the Charlestown Navy
Yard, and the reason I didn't have an engagement ring was because we were too poor, but
at the last moment I rejected that appealing story and simply said "Yes."
I climbed up on the examination table, thinking: "I am climbing to freedom,
freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just
because of sex, freedom from the Florence Crittenden Homes where all the poor girls go
who should have been fitted out like me, because what they did, they would do anyway,
regardless. . ."
As I rode back to the asylum with my box in the plain brown paper wrapper on
my lap I might have been Mrs. Anybody coming back from a day in town with a
Schrafft's cake for her maiden aunt or a Filene's Basement hat. Gradually the suspicion
that Catholics had X-ray eyes diminished, and I grew easy. I had done well by my
shopping privileges, I thought.
I was my own woman.
The next step was to find the proper sort of man.
"I'm going to be a psychiatrist."
Joan spoke with her usual breathy enthusiasm. We were drinking apple cider in
the Belsize lounge.
"Oh," I said dryly, "that's nice."
"I've had a long talk with Doctor Quinn, and she thinks it's perfectly possible."
Doctor Quinn was Joan's psychiatrist, a bright, shrewd, single lady, and I often thought if
I had been assigned to Doctor Quinn I would be still in Caplan or, more probably,
Wymark. Doctor Quinn had an abstract quality that appealed to Joan, but it gave me the
Joan chattered on about Egos and Ids, and I turned my mind to something else, to
the brown, unwrapped package in my bottom drawer. I never talked about Egos and Ids
with Doctor Nolan. I didn't know just what I talked about really.
". . . I'm going to live out, now."
I tuned in on Joan then. "Where?" I demanded, trying to hide my envy.
Doctor Nolan said my college would take me back for the second semester, on her
recommendation and Philomena Guinea's scholarship, but as the doctors vetoed my
living with my mother in the interim, I was staying on at the asylum until the winter term
Even so, I felt it unfair of Joan to beat me through the gates.
"Where?" I persisted. "They're not letting you live on your own, are they?" Joan
had only that week been given town privileges again.
"Oh no, of course not. I'm living in Cambridge with Nurse Kennedy. Her
roommate's just got married, and she needs someone to share the apartment."
"Cheers." I raised my apple cider glass, and we clinked. In spite of my profound
reservations, I thought I would always treasure Joan. It was as if we had been forced
together by some overwhelming circumstance, like war or plague, and shared a world of
our own. "When are you leaving?"
"On the first.of the month."
Joan grew wistful "You'll come visit me, won't you, Esther?"
But I thought, "Not likely."
"It hurts," I said. "Is it supposed to hurt?"
Irwin didn't say anything. Then he said, "Sometimes it hurts."
I had met Irwin on the steps of the Widener Library. I was standing at the top of
the long flight, overlooking the red brick buildings that walled the snow-filled quad and
preparing to catch the trolley back to the asylum, when a tall young man with a rather
ugly and bespectacled, but intelligent face, came up and said, "Could you please tell me
I glanced at my watch. "Five past four."
Then the man shifted his arms around the load of books he was carrying before
him like a dinner tray and revealed a bony wrist.
"Why, you've a watch yourself!"
The man looked ruefully at his watch. He lifted it and shook it by his ear. "Doesn't
work." He smiled engagingly. "Where are you going?"
I was about to say, "Back to the asylum," but the man looked promising, so I
changed my mind. "Home."
"Would you like some coffee first?"
I hesitated. I was due at the asylum for supper and I didn't want to be late so close
to being signed out of there for good.
"A very small cup of coffee?"
I decided to practice my new, normal personality on this man who, in the course
of my hesitations, told me his name was Irwin and that he was a very well-paid professor
of mathematics, so I said, "All right," and, matching my stride to Irwin's, strolled down
the long, ice-encrusted flight at his side.
It was only after seeing Irwin's study that I decided to seduce him.
Irwin lived in a murky, comfortable basement apartment in one of the rundown
streets of outer Cambridge and drove me there -- for a beer, he said -- after three cups of
bitter coffee in a student cafe. We sat in his study on stuffed brown leather chairs,
surrounded by stacks of dusty, incomprehensible books with huge formulas inset
artistically on the page like poems.
While I was sipping my first glass of beer -- I have never really cared for cold
beer in midwinter, but I accepted the glass to have something solid to hold on to -- the
Irwin seemed embarrassed. "I think it may be a lady."
Irwin had a queer, old-world habit of calling women ladies.
"Fine, fine," I gestured largely. "Bring her in."
Irwin shook his head. "You would upset her."
I smiled into my amber cylinder of cold beer.
The doorbell rang again with a peremptory jab. Irwin sighed and rose to answer it.
The minute he disappeared, I whipped into the bathroom and, concealed behind the dirty,
aluminum-colored Venetian blind, watched Irwin's monkish face appear in the door
A large, bosomy Slavic lady in a bulky sweater of natural sheep's wool, purple
slacks, high-heeled black overshoes with Persian lamb cuffs and a matching toque, puffed
white, inaudible words into the wintry air. Irwin's voice drifted back to me through the
"I'm sorry, Olga. . . I'm working, Olga. . . no, I don't think so, Olga," all the while
the lady's red mouth moved and the words, translated to white smoke, floated up among
the branches of the naked lilac by the door. Then, finally, "Perhaps, Olga. . . good-bye,
I admired the immense, steppelike expanse of the lady's wool-clad bosom as she
retreated a few inches from my eye, down the creaking wooden stair, a sort of Siberian
bitterness on her vivid lips.
"I suppose you have lots and lots of affairs in Cambridge," I told Irwin cheerily,
as I stuck a snail with a pin in one of Cambridge's determinedly French restaurants.
"I seem," Irwin admitted with a small, modest smile, "to get on with the ladies."
I picked up my empty snail shell and drank the herb-green juice. I had no idea if
this was proper, but after months of wholesome, dull asylum diet, I was greedy for butter.
I had called Doctor Nolan from a pay phone at the restaurant and asked for
permission to stay overnight in Cambridge with Joan. Of course, I had no idea whether
Irwin would invite me back to his apartment after dinner or not, but I thought his
dismissal of the Slavic lady -- another professor's wife -- looked promising.
I tipped back my head and poured down a glass of Nuits-St.-Georges.
"You do like wine," Irwin observed.
"Only Nuits-St.-Georges. I imagine him. . . with the dragon. . ."
Irwin reached for my hand.
I felt the first man I slept with must be intelligent, so I would respect him. Irwin
was a full professor at twenty-six and had the pale, hairless skin of a boy genius. I also
needed somebody quite experienced to make up for my lack of it, and Irwin's ladies
reassured me on this head. Then, to be on the safe side, I wanted somebody I didn't know
and wouldn't go on knowing -- a kind of impersonal, priestlike official, as in the tales of
By the end of the evening I had no doubts about Irwin whatsoever.
Ever since I'd learned about the corruption of Buddy Willard my virginity
weighed like a millstone around my neck. It had been of such enormous importance to
me for so long that my habit was to defend it at all costs. I had been defending it for five
years and I was sick of it.
It was only as Irwin swung me into his arms, back at the apartment, and carried
me, wine-dazed and limp, into the pitch-black bedroom, that I murmured, "You know,
Irwin, I think I ought to tell you, I'm a virgin."
Irwin laughed and flung me down on the bed.
A few minutes later an exclamation of surprise revealed that Irwin hadn't really
believed me. I thought how lucky it was I had started practicing birth control during the
day, because in my winey state that night I would never have bothered to perform the
delicate and necessary operation. I lay, rapt and naked, on Irwin's rough blanket, waiting
for the miraculous change to make itself felt.
But all I felt was a sharp, startlingly bad pain.
"It hurts," I said. "Is it supposed to hurt?"
Irwin didn't say anything. Then he said, "Sometimes it hurts."
After a little while Irwin got up and went into the bathroom, and I heard the
rushing of shower water. I wasn't sure if Irwin had done what he planned to do, or if my
virginity had obstructed him in some way. I wanted to ask him if I was still a virgin, but I
felt too unsettled. A warm liquid was seeping out between my legs. Tentatively, I reached
down and touched it.
When I held my hand up to the light streaming in from the bathroom, my
fingertips looked black.
"Irwin," I said nervously, "bring me a towel."
Irwin strolled back, a bathtowel knotted around his waist, and tossed me a second,
smaller towel. I pushed the towel between my legs and pulled it away almost
immediately. It was half black with blood.
"I'm bleeding!" I announced, sitting up with a start.
"Oh, that often happens," Irwin reassured me. "You'll be all right."
Then the stories of blood-stained bridal sheets and capsules of red ink bestowed
on already deflowered brides floated back to me. I wondered how much I would bleed,
and lay down, nursing the towel. It occurred to me that the blood was my answer. I
couldn't possibly be a virgin any more. I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great
Surreptitiously, I applied a fresh section of white towel to my wound, thinking
that as soon as the bleeding stopped, I would take the late trolley back to the asylum. I
wanted to brood over my new condition in perfect peace. But the towel came away black
"I. . . think I better go home," I said faintly.
"Surely not so soon."
"Yes, I think I better."
I asked if I could borrow Irwin's towel and packed it between my thighs as a
bandage. Then I pulled on my sweaty clothes. Irwin offered to drive me home, but I
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