Krispies, peanut-butter-and-marshmallow sandwiches, vanilla ice cream and gallon upon
gallon of Hoods milk. She got a special discount from the local milkman.
Everybody loved Dodo, although the swelling size of her family was the talk of
the neighborhood. The older people around, like my mother, had two children, and the
younger, more prosperous ones had four, but nobody but Dodo was on the verge of a
seventh. Even six was considered excessive, but then, everybody said, of course Dodo
was a Catholic.
I watched Dodo wheel the youngest Conway up and down. She seemed to be
doing it for my benefit. Children made me sick.
A floorboard creaked, and I ducked down again, just as Dodo Conway's face, by
instinct, or some gift of supernatural hearing, turned on the little pivot of its neck.
I felt her gaze pierce through the white clapboard and the pink wallpaper roses
and uncover me, crouching there behind the silver pickets of the radiator.
I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. But even that didn't
shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it
was night. I couldn't see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to.
After a while I heard the telephone ringing in the downstairs hall. I stuffed the
pillow into my ears and gave myself five minutes. Then I lifted my head from its bolt
hole. The ringing had stopped.
Almost at once it started up again.
Cursing whatever friend, relative or stranger had sniffed out my homecoming, I
padded barefoot downstairs. The black instrument on the hall table trilled its hysterical
note over and over, like a nervous bird. I picked up the receiver. "Hullo," I said, in a low,
disguised voice. "Hullo, Esther, what's the matter, have you got laryngitis?" It was my old
friend Jody, calling from Cambridge. Jody was working at the Coop that summer and
taking a lunchtime course in sociology. She and two other girls from my college had
rented a big apartment from four Harvard law students, and I'd been planning to move in
with them when my writing course began.
Jody wanted to know when they could expect me.
"I'm not coming," I said. "I didn't make the course."
There was a small pause.
"He's an ass," Jody said then. "He doesn't know a good thing when he sees it."
"My sentiments exactly." My voice sounded strange and hollow in my ears.
"Come anyway. Take some other course."
The notion of studying German or abnormal psychology flitted through my head.
After all, I'd saved nearly the whole of my New York salary, so I could just about afford
But the hollow voice said, "You better count me out."
"Well," Jody began, "there's this other girl who wanted to come in with us if
anybody dropped out. . ."
"Fine. Ask her."
The minute I hung up I knew I should have said I would come. One morning
listening to Dodo Conway's baby carriage would drive me crazy. And I made a point of
never living in the same house with my mother for more than a week.
I reached for the receiver.
My hand advanced a few inches, then retreated and fell limp. I forced it toward
the receiver again, but again it stopped short, as if it had collided with a pane of glass.
I wandered into the dining room.
Propped on the table I found a long, businesslike letter from the summer school
and a thin blue letter on leftover Yale stationery, addressed to me in Buddy Willard's
I slit open the summer school letter with a knife.
Since I wasn't accepted for the writing course, it said, I could choose some other
course instead, but I should call in to the Admissions Office that same morning, or it
would be too late to register, the courses were almost full.
I dialed the Admissions Office and listened to the zombie voice leave a message
that Miss Esther Greenwood was canceling all arrangements to come to summer school
Then I opened Buddy Willard's letter.
Buddy wrote that he was probably falling in love with a nurse who also had TB,
but his mother had rented a cottage in the Adirondacks for the month of July, and if I
came along with her, he might well find his feeling for the nurse was mere infatuation.
I snatched up a pencil and crossed out Buddy's message. Then I turned the letter
paper over and on the opposite side wrote that I was engaged to a simultaneous
interpreter and never wanted to see Buddy again as I did not want to give my children a
hypocrite for a father.
I stuck the letter back in the envelope, Scotch-taped it together, and readdressed it
to Buddy, without putting on a new stamp. I thought the message was worth a good three
Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel
That would fix a lot of people.
I strolled into the kitchen, dropped a raw egg into a teacup of raw hamburger,
mixed it up and ate it. Then I set up the card table on the screened breezeway between the
house and the garage.
A great wallowing bush of mock orange shut off the view of the street in front,
the house wall and the garage wall took care of either side, and a clump of birches and a
box hedge protected me from Mrs. Ockenden at the back.
I counted out three hundred and fifty sheets of corrasable bond from my mother's
stock in the hall closet, secreted away under a pile of old felt hats and clothes brushes and
Back on the breezeway, I fed the first, virgin sheet into my old portable and rolled
From another, distanced mind, I saw myself sitting on the breezeway, surrounded
by two white clapboard walls, a mock orange bush and a clump of birches and a box
hedge, small as a doll in a doll's house.
A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in
disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There
were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing.
Elaine sat on the breezeway in an old yellow nightgown of her mother's waiting
for something to happen. It was a sweltering morning in July, and drops of sweat crawled
down her back one by one, like slow insects.
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I leaned back and read what I had written.
It seemed lively enough, and I was quite proud of the bit about the drops of sweat
like insects, only I had the dim impression I'd probably read it somewhere else a long
I sat like that for about an hour, trying to think what would come next, and in my
mind, the barefoot doll in her mother's old yellow nightgown sat and stared into space as
"Why, honey, don't you want to get dressed?"
My mother took care never to tell me to do anything. She would only reason with
me sweetly, like one intelligent mature person with another.
"It's almost three in the afternoon."
"I'm writing a novel," I said. "I haven't got time to change out of this and change
I lay on the couch on the breezeway and shut my eyes. I could hear my mother
clearing the typewriter and the papers from the card table and laying out the silver for
supper, but I didn't move.
Inertia oozed like molasses through Elaine's limbs. That's what it must feel like to
have malaria, she thought.
At any rate, I'd be lucky if I wrote a page a day.
Then I knew what the trouble was.
I needed experience.
How could I write about life when I'd never had a love affair or a baby or even
seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her
adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?
By the end of supper my mother had convinced me I should study shorthand in
the evenings. Then I would be killing two birds with one stone, writing a novel and
learning something practical as well. I would also be saving a whole lot of money.
That same evening, my mother unearthed an old blackboard from the cellar and
set it up on the breezeway. Then she stood at the blackboard and scribbled little curlicues
in white chalk while I sat in a chair and watched.
At first I felt hopeful.
I thought I might learn shorthand in no time, and when the freckled lady in the
Scholarships Office asked me why I hadn't worked to earn money in July and August, the
way you were supposed to if you were a scholarship girl, I could tell her I had taken a
free shorthand course instead, so I could support myself right after college.
The only thing was, when I tried to picture myself in some job, briskly jotting
down line after line of shorthand, my mind went blank. There wasn't one job I felt like
doing where you used shorthand. And, as I sat there and watched, the white chalk
curlicues blurred into senselessness.
I told my mother I had a terrible headache, and went to bed.
An hour later the door inched open, and she crept into the room. I heard the
whisper of her clothes as she undressed. She climbed into bed. Then her breathing grew
slow and regular.
In the dim light of the streetlamp that filtered through the drawn blinds, I could
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see the pin curls on her head glittering like a row of little bayonets.
I decided I would put off the novel until I had gone to Europe and had a lover, and
that I would never learn a word of shorthand. If I never learned shorthand I would never
have to use it.
I thought I would spend the summer reading Ftnnegans Wake and writing my
Then I would be way ahead when college started at the end of September, and
able to enjoy my last year instead of swotting away with no makeup and stringy hair, on a
diet of coffee and Benzedrine, the way most of the seniors taking honors did, until they
finished their thesis.
Then I thought I might put off college for a year and apprentice myself to a
Or work my way to Germany and be a waitress, until I was bilingual.
Then plan after plan started leaping through my head, like a family of scatty
I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles,
threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three. . . nineteen telephone poles, and
then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn't see a single pole beyond
The room blued into view, and I wondered where the night had gone. My mother
turned from a foggy log into a slumbering, middle-aged woman, her mouth slightly open
and a snore raveling from her throat. The piggish noise irritated me, and for a while it
seemed to me that the only way to stop it would be to take the column of skin and sinew
from which it rose and twist it to silence between my hands.
I feigned sleep until my mother left for school, but even my eyelids didn't shut out
the light. They hung the raw, red screen of their tiny vessels in front of me like a wound. I
crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me
like a tombstone. It felt dark and safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough.
It needed about a ton more weight to make me sleep.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by
a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. . .
The thick book made an unpleasant dent in my stomach.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam's. . .
I thought the small letter at the start might mean that nothing ever really began all
new, with a capital, but that it just flowed on from what came before. Eve and Adam's
was Adam and Eve, or course, but it probably signified something else as well.
Maybe it was a pub in Dublin.
My eyes sank through an alphabet soup of letters to the long word in the middle
of the page.
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I counted the letters. There were exactly a hundred of them. I thought this must be
Why should there be a hundred letters?
Haltingly, I tried the word aloud.
It sounded like a heavy wooden object falling downstairs, boomp boomp boomp,
step after step. Lifting the pages of the book, I let them fan slowly by my eyes. Words,
dimly familiar but twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror, fled past, leaving no
impression on the glassy surface of my brain.
I squinted at the page.
The letters grew barbs and rams' horns. I watched them separate, each from the
other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way. Then they associated themselves in
fantastic, untranslatable shapes, like Arabic or Chinese.
I decided to junk my thesis.
I decided to junk the whole honors program and become an ordinary English
major. I went to look up the requirements of an ordinary English major at my college.
There were lots of requirements, and I didn't have half of them. One of the
requirements was a course in the eighteenth century. I hated the very idea of the
eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so
dead keen on reason. So I'd skipped it. They let you do that in honors, you were much
freer. I had been so free I'd spent most of my time on Dylan Thomas.
A friend of mine, also in honors, had managed never to read a word of
Shakespeare; but she was a real expert on the Four Quartets.
I saw how impossible and embarrassing it would be for me to try to switch from
my free program into the stricter one. So I looked up the requirements for English majors
at the city college where my mother taught.
They were even worse.
You had to know Old English and the History of the English Language and a
representative selection of all that had been written from Beowulf to the present day.
This surprised me. I had always looked down on my mother's college, as it was
coed, and filled with people who couldn't get scholarships to the big eastern colleges.
Now I saw that the stupidest person at my mother's college knew more than I did.
I saw they wouldn't even let me in through the door, let alone give me a large scholarship
like the one I had at my own college.
I thought I'd better go to work for a year and think things over. Maybe I could
study the eighteenth century in secret.
But I didn't know shorthand, so what could I do?
I could be a waitress or a typist.
But I couldn't stand the idea of being either one.
"You say you want more sleeping pills?"
"But the ones I gave you last week are very strong."
"They don't work any more."
Teresa's large, dark eyes regarded me thoughtfully. I could hear the voices of her
three children in the garden under the consulting-room window. My Aunt Libby had
married an Italian, and Teresa was my aunt's sister-in-law and our family doctor.
I liked Teresa. She had a gentle, intuitive touch.
I thought it must be because she was Italian.
There was a little pause.
"What seems to be the matter?" Teresa said then.
"I can't sleep. I can't read." I tried to speak in a cool, calm way, but the zombie
rose up in my throat and choked me off. I turned my hands palm up.
"I think," Teresa tore off a white slip from her prescription pad and wrote down a
name and address, "you'd better see another doctor I know. He'll be able to help you more
than I can."
I peered at the writing, but I couldn't read it.
"Doctor Gordon," Teresa said. "He's a psychiatrist."
S WAITING ROOM
was hushed and beige.
The walls were beige, and the carpets were beige, and the upholstered chairs and
sofas were beige. There were no mirrors or pictures, only certificates from different
medical schools, with Doctor Gordon's name in Latin, hung about the walls. Pale green
loopy ferns and spiked leaves of a much darker green filled the ceramic pots on the end
table and the coffee table and the magazine table.
At first I wondered why the room felt so safe. Then I realized it was because there
were no windows.
The air-conditioning made me shiver.
I was still wearing Betsy's white blouse and dirndl skirt. They drooped a bit now,
as I hadn't washed them in my three weeks at home. The sweaty cotton gave off a sour
but friendly smell.
I hadn't washed my hair for three weeks, either.
I hadn't slept for seven nights.
My mother told me I must have slept, it was impossible not to sleep in all that
time, but if I slept, it was with my eyes wide open, for I had followed the green, luminous
course of the second hand and the minute hand and the hour hand of the bedside clock
through their circles and semi-circles, every night for seven nights, without missing a
second, or a minute, or an hour.
The reason I hadn't washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.
I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and
separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long
perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I
could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.
Doctor Gordon twiddled a silver pencil
"Your mother tells me you are upset."
I curled in the cavernous leather chair and faced Doctor Gordon across an acre of
highly polished desk.
Doctor Gordon waited. He tapped his pencil -- tap, tap, tap -- across the neat
green field of his blotter.
His eyelashes were so long and thick they looked artificial. Black plastic reeds
fringing two green, glacial pools.
Doctor Gordon's features were so perfect he was almost pretty.
I hated him the minute I walked in through the door.
I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying "Ah!" in an
encoraging way, as if he could see something I couldn't, and then I would find words to
tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black,
airless sack with no way out.
Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in
a little steeple and tell me why I couldn't sleep and why I couldn't read and why I couldn't
eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.
And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.
But Doctor Gordon wasn't like that at all. He was young and good-looking, and I
could see right away he was conceited.
Doctor Gordon had a photograph on his desk, in a silver frame, that half faced
him and half faced my leather chair. It was a family photograph, and it showed a
beautiful dark-haired woman, who could have been Doctor Gordon's sister, smiling out
over the heads of two blond children.
I think one child was a boy and one was a girl, but it may have been that both
children were boys or that both were girls, it is hard to tell when children are so small. I
think there was also a dog in the picture, toward the bottom -- a kind of airedale or a
golden retriever -- but it may have only been the pattern in the woman's skirt.
For some reason the photograph made me furious.
I didn't see why it should be turned half toward me unless Doctor Gordon was
trying to show me right away that he was married to some glamorous woman and I'd
better not get any funny ideas.
Then I thought, how could this Doctor Gordon help me anyway, with a beautiful
wife and beautiful children and a beautiful dog haloing him like the angels on a
"Suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong."
I turned the words over suspiciously, like round, sea-polished pebbles that might
suddenly put out a claw and change into something else.
What did I think was wrong?
That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong, I only thought it was wrong.
In a dull, flat voice -- to show I was not beguiled by his good looks or his family
photograph -- I told Doctor Gordon about not sleeping and not eating and not reading. I
didn't tell him about the handwriting, which bothered me most of all.
That morning I had tried to write a letter to Doreen, down in West Virginia,
asking whether I could come and live with her and maybe get a job at her college waiting
on table or something.
But when I took up my pen, my hand made big, jerky letters like those of a child,
and the lines sloped down the page from left to right almost diagonally, as if they were
loops of string lying on the paper, and someone had come along and blown them askew.
I knew I couldn't send a letter like that, so I tore it up in little pieces and put them
in my pocketbook, next to my all-purpose compact, in case the psychiatrist asked to see
But of course Doctor Gordon didn't ask to see them, as I hadn't mentioned them,
and I began to feel pleased at my cleverness. I thought I only need tell him what I wanted
to, and that I could control the picture he had of me by hiding this and revealing that, all
the while he thought he was so smart.
The whole time I was talking, Doctor Gordon bent his head as if he were praying,
and the only noise apart from the dull, flat voice was the tap, tap, tap of Doctor Gordon's
pencil at the same point on the green blotter, like a stalled walking stick.
When I had finished, Doctor Gordon lifted his head. ''Where did you say you went
to college?" Baffled, I told him. I didn't see where college fitted in. "Ah!" Doctor Gordon
leaned back in his chair, staring into the air over my shoulder with a reminiscent smile.
I thought he was going to tell me his diagnosis, and that perhaps I had judged him
too hastily and too unkindly. But he only said, "I remember your college well. I was up
there, during the war. They had a WAC station, didn't they? Or was it WAVES?"
I said I didn't know.
"Yes, a WAC station, I remember now. I was doctor for the lot, before I was sent
overseas. My, they were a pretty bunch of girls."
Doctor Gordon laughed.
Then, in one smooth move, he rose to his feet and strolled toward me round the
corner of his desk. I wasn't sure what he meant to do, so I stood up as well.
Doctor Gordon reached for the hand that hung at my right side and shook it.
"See you next week, then."
The full, bosomy elms made a tunnel of shade over the yellow and red brick
fronts along Commonwealth Avenue, and a trolley car was threading itself toward Boston
down its slim, silver track. I waited for the trolley to pass, then crossed to the gray
Chevrolet at the opposite curb.
I could see my mother's face, anxious and sallow as a slice of lemon, peering up
at me through the windshield.
"Well, what did he say?"
I pulled the car door shut. It didn't catch. I pushed it out and drew it in again with
a dull slam.
"He said he'll see me next week."
My mother sighed.
Doctor Gordon cost twenty-five dollars an hour.
"Hi there, what's your name?"
The sailor fell into step beside me, and I smiled.
I thought there must be as many sailors on the Common as there were pigeons.
They seemed to come out of a dun-colored recruiting house on the far side, with blue and
white "Join the Navy" posters stuck up on billboards round it and all over the inner walls.
"Where do you come from, Elly?"
I had never been to Chicago, but I knew one or two boys who went to Chicago
University, and it seemed the sort of place where unconventional, mixed-up people would
"You sure are a long way from home."
The sailor put his arm around my waist, and for a long time we walked around the
Common like that, the sailor stroking my hip through the green dirndl skirt, and me
smiling mysteriously and trying not to say anything that would show I was from Boston
and might at any moment meet Mrs. Willard, or one of my mother's other friends,
crossing the Common after tea on Beacon Hill or shopping in Filene's Basement.
I thought if I ever did get to Chicago, I might change my name to Elly
Higginbottom for good. Then nobody would know I had thrown up a scholarship at a big
eastern women's college and mucked up a month in New York and refused a perfectly
solid medical student for a husband who would one day be a member of the AMA and
earn pots of money.
In Chicago, people would take me for what I was.
I would be simple Elly Higgenbottom, the orphan. People would love me for my
sweet, quiet nature. They wouldn't be after me to read books and write long papers on the
twins in James Joyce. And one day I might just marry a virile, but tender, garage
mechanic and have a big cowy family, like Dodo Conway.
If I happened to feel like it.
"What do you want to do when you get out of the Navy?" I asked the sailor
It was the longest sentence I had said, and he seemed taken aback. He pushed his
white cupcake cap to one side and scratched his head.
"Well, I dunno, Elly," he said. "I might just go to college on the G.I. Bill"
I paused. Then I said suggestively, "You ever thought of opening a garage?"
"Nope," said the sailor. "Never have."
I peered at him from the corner of my eye. He didn't look a day over sixteen.
"Do you know how old I am?" I said accusingly.
The sailor grinned at me. "Nope, and I don't care either."
It occurred to me that this sailor was really remarkably handsome. He looked
Nordic and virginal. Now I was simple-minded it seemed I attracted clean, handsome
"Well, I'm thirty," I said, and waited.
"Gee, Elly, you don't look it." The sailor squeezed my hip.
Then he glanced quickly from left to right. "Listen, Elly, if we go round to those
steps over there, under the monument, I can kiss you."
At that moment I noticed a brown figure in sensible flat brown shoes striding
across the Common in my direction. From the distance, I couldn't make out any features
on the dime-sized face, but I knew it was Mrs. Willard.
"Could you please tell me the way to the subway?" I said to the sailor in a loud
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