A young woman stands on the quad, barely visible in the night. We hear a snap of flint on metal. Lighted lamp oil reveals a grapefruit-sized sphere. The girl swings the flame ball on a flexible string. We see body parts in rotation, one sculpted shoulder, one sleek hip.
The dancer scribes a circle round her feet. Naphtha, squirted in advance on the close-mown lawn, flares up. You cannot reach me, is the message. Walled off by fire, she is free and alone.
The sound system blares, distorting a sweet voice. It's that indie singer with the gamine face, the one who's popular on the Web. She's doing a cover of a Beyoncé tune. Shoulda putaringonit. A sassy babe has gotten away. Back when you might have reserved her for yourself.
Flames gutter. The circle vanishes. A second ball lights. The dancer appears in outline, lithe and slender. Lifting a foot, turning it outward, she holds the pose of an Indian woman from an erotic miniature.
I do wish I had claims on her. I desire, and I have erred. Never mind. I'm here now. I let my consciousness narrow until only the splotches of light exist, they and the half-revealed agent who makes them trace their arcs.
"You can't possibly have a child in the troupe?"
How pleasant it is to have someone address me spontaneously. Like the poi dancer, the woman at my side is tall and thin. I ask whether the performer is her daughter.
As it happens, she is. The mother has an affected voice of the sort you hear often on this campus. We are at Vassar, that island of privilege in down-and-out Poughkeepsie.
It is Family Weekend. All the same, it occurs to me that the mother may have preferred that I imagine her too young to have a child of college age. By way of apology, I add, "You have her athletic look."
She shakes her head. "Those days are long gone."
"Complicated family," I explain in response to the initial question. "I'm here for my older stepsister's son."
In truth, I'm here for the co-eds, the mother's daughter and her graceful companions. If I'd managed to keep my head screwed on straight, I could have hooked up with the lovelies. Finally, I cannot see why I should not attract one now. I am strong and agile and familiar with pop music. I can juggle odd-shaped objects, can-openers and saucepans and one-portion cereal boxes.
"Amanda," the mother says. Before I can give my name, Amanda asks, "Which is your nephew?"
Rows of guys are waiting their turn in the background, against the plantings alongside Rockefeller Hall. I point toward the center and say, "The stocky one." There are four. I can't imagine they are all Asian. (If they are, might not my nephew be adopted, or my stepsister or brother-in-law Chinese?) "Sam," I say, to cover the cross-racial possibility. I introduce myself as Alex.
"How long does this routine last?" Amanda asks. She touches my shoulder to gain my full attention. Speaking over the music requires her to put her lips close to my ear. There's smoke-smell on her clothes and liquor on her breath.
Evidently, Amanda has not attended a rehearsal or heard phone accounts of run-throughs. I gather that assiduous parenting is not her priority. She has needs of her own.
I should go for drinks with Amanda, to practice my social skills. I prefer the comfort of anonymity in the crowd. A second performer appears, and a third. Tall-drink legs emerge and vanish. The bodies I construct are entrancing, as is the dancers' sinuous motion. The performers are twenty years old to my not-yet-thirty and Amanda's fifty-odd. The array of ages makes me feel clean and moral. If Amanda thinks it proper to flirt with me, how dirty, how pathetic am I, when I dream of her daughter?
Besides, I belong here. Not long ago, I was an undergrad. It took me all of freshman year to get rusticated.
Later, I did a stint at the Culinary Institute, just up the Hudson. I could not tolerate the cost or the regimentation. An Institute teacher runs an upscale restaurant here. The city can support just the one. When I dropped out of the program, André (his nom de guerre—old friends call him Shep) took me on as a sous-chef and managerial assistant, at busboy wages. I am content to be a bargain, pleased to put my mind to use. But my allegiance is to Vassar, to the life I should have led.
Mind you, I am not like my friend Libby. She is on a list. The campus cops know her by sight and escort her to the gate. "But you invited me!" she protests, meaning when she was admitted to the school. Sometimes, a cop slips her a twenty and (even when medicine's made her overweight) tells her to get a good meal. "Will you dine with me?" she asks. She has money. What she wants is connections to the school.
Watching the jugglers, I see that Libby is right. She was born to shimmy amidst flames. She is justified in her grief for opportunity missed.
I have what Libby lacks: control. I do not haunt the place. I show up for two weekends, Freshman Parents' in the fall and Family in the spring. I take in the art exhibits. I stand in the back for the student musical. The parents love me. I am a booster for the program. "My nephew struggled freshman year," I say. "But think how well he's doing now!"
In recent years, I've added move-in and move-out weekends. I'm half-recognized, a face seen before. I help carry armchairs and refrigerators. I may pocket the occasional small object, a watch or iPod, if it's been set down on a desk. As a rule, it's a kid down the hall I rob, not the student whose family lets me pitch in. I do need to break even for the unpaid leave I take from the restaurant. The point, I am saying, is not profit but camaraderie. The chance to dress in Friday casual. The chance to walk alongside the young women, to laugh with them.
The music changes. Sexual teasing gives way to mock aggression. To the strain of violin swells from an old swashbuckler, the young women thrust and parry with fiery sabers. The extra light reveals the fencers' faces. Amanda's daughter has a tight, bony death's head look, which I don't at all mind.
"Not to be a bad mother," Amanda says, "but this noise is enough to give anyone a migraine." She looks about and lights a cigarette. As an afterthought, she angles the pack my way, in case I want to join her.
I recognize Amanda's daughter now. She performed last spring. She was clumsy then, a beginner. I liked her as I might like any shapely member of the supporting cast, which is to say vaguely.
I say that I can't leave until Sam has had his moment. I offer to approach the daughter on Amanda's behalf, to convey the excuse, to say a headache got the best of her. "Your daughter's much improved," I say. "If I'm thinking of the same kid."
"Jen," Amanda says, so that I know whom to address.
I propose brunch the next morning. The school gives a nice one in the brick building up the green, the All-Campus Dining Center. Amanda is noncommittal, which I take to mean that she'll be drinking tonight, and who knows at what hour she'll reappear.
When she's gone, I feel regret. Amanda is a woman I could relate to.
Jen disappoints. Not in her appearance. True, her face is oddly put together. She has taut and sallow skin, a narrow nose, and close-set eyes, mismatched with bee-sting lips. I am fond of that combination, youthful homeliness staring out above a fetching figure. It makes me hopeful. Such a girl should be within reach. No, it's Jen's response that's off-putting. What did I say I was there for? She has a popular kid's easy command.
Jen absorbs my message. Evidently, I am one in a line of adults who have filled in for Amanda—the neighbor who fed Jen dinner when Amanda was off on a bender, the teacher who helped Jen complete her applications when Amanda proved unreliable. I am thanked in friendly fashion, but when I suggest brunch, Jen turns dismissive: "Don't kid yourself." I should know better than to build plans around Amanda.
I pass out of the quad. Toward the edge of campus, families linger, reluctant to head for the SUVs. Fat girls hug their mothers. Plain girls look purposeful. The stunners stand in clusters. There are innocent fresh faces and soignée compositions, cheekbones emphasized. A petite Mediterranean type draws attention with guffaws that last many beats too long. I don't kid myself.
I head from the campus through the dying streets with their particulate haze—asbestos, lead, toxic urban dust. Home is a ground-floor apartment carved out of what was once a pawnshop. In Poughkeepsie, the businesses are bars and cell phone stores and quickie marts, and even those fail. The neighborhood is safer than it looks. Everyone knows there's nothing to steal.
We do have a flat-screen TV, a guilt offering from Libby's mom, who also pays for cable and WiFi. Libby's set to stay up and watch predictable romantic comedies she's TiVoed. She hates that I want to head to bed.
"Did Shep-André throw a fit?"
Libby is wrapped in a bath towel. She sprawls on the couch. I can see the butterfly on her right tit and the snake on her ass. I'll tell Dr. Gush that I'm worried she's revving up. En route to bad times, Libby turns provocative. I decline her offers. That's my distinction.
Libby says I needn't cling to it. I should save her from herself by sopping up sexual energy when she's manic. Her argument is that since I'm in the club myself, I needn't feel guilt over taking advantage of the mentally ill. She says that she only likes sex when she's off her medicine. If she didn't get laid then, she'd have no fun at all.
Libby's mom, Erica, thinks that I temper Libby's moods. Erica pays the rent, all of it. She joins in the fantasy that Libby and I are almost in college, that soon we'll be back. The set-up is like having her daughter in the usual mixed-gender Vassar dorm.
Someone should do a microeconomics study of our living arrangements. Erica takes care of the basics. Then André can underpay me for work. What I save, I spend on my therapy with Dr. Gush who is also Libby's therapist, only Libby, which is to say Erica, pays full freight. Libby and I both came to Dr. Gush, whom we call Henry, through health services. That's college town finance. Everything's tied to the school. Discounts can be cadged. All the money flows from the mom.
Erica hints that I might court her daughter. It's the coeds who interest me, with their worry over course selection and their indecision about dropping gymnastics even as a hobby and their devotion to mythical boyfriends in California. Libby and I are in roomie mode. In her calmer moods, Libby wants to marry an Ivy League grad and move to the suburbs to raise his vaguely hippie children. I want what I missed out on. A bout of depression or two shouldn't disqualify a guy from all he's worked for, even if he turns obstreperous when he's down. I took honors physics. I wrestled all-city, in Providence, Rhode Island. I served free dinners to winos and wiped noses at the MLK day care.
I tell Libby that Shep-André will be fine. On college visiting days, he has to be in the restaurant anyway, making sure that every dish is top-flight. The rest of the year, he can stay home and smoke dope while I run the kitchen.
Libby's disappointed. She'd hoped for a dust-up—or romance. "You didn't meet a sweetie?"
I tell Libby that I've got a prospect—brunch tomorrow.
"Shall we snatch her?"
Libby's fantasy is kidnapping a Vassar boy and acting out The Collector, with the genders reversed. She would reward the guy for showing devotion. If he refused to play-act, she'd withhold desiderata, like home video access.
The idea is a response to Henry's theory that Libby needs the experience of success in a conventional relationship. Since she didn't seem headed there by straightforward means, Libby guessed it would make sense to script a love affair. She wrote lines and stage directions. While murmuring sweet nothings, the "trainee" should reach out shyly and tenderly.
The plan was for me to act as a confederate, a witness who would say, "He was besotted. He wasn't a prisoner of anything, except love." That's Libby's writing as well.
Now that Libby's on the nut-case watch list, her plan has needed updating. She says that I should get myself adored by a kidnapped coed. With my newfound confidence, I will win the heart of a real girlfriend, another undergrad, not the one we've nabbed. I'll enter the bourgeoisie and invite Libby to tea parties. She'll return to mainstream life by that route.
Libby's plot is highly elaborated. She'll use the captive student's cell phone to text-message classmates: "I've met the most divine townie!" Libby will stand in for the girl on Facebook, making entries that speak darkly of love. Libby's sure I'd be safe. "If they nab you, I'll testify: 'She was like a woman possessed!'" Often, I've thought Libby should go on the stage.
"Emotional Justice!" That's Libby's cry. The notion of disability rights is too limited, is her point. Healthy undergrads have dozens of liaisons. Where's equality? The made-to-order lover is a matter of fairness.
If Libby's schemes are wrong-headed, still I can see her point. We have been denied much: time in Eden, degrees, jobs, and now intimacy, caring, and support—we who need them the most. Henry's assurances notwithstanding, I can't see how Libby and I will gain access to life's goods. It's for that reason, because without rash plans there are no grounds for optimism, that I conceal Libby's ambitions from Henry.
Apropos, he offers me the same advice that he gives her. Henry wants me to pursue normal intimacy with someone who has a job or a commitment to grad school. Henry sees Libby and me as a miniature therapy group. I must venture beyond.
"I'll join you," Libby suggests, meaning for brunch. She has a thing about eating free at Vassar. She's the prodigal daughter, returned. The deans should kill the fatted calf. "Or the slender eggplant," she says. Libby's a vegetarian.
For tomorrow, she proposes a disguise that will get her past the security team. The description goes on too long. I make a mental note to check the medicine cabinet, although once Libby starts skipping doses, she turns sly, and there's no catching her.
"The plan's not firm," I say.
"All the same you're heading to bed," she notes, "so that you can get up early." As if it were a matter of letting me off the hook for concealing my intentions, she adds, "On your important weekend."
That phrase is with me the next morning. I shave with care.
Actually, every day I shave with care. In therapy Henry said I needed to loosen up. "When you shave, why don't you do it a different way each time?"
Henry's suggestions are disastrous. All the same, I like following them. They make my progress or lack of it a collaborative effort.
When I discussed the session with Libby, she suggested that we develop an iRaze App. You enter your usual shaving pattern. The program assumes that there are sixty scrapes in the average shave. For the first two months, iRaze has you vary the first stroke. Then the App assigns a new first stroke and has you switch up the second stroke for two months. Libby sketched out mockups with a Mario figure pointing out the shaving path.
I did the math for the project. Reordering only the first two strokes, the program takes you through nine-plus years with certainty of no repeats. Continuing from there is no problem, but, as Libby pointed out, in a decade, surely shaving will be obsolete. There will be a pill for it, or full beards will return to fashion.
Libby got enthused about the possibilities. Instead of varying the first stroke, each day you could leave a new sector for last, letting the final blob of shave cream wander about your face. Online, she located a Molloy Society, fans of a Samuel Beckett book whose hero takes a systematic approach to stone sucking, rotating sixteen smooth pebbles in and out of his coat and pants pockets. Once Molloy partisans got hold of the iRaze, it would get traction. Men would love the guarantee that they'd begin each morning doing something they'd never do again. "It's a sure thing!" Libby insisted. "We'll get Schick and Gillette in a bidding war!"
Leaving the App fantasy aside, I filled Henry in on my progress—each shave unique. To my surprise, he was disheartened. "It sounds obsessive-compulsive."
I exploded. That's a shortcoming that got me in trouble at college. When my good intentions are interpreted as illness, I protest too vigorously.
"How it's compulsive," I asked, "to do what your therapist suggests?" If anything, I felt impelled to shave the old way. Each morning, I had to catch myself, before blade hit skin, and remember to consult the schedule. I could switch back to my former habit, should Henry ask. "How is it compulsive when I'm resisting my instincts?"
As for obsession, the algorithm allowed me to proceed mindlessly. I shaved, free of rumination but with the mild pleasure that comes from taking a novel approach to a mundane task.
Henry wondered whether I intended sabotage. He considered (aloud) how obedience morphs into stubbornness. The phrase passive-aggressive entered the argument. My open anger in the office was evidence of covert anger expressed in my response to Henry's proposal.
I read the Beckett novel. Actually, I found the relevant paragraphs online, about the sucking stones. I glanced at papers posted by kids who had read the book for school. (Really, I would make a very good undergraduate.) "What do you make of Molloy?" I asked Henry, who fancies himself a literary type. "Isn't he meant to be an Everyman?"
Henry's capable of backing off. It's why Libby and I stick with him. Henry's only slow, not hidebound. Eventually, he declared his initiative (the shaving shake-up) a success. We had learned more about my tendencies, the very ones that had annoyed certain deans during my sojourn at Vassar.
On the morning of my brunch date, I shave and shower. (I've been varying my scrub-up patterns as well.) With no particular hopes, I don my preppy best. Libby is still on the couch, dead to the world. I slip past her. Outside, in scuffed Topsiders, I walk through blocks of tossed beer bottles and condoms. When I make it to the ACDC, there on the steps is Amanda.
Her hair is down. The low cut of her blouse, a flesh-toned shell, is well warranted. Her face is more natural than I had remembered it to be. And she recognizes me.
"Where can I find a Sunday Times in this backwater?"
Nowhere, I know. But as per Henry's instructions, I am in socializing mode.
"I remember a coffeehouse on the corner," I say, as if I were an infrequent visitor.
Amanda could use a walk to clear her head. And so we're off, I and the middle-class paragon I am meant to marry, give or take a few years and (here I am guessing) a few bad habits.
The city's metallic smell comes from the IBM plant, I have always believed, but it's a Sunday, factories shut, and still an off odor reaches the green. Amanda grabs my arm, as if to steady herself. The morning is unseasonably warm. Her palm becomes sweaty. I place my hand over hers, to secure it.
"How reminiscent," she says. Like me, I am guessing, Amanda wishes to return to college days.
I guide Amanda though the line of cars returning to campus from the chain hotels on Route 9. In front of the café, she taps a cigarette from her pack. I step inside and exchange customer stories with Gary, the owner. Visiting parents are edging out the regulars. Why are the rich so cheap, and the fussy ones especially? Gary comps me a cappuccino to go—the customer who ordered it will have to wait. I hand Amanda the cup, she murmurs gratitude. I report: no paper. "The fellow says there may be at a convenience store, one block up Raymond, or else at the Gulf Station back on Hooker."
We are still in the Town of Poughkeepsie, a crescent-shaped zone of relative prosperity that wraps around the desperate City of Poughkeepsie. The town is pathetic enough. After a succession of cheap ethnic restaurants, the street descends into second-hand shops with meager selections of goods.
Amanda pauses at a window. "Plus ça change."
The display features children's books: Winnie-the-Pooh, Babar, Where the Wild Things Are, Curious George, and Madeleine. Around them are use-worn stuffed animals representing characters, a Disney Tigger, a home-sewn Queen Celeste from a kit, a pillow needlepointed with the image of the Man with the Yellow Hat. What awful story clings to these objects I can only imagine. Perhaps a child has died. But then, the collection may represent only spring cleaning or a move to smaller quarters.
"So much is made," Amanda observes, "of novelty." She explains: blogging, email, Kindle, recycling, micro greens, space travel. What impresses her is the stasis. Her parents did not read children's literature, not per se. They grew up with Dickens and Louisa May Alcott. "But my generation read Sendak. The books date to the Fifties. We read Milne and Bemelmens."
I ask whether continuity isn't comfortable.
"Comfortable or nauseating. These kids find themselves and discover—what?—the same old thing. I mean, after Cornell, I studied circus in Europe. Now it's a group activity, every girl a juggler and all BFFs." She says that there's a boast in the kids' frivolity, in their devoting time to it—a tired claim about the liberated self.
In my freshman year, when a teacher drew arbitrary conclusions, I argued forcefully in response. It was the illness, of course, but my nature, too. I dislike being told how the world works. With the help of time and, yes, prescriptions, I came to accept Henry's lesson, that firm, if poorly buttressed declarations are crucial in social interactions. Someone says how things are now, and despite the fact that the reverse claim is equally true (here, that change has been rapid), the strong assertion confers value on the speaker. I have this insight. I have substance and worth.
"These students," Amanda is saying, "are us, only without even the veneer of originality." She includes me in her generation. "We carried transistor radios tuned to FM rock album stations. We wrote academic papers on Dylan. We revived romantic rebellion. Everyone alienated. Angst as charm. The handmade. Beat rants: Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti. The planet, the natural. Dramatic hair. Odd jewelry. Nonconformity you could play at while applying to professional schools. These kids are living our lives."
We have left the second-hand shop zone and are heading past a shuttered hair salon. I tell Amanda that I see what she means. "I went to a wedding in TriBeCa," I say. "It was in a vast ballroom, done in concrete, steel, and glass, high above the City. The band played Beatles and Stones and novelty numbers, like Herman's Hermits. The kids getting married were my age. The bride was close to her mother and wanted to showcase tastes they held in common."
I am following Henry's stricture, to respond with a parallel example from my own experience—to show that I have listened and respect the argument and the speaker.
Amanda looks at me strangely, as if I were making the story up, to humor her. She's not wrong. I heard about the "events site" from a classmate, during my Vassar year. She'd been to a wedding there. A fashionable guy was marrying a bride whose relatives were hayseeds. The account featured a predatory uncle on the groom's side who pressed himself up against ill-dressed girls from out of town. I used the setup as the basis for a short story, in freshman composition. I didn't realize that my classmate was doing the same. That's why the wedding was on her mind, because she was outlining her paragraphs. The "salient details" were identical, hers and mine. My trouble started there, in my insistence that the best fiction comes from stolen vignettes. As I was more distant from the events, it was more virtuous that I should draw on them. My version was, take my word for it, the inventive one.
I continue to echo Amanda's themes, nothing new since the Sixties. "And when the bride stood up to toast her parents, she went all Virginia Woolf—how they'd given her a room of her own, how they told her that Shakespeare's sister was as creative maybe as Shakespeare."
The convenience store rack holds the Poughkeepsie Journal and one fat copy, its front page torn, of the New York Daily News. Amanda asks for the Times. "No call for it, my good lady." The owner looks to be just off the boat from Pakistan. Once he wises up, he'll head for Brooklyn, leaving the storefront vacant.
"This one horse town!" Amanda complains. Still in equine mode, she adds, "Shall we make it a trifecta?"
She's parked on the edge of campus. On the walk, she touches and squeezes, to emphasize her observations. "What is that, wintergreen?" It's a flat-to-the-ground weed with red berries.
Upping the ante, she faces me full on and grabs both upper arms. "Aren't you grateful we only have to visit one weekend in the year?" I've mentioned Providence, as if I still lived there. She gives my muscles a feel. "Do you work out?"
She's won me over—a woman who appreciates my efforts. I keep weights in my bedroom. I jog in all seasons. Henry puts great stock in jogging.
"We all do," I tell Amanda. "Your generation invented exercise as well. Alienated exercise. Rebellious exercise. 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.'"
Amanda's miffed that I have put distance between us. To apologize, I correct myself: "Our generation."
It's mid-morning. The students will be rolling out of bed, wanting to squeeze in one last family activity, a tête-à-tête with a favored instructor or a walkthrough of the handicraft sale to benefit Haiti. Amanda is violating the weekend's rhythm.
Her car is a small Jaguar, the cheap kind they don't make anymore, with parts from Ford in Europe. She asks if I drive standard. She's not sure her headache isn't coming back, and she wants to text Jen.
The gas station on Hooker has no Times. It occurs to Amanda that her hotel may do better—she had asked them to try. Do I mind if we head there? Though I know a quicker route, I follow Amanda's directions.
It is not the Week In Review that Amanda wants this time of day. In her room at the Hampton Inn and Suites, Amanda has turned a desk into a working bar. Cubes floating in the slurry suggest that she refilled the ice bucket this morning. "It's not all weed for you, is it, Alex?"
I am no morning drinker, but a plan seems to be in motion. The display suggests that Amanda's a scotch lady. She has two bottles going at once. I fix her a J&B, which she describes as "light."
Amanda's nightclothes, gauzy items, are spread over one queen-sized bed. Setting aside Libby's sisterly squalor, this gift is one that has been withheld from me, views of the scattered peignoir.
Amanda pats the unused bed, inviting me to sit alongside. Our shoes are off. In a gesture that reminds me of Jen's dance, Amanda turns her left knee outward, in order to run the heel of the foot against the outer side of my leg. She inserts the foot between my thighs now, rubbing, as if to ease an itch on her sole.
"I'm inclined to skip the next hour of the visit," Amanda offers. Presently, we begin.
Amanda is fit in the manner of middle-aged women who exercise. But her breasts are formless, and the skin between them is turning papery. I see that she's had "work." The whole is a mosaic of firmness from exercise, tightness from surgery, and the natural effects of age.
The patchwork inspires me. I decide that the right path to desire is to take Amanda on segmentally. I think of Jen revealed in parts. Since that approach seems perverse, I think of a shave.
I kiss Amanda's firm right shoulder. I proceed to her flat belly and the inner aspect of her right thigh. I am moved. Amanda echoes in response. I aim to respect all the elements, those that inspire admiration and those that elicit pity.
"Oh, Jesus," Amanda says, "You give a girl time."
Now it is Amanda who alludes to the age gap. She has forgotten, she says, how young men are dedicated to the task. Later, she falls silent. I smell her coming into ripeness.
As I nuzzle, I cry in mourning for what I have lost. I suck and sniffle. Amanda responds with exertion, as if we were attuned, working together toward a crescendo.
Although the warm-up was mechanical, the climax is compelling. Amanda's hunger and gratitude—would a college coed offer as much? I gain faith in my method, analysis that leads to grand synthesis. We put too much stock in immediacy, in the real thing. There's a case to be made for the constructed and the imagined.
Amanda thanks me. Transcendent is a word she uses, as if sex with me were a New Age experience.
"Ever get up to Buffalo?" Amanda runs a clothing boutique there, imported skirts and blouses. The recession has hurt.
I am not unaffected. I have held a woman's attention. She's not fleeing. She imagines me in her life.
Amanda pours herself a Glenlivet and heads for the shower.
My cell phone shows a stack of calls from Libby.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
Libby's just curious about my day. "Details, please!" She has a way of wheedling.
"You must volunteer," Libby says, when I've sketched out the events, "to move Jen out this spring." She's got Amanda pegged as a woman who hates the routine tasks of parenthood.
Libby spins a tale. I can say I'm a specialty foods distributor who handles wine on the side, from small vineyards, for small restaurants. Shep-André does, in fact, deal with growers in the Finger Lakes region. I can borrow his van. I should offer to bring Jen home as part of a trip I have slated anyway.
Libby's account is rich in detail. When I pack Jen up, I'll see to it that her music gear gets mislaid. "Your iPhone?" I'll say. "Didn't you set it in the bottom of the trunk?" Without earbuds to wall her off, Jen will converse. She'll discuss career dreams, summer plans, juggler friends.
I'll complain of a back spasm from the lifting. I'll detour into a state park for a walk, to get the kinks out. What will prevent us from stopping at Cornell and trying out a suspension bridge across a gorge? We'll sup at a scenic bistro. Driving a kid with all her possessions, you have the last word. A normal level of coercion, Libby says. Who has not been forced into small talk with a helpful stranger?
Under Libby's influence, I imagine Jen's mismatched face beside me for hours at a stretch.
Libby's on to another scenario: I'll put Vassar behind me, move to Buffalo, take courses at the state college, set Amanda's home in order, steer her to AA.
Only when she hangs up do I think to worry about Libby, her fluency, her ability to make me dream.
Who does not melt at the sight of an older woman with at towel wrapped around her? "All yours," Amanda offers, and I see she means the shower.
What say we spend the afternoon in the hotel room, is her suggestion when I emerge. I invoke Sam's name and the closing ceremonies.
I have a fondness for the Dean's address to families. It has a hypnotic quality. The kids are made to forget that the curriculum's contracting in the face of tight budgets. They forget that the food is bad, that the library's cutting its hours. The theme is reassuring: a liberal education and good fellowship shield us from what blows the future brings.
"Let's hear that talk," I say. "Let's hear it with Jen."
On the drive back to campus, I get the full biography. The ex, Ted, is in Asia this year with the second wife, Petra. In high school, Jen mostly stayed with Ted. Amanda's revived parental duties are onerous. Jen despises her.
I say, "It's endemic, young daughters hating mothers."
Amanda's fixed on filling me in. Petra's a skilled homemaker.
I say, "We never know the good we do." Amanda serves as a model of a woman going it alone.
Then, as if scripted by Libby, Amanda bemoans the long drive back to Buffalo, with more to come in June when Jen must be fetched.
I offer to help with packing, when the time comes; I'll show up for Sam, but he's quite independent.
Amanda wonders whether I could take on the whole task, moving Jen out. She knows it's a lot to ask. She puts her hand inside my thigh to suggest the reunion we might have.
"Maybe I could arrange that," I say. Amanda plays with my shirt buttons. "I'm sure I can."
Amanda suggests that we not fill Jen in yet. With kids, last minute is best—the fait accompli.
Next session, I will tell Henry how right he is. Efforts in shaving morph into facility in love. Success in one relationship leads to opportunity in another.
We find seats up close.
Sure enough, a dean invokes Greek names, and then it's a quick leap to the Renaissance. Soon, we set aside considerations of scholarship for talk about people. What you'll recall about Vassar. Friends. Professors, so available. Not to be crass about it, but contacts for life—the broad Vassar community, across generations.
It isn't the knack for originality that moves a woman from research to administration.
Covertly, Amanda touches my left forearm. She's still a drink shy of level. I try my trick, breaking her face into pixels, caressing each one with my gaze, the crows' feet at the left eye's edge, the spider red spot on the nose, the blurring boundary between lip and skin.
Jen, sitting beyond Amanda, offers a kind glance. It conveys apology, I believe, for my involvement the night before, for the need to cover for Amanda. I am free to linger on Jen's Funny Valentine features. She's just the gal for me.
Not only accord, the dean is saying, but also confrontation, clashes of perspective, stimuli to maturation.
From the end of the row, I hear insistent whispers. I turn, and it's Libby in dramatic matron attire, red hair, orange muumuu, big sunglasses, and broad-brimmed floppy hat. She has bracelets up both arms. In response to her demands, there is a shifting of seats. She squeezes toward me. Her perfume precedes her.
"Poor Sam!" she hisses. "He ate something that didn't agree." Libby says she's been nursing Sam—a trip to the infirmary and then forced fluids. Libby points back and forth from herself to me. "The step-sister-in-law."
Amanda seems to have nodded off.
I give Libby the calm and quiet sign, palms pushing downward: piano, piano.
Libby speaks past Amanda to Jen, extolling my virtues. "A prince!"
The dean enters her peroration, thanking the families for entrusting their children, saying how the students have found a safe base and shown courage in venturing away.
The campus police have spotted Libby. They gesture but hold off. I shift in my chair, denying Libby, implying I'm with Amanda.
Because I have turned away, I miss the moment Libby leaps to her feet. She waves a hand, as if she were in class and the dean an inattentive teacher.
Libby speaks for the crowd. "We thank you! We admire you! We offer you our first-born!" A security officer moves down the row. He puts his hand on Libby's shoulder. "But, oh, Dean Florian, will you embrace us when we've strayed?" Libby's hat falls off, revealing a dirty blond tonsure fringed by the rufous halo. She did a bathroom sink job, leaning over, dying the ends of the hair, the part that would show. The cops are dragging Libby toward a side exit near the dais.
The ruckus has wakened Amanda. She gives me her doubting look.
It has been a glorious weekend, one it will please me to recall. I throw Amanda and Jen a nod and hustle up the aisle. Libby is howling now, her entreaties barely comprehensible. "What will become of us? Are we not worthy? Must you shun us? Do you love us at all?"
Title graphic: "Ring of Fire" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.