OF COURSE, Constantin was much too short, but in his own way he was
handsome, with light brown hair and dark blue eyes and a lively, challenging expression.
He could almost have been an American, he was so tan and had such good teeth, but I
could tell straight away that he wasn’t. He had what no American man I’ve ever met has
had, and that’s intuition.
From the start Constantin guessed I wasn’t any protégé of Mrs. Willard’s. I raised
an eyebrow here and dropped a dry little laugh there, and pretty soon we were both
openly raking Mrs. Willard over the coals and I thought, “This Constantin won’t mind if
I’m too tall and don’t know enough languages and haven’t been to Europe, he’ll see
through all that stuff to what I really am.”
Constantin drove me to the UN in his old green convertible with cracked,
comfortable brown leather seats and the top down. He told me his tan came from playing
tennis, and when we were sitting there side by side flying down the streets in the open
sun he took my hand and squeezed it, and I felt happier than I had been since I was about
nine and running along the hot white beaches with my father the summer before he died.
And while Constantin and I sat in one of those hushed plush auditoriums in the
UN, next to a stern muscular Russian girl with no makeup who was a simultaneous
interpreter like Constantin, I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that
I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.
After that — in spite of the Girl Scouts and the piano lessons and the water-color
lessons and the dancing lessons and the sailing camp, all of which my mother scrimped to
give me, and college, with crewing in the mist before breakfast and blackbottom pies and
the little new firecrackers of ideas going off every day — I had never been really happy
I stared through the Russian girl in her double-breasted gray suit, rattling off
idiom after idiom in her own unknowable tongue — which Constantin said was the most
difficult part because the Russians didn’t have the same idioms as our idioms — and I
wished with all my heart I could crawl into her and spend the rest of my life barking out
one idiom after another. It mightn’t make me any happier, but it would be one more little
pebble of efficiency among all the other pebbles.
Then Constantin and the Russian girl interpreter and the whole bunch of black
and white and yellow men arguing down there behind their labeled microphones seemed
to move off at a distance. I saw their mouths going up and down without a sound, as if
they were sitting on the deck of a departing ship, stranding me in the middle of a huge
I started adding up all the things I couldn’t do.
I began with cooking.
My grandmother and my mother were such good cooks that I left everything to
them. They were always trying to teach me one dish or another, but I would just look on
and say, “Yes, yes, I see,” while the instructions slid through my head like water, and
then I’d always spoil what I did so nobody would ask me to do it again.
I remember Jody, my best and only girlfriend at college in my freshman year,
making me scrambled eggs at her house one morning. They tasted unusual, and when I
asked her if she had put in anything extra, she said cheese and garlic salt. I asked who
told her to do that, and she said nobody, she just thought it up. But then, she was practical
and a sociology major.
I didn’t know shorthand either.
This meant I couldn’t get a good job after college. My mother kept telling me
nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was
something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the
up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.
The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate
my own thrilling letters. Besides, those little shorthand symbols in the book my mother
showed me seemed just as bad as let t equal time and let s equal the total distance.
My list grew longer.
I was a terrible dancer. I couldn’t carry a tune. I had no sense of balance, and
when we had to walk down a narrow board with our hands out and a book on our heads
in gym class I always fell over. I couldn’t ride a horse or ski, the two things I wanted to
do most, because they cost too much money. I couldn’t speak German or read Hebrew or
write Chinese. I didn’t even know where most of the old out-of-the-way countries the UN
men in front of me represented fitted in on the map.
For the first time in my life, sitting there in the soundproof heart of the UN
building between Constantin who could play tennis as well as simultaneouly interpret and
the Russian girl who knew so many idioms, I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was,
I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.
The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was
coming to an end.
I felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks or a champion college
footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory
shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like the date on a
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned
and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was
a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the
amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another
fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names
and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and
beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I
couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one
of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide,
the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my
I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband.
It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and
coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash
up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively,
fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more
dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.
This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s,
but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what
Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university
professor and had been a private school teacher herself.
Once when I visited Buddy I found Mrs. Willard braiding a rug out of strips of
wool from Mr. Willard’s old suits. She’d spent weeks on that rug, and I had admired the
tweedy browns and greens and blues patterning the braid, but after Mrs. Willard was
through, instead of hanging the rug on the wall the way I would have done, she put it
down in place of her kitchen mat, and in a few days it was soiled and dull and
indistinguishable from any mat you could buy for under a dollar in the five and ten.
DOCTOR GORDON’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.
(from Chapter Twelve)
And as Doctor Gordon led me into a bare room at the back of the house, I saw
that the windows in that part were indeed barred, and that the room door and the closet
door and the drawers of the bureau and everything that opened and shut was fitted with a
keyhole so it could be locked up.
I lay down on the bed.
The wall-eyed nurse came back. She unclasped my watch and dropped it in her
pocket. Then she started tweaking the hairpins from my hair.
Doctor Gordon was unlocking the closet. He dragged out a table on wheels with a
machine on it and rolled it behind the head of the bed. The nurse started swabbing my
temples with a smelly grease.
As she leaned over to reach the side of my head nearest the wall, her fat breast
muffled my face like a cloud or a pillow. A vague, medicinal stench emanated from her
“Don’t worry,” the nurse grinned down at me. “Their first time everybody’s scared
I tried to smile, but my skin had gone stiff, like parchment.
Doctor Gordon was fitting two metal plates on either side of my head. He buckled
them into place with a strap that dented my forehead, and gave me a wire to bite.
I shut my eyes.
There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.
Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the
world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with
each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out
of me like a split plant.
I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.