by Patricia Foster
Feature image: Jules Pascin. Hermine David, 1907. The Art Institute of Chicago.
I didn’t know what to do with my breakfast tray. I’d gone through the line, had just spooned scrambled eggs onto my brisk white plate when I noticed two of the tables were already full and I’d have to sit alone. Alone. I’d only been at this artists’ colony for fourteen hours, but inevitably the old thought seeped in, “I’ll never be asked to sit with the popular group.” Now I stared not at the writers and artists dawdling over sectioned grapefruit and blueberry pancakes, but at the shiny surface of the coffee urn.
Nonsense! I nodded to my distorted reflection. What could really be wrong with eating your eggs alone at 7:30 in the morning at a table for eight? I’d eaten alone many times in the last ten years at my home in Iowa. And I was way too mature—too old, I didn’t dare say—for these sudden fits of inadequacy. I shifted my gaze to the window where light shimmered above the crepe myrtle, where, in the distance, horses grazed and cows lumbered across the driveway. As I turned to pick up a glass of orange juice, I heard a trill of laughter from one of the tables and all my newfound certainty slipped again: sitting alone was a curse.
Any normal person would have assumed that being “new” to the group, you should give yourself a few days to acclimate, to get to know people, to talk to the tall, gregarious composer dressed in plaid shirts and khaki shorts and the small, clever woman with red hair who spoke so softly. Any normal person would have plunged into small talk, would have laughed when others laughed. Instead, anxiety charged through my body, wreaking havoc with my girlish hopes for friendship while an abject loneliness loomed above the coffee cups. What would I do? How would I survive?
For two days I quietly watched the group of artists and writers gathered together around the tables nursing their coffee, chatting, flirting, teasing, and then on the third day, like a stutterer under stress, my mind skittered into a familiar groove . . . a flutter of unceasing praise: “Oh, I love your sunhat! I love your tattoo. I love your sandals, your music. I love the way you’ve distilled that color, made that mark, shaded that line so the shadow flirts with the edge of the page. I love the smallness of your portraits, the vastness of your landscape, the way the fence you’ve drawn isn’t a fence, but a tangle of suggestive lines. I love your syntax, your muscular language, your sly, Beckett-like prose. I absolutely love your book. Marvelous! I want to read it again. Of course, I do!”
Surely what did me in were the scheduled mealtimes: three times a day a communing of the flock. At breakfast I got nervous and simply ate very fast, unable to concentrate on the conversation even as I watched those around me like a voyeur picking up clues. The woman across from me inhaled four cups of coffee and brought her own boiled egg and nut butter in a small plastic baggie. Another always lost her keys, was constantly checking inside pockets and beneath bowls and cups and in the crevices of chairs. “Hells bells,” she’d say as she patted down her pockets again. At lunch I tried to be quiet, to look thoughtful or puzzled or even diffident. I focused on listening. I laughed at other people’s jokes. I even made a few of my own. But at dinner I couldn’t seem to stop cooing. One evening I stood in line behind a woman who seemed remote, even haughty, and tried to make conversation about the dinner menu. “Is that pasta primavera written on the board?” I asked, almost touching her shoulder. No answer. “Oh, I wish I could eat wheat. Can you?” Again no answer, so I hummed a little and clanked my silverware, pretending to be distracted—though minutes later I heard her booming laughter as she chatted with friends at her table. Her face was animated, full of life as she leaned toward the man on her left and said something that made them both grin like naughty schoolchildren.
When I sat next to her the following night at dinner, she didn’t even glance my way. Her face looked distant and slightly peevish. I felt a gravitational rebuff as if we were oppositional force fields. At first, I thought I’d simply ignore her—serves her right!—but then I had the terrible urge to lean close and say, “I love your dresses!” because I did, sundresses in wild, vivid colors like Italian gelato or cheap drugstore candy. I so wanted to tell her. I could feel the words caught in my throat, trapped like soap bubbles, large and foamy, but she was talking to someone on the other side. I had to watch that I didn’t spill my water.
Just sitting beside her made me a rattle of nerves. As a result, I ate too fast, spearing green beans and fried chicken and scooping sweet potato into my mouth even as “I love your dresses” lay slippery beneath my tongue. As much as I felt the fevered urge to compliment, I longed even more for her attention. I wanted, at the very least, acknowledgement. And beneath this, of course, I felt a deep resentment, a brooding fury at her inattention, at my insecurity, but if I dared release such anger my brain, oh, god, my brain would become a wild, smashing fist. Better to stay on the surface, better to be light and easy. . . though I couldn’t think of anything to say except I love your dresses, as if this sentence, trapped in my synapses, had to be released before my brain could run free.
Finally, I turned to the woman on my right. To my relief, she was even newer than I, without alliances, with no way of knowing my turmoil. Instead, she volunteered information: she was a poet; she was beginning a PhD program and would be teaching freshmen in the fall.
“I’ve done it before, but every year, you know . . . all those papers.” She groaned.
“Oh, yes . . . thirty-five critiques a week,” I said, nodding in sympathy. And before I could stop myself I added, “You know the drill of critiquing, don’t you?”
She shook her head, but looked curious, attentive.
“Kiss-kiss-slap,” I said. “That’s the recipe these days. Two good things before you get down and dirty about ‘what needs fixin.’ The kiss is the hook, and then you’re off and running.”
She nodded agreeably, and then launched into a story about her boyfriend who refused to play the flattery game. “He’s so honest it’s brutal,” she said with open admiration. Her earrings, I noticed, were tiny turquoise fish. “The students don’t know what to make of him because he really, really says what he thinks.”
“He does?” I asked, instantly wary, because who could fail to admire the courage needed to blast through an eighteen-year-old ego to the heart of the matter.
She nodded, smiling and pleased.
“Lovely earrings,” I said, getting up to choose a dessert. Only when I returned to my room for the night did I feel uncertain about our conversation. “The kisses aren’t for flattery,” I said, looking at myself in the mirror as if still talking to the young woman. “They’re for motivation, for instruction. They acknowledge the beauty of a cumulative sentence, the grace of a surprising detail, the embedding of history even though the student may never have heard of a cumulative sentence, may not know the importance of detail or history.” I stepped closer, saw the tiny lines like commas deepening the corners of my mouth. “The kisses are necessary to point out what’s working, what matters in a piece of writing so deep attention can be paid.” I sighed. Deep attention was what I too seemed to need.
That night as I brushed my teeth, I love your dresses buzzed again inside my head.
Oh, stop it, I thought, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. I love your dresses, I love your dresses, I flung out to no one and all as I twirled in my nightgown around the tiny space of my room, feeling a moment of dizzying pleasure. Perhaps I was some crazy optimist, believing insanely that the world would turn its head toward me and smile. Such a pleasant thought! Why not love the world? Why not wake in the morning, seeing the soft, pale light curving through the window rather than the stiff, barren trees? Why not think the best is possible? But Jesus, no. I stopped dancing; felt my shoulders sag. I was a fatalist right down to my bones, the morbid kind who believed the rivers would always rise and flood, the crops wither and die, the house burn down with the single copy of your manuscript immolated on the floor. I didn’t expect anything good to happen. I never had. Optimistic sorts gave me the creeps. No, my kind of flattery was merely an extravagance, a pathological resource I summoned forth as camouflage. Even as I sang out my compliments an alarm beeped inside: each word echoed my diminishment, my self vanishing beneath the gush of praise.
I sat down on my bed, turned off the light and went utterly still.
I was not sure what I loved.
Much later, at home in Iowa, what I understand is this: Flattery isn’t my problem. Flattery is merely a symptom, a distraction, a cover-up for my sneaky, starving aggression, a way of censoring anger and hostility that cannot/should not be expressed. It’s impolite! It’s rude! Don’t you dare be angry! But why feel hostile in such wonderful surroundings with people I don’t yet know? Certainly, I had looked forward to being at an artists’ colony, greedy for adventure, for time to work in a new and rural setting. I remember going to bed that first night relieved to be there, tired but ready to work. I imagined only bright sunshine and easy companionship, the casual kind tempered by temporary settings. I didn’t set out to make best friends, to be popular, to be a star. In Iowa, I live a rather solitary life, even an isolated private life with just my husband and me watching movies on Friday night rather than a bustling social life. And yet something happened that second day when I stood poised in the breakfast line, something I felt viscerally—an old sick feeling of being exposed. Something isn’t right. You aren’t right. And in that moment I slipped out of my adult skin and into an earlier self where uncertainty and awkwardness ruled, where anxiety turned into shame, where exclusion meant failure, self-loathing, loss. I was the fifteen-year-old girl in the audience clapping for others, heartsick and envious because I too coveted the prize; I was the eager kid in fourth grade who’d just lost the spelling bee, the six-year-old falling in a mud puddle wearing her favorite jumper with the cow’s head appliquéd in brown and white on the front. I wanted to win! And yet I’d learned to disable desire before desire disabled me and made me an object of shame. I’d grown up in a family where “being in the spotlight” was expected, where winning was presumed to be effortless, without the idiom of struggle. I understood that my performance must never evoke shame or failure, or god forbid, pity, and often I saw myself hovering on the periphery of that stage, too nervous to walk on. And now, here in this lovely retreat, my unconscious had begun working overtime, imprinting that childhood scenario onto my current life as if I were still a shy, skinny fifteen-year-old trapped in the audience, clapping.
But I wasn’t a shy fifteen-year-old girl. I was a woman with degrees and publications and a career. I was a woman with a room of her own and work to do. I loved my husband. I loved my students. I loved the two little girls and their big black dog who lived next door. I loved, at times (not always, I confess), writing. Now I looked out the window of my writing studio, thinking, well, goodness, settle down, get on with it. This is all quite silly. You’re okay. And I was. I opened my laptop to work. And yet I knew that beneath this “okay” self lay an endless series of selves like a parade of Russian nesting dolls demanding attention, and here in this lovely place, I was also a woman who longed to be more than okay. If only I’d lightened my hair, floated through my mind as I glanced from the window to the pages of my novel. I was supposed to be reworking Chapter 8, fixing Chapter 8, deepening the main character in Chapter 8, but now I couldn’t stop thinking about my hair, wishing I’d streaked it or foiled it or flat-out dyed it, allowing some “brightness” to enhance my countenance. I could imagine myself as a “sunny girl,” an early morning charmer, the blonde, dreamy woman I so often wanted to be. But my hair was drab. A dull, dishwater color sprinkled, I’d just noticed, with gray. If I’d been that blonde, dreamy girl perhaps I’d have gotten a better education, one that gave me confidence, one that encouraged a ruthless certainty, allowing me to discourse on Flaubert and Proust, on the Palestinian crisis, on Calvinism and its whacky repressions in The Scarlet Letter.
But I’m not blonde. I’ll never be blonde, I thought, as a fly flitted from the windowsill to my printer, to the screen of my computer, and then slyly to the rim of my coffee mug. I swatted at it irritably and watched as it careened angrily back into the shadows of the windowsill, watching me, waiting for me to be distracted and vulnerable. I looked at the first sentence of Chapter 8—“I spent the rest of the morning in the nurse’s office, a wet cloth plastered to my head.”—read it quickly, and then put the page down, too caught up in my ridiculous desire to shape-shift, to transform myself into a blonde dreamer, a breakfast charmer, a woman who fit in when fitting in was so clearly needed, to read my own words on the page. Even as I pondered this, the fly dashed toward the edge of my desk as if awaiting my next move.
I sat very still, remembering the moment at dinner when Emma told Karen she wouldn’t be ready to read with her on Saturday night. “My story’s not quite finished,” Emma said, sighing. Instantly I was alert, my mouth paused in chewing, my mind wailing. What reading? And then I realized that Emma and Karen had arranged to read their work together to the group, just as other writers had done all week. Of all the people I’d talked with, Emma and Karen were the two with whom I was the most comfortable, whose studios were nearest mine, and now, in a single moment, I was excluded from the club. My brain flickered—“What about—?”—and then emptied. I stared dully at my iced tea, watching the ice cubes melting. Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. You can read with someone else. But already my mind was sucked clean of vitality as if I were sitting alone in a room full of best friends.
I looked again at the fly. Neither of us moved.
It’s a relief to know that flattery cannot take up every waking moment. Nor can anxiety. There is underwear to wash out in the sink. There are apples to cut into wedges, cell phones to be recharged, toenails to be clipped and water to be boiled for tea. Each day I relished these simple tasks, the ordinary busy-ness of my life, disruptions to my behavioral repertoire. Each day I walked from the residence hall to my studio, a room with an ugly yellow chair and a window that looked out on a bucolic pasture, green and hilly, where two beautiful horses grazed. Each day I ate in the dining hall or on picnic tables beneath the oak trees and slept in the single bed with its one scratchy blanket. As the days and nights piled up, I became accustomed to the orderly meals, the lumpy pillow, the sudden summer rainstorms, details that never quite eased my generalized dread, my need to win favor, to be claimed. And yet somehow, I began to write and rewrite, the work slowly deepening. I began to make changes to Chapter 8, to slash paragraphs, to laugh at moments I’d written—oh, that scene on the roof is good!—and to make notes for other stories, better stories I was sure. In this way, time passed for seven days. Time passed. If not happy, I was at least busy.
On the eighth day, I surprised myself by writing a new story, one I’d been thinking about casually as I walked each day to my studio but which emerged quickly, fluently once I wrote the first sentence: Her mother was not my mother. The character, Naomi, had been passed around from mother to grandmother to half-sister in the little town of Lost Nation, Iowa. Now she was running away from there, plotting her “final” escape. I fussed endlessly with the story, writing it several different ways and then sitting at my desk with my cup of tea and reading aloud each draft until I understood intuitively which worked best. There! I typed it in—to be revised tomorrow—and shut off my computer. It was past midnight but I felt buoyed by the new story with its anxious, demanding character, and suffused with confidence, a secret bubble of pleasure.
After locking the studio, I walked alone in the darkness, the night sky a midnight black, the horses asleep somewhere in the pasture, my flashlight flooding the trail two feet in front of me. The air was thick and cool, the smell of wet grass rising from the fields. I moved in the darkness past the barbed-wire fence, past the narrow gravel patch, past the odd little building with a clerestory window, my mind focused only on walking until unexpectedly it leapt to the next morning’s breakfast, to tables full of people talking and laughing and yawning while I saw myself agonizing over where to sit, what to say, afraid now of my glib, endless patter. I saw myself holding onto my white plate full of eggs and a bowl of fresh blueberries. I saw the plate.
I stopped. All around me there was silence and the noise of insects stirring. I listened to my breath, its shallow exhale. I felt not panic but frustration with the struggle going on inside me, the endless chatter of fear. And then, as suddenly, I quit listening. Enough! I thought, and to my surprise, a sort of peace descended as if I had resumed a private relationship with myself, one that made me notice the bright, distant stars in the sky as part of the natural world rather than as a place to project my endless anxiety.
Of course, it was inevitable that I would be tested. And yes, the very next day when I heard sudden dizzying laughter at a nearby table where Em and Laura were eating chocolate cake, I wanted more than anything to be there too. I wanted to be laughing, or at least to know what they were laughing about. Ignore it, I told myself, but I couldn’t stop glancing at these two women as they collapsed against each other, their eyes brimming with happiness. Oh, let them have that, I thought, they can have it. And then this: that afternoon as I was walking by the gazebo, I spied three people talking intently, leaning toward each other in white wicker chairs. Who knew what they were talking about: estranged partners, new lovers, lonely, aging mothers? The sun bore down overhead, and I longed to sneak up and say, “How lovely you look! Is that a new dress?” and pause for a moment in the shade, bathing in their intimacy, imagining myself in one of the wicker chairs, the wind in my hair.
I stood very still beneath the old oak, the leaves above me dusty and mottled and dry. And yet what I saw was not myself full of longing but the narrator in my new story, the young girl with the skimpy red dress from Lost Nation, Iowa. “Their talk is not my talk,” Naomi whispered to me, and put a cherry-flavored Lifesaver into her mouth. She glanced at the distant fields where a cow wandered, slow and complacent and dim-witted across the pasture. She shook her head as if shutting a door. “I’m gone,” she said, still sucking, her cheeks hollowed. And then she sprinted across the grass toward my studio.
Without hesitation, I followed.
Patricia Foster is the author of All the Lost Girls (memoir), Just beneath My Skin (essays), and Sister to-Sister. She also edited Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul. Her novel, Girl from Soldier Creek, won the Fred Bonnie Award and is forthcoming in 2011. She is a professor in the MFA program in nonfiction at the University of Iowa and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and her PhD from Florida State University.